2011-05-30

Jesus Potter Harry Christ – chapter 8. Did Christianity begin as a Mystery Religion?

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Picture of Orpheus, found in the Catacombs of ...
Orpheus: Image via Wikipedia

The complete set of reviews to date is archived on this blog here and also on the Jesus Mysteries Yahoo Discussion Group.

In this chapter of Jesus Potter Harry Christ Derek Murphy argues that Christianity began as a mystery religion formed as a Jewish synthesis of Greek and Egyptian mystery cult traditions. It had different levels of meaning, with only the higher initiates being given full understanding of their faith.

The first two sections of this book have attempted to demonstrate that much of the symbolism and motifs in the Bible were appropriated by early Christian writers from external sources and added into the story of Jesus Christ. The material provided so far, however, while noteworthy and significant, may still be dismissed as speculative research or inference . . . .

Therefore we have to show that Christians did interpret, in the beginning, their savior and his ministry in identical terms; i.e. as spiritual allegory rather than historical fact. We will need to respond to the objection that Jews would never have become involved in pagan mystery cults or idolatry. More importantly, we have to demonstrate how the story of Jesus was created, for what reason, and by whom. We will do this in Chapter Eight. (pp. 177-8)

Murphy first discusses the nature of ancient mystery religions.

What is a “Mystery Religion”?

Murphy explains that a mystery religion keeps its deepest teachings hidden from all but the most advanced members. The ancient Greek term for “mystery”, he says, actually means “initiation”, and initiates into these religions would advance step by step through hierarchies of hidden knowledge. Murphy draws attention to the similar concept found in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is made to say that only those who have been chosen can understand the “mysteries” of the kingdom of God hidden in the parables.

The ancient mysteries represented a kind of esoteric initiation based in part upon the reenactments of a (usually tragic) story of a suffering god, which promised members a deeper understanding of the universe and their role in it. This was the standard religious structure for many kinds of spiritual organizations in the Greek and Roman empires. (p. 280)

Figures who were associated with death and rebirth included Dionysus, Osiris, Tammuz, Orpheus, Mithras, Asclepius, Attis. The popular Eleusinian Mysteries have been linked with both eastern and Egyptian roots. Murphy also discusses the links between ancient Greek philosophy and various mysteries, and in particular the prominence of Pythagorean mysteries. Across the centuries spanning the time of early Christianity there were many mystery schools springing up and seeking members, and that were usually focussed on charismatic leaders or mythical saviors with miraculous powers.

It is estimated that in Athens alone there were over 600 mystery schools. (p. 282)

Murphy discusses in detail nine fundamental characteristics of these mystery religions:

  • Code of Silence — Discussion refers to Macrobius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Plato . . .
  • Hieros Logos (Sacred Story) — Involves discussion of history and function of Greek tragedy
  • Hierarchy of Initiation — Discusses evidence from Apuleius and from the various levels and ultimate goals (including unification or wedding to the Logos) of initiations in the mysteries of Mithras
  • Mystical Experience — Including visions, “seeing” the god, possibly drug-induced in some cases
  • Brotherhood — Referring to fellow initiates as “brothers” traceable back to Eleusinian mysteries; Pythagorean communities with strict rules, sharing possessions, etc.
  • Ritual death and rebirth — Symbolic deaths of initiates are associated with the cults of Isis and Osiris, Eleusis and Attis; sometimes a substitute death (animal sacrifice) was required to grant the initiate access to the mystery
  • Identification with God — Identification with a god could be through a sacred meal, being spirit-possessed through prayers; the relationship with the deity was intimately personal, becoming “one” with the deity
  • Ethics — The mortification (self-control) of the body was often stressed, as in Orphism and the cult of Isis
  • Afterlife — Murphy gives reasons for believing that even the early mysteries had some doctrine of some form of eternal life

Christian Mystery Texts

Murphy turns to no less an authority than W. F. C. Frend on which to justify the following:

Due to the continuing success of the mysteries during the formative periods of Christianity, when we find parallel rituals, symbols or ideas, even if a connection cannot be proved, it should be assumed. This is especially the case when Christianity adopts the exact mystery language and expressions [and overlap with cultic practices such as Baptism and the Eucharist]. (pp. 298-9)

I personally think it is also significant that some of the major centres for the mystery religions were found in Asia Minor — the same area for which we have some of our earliest evidence of an extensive spread of Christianity.

Murphy proceeds to discuss the evidence for some early Christian communities interpreting the story of Jesus as a mystery or parable. He discusses at some length the Secret Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Philip, points to the marriage-allegorical link between the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and Ephesians, addresses the metaphorical (and even Asclepian) images of the crucifixion in the Gospel of John, and other texts.

Example of Mithras

Some scholars have argued that comparisons of Christianity with Mithraism do not shed light on the origins of Christian rituals because, they say, Mithraism may have copied from Christianity. Murphy argues that the comparison is indeed valid:

Although most of the symbols, rites and beliefs found in Mithraism probably came from earlier traditions, it is possible that Mithraism borrowed features from Christianity. However, whether or not Mithras borrowed is not really important; the similarities between the worship of Christ and Mithras were so startling that they were remarked upon by Christian apologists, as well as criticized by enemies of Christianity. Specific parallels are mentioned. Who came first is not at all the issue, because as we’ve seen, neither of them did. Since early testimony, however, links the practice of Christianity most often with Mithraism, and since we know that Christianity was used as a mystery cult, Mithraism can help us reconstruct what the “higher mysteries” of Jesus Christ might have looked like. (p. 307)

Murphy proceeds to discuss the images of Mithras that depict him as the bridge between heaven and earth; the similarity in both appearance and meaning of the sword of Mithras and cross of Christianity; the two torchbearers of Mithras being comparable with the two thieves either side of Jesus’ cross; and the functions of two keys in both religions.

Some of the parallels, and several other parallels discussed by Murphy as being significant and that I have not listed here, are found between the surviving art from the Mithraic cult and early and medieval Christian art, rather than in the Gospels themselves. This fact does support Murphy’s thesis of common motifs being found across many religions and cultures over space and time, but some of these examples (those comparing medieval Christian art details with details found in Mithraism) detract from his immediate task in this chapter which is to address Christian origins specifically.

Murphy next shows readers extracts from church fathers Justin and Tertullian seeking to “explain away” Christian and Mithraic similarities obvious to all, such as the Eucharist and Baptism. Tertullian also attacks what appears to be Mithraic similarities to either the Christian cult of martyrdom or eschewing of worldly possessions.

These similarities were listed because they were already well known, and hence, they demanded an answer — one that could not be given without invoking the theory of diabolical mimicry. (p. 313)

Was Christianity Originally a Mystery Religion?

Derek Murphy answers ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The language, for example, was in many ways the same.

But it is the interpretation of Christianity that makes all the difference. It may have been the similarity of Christianity to mystery religions that made it define itself as different from them. (p. 313)

He later adds:

What we can say is that the [. . . ? (Derek has explained that I have a pre-release copy of the book that contains too many typos)] story of Jesus Christ — his death and resurrection, his enigmatic parables and inner circle of disciples, the rituals he founded such as Baptism and the Eucharist, as well as the spiritual symbols of his saving role as sacrificial lamb and Logos, Son of God — were perfectly suited for the production of a new mystery cult that blended the ancient tradition of Judaism with Greek mysteries. (p. 314)

Murphy argues (cogently in my view) that it was this “mythical/mystery/symbolic” character of the Christian story that was Christianity’s foundation, and that it was not an overlay given to an originally historical figure of Jesus.

If Jesus was only a historical Jewish rebel, and all the qualities of a mystery were later added to the kernel of this real, crucified man, then one would expect the original story to be more secular, less phenomenal, less magical. But instead . . . Jesus’ atoning death, victorious resurrection, and intermediary position between a loving God and his fallen creatures were the core elements of the gospel story from the very beginning.

So where did the Christian story originate? Murphy sees only three possible options, the third one of which is the only one “fully justified by the historical evidence”:

  1. Jesus was a historical figure who copied other mystery school traditions for his own cult
  2. Jesus was a historical figure so overlaid with the literature of the mysteries that he can no longer be found
  3. Jesus was originally a mythical figure later mistaken to be historical by over-zealous followers.

Pagan Influences in Judaism

Murphy responds to the common assertion that Jews would never have been attracted to pagan mystery rituals by showing us that the evidence is abundantly clear that many of them were indeed so attracted. Biblical (Jewish) symbols of being washed in the blood of the lamb, and eating a ritual meal symbolizing the body and blood of a man, were very pagan. We have evidence, even biblical evidence, that many Jews did worship foreign gods, and that they practiced pagan philosophy.

An older reference to T. R. Glover brings in what is known as the Jewish “Wisdom literature” for support here (Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Proverbs, Job, etc.). I agree with Margaret Barker, however, in relegating this sort of “Wisdom” literature to the property and teaching of very orthodox Jews who were opposed to the more esoteric “Wisdom” sects of Judaism such as the Enochian tradition with its interest in visions and heavenly ascents and demonology, etc.

As Derek Murphy himself also shows readers, the biblical accounts do inform us that the more orthodox Jews did reject Christianity along with its marks of pagan symbols and rituals.

Generally, though, Murphy’s point is correct, and is demonstrated most clearly with the merging of Jewish and Greek thought in Alexandria:

Thus, the gap between contemporary Judaism and the redemptive spirituality of the pagan mystery cults was not really that wide to begin with. (p. 318)

Magic, Divination and Names of Power

This is a tantalizing facet of any investigation into early Christianity and its origins, and Derek Murphy gives it a welcome seven-page discussion. Unfortunately — inevitably — the nature of the evidence still leaves us teased at the end. Probably largely because it is not thought appropriate to discuss Christianity’s possible associations with ancient beliefs in magic and demonology and possession, this aspect has too often not even made it into the agenda in discussions of Christian origins. But magic and divination were certainly significant cultural phenomena in the ancient world, as we find (and as Murphy reminds us) in the writings of the likes of serious men of the upper class such as Cicero.

We know of beliefs in the power of divine or other special names among the Egyptian priests, the Greeks and Jewish magicians and mystics. Only a passing reference is made to the traditions of Solomon here. Derek Murphy might like to consider adding (in a future edition) a fuller discussion of Jewish traditions about Solomon having the magical powers and powers over demons. This tradition may even lay behind the Gospel emphasis on the power Jesus (the new Son of David) has over demons.

Murphy points to the use of the name of the God of the Jews and also to a “Chrestos” significantly appearing in both Jewish and pagan magical formula.

In the immediate environment surrounding the appearance of the character of Jesus . . . we have a philosophical synthesis of Platonism and Judaism in Alexandria, as well as a synthesis of pagan and Judaic demonology and magical practices, most notably at Ephesus (not to mention the heavy influences of Stoic philosophy as mentioned earlier.) These two movements began before Jesus Christ and continued for several centuries — both inside and outside what became known as the Christian church . . . . (p. 324)

But where did the new god — Jesus — come from if he was not a historical person? Murphy acknowledges that we simply do not know the detailed answer to this any more than we know the details of the origins of other divinities.

It doesn’t matter if we can’t answer these questions with 100% accuracy; they were figures of the public imagination long before their stories were written down. Although today they may seem obviously fictional, they were believed in and worshipped for many centuries. Simply by the fact that they exist, we can presume that at some point, somebody made them up. (p. 324)

Just as J. K. Rowling deliberately created a character, Harry Potter, who would combine English culture with magical traditions and Christian themes, so we find Orpheus, an amalgam of Pythagorean and Bacchic mysteries, appearing in history as the spokesperson for the Dionysian mysteries.

We do not know who did it, and it doesn’t matter that we do not know; we have the end result, so it must have happened. (p. 326)

Serapis, the Created God

An interesting case study discussed by Murphy is the cult of the god Serapis. We know Serapis was a state-commissioned creation, a conscious amalgam of Greek and Egyptian deities. Ptolemy I ordered the creation of this god by the Egyptian priest Manetho around the beginning of the third-century b.c.e. Serapis was a combination of Osiris, Horus and Zeus. He supplanted Asclepius as a healing and caring god. His cult melded rites from the mysteries of the Egyptian Isis and the Greek Eleusinian deities Demeter and Persephone. His name became a powerful magical name.

In our quest for the beginning of the story of Jesus Christ, Serapis gives us a clear example of how a deliberately created religion, harnessing all the best parts of many different traditions, could unite the growing spiritual values of the Roman Empire. (p. 328)

The popularity of the worship of Serapis even swept up Christians, according to several ancient testimonies. Athanasius, for instance, is one who records Christians appearing to identify Serapis and Christ in their worship. Murphy cites testimony to this practice as early as Hadrian’s time.

The Jesus Mysteries

Murphy concludes this chapter with several pages attempting to portray a scenario by which a Christian “mystery religion” could have emerged. He begins with the time of Roman hegemony in the East, the dilution of orthodox Judaism among many Jews, in particular among those of the Diaspora, and the likelihood that the emergence of Christianity functioned as an enabler of Jewish integration into the culture around them while preserving their own theological heritage.

The name of Jesus, Murphy suggests, was chosen at least in part because of its magical power — in mystical gematria it represented 888. The power of this name, greater than all others, is noted in Philippians 2:9, Ephesians 1:20-22, John 14:14, Acts 19:11. Other passages in Colossians and elsewhere speak of the mystery of Christ. The saving beliefs of the early Church were all attached to the mythical Christ and not to a historical figure.

Rather than believe the Messiah was a historical figure, they imagined that he was the Logos, who gave mankind internal salvation. Paying taxes and living under Roman law was inconsequential after having been saved by the Logos, and even death held no power over those saved. Instead of depending on external forces to liberate them, initiates believed each person could become their own messiah. Because of this, they called themselves anointed ones, or “Christians.” (p. 335)

Conclusions and Summary

Thus Orpheus and Serapis stand as evidence for diverse religious ideas coming together to form new cults and figures to worship. Whatever the origins of the idea of Jesus, as the story grew debates and divisions also erupted over topics such as whether to keep the Jewish laws or the extent to which Jesus was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies.

The rest of the details, rather than staying loyal to a genuine tradition based on apostolic succession, emerged, changed and were reshaped in response to external influences and the needs of individual communities — including the idea that Jesus was historical.

This theory explains how there could be so many controversies, disagreements and schisms in the early Christian communities: there was no “Truth” for them to agree on — they were involved in the active production of a faith. (p. 336)

Murphy is surely correct. His theory does explain how Christianity began with so many controversies and variations.

Did Christianity begin as a mystery religion? Derek Murphy gives us plenty to think about and it would not be surprising if some Christian seeds did take root in some form of mystery religion. The Gospel of Mark certainly is written as a mystery narrative, full of symbolic acts and cryptic sayings understood only by the initiated audience. Paul also speaks of mysteries, but he also says the time has come for those mysteries to be declared to the world, although only those granted spiritual discernment will understand. The Gnostic legacy suggests mystery religions in the sense of hierarchies of knowledge. But it’s hard to think of Justin Martyr starting out in a mystery religion Christianity. But Christian origins appear to have been diverse. It may be a mistake to think of Christianity having a singular point of origin that was a mystery religion. But certainly Murphy shows us that there were many mystery religion characteristics associated with the earliest days of Christianity.

I have mentioned in earlier chapter reviews some of the faults of the book, so I do not repeat them here. I have attempted to present the outline of Murphy’s argument in this critical chapter. I do have some problems with some of the details (I suspect the Secret Gospel of Mark is a forgery, for example), and Murphy does let his imagination run on ahead at times. But it is good to read the mass of detail he has collated here, and to think through the way it all advances arguments for Christian origins that is more consistent with the evidence than we find with the theory of a single historical founder.

The Hellenistic-Egyptian god Serapis and his a...
Serapis: Image via Wikipedia
The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

  • rey
    2011-05-30 04:42:17 GMT+0000 - 04:42 | Permalink

    The more I think about it the less mythicism works. Mythicism basically assumes that Paul comes first, that the mythic Christ comes first. Yet Paul admits that there were apostles before him that he refused to go and learn from (Galatians 1). It is obvious, therefore, that Jesus did exist and appoint apostles who taught what he historically taught. Then Paul came as a big fat heretic and created Gnosticism. Obviously the original teaching of Jesus was Judaism minus the ceremonies, and his followers saw him as the prophet promised by Moses in Deut. But whether they believed him to be a god or to even have resurrected from the dead is doubtful, and we’ll never know since Paul co-opted and destroyed their movement from within by Gnosticizing it. And after Paul’s gnosticization, obviously, his mythical ideas were written into the canonical gospels. The original writings of the earlier apostles were destroyed by Paul’s fanatical anti-moral gnostic followers, and the historical Jesus basically lost to history. But there was a historical Jesus. Pauline Christianity simply parodies him and turns him into a pagan god rather than presents what he actually taught, since it disagreed with him.

    • Steven Carr
      2011-05-30 06:58:45 GMT+0000 - 06:58 | Permalink

      You ought to write that up as a novel.

      ‘The original writings of the earlier apostles were destroyed by Paul’s fanatical anti-moral gnostic followers…’

      What writings would these be? Why does Paul explain to people that God had appointed these apostles?

      • rey
        2011-06-02 10:25:09 GMT+0000 - 10:25 | Permalink

        “Why does Paul explain to people that God had appointed these apostles?”

        You mean where he accuses them of being nobodies who only “seem to be something” and “what they really are makes no difference to me”?

  • Evan
    2011-05-30 06:51:46 GMT+0000 - 06:51 | Permalink

    This tradition may even lay behind the Gospel emphasis on the power Jesus (the new Son of David) has over demons.

    I have always considered Matthew 12:42 to be a reference to this.

    • 2011-05-30 08:32:32 GMT+0000 - 08:32 | Permalink

      I sometimes wonder if the crowds’ breathless responses to some of the exorcisms by Jesus draw on the amazement of the likes of the Queen of Sheba when she came to visit Solomon and heard all his amazing wisdom and saw all his glory.

  • John Macdonald
    2011-05-30 15:24:09 GMT+0000 - 15:24 | Permalink

    Why does every one assume that gnosticism is post Christian?
    Why not that Gnosticism was a Hellenistic response to Judaism and its origins are pre christian and Paul was not originator of Gnosticism but was merely elaborating on it when creating his new sect.
    Also regarding rey’s comment above, if there was a historical Jesus he was in context of his contemporaries, and as such would have been just another revolutionary, whose activities caused embarrassment to Romans and post revolt Jewish survivors, so he was mythologized in order to erase or obscure his real activities from the historical record.

    • 2011-05-30 15:58:47 GMT+0000 - 15:58 | Permalink

      I would like to post the evidence for pre-Christian Jewish gnosticism some time, but my sources are old and I’d like to do a quick check to see what’s the latest in the literature on this topic before I do.

    • rey
      2011-06-02 10:28:24 GMT+0000 - 10:28 | Permalink

      “Also regarding rey’s comment above, if there was a historical Jesus he was in context of his contemporaries, and as such would have been just another revolutionary”

      Yes, but possibly an anti-animal-sacrifice revolutionary rather than anti-roman revolutionary, as Epiphanius reports of the Ebionite gospel saying that Jesus said “I am come to abolish sacrifice and unless you cease sacrificing, wrath will abide on you!!!”

  • Leave a Reply to John Macdonald Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.