Two Ages and the Inventions of Four Religions

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

by Neil Godfrey

One of my primary interests has been to understand how the religions of the Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and the Bible itself (both the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and the Christian New Testament) came about. There are other far more important questions pressing on us at the moment and I will address those as well — but for now, it’s time to sum up what I have learned from reading through mountains of scholarly literature.

This post will only touch on the conclusions. The various roads to those conclusions, I hope, will follow — although much of the background relevant research has been posted over the years on this site.

Russell Gmirkin has published several scholarly books and articles that present a very plausible case for the the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), as well as some of the subsequent literature, being the work of authors and editors of the Hellenistic era (that is, from around 300 BC after the conquests of Alexander the Great) who were bringing together ideas and myths from the Samaritan-Judean worship of Yahweh into a new mix with Greek tropes and ideals. Such a notion is hard to accept at first if we have known nothing but the traditional Documentary Hypothesis (DH) of Biblical origins. The DH leads us to view the Bible as having is origins in the remote Iron Age (ca 1000 BCE, the purported time of David and Solomon) and through centuries of editorializing and additions it became what today we know as the “Jewish/Hebrew Bible” or the “Old Testament”. Niels Peter Lemche, according to my understanding, was the first to propose that we should rather look to the Hellenistic era (the time after the conquests of Alexander the Great from 334 BCE to his death in 323 BCE) for the origins of the Hebrew Bible. Since then, it would appear that Yonatan Adler has set out the archaeological evidence that would support the notion that the biblical religion did not emerge until the Hellenistic era.

Is the very idea that a new religious myth and a new concept of a supreme god could be “artificially” created and embraced by a mainstream of a community at all feasible? If we are to accept the view that the Hebrew Bible was an invention of scribes seeking to create a new myth of origins for disparate Yahweh worshipers (Samaritans and Judeans in particular, but also other Yahweh adherents), do we have any analogous enterprises that could help us accept that the such a development was to be expected — that it was not a bizarre outlier?

Yes we do. And not only does it exist, but it is located in the same time period and broader geographical area where we find the proposed Hellenistic origin of the Bible.

Not too long ago I attempted to illustrate the meaning of the term “Hellenism” or “Hellenistic” by pointing out that the term indicates an amalgam of Asian and Greek concepts. The Egyptian god Serapis was an invention of the Hellenistic era. This invention was an attempt to unite Greeks and Egyptians into a common community. The god had both Egyptian and Greek aspects merged into one. But there is more….

When Ptolemy I [a successor to Alexander] assumed power in Egypt, he faced the daunting task of uniting the various elements of the population—conquerors and conquered—to at least an extent where they tolerated each other. It has often been admired and extensively described how skillfully he proceeded, particularly in the perilous realm of religion, and how he managed to spare the feelings of the Egyptians without forcing the Greek spirit into the forms of Egyptian worship. As he set out to give the new center of the land a city deity—without such, no ancient foundation is conceivable, and here in Alexandria, as in Antioch, one stood entirely outside historical context, and therefore a city deity had to be created here as well—and as he began to establish a sacred center of his land in the new capital, he had to seek a god in whose worship Greeks and Egyptians could meet. No force on earth could have compelled the Egyptians to abandon their four-thousand-year tradition and turn to a Greek cult; but the king also did not want to make the Greeks Egyptians in their beliefs. Thus, it was only possible for something higher to unite both.

(Schmidt, translation from page 78 of Kultübertragungen [=Cult Transfers])


Those who created him must have been able to conceive of a god who had a part of the essence of each god and who therefore stood above them all; they may have had a sense that the countless gods worshiped by the world were ultimately only the emanation of a divine being, and they gave shape to this intuition and created a god whom they could interpret to the Greek as Greek and to the Egyptian as Egyptian: this was only possible if they created a universal god.

The details can wait for another post, but in short, the new god was Serapis. His statue looked Greek, but his name sounded Egyptian (a possible phonetic elision of Osiris and Apis). A myth of origin was created, too. It was declared that the first Greek ruler of Egypt (Ptolemy I) had a dream in which a numinous figure commanded him to send for a divine image from Sinope, a Greek area in northern Asia Minor. The newly created myth assured Greeks that Serapis was in many ways a familiar Greek god. Apart from looking Greek, his myth and name also contained hints of the Greek god Zeus of the underworld, or Pluto. The sound of the name Serapis, at the same time, strongly hinted at those thoroughly Egyptian deities of Osiris and Apis. So this new god was a creation of both Greek and Egyptian motifs. Its function was to bring Greeks and Egyptians together.


But his name would hardly have been chosen if another element had not also played a role: that it was possible, through slight phonetic changes, to create the belief that the name Sarapis was simply the Greek form of the Egyptian wsr-hp (Osiris-Apis). Thus, the possibility was given to conceive Sarapis as an Egyptian god and to implant in the Egyptians the belief that they worshipped one of their ancient gods only in a new form.

And on the other hand, it has also been understood to represent the god referred to by the name Sarapis to the Greeks as a Greek one. His image shows it, and it is often emphasized in literature how closely related he is to Pluto, and in the legend that tells of his introduction from Sinope, it is even explicitly emphasized that he is none other than Pluto. And the existence of such a detailed narrative, as found in Tacitus and Plutarch, can only be explained if it was intentionally fabricated for a specific purpose: the purpose was to derive Sarapis from Greek belief.

(Schmidt 79f – translation)

On a lesser scale the Hellenistic era also witnessed the creation of many new religious myths and family cultic associations to promote the prestige of new rulers and city-states — as I referenced in another post not too long ago.

Prior to the Hellenistic era the Yahweh religion was polytheistic. Yahweh had a wife. The Bible presents Yahweh as the sole god. Genesis narrates the erection of shrines and appeals to various gods that the casual reader can easily assume are early names of the god Yahweh in the book of Exodus: El Shaddai, El Olam, El Elyon,  Bethel ….

If it can be concluded that early in the Hellenistic era a new religious concept was built upon both the entrenched traditions of Greeks and Egyptians in such a way that neither tradition was offended, then it may not be too wide a step to imagine at the same time diverse Yahweh worshipers (viz. Samaritans and Judeans) constructing a narrative of mythical origins that both could embrace. The common god was, like Serapis, a universal deity, stripped of local particularizing appendages.

What of Christianity? We have here another potential analogue, also from the first two centuries of the Roman empire. In fact, the Schmidt work I quoted above came to my attention through a book by Troels Engberg-Pedersen discussing specific Greco-Roman influences on the shape of Christianity.

Photo by yours truly -British Museum

In the traditional (pre-Hellenistic and pre-Roman) Persian religion that we think of as Zoroastrianism, the god Mithras was not a major character. Yet in the second century CE the worship of Mithras, through a “mystery cult”, was widespread. This was the same period for which we have clear evidence of Christian growth.

The ancient [pre-Hellenistic and pre-Roman] cults in which Mithras appeared were public; in contrast, the Roman cult was secret, a mystery religion, and such religions appeared precisely during the Roman Empire

Without the Roman world, in fact, they would not have been possible. Previously, all religions were closely tied to specific states or peoples; one was born into one of them. . . . They primarily addressed the spiritual needs of individuals and were generally “more religious” than other cults of the time. Initiates of Isis and Mithra, like Christians, were missionaries. Regardless of their country of origin, those who accepted the premises of the new cult and wished to join were welcomed, as it constituted a spiritual homeland.

Common to all these religions is the fact that they emerged from a people who had lost their political identity . . . .

(Merkelbach, 82 – translation)

If the founder(s) of the Christian religion, whether that was Paul or another, put an innovative twist on some branch or branches of Judaism to create their new faith, and did so at the time of the early Roman empire, they were not alone. Some unknown “genius” appears to have done something similar in relation to the orthodox Persian religion to create a new cult focusing on the worship of Mithras.

The mysteries of Mithras constituted a new faith that no longer had much in common with that of the ancient Persians, except for the name of the god and some mythical episodes.

Once fixed, the system . . . did not undergo any substantial modification over time. Therefore, it cannot be the result of a long evolution but was necessarily conceived and structured in its entirety once and for all. In Geschichte der griechischen Religion (vol 2 p. 675), M.P. Nilsson states that the mysteries of Mithras were created as a whole by an unknown genius, and we can only confirm his opinion.

The place of origin of this cult is unknown, but its creator was well acquainted with the Persian religion. It will be seen how, probably very soon, the center of the new religion became Rome, the capital of the empire, from where that cult then spread to the provinces.

(Merkelbach 82f – translation)

The reference was to Nilsson, who wrote:

The conclusion is inevitable that the Mithraic mysteries are a unique creation of an unknown religious genius, who, based on certain myths and rituals selected by him and incorporating elements from the astrology prevalent at the time and from Greek beliefs, created a form of religion capable of conquering a place in the Roman world.

(Nilsson 675)

I do not suggest that Christianity mutated from Mithraism. Not at all — despite the embarrassment of some early Church Fathers attempting to grapple with a few overt similarities between the two religions. Rather, what is of particular interest is the emergence of two comparable religions around the same period and place as a result of deliberate invention to meet what were arguably comparable public needs.

If both Mithraism and Christianity were “invented” to meet certain needs of individuals who found themselves looking for a new community and identity, they may have been little different, in essence and function, from two earlier Hellenistic religions that were created to meet specific community needs of their day.

Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. Paul in His Hellenistic Context. T&T Clark, 2004.

Merkelbach, Reinhold. Mithras. Konigstein/Ts : Hain, 1984.

Nilsson, Martin P. (Martin Persson). Geschichte der griechischen Religion. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1974.

Schmidt, Ernst. Kultübertragungen. Giessen: Alfred Töpelmann, 1909.


Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch.4: Going Pagan — a review

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

by Neil Godfrey

The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962). Cover art b...
The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962). Cover art by Jack Kirby and Paul Reinman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(All posts in this series are archived here.)

Chapter four of Jesus Potter Harry Christ is predominantly a survey of pagan deities and heroes whose stories contain echoes of the Jesus Christ story: Gilgamesh, Dionysus, Pythagoras, Orpheus, Asclepius, Osiris, Tammuz (Adonis), Attis, Mithras. Derek Murphy is not arguing that the Jesus story was a direct borrowing of any of these or that these pagan gods and heroes are the same thing as Jesus. What Murphy does argue is that it is important to understand the cultural and ideological background from which Christianity emerged. To this end, the very clear similarities between these pagan figures, and certain practices associated with the worship of some of them, are significant, and especially so in an age of unprecedented religious tolerance and syncretism.

The title of the book is an attempt to focus readers on the argument that literary borrowing is often a more subtle and complex cultural process than a simplistic, deliberate, one for one correspondence from earlier iconic figures and stories. The author is currently a PhD student in comparative literature so it is not surprising to find a wider range of literary models than the Harry Potter series sprinkled throughout the book. Continue reading “Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch.4: Going Pagan — a review”


an old pic . . . my angle . . . (nothing more)

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

by Neil Godfrey

While visiting the British Museum I took this pic of Mithras Slaying the Bull from this angle because it shows (more than other images I can recall) how the scorpion is, like the snake and dog, sucking in the life juices of the bull — whether its blood from the dagger wound or the testicles. (Okay, the blood sucking dog and serpent is clearer as such in other images, but this angle does display the scorpion’s target of attack in this particular statue.)

So what does this have to do with the Gospel of Mark? Who knows…. David Ulansey may have something to say about it. So, in close step with Ulansey, might Michael Patella, who similarly sees the origins of Christianity embedded in cosmological developments otherwise known to practitioners of Mithraism. Continue reading “an old pic . . . my angle . . . (nothing more)”