Part 6 of 9: Is Christianity Borrowed From Pagan Myths/Religions?

Posted By Thomas Perez. June 15, 2010 at 10:42pm. Copyright 2010.
Secondly are the figures in the Mystery Religions (I.e., Mithra, Dionysos, Hellenistic period Isis/Osirus).
First we need to note that Mystery “Religions” might be a bad term for this, and that mystery “initiations” might be better. These initiations into the various cults were not ‘required’ for all membership (like baptism was for Christians at this time), but was an ‘optional’ rite available for those who wished it: “It should be noted that in most cases there exist forms of a ‘normal’ cult alongside the mysteries, that is, worship for the non-initiated, independent of possible candidacy for myesis or telete…In Rome, Mater Magna had her great festival in the spring, but the reported dates of taurobolia are unrelated to calendrical events. In any case, mysteries are seen to be a special form of worship offered in the larger context of religious practice. Thus the use of the term ‘mystery religions’ as a pervasive and exclusive name for a closed system, is inappropriate. Mystery initiations were an option activity within polytheistic religions, comparable to, say, a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela within the Christian system.” [HI:AMC:10] “The place of the taurobolium in the religion of Mithras is controversial. It belongs properly to the cult of Cybele, but the cults had a close fraternal relationship. It may be taken as certain that the majority of chapels do not have the space for such a rite…it looks as if it were a ritual occasionally practiced but not universally observed.” [RRE:112]

The Mystery Religions flourished during the Hellenistic Age (ca. 300bc – 200 ad+), and were small, local cults up until 100AD. “These mysteries, involving the worship of deities from Greece, Syria, Anatolia, Egypt, or Persia, were diverse in geographical origin and heterogeneous in historical development and theological orientation.” [TAM:4], and were generally confined to specific localities until around 100 a.d. [Nash]. They were essentially closed, small groups, in which initiation into ‘the secrets of the god’ had to be earned through deeds and rituals. They are commonly said to offer their devotees some types of “baptism”, “rebirth”, and “salvation”. Their main claim to fame (in our context here) is that they “re-enact” the myth through ritual. In other words, it is often claimed that the initiate ‘re-capitulates’ (smile) the DARGing of the relevant deity. Again, this was an older view and much of the original data has been reinterpreted: “Moreover, the key examples so favored by the early myth-ritualists and their followers among biblical scholars—the Babylonian Akitu Festival and Enuma Elish, and the tales of Attis, Osiris, and Adonis—all turn out to be examples supportive of myth-ritual conclusions only if one utilizes very late and unreliable evidence (Burkert 1979: 100–1).” [ABD,“myth and mythology”]We have almost no contemporary data about the Hellenistic mystery cults [NTB:120], and we are almost totally dependent on 3rd century a.d. sources [NASH]. Nash cautions about this:“It is not until we come to the third century A.D. that we find sufficient source material to permit a relatively complete reconstruction of their content. Far too many writers use this later source material (after A.D. 200) to form reconstructions of the third-century mystery experience and then uncritically reason back to what they think must have been the earlier nature of the cults. This practice is exceptionally bad scholarship and should not be allowed to stand without challenge. Information about a cult that formed several hundred years after the close of the New Testament canon must not be read back into what is presumed to be the status of the cult during the first century A.D. The crucial question is not what possible influence the mysteries may have had on segments of Christendom after A.D. 400, but what effect the emerging mysteries may have had on the New Testament in the first century.”We immediately run into a problem here-that of “who borrowed from whom?” If the NT was completed before the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 a.d., and the Mystery Religions (MR’s) in the Roman Empire only started ‘flourishing’ after 100 A.D. (and were almost certainly not present/influential in Jerusalem before its Fall!), then any alleged dependence of the gospels on the MR’s is a bit tenuous. This problem is most acute in the case of Mithras, but also applies to a lesser extent to the Hellenistic version of Isis/Osiris and Dionysos. So, Meyer, in his sourcebook about the subject [TAM:226]:“Scholars have proposed several theories to account for the obvious similarities between Christianity and the mystery religions. Theories of dependence frequently have been proposed. Early Christian authors noted the similarities between Christianity and Mithraism and charged that the mysteries were godless, demonically inspired imitations of true Christianity…Some modern scholars, conversely, have suggested that early Christianity (even before the fourth century C.E., when Christianity began to adopt the practices of its non-Christian neighbors with vigor) borrowed substantially from the mystery religions all around…”Today, however, most scholars are considerably more cautious about the parallels between early Christianity and the mysteries and hesitate before jumping to conclusions about dependence.”

Here, I want to go off-topic for just a second…The main topic under discussion here (in spite of my ramblings) deals with Jesus and the deities in other cults and religions. We have already seen that the older DARG concept is no longer held as a useful one, especially for comparisons with Jesus. And, since Jesus’ main claim of distinction (from the standpoint of apostolic preaching) was His death, burial, and bodily resurrection from the dead (non-symbolic), then the bulk of our discussion should be over. In other words, similarities with non-DARG deities or heroes will be less relevant to the question of ‘core borrowing’ on the part of the NT authors and shapers. However, since parallels between Christian practice (i.e.., ritual) and MR (Mystery Religions) practice are sometimes alleged as evidence for wholesale ‘borrowing’ by Christians from the MR’s, I thought it might be useful just to review the current scholarly thinking on these allegations of parallels (and borrowing). So I want to take a quick look at alleged parallels between these groups, in matters of basic praxis and non-Christological belief (i.e., beliefs about things other than ‘who Jesus was’).

Remember that we are looking for ‘numerous, complex, detailed’ similarities, which reveal underlying parallels. Outward ‘forms’ and rituals just won’t be enough, unless the meaning can be shown to be the same. In the MR/Christianity case, these meanings can be shown to be different:

“The “dying and rising” of the deities in the mysteries, where it occurs, relates to the cycle of nature and was no true resurrection. The NT terminology of mystery has to do with the divine plan, previously hidden but now revealed. The Christian initiation was not secret. Where washings occur in the mysteries, this was part of the purification preliminary to the initiation, not the initiation itself as in Christian baptism. The mysteries were rather expensive and were for the few deemed already worthy, whereas Christianity invited everyone (as the pagan critic Celsus pointed out—according to Origen Cont. Cels. 3.59). [NT:DictLNT,s.v. “Religions, Greco-Roman”]

Consider Burkert’s review of the mystery cults’ “offerings” relative to the afterlife, “rebirth” and even baptism (pages from HI:AMC):  

“It is tempting to assume that the central idea of all initiations should be death and resurrection, so that extinction and salvation are anticipated in the ritual, and real death becomes a repetition of secondary importance; but the pagan evidence for resurrection symbolism is uncompelling at best [p23] “In the documents of the so-called Oriental cults, the dimension of the afterlife is much less obvious…”[25]

“If we turn finally to Mithras, we are left with a surprising dearth of relevant evidence. It has generally been assumed, as a result of our ideas of what a “mystery religion” should be, that Mithras should guarantee his followers some kind of transcendent salvation immortality, ascent to heaven from the “cave” which is the cosmos. Clear evidence, however, is lacking. This is all the more surprising because spiritual life, the immortality of the soul, and the ascent of the righteous to heaven are such well-established ideas in Iranian, Zoroastrian tradition. But this is not so with Mithras. [27]

“The emphasis is, once again, on a “safe anchor” in this life. A redirection of religion toward otherworldly concerns, contrary to what is often assumed, is not to be found with the “Oriental” gods and their mysteries. At best they continue what was already there. In the eyes of a pagan, Christianity was a religion of tombs, excessively concerned about death and decay. None of the pagan mysteries made such an impression ” [28]

“The basic idea of an initiation ritual is generally taken to be that of death and rebirth. A well-known book of Mircea Eliade has appeared in successive editions under the title of either Rites and Symbols of lnitiation or just Birth and Rebirth. Being essentially initiations ceremonies, ancient mysteries should conform to this pattern, which at the same time seems to supply the best explanation of why this ritual is believed to overcome the threat of real death. Yet, as in the corresponding case of the “dying god” myth, the evidence is less explicit and more varied than the general hypothesis would postulate.” [99] “To sum up, there is a dynamic paradox of death and life in all the mysteries associated with the opposites of night and day, darkness and light, below and above, but there is nothing as explicit and resounding as the passages in the New Testament, especially in Saint Paul and in the Gospel of John, concerning dying with Christ and spiritual rebirth. There is as yet no philosophical-historical proof that such passages are directly derived from pagan mysteries; nor should they be used as the exclusive key to the procedures and ideology of mysteries. ” [101]

“It is appropriate to emphasize in this connection that there is hardly any evidence for baptism in pagan mysteries, though this has often been claimed. Of course there are various forms of purification, of sprinkling or washing with water, as in almost all the other cults as well. But such procedures should not be confused with baptism proper–immersion into a river or basin as a symbol of starting a new life” [101]

And MacMullen makes the same observations about these matters [HI:PTRE]:  

“Among felt wants, the modern observer expects to find none sharper than the need for life, promised for ever. But, like a deity to insure good harvests, assurances of immortality prove unexpectedly hard to find in the evidence. Even the longing for it is not much attested.” [53] “People belonging to one or another of a small number of cults, and in small groups, sought further lessons in their beliefs, lessons learned through rites designed to catch the imagination and arouse awe. Impressiveness of presentation could be heightened by rules forbidding the lessons to be talked about with outsiders. Obedient secrecy of course obscured the historical record forever. One group, nevertheless, in the worship of Dionysus, can be faintly discerned through inscriptions, developing more formal ceremonies of instruction, at least in Italy, in the later second and third century. During the ceremonies, participants may have received promises of afterlife. But evidence for all this is unfortunately very little and very indirect. Similarly with Isiacism: the evidence lies in the concluding chapters of Apuleius’s novel, in which his hero Lucius undergoes a lengthy and most expensive course of instruction at the hands of Isis’s priests. At the end, he is fully satisfied by her promise, “You shall live in blessedness,” vives beatus; and when life is over, he may continue to worship her. He is the envy of everyone for being renatus, reborn ‘in a sort of way‘–defined as having earned the goddess as his patron and at the cost of no more that temporary bankruptcy. There is, however, no word of his being renatus in aeternum, which is what counts.” [p53]

“Inscriptions here as on other points hold out the best hope for a broad sampling. “Savior” in them, or “salvation,” had to do with health or other matters of this earth, not of the soul for life eternal. Or in epitaphs, people so often joke about annihilation that the jokes at last congeal into commonplaces or abbreviations: “I was not, I am not, I care not,” boiled down to six letters. [57] 

Also, let’s note three of the major differences between the death of Jesus and the various deities subsumed so far in the previous two sections:

  1. None of the so-called savior-gods died for someone else, in their place (substitution). The notion of the Son of God fully dying in place of His creatures is unique to Christianity.
  2. Only Jesus died purposefully for sin. As Gunter Wagner observes, to none of the pagan gods “has the intention of helping men been attributed. The sort of death that they died is quite different (hunting accident, self-emasculation, etc.).” [cited in Nash]
  3. Unlike the mystery gods, Jesus died voluntarily. Nothing like this appears even implicitly in the mysteries. [The closest is the self-castration of Attis, but this is generally attributed to his insanity, not to a free-and-clear choice.] 
  4. And then one last point about ‘rebirth’–it was NOT a word specific to the Mysteries, but was in general use (and would have been ‘shared’ by Jews, Christians, regular-pagans, mystery rites):


“It [the word for ‘rebirth’] seems quite early to have come into use outside the Stoic schools and to have become part of the heritage of the educated world, thus acquiring a more general sense. This is shown by Cic.Att., 6, 6, where return from banishment is described as paliggenesiva...It cannot be finally proved whether paliggenesia  played any role in the Mysteries of the 1st cent. A.D. The word occurs only in the so-called birth mystery in Corp. Herm., XIII, where it is used 10 times (Reitzenstein Poim., 339, 4 and 6; 340, 12: 341, 5; 342, 15; 343, 12; 344, 12 and 14; 345, 16: 348, 8). But here the word does not have the meaning hitherto found in pagan Gk., i.e., return to existence. It signifies renewal to a higher existence by means of an incantation. The mystery of regeneration is certainly later than the NT. When Plutarch uses the term in his description of the Dionysus and Osiris myths, it is an open question whether he takes it from the Mysteries or from his philosophical heritage,The latter is more probable, since this is almost certainly the derivation of the parallel anabiosis. In the 1st cent. B.C., then, paliggenesiva is in general use in educated circles, and its use in the Mysteries may thus be presumed.” [TDNT,s.v. “palingenesis”, ‘born again’]

And concepts of resurrection, immortality were neither understood the same, nor generally offered by, the MRs:  

“Certainly, not all the new cults offered life after death; in the case of Jupiter Dolichenus, for example, there is no evidence to suggest that immortality was an issue. [footnote: “Nor was the cult of Attis concerned with the after-life“] And those religions that did make claims about a future life after death presented radically different pictures. When in a dream Isis promised Lucius escape from his ass’s body, she said that he would be subject to her for the rest of his life, which she could prolong beyond what the fates appointed, and after death he would find her shining in the darkness of the underworld. His subsequent initiation, as we saw, took him down to the entrance of the underworld and back to life again. The cult of Isis had implications for life and death, but even so more emphasis is placed on extending the span of life than on the after-life – which is pictured in fairly undifferentiated terms. The transformational aspects of the cult of Mithras are more striking, as the initiate ascended through the seven grades. In addition to its cultic title (raven, male bride, etc.), each grade was correlated with a different planet: and the soul of the initiate was probably conceived as rising during his lifetime further and further away from the earth, finally achieving apogenesis or birth away from the material world. That is, the progressive transformation of the soul of the initiate in this life, on which much of the cult focussed, was probably conceived as continuing after death. This is a quite different conception from the ideas of immortality or resurrection that developed among some Jews by the first century A.D., and became particularly associated with Christianity – which offered not only a radically new life here and now, but also the hope of a bodily resurrection and a glorious after-life.” [HI:RR1:289f]

These are some very material and significant differences between even a most generous reading of the MR and DARG texts. This should be enough data to indicate that “numerous, complex, and detailed parallels” are going to be difficult to find and defend; much more difficult will be the allegations of “dependence”. The similarities (especially theological) between early NT-time Christianity and the MR’s of the same period are simply too fragile to carry the weight of such a position.

[It might also be noted here that the similarities between the various MR’s don’t seem to be very strong either–superficials abound, perhaps, but the underlying meanings are so different. Frankfort (in Kingship and the gods: a study of ancient Near Eastern religion as the integration of society & nature. UChicago:1978 edition, 293) compares the meaning underlying the various myths of Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris, concludes: “In comparison with the deep-rooted differences between the three gods, their ‘generic alikeness’ dwindles to insignificance; they personify the life in vegetation but that in a manner which is peculiar to each case.” ]

There were massive differences in ethics and actions, also, as noted by the sociologist Stark (ROC; the following quotes, although long, will at least give the impression of the point I am trying to make here) [italics his; bold mine]: “Let me state my thesis: Central doctrines of Christianity Prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations. “I believe that it was the religion’s particular doctrines that permitted Christianity to be among the most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history. And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity. My treatment of these two points will be brief since they have always been implicit, and very often explicit, in the previous nine chapters.

“To anyone raised in a Judeo-Christian or Islamic culture, the pagan gods seem almost trivial. Each is but one of a host of gods and godlings of very limited scope, power, and concern. Moreover, they seem quite morally deficient. They do terrible things to one another, and sometimes they play ugly pranks on humans. But, for the most part, they appear to pay little attention to things “down below.”

“The simple phrase “For God so loved the world…” would have puzzled an educated pagan. And the notion that the gods care how we treat one another would have been dismissed as patently absurd.

“From the pagan viewpoint, there was nothing new in the Jewish or Christian teachings that God makes behavioral demands upon humans–the gods have always demanded sacrifice and worship. Nor was there anything new in the idea that God will respond to human desires–that the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. But, as I noted, the idea that God loves those who love him was entirely new.

“Indeed, as E. A. judge has noted in detail, classical philosophers regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions-defects of character to be avoided by all rational men. Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice. Therefore “mercy indeed is not governed by reason at all,” and humans must learn “to curb the impulse”; “the cry of the undeserving for mercy” must go “unanswered” Judge 1986:107). judge continued: “Pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders.”

This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues–that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was something entirely new. Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 1:2). Indeed, love and charity must even extend beyond the Christian community. Recall Cyprian’s instructions to his Carthaginian flock, quoted at length in chapter 4, “that there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well…. Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” (Quoted in Harnack 1908: 1:172-173)

“This was revolutionary stuff. Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalization of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.

“In his fine recent work The Origins of Christian Morality, Wayne Meeks reminded us that when we are talking about “morality or ethics we are talking about people. Texts do not have an ethic; people do” (1993:4). It was only as Christian texts and teachings were acted out in daily life that Christianity was able to transform the human experience so as to mitigate misery.

Chief among these miseries was the cultural chaos produced by the crazy quilt of ethnic diversity and the blazing hatreds entailed thereby. In uniting its empire, Rome created economic and political unity at the cost of cultural chaos. Ramsay MacMullen has written of the immense “diversity of tongues, cults, traditions and levels of education” encompassed by the Roman Empire (1981:xi). But it must be recognized that Greco-Roman cities were microcosms of this cultural diversity. People of many cultures, speaking many languages, worshiping all manner of gods, had been dumped together helter-skelter.

“In my judgment, a major way in which Christianity served as a revitalization movement within the empire was in offering a coherent culture that was entirely stripped of ethnicity. All were welcome without need to dispense with ethnic ties. Yet, for this very reason, among Christians ethnicity tended to be submerged as new, more universalistic, and indeed cosmopolitan, norms and customs emerged. In this way Christianity first evaded and then overwhelmed the ethnic barrier that had prevented Judaism from serving as the basis for revitalization. Unlike the pagan gods, the God of Israel did indeed impose moral codes and responsibilities upon his people. But to embrace the Jewish God, one had also to don Jewish ethnicity, albeit that, as Alan Segal (1991) suggests, the Judaism of the first century may have been more inclusive than has been recognized. I agree with Segal that the existence of the God-Fearers demonstrates this inclusiveness, but it also seems clear that the God-Fearers were limited to the social fringes of the diasporan Jewish communities precisely because of their failure to fully embrace the Law, and hence the Law remained the primary ethnic barrier to conversion. Indeed, as I argued in chapter 3, many Hellenized Jews of the diaspora found Christianity so appealing precisely because it freed them from an ethnic identity with which they had become uncomfortable.

“Christianity also prompted liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family-to which much of chapter 5 was devoted. And, as noted in chapter 7, Christianity also greatly modulated class differences-more than rhetoric was involved when slave and noble greeted one another as brothers in Christ.

“But, perhaps above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death (Barton 1993). Consider the account of the martyrdom of Perpetua. Here we learn the details of the long ordeal and gruesome death suffered by this tiny band of resolute Christians as they were attacked by wild beasts in front of a delighted crowd assembled in the arena. But we also learn that had the Christians all given in to the demand to sacrifice to the emperor, and thereby been spared, someone else would have been thrown to the animals. After all, these were games held in honor of the birthday of the emperor’s young son. And whenever there were games, people had to die. Dozens of them, sometimes hundreds (Barton 1993).

“Unlike the gladiators, who were often paid volunteers, those thrown to the wild animals were frequently condemned criminals, of whom it might be argued that they had earned their fates. But the issue here is not capital punishment, not even very cruel forms of capital punishment. The issue is spectacle for the throngs in the stadia, watching people torn and devoured by beasts or killed in armed combat was the ultimate spectator sport, worthy of a boy’s birthday treat. It is difficult to comprehend the emotional life of such peoples

“In any event, Christians condemned both the cruelties and the spectators. Thou shalt not kill, as Tertullian (De Spectaculis) reminded his readers. And, as they gained ascendancy, Christians prohibited such “games.” More important, Christians effectively promulgated a moral vision utterly incompatible with the casual cruelty of pagan custom.

“Finally, what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity. In this sense virtue was its own reward.” [ROC:211-215]

Or MacMullen [CRE:54]:

Judaism taught concern for poverty (and who outside that tradition in the ancient world would have been recorded on his tombstone as “a lover of the poor”?). The tradition carried forward within Christianity. As the pagan temples closed, the churches opened: the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, for example, as setting for an enormous banquet for the poor provided by a senator in commemoration of the anniversary of his wife’s death; or the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan, where the bishop preached on the need to succor the less fortunate. Julian was right to see this transfer of function to his rivals as important to their success. “It is generosity toward non-members, care for the graves of the dead, and pretended holiness of life that have specially fostered the growth of atheism” (i.e. Christianity). Therefore he was right in his plan to make temples even more active centers for relief of the poor. However, that project came to nothing.”But let’s be clear about one thing: the early church did not achieve its massive growth rate by offering a “me too” solution. Another ‘look alike’ mystery cult wasn’t gonna ‘win religious marketshare’ (to use Stark’s sociological phrase). The appeal of the early Christians–in addition to the worldview distinctiveness noted above-was in its love and care for others. Note the verdict of other historians on this:

First, Ferguson:

“Jesus claimed a unique relationship with Yahweh, with whose authority he spoke, challenging the religious authorities with their conventionality, and illustrating his teaching with varied wit and stories. As the attitude of the authorities stiffened, popular support fell away. He still hoped with his immediate followers to establish the New Israel, which he personified as the Son of Man, but soon came to see that the triumph of the new community would be won only through suffering. Hence much of his teaching is ‘eschatological’; it looks to the ultimate triumph of God; yet in one sense the eschatology is ‘realized’, for Jesus saw Yahweh’s kingship as fully realized in his own obedience. Some of his support came from those who looked for a military leader against the Romans, and it may have been in an effort to force his hand that a misguided follower betrayed him to the authorities. Jesus accepted the betrayal and, left in his full obedience the sole representative of the kingdom, allowed himself to be executed. “Then something happened. The disciples (the word really means apprentices) who had run away in cowardice found a new lease of life. They declared that Jesus had appeared to them visibly after death, and that even after those appearances had ceased they had been lifted out of themselves by a power they called impartially the Spirit of God or Spirit of Jesus. So they went out with a proclamation (kerygma) which in its simplest form ran something like: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know–this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.’ The book we call The Gospel according to Mark is simply an expansion of that affirmation; it is not a biography of Jesus but a preachment of Christ.

“Those who came in shared in the teaching (didache): this was based upon ‘love’, a concept so new that a virtually new word (agape) had to be coined for it. It was the dim reflection of the love they had experienced from their God; it was the cement of the new society; it was the secret of their out-reaching to the afflicted and their relations with their enemies. The behaviour it implies may be seen in the collection of sayings called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’, or in Paul’s letters to the Romans or Galatians, or the moralizing letter of James. Or, from the second century AD, we may cite the anonymous letter to Diognetus with its picture of Christians exercising their citizenship of heaven through their citizenships on earth, obeying the laws, and going far beyond the laws in their standard of behaviour, free with their hospitality but not with their chastity, like others in having children, unlike others in not leaving children to die. Besides, each week they shared in the sacrament of a common meal, in the course of which came the Thanksgiving or Eucharist, in which they broke the bread and poured the wine in commemoration of their founder’s broken body and blood shed, and shared the power of his life as they ate and drank.

Wherein then lay the appeal of Christianity? It was first in the personality of the founder. This has been doubted, because it is not stressed by the apologists. It is not stressed because it was taken for granted: no need to repeat in the second century what was in the gospels. That the person of Christ was central is seen in the critiques of Celsus and Porphyry, in the exaltation of Apollonius by Philostratus and Hierocles as a counterblast, in the heroic witness of a Polycarp: ‘I have been his servant for eighty-six years and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me? It was secondly in the way of love revealed, in the witness of community (koinonia), in a fellowship which took in Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, and whose solid practicality in their care for the needy won the admiration even of Lucian. ‘How these Christians love one another!‘ was a respectful affirmation. There was a curious gaiety about the Christians; years later it was this warmth which attracted Augustine. The women were a particular power: Mithras, for example, did not admit them. It was thirdly in the very strength of conviction, in the simple directness which cut through the multitudinous choices offered by the ancient world, above all in the courage which faced martyrdom without flinching and wrung a grudging recognition from Celsus and Marcus Aurelius, and secured the conversion of Justin and Tertullian. It was finally in a message of hope for all, for from the first resurrection of Christ had meant for his followers a certainty of victory over death. As Nock put it pungently, ‘it was left to Christianity to democratize mystery’” [RRE:125ff]
And, Hillgarth points out that this was still a major aspect of church life-heart, even after they were placed in uneasy compromise with the State:

“The Church, from a persecuted minority, became an immensely rich institution, heavily endowed by the State, its clergy largely exempt from the burdens which weighed increasingly on most of their fellow citizens. Two years after Alaric sacked Rome, church lands were exempted from most taxes. Not only were bishops (and by 412 all clergy) immune to trial in secular courts, but they acquired many of the functions of the local magistrate and judge. They became arbiters between the central government and their locality. “Equipped with all this power and privilege, was the Church able to assimilate and change the social life of the time, or was it only able to provide an alternative to it in monasticism? Extreme oppression of the poor by the State and the rich is indisputable. The Church was now part of the political and social structure of the oppressive Empire. It was virtually impossible for it to protest against such all-encompassing institutions as slavery or the normal use of torture for judicial purposes. “Defenders” of cities were created in 368 to defend the local populations against the rich. In 409 their appointment was shared between bishops and the very men they were intended to control. All the Church could do was campaign against such obvious abuses as gladiatorial combats (only finally abolished c. 438), and, in general, try to mitigate the application of a totalitarian system it could not change. The right (419) to seek asylum in a church and permission to a bishop to visit State prisons and help prisoners are examples of the way the Church was able to alleviate the rigor of the laws. But, by its care for the poor through its own institutions, especially through hospitals which it created in the East and in Rome in the fourth century and for which no precedent existed in antiquity, the Church did more for the ordinary man than the meager influence of Christianity on the Theodosian Code reveals.” [CAP:46]

[Would that we, “the Church”, lived and loved like that today…] So, a little off the subject, but hopefully constructive:

1. There were major differences in the very concept and definition of resurrection.
2. The usage of the very word ‘mystery’ was different.
3. Christian initiation was not secret.
4. ‘Baptism’ had radically different purposes in MR’s (and there is very little evidence for it in MR’s anyway)
5. The belief in an afterlife was radically different (and there is very little evidence for it in MR’s anyway)
6. MR’s didn’t offer a ‘salvation’ for the future life.
7. Even the nature of the death of Jesus (other-centered, purposeful, voluntary) was radically different from the ‘deaths’ of the MR deities.
8. The moral content–of love and compassion and charitable action–was completely different, and the Christian way of life was recognized by its enemies as being ‘superior’.
9. The actual appeal of Jesus to others was not in some ‘competitive me-too’ clone strategy, but in the genuineness of lived-out, loved-out REAL resurrection life…real rebirth.

So, even some of the areas that are commonly mentioned as having being ‘borrowed from paganism’ do not hold up under careful scrutiny. The early church-especially at the time the NT was being formed-just didn’t do “borrowing” apparently…

Pushback: “I don’t get this…you are saying they mourned their gods at some of these festivals, but DIDN’T believe the gods were “truly” resurrected…but that doesn’t make sense–what good is a ‘dead god’? They MUST have believed their gods were resurrected every year (especially since they lamented a death every year…duh)…”

Well, your position makes sense to me, but it would likely be wasted on the ancient pagans…

It seems the pagan writers who describe these gods (i.e., Celsus, Porphyry, Lucian, Plutarch) don’t seem to be believe the myths anyway-but they still celebrated the festivals anyway…

“It is “not reasonable” to consider idols as gods, when they have been manufactured by men, and, worse, by men of low social status and morals; and the point was long ago made by a pagan Heraclitus (of the first century), so says the pagan Celsus-it was no invention of higher-minded Christians. Celsus is indeed right in bringing out how much derisory or outraged criticism of current cult practices, theology, and mythology could be found in pagan writers. Here it is aimed at implications that gods are the mere creatures of men. “And to continue the survey of divinity as it is portrayed in these less obvious sources: gods or divinity can do no ill, being goodness perfect and complete. That, like all the points now to be summarized, has also been found or implied in Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom, and Lucian. Further, the gods are infinitely remote from the material world, themselves incorporeal and insubstantial. To imagine that they have any need of the world would imply some incompleteness in them; rather, it is of the essence of divinity to have no desire, no wish, no lack or feeling at all.

“It follows that the gods cannot change, assume other shapes, grow up or grow old. Assuredly they cannot die and be reborn, like Osiris. They cannot be cut up, wounded, put in chains, tossed out of Olympus, crippled; nor have they appetites. They do not eat or drink, defecate, or fornicate. Of course not. Rejection of such pictures is registered or implied in the writings of Plutarch and Lucian but also of Heraclitus and Celsus. And no one may rightly accuse the gods of adultery, sodomy, theft, perjury, cowardice, murder, or wicked or disgraceful acts of that sort-again, features of belief shocking to pagans and highly convenient to Christians. The gods should never be thought of or portrayed as dependent, servile, or menial. The opposite is the truth. Still less should they ever be described as monsters of any sort, misshapen, abnormal, or even as animals: Egyptian crocodiles and so forth.

From conceptualizations, the higher criticism turned to visible routines of worship to make its point. Idols that were in the first place sawn, glued, nailed, and filed could hardly be divine. The materials of their manufacture were base, and they endured the birds that shit on them and mice that nested in them. It was equally misguided, if the gods were conceived aright, to suppose that they could “taste good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke,” or respond-still more wicked folly–to human sacrifice. Of all the dancing, singing, miming, or recitation of prose hymns; of all the anointing, bathing, wreathing, robing, and parading about of images; of all the toasting, holocausts, and cheerful tables; of ivory, gold, sublime skills in painting and carving-really nothing remained that held the faintest interest for Olympus, if that high realm and all its denizens in fact existed. Probably not.

“Certainly not in the sense or shapes that Homer meant, certainly not in the Dionysiac’s or Isiac’s demented terms–not if the pagan purists were to be believed. The gods really lived; but at a great remove. Cult could not reach them. It might be inoffensive, never persuasive. Mythology, not only as the poets had written it but as the Phrygians embraced Cybele in it, or the Syrians, Atargatis, was folly or insult to the true beings above. The sacred had lost its story when its enlightened critics finished with it.

But who cared? The inappropriateness of common forms of worship, seen through the eyes of Seneca or Porphyry, appears not to have deterred a single soul from the inheritance of his tribe. [HI:PTRE:76f; emphasis mine]
And the vast majority of the festivals and special religious ‘endowments’ are done by the wealthy elite–in Rome, this was the educated as well…

Stark considered the popular level of opinion as well (as opposed to the literary one noted by MacMullen above):

“Nevertheless, I think there may be a substitute for an opinion poll of religious belief in antiquity. What is wanted is a sample of unfiltered public attitudes. Consider, then, the archaeological discovery that the walls of Pompeii abound in extremely blasphemous graffiti and drawings, some of them very obscene as well. While I harbor no thoughts that these were connected to the city’s fate, they arouse my deepest suspicions about the overall state of reverence–not simply because some residents were prompted to create them, but because no one was prompted to remove or cover them. MacMullcn commented that “we may take [the existence of similar graffiti] for granted elsewhere, if there were other sites so well preserved” (1981:63). I may be leaping to unjustified conclusions, but these data speak to me of widespread irreverenceBlasphemous graffiti may also reflect that pagan gods were not entirely godlike as we understand that term today (or as the early Christians understood it). While I reserve extended discussion of pagan conceptions of the gods for chapter 10, we may usefully anticipate that discussion here. E. R. Dodds pointed out that in “popular Greek tradition a god differed from a man chiefly in being exempt from death and in the supernatural power which this exemption conferred on him” ([1965] 1970:74). Moreover, while people often appealed to various gods for help,, it was not assumed that the gods truly cared about humans-Aristotle taught that gods could feel no love for mere humans. Classical mythology abounds in stories in which the gods do wicked things to humans-often for the sport of it. Arthur Darby Nock noted that worship of such gods need not have inspired sincere belief.” [ROC:200f] There is no necessary ‘consistency’ in their position, though scholars still try to see what the worshippers believed at these festivals…The death of Attis was an event in the distant mythological past–how could someone believe it happened again each year? (where was the boar, or the castrating flint?)…Religious skepticism was rampant–from both high and low–but religion was “useful” to the society [Augustine tried to shame the Empire by pointing out their utilitarian approach to ‘truth’]. Consistency itself could easily be a sacrificial victim too…

In other words, the obvious logic in “they must have believed in a resurrected god, because what good is a dead god?” would have been met back then with MacMullen’s phrase above: “who cares?”… 

But let’s also take a brief look at the major figures that are prominent in the better known MR’s of the Roman Empire. The ones most often referenced in NT background reference sourcebooks such as KOC, DSG, and NTB are the Greek MRs (Eleusinian–based on the rape of Persephone by Pluto; Dionysos (Bacchus)) and the Oriental MRs (Isis, Cybele/Attis–examined above, Mithras) [For a discussion of this breakdown, see NTSE:132-137.] We will only look at the ones of these with “unique” deities that might fall into a semi-DARG category.

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