04 Dec 2012 
#3 Were the early Christian communities mystery cults? I say NO.

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Doherty (& Carrier) makes a great deal about the earliest Christian communities being mystery cults.
However in the Corinthians letters, we see exactly the opposite, that isá a wild open affair (1 Cor 11, 12, 14), where everyone could influence the others (by teaching, preaching, prophesying) (1 Cor 12), and therefore introduce new concepts and beliefs. Also they would accept anyone (including unbelievers) from the street at any time into their talking in tongues sessions (1 Cor 14:23). They seem not to have appointed leaders/priests/presbyters and they were visited by a slew of apostles (and Peter & Apollos --1 Cor 1, 3) (2 Cor 11), some preaching different Jesus, different spirits, different gospels (2 Cor 11:4). Even Paul admitted he was only providing a foundationáand others were building on it (1 Cor 3:10). And he wrote that him and his Christians had the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).
Does that look like a mystery cult to you? How to compare that with what we know about mystery cults then and now (like Scientology)? First, we know very little about ancient mystery cults. However Wikipediaáprovides a few details for mystery religions in the ancient Roman empire, such as step by step initiation, enforced discipline, ásecret (from the outside world) ceremonies with rituals, hierarchisation, etc.

Of course early Christian churches as mystery cultsáis crucial for Doherty. Without that mystery cult thing, allowing middle platonism (with its sublunar realm or/and the mysterious world of myth) to creep in, theáalleged location for Jesus' crucifixion (not on earth!) would be hard to explain. I quote Doherty:
"What I failed to do in The Jesus Puzzle was make it clear that my arguments about a relocation to a heavenly/spiritual dimension of the myths of the savior gods applied to the views of those myths within the mystery cults and their interpretations of their rites, not to the views of the man-in-the-street or writers like Herodotus or Tacitus or Pausanias."

Now, it's your turn to comment, agree or disagree ...
Cordially, Bernard

Tags: {1 Corinthians} {2 Corinthians} {Doherty} {early Christianity} {early Christian communities} {mystery cults}
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Comment from: gakuseidon

I tend to think that early Christianity was a kind of mystery cult. There was an initiation -- baptism -- and the purpose of meetings were to help bring about salvation. When Paul writes in Gal 3:1, "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified", that sounds like something from a mystery cult, when they publicly relived the myths of their gods. And when Paul writes in Gal 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me", that sounds like one of the secret experiential components that many have speculated mystery cults used.

But I agree with you there were parts that were not what we would attribute to mystery cults. Most mystery cults recruited by invitation only, whereas Christianity accepted anyone. Cults seemed to have a hierarchy through which the initiate increased in knowledge. Christianity never had that. (Though when Paul writes in 1 Cor 3:2, "I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it ", I have to wonder what the "milk" was, and what the "solid food" was.)

I suppose it depends on how "mystery cults" are defined. If we define them as requiring initiation, providing armour for helping reach salvation (methods to beat the daimons in the air so as to continue ascending to the true heavens) and some kind of experience that invokes the mystery of their god, then early Christianity must be numbered amongst them.
2012-12-10
Comment from: mullerb
Hello Gakuseidon,

Every religion have rituals with spiritual connotations, but that does not make them mystery cults.
Your quote of some ambiguous verses from Galatians, is typical of Paul's language full of metaphors and grandiloquence. But I do not see here any hint of mystery cults.

Similar comment for 1 Cor 3:2: this is just imagery.
Do you see Paul offering some real drink? the milk stands for Paul's "easy" basic teaching and the solid food for his advanced teaching, which Paul said his audience (like babies!) was not ready for it.
Just like in Hebrews 5:12-14:
"For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; 13 for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil."
I just notice: "you ought to be teachers" means the author had no objection to have the members of the Christian community he was addressing to become themselves teachers.

I wish you would tell where you got this armour; but I found it in Rom 13:13 "armour of light" and 2 Cor 6:7 "armour of righteousness". This is obviously imagery.
"armour" appears also in Ephesians (not written by Paul, but at least one generation later, so not really representative of early Christian communities):
Eph 6:11 "Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil". Again obvious imagery in order to make a point.
Eph 6:13 uses also "armour" to make a similar point.

I do not know where you got "methods to beat the daimons in the air so as to continue ascending to the true heavens".

Cordially, Bernard
2012-12-10
Comment from: gakuseidon

My work is busy this time of year (No, I'm not Santa Claus! :) I work in sales reporting in IT, so meeting year-end quotas is very important), so not a lot of time at the moment. I should have more time after Christmas.

I think the initial question isn't whether or not Christianity was a mystery cult, but was Christianity similar to mystery cults? It could have been similar without being a mystery cult; or it could have been a mystery cult without necessarily being similar to others. These are largely how we in modern times define "mystery cult". If "mystery cults" were defined as a cult holding a "mystery", then Christianity was a mystery cult.

My view is that if mystery cults were popular, then early Christianity would have picked up traits as it moved out into the pagan world. Just as Judaism (and then Christianity) adopted itself to Middle Platonic ideals. We see a similar movement today with regards to "science". All religions have realigned themselves to show that they conform to science, especially modern cults like fundamentalism. Fundamentalists think their beliefs conform to science, it's just that others are doing it wrong.

So I think First Century Christianity being a kind of Jewish "mystery cult" makes sense. The "mystery" in mystery cults is usually experiential -- some rite is performed to bring the initiate closer to their God. As I wrote above, in this case I suspect it was the crucifixion of Jesus, which would have been an obvious equivalent to Orpheus, a significant figure in the mysteries of Dionysus. Not a literal crucifixion, but some recreation of one, even if imaginary.

I've ordered the book that Ehrman recommends in his "Did Jesus Exist?", which is Bowden's "Mystery Cults of the Ancient World". That should be arriving in the next few days. I'll post more after I've gone through his book.


Comment from: mullerb

Every religion have rituals and mysteries: that does not make them mystery cults. For example, the Catholic Church "teaches" about seven mysteries, one of them I remember is the Trinity (how one is three!). These mysteries, as the priest explained, are what make sense to God but not to humans (rather a cop out for theological difficulties, as I see it!).

According to the Pauline epistles to the Corinthians, Christian gatherings were a wide open and wild affair where anybody, from the inside or the outside (visiting apostles) could provide all kind of inputs and add-on to the new religion. Paul even admitted he provided only the foundation and others were building on it. Unbelievers could join an assembly at any time. There were only two rituals we know of: baptism and what later Paul proposed, a rudimentary Eucharist, in memory of Christ bodily sacrifice, to be taken during a common supper. There were some mysteries at the beginning, such as why Christ crucified would save the elects, or why someone put to death could be Christ, but that got eventually explained.

These early Christian communities were in complete contrast with Greco-Roman mystery cults, as I read it from Wiki Greco-Roman mysteries: "The term "Mystery" derives from Latin mysterium, from Greek mysterion (usually as the plural mysteria μυστήρια), in this context meaning "secret rite or doctrine." An individual who followed such a "Mystery" was a mystes, "one who has been initiated," from myein "to close, shut," a reference to secrecy (closure of "the eyes and mouth"[4]:56) or that only initiates were allowed to observe and participate in rituals. The Mysteries were thus cults in which all religious functions were closed to the uninitiated and for which the inner-working of the cult were kept secret from the general public." On the Wiki Eleusinians cult "The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were kept secret" And about participants:
"1.Priests, priestesses and hierophants.
2.Initiates, undergoing the ceremony for the first time.
3.Others who had already participated at least once. They were eligible for the fourth category.
4.Those who had attained Úpopteia (Greek: ἐποπτεία) (English: "contemplation"), who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter."
And from the Wiki Mythraic mysteries, it appears this cult followed a similar pattern.
So I cannot see the earliest Christian communities as organized like mystery cults. Actually, it is the complete opposite.
Do not get overworked!

Cordially, Bernard
2012-12-14
Comment from: gakuseidon

I've been going through Bowden's "Mystery Cults of the Ancient World", which is excellent. Unfortunately he doesn't agree with me that mystery cults had much of an influence on early Christianity. He does see similarities like initiation through baptism, but he puts this down to a similarity of ideas across the region, rather than influence on Christianity.

Anyway, I'll add additional posts here on mystery cults as I go through Bowden's book.
2012-12-27