Mystery, mythology or Rational? Christianity a Mystery Religion??? – Varghese Pamplanil
Note: The root meaning or ‘religo’ means a two-fold binding together of God and humans, individually and collectively. This applies specially to organized religions. If so there can’t be too many organized religions!
Authentic bonding should be based on facts, not faiths or imagination of individuals. Hence the radical question: Are organized religions based on “Faith or Facts?”
In the extensively researched article our respected columnist Pamplanil is searching for the roots of Christianity. Faith need not be always based on facts. Many belief systems are based on folklore or imagination of individuals who rose to great heights due to their intellectual acumen (Gurus) or notoroity achieved through cheap popularity.
We know of the story of some one who vomited a crow(Kakka Churditchu)! The fact was something very black was found in a vomit, and as the story passed from mouth to mouth, what was found as black became a Crow, due to error or embellishments on the part of the transmitters.
Here Sri. Pamplanil is unearthing, ever so many facts, fictions and research findings on the origin of Christianity. All sorts of stories and fictions are whirling round the person of Person of Jesus of Nathareth, known also as a Nazareene, or Eternal Galileean!
No one questions his historical evidence. What is questioned is whether he was just a human being only, or Son of God, one of the 3 persons of the Trinity, who made him Crhist? if he founded founded Christianity, Catholic church, and or, all the existing churches?
Who founded Churches?
In this process, we wish that Pamplanil succeeds to bury for good ever so many baseless fictions presented as facts and help foot Christianity on more scientific factual basis. james kottoor, editor ccv.
Please read below Pamplanil’s Research findings! Christianity a Mystery Religion?
The Greco-Roman world in which Christianity had its beginning was one with variety of religions. These religions, known as Mystery Religions, were not similar in every respect. They covered an enormous range and manifested great diversity in character and outlook from Orphism to Gnosticism, from the orgies of the Cabira to the fervours of the Hermetic contemplative. Nevertheless, these Mysteries possessed many fundamental likenesses.
(I) All held that the “initiate” shared a symbolic (sacramental) fashion experiences of god (ii) All had secret rites for the initiated (iii) All offered mystical cleaning from sin; all promised happy future life for the faithful.
It was in Corinthian, Antioch, Ephesus and other parts of the Roman Empire that the religion founded by Paul of Tarsus took its roots. The Pauline Christianity was similar to the extant mystery religions in the Empire. In Paul’s hands, Jesus was metamorphosed as Christ (“the anointed/ resurrected”). This artificial persona created by Paul became the Divine Lord of Christianity, through whose death and resurrection, salvation was promised. There were striking similarities between the religion of Paul and the Mystery religions of the day. Even a diehard Christian apologist will be compelled to admit this reality.
The triumph of Christianity may be attributed to its taking over from its opponents their pagan beliefs, rites and ceremonies, ways of worship; their views of the material and the unseen world of spirits. In short the better elements of these Mystery religions were appropriated by the new religion. Any serious study of Christianity will reveal that its triumph was the end result of a long process of evolution of the extant beliefs.
In order to understand the Christianity of the fifth century, a clear awareness of the moral antecedents of the world in which it developed is necessary . The universal historical law postulates that a culture which conquers other culture(s), is in turn conquered by the latter. This universal law is especially true of religion. It is inevitable that when a new religion emerges and comes to exist side by side with religions already in vogue, from which the new entity continually detaches members, it would willy nilly be compelled to assimilate and adapt the ways of the new recruits in order to bring them on board. The more crusading a religion is, the more it absorbs. Christianity is no exception. As a consequen- ence, Christianity became a hotchpotch of disparate contents picked up from various cultures.
A serious study of Christianity involve a good knowledge of the mystery religions. It must be remembered that Christianity did not undergo any sudden and miraculous transformation; It did not spring forth full grown, as Athene sprang from the head of Zeus, it had to undergo slow and laborious growth. The impact of Mystery religions for the paradigm shifts of sacramentarianism in Christianity cannot be neglected. The failure to recognise the moral and spiritual values of Hellenistic Oriental paganism in the formative Christian centuries would be to do injustice to the victory of Christianity. Much from the Mysteries still persists in Christian thoughts and practices.
The cult Cybele and Attis.
The Mystery cult of Cybele, the Great Mother of the Gods, Magna Mater Deum, the source of all life and the personification of all powers of nature was the first one that had spread in the West. She was the “Great Mother” not only “of all the gods” but of all men as well. “The winds, the sea, the earth, and the snowy seat of Olympus are hers, and when from her mountains, she ascends into the great heavens, the son of Cronus himself gives way before her, and in like manner do also the other immortal blest honor the dread goddess” says Willoughby in “Pagan Regeneration”- (1929)
Virgin Mary has been substituted by Cybele as the “Mother of God” by the Catholic Church. Apart from Cybele, the Church has invested Mary with the attributes of Isis, Diana and Artemis.
Attis was the Good Shepard, the son of Cybele, the Great Mother who gave birth to him without union with mortal man, as in the story of the Virgin Mary. The central theme of the myth was the triumph of Attis over death. The participant in the rites of the cult undoubtedly believed that his attachment to the victorious deity would insure a similar triumph in his life.
“In Rome there was a festival celebrating the death and resurrection of Attis, held annually from March 22nd to 25th” (Frazer “Adonis, Attis Osiris – 1922). The influence of this religion on Christianity is shown by the fact that in Phrygia, Gaul, Italy and other countries where Attis worship was powerful, the Christians adapted the actual date, March 25th as the anniversary of Jesus’ passion.
At the Attis festival on March 22nd an effigy of the god was fastened to the trunk of a pine tree — the hanging of Attis — “slain and hanged on a tree”. This effigy was later buried in a tomb. On March 24th known as the Day of Blood, the High Priest, impersonating Attis, would draw blood from his arm and offer it up, in place of a human sacrifice.
The Epistle to the Hebrews says “But Christ being come on as High Priest….. neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood…. obtained eternal redemption for us” (Frazer). On the night of the 24th March, the priests would go back to the tomb and find it empty, the god thus having risen on the third day from the dead. On the 25th resurrection was celebrated with great rejoicing. During this great celebration, a sacramental meal of some kind was taken and initiates were baptised with blood, whereby their sins were washed away and they were said to be “born again” (Arthur E Weiggall – “Paganism in Our Christianity – 1928)
These ceremonies and beliefs strongly coloured the interpretation of the life and death of the historical Jesus. Moreover the merging of the worship of Attis into that of Jesus was effected without interruption: these pagan ceremonies were enacted in a sanctuary on the Vatican Hill, which afterwards was taken over by the Christians. The Church of St. Peter stands on the very spot.
The influence of Adonis.
Another popular cult which influenced the thought process of the early Christians was the worship of Adonis. Antioch was one of the earliest seats of the emerging religion. In this city, the death and resurrection of god Adonis was celebrated every year. The Adonis faith had already exerted its influence on Jewish thought: Ezekiel found it necessary to scold Jewish women of Jerusalem weeping for the dead Tammuz (Adonis). In Christian thought, the influence was much greater inasmuch as Bethlehem, where a shrine of Adonis had existed, was selected as the birth place of Jesus. As a result many would have confused Jesus as Adonis.
It was believed that Adonis suffered a cruel death after which he descended into hell, rose again, and then ascended heaven; each year there used to be a great festival in commemoration of his resurrection. The story of the death of Adonis, his descending to the nether world and his resurrection match with the death of Jesus, his journey to the underworld and his resurrection on the third day is quite similar to that of Adonis. Both the Apostles Creed and the Athanasian Creed say: between the Friday night and the Sunday morning Jesus was in Hades
The influence of Osiris and Isis.
The Egyptian mysteries of Osiris and Isis exerted considerable influence on early Christianity. These two great Egyptian deities were worshiped throughout Europe where Christian communities were growing. Osiris and Isis were believed to be brother and sister as well as husband and wife. Osiris was murdered, dismembered and his coffin was thrown into the Nile by his enemy Seth. His dis- members body parts were recovered by Isis who assembled them and restored Osiris to life; Isis then conceived son Horus from the restored Osiris, a sort of virgin birth. Osiris was afterwards installed as the King of the Underworld. Horus reigned on earth The great Egyptian Trinity was formed with Osiris the Father, Horus the Son and Isis the Mother, similar to the Christian Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The records of both Herodotus and Plutarch speak of a festival held each year in Egypt celebrating the resurrection of Osiris. Other Egyptian records mention a feast in honour of all the dead, held around November 8th. The Christian feast of all souls is also held at the beginning of November; very similar to the Egyptian festival. The festival of All Saints in the Christian calendar, may unconsciously, perpetuate the worship of Osiris.
There can hardly be any doubt that the myth of Isis has a direct bearing on the elevation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to a lofty position in Catholic theology. Isis had two capacities which her worshipers warmly commended; (I) she was pictured as the lady of sorrows, weeping for the dead Osiris and (ii) she was commended as the divine mother, nursing her infant son Horus: represented in tens of thousands of statues and paintings holding the divine child in her arms. These same statues and paintings were literally adopted as that of Madonna and Infant Jesus with little or no difference. In fact archaeologists are often left in confusion in attempting to distinguish the one from the other.
In the second century a story, attributed to Melito, Bishop of Sardis, began to circulate that Mary had been miraculously carried to Heaven by Jesus and his angels. From the 6th century, the festival of Assumption, one of the greatest feasts of Roman Catholicism has been on 13th August (now 15th August). But it was also at the very date the festivals of Diana and Artemis were celebrated; Isis was identified with these Roman goddesses. Thus Mary gradually came to take the place of Isis/Diana/Artemis.
“Isis dominated the religious sensibilities of the people at the same time Christianity was spreading through the efforts of Paul (42-62 CE). The concept of the Dying and Reviving God, long established through the Osiris myth was made manifest in Jesus Christ by Paul.
In 380 CE the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, decreed all pagan temples closed and pagan rites outlawed. The worship of Isis, however, continued.
Osiris, Isis and Horus had earlier replaced the Egyptian trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost of Amon, Mut and Khons ( cf. Ancient History Encyclopaedia – Joshua J. Mark – Ancient Egyptian Religion – 2016)
Statues of Isis were revived as that of Virgin Mary. The picture of Isis holding the infant Horus was transferred to Roman Catholicism in th form of Virgin Mary cradling Jesus as a child. With suitable modifications “the Mother of Universe” was converted into “Mother of God”:
The Isis cult had influenced Christianity as the Roman Empire was being Christianised. Andreas Alfoldi, for instance, argued in the 1930s, that the medieval Carnival festival of carrying a model boat in honour of Mary would have been the replication of the festival of similar type held in honour of Navigium Isidis (Isis) .
The more devoted members of Isis cult viewed Isis as a superior deity as in the case of Virgin Mary. Both Christianity and the Isis cult has an mystical initiation rite viz., baptism in Christianity. Mystery cults believe that by the death and resurrection of their god blissful after life is assured.. This theme has been carried over to Christianity which holds the firm conviction that on account of the death and resurrection of Jesus, their sins have been washed off, thus ensuring the worshippers’s well being in the afterlife.
Both Hugh Bowden and James Alvar, scholars who studied ancient mystery cults, suggest that the emerging convergence of Christianity and mystery cults were not due to any simple borrowing of ideas but by their common background in the Greco-Roman culture.
Similarities between Isis and Mary, the mother of Jesus, have been under scrutiny for a long time. Many Protestants hold the view that the Catholic veneration of Mary is a remnant of paganism. The classicist R. E. Witt saw Isis as the “great forerunner” of Mary. He suggested that converts to Christianity, who had been formerly worshipping Isis, would have seen Mary in the same terms as their traditional goddess. He pointed out that the two belief systems possessed several common features, as goddesse of agriculture and protectors of sailors. He compares Mary’s title “Mother of God’ to Isis’s epithet “mother of god” and Mary’s “Queen of Heaven” to Isis’s “queen of heaven”. Stephen Benko, a historian of early Christianity. argues that that devotion to Mary was deeply influenced by the worship of several pagan goddesses, not just Isis.
Images of Isis with Horus in her lap tellingly suggest influence of the Egyptian iconography on that of Mary, particularly images of the “Nursing Madonna”; the iconography of nursing women were rare in the ancient Mediterranean world outside Egypt. Vincent Tran Tam Tinh points out that the images of Isis nursing Horus date to the 4th century CE, while the earliest images of Mary nursing Jesus date to the 7th century CE. Thomas F. Mathews and Norman Muller think Isis’s pose in the late antique panel paintings influenced several types of Marian icons. Elizabeth Bolman also says that the images of Mary nursing Jesus were substituted for Isis nursing a child Horus as represented in ancient Egyptian iconography.
The Greater Mysteries At Eleusis
The Eleusisinian Mysteries were initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. Eleusis is located in Ancient Greece. The Eleusisinian mysteries are the most famous of the secret religious rites of the ancient. They were based on an ancient agrarian cult. The mysteries evolved out of the story of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld, Hades. The myth cover a cycle of three phases: the descent ( loss), the search, and the ascent of Persephone and the reunion with her mother. It was major festival of the Hellenic era which later spread to Rome.
The rites, the ceremonies and beliefs were kept secret and diligently preserved. For the initiated, the rebirth of Persephone symbollized the eternity of life from generation to generation, and the followers believed that they would receive a just reward in the afterlife.
In the first century of the Common Era the Eluesinian mystery cult was more favoured than the other cults of Greece. The mystery in a nutshell: Persephone, the only daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, fertility and harvest was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld; Demeter endlessly searched for her daughter and grieved with the result seasons halted and living things stopped growing and died. Zeus intervened and the daughter was restored to her mother and the cycle of the seasons revived. The myth is also an example of the poignant experience reflecting the joys, sorrows and hopes of humankind in the face of death. The Eleusisinian mystery represents human life and death and hope for reunion with God. The Eleusisian mystery has been dovetailed with mourning over the dead Christ and rejoicing on his resurrection. As in the Eleusisinian mysterious, Christians find the moment of supreme joy in contem- plating the risen Christ.
Some of the special or technical terms used in the Mysteries of Eleusis were initiation, initiation to secrecy, the initiated, ceremony of perfecting, the perfect, those who have seen etc. The Epistle of St. James is littered with words similar to those used in Eleusisinian Mysteries. It would appear Paul made many allusions to the Eleusisinian Mysteries in his letter to Corinthians. The terminology of the sacramental doctrine of Christianity was borrowed from Eleusis. The spiritual and ethical aspects of the Mysteries at Eleusis, prepared the minds of men for the religion of Christ, for the tragedy of Calvary (cf., Rev. Charles James Wood)
The influence of Mithraism
Mithraism, a religion of Persian origin, was very popular in the Roman Empire especially among Roman soldiers in the 1st through 5th centuries of the Common Era. It was the de facto official religion of the empire until Constantine replaced Mithraism with Christianity.
One of the key features of Mithraism was a sacrificial meal which involved eating the flesh and drinking the blood of bull Mithras. The god of Mithraism was believed to be “present” in the flesh and blood of the bull, and when consumed granted salvation to those who partook the sacrificial meal. This is interpreted by some as theophagy — the eating of one’s god.
Church leaders after Constantine found an easy substitute for the sacrificial meal of Mithraism for the Lord’s Super/ Christian communion. Even before Constantine, some early Christians had begun to attach mysticism to the Lord’s Super rejecting the biblical concept of a simple and worshipful remembrance of Jesus’s death and the shedding of his blood. The Romanisation of the Lord’s Super was cleverly transitioned to the sacrificial eating of the body and drinking the blood of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Mass/ Eucharist, an opportunistic move by the Church with the pagan Mystery religion of Mithraism to attract the followers of Mithraism. Mithraism is the one religion that impacted Christianity most.
The similarities between Mithraism and Roman Catholicism are too many to ignore. Mithras was born on December 25th of the Virgin Abahita. The baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in manger, attended by shepherds. He was considered a great travelling teacher and master and he had twelve companions or “disciples’. He performed miracles. He ascended Heaven. Mithras was viewed as the Good Shepherd, “Way, the Truth and the Light”, the Redeemer, the Savior and the Messiah. Mithras is omniscient; he hears all; sees all; knows all. None can deceive him. His sacred day was Sunday, the “Lord’s Day”. Mithraism practiced baptism and had seven “sacraments”
There are other commonalities between Mithraism and Roman Catholicism : Mithraic Holy Father wore a red cap and garment and a ring, and carried a shepherd’s staff – the Pope too wears a red cap, and garment and a ring and carries a shepherd’s staff; priest of Mithraism bore the title “Father”, Catholic priest bears the title Father, despite — “ And do not call anyone on earth ‘Father’, for you have one Father, and he is heaven” (Matthew 23.9).
Ernest Renan, the French philosopher and Orientalist has opined that Mithraism would have been the religion of the modern world, if anything had occurred to halt or destroy the growth of Christianity in the early centuries of its existence.
Tarsus, the home of Paul was one of the great centres Mithras worship.There is a decided tinge of Mithraism in Paul’s Epistles as well in the Gospels. The designations of Christ as the Dayspring From On High, The Light, The Sun of Righteousness and similar expressions seem to have come directly out of Mithraic influence.
Mithras was believed to be “the god out of the rock” and his worship was always conducted in a cave. The early belief that Jesus was born in a cave might have grown directly out of Mithraic ideas. Baptism and communal meal were important rituals of both the religions. Symbolic eating of the flesh and drinking the blood of the god for salvation was practiced in both the religions.
From the foregoing a conclusion, that Christianity was greatly influenced by Mystery Religions, from both ritual and doctrinal perspectives may be arrived at. Paul configured Christianity to be acceptable to the gentiles.
On Constantine accepting Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, the Church leaders reworked their religion to suit the upper class of the Roman society. Christianity did flourish because of state support and privileges conferred on it. The banning of other religions under the threat of death and banishment from the Empire by the “butcher from Spain” Theodosius I quickened it’s growth. The leaders of the Christian religion bent backwards to accommodate pagans by the whole scale acceptance their beliefs, rites and ceremonies. Mystery Religions of the Roman world made profound influence on the doctrine and rituals of Christianity.
The influence of the Ancient Mysteries has led many to conceive the Church as an organisation for the perpetuation of mystic ceremonies and sacred objects under the care of a unique class of people viz., priests, themselves bound by the use of fixed formulas of words aimed at the realisation of the perceived Infinite Life of the Universe.
This brief presentation may lead to the conclusion that the Mystery elements from the cults of Cybele and Attis, of Adonis, of Osiris and Isis , and above all the Eleusisinian mysteries and Mithraism had overwhelming influence on the Christian religion in its formative centuries; its theology now appears to be a potpourri of Mystery religious elements in vogue at the time of its evolution.
Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, is built on the bedrock of esoteric Mysteries, beyond the comprehension of its ordinary believers. For the rational minds, myths and the so called Mysteries are just like fairy tales. A theology built on myths and Mysteries would not and could not stand critical scrutiny. A normally intelligent member of the Catholic religion is likely to view them as just fantasies of a bygone era, not worth serious consideration. Ordinary followers of this religion will be in a dilemma when confronted with its many theological cul- de-sacs called Mysteries.
The moot question is whether Christianity, as it stands today, has anything to do with the HUMAN BEING, who lived in the harsh surroundings of Galilee and walked on its rough terrain? As early as the first century of the Common Era, Paul of Tarsus seems to have made Jesus a mythical person. The values expounded and the messages given by the rustic Galilean have been made irrelevant in Paul’s Christianity.
The point at issue is the relevance of this religion in the world of today with its scientific temper. In today’s world human endeavour occupies the pride of place. The Homo sapiens is poised to reach the far corners of the universe and explore the hitherto unknown bodies spiralling its vast expanse. Intellectually the human mind is in constant pursuit of knowledge never even dreamed of.
In one perspective, the ultimate test of an idea or scheme or institution is, whether it does improve the human condition; whether it contributes to the enriching and enhancing the sum total of human happiness. Some may not agree with this outlook, let it be so.
N. B. For the preparation of this presentation, ideas contained in Stanford University —The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute presentation (1929), Ancient History Encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Columbia University sponsored article and many other treatises have been utilised.