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The New Testament and Greco-Roman Mystery Religions

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I. Primary Material

The following article is composed of possible parallels between the New Testament and the Mystery religions.1 The purpose for the paper is simply to demonstrate that the mystery religions help at times to elucidate background (i.e. practices, beliefs and linguistic phenomena) for the understanding of certain N. T. texts.

A. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 216 and John 3:16

In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter 216 the text reads: "But we humans endure the gifts of the gods, even under grievous compulsion (cf. 256, 57), for a yoke lies upon our neck." This passage speaks of the oppression of the capricious gods over mortals to the point where any gift from the gods is basically endured by humans.

Both John and Paul proclaim a God who is quite distinct from these gods. God, according to John, so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we might not perish but have eternal life. Paul rejoices in God's gracious gifts and is overwhelmed by the generosity of his Lord: "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift" (2 Cor. 9:15 NIV).

B. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 275-80 and Matthew 17:1-13

According to the passage in the Hymn to Demeter, the goddess Demeter undergoes a "transfiguration," if you will, that parallels in some ways the transfiguration undergone by Christ. Demeter altered "form. . . and the radiance from the skin of the immortal goddess shone afar. . . and the sturdy house was filled with light like a flash of lightening." According to Matthew Christ's face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light.

There are some differences, though, between the two accounts. There is no indication by Matthew of a "pleasant smell" or that Jesus changed "size." Perhaps even more important is the response of the disciples and that of the women in Demeter's mystery. The disciples respond with fear and so do the women, but the fear of the women was a fear of being capriciously destroyed, but that of the disciples seems to be mixed more with reverence. The result is that the women stayed awake all night long, "quaking with fear, propitiat[ing] the glorious gods." The disciples, however, were encouraged by the Lord to not be afraid.

C. Alexander the False Prophet and Paul's Ministry

The apostle Paul faced many struggles in his ministry. One of those struggles involved other men going about trying to undercut his ministry in some way (cf. 2 Cor. 10-12; 1 Thes. 2:3-5). Many of these men were no doubt of Jewish background, but some were Greek. The reason I have included this example of Alexander, the false prophet2 is because it might afford us an illustration of the kind of Gentile false teachers Paul encountered. This man was a "fraud who used bogus religion to deceive the gullible and obtain for himself wealth and sexual pleasure." Perhaps Paul refers to this kind of person in 2 Timothy 3:6 and it seems likely that this is the kind of person who would have easily discredited the itinerant ministry of someone like Paul.

D. Rule of the Andanian Mysteries 3 and 1 Corinthians 11

The Rule of the Andanian Mysteries 3 is a rule-book for worship in the Andanian mysteries. One of the "rules" included the wearing of white felt caps by the women. Paul also required women at Corinth to wear a covering on the their head during worship. There is a possible parallel here that further study may illuminate, but it is safe to say that Paul's focus on creation theology as the rationale for the attire, is absent from the Rule of the Andanian Mysteries.

E. The Bacchae 73-82 and Matthew 5:3-11

The Bacchae 73-82 uses the term "blessd" in ways similar to Matthew in his Sermon on the Mount. Nine times in the mystery text the phrase "blessd are. . . " appears. Likewise, nine times in Matthew's gospel the phrase "blessed are. . . " appears. The mystery text, however, uses the term "blessd" twice (i.e. "blessd, blessd") in the first sentence and twice in the last sentence, almost like bookends.

Both texts are examples of the blessing of religious adherents, but the Matthean focus is more on blessing as a result of certain internal, personal character qualities, rather than external things as found in the Bacchae. Another difference appears to be the relation of each of the blessings to the others. The blessings in the mystery text seem to be distinct from each other (i.e. relatively speaking) while the blessings described in the Sermon on the Mount seem to be related to each other sequentially.

F. The Bacchae 100-104 and Galatians 4:4

The Bacchae 100-104 says that "when the weaving Fates fulfilled the time, the bull-horned god was born of Zeus." The linking up of the birth of a deity (i.e. the son of Zeus) with the fulfillment of time has a parallel in the thoughts of Paul. In Galatians 4:4 the apostle says that when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law to redeem those under the law. . . ." Thus the parallel consists in the idea of the deity coming according to a certain point in time. The differences include the fact that: 1) Christ came according to the plan of a wise, loving and sovereign God, the son of Zeus came according to Fate and 2) the Son came to redeem fallen humanity.

This raises the larger issue of the kinds of gods found in the mysteries and the God of the New Testament. The gods of the mysteries are incredibly human in nature and possess all that is most disturbing about us in our fallen state. They are petty at times, intoxicated with lust and greedy for power and control. At the same time they are dreadfully inadequate and severely limited in authority.3 Apparently they were attractive because of their immanence, not their transcendence per se. The God of the New Testament, while described anthropomorphically at times, is not sinful as the New Testament understands it. He is holy, just and merciful, and his control of all things is contingent upon nothing but his sovereign will guided by pure love. Therefore, the end result is that the world-view4 of the "mystery-believer," is substantially different from that of the apostles.

G. The Bacchae 470 and Colossians 1:23

It is common in the mystery religions for the adherents or initiates to be prohibited from telling others (i.e. outsiders or the "non-initiated") the secret "mysteries." Not so with the New Testament. As far as Paul was concerned, God wanted everyone to know about his secret—Christ. Paul says that his gospel had been preached to every creature under heaven and that God had chosen among the hitherto uninitiated (i.e. non-Jews)to make known the glorious riches of the mystery, namely, "Christ in you." It is admitted that the saints knew the mystery better than those outside, but, nonetheless, all without exception can hear the mystery.

II. Secondary Material

The following material consists of comments pertaining to articles by Karl P. Donfried5 and Bruce M. Metzger6 as well as interaction with Marvin W. Meyer's work, The Mystery Religions: A Sourcebook.7

A. The Movement toward Personal Religion (Meyer)

According to Meyer one of the reasons why the "mystery religions" flourished during the Hellenistic period and on into the first few centuries in the Christian era, was due to the waning influence of the polis and the concomitant decline in the sufficiency of the Olympian pantheon to satisfy the worshipper.8

There appears to have been a movement away from the external focus of the city-state deities to the personal, internal focus offered by the many mysteries. The one was removed and distant, the other near and immediate. It is interesting that as the Greeks were turning, though not monolithically for sure, to personalized religion, God sent his son—in the fullness of time, as Paul says (Gal, 4:4). Perhaps God was setting the stage in the Greek world for the coming of his personal revelation in Christ. (It appears that some of the later "mysteries" borrowed from Christianity in terms of the personal closeness of the former's God to the worshipper.)

For the sake of discussion there appears to be a contemporary lesson for us here as well. The city-state religions because they were external and legislated could never satisfy. This is a simple lesson but the movement of people toward something internal (more emotional/experiential) and away from something external (more on the factual/non-emotive level) happens all the time and the mystery cults afford us yet another example to the end that if we as Christians are not offering the "spirit and truth," people will eventually reject our message as bankrupt. In our circles we tend to emphasize objective truth more than the experience of that truth. Perhaps it is fair to say that we often offer the truth separated from its relational context; i.e. with God and people. Both are necessary, however, for meaningful life and religion. So, we need to offer people the truth as well as a deep experience of God, lest they invent their own "mysteries." This, of course, presupposes that we have both.

B. "Beholding" in the Eleusinian Mysteries and 1 John 1:1-4; 3:2, 3 (Meyer)

According to Meyer, the highest stage of initiation in the Eleusinian mysteries is that of epopteia, 'beholding,' and an initiate into the real mysteries was called an epoptes, "beholder." 1 John 1:1-3 says

1:1 ’O h ajp ajrch'", o} ajkhkovamen, o} eJwravkamen toi'" ojfqalmoi'" hJmw'n, o} ejqeasavmeqa kai aiJ cei're" hJmw'n ejyhlavfhsan, peri tou' lovgou th'" zwh'" 1:2 kai hJ zwh ejfanerwvqh, kai eJwravkamen kai marturou'men kai ajpaggevllomen uJmi'n thn zwhn thn aijwvnion h{ti" h pro" ton patevra kai ejfanerwvqh hJmi'n 1:3 o} eJwravkamen kai ajkhkovamen ajpaggevllomen kai uJmi'n, i{na kai uJmei'" koinwnivan e[chte meq hJmw'n. kai hJ koinwniva de hJ hJmetevra meta tou' patro" kai meta tou' uiJou' aujtou' Ihsou' Cristou'.

John places a heavy emphasis on "seeing" or "beholding" Christ, most likely in response to some form of gnosticism (e.g. docetism),9 but this emphasis on beholding seems to parallel the idea of beholding in the Eleusinian mysteries as well. Note the exclusivity (common among the mystery religions) in the statement: o}. . . ajkhkovamen ajpaggevllomen kai; uJmi'n, i{na kai uJmei'" koinwnivan e[chte meq hJmw'n. On the other hand, there is obviously a lot of material here that is not congruent with the mystery religions; including the unique focus on the person of Christ and fellowship with Christ and His father (v. 4). The idea of "seeing" Christ is brought out again in conjunction with His return in 3:2, 3.

C. Enlightenment and Ephesians 1:18 (Meyer)

Meyer says that the Eleusinian mysteries offered "enlightenment" to those initiated (cf. Miscellanies [Stromateis] 3. 3. 17). Paul also talks about spiritual "enlightenment" that leads to knowledge of several things including knowledge of God and His power (Eph. 1:18). Perhaps the best way to view this is that both are drawing from a common base of religious vocabulary current at that time. In other words the whole concept of "enlightenment" was used to express religious conviction and insight in the first century.

D. The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence (Donfried)

F. F. Bruce, while dealing with the various options, understands the term skeu'o" in 1 Thessalonians 4:4 to refer to the male sex organ, but bases his interpretation primarily on the LXX reading of 1 Samuel 21:5.10 Donfried understands the term to mean the same, but bases his interpretation on the affinities between 1 Thessalonians and the mystery religion background of the city.11 Given the strength of these parallels between Paul's letter and the citations from the mystery religions in the city of Thessalonica, I tend to think that Donfried's argument is stronger for it deals with the text in its immediate historical context first. All Bruce is doing is opening the way for skeu'o" to refer to male genitalia by indicating that it has such a use in the LXX.

In general I think that Donfried proceeds on safe ground in his comparisons of the mystery religions with the letters to the Thessalonians. Certainly his work provides, as he indicates, some of the general background to texts such as 1 Thes. 1:10 and 4:5.

E. Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity (Metzger)

There has always been, it seems, a struggle for scholars to be judicial in their approach to the relation of extra-biblical materials to the Bible, whether it's materials pertaining to O. T. backgrounds or N. T. backgrounds. Either they tend to define the message and meaning of the Scripture by its historical context or they disavow any influence of the culture upon the sacred writers.12 Perhaps there is a better, truer path.

The "better" path according to Metzger leads us to a more critical, thoughtful approach. I think that he's right and that these materials should be handled in a historical-critical fashion. Dr. Metzger gives 6 criteria for comparing the materials, but perhaps the most significant include the following three: 1) there is relatively little evidence concerning the actual content of the mysteries themselves; 2) there appears to be significant, though often overlooked differences, between the Palestinian church and the Greek people groups involved in the mysteries and 3) the differences between the materials must be allowed to speak as well as the similarities. This last point is crucial because it is the defining idea when the final statement is made about the relation the N. T. has to the mysteries and vice-versa.

F. Summary

There are parallels between the mystery texts and the N. T. In some cases knowledge of the mysteries helps us greatly in our understanding of the background to a N. T. passage13 and at times it helps for understanding N. T. vocabulary better.14 There are also practices that seemed to parallel the N.T.15 And the one great event of the N. T., the resurrection, appears to have its counterpart in the mysteries.16

We must remember, though, that there are many differences in these parallels as well, and that the essential world-view of the mystery writers is not the same as that of the apostles. This accounts for the use of similar religious language and forms but investing them with new meaning in the light of Christ. In the final analysis, all alleged parallels must be treated cautiously and substantiated on the basis of clear affinities established through critical study.17


1 It needs to be said at the outset that in order to ascertain with a reasonable degree of certainty that a parallel does exist, one would need to conduct a more serious study (historical-critical) of both texts (i.e. N. T. text and Mystery text) as they were originally given. Then, one is in a better position to carry out comparisons. So this study must be seen as general and each supposed parallel would need to be further investigated for dating, etc.

2 This individual is late with respect to the N. T. (i.e. 2nd century C. E.), but probably was similar to the kinds of people Paul faced in the mystery religions of his day.

3 This appears to be the case in all the mysteries, including the Eleusinian, etc.

4 A world view is a thought-paradigm for putting together and making sense out of one's reality. For theists it includes the great questions of: 1) who is God? 2) who is man? 3) what is the problem? 4) what is the solution? These questions are answered in radically different ways by the mystery adherents than by Christians.

5 Karl P. Donfried, "The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence," NTS 31 (1985): 336-56.

6 Bruce Metzger, "Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity," in Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian (Leiden, 1968), 1-24.

7 Marvin W. Meyer, ed., The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World (SanFranciso: HarperCollins Publishers, 1987).

8 Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries, 1-4.

9 Guthrie, NTI, 864-866.

10 F. F. Bruce, 1, 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary, 83.

11 K. P. Donfried, "The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence," NTS 31 (1985): 341, 42.

12 Consider the evolution of the debate surrounding the use of extant Biblical materials to shed light on O.T. texts. My understanding at this point is that scholars can, at times, jump on band-wagons, all the time feeling like they're critically evaluating parallels. Perhaps closer attention should be paid to why they're answering the questions the way they do. Cf. Cyrus H. Gordon, "Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets," The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, vol. 2, ed. D. N. Freedman and E. F. Campbell (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1957), 21-33. T. J. Meek, "Mesopotamian Legal Documents," Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1955), 219-220. George E. Mendehall, "Mari," The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, vol. 2, ed. D. N. Freedman and E. F. Campbell (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1957), 3-20. H. H. Rowley, "Recent Discovery and the Patriarchal Age," BJRL 32(1949): 44-79. M. J. Selman, "Comparative Customs and the Patriarchal Age," Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives, ed. A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1983), 91-139.

13 Cf. Acts 17 and the mention of Zeus, Hermes, etc.

14 For example, cf. 1 Thes. 5:5-7 (and the concept of darkness and evil) with The Bacchae 485. There also appears to be affinities between the term musthvrion as found in the N.T. and in the mystery religions.

15 Cf. the drinking and feasting as part of the mystery religious rites and the Lord's Supper; Livy, History of Rome 39.8; Luke 22:15-20 and 1 Cor. 11:17-33.

16 The whole issue of the "dying and rising of the mystery gods" is taken up by Metzger, Methodology, 18, 19. I do not believe that the

17 This is the whole intent of Metzger's article on Methodology in studying the relationship of the mystery texts to Christianity.

Related Topics: History, Apologetics