One of the important influences in shaping modern Christianity was the fusion of two theologies, Israelite and Egyptian. It is essential that we understand what earlier peoples believed in order to appreciate the contribution made by their beliefs to the emergence of "orthodox" Christianity. At the heart of the teaching of Moses, as of Akhenaten, was the existence of only one God. The Egyptians worshipped a plethora of gods, but Messianic beliefs, the promise of eternal life and the importance to salvation of the rite of baptism were age-old Egyptian concepts.
The basis of Egyptian salvation beliefs was the divine nature that Egyptians attributed to their kings. From the Fourth Dynasty (the twenty-seventh century B.C.), the king was looked upon as the human Son of Ra, the cosmic god. The king's actions were seen as being the fulfillment of his father's commands. This special relationship between the god Ra and the king was manifested in the three principal events in the ruler's life—his holy birth, his anointing at the time of his coronation and his resurrection after his death.
The holy birth of the king is documented not only in texts but in scenes found on the north wall of the central colonnade of Queen Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari and in the hall built by Amenhotep III in his temple at Luxor. Siegfried Morenz, the German Egyptologist, makes the point in his book Egyptian Religion that:
in both cases the procreation and birth of the king concerned are depicted as proceeding from the union between the national god
(Amun-Ra) and the consort of the ruling Pharaoh: God, in the guise of the Pharaoh, is shown approaching the woman thus blessed. The images and text depict the scene with a fine delicacy, yet dwell frankly upon the act of sexual union. There is nothing here of that ascetic spiritual treatment so characteristic of the late Hellenistic age, which led to the Christian idea of the miraculous birth of Jesus.
At the time of his coronation the ruler became the bearer of the divine kingly office. The coronation ceremony included purification by water, anointing, putting on royal attire, holding the scepter of office, having the crowns of the Two Lands (black and red) placed on his head and declaration of his fixed royal names and titles. The king was anointed, not with oil, but with the fat of the holy crocodile. Here we find the original source of the word Messiah. MeSeH was the word for crocodile in Ancient Egypt,
and the image of two crocodiles was used for the title of sovereign, bestowed on the king at the time of his coronation.
The final decisive event in the ruler's life was his death and resurrection. Having entered the world of the divine at his coronation, a king ceased to belong to the human world at the time of his death. He was said to have "become Osiris," the Egyptian god of the underworld. From the moment of death the Osiris-king was believed to share eternal spiritual existence with the gods.
As I have already pointed out, it was an essential part of Egyptian belief that, while the spiritual element left the body at death, it would return at some point in the future if the body could be kept safe and protected by magic formulas. That is why Egyptians devoted such care to mummification and to securing their tombs. Veneration of Osiris has been traced to as early as the twenty-seventh century B.C., the time of the builders of the pyramids. He was looked upon as an ancient king, slain on a Friday (like the Jesus of the New Testament) by his brother Seth, who dismembered his body in order to deny him a second life. However, his wife Isis was able to collect his remains and, using a magic ritual, assemble his body again and restore him to life after three days (again like Jesus)—not on earth but in the underworld, where, physically resurrected, he became the god and judge of the dead.
The Pyramid Texts, carved on the walls of some pyramid burial chambers, contain the recitation by the priests to Osiris: "This, Osiris, is thy son. Thou hast caused him to flourish and live. He lives, this king lives ... he has not perished ... he endures, this king endures." The scholar J. Gwyn Griffiths comments in his book The Origins of Osiris and his Cult: "These words, and others like them, are of some significance in human history, for they are the earliest expressions in literature of a belief in life after death."
Initially the promise of eternal life was confined to kings and nobles because only they could afford the expensive burial rite. From the time following Tutankhamun's death in the latter years of the Eighteenth Dynasty, however, a long process of change in the Osiris theology resulted in the emergence of the cult of Serapis, whose followers could partake of the promise of eternal life without the need for mummification, if they confessed belief in the deity and went through an initiation ritual. As a result, the Serapis cult, open to the poor as well as the rich, became the most popular religion in Egypt and eventually replaced other cults as the official religion of the state.
The cult of Serapis was based initially on two Egyptian gods—Osiris and Apis, the sacred bull of Memphis—from whom its name is derived. Apis, originally associated with the ancient god Ptah of Memphis, later became linked with Osiris. From that time the death of the Apis bull became an important event. He was given an official funeral in the presence of a congregation of worshippers who brought him gifts from every part of the country. The Apis bull was believed to enjoy eternal life in the sense that he was reborn as soon as he died. Priests searched the fields for the replacement Apis, which could be identified by a black spot on the forehead, neck and back. Once he was found, rejoicing replaced mourning and the divine calf was installed in his sacred stall at Memphis with his mother, surrounded with a lowing harem.
When they died, Apis bulls were buried in the subterranean galleries of the Serapeum at Memphis. It was served by voluntary monks and included a "sanatorium," visited by the sick in the hope of receiving miraculous cures.
The Serapis cult dated from the Ptolemy dynasty in pre-Christian Egypt. The city of Alexandria had been founded, three centuries before the start of the Christian era, by Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia (an ancient country in southeast Europe), after his conquest of Egypt. It was ruled over subsequently by the Ptolemies until 30 B.C. when Cleopatra (who had earlier put her brother, Ptolemy XIII, to death) ended her own life by thrusting an asp into her bosom, after her rebellion against Rome with her lover Mark Antony had ended in defeat at the naval battle of Actium. Egypt then came under Roman rule.
In the intervening centuries, Alexandria, the Ptolemies' capital, had become a cosmopolitan city and the cultural center of the civilized world, a distinction it continued to hold even after the political supremacy of Rome had been established. Large numbers of immigrants had arrived in Egypt— Graeco-Macedonian military veterans, rewarded for their service with rich farmland, Asians, Jews, Syrians and Libyans. These communities intermarried with Egyptians and with each other, creating a society whose traditions and religious beliefs led to a mixed culture. Early in this process of integration, Ptolemy I Soter (c. 304-284 B.C.) introduced, as an official religion and unifying belief for his multiracial subjects, the Egyptian cult of Serapis (sometimes spelled Sarapis), with the help of Manetho, the Egyptian priest of Heliopolis.
Ptolemy I Soter was a tireless worker in the cause of spreading Egyptian culture throughout the Graeco-Roman world. As a result the cult of the god Serapis spread swiftly from Alexandria to Greece and Italy and, with the passage of time, found its expression as a "holy" family made up of Osiris, his wife Isis and their hawk-headed son Horus. In the first half-century of the Christian era the cult was far and away the most popular Egyptian religion in Rome, which had had a Serapis temple as early as 105 B.C. The appeal of Serapis, who had inherited many of the attributes of Osiris, including mastery over the underworld, and the mystic rites of Isis, to which women as well as men were admitted after an initiation ceremony, rested mainly upon the explicit promise of immortality that they offered to adherents. Isis herself was seen as a tragic Madonna-like figure who had endured the tribulations of all women.
The authorities took a more jaundiced view. All things Egyptian had been particularly unpopular in Roman corridors of power since the rebellion of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. In A.D. 19, when Tiberius banished 4,000 freedmen of military age to Sardinia, they included worshippers of Serapis as well as Jews, and the emperor destroyed a temple of Isis and had a statue of her thrown into the Tiber. However, her cult and that of Serapis survived to become important elements in the development of early Christianity.
The cults of Serapis and Isis did not merely survive the emergence of Christianity, but in the second century A.D. actually increased in popularity. A large number of new sanctuaries are known to have been constructed, accompanied by a massive increase in votive inscriptions compared with those in the previous two centuries. Christianity and the pagan cults existed comfortably side by side at this early stage in the Christian era and were frequently seen as interchangeable. Christians made no distinction between Christ and Serapis and frequently worshipped both. In A.D. 134, after a visit to Alexandria, the Emperor Hadrian wrote a letter to his elderly brother-in-law, Servianus, in which he commented: "So you praise Egypt, my very dear Servianus! I know the land from top to bottom, a fickle, tricky land, blown about by every wind of rumour. In it the worshippers of Serapis are Christians, and those who call themselves Bishops of Christ pay their vows to Serapis . . . Whenever the patriarch himself comes to Egypt he is made to worship Serapis by some and Christ by others."*
*New archaeological findings show that the ascetics of Serapis were healers like the Therapeutae. References have been found in fragments of papyri (Acad. Des Inscript. Et belles-letters, mem. present. Pardivers savants, 1st series, ii 1852, pp. 552ff.; Bibliotheque Imperiale, notices et extraits des mss., t. 18. 1858, pp. 261ff.) to some ascetics who were consecrated to the cult of Serapis at Memphis (c. 165 B.C.). These recluses, known by the name "possessed of Serapis," lived in the temple or a dependent building. They came to obtain a cure, or an oracle by the rite of incubation, for Serapis was a god of healing. It is clear, therefore, that asceticism entered into Egyptian life long before the rise of monasti-cism. Some scholars have even claimed that Pachomius, the founder of Egyptian cenobitism in the mid-third century A.D., was himself a monk of Serapis (E. Revillout, Revue Egyptol., 1880, p. 160; G. Grutzmacher, Pachomius und das Ulteste Klosterleben, pp. 39ff.). According to one of the Coptic texts, in the Boharic dialect, St. Pachomius, the founder of Christian cenobitism, had been a monk of Serapis, which is also confirmed in an Arabic text (Annales du Musee Guimet, xvii. 6ff., 342ff.). Following the destruction of the Serapeum in 391, the priests of Serapis declared that the god had ascended to heaven, and joined the Christian Church (Plate 32) (The Cambridge Ancient History, v. 13, 1998, p. 635).
It is easy to understand this dual perception once the account of the life, suffering and death of Jesus in the first century a.d. began to spread. His story and that of Osiris are very similar (it should be noted that Serapis assimilated the qualities of both Osiris and Horus, and replaced them in relation to Isis). Both were presented as saviors to whom men and women could turn for assurance of immortality. In The Origins of Osiris and his Cult, the scholar J. Gwyn Griffiths makes the point that, in the case of Osiris and the kings and nobles whose bodies had been preserved by mummification, death was looked upon as a form of sleep, the expectation being that the preserved body would rise again.*
He goes on to say: "At the same time we are familiar in Christian teaching with resurrection applied to the body, either in the sense that the present body will rise again after death or that a new ethereal body will be given to the believer. The former of these senses is closer to the Osirian belief. To this extent the use of the term resurrection is not entirely misleading. Indeed, the comparison of sleep to death is also found occasionally in Christian thought, as in Ephesians 5:14: "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light."
Survival of the ancient Egyptian cult of Serapis alongside Christianity is also made particularly clear in the fanciful novel The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, a Platonist, educated in Carthage, Athens and Rome. In his introduction to the 1956 edition of the book, the late Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNeice recalls that Apuleius, who was born about 120 A.D., had "a foot in both worlds, as was natural when rival mystery religions were fighting for man's allegiance while traditional paganism and the rationalistic philosophies were alike out of the running," and that the early Church Fathers "detested him."
His novel recounts the various adventures and misadventures of Apuleius after he is by magic transformed into a donkey, which is restored to human form at the end of the book through the merciful intervention of
*Mummification was introduced by the Egyptians, as they believed that human beings consist of two elements, one physical and one spiritual. If they could preserve the physical body, one day in the future the Ka spirit would return to it. That is why they mummified their dead and built secured tombs, placing protective magical spells within them. Only the kings and the rich could hope for the afterlife, since they alone could afford the expensive burial costs. Christianity became so popular because, by contrast, it offered the promise of afterlife to everyone baptized in the belief of the risen Christ. However, this belief in the afterlife was mainly Egyptian; none of the other ancient nations had it. The Hebrews believed that death was the end of life, and neither Moses nor Akhenaten had anything to say about spiritual life after death. This explains why neither the Hebrews nor any other ancient peoples practiced mummification.
Isis and Serapis. The goddess appears to Apuleius, explains that she is known by many names—Minerva, Venus, Diana, Proserpina, Ceres, Juno, Bellona, Hecate— "and the Egyptians, which are excellent in all kinds of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustomed to worship me, do call me Queen Isis."
After daybreak, Apuleius made his way to take part in a religious ceremony where the congregation included "blowers of trumpets, which were dedicated unto Serapis" and various priests, one of whom accompanied "a vessel wrought with a round bottom, having on one side pictures figured like unto the manner of the Egyptians." Once the great priest had restored Apuleius to human form, he told him: "Behold, Lucius, thou art delivered from so great miseries by the providence of the goddess Isis . . . make thyself one of this holy order . . . take upon thee a voluntary yoke of ministry."
Apuleius goes on to describe how he traveled to Rome where his greatest desire was "daily to make my prayers to the sovereign goddess Isis . . . continually adored by the people of Rome" and increased his religious involvement by becoming a minister to Osiris, "the sovereign father of all the goddesses," as well as Isis: "I frequented the sacrifices of Serapis, which were done in the night, which thing gave me great comfort." Finally, "the great god Osiris appeared to me in the night, not disguised in any other form, but in his own essence, commanding me that I should be an advocate in the court, and not fear the slander and envy of ill persons, which bear me . . . grudge by reason of my doctrine."
Apuleius also confirms that the promise of resurrection was contained in the rites of Isis. They assured the mystae (followers) that they would see and venerate the goddess in their afterlives. This is an obvious parallel with Christians' expectations that they will see God in the next world: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8).
As "orthodox" Christianity spread, the temple of Serapis, built by Ptolemy I in Alexandria, which contained a huge statue of the god in the same style as was used later for representations of Christ in Coptic churches, became the center for Serapis worship. Paintings of Isis with her son Horus became identified by Christians as portraits of Mary with her son Jesus (Plates 24 and 25). The rite of baptism, part of the initiation ceremony of the Serapis cult, was also adopted by the Church as part of the Christian initiation ceremony, and still survives today.
In an article in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology of 1950, Sir Alan Gardiner, the British Egyptologist, argued that Egyptian baptism should be seen as analogous to later Christian baptism. He cited 36 scenes, one of which is in the Vatican Museum, that showed different Pharaohs being baptized ritually with water. Similar representations are found in the funerary cult in the tombs of dead nobles or Osirianized kings (meaning they had become one with Osiris). Of the similarity between the two forms of baptism Sir Alan commented: "In both cases a symbolic cleansing by means of water serves as initiation into a properly legitimated religious life."
In Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahri and Amenhotep Ill's at Luxor their holy birth scenes show the infants being baptized. The accompanying text reads: "Be pure together with thy ka (soul) . . . thou living [eternally]." In all of these scenes the water being poured from the pitcher on to the head of the person being baptized is depicted as a stream of ankhs, the Egyptian symbol of life.
In baptismal practice it was the custom to use, whenever possible, the annual summer flood water of the Nile, looked upon as a sacred life-giving element that also ensured prosperity, fertility and family well-being. With increasing sophistication in engineering matters it became the custom to create a symbolic Nile flood by arranging a system of pipes through which such "living" water—that is, flowing water—flowed into the basin to be used in the ceremony.
Even as late as the sixth century A.D., Christians regarded—as the followers of Serapis had—the summer flood waters of the Nile as having special properties. Those who lived close enough used to gather on the river bank to bless and collect the water when the Nile began its annual rise. Those who lived too far away would bless a basin of water as a substitute for the actual river. The importance of using "living" water was retained by early Christians. The most suitable water was considered to be water found at springs, in rivers or by the sea. With the spread of Christianity, however, it became less common to conduct baptisms out of doors. Yet care was taken to preserve the old Egyptian practice of using "living" water by arranging a system of pipes through which the baptismal water could flow.
In later centuries Christians forgot the ancient tradition of the significance of "living" Nile water for the baptismal rite. Even so, the water used is contained in a "font"—symbolic of a spring of flowing water or a fount—and the symbol of "living" water is maintained by pouring it over the head of the person being baptized.
Obelisks—originally solar symbols connected with the cult of the sun—provide a further indication of the affinity between ancient Egyptian beliefs, and what may be described as the second variant of the Christian Church, during these early centuries. Thirteen obelisks, transported from
Egypt, are to be found in Rome compared with only eight elsewhere in the world. The largest of the Roman collection—more than 100 feet tall and weighing over 400 tons—stands in the piazza of San Giovanni, a cathedral in the Laterano area of Rome (Plate 35). Stone for the giant obelisk had been quarried 18 centuries earlier by Tuthmosis III (David) at Aswan. At a period of growing fusion between worship of Ra and Amun, the state god whose capital was at Thebes in Upper Egypt, the obelisk was erected in the great temple at neighboring Karnak, where it was a major cult object.
The Laterano obelisk (see Plate 35) was a gift to Rome by Constantine the Great, initiated in a.d. 326, 14 years after his conversion to Christianity. Constantine did not see any contradiction between presenting this pagan symbol to Rome and his Christian beliefs. The New Catholic Encyclopaedia explains that until he died, he "continued [using] the Sol Invictus (the sun-god unsubdued) . . . legends on his coinage and monuments . . . Besides, the Sol Invictus had been adopted by the Christians in a Christian sense, as demonstrated in the Christ as Apollo-Helios"—an image of Christ in the form of Apollo—"in a mausoleum discovered (c. A.D. 250) beneath St. Peter's in the Vatican."
In view of its enormous size it is not surprising that, when Constantine died in A.D. 337, the Laterano obelisk had traveled no further than the port of Alexandria. It remained there for another 20 years before Constantius II, the son of Constantine the Great, finally presented his gift to Rome in A.D. 357. An account of the final delivery, written by the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus indicates clearly that by his action the emperor was moving the religious center of the world from Egypt to Rome: "Constantine . . . [had torn] the huge mass from its foundations, and rightly thought that he was committing no sacrilege if he took this marvel from one temple and consecrated it at Rome—that is to say, in the temple of the whole world."
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