Religious rivals for the allegiance of the Grsco Roman world

Although conditions in the Graco-Roman world favoured the spread of a faith, they did not necessarily mean that Christianity would be the religion which would triumph. The competitors were many. Several of these appeared to have a marked advantage over Christianity. Indeed, at its outset, Christianity seemed to be one of the least of many rivals and with no promise of success against the others. We cannot undertake here even to name all the contenders for the religious allegiance of the Mediterranean Basin. We must, however, say something concerning the more prominent of them.

Some cults were maintained by the state. These included the gods of Rome and those of the cities of the Empire. The Roman Empire was in part a congeries of city states. Many of these cities had existed before the formation of the Empire and had been autonomous. Each had felt itself dependent upon the favour of its gods and had seen to it that the worship of its official divinities was maintained. As we have suggested, the state religions were no longer believed in as strongly as formerly. However, the continuance of their rites was believed to be necessary for the welfare of society. They were, accordingly, kept up, often with great pomp.

Outstanding among the officially supported cults was that of the Emperor. The East had long been familiar with a ruler who was also a divinity. Alexander the Great had been accorded that role, as had many another potentate in the Orient. It was natural that Augustus, who had brought peace to the distraught Mediterranean world, should be hailed as an incarnation of divinity. Statues of him were erected and religious ceremonies were instituted for him. An imperial cult followed. It might call forth little personal devotion. However, it was regarded as a safeguard of law and order and important for the preservation and prosperity of the realm. Dissent from it might well be interpreted as treasonable and anarchistic.

Prominent, too, were the mystery religions, but in a different way and with distinctive purposes. They were secret in many of their ceremonies and their members were under oath not to reveal their esoteric rites. Since after a few centuries they completely disappeared, we know them only imperfectly. They arose chiefly in the East — in Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, and Persia. Numbers of them centred about a saviour-god who had died and had risen again. The god and the story about him varied from cult to cult. As the cults spread within the Empire they copied from one another in the easy-going syncretism which characterized much of the religious life of that realm and age.

Several of the mysteries were built around Dionysus. According to the stories told about him, Zagreus, the son of Zeus by Persephone, was born in the form of a bull. He was destined to rule the world, but was torn apart and eaten by the jealous Titans. But Athena saved his heart, Zeus swallowed it, and when Semele bore Dionysus to Zeus, Dionysus was Zagreus reborn. He was also often given the name Bacchus. The reason for the association of the bull with fertility cults is obvious. In the cruder of Dionysiac mysteries, the devotees drank of the fruit of the vine, for Dionysus or Bacchus was the god of wine as well as of animal and vegetable life. They also ate of the flesh of a newly slain bull, still dripping blood, and thus partook of the life of the god. They engaged in sacred dances which induced ecstasy and in which they were supposedly possessed by the spirit of the god.

Various sects associated with the name of Orpheus, who by his playing charmed men and beasts, also had the Dionysus myth at their heart. Less orgiastic and more ethical than the crasser Dionysiac cults, they assumed as axiomatic a conviction widely held in the Hellenistic world that matter and flesh are evil and that the soul of man must be free from contamination with them. They also taught that men are born and reborn, in each reincarnation imprisoned in the flesh and subject to those ills to which flesh is heir, unless the soul can be freed from the body. That separation accomplished, the soul would live forever in bliss. The emancipation was to be achieved through initiation into the cult, with cleanliness and asceticism. After a ritualistic meal of raw meat; the votaries remained vegetarians. Thus they avoided further contamination with flesh.

Prominent among the mysteries were those associated with Magna Mater, the Great Mother, who loved the virgin-born shepherd Attis. Attis died, slain either by his enemies or by his own hand (if the latter, by emasculation). Magna Mater mourned for him, effected his resurrection, and he became immortal. Postulants for full-fledged initiation mourned for Attis, and then, as the climax of a wild dance, emasculated themselves. This was followed by a day in which the resurrection of Attis was celebrated, and the devotees felt themselves united with Attis and so participants of his immortality. There was a lay membership of men and women which did not entail mutilation. Associated with this cult, but borrowed from elsewhere, was the taurobolium. In this a bull was killed and the devotees bathed in its blood as means of dying to the old life and being born again.

Somewhat similar cults had as their centre a young god whom the Greeks called Adonis and who died and rose again. In like manner another set of mysteries clustered around the myth of Osiris, a king who had been killed by his brother. His widow, Isis, mourning, sought him, until, finding his body, she revived it, and Osiris became the ruler of the dead. In the religion which developed around this myth, Serapis replaced Osiris and Isis was emphasized. The chief shrine was the Serapeum, obviously named for Serapis, in Alexandria. From that leading mart it spread by the trade routes to much of the Empire.

The Eleusinian mysteries, developed near Athens, had as their inspiring focus rites which dramatized the death of vegetation in the autumn and winter and the resurrection of life in the spring. This they did through the nature myth of Persephone, who was carried off by Hades to the underworld, was sought by her mourning mother, Demeter, was restored to the world of light, but was compelled to return to the underworld for part of each year.

Very widespread was the mystery religion which had Mithra for its main figure. Mithra, a god of Persian origin, was usually represented as bestriding a bull and slaying it. From the dying bull issued the seed of life for the world, and hence the act became the symbol of regeneration. The cult practised baptism and had a sacramental meal. Its membership was restricted to men and its places of worship, crypts or underground caverns, were too small to accommodate more than a very few at a time.

Almost all the mystery cults eventually made their way to Rome, the capital and chief city of the Empire. They also penetrated much of the Empire. Their appeal seems to have been the assurance of immortality which they gave to their members, combined with a fellowship which many craved in a world in which large numbers were uprooted individuals.

Akin to the mystery religions was Hermeticism, represented by a body of literature which claimed as its author Hermes Trismegistus. This literature presented, a way of redemption of the spirit from the trammels of matter which issued in immortality. Like the mysteries and much of the thought of the day, it held as axiomatic a dualism which regarded matter as evil and spirit as good. Seeking to obtain emancipation from the flesh, it was strongly ascetic, inculcating abstinence from the pleasures of the flesh and opposing malice, envy, deceit, anger, and avarice. Like so much of the religious life of the Graco-Roman world, it was syncretistic. It mixed polytheism, pantheism, and astrology.

Hermeticism was representative of a religious strain known as Gnosticism which was greatly to influence Christianity in its earlier centuries. Although the majority of Christians ultimately rejected it, Gnosticism and the struggle with it had enduring effects upon Christianity. Pre-Christian in its origin, Gnosticism assumed, as did so much of Hellenistic thought, a sharp disjunction between matter and spirit. It offered a way of emancipation from the material world into the realm of pure spirit, and into freedom from the fatalistic control by the astral powers which underlay the current belief in astrology. It claimed possession of a secret Gnosis, or knowledge, through which this could be obtained, and made much at sacraments, ceremonial washings, and other rites. Like the mystery religions, it was for the privileged few who shared the knowledge through which emancipation was to be achieved. It took over from any source whatever it deemed of value.

Philosophy was popular in the Mediterranean world into which Christianity came. Very little which was fresh was being thought or said. The only major new school of philosophy which emerged after the birth of Jesus was Neoplatonism, and that, as its name indicates, was largely a development from Platonism and had in it little if anything that was basically original. Indeed, it represented a tendency which can be traced back at least as far as the first century of the Christian era. In its flowering it incorporated borrowings from more than one of the schools which had gone before it.

The philosophies which were most prominently represented in the world into which Christianity came were Stoicism, Epicureanism, the Peripatetics (carrying on the Aristotelian tradition), the Pythagoreans, the Platonists, and the Cynics.

Stoicism was very influential among many in high places. It drew much from Aristotle. It believed the universe to be a universe, an organic whole, with both body and soul, and governed by Reason which expresses itself in natural law. Stoicism was a pantheistic philosophy which regarded God as permeating all things but not being independent of them. Every man, it held, should live in accordance with the universal Reason which pervades nature. This would entail rational self-control and make one independent of outward circumstances. It meant self-discipline and, for those in public office, a high sense of responsibility. The Stoics held that a bit of the universal Reason is to be found in every man, that ideally men and gods are members of one society, the city of Zeus, and that all differences of nationality should be merged in the common brotherhood of man. They taught that all men are equal by divine right, declared that in the sight of God the slave is of as much value as the monarch, and maintained that all are entitled, as sons of God, indwell by the universal Reason, to share in the good things of life.

Of the Epicureans and Pythagoreans we need say nothing except to mention them. Of the Peripatetics we may simply remark that Aristotle was later to have a striking influence on Christian thought, an influence which proved very persistent. Nor must the Cynics engage our attention. Unlike the Stoics and the Epicureans, who were largely aristocratic, they addressed themselves to the common folk. Rude of speech, living simply, often rebels against society and not above reproach morally, they harangued audiences wherever they could gather them, denouncing the objects for which men usually strive, including wealth and fame.

Platonism was of very great importance, partly because of the contributions which it made to some other schools through the borrowing which was common in the intellectual world, partly because of its contribution to Neoplatonism, and to no small degree because of the effect of its patterns of thought upon Christian theology.

Neoplatonism, while younger than Christianity, combined, as we have suggested, much from philosophies which had gone before it, including Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Neopythagoreanism. It had a deeply religious quality with a strong mystical trend. It sought through asceticism to curb the flesh and its desires, to purify the human soul of the taint acquired by its departure from its original estate, and by contemplation to attain union with God.

All these philosophies had a Greek rootage and were developed further in the Hellenistic world into which Christianity early moved. In one way or another they had a strain of dualism. Most of them tended to regard matter as evil, believed the soul of man to be contaminated by it, and sought the emancipation of the soul from its corrupting association.

While most of the philosophies appealed primarily to the educated, those who dabbled in the intellectual life were very numerous. Teachers of philosophy often enjoyed a large popular following and lecture halls for them and their listeners were widespread. The religious aspects of philosophy attracted many of those who suffered from the hunger for a satisfying faith which was so prominent in the Roman Empire.

Judaism must also be reckoned among the more formidable of the competitors for the religious allegiance of the peoples of the Roman Empire. In the preceding chapter we have said something about it. As a faith identified with one ethnic group and stressing its belief that Israel was a peculiar people, especially chosen by God, it could scarcely hope to win all the human race, even had it desired to do so. To be sure, some of its prophets had regarded it as having a universal mission and as destined to embrace all men in its fellowship and its blessings. Yet the majority of Jews did not follow them. However, as we have seen, Jewish communities were numerous and widely scattered, the Jewish scriptures had been translated into Greek, and thousands of non-Jews were attracted by the Jewish faith and either sought full incorporation into the Jewish people or constituted a fringe who had accepted many Jewish beliefs.

It was in this Roman Empire, newly formed, this portion of civilized mankind in which the heritages of Greece and Rome were dominant, that Christianity had its rise. It profited by the features of that world which made for the spread of religious faiths, but it faced the competition of many systems which appeared to have a much better prospect for survival and growth.

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