Mystery Religions

Like Christianity, the mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world promised a blessed life after death through a ritual revelation and communion with the god. The most famous of the mystery religions in the ancient world was the annual ceremony connected to the worship of Demeter and her daughter Kore/Persephone at Eleusis, near Athens. The story of Demeter and Persephone is a mythical explanation for the seasons and their agricultural cycles. During the Eleusinian mysteries, the abduction of Persephone by Hades was ritually reenacted in a procession from Athens to Eleusis. At Eleusis, the initiates entered a dark pathway (a metaphor for death) and experienced a mystical union with the divine that left them serenely reconciled to death and hopeful of a blessed afterlife (a metaphor for the burgeoning of life in the spring). The rites of Isis and Osiris in Egypt and of Attis and Cybele in the Near East have their roots in a similar agricultural cycle of death and rebirth. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods these exotic oriental and Egyptian deities appealed to initiates who wanted to experience a personal epiphany that promised a blessed afterlife. Non-Roman priests of Cybele were so carried away by the ecstatic otherworldliness of their worship that they castrated themselves in dedication to the goddess. In a Christian version of this act, Origen, the third-century Christian ascetic leader of the catechetical school of Alexandria, castrated himself to "renounce marriage for the kingdom of God" (Mt 19.12). Romans, however, were legally prohibited from participating fully in the worship of Cybele whose rites they considered wild and grotesque, and which they eventually suppressed.

Mithraism was perhaps the most widespread of the ancient mystery religions even though it was based primarily in military camps and was exclusively male. According to the scant literature and the somewhat more abundant archaeological remains, the Indo-Iranian sun god Mithras shepherded the soul of an initiate through seven heavenly spheres culminating in a baptism that somehow represented Mithras slaughtering a bull.

Christian rituals and certain teachings about the afterlife were similar to those of the pagan mystery religions. Christ (from the Greek Christos, "anointed"), called the Messiah, "anointed of God," in Hebrew, was sent from heaven to bring his Father's kingdom into the present time. The gift he promised was God's heavenly kingdom in the afterlife, that is, a divine gift of salvation. After an initiation by baptism, Christians could expect the forgiveness of sins, a life of fellowship with a shared code of morality, and the hope of resurrection. In 1 Cor 15.51, Paul's language echoes that of the mystery religions when he writes, "For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." In many aspects, Christ was similar to the age-old pagan agricultural god who died in the winter and was resurrected in the spring.

Early Gnostic sects along with their various teachings were identified with the discovery of twelve codices in the Nag Hammadi library of Coptic texts in 1945. Among these were some forty heretofore unknown Gnostic texts. From these texts we learn that strains of Gnostic belief predated Christianity and that there were many and various sects within the movement that drew upon the teachings of Plato, Judaism, and, later, Christianity. Like the mystery religions, Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis, "knowledge," held that there were two worlds, that of matter and that of spirit. In the second century, one form of Gnostic Christianity promised an escape through knowledge from the world of matter into the world of spirit where gnosis was reserved for an elect few. Theirs was a complex cosmogony of emanations (called aeons) from a creator god who was derived from an unknowable supreme god. Only the elect, in whom there was some divine flicker of the supreme divinity, were receptive to gnosis, which was sent through Jesus by the supreme divinity. According to the Gnostics, god the creator was distinct from the supreme divine god; the creator god was imperfect and therefore so was the material world. This belief came to be considered heretical, this is, opposed to church doctrine, by the developing Christian church in the first and second centuries along with another of the Gnostic doctrines, namely, that Christ did not truly assume humanity but rather only appeared to be human.

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