Greek Mystery Religions & Their Influence on Christianity

The Greek Mystery Religions and Their Influence on the Church Fathers

Rarely, in modern times, does anyone in the christian landscape admit that there was direct pagan influence on the religion of Christianity. The whole of Christianity, as a general rule, refuses to admit that the Mystery Religions of the Greco-Roman Diaspora had a mutual relationship with christianity from the beginning. Current apologists will argue that there was never an influence of paganism on Christianity. However, elements of paganism glaringly and blatantly abound within christianity on all levels. Most high profile christian scholars are nothing more than apologists and strive to rewrite history to hide the truth. Baptism, trinitarianism, communion, (cornerstones of christianity) these all originated in pagan rituals and beliefs first performed by Mystery Cults. Large swaths of christianity are based on philosophies adopted from and stolen from Mystery Cult philosophies and ideals.

It must be explained that this discussion has no bearing on the teachings of the man known as Jesus. That he and his original followers were zealous Jews and preached a Jewish message cannot be disputed. The story of Jesus is a story of a Jewish Messiah. Neither Jesus nor his original followers changed the Jewish religion nor created a new religion. This discussion centers on the highly modified and highly different teachings of Christianity. There is a great amount of time separating Jesus, his original followers and the formation of the "Christians" in Rome. The first mention of the title "Christian" isn't until 170 AD, 140 years past the execution of Jesus and 100 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, when the original followers of Jesus were dispersed throughout the Diaspora. These original followers were in direct opposition to christians and the christian religions of the Diaspora. The whole of Christianity looked at these small groups of left over followers as judaizers,heretics of a bygone era and they and their original messages were eventually quelled, one way or another. What we are left with is a conglomeration, a mash-up of many different elements of many different philosophies and ideals all under one umbrella idea, in the end creating thousands of different versions of the original.

Mystery religions, sacred Mysteries or simply mysteries, were religious cults of the Greco- Roman world, participation in which was reserved to 'initiates'. The main characterization of this religion is the secrecy associated with the particulars of the initiation and the cult practice, which may not be revealed to outsiders. Some of the biggest Mystery Cults of Greco-Roman antiquity include the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Dionysian Mysteries and the Orphic Mysteries. Some of the many divinities that the Romans nominally adopted from other cultures also came to be worshipped in Mysteries, for instance the Egyptian god Isis, the Persian god Mithras, the Thracian/Phrygian god Sabazius, and the Phrygian god Cybele.

There is a distinct difference between the words “secret” and “mystery.” A secret is knowledge that is hidden, whereas a mystery is a truth that can be understood only by revelation from God. The words “secret” and “secrets,” which appear in the Old Testament books, refer to lack of knowledge, not to lack of understanding. The mystery is more like an enigma, a riddle, or a puzzle. There were no mysteries in the Old Testament, except in the book of Daniel. In Daniel God gave a dream to King Nebuchadnezzar that included a mystery, whose explanation was revealed to Daniel by God. The book of Daniel contains a mystery because it was completed around 167-164 BCE, during the time of Antiochus IV, when the mystery of Dionysus was widespread in Palestine. It is a discussion about it, not an endorsement of it.

Reference to the word "mystery" appears in the Pauline sections of the 'New Testament' 13 times in the singular and 4 times in the plural. The Tanakh does very rarely utilizes "mystery" in such a way [Daniel's use
could be construed as similar], and Jesus himself never utilizes "mystery" in such a way. The vast majority of these appearances portray christianity as a mystery cult no different from any of the others:

• “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great.” (1 Timothy 3:16)
• “... they {the deacons} must hold fast to the mystery of the faith ...” (1 Timothy 3:9)
• “... the mystery of Christ, which from the beginning of the world has been hid in God ...” (Ephesians 3:9)
• “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32)
• “... so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ ...” (Colossians 4:3)
• “When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.” (Ephesians 3:4)
• “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1 Corinthians 4:1)
• “Lo! I tell you a mystery; We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed ...” (1 Corinthians 15:51)
• “... that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel ...” (Ephesians 6:19)
• “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints {the Gentile Christians}...” (Colossians 1:26)
• " whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)
• “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery.” (1 Corinthians 2:7)
• “{God} ... made known to us the mystery ...” (Ephesians 1:9)
• "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members
together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 3:6)
• "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge..." (1Corinthians 13:2)
• "...I am fully initiated into all the mysteries both of fulness and of hunger, of abundance and
of want...." (Philipians 4:12)

Does anything stick out to you, as the reader? Perhaps endorsement of the Christian Mysteries [as Paul defines and explains the "Mysteries of Christ"] comes from writings of the original disciple Matthew? Perhaps endorsement of the Christian Mysteries [as Paul defines them] comes from writings of the original disciple James? Perhaps endorsement of the Christian Mysteries comes from writings of the original disciple Peter? The answer to those questions is ABSOLUTELY NOT. There is no endorsement of the Christian Mysteries as defined by Paul by any of the original disciples or followers of the Jesus nor support from Tanakh [Old Testament]. If Christianity didn't originate with Jesus then who laid the foundation for it? Who spread it throughout the Diaspora and fostered it until it overtook the original message? Who then, are those scriptural quotes from? Whom is the prescribed author of those epistles from which those quotes originated? Colossians, Ephesians, Corinthians, Philipians, Timothy, et al. are attributed only to one writer: PAUL.

Paul of Tarsus was the founder and creator of Christianity. Not Jesus. Paul of Tarsus & his subsequent disciples took a highly skewed and variegated viewpoint and combined it with philosophies of man and other pagan religions to create an abstract mutation of what the man Jesus and his original followers had first taught in Jerusalem. Anti-Jewish and Anti-Law principles abound in the Pauline Epistles and the endorsement and combination of those ideologies with the Mystery Cults brought us the religion we know today. Paul of Tarsus laid the foundation, for which powerful men of the Diaspora were then able to institute these ideals and philosophies that Paul brought to the table and create a religion with which ultimate power is the objective.

Justin Martyr wrote the following to win Gentiles over to Christianity: “
When we say that God created and arranged all things in this world, we seem to repeat the teaching of Plato; when we announce a final conflagration, we utter the doctrine of the Stoics; and when we assert that the souls of the wicked ... after death, will be ... punished, and that the souls of the good ... will live happily, we believe the same things as your poets and philosophers ... When ... we assert that the Word, our ... Jesus Christ, who is the first-begotten of God the Father, was not born as the result of sexual relations {between a mortal man and a mortal woman}, and that He was crucified, died, arose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, we propose nothing new or different from that which you say about the so-called sons of Jupiter {sons of Zeus}.” But by making these comparisons, Justin inadvertently confirmed that Christianity borrowed several beliefs form the Greek mystery religions. By saying “we propose nothing new or different from that which you say about the so-called sons of Jupiter,” he, confirmed the statement of Ecclesiastes, who wrote, “... what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ʻLook! This is something newʼ? It was here already, long ago.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10) To put it in the words of Ecclesiastes, most of the Christian beliefs “were there already, long ago.”

Christianity was the result of a blending of the philosophies of Hellenistic Judaism with varying aspects of the Greek mystery religions. But after Paul's Christian Movement became a major religion it began to influence the other mystery religions. In other words, the influence did not always flow one way: from the Greek mystery religions to Christianity. For instance, many Pagans scorned the Gentile Christians for borrowing their beliefs from the Greeks. Tertullian wrote, “...
we are laughed at for proclaiming that God will judge, for just so the {Greek} poets and philosophers set up a tribunal in the world below.” Further on in his book Tertullian mentioned the river Pyriphlegethon, the flaming river of the underworld mentioned in the writings of Plato. Tertullian believed that such river existed. He believed that Plato was inspired by God. (Plato lead the Christians to believe several things.) Tertullian acknowledged the striking similarities between the Gentile beliefs about life after death and the corresponding beliefs mentioned in the New Testament. Twice he referred to Christianity as “our mysteries”. He claimed that the beliefs of Christianity are older than the parallel beliefs of the Greek mystery religions. He claimed that the mysteries of the Greeks are copies of the mysteries of Christianity: “Now whence, I ask you, do the {Greek} philosophers and poets find things so similar? Whence indeed, unless it be from our mysteries. And if from our mysteries {notice, he acknowledges Christianity as a mystery religion} which are the older, then ours are truer and more credible when the mere copies of them win credence. If they invented these things out of their feelings, then our mysteries must be counted copies of what came later, a thing contrary to nature. For the shadow never exists before the body, nor the copy before the truth.” Tertullian is correct on this point: that the shadow does not exist before the body, nor the copy before the truth. But he is incorrect on this one: historical fact places the Greek philosophers and poets before the advent of Christianity. The Greek mystery religions existed before Christianity. They cannot be “the shadow” or “the copy.”

In the following passage, Justin Martyr is trying to prove that the motifs of the myth of the god- man Jesus were not inspired by Gentile myths about god-men: "...
those counterfeits which he who is called the devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; ... For when they tell that Bacchus {Dionysus}, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter's] intercourse with Semele ... and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? And when they tell that {the god-man} Hercules was strong, and traveled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove {Zeus} of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scripture which speaks of Christ, 'strong as a giant to run his race,' has been in like manner imitated? And when he [the devil] brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ?” Justin Martyr and Tertullian tried to explain away the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity. They claimed that these similarities existed because the demons learned from the Old Testament about the future rituals of Christianity and imitated them before the advent of Christianity. Clement of Alexandria suggested that Christianity is indeed a mystery religion with “truly sacred mysteries” and that the Christian mysteries offer the pure light and vision of the only true God. He called the Greek mysteries shameless and corrupt. Referring to Christianity Origen wrote, “... we call them {Christianity} our mysteries.” He distinguished Christianity from “the other mysteries.” Celsus, too, implied that Christianity was one of the mystery religions. While discussing Christianity, he referred to the Greek mystery religions as “the other mysteries.” Clement of Alexandria claimed that Christianity was the best mystery religion, and rightfully so because in the fourth century it managed to eliminate its forerunners and competitors.

Christianity borrows from pagan mystery religions. Being the second largest religion in the world doesnʼt change that fact. It has little to nothing to do with the founder it claims to embrace (Jesus). That Jesus and his followers taught a message alien to Christianity is fact. The real founder of Christianity was Paul. His writings, expounding his mixed-up and convoluted philosophies and ideals, laid the groundwork for a massive uniting of pagans under one umbrella religion.

Angus, S.,
The Mystery Religions and Christianity, (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York: 1925).
Cumont, Franz,
The Mysteries of Mithra, (The Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago: 1910).
Lüdemann, Gerd,
Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989)
Bauer, Walter,
Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971)
Cumont, Franz,
The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, (The Open House Publishing Co., Chicago: 1911).
Dill, Samuel,
Roman Society From Nero To Marcus Aurelius, (Macmillan and Co., New York: 1905).
Enslin Morton S.,
Christian Beginnings, (Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York: 1938).
Frazer, J. E.,
Adonis, Attis, Osiris, (London, 1922), Vol. I. Fairbanks, Arthur, Greek Religion, (American Book Co, New York: 1910).
Halliday, W. R.,
The Pagan Background of Early Christianity, (The University Press of Liverpool, London: N.D.)
Hyde, Walter, W,
Paganism To Christianity in the Roman Empire, (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia: 1946).
Moore, George F.,
History of Religions, (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York: 1913),
Vol. I Nilsson, Martin P.,
Greek Popular Religion, (Columbia University Press, New York: 1940)
Weigall Arthur,
The Paganism in Our Christianity, (Hutchinson and Co. London: N.D.).
Willoughby, Harold R.,
Pagan Regeneration, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1929).

A Theological Evaluation of the Mysteries: Hugo Rahner

There is another type of superiority that apologetic scholars have regularly appealed to as a means of demonstrating the impossibility of significant dependence of Christianity on the mystery cults: the [arrogant] superiority of doctrine. One of the best examples of this approach is a well-known paper delivered at the 1944 Eranos meeting by Fr. Hugo Rahner, entitled "The Christian Mystery and the Pagan Mysteries" [reprinted in Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, p. 337-401]. Here we can quote Rahner in a way that also provides a good insight into the character of the mysteries and their effect on those who underwent experience of the rites:
Closely related to this is a second peculiarity of the mysteries. They are a religion of feeling. They do not address themselves to the perplexed intellect of man, they are no "doctrine" or "dogma".... This [Attis] mystery cult is "free from all dogmatism," [Hepding] says, and the same is true of nearly all the ancient cults, and he continues: "Essentially it consists rather in the performance of certain old traditional rites. These are the fixed, enduring element; he who venerates the gods by exactly executing these prescriptions is eusebēs [pious, religious], according to the conception of the ancients....Common to all mysteries is a ritual that speaks to the feelings through powerful external techniques, through glaring light and sound effects and a polyvalent symbolism that sublimates the elementary actions into images of supersensory secrets. The godhead is thus brought much closer to the believers."...[W]e are entitled to say that the mystery cult was entirely a religion of feeling. "The mystai are not intended to learn anything, but to suffer something and thus be made worth" runs a fragment from Aristotle. The aim of the initiation is "not to learn but to suffer." [p.350-351]

If there is one thing that characterizes the western religions which have emerged out of late antiquity, in contrast to previous religions, it is "doctrine" and "dogma"—to history's great sorrow. Rahner falsely claims that the cult initiate does not "learn" but rather is induced to 'hope' through an emotional experience. That may be basically true, but it is difficult to imagine that no one ever 'intellectualized' the meaning that underlay those experiences or sought to understand how such hope could be 'rationally' supported, even if no such reflections were allowed to be set down for others to peruse; the Greek intellect was hardly devoid of a spirit of inquiry or intellectual learning. The fact that “Greek Philosophical Thought” exists is testament to the intellect of the peoples of the Diaspora and their quest for knowledge and learning. Yet what, on the Christian side, constituted its "learning"? If the mystery cults did not address themselves to the "intellect of man," in what way did Christianity? I will let Rahner speak to that:
It will be therefore my first duty to demonstrate to you...the essential difference between Christianity as a revealed religion and the Greek mysteries; between the "hidden mystery" of the Christians and the mustēria of the Hellenistic world: between the "natural mystery" of the Greek mystery symbolism and the "supernatural mystery" of the New Testament doctrine of salvation. [p.355]

Mysterion is the free decision of God, taken in eternity and hidden in the depths of the godhead, to save man, who in his sinfulness has been separated from God. [p.356]

mysterion is always both a manifesting and a concealment of the divine act of salvation: manifest in the communication of the truth through the promised Christ; concealed in the unfathomable nature of the divine utterance, which even after its communication cannot be fully understood but is apprehended only by faith. For this mysterion is a supernatural drama transcending all human nature and all human thought, the drama of man's acceptance as the son of God. [p.357]
[A]ll these are called
mysterion, because they are acts and rites and words that flow from God's unfathomable plan and that themselves in turn, in their visible, modest, unpretentious cloak, conceal and intimate and communicate God's unfathomable depths. [p.358]

It is difficult to detect any "understanding" or "learning" here, where all is concealed with God, unfathomable, and dependent on faith. Rahner destroys his own argument before he even finishes. In his attempt to separate Christianity and the Pagan Mysteries he only reiterates the standard operating procedures of Christianity, that intellectual thought is not immediately or ever provided or encouraged. One hears echoes of Paul's admission in 1 Corinthians 1, that to the intellect his doctrine of the crucified Christ appears as "foolishness"; we can hear the later voice of Martin Luther, that Reason "is the greatest enemy fath has," that Faith "must trample under foot all reason, sense and understanding." Rahner appeals even to Jesus himself, as speaking of "the mystery of the kingdom of heaven" [Mt. 13:11, based on Mk. 4:11], which must be, as Rahner puts it, "hidden beneath the cloak of parables 'in order that they may see and yet not see, hear and yet not hear' [Mt. 13:13]." One fails to see any addressing here of the "intellect of man," which is indeed "perplexed" and remains so.

There is no known sentiment expressed by the ancients in regard to the mysteries that the salvation processes they embodied were contrary to reason or could not be understood because they were hidden by the gods. Perhaps little emphasis (as far as we can tell) was placed on the idea of understanding those workings of salvation, but at least they did not openly declare the abandonment of all hope of doing so. The mythology-oriented mind of the Greeks may have felt that it intuitively understood the savior god myths, aided by the insights gained during the experience of the rites. Indeed, the demand for silence on the practices and meanings of the mysteries—so that the unworthy would not profane or adulterate them—implied that understanding was available, just that it could not be widely disseminated. Rahner quotes the
Hermetica: "To expose this treatise imbued with all the majesty of God to the knowledge of the many would be to betoken a godless mind." And the Pythagoreans: "The goods of knowledge must not be communicated to him whose soul is not cleansed" [p.364-5].

Christianity, on the other hand, regarded divine truths as essentially inaccessible, unfathomable, and only God could confer insight and knowledge.

Christianity is never a religion of the naked word, of mere reason and ethical law, but of the veiled word, of loving wisdom, of grace concealed in sacramental symbols—and hence also the religion of mysticism, in which the infinite depths of God are disclosed hidden behind simple words and rituals. But (and this is the specifically Christian element) God alone is the mystagogue and hierophant of these mysteries: only when His spirit confers the power of vision does man become an
epoptes of the Christian mystery. [p.367]

Natural vs. Supernatural
Here is the fundamental difference between the outlook of the mysteries and that of Christianity. It is commonly said that the mysteries are at their core "naturalistic," based as they were, ultimately, on the workings of the natural world, the cycles of nature, the regeneration of life. Christianity divorced itself from all that. Its basis became "supernaturalistic," beyond the reach of nature and the perceivable, fathomable world. The workings of the world, including the human intellect, became irrelevant, even a negative force for self-destruction and damnation. This is, at heart, why there was so little progress in intellectual knowledge, social improvement, technological advance for a thousand years following the triumph of Christianity; these were things of the devil. And it was not until the Renaissance revival of ancient Greek learning and culture that the western world began to lift itself out of that deathly gloom of suffocating faith and dogma.

With doctrine and dogma rooted in the supernatural, Christianity was forced to take refuge in the admission that its truth is not accessible to reason. Indeed, it glories in such an admission, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians. God himself is relied on, not to provide a rational understanding of such doctrine, but the grace and faith needed to accept it. Commit intellectual suicide, and God will resurrect you to the saving world of revelation.
Chrysostom said of the Christian mystery: "For it remains unfathomable to those who have not the right understanding for it. And it is revealed not by human wisdom, but by the Holy Ghost in such measure as it is possible for us to receive the spirit" [quoted on p.367]. Tertullian, in a much-quoted sentiment, said that the death of the Son of God "is by all means to be believed because it is absurd" [On the Flesh of Christ, 5]. The whole tone of Rahner's presentation is that Christianity has 'advanced' over the mysteries by entering a non-naturalistic dimension which admits of irrational ideas that require the abandonment of the intellect and the withdrawal into a sphere that is necessarily defined as inaccessible to reason. "The Cross" as the basis of the Christian mystery, over the regeneration of the gods who represented the workings of nature in the pagan mysteries, was indeed a quantum leap, from the knowable to the unknowable, from natural to supernatural. Rahner contrasts the two on those terms:

The ear of grain, the sprouting tree, the bath, the life-giving union of the sexes, light and darkness, moon and sun, all these, precisely because they are so simple and human, provided, even in the natural mystery, the most suitable expression for the profoundest arrēton and aneklalēton" [both words meaning 'something inexpressible']....

Indeed so, for there is much to provoke wonder and even reverence in the material universe, reverence that need not invoke the supernatural, nor contravene rational principles and require one to admit a judgement of apparent 'foolishness'. The mysteries were essentially a reading of the perceivable universe and what fate humans could look for within it, even if scientific understanding of its features was largely erroneous. Christianity, on the other hand, operated:
on an entirely different plane and with a new divine content, in the mystery of the Cross. [p.371]

The Cross had nothing to do with the workings of nature, or with "simple and human" experiences of life. Life became superfluous to the concept of salvation. The widespread impulse to martyrdom, so startling and incongruous to the ancients (though it had a precursor in Judaism), demonstrates this. The idea of allowing oneself to be executed for uncompromising faith in one god would have been unthinkable to the Greeks; the situation would simply never have arisen. Christianity's vaunted ethics were more a denial of life, designed to guarantee the attaining of the next world. Such ethics, unlike those of a philosophy like Stoicism, lacked all focus on the betterment of society, on commitment to general social responsibility and making this world work. Proper faith was paramount and salvation was accessible only to those who adhered to it. The product of such an outlook was social divisiveness, and an unprecedented animosity toward others, as found on the pages of many Christian apologists whose condemnation of pagan practices and beliefs drip with venom and self-righteous execration. (We will see some of that in the writings of the 4th century
Firmicus Maternus in the next article.)

A Sanguinary Preoccupation
While the mystery cult myths could certainly be about blood and death, a natural preoccupation of ancient man in the everyday experiences of life that he had so little control over, Christianity enthroned this theme in an unprecedented way. Rahner revels in the 'mystery of the Cross': "the agony, the blood, the bleeding heart" [p.371]. For him,
The vision of the Christian mystic, illumined by faith, mounts upward from the Cross on which the Creator and Logos died to the starry firmament of Helios and Selene [sun and moon], penetrates the profoundest structure of the cosmos, the structure of the human body, and even the forms of the everyday things that serve him: and wherever he looks he sees the form of the Cross imprinted on all things. It is as though the Cross of his Lord had enchanted the whole world. [p. 372]

This is certainly a prime case of theology's ability to put a whitewashed face on a primitive and repugnant concept, on the prehistoric principle now abandoned in every other sphere of thought: of blood sacrifice needed to placate an angry god. Rahner's drenching of the universe in the suffering, blood and death of Christ is something the mysteries never achieved, and it colors—if not discredits—all that Christianity claims for itself. Rahner quotes Clement of Alexandria, who maintained that (in common with mystical Greek philosophy) the signs given to us by divinity tend to be obscure, "in order that research should try to penetrate to the meaning of enigmas and thus ascend to the discovery of truth." Rahner seconds this:
The divine word of Scripture is a mystery, and behind the audible meaning of its words and images, of its whole historical narrative, are concealed unknown realms of the spirit and unsuspected possibilities of ascent to the imageless truth. [p.366]

Through such a morass of mystery, concealment and the admittedly unfathomable mind of God, what legitimate, usable, verifiable "truths" could possibly be uncovered that would be accepted by all of humanity, not just the mystics? When truth is sought on "a more real, transcendent realm jutting into this dark world, a miniature sketch of the vast divine ideas that are the source and ultimate goal of all created thought" [p.366], what are the chances that these 'truths' will bear any relation to actual reality, to the world revealed by sober, objective science and rational intellect? The pagan mysteries did not themselves stand close to reaching the truths of actual reality. But when Christianity supplanted them and withdrew even further into its fantastical supernatural world of "the cosmic mystery of the Cross, the epitome of the structural law of the universe" [p.375], when the future became envisioned as the cross "shin[ing] in the heavens at the end of the earth's visible history to foreshadow the coming of the transfigured Christ," when a God is envisaged as one who "imprinted on the cosmos the fundamental scheme of the Cross" and "secretly looked toward (its) coming" in the murder and death of his Son, western humanity suddenly faced what would be almost two millennia of lost ground to make up. In the face of such an outlook on reality, how was the world to be capable of creating a sane society and a healthy mind? Unfortunately, that question still needs to be asked.

It is the curse of the evolved human mind to see an overblown significance, a hidden glory and cosmic meaning, in the completely natural and impersonal phenomena of the world we find
ourselves in. While it may once have had an evolutionary survival advantage (though even that is debated by evolutionary anthropologists today), what we need now is salvation from our own 'ascent' into mysticism and the supernatural.

Myth vs. History
Finally, Rahner commits the usual fallacy of reducing all this grand and exalted mystery of the Cross and God's revelation to an historical event, the crucifixion of an historical man by Pontius Pilate on the hill of Golgotha. He appeals to Kittel who lectured that:
The gospel of Christ crucified is utterly unmythical....It does not speak of a remote legend, but of an immediately near, realistic, brutal, wretched, and terrible episode in history. [p.359]
This, of course, is the major difference from the mysteries alleged by subsequent Christianity from Ignatius on. Indeed, Rahner and the scholars that he favors express amazement that any scholar of comparative religion—who are in his day starting to fade into 'discredited' obscurity— could have ventured comparisons which try "to derive the basic doctrine of Christianity from the mystery religions." The future will "fail to understand that the idea of an inner kinship between the mysteries and Christianity in so many basic concepts could ever have been put forward with so much seriousness." For, "Christian revelation is not myth but history." [p.359]

Someone should have told that to Paul, who never speaks in terms of history, let alone recent history; to the writer of Hebrews who locates Christ's sacrifice in heaven and tells us that he had never been on earth; to countless other epistle writers who make no room for an historical Jesus in their descriptions of the faith and its genesis. Here, of course, lies the solution to the fallacy. The cosmic mystery of the Cross belongs not on a mundane hill outside Jerusalem as a result of jealous High Priests and an oblivious Roman governor, but in a truly cosmic setting of divine and heavenly processes in the greater spiritual world, revealed by God through revelation and scripture, and by the voice of the Son who speaks from that scripture. This is indeed the picture created by Paul and other early mystics who have entered the mythological world of the mystery cults and created a new one. With their more mundane Gospels, the evangelists set up a huge disparity, and out of their crude and contradictory Jesus of Nazareth theologians and scholars have struggled ever since to resurrect the original cosmic Son.

Refuting the Claims that Christianity does not Borrow from the Pagan Mysteries: Everett Ferguson

Everett Ferguson is Professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University (in Texas). The orientation of apologetic defense in his book, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, is dormant much of the time, for he surveys a wide range of ancient politics and culture. But it emerges when he is addressing the mystery cults and certain philosophies which are perceived as comparable to Christianity. In his Introduction, he claims to occupy a neutral ground in his assessment of similarities and differences between Christianity and the cults, and yet he takes refuge in the stance that "Christian faith does not depend on uniqueness" and that "Questions of parallels are historical questions, not faith questions" [p.xiv]. He admits that he details differences more than similarities, and pointedly mentions that where major similarities are found, more often than not the prior attestation is in Christianity, without mentioning that there are qualifications to be imposed on an evaluation of the latter state of affairs.

In his summary section to the mystery cults, "
Mystery Religions and Christianity" [p. 237-240], Ferguson offers observations of alleged 'contrast' that seem meant to reassure those with Christian interests and counter any disquiet produced by his prior discussion of the cultic rites and myths. These are fairly standard claims put forward by many apologists, in books and on websites. We will look at these points of contrast in detail and consider the question of how significant they are and what effect they have on the overall picture.

Ferguson echoes a common opinion of apologetic-oriented writers. It is essentially an accusation that those who have seen pervasive common elements between the mysteries and Christianity have done so "
by unconsciously starting with Christian ideas, using them to interpret the data about the mysteries, and then finding the mysteries as the source of Christian ideas" [p.237-8]. But let's observe here that this coin has an opposite side to it as well. Defenders of Christian distinctiveness—if not uniqueness—have often done their best to describe and define the elements of Christianity in ways which present the best face of differentness to that of the mysteries and eastern philosophies; then they appeal to such differences as 'proving' the distinctiveness if not uniqueness of Christianity.

On Resurrection
The first point to address is the all-important question of resurrection. Ferguson says [p.238-9]:
Parallels to the [Christian] resurrection have been suggested in the "dying and rising savior- gods." But the "resurrection" of these gods is very different from what is meant by that word in Christian belief. There is nothing in the myth of Osiris that could be called a resurrection: the god became ruler over the dead, not the living. The myth of Attis contains no specific mention of a resurrection, though it has been thought the gladness following mourning in his cult presupposed some such notion. The Adonis myth perhaps most clearly indicates the resuscitation of a god, but even here it is not strictly a resurrection. These beliefs are more closely allied to the cycle of nature, and the mysteries seem to have had their origin in the agricultural cycle. Even this element does not seem prominent in the mysteries of the Roman period where urban life had weakened the connection with the soil.

There are different forms of 'resurrection'. All are variants on the basic idea of 'conquest of death' by the god, and all have the same result regardless of their differences, namely the guarantee of some form of positive afterlife for the initiate. Probably no pagan savior cult envisioned in its myth the resuscitation of the mourned-over corpse of the god to the status of a former living person, even temporarily. When the 'dying and rising' concept was initially attached directly to the agricultural cycle, the earliest myths, such as that of Eleusis or in the even earlier myths of
Inanna or Tammuz, had to do with the descent of the deity to the underworld, not always presented as an actual death, and his or her reemergence to the surface. When such myths began to be applied to humans and their fate, they had to undergo a mystical deepening which embodied much more than the plant and food cycle; they had to encompass human death and what lay beyond—in a different world, since the dead, in universal experience, did not come back to this one. In very early societies, such as the Sumerian and Egyptian, the king/pharaoh was the representation or incarnation of the god who conquered death. While alive, such rulers celebrated the annual rebirth of the sun and plants as a type for the more important rebirth they would undergo from this world to the next, a privilege and fortunate fate which came to be appropriated by the nobility and then potentially by everyone. Thus the dying and rising gods of seasonal vegetation expanded their quality and import. As Mircea Eliade puts it [The History of Religious Ideas, vol.1, p.67], life and death:
constituted the two moments of a single process. This "mystery," perceived after the discovery of agriculture, becomes the principle of a unified explanation of the world, of life, and of human existence; it transcends the vegetable drama, since it also governs the cosmic rhythms, human destiny, and relations with the gods. The myth relates the defeat of the goddess of love and fertility in her attempt to conquer the kingdom of Ereshkigal, that is, to abolish death. In consequence, men, as well as certain gods, have to accept the alternation life/death. Dumuzi-Tammuz disappears, to reappear six months later. This alternation—periodical presence and absence of the god—was able to institute "mysteries" concerning the salvation of men, their destiny after death.

This is why the acceptance of the inevitability of death is reflected so strongly in the various cultic myths, in the dying and mourning elements of the rites, such as in the 'passion week' of Attis. But as I have said before, no religion celebrates death per se, as a finality, with no associated reversal of the coin (despite what modern scholars seem to want to claim). The 'rising' may be evident and unmistakeable in nature, but for humans it has to be taken 'on faith,' which is why such a faith is always linked with and placed in something beyond the material, namely in a god and his experiences, in supernatural processes that become embodied in myth, or in the mystic deepening of old myths. Rites take on an ever more mystical sacramentalism (as in Pauline baptism). Because such things evolve into ever more sophisticated versions at the hands of ever more sophisticated minds does not mean that they are not all expressions of the same thing or do not share a common root and impulse.

It is simply incidental to claim, as Ferguson does, the distinction between the pagan gods' fate after death with that of Jesus. Both are designed to confer the same effect on the believer, which is what matters. If Osiris "became ruler over the dead, not the living," the same can be said for Jesus. The resurrected Christian who goes to heaven is part of "the dead" and not "the living," in the sense of the departed from this world, the same as "the dead" pagan. And Christ in heaven is the same as Osiris in the underworld. Both are rulers over "the dead" in that same sense. The location of the happy afterlife is hardly significant. (A heaven in the sky simply sounds better to us than an eternity under the ground.) In essence, they are exactly the same, and Osiris gives such benefits to his devotees as much as Jesus to his. We as a culture, and Christianity in its writings, may have managed to paint a brighter, fuller picture of the Christian afterlife than did the mysteries, but this is in large part because we have the greater literary production of the two, and such things were not expressed openly in the cults.

Christians eventually came to focus on a rising in flesh for Jesus, partly under the influence of Jewish concepts of a kingdom of God to be set up on a transformed earth, something which would require a rising in some form of flesh. We have largely lost that 'millenarian' focus, so that modern Christianity seems to suffer from a schizophrenic attitude toward the afterlife. The soul will be saved, but so will the body, as resurrected at the end of the world—all of it in Heaven. The exact nature of one's afterlife form and how it will function is a woolly matter in the minds of most Christians. At least the ancient Greek was more clear: the body is dumped onto the material refuse heap, and the soul containing the real essence of the individual is exalted to the true world of spirit.

To his comment on resurrection, Ferguson appends this remark:
But insofar as paganism offered "dying and rising gods," these gods are a world apart from Christ's resurrection, which was presented as a one-time historical event, neither a repeated feature of nature nor a myth of the past.

There are a few caveats here. Collectively, the pagan cults had a long and deep heritage of centuries behind them. The concept of a savior "Christ" was of new vintage, with no attendant mythological 'stories' such as the mysteries had had time to develop and evolve. And the nature of Christ's resurrection looks very different in the early epistles from that presented in the Core Gospels. Not only do Paul and other epistle writers fail to tell us that Jesus rose from the dead in flesh, or returned to earth after his resurrection (the "seeings" of 1 Cor. 15:5-8 are better understood as visions, all of them like Paul's own), the early Christian writings tell us explicitly where Jesus went immediately after his rising from death: to Heaven, to take his place at the right hand of God. 1 Peter 3:18-22, Ephesians 1:20, Hebrews 10:12, the hymns of Philippians 2 and 1 Timothy 3:16, exclude any period on earth. (Can we really believe that if there was such a thing, not a single epistle would make mention of it?) In other words, Jesus after his death (which to judge by the early writers is in myth, not history) is resurrected to the afterworld, there to receive his devotees. That is the resurrection which is the "first fruits," with the resurrection of believers to follow into the same place. This is all that Paul presents to us. Christ's is a resurrection exactly like that of Osiris and Attis.

Now, this would be true even in the context of an historical Jesus. But Paul and the others are equally silent on any historical setting whatever for the death and resurrection of their Jesus, which is one of the factors which makes the mythicist scenario possible and compelling. If we were to judge by the earliest Christian writings (instead of reading the later Gospels into them), we would find no real distinction between the god's resurrection in Christianity and in the cults. It is true that Christianity envisioned the death and resurrection of Jesus as a "one-time" event, but this concept was applied to the mythical setting, not to history. Consider Galatians 4:4. When was it that God "sent his son"? "In the fullness of time," which has no temporal or historical significance, especially considering that the "sending" is stated as that of the "spirit" of the son into believers' hearts (4:6) and that what has happened in the present to bring an end to the term of the Law is the arrival of "faith" (3:23, 25), not of Jesus. Even in Hebrews, which actually uses the term "once for all" (
hapax), the word appears in the context of a sacrifice made in heaven, in the heavenly sanctuary, not of an appearance on earth. It is used to make a contrast with the repeated sacrifices of animals by the priests on earth, whereas Jesus had to make his sacrifice only once (in heaven). The key passage 9:24-26 employs the idea of "appearance" once for all in that heavenly context. It is a spiritual event, not an historical one. This may be a distinction from the view of certain Platonic philosophers (like the 4th century Sallustius, or Plutarch in Isis and Osiris) that the myths of the savior gods represented timeless truths, a spiritual process that "always is so," as Sallustius styles it; but this can be put down to cultural differences and is hardly critical in view of the silence on any historical context for this 'one-time' quality to the Christ event. In any case, Ferguson exaggerates the contrast because, as he himself has recognized elsewhere, the "repeated" feature of the god's dying and rising as founded in nature's cycle has receded into the background in the cults, where the interpretation of the death and resurrection of the god takes on a quality no different from a 'one-time' event, being the guarantee of the initiate's similar triumph over death.

On Baptism
Ferguson also points out [p.239] that:
There are no true parallels to baptism in the mysteries. Where water was applied it was done so for a preliminary purification, not as the initiation itself. The manner in which the initiation into the mysteries and baptism in the New Testament worked was entirely different: the benefit of the pagan ceremony was effective by the doing (ex opere operato), whereas the benefit of baptism was a grace-gift of God given to faith in the recipient....All converts to Christianity received baptism, whereas initiation in the mysteries was for an inner circle of adherents.

Notice here that Ferguson avoids using the term "initiate" for the recipient of Christian baptism, but there is no question that the latter was a rite of initiation into the sect. It was a rite of linking to the god and his experiences, as Paul makes clear in his description of the process in Romans 6:1-10. The fact that the mystery cults did not treat their water rite as an initiation is because they had separate ceremonies for that purpose, following the water rite. And if the latter was a "preliminary purification," then it was, broadly speaking, part of the set of initiatory rites. Ferguson also falsely doublespeaks in making an entirely artificial distinction between what happens to the initiate in either case as a result of undergoing the rites. If the initiation as a whole marks the pagan reception of the god and his benefits by the devotee, this is in the same taxonomic category as the Christian reception of grace in the Holy Spirit, which is both from God and is God. To say that all converts to Christianity received baptism while the mysteries' initiation was restricted to an inner circle is really a disguised tautology. Just as all new Christians chose to be converted and thereby received baptism, so did all those who chose to be initiated receive the benefit of the mysteries. The only concrete difference lay in the relative affordability. This point, however, is hardly significant.

Ferguson has also brought up a favorite point of difference repeated by many scholars. From the above quote: "the benefit of the pagan ceremony was effective by the doing (
ex opere operato), whereas the benefit of baptism was a grace-gift of God given to faith in the recipient." This is a prime example of my point that Christian scholars will define Christian features in ways designed to create artificial, if not false, distinctions. Considering that both cases involve imagined supernatural workings which can hardly be scientifically studied let alone verified, it is silly and pointless to the extreme to label one's opponents' rites 'magic' and one's own legitimate spirituality. The idea of "ex opere operato" is that the act itself, the performance of the rite, generates the effect on the initiate, like a direct current operating under magical principles. The god or the process had no choice in the matter. Like magic, if you knew the right words, the secret names, the proper actions to perform, the result was automatic. Christian baptism, on the other hand, is being presented not as a rite that would automatically force God to confer some benefit on the participant, but as an act of faith from which God would bestow a gift. Such a distinction is little more than sleight of hand. The rite honestly undertaken in either case would bring the benefit; no pagan initiate would think he could fail to have the proper attitude and still put one over on the god. The Christian baptismal rite also appealed to the deity's names, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And whatever force is imagined to be working between the performance of the rite and the response of the divinity it was directed at, it is ludicrous to think of scoffing at one while bowing down to the other. Paul's concept of 'dying with Christ' in the baptism ritual is virtually indistinguishable on any rational plane from what the pagan initiate imagined was happening to him when he went through the rites in the mysteries of his own god.

Walter Burkert [
Ancient Mystery Cults, p.101] also weighs in on the question of baptism. For him, "baptism proper" is "immersion into a river or basin as a symbol of starting a new life," another example of defining Christian elements so that their equivalents in the mysteries will not fit the profile. However, this is followed by an admission that there are some features in early Christian baptism that irresistibly remind one of pagan mystery initiations: the individual ritual upon application, often thwarted by oknos; the preparation and instruction; the nocturnal celebration, preferably on the eve of the great common festival, which is Easter; the use of milk and honey; and the curious detail of "stamping on goatskins" (the Eleusinian mystes is shown sitting on a ram's fleece).

Burkert acknowledges that these are probably "some direct borrowings that took place." Then he goes on with monumental naivete to say, "they are clearly additions to what John the Baptist did at the Jordan." Not only does this accept the Gospel account as gospel, as though Christian baptism was initially modeled on some 'pure' historical precedent at the Jordan river, it ignores the obvious discrepancy between what is supposed to have been the "baptism of John" (in token of repentance, as in Acts 19:4 and supported by Josephus) and the Pauline version, regarded as involving reception of the Holy Spirit, something said (in Acts) to be unknown to John. It also ignores the fact that Paul, in all his reference to baptism, never once mentions Jesus' own baptism by John at the Jordan. He never relates the significance of baptism as he interprets it to any of the features of that Gospel account, which might be presumed to be circulating in Christian tradition even before the Gospels were written. This would include the purported descent of the Holy Spirit into Jesus, which would have been an irresistibly useful parallel for Paul in his claim that at baptism the Holy Spirit entered into the initiate. Paul, moreover, is completely silent on the figure of John the Baptist in any connection.

Burkert concludes by noting that "Another ritual firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition, anointing, is likewise scarcely seen in mysteries." This may well be true, but it simply highlights the fact that Christian rites and traditions are a mix, a syncretism, of the Jewish and the non- Jewish. The presence of the former does not, as too many scholars seem to try to intimate, rule out the presence of the latter, or absolves us from weighing the balance between the two influences and determining how much debt is owed to Greek thought and the mysteries themselves, especially in regard to significant aspects of the Christian salvation system.

On Rebirth
On the subject of rebirth, Ferguson says [p.239]:
Initiation into the mysteries has been presented as a "pagan regeneration" in which there is a rebirth and a kind of mystical union with the deity. The terminology of regeneration is rare in connection with the mysteries and then as a metaphor for a new life. The idea of rebirth does not appear to be specifically connected with moral renewal.

The latter may be largely true, in that the initiate did not primarily see himself as reborn shed of previous sins, although Ferguson himself has admitted that moral demands could accompany initiation (p.236, in connection with Mithras). This is something on which Paul lays emphasis. And yet, Paul also laid his supreme emphasis on faith, and rejected moral works as the basis for salvation. In fact, it would seem that his primary focus in regard to ethics was that the initiate was now free of the cumbersome Jewish Law, which could be seen at base as the proclamation of the abandonment of an ethical system, one he himself had no use for. (One wonders why.) Once again, it goes against common sense to maintain that a religious impulse tied to promises of regeneration and of salvation after death would not entail the concept of 'rebirth', regardless of whether we fail to find abundant language of that sort in a record so sparse. Ferguson himself [p. 229] has admitted, echoing Burkert as noted above, that "a few inscriptions speak of the person [undergoing the taurobolium in the rites of Attis] as 'reborn', although one speaks of the person as 'reborn for eternity'." In a meagre record, the presence of "a few inscriptions" completely removes any legitimacy for suggesting that given ideas did not exist or were "rare."

One of those inscriptions is
Mithraic. Manfred Clauss [The Roman Cult of Mithras, p.104] recounts:
It is therefore intelligible that initiation was understood as a kind of rebirth. An unknown person scratched a graffito into the side-wall of the cult-niche of the mithraeum beneath S. Prisca in Rome: 'Born at first light when the Emperors (Septimius) Severus and Antonius (Caracalla) were consuls, on the 12 day before the first of December, the day of Saturn, the 18 of the Moon'. That was 20 November AD 202. By analogy with the Sun's birth at sunrise, the initiant is also 'born' through initiation into the mysteries.

Still, it would admittedly be good to find more references to the concept of rebirth. Burkert is kind enough to detail some of the suggestions we do have, notably in Apuleius' The Golden Ass, in which "the day following the night of initiation is reckoned as a new birthday; Isis has the power to change fate and to grant a new life" [p.99]. As well, Mithraic inscriptions (as noted above) and some taurobolium inscriptions "indicate that the day of the initiation ritual was a new birthday; the mystēs was natus et renatus" [p.100]. The situation is probably best summed up as Burkert says, "The taurobolium could also suggest an act of birth, when the initiate emerges from a cave in a garment dripping with blood; but there is no explicit confirmation." The latter could apply to almost everything where the mystery cults are concerned. However, this does not justify declaring judgments which are always slanted in the same direction and clearly agenda driven.

That an agenda and a bias lie in the background is evident in this summary paragraph in Burkert [p.101]:
To sum up, there is a dynamic paradox of death and life in all the mysteries associated with the opposites of night and day, darkness and light, below and above, but there is nothing as explicit and resounding as the passages in the New Testament, especially in Saint Paul and in the Gospel of John, concerning dying with Christ and spiritual rebirth. There is as yet no philosophical-historical proof that such passages are directly derived from pagan mysteries; nor should they be used as the exclusive key to the procedures and ideology of the mysteries.

First of all, it is unrealistic if not ludicrous to complain of, or use as evidence, the fact that we have in the record of the mysteries nothing as "explicit and resounding" as all those themes and
passages in the New Testament when the relative size of the literary record is so disparate, when secrecy was the hallmark of only one half of the equation, and when Christianity destroyed so much when it emerged triumphant. It is also ironic that scholars will have no hesitation in accusing the mysteries of borrowing from Christianity in the 4th century in the face of the latter's growing influence and power, and yet have no sympathy for the idea that early Christianity may have done exactly the same thing in its early days, when it was trying to carve out its share of the market and could well have borrowed ideas from longstanding and popular rivals. It can be no coincidence that in 1 Corinthians 10-11, when trying to persuade the Corinthians to behave themselves better at the communal table and condemning any participation in similar pagan sacred meals (10:20-21), Paul would come up with (claiming revelation "from the Lord himself") a sacramental understanding to be applied to the Christians' own meal (11:23-26) which clearly suggests the influence of parallels in the mysteries. Of course, no Christian scholar would ever admit as much.

On Sacred Meals
We are not reliant on Paul for knowledge that the mysteries had sacred meals, although he does witness to their pre-Christian existence. In fact, as Ferguson says:
Sharing meals was a common religious activity in paganism, Judaism and Christianity, and there are certain similarities in all these meals. The significance of the "communion," however, was different in each case. The weekly memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the specific note of thanksgiving (eucharist) in the prayers of consecration provide no pagan counterparts.

The latter is a debatable point. And one will note that Ferguson makes no mention of the idea that the early Christians thought of themselves as actually consuming Jesus' own body as present in the bread. One presumes this is because such a doctrine became a Roman Catholic notion which later 'reformists' rejected, and Ferguson is not part of the Catholic outlook. If one wants to take Paul and some of the evangelists translation of the bible literally, Jesus identified the bread at the Lord's/Last Supper as "my body." Without this element, Ferguson is reduced to making distinctions only in regard to the frequency of observance, and in claiming that no thanksgiving or consecration aspect was involved. The latter would be a very difficult point to prove, since we know so little about the intricacies of the pagan rites. Helmut Koester (op cit, p.194-5) speaks of the cultic meals in the worship of Sabazius. This was a minor mystery-type deity who, in some circles of Asia Minor, was apparently syncretized with the Jewish Yahweh by Hellenized Jews, showing that the mystery cult phenomenon could even cross the Greek-Jew boundary. In regard to the cult of Sabazius, Koester notes:
There apparently were common cultic meals which—judging from the painting on the Vincentius tomb in Rome—seemed to symbolize one's acquittal before the judge of the dead and reception into the everlasting meal of the blessed.

Obviously this includes a 'thanksgiving' element to such meals. One can hardly rule it out.

In regard to the cult of Dionysos, while noting that the rites and religious concepts of the mysteries of this god are not fully known, Koester does say that "the celebrations certainly included a common meal and the drinking of wine—Dionysus was, after all, the god of the vine." In fact, it is with the cult of Dionysos that commentators make the observation that here we have the closest parallel to the presumed early Christian motif of "eating the god." Such a cultic practice was rooted in the Dionysian myth of the devouring of the child Dionysos by the Titans, supposedly reflected in the indulgence of the early women celebrants in eating the raw flesh and blood of wild animals. Ferguson himself notes that "Since Dionysos was believed to appear in animal form and to be present in the wine, eating the flesh from a living animal and drinking wine could be understood as incorporating the god and his power within" [p.205]. Such an idea is certainly different from the Christian concept of the Last Supper, with the body and blood of Christ representing a "new covenant" with God, but this is simply a reflection of the different applications made of a common practice by different cultural groups. The covenant idea is specifically Jewish, and has been incorporated into the concept of Jesus as atonement sacrifice.

Martin Nilsson [
The Dionysiac Mysteries, p.135-6] has made the interesting observation that an inscription found in Smyrna (Asia Minor) from the 2nd century CE seems to indicate that the sacred meal being observed by the mystae of Bacchus (the Roman Dionysos) was in danger of "desacralization," that it was being turned into a mere indulgent dinner, and the inscription's writer seems to be aiming to restore the sacred character of the meal against these misuses. This is a scenario virtually identical to what we find in 1 Corinthians 11. One of the writer's noted prescriptions for the meal is that it should not involve cooking and eating of the "heart," which suggests that meat was a chief element of what was consumed. Nilsson links this to the myth that the Titans did not eat the heart of Dionysos, which was rescued by Athena and brought to Zeus.

Perhaps the most secure interpretation of a sacred meal in the mysteries comes from Mithraism. Several Mithraic reliefs depict the sacred meal, a ritual reenactment of the second most important theme represented on Mithraic monuments: the meal shared by Mithras and the Sun god Helios following Mithras' slaying of the bull. This mythical meal is celebrated on the carcass of the slain animal. Often the figure of the Sun god is presented showing deference to Mithras; Ulansey suggests quite compellingly that this represents the superior power of Mithras over Helios, since he is the god responsible for controlling the macro-movements of the heavens in the precession of the equinoxes, something Helios cannot equal. Such scenes also support the primary scene of the bull-slaying, which depicts grapes emerging from the death-wound in the bull's neck and ears of wheat growing out of its tail: bread and wine, the two staples of the ancient world diet. The meal of the two gods, involving bread and wine, represents that bounty, a bounty proceeding from the sacrifice of the bull. This type of mythology is more common to the mystery cults, and yet the "bread of life" is also a motif in Christianity. By the actions of a god or gods, the earth and humans are provided with sustenance; nature's operation has been personified in grand myths of divine activities. While there are certainly ground-level distinctions of a significant character, still, the death or underground descent of deities, the sacrifice of a bull, the crucifixion of Christ, all such things are the mythical constructs of the human mind, designed to explain the benefits seen as bestowed on humanity from the realm of divinity, both in this world and the next.

Justin Martyr, in the middle of the 2nd century, witnesses very clearly to the existence of a sacred meal among Mithraists which seems to him so close to the Christian Eucharist, both in regard to the bread and cup as well as the mystical incantations over them, that he must declare the similarity to be the work of the devil [Apology 61]. Such a pagan rite would hardly have arisen only in his own day, so there can be no question of borrowing from the Christian Eucharist. In fact, we must assume by Justin's prior remarks in Apology 54 that such rites arose prior to the Christian ones, for he argues that the demons were able to counterfeit the latter because they could read what was being forecast about Christ in the Hebrew prophets!

Manfred Clauss in
The Roman Cult of Mithras, has this to say about the Mithraic sacred meal [p.109]:
The Mithraists evidently believed that they were reborn through the consumption of bread and wine. The food was of course not simply actual or literal food, but also food in the metaphorical sense which nourished souls after death: the meal was the guarantee of their ascension into the undying light. In the case of these analogies, there can be no question of imitation in either direction. The offering of bread and wine is known in virtually all ancient cultures, and the meal as a means of binding the faithful together and uniting them to the deity was a feature common to many religions. It represented one of the oldest means of manifesting unification with the spiritual, and the appropriation of spiritual qualities.

Thus, to claim any degree of originality or uniqueness for the Lord's Supper as presented by Paul, is nothing more than special pleading. Even Ferguson's claim that prayers of consecration over the bread are distinctive to Christianity is compromised by one of the representations of the Mithraic meal in which Clauss points out that the right hands of the two presiding priests "are raised in a gesture of blessing. They are apparently speaking sacred formulae over the offerings on the small circular table in front of them." Naturally, any words spoken would not be the same as those spoken by Jesus in the Gospels, or as presented by Paul. But the spirit would be the same. The bread and wine were representative of the bull, whose sacrifice gave life to the world; at the Last Supper, the bread and wine were representative of Jesus, whose sacrifice gave eternal life to the world.

Perhaps we might sum up what may be the greatest difference between paganism, as reflected in its salvation religions and its philosophies, and that of Christianity by noting Ferguson's final comparison here. While Stoicism had no connection to any mystery cult and believed officially in no afterlife, its goal was indeed to achieve a self-liberation from the fears and failings of life—a goal Ferguson sneers at. In its stead he places "the redemptive love of a merciful God." He considers it superior not only to place one's fate and happiness entirely in the hands of an otherworldly being and abandon any attempt to achieve liberation through one's own devices and humanity's potential, he subscribes to the very un-Greek and non-Stoic evaluation that humans are so inherently evil and laden down with sin that we require a god's redemption. Considering that Christianity has done its best to convince its adherents of this proposition, it is no wonder that Ferguson is forced to style his god as "merciful." But even in this comparison, he is magnifying the differences. It is true that "The mysteries did not offer a god who came to earth to save humans. Their gods did not die voluntary to save mankind" [p.240]. The pagan savior was not a vehicle of atonement for some higher deity who required such a sacrifice to confer forgiveness on humanity. But if the cultic gods represented forces inherent in nature, if their representative actions produced salvation, then love and mercy toward humans had to be involved. Moreover, it could be looked upon as a love and mercy inherent in the workings of the world itself, rather than something external to it and dependent on the caprice of an unpredictable overseer who could be as adept at fashioning merciless punishment as merciful salvation. If there were no such things as love and mercy imputed to the cultic gods by their devotees, they would hardly have enjoyed the worship and devotion they clearly did for centuries. If Isis was the universal protectress of so many in so many walks of life, how could she not be envisioned as "merciful" or "loving"? Ferguson himself finds "a moving testimony to a deep, personal religious faith" [p.218] in Apuleius' account of his initiation into the mysteries of Isis. This is not the only time one finds Ferguson's scholarly integrity at odds with his Christian prejudices.