Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Jesus People, Mystery Religions, and Nascent Christianity #3

This is the third essay in a trilogy on the term "mystery" in early Christianity.  My contention is that early followers of Jesus applied the term to aspects of their belief system that they could not understand rationally—i.e., it was something they believed even though it seemed contrary to reason.  Instead of revising their belief to accord with reason, they admitted cognitive dissonance and branded it as a "mystery," which allowed them reasonably to continue affirming a belief they could not understand rationally.  They trusted that these acknowledged disconnects between reason and faith would be worked out in the Divine economy.  In the modern Christian church the term mystery, as far as I know, is not extensively used.  One notable exception is the "mystery of the Mass"—the moment at which the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ.
These several uses of the term mystery, surveyed in the previous two blogs, raise the question whether or not nascent Christianity of the Pauline type should be regarded as a mystery religions cult—not in the sense of dependence on one of the ancient cults of the Greco-Roman world, but in the sense of a parallel development.  In other words, the spirit of the age evoked these religions of personal salvation and also led to the transformation of the early Jesus people into a nascent Christianity of the Pauline type.  At least one highly respected New Testament Scholar thought of the "religious history of the Mediterranean world in the early imperial period as 'the age of mysteries'" (Shirley Jackson Case, The Social Origins of Christianity [1923], 113).
            The mystery religions cults were rather diverse in their public celebrations, sacred objects, and theological content.  So they had a public face as well as a hidden secret side.  Although different, they did have several things in common.  They were all voluntary associations in which people must choose to present themselves as initiates.  At the heart of the cult was a private mystery rite, a secret not to be divulged to anyone.  In the mystery rite the individual was brought into a close personal relationship with the deity.  The myth behind the rite and the rite itself consisted of things said to the individual, or things performed in the presence of the individual, or in things done to the individual.  Since these rites were secret and not divulged, scholars are left to guess from clues here and there as to the content and meaning of the different secret rites.  Participation in the mystery granted individuals redemption from the evils of the earthly life and the assurance of a blessed immortality, i.e., the expectation of eternal life. Usually a sacred meal was celebrated by those initiated into the mystery cults.  The goal of the initiation rite was not to impart a particular body of knowledge, but rather to produce a certain experience in the individual that resulted in a particular state of mind—about the God, life, and the hereafter.  Some scholars describe the rite of initiation as "an extraordinary experience that could be described as death and rebirth" (Marvin Meyer, "Mystery Religions" Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible [1992]).
            Meyer finds several close similarities between the nascent Christianity of the first century and the mystery religions. Like the mystery religions, followers of the Christ voluntarily associated themselves together in the early Pauline communities, which also were communities of redemption and salvation.  In the community they experienced baptism, a ceremonial ritual (Rom 6:1-11), in which the initiate is baptized "into Christ's death" and with Christ experienced death and rebirth.  Another rite was the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:17-31), which commemorated the death of Christ.  "By eating of the bread and drinking of the new wine [i. e., his body, his blood] in the Eucharist Christians participated in the death of Christ, and assimilated the saving power of the Cross into their lives" (Meyer gives a number of other parallels).  The "myth" behind both these rituals is, of course, the mystery of Christ (1 Timothy 3:16): that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:17-19, Galatians 6:14). Christ is described by Paul as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), and Paul writes: "We proclaim in a mystery a hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification" (1 Corinthians 2:7; cf. Romans 16:25).  It is difficult to make detailed comparisons between nascent Christianity and the Greco-Roman mysteries, however, because there is little extant first-hand information on the mysteries (see Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries. A Sourcebook [1987]).
            These parallels are well known, but generally scholars exclude Christianity from consideration as a Greco-Roman mystery religion with the argument that the "mystery" in Christianity is an "open" secret—in spite of the fact that nascent Christianity uses similar language, concepts, and rites, and shares similar objectives with the mystery religions.  Nascent Christianity of the Pauline type evolved out of the early Jesus people into a religion of personal salvation, clearly a type of mystery religion.  It managed to survive into modernity by evolving again into an institutional creedal religion, which enjoyed the political patronage of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in the fourth century.  The institutionalized religion seems a far cry from the earlier Pauline mysteries.  Paul regarded himself and the initiates in his gatherings as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1).
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1 comment:

Jim Deardorff said...

Hello Charlie,

I find this to be the key thought:
“Nascent Christianity of the Pauline type evolved out of the early Jesus people into a religion of personal salvation, clearly a type of mystery religion.”

So it’s what the “early Jesus people” knew of the man and his teachings that really counts, not what Paul taught and the Pauline theology that evolved. Progress can be made in this area, I believe, by delving into topics that Paul most feared or opposed, i.e., “perversions” of his own gospel, and tying them in with pieces of internal and external evidence that may have survived suppression by the Gospel writers and early church fathers.