Mysteries Revisited

MithraIt may be argued that the mysteries in Rome were the result of Alexander the Great conquering kingdoms occupying the Mediterranean and Persia, for during his campaigns territories were “Hellenized.” This term refers to the impact of Greek language, literature, and culture on non-Grecian people. In many ways he attempted to unite his vast empire, and this affected education, literature, and government. It also influenced religious beliefs and customs and ultimately resulted in translations of their sacred texts. This played an important role in the development of the church, for the further it moved away from Jewish origins the more it depended on Hellenism to communicate a consistent message throughout the provinces comprising the empire.

It was inevitable that the language of scripture was defined using religious and literary templates of Greco-Roman culture. This made Christianity seem less threatening to the public, for unlike the mysteries the church shared its revelations with the uninitiated through the gospel and inspired speech. In fact, Jesus proclaimed his instruction openly in the presence of Jewish authorities and reminded them that his message was not concealed, for he was heard in the streets and in the wilderness preaching about redemption. The disciples understood his intent as developing a reform movement within Judaism, one that anticipated a new covenant, a new priesthood, a new kingdom, a new temple, and a new nation.

Some of the rituals associated with the early church resembled those practiced in the mysteries, even though most were carried over from Judaism rather than from paganism. They partook of a sacred meal in which initiates were united to a redeemer as well as to the community, for the eucharistic prayers were based on the synagogue liturgy. The one presiding over the gathering encouraged supplication for enemies as well as for neighbors. Fasting was observed twice a week during the apostolic age and more frequently during persecution or increased poverty in the community.

The teaching conveyed during these meals contained stories of the redeemer and his exploits that at times echoed myths told in the mysteries. Their oaths of morality and vows of purity renounced the hedonistic lifestyle often associated with the cults and obliged the initiated to a life of service to both family and community. While the message sounded familiar, it offered immortality to adherents, and their banquets, vicarious salvation, and exclusive devotion to a singular deity was available to all baptized members without exception. Furthermore, its leaders distinguished these gatherings from the mysteries and the apologists explained the reason for such similarities.

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