The mystery religions (Colossians 3)

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Illustration: Cosmic mysteries of Mithras

Mystery religions were secret cults that flourished during the Greco-Roman period and involved the worship of deities from Greece, Egypt and the Near East. Unlike official religions (such as the imperial cult), which involved little more that pledges of loyalty, these religions offered personal salvation and a sense of belonging to a community. Members participated in rituals and were expected to keep both the rites and the teachings secret; hence the designation “mystery religions”. Famous examples are the Greek Eleuinian and Dionysian mysteries, the Mithras mysteries and the Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris.

Each cult was distinct, but many mystery cults shared a motif of death and afterlife. The Eleusinian mysteries centred upon the myth of the annual descent of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, into Hades and her subsequent return to the land of the living. The cult of Isis and Osiris was similar. In Egyptian religion Osiris, the lord of the dead, was also believed to be a source of life and renewal. Osiris had been murdered by his brother Set, but his wife/sister, Isis, had located his scattered remains and effected for him a kind of resurrection.

Some cults focused on cosmic power. The Mithras cult, which became popular with Roman men around the second century A.D., is widely thought to have been Persian in origin, but recent research indicates that its teachings may have been indigenous to the Greco-Roman world. Worship was carried out in a small, cavelike chamber called a Mithraeum, which contained cryptic inscriptions and symbols, the primary clues to the nature of the religion. The central motif centred around a man, Mithras, who had purportedly slain a bull. In the iconography Mithras is accompanied by a dog, a snake, a raven and a scorpion. All of these creatures equate to constellations (Taurus, Canis Minor, Hydra, Corvus and Scorpio, respectively), and thus the cult may have been astrological in orientation and based upon the belief that Mitras was the ruler of the cosmos. Members of the cult ascended through a hierarchy of seven ranks, corresponding to the seven planets; solar and lunar icons are invariably found in a Mithraeum.

The cults frequently focused upon fertility, were often accompanied by erotic symbolism and included secret rituals that were sometimes either gory or orgiastic. The Dionysian mysteries, which involved a kind of ecstatic madness, were in fact for a time outlawed by the Roman Senate. Popular fear of and fascination with the bacchanalian frenzy is reflected in ancient literary work such as The Bacchae by Euripides and the Metamorphoses by Ovid. In many mystery religions the initiate underwent a ritual death and rebirth through either ecstatic frenzy or secret ritual. One inscription in a Mithraeum describes the initiate as having been “piously reborn”.

Some have suggested that Paul may have been influenced by these cults in his understanding of the “mystery” of the gospel of Christ. It is more likely, however, that the apostle used the term “mystery” to refer to the fact that the Old Testament prophecies, which include much that is mysterious, find their meaning and fulfillment in Christ. Certainly nothing indicates that converts to Christianity were sworn to keep its tenets or practices a secret. In addition, Paul probably did want to communicate to his Gentile converts that the true way to rebirth and resurrection is through Christ, and the word “mystery” helped him convey that reality.


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