(Mithras tauroctony in Louvre c. 2nd-3rd century, photo by Jastrow [Public domain], via Creative Commons)
This is Part Two of an article discussing the Mystery Religions of Ancient Rome. For information on what Mystery Religions are and how their adherents believed and acted, please read PART ONE.
For the sake of clarity and coherence, here is a brief summary of what ancient Mystery Religion were about: The Mystery Religions of ancient Rome were cults—before any negative connotations creep into our minds, remember that religious cults of antiquity were not viewed as negatively as the modern ‘cult.’ The religious cults of ancient Rome were worshipping the gods and goddesses of mythology well before monsters like Jim Jones and Charles Manson stigmatized cults forever. Modern cults are about feeding the egos of manipulative sociopaths—ancient cults were about creating a more emotional and personal worship experience. The ancient cults were simply groups of people who met regularly at a fixed location to worship a specific deity by reenacting a secret ceremony to induct new initiates to the cult.
In ancient days, especially in Rome and Greece, religion was a public activity done under the observation of the government and temple priests. Understandably, some Romans wanted a closer, more personal, relationship with their deity—these people were the ones who joined the Mystery Religion cults. Instead of giving offerings to their gods in the marketplace temples, they would meet with small congregations and worship through ceremony and ritual.
Christianity, before being accepted and protected by Emperor Constantine and his successors, used some of the characteristics and organization of the Roman Mystery Religions to survive its inhospitable two first centuries of existence. Members of Mystery Religions, like Emperor Constantine (who worshipped Mithras most of his life), were able to understand Christianity and were a heavy source of the Church’s first gentile converts.
The Cult of Mithras
No Mystery Religion is more similar to Christianity than the cult of Mithras (a bull-slaying god of light), which spread from India and Persia into Rome likely around the 1st century BCE. By the 2nd century CE, Mithras was a popular god worshipped by the soldiers in the legions of Rome. It even became the empire’s religion as Sol Invictus (the Undying or Invincible Sun) in 304 CE. Before becoming the first Christian emperor, Constantine was a follower of the Undying Sun, which makes the name of the day Constantine created—Sunday—interesting, as the day was named after he had converted to Christianity.
The many similarities between Jesus and Mithras (who was worshipped in Rome before Christ’s birth) are intriguing. Mithras’ birthday was December 25th and, according to Tripolitis, some of the accounts of Mithras’ birth even depict shepherds as being present at the location of his birth (1). The Liturgy of Mithra explains that the god Mithras was “born of mortal womb” in a similar manner as Christ (2). The god, Mithras, also held strong Christ-like characteristics. He was a god of light who acted as a bridge between the unreachable universal divinity and the finite lives of humans inhabiting earth (3). He was also described as “the champion of Light against Darkness, of the weak against the strong, of men against the dominion of demons and cosmic powers, [and] was a human figure whose triumphant struggle encouraged men to higher endeavor” (4). The ceremonial meal of Mithras was also the closest to the Eucharist of Christianity. There is, says McConnell, “both literary and archaeological evidence” that the cult of Mithras held frequent meals “in which bread and water were offered with certain formulae” (5). An inscription in a Mithraeum (a temple devoted to Mithras) underneath the Church of Santa Prisca in the city of Rome, illustrates the significance of the sacrificial blood to the cult, “you have saved us after having shed the eternal blood” (6). The water sometimes was replaced with wine, and the wine represented the blood of a slain bull and the bread represented the flesh (7). Being a previous devotee of Mithras, Constantine, perhaps, did not have to adjust his beliefs all that much when converting to Christianity.
Early Christianity as a Mystery Religion?
Looking at the Mystery Religions from a world long dominated by Christianity and filled with Christian themes, it is likely much easier than it should be to find similarities between the Mystery Religions and Christianity. There is no evidence that Christianity or the Mystery Religions adopted or borrowed anything from each other, but the similarities are, nevertheless, apparent. With so many correlating categories, even those who lived in the days when the Mystery Religions and Christianity coexisted must have noticed at least a few of the similarities between the faiths. Pagans must have used their knowledge of the Mystery Religions to try to understand the new eastern religion advancing from Jerusalem. If they heard of Christian baptisms, initiations, sacred feasts, religious meetings, champions of light, and of man made god, they already had a present array of Mystery Religions against which they could compare the arising Christian church.
Christianity and the Mystery Religions competed for the same pool of spiritually-yearning souls. The people of the Greco-Roman world, united within a Mediterranean empire, decided that they did not want their religions to be practiced merely in the city marketplaces, for everyone to see. They decided that they would rather worship more regionally, and more isolated and secluded, praising their deities in Mithraeums in caves dedicated to Mithras, Iseums dedicated to Isis, or small house-churches dedicated to Jesus. During this period, Mithraic Sol Invictus, Isis, and Jesus were all proclaimed to be the one true supreme God. To gain full entry into any of these communities, the hopeful initiate was required to learn about the community’s beliefs, and experience initiation. After acceptance into the communities, Mystery Religions and Christianity both offered the favor of the supreme God and a chance to obtain a pleasant afterlife, or at least reduce the discomfort of death. Though the Mystery Religions offered the spiritually yearning many of the same opportunities as Christianity, the Christian church and community kept ample written materials—while the cults had virtually none—and proved to be more universally accommodating and fulfilling of humanity’s spiritual needs. This gave the Christian religion an advantage over their mysterious competitors and ushered in an age of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- S. Angus. The Mystery-Religions, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1975).
- Antonía Tripolitis. Religions of the Helenistic-Roman Age. (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2002).
- John F. McConnell. “The Eucharist and the Mystery Religions,” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 10,1 (1948)).
- Livy. History of Rome, Book 29, 10-14. In The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts edited by Marvin W. Meyer, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987).
- Apuleius. The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses, translated by E. J. Kenney. (Longdon: Penguin Books. 1998).
- Didache. In After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity edited by Bart D. Ehrman,(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition. In After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity edited by Bart D. Ehrman, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- John Chrysostom. Second Baptismal Instruction. In Christianity in Late Antiquity: A Reader, edited by Bart D. Ehrman and Andrew S. Jacobs, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Luther H. Martin. “Aspects of ‘Religious Experience’ Among the Hellenistic Mystery Religions.” (Religion & Theology 12 (2005)).
- Justin Martyr. First Apology, in After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity, edited by Bart D. Ehrman, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
- Robert Louis Wilken. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. (London: Yale University Press. 1984).
- Bruce M. Metzger. “Considerations of Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity.” (Harvard Theological Review 48 (1955)).
- The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987).
- Antonía Tripolitis. Religions of the Helenistic-Roman Age. (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2002), 51.
- S. Angus. The Mystery-Religions. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1975), 110.
- Antonía Tripolitis. Religions of the Helenistic-Roman Age. (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2002), 47.
- S. Angus. The Mystery-Religions. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1975), 120.
- John F. McConnell. “The Eucharist and the Mystery Religions” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 10,1 (1948)), 35.
- The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 207.
- Antonía Tripolitis. Religions of the Helenistic-Roman Age. (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2002), 50.