Was Early Christianity a Mystery Religion? (Q&A)

Q:  I heard that early Christianity was a mystery religion in Rome.  Is this true and does anyone know any of the characteristics of mystery religions? (I know that they were a secret but has anything come out about them?)  Was it a popular one, like were there many Romans who joined it?  Also did mystery religions have supernatural events that happened, as I read that in some mystery religions, people would enter the spirit world or supernatural realm.

Anyway, I hope that made sense, and thanks for any help.

A:  The main focus of the most important rituals of the ancient mystery religions, as far as we know,  was the revelation of some secret act or ritual object with deep symbolic meaning for those trained in the belief system of the religion.  This took place toward the end of a lengthy and elaborate ritual.  This revelation was often intended to produce a specific spiritual or emotional effect on the initiates that were experiencing it for the first time.  They were then sworn to keep this ritual a secret, and in most cases they did, as we are still ignorant of most of the core mysteries today.

When scholars speak of Christianity as a mystery religion, this refers primarily to the striking similarity between the Eucharist or Communion as it developed in the Roman world and what we know of the mystery religions. In fact, the closest thing today to the celebration of the ancient mysteries, or even to the liturgies of the pagan Roman state religion, is a traditional Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox mass with its processions and candles and incense.

All of this was quite different than the earliest Christian worship services, which took place in an initially Jewish setting. What later became the Eucharist or Communion began as a simple set of blessings said at a communal evening meal, together with the sharing of bread and a cup in memory of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Among the Gentile Christians in Rome and elsewhere, though, this was soon changed. The blessings along with the bread and cup were removed from an actual meal and placed in a morning worship service that had more in common with pagan Roman rites than with the Jewish original. As in the mystery religions, the cup and bread became special ritual objects that were revealed at the end of a long ritual, but only to those properly initiated. Later  it came to be believed that something mysterious and magical happened at the exact moment when the priest said certain words over these elements: that the wine and bread actually became, physically, the body and blood of Christ.

Needless to say, this was not the original idea, even in Rome, but the result of a development over centuries.  This development took into account local ideas about religion, including that of the mystery religions. The original Jewish commemoration was more an act of corporate memory, as in the Passover meal with which it was first associated.  It was intended to bring past events into living memory. But in the context of Roman society, this communal family-style meal was transformed into more of a magical ritual performed by a priest, of which the congregation were merely spectators. This was the result, in part, of the influence of the mystery religions.

It was against these later developments that the Protestant Reformation was launched in the 16th century, in the attempt to return Christianity to a more Biblical form of worship.

As far as its popularity goes, Christianity started quite small, but quickly gained adherents.  By AD 64, when Nero persecuted the Christians living in the city of Rome, they had become an “immense multitude” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44.5).  This was only 34 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  By AD 112, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the number of Christians had become so many in some places that the pagan temples were in danger of becoming deserted (Pliny, Epp. 10.96.10).  By the time of Constantine, at the beginning of the 4th cent. AD, though Christians were still a minority of the population, they soon became a majority after Christianity was made a legal religion in the Roman Empire.  

(For more on this topic, see our Jewish Roots of Christianity Book and Seminar.)

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