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Mystery Religions

Source:
The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Mystery Religions

    Mystery religions, practiced throughout the Mediterranean from the seventh century BCE to the fifth century CE, were secret and voluntary rites of initiation entered by those seeking an intensified form of worship in addition to their inherited traditions dedicated to deities of family, community, and place.

    The term “mystery” derives from the Greek mystēria, which described the oldest initiation rites at Eleusis. The Eleusinian and Dionysian mysteries were Greek, while those of Isis, Mithras, Kybele, and Attis came from the East. Common to each of the mysteries was the prohibition against revealing its secrets to noninitiates. They were literally unspeakable because it was not knowledge but an experience that was transmitted through specific ritual acts, with each cult offering a different experience through the performance of an initiatory rite.

    The participant in the mysteries ritually reenacted the drama and suffering of the deity honored in the rites, which ensured a connection with the deity and a significant change of status for the initiate. The Eleusinian mysteries promised blessedness and a guarantee of immortality, while the mysteries of Isis promised rebirth and freedom from fate.

    The influence of the mysteries can be seen in both Judaism and Christianity. Jewish scriptures of the Hellenistic era employed the terminology of the mysteries to portray the wisdom of God that remains hidden from the ungodly (Wisd. of Sol. 2.22; 6.22). The influence in this case is terminological, as also in Daniel 2.27–30, 47.

    Far more problematic is the question of how far the Greco‐Roman mysteries influenced the early Christian community not only in terminology but also in the rites that secured salvation with Christ. Paul's explanation that baptism united the initiate with the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6.3–5) has elicited heated debate from scholars who have asserted or denied Paul's dependence on the mysteries. The terminological influence of the mystery cults on early Christianity is not disputed, but the degree to which they influenced the content of Christian baptism and celebration of the Eucharist has still not been resolved.

    Like their modern counterparts, early apologists sought to distinguish the Christian rites of initiation from those celebrated by others. Justin Martyr (ca. 150 CE), for example, claimed that the pagan mysteries were demonic counterfeits of the true mysteries of Christ. Yet by the fourth century, as the church adapted to Hellenistic culture, the mystēria of Christ reflected both the terminology and the structure of the ancient mystery cults.

    See also Mystery

    .

    Gregory Shaw

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