By David Kowalski
Around 15 years ago, someone who had just studied the ancient, Greco-Roman, mystery religions asked me about the similarities between these and Christianity. This person was especially struck by some similarities between Dionysus and Christ, as well as between the Dionysian cult and Christianity. This questioner was inclined to believe that Christianity was nothing more than a variant of the mystery religions. I responded to the question as follows:
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Historians have known about these similarities between Christianity and the mystery religions for a long time, and many Christian scholars have commented on them. Liberal scholars often cite such similarities as evidence that Christianity is a syncretistic blend of religious systems. Conservative scholars do not. In fact, archeological finds reveal no evidence of close proximity between the mystery religions and Christianity and they have found no materials indicating any kind of cross-pollination between them (see Merrill Unger’s book, Archeology and the New Testament, pp 22-23).
We find religious similarities across the world that defy any realistic explanation of cross-cultural dissemination. Religious traditions such as the shedding of blood for atonement (indicative of a universal understanding of the deadly consequences of sin) and the story of a god who dies and is resurrected are quite common (this second one is possibly influenced by the cycles of seasons). They are not just products of the mystery cults such as the cult of Dionysus. All of these things can be found in types and shadows within the Old Testament and these predate the mystery religions.
To find a parallel phenomenon, one can look at the worldwide existence of pyramids. Nearly every ancient society had them and employed them in some kind of sacred use.
Though some scholars have suggested a single source that all other cultures copied, most scholars now believe that is not a tenable theory since it cannot account for the phenomenon in both the old and new worlds at approximately the same time. Most credible historians now say they believe the reason for the cross-cultural similarity is that the pyramid is a useful shape which will stand up under the ravages of time.
Conservative Christians have long believed the cross-cultural religious similarities to be either carnal or satanic counterfeits which invade mankind’s consciousness from something akin to archetypes or deep dreams in the subconscious. Just as Romans 1-3 says that God gave mankind a conscience it seems that various cultures have long had the innate understanding that a deity must conquer the realm of sin and death through his own death and resurrection.
You will note that there are significant differences between the Dionysian cult and Christianity, and these differences are greater than the similarities. The Dionysians wore wreaths of ivy, oak or fir, and skins of animals into remote places for their rituals. In their ecstasy, they would wander through the mountains in dizzying dances, and tear animals apart with their bare hands and teeth, eating them raw (the practice of omophagia). Their rites were accompanied by extreme drunkenness and sexual promiscuity. An ancient historian describes the promiscuity thus:
From the time when the rites were held promiscuously, with men and women mixed together, and when the license offered by darkness had been added, no sort of crime, no kind of immortality, was left unattempted. There were more obscenities practiced between men than between men and women. Anyone refusing to submit to outrage or reluctant to commit crimes was slaughtered as a sacrificial victim. To regard nothing as forbidden was among these people the summit of religious achievement. Men, apparently out of their wits, would utter prophesies with frenzied bodily convulsions: matrons, attired as Bacchantes [priestesses], with their hair disheveled and carrying blazing torches, would run down to the Tiber, plunge their torches into the water and bring them out still alight – because they contained a mixture of live sulfur and calcium. Men were said to have been carried off by the gods – because they had been attached to a machine and whisked way out of sight to hidden caves; or to submit to violation. — Titus Livy, History of Rome, Book 39.13
There were quite a few other practices in these cults not found in Christianity. Also, many of the core doctrines of Christianity are not found in the mystery cults or any other religion. The concept of a single, triune God is unique (other religions with three, divine characters were inevitably tritheistic rather than Trinitarian).
Also unique to Christianity is the idea of an atoning and propitiatory sacrifice by God himself that completely suffices as a perpetual substitution for those who have faith. In other religious systems any concept of salvation or rescue is dependent at least in part upon the worshiper or devotee earning the deity’s favor by carrying out his or her religious duties. In contrast to this, Christianity teaches that a believer is justified solely on the basis of what Christ did for him or her on the cross.
In Christianity, this legal justification leads to an inward transformation that results in an obedient lifestyle that has no meritorious effect toward our legal standing. I could cite numerous other examples of major differences between Christianity and the mystery cults.
Conservative Christians such as myself are well aware of the similarities you cite but do not see these as evidence that Christianity is a syncretistic blend. Rather, we see the practices of the mystery religions as evidence that mankind is aware of a spiritual need, and that they have a confused, muddied, and innate understanding of some of what is required to satisfy the religious need they feel
I would add to the above thoughts that the Holy Spirit witnesses to my heart regarding the truths of salvation through Christ and that I have come to know the risen Christ for myself.
“A glory gilds the sacred page
Majestic like the sun;
It gives light to every age–
It gives, but borrows none.”
— William Cowper
© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.