The Mystery Cults & Christianity
With the plethora of religions that permeate this world, any thinking person has to wonder what it is that makes their particular religion somehow unique, bearing a divine revelation or sacred truth that stands apart from and above all others. The position held by nearly all those within Christendom is that Christianity is just that religion—a uniquely inspired revelation from the one, true God. The belief is that it transcends all rival religions in its distinctive nature and marked superiority.
But is this really the case? Let’s put it to the test: If asked to identify the god who came in human form as a great king—the “King of Kings”—who was betrayed and suffered a horrific death, which was mourned vehemently by women who sought after the body for proper burial procedures, yet was restored to life three days later and ascended to the gates of heaven, what might you answer? What if it were further noted that this god reigned henceforth in the celestial sphere as Ruler and Judge over those in the hereafter; and having conquered death, he extends the same reward to those who are deemed righteous and worthy under his judgment, bestowing upon them the gift of everlasting life? Further yet, what if one could ritually partake of his flesh and blood as a means to immortality, even internalizing his death and resurrection to bring about a spiritual rebirth already in this life? You would, of course, be correct if you answered, “Jesus.” What might come as a shock, especially to most Christians, is that you would also be correct if you answered, “Osiris.”
Osiris is but one example of the various gods featured in the mystery cults of antiquity. Not all of them come as close to the mark as Osiris does in matching Christ’s attributes, but the underlying themes within each of these clandestine cults have a striking resemblance to the Christian religion. This paper will set out to discuss in detail the nature of the mysteries, as well as their historical roots and lineage. It will examine each of the most prominent cults, including the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, the Eleusinian mysteries, the Orphic mysteries, as well as those of Attis and Zalmoxis. Having discussed their basic features and themes, it will be demonstrated that Christianity partook of much in the way of mystery religion concepts, themes, symbolism, ritual, and salvation schema. The objective is to leave the reader doubtless that Christianity is not entirely unique, but belongs categorically to a classification of religions we deem “the mysteries.”
The Agricultural Revolution: A Historical Catalyst
About 10,000 years ago, the Ice Age came to an end, resulting in the migration of wild game, flora, and fauna that hunter-gatherers had depended upon from time immemorial (Eliade 29). In response to this, man had to innovate new ways to maintain sustenance. Thus, the advent of agriculture. With the rise of agriculture, man gradually ceased to be nomadic and began settling in areas conducive to the cultivation of crops, giving rise to civilization. As agriculture became essential to both civilization and subsistence, it also became crucial to understand the nature of the seasons and the solar cycles that contribute to seasonal change (Eliade 37).
Since the scientific method had yet to be conceived, we came to understand the sun and the seasons through stories, rituals, legends, and myths—particularly the personification of croplife. From this sprang “dying-and-rising god myths, [which] symbolized the death and return of vegetation, or the shortening and lengthening of the daylight” (Price 154). Renowned scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, refers to this as “the ‘mystery’ of vegetation,” in which “religious ideas, mythologies, and ritual scenarios [expressed] the mystery of birth, death, and rebirth identified in the rhythm of vegetation” (41). Eliade adds that such phenomena became “translated into mythological dramas, [wherein] the mythical theme of gods who die and return to life is among the most important” (41).
We begin to see these dramas played out in the earliest civilizations, such as the Sumerian tale of Dumuzi/Tammuz who undergoes death at the hands of his scorned consort, yet is restored to life six months later. “In the sixth century [B.C.], Ezekiel (8:14) cried out against the women who wept for [Tammuz] even at the gates of the Temple,” though he will later be vindicated, “taking on the dramatic and elegiac figure of the young gods who die and are resurrected annually” (Eliade 66). Similarly, the Canaanite god Baal meets with his demise in confrontation with Mot—the god of death—yet triumphs and reigns thenceforth as the victorious king of a new and peaceful era, reminiscent of Christ’s role as the Messiah (Eliade 158).
Yet it is not until the Egyptian Osiris (c. 2600 B.C.) that we see the definite emergence of a mystery religion—a belief system in which the resurrection of the god has salvific implications for those of his devotees. At first, this only benefitted the Pharaoh. As Eliade explains, Pyramidal texts “allude to the Pharaoh’s identification with Osiris. We find such formulas as this: “Even as Osiris lives, this king Unis lives; even as Osiris does not die, so this king Unis does not die” (97). However, what once was reserved for the Pharaoh eventually applied to everyone, giving rise to the more generalized formula found in ancient Egyptian burial inscriptions: “As Osiris died, so has [the believer] died; and as Osiris rose, so shall [the believer] rise” (Doherty). Scholar of comparative religion, S.G.F. Brandon, elaborates:
By the New Kingdom all persons who could afford the expense could hope for revivification through ritual assimilation to Osiris …The image was that of a divine hero who had suffered and died, and then rose from the dead. Thus Osiris was not some remote transcendent deity such as Re, the sun god, but one who had endured the grim ordeal that awaited all men. In his image, moreover, the Egyptian devotees saw also the promise of their own resurrection from death and eternal life in the realm of Osiris. Phenomenologically, if not historically, Osiris was thus a prototype of Christ. (1940)
And, so, we begin to see, as Dr. Robert M. Price explains, that “what once symbolized the external, the death and rebirth of nature, now came to symbolize the internal, the death and rebirth of the soul” (155). Man came to believe that performing certain rituals of initiation could mystically unite him with the fate of the risen god, effecting for him a spiritual death and rebirth already in this life and, ultimately, a blessed existence in the next. Historian Earl Doherty refers to such mysticism as “a parallel interaction between the god and the devotee; and the means of bringing that interaction into effect was a ritual (often baptism-like) that supposedly joined the believer with the god and guaranteed that the experience of the god would be reflected in the fate of the believer.” Also speaking on the Osirian tradition, Swiss scholar, Alfred Bertholet, concurs, stating, “That the believer repeats the experiences of his god is a favorite thought in the ancient mystery religions. Thus the belief in the resurrection of man can, wherever such a resurrection is expected, be based upon belief in the resurrection of the god honored by him” (12).
Beginning with such devotions to Osiris, ancient Egypt set the stage for a phenomenon that would catch like wildfire, especially as it made inroads into the Greco-Roman world. By at least the fifth century B.C., the Greeks had taken notice of the Egyptian cult as indicated by the premier historian of Western Civilization, Herodotus: “On this lake it is that the Egyptians represent by night his sufferings whose name I refrain from mentioning, and this representation they call their Mysteries. I know well the whole course of the proceedings in these ceremonies, but they shall not pass my lips” (42). Esoteric studies expert, Arthur Versluis, explains that there was a time when scholars “dismiss[ed] many of the Greek or Roman claims of direct connections to Egyptian tradition,” though it has since been “shown conclusively the links between Egyptian traditions and the Greco-Roman Mystery and magical traditions” (12). That being said, we move onward, making our “exodus” from Egypt, to explore the evolution of the mysteries as they advanced into the Greco-Roman world.
Hellenism: The Golden Age of the Mysteries
If it hadn’t been for one man historically, Christianity simply would not exist. That man is not Jesus. Nor is it the Apostle Paul, as many might venture a guess, though his contributions are considerable and will be discussed at length. The man in question is none other than Alexander the Great. In the fourth century B.C., Alexander conquered half the known world, inaugurating the Hellenistic Age, during which the infusion of Greek culture with surrounding areas made for a rich melting pot of religious ideas and customs (Price 155). Alexander’s conquests altogether altered the social landscape of the Mediterranean world, with various cultures coming into contact with one another as never before. By this time, the old Olympian gods of the Greek polis had already begun to lose favor, as the Hellenistic world became more “cosmopolitan,” with “a new sense of the oikoumene, the ‘inhabited’ world,” an “international stage for human action” (Meyer 1-2). And with the decline of the traditional Greek pantheon, there arose a new religious impulse, one in which “detribalized individuals sought individual salvation” (Maccoby 102).
As Eliade explains, “the promise of salvation constitutes the novelty and principal characteristic of the Hellenistic religions,” and nothing could better satisfy this desire than that delivered by the mystery cults (277). “The divinities who were believed to have undergone death and resurrection were closer to individual men than were the tutelary gods of the polis” (Eliade 277). This desire for personal salvation “developed under the sign of syncretism,” which Eliade describes as being “the dominant characteristic of the period,” a phenomenon made possible by Alexander’s contribution to Western civilization (277). Professor of Religious Studies, Marvin Meyer, concurs, stating that “the so-called ‘mysteries’ flourished during the Hellenistic period and proved very popular among people seeking new and more satisfying religious experiences,” ones in which initiates were “united in their quest for personal salvation” (3-4).
“Mystery,” by the way, stems from the Greek mysterion, which, in turn, comes to us from the Greek myein, which means “to close”—referring to closing one’s lips or eyes. One closes their lips in order to maintain secrecy—a matter of paramount importance in the cults—and one closes their eyes in order to experience the contrast between darkness and light, or, symbolically, death and rebirth (Meyer 4). As noted, the mysteries thrived during the Hellenistic Age, the period from around 323 B.C.—marking the death of Alexander—up through to the early Christian era. Because of the rampant syncretism that characterized the period, the Greco-Roman world was saturated with gods and goddesses not only from Classical Greece, but from such exotic lands as Egypt, Persia, Syria, Asia Minor, etc. (Price 154). Thus, there existed a flurry of various mystery cults centered on gods from disparate locales, though thematically they were all quite similar—especially as it relates to their power to grant immortality. In the next section of this paper, we will examine each of the most prominent cults in turn, beginning with the mysteries of Eleusis.
The Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter & Kore
The mysteries of Eleusis are unique in that their origins, like those of Isis and Osiris, are considerably pre-Hellenic (c. 1500 B.C.), though they likely reached the apex of their popularity during the Hellenistic Age, as with the other mysteries of antiquity. They received their namesake from the primary cult site of activity in the city of Eleusis, just north of Corinth.
The foundational myth behind these mysteries concerned the story of Demeter and her daughter Kore, also known as Persephone. Both deities were “personifications of grain: Demeter, the mature grain with maternal potency, and Kore, the newly planted grain of the autumn sowing” (Meyer 17). The connection with agricultural worship is thus quite clear. As Meyer explains, the Eleusinian mysteries “celebrated the fertility and life of grain” (17).
In short, the myth relates the death of Kore at the hands of Hades—god of the underworld. Demeter bewailed the loss of her daughter, resulting in the sterility of vegetation and widespread famine. But, with the eventual aid of the gods, Demeter determined to bring her back, resulting in Kore’s resurrection from the realm of Hades (death) to the land of the living, although she is bound to a cyclical process of death and resurrection due to Hade’s trickery.
Most of our information concerning this myth comes to us from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which, as Meyer relates, “proclaims, in mythic form, the mystery of the life cycle of grain,” in which “Kore’s yearly sojourn in the underworld for a four-month period of time compares well with the period of time, in the Greek agricultural calendar, between the harvest in June and planting in October, during which time the grain fields lie barren and empty” (20). Yet, the planted seed eventually sprouts to new life, a case in which “life emerges after death in the world of vegetation” (Meyer 21). And therein lies the symbolism of the myth.
Most important are the implications of these mysteries for their participants. As Eliade explains, “Through the initiation, the human condition was modified,” and the relevant texts “emphasize the postmortem bliss of the initiated” (292). They vividly express “the hope of a happy existence beyond the grave” (Eliade 293):
Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries! But he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom. –Hesiod (Eliade 290)
Happy he who has seen this before descending underground! He knows the end of life! He also knows its beginning! –Pindar (Eliade 292)
Thrice happy those among mortals who, having seen those Mysteries, will go down to Hades; only they can have true life there; for the rest, all there is evil. –Sophocles (Eliade 292)
Through ritual initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries, man shares a “spiritual kinship” with the central goddesses, having become, in a sense, divinely adopted—a “relative (gennetes)” of Demeter and Kore (Eliade 299). In so doing, he has secured his lot in a joyous and blessed afterlife. Though it is never expressly stated, there can be little doubt that the resurrection of Kore, like that of Osiris, played an instrumental role in the imagined “mechanics” of the salvation scheme—the notion that, just as she had conquered death, so too could her devotees.
The Thracian Mysteries: Dionysus, Orphism & Zalmoxis
Dionysus was originally worshiped in Thrace, dating back to as early as 1200 B.C. (Eliade 359). He arrived in Greece by the time of Homer (9th C. B.C.) and became widely revered as the god of theater, fertility and wine. Dionysus was believed to be the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele (Eliade 281). Like the other mystery gods, he was associated with various aspects of nature, particularly with “the life of plants: ivy and the pine became almost his attributes, and his most popular festivals coincide with the agricultural calendar” (Eliade 360).
“The worshipers of Dionysus acknowledged his presence in the raw flesh of wild beasts as well as the goblet of wine” (Meyer 63). “Initiates were said to tear animals to pieces (sparagmos) and eat the raw flesh (omophagia) as a way of assimilating the Dionysian power embodied within the animal” (Meyer 63). “This ritual omophagy produced identification with the god” (Eliade 173). “The holy drink that initiates of Dionysus consumed was ordinarily wine, since wine was the special gift of the god” (Meyer 63). Through such rituals, “such a person became one with Dionysus,” forming a divine connection between man and his god. This communion of sorts comports with the way in which “Osiris worshipers consumed bread and beer, symbolizing the body and blood of the god of the grain,” as indicated by Pryamidal texts in which the initiate receives “thy bread of eternity, and thy beer of everlastingness” (Price 155; O’Brien 36). Eliade refers to such initiation rites as “an experience that engendered belief in an intimate bond established with the god” (283).
Moreover, Dionysus was said to have brought his bride, Ariadne, back from the dead. Ariadne “symbolized the human soul … in other words, Dionysus not only delivered the soul from death; he also united himself with it in a mystical marriage” (Eliade 281). Through such mystical unity, Dionysus had the power to grant salvation to his devotees.
In what is known as the Orphic myth of Dionysus—named after Orpheus, the priest of Dionysus—Hera sends the evil Titans to entice and devour the infant Dionysus, otherwise known as Zagreus. Infuriated, Zeus struck them with a thunderbolt, and they were obliterated. From the ashes, man was created. Thus, based on the original elements, man had both a Titanic (fleshly/sinful) nature, and a Dionysian (heavenly/divine) nature (Meyer 65). Yet, the heart of Dionysus Zagreus is retrieved—variously by either Athena, Rhea, or Demeter—and given to Zeus, who either sows it in his thigh and bears the newborn Zagreus or, according to another version of the myth, places it in the womb of Semele, from which he is reborn (Eliade 369). “The Epicurean Philodemus, a contemporary of Cicero, speaks of the three births of Dionysus, “the first from his mother, the second from the thigh, and the third when, after his dismemberment by the Titans, Rhea gathered together his limbs and he came to life again” (Eliade 369-70). The second century Greek historian, Plutarch, likewise remarks that Dionysus “was reborn as Zagreus … son of Zeus and Semele” (Eliade 371). Similarly, the first century B.C. historian, Diodorus Siculus, relates, “his members were brought together again by Demeter and he experienced a new birth as if for the first time” (Diodorus 289).
The Orphic initiate, by exercising his Dionysian nature, could be reborn in the image of Dionysus–to shed his sinful, Titanic nature and be saved. Gold leaves found in graves from the 4th century B.C. state, “Now you are dead, and now you are born on this very day, thrice blessed. Tell Persephone that [Dionysus] himself has redeemed you” (Johnston 36-37). Similarly, bone tablets from the 5th century B.C. are inscribed, “Life. Death. Life. Truth. Dio(nysus). Orphics” (Hinge). Again, this accords with what Doherty describes as “a parallel interaction between the god and the devotee.” Man is reborn in the image of Dionysus, just as he is immortalized in the image of the risen Osiris.
What’s more, the “Orphics described at length the torments of the guilty—the infinite ills in store for the damned” (Eliade 191-92). Just as Hesiod expressed, in ominous terms, the fate of those who are “uninitiate,” Plato delivered this foreboding passage:
…they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them, no one knows what awaits us (36).
Such views accord with the ancient Egyptian tradition, whereby the deceased stood trial in the judgment hall before Osiris. Their heart was weighed against the feather of Ma’at(Truth), and if it sunk too heavy with sin, they were subject to a “second death” (akin to Revelation 21:8)—tossed into the vile jaws of the devilish creature, Ammit, whereby their souls were banished forever (Eliade 111). The threat of damnation proved a powerful incentive for many to seek salvation in the mysteries.
As for Zalmoxis, “certain ancient authors, as well as a number of modern scholars, have connected [him] with Dionysus and Orpheus,” since, not only is Zalmoxis of Thracian origin, but also the characteristics of his cult are remarkably similar—certainly reflecting that of a mystery religion (Eliade 178). The devotees of Zalmoxis “claim to be immortal,” states Herodotus, for “they believe that they do not die, but that he who perishes goes to the god Zalmoxis” (Eliade 175). About Zalmoxis, Herodotus further noted that he “entertained and feasted the chief among his countrymen and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants should ever die, but that they should go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things” (Eliade 176). “This ‘immortality’ was obtained by means of an initiation, which brings the cult inaugurated by Zalmoxis close to the Greek and Hellenistic Mysteries” (Eliade 177).
Herodotus claims that Zalmoxis merely hid away in an underground chamber for three years, while his Thracian devotees mourned him for dead; though, upon his return, they rejoiced and were assured of immortality (Eliade 176). However, Herodotus was reporting the story with a marked skepticism, denying that Zalmoxis experienced any sort of death and resurrection by chalking it up to pure trickery (Carrier). As historian Richard Carrier points out, “it is clear [we’re receiving] information regarding what Zalmoxis taught from hostile Greeks, not the believing [Thracians], and from a story intended to discredit and ridicule the Getic faith, which Herodotus does not believe and all but refutes.” Carrier drives his point home in the following analysis:
[Herodotus’] interpretation makes no actual sense anyway. If the return of Zalmoxis was thought by the [Thracians] to mean he never died but only hid away somewhere for three years, that would do nothing whatever to persuade them … of his promise of immortality. Yet his return (so the hostile account claims) persuaded them that he and they were immortal … [it] is fairly obvious they believed their one and only god Zalmoxis had died, and then appeared risen from the dead as a proof of his teaching that believers would live eternally with him in paradise.
Carrier cogently argues that Zalmoxis belongs to the dying-and-rising god mytheme. As with the other mysteries, Zalmoxis, through his own conquest of death, extended immortality to his devotees. As Eliade concludes, his “teachings concerning a happy existence in another world make it comparable to the Mysteries” (178).
The Phrygian Mysteries: Cybele & Attis
In the earliest myths of Attis, the godling is about to wed King Pessinos’ daughter when Cybele, jealous and in fury, interrupts the ceremony. Attis is maddened by the experience and flees under a pine tree, where he castrates himself and bleeds to death. Plagued with regret, Cybele invokes Zeus to have his body preserved, never to rot or decay (Eliade 285). At some point in the legacy of Attis’ myth—probably due to Osirian influence—the mere preservation of his body morphed into a full-blown resurrection, leading to a “Passion Week” by the 1st century A.D. under the reign of Caesar Claudius (Meyer 113; Doherty).
Attis represented “the ear harvested green,” indicating, once again, the vestiges of agricultural reverence (Eliade 287). As Eliade states, “the mythico-ritual scenario [of the cult] illustrated the ‘mystery’ of vegetation,” which “constitute[d] the source of a religion of salvation that became extremely popular throughout the Roman Empire during the first centuries of the Christian era”(285).
“The festivals [dedicated to Attis] were celebrated at the spring equinox, from March 15 to March 28” (Eliade 286). “Attis initiates would castrate themselves in the course of an induced frenzy” (Price 155). “Such painful and dramatic acts allowed the worshipers to identify with the passion and death of Attis,” just as identification with the god was emphasized in the aforementioned cults. (Meyer 114). A “brotherhood of tree-bearers brought a cut pine tree from the forest. Its trunk was wrapped in narrow bands, like a corpse, and an image of Attis was fastened to the middle of it. The tree represented the dead god” (Eliade 286). “Then, three days later, [the participants] would retrieve [this] effigy of Attis and rejoice in his resurrection, a token of their own” (Price 155). “It was the day of ‘joy,’ the Hilaria” (Eliade 287).
“In Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Religions, explicit mention is made of the resurrection of Attis” (Meyer 114): “Be of good cheer, O’ initiates, for the god is saved, and we too shall have salvation for our woes” (Eliade 286). Regarding those initiated, Firmicus remarks that “you should die as he dies, and you should live as he lives,” the same salvation scheme represented in the Osirian formula, “As Osiris died, so has [the believer] died; and as Osiris rose, so shall [the believer] rise” (Doherty). Firmicus also describes initiation as a “process of dying,” by which, according to an ancient Roman inscription, he is “reborn for eternity” (Eliade 280; Meyer 254).
The salvific properties of Attis’ cult are also reflected in a “ceiling fresco of a recently excavated building from the reign of Tiberius, [in which] we see a winged Attis leading someone to Olympus, which must mean that he is immortal himself, capable of granting immortality to his devotees” (Doherty). This interpretation is validated by the fact that, in ancient esoteric traditions, wings were associated with ascent into the next world (Versluis 17). Thus, Attis is escorting the devotee into the heavenly realm, granting him eternal life in the hereafter.
Just as in the mysteries of Osiris and Dionysus, the Attis cult featured a “ritual meal,” one that “consisted essentially of bread and wine: indeed, Firmicus Maternus interprets it as the demonic and baneful equivalent of the Christian communion” (Eliade 287). It was common for early church fathers like Justin Martyr and Firmicus Maternus to denounce such similarities as diabolical mimicry, suggesting that Satan counterfeited the “true religion” in advance. One can hardly blame them. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Greco-Roman Mysteries of Isis & Osiris
We have already discussed the ancient Egyptian elements of Osiris’ cult. The underlying myth relates his death at the hands of his jealous brother, Set, who has him interred in a coffin and later dismembered. Osiris’ consort, Isis, bewails his death in similar fashion to the way in which Demeter mourned for Kore and Cybele lamented over Attis. Eventually, Isis recovers the severed members of Osiris and restores him to life. Henceforth, he becomes the prototype of the dying-and-rising god who confers immortality to his devotees, including Dionysus, Zalmoxis, Attis, et al.
“By the Hellenistic period the worship of Isis and Osiris had become established in one form or another among the Greeks, and a bit later it was also common among the Romans” (Meyer 158). “Spreading first into Asia Minor and Greece, it entered Italy in the second century B.C. and Rome at the beginning of the first century” (Eliade 291). And thus was imported a Greco-Roman form of the ancient Egyptian mysteries (Meyer 158).
The Osirian myth became widely known throughout the Greek world as reflected in the second century historian, Plutarch, whose treatise, On Isis and Osiris, recounts the most comprehensive version of the story. The following excerpt features some of the most prominent details:
Zeus bade [Pamyles] proclaim with a loud voice that a mighty and beneficent king, Osiris, had been born … [Osiris] traveled over the whole Earth civilizing it, without the slightest need of arms, but most of the peoples he won over to his way by the charm of his persuasive discourse … his body Typhon did tear to pieces and put out of sight; and Isis wandered about, sought for it, and joined it together again … A great shout arises from the company for joy that Osiris is found … the rites celebrated by night agree with the accounts of the dismemberment of Osiris and his revivification and regenesis (33-87).
As for initiation into the Greco-Roman mysteries of Isis and Osiris, it is “Apuleius’ testimony in Book 11 of his Metamorphoses [that] is regarded—and rightly—as the most valuable document of all ancient writings on the Mysteries” (Eliade 291). “In addition to furnishing a full account of the public ceremonies that precede the initiation itself, Apuleius offers a guarded description of what happened during the evening of the secret initiation of Lucius,” the story’s protagonist (Meyer 158). Accordingly, Lucius “approached the frontiers of death,” undergoing “a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace,” whereby he “returned … in a manner reborn … set once more upon the course of renewed life” (Eliade 292).
“We undoubtedly have here an experience of death and resurrection,” notes Eliade (292). “For the hero of the Metamorphoses, this day was the anniversary of his rebirth in the bosom of the Mysteries” (Eliade 293). “In this cult, the initiate can be identified with none other than Osiris … An identification with the god is therefore present” (Griffiths 315). This is quite likely the clearest example of the mystical concept by which the initiate undergoes a spiritual death and rebirth in parallel interaction with the fate of the risen god. Or is it? The next mystery religion that we will examine expresses this concept just as vividly. It is a religion that has dominated Western civilization for the last 2,000 years. And it hardly needs any introduction.
There’s no escaping the fact that all of us are a product of our cultural environment, and our ideas, beliefs, and worldviews—even our very identities—tend to be molded as such. Ergo, a man brought up in first century Tarsus, a city that rivaled even Athens and Alexandria in Hellenistic predominance, could not help but be immersed in Hellenistic ideas, especially those stemming from the ubiquitous mystery religions of the day (Maccoby 96). Archaeological finds from the first century B.C. make it clear that the cult of Attis in particular thrived in the city of Tarsus (Honig 80). So, we shouldn’t be surprised that even a Jewish man hailing from that time and place would, consciously or not, assimilate Hellenistic mystery concepts with those of his Jewish background, spinning Old Testament elements into a new religious synthesis. That man is none other than the Apostle Paul.
It is important to note that the earliest documents in the New Testament are Paul’s Epistles. The order in which the New Testament works are arranged is somewhat misleading, in that the Gospels and Acts precede the Pauline letters. However, Paul’s letters are dated to 50-60 A.D., while the Gospels weren’t recorded until around 70-110 A.D., and Acts even later. Thus, Paul serves as our formal introduction to Christianity. And it is his Epistles, the foundational documents of the New Testament, with which we are most concerned, for they are swimming in mystery cult terminology and salvation schema.
As Richard Carrier notes, there is a “rampant use of mystery religion vocabulary in the Epistles.” The word mysterion is used 27 times in the New Testament, 21 of which are by Paul (Blackaby 85). An excellent example of such usage is 1 Corinthians 15:51, where Paul reveals the ‘mystery’ of how we will all be changed at the last trumpet, a concept that corresponds to the renewal and transformation of the newly initiated into the pagan mysteries—or what Eliade referred to as the modification of the human condition. This is represented in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses when “the final transformation of the protagonist” is achieved “through the miracle of Mystery-initiation” (Price). In Colossians 1:27, Paul declares, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this ‘mystery,’ which is Christ in you, the hope of glory,” reflecting the divine unity expressed in the mysteries, as well as the hope in store for those initiated.
Also important is Paul’s use of the word teleios (perfection/maturity), as in Colossians 1:28: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may be made perfect in Christ;” 1 Corinthians 13:10: “but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears;” and 2 Corinthians 13:9: “our prayer is that you may be made perfect.” This is similar to the way in which Plutarch speaks of mystery participants as “perfect and initiated” (Meyer 9). Price notes that initiation into the mysteries “was like a second puberty rite, admission into a higher level of maturity, spiritual maturity—the same word as ‘perfection’ in Greek” (155). The spiritual perfection to which one aspires through Christ parallels the objectives of the pre-Christian mysteries. Between the correspondent usage of such words as mysterion and teleios, Paul exhibits a terminological adoption from the mysteries.
In keeping with the theme of agriculture, Plato’s Phaedrus speaks of planting seeds in the “garden of Adonis,” so that they may bear fruit and “arrive at perfection,” a notion reminiscent of the Eleusinian Mysteries—likewise reflected in Paul’s vision of the death of the planted seed and its sprouting to new life in 1 Corinthians 15:35-37. “The resurrected body, he emphasizes, is like a seed of wheat or some other grain that dies and then rises … this cycle of grain was dramatized in the death and new life of Kore and, by extension, the initiates into the mysteries” (Meyer 252). Paul appropriates not only the terminology of the mysteries, but their symbolic imagery as well.
Above all, it is the salvation scheme reflected in Paul’s Epistles that mark Christianity as a near-replica of the pagan mysteries. Part of that scheme, the doctrine of atonement for sin, derives from the Old Testament, as Paul’s Christianity was a syncretism of Judaism with the mystery religions (Maccoby 197). But, it is the mystical experience of dying and rising with the deity through ritual initiation that Paul takes over from the mysteries, reflected variously throughout his Epistles:
…having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:12).
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).
Though nowhere is this more vividly expressed than in Romans 6:3-5:
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
Compare this passage with initiation as presented in Metamorphoses, whereby the participant “approached the frontiers of death” in unison with Osiris and, by “a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace,” they “returned … in a manner reborn … set once more upon the course of renewed life.” Likewise, the Christian neophyte is “baptized into Christ Jesus … into his death … buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … [they] too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Both passages reflect the ancient Egyptian formula: “As Osiris died, so has [the believer] died; and as Osiris rose, so shall [the believer] rise.” Whether in Christianity or the mysteries, the initiate undergoes a spiritual death and rebirth by being mystically united with the dying-and-rising god, sharing in their experience of death and resurrection (Maccoby 195).
In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul introduces us to the Christian conception of Communion:
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
It’s worth noting that Paul’s use of the term “Lord’s Supper” stems from the Greek kuriakon deipnon, the same expression used in the mystery rites (Maccoby 116). John’s gospel, written around 110 A.D., reiterates Paul’s message thusly:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever (John 6:53-58).
“The Eucharist signifies the mystical incorporation of the initiate into the godhead by eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ” (Maccoby 110). “While the consumption of the savior’s body and blood cannot have come from any form of Judaism, where such symbolism must be absolutely abhorrent, it fits beautifully into the context of [the mystery religions]” (Price 155). As we have seen, this communal rite has its roots in the Osirian consumption of bread and beer and the omophagia of Dionysus, as well as the ritual meal of bread and wine in the mysteries of Attis. The Christian Communion overtly recalls the ancient Egyptian partaking of “thy bread of eternity, and thy beer of everlastingness.”
The similarities between Pauline Christianity and the mystery religions need to be recognized, for only then can one glimpse that what Paul was offering his hearers was not a new purpose or a new vision, but a new form of a familiar need and goal. He was teaching, not a different salvation, but a newer version, and, as he insisted, the only form of salvation; not a strange or recondite religious goal, but what he considered to be the sure and sole means of achieving the commonly recognized goal of religion (Sandmel 99-100).
Thus, while Christianity is not entirely unique, it is unique in the sense that, through the works of Paul and other New Testament authors, we have a remarkable case of the kind of religious syncretism that characterized the Hellenistic Age. The Christian religion was, and still is, an extremely unique blend of Judaism with Hellenistic and pre-Christian concepts. It produced something unprecedented in the ancient world, and it’s no wonder it rose to such success. It offered the whole Jewish panorama of quasi-historical, Old Testament narratives, uniquely synthesized with the salvation schema and sacramentalism of the mystery religions.
Addendum: Refuting Apologetic Objections
Many Christian apologists—defenders of the faith—make much of Dr. Ronald Nash’s famous work, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? And they do so by carting outa list of Nash’s primary contentions against mystery cult influence upon Christianity—a list which represents the standard objections raised by most apologists. Nash summarizes the ten most “serious weaknesses” in the critics’ claim that Christianity was derived from the mysteries:
First, similarity does not prove dependence. The fact of some similarities between Christianity and the mysteries no more proves Christianity was derived from them than similarities between dogs and cats prove dogs derived from cats.
Here, Nash is attempting to accuse scholars of comparative religion of the post hoc fallacy, which states that correlation is not causation. However, the fallacy would be better stated, “Correlation is not necessarily causation.” Often times, correlations exist precisely because of causation, which is why the fallacy exists to begin with, since we have a tendency to over-infer causation based on the general rule.
As it concerns this case, if scholars of comparative religion were going merely on superficial similarities, positing dependence might well constitute such a fallacy. But, there’s a far greater cumulative case at hand: primarily, the soteriological similarities (the homologic principle, or imitatio dei, whereby the devotee mystically shares in the god’s death and resurrection); the mystery terminology employed by Paul; the agricultural imagery invoked by the NT authors; the likely influence of the mysteries upon Paul and other converts in Tarsus, Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc., and the fact that Christianity ultimately arose from a Hellenistic milieu in which the mysteries had reached the height of their popularity–not to mention, the fact that religious syncretism was particularly rife during this period. It is also worth noting that none of these similarities have a legitimate home in Judaism, but were certainly prevalent in the mysteries, whence they must have been derived.
Second, even the alleged similarities “are either greatly exaggerated or invented.” Scholars often describe pagan rituals in language they borrow from Christianity. It is inexcusable nonsense to take the word “savior” with all of its New Testament connotations and apply it to Osiris or Attis as though they were savior-gods in any similar sense.
No, it is “inexcusable nonsense” to claim that Christianity has some kind of trademark on words and phrases that are just as apt for describing the mysteries as they are for Christianity. For example, Nash suggests the use of the word “resuscitation” for the mystery gods, though “resurrection” is far more appropriate, since the former implies restoration from unconsciousness, from the cessation of breathing, or from a mere “apparent” death, whereas ”resurrection” more aptly describes a restoration from a state of absolute death to life, which applies equally whether to Jesus, Osiris, Dionysus, etc. Nash is merely engaging in special pleading for exclusive ownership of his favored vocabulary, in a desperate attempt to distance Christianity as much as possible from legitimate and noteworthy similarities in the pagan cults.
Nash’s assertion that the word “savior” carries a misleading connotation in reference to the mystery gods is sheer nonsense. Of course they were saviors in the same sense! Whether through Jesus Christ or the Egyptian Osiris, one was saved from the cessation of existence, from damnation, whether at the hands of Ammit or Eternal Hellfire, and given the gift of eternal life. In the Hellenistic mysteries in particular, one could attain rebirth already in this life, just as Christian baptism achieves for its initiates.
Third, the chronology is all wrong because the basic beliefs of Christianity were in existence in the first century, while the full development of the mystery religions did not happen until the second century … If any borrowing did occur, it was the other way around.
First of all, as Price notes, “It is a fundamental methodological error to assume that a phenomenon must have arisen just shortly before its earliest attestation.” Besides, this is an egregious error on Nash’s part. We have a plethora of highly informative, pre-Christian sources on the mysteries, from ancient pyramidal texts (circa 2600 BC) to the testimony of such historic figures as Hesiod, Pindar, Sophocles, Herodotus, Plato, Livy, Diodorus of Sicily, and Julius Caesar, all of which range from the 8th century BC to the 1st century BC. Nash is either woefully ignorant of the facts or lying outright.
No doubt, we get a fuller picture of mystery cult practices in the 2nd-4th centuries AD, but this is to be expected. The mysteries, as their namesake implies, held secrecy in the highest regard; therefore, not until the spread of Christianity do we receive antagonistic commentary from early Church Fathers, providing the bulk of extant evidence. There would likely be a great deal more evidence had it not been for the destructive decrees against paganism by Emperor Theodosius in the 4th century A.D.
Nevertheless, we can easily reconstruct the general practices and beliefs of the early Hellenistic mysteries from the collection of both pre- and post-Christian sources, which comport with each other quite well—in particular, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and the correspondent texts of ancient Egyptian burial inscriptions, which indicate that the salvific components of the Hellenistic mysteries have their conceptual roots in the 3rd millennium B.C.
I would say that Nash is playing fast and loose with the facts, but, rather, he isn’t playing with the facts at all. He’s ignoring a substantial quantity of them.
Fourth, as a devout Jew, the Apostle Paul would never have considered borrowing his teachings from pagan religion. There is not the slightest hint of pagan beliefs in his writings.
Quite to the contrary, all of our information about Paul makes it highly likely that he was influenced by pagan sources, particularly the mysteries. As noted earlier, there is his upbringing in Tarsus, an ancient city that rivaled both Athens and Alexandria in Hellenistic predominance during Paul’s day, not to mention a major cult site of the mystery god Attis as revealed by archaeological finds from the 1st century BC. There is, again, the rampant use of mystery terminology by Paul, as well as the invocation of mystery cult imagery, such as the death of the planted seed and its sprouting to new life.
Most importantly, there is the mystery religion soteriology (salvation schema) revealed by such passages as Romans 6:3-5, Philippians 3:10-11, Colossians 2:12, etc. This is truly the most salient point, as it goes to show that Paul went well beyond mere words and phrases; he incorporated the very mysticism–the underlying salvation scheme–of the mysteries.
Fifth, as a monotheistic religion with a coherent body of doctrine, 1st century Jews could hardly have borrowed from a polytheistic and doctrinally contradictory paganism.
And yet, monotheistic Jews from the period were indeed enticed by Hellenistic paganism. 2nd Maccabees informs us that Jews were forced to engage in Dionysus worship, and this may have had lasting consequences, as attested by Plutarch and Tacitus. It also laments “an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways.” The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the Jewish embrace of Hellenistic astrology, which comports with horoscopes found at Qumran. The Hellenized Jew, Philo of Alexandria, was pontificating on Hellenistic religious concepts like rebirth and immortality of the soul–in a disembodied state no less–during the first half of the first century. Esoteric Jewish movements such as the Essenes and Therapeutae also embraced this Hellenized style of immortality. Lastly, there was a temple built in Samaria dedicated to Isis and Serapis during the 3rd century BC. It was rededicated to Demeter and Persephone in the early 2nd century AD. Pagan mystery religion was practiced smack dab in the middle of the Holy Land during Christianity’s inception.
Sixth, first century Christianity was an exclusivistic faith. As J. Machen explains, the mystery cults were nonexclusive. “A man could become initiated into the mysteries of Isis or Mithras without at all giving up his former beliefs; but if he were to be received into the Church, according to the preaching of Paul, he must forsake all other Saviors for the Lord Jesus Christ.” This Christian exclusivism should be a starting point for all reflection about the possible relations between Christianity and its pagan competitors.
Indeed, Christian exclusivism is a starting point for such reflection, and possibly a damning concluding point, to boot. As Price explains in Deconstructing Jesus, “previous converts to the inclusivistic faiths of Mithras, Attis, Isis or Dionysus would have come pouring into the ‘open gates’ of Christianity, bringing all of their cherished beliefs with them,” and thus “we would be amazed not to find a free flow of older ‘pagan’ myths and rituals into Christianity.” Despite the exclusion of “other faiths as rivals and counterfeits of Christianity … the barn door was, as usual, shut after the horse had got out (or rather, in!).” Nash has inadvertently engaged a premise that produces the exact opposite of its intended effect, arguing for a position that makes Christian syncretism with the pagan mysteries all the more viable.
Seventh, the gospel authors, Paul, and the early creeds, assert that Jesus’ death was an actual historical event … The death of the mystery cult deities, on the other hand, only appeared in mythical dramas with no claims to actual history … The incontestable fact that the early church believed that its proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection was grounded in actual historical events makes absurd any attempt to derive this belief from the mythical, nonhistorical stories of the pagan cults.
No, what is absurd is to foist a non-sequitur such as this one. The cognate myths of the mystery religions needn’t have been considered recent historical events in order to inspire the theological significance attached to the “historical” death and resurrection of Jesus. Rudolf Bultmann, Geza Vermes, S.G.F. Brandon, Samuel Sandmel, Hyam Maccoby, and Marvin Meyer are among those who have understood, perfectly well, that a historically crucified, messianic hopeful could have easily spawned an apocalyptic Jewish movement that, upon Hellenistic soil, absorbed popular mystery cult accoutrements. Besides, as Price explains, “all of these religions thought their saving events happened in some vague and special past. In Crete they presented the tomb of Zeus, killed by a boar yet resurrected.”
Eighth, Jesus died once and for all (Heb. 7:27; 9:25-28; 10:10-14). In contrast, the deities of the mystery cults were vegetation deities whose annual deaths and resuscitations depict the yearly cycle of nature.
A half-truth. Tammuz, Persephone and Adonis were conceived as undergoing a cyclical journey from the underworld (death) to the land of the living, and so on and so forth. In contrast, the myths of Aleyan Baal, Ishtar, Osiris, Dionysus-Zagreus, and Attis featured a one-time death and resurrection motif, just as that of Christ. Their resurrections may have been celebrated annually, but in a manner no different than Easter is celebrated today.
Ninth, Christianity proclaims a BODILY resurrection, which was at odds with Greco-Roman religious and philosophical beliefs, which believed in the continued existence of the disembodied psyche, or soul, after death. Physical, embodied existence was something at best to be suffered through until the sweet release of death freed the soul from its corrupt, dead, prison.
This is another half-truth, if that. Nash is committing the same mistake most apologists do by conflating Platonic disembodiment with the resurrection conceptions of the mystery gods. Yes, mystery cult adherents believed they would attain life after death in a disembodied soul, as was the preferred style of Hellenistic immortality. But, this is not necessarily what was told of the mystery gods themselves. Tammuz, Ishtar, Persephone, Adonis, and Baal, though believed to have returned from the underworld to the land of the living, did so in bodily form. None of the myths specify that their resurrection bodies were non-corporeal.
The only real point of departure between Christianity and the mysteries, on this front, is that Christianity envisions a mass bodily resurrection of the dead for its devotees, an indication of the Jewish elements within its syncretistic stew. Despite that, even Christians hold to a belief of heavenly disembodiment, at least prior to the eschatological resurrection, as promised by such passages as Luke 23:43: ”I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Furthermore, Paul seems to appeal to the Hellenistic tastes of his readers by describing the resurrection body as non-corporeal, stating in 1 Corinthians 15 that it is raised a “spiritual body” (v. 44), not a body of “flesh and blood” (v. 50). When Nash says, regarding Greco-Roman disembodiment, that “the sweet release of death freed the soul from its corrupt, dead, prison,” he ironically runs head smack into 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, where Paul shares exactly that sentiment: “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” This is a far thornier issue than Nash was willing to let on.
Tenth (a), which mystery gods actually experienced a resurrection from the dead? Certainly no early texts refer to any resurrection of Attis.
It is true that, in the earliest myths of Attis, Cybele invokes Zeus to have Attis’ body merely preserved, never to rot or decay. But, at some point in the legacy of Attis’ myth, the mere preservation of his body morphed into a full-blown resurrection.
Attis died emasculating himself under a tree; but ancient art includes ‘scenes of the emasculated Attis dancing,’ indicating his resurrection. The oldest evidence is a Hellenistic Greek vase depicting ‘the dancing Attis hilaris … from the 4th century BC.’ Vermaseren also instances two later statues from Ostia which point to the god’s periodic resurrection. One (from Roman Imperial times) shows ‘another young Attis standing ready to replace the dying one.’ The other statue (dedicated in the second century AD) depicts the ‘lying and triumphant Attis, his entire figure indicating the resurrection which is also shown by the decoration of various kinds of flowers and plants’ (Wells 202).
What’s more, there was a “Passion Week” by the 1st century A.D. under the reign of Caesar Claudius (Doherty). We can be fairly certain, given its joyous celebrations, that Attis was conceived as having been resurrected, especially since he would likely have been syncretized with Osiris by that period, whose cult had swept through Asia Minor already by the 2nd century BC (Eliade 291). Which leads to our next point of contention:
Tenth (b), nor is the case for a resurrection of Osiris any stronger … For example, after Isis gathered together the pieces of Osiris’s dismembered body, Osiris became “Lord of the Underworld.”
Osiris’ destination in the afterworld makes him no less resurrected than does Jesus’ destination in the Christian afterworld–Heaven. Both serve as the abode of the hereafter for righteous souls. Regarding the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, James P. Allen, Curator at the Department of Egyptian Art, states:
The ancient Egyptians would not have recognized the title of this book. The texts translated here were given the collective name “Book of the Dead” in modern times because they are usually found in scrolls of papyrus or on other objects that were buried with the deceased in Egyptian tombs … The modern title “Book of the Dead” is misleading, because the texts are not about death but about life: specifically, eternal life which every Egyptian hoped to attain after death (11).
Prior to his arrival in the afterworld, where, like Jesus, Osiris acts as Ruler and Judge, there is indeed an initial return to the land of the living. The following is an image of Osiris bodily rising before Isis and Horus, from a bas-relief at Philae (2nd-3rd C. BCE):
As the myth relates, this took place on earth via the ministrations of Isis, Nephthys, and Horus. Therefore, the image conveys an earthly resurrection of the god. Osiris is even said in the ancient texts to ascend upon a ladder to heaven, indicating that he initially rose to life here on earth (Budge 75-77). What’s more, according to the I-Kher-Nefert stele (circa 1875 BC), the sacred representations of the myth at Abydos presented the risen Osiris before a crowd of joyous celebrants, after which he departed upon a solar boat to the heavenly realm (Larson).
It is equally bogus to suggest that Osiris did not rise in a physical body. As S.G.F. Brandon states, Osiris’ resurrection was “conceived of in completely materialistic terms, involving the use of a reconstituted physical body” (23). Pyramidal texts reveal an emphasis on the corporeal reconstitution of the god, confirming Brandon’s claim:
“I have come to thee…that I may revivify thee, that I may assemble for thee thy bones, that I may collect for thee thy flesh, that I may assemble for thee thy dismembered limbs, for I am as Horus his avenger, I have smitten for thee him who smote thee…raise thyself up, king, Osiris; thou livest!” (1684a-1685a and 1700 = Utterance 606; cf. also 670)
“Osiris, collect thy bones; arrange thy limbs; shake off thy dust; untie thy bandages; the tomb is open for thee; the double doors of the coffin are undone for thee; the double doors of heaven are open for thee…thy soul is in thy body…raise thyself up!” (207b-209a and 2010b-2011a = Utterance 676)
Besides, any talk of differences between the various resurrection myths misses the point entirely. The salient point is that, through the god’s conquest of death (whether Osiris, Dionysus, Zalmoxis, Jesus, et al.), the devotee is granted spiritual rebirth and a blessed existence in the next life, having mystically participated in the god’s death and resurrection through sacred rituals of initiation. It is the salvific significance of the deity’s resurrection, however it is said to have come about, that unites all of these traditions.
The next time an apologist, professional or otherwise, carts out Dr. Nash’s failed list of dismissals against the well-founded hypothesis of Christian and pagan syncretism, I would suggest taking apologist William Lane Craig’s advice on the topic, though turning it against him and his ilk: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6813
When they say that Christian beliefs about Jesus are [not] derived from pagan mythology, I think you should laugh. Then look at them wide-eyed and with a big grin, and exclaim, “Do you really believe that?” Act as though you’ve just met a flat earther or Roswell conspirator. You could say something like, “Man, those old theories have [never been debunked in] over a hundred years! Where are you getting this stuff?” Tell them this is just [apologetic] junk, not serious scholarship. If they persist, then ask them to [consider] the actual passages narrating the [legitimate] parallel. They’re the ones who are swimming against the [facts], so make them work hard to save their religion. I think you’ll find that they’ve never even read the primary sources.
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