Debate: Was Christianity Influenced by the Hellenistic Mysteries?

The following is a transcript of an informal debate that took place between me and Chris Winchester, a Christian philosopher and PhD candidate possessing a Master of Arts in Religious Studies and a Master of Theology in Biblical Studies. It was informal in that it spontaneously emerged from a thread on the Christian Mythicists facebook site. Previously, there were several participants in the thread, though it ultimately narrowed down to a spirited discussion between Mr. Winchester and me. Up until this point, I had contended that the terminology and concepts of salvation inherent in the Pauline Epistles indicate the influence of Hellenistic mystery religions–Greco-Roman cults centered upon dying and rising gods. Mr. Winchester capably challenged me on this, and I responded in kind. Without further adieu:


Chris Winchester:
Derreck, you said, “The earliest documents in the NT are Paul’s letters, and Paul was a Hellenized Jew from Tarsus–an ancient city that rivaled both Athens and Alexandria in Hellenistic predominance, not to mention a major cult site of the mystery god Attis as revealed by archaeological finds from the 1st century BC.”

Are you relying on Acts as your source of information for saying that Paul was from Tarsus? I ask, because Acts 22:3 describes Paul declaring:

“‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city” (Jerusalem) “at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.”

What do you think about Acts 22:3?


Derreck Bennett:
Pretty much the same thing that Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby thinks:

“Let us first survey the evidence found in the more obvious and well-known sources. It appears from Acts that Paul was first called ‘Saul’, and that his birthplace was Tarsus, a city in Asia Minor (Acts 9:11, and 21:39, and 22:3). Strangely enough, however, Paul himself, in his letters, never mentions that he came from Tarsus, even when he is at his most autobiographical. Instead, he gives the following information about his origins: ‘I am an Israelite myself, of the stock of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin’ (Romans 11:2); and ‘ . . . circumcised on my eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred; in my attitude to the law, a Pharisee. . . .'(Philippians 3:5). It seems that Paul was not anxious to impart to the recipients of his letters that he came from somewhere so remote as Tarsus from Jerusalem, the powerhouse of Pharisaisism. The impression he wished to give, of coming from an impeachable Pharisaic background, would have been much impaired by the admission that he in fact came from Tarsus, where there were few, if any, Pharisee teachers and a Pharisee training would have been hard to come by” (The Mythmaker, pp. 5-6).


Chris Winchester:
Thank you. For the sake of conciseness: Do you think Paul was born in Tarsus, but brought up in Jerusalem as a Pharisee?


Derreck Bennett:
I think Paul’s claims to a Pharisaic background are spurious. His Hellenistic tendencies would be better explained by an upbringing in Tarsus, or at least a significant amount of time spent there, exposed to its culture.


Chris Winchester:
Thank you for the clarification, Derreck Bennett. So, to summarize: You accept part of the biographical material about Paul in Acts 21:39, but reject the content in the next chapter (22:3), which denies that Paul was raised in Tarsus, along with Paul’s autobiographical account in Philippians 3:5 about being a Pharisee. Would this be an accurate synopsis of your position?


Derreck Bennett:
No, I just changed my mind. I think he was brought up in Jerusalem with a strict Pharisaic teaching, and then, strangely, began disparaging the carnality of the flesh, a la Gnosticism, and preaching that one can mystically share in Christ’s death and resurrection via ritual initiation, in addition to symbolically consuming his flesh and blood. Because that just makes more sense. ::chuckle::


Chris Winchester:
Where does Paul use the phrase “ritual initiation”?


Derreck Bennett:
Baptism is a ritual, obviously, and “in New Testament times baptism so closely followed conversion that the two were considered part of one event” ((NIV Study Bible, p. 1754). The Greek mysterion, variously translated as either “mystery” or “initiation,” is used 27 times in the New Testament, 21 of which are by Paul. But, most important, is what baptism represents in the eyes of Paul–“the symbolic identification of the believer with the death and resurrection of Jesus” (Archaeological Study Bible, p. 1562).


Chris Winchester:
I appreciate your reply. However, I think you misunderstood my question. Where does Paul use the phrase, “ritual initiation”?

Page 662 of BDAG assigns μυστήριον a variety of meanings: secret, secret rite, secret teaching, mystery, the unmanifested or private counsel of God.

BDAG relays the following concerning Paul’s use of this term:

“The Pauline lit. has m. in 21 places. A secret or mystery, too profound for human ingenuity, is God’s reason for the partial hardening of Israel’s heart Ro 11:25 or the transformation of the surviving Christians at the Parousia 1 Cor 15:51. Even Christ, who was understood by so few, is God’s secret or mystery Col 2:2, hidden ages ago 1:26” (662).

As far as I can determine, Paul does not define μυστήριον as “secret rite” (initiation). What are the specific passages you are envisaging?


Derreck Bennett:
Well, he doesn’t actually use the phrase “ritual initiation;” he just speaks of a ritual (baptism) which, in New Testament times, was closely associated with conversion. Basically, a formal entry into the faith, i.e. initiation rite. One in which the participant mystically shares in the death and resurrection of the god… you know, sort of like in Hellenistic mystery religions. But, he doesn’t use the exact phrase “ritual initiation,” so that pretty much blows my theory to shit. ::chuckle::


John Beavers:
I can’t find your source to read it, but here is every instance of μυστήριον in the NT, and not once is it translated as “initiation”.


Derreck Bennett:
Point taken, though its usage in the Pauline corpus still aligns with mystery religion concepts. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul reveals the ‘mystery’ of how we will all be changed at the last trumpet and endowed with a spiritual body, a concept that corresponds to the renewal and transformation of the newly initiated into the Hellenistic mysteries. But, that’s probably just something he picked up from his strict, Pharisaic training in Jerusalem. ::chuckle::

“Paul spoke ‘in a mystery’ words understood only by the initiated, i.e. by mature Christians” (A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians, p. 62).

“Mature Christians,” as in teleios (perfection/maturity). See 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.”


Chris Winchester:
Thank you for clarifying that Paul does not mention preaching by using the phrase “ritual initiation.” Also, Paul does not place the “change” in 1 Corinthians 15:51 within the context of a ritual for people becoming Christians. Paul’s 21 uses of the term μυστήριον do not necessarily evince influence from the Greco-Roman mystery religions. It, along with its Hebrew equivalent, also resides in Jewish texts. The word μυστήριον occurs in Daniel 2:19, 27, 30 (LXX). The Hebrew equivalent to μυστήριον, רז, also appears throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls. 1QpHab 7:4-5, for example, states, “Its interpretation concerns the teacher of righteousness to whom God revealed all mysteries of (רזי) the words of his servants the prophets.” 1QpHab 7:8 proceeds by saying, “which the prophets said for mysteries of (רזי) God are wonderful.” 1QpHab 7:13-14 declares, “all times of God will come to their plan just as he has decreed to them in the mysteries of (רזי) his discernment.” 1QS 3:23 contains the phrase, “in accord with the mysteries of (רזי) God.” The sectarian document from Qumran known as the “Secret of the Way Things Are” (4Q417 2.i.18-18) states: “And you, O enlightened son, look on the mystery of the way things are and know [the ways] of all that is living and their manner of behavior.”

The Community Rule (1QS) from Qumran also discusses members of the community being “initiated” into the covenant (1QS 1:16). 1QS 1:7b-8 implies that initiates are expected to be “perfect,” explaining, “…all who volunteer to live by the laws of God into the covenant of mercy so as to be joined to God’s society and walk perfect before him.”

Several of the Dead Sea Scrolls also mention Jews partaking of communal meals consisting of bread and wine. Specifically, 1QS6:2-5 dictates that members of the community:

“shall eat, pray, and deliberate communally. Wherever ten men belonging to the party of the Yahad are gathered, a priest must always be present. The men shall sit before the priest by rank, and in that manner their opinions will be sought on any matter. When the table has been set for eating or the new wine readied for drinking, it is the priest who shall stretch out his hand first, blessing the first portion of the bread or the new wine.”

1QSa 2:17-22 similarly mandates:

“[When] they gather [at the] communal [tab]le, [having set out bread and w]ine so the communal table is set [for eating] and [the] wine for drinking, none [may re]ach for the first portion of the bread or [the wine] before the priest. For [he] shall [bl]ess the first portion of the bread and the wine, [reac]hing for the bread first. Afterw[ard] the Messiah of Israel [shall re]ach for the bread. [Finally,] ea[ch] member of the whole congregation of the community [shall give a bl]essing, [in descending order of] rank. This statute shall govern every me[al], provided at least ten me[n are ga]thered together.”

Josephus describes the Jewish sect known as Essenes, whom most scholars equate with the Qumran community, engaging in ritual purification baths and communal suppers. Josephus writes:

“After which they assemble themselves together again into one place; and when they have clothed themselves in white veils, they then bathe their bodies in cold water. And after this purification is over, they every one meet together in an apartment of their own, into which it is not permitted to any of another sect to enter; while they go, after a pure manner, into the dining-room, as into a certain holy temple, and quietly set themselves down; upon which the baker lays them loaves in order; the cook also brings a single plate of one sort of food, and sets it before every one of them; but a priest says grace before meat; and it is unlawful for any one to taste of the food before grace be said. The same priest, when he hath dined, says grace again after meat; and when they begin, and when they end, they praise God, as he that bestows their food upon them; after which they lay aside their [white] garments, and betake themselves to their labors again till the evening; then they return home to supper, after the same manner” (“The Jewish War” 2.128).

It is evident from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus’s testimony, therefore, that communal meals and ritual washings were Second Temple Jewish practices. Therefore, Paul’s notions of a communal meal (1 Cor. 11:23-25) and of baptism are perfectly at home within a Jewish milieu.

Could you please quote from the first century C.E. sources that describe the Greco-Roman mystery rituals that you deem analogous to baptism? Also, could you please cite the first century C.E. sources that describe the initiation process, along with the first century C.E. texts that describe initiates symbolically consuming bread and drinking? Please note that I am requesting primary sources, not secondary sources (i.e., modern books, web sites, etc.).

More generally, it does not necessarily follow logically that Paul was never a Pharisee simply because he later espoused teachings that were uncharacteristic of Pharisees’ ideas. There is very little evidence concerning what Pharisees believed and did. It also does not necessarily follow that all Pharisees embraced the same doctrines and practices. Paul also could have adopted new concepts later in life as a result of joining another sect. In fact, this is exactly what Paul says occurred to him. Paul claims that he joined a group that he previously persecuted called “the church of God” (Gal. 1:13-14; 1 Cor. 15:9). I hope this information is helpful.


Derreck Bennett:
It is telling that the sources you provide are all from around the Hellenistic era, including Daniel (2nd C. BCE) and the Dead Sea Scrolls (c. 150 BCE-70 CE). The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal a Jewish embrace of Hellenistic astrology, which comports with horoscopes found at Qumran. We shouldn’t be the least bit surprised to find Qumranic practices of initiation, whereby participants are made “perfect,” as this is yet another example of Hellenized Judaism.

As for Paul’s usage of mysterion, Earl Doherty does an excellent job addressing this in his online version of ‘The Jesus Puzzle:’

Scholars in the field regularly point out that this term, as used in Christianity generally and by Paul in particular, does not refer to a rite that is secret, whose significance is revealed only to the initiate. Instead, it signifies a ‘secret’ that has been previously hidden by God, revealed only in the present time to such as Paul (1 Cor. 2:7, Rom. 16:25, Eph. 3:5, etc.). Many of these refer to the “mystery about Christ.” And yet, is the difference as wide as they imagine? … What was revealed to the initate if not secrets about the god (Christ), what he had undergone, and how this related to the destined fate of those to whom these mysteries were revealed? Whether such secrets were imparted through a dramatic private ceremony or through public preaching does not change their nature and effect, especially when emotionally supported by a baptismal rite which Paul himself casts as effecting a dramatic linkage with the god. Whether these were secrets kept hidden for so long by God (casting God in a questionable and somewhat disparaging light, which no Christian writer tries to explain or justify beyond speaking of “a fullness of time”), or whether they were secrets in the sense that they were not naturally evident but needed discovery through ritual experience and insight—and who is to claim that the latter is not a more conscionable system?—hardly changes the fact that both are revealed knowledge and both transform the recipient’s self-image and anticipated fate. While the ingredients may be slightly different and the flavors distinctive, both are baking the same sort of cake, both are offerings from the same culinary menu; the respective cooks are simply declaring the superiority of their own recipe and its nutritive value” (Earl Doherty, “The Jesus Puzzle,” is available online at:

It is no use pleading that “Paul does not place the ‘change’ in 1 Corinthians 15:51 within the context of a ritual for people becoming Christians,” as this ‘change’ still denotes a characteristic feature of the mysteries–the transformation/rebirth of the newly initiated, resulting in an imperishable, spiritual body–the ideal state of immortality among Hellenistic philosophers such as Plato and Philo of Alexandria. As Rabbi Samuel Sandmel explains, such a transformation was not necessary in Judaism:

“There is a sharp contrast between Paul’s view of sin and that which we Jews have inherited from the ancient rabbis. For us, a sin is an act of commission or omission which is wrong. For Paul, sin is a state of being; it is man’s normal condition, because man is a bodily creature. But in the view of the rabbis, a person who sinned could, and should, regret it and make suitable amends. The Yom Kippur is the occasion par excellence in the year when man makes atonement for his misdeeds.

But when sin is thought of as a state of being, and not as individual acts, and when it is deemed to be man’s usual condition, then man’s departure from sin is not the result of any remorseful actions, but is possible only if man’s essential nature is changed.

In the Jewish tradition, man atones and, it is believed, God graciously pardons him. In Paul’s view, man cannot atone, but needs to have his nature changed from the bodily to the spiritual. The death of the Christ was interpreted by Paul as the atonement made on behalf of man. By symbolically dying as the Christ had died, man abandoned his bodily nature.

The contrasts, then, are between sins and sin, between the atonement which man makes and that which is made for him, and between man forgiven for sins and man transformed from one state of being into another. In Judaism the pardoned sinner remains a man; in Paul’s view, man becomes transformed from a bodily being into a spiritual one” (Samuel Sandmel, “A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament,” [Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005], 59-60).

The rituals of baptism and the Eucharist do indeed stem from traditional Judaism, but it is the newfound significance attributed to them by Paul that reveals something more. Rabbi Samuel Sandmel continues:

“Belief of this sort–acceptance of the acts of Christ and their saving effects–exalted the purified believer. He had been “dead,” in sin, in body; through faith he lived again in sinlessness, in spirit. Thus he was identifiable with Christ and with the two-part drama of salvation in which Christ had anticipated him. Baptism, a “sacrament of regeneration,” enabled the saved individual actually to enact this identification. The person entering the water symbolically died as Christ had died, and, emerging, rose again, as Christ rose at the resurrection into newness of life (Romans 6:4-11). Baptism, in Paul, is descended from an ancient Jewish ceremonial of cleansing one’s body from dirt and from the yield of the pores and organs of the body … The old Jewish rite was an actual washing; the new church ceremony was not, but extended its meaning of death and resurrection over and beyond the ceremonial act.

Another rite, also of Jewish derivation, and expressing the same symbolism, is mentioned by Paul … the custom to partake, before the meal, of wine and bread broken from a whole loaf, while giving thanks to God for the gifts of drink and food … The technical name for the ceremony is “eucharist,” or “thanksgiving,” but this term is not found in the New Testament. Paul declares that the meaning of the ceremony was given him by Christ. The bread is broken as Christ’s body was broken on the cross, and the wine symbolizes the shedding there of Christ’s blood (1 Cor. 11:23-26) … The ceremony is a sacrament, an outer form within an inner “grace”; again it enables the participant to identify himself with Christ.

Paul not only found for himself a mode of communion with God, but he provided the interpretation whereby two traditional Jewish ceremonies were invested with the capacity of providing communion. As God had revealed himself in Christ, so the believer, by baptism, imitated the experience of Christ, or by the eucharist shared it; and he thus communed with God” (Ibid.).

Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby also elucidates these critical distinctions:

“This is not to say, of course, that Jesus did not distribute bread and wine to his disciples at the Last Supper. This was quite normal at a Jewish meal, whether at festival time or not. The leading person at the table would make a blessing (blessing is the original meaning of the word ‘eucharist’) and then break the loaf of bread and pass a piece to everyone at the table. Then at the end of the meal, grace would be said over a cup of wine, which would be handed round at the end of grace. This procedure, which is still practiced today at Jewish tables, has no mystical significance; the only meaning of it is to thank God for the meal He has provided. The addition of mystery religion trappings (i.e. the bread as the body of the god, and the wine as his blood) was the work of Paul, by which he turned an ordinary Jewish meal into a pagan sacrament. Since the blood even of an animal was forbidden at a Jewish meal by biblical law (Leviticus 7:26), the idea of regarding the wine as blood would be found disgusting by Jews. Here again, Paul seems to be deliberately removing himself from the Jewish ethos and canons of taste, and aligning himself with the world of paganism … It is worthy of note that the term Paul uses for the Eucharist is ‘the Lord’s Supper’ (Greek kuriakon deipnon). This same expression was used in the mystery religions for the sacred meals dedicated to the savior-god” (Hyam Maccoby, “The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity,” [New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1998], 115-116).

Most of our information concerning the mysteries comes from the 2nd-4th centuries CE, 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 CE.

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-2nd millennium BCE. 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” (Arthur Versluis, “Magic & Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism,” [Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007], 12).

According to Book 11 of ‘Metamorphoses,’ which Mircea Eliade describes as “the most valuable document of all ancient writings on the Mysteries,” the participant in the cult of Isis “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” (11.21-23). 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 found in burial inscriptions from the 2nd millennium BCE: “As Osiris died, so has [the believer] died; and as Osiris rose, so shall [the believer] rise.” The formula is repeated in Firmicus Maternus’ ‘The Error of the Pagan Religions:’ “you should die as he dies, and you should live as he lives” (Earl Doherty, “The Jesus Puzzle,” is available online at:

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.

Per Eliade, Firmicus Maternus interpreted the communal meals “as the demonic and baneful equivalent of the Christian communion” (Mircea Eliade, “A History of Religious Ideas: Volume 2,” [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978], 287). Though this is a 4th century source, the practice can, once again, be traced back to ancient Egypt:

“The ancientness of the concept is again reaffirmed in the Pyramid Text of Teta (2600 BC) where the Osiris Teta ‘receivest thy bread which decayeth not, and thy beer which perisheth not.’ In the Text of Pepi I we read: ‘All the gods give thee their flesh and their blood…. Thou shalt not die.’ In the Text of Pepi II the aspirant prays for ‘thy bread of eternity, and thy beer of everlastingness'” (Martin A. Larson, “The Story of Christian Origins: A Synopsis of Chapter One,” is available online at:


Chris Winchester:
Thank you for your reply. Recall that I made the following requests: Could you please quote from the first century C.E. sources that describe the Greco-Roman mystery rituals that you deem analogous to baptism? Also, could you please cite the first century C.E. sources that describe the initiation process, along with the first century C.E. texts that describe initiates symbolically consuming bread and drinking? Please note that I am requesting primary sources, not secondary sources (i.e., modern books, web sites, etc.). Although I appreciate your efforts to reply to my queries, you did not cite any first century C.E. sources in response to any of them. You also quoted a lot from secondary sources (books and websites), though, which I asked you not to do.

I noticed that you consider Mircea Eliade to be a credible source pertaining to the mystery religions. Even though I am solely interested in focusing on primary sources, I thought you might be interested in reading Eliade’s comments about primitive Christianity and the mystery religions. Eliade explains:

“From the end of the nineteenth century until about thirty years ago, a number of scholars were convinced that they could explain the origins of Christianity by a more or less direct influence from the Greco-Oriental mysteries. Recent researches have not supported these theories. On the contrary, it has even been suggested that the renaissance of the mysteries in the first centuries of our era may well be related to the rise and spread of Christianity” (Mircea Eliade, “Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth,” [New York: Harper & Row, 1958], 115).

Eliade adds:

“We must make it clear that the presence of one or another initiatory theme in primitive Christianity does not necessarily imply the influence of the mystery religions. Such a theme could have been taken directly from one of the esoteric Jewish sects, especially the Essenes, concerning whom the Dead Sea manuscripts have now added sensationally to our knowledge” (Ibid.).

Of course, these quotes do not prove Eliade is correct. This is why I desire to focus on the ancient sources themselves, not scholarly opinions on the relationship between mystery religions and early Christianity. I just thought you might be interested in knowing Eliade’s views on the relationship between primitive Christianity and the mystery religions.

You are correct to note that the Dead Sea Scrolls are associated with Judaism. Only one text indubitably belongs to the astrological genre of horoscopic literature: “Horoscope” (4Q186) (Matthias Albani, “Horoscopes,” in “Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Volume 1,” ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. Vanderkam [New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000], 370). “Elect of God” (4Q534) and the Aramaic text “Physiognomy/Horoscope” are debated examples of horoscopes (Ibid., 371).

Philo of Alexandria discusses another Jewish sect that engages in a common meal and completes mysteries. This group is known as the Therapeutae. Philo writes:

“(24) But the houses of these men thus congregated together are very plain, just giving shelter in respect of the two things most important to be provided against, the heat of the sun, and the cold from the open air; and they did not live near to one another as men do in cities, for immediate neighborhood to others would be a troublesome and unpleasant thing to men who have conceived an admiration for, and have determined to devote themselves to, solitude; and, on the other hand, they did not live very far from one another on account of the fellowship which they desire to cultivate, and because of the desirableness of being able to assist one another if they should be attacked by robbers. (25) And in every house there is a sacred shrine which is called the holy place, and the monastery in which they retire by themselves and they complete mysteries of a holy life, bringing in nothing, neither meat, nor drink, nor anything else which is indispensable towards supplying the necessities of the body, but studying in that place the laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated by the holy prophets, and hymns, and psalms, and all kinds of other things by reason of which knowledge and piety are increased and brought to perfection.”

“(66) Therefore when they come together clothed in white garments, and joyful with the most exceeding gravity, when some one of the ephemereutae (for that is the appellation which they are accustomed to give to those who are employed in such ministrations), before they sit down to meat standing in order in a row, and raising their eyes and their hands to heaven, the one because they have learnt to fix their attention on what is worthy looking at, and the other because they are free from the reproach of all impure gain, being never polluted under any pretence whatever by any description of criminality which can arise from any means taken to procure advantage, they pray to God that the entertainment may be acceptable, and welcome, and pleasing; (67) and after having offered up these prayers the elders sit down to meat, still observing the order in which they were previously arranged, for they do not look on those as elders who are advanced in years and very ancient, but in some cases they esteem those as very young men, if they have attached themselves to this sect only lately, but those whom they call elders are those who from their earliest infancy have grown up and arrived at maturity in the speculative portion of philosophy, which is the most beautiful and most divine part of it. (68) And the women also share in this feast, the greater part of whom, though old, are virgins in respect of their purity (not indeed through necessity, as some of the priestesses among the Greeks are, who have been compelled to preserve their chastity more than they would have done of their own accord), but out of an admiration for and love of wisdom, with which they are desirous to pass their lives, on account of which they are indifferent to the pleasures of the body, desiring not a mortal but an immortal offspring, which the soul that is attached to God is alone able to produce by itself and from itself, the Father having sown in it rays of light appreciable only by the intellect, by means of which it will be able to perceive the doctrines of wisdom” (Philo, “On the Contemplative Life” 24-25, 66-68, is available online at:

In any case, initiation, mysteries, and perfection were aspects of Second Temple Judaism by the time Paul was writing. Paul claims to be a Jew (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5), so it is reasonable to evaluate Paul within a Jewish context. Thus, there is no need to posit the mystery religions’ direct influence on Paul.

Please quote from the first century C.E. mystery religion sources that identify the specific secrets about the mystery religions’ deities, what they experienced, and how they impacted initiates’ fates. As Doherty correctly observes, unlike its utilization in the Greco-Roman mysteries, Paul’s 21 uses of the term μυστήριον are not associated with secret rites. Moreover, Paul never associates baptism with the term μυστήριον. Again, it, along with its Hebrew equivalent, also resides in Jewish texts. In addition to the word μυστήριον occurring in Daniel 2:19, 27, 30 (LXX), and the Hebrew equivalent to μυστήριον, רז, also appearing throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls, other Jewish apocalyptic literature refers to “mysteries” that are revealed. 1 Enoch is a prime example. Μυστήριον is present in 1 Enoch 103:2, for instance. Fragments of 1 Enoch were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Daniel J. Harrington explains:

“That many manuscripts of 1 Enoch were discovered at Qumran indicates its popularity there. This work also uses the term mystery and hidden things to refer to the phenomena of the cosmos (1 En. 60.11, 71.4). It explains the existence of evil in the world by attributing to the wicked and rebellious angels the revelation of the ‘everlasting secrets’ to their earthly mistresses (1 En. 9.6; see Gn. 6.1-4). Enoch, having been granted access to the heavenly mysteries and having seen the holy writings (1 En. 103.2; see 4Q417 2.i.14-18), proclaims that he knows ‘this mystery’—the destinies of the righteous and the wicked at the last judgment. As in Sapiential Work A and the Mysteries, knowledge of the divine mystery serves as a guide for conduct in the present” (Daniel J. Harrington, “Mystery,” in “Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Volume 1,” 590-591).

Harrington concludes, “the Qumran texts and related writings (Daniel and 1 Enoch) provide a much more appropriate framework for understanding the New Testament ‘mystery’ texts than do the Greek ‘mystery’ religions” (Ibid., 591).

Concerning Paul’s reference to the “change” in 1 Corinthians 15:51, Paul does not mention anyone being “newly initiated.” Please quote from and cite the first century C.E. mystery religion sources that describe the transformation/rebirth of the newly initiated, resulting in an imperishable, spiritual body. Also, would you be willing to quote and cite from the portions of Plato’s writings in which Plato describes humans receiving imperishable, spiritual bodies? Plato’s works depict bodies as being unpleasant and as prisons for souls. Plato presents residence within bodies as punishment for wicked conduct, so I find it odd to think that Plato would anticipate people receiving imperishable and spiritual bodies. In one example, Plato writes:

“Yes, that is very likely, Cebes; and these must be the souls, not of the good, but of the evil, who are compelled to wander about such places in payment of the penalty of their former evil way of life; and they continue to wander until the desire which haunts them is satisfied and they are imprisoned in another body…

…What do you mean, Socrates?
I will tell you, he said. The lovers of knowledge are conscious that their souls, when philosophy receives them, are simply fastened and glued to their bodies: the soul is only able to view existence through the bars of a prison, and not in her own nature; she is wallowing in the mire of all ignorance; and philosophy, seeing the terrible nature of her confinement, and that the captive through desire is led to conspire in her own captivity (for the lovers of knowledge are aware that this was the original state of the soul, and that when she was in this state philosophy received and gently counseled her, and wanted to release her, pointing out to her that the eye is full of deceit, and also the ear and other senses, and persuading her to retire from them in all but the necessary use of them and to be gathered up and collected into herself, and to trust only to herself and her own intuitions of absolute existence, and mistrust that which comes to her through others and is subject to vicissitude)-philosophy shows her that this is visible and tangible, but that what she sees in her own nature is intellectual and invisible. And the soul of the true philosopher thinks that she ought not to resist this deliverance, and therefore abstains from pleasures and desires and pains and fears, as far as she is able; reflecting that when a man has great joys or sorrows or fears or desires he suffers from them, not the sort of evil which might be anticipated-as, for example, the loss of his health or property, which he has sacrificed to his lusts-but he has suffered an evil greater far, which is the greatest and worst of all evils, and one of which he never thinks.

And what is that, Socrates? said Cebes.
Why, this: When the feeling of pleasure or pain in the soul is most intense, all of us naturally suppose that the object of this intense feeling is then plainest and truest: but this is not the case.

Very true.
And this is the state in which the soul is most enthralled by the body.

How is that?
Why, because each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body, and engrosses her and makes her believe that to be true which the body affirms to be true; and from agreeing with the body and having the same delights she is obliged to have the same habits and ways, and is not likely ever to be pure at her departure to the world below, but is always saturated with the body; so that she soon sinks into another body and there germinates and grows, and has therefore no part in the communion of the divine and pure and simple” (Plato, “Phaedo,” trans. Benjamin Jowett, is available online at:

Philo of Alexandria was a Jew. So, if Philo believed that human bodies would be transformed into imperishable and spiritual bodies, he would operate as an example of another Jewish author who teaches a doctrine similar to Paul. Please cite the relevant passage(s) from Philo’s writings that you are alluding to.

I am pleased to see that we concur baptism and the Eucharist originally stem from Judaism (You write, “The rituals of baptism and the Eucharist do indeed stem from traditional Judaism.”).

Which first century C.E. mystery religion sources use the Greek expression κυριακὸν δεῖπνον?

What is the specific evidence that definitively links the Egyptian mysteries with the ancient Egyptian burial inscriptions? Excepting “Metamorphoses” (2nd century C.E.) and the fourth century C.E. Firmicus Maternus, all of the data you have presented are non-mystery religion sources. As you are probably aware, religions change over time and they vary from region to region. Can you demonstrate that the concepts in the non-mystery Egyptian sources were present in Paul’s locale(s) and time period?

There are several problems with appealing to “Metamorphoses” as a description of a mystery-related deity and an initiate undergoing the same experience. First, the passage in Book 11 of Apuleius’ “Metamorphoses” does not mention Osiris participating in the experience with Lucius. Second, “Metamorphoses” is a work of fiction describing a fictitious character named Lucius, so it is not a description of an initiate’s actual experience. Third, “Metamorphoses” dates to the second century C.E. I am seeking a first century C.E. non-fictitious source that describes an initiation into the mysteries.

Concerning burial inscriptions from the 2nd millennium B.C.E. that state, “As Osiris died, so has [the believer] died; and as Osiris rose, so shall [the believer] rise,” I have some questions. First, where can these inscriptions be found? Who discovered them? Where can I find a scholarly translation of them? Are you suggesting that Paul read these inscriptions, and then adopted their contents to suit his theology?

Regarding the Pyramid Text materials:

“655a. Receive thy bread which cannot mould, thy beer which cannot sour” (

The context does not equate the bread with a deity’s body, nor does it associate the beer with its blood. It also does not describe it as being a communal meal.

“859a. Raise thyself up for this thy bread, which cannot mould,
859b. for thy beer, which cannot become sour” (

The context of this quotation does not equate the bread with a deity’s body, nor does it associate the beer with its blood. It also does not portray it as a communal meal.

In reference to the Text of Pepi I, which states, “All the gods give thee their flesh and their blood…Thou shalt not die,” please provide more specific citation details: Which section of the Pepi I text contains this content? Which scholarly critical edition contains this quote? I searched through the text online, but I could not locate this material.

Regarding the Text of Pepi II, does the context of “thy bread of eternity, and thy beer of everlastingness” associate these items with a symbolic communal meal? Again, none of these Egyptian sources are first century C.E. mystery religion sources.

In summary, I respectfully implore you to answer my questions.


Derreck Bennett:
Dr. Winchester,

“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.” -Herodotus (5th C. BCE)

“The manner and method of any scientific investigation must be dictated by the state of the materials to be used. For the present study the material available is extraordinarily scanty; we are, after all, dealing with secrets. Individual sacral actions are intimated to us only in outline, and reflections of them can be proven in some circumstances; the religious significance is more frequently given, and the words employed in a technical way in stating this significance permit us to draw inferences about the actions themselves. But we can almost never say which mystery-actions belong to particular religions, and where we assume an adoption by Christianity, we must refrain from what now appears to many of the student of the subject as the most important thing, namely a demonstration of the actual origin of a given element. I do not consider this loss to be a crucial one. In the very nature of the case the proof of origin could never provide us with more than an interim result or an apparent conclusion. Even if without that proof the fact of borrowing is assured, still this has only secondary significance. In religio-historical investigations we are not, and never will be, so fortunately situated as to be able to start out from a specific number of well-known primitive religions and then analyze a newly emerging one as the chemist can analyze a mineral spring, whose ingredients he determines according to percentages” (Richard Reitzenstein, “Hellenistic Mystery Religions: Their Basic Ideas and Significance,” [Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1978], Preface).

See what I’m gettin’ at, Doc? We are dealing with secrets. The very word mysterion comes to us from the Greek myein (“to close”)—referring to closing one’s lips in order to maintain secrecy. As I already stated, it is not until the spread of Christianity (c. 2nd-4th centuries CE) that we receive antagonistic commentary from early Church Fathers, providing the bulk of extant data on the Hellenistic mysteries. 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 CE.

You want 1st century sources detailing the precise goings-on of the mystery cult rituals? This is not a reasonable demand in light of the nature of the practices with which we are dealing. However, you, of all people, ought to know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence! Though I would say it is so in cases where such evidence should be expected, this is most certainly one of those cases in which it should not. Herodotus serves as a prime example of the secrecy in which these clandestine cults were shrouded.

So, as Reitzenstein aptly stated, we are left to inferences. What can we extrapolate from the assortment of both pre- and post-Christian sources? While Apuleius’ ‘Metamorphoses’ is indeed a work of fiction, that does not mean that it isn’t representative of authentic cult practices and beliefs. Again, Eliade observes that it “is regarded—and rightly—as the most valuable document of all ancient writings on the Mysteries.” (Yes, I am well aware that Eliade agrees with me right up until the punchline. In my view, he overlooks the implications of his own work and fails to take into account Hellenistic influence upon the Qumran community and other esoteric Jewish sects. I regard him as a valuable source of information and insight, nonetheless.)

Is the initiate, Lucius, identified with Osiris in the ritual?

“In this cult the initiate can be identified with none other than Osiris, but here, after a ceremony which depicts the visit of the sun-god to the Osirian realm of the dead, the triumph over the dead is fittingly symbolized by an Osiris-figure with solar attributes. An identification with the god is therefore present” (Gwyn Griffiths, “The Isis Book,” [Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1997], 315).

“As we saw, in ancient Egypt the individual hoped for a posthumous identification with Osiris. But by virtue of his initiation the neophyte obtained, here and now on earth, this mystical identification with the god” (Mircea Eliade, “A History of Religious Ideas: Volume 2,” [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978], 293).

What was the general experience of the initiate?

“We undoubtedly have here an experience of death and resurrection … For the hero of the Metamorphoses, this day was the anniversary of his rebirth in the bosom of the Mysteries” (Ibid., 292-293).

“But what exactly did Apuleius tell us about the mysteries of Isis and Osiris? Nothing more than what an uninitiated one would know: there was a ritual death and rebirth” (Sarolta A. Takacs, “Initiations and Mysteries in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses,” is available online at:

I realize that relevant scholarship has no place in this discussion; but, since that’s patently absurd, I will continue quoting relevant scholarship.

As for the burial inscription, “As Osiris died, so has [the believer] died; and as Osiris rose, so shall [the believer] rise,” this is taken from page 88 of Robert M. Price’s ‘Deconstructing Jesus,’ though Price does not cite a source for this. I personally asked him about the source, and he directed me, generally, to the Pyramid Texts. After a little further research, it would seem that he is essentially paraphrasing this: “Even as Osiris lives, he also will live; even as Osiris is not dead, he also will not die” (Adolf Erman, “A Handbook of Egyptian Religion,” trans. A. S. Griffith [London: Archibald Constable & Co., 1907], 95, citing Pyr. 15=W. 240). Again, this basic soteriological formula is repeated in Firmicus Maternus’ ‘The Error of the Pagan Religions:’ “you should die as he dies, and you should live as he lives,” as well as the New Testament: “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).

Comparative religion scholar S.G.F. Brandon states:

“It has long been recognized that what, in the Pyramid Texts, was exclusively a royal mortuary ritual was gradually democratized, so that in process of time its benefits could be enjoyed by all who could afford the minimum essentials of the Osirian obsequies. Such adaptation inevitably brought many changes as the ritual continued to be practiced throughout some twenty-six or more centuries–indeed until the forcible suppression of paganism in favor of Christianity in the fourth century A.D. However, despite such consequent changes, the fundamental pattern of ritual assimilation was maintained [emphasis added], a fact which is surely of the greatest significance for the study of religious phenomenology. This continuity of tradition may be briefly illustrated by a chronological sequences of examples” (S.G.F. Brandon, “The Ritual Technique of Salvation in the ancient Near East,” in “The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation,” ed. Edwin Oliver James [Manchester University Press, 1963], 25).

Brandon then goes on to cite such examples as the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2160-1575), the ‘Book of the Dead’ many centuries later, and a papyrus dating from the Ptolemaic era.

So, is the soteriology, or ritual assimilation, of the initiate in ‘Metamorphoses’ linked with practices and beliefs in the ancient Egyptian cult? Heck, no. Apuleius swiped it from Christianity! …Even though such a thing had been a staple of Egyptian religion for over two millennia. ::chuckle::

Brandon continues:

“[It is] of profound significance that in teaching the soteriological efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul was led to invoke that same principle of ritual assimilation that had for so many centuries operated in the Osirian mortuary cult. Whether or not Paul was aware of this feature of the Egyptian faith is not an issue for our consideration here. What is important phenomenologically is that, when he sought to make the salvation won by Christ practically available to his converts, Paul resorted to the principle of ritual assimilation, which in its practice constituted so remarkable a parallel to the ritual pattern so long observed in Osirianism” (Ibid., 32-33).

As for the ritual consumption of Osiris’ body:

“It so happens that scented loaves of bread accompany the Sokar figure in the Osirian mysteries described at Dendera. Called kfn-loaves, they are baked in special molds that mark them as representations of Osiris’ body parts, and they too are made of wheat flour (bdt, emmer wheat) mixed with aromatic substances (listed in columns 47-48)” (Joseph D. Reed, “Arsinoe’s Adonis and the Poetics of Ptolemaic Imperialism,” [American Philological Association: First Edition, 2000], 331).

Did Paul write his letters with the Gospel of the Pagans, or the Book of the Dead, in hand, plagiarizing every last detail? Did he travel to Egypt, learn to read hieroglyphics, and transcribe the ritual formulae of the Pyramid Texts? Of course not. As Earl Doherty explains:

“Ideas are ‘in the air’ precisely because they are the current product of a common impulse in the human psyche, but each expression has also absorbed the example of, and been additionally motivated and influenced by, other expressions, a cacophony built largely of the same aural ingredients. As in music, each generation or period of composition has its characteristic sound, one gradually evolving, not because any individual composer (and certainly not the great ones) has been consciously copying his musical peers, but because he or she cannot think musical thoughts in isolation, but will build his own expression and innovations on what is currently being heard in the environment” (Earl Doherty, “The Jesus Puzzle,” is available online at:

Neither was Paul necessarily influenced directly by the Hellenistic mysteries, but, rather, indirectly via Hellenized Judaism. The sects you mention (e.g. the Essenes, Therapeutae, etc.) are examples of Hellenized Judaism, embracing such concepts as initiation, mysteries, and perfection–a combined set of ideas hitherto unknown to Jews. It is rather remarkable that they just so happen to emerge within esoteric Jewish sects during the Hellenistic Age. The 4Q318 zodiacal calendar of Qumran, by the way, contributes also to our knowledge of Greco-Judaic syncretism (Helen R. Jacobus, “4Q318: A Jewish Zodiac Calendar at Qumran?” is available online at:

A correction, I might add, is that Philo speaks of an imperishable soul, not a spiritual body, in sync with Plato’s espousal of the same. Paul’s conception of a spiritual body is somewhat different, as Geza Vermes elucidates:

“As a Jew, Paul could not conceive of resurrection without envisaging some kind of a body, but, combining his Jewish legacy with the Hellenistic ideas of his readers, he insisted that this body would be totally different from the one that had died. The risen body would be imperishable, glorious, and powerful, bearing the image not of the mortal Adam, but that of the glorified Christ. The raised dead would be granted a spiritual body, and the just, alive at the Parousia, would have their earthly bodies transformed into spiritual ones” (Geza Vermes, “The Resurrection: History and Myth,” [New York: Doubleday Religion, 2008], 124).

Whatever the case, it was not a body of “flesh and blood,” as Paul makes clear in 1 Cor. 15:50. While the phrase is no doubt an example of synecdoche, it still entails literal flesh and blood. Such a sloughing of sinful fleshiness was not necessary in traditional Judaism, as Rabbi Samuel Sandmel explicated.

In any event, I am not so delusional as to think that I will actually convince you of anything, or that any amount of evidence or scholarship will meet your particular standards. Neither can I prove, definitively, that Christianity inherited its sacramentalism from the mysteries. The most I can do is produce arguments, evidence, and scholarship in support of my stance. The evidence, at least as I see it, is sufficient to render a verdict. Others on this forum can evaluate the arguments and evidence, and decide for themselves.

I do appreciate having had the opportunity to discuss this with a credentialed scholar. Rarely am I so challenged; you are a formidable opponent! And, I am happy to have learned something in the process. At this time, I am content with simply agreeing to disagree.


Chris Winchester:
Hi, Derreck,

Thank you so much for your detailed and cordial reply. It is evident that you exerted great effort in tracking down source material. It appears that we can agree that Paul was influenced by Hellenized Judaism. We can also concur that Philo follows Plato in espousing belief in a form of immortal soul rather than a body being transformed. It is also absolutely correct to note that knowledge of what precisely occurred during the initiations is very difficult to ascertain.

I appreciate your willingness to discuss these ideas with me as well. I can tell that you have devoted considerable time to studying these issues. I am content to agree to disagree at this point, too. I am grateful to be addressed as “Dr. Winchester,” but I am not quite there yet. I have two more years to go in my doctoral program.

Best wishes,



Derreck Bennett: 😛





One Response to “Debate: Was Christianity Influenced by the Hellenistic Mysteries?”

  1. […] Subjecting Religion to Critical Thought « Debate: Was Christianity Influenced by the Hellenistic Mysteries? […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: