The Jesus Puzzle Point 6 Mystery Religions and Christianity Sept 25

We come now to Point 6, one of the most common points raised in this discussion and among the most complicated because of the lack of background many bring to this discussion.


Here is point 6:

We come now to Point 6, one of the most common points raised in this discussion and among the most complicated because of the lack of background many bring to this discussion.


Here is point 6:

6) The pagan "mystery cults" of the period worshiped savior deities who had performed salvific acts which took place in the supernatural /mythical world, not on earth or in history.


There are two claims in this point: (1) the remark about deities and (2) the remark about the supernatural/mythic realm in which the claim operates. The major problem with the first part of the claim is that a large, vague category (savior deities who perform salvific acts) is applied, while the devil is in the details. We have in earlier posts dealt with the second aspect of the claim that these deities work exclusively in a supernatural/mythical world, by noting that in Judaism, the beliefs were in a very direct engagement of God with the physical world he created.

So in this post we concentrate on the kind of salvation the mysteries anticipated. We have also already noted that in the Greco-Roman world there was no belief in an actual physical resurrection. The most Greeks hoped for was some kind of spiritual existence of the soul, an unspecified immortality of the soul as either light or some kind of "shade" in Hades or in some form of paradise. The most common myth applied to this discussion is that of Isis/Osiris. The base myth here is that Isis found the fourteen pieces of Osiris that had been spread across the earth by his enemy and put him back together (see Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 18). In the most optimistic version of this myth, Osiris does come back to life (a resurrection of sorts) but only to be in charge of the underworld. This is hardly a hope of full restoration to earth (unlike the claim Jesus will come back to earth to redeem).

Apuleius’ Metamorphoses 11 also has a version of this myth where one comes back to life. Here the key character (Lucius) becomes an ass until he finds Isis and becomes a man again (a kind of frog to prince story). He gets to the edge of death to glimpse the netherworld but never actually dies and comes back.

Another mystery that comes close to a resurrection is that of Attis, who castrates himself and in some versions dies as a results of the blood loss. In the most optimistic version of this myth, Attis is restored to life where his hair grows and his little finger moves (a kind of quadraplegic resurrection, hardly a full restoration, see Arnobius, Against Nations 5.7).

These mystery cults often were agricultural in nature or involved worship done exactly right to pursuade the deity in question to protect or heal, not raise from the dead. So what we see is that deliverance is being used in a very broad manner.

An agricultural cult like this is Mithras. This is also invoked on occasion. The problem here is how tied to the Zodiac this cult is, with its seven levels of advancing status, along with the fact that most of our sources for this cult are later than the Christian time period. Mithras is born from a rock and pursues a bull and slays it so the world can be a cultivated place. Only a text in Plutrach (Pompey 24.5) goes back before the period in question.

A check of these detaisl shows how distinct in tone, story, and "deliverance" this mystery material is. Walter Burkett, who taught classics at Harvard, argues there is no real connection between the mysteries and Christianity (Ancient Mystery Cults, p. 101, "There is as yet no philosophical-historical proof that such passages are directly derived from pagan mysteries"). That conclusion appears justified on the basis of the details I have noted.


  • Sora

    I was curious Dr Bock,

    Have you ever heard of a god mentioned in Herodutus named Zalmoxis. Richard Carrier uses him as an example of a “physical resurrection” god that predates Jesus. I’m not sure what is said of him, but I was just wondering if you knew anything?


    • bock

      Gods? dlb


      Here is the relevant text. You make the call. These are an obscure people about whom no one thought very much, especially not Herodotus. So this is where resurrection came from?

      The earliest source on this matter is the Greek historian Herodotus (Persian Wars 4.94-96); Here is the text:

      The belief of the Getae in respect of immortality is the following. They think that they do not really die, but that when they depart this life they go to Zalmoxis, who is called also Gebeleizis by some among them. To this god every five years they send a messenger, who is chosen by lot out of the whole nation, and charged to bear him their several requests. Their mode of sending him is this. A number of them stand in order, each holding in his hand three darts; others take the man who is to be sent to Zalmoxis, and swinging him by his hands and feet, toss him into the air so that he falls upon the points of the weapons. If he is pierced and dies, they think that the god is propitious to them; but if not, they lay the fault on the messenger, who (they say) is a wicked man: and so they choose another to send away. The messages are given while the man is still alive. This same people, when it lightens and thunders, aim their arrows at the sky, uttering threats against the god; and they do not believe that there is any god but their own.

      I am told by the Greeks who dwell on the shores of the Hellespont and the Pontus, that this Zalmoxis was in reality a man, that he lived at Samos, and while there was the slave of Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus. After obtaining his freedom he grew rich, and leaving Samos, returned to his own country. The Thracians at that time lived in a wretched way, and were a poor ignorant race; Zalmoxis, therefore, who by his commerce with the Greeks, and especially with one who was by no means their most contemptible philosopher, Pythagoras to wit, was acquainted with the Ionic mode of life and with manners more refined than those current among his countrymen, had a chamber built, in which from time to time he received and feasted all the principal Thracians, using the occasion to teach them that neither he, nor they, his boon companions, nor any of their posterity would ever perish, but that they would all go to a place where they would live for aye in the enjoyment of every conceivable good. While he was acting in this way, and holding this kind of discourse, he was constructing an apartment underground, into which, when it was completed, he withdrew, vanishing suddenly from the eyes of the Thracians, who greatly regretted his loss, and mourned over him as one dead. He meanwhile abode in his secret chamber three full years, after which he came forth from his concealment, and showed himself once more to his countrymen, who were thus brought to believe in the truth of what he had taught them. Such is the account of the Greeks.

      I for my part neither put entire faith in this story of Zalmoxis and his underground chamber, nor do I altogether discredit it: but I believe Zalmoxis to have lived long before the time of Pythagoras. Whether there was ever really a man of the name, or whether Zalmoxis is nothing but a native god of the Getae, I now bid him farewell. As for the Getae themselves, the people who observe the practices described above, they were now reduced by the Persians, and accompanied the army of Darius.

      That is the citation. You can make the decision.



  • grand canyon tours

    The Mysteries were thus cults in which all religious functions were closed to the non-inducted and for which the inner-working of the cult were kept secret from the general public.

  • bock

    reply dlb

    Yet word about their practices leaked out as we know. In addition, we have found relics of thier practices, so the mysteries are not a complete secret.