Was Christianity a Mystery Religion?

IsisIt is very common to find claims that Christianity was a mystery religion, similar to the worship of Dionysus, Isis, Orpheus, etc.

I do not deny that there are some similarities.

Christianity emerged and grew at a time when mystery religions were popular throughout the Roman Empire. Mystery religions were seen as more vibrant than the more stale state religions. Joining a mystery religion was a personal decision and was not connected to what family or culture one belonged to. Mystery religions sometimes included a sense of personal salvation/benefit/fulfillment.

Despite these similarities, we need to look seriously at the differences.

The thing that tied the various mystery religions together is that there were secret beliefs or rituals that were only revealed to those initiated into the religion. To this day, many of the details of these mystery religions are still a secret. On the rare occasions when details were revealed, there was an angry backlash.

How does Christianity compare to this?

There were no secret Christian beliefs or rituals. Christian proclamation included telling people exactly what Christianity was about in a public context. If people were interested, there was no long process of initiation. The New Testament presents a model of proclamation, belief and immediate baptism.

What about the Lord’s Supper? This was something for Christians but it was not a secret. Early Christians wrote about it (Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Corinthians), something that mystery religions did not do.

But didn’t Paul use the word mystery in his writings? Doesn’t that make Christianity a mystery religion?

He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)

Paul uses mystery in a very specific way. The mystery that Paul speaks of is the question of what God would do with the Gentiles. Paul announces that the mystery has been revealed in that God was saving both Jews and Gentiles in Jesus Christ. Mystery was important in that it was now revealed.

So mystery religions, as important as they are for understanding the culture in which Christianity began, is not a category in which Christianity should be included.

This post originally appeared here.




Five Historical Reasons Why Christianity Spread So Quickly

FiveChristians can explain the rapid spread of Christianity with theological reasons. Related but distinct from that are the historical reasons why Christianity was able to be successful.

I see five reasons that helped Christianity to ultimately take over the Roman Empire.

  1. Jewish Diaspora – During the Second Temple period, Jews were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world. This meant that not only were there Jewish synagogues, there were also Gentiles who were somewhat aware of the Jewish God and Scriptures.
  2. Greek Language – Alexander the Great spread Hellenism (Greek culture) across his empire, ultimately leading to the widespread use of the Greek language. This allowed both the Old Testament (Septuagint) and New Testament to be read by as many people as possible.
  3. Greek Philosophy – Greek religion was very anthropomorphic, not just in how the gods looked but how they acted. Philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, helped develop the concept of God into something more praiseworthy. That doesn’t mean that the God of the philosophers was exactly like the God of the Bible, but it was far closer than the traditional Greek pantheon.
  4. Roman Roads – We take for granted how easy it is travel from one place to another. It was not always so in the ancient world. The well made Roman roads made the journeys of Christian missionaries much easier.
  5. Pax Romana – The Roman peace was a harsh peace. Peoples that would have liked to fight each other were forced to be peaceful or face the punishment of the Romans. This, along with the roads, helped the spread of Christianity because travelling was the safest it had ever been.