Paul and the Mysteries

Paul and the Mysteries

The city of Eleusis in ancient Greece was 14 miles west of Athens overlooking the Saronic Gulf.  It was famous throughout antiquity as the site where the rituals celebrating Demeter’s rescue of Persephone from the underworld were celebrated.  They were known as the Eleusinian Mysteries and were performed there from at least 700 bce until they were officially shut down by the Christian Emperor Theodosius in 392 ce.  The rituals re-enac­ted the descent of the goddess of grain into the underworld in search of her daughter, and her return to life which brought life back to earth.  It had originally been an earth-fertility rite bearing the same burden of “renewing the seasons” as those of Isis and Osiris of Egypt, Damuzi of Mesopotamia, Adonis in Syria, and others.  All these ancient rebirth-of-life rituals were celebrated throughout the Empire and came to be sublimated into the human quest for immortality through the symbolic participation in the death and resurrection of a divine-human “hero” who was called “lord.” The cults of Orpheus and Dionysus were local variants on the rites ofEleusis. They were all called “Mystery” religions.

The word “mysterion” is Greek and means “symbol.”  It has been translated since ancient times by the latin word sacramentum.  “Mysteries” were liturgies of participation whereby individuals, through the symbolic re-enactment of events, were believed to become part of their death-con­quering “lord” and, suffused with her/his power to rejuvenate life, achieved immortality.  

Paul was a resident of the Greek city of Tarsus in the present day Turkey and a Roman citizen.  He was a Jew by birth, a pharisee by choice and training, and a tent-maker by trade.  But whatever else, he was a literate Greek in a Greek world.  Because of their continuous age-old presence in Greek life the Mysteries were more than familiar to him.  There is ample evidence in his letters that he incorporated the essential spirit of those ancient and very widespread mediterranean religious practices into the ritual program he established for the communities he founded.  Christians “died” with their lord, Jesus, through baptism; they were incorporated into him and became members of his body.  They were nourished with his own flesh and blood and would rise from the dead just as he rose.

Paul’s bi-cultural background put him in a unique position to translate the essential elements of the Jesus-event from a Jewish idiom into the Mystery terms that would appeal to his Greek contemporaries.  The formulas expressed in his letters, whether he was solely responsible for them or not, brought together three things: (1) the expectations expressed in Jewish categories of messianic “redemption” which many Jews found “foretold” in the scriptures, (2) Greek aspirations for immortality represented by the Mystery Religions, and (3) the message, life and death of Jesus.  The point I am after is that the interpretation of Jesus’ significance did not come from an exhaustive examination of Jesus’ own declared intentions, teach­ings and life style, but from the religious needs, assumptions and expectations of the com­mu­nities who embraced him as their teacher. 

Jews who were convinced that the messiah’s arrival was imminent also had clear expectations — gleaned from the scriptures — about what that had to mean in Judaic terms.  The Greeks for their part were obsessed with immortality.  Their religious conviction, that it was achievable through incorporation into the life of a dying-and-rising “hero” through ritual re-enactment, provided the paradigm into which Paul inserted the Jewish Messianic covenant-event.  The pressure for “covenant-messiah” from the Jewish tradition and “divine-human-immortality” from the Greek, inevitably meshed the two.  In Paul’s hands, Jesus became Lord and Christ, a “god-man” who conquered death, and by incorporation into his “mysteries” his followers, too, gained immortality.

Jesus as role and function

It is not insignificant that the proper name “Jesus” is never used alone by Paul to refer to the “founder” of his religion.  The name is always accompanied by “lord,” which was the common title given to the hero of the Greek Mysteries, or “christ” which translates Jewish “messiah.”  Both are not names but titles, labels — the descriptors of a role or function.  It was a transference that was so common that Tacitus in his Annals  thought Jesus’ name was “Christos;” obviously that was all he ever heard.  Such a shift from personal name to soteriological function puts on open display the depersonalization of Jesus and the subordination of his personal message and life style to the categorical functions of the religions to whose agenda he was harnessed.  That Jesus’ own vision might have been at odds with Jewish covenant imagery on the one hand, and Greek polytheistic aspirations for immortality on the other, was disregarded if not suppressed.  What we have in Paul’s version of Christianity is a syncretism between Judaic and Greek religious idioms that bypasses the integral message of the man — Jesus — who was the catalyst that inspired them.  Jesus, in other words, was used to promote projects that were not actually his, and with which he may not have entirely agreed.

It should be emphasized at this point that I am talking about developments within the first generation after Jesus’ death.  I am not yet considering the massive deformations that occurred 300 years later when the political needs of the Roman Empire hijacked Christianity and turned it into “Catholicism,” skewing doctrine to such an extent that the spirit of Jesus’ vision was barely discernible.  Roman Imperial captivity eliminated Jesus’ humanity altogether, turned him into Pantocrator,  the ruler-“God” who judges the living and the dead, and set up a quid pro quo of salvation-for-obedi­ence based on a legalist morality monitored by a wrathful deity who demanded baptism into the Empire’s “Church” as the one and only way to avoid eternal torment.  Infant baptism became the common practice; without it unbaptized babies were sent directly to hell by a monster-“God.”  Upper Class hierarchical authority usurped all liturgical functions, women were sidelined, and all religious expression other than the official version approved by the State was persecuted to extinction.  Roman harassment and pogroms of Jews and “heretics” began only in Christian times and were even encouraged by bishops.  Jesus’ popularity was exploited by those who used him for their own purposes, and in the offing, the very humanity, simplicity and compassion that was the basis of his appeal was made secondary to other “more important” values.

Plato, the Mysteries and Christianity

The ancient Mysteries were religious rituals that worked in tandem with the official state cult of the  gods of the mediterranean pantheon.  They were the re-enactment of mythic events done by human “heroes” who were able to manipulate the gods and achieve immortality for humans because of their super-human abilities.  But it always remained an achievement; it was not something to which humans had a right.  The human heroes became immortal by achievement, only the gods were immortal by nature.

The Mystery religions were part of the warp and woof of ancient mediterranean culture from before historic times and they were considered sacred by people of all classes.  Their focus on immortality served as a stimulus to the philosophical efforts of Plato in the 4th century bce who began a rational enquiry into the meaning of human life with immortality as the governing idea.  Plato became convinced that the origins of humankind were rooted in a world of spirit where mortal matter did not exist and hence nothing died.   

Platonic theory offered “doctrines” about natural immortality which contradicted the central premise of the Mysteries.  Plato concluded that human beings were born with an immortal soul because they were made of spirit, not matter.  Immortality in this scheme did not need to be won, humans were born immortal.  Human persons were really spiritual “souls” trapped in material bodies.  Their “soul-selves” would live on after death in the other world.  The earliest Christian apologists, working from the Mystery paradigm established by Paul, rejected the doctrine of the immortal soul as a pagan belief for it would have rendered the resurrection meaningless.  The earliest Creeds which proclaimed belief in the “resurrection of the body” echoed that world-view.

For a long time Platonic philosophy remained an esoteric pursuit of the educated classes; its tenets were not familiar and accessible to all and it never had a ritual program.  The Mysteries were a religion, Platonism was not.  Paul’s use of the Mystery genre as the scaffolding for his message reflects the fact that he was not addressing the class of people who had accepted Platonic philosophy in place of the traditional cults.  And when he did venture into the world of the philosophers, as we see in his discourse at the Areopagus in Athens, the philosophy he alluded to was not Platonism but Stoicism.  To my mind it is quite significant that it was not until Athenagoras’ Apology, a century and a half after Paul’s letters, that there begins to appear evidence of the presence of Platonic elements in the Christian world-view.  But it took almost another century, with the writings of Clement of Alexandria and his disciple Origen, for the Platonic features to predominate in Christian thought.  This tells me that Christianity slowly penetrated the upper classes.  When it did, their prestige and the normal instinct of lower class people to defer to them, their wealth and power, their education and their ideas, meant that Christian “doctrine” ultimately came to be expressed in Platonic categories and controlled by the elite.  By the 4th century of the common era Christianity had virtually become the ritual expression of Platonism.  This represented a sea-change from Paul’s version of Christianity.  Immortality in this new scheme no longer had to be won and so Christianity no longer needed a human hero.  From being a “god-man” Jesus became just “God,” of the “same substance” as the Father.   The preoccupation of the individual  shifted from achieving immortality to what kind of life she would have after death:what world — heaven or hell — will I end up in”?  Torment or bliss for the “soul-self” turned the Pauline quest for integral bodily immortality obtained by immersion in Jesus’ heroic human sacrifice, into the quest to avoid punishment for my disembodied spirit by gaining grace through receiving the sacraments and obeying the law.

The sacraments, which were originally conceived in imitation of the Greek Mysteries provi­ding an immersion (baptism) and ritual re-enactment (eucharist) into the death-conquer­ing divine-human “Lord Jesus,” morphed into the mechanical (ex opere operato) delivery-system of a quasi-quan­ti­fied “grace” which guaranteed reward in heaven.  Such a change from free communal participation to individual self-interested accumulation, besides encouraging the formation of pusillanimous personalities, also meant a new power concentration in the hands of the “distributors” — those who controlled the mechanisms of salvation — the upper class hierarchy who insisted that they alone were authorized  to “administer” the sacraments.     

The Mysteries, resurrection and the theory of the two worlds

So we see there were a series of modulations occurring over hundreds of years that radically transformed Christianity.  Jesus’ vision of the free forgiveness and unconditional love of our “Father,” ritualized in a baptism of conversion and a shared meal among equals symbolizing an earthly morality of love and compassion, was ultimately distorted into a stratified mechanical system for the disbursement and accumulation of an imaginary other worldly currency.  This “grace” was conceived as a magic “something” that supposedly enabled compliance with an otherwise impossible morality and provided the wherewithal to avoid damnation in the other world to which we returned after death.  This distribution system was under the control of overseers from the upper classes identified with the slave-based stratifications of the Roman Empire and fully complicit with its theocratic claims and imperial projects.  And the first decisive step away from Jesus’ earthly vision and into the “two world” fantasy can be found recorded in the letters of Paul, whether he was primarily responsible for them or not, in his articulation of the Jesus-event as the achievement of immortality in the idiom of the Mystery religions.

The still unresolved controversies among Christian scholars about whether the resurrection of Jesus was literal or not have been nourished by the suspicion that the Mystery religion paradigm might have driven the interpretation of the “experiences of the risen Jesus” more than we would like to admit.  And if, besides impelling belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus, the Mysteries were the influence that encouraged Plato to look for a solution to human origins and human destiny in a spiritual “other world,” then they also help explain the metaphysical “dualism” that dominated Christianity and from there western culture for two millennia.  Given the cultural importance of the Mysteries in Greek life, these developments may have been inevitable under any circumstances.  That Pauline Christianity became the vehicle of this dispersion may only have been a quirk of history.  But what is more important to us than the vagaries of western culture is what got by-passed in all of this: the message of Jesus.

The legacy of the man Jesus seems to have been determined more by those who exploited his magnetism than by any serious attempt to collect, thoroughly analyze and put into practice his suggestions for a simple program of human living.  To this day, the sayings, parables and personal interactions of this unimposing and uncredentialled … possibly even illiterate Jewish peasant … continue to inspire awe at the depth of his humanity.  Jesus, as his Jewish brothers would say, was a mensch.  Gleaning his words embedded in the highly theologized narrative accounts of the gospels and identifying his personal message is not an easy task.  But luckily, according to Jesus, we have more to go on than just his own words.  We have the promptings of our own human hearts which he said would guide us to know what “God” is like and how to imitate “him.”

… “If even you know how to give good things to your children, how much more does your Father who is in heaven.”  … “Look at the lilies of the field.  They neither toil nor do they spin, yet not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.”    ” … love your enemies … be like your Father in heaven who makes the sun shine on the good and the bad, and the rain fall on the just and the unjust.”  “… Father … forgive our offenses, as we forgive those who offend us.” 

There’s a “theology” here that is very different from those that have been elaborated in his name.  it’s not complicated at all.  Try it … taste and see … it’s very simple, and it works.

3 comments on “Paul and the Mysteries

  1. elysiafields says:

    Greater Mystery rites all over the ancient world had an almost magical way of defining a geographic territory, defining a nationality, as well as defining a religion from which political philosophy and laws emerge. Overwhelming evidence suggests that these types of mystery rites were ubiquitous to the ancient world, and all of the utilized psychoactive substances. Demeter eschewed wine in favour of kekeyon. The last supper, which was almost certainly a mystery rite consecrated its ceremony with wine which is also a psychoactive substance. My blog explores a profusion of connections between the Eleusinian Mysteries and Jewish Jubilee. Check it out at

  2. emmett coyne says:


    I stumbled upon your blog and found much of my thinking in sync with yours!

    I am in the process of completing a book, The Theology of Fear.
    I’ve quoted you twice in it.
    Could quote you even more except I’m trying to thin the text!

    I am a RC priest.

    Emmett Coyne

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