Saturday, 21 March 2015

The proofs that Christianity was a Mystery Religion

Most people think early Christianity (i.e. before legalisation in the Roman Empire) was a public preaching religion.  In fact, the evidence goes to show that it was a Mystery Religion: its doctrines were secret, only initiates were permitted to be taught them, and there were hierarchical grades of initiation into increasingly majestic mystery doctrines.

All that was publicly preached, I suppose, was a vague preface and promise of the sort of doctrines to be found within, such as were typically given out when Christians wrote for outside audiences as in the Epistle to Diognetus:
For, as I said, this was no mere earthly invention which was delivered to them, nor is it a mere human system of opinion, which they judge it right to preserve so carefully, nor has a dispensation of mere human mysteries been committed to them, but truly God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, [Him who is] the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts. ...
If you also desire [to possess] this faith, you likewise shall receive first of all the knowledge of the Father. ... I minister the things delivered to me to those that are disciples worthy of the truth. For who that is rightly taught and begotten by the loving Word, would not seek to learn accurately the things which have been clearly shown by the Word to His disciples, to whom the Word being manifested has revealed them, speaking plainly [to them], not understood indeed by the unbelieving, but conversing with the disciples, who, being esteemed faithful by Him, acquired a knowledge of the mysteries of the Father? For which reason He sent the Word, that He might be manifested to the world; and He, being despised by the people, was, when preached by the Apostles, believed on by the Gentiles. ... When you have read and carefully listened to these things, you shall know what God bestows on such as rightly love Him...
However, the balance between what was exoteric and what esoteric may have changed over time, and this deserves future analysis.

The sources below are referenced by Richard Carrier in On the Historicity of Jesus, and here I pick out the key lines and phrases for proving the point.

The Pauline epistles show that there were different grades of doctrine.  For example in 1 Cor 3:

I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.
Furthermore, 2 Cor 12 shows there are great doctrines that Paul keeps secret:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
There is a hierarchy of members of the Church which corresponds to different stations, gifts, and presumably knowledge:
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.  (1 Cor 12)
Christianity being a graded Mystery Religion is presumably why Paul tells his readers to regard the apostles as "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor 4) and why his wish for his followers is:
that their hearts may be encouraged ... to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Col. 2)
Somebody might think Gal. 3:1 is evidence that Christ's crucifixion was "publicly portrayed", but actually the word used is "prograph√≥", meaning "previously written"Presumably Paul had shown the Galatians  Bible passages that revealed Christ's crucifixion; possibly this one or this one or this one.

Hebrews 5-6 also shows that there are different levels of knowledge for different levels of initiate:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

[--Chapter break in modern texts--]

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

It would seem the italicised material are elementary doctrines, and the next material to come are doctrines of maturity.  It is interesting to see the discordance between the end of chapter 5 and the beginning of chapter 6: "you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God" compared with "Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity".  It seems this is not a document that flows from one chapter to the next, but rather you either stop with chapter 5 and go over the basics again or you go on with chapter 6 to higher doctrines.  That is redolent of a manual for initiation into rising grades.

Jesus in Mark's Gospel is portrayed as a mysteriarch, and this is most likely because he was placed at the head of a mystery religion:

10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
    and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (Mark 4)
Looking at later Church texts, Clement of Alexandria's Stromata 5:9-10 shows Christianity was still a mystery religion at the time of this document (late 2nd century).  For example:
"For I know," says the apostle, "that when I come to you, I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of Christ;" designating the spiritual gift, and the gnostic communication, which being present he desires to impart to them present as "the fulness of Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery sealed in the ages of eternity, but now manifested by the prophetic Scriptures, according to the command of the eternal God, made known to all the nations, in order to the obedience of faith," that is, those of the nations who believe that it is. But only to a few of them is shown what those things are which are contained in the mystery. Rightly then, Plato, in the Epistles, treating of God, says: "We must speak in enigmas that should the tablet come by any mischance on its leaves either by sea or land, he who reads may remain ignorant.
And chapter 7 describes the ascent through the hierarchy of the mystery religion, from faith to knowledge to love to inheritance.  It is the light of knowledge that carries initiates through the "mystic stages of advancement" leading to godlike perfection:

...knowledge, conveyed from communication through the grace of God as a deposit, is entrusted to those who show themselves worthy of it; and from it the worth of love beams forth from light to light. For it is said, "To him that hath shall be given:" to faith, knowledge; and to knowledge, love; and to love, the inheritance.

And this takes place, whenever one hangs on the Lord by faith, by knowledge, by love, and ascends along with Him to where the God and guard of our faith and love is. Whence at last (on account of the necessity for very great preparation and previous training in order both to hear what is said, and for the composure of life, and for advancing intelligently to a point beyond the righteousness of the law) it is that knowledge is committed to those fit and selected for it. It leads us to the endless and perfect end, teaching us beforehand the future life that we shall lead, according to God, and with gods; after we are freed from all punishment and penalty which we undergo, in consequence of our sins, for salutary discipline. After which redemption the reward and the honours are assigned to those who have become perfect; when they have got done with purification, and ceased from all service, though it be holy service, and among saints. Then become pure in heart, and near to the Lord, there awaits them restoration to everlasting contemplation; and they are called by the appellation of gods, being destined to sit on thrones with the other gods that have been first put in their places by the Saviour.

Knowledge is therefore quick in purifying, and fit for that acceptable transformation to the better. Whence also with ease it removes [the soul] to what is akin to the soul, divine and holy, and by its own light conveys man through the mystic stages of advancement; till it restores the pure in heart to the crowning place of rest; teaching to gaze on God, face to face, with knowledge and comprehension. For in this consists the perfection of the gnostic soul, in its being with the Lord, where it is in immediate subjection to Him, after rising above all purification and service.

Faith is then, so to speak, a comprehensive knowledge of the essentials; and knowledge is the strong and sure demonstration of what is received by faith, built upon faith by the Lord's teaching, conveying [the soul] on to infallibility, science, and comprehension. And, in my view, the first saving change is that from heathenism to faith, as I said before; and the second, that from faith to knowledge. And the latter terminating in love, thereafter gives the loving to the loved, that which knows to that which is known. And, perchance, such an one has already attained the condition of "being equal to the angels." Accordingly, after the highest excellence in the flesh, changing always duly to the better, he urges his flight to the ancestral hall, through the holy septenniad [of heavenly abodes] to the Lord's own mansion; to be a light, steady, and continuing eternally, entirely and in every part immutable.

Likewise Hippolytus of Rome's liturgy, the Apostolic Tradition, proves that there were secret doctrines at that time (early 3rd century) reserved for initiates:

If there is anything else which needs to be told, the bishop shall tell it privately to those who receive baptism. None but the faithful may know, and even them only after receiving baptism.

Meanwhile Origen in Against Celsus 3:59-60 (mid-3rd century) straightforwardly compares the Xian mysteries with the Pagan ones:

And when those who have been turned towards virtue have made progress, and have shown that they have been purified by the word, and have led as far as they can a better life, then and not before do we invite them to participation in our mysteries. "For we speak wisdom among them that are perfect."

he who acts as initiator, according to the precepts of Jesus, will say to those who have been purified in heart, "He whose soul has, for a long time, been conscious of no evil, and especially since he yielded himself to the healing of the word, let such an one hear the doctrines which were spoken in private by Jesus to His genuine disciples." Therefore in the comparison which [Celsus] institutes between the procedure of the initiators into the Grecian mysteries, and the teachers of the doctrine of Jesus, he does not know the difference between inviting the wicked to be healed, and initiating those already purified into the sacred mysteries!

Thus it is plainly confirmed by Gospel, Epistles and Church Fathers that early Christianity was indeed a Mystery Religion.

Unreferenced by Richard Carrier, I will add evidence from Roman criticism of Christianity.  Minucius Felix in his Octavius, a Christian apology in dialogue form, makes the critic say:
I purposely pass over many things, for those that I have mentioned are already too many; and that all these, or the greater part of them, are true, the obscurity of their vile religion declares. For why do they endeavour with such pains to conceal and to cloak whatever they worship, since honourable things always rejoice in publicity, while crimes are kept secret? Why have they no altars, no temples, no acknowledged images? Why do they never speak openly, never congregate freely, unless for the reason that what they adore and conceal is either worthy of punishment, or something to be ashamed of? 
The Christian's response to the charge of secrecy is that Christians:
are assembled together with the same quietness with which we live as individuals; and we are not garrulous in corners, although you either blush or are afraid to hear us in public.
This does not give us reason to doubt the charge that they kept their doctrines and worship secret.

Origen responds to the charge of secrecy in Contra Celsus 1:7:
Moreover, since he frequently calls the Christian doctrine a secret system (of belief), we must confute him on this point also, since almost the entire world is better acquainted with what Christians preach than with the favourite opinions of philosophers. For who is ignorant of the statement that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that He was crucified, and that His resurrection is an article of faith among many, and that a general judgment is announced to come, in which the wicked are to be punished according to their deserts, and the righteous to be duly rewarded? And yet the mystery of the resurrection, not being understood, is made a subject of ridicule among unbelievers. In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd. But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric. Some of the hearers of Pythagoras were content with his ipse dixit; while others were taught in secret those doctrines which were not deemed fit to be communicated to profane and insufficiently prepared ears. Moreover, all the mysteries that are celebrated everywhere throughout Greece and barbarous countries, although held in secret, have no discredit thrown upon them, so that it is in vain that he endeavours to calumniate the secret doctrines of Christianity, seeing he does not correctly understand its nature.
Thus Christianity had secret esoteric doctrines, although Origen says the basics of the virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection and judgement were well known at that time in the mid-3rd century.  Presumably time and popularity had conspired to undermine the secrecy of these elementary doctrines.

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