III. Religion in a Hellenistic World: The Mystery Cult

The Quest for Godliness

Mystery Religions were established all around Greece. The cults had a common pantheon of gods, and the point of a cult was to obtain the favor of one's selected god. The religion taught and the techniques used in these cults were probably interesting and exciting to the Greeks because it departed a bit from the old Homeric world. (Riley 145). The idea was apparently to learn of the god's nature, and, hopefully, to share in his nature (Noss 48). Through this, one might attain a better place in the next life.

One could decide, for the most part, among which of the many cults one wanted to join (Price 108). There was a good number to choose from in the time of the Greeks, and then even more so in Roman times when Greek Religion spread about like wildfire and everyone started getting ideas. Perhaps the oldest, the Eleusinian Mysteries, was always very popular, and the Cult of Dionysus with its raucous rites was common. Other cults to non-Greek deities also formed in the Roman world: there was a cult to the Egyptian god Osiris, to the Persian god Mithras, and others (Brown). First, an initiate would undergo baptism by water, and then he would be taught in the Cult's arcane knowledge and arts. He would then behold upon the sacred relics. After that, a drama would take place: a story of the Cult's god would be performed. A crown would be placed upon the initiate's head, and he was then a member of the Cult (Noss 49). Early Christianity had an extremely similar procedure for initiation: the initiate would undergo instruction, baptism, and prayer, during which white clothes were worn; after initiation, the candidate was supposedly reborn (Riley 146).

Its important to note, however, that historians' knowledge of the Mystery Cults is incomplete. Many of the cults didn't have articulated doctrines; members who participated were made to know through action, not words, so it was difficult to actually write anything down about it. Furthermore, divulging the rites or dances was thought to be treason ("Mystery").

As mentioned above, Greek Religion and the Mystery Cults were thrust upon the Jews and Christians of Palestine during the Hellenistic age. Following are three of the more popular Mystery Cults and their relation to Christianity. Because the Jews in the time just before the dawn of Christianity were heavily exposed to all of them, it seems likely that certain ideas were inherited.

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