The Jewish mystery cult, a greater spiritual synthesis than even the mighty and popular Sarapis, was immediately popular. It was fueled by both the desires and needs of the Jewish people in the diaspora, and the lust for a greater and more powerful magical name. It also allowed Jews to integrate more fully into their cosmopolitan pagan environment. The Galatians received him “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (Gal 4:14).
At the same time, there was an inherent and powerful conflict in this new religious practice. Jesus was the anathema of everything the Jews believed in; he was a disgusting, crudely constructed, pagan mystery god masking as the Jewish Messiah.
Pressing questions and practical matters arose immediately. Was the Law of the Old Testament to be followed, or did Jesus do away with the Law? Should taxes be paid to the Roman Empire – or to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem? Different leaders arose, offering different versions of the Jesus Mysteries, in fierce competition for monopoly on this new faith.
The form of the Jesus mysteries that came down to us is the one promoted by Paul, but he was not its first teacher. There were probably other Jewish-Pagan syntheses, calling themselves Christians, which were in many ways similar to the movement which ultimately identified itself under the new name “Jesus”. Tradition tells us, for example that John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus; and the gospels compel Jesus to seek John’s approval in the scene of Jesus’ baptism. John must have been immensely influential for Jesus to have needed to forge a link to his tradition.
One of the greatest threats to the early church was the Gnostic movement set up by Simon Magus, who apparently really was one of John’s disciples. Simon was credited with great magical powers such as levitation; it is said that he proclaimed himself the Messiah or Christ.
In fact, during this period after the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome, Jews were actively seeking a Christ – and many were found or came forward. Jesus’ claim to be the Christ was not without competitors, such as Simon.
Upon this scene came Paul of Tarsus. Somehow, Paul became involved in the new mystery cult using the magical name of Jesus. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was a priest charged with rounding up the Diaspora Jews who were participating in the Jewish Mysteries – but once he started to investigate them, he had a mystical experience on the road to Damascus, converted and became its strongest supporter. This powerful marketing technique continues to be used today in most sales letters, in the claims of an initial critic or skeptic who was overwhelmed in spite of themselves. Lee Strobel uses the same technique in The Case for Christ, by pretending to be a genuine, unbiased skeptic who is then ‘amazed’ and ‘astounded’ by the historical evidence for Jesus Christ. Perhaps in truth Paul was himself initiated into the mysteries; his experience at Damascus certainly sounds like an initiation experience like the type reported at Eleusis.
At any rate, Paul set himself up as a teacher, and in a profound cultural shift, proclaimed himself as “apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul produced (or popularized) a divergent form of the Jesus Mysteries meant for non-Jews; in a sense, we could say he found a new market for an established product.
Jews had always kept themselves and their culture apart from their gentile neighbors, even while living amongst them, but their strict dietary laws and other restrictions made assimilation impossible. Paul claimed, however, that Jesus cancelled those laws:
He has wiped out the record of our debt to the Law, which stood against us; he has destroyed it by nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:14)
Paul transformed the Dispersion. Morality, mysticism, promise of salvation without the Law were what very many of its members wanted to hear. (Frend 101)
His new version of the mysteries, which allowed freedom from the Law, were especially among magical communities who recognized the value in the name of Jesus. These were usually fringe towns without a strong Jewish center and heavy interest in paganism, mysteries or magic.
But Paul took his mysteries even further: in a revolutionary stance on cultural identity and politics, Paul proclaimed himself “apostle to the Gentiles.” Thus, not only was he offering a new experience to Jews – the participation in mystery spirituality without limitations from the Law – but he also claimed that the Gentiles could now participate in the Jewish covenant as equals. This offered outsiders something new that could not be found in other mysteries: the personal protection of the powerful and ancient God of Moses.
Paul reasons that Jesus, by destroying the Law of the commandments, which previously had separated the Jews and Gentiles, has brought peace to these two cultures so they could live together without hostility.
For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one entity and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, by destroying in his own person the hostility, that is, the Law of commandments with its decrees. His purpose in this was, by restoring peace, to create a single New Man out of the two of them, and through the cross, to reconcile them both to God in one Body; in his own person he killed the hostility. He came to bring the good news of peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. Through him, then, we both in the one Spirit have free access to the Father. (Ephesians 2:14-18)
This was a highly political claim. On the one hand, as we’ve seen, this final form of mystery synthesis was a natural production of the synergetic tendency of the times.
On the one hand, from the standpoint of the Roman authority, Paul’s message is precisely what was needed to placate the rebelling factions of Jews and offer them a place in the empire.
At the same time, from the Jewish perspective. Paul’s claims were inherently sacrilegious and blasphemous; it implied a complete break with Judaism.
For loyal Jews, Paul was a disaster. He had thrown into the open many of the unresolved tensions within the Dispersion. They were aghast at the consequences… If he was right, Moses was wrong and the promises to Abraham were in vain. If Paul went free, the ideal of Jewish universalism was dead, and the communities of the Dispersion would be prey to discord and schism. (Frend 101).
Despite modern attempts to root Christianity firmly in Judaism (and thereby bypass the challenging dilemma of its similarity to the pagan mystery cults), Paul’s Christianity is rejected by Jews – indeed he is violently persecuted for bringing Christ’s “Good News”. In his own words, Paul says,
Five times at the hands of the Jews I received 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:24- 28).
Paul’s new mysteries stirred about heated controversy. How were Greeks and Gentiles to be reconciled? What foods could be eaten? Should Gentiles get circumcised? Were they really equal to Jews in God’s eyes? How could the Jewish people get rid of the Law – what had previously been the defining feature of their people and culture? Surely some of it must be saved?
Dissension produced dozens of schisms and parallel movements. As we know today, the group of Christians who eventually gained the upper hand, produced the bible and became the Roman Catholic Church, disagreed with Paul about the Law – their Jesus, as recorded in Matthew, claims
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18).
The New Testament is arranged to appear chronological: the four gospels present the story of Jesus’ ministry, Acts of the Apostles narrates the adventures of the disciples, and the letters of Paul – written to the growing Christian communities – are included at the end. This arrangement is misleading. The letters of Paul are actually the earliest writings in the New Testament. As such, they record an earlier conception of Jesus Christ than the view given in the gospels. This difficulty is often noted and overcome by Christian scholars by claiming that, although fundamental in spreading the mystery of Jesus Christ, Paul’s gospel is profoundly different from the ‘original’ one that must have been taught by Jesus, and that the Church was later guided back to the Truth through the power of the Holy Spirit. This claim is hard to swallow, and without fidelity to the idea that the Church doctrine is infallible, easily dismissed.
Instead, Paul’s letters make it clear that his “Jesus Christ” is a Jewish version of the Greek mysteries, which have been around for some time. The only difference, he claims, is that it is a mystery religion for Jews, God’s chosen people, and is thus superior because it is enhanced by Israel’s holy covenant.
I was made a servant with the responsibility… of completing God’s message, the message which was a mystery hidden for generations and centuries and has now been revealed to his holy people. It was God’s purpose to reveal to them how is the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ among you. (Colossians 1:25)
He was saying, in effect, “The Greeks have used this mystery for years and it works great for them. Now I’m giving it to you, under the name of Christ, so that you can participate as well.” Because of his education, as well as his priestly training, Paul was a persuasive missionary. He told the story of Jesus Christ, Son of God, who was crucified and resurrected from the dead. New initiates would be baptized and urged to control their physical desires through fasting and abstinence. Paul would then leave a few initiates in charge and promise to return with further revelations.
The epistles of Paul are notoriously obtuse and contradictory, because he seems to be saying different things in every one. This is because not every community was at the same level in the process of initiation. As a mystery religion, Christianity had several layers of meaning that would be divulged slowly as initiates proved their worth. To the beginners, Paul was careful not to reveal too much; the higher teaching would be wasted on them if they weren’t spiritually prepared, and the process could be ruined if rushed. To strengthen their willpower, Paul told them have faith, to be strict in their habits and diet, and to become masters over their physical bodies.
Once members had shown a certain level of spiritual maturity, they would be initiated into the higher mysteries and told that the Christ story was a metaphor for spiritual transformation. These advanced pupils, who believed in developing personal wisdom, or Gnosis, are the communities referred to by historians as Gnostics. To these higher level initiates, Paul left behind the initial steps and skipped ahead to more advanced topics.
Let us leave behind all the elementary teaching about Christ and go on to its completion, without going over the fundamental doctrines again; the turning away from dead actions, faith in God, the teaching about baptisms and the laying on of hands, about the resurrection of the dead and the eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6)
He could also write freely now about the mythical interpretations of the stories he’d shared with them. While in the beginning they had learned that their savior Christ was a man from Palestine, they were now to leave even this idea behind.
From now onwards, then, we will not consider anyone by human standards: even if we were once on familiar terms with Christ according to human standards, we do not know him in that way any longer. (2 Corinthians 5:16)
Paul revealed Christ as the Logos and explained his role as divine intermediary. Like other mysteries, Christianity had a ‘death ritual’ which included a symbolic death (to the old, physical, human self) and a rebirth (to a new life in Christ).
Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were “buried with him in baptism” (Eph. 2:5-6). It should be obvious to us at this stage that we are dealing with a missing piece of early Christian ritual, which finds no expression in modern day Christianity.
Followers of Jesus were expected to be dead in Christ, because they had already died in Christ; many passages refer to Christians as having been, like Jesus, ‘crucified’, or having their physical passions ‘crucified’, or being ‘crucified’ to the world. Hence, Jesus’ crucifixion was understood metaphorically in Paul’s mystery:
We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:2).
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
After their symbolic initiation into death, they would be “reborn” in Christ, living in Christ, or have the animating divine Logos living through them.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11)
It’s hard not to imagine the early initiates into the mysteries of Jesus participating in a burial ceremony, were they were actually buried or closed in a tomb, and having their rebirth celebrated as they emerged again into the light. This ritual may have also been tied to a mock-crucifixion or even a presentation of an image of the crucifixion. It would have been followed by the ritual of the Wedding Chamber (as described previously by the Gospel of Philips cited above) to unite the Sophia with the Logos, or the Magdalene with the Jesus. After that, they would be one with the Logos, or Christ.
I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me. (Galatians 2:20)
Paul used unambiguous terms and images, exhibiting a mastery of Greek language and mystery school philosophy. After removing the seven veils of corporeality, (hinted at in the story of Jesus casting the seven demons out of Mary) Paul’s higher initiates could reflect the light of God like living mirrors.
And all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirror reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:16)
Although the early stages of the mysteries may have prescribed strict rules of conduct, after their own rite of resurrection initiates were theoretically dead to their animal selves. Moral action from then on was supposed to come directly from the Logos within them and be spontaneous. However, eradication of desire through this symbolic death was a continuous process; Paul often had to remind his pupils of the implied morality that came with their elevated status.
You have stripped off your old behavior with your old self, and you have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:8)
All who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified self with all its passions and its desires. Since we are living by the spirit, let our behavior be guided by the Spirit and let us not be conceited or provocative and envious of one another. (Galatians 5:24)
Initiates at the highest level, including Paul, understood that in reality there was no right and wrong, no good and evil, because all opposites were united in the Logos. For these initiates, moral excellence was not found in empty physical posturing, but in natural accord with the internal spirit. The laws and rules of the early stages had been like training wheels, which had served their purpose and could now be removed.
If you have really died with Christ to the principles of this world, why do you still let rules dictate you, as though you were still living in the world? “Do not pick up this, do not eat that, do not touch the other,” and all about things which perish even while they are being used according to merely human commandments and doctrines! (Colossians 2:20)
Thus, the Jewish Law was rendered meaningless. The important thing, rather than moral codes of external action, was to cultivate an internal state of tranquility. The soul was described as a pool of water which needed to be kept still in order to reflect the image of God. This peaceful internal state was more important even than specific details of the faith.
Within yourself, before God, hold on to what you already believe. Blessed is the person whose principles do not condemn his practice. But anyone who eats with qualms of conscious is already condemned, because this eating does not spring from faith and every action that does not spring from faith is sin. (Romans 14:22)
Any action that caused worry, guilt, or internal discord was a sin because it splashed the water of the soul, and God could no longer be seen clearly. Those initiates who could act without rippling the water had total freedom from the strict Jewish dietary laws and moral customs. However, they needed to be careful around the lower level initiates, who had not yet reached this ambivalent attitude towards sin.
One person may have faith enough to eat any kind of food; another, less strong, will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat freely are not to condemn those who are unwilling to eat freely; nor must the person who does not eat freely pass judgment on those who does…the one who eats freely, eats in honor of the Lord and makes his thanksgiving to God; and the one who does not, abstains from eating in the honor of the Lord and makes his thanksgiving to God. (Romans 14:2)
Essentially, while foreign to the Jewish tradition of obedience to the strict stipulations of conduct found in the Old Testament, Paul’s philosophy was no different from that preached by the Stoics; an immensely popular form of spiritual wisdom which had flourished for centuries. It was also compatible with the teachings from most other philosophers like Plato, or the higher truths of the mystery schools. In other words, while the story of Jesus was Jewish, its meaning was entirely Pagan.