by Vincent Czyz
“I become holy by initiation. The Lord [Jesus] reveals the Mysteries. He marks the worshipper with His seal …” —Clement of Alexandria, from The Protreptikos (Exhortation to the Greeks), ca 190 AD.
Here in America, Darwin is on the ropes again. After winning round after round since the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925, he’s facing thoroughly revived opponents—adversaries who are taking fewer standing eight-counts and getting in a few licks of their own. In 2005, for example, 11 parents in Dover, PA who resented having their children taught Creationism (repackaged as “intelligent design”), brought suit against the school board in what has been touted as a second Monkey Trial. Dr. Ken Miller, a professor at Brown University and the author of the biology book that agreed with evolution—the book that the parents wanted their children to use—stated on the witness stand that he believes God created the universe. Considering that Dr. Miller was a witness for the plaintiffs, it’s a small miracle they won.
A survey conducted in 2006 by political scientist Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University showed that only 14 percent of American adults consider evolution “definitely true” while roughly a third believe it to be “absolutely false.” Out of a sampler of 34 countries, only Turkey was less accepting of Darwin’s theories, while in nations such as Denmark, Sweden, and France, better than 80 percent of the adults questioned sided with Darwin. Perhaps more disquieting is the fact that 20 years ago about seven percent of U.S. adults were uncertain about evolution; that number has since tripled.
The uniquely American aspect to this resurgence of religious fundamentalism is reiterated by a chart showing the relationship of wealth to religious belief republished in the June 2, 2010 opinion section of by the New York Times (“Why Is America Religious?”), which demonstrates that the “the wealthier a country is, the less important religion is to that country. The one exception: The United States.” As USA Today pointed out (June 3, 2004), the “religion gap” is the “leading edge of the ‘culture war’ that has polarized American politics, reshaped the coalitions that make up the Democratic and Republican parties and influenced the appeals their presidential candidates are making.”
A somewhat medieval mentality, it seems, still holds significant sway in the world’s most powerful nation. If ‘medieval’ seems too close to hyperbole, recall Pat Robertson’s remark about Haiti and its “pact with the Devil” in the wake of the earthquake that hit the island. If you’re inclined to dismiss Robertson as a marginal political player, consider Ronald Reagan, who openly wondered whether Armageddon—in the form of a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union—was going to occur on his watch. Or take the Bush White House, which in 2003 had to deny claims trumpeted by a BBC television program that Bush bragged to Palestine’s President Abbas, “God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did …” When it comes to credibility, Abbas and the BBC are probably safer bets. We are dealing after all with a man who, in his nationally televised debate with John Kerry, said, “I pray over my decisions,” including the one to invade Iraq. Reagan and Bush (a millennialist more by implication than admission) are not alone. According to the 2008 documentary “Waiting for Armageddon,” 20 million Americans believe we are now living in the End Times. Among these End Timers is Sarah Palin, the Republican front-runner for 2010.
And let’s not forget the Left Behind series, 16 volumes of pulp fiction about the Rapture authored by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. The books have sold some 70 million copies; at one time roughly one in eight Americans was reading them. “Scholars reconstructing the popular history of the first years of the 21st century … will have to grapple with the phenomenon of Left Behind,” writes David Gates in the May 24, 2004 issue of Newsweek. It should come as no surprise that, as Gates reports, “many critics of the series see a resonance between its apocalyptic scenario and the born-again President Bush’s apocalyptic rhetoric and confrontational Mideast policies.”
It was in this atmosphere of religious recidivism that I began writing The Christ Mosaic, a novel based on the suspicion among a number of religion scholars that the Christ of the Gospels is not a historical figure. I don’t remotely propose to prove that in the space of this essay; rather, I’d like to present what I hope is persuasive evidence that the Gospels are quite clearly a species of fiction—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, the author of Mark, at least, never intended his work to be understood by educated readers as literally true.
There are plenty of enigmatic passages in the Bible, but three in particular lend themselves to unraveling ulterior motives written into the Scriptures: Why is a blind man healed outside of Jericho named after one of Plato’s most famous dialogues? Why does Jesus send a multitude of demons into a herd of 2,000 pigs? And why are the first words of another blind man healed by Jesus, “I see men like trees, walking”? If these questions are answered objectively and plausibly, it becomes clear that Mark is both more and less than a faithful recording of events as they happened.
Any attempt to answer these questions, however, brings us to our first obstacle, and it’s nearly insurmountable: We in the 21st century really can’t imagine the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean) of the first century AD. The vast majority of us today don’t speak Aramaic (the supposed language of Jesus) or ancient Hebrew; we haven’t read the Gospels in the Koine Greek in which they were written. Moreover, most of us have no concept whatsoever of the religious milieu in which the Gospel writers lived, and even scholars can reconstruct it only vaguely for us. In short we’ve lost the calibrations on our compass.
So before getting to our questions, we need an impression of the ancient Levant’s spiritual mindset … a brief biography of the Greco-Egyptian God Serapis is a good place to start. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Alexander’s generals divided up his empire; Ptolemy got Egypt and took Alexandria as his capital. Faced with ruling an Egyptian population and a large number of transplanted Greeks, Ptolemy needed a way to unite his subjects. Settling on worship as the most effective way to get everyone pulling in the same direction, Ptolemy created a composite god: Serapis. Serapis was the husband of the Egyptian goddess Isis, just as the Egyptian god Osiris had been. And Serapis’s animal was the divine bull, Apis—as was Osiris’s. (The name Serapis is a fusion of Osiris-Apis.) Whenever Serapis was depicted, however, the likeness was of a bearded, curly-haired Greek. Like Zeus, Serapis was the ruler of the gods, and like Dionysos, he was a fertility god.
Ptolemy’s god was created purely out of political expediency (although as we will see, the religion Serapis presided over was not). Today, except in the case of a very small, fringe cult, this would be unthinkable—you just don’t go around mixing and matching gods. In the first-century Levant and in centuries previous, however, it was not only acceptable, it was routine. The Mystery religions, of which the cult of Serapis was one, were classic examples of this sort of syncretism. In Asia Minor the Greek goddess Artemis was grafted onto the cult of the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele and stood at the center of the Ephesian Mysteries. The Pythagorean Mysteries took the Mysteries of Osiris and replaced the Egyptian god with a Greek one—Dionysos, who evolved into Dionysos Zagreus, the divine figure worshipped in numerous Mystery cults. His dual name reflected that fact he was also a composite of two gods, but the minor figure of Zagreus (who is slain and resurrected) was almost completely assimilated by the more prominent god.
This syncretism worked on a local level as well; a city-state often chose a god who already had a strong following to head up their Mysteries. The Eleusian Mysteries near Athens, for example, venerated Demeter and her daughter Kore (also known as Persephone, who was the mother of Zagreus). Using a familiar god as the front man—or woman—was a simple but effective way of gaining converts to an alien religion or to a newly created one. (We can see a vestige of this practice in car interiors: the plastic Jesus sometimes glued to the dash often has blond hair, fair skin, and blue eyes, which, had Jesus lived, is hardly likely.)
Ptolemy’s strategy worked brilliantly. Serapis became enormously popular, and the cult spread well beyond Egypt; the Serapeum in Alexandria, destroyed by fanatical Christians in 385 AD, is thought to have been one of the finest edifices of the ancient world.
It’s interesting to note that when Christianity first took hold in Egypt, early church members venerated Serapis and Jesus equally. Once again, we need to bear in mind that syncretism was the way of the ancient world, and practices unimaginable today were common enough when Christianity was in its infancy.
So far the Mysteries have merely been mentioned, but we really can’t begin to understand the ancient Levant without at least a basic understanding of these Cults. Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, dug up the oldest of Christianity’s roots—the worship of a god who dies only to be resurrected—and followed it to its elemental source: the cyclical death and rebirth of plant life. It is as simple as it is ingenious: the turning of the seasons. Drawing upon examples from hundreds of cultures and peoples as divergent as African huntsmen and German peasants, Native Americans and Welsh farmers, Frazer proved fairly conclusively that a broad range of religions all reflected the death of the Earth in fall and winter and its rebirth in spring.
The Mysteries are the clearest embodiment of this truth. The high priest was the hierophant (“one who reveals sacred things”). “Secrecy,” according to Walter Burkert in Greek Religion, “was radical” and an essential element. An initiate into the cults was called a mystes. The root, tied to the Greek verb myein, means to close or to shut. It’s often conjectured this is because initiates had to keep their mouths closed about the ceremonies, but they hadn’t participated in the central ceremonies yet. Perhaps a more likely explanation for “shut” to be at the root of mystes is that before a mystes become an epopt (a witness), their eyes were closed—spiritually speaking. Because of the secrecy clause, a great deal of information about the exact nature and practices of the Mysteries has been lost, but Burkert identifies an agrarian aspect as among the most important. Not surprisingly, Demeter (goddess of grain) and Dionysus (god of wine and fertility) were two of the most important Mystery deities.
Another key element, Burkert notes, “is the aspect of myth: mysteries are accompanied by tales—some of which may be secret hieroi logoi—mostly telling of suffering gods.” Joseph Campbell agrees: “[T]he principle of divine life is symbolized as a divine individual (Dumuzi-Adonis-Attis-Dionysos-Christ) …” Life, in the form of the god, will suffer, die, and be reborn.
We also know that the initiation rites, purification ceremonies, and processions culminated in a final drama, the purpose of which was to bring the initiate face to face with God. Aristotle, drily detached as ever, puts it this way, “It is not necessary for the initiated to learn anything, but to receive impressions and to be put in a certain frame of mind.” Plato was well acquainted with the Mysteries but, respecting their vow of silence, made comparisons to them rather than writing about them directly: “[W]e philosophers followed in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed …” Here, raising philosophy to the status of a divine experience, he likens it to initiation into the Mysteries.
Christianity’s connection to the Mysteries, honestly, is no longer much of a mystery. Campbell, for example, citing the work of Jane Harrison, doesn’t even bother to argue the issue—it’s too obvious. He points out that “numerous elements” included in the heritage of “the mysteries of Demeter and the Orphics … were passed on to Christianity—most obviously in the myths and rites of the Virgin and the Mass.” (You may have noticed that Campbell included Christ in his list of Mysteries deities cited above).
The great Roman orator Cicero, who died in 43 BC, actually criticized Mystery celebrants for taking their rites too literally: “Is anybody so mad,” he wrote, “as to believe that the food he eats is actually a god?” I mention Cicero not to detract from belief in the Eucharist, but to point out that well before Christ was born, a nearly identical rite had already been firmly established. The fact is, Cicero was no enemy of the Mysteries; far from it. But he believed in a symbolic interpretation of the rites, not a literal one. In De Legibus, (II, xiv, 36), he has nothing but praise for the Greek Mysteries, saying that through them “We have gained the understanding not only to live happily but also to die with better hope.”
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