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“St. Paul and the Mystery-Religions”–1913-2013

October 22, 2013

This year is the centenary of another important book:  H. A. A. Kennedy, St. Paul and the Mystery-Religions (London:  Hodder & Stoughton, 1913).  I’ve earlier mentioned that 2013 marks the centenary of Wilhelm Bousset’s influential work, Kyrios Christos (the English translation just recently re-published by Baylor University Press, which includes a “New Introduction” by me).  Kennedy’s book didn’t acquire the same prominence (very few ever did), but in its own time it was probably the most thorough, well-informed, balanced and respectful critique of the view (then fashionable in some quarters) that Paul was influenced by the various religious currents and groups labelled “mystery religions/cults.”  And the book remained on reading lists for several decades, well into the 60s, as a valuable treatment.  At certain points, it shows its date, but actually it remains an instructive analysis of the matter.

Kennedy was an impressive scholar.  Scottish born, after studies here in New College, he also studied in Germany, where he attended lectures by some of the leading figures in the “religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (“history of religion school of thought”).  So, he had an excellent command of German and of all the trend-setting German scholarship of the time.

In St. Paul and the Mystery-Religions Kennedy engaged critically with patience and respect the work of key figures who urged the influence of “mystery cults” upon Paul, especially Richard Reitzenstein (Die hellenistischen Myterienreligionen, 1910; English translation: Hellenistic Mystery-religions, 1978).  And Kennedy’s book was likely a major factor in bringing some balanced judgement to the matter, essentially arguing that, although the various “mystery cults” were around and that Paul might have come across them, in fact there is no basis for the claim that they were any significant influence upon his own religious beliefs and practices.

Kennedy was appointed Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in New College (Edinburgh; the chair to which I was appointed in 1996), and, unfortunately, too soon thereafter developed health problems and died.  But his body of published work is impressive, both in scope and quality.

His initial book, Sources of New Testament Greek or the Influence of the Septuagint on the Vocabulary of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), was a pioneering study showing how NT Greek usage reflects the Greek usage of the Septuagint (Greek OT), whereas earlier approaches had tended to make comparisons with Attic texts.

Thereafter, in St. Paul’s Conceptions of the Last Things (London: Hoder & Stoughton, 1904), he offered a concise and study of Paul’s eschatology.  In The Theology of the Epistles (London: Duckworth, 1919), Kennedy surveyed key religious ideas in Paul’s epistles, making comparisons with emphases in 1 Peter and Hebrews.  In Vital Forces of the Early Church (London: SCM, 1920), he probed the historical dynamics and forces that animated early Christianity and helped account for its continued growth amidst adversity.

But his interest and competence went beyond the NT and early Christianity.  His study of Philo of Alexandria, Philo’s Contribution to Religion (London/New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919) was ahead of its time in treating Philo as an important figure in the history of ancient religion.

(I note that Kennedy’s books are available as a collection from Logos Bible Software here.)

We honor Kennedy here, along with a later fine New College scholar, Professor David F. Wright, in the annual Kennedy-Wright Lecture.  This year’s lecture was given by Professor Judith Lieu (Cambridge University), on Marcion.  You can access the recording of her lecture and the discussion that followed it on the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here.

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  1. John Moles permalink

    JTS 35 (1984) 117-20.

    Advocacy of a partiular analogy does not exclude other possibilities. The converse applies too, of course (or ought to).

    Your point ‘Paul isn’t referring to an initiation-ritual, but, as the second part of his statement indicates in v. 12, present-partial knowledge contrasted with final/eschatological knowledge of God’ doesn’t exclude an initiation allusion, because Dionysian initiation purportedly transports the initiand into precisely that final/eschatological knowledge.

    • No, certainly we don’t have to play off one against the other, John. But your statement about Dionsyian initiation actually makes my point: Paul ISN’T referring to this ultimate knowledge in his use of the metaphor of “seeing in a mirror” in 1 Cor 13:12. The metaphor instead refers to present, limited, imperfect knowledge (of God and God’s purposes), contrasted with a future full knowledge. Anyway, thanks for the reference. But I note that Seaford wrote a number of things (including a book) on Dionysian stuff, so this may have been a bit of a hobby-horse for him.

      • Ross Macdonald permalink

        Dr. Hurtado, I’ve often wondered if we miss the genius of Paul’s argument here by viewing the metaphors he has weighed too stringently. What is lost often is the basic and essential function of the mirror- which is to reflect. For me, Paul has masterfully drawn the disparate Corinthians together with the Christ-body emphasis of ch. 12, and between his analogical use of the first person sg and exhortatory first person pl, the stress is on the ‘we’ who see dimly, i.e. the immature gift-pandering Corinthians, who will see clearly [their reflection of the Christ as a body] when ‘the maturity’ (to teleion) arrives. Thus in my view, interpreters leave the metaphor too quickly. Further, Paul’s analogy of the child becoming a man becomes pointed; cf. Eph. 4 where the same metaphor is given with many similar contextual factors.

        I’ve written a paper on this a few years ago, if I can be bold enough to ask if you’d comment on the relevant sections I will send it to you.


      • If you can give the publication facts, that would be helpful.

  2. John Moles permalink

    I do regard Seaford (1984) as decisive in arguing that ‘through a glass darkly’ (etc.) uses an analogy from initiation into the Dionysian mysteries. NT scholars regularly dismiss this as ‘speculative’, ‘unconvincing’, etc. but it is hard to believe they’ve actually read Seaford’s very rigorous piece.

    • I don’t know the publication you mention, John, and would be interested in pub facts. There are several proposals for the possible background of the metaphor in 1 Cor 13:12, John, with perhaps a more widely-accepted option being a use of the sort of mirror-metaphor that we have in Platonic tradition, where it symbolizes indirect vision of the reality (e.g., Philo, De Specialibus Legibus 1.2). In any case, Paul isn’t referring to an initiation-ritual, but, as the second part of his statement indicates in v. 12, present-partial knowledge contrasted with final/eschatological knowledge of God.

      • Mark James permalink

        “I don’t know the publication you mention, John, and would be interested in pub facts.”

        Seaford, R., ‘1 Corinthians XIII. 12’ in The Journal of Theological Studies, No. 35 (1) (April 1984), pp. 117-20.

        Cited above as:
        JTS 35 (1984) 117-20

        and as:
        Seaford, R. (1984), ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, JTS 35: 117-20

        Moles, J., ‘Jesus and Dionysus in “The Acts Of The Apostles” and early Christianity’ in Hermathena, No. 180 (Summer 2006), pp. 65-104.

      • Gracias, Mark!

  3. Ali Hussain permalink

    Prof. Hurtado , what is your position regarding the hymn to Christ as to God, found in Philippians 2:5-11 ; what did Paul meant by it ? , is not this concept of God becoming a human beyond Judaism and another novel innovation ?

    • Ali, I’ve given an analysis of Philip 2:6-11 in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (pp. 83-107. How about your read that and then get back to me. Jesus isn’t there “God” (i.e., he doesn’t replace God), but is “en morphe theou” (= “in form/status as (a) god,” v. 6), which contrasts with “morphen doulou labon” (= “having taken the status/form of a slave”, v. 7). Note that in vv. 9-11, “God” exalts Jesus to an unexcelled position as “Kyrios”.

  4. A helpful review. Was Reitzenstein’s book very influential when it came out in English translation in ’78? I am always intrigued by the impact of English translations of German works that come out long after the originals.

    • Joshua: I don’t think that Reitzenstein’s book acquired much new influence in English translation in 1978. It was always a landmark study (albeit heavily rebutted), and I suspect that the English translation (along with a number of other “classic” works of the German Schule) were translated to enable those with weak German to learn more directly these works.

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