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