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Roman-era Mystery Cults: Bremmer’s Recent Book

January 29, 2015

I’ve just learned from my friend, the respected scholar of ancient religion, Jan Bremmer (University of Groningen), about his recently published book on ancient “mystery cults”:  Jan N. Bremmer, Initiation Into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014).  I immediately read a few chapters, and can already register my praise for the book.  It’s a readable, obviously informed study, drawing upon and engaging the whole history of scholarship on these ancient religious developments.  Another noteworthy feature is that it is an “open access” publication, the “epub” version available free.  The online version is freely available here.

As Bremmer notes, scholarly understanding of these various “mystery cults” has developed (and changed, markedly in some matters) over the last 100+ years.  For example, there are now doubts about previous claims of supposedly common “dying/rising gods” (there are gods that die, but hard to find gods that get resurrected).  To cite another example, it’s now increasingly thought that the “Mithraism” of the Roman era wasn’t actually an import from the East, but instead a concoction in the Roman empire itself.

Moreover, Bremmer helpfully emphasizes that some of the “mystery cults” were local cults, very much linked with a particular site or area, whereas others (e.g., Isis and Mithras) were much more trans-local and trans-ethnic.

Bremmer’s particular focus is on what we can know of the rituals, the actual practices of each of the mystery cults, e.g., initiation rituals, what devotees did when they met, etc.  This brings to the many other books on these movements a helpful contribution that allows us to get more of a sense of what it was like to take part in these groups.

Of direct relevance to this blog site, Bremmer also considers questions (and dubious claims) about the relationship of early Christianity and these mystery cults, and he gives a nuanced, cogently argued, and well-supported analysis.  He proposes that it is far easier to see borrowings or influences from some of the mystery cults on Christianity in the fourth century and thereafter.  In the prior centuries, however, it’s hard to substantiate claims for such influences.  Christians in the second century sometimes drew upon terminology used in the mystery cults to make contrasts with Christianity, but, of course, that’s not the same thing as being influenced/shaped by mystery cults.

But, as the book is so freely available, there’s little need for me to prattle on about it further here.  Those interested can digest it for themselves.

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  1. bee permalink

    Brenner cites Freud saying religions stress their differences to gain distinction

    So denying connection with dying and rising gods….

    • The first point: There are no “dying and rising gods” with which to compare things. There are dying gods, but no “dying & rising gods”.
      Second point: Denying a connection for a scholar is a claim for which evidence is mounted. Noting distinctions is just as much a historical task as noting connections. To fail to do either is to distort things.

      • bee permalink

        Brenner discusses one attack on Frazier and his support
        Which is pretty lite evidence vs Frazier

      • Do you mean Frazer (The Golden Bough)? That’s so dated that it remains only an interesting historical footnote in scholarship. You need to keep up with developments. And Bremmer is a very good guide to them.

      • bee permalink

        Bremmer’s recent Christian sources have mystery cults appearing late under Christian influence

        Classics scholars date the eleusinian mysteries at 1300 bc

        And the myths earlier

      • You’re confusing things. First, the scholars cited by Bremmer include what you call “Classics scholars” (of which Bremmer is one). Second, the Eleusinian mysteries were a local cult, the ceremonies held only every few years, not one of those that became trans-local and so were of possible relevance for Christian origins, e.g., Isis, Mithras, et alia. On relevant religious movements, see, e.g., also the following:
        –Turcan, Robert. The Cults of the Roman Empire. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
        –Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
        –Bowden, Hugh. Mystery Cults in the Ancient World. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. (This one a more “popular” level treatment).

  2. Jacob permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    Although you don’t believe that Christianity was influenced by the mystery cults, do you think that Mark’s gospel was influenced by the Greek epics of Homer?

    • I don’t see any indication of direct influence on GMark from Homer. And when it comes to putative indirect, subtle influences, well, that’s in the eye of the beholder.

      • Jacob permalink

        What do you think of Dennis R. MacDonald’s books (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, The Gospels and Homer: Imitations of Greek Epic in Mark and Luke-Acts) that proposes that Mark was influenced by Homer? Are you aware of any works that interact with his proposal? Thanks.

      • Well, on the one hand, Homer’s works seem to have been the most widely read, most frequently copied (to judge from the comparative number of extant copies), and so it’s reasonable to presume that anyone with much in the way of education (beyond the very basics) might well have acquired some acquaintance with at least the basics of these works.
        On the other hand, I see no direct indications of adaptation or borrowing of Homeric characters, literary devices, etc., and certainly there are no direct allusions/citations of Homer in GMark.
        I’m still more inclined to follow the sort of view espoused variously by David Aune & Richard Burridge, that the intra-canonical Gospels resemble “bios” literature of the Roman period in basic literary genre.

  3. porterblepeople permalink

    Thanks for the book notice, looking forward to reading and digesting it.

    On a slight aside, have you noticed an increase in general public engagement with scholarly material with the increase in open access material (such as this, and your papers available here). Or has the level of engagement remained the same?

    • Perhaps some increase, esp. in some news media.

      • Chris Porter permalink

        Interesting. An increase in proliferation, or educated engagement?

        (Sorry about the oddity with the name in my previous post, WordPress issues)

      • There has been pressure over the last few decades for greater “open access” in academic publishing. Most of this pressure from academics.

  4. Deane permalink

    Thank you, I will read it.

    The older attempts to find direct influences from certain Mysteries to Christianity is, of course, not now followed, except by some popular accounts. But it seems to me that there are still interesting ways in which early Christianity participated in the ideas and practices which had been made popular by the Mysteries. And so we might speak of influence in this more general sense. I am thinking in particular of pagan or inclusive monotheism (and binitarianism in early Christianity), the importance in many (although not all) Mysteries of attaining eternal life, the increased emphasis on ethics and personal commitment versus cultic observance, and certain teachings and rituals which involved conveying mysteries. All this comes before the second-order thinking about the connections between Mysteries and Christianity in the second-century Apologists. Without returning to the oversimplistic history-of-religion explanations of direct causation, or the teleological view of the Mysteries as paving the way for Christianity, there is still, I think, much to be learned from the Mysteries about the evolution of Christianity within ancient Judaism. Agree?

    • The Mystery cults really achieved prominence from early in the 2nd century, and so are hardly relevant for the earliest Christian developments. “Pagan monotheism” is really something quite different from the religious pattern characteristic of ancient Jewish and Christian circles. Pagan “monotheists” persisted in worshipping all the gods. It’s not “monotheism,” it’s “pagan monotheism”. See my recent article: Hurtado, Larry W. “‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4, no. 3 (2013): 379-400.
      And it’s actually not clear that the Mysteries offered eternal life, or had much emphasis on ethics (the latter was much more the domain of philosopy). The Mysteries (or some of them) are examples of “voluntary” religion, and in a few cases (Isis & Mithras) of trans-local religion not tied to particular cities, nations, etc. So, some general phenomenological comparison, but not much more.

      • Deane permalink

        Hmmmm… lots of points here, but just to comment briefly on the first. Of course, the Mysteries and Christianity had wider prominence in the Roman world from the second-third century. But the pertinent question is not whether the Mysteries were prominent or popular at the time that Christianity emerged, but whether their ideas had some peculiar appeal for the earliest Christian thinkers. Is there any reason why this could not plausibly be the case even for groups which did not have broad appeal?

        After all, there are strains within pre-Christian Judaism such as Philo and before that Wisdom of Solomon which do in fact show some familiarity, even sympathy with the Mysteries. All this before Christianity! And that did not require that the Mysteries were broadly popular. And apart from Mithraism, all the major Mysteries of the ancient world had been established before the beginning of Christianity, and were well known if not widely practised. The familiarity of certain strains of Judaism (eg. Philo, Wisdom, including Christianity) only required that some of their ideas and practices appealed to some Jews, due to certain confluences of thought. So I think there are promising grounds for much more than phenomenological comparison between earliest Christianity and the Mysteries, to historical explanation.

  5. Hugh Scott permalink

    Dr Hurtado,

    Another useful contribution to the topic of possible pagan influence on Christian origins. I looked up some of Bremmer’s text, and quote from p. 164:

    “Modern research, on the other hand, has shown that the constructions of
    scholars around 1900 were ideologically motivated and were wrong [thirdly, because] … these cults had virtually no impact on the emergence of Christianity nor were they all interested in the afterlife … Mystery cults never posed a serious threat to emerging Christianity. … in the second century AD [p]agans seem to have been struck by similarities, but Christians stressed the differences”.

  6. “But, as the book is so freely available, there’s little need for me to prattle on about it further here.”

    Wait a minute now, my only complaint about your “prattling” is that we don’t get even more of it:-)


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