The first century A.D. were the years in which Christianity found itself to be in its youth. Christianity, still presumably impressionable, had to form a mold for itself that embodied Jesus Christ as the continued and full-intended revelation of Yahweh. It had to do this without the influence of the surrounding “Paganistic” religions extrinsic to the true way of Jesus Christ while continuing along a newly redefined Judaist vine. Because Christianity regularly found itself within arms length to other religions within gentile territory it most likely affected the lives of many Christians. Even a brief understanding of religions extrinsic to Christianity will lend to a better understanding of scripture and what the early church had to contend with. In this paper we will briefly examine those extrinsic religions then conclude with their association to the passages of 1 Corinthians 8, 1 Corinthians 10, and its parallel with 2 Corinthians 6:11 – 7:1.
What Is Paganism?
Paganism is a very broad term that needs understanding in order to inquire its use within the Scriptures. Professor Robin Darling Young describes paganism as a blurred and shifting category that defies neat taxonomies and is dependent upon the outlook of the contemporary observer. Christopher P. Jones has a work titled “The Fuzziness of Paganism” in which he seeks a sensible definition for the contemporary Christian. Jones even goes so far to suggest the English word heathen as a viable substitute for the word paganism. Robin Lane Fox has compiled a rather extensive study on the subject of paganism where he observes that making any general descriptions of “paganism” is exceedingly challenging due to the many overlapping and coexisting cultures. Christian and Judaic thought has traditionally conjured up the term to refer to anything outside of Christianity or Judaism. In addition, Islam has also used the veneer of paganism in alluding to practices extrinsic to their belief. How are we then left to understand a term that is arguably syncretistic and apparently hiding behind a mask of ambiguity?
In avoiding exhaustion of the definition, this paper shall choose to see it through a Christian and Judaic interpretation: Paganism can be thought of as a vast storm cloud, which rains down upon a spiritually seeking culture numerous thoughts, ideas, and beliefs directed towards a deity extrinsic to Christianity and its Judaic roots. In opposition, Christianity as well as Judaism is the umbrella in which we stand underneath to avoid the influence of paganism’s ever changing idealisms and capricious behaviors to appease a god they do not personally know or understand. Because there exists many religions that fall from paganism’s storm cloud, we must narrow our quest down slightly further and select a particular religious group of possible influence, which Christianity most definitely came in contact with. Of particular interest would be the mystery religions.
What is a Mystery Religion?
During the rise of Christianity in the first century A.D. also were the widespread cults throughout each Mediterranean region known as the mystery religions. They were called mystery religions because individuals went through a secret ritualistic ceremony that was made known only to the initiates conducting the ceremony and to those being initiated into the specified cult. It is important to understand that there was not one common mystery religion. Each cult was different and unique to its cultural setting, and it was ordinary for each mystery religion to adjust and make changes to fit its surroundings. Before A.D. 100 the mysteries were still localized and relatively new with only a few cults being universally known such as the mysteries of Dionysus and Isis.
Five Common Traits within the Mysteries
In a study on pagan religions, Ronald Nash lists five common traits that the mystery religions exhibited.
- The deities were usually tied to an agricultural cycle where life is renewed then dies according to the seasons.
- Each cult made use of secret “mystery” ceremonies, often used for initiation in order to obtain membership into the cult.
- Each mystery was rooted upon a myth where the deity was returned to life after death, ultimately triumphing over his enemies.
- The mysteries lacked any emphasis on a correct belief and made little, if any use of doctrine.
- A mystical experience that left them feeling they had obtained union with their god was the immediate goal of the cults initiates. Salvation, redemption, and immortality were secondary to the immediate goal of the mystical experience.
Specific Influential Mystery Religions
There were numerous mystery religions throughout each region. This was in part due to the mysteries being considered individualistic and freed from national and political restraints such that the Roman Empire imposed. It would be a great task to be able to list them all, but to name a few that have experienced moderate to universal standing were: The Eleusinian and Dionysia Mysteries, the Egyptian deities of Isis, Osiris, and Sarapis; the Phrygian deities of Cybele and Attis; the Syrian deity Atargatis, and Mithras a Persian deity.
Attraction to the Mysteries
We must not fall into the false assumption that the followers of religions extrinsic to Christianity were generally dissatisfied with their faith. We must also remember that Christianity found its rise within a very religious world. Many of the pagan deities were made up of loyal members. Some cults had energetic and persuasive missionaries, just as Christianity did. The mystery religions did not prohibit the worship of other gods and the members were free to attach themselves to other deities if desired. As we read earlier in Nash’s list, the mysteries lacked any serious attempts at doctrine and paid little attention to correct belief. This led to loose unmonitored behavior among its members, and allowed the cults to make alterations to its rituals and beliefs in order to appease its membership and growth. Of course, the self-indulgent practices of the cults drew attraction as opposed to the seemingly controlled and restraining order of Christianity. Polytheism was the norm while monotheism was clearly in opposition to cultures such as found in cities like Corinth, which was apparently unmindfully and blissfully lost within the vast menu of their pagan deities.
Corinth was a city steeped deep within paganism. The apostle Paul certainly was no stranger in confronting the influential pull of these various cults, both on the doorstep and within the congregation of Christ’s church. Aside from the Jewish converts over to Christianity, the Corinth body was largely made up of gentile converts. It is safe to say that a rather large portion of the gentile converts most likely had experience or were previous members of some type of pagan cult. At the very least, their belief system was synchronized in part with certain cultic rituals. We may assume with very little opposition that many members of Paul’s congregations had knowledge of the mystic drama portraying the death of Adonis, the period of lament that followed his decease, the celebration of his resurrection, and the invitation to share within his triumph, which that faith gave to its votaries. A newly converted gentile would most assuredly attempt to draw upon these beliefs to gain some semblance to their newly found faith. The Christians at Corinth were very much at risk in endorsing syncretism between these pagan cults with Christianity. Their worldview was shaped by pagan culture and Paul was tasked to bring a Christological center to the Corinthian church with the Gospel and correct doctrine.
Food Offered to Idols
1 Corinthians 8 gives us a very clear and evident example of how the pagan cults affected certain individuals within the body of Christ. Apparently, members of the Corinth congregation had hardened worldviews in which they had difficulty relenting from. A psychological barrier of food offered to idols had its stronghold on those members who have had experience and drew familiarity from certain pagan cults. The question of food offered to idols is to be of no surprise considering that almost all the meat available in a city like Corinth would have been offered at some shrine or other. What then specifically was the stronghold regarding the meat?
Professor Mark Harding puts one possible answer forth in his work on the Gentile cults at Corinth:
Paul follows the Jewish practice in I Corinthians 8 when he employs the pejorative term “food offered to an idol.” It is the meat left over from the sacrifice, i.e., after the god has received his/her share via the altar fire. In sacrifices to the dead and to the chthonian gods (the gods of the underworld), the victim was wholly immolated. But in the sacrifices to the Olympian gods, the bulk of the meat was consumed by the sacrifice and his family and friends in a meal at the shrine. The Greeks accounted for this sacrificial practice in myth.
This is one of the many possible explanations regarding the meat offered to idols in I Corinthians 8. Each cult had different views and beliefs regarding the way “food was offered to idols” and we know that members of the Corinth body struggled with this issue from Paul’s address. Because of the many different pagan cults, there possibly could have been several different psychological and theological barriers in which Paul needed to address. Rather than addressing each individually, Paul addressed them universally.
Deeper studies will most certainly bring a modern reader closer to understanding the situation in which Paul contended with. With no understanding of the religious backdrop in which Paul encountered, to an unaware modern inquirer, it might as well have been just food placed in front of an object such as a statue of Buddha; what’s the big deal, right? Understanding the psychological religious backdrop reveals how serious the situation actually was, thus allowing the contemporary learner to feel the full weight of the circumstances not only at Corinth, but elsewhere across the map of the Near East as well.
The Stronghold of Polytheism
Earlier was the mention that the pagan cults did not restrain its followers from sole worship to a single deity. It was commonplace to seek out the worship of many gods and if one could afford the high price of initiation into more than one mystery cult there was nothing barring them from doing so. This may have been thought of as insurance just in case the myth didn’t come through on behalf of the follower. Also, the desire for social esteem most definitely existed amid some of the Corinth members that involved the acceptance of invitations to dine at civic-hosted cult meals and perhaps included the possibility of participating in indulgent activities in commune with these pagan cults. Paul may have possibly been addressing this issue within 1 Corinthians 10:18-22 and then moved to another visitation on the same topic within its parallel found in 2 Corinthians 6:11 – 7:1
Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices, participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Within this passage Paul also draws reference to the Eucharist. Although solely different for Christians in why and how the last supper is approached, communion in its generalized form was not a new concept introduced with the birth of Christianity. Angus, in her study on the many mysteries, found that all of the mystery cults had some form of a communion ceremony. Perhaps Paul had this partially in mind when he composed this passage within 1 Corinthians 10. The following is a liturgical discovery from the Mystery Religion of Mithraism on communion:
From the Liturgy of Mithra: The suppliant prays, ‘abide with me in my soul; leave me not; and that I may be initiated; and that the Holy Spirit may breathe within me.
Knowing that extrinsic religions to Christianity showed some vague similarities to the Christian faith should not interfere with one’s faith in the origin of Christianity. Christianity is centered on a historical figure and not a made up myth, which is what the pagan cults were based on. Also, it is important to understand that many scholars agree there is a possibility that the mysteries themselves adopted Christian ideas. If we recall, the mystery cults had very little doctrine and their practices changed in order to accommodate the surrounding culture. In contrast, the Holy Spirit through Paul’s Christology and theology changed culture, which is expressed passionately within the Corinthian epistles.
It would be a grave mistake to conclude that all the members of the Corinth body suffered from the stronghold of polytheism, or suffered from a concussive injury caused by the pagan cults. The newly converted Jewish Christians had other strongholds separate from their Gentile brothers and sisters and there are many different points of view regarding the Corinthian issues. However, the cultural backdrop must be understood in order to begin a correct approach to the issues Paul was called to address.
Centuries separate us from the world in which Christianity found its place. In regards to the mystery religions, as well as other subjects, we are left with only fragments of information to examine: Grant addressed this chasm when he wrote his study of Greek religion in the Hellenistic-Roman world:
And yet we are still on the outside, and have only the records, descriptive or interpretative, literary or archeological, which a few men here and there in that ancient world left behind them. How shall we ever get really inside that ancient faith, or complex of faiths and see the world as men saw it then? There is no other way, I believe, than by a conscious effort of the imagination, by reading and thinking and in a sense dreaming our way back into it. And there is one caution we simply must never ignore – like the warnings to persons with magic gifts in many an old tale – we must not let our imaginings and our dreams conflict with the reality recorded in the books, the inscriptions, and the surviving rites; our indispensable guide must be a thorough knowledge of the facts so far as they have come down to us, all the facts, not just a pleasing little selection made to fit some theory or other!
We are to employ every method and device provided in order to better understand the exegetical message within the scriptures. This paper presented a very brief explanation of those religions held in the mystery genre, which possibly cleared a small pathway towards a better understanding of the New Testament. The topic need not be tied only to the mystery religions in order to gain understanding. There are a diverse number of topics we can explore in order to aid us in our quest towards a better understanding of the New Testament. Perhaps a deeper study guided by our great counselor by way of the Holy Spirit will bring us further down that narrow path.
2 Timothy 2:3 [ESV] – Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
Angus, S. The Mystery Religions. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975.
Case, Jackson Shirley. Christianity and the Mystery Religions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1914.
Ferguson, Everett. Background of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
Fox, Lane Robin. Pagans and Christians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1986.
Harding, Mark. Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth. Winona Lake, Indiana: Grace Theological Journal 10.2, 203-223., 1989. Accessed August 10, 2015. https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/ntesources/ntarticles/gtj-nt/harding-cults-corinth-gtj.htm
House, H Wayne. Tongues and the mystery religions of Corinth. (Bibliotheca Sacra 140, no. 558: 134-150. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 10, 2015). http://0‑search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000929671&site=eds-live
Malcom, R. Matthew. The World of 1 Corinthians. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013.
Nash, Ronald. Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions? Rancho Santa Margarita, California: Christian Research Institute, 1994. Accessed July 17, 2015. http://www.equip.org/pdf/DB109.pdf
Wright, N T. (Nicholas Thomas) Bp. 1991. “One God, one Lord, one people: incarnational Christology for a church in a pagan environment.” Ex Auditu 7, 45-58. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 17, 2015). http://0‑search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000849934&site=eds-live
Young, Robin Darling, David Frankfurter, Robert J. Penella, Jill Harries, Averil Cameron, and Christopher P. Jones. 2014. “Between Pagan and Christian.” The Catholic Historical Review no. 4: 771. Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost (accessed July 15, 2015).