The first part of this paper will explore the mystery-religions, the reasons behind their popularity, and the Hellenistic world in which they grew that began with Alexander the Great. Next, their characteristics and connections first with Judaism and later with Christianity will be more deeply discussed. In the second part it will be shown that the mystery-religions helped to clear the pathway for the Christianization of the Greco-Roman world by men such as Paul the Apostle. Finally, the Emperor Constantine’s role in this story will be mentioned, during whose reign the mystery-religions declined and Christianity became the major religion of Europe and the near east. The paper will conclude with a brief speculation about the significance of these ideas to modern Christianity.
The place and time in which Christianity developed was characterized by change and confusion in all areas of life. Political, philosophical and especially religious questions were being asked that had never been asked before, and traditional systems were not providing the answers. For nearly seven centuries, from the conquest of Alexander the Great to the establishment of Christianity as the state religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine, the ancient world sought these answers in the mystery-religions, independent groups worshipping in new and experimental ways. Ancient religious tradition had failed to fulfill the needs of this evolving and expanding society and these mystery-religions were a cultural expression of that need. Christianity grew into the midst of this world and was in fact the end result of the experiment started in the mystery-religions.
The term, “mystery-religion” refers to various forms of worship popular in ancient times that had a secret or “inner” teaching known as mysteria. Generally, members of these religions were not allowed to learn the mysteria until they had proven themselves worthy by means of some sort of test, such as fasting, praying or general service to the particular religious community. After learning these mysteria, members were considered reborn or “born again.” Christianity in fact began along these lines of practice. Its most important ceremony, the Mass or Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Christ were symbolically eaten in the forms of bread and wine, was forbidden to all but a select few who had completed three levels of initiation. Most early Christians, whether of Jewish or Gentile origin, would have been familiar the concept of mysteria. Throughout the Mediterranean world, religious communities based on this idea of secret teachings thrived.
Another common element in the mystery-religions was their tendency to worship the divine on what we today would think of as a higher spiritual level than standard Greek and Roman religions did. The idea of a spiritual world as separate from the material world, first promoted by Plato, was fully adopted by the mystery-religions and provided them with a basis...