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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

§ 16. The Mystery-Play and the Cultus.

In all probability the performance of the mystery-play was suspended in the churches 1 when it was reduced to narrative form as part of the gospel. The suspension may have occurred either during a time of local persecution or by the deliberate decision of the churches, in the second century. But such a deliberate decision is likely to have been taken when the cult, having broken away from Judaism, was also concerned to break away from the paganism in contact with which the play would first arise. How far away from Jerusalem that may have been we can hardly divine. Greek drama certainly came much closer to Jewish life than has been recognised in the histories. Not only were theatres built by Herod, as Josephus testifies, at Damascus and Jericho, 2 but ruins of two theatres exist at Gadara, 3 described by Josephus as a Greek town, 4 and known to have produced a number of notable Hellenistic writers. 5 But the presumption from what we know of Christian origins is that the cult developed rather in the larger than in the smaller Hellenistic cities; and it would need a fairly strong group to produce such a mystery-play. It may indeed never have been performed in full save at important centres, such as Antioch or Alexandria; and when once the cult was at all widely established such a state of things

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would be inexpedient on many grounds. The reduction of the play to narrative form put all the churches on a level, and would remove a stumbling-block from the way of the ascetic Christists who objected to all dramatic shows as such.

But the manner of the transcription happily preserves for us the knowledge of the fact that it was such a show to begin with. And if we suppose it to have grown up in a Gentile environment, say in Alexandria, on the nucleus of the eucharist, after the model of an actual sacrifice in which a "Jesus Barabbas" was annually offered up, we shall be so far within the warrant of the evidence. Whether the official stoning and hanging of an actual Jesus on a charge of sorcery and blasphemy in the days of Alexander Jannæus had served as a fresh point of departure, is a question that cannot at present be decided. All that is clear is that the gospel story is unhistorical. The placing of the action of the mystery-play in Jerusalem would be the natural course for Gentiles who were seeking to counteract the Judaising party in a cult which founded on a slain Jewish Jesus; since the more clearly Jerusalem and Jewry were saddled with what had come to be regarded as an act of historic guilt, the clearer would be the grounds for a breach with Judaism.

To locate the first performance of the play in its present shape is beyond the possibilities of the case as the evidence stands. The detail of the two Maries suggests Egypt, where the cult of Osiris had just such a scene of quasi-maternal mourning; and the Egyptian ideas in the Apocalypse, such as those of the "lake of fire" and "the second death," 1 further point to Alexandrian sources for early Jesuism; but the eucharist and burial and resurrection are apparently Mithraistic, as are various details in the Apocalypse; 2 and the Osirian ritual, like the Mithraic, would be known in many lands. We can but say that the death-ritual of the Christian creed is framed in a pagan environment, and that, like the myth of the Virgin-birth, 3 it embodies some of the most widespread ideas of pagan religion. In strict truth, the two aspects in which the historic Christ is typically presented to his worshippers, those of his infancy and his death, are typically pagan.

But indeed there is not a conception associated with the Christ

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that is not common to some or all of the Saviour cults of antiquity. The title of Saviour, latterly confined to him, was in Judaism given to Yahweh, 1 and among the Greeks to Zeus, 2 to Helios; 3 to Artemis, 4 to Dionysos, 5 to Herakles, 6 to the Dioscuri, 7 to Cybelê, 8 to Æsculapius; 9 and it is the essential conception of the God Osiris. So, too, Osiris taketh away sin, and is judge of the dead, and of the last judgment; and Dionysos, also Lord of the Underworld, and primarily a God of feasting ("the Son of Man cometh eating and drinking"), comes to be conceived as the Soul of the World, and as the inspirer of chastity and self-purification. From the Mysteries of Dionysos and Isis comes the proclamation of the easy "yoke"; and the Christ not only works the Dionysiak miracle, 10 but calls himself "the true vine." 11 Like the Christ, and like Adonis and Attis, Osiris and Dionysos suffer and die to rise again; and to become one with them is the mystical passion of their worshippers. All alike in their mysteries give immortality; and from Mithraism the Christ takes the symbolic keys of heaven and hell, 12 even as he assumes the function of the Virgin-born Mithra-Saoshyant, the destroyer of the Evil One. 13 Like Mithra, Merodach, 14 and the Egyptian Khonsu, 15 he is the Mediator; like Khonsu, Horus, and Merodach, he is one of a trinity; 16 like Horus, he is grouped with a divine Mother; like Khonsu, he is joined with the Logos; 17 and like Merodach, he is associated with a Holy Spirit, one of whose symbols is fire. 18 In fundamentals, in short, Christism is but paganism re-shaped: it is only the economic and the doctrinal evolution of the system—the first determined by Jewish practice and Roman environment, 19 and the second by Greek thought 20—that constitute new phenomena in religious history.


204:1 It has been argued, with considerable probability, that one or two Gnostic sects had rites of initiation in which were included a mystery-play of the crucifixion (G. R. S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 2nd ed. 1906, pp. 426-444). But the same writer's-thesis (Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? 1903, p. 410) as to a rite of resurrection in the late Isiac worship at Alexandria is not borne out by the passage of Epiphanius (Haer. li, 22) upon which he founds. That tells solely of a symbolising of the "birth of the æon" through the Virgin Goddess. The symbol of the cross on the forehead, knees, and hands of the image carried round the temple on the night of Epiphany is not proof of any concept of crucifixion being involved. Mr. Mead, it should be added, believes in a historical Jesus or Christ with supernormal powers.

204:2 Wars, i, 21, § 11; Antiq. xvii, 6, § 3.

204:3 Schürer, Jewish People in Time of Christ, Div. II, Eng. tr. i, 27, 100, n.

204:4 Antiq. xvii, 11, 5 4; Wars, ii, 6, § 3.

204:5 Schürer, as cited, i, 27, 103.

205:1 Cp. Rev. xxi, 8; Book of the Dead, cc. 24, 86, 98, 125, 126, etc. The "Amen" Logos is also Egyptian (Rev. iii, 14; B.D. c. 165).

205:2 Thus the Logos as "faithful and true" and righteous judge and warrior (Rev. xix, 11) points to Mithra; and though Thoth had seven assistants, the sacred "sevens" of the Apocalypse and the whole imagery of the Lamb seem specially Mithraic. Still the "Lamb slain" figured notably in the worship of Amun, being laid on the image of the God Amun and ritually mourned for, while the image of the Sun-God stood by (Herodotus, ii, 42). And the warrior Logos may stand for Horos-Munt (Tiele, Egyptian Religion, p. 124).

205:3 Cp. Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 292-7.

206:1 Ps. clvi, 21; Isa. xliii, 4, 11, etc.; Hos. xiii, 4, etc., etc.

206:2 Athenæus, xv, 17, 47, 48; Pausanias, ii, 37; Pindar, Ol. v, 33.

206:3 Paus. viii, 31.

206:4 Id. i, 44; ii, 31.

206:5 Id. ii, 31, 37.

206:6 Preller, Gr. Myth. ii, 274, n.

206:7 Orphica, Ad Musaeum, 21.

206:8 Id. In Rheam, xiv, 11; xxvii, 12.

206:9 Id. In Æsculap. lxvii, 8.

206:10 Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 329, 388.

206:11 John, v, i.

206:12 Below, Part III, § 12.

206:13 Id. § 10.

206:14 Cp. H. Zimmern, Vater Sohn und Fürsprecher, 1896, pp. 11-12.

206:15 Maspero, Hist. ancienne des peuples de l’orient, 4e édit. pp. 286-8.

206:16 Le Page Renouf, Hibbert Lectures, p. 83.

206:17 Tiele, Egyptian Religion, pp. 154, 178.

206:18 Cp. "The Babylonian Father, Son, and Paraclete," by Chilperic, in Free Review, Jan., 1897; Zimmern, as last cited.

206:19 Cp. A Short History of Christianity, chs. ii. and iii.

206:20 Cp. Hatch, Infl. of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church.

Next: § 17. Further Pagan Adaptations