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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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/MYSTERY RELIGIONS Several different cults or societies characterized in part by elaborate initiation rituals and secret rites. Though attested in Greece before 600 B.C., the mystery religions flourished during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (after 333 B.C.) before dying out before A.D. 500. In particular, the intermingling of religious concepts made possible by Alexander the Great's far flung conquests accelerated the spread of some cults and facilitated the development of others. Knowledge of the mystery religions is fragmentary due to the strict secrecy imposed on those initiated; scattered references in ancient writers, some antagonistic to mystery religions, and archaeological data provide the most important evidence. Scholars often disagree about the interpretation of the data.

Many mystery religions emerged, but among the more important were those associated with the following deities: the Greek Demeter (the famous Eleusinian mysteries) and Dionysus, the Phyrgian Cybele (the Magna Mater) and Attis; the Syrian Adonis; the Egyptian Isis and Osiris (Sarapis); and Mithra, originally a Persian deity. Orphism and Sabazius both contributed to the mysteries of Dionysus while Samothrace was the home of the Cabiri mysteries. Many of the deities in the mystery religions were ancient and were worshiped in separate cults both before and after the development of the mystery cults.

The central feature of each mystery religion was the sacred rites, called mysteries, in which the cultic myth of the god or goddess worshiped in the cult was reenacted. Only those formally initiated into the cult could participate. The precise nature of these rites is unknown due to the vow of secrecy, but probably involved a drama based upon the cult myth and the dramatic visual presentation of certain sacred objects. Mention is made of “things said,” probably sacred formulas and secret love. References exist to eating and drinking, likely a form of communion. By participating in these rites the worshiper identified with the deity and shared in the deity's fate. These powerful symbols afforded those initiated the means to overcome the suffering and difficulties of life and promised a share in the life beyond.

Many, but not all, of the deities worshiped in the mysteries were originally associated with fertility. As such, their associated myths often referred to the natural cycle as it waxes and wanes (for instance, Demeter) or to the dying and rising of a god (Attis, Adonis, Osiris). Some scholars think that the mysteries used this feature of the myth to give symbolic expression of rising to immortality with the deity. However, not all scholars agree; some deities venerated in mystery religions did not die or rise; moreover, the exact use of the myth in the mysteries is often unclear, though some concept of immortality seems to be implied.

Public festivals were given in honor of some deities worshiped in the mystery religions, but their relationship to the secret rites is not clear. The spring festival of Cybele (March 15-27) involved processions, sacrifices, music, and frenzied dancing which led to castration. The public revelry, pantomimes, theatric productions, and excesses of drink associated with the worshipers of Dionysus/Bacchus (the Bacchanalia) are well known.

Rites of initiation into the mystery religions included ritual cleansing in the sea, baptisms, and sacrifices. Mention should be made of the Taurobolium, used in the worship of Cybele, a rite in which a bull was slaughtered on a grill placed over a pit in which a priest stood; the person below eagerly covered himself with blood. Some have interpreted this as a rite of initiation, but it is more likely a purification ritual affording rebirth for a period of time, perhaps twenty years. The mystery religions dislodged religion from the traditional foundations of state and family and made it a matter of personal choice. With a few exceptions, for instance, Mithraism which was restricted to males, the mysteries were open to all classes and sexes. Those initiated formed an association bound together by secret rites and symbols peculiar to their cult. These associations met regularly with a designated leader in houses or specially-built structures. The worshipers of Mithras met in a structure called a Mithraeum designed to imitate the cave in which Mithras killed the bull, the central act of the cult myth. Scenes of the slaying (tauroctony) appear prominently in several such structures.

At the meetings ritual acts or sacraments practiced by the particular cult were shared by the members. Mention is made of common meals or banquets. Members of the association were required to meet certain moral standards; some mention also is made of ascetic requirements. However, a word of caution is in order; generalizations about the mystery religions are difficult since each cult was individualistic. Exceptions to nearly all generalizations can be found.

Mystery in the New Testament The New Testament uses the word mystery about twenty-five times, once in the Gospels ( Mark 4:11; compare Matthew 13:11; Luke 8:10 ), twenty-one times in Paul's writings, and a few times in Revelation. The term has several facets all of which cannot be discussed here, but it is clear that the New Testament usage differs from that of the mystery religions. The mystery of the New Testament has been described as an “open secret”; matters previously kept secret in God's eternal purposes have now been or are being revealed (Ephesians 3:3-5; 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 ). In contrast to the mystery religions, the mystery of the New Testament appears in the historical activity of the person of Christ (Colossians 2:2; Ephesians 1:9 ); the indwelling Christ is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:26-27 ). The mystery is received spiritually (Ephesians 3:4-5 ) and manifested in the proclamation of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19 ). Part of the mystery involves the disclosure that Gentiles share in the blessings of the gospel (Ephesians 2:11-13 ).

Tommy Brisco

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Mystery'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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