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The Next Step in Religion by Roy Wood Sellars

Now Tarsus was one of the chief seats of Mithraism


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competing religions had much in common, {69} though it was the advantage of Christianity to have inherited the ethical monotheism of the prophets. Upon Paul, the Hellenist and Jew of the dispersion, was focussed this august tradition along with traditions of a more mystical character. Syria had been the home of certain mysteries from an early day, for we read in the Old Testament of women mourning the death of Tammuz, the god of vegetation who dies and is born again. Now Adonis or Attis was the corresponding god of Phrygia, and all people of Syria were well acquainted with the cult which showed the mother-goddess mourning for her son. But these more primitive rites were being displaced by a more developed and ethical form called Mithraism. I well remember my surprise when, visiting one of the older churches at Rome, I was shown the earlier church beneath and told that, beneath that again, a church dedicated to Mithra had been discovered. Now Tarsus was one of the chief seats of Mithraism, and it is practically certain that Paul was acquainted with its main rituals and beliefs. Let us try to realize the importance of this fact.

Mithraism had an initiatory service in which the proselytes were admitted into the faith. The liturgy of this service is still extant and we know that it represented a mystical dying and rebirth in which the guilt of the old life is removed and a new immortal life is created through the spirit. The initiates spoke

of themselves as reborn for eternity. "So striking," writes Pfleiderer the German critic, "is the connection of these ideas with Paul's teaching of Christian baptism as a community of death and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6) that the thought of historical relation between the two cannot be evaded.... Mithraism also {70} had a sacrament corresponding to the Christian eucharist at which the sanctified bread and a cup of water or even wine served as mystic symbols of the distribution of the divine life to Mithra-believers."

When we bear in mind how little importance Paul attached to the actual life and ethical teaching of Jesus, we are not surprised at the frequent suggestion that Paul was the real founder of both liturgical and theological Christianity. He did not create this liturgy but found it to hand. The early church followed this natural impulse and added to the simpler inherited rites. Into the psychology of Paul's conception of the Christ it is difficult to enter. He was probably an enthusiast with the tendency to exalted moods peculiar to epileptics and yet with high mental ability. He felt himself inspired. He gives us to understand that he was subject to visions, and it is well known that religious excitement is capable of welding together the myriad suggestions which play upon the self. We can comprehend the work of Paul, one of the main founders of Christianity, only when we see him as the mystical interpreter weaving the Jewish traditions of the soberer type, the apocalyptic outlook of such books as Daniel and Ezra, the mystery cults of the Hellenistic world and the theories of the Stoic philosophy into one whole, dominantly supernaturalistic. Scholars will continue to differ in regard to the comparative proportions of the ingredients he fused together, but few will gainsay that Paul's teaching is a product of many sources. In this connection a very significant fact should be noted: although the Pauline epistles are the earliest records of Christianity, "aside from the crucifixion, not a single fact in the life of Jesus can be gleaned from these {71} epistles, nor do they record a single saying of Jesus."

We shall next pass to a brief study of the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, the figure which has become endeared to humanity and with which the Western world has associated its noblest sentiments. But even the present study of some of the more mystical elements in Christianity must have persuaded the reader that we have in this movement the focussing of the complex life of ancient times. The circle of ideas passionately held by the members of the church was not created by any one man or group of men. It was the flowering out of primitive ideas and ethical aspirations. Moral idealism goes hand in hand with cosmological myth. We who have regained the nerve which that age had lost may have the gift and high adventure of separating moral truth from theological illusion.


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