The Historical Jesus in Context

By Amy-Jill Levine; Dale Allison Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

10
The Mithras Liturgy

Marvin Meyer

The Mithras Liturgy, as the present text usually is entitled, is one of the most significant and fascinating of the texts of the ancient mystery religions. For students of Mediterranean religions, including Judaism and Christianity, the Mithras Liturgy sheds important light on Mithraism, magic, and religion in Greco-Roman antiquity and late antiquity, and its syncretistic liturgy for the ecstatic ascent of the soul may be compared with descriptions of spiritual ascent in apocalyptic, gnostic, and mystical texts. The Mithras Liturgy promises that an encounter with the divine will result in divine revelation, and it offers the initiate the opportunity to be “born again” (metagennasthai, palinginesthai) and experience immortalization (apathanatismos).

As a Mithraic text, the Mithras Liturgy is of value for the study of early Christianity, which in general resembles Mithraism in a number of respects—enough to make Christian apologists scramble to invent creative theological explanations to account for the similarities. Devotees of Mithras typically enter sanctuaries of Mithras, called Mithraea and designed as caves, and participate in various purifications, initiatory rites, and sacred meals. According to Tertullian (On the Crown 15; On Baptism 5; Prescription against Heretics 40), Mithraic initiates experience ordeals and tests of valor, are washed or baptized with water, and are sealed on their foreheads. According to Justin Martyr (First Apology 66.4), Mithraic initiates join in a sacred meal in which they take bread and a cup of water (or a mixed cup of wine and water; the bread and the cup apparently are symbolic of the body and blood of a sacrificed bull) and utter appropriate formulas. Justin adds that through this sacred meal the Mithraic initiates are simply imitating the Christian Eucharist, and the devil, that diabolical counterfeiter, along with his demons, is making them do it. Justin seemingly can find no other way that is theologically acceptable to him to explain the clear similarities between Mithraism and early Christianity.

The Mithras Liturgy reflects the world of Mithraism, but precisely how it relates to other expressions of the mysteries of Mithras is unclear. Apparent Mithraic motifs are abundant in the Mithras Liturgy, and they may include the

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