The word “Mystery” was explained rather briefly in the last paper, and it was felt that further information was needed on this important topic of mysteries in general.
The Greek word MUSTERION is derived from the verb MUEO, which means, “to shut the mouth or eyes,” in other words, the HOI MUSTAI (the initiated) would keep absolute silence concerning their secret knowledge. That was the current usage in Paul’s day, from the standpoint of Greek culture, and the observance of their “mysteries.” Liddell & Scott’s famous lexicon speaks about the Eleusinian mysteries. These were the mystic rites in honour of Demeter, (the Roman goddess Ceres) celebrated annually at Eleusis in Attica, 14 miles westwards along the coast fromAthens. These were first inaugurated somewhere in the region of 1500 B.C., and those who were initiated into the rites were bound on pain of death not to disclose their esoteric knowledge. It was not until 389 A.D that Theodosius finally abolished the rites. In 1895 the Greek Archaeological Society found many interesting ancient relics on the site of Eleusis. The Hall of Initiation was found, being about 170 feet square, and known as the TELESTERION, a word meaning the “place of the perfected ones.” The reason for secrecy was presumably due to supposed dangers for anyone having contact with members of the Pantheon of Greek gods.
The full story must now be set forth, often referred to as “The Rape of Kore” (Kore [pronounced KORAY] being the Greek word for Maiden. The initiates, out of a sense of delicacy, would never speak of Persephone by name.) I would ask my readers’ indulgence because I know that some may want to turn away in disgust that a Christian expositor should even consider entering into the mythological tales of ancient Greece. But please bear with me, because many have found that these tales contain, in poetic form, remembrances of ancient truth, perverted perhaps by the accretions of age, but nevertheless capable of comparison with Biblical revelation. Furthermore, I will show that Paul had these things in mind when writing to his Greek congregations.
Demeter, the sister of Zeus (Jupiter) resided in the Edenic Vale of Enna in Sicily, the country of the earth goddessGaia, and there her daughter Persephone (Roman Proserpine) played with other maidens in the fields and amongst the flowers, picking blossoms to adorn their hair. Persephone caught sight of a particularly beautiful narcissus some way off, and raced away to obtain its blossom. Just as she stretched forth her hand to pick it, the earth opened up in front of her, and out of it appeared a chariot, drawn by four coal-black horses. In the chariot was a man of sombre mien, who looked as though he could never smile. He was none other than Hades (also known as Dis or Orcus.) Jumping from his chariot he seized Persephone round the waist and carried her away into the gulf, and the earth closed over them.
The other maidens, who’d seen her run away, were already in pursuit, but could not find her. They even reached the very spot where the narcissus grew, but she was not to be seen. They searched everywhere, but with no success, and eventually reported this tragic loss to Demeter.
Great sorrow enveloped Demeter at the loss of her daughter. She donned a dark robe, took a flaming torch, and travelled over land and sea, but to no avail. No one could tell her about her daughter. After ten days she met Hecate, one of the Titan daughters of Gaia. She was only able to reveal that she’d seen Persephone snatched, but had no idea by whom. So Demeter went to Helios, the Sun god, who told her that it was Hades (Pluto) who’d taken her daughter to be his wife in the underworld.
Demeter’s anger was now greater than her sorrow, and henceforth shunned the company of her brother Zeus, whom she learned had allowed Hades to do this dreadful thing. Leaving Mount Olympus, she made her way to Eleusis, and was entertained compassionately by a local woman. The land mourned the loss of Persephone, and when her tears fell to the earth there was no fruit, no corn, no produce. But Demeter found comfort in the woman’s baby son named Triptolemus.
Eventually Zeus realised that something had to be done to assuage the anger and sorrow of his sister Demeter, so he sent Hermes (Mercury) down to Hades, to bid him send Persephone to see her mother. Before leaving, Hades gave Persephone a pomegranate, knowing that if she ate any of the seeds, she would have to return to him.
There was great rejoicing as mother and daughter met once again, but Persephone said, “Alas, mother, I am bound to return to Hades after six months because I have eaten of the pomegranate seeds.” During those six months the earth brought forth once again, and there was great joy. But then she went her way, back into the underworld whenHermes came for her, where she stayed for another six months, and the earth became barren once again.
These are the bare bones of the story, without all the embellishment that is often added. Although it is obvious that this tale sounds a bit like one of Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” to explain why we have six months of barren winter followed by six months of fruit bearing and seed producing, there seem additionally to be elements of the Fall in the Garden Eden, and the change in the earth after the Flood attached to the tale.
Demeter was known as the corn goddess. Her Latin name Ceres gave rise to our modern word cereal. She was worshipped at Eleusis where she had received much kindness, and so in gratitude she bade Triptolemus instruct men in the arts of agriculture and religion. The agricultural side is easily understood, simply because of the passage of the seasons, but why religion? The reason has to do with the afterlife. Those who became initiates of the mystery, and complied with all the requirements of the mystic rites, were promised a happy afterlife. They were referred to as“the perfect ones.” They became the possessors of secret knowledge, which could not be divulged on pain of death.
Triptolemus’s three laws of Eleusis were
- To honour parents,
- To honour the gods with the fruits of the earth, and
- Not to treat either man or brute beast with cruelty.
As a result of these laws, we find Cicero, (Roman orator and statesman, 106 – 43 B.C.) saying that the civilisation of mankind was one of the beneficial effects of the Eleusinian mysteries. These were his words. “For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; as the rites are called “initiations,” so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.”—Cicero Laws II, xiv, 36
Here is another ancient saying, of Plotinus. (Roman philosopher, chief exponent of Neoplatonism. 205 – 270 A.D.)”There we must ascend again towards the good, desired of every soul. Anyone who has seen this, knows what I intend when I say it is beautiful. Even the desire of it is to be desired as a good. To attain it is for those who will take the upward path, who will set all their forces towards it, who will divest themselves of all that we have put on in our descent: so, to those who approach the Holy celebrations of the Mysteries, there are appointed purifications and the laying aside of the garments worn before, and the entry in nakedness.” First Ennead VI, 7
In this quotation some refer to Paul’s words in Eph.4:22-24. “Put off as regards your former conduct the old man, corrupted by the lusts of deceit, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, created by God in righteousness and holiness of truth.” But in point of fact, although both authors use the symbolism of vestments, Paul’s theology is based upon that new life of the Holy Spirit granted at conversion. This was never part of the Eleusinian mysteries.
Elsewhere Paul speaks as follows, “We speak wisdom among those who are perfect, but not wisdom of this age, nor the leaders of this age, who are being brought to naught. We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a hidden wisdom that God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the princes of this world knew.” (1 Cor.2:6-8) First he uses language his Greek readers would recognise from the Eleusinian mysteries, and then shows how it was as far removed, as north is from south in Christian theology.
It was obvious that the earth itself was at the centre of Greek thinking in connection with the Eleusinian rites. Hence the goddess of the earth, Gaia, was to receive their votive offerings. It seems that New Age followers today are reviving the rites of Eleusis, with all their talk of Gaia.
Returning now to the N.T., we find the Apostle Paul addressing his Greek converts to facilitate their latching on to his words, as he used many parallels to their mythology. Concerning the after-life, Paul speaks about resurrection, the subject that caused the Mars Hill philosophers to laugh him to scorn. But he said triumphantly to the Corinthians,“Death is swallowed up in victory! Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor.15:54-55) He speaks of Death as a person. John wrote, “Death and Hades delivered up the dead that were in them.”(Rev.20:12) Jesus emphatically declared that he has “the keys of Death and Hades,” (Rev.1:18), and in 6:8 we see both Death and Hades personified as sitting on a pale green horse, and being given authority over a quarter of the earth. Finally, they were thrown into the lake of fire, (Rev.20:14) sentiments more applicable to living beings than abstract entities. Another example comes from Rev.12:16 “the earth” is personalised, as opening her mouth to swallow up the Serpent’s waters.
Writing to the Philippians Paul said, “I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” (1:23) The Greeks might have thought, from such language, that he was an initiate of the Eleusinian mysteries, and that he imagined he would find himself in the Elysian Fields, the Isles of the Blessed, after death. But that was not Paul’s theology at all. He explained it to the Corinthians more clearly. “For we know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle is destroyed, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this (house) we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house from heaven, if indeed being clothed we shall not be found naked. For indeed, we who are in this tabernacle groan, being burdened, inasmuch as we do not wish to “put off” but to “put on”, that the mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Cor.5:1-4)
Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die, it brings forth much fruit.” (John 12:24) The whole emphasis in the Master’s teaching was not about some Mystical Afterlife, but Death and Resurrection, and the Apostles taught on this basis throughout their ministry. However, I find from articles pasted on the Internet that modern exponents of Eleusis use this Scripture to uphold pagan worship, saying that Jesus was Himself an initiate of the mysteries. They likewise quote Paul from 1 Cor.15:35-38 “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.” But they have failed to appreciate the major difference between their New Age philosophy and the teaching of the Apostles.
Now here’s an interesting proposition. Did the Lord utter those words knowing that Ceres was the “corn goddess”,in order to undermine their pagan theology? Or was it just that He frequently used everyday symbolism to provide Him with the illustrations He needed to teach basic truth? Likewise, did Paul speak about the grain of wheat for that reason?
Well, obviously we cannot answer that question with certainty, one way or the other. But there is a further indicator to show that both He and Paul might have had the Greek mythology in mind. Remember, there were many Hellenists amongst the Jews. One has but to mention Stephen’s name, a pure Greek name, from STEPHANOS, meaning a crown. The clue comes from Matthew 13:11, the first time the word MUSTERION is used in the N.T. “It is given to you (disciples) to know the SACRED SECRETS of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it has not been given.” Our Lord’s words follow exactly the manner of speech used by an Eleusinian Hierophant when speaking to his initiates.
It must be said that the usual Greek words for “secret”, “hidden”, etc., are KRUPTO, (from which we get “crypt”) and APOKRUPHOS, (from which we get “apocrypha”.) These words together with their derivatives are used some 40 times in the N.T. On the other hand MUSTERION is found 27 times. If the writers had no intention of incorporating Greek mythological words in their teaching, they could easily have used the KRUPH- words throughout. But clearly they intended to take on board the concept of MYSTERY, because it was an ideal vehicle to convey truth. It contained all the elements of a strict DIVISION between the initiates and those who had not been given that privilege. Whether we like it or not, the concept of a secret band of disciples is found throughout the whole Bible. It may offend those who like to pull everyone down to a socialist-style common denominator, but it doesn’t stand up to rigorous examination when placed alongside Biblical revelation.
Where the Bible mysteries differ from the Eleusinian mysteries is that they are spelled out with clarity for all to see. No attempt is made to hide the truths. But the understanding of them is reserved for those whose inner eyes have been opened by the Holy Spirit. Others may read the words, or listen to the parables of the Kingdom, but the truths bounce off the brain. In the parable of the sower, we are given three cogent reasons why this happens. (a) the Devil grabs the truth before it can penetrate, (b) initial enthusiasm soon wanes under pressure, and (c) the cares of this world strangle the truth. But as we have said earlier, the Eleusinian initiates were given information that they had to keep quiet under pain of death. Therein is the big difference.
The Eleusinian mystery rites were kept for nearly 2,000 years, and were the most important of all the religious ceremonies of ancient Greece (and Rome as well.) The many Greek-speaking converts that Paul addressed would have known of these rites, even if they had never become initiated into them. It was as much common knowledge as football, television, or computing is for us today. Hence there was good reason why Paul, and even our Lord, might have used that knowledge to act as a bridge in teaching the truths of Death and Resurrection, whereby believers might have a living hope, rather than a vague possibility that after death something good and positive awaited them.
The Eleusinian initiates treated death as a friend. An inscription reads, “Beautiful indeed is the mystery given us by the blessed gods: death is for mortals no longer an evil, but a blessing.” The Bible takes quite the opposite viewpoint. In fact we are told, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor.15:26) If Jesus were not raised from death, there would be no hope for mankind. “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins. Then also those who are fallen asleep in Christ perished.” The Christian message is the gospel of resurrection life to all who believe. “Christ is risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of those who slept.” (1 Cor.15:16-20) The Lord Jesus Christ is the only hope for mankind. Hence the urgency of the Pauline message as presented to the Athenian philosophers, “The times of ignorance God has overlooked, but now He commands all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)