Initiation in Acts, Paul's letters, The Bacchae, and the Egyptian books of the netherworld

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Initiation in Acts, Paul's letters, The Bacchae, and the Egyptian books of the netherworld

Post by nightshadetwine » Tue Nov 13, 2018 3:51 pm

This post is a continuation of an earlier post I made about initiation. viewtopic.php?f=3&t=4574

Dionysos by Richard Seaford:
Paul was a hellenised Jew from Tarsus, which according to Strabo(14.5.13), an older contemporary of Paul, was a flourishing centre of Greek education. Paul spread Christianity to the Greeks, and wrote very competent Greek. Tarsus has not been much excavated, but surely contained a cult of Dionysos. A first century Discription from Seleucia ad Calycadnum, about eighty miles west of Tarsus, attests the presence there of Dionysiac mystery-cult.
The Pauline letters sometimes contain clusters of terms or ideas that suggest the influence, direct or indirect, of mystery-cult. One instance is the words ‘for now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face’ (1 Corinthians 13.12). What the Greek says is, in modern English, ‘through a mirror in a riddle’. The image owes something to the Old Testament (Numbers 12.8), but this is not enough to explain it. In mystery-cult the transition from the phase of ignorant anxiety to the phase of joyful knowledge might be effected by the use, in the first phase, of riddling language and of the mirror, both of which gave an obscure image of what was subsequently revealed (ancient mirrors were much obscurer than modern). I have mentioned the use of the mirror in Dionysiac mysteries both in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii and (along with the use of riddling language) in Bacchae(Chapter 5). Paul is here imagining eschatological transition in terms taken from the transition (itself embodying a kind of death) from ignorance to knowledge in mystery-cult.
Paul in his letters also proclaims a doctrine of baptism ‘into the death’ of Jesus Christ, of burial with him (through baptism), and of resurrection associated with his resurrection (Romans 6.3–6; also e.g. Romans 8.11; Galatians 2.20; 3.26–7). This doctrine is to be found neither in the Gospels nor in Judaic religion. It has been suggested that it is influenced by one or more of the forms taken by mystery-cult, whether performed for Greek deities such as Dionysos or Demeter or for deities originating from outside the Greek world such as Isis and Attis.
A huge amount of scholarship has been devoted to this controversial issue over many years, and I do not intend to enter the controversy here. Suffice it to say that although we know of no mystery-cult that reproduces exactly the same configuration as the Pauline doctrine, we do find in mystery-cult the ideas of the death and rebirth of the initiand (e.g. Apuleius Metamorphoses 11.21), of the sufferings of the deity (e.g. Athenagoras Supplication 32.1), of the identification of initiand with deity, and of the initiands’ (transition to) salvation depending on their finding – or the return to life of – a deity (e.g. Lactantius Divine Institutions 18.7; Firmicus Maternus On the Error of Profane Religions 2.9; 22.1–3).
As for Dionysos, the gold leaves (Chapter 5) preserve the mystic formulae ‘Hail you who have suffered what you had never suffered before. You became a god instead of a human,’ and ‘now you died and now you came into being, thrice blessed one, on this day. Tell Persephone that Bakchios himself freed you.’ And the mystic myth of the dismemberment of Dionysos and his restoration to life was probably associated with a similar transition for the initiand in the mystic ritual (Chapters 5 and 8). Most strikingly Bacchae 576–641 projects the mystic transition, from despair and fear to joy, caused by the reappearance of the deity, who is identified with light. The chorus, despairing at Pentheus’ imprisonment of their ‘guardian’ (whom we know to be Dionysos), the missionary of the new cult, sing to their god Dionysos, who invokes earthquake, thunder, and lightning. Pentheus’ house falls to the ground, and the appearance of Dionysos from within brings joy to the chorus, who had fallen to the ground, each one in ‘isolated desolation’. The god then describes the strange behaviour of Pentheus failing to bind him within the house.
Details of this behaviour, and of the experience of the chorus, reappear in accounts of mystic initiation, notably in a fragment of Plutarch (178) in which he compares the experience of dying with the experience of mystic initiation: in both passages there are exhausting runnings
around, uncompleted journeys through darkness, fear, trembling, sweat, and then light in the darkness. And they also appear in the description, in the Acts of the Apostles(16.25–9), of the miraculous liberation from prison at Philippi: the missionaries of the new religion, Paul and Silas, are imprisoned, singing to their god in the darkness of midnight when there is a sudden earthquake, and (as at Bacchae 447–8) the doors open and the chains fall away from the prisoners. The gaoler seizes a sword, is reassured by Paul that the prisoners are still there, asks for light, rushes inside, falls trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas, and is converted to Christianity. So too Pentheus seizes sword, rushes inside into the darkness, and finally collapses, while Dionysos remains calm throughout and reassures Pentheus that he will not escape. But Pentheus – in attacking with his sword the light made by the god in the darkness – expresses his obdurate resistance to being initiated/converted (antithetically to the chorus, and to the gaoler at Philippi).
The Bacchae passage is also similar in several respects to the various accounts in Acts of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. Here the persecutor of the new religion is converted (like the gaoler at Philippi, and in contrast to Pentheus). Divine intervention is sudden (Bacchae576, Acts9.3, 16.26). The group hears the voice of the god but does not see him (Bacchae576–95, Acts9.7). To the lightning in Bacchae corresponds the description of the light appearing to Saul in terms of lightning (9.3, 22.6). The Dionysiac chorus falls to the ground and Pentheus collapses, and Saul falls to the ground (as does also, at 26.14, the group that accompanies him). The command to rise up, marking the transition, is given by Dionysos to the chorus and by the Lord to Saul. The chorus and Pentheus identify Dionysos with light; Saul saw the Lord, and it has been inferred that ‘Saul’s companions saw only a formless glare where he himself saw in it the figure of Jesus’(Haenchen).
These similarities are too numerous to be coincidental. How are we to explain them? One possibility is that they derive from knowledge of Bacchae. Bacchae was indeed well known in this period: for instance, we hear of it being recited in Corinth in the first century AD (Lucian The Ignorant Book Collector 19), and the literary knowledge of the author of the Acts is exemplified by his including a verse of the Hellenistic poet Aratus in Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus (17.28). Moreover, in one version of the conversion of Saul the Lord says to him ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (26.14). This expression occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, but it does occur in early Greek literature, notably when Dionysos says to his persecutor Pentheus ‘Do not kick against the goads, a mortal against a god’ (Bacchae796). Pentheus and Saul are advised not to resist by the god whose new cult they are vainly persecuting.
This is not to say that the Greek influence on these passages of Acts was necessarily merely literary. It is likely, given the continuity of mystery-cult (Chapter 5), that the mystic ritual reflected in Bacchae persisted into the first century AD, and possible that it influenced narratives that have been lost but had some influence – perhaps along with Bacchae – on the narratives incorporated into Acts.
You find the concept of a death and rebirth/resurrection initiation ritual in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Christian religion. In ancient Egyptian religion it seemed to start off as an initiation ritual performed by the Pharaoh while he was living, and then also when he died(the mortuary ritual). This initiation ritual was portrayed in allegorical myths or stories. In Egypt you find it portrayed in the stories of Osiris and the sun god. In Greek religion you find it in the myths/stories of Dionysus, Persephone, and others. In Christianity you find it in the stories of the NT. This is why there's so many parallels between some of these stories, they're all portraying initiation into a cult/religion that revolves around a god or goddess that overcomes death. The overcoming of death by the god or goddess is ritually re-enacted by the initiate.

Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt by Jan Assmann:
Initiation into the temples and cults of Egypt anticipated and prefigured the ultimate initiation into the mysteries of the realm of the dead. This initiation did not benefit only the priests. The major festivals also enabled the laity to serve the gods by assuming certain roles, and thus to enter into a relationship with them during life, a relationship they could then call on in the afterlife. This fact explains the important role that festivals and participation in them played in the mortuary beliefs of the New Kingdom...Thus, the external fact of the place where it was represented already reveals that the renewal of the sun god in the depths of the world has to do with a mystery. In hymns, mortuary texts, and other genres of Egyptian literature, only brief turns of expression allude to this mystery, which receives detailed verbal and visual representation in only one genre: the Books of the Netherworld... I think it is essentially less risky to view the Books of the Netherworld and the guides to the world beyond as initiation literature, a secret knowledge guarded by special priests, probably priests of Heliopolis, and then placed with the king in his tomb. In any event, the Egyptian texts say one thing clearly enough: that all rituals, and especially those centered on Osiris and the sun god, were cloaked in mystery. And it is also clear that there is a relationship between initiation into these (ritual) mysteries and life in the next world. He who knew these things overcame the dangers of the realm of death and managed the passage into Elysium and the “going forth by day.”
Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt by Jan Assmann:
Regeneration did not mean traveling a reversed path from death to birth, but rather, being born anew through death. The sun god himself did not reverse direction when he united with Osiris in the depths of the cosmos; rather, he gained the strength to make yet another cycle.

It seems to me that there is another central motif here, one that Hornung has also connected with the idea of regeneration: the motif of
the primeval waters. In the netherworld, the deceased, just like the sun god, comes into contact with elements of the pre-cosmos or preexistence,
that “primal matter” (so Hornung) out of which the cosmos emerged at the beginning and which remained ever present as the source of regeneration. Every morning, the sun god emerged from the primeval waters, and the annual Nile inundation that renewed the fertility of the land also fed on these netherworldly primeval waters. There was even a concept that while they were asleep, people were already immersed in the primeval ocean from which the cosmos emerged at its beginning. “How beautiful you are,” sang one poet, “when you rise in Light-land,”

we live again anew,
after we enter the primeval water,
and it has rejuvenated us into one who is young for the first time.
The old man is shed, a new one is made .
This has obvious parallels to baptism as portrayed in Paul's letters.

Romans 6:3-8:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt by Jan Assmann:
It is not until the reign of Hadrian, that is, in the first half of the second century C.E., that we encounter such a text, and we find ourselves no longer in an Egyptian, but an Egyptianizing, context. But the text is so rich in genuinely Egyptian allusions, and it touches so closely on our theme that it is well worth considering here.
The text in question deals with the initiation of Lucius into the mysteries of Isis, as related by Apuleius in his novel "The Golden Ass.” The scene is not Egypt but Cenchreae, the harbor of Corinth, where there was an Isis sanctuary. In the Hellenistic Isis religion, the goddess embodied her
adherents’ hope for eternal life, and she brought a great deal from her Egyptian past to this role. It was she who had awakened Osiris to new life
through the power of her magical spells. And since, according to Egyptian belief, every individual became an Osiris by means of the mortuary
rituals, his hope for immortality depended on Isis as well. There is good reason to think that ancient Egyptian burial customs lived on in the
Hellenistic Isis mysteries, though in the latter case, they were enacted and interpreted not as a burial of the deceased but as an initiation of the
When Lucius, who has been transformed back from an ass into a man, wishes to be initiated into the mysteries of Isis, the priest advises caution:
For the doorbolt of the netherworld and its saving protection lie in the hand
of the goddess, and the ordination itself is celebrated as the reflection of a
voluntary death and a salvation granted upon request. For when a lifetime
is over and men stand on the threshold where light ends, then the goddess
calls back from the netherworld those to whom the great mystery of
religion was confidently entrusted, and she sets those who have in a certain
sense been reborn through their providence once again on the course of a
new life.

Initiation thus clearly had the sense of a prefiguration of death, one that conveyed to the mystic a divine presence that otherwise, according to the Egyptian view of things, was imparted only to the ritually “transfigured” dead. By voluntarily experiencing this symbolic death, the mystic qualified himself to be brought back to life by Isis on the day of his actual death. When the day of the initiation finally comes, Lucius is first bathed (baptized), and the priest “expresses the forgiveness of the gods.” The bath thus has the sacramental sense of a remission of sins.Lucius is initiated into the mysteries of the netherworld. He carries out the descensus of the sun god, descending into the netherworld and beholding the sun at midnight. With these sentences, we cannot help but think of the Books of the Netherworld that are to be found on the walls of the Ramesside royal tombs and in the Osireion at Abydos. 56 We may imagine that the mystic was led into similarly decorated rooms — perhaps the crypts — of a temple. In any case, the process seems to be a symbolic journey through the netherworld, in which the netherworld is depicted, in an entirely Egyptian sense, as the subterranean realm of the midnight sun.

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