Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

. (page 16 of 25)
Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 16 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the patronage accorded to all these cults by the Roman
Emperors, as favoring a new combination and synthesis:
— "Hadrien, Commode, Septime Severe, Julia Domna,
Elagabal, Alexandre Severe, en particulier ont contribue
personnellement a la popularite et au succes des cultes
qui se celebraient en I'honneur de Serapis et d'Isis, des
divinites syriennes et de Mithra."^

It was also probable that this new Religion would show
(as indicated in the last chapter) a reaction against mere
sex-indulgence; and, as regards its standard of Morality
generally, that, among so many conflicting peoples with
their various ci\ic and local customs, it could not well
identify itself with any one of these but would evolve an
inner inspiration of its own which in its best form would
be love of the neighbor, regardless of the race, creed or
customs of the neighbor, and whose sanction would not
reside in any of the external authorities thus conflicting
with each other, but in the sense of the soul's direct responsi-
bility to God.

So much for what we might expect a priori as to the
influence of the surroundings on the general form of the
new Religion. And what about the kind of creed or creeds
which that religion would favor? Here again we must
see that the influence of the surroundings compelled a

1 See Cumont, Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain
(Paris, 1906), p. 253.

2 Cultes pdiens dans I'Empire Romain (2 vols., 1911), vol. ii, p. 263.


certain result. Those doctrines which we have described
in the preceding chapters — doctrines of Sin and Sacrifice, a
Savior, the Eucharist, the Trinity, the Virgin-birth,
and so forth — were in their various forms seething, so to
speak, all around. It was impossible for any new religious
synthesis to escape them; all it could do would be to
appropriate them, and to give them perhaps a color of its
own. Thus it is into the midst of this germinating mass
that we must imagine the various pagan cults, like fertilizing
streams, descending. To trace all these streams would
of course be an impossible task; but it may be of use, as
an example of the process, to take the case of some par-
ticular belief. Let us take the belief in the coming of a
Savior-god; and tliis will be the more suitable as it is a
belief which has in the past been commonly held to be
distinctive of Christianity. Of course we know now that
it is not in any sense distinctive, but that the long tradition
of the Savior comes down from the remotest times, and
perhaps from every country of the world. ^ The Messianic
prophecies of the Jews and the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah
emptied themselves into the Christian teachings, and infected
them to some degree with a Judaic tinge. The
"Messiah" means of course the Anointed One. The
Hebrew word occurs some 40 times in the Old Testament;
and each time in the Septuagint or Greek translation
(made mainly in the third century be j ore our era) the word
is translated xP'o^o^, or Christos, which again means
Anointed. Thus we see that the idea or the word "The
Christ" was in vogue in Alexandria as far back certainly
as 280 B.C., or nearly three centuries before Jesus. And what
the word "The Anointed" strictly speaking means, and from
what the expression is probably derived, will appear later.
In The Book of Enoch, written not later than B.C. 170,-
the Christ is spoken of as already existing in heaven,

1 Even to-day the Arabian lands are always vibrating with prophecies
of a coming Mahdi.

2 See Edition by R. H. Charles (1893),


and about to come as Judge of all men, and is definitely
called "the Son of Man." The Book of Revelations is
jull of passages from Enoch; so are the Epistles of Paul;
so too the Gospels. The Book of Enoch believes in a Golden
Age that is to come; it has Dantesque visions of Heaven
and Hell, and of Angels good and evil, and it speaks of a
"garden of Righteousness" with the "Tree of Wisdom" in its
midst. Everywhere, says Prof. Drews, in the first century
B.C., there was the longing for a coming Savior.

But the Savior-god, as we also know, was a familiar figure
in Egypt. The great Osiris was the Savior of the world, both
in his life and death: in his life through the noble
works he wrought for the benefit of mankind, and in
his death through his betrayal by the powers of darkness
and his resurrection from the tomb and ascent into heaven.^
The Egyptian doctrines descended through Alexandria
into Christianity — and though they did not influence the
latter deeply until about 300 a.d., yet they then succeeded
in reaching the Christian Churches, giving a color to their
teachings with regard to the Savior, and persuading them to
accept and honor the Egyptian worship of Isis in the Christian
form of the Virgin Mary.

Again, another great stream of influence descended from
Persia in the form of the cult of Mithra. Mithra, as we
have seen,^ stood as a great Mediator between God and man.
With his baptisms and eucharists, and his twelve disciples,
and his birth in a cave, and so forth, he seemed to the
early Fathers an invention of the devil and a most dangerous
mockery on Christianity — and all the more so because his
worship was becoming so exceedingly popular. The cult
seems to have reached Rome about b.c. 70. It spread
far and wide through the Empire. It extended to Great
Britain, and numerous remains of Mithraic monuments
and sculptures in this country — at York, Chester and other
places — testify to its wide acceptance even here. At
1 See ch. ii, supra. - Supra, ch. ii.


Rome the vogue of Mithraism became so great that in
the third century a. d., it was quite doubtfuF whether it
or Christianity would triumph; the Emperor Aurelian in 273
founded a cult of the InviiKible Sun in connection
with Mithraism;- and as St. Jerome tells us in his letters,^
the latter cult had at a later time to be suppressed in Rome
and Alexandria by physical force, so powerful was it.

Nor was force the only method employed. Imitation is
not only the sincerest flattery, but it is often the most
subtle and effective way of defeating a rival. The priests
of the rising Christian Church were, like the priests of all
religions, not wanting in craft; and at this moment
when the question of a World-religion was in the balance, it
was an obvious policy for them to throw into their own scale
as many elements as possible of the popular Pagan cults.
Mithraism had been flourishing for 600 years; and it is, to
say the least, curious that the Mithraic doctrines and legends
which I have just mentioned should all have been
adopted (quite unintentionally of course!) into Christianity;
and still more so that some others from the same source,
like the legend of the Shepherds at the Nativity and the
doctrine of the Resurrection and Ascension, which are
not mentioned at all in the original draft of the earliest
Gospel (St. Mark), should have made their appearance in
the Christian writings at a later time, when Mithraism
was making great forward strides. History shows that
as a Church progresses and expands it generally feels

1 See Cumont, op. cit., who says, p. 171: — "Jamais, pas meme k
I'epoque des invasions mussulmanes, I'Europe ne sembla plus pres de
devenir asiatique qu'au moment ou Diocletien reconnaissait officiel-
lement en Mithra le protecteur de I'empire reconstitue." See also
Cumont's Mysteres de Mithra, preface. The Roman Army, in fact,
stuck to Mithra throughout, as against Christianity; and so did the
Roman nobility. (See S. Augustine's Confessions, Book VIII, ch. 2.)

2 Cumont indeed says that the identification of Mithra with the
Sun (the emblem of imperial power) formed one reason why Mithraism
was not persecuted at that time.

3 Epist. cvii, ad Laetam. See Robertson's Pagan Christs, p. 350.


compelled to enlarge and fortify its own foundations by in-
serting material which was not there at first. I shall shortly
give another illustration of this; at present I will
merely point out that the Christian writers, as time
went on, not only introduced new doctrines, legends,
miracles and so forth — most of which we can trace to
antecedent pagan sources — but that they took especial pains
to destroy the pagan records and so obliterate the evidence
of their own dishonesty. We learn from Porphyry^ that
there were several elaborate treatises setting forth the
religion of Mithra; and J. M. Robertson adds (Pagan
Christ s, p. 325): "everyone of these has been destroyed by
the care of the Church, and it is remarkable that even the
treatise of Firmicus is mutilated at a passage (v.) where
he seems to be accusing Christians of following Mithraic
usages." While again Professor ISIurray says, "The polemic
literature of Christianity is loud and triumphant; the
books of the Pagans have been destroyed.'"^

Returning to the doctrine of the Savior, I have already
in preceding chapters given so many instances of belief
in such a deity among the pagans — whether he be called
Krishna or Mithra or Osiris or Horus or Apollo or Hercules
— that it is not necessary to dwell on the subject any further
in order to persuade the reader that the doctrine was 'in the
air' at the time of the advent of Christianity. Even
Dionysus, then a prominent figure in the 'Mysteries,'
was called Eleutherios, The Deliverer. But it may be of
interest to trace the same doctrine among the pre-Christian
sects of Gnostics. The Gnostics, says Professor Murray,^
"are still commonly thought of as a body of Christian
heretics. In reality there were Gnostic sects scattered over

^ De Abstinentia, ii. 56; iv. 16.

2 Four Stages, p. 180. We have probably an instance of this de-
struction in the total disappearance of Celsus' lively attack on Chris-
tianity (180 A.D.), of which, however, portions have been fortu-
nately preserved in Origen's rather prolLx refutation of the same.

3 Four Stages, p. 143.


the Hellenistic world before Christianity as well as after.
They must have been established in Antioch and probably
in Tarsus well before the days of Paul or Apollos. Their
Savior, like the Jewish Messiah, was established in men's
minds before the Savior of the Christians. 'If we look
close,' says Professor Bousset, 'the result emerges with
great clearness that the figure of the Redeemer as such did
not wait for Christianity to force its way into the religion
of Gnosis, but was already present there under various
forms.' "

This Gnostic Redeemer, continues Professor Murray, "is
descended by a fairly clear genealogy from the 'Tritos
Soter' ('third Savior')^ of early Greece, contaminated
with similar figures, like Attis and Adonis from Asia Minor,
Osiris from Egypt, and the special Jewish conception of the
Messiah of the Chosen people. He has various names, which
the name of Jesus or 'Christos,' 'the Anointed,' tends
gradually to supersede. Above all, he is in some
sense Man, or 'the second Man' or 'the Son of Man' . . .
He is the real, the ultimate, the perfect and eternal Man,
of whom all bodily men are feeble copies."-

This passage brings vividly before the mind the process of
v/hich I have spoken, namely, the fusion and mutual
interchange of ideas on the subject of the Savior during the
period anterior to our era. Also it exemplifies to us
through what an abstract sphere of Gnostic religious specula-
tion the doctrine had to travel before reaching its expression
in Christianity.^ This exalted and high philosophical

1 There seems to be some doubt about the exact meaning of this
expression. Even Zeus himself was sometimes called 'Soter,' and at
feasts, it is said, the third goblet was always drunk in his honor.

2 See also The Gnostic Story of Jesus Christ, by Gilbert T. Sadler
(C. W. Daniel, 1919).

3 \Vhen travelling in India I found that the Giianis or Wise Men
there quite commonly maintained that Jesus (judging from his teach-
ing) must have been initiated at some time in the esoteric doctrines of
the Vedanta.


conception passed on and came out again to some degree
in the Fourth Gospel and the Pauline Epistles (especially
I Cor. XV ) ; but I need hardly say it was not maintained.
The enthusiasm of the little scattered Christian bodies —
with their communism of practice with regard to this
world and their intensity of faith with regard to the next
— began to wane in the second and third centuries a.d. As
the Church (with capital initial) grew, so was it less
and less occupied with real religious feeling, and more and
more with its battles against persecution from outside, and
its quarrels and dissensions concerning heresies within
its own borders. And when at the Council of Nicaea (325
a.d) it endeavored to establish an official creed, the
strife and bitterness only increased. "There is no wild
beast," said the Emperor Julian, "like an angry theologian."
Where the fourth Evangelist had preached the gospel of
Love, and Paul had announced redemption by an inner
and spiritual identification with Christ, "As in Adam all die,
so in Christ shall all be made alive"; and whereas some
at any rate of the Pagan cults had taught a glorious salva-
tion by the new birth of a divine being within each man:
"Be of good cheer, initiates in the mystery of the liberated
god; For to you too out of all your labors and sorrows shall
come Liberation" — the Nicene creed had nothing to pro-
pound except some extremely futile speculations about the
relation to each other of the Father and the Son, and
the relation of both to the Holy Ghost, and of all three to
the Virgin Mary — speculations which only served for the re-
newal of shameful strife and animosities — riots and blood-
shed and murder — ^within the Church, and the mockery of
the heathen without. And as far as it dealt with the cruci-
fixion, death and resurrection of the Lord it did not differ
from the score of preceding pagan creeds, except in the
thorough materialism and lack of poetry in statement
which it exhibits. After the Council of Nicaea, in fact, the
Judaic tinge in the doctrines of the Church becomes


more apparent, and more and more its Scheme of Salvation
through Christ takes the character of a rather sordid and
huckstering bargain by which Man gets the better of God
by persuading the latter to sacrifice his own Son for the
redemption of the world! With the exception of a few epi-
sodes like the formation during the Middle Ages of the noble
brotherhoods and sisterhoods of Frairs and Nuns, dedi-
cated to the help and healing of suffering humanity,
and the appearance of a few real lovers of mankind (and the
animals) like St. Francis — (and these manifestations can
hardly be claimed by the Church, which pretty consistently
opposed them) — it may be said that after about the fourth
century the real spirit and light of early Christian enthusi-
asm died away. The incursions of barbarian tribes from the
North and East, and later of Moors and Arabs from the South,
familiarized the European peoples with the ideas of blood-
shed and violence; gross and material conceptions of life
were in the ascendant; and a romantic and aspiring Christi-
anity gave place to a worldly and vulgar Churchianity.

I have in these two or three pages dealt only — and that
very briefly — with the entry of the pagan doctrine of the
Savior into the Christian field, showing its transformation
there and how Christianity could not well escape having
a doctrine of a Savior, or avoid giving a color of its own
to that doctrine. To follow out the same course with
other doctrines, like those which I have mentioned above,
would obviously be an endless task — which must be left to
each student or reader to pursue according to his oppor-
tunity and capacity. It is clear anyhow, that all these
elements of the pagan religions — pouring down into the vast
reservoir, or rather whirlpool, of the Roman Empire, and
mixing among all these numerous brotherhoods, societies,
collegia, mystery-clubs, and groups which were at that time
looking out intently for some new revelation or in-
spiration — did more or less automatically act and react upon


each other, and by the general conditions prevailing were
modified, till they ultimately combined and took united
shape in the movement which we call Christianity, but which
only — as I have said — narrowly escaped being called
Mithraism — so nearly related and closely allied were these
cults with each other.

At 'this point it will naturally be asked: "And where in
this scheme of the Genesis of Christianity is the chief
figure and accredited leader of the movement — namely
Jesus Christ himself — for to all appearance in the account
here given of the matter he is practically non-existent or
a negligible quantity?" And the question is a very per-
tinent one, and very difficult to answer. "Where is the
founder of the Religion?" — or to put it in another form:
"Is it necessary to suppose a human and visible Founder
at all?" A few years ago such a mere question would
have been accounted rank blasphemy, and would only —
if passed over — have been ignored on account of its
supposed absurdity. To-day, however, owing to the enor-
mous amount of work which has been done of late on the
subject of Christian origins, the question takes on quite
a different complexion. And from Strauss onwards a
growingly influential and learned body of critics is inclined
to regard the whole story of the Gospels as legendary. Arthur
Drews, for instance, a professor at Karlsruhe, in his cele-
brated book The Christ-Myth,'^ places David F. Strauss as
first in the myth field — though he allows that Dupuis in
Uorigine de tous les cultes (1795) had given the clue to the
whole idea. He then mentions Bruno Bauer (1877) as
contending that Jesus was a pure invention of Mark's,
and John M. Robertson as having in his Christianity and
Mythology (1900) given the first thoroughly reasoned exposi-
tion of the legendary theory ; also Emilio Bossi in Italy, who

1 Die Christus-mythe: verbesserte und erweitezte Ausgabe, Jena,
1910. »


wrote Jesu Christo non e mat esistito, and similar authors
in Holland, Poland, and other countries, including W. Ben-
jamin Smith, the American author of The Pre-christian
Jesus (1906), and P. Jensen in Das Gilgamesch Epos in den
Welt-literatur (1906), who makes the Jesus-story a variant of
the Babylonian epic, 2000 B.C. A pretty strong list!^ "But,"
continues Drews, "ordinary historians still ignore all this."
Finally, he dismisses Jesus as "a figure swimming obscurely
in the mists of tradition." Nevertheless I need hardly
remark that, large and learned as the body of opinion
here represented is, a still larger (but less learned) body fights
desperately for the actual historicity of Jesus, and some even
still for the old view of him as a quite unique and miraculous
revelation of Godhood on earth.

At first, no doubt, the legendary theory seems a little too
far-fetched. There is a fashion in all these things, and
it may be that there is a fashion even here. But when
you reflect how rapidly legends grow up even in these days of
exact Science and an omniscient Press; how the figure of
Shakespeare, dead only 300 years, is almost completely lost
in the mist of Time, and even the authenticity of his
works has become a subject of controversy; when you find
that William Tell, supposed to have lived some 300
years again before Shakespeare, and whose deeds in minutest
detail have been recited and honored all over Europe, is almost
certainly a pure invention, and never existed; when
you remember — as mentioned earlier in this book^ — that
it was more than five hundred years after the supposed
birth of Jesus before any serious effort was made to establish
the date of that birth — and that then a purely mythical date
was chosen: the 25th December, the day of the Sun's new
birth after the winter solstice, and the time of the sup-
posed birth of Apollo, Bacchus, and the other Sungods;

1 To which we may also add Schweitzer's Quest of the historical
Jesus (1910).

2 Ch. II, supra.


when, moreover, you think for a moment what the state
of historical criticism must have been, and the general stand-
ard of credibility, 1,900 years ago, in a country like Syria,
and among an ignorant population, where any story cir-
culating from lip to lip was assured of credence if suffi-
ciently marvelous or imaginative; — why, then the legen-
dary theory does not seem so improbable. There is
no doubt that after the destruction of Jerusalem (in a.d.
70), little groups of believers in a redeeming 'Christ' were
formed there and in other places, just as there had certainly
existed, in the first century B.C., groups of Gnostics, Thera-
peutae, Essenes and others whose teachings were very
similar to the Christian, and there was now a demand from
many of these groups for 'writings' and 'histories' which
should hearten and confirm the young and growing Churches.
The Gospels and Epistles, of which there are still extant a
great abundance, both apocryphal and canonical, met this
demand; but how far their records of the person of Jesus
of Nazareth are reliable history, or how far they are merely
imaginative pictures of the kind of man the Saviour might
be expected to be,^ is a question which, as I have already
said, is a difficult one for skilled critics to answer, and one
on which I certainly have no intention of giving a positive
verdict. Personally I must say I think the 'legendary'
solution quite likely, and in some ways more satisfactory
than the opposite one — for the simple reason that it seems
much more encouraging to suppose that the story of Jesus,
(gracious and beautiful as it is) is a myth which gradually
formed itself in the conscience of mankind, and thus points
the way of humanity's future evolution, than to suppose
it to be the mere record of an unique and miraculous inter-
position of Providence, which depended entirely on the
powers above, and could hardly be expected to occur again.

1 One of Celsus' accusations against the Christians was that their
Gospels had been written "several times over" (see Origen, Contra
Celsutn, ii. 26, 27).


However, the question is not what we desire, but what
we can prove to be the actual fact. And certainly the diffi-
culties in the way of regarding the Gospel story (or stories,
for there is not one consistent story) as true are enormous.
If anyone will read, for instance, in the four Gospels, the
events of the night preceding the crucifixion and reckon the
time which they would necessarily have taken to enact —
the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden, the betrayal by
Judas, the haling before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, and
then before Pilate in the Hall of Judgment (though
courts for the trial of malefactors do not generally sit in
the middle of the night); then — in Luke — the interposed visit
to Herod, and the return to Pilate; Pilate's speeches and
washing of hands before the crowd; then the scourging
and the mocking and the arraying of Jesus in purple robe
as a king; then the preparation of a Cross and the long and
painful journey to Golgotha; and finally the Crucifixion
at sunrise; — he will see — as has often been pointed out —
that the whole story is physically impossible. As a record
of actual events the story is impossible; but as a record
or series of notes derived from the witnessing of a "mystery-
play" — and such plays with very similar incidents were com-
mon enough in antiquity in connection with cults of a dying
Savior, it very likely is true (one can see the very dramatic
character of the incidents: the washing of hands, the
threefold denial by Peter, the purple robe and crown
of thorns, and so forth); and as such it is now accepted
by many well-qualified authorities.^

1 Dr. Frazer in The Golden Bough (vol. ix, "The Scapegoat," p.
4CX)) speaks of the frequency in antiquity of a Mystery-play relating
to a God-man who gives his life and blood for the people; and he
puts forward tentatively and by no means dogmatically the following
note: — "Such a drama, if we are right, was the original story of
Esther and Mordecai, or (to give their older names) Ishtar and Mar-
duk. It was played in Babylonia, and from Babylonia the returning
Captives brought it to Judaea, where it was acted, rather as an his-

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 16 of 25)