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Christianised rituals

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Christianised rituals were among the cultural features of the Mediterranean world that were adapted by the Early Christians, as part of the thorough-going Christianization of pagan culture, which included the landscape (see Christianised sites) and the calendar (see Christianised calendar). The obvious connection to Jewish rituals of Christian practices such as the Eucharist and Baptism, is often argued to be by design. Christian tradition places these Christian use of these activities as having originated in the life of Jesus, as attested by the Biblical narratives (e.g. the Baptism of Jesus for Baptism, and Last Supper for the Eucharist), and the Biblical incidents are said to be examples of Jewish ritual (e.g. Baptism as ritual cleansing, and the Last Supper as a passover seder). However, these practices are also present in several non-Christian, non-Jewish, ancient religions, a fact that made several church fathers uncomfortable. So similar were the practices of major rivals, such as Mithraism, and so obviously did they occur before the existence of Christianity, and unconnected to Judaism, that church fathers such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr argued that Satan himself had given the rituals to the rival religions, as a sort-of prophetic mockery. According to several secular scholars, the fact that even early Christian church fathers admitted that the other religions used these rituals, and that they admitted the other religions used them first, suggests that Christianity adopted them from these sources, and the biblical narrative was invented later to justify Christian usage.

As Christianity emerged from Judaism in one way or another, many religious practices were initially similar; on the weight of Biblical evidence (such as Acts 3:1; 5:27-42; 21:18-26; 24:5; 24:14; 28:22), early Christians are usually assumed to have kept most Jewish customs, including the observation of the Sabbath from Friday's sunset to Saturday's sunset. However, by the time of the Council of Laodicea, the number of Christians observing the Friday-Saturday sabbath was in a minority; the council of Laodicea ruled that Sunday should be the holy day, and went to the extreme of even outlawing resting during the Friday-Saturday period. It is unclear why early Christians moved to observing Sunday in preference to the Friday-Saturday period, though several scholars have argued that the Friday-Saturday observation became unpopular when the church attempted to distance itself from Judaism, after the Jewish-Roman wars. Socrates Scholasticus, an early historian of the church, argued that Sunday was chosen due to some ancient tradition, though without specifying what the tradition was. In the time preceding the Council of Laodicea, Sunday was the day dedicated by the Romans to the form of Mithras known as Sol Invictus (the unconquerable sun), and several historians have proposed that the observation of Sunday as holy by Christians began as an osmotic process, under the influence of the significant, and historically noted, similarities between Christianity and Mithraism, the other major religion in the Roman Empire of the fourth century. Those who allege that Christianity began as a form of Osiris-Dionysus mystery religion instead sometimes argue that Sunday had always been the holy day in Christianity, and it was keeping the Friday-Saturday period that was a development, in this case happening due to the influence of Judaism.

The sign of the cross, a gesture consisting of hand motions that outline a cross, is often considered by Christians to be a purely Christian symbol, though, like the cross itself, the gesture predates Christianity. The earliest form of the gesture in Christianity is the three point tau cross, which was the main form known to early Christian writers such as Tertullian; the tau cross was not completely T shaped but was based on an early form of tau which had a small stroke above the cross bar, though too small to make the gesture have more than three points. The tau cross appeared in the Egyptian religion. Tertullian himself wrote that initiates into the Mithras religion used this gesture, and were marked on the forehead with the Tau cross. The religious symbolism of the tau cross appears to originate with the mystery religion of Tammuz, one of the Osiris-Dionysus group, whose initial T has an obvious significance, and spread from there to surrounding countries including Israel (whence Ezekiel's awareness of it) and from there to Egypt.[1]

The Eucharist

One of the most important Christian sacraments is the Eucharist, also called Holy Communion, Lord's Supper, and other names. Denominations vary in its theological interpretation. According to most scholars, and Christians, the Eucharist is based on an episode during the Last Supper reported by the four Canonical Gospels, though these accounts do not mandate the observation of the episode, which Socrates Scholasticus considered it important to point out, and nor do the accounts specify what significance it has. Academic opinion is that the Gospels in question were written around 60-110 (with vocal, but tiny minority, groups arguing for later or earlier dates), and consequently must have been written at least 30 years after Christianity began. Consequently, though opposed by the minority of Christians that consider as a matter of faith that the Bible is a 100% accurate historic record, several academics have argued that the episode during the last supper is actually based on the practice of earlier Christians; i.e. that the authors of the Gospel accounts added it, rather than it being something Jesus actually did.

The historical position of Christianity, and one supported by some modern Christian groups (such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and high church groups), was that this consumption of bread and wine was theophagy, the consumption of the flesh of (a) deity, since they regarded the bread and wine as having been transformed during the liturgy into the body and blood of Jesus. This theophagy, real or imagined, was not unique to Christianity, and early Christians often argued that their theophagy was the only genuine one.

However the idea that this statement, He who will not eat of my body, nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and am I commingled with him, shall not be saved is from the rituals of Mithras.[2], is untrue and relies on a mistranslation of a French article discussing an Italian translation of a 17th Arabic text which does not mention Mithras at all.[3]

It is well attested by the historic record, including by anti-Mithraism Church fathers, that one of the rituals of Mithraism involved the consumption of meat and blood, and it has often been alleged by secular church historians that the Christian Eucharist originated from this ritual of Mithraism; though the Christian Eucharist involves bread and wine, not meat and blood, this could simply explained as being due to the influence of vegetarianism that was often present in mystery religions due to their historic connection to pythagoreanism (vegetarianism itself was referred to as pythagoreanism until 1847), and it is not certain whether Mithraism always used actual meat and blood or if it sometimes just used symbolic meat and blood. The Mithraic ritual was a reference to the Tauroctony, the symbolic slaying of a bull by Mithras, and the bull's blood was, according to Mithraism, shed by Mithras on the behalf of mankind. Though many modern Christian apologists argue that, despite such superficial similarities, Christianity does not anywhere involve the ritual killing of a bull, there is also no way of inferring that Mithraism involved a bull actually being sacrificed and eaten; the Tauroctony is thought to be allegorical not literal, in reference to the slaying of Taurus by the sun at the end of winter, and as most mithraea were small subterranean chambers (having seats for less than 40 worshippers) with narrow doorways, there was little space for bull sacrifice to be carried out.

Many groups in Early Christianity carried out the Eucharist as part of a love feast, a large meal held during a social gathering. The word love in love feast is a translation of agape one of the four ancient Greek words for love, though which form of love it refers to is a controversial subject since the beloved disciple and Jesus are said by the Gospel of John to have a relationship involving agape. The standard Christian interpretation of agape is that it refers to spiritual love; however, the term is also used by modern Greek to say I love you, and was often used in ancient non-Christian texts in contexts where it clearly has an almost identical meaning to eros, meaning lust. The standard interpretation of a love feast is that it was a meal based on the Passover Seder, much like the Last Supper is often considered to have been, as well as on elements of mediterranean funeral banquets, but due to the ambiguity of the word agape some scholars have (very controversially) argued that it was also based on Roman Orgys. Feasts having a religious significance were common in mystery religions, and were known as Orgies (these orgies were not connected to sexual activity, and the word orgy only came to have a sexual meaning due to decadent activity at later Roman versions of the Bacchanalia), and those who think that large parts of Christianity derived from mystery religions think that the love feast derived from such (non-sexual) orgies.


The ritual of Baptism, an activity in which prolonged contact with liquid is made (the meaning of the Greek term Baptizo from which Baptism derives) for ritual reasons, is regarded as important by most Christian groups, particularly Baptists, and Anabaptists, though beliefs about its meaning, and about the appropriate degree of contact with water, vary substantially. In Christianity, it is usual to believe that Christian Baptism originates with the biblical account of the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, an ascetic whom Mandaeans, and many secular historians, believe lead a religion that was entirely independent from Christianity, and remained so (most Christians believe that John the Baptist lead a group of pre-Christians who merged with Christianity once it developed). Like the Eucharist, the biblical basis for the practice was only created once the bible was written, and it is a matter of debate as to whether the Christians practiced baptism before this as a result of Jesus being baptised, or for some other reason - with the biblical account being invented to justify it, or for allegorical reasons.

Some scholars believe that Christian baptism had its origins with the Jewish ritual of mikvah, a form of ritual total immersion in water, for the ritual purpose of removing ritual uncleanliness; this possible origin is the one usually favoured by Christian apologists, as it implies that John the Baptist was simply carrying out a Jewish ritual. However, followers of most mystery religions were baptised (in some locations by full immersion in water), and considered themselves afterwards to have been re-born; the early Christian church father Tertullian commented on this that in certain Mysteries it is by baptism that members are initiated and they imagine that the result of this baptism is regeneration and the remission of the penalties of their sins. These beliefs of the initiates into mystery religions are also those shared with historic Christianity, and with some modern groups such as the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholicism, and some scholars have consequently proposed that Christian usage of baptism actually derives from that of the mystery religions, not from Judaism. One of the surviving ancient gnostic-like mystery religions, Mandaeanism, not only performs baptism frequently,[4] but also claims John the Baptist to have been one of their greatest teachers.


  1. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words' (London, 1962), W.E. Vine, entry for cross
  2. message scratched in a second century Mithraeum (cite:M J Vermaseren, Mithras, The Secret God)
  3. Researched in The "body and blood of Mithras" myth
  4. image of Mandaean baptism (carried out by american Mandaeans)


  • Kaplan, Steven 1984 Monastic Holy Man and the Christianization of Early Solomonic Ethiopia (in series Studien zur Kulturkunde) ISBN 3-515-03934-1
  • Kerenyi, Karl, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 1976.
  • MacMullen, Ramsay, Christianizing the Roman Empire, AD 100 – 400 Yale University Press (paperback, 1986 ISBN 0-300-03642-6 )
  • Trombley, Frank R., 1995. Hellenic Religion and Christianization c. 370-529 (in series Religions in the Graeco-Roman World) (Brill) ISBN 90-04-09691-4
  • Vesteinsson, Orri, 2000. The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change 1000-1300 (Oxford:Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-820799-9
  • Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, Barbara F. Sessions, tr. (Bollingen Foundation: Princeton University Press) 1953 (Originally La Survivance des dieux antiques 1940)

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