The New Testament and Mystery Religions

This project does not exclusively aim to analyze motifs of mystery religions in the New Testament with regard to their linguistic form and their content. Instead of interpreting the allusions to mystery religions on the basis of a development/evolution scheme, we shall apply the categories of the Research Consortium. The presupposition is that Christianity evolved from Judaism and that Judaism had already developed traditions of adapting and rejecting alien religious elements and concepts. Within this Jewish mesh of traditions (Traditionsgeflecht), Hellenism played a predominant role. It was against the background of Hellenism that the emerging church developed a specific elasticity. It applied linguistic and discursive patterns for its own missionary and communicative goals, while also adopting them on genuine theological grounds. In Paul, John, Mark and the Acts one sees different places where material has been borrowed from mystery religions. These allusions concern not only the linguistic form, but also the theological content: the meaning of Jesus Christ's death is illustrated, for instance, by the grain of wheat, which has to die in order to bear fruit (John 12.24). Such borrowed material also underlies the soteriological interpretation of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection in Paul's letters. Terminologically at least Paul takes up the cycle of fertility, birth, dying, death and new life, which was characteristic for the mystery religions. Such phenomena shed light on the demarcation, reinforcement, weakening and crossing of boundaries. The exclusive monotheism of Judaism and of the Jesus movement uses hermeneutical patterns from its religious environment in order to illustrate its own answers on borderline issues of life. Thus, the early church pervades the Roman world communicatively, without questioning its very narrow boundaries in relation to the religious practices of its environment. Such processes produce various dynamics along these bordering lines. This project intends to contribute to the research on the interrelations between the protection of religious identities and religious pluralism.

This project will focus primarily on the question of the way in which motifs from mystery religions are employed in the New Testament: Can such allusions best be explained as unconscious diffusions, deliberate missionary strategies or even as theological concepts? With regard to John, we shall consider whether his gospel as a whole can be understood as a contention between Dionysus and Jesus, presenting Jesus Christ as surpassing Dionysus. With regard to Mark we have to ask if the so-called "Messiasgeheimnis" is to be interpreted in close relation to the mystery of the mystery religions. Concerning Paul, we shall examine whether or not his theological reasoning- that life can emerge out of death- relies on motifs from mystery religions. The Acts also have to be taken into consideration. We presuppose that the various allusions to mystery religions serve rhetorical-missionary purposes. In the Roman-Hellenistic cultural space, religious renewals traditionally were expected from the East (Egypt and the Near East). With regard to this "ex oriente lux" expectation, not only the mystery religions, but also Judaism and emerging Christianity played a dominant role. Such developments between Asia and Europe produced a diversity and complexity of dynamic processes, which were further multiplied by the dynamics between Judaism, emerging Christianity and mystery religions. Against the backdrop of these dynamics, this project shall analyse the reception, inclusion and conversion of the mystery religions in the New Testament.

Affiliated Persons

Photograph of Prof. Dr. Peter Wick

Prof. Dr. Peter Wick

Project Leader

Universitätsstr. 150
44801  Bochum
Office GA 8/148
+49 234 32-28103

Jan Heilmann M.Ed.

Cooperation Partner

+49 234 32-28513