Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism (Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity) || Baptism and Graeco-Roman Mystery Cults

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  • Baptism and Graeco-Roman Mystery CultsFritz Graf

    Whether and how Christian baptism was related to pagan mystery cults is an old question; it intrigued already Christian apologists and early modern anti-quarians.1 In the late nineteenth century, it entered the world of ideological dis-putes, driven by the political secularization of the new European nation states of Germany, France and Italy; at this time, the Religionswissen schaftliche Schule explored the affinities between Christian liturgy and theology on the one side and Graeco-Roman mystery cults on the other.2 Alfred Loisys Les mystres paens et le mystre chrtien (1919) carried the dispute from the secularization debate in Europes nascent national states before the First World War into the post-war years, inspiring, among others, Vittorio Macchioros long-living From Orpheus to Paul (1930).3 In 1957, the learned Jesuit Father, Hugo Rahner, sum-marized the state of the debate in a scathing sentence: Unfortunately the most recent scholarship is quite remarkably firm in rejecting the whole notion of any such influences.4 On Pauls doctrine of baptism, a well-trodden battle-ground, Gnter Wagner reached a similar conclusion in his densely-knit monograph of 1962: The religio-historical documents are of no help to us in the interpretation of Romans vi.5 Rahners rather sweeping assertion perhaps outruns the facts of the case, as Devon Wiens remarked, and it did not mark the end of the larger debate, despite Walter Burkerts assertion in 1987 that there is hardly any evi-dence for baptism in pagan mysteries.6 Nowadays, however, much less seems at

    1 For the apologists see below; for the antiquarians see Casaubon, De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis exercitationes XVI: Exercitatio 16, chapter 43, pp. 388407 in the edition Frankfurt: Ruland 1615.

    2 E. g. H. Gunkel, Zum religionsgeschichtlichen Verstndnis des Neuen Testaments or P. Wendland, Die hellenistisch-rmische Kultur und ihr Verhltnis zu Judentum und Christentum; for an over-view over the relevant research see D. H. Wiens, Mystery Concepts in Primitive Christianity and in its Environment, and as to baptism G. Wagner, Das religionsgeschichtliche Problem von Rmer 6,111.

    3 On Vittorio Macchioro, see F. Graf, A history of scholarship on the tablets, in: F. Graf and S. I. Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife, 5065, esp. 5961.

    4 H. Rahner, Das Mysterium der Taufe, 70.5 Wagner, Das religionsgeschichtliche Problem von Rmer 6,111, 268.6 W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, 101.

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  • 102 Fritz Graf

    stake, and the discussion should not carry much ideological baggage anymore.7 In what follows, I will look at the problems very consciously through the eyes of a historian of the religions of the Roman Imperial Epoch.8 I will not start with the most problematical question as to how baptism and mystery cults were re-lated to each other, nor even with the wider question of how the widely attested ritual use of water for purification in ancient cults related to baptism; instead, I will first have a look at the apologists and their way of dealing with such relation-ships; the other two questions will then follow from this one.

    1. Justin on Pagan Baptismal Rituals

    As soon as we hear the voices of the Apologists, we discern a (somewhat one-sided) discourse that connects Christian baptism with rituals outside the young Christian tradition that appeared to be comparable. In his (First) Apology, Justin Martyr talks extensively about the Christian rituals, especially baptism, albeit in a seemingly rambling way.9 After having described its performance and ex-pounded its theological meaning, he adds a chapter in which he talks about the imitation of the rite by the :

    , , , .

    And after having heard this washing announced by the prophet, the demons in-duced also those to rinse themselves who are entering their temples and are about to worship them with libations and burnt-offerings; and they caused them also to bathe themselves entirely when they are setting out, before they enter the shrines in which they were set [Apologia 1.62.1; my translation].

    Although in what follows Justin talks about the Jewish custom of entering the Temple without shoes, here he must refer to polytheist cult, with libations (), animal sacrifice () and cult images (10). The link between the two seemingly incongruous details is the ritual of baptism that uses water and in which the baptized did not wear shoes; as to the underlying symbolic

    7 See the reasonable, although superficial remarks of H. Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, 209211.

    8 The still most rewarding contribution from this side is the long paper by A. D. Nock, Hellenis-tic Mysteries and Christian Sacraments; see also his Religious Developments from the Close of the Republic to the Reign of Nero.

    9 Justin, Apologia 1.6163; see the contribution by A. Lindemann, Zur frhchristlichen Tauf-praxis, in the present publication.

    10 , to seat, is the standard term for setting up a cult image, e.g. Eur. IT 1453; Aristophanes, Plutus 1153 etc.; the image itself is usually , the seat.

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  • Baptism and Graeco-Roman Mystery Cults 103

    structure, Justin compares baptism to entering a (Greek, Roman or Jewish) sanc-tuary and thus coming into close contact with a divinity: baptism performs the permanent and life-changing transition into the space of the true God.

    Justin describes two forms of lustration rituals that were common in Greek and Roman cult, the routine aspersion ( ) from the wash-basin, , at the entrance of a sanctuary, and the more extensive wash-, at the entrance of a sanctuary, and the more extensive wash-ing or even bathing () that certain categories of defilement demanded before one could enter a sanctuary. This second purification was more often not performed at the sanctuary, but at home or in a public bath; sanctuaries usually lacked the installations for bathing.

    Both types of rites are well attested in the ancient world, the latter somewhat better than the former: the former was routine, the latter needed more expla-nation and instruction.11 Despite a somewhat spotty archaeological record, we can assume that lustral basins belonged to the standard items that marked the entrance into a sanctuary. Most of the evidence comes from the Greek East. Lu-cian remarks that the inscription at the entrance forbids to enter a sanctuary further than the wash-basins, if someone has no clean hands: this presupposes hand washing as a routine act.12 At least one epigraphical purity ordinance seems to confirm this, a second century CE text from Lindos that prescribes that one should enter the shrine with clean hands and a clean mind;13 a some-what later Lindian text specifies that purity begins inside of where the wash-basins and the gates of the shrine are.14 An inscription from Western Anatolia makes the use of an ever-flowing spring in the sanctuary conditional of ones purity: only those who had not incurred pollution could get away with simply washing.15 In Rome, the ordinary formula spoken before a ritual excluded who

    11 M. Ninck, Die Bedeutung des Wassers im Kult und Leben der Alten; R. Ginouvs, Balaneutik, 375404; S. G. Cole, The uses of water in Greek sanctuaries.

    12 Lucian, De sacrificiis 13: , .

    13 Introduction to a law in Lindos, 2nd cent CE, Inscriptiones Graecae 12:1.798 (= F. Sokolowski, Lois sacres des cits grecques, no. 139) [] [][] [] [] What one needs to avoid to enter the shrine lawfully: First and foremost to have the hands and the mind clean and healthy.

    14 [] [], C. Blinkenberg and K. F. Kinch, Lindos, vol. 2, no. 487 (= F. Sokolowski, Lois sacrs des cits grecques. Supplment, no. 91), ca. 225 CE; see also L. Vidman, Sylloge Inscriptionum Religionis Isiacae et Sarapicae, no. 313 (early Imperial epoch), a dedication of wash-basins in front of the gate, , of the Sarapeum in Pergamum.

    15 H. Malay, Greek and Latin Inscriptions in the Manisa Museum 31, no. 24 (origin unknown, Imperial epoch).

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  • 104 Fritz Graf

    had no clean hands, to the extent that a grammarian could derive delubrum shrine from (de)luere to wash.16

    There was no uniform way as to deal with cases of pollution that needed more than a simple rinsing of ones hands or face; Greek inscriptions give a bewildering variety of cases, tied to specific places, times and cults.17 But the overall impression is clear: it was possible to enter a sanctuary after some minor pollution only after washing/bathing, ;18 often this was combined with a waiting time of one to several days. An inscription from a small Helle-nistic temple in Miletus gives the principle:

    ..... ] | | | | | | | |, | | |.

    To enter pure the temple of Artemis Kithone: from a death, a birthing woman and a birthing bitch after three days and a wash/bath, from the rest on the same day after washing/bathing.19

    The Greek term , to wash ones body, is ambivalent and can refer ei-, to wash ones body, is ambivalent and can refer ei-, to wash ones body, is ambivalent and can refer ei-ther to a thorough wash or a full-body bath. Only a few texts give clearer de-tails, such as , washing starting with the head in a purity law of the early Imperial Age that concerns the cult of the Anatolian god Men,20 or, in a fifth century BCE funerary law from Keos, [] [] [--- ] [] [] , the polluted will be pure after washing themselves [...] with showers of water.21 Similar customs were in use in Rome, once again not in a uniform way; again, sexuality and death were the main causes that necessitated additional purification.22 In what must be a late systematization with uncertain reality in cult, Macrobius informs us that

    16 Formula Livy 45.5.4; delubrum Cincius in Servius, Ad Vg. Aen. 2.225.17 See Th. Wchter, Die Reinheitsvorschriften im griechischen Kult; L. Moulinier, Le pur et lim-

    pur dans la pense des Grecs, d Homre Aristote; R. Parker, Miasma. Pollution and Purifica-tion in Early Greek Religion; F. Hoessly, Katharsis. Reinigung als Heilverfahren. Studien zum Ritual der archaischen und klassischen Zeit sowie zum Corpus Hippocraticum; O. Paoletti, G. Camporeale, V. Saladino, Purificazione, in: ThesCRA 2, 387.

    18 after intercourse e.g. F. Sokolowski, Lois sacres de lAsie Mineure, nos. 12.6 (Per-gamon, after 133 BCE) and 18.9 (Maeonia, 147/146 BCE); Sokolowski, Lois sacres des cits grecques, Supplment, nos. 91.17 (Lindos, 3rd cent. CE); washing only when intercourse takes place during the day, no. 115 A 12 (Kyrene, 4th cent. BCE); pork, no. 54.3 (Delos, ca. 100 BCE; Syrian Gods, i.e. an Eastern custom); other defilement Sokolowski, Lois sacres de lAsie Mi-neure, no. 52 (Miletus, end of the 1st cent. BCE).

    19 Sokolowski, Lois sacres de lAsie Mineure, 51; the missing Greek word at the very beginning is one of the two words for pure, or .

    20 Inscriptiones Graecae II2 1365 and 1366 (Athens, 1st cent. CE), after intercourse.21 Inscriptiones Graecae XII 5.593 = Sokolowski, Lois sacres des cits grecques, no. 97 A 29f.22 See the material collected in ThesCRA 2 (2004), 7172 (death); Columella 12.4.3 (inter-


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  • Baptism and Graeco-Roman Mystery Cults 105

    after pollution by death sacrifices to the Olympian gods needed a preliminary washing of the entire body, those to underworld gods only a sprinkling.23 He buttresses this observation with two passages from Vergil, but it remains unclear whether he thinks these rites of purification routinely preceded every sacrifice or were performed only after a specific case of pollution.

    However one decides this last question, it is obvious that, according to Jus-tin, the non-Christian parallels to baptism are standard pagan purification rites that preceded and conditioned the access to a sanctuary and the participation in its cult, in the same way in which baptism allowed Christians to participate in Christian cult. Surprisingly to us, Justin disregards the fact that baptism is unique whereas ritual washings recur every time one enters a sanctuary. More surprisingly still, nothing in these pagan rituals resonated with the theological meaning of the rite Justin had just exposed, total rebirth and spiritual illumi-nation.24 I thus doubt that this rather superficial parallelism is the result of Jus-tins observation: it is something that polytheist observers had noticed and were pointing out, to comfortably insert Christianity, Plinys prava superstitio, into the framework of known ritual activity, instead of accepting its self-defined uniqueness and the following urge to conversion. Justins argument that the demons imitated Christian rituals makes sense especially, if not uniquely in a situation where the Christian apologist had to refute pagan arguments levelled against the revealed uniqueness of Christian ritual.

    2. Tertullians Testimonies

    In Justins list, initiation rituals of mystery cults are irrelevant for baptism. Not that he is unaware of mystery cults that must have been prominent in his Roman environment, but he mentions them only in connection with the eucharist: in the initiation rituals of those who are introduced to the Mithraic cult ( , Apol. 1.66.4), he says, they offer bread and water to the neophyte, with some ritual formulae.25 We have to wait for Tertullian to connect baptism with mystery cults. But he too draws his parallels from a much wider range of pagan ritual activity (De baptismo 5.1):

    Sed enim nationes extraneae ab omni intellectu spiritualium potestatem eadem efficacia idolis suis subministrant. sed viduis aquis sibi mentiuntur. nam et sacris quibusdam per lavacrum initiantur, Isidis alicuius aut Mithrae; ipsos etiam deos suos lavationibus efferunt. ceterum villas, domos, templa totasque urbes aspergine

    23 Macrob. Sat. 3.1.6 constat dis superis sacra facturum corporis ablutione purgari, cum vero inferis litandum esset, satis actum videtur si aspersio sola contingat.

    24 Apol. 1.61.413.25 The pagan side of this discussion in Kelsos, ap. Origen. Adv. Cels. 6.24.

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  • 106 Fritz Graf

    circumlatae aquae expiant passim. certe ludis Apollinaribus et Pelusiis26 tinguntur idque se in regenerationem et impunitatem periurorum suorum agere praesumunt. item penes veteres quisque se homicidio infecerat, purgatrices aquas explorabat.

    Well, but the nations, who are strangers to all understanding of spiritual things, apply a power of the self-same efficacy to their idols. But they cheat themselve...


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