I finished Helmut Koester's History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age. I have three items.
1. I found something that Koester says on pages 362-363 to be interesting.
Koester says that ancient Roman religion usually viewed their deities
as "abstract powers rather than as anthropomorphic divine persons", but
Etruscan and Greek influence led the Romans to personalize their deities
a little more and to introduce cultic statues.
2. A few
posts ago, I discussed the notion of a divine king in Hellenism, and I
said that Koester presents examples of such a concept occurring in
imperial Rome, as well. In my latest reading, however, Koester presents
more nuance to that picture. He discusses the ambivalence that
Rome had towards regarding its rulers as gods. Whereas Greeks regarded
their rulers as epiphanies of a deity, the Romans "worshiped
transcendent powers which, under special circumstances, might become
active in exceptional human beings" (page 367). Koester also
states that it's unclear whether the emperor cult of Augustus worshiped
Augustus as a god or rather his genius, or protective deity.
Koester is clear that some Romans were less shy about declaring
themselves to be gods. Mark Antony and Caligula did so, and there were
cases in which such occurred amidst controversy. But other Roman
rulers, such as Julius Caesar and Tiberias, were more reluctant to be
3. Koester discusses the cult of Mithras, an
eastern mystery religion. According to Koester, "Mithras was received
by the Romans without resistance and, at the end of [the third century]
CE, he even became the official god of the Roman state" (page 372).
Mithras was venerated by Parthians in the Hellenistic Period, but
Koester denies that it was a mystery religion at that point. He thinks
that it became a mystery religion when it migrated "to the west at the
beginning of the Roman imperial period" (page 372).
initiated men, and it primarily attracted soldiers, sailors, and
merchants. The "cult legend" of Mithras goes like this: Mithras was
born on a rock on December 25, and shepherds brought him gifts. Mithras
kills a bull, and its blood and semen bring new life, "but a snake
tries to drink the blood and a scorpion poisons the semen" (page 373).
The sun, moon, planets, and four winds behold the sacrifice, and Mithras
eats the bull's meat and blood with the sun (the god Helios/Sol) as
part of a covenant ceremony. According to Koester, Sol then "kneels
before Mithras, receives the accolade, and they shake hands" (page
373). In terms of the Mithraic ceremony, an initiate was reborn and
became a soldier of Mithras, and "The highest step of the initiations
was to be identified with the sun (Sol)" (page 373).
I thought it
was important for me to pay attention to what Koester says about
Mithraism because of the popular debates over whether Christianity
plagiarized its ideas from Mithraism. A number of skeptics say "yes",
whereas many Christian apologists retort that Christianity developed
before Mithraism became popular. Koester's chronology (if I'm
understanding it correctly) appears to assume that Mithraism became part
of Rome in the early days of the imperial period, which (if I'm not
mistaken) is when Christianity developed. At the same time, there are
similarities and differences between Christianity and Mithraism.
Similarities include the notion of rebirth, eating flesh and blood, and
shepherds visiting a prominent person at his birth. The difference is
that Mithras kills a bull, whereas Jesus does not. Plus, the Mithras
story appears to have more fantasy elements (if you will) than the Jesus
stories, which are provided with more of a historical setting.