The Ritual Quest For Safe Conduct
( Originally Published 1916 )
From the beginning man has been a seeker after God. This quest is occasioned by a need for a right relation with God that becomes urgent in proportion as man develops a moral experience. Religion in so far as it is a human development is man's effort to meet this need.
No period of man's history is without this distinguishing feature, but perhaps no age has more keenly felt the need of a right relation with God than that which forms the background of early Christianity. It was, as we have seen, an age of political and religious disenchantment. The rapid shifting of political barriers, the breakdown of ancient religious supports, and the violent manifestations of passionate cruelty which characterised the last days of the Roman Republic, together with the increasing mobility of life tended to bring the question of moral direction to the front and set the individual on a fresh quest for God. We are about to begin the study of some of these quests. All of them were efforts to answer the question: How can a man get right with God?
At the outset, however, it will be well to define our notion of religion. Religion is man's most concentrated conception of spiritual need. It is the manifestation of an impulse which has been defined as "the effective desire to be in right relation to the Power manifesting itself in the universe." This desire is often based on different notions of deity. Man may believe in one God or in many gods he may follow superstition or spiritual revelations, but the fact of consequence is the presence from the beginning of this imperious need. The need for right relations expresses it-self in various ways, which tend to become typical and historically continuous because they indicate representative phases of spiritual experience. We shall consider in this and immediately succeeding lectures certain of these typical forms, but in the beginning it is best to form an idea of their general character.
They may be described as quests for safe con-duct.' The need for a right relation with God develops when man becomes aware of the mystery of life. He felt the mystery of his being long before he clearly thought about it, and his first response to it came through the imagination rather than the intellect. Man felt that he was dependent on a power whose presence was manifest in nature. What was this power? Was it a person, or an impersonal force? Did it think, feel, and will like a man? The natural impulse was to think of this power in such terms as to mask, if not entirely to destroy its strangeness. The easiest way of overcoming the mystery of God was to make Him in man's image, to invest Him with human attributes.
The notion of the Infinite and Eternal was a painful one for the primitive mind. It was too remote, awful and vague in that form, to satisfy human need, hence the tendency to polytheism was present from the first. Man broke up the Infinite into a number of finite parts, and by in-vesting these several parts with human attributes, he brought God within the range of the feelings and comprehension of the understanding. Man's first impulse was to find a human life in God, and when he thought he had found this, it made him very much at home in the world. This was, as Lowes Dickinson has truly observed, the distinguishing feature of Greek religion.' Among the Greeks, the gods were the first citizens of states, the founders of races and the natural protectors of peoples.
These early conceptions were elaborated in highly coloured mythologies; but in spite of the complexity and beauty of these imaginative forms, the likeness of the gods to men was never lost sight of. Their passions were human, all too human; and so long as man was able to think of the central mystery of his life in familiar terms, the need for adjustment was but vaguely felt. It was present, of course, but never burdensome. He was very much at home in the world because God was altogether like himself.
But the moral sense grew with man's growth. Enlightenment developed conscience, and man began to feel the spur of instinctive morality. This developed into a critical tendency which operated in two directions. On the one hand man became sceptical of his gods, on the other hand he began to question his religious status. He could neither satisfy his conscience, nor be at home in the world. He was haunted by a feeling of not being right before God, and a fresh quest for a right relation with the Power manifesting itself in the universe became imperative.
Unable any longer to be at home in the world he becomes aware of the need for moral guidance, and begins to think of religion as an expedient in the way of safe conduct through the world. His problem is a very simple one : How can he get through this world with credit and safety? The answer to this question takes various forms. Some-times it is expressed in ritual performances, at other times in ethical speculations. In the case of the Jew it took the form of obedience to a revealed law. These methods of adjustment reduce them-selves to type; they begin to make history and can be isolated and studied in detail. They are of immense value in understanding man's religious conceptions because they express certain persistent phases of spiritual experience.
All these methods of adjustment were current in the Graeco-Roman world when Christianity began its westward movement. From Egypt and the East came the most attractive ritualistic religions, from Greece the most important ethical conceptions, and from Palestine the religion of revelation; and each exercised a remarkable influence over the peoples to whom the gospel was preached.
The influence of these several forms of religious teaching was due to the fact that the age acutely realised the need for safe conduct. Man felt that he had a clear title to his sins. Moral sensibility made him aware of the lack of harmony between his experience and the mysterious Being whose power was manifest in the universe. The question of right relation was fundamental. Man wanted moral security and spiritual certitude. He was quite impatient with vague and inchoate notions of religion and demanded a concrete and definite transaction with the Deity. This explains the syncretic tendency of the time, which is, as we shall see, strikingly reflected in the writings of Cicero.
The problem of safe conduct was urgent for a very simple reason. A man may be very well content with his religious status so long as he is not obliged to think about it. But if events force him to reflect he may become dissatisfied with it, and when this takes place he will lose confidence in his status. In other words reflection of any kind is apt to reopen the question of safe conduct. It is not necessary to prove that a view of religion is false ; it is only necessary seriously to question it. Now the passion for certitude in religious matters which characterised this age was met on every side by a questioning spirit. The age wanted to believe in something because it wanted peace ; but it could not escape the pains of doubt. That is why the period of the Advent was one of passion-ate religious inquiry. The Graeco-Roman world was in quest of safe conduct and at the same time sceptical of familiar ways of salvation. The old Roman gods were either dead or inactive. They could no longer satisfy the yearning for peace and security which characterised the age; still men felt that an answer to their main question could be found. They were ready to listen to any prophet or any gospel. They were willing to examine any kind of religion, and what is even more significant, they were busy constructing new religions out of ancient faiths and philosophies. The syncretic tendency of the time shows this. One cult would borrow from another, and each sought the best elements in current faiths.
When Paul carried the gospel into the gentile world there were three persistent forms of spiritual experience exercising a mighty influence over the people: salvation by ritual, salvation by ethics, and salvation by legal obedience to a revealed law. The first was represented by the Oriental mystery religions, the second by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophies, and the third by Judaism.
These conceptions were by many questioned, and by some found inadequate. For one thing they were old. Each had a past which could not be lived down. The old Roman religion was still devoutly followed in rural communities, but it had little save a political influence in the centres of population. As a religious movement the Augustan revival was a failure from the start. The Oriental cults were immensely popular with the masses but they had little significance for serious-minded intellectuals. These as a rule sought consolation in philosophy and ethical speculation. They confessed the inadequacy of theory, and felt the need for a "virtue-making power." Many of them were trying to live in harmony with the ex-ample of some ancient philosopher. Judaism, of course, had powerful adherents, even among gentiles. The presence among the latter of God-fearers is an evidence of the superiority of Judaism over other cults; still the eagerness with which they embraced Christianity shows the drift of the times. The ethical monotheism of the Jew of the dispersion made the question of a right relation with God very urgent, but the sense of morality which it created tended to cast suspicion on ceremonial methods of all kinds.
The truth is the moral sense of the age was running far in advance of its religious supports. Conscience was driving men into a blind alley. Political and social changes made the need of moral guidance painfully evident, but a satisfactory moral dynamic was not forthcoming.
Into this welter of faith and doubt, of insistent need and painful questioning, came the new religion. Could Christianity answer the great question and set man right with God? Could it afford humanity an undisputed status before the Most High? This interest in religion gave Paul and his associates a peculiar opportunity. The world was in a sense prepared for Christianity. We must not suppose, however, that the religious interest of the time was a self-conscious and deliberately intelligent effort to criticise, examine, reject, or accept any religion. What was present in this age was a tendency. People felt that the old notions would not do; they were haunted by a sense of moral insecurity. Religion as commonly understood was degraded into a feeling of nervousness—an unreasoning dread of gods and daemons. They were very uncertain about the future. This feeling had an immense power for tormenting people simply because it was vague and inchoate. Dread was in the air, like a poisonous atmosphere. Men questioned the next step. The need for a clear and explicit way of life was paramount.
This vague sense of need is responsible in part for the early descriptions of the Christian community. Before the idea of the church took definite shape, the disciples of Christ were called the people of the way. They moved through the world with such confidence and precision that people were inclined to ask them the reason for the hope that was in them, and they could only reply: "We have sanctified Christ in our hearts as Lord.
The gospel was the way of life. It is also responsible for certain things in Paul's epistles, as when he discusses Greek philosophy with the Corinthians, the tyranny of elemental spirits with the Colossians, or elaborates the great doctrines of the faith in the letter to the Romans. By natural endowment and spiritual experience Paul was fitted to apprehend what the gentile world needed. He gave his teaching a form that would make it intelligible to that restless and unstable age.
Before, however, we begin the study of how the background influenced Christian teaching we must consider in detail the characteristic forms of spiritual experience manifested by certain quests for safe conduct then current in the Grćco-Roman world. We must try to understand why these methods of salvation were being questioned at the beginning of the Christian era.
The first of these ways is the ritual quest for safe conduct. The impulse to get right with God by means of ceremonial performances is the oldest religious quest of mankind. The belief that by means of external observances man can lay the Eternal under tribute is deeply rooted in human nature. Salvation by ritual is the religion of the natural man, simply because it is the one phase of religious experience that has no necessary connection with morality. If one believe in the absolute efficacy of external performances he will be under no obligation to think of religion as a sanction for morals. A strictly ritualistic notion ordinarily stifles the ethical impulse. It intoxicates the senses, exploits the emotions, debauches the imagination, and, by putting the conscience to sleep, enables man to make the best of both worlds. For this reason ritual has always been popular with the masses. The aptitude of primitive man for religion conceived as a mythology was far in excess of his aptitude for material comfort. Long before he had learned how to make adequate pro-vision for his physical necessities he had elaborated a scheme of worship highly ritualistic in character. A ritualistic religion cannot create moral sanctions. What usually happens is that the moral sense develops independently and then turns round upon the ritual and transforms it ethically. This was the conspicuous service rendered to Greek religion by the sophists of the fifth century B. C.
The immense popularity of ritual forms makes a study of this phase of religious experience very important. The ritual quest for safe conduct was represented in the Groeco-Roman world by the mystery religions, which came for the most part from the East. A study of some of these cults is necessary if we are to understand the religious situation confronting the gospel during the west-ward movement of Christianity. Such a study will show how they prepared the way for Christianity, not only because they intensified the need for guidance, but also because of their signal failure to furnish it.
It is difficult for us, who are accustomed to think of religion in terms of an absolute moral imperative, to estimate the power of ritual in the religion of the ancient world. It was powerful in two directions : on the one hand it captured the imagination by its splendid appeals to the senses. Even so confirmed a sceptic as Lucretius confessed that he was powerfully impressed by the ritual of Magna Mater. On the other hand ritual' had an immense influence on the spirit of the devotee. It silenced the questioning of the mind and tranquillised the heart by the realistic precision of its modes of worship. The performance of ritual seemed to accomplish a reconciliation with the gods in a visible way.
In order to appreciate the power of such appeals, let us suppose that you were convinced that you would never be able to provide a reasonable competence for your old age; and you were assured if you would memorise and recite each 4th of July the Declaration of Independence before an officer of the United States provided for that purpose, that the government would assume entire responsibility for your future, you would have no difficulty in accepting this proposition. And this was the sort of promise made by these Oriental cults. As Cumont observes, "if a Divinity was invoked according to the correct forms, especially if one knew how to pronounce its real name, it was compelled to act in conformity to the will of its priest. The sacred words were an incantation that compelled the superior powers to obey the officiating person, no matter what purpose he had in view. With the knowledge of the liturgy men acquired an immense power over the world of spirits."
These promises were always associated with splendid appeals to the senses. Naturally they had a powerful hold on the masses and this taken together with the fact that the cults began to spread at a time of political and religious unrest easily accounts for their popularity.
We must keep steadily in mind the material fact that these cults were able to produce the most satisfactory sort of impression on the spirit of the worshipper. It is easy to suggest their inadequacy. But this is quite immaterial. The fact is these cults were healing and consoling influences in a profoundly distressed age, and some knowledge of them is required if we are to understand the forces of life and opinion that came in contact with the gospel.
The study of these religions is very difficult for two reasons : first, because we know next to nothing about their rituals, and secondly, because the syncretic tendency was present from the be-ginning. The interpretation of a mystery cult depends for the most part on some knowledge of its ritual. Its essential meaning is not expressed in a theology, but in forms of worship. And we know little of the ritual because it was performed in secret. It was open to the initiate only, and rarely came to the knowledge of contemporary writers. There is a little in Plutarch; we have a romantic account of the ritual of Isis in the writings of Apuleius; Lucian tells us something of the ritual of the Syrian Goddess, but these notices are of little value in forming an opinion of their nature in the early decades of the first century. Furthermore these cults were subject to the syncretic tendency. They borrow, modify and transform whatever is to their liking. They constantly react on each other. The powerful ethical criticism of the time was forcing the pagan theologians to disavow or disguise much that was gross and repellent. They often clothed their teachings in the best and most popular forms of other religions. The result is that the religious conceptions of the early part of the first century lack distinctness. Still it is possible to consider these cults in a general way. We shall confine our attention, however, to the mystery religions which came to Rome from the' Orient, since their influence best illustrates the ritual quest for God.
There were at least four Eastern religions besides Judaism current in the Roman empire. These religions were: the Cybele-Attis cult which came from Phrygia; certain Syrian nature cults which were tending towards monotheism; the Isis-Serapis cult which came from Egypt, and last and greatest of them all, the cult of Mithra. It has been clearly shown that Mithra had little influence in the empire until the second century of our era. Such scholars as Cumont, Kennedy, Clemen, Dill,' Schweitzer, and Harnack, agree that it came late to Rome. Pompey, if we are to believe Plutarch, found traces of Mithra among the Cilician pirates in the first century B. C.; the cult was probably known to the foreign legionary in the provinces long before it reached Rome; but there is no reliable evidence that Mithra had an important influence on the religious situation until the second century, and for this reason it has no place in our inquiry. We shall limit ourselves to the religions known to have had an influence on current opinion at the beginning of the Christian era.
The religious notions of the pagan Semites were propagated in the early empire by the Syrian merchant and slave. These were nature cults that originated in the worship of the vital principle. In the beginning they were gross and materialistic; but while the Egyptian was never quite successful in raising his gods above the dust, the Syrian finally lifted his conception of deity to the high heavens. As Cumont, our chief authority, has pointed out, as these nature myths came under the influence of astrology, the notion of deity they symbolised was refined and exalted until it took the form of a God beyond the stars, whose dwelling place was the high heavens, in short, a God Almighty. Thus these Syrian cults, of little value otherwise, assisted other religions in exalting their gods, and aided in the spread of monotheism particularly among the peoples not influenced by Judaism.
The Phrygian religion was a nature cult also. Cybele was the mother of all things, the goddess of nature and especially of wild nature. She was the seat of the vital principle, giving the seasons and the harvests, sending the storm and the rain, and ruling over the changing year. Early in her history she is associated with a strange creature, called Attis, who figures as her consort,. In the beginning it is a tale of vulgar passion and self-mutilation; but Attis slowly evolves into a symbol of the changing seasons, and finally becomes a dying and reviving god. The cult was served by mutilated priests, and its worship was a wild frenzy very like that of the cult of Dionysus in ancient Greece.
This Eastern religion came to Rome in 204 B. C. under very interesting circumstances. The crisis occasioned by the Second Punic War compelled the Romans to consult the Sibyls, and as a measure of state policy they advised the introduction of a new religion. They even went so far as to suggest the propriety of bringing the Great Mother to Rome. Acting on this suggestion the Romans sent an embassy to Phrygia, and Cybele, symbolised by an old black stone, was brought in splendid state to assume her sway over the city of the seven hills. The stone was deposited in the Temple of Victory on the Palatine April 4th, and this day was made a festival. The Romans, being especially anxious to preserve the foreign character of the cult, gave the festival a Greek name, "the Megalesia." Thirteen years later a temple was dedicated to the Great Mother but for many years the Romans were forbidden by senatorial enactment to take any part in her worship." In spite of this Cybele flourished. Her worship was highly offensive to Roman taste and it remained a religion of a foreign minority until the ,empire, when it rapidly grew in influence. It retained its hold until the fourth century when it was finally absorbed into the cult of Mithra. The Romans despised the mutilated priests but were powerfully influenced by the worship. Magna Mater was very attractive to women. She had no theology, gave unrestrained expression to the emotions and depended entirely on her frenzied forms of worship.
The cult of Isis-Serapis came to Rome from Alexandria a century before the Christian era. This syncretic religion was devised by the Ptolemies as a political expedient. It was an effort to merge the Egyptian cult of Isis-Osiris with popular Greek conceptions for the purpose of welding together the foreign subjects of the empire. It is likely that the Eleusinian and Orphie mysteries had something to do with this trans-formation. This cult, like that of Magna Mater, remained a religion of a foreign minority until the empire, after which, in spite of repeated efforts to suppress it, it gained a vast influence in Rome, especially among women. Osiris, like Attis, was a dying and reviving god, but the chief contribution of Isis was her tremendous emphasis of ritual,
All these cults had many gross elements. Their frenzied forms of worship were offensive to the Roman sense of decorum. They had, and this must be kept steadily in mind, little or no connection with morality. But in spite of obvious limitations they propagated certain religious conceptions hitherto foreign to the Roman temperament, which were not only attractive to the people but of great utility in the spread of Christianity. Their wide influence shows the drift of the times. The people were looking for certain things in religion and they found them in these cults. What were some of these things? If we know this we can understand the sort of religion the age was prepared to accept.
The mystery religions emphasised the idea of personal immortality. To the disillusioned Roman, burdened with a sense of existence in a world of political and social disorder, aware of the futility of philosophy and no longer able to believe in the pale abstractions of the native religion, the appeal of these warm, sensuous cults of the East was almost irresistible. He was offended by the frenzied worship, he despised the effeminate and mutilated priests, but he was powerfully impressed by their splendid promises. They offered union with the life of the gods through certain visible and compelling sacraments. To observe a ceremony or submit to a purification conferred a lasting benefit. They used ritual performances with great skill and effectiveness. The initiate always had a definite transaction with deity; something invariably happened to him; the ritual never failed. Ceremonial brought the worshipper into direct contact with divinity and he became an enthusiast—a man full of the gods. It was natural that the starved imagination of the people should welcome the splendid ceremonial of the East in place of the cold and repulsive abstractions of the old Roman religion.
These cults were served by a non-secular priesthood, a new thing in those days. A priest of the Roman religion was an officer of the state, and religious observances were parts of public duty. The new cults by comparison familiarised the people with the idea of a personal and non-political religion. The temples of the native religion were government buildings : units of a political organisation; the new cults were directed by ministers whose only function was religious and the ritual was performed in an open church. The temples were open at all times ; there were daily services and the gods were always accessible. The opportunity of taking part at all times in religious services would naturally appeal to a people whose notions of worship had hitherto been limited to state ceremonials.
We cannot overestimate the attraction of the open churches and the non-secular clergy. The old Roman religion at its very best was a cold, abstract sort of thing. It was a state religion rather than a religion for the individual. Its religious books were as dry as law reports while its conception of decorum was not calculated to appeal very strongly to the emotions. It made little use of the imagination and deliberately discouraged enthusiasm. The new cults on the other hand were warm, sensuous, and passionate. They deliberately appealed to the emotions, and exploited the imagination. They were personal religions adjusted to individual need. Worship was not an affair of political duty but an invariable ex-pression of personal preference. Such an appeal was calculated to meet the craving of the time for a larger expression of individuality. Men were acutely conscious of personal needs, they were looking for a personal religion. They wanted (and who can blame them) a religion adjusted to the emergencies of every day life; and the open church, the daily services, and the non-secular clergy met the need for the time being in a very satisfactory way.
These cults also provided a new conception of social relationships. Under the old régime the ordinary basis of fellowship was the family, the clan, and the city-state. Worshippers of national deities were never free from a feeling of isolation. The people were kept apart by a rigid caste system. The Romans, especially in that unstable time, were suspicious of all voluntary associations that were not in accord with established custom. But the city-state with its exclusive solidarity was gone. The world was adrift on the tide of empire and cosmopolitanism made men lonely. It aroused while it could not satisfy their social instincts. The freedmen, rapidly rising in wealth, culture and independence, demanded a new basis for social fellowship, a bond more in harmony with individual necessity. The new cults were peculiarly fitted to meet this need. They were essentially social and democratic. They expressed the feeling of John Wesley that "people should go to heaven in companies and not one by one." All men, without regard to their previous condition, became brothers in the temples of the gods. Master and man, freedman and slave found themselves associated on terms of equality in the daily worship. The brotherhood had a community supper which symbolised this new relationship. By placing a new value on the individual, by opening avenues of escape from the loneliness of the time, these new religions were able to satisfy the social hunger that was then everywhere evident in the organisation of guilds and fellowships, burial societies and fraternities of various sorts: ostensibly founded on business or economic interests, but in reality manifesting the longing for relationships of a social kind more in harmony with individual need. By turning social passion into religious channels these cults made it easier to form Christian communities among peoples already familiar with the form and desirability of such associations.
For an interesting account of the social passion of the age, see Dill: "Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius," Book II, Chapter 3.
These cults were called mystery religions because they had secret rites and esoteric doctrines. The elaborate ceremony of initiation was calculated to arouse the curiosity and eventually to develop the latent mysticism of the time into a powerful spiritual influence.
It must not be forgotten that these cults had little or no connection with morality. They were sacramental religions rather than moral dynamics, and quite indulgent of human frailty. This was particularly true of the cult of Isis. She was, as Cumont truly observes, "honoured especially by the women with whom love was a profession" and her temples were often scenes of disgraceful intrigue. Still the power of these religions was great. They maintained their influence in the face of persecution, and devotees were sometimes capable of martyrdom. They were capable of giving peace and consolation to a melancholy age. It was faith in the absolute efficacy of ritual performances that reconciled the orderly Roman to the orgiastic genuflections of Cybele's eunuch priests. It was faith in her power to save that prompted proud Roman matrons to bathe in the chilly Tiber in winter, or walk round the temple of Isis on their bleeding knees. Satirists like Juvenal might scoff at these things, but it matters little. Many poor disillusioned people found in the service of these strange Eastern religions a peace and consolation they could not obtain from the old native faith.
The popularity of these cults taken together with their history is a supreme example of the success and failure of a ritualistic religion. Ritual is powerful so long as conscience is dormant, but once rouse the moral sense and it will turn upon ritual and either reject it entirely or modify it so as to destroy its original form. This process of transformation was undoubtedly going on as early as the first century. Parallel with the spread of these cults was a growing ethical movement rep-resented by certain philosophies, particularly Stoicism. No religion, least of all such cults as these, can withstand the transforming criticism of ethics, and it was a regnant morality that gradually undermined their influence.
This came about partly through syncretism, and partly by supersession. In the fourth century of our era paganism was transformed and confronted Christianity in the religion of Mithra, but Mithra finally yielded to the Man of Galilee. In the early decades of the first century, however, the influence of ethics is represented by a tendency to borrow ideas and practices from other religions, and the effort to bring conduct into conformity with moral requirements.
The conflict between ritual and ethics may be illustrated by a consideration of the question of origins. How would these cults appear when contrasted with a religion like Christianity?
A fourth century impression of the conflict between ethics and ritual is thus summed up by Cumont : "Never was the lack of harmony greater between the moralising tendencies of theologians and the cruel shamelessness of tradition. A god held up as the august lord of the universe was the pitiful and abject hero of an obscene love affair. The men of letters and senators at-tending those mysteries saw them performed by painted eunuchs, ill reputed for their infamous morals, who went through dizzy dances similar to those of the dancing dervishes. We can imagine the repugnance these ceremonies caused in everybody whose judgment had not been destroyed by a fanatical devotion."
But the disposition to bring tradition to the test of ethics was very powerful even in the first century. The moral character of the priests was severely condemned by Petronius and Juvenal. A century later the devotees of these cults did not escape the scorn of Lucian and Apuleius. And if one were disposed to follow the tradition of Attis or Osiris to its source one came upon coarse nature myths, and the portentous figures which bulked so largely in the imagination even of the first century turned out to be symbols only. It was far otherwise with the Christian tradition. Trace this to its origin and you come upon the historic figure of Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God, abounding in good works; holy, harmless, and undefiled, separate from sinners. It was the tremendous contrast between a Person of historic reality, and a series of myths and symbols rising out of the superstitions of the past that finally discredited the mystery religions and led to the triumph of the church.
It was the demand for an historic basis for religious tradition that inspired the writing of the gospels. The church on gentile soil had no religious books except the Greek version of the Old Testament and occasional letters to individual communities. Christians depended in the beginning on oral tradition. They received Jesus Christ as their Saviour upon the testimony of the Apostles. But so soon as Christianity came into contact with other cults the question was bound to rise: Did the glorious Saviour of Apostolic preaching have a beginning in history? Was He a real Personality, or was He like Cybele or Isis, a myth also? Was Christ a symbol of-God, or God manifest in the flesh? In some respects the real problem of the Apostles in dealing with gentiles was not to convince them that Jesus was God, but to prove the reality of His human and earthly life. They were obliged to show that Jesus was an historic Person. In response to this need the first gospels were written. We cannot easily measure the power of these simple narratives—the art-less simplicity of Mark, or the gracious human-ism of Luke—in affording historical realism to a glorious tradition. Back of Apostolic preaching was this historic Personality, the life, death and resurrection of the world's Redeemer; and as this preaching created and sustained the purest form of morality consecrated as it was by faith in the Divine Master, it was inevitable that the age should realise that a new and distinct power had come into the world.
It is true that the Oriental mystery religions aided in the spread of ideas favourable to Christianity. They made the Romans familiar with such notions as immortality, salvation, purification, redemption, a non-secular clergy, an open church, a brotherhood based on religious relation-ships, in short with the conception of personal religion. But the difference between Christianity and these cults was fundamental. At bottom it was an ethical difference.
In regard to this difference the conclusions of Prof. Fowler are very convincing. After showing in his masterly treatment of "The Religious Experience of the Roman People" how far the old Roman religion as well as these Eastern cults had aided in the spread of ideas favourable to the new faith, he says: "All this taken together, so far from explaining Christianity, does not help us much in getting to understand even the conditions under which it grew into men's minds as a new power in the life of the world. The plant, though grown in soil which had borne other crops, was wholly new in structure and vital principle. I say this deliberately after spending so many years on the study of the religion of the Romans, and making myself acquainted in some measure with the religions of other peoples. The essential difference, as it appears to me, as a student of the history of religion, is this: that, whereas, the connection between religion and morality had so far been a loose one at Rome, indeed, so loose, that many have refused to believe in its existence, the new religion was itself morality, but morality consecrated and raised to a higher power than it had ever yet reached. I confess that I never realised this contrast fully or intelligently until I read through the Pauline epistles from beginning to end with a special historical object in view. It is useful to be familiar with the life and literature of the two preceding centuries, if only to be able the better to realise in passing to St. Paul, a Roman citizen, a man of education and experience, the great gulf fixed between the old and the new, as he himself saw it."
This impressive statement confirms the judgment of an earlier scholar who says that when "the attention of a thinking heathen was directed to the new religion spreading in the Roman empire, the first thing to strike him as extraordinary would be that a religion of prayer was superseding the religion of ceremonies and invocation of gods."
But these Oriental cults came under the influence of ethical criticism before they were brought into contact with Christianity. Salvation by ritual was confronted with salvation by ethics. This brings us to the ethical quest for safe conduct, to which we shall turn our attention in the next lecture.