I’ve been writing a fair amount about the mythological parallels between Christianity and previous religions, but I haven’t written much about how this relates to values. Christians could argue that the mythological similarities are just superficial details. It is true that details are just details and in some ways Christians did put those details together in a new way. Then again, so has every other religion. Despite literalist Christians insistence on worshipping a particular narrative, a story is still just a story. What actually matters is the values out of which the story formed.
There are several traditions that influenced Christian moral and theological beliefs. I went into great detail about Augustine who was influenced by Gnosticism, NeoPlatonism, and Stoicism among other traditions.
Many Gnostics had an ascetic attitude towards the material world and the body. The Christian mistrust of sexuality is based in this. Also, this is part of the Hellenistic atmosphere in general. Egyptian and Greek philosophy had elements of dualism. NeoPlatonism gave Christianity its love for higher truth and reality where God is absolute, but also NeoPlatonism offered the hope of an intuitive knowing, a faith that God would reveal himself. Stoicism in particular lent an ascetic bent to Christianity with its ethics of Natural Law (which is particularly important as modern Democracy is built upon it). Zoroastrianism created the extreme dualism of dark and light, good and evil; and this emphasized God as being in polar opposition to evil. This was conceived as a battle for souls where God was fated to win.
This metaphor of light and dark was part of the solar theology that had become popular prior to the common era. Egypt had a major hand in popularizing solar theology which portrayed God as being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. God according to solar theology was both far away and yet close like the sun and sunlight. God was present to his believers and responsive to their prayers. God was in the world as light shines in the dark and yet above the world unsullied by the material realm. Egyptian religion also made the distinction between God who created the sun and the sun itself as the solar disk. God was the spiritual light that could be experienced within.
Along with Judaism, all of these traditions had concepts of monotheism or monism. Egyptian religion is the earliest known example of monotheism.
Another element is savior theology which was very popular in all cultures at the time. These saviors were conqurerors of evil. They were teachers, healers and miracle workers. They offered themselves as examples to live by and they acted as guides, as mediators, as shephards. As godmen, they stood between earth and heaven. They were personally accessible to prayers and they acted as guardians. Saviors are resurrection deities that provide the pathway of rebirth for their followers. As tradition says of Jesus, some of these saviors even go down into the underworld before ascending.
Related to saviors, were their virgin mothers. Godmen tended to have strange conceptions and births. The concept of their mothers being virgins doesn’t make sense rationally or scientifically, but it symbolizes deep archetypal truths. These virgin mothers are fertility deities (even when made into historical figures). As such, they are virgins because their fertility is eternal and infinite, their purity and goodness is inviolable. They are the source out of which all life emerges. The birth of the savior is the birth of us all. The savior is similar to the first man, and this is why Jesus is called the Second Adam. Death had been brought into the world at an earlier time, and the savior comes to defeat death. Without the Goddess, the God couldn’t manifest in order to accomplish this. The Goddess gives form. The Virgin Mary gave Jesus his body, and when Jesus was placed into the womb of the cave his spiritual body was given form.
The name Mary has its most likely etymological origin in the Egyptian epithet of meri which means ‘beloved’ (Re: Meri, Mary and the Mother of the Saviour). This epithet could apply to any god or goddess, but Isis became increasingly popular. By Roman times, shrines and temples of her were found widely to the very borders of the Empire and beyond. The image of Isis nursing Horus is also the most likely prototype of the image of Mary nursing Jesus. To this day, some of the Black Madonnas worshipped in Europe were originally Isis statues. The importance of this meri epithet is that it represented an ideal of love. In earlier Egyptian culture, love was something given by a superior to a subordinate. This was the relationship of the worshipper to an Emperor or to a god. Sometime around the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BCE), the understanding of love changed. Love became an ideal of equality. A god didn’t just offer love but also received love. The believer could join their god in a relationship of love.
This seems related to the Axial Age (800 to 200 BCE). Some common traits of the Axial Age religious traditions: a quest for human meaning, reverence for the human worth of individuals, establishment of a compassionate moral code, idealization of an absolute and eternal reality beyond the mind and senses, development of a spiritual elite and travelling scholars, questioning gender roles in particular in terms of Patriarchy, and a challenging of authority. The latter is interesting because of the ideal within Christianity of martyrdom, but Christianity was a later emergence of Axial Age principles. Christianity inherited its martyrdom tradition from the Stoics who challenged authority in the hopes of being persecuted. Also, in challenging authority, Axial Age prophets challenged the rulling religious dogma which included the gods and the conceptions of the gods. This led to a popularization of monotheism and monism, but it also led to the first signs of atheist philosophy. Also, allegorical thinking was developed. Stories and personifications were symbols of a higher truth, but were deceiving and even idolatrous if taken literally.
As you can see, Christian moral ideals and understandings didn’t arise within a vacuum. Just like every mythological motif, the cherished values of Christianity preceeded Christianity.
One thought on “Origins of Christian Values”
I thought of one other pre-Christian aspect to Christian values.
Some fundamentalists, when you disagree with them, will tell you that you’re going to hell. Despite the silly notion of such a fundamentalist who believes God agrees with them about everything, the basic idea is that in the afterlife we will be judged. I’ve read that Christians got this idea from the Egyptians.
The Christian afterlife seemed to have been strongly by Egyptian religion… in particular the hope of immortal life along with bodily resurrection. Judaism lacked a coherent and agreed upon theology about the afterlife.