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flourished both within and without Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sometimes tolerated and sometimes suppressed.

Whether or not Esotericism should be counted as a separate religion, there is no doubt but that it is a coherent tradition. The unifying factor is Gnosticism, an inchoate, unorganized religious phenomenon of Hellenistic origins, specifically in Alexandria, Egypt during the centuries just before and after the beginning of the Christian Era. Many Gnostics were Jews and others Christians. There was also a pagan Gnostic tradition, mostly known from the Corpus Hermeticum.

Hans Jonas in The Gnostic Religion suggests that the roots of Gnosticism lay in Greek rationalism, an apparent paradox. “The enthronement of reason as the highest part in man had led to the discovery of man as such, and at the same time to the conception of the Hellenic way as a general humanistic culture. The last step on this road was taken when the Stoics later advanced the proposition that freedom, that highest good of Hellenic ethics, is a purely inner quality not dependent on external conditions so that true freedom may be found in a slave.”

In the Hellenistic/Roman world of the early centuries of the Christian Era, syncretism had transformed paganism. In the cities, at least, it was no longer a folk religion. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which for some had the authority of holy writ, indicated that a person had ψυκή (psyche or soul). The virtuous went to the Elysian Fields after death, to paradise. This belief was widespread among pagans during the early years of Christianity. Plato taught a doctrine of immortality that was widely believed. Those who underwent initiation in the Dionysian cult, and the mystery religions such as Cybele and Attis, and Isis and Serapis, believed that they had been born again, as did adherents of Mithraism. More than a little of the imagery adopted by Christians in later centuries was derived from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the hero descended into the realm of the dead. The wicked suffered eternal agony in Tartarus, but the virtuous, like his deceased father, were in the Elysian Fields. However, from there his father was reborn into this world again to become the founder of Rome. This was a principal difference between pagans and Christians. The former often believed in reincarnation; Christians believed in the resurrection of the body in the last days and in life everlasting thereafter. The vast majority of people were highly superstitious, including members of the educated elites. There were a multiplicity of deities and other supernatural powers, and many alleged miracle workers, visionaries, and healers among the pagans. Many of these magicians were no doubt fakes. Christian wonder-workers were by no means unique.

In brief, the vast majority of the people in the ancient world lived in terms of what today would be called occultism and the esoteric. This was indeed the substance of nearly all the contemporary religions. There is much discussion of this in the Christian Apologetics. Ephesus, a great religious center devoted to the Hellenic goddess Artemis, was a prime example. In the Book of Acts we read that John the Apostle entered this temple and prayed:

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