Side-by-side Roman and Christian monuments attest to the interaction of Christianity and early Mediterranean religions.
Side-by-side Roman and Christian monuments attest to the interaction of Christianity and early Mediterranean religions.

The religious culture of the ancient Mediterranean was exceptionally diverse, and some of the beliefs and practices that are today associated primarily with Christianity were, in fact, also present within early Mediterranean religious traditions. Whether Christianity borrowed directly from these traditions or whether it was simply influenced by the themes that pervaded the religious world at the time, definite similarities exist between Christianity and early Mediterranean religions from Greece to Egypt and from philosophical schools to imperial cults.

The Cult of Asclepius

Similar to Jesus, the Greek god Asclepius was said to be the son of a god and a mortal -- in this case, Apollo and Coronis. He, too, died a mortal death but was then transformed into a healing god. Shrines and temples devoted to Asclepius were found throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The sick would travel great distances to the shrine and spend the night in a special area with the hope of being healed by a visit from Asclepius in their dreams. Inscriptions at the shrines contain testimonials from those who reported being healed upon awakening.

As Christianity developed, saints began to take on a similar healing role in Christian worship, and shrines of the saints were sometimes established on or near former shrines of Asclepius. There, practitioners continued to claim miraculous healings, this time ascribed to the power of the Christian God and the saints.

Isis-Osiris-Horus Myth

Other religious stories share similarities with the New Testament descriptions of Jesus, most notably the story of Isis, Osiris and Horus. According to Egyptian tradition, Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his rival, Seth. Osiris' companion, Isis, gathered his body parts and brought him back to life by breathing into his reconstructed body. Together they had a son, Horus, who remained a god, while Osiris returned to the underworld. Artistic depictions of Isis and Horus often show Horus as a baby at Isis' breast. Later portrayals of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus employed similar imagery, while the resurrection of Osiris contains obvious -- but superficial -- similarities to the resurrection of Christ.

It is important to note that neither this myth nor the story of Asclepius indicate a direct reliance of Christianity upon these earlier traditions. Rather, they demonstrate common themes found throughout the Mediterranean religious world and Christianity's location within this context.

Philosophy as Religion - Stoicism

In the ancient world, philosophy encompassed a worldview that today might be closer to what we think of as a religion. Stoicism emerged in Greece in the third century B.C. Among other things, the Stoics were concerned with the question of how suffering could exist if caring gods also existed. They concluded that there was a divine principle -- Logos -- that controlled all destiny; therefore, everything that happened served a divine purpose. This belief led to a separation from the material world in favor of concern for the cosmic world. While some Christian writers would later reject Stoicism as an inappropriate philosophy, some of the language used by Stoic thinkers can be found in New Testament texts, particularly the writings of Paul. Additionally, a similar rejection of the body and the material world can be seen in some early Christian ascetic communities.

Emperor Augustus

Augustus emerged as the first Roman Emperor after over a decade of civil war following the assassination of his uncle, Julius Caesar. After Caesar was posthumously elevated to the position of a god, Augustus legitimized his position as the rightful ruler of Rome by adopting the title "divi filius," meaning "son of a god." As a result, Romans constructed temples dedicated to the worship of the emperor and his family throughout the Mediterranean. Augustus further connected himself with Roman religions by claiming the title of "pontifex maximus," meaning "high priest." Additionally, as his reign signaled the end of a period of civil war, Augustus' contemporaries praised him as the bringer of peace and a savior of the world. Such rhetorical language was later adopted by some Christian writers who wished to express their belief that Jesus was the rightful ruler of a new, heavenly kingdom that would replace the earthly Roman Empire.