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Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World) Hardcover – 15 Jul 2008
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"It investigates the reception, transformation, and socioreligious roles of the cults of Mater Magna (Cybele), Isis and Serapis, and Mithras in the complex culture of the Roman Empire and their relationship to emergent Christianity." New Testament Abstracts 53:2
From the Back Cover
The traditional grand narrative correlating the decline of Graeco-Roman religion with the rise of Christianity has been under pressure for three decades. This book argues that the alternative accounts now emerging significantly underestimate the role of three major cults, of Cybele and Attis, Isis and Serapis, and Mithras. Although their differences are plain, these cults present sufficient common features to justify their being taken typologically as a group. All were selective adaptations of much older cults of the Fertile Crescent. It was their relative sophistication, their combination of the imaginative power of unfamiliar myth with distinctive ritual performance and ethical seriousness, that enabled them both to focus and to articulate a sense of the autonomy of religion from the socio-political order, a sense they shared with Early Christianity. The notion of 'mystery' was central to their ability to navigate the Weberian shift from ritualist to ethical salvation.See all Product description
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Each of these cults has given rise to a lot of contentious academic questions. Alvar seems determined to cover them all, and he's not afraid of expressing his opinion when he thinks other people have gotten it wrong—this may be the only academic book I've read that can be described as "snarky". Although Alvar probably gets some things wrong himself (I spotted one weird but minor mistake when he interprets Egyptian material), he does cut through a lot of the faulty assumptions and misinformation on this subject.
The book is difficult to boil down, but these seem to be the major conclusions. The cults were heavily adapted to fit Greco-Roman culture and they eventually became well integrated into Roman society, but they were more distinct from traditional Greek and Roman cults than most recent scholars believe, and to some extent they contributed to the religious destabilization in the Roman Empire that ended in Christianization. All these cults were related to the afterlife, a conclusion that's hard to dispute in the case of Isis but that other scholars seriously doubt for the other two cults. And these cults did have significant things in common with Christianity: extreme, though not necessarily exclusive, devotion to a single god; some emphasis on chastity and other forms of self-denial; and an initiatory rite that links the believer's afterlife to a god's powers of renewal. However, too many scholars (the most famous example being Franz Cumont) tried to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the mystery cults by making analogies with Christianity, with the result that the cults looked more Christian-like than they actually were.
Alvar says that the genuine commonalities were produced by convergent evolution. Christianity and the mystery cults all picked up ideas that were circulating in the Greco-Roman world at the same time and adapted to their circumstances in similar ways, rather than copying directly from each other. The details are a bit more nuanced than that, and to get a better grasp of those details I advise looking at two other recent books on mystery cults, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World by Jan Bremmer and Mystery Cults of the Ancient World by Hugh Bowden. Nevertheless, I think Alvar's basic conclusion on the Christian question is the most sensible one there is.
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