It is curious to note that Jesus Christ never wrote his teachings down. He taught by telling oral stories. Of course, most of his audience could not read or write so speaking in parables turns out to be the best form of teaching to non-literate peoples. Something is deeply amiss in this practical assessment, however, for Christ himself explained to his disciples “Unto you it is given to know the mystery [μυστήριον] of the kingdom of God, but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables” (Mark 4:11). This statement suggests that the oral stories Jesus told were a metaphor for a mystērion, a secret revealed only to the acolytes who had been ritually initiated. The very word mystery held deep liturgical connotations central to ancient religious practices.
Numerous scholars have scoffed at the notion of secret rituals behind the Christian message, but oral and semi-literate cultures are orthopraxic. In such cultures the “word of God” turns out not to be the written word but rather the spoken and enacted word. Centuries of literate biblical exegesis seems to have blurred the reality that non-literate peoples must perform their religious beliefs as the only real way of conceptualizing them. Why are rituals not prominent in the surviving texts? Problematically, ritual initiation was sacrosanct and there were terrible taboos against writing about sacred liturgies. Clement of Alexandria insists that the most sacred things of deity were kept oral and could never be written down (Lundwall 70). The center of ancient religious practice was never textual. If this was true for early Christianity then the reality is rituals were not only a necessary part of the new religion but most likely the foundation of its very ethos—a part that never makes it into the New Testament.
Of what might these ritual initiations consist of? There is a curious scene in the gnostic text of The Acts of Saint John where Jesus gathers his disciples right before his crucifixion and performs a ritual. The disciples surround Jesus in a ring dance while Jesus himself sings, “Grace danceth. I would pipe; dance ye all. . . . The Whole on high hath part in our dancing. And whoso danceth not, knoweth not what cometh to pass. . . . A way am I to thee wayfarer. Now answer thou (or as thou respondest) unto my dancing. Behold thyself in me who speak, and seeing what I do, keep silence about my mysteries” (Acts of John 95-96). Jesus performs an initiatory song and dance and declares that the heavens take part in the dancing. Furthermore, the grace Jesus offers from the cross is contained in a dance! Somehow this ritual dance held esoteric information for Jesus calls his dance a mystery. One scholar observes of this scene, “This strange chorea mystica, this ecstatic cult dance, . . . is as ancient as the form of the dance mystery itself. In the Mimaut Papyrus we read: ‘Come to me, Thou who art greatest in heaven, . . . to whom heaven was given for a dancing round.’ Enraptured by hymn and dance, the mystai circle through the gates of initiation” (Pulver 174-75).
A very similar scene is found in The Acts of Saint Thomas where this apostle sings about Sophia who makes “signs and secret patterns, proclaiming the dance of the blessed Aeons” and who is herself surrounded by seven bridesmaids who are performing a ring dance around her (Barnstone ed. 467; Backman 16). Lucian states that dance and initiation were wed in every single Greco-Roman mystery tradition, and I have shown that these choral dances allowed neophytes to reenact the passage through the heavens of the pagan cosmos (Lundwall 225-40). Indeed, Sophia’s seven attendants represent the heavenly spheres and in numerous apocalyptic texts the initiate must pass through seven gates guarded by singing and dancing hymnologi (Lundwall 231). The gates of initiation are therefore heavenly gates that lead to the heavenly throne room.
The orthodox and literate Christian will object to these gnostic sources, but these texts find a remarkable parallel in the New Testament book of Revelation. Gottfried Schimanowski notes that in chapters 4 and 5 of that book we are introduced into a heavenly liturgy where the anointed ones, clothed in white garments and wearing gold crowns, circle the heavenly throne while singing hymns. The purpose of this “ring dance” is “to draw the earthly community into the heavenly praise of God, a liturgy that is closed with the ‘Amen’ sung by the inner circle before the heavenly throne. . . . the liturgy of the throne scene serves to recreate the experience of a ritual of worship common to heaven and earth” (Schimanowski 82). The structure of this song and dance is parallel to the gnostic texts, including a group of seven attendants circling the throne and guardians of the cosmic order proclaiming “Amen” (Revelation 4:5, 5:14)
This cosmic scene may actually depict an early Christian ritual. By modern interpretation the book of Revelation speaks of end-time events. This kind of eschatology does not speak of the end of the world, however, but the culmination of cosmic time. The ultimate end of all things is determined at the very center of the universe that lay at God’s throne. Apparently, one can get there through proper initiation that includes a choral dance. The Good News was not just a written text that spoke of the grace of God, it was a liturgical dance that revealed the mysteries of God.
Although modern Christianity no longer has anything close to a choral dance as part of its liturgy, several writers of the early Church indicate that just such mystery dances had existed. Clement hints at this connection in his Stromata where he writes, “Therefore we raise our heads and our hands to heaven (during prayer) and move our feet . . . . In this way we reach blessedness and deliverance from the chains of the flesh which our soul despises” (Backman 22; italics mine). Backman insists that the phrase “move our feet” is a technical term for dancing (Backman 22). Epiphanius (fourth century CE) hints at the same tradition when he describes the Christian festival held on Palm Sunday, “Rejoice, be glad and leap boisterously thou all embracing Church! For behold, once again the King approaches . . . once again perform the choral dances . . . let us dance the choral dance before the pure Bridegroom as befits the divine bridegroom” (Backman 24).
Saint Gregory offers another picture of early Christian ritual when he describes a cultic dance, “He who had done everything preserved and prescribed by Providence in its secret mysteries, reposes in Heaven in the bosom of the Father and in the cave in the bosom of the Mother (Christ Jesus). The ring-dance of the angels encircles him, singing his glory in Heaven and proclaiming peace on earth” (Backman 22). Gregory states that there were secret mysteries in the Church which included a cave. The word initiate signifies a ritual entry into the earth. In the Greco-Roman mysteries initiation often took place underground in a hypogeum or cave. This sacred precinct was overseen by a goddess whose womb represented the regions of the underworld where the secrets of rebirth were found. In early Christianity the heavenly matriarch was displaced by the Church, and in Saint Gregory’s comment it is Jesus Christ himself who takes the role of the goddess of rebirth. The one who learns the secrets of resurrection is surrounded by a chorus of angels who are wards of the heavenly realm. For Gregory, this was a tradition that dated back to the resurrected Adam, who performed ring dances with the angels as they were “raised up to heaven” (Backman 22).
In many regions of biblical criticism high walls have been placed between the gnostic and pagan mysteries and the practices of the earliest Christians. Proper interpretation of the pagan mystery initiations is also impossible as there are no original written sources that describe them. Most of what we get actually comes from later Christian writers who criticize them. In a point of high irony we do find a second century pagan critic of Christianity named Celsus who discloses one piece of interesting information from early Christianity. Celsus writes, “Now Christians pray that after their toil and strife here below they shall enter the kingdom of heaven, and they agree with the ancient systems that there are seven heavens and that the way of the soul is through the planets” (95). According to Celsus the early Christians ascended to heaven through the seven planetary spheres. Gnostic texts appear to show this ascent was ritually performed in a secret dance that mimicked the heavenly journey. Part of this imagery appears in Revelation where the chosen priests of god and the seven guardian spirits perform a ring dance around the heavenly throne.
Once again we are dealing with circumstantial evidence. This is the only kind of evidence one can obtain when dealing with an artifact of history that was never written down. The truth is the book of Revelation may not be an oddity of Christian tradition, but its central ideology connected with its own version of the mysteries. Indeed, Margaret Barker explains in The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God that the word evangelion translated as “good news” really meant “reveal” signifying the revelation that came from the holy of holies or heavenly throne room (77-79). Further, the book of Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that actually identifies itself as a book of scripture “because it is the only one that carries the curse on those who alter it” (88; Revelation 22:18-19). Barker asserts that this self-identifying book of scripture “suggests it was already accepted as Scripture, even before John gave it a written form and its explanation” (88) and that the book of Revelation turns out to be the principal book in the New Testament “best fitted [for] the religious and cultural context of Jesus’ ministry” (83). Nor was this material necessarily an adaptation of pagan material into Christian form. These cosmic mysteries had existed all along within the Jewish faith. In the Old Testament Isaiah is endowed to be a prophet only within the heavenly throne room (Isaiah 6). Ezekiel takes a cosmic journey through the heavens as he is given his own keys of leadership (Ezekiel 1-2). The very founding of Israel occurs only when Jacob encounters the ladder of heaven, passes a guardian angel, and sees the face of god in the “House of God” (Genesis 28:12-17, 32:24-30).
What are we to make of this? Whatever the religion of Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, the writers of the Testaments lived in a different conceptual world that was rooted in a cosmological relationship between heaven and earth. This world was not accessed by texts but by rituals. This was all changing by the time of Jesus, where the old cosmological models were slowly being turned into the mechanical spheres of Greek astronomy. This happened with the advent of writing and fully literate consciousness. Science as we recognize it was being born from the fertile world of textual thought. And so was religion. We have forgotten that fantastic cosmos the pre-literate world had imbued upon all of its cultural artifacts. It was this older cosmology that underwrote the theologies of rebirth long before that new star shone in the heavens announcing a resurrecting god. In the context of biblical studies, perhaps the greatest gift from this god was not the secrets of rebirth—but finally a religion of the book.