Early Christianity and Mormonism:

Esoteric Doctrines and Rites

©1997 Barry Bickmore. All rights reserved.

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Esoteric (Secret) Doctrines

When enemies of the Restoration speak of the secrecy involved in the Endowment, they never fail to bring up Jesus' statement to the high priest at His trial: "I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing."1 Certainly no Latter-day Saint would say that Jesus lied when he said this, but certain facts must be pointed out in relation to this statement in order to assess the impact it should have on our appraisal of the Endowment.

First, while Jesus' teaching was for the most part public before his death, it may not have been when he appeared to the apostles and some others after his resurrection. Luke begins the Acts with this statement:

    The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God....2

What were these things that Jesus spoke of during the forty days? The New Testament is strangely silent about what must have been the most important teaching to ever take place in the Saviour's earthly ministry. And yet it certainly wasn't just a repetition of what Jesus had already said! Shortly before his death, Christ insisted to the apostles that he hadn't taught them everything: "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now."3

Second, although Jesus taught in public, he usually did it in such a way that those who were not prepared to hear the gospel would misunderstand. The Saviour's parables certainly were useful tools to bring His lofty teachings down to the level of the common man, but it is not often recognized that these symbolic stories also served the function of veiling the truth from those who were not seeking it. When His disciples asked Him the purpose of speaking in parables, Jesus gave them a most instructive answer:

    And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.4

Apparently not many of His hearers understood Jesus' parables, for it was His standard practice to take His disciples aside after reciting a parable and explain it to them clearly.5

Professor Joachim Jeremias delineates this pattern of secrecy in the New Testament by listing the items of information which Jesus apparently did not divulge to the public at large. He also shows that in doing so, Jesus was completely at home in the religious environment of the time, for the "whole environment of primitive Christianity knows the element of the esoteric." As one of his examples he cites the Essenes of Qumran, who buried the Dead Sea Scrolls. This sect of Jews apparently required that at his admission, a new member would swear terrible oaths to never reveal the secret teachings of the order to outsiders.

The classes of information Jeremias claims made up the esoteric teaching of Jesus before the Resurrection are: 1) Jesus' messiahship, 2) the prediction of Jesus' crucifixion, 3) prophecies about the signs of the end times, and 4) individual items of instruction. Jesus revealed His messiahship to his disciples before the passion, but always enjoined them to secrecy about it (Mark 8:30; 9:9). He only publicly proclaimed His position only once, when he revealed it to the Sanhedrin just before his death (Mark 14:62). His predictions of His own death were exclusively given to close disciples (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34), as were his predictions for the end of the world (Mark 13:3). Items of individual instruction were usually given in enigmatic terms, followed by some hint that a deeper meaning was implied. ("He who is able to receive this, let him receive it" [Matthew 19:12], or "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" [Matthew 9:15].) In addition to all this, Jeremias claims that Jesus hinted in general terms about a secret teaching which was to be made public in the future (Matthew 10:27; Mark 4:22).6

Morton Smith, of Harvard University, concurs with Jeremias that the religious environment of Judaism was permeated with secrecy - not only the Essenes, but the priests of the temple at Jerusalem and the Samaritan priests had "a large body of secret traditions and practices." There were, in addition, a large number of secret sects in Judaism, including the well-known Pharisees. The Pharisees had a large body of secret doctrines which they not only were sworn to keep secret from outsiders, but from less reliable members of their own sect.7

This practice of revealing the higher truths only to the mature in the gospel was continued in the Apostolic Church. The writings of Paul, in particular, are replete with oblique references to secret teachings. Jeremias8 quotes the following passages (among others) to show that Paul possessed some body of esoteric doctrine which was only to be imparted to the "mature" (Greek teleioi):

    Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.9

    Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, [even] the hidden [wisdom], which God ordained before the world unto our glory....10

    I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able [to bear it], neither yet now are ye able.11

Many similar passages could be cited, as well, but emphasis has been placed on those addressed to the Corinthians because, as Jeremias points out, these were people who had been Christians for years!

This tradition of keeping certain teachings secret was continued for hundreds of years after the passing of the apostles. For example, Ignatius of Antioch, at the beginning of the second century, insisted to the Roman Christians that he knew certain truths about the government and hierarchy of the heavens, but he could not reveal them because the Roman Saints might be harmed by knowledge they weren't ready for:

    I am able to write to you of heavenly things, but I fear lest I should do you an injury. Know me from myself. For I am cautious lest ye should not be able to receive [such knowledge], and should be perplexed. For even I, not because I am in bonds, and am able to know heavenly things, and the places of angels, and the stations of the powers that are seen and that are not seen, am on this account a disciple; for I am far short of the perfection which is worthy of God.12

In the late second and early third centuries Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen were quite specific about a secret tradition that existed in the Church in their day.13 For example, against the charges of the pagan Celsus, Origen retorted that the Christians weren't the only ones with a set of esoteric doctrines:

    In these circumstances, to speak of the Christian doctrine as a secret system, is altogether absurd. But that there should be certain doctrines, not made known to the multitude, which are (revealed) after the exoteric ones have been taught, is not a peculiarity of Christianity alone, but also of philosophic systems, in which certain truths are exoteric and others esoteric.14

As late as the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea reported that there was still a strong unwritten and secret tradition that he believed originated with the Apostles:

    Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles....15

    In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity. "Dogma" [doctrine] and "Kerugma" [preaching] are two distinct things; the former is observed in silence; the latter is proclaimed to all the world. One form of this silence is the obscurity employed in Scripture, which makes the meaning of "dogmas" difficult to be understood for the very advantage of the reader....16

Although it is obvious that a body of secret teachings did exist in the early Church, it was quickly lost in certain quarters. For example, Irenaeus loudly proclaimed against the gnostic heretics that the Apostles obviously had no hidden doctrine because he had not heard of it from any of the other bishops, to whom the Apostles had committed the governance of the Church:

    For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to "the perfect" apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves.17

However, we have seen that Ignatius, who was a bishop much closer to the time of the Apostles, intimated that there was a secret tradition which he refrained from teaching to the Church at large, even though he wrote his famous epistles on his way to be martyred. This being the case, it is easy to see how the esoteric tradition could have been lost in certain branches of the Church rather quickly.

Secret Rites

It is not enough, on the other hand, to prove that there was a body of esoteric doctrine in ancient Christianity. In order to show their relevance to Mormonism, it must be shown that these secret doctrines were connected in some way to secret rituals analogous to those practiced in modern LDS temples.

In our discussion of baptism for the dead, it was shown that the early Church guarded all of its ordinances, including baptism and the eucharist, in a shroud of secrecy. Davies reports that in the first two centuries of Christianity:

    Baptism and the Eucharist were the twin poles of the Christian's cultic life, but, while references to them are not unplentiful, the observance of the disciplina arcani [secret discipline] inhibited full descriptions of these rites.18

In the fourth century, Athanasius spoke of this tradition of secrecy and referred to these rites as "the mysteries":

    We ought not then to parade the holy mysteries before the uninitiated, lest the heathen in their ignorance deride them, and the Catechumens being over-curious be offended.19

Very early on (ca. A.D. 110) Ignatius also referred to the eucharist as "the mysteries":

    It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They are bound, therefore, to avoid all grounds of accusation [against them], as they would do fire.20

Why the emphasis on guarding the ordinances from the profane? Actually, the word "mystery" [Greek mysterion] is a religious technical term equivalent to the Latin sacramentum, which simply means "ordinance".21 The term was normally used in the context of the Greek "mystery religions" which were common in the ancient world, and included various secret doctrines and rites. (These will be discussed in a subsequent section of this chapter.) Therefore, when Paul and later Christian writers spoke of "the mysteries", they were borrowing a technical term loaded with meaning, and may well have been referring not only to certain doctrines, but to various rites associated with them.

Indeed, "D.W.B. Robinson argues that teleioi [as used by Paul] is employed in the mystery-initiate sense [in Phil. 3:15 (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6; Col. 1:28)]; Hebrew believers were 'the first initiates into God's hidden mystery.'"22 That is, the Greek word teleioi is another technical term associated with the mystery religions, and when Paul used it to denote the "mature in the faith", he could also have meant, more specifically, "those who have been initiated into the mysteries!"

It is quite possible, then, that even from the beginning Christians associated their esoteric doctrines with certain rituals. But were baptism and the eucharist the only rituals ever referred to as "mysteries" in early Christianity? An clue might have been given by a certain statement of Hippolytus (ca. A.D. 200):

    But if there is any other matter which ought to be told, let the bishop impart it secretly to those who are communicated. He shall not tell this to any but the faithful and only after they have first been communicated. This is the white stone of which John said that there is a new name written upon it which no man knows except him who receives.23

R.P.C. Hanson insists that it "... is not clear what the matter delivered through this secret rule was. It obviously could not have had any reference to baptism and eucharist."24

We shall see that not only were there rituals other than baptism and the eucharist in early Christianity, but in some ways they were strikingly similar to the LDS Endowment. Later much of the symbolism of these rites was adopted into the liturgies of baptism and the eucharist. (This would have been a natural consequence of the fact that all the early Christian rituals were considered more or less part of the esoteric tradition.)

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1 John 18:20.

2 Acts 1:1-3.

3 John 16:12.

4 Matthew 13:9-13.

5 see Matthew 13.

6 Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, pp. 125-130.

7 Smith, The Secret Gospel, p. 84; cf. Mueller, A History of Jewish Mysticism, p. 44.

8 Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, pp.130-132.

9 1 Corinthians 4:1.

10 1 Corinthians 2:6-7.

11 1 Corinthians 3:2.

12 Ignatius, Romans 9, in ANF 1:104.

13 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 43.

14 Origen, Against Celsus 1:7, in ANF 4:399.

15 Basil of Caesarea, Treatise De Spiritu Sancto 27, in NPNF Series 2, 8:40-41.

16 Basil of Caesarea, Treatise De Spiritu Sancto 27, in NPNF Series 2, 8:42.

17 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3, in ANF 1:415.

18 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 102.

19 Athanasius, Defense Against the Arians 1:11, in NPNF Series 2, 4:106.

20 Ignatius, Trallians 2, in ANF 1:67.

21 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 193.

22 Gunther, St. Paul's Opponents and Their Background, p. 294.

23 Hippolytus, in Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church, p. 32.

24 Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church, p. 32.