Early Christianity and Mormonism:

"Orthodox" Christian Esoteric Rites

©1997 Barry Bickmore. All rights reserved.

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There are perhaps dozens of allusions to the secret rites of the ancient Church in the early Christian documents, but two descriptions of these rites stand out from the rest as more complete and clear. First, Clement of Alexandria described in various places in his writings a rite he called a "mystery", which was an initiation ceremony not necessarily connected with baptism. Second, Cyril of Jerusalem, in the fourth century, described in detail the liturgies of baptism and the eucharist, which by that time included a variety of ritual actions, some of which are recognizable in Clement's earlier "mystery".

The Mysteries of Clement

According to Mosheim, Clement of Alexandria claimed to possess a secret tradition of knowledge (Greek gnosis) handed down from the Saviour to the Apostles and on to Clement himself by way of certain of his teachers.

    Clement represents this secret discipline, to which he gives the title of gnosis, as having been instituted by Christ himself.... [I]t appears that he considered this gnosis, or gift of knowledge, as having been conferred by our Lord, after his resurrection, on James the Just, John, and Peter, by whom it was communicated to the other apostles; and that by these this treasure was committed to the seventy disciples, of whom Barnabas was one.... Clement makes it a matter of boast that the secret discipline thus instituted by Christ was familiar to those who had been his masters and preceptors, whom he very lavishly extols, and seems to exult not a little in having, under their tuition, enjoyed the advantage of being instructed in it himself.1

Clement represented the true gnosis as having been transmitted to initiates in the form of a "mystery", which, as we have seen, probably meant in a ritual enactment or symbolic ordinance. He also stipulated that certain "purifications and previous instructions" were given before the mysteries were revealed:

    But since this tradition is not published alone for him who perceives the magnificence of the word; it is requisite, therefore, to hide in a mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught.2

    Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge, and others not yet so; and some as friends, some as faithful servants, some as servants merely. This is the Teacher, who trains the Gnostic by mysteries, and the believer by good hopes, and the hard of heart by corrective discipline through sensible operation.3

    Thence the prophecies and oracles are spoken in enigmas, and the mysteries are not exhibited incontinently to all and sundry, but only after certain purifications and previous instructions.4

The teachings of these mysteries were probably quite symbolic, and Clement wrote that the Lord teaches in "enigmas" so that one has to work to get at the truth:

    Dreams and signs are all more or less obscure to men, not from jealousy (for it were wrong to conceive of God as subject to passions), but in order that research, introducing to the understanding of enigmas, may haste to the discovery of truth.5

What form did this "mystery" take? Clement made several allusions to the initiation rite in his Stromata and his Exhortation to the Heathen. Another possible reference was made in Clement's recently discovered letter to a certain Theodore, in which he quoted a lost Secret Gospel of Mark.

In the Exhortation to the Heathen he invited the Greeks to abandon their mystery religions and participate in the true mysteries of God. He represented the Christian mystery as a "drama of truth" and an "initiation", lighted by torches and including a hymn sung about the altar in imitation of the choir of angels around the throne of God:

    Come, O madman, not leaning on the thyrsus, not crowned with ivy; throw away the mitre, throw away the fawn-skin; come to thy senses. I will show thee the Word, and the mysteries of the Word, expounding them after thine own fashion. This is the mountain beloved of God... consecrated to dramas of the truth,--a mount of sobriety, shaded with forests of purity.... O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy whilst I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant [teacher of mysteries], and seals while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. If it is thy wish, be thou also initiated; and thou shall join the choir along with angels around the unbegotten and indestructible and the only true God, the Word of God, raising the hymn with us.6

E. Louis Backman, of the Royal University of Upsala, Sweden, indicates that this hymn was probably sung as part of a "ring-dance" performed in many religions, including early Christianity:

    Let me first emphasize that the closing words must not be regarded as referring only to that which awaits in the future a person inducted into the Christian mysteries. These remarkable final words should also, perhaps mainly, be interpreted quite literally. If you are inducted into the Christian mysteries, then you must perform a ring-dance round the altar... not only with the other novitiates but also with the angels! For they are present and participate in the mystery.7

The idea that the "ring-dance" was performed in imitation of the angels around God's throne may be significant for the interpretation of a certain remark Jesus made in the Epistle of the Apostles. There Jesus alluded to a certain "service" or rite which was performed daily at the "altar of the Father".8 Hennecke and Schneemelcher speculate: "Is this a projection into heaven of a practice of the Christian community?"9 If so, the practice of such "mysteries" extended back long before Clement.

This "ring-dance" was an act of praise and included a prayer. Backman10 cites a passage from the Stromata in which Clement reveals that the initiates raised their hands in prayer during the dance: "So also we raise the head and lift the hands to heaven, and set the feet in motion at the closing utterance of the prayer...."11

References to the mystery of the ring-dance/prayer circle in early Christianity can also be found in the writings of Gregory Thaumaturgus (A.D. 210-260), bishop of Pontus, and Basileios (A.D. 344-407), bishop of Caesarea:

    We do find the following [in Gregory's writings]: 'He who has 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.' In his Four Sermons (10:1146) he quotes a curious legend, 'Today (Christ's birthday) Adam is resurrected and performs a ring-dance with the angels, raised up to heaven'.12

    In [Basileios'] writings there are several references to the existence of the dance in early Christianity. Thus he says of one who has died in blessedness (Letter 40): 'We remember those who now, together with the Angels, dance the dance of the Angels around God, just as in the flesh they performed a spiritual dance of life and, here on earth, a heavenly dance.' Thus life in this temporal world, were it is lived in righteousness, may be described as a spiritual heavenly dance. In another letter (ad 1:2) he writes 'Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on earth the ring-dance of the angels and at dawn to raise our voices in prayer and by hymns and songs glorify the rising creator.'13

One might think it strange that the prayer described by Clement was given with arms raised, but J. G. Davies asserts that this was the natural posture for one consumed with the thought of the risen Lord.14 A passage from the first-century Odes of Solomon explains that this posture was adopted in imitation of the Saviour on the cross: "I stretched forth my hands and sanctified my Lord: For the extension of my hands is His sign: And my expansion is the upright tree [or cross]."15 An Egyptian Christian work of unknown date, called the First Book of Adam and Eve, intimates that Adam and Eve were believed to be the first to adopt this posture in prayer: "Then Adam and Eve spread their hands unto God, praying and entreating Him to drive Satan away from them...."16

Clement's letter to Theodore also sheds some light on the early Christian mysteries. In this document, Clement wrote to a certain local church leader who had asked several questions about a document called the Secret Gospel of Mark, which a libertine gnostic group called the Carpocratians had corrupted to suit their agenda. Clement decried the fact that the gnostics had corrupted the text and described the document as an expansion of Mark's canonical gospel written after Peter died:

    [Thus] he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue [teacher of mysteries], lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven [veils]. Thus, in sum, he prearranged matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.17

Even though the Secret Gospel of Mark does not reveal many of the secret teachings, it may give us one more detail about what Clement called "the great mysteries". Clement includes a passage from the Secret Gospel in his letter which tells of Jesus teaching the mysteries to a young man whom he had recently raised from the dead:

    And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over [his] naked [body]. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God.18

Therefore, it may be inferred that people participating in the "great mysteries" were dressed in linen robes. Certainly it would have been standard procedure to call for special ritual clothing in such an important rite, just as was done for the rites of the temple at Jerusalem. And indeed, references to special symbolic garments or robes abound in early Christian literature. Note, for example, Backman's description of a certain passage from the Shepherd of Hermas:

    Here, [in the Shepherd of Hermas], are found, among other things, a number of similes of a marked secret and symbolic nature and in the ninth simile Hermas visits God's mountain. There he beholds twelve virgins, clothed in white linen.... The shepherd explains to Hermas that these virgins are holy spirits, and that nobody can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is clothed in their vestments.19

Origen insisted that the faithful must have garments kept apart from the common clothing of the world:

    You have therefore a priesthood, being a priestly nation. Therefore you ought to offer to God a sacrifice of praise, of prayers, of pity, of purity, of righteousness, of holiness. To offer this aright you have need of clean garments, of vestments kept apart from the common clothing of the rest of mankind.20

Perhaps this earthly garment was meant to symbolize the heavenly garment which is described in many apocryphal documents. This garment is obtained after one ascends through the various spheres of heaven, giving the appropriate passwords along the way. The Ascension of Isaiah includes a good example of this motif:

    ... and then many of the righteous will ascend with him, whose spirits do not receive their garments till the Lord Christ ascends and they ascend with him. Then indeed will they receive their garments and thrones and crowns when he shall have ascended into the seventh heaven.... And again I beheld when he descended into the second heaven, and again he gave the password there, for the doorkeepers demanded it and the Lord gave it.21

Such ascension narratives often included ritual handclasps, such as were included in the Christian Gnostic, Jewish Gnostic, and Greek mysteries, as we shall see. Whoever was being conducted through the heavens was lifted along after grasping the right hand of the guiding angel or God. For example, in the Gospel of Nicodemus, Jesus ascends into Hades after His death, grasps the right hand of Adam, and leads him to paradise with all the saints following: "The King of glory stretched out His right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him.... And setting out to paradise, He took hold of our forefather Adam by the hand, and delivered him, and all the just, to the archangel Michael."22 A similar occurrance was also recorded in 1 Enoch: "And the angel Michael, ... seizing me by my right hand and lifting me up, led me out into all the secrets of mercy; and he showed me all the secrets of righteousness."23 Perhaps a representation of this heavenly reality was given in these rites, as well.

What did the esoteric teaching that went along with these rituals include? This is one detail that is never specifically stated, but the writings of Ignatius (ca. A.D. 110) may show that the secret doctrine included the recitation of certain ritual formulas. Max Pulver, an internationally known expert on Gnosticism, describes Ignatius' teaching:

    For Ignatius, the believer must repeat the destiny of his God, he must become an imitator of God.... For this he must also have knowledge of the secret name of God and of certain formulas, such as the recurrent though much varied "Thou art I and I am thou."24

The Later Rituals of Baptism and the Eucharist

By the third and fourth centuries much of the symbolism of the "great mysteries" had been incorporated into the liturgies of baptism and the eucharist. Those who had not been initiated were kept out and strict silence in regard to the mysteries was required of the initiates. Mosheim explains:

    The multitude professing Christianity were therefore divided by them into the "profane," or those who were not yet admitted to the mysteries, and the "initiated," or faithful and perfect....and as none were permitted to be present at these "mysteries," as they were termed, save those whose admission into the fellowship of the church was perfect and complete, so likewise was it expected that, as a matter of duty, the most sacred silence should be observed in regard to everything connected with the celebration of them, and nothing whatever relating thereto to be committed to the ears of the profane.25

The most complete description of these rites now extant was given by Cyril of Jerusalem, who wrote a series of catechetical lectures designed to instruct investigators (or "catechumens") and the newly baptized in the late fourth century. The last five of these lectures are called the "Lectures on the Mysteries", and were intended for those who had been recently baptized and given the eucharist. A description of these rites follows.

The initiate was first taken to the vestibule of the baptistry where facing West, he extended his arm and renounced Satan using the following formula: "I renounce thee, Satan. And all thy works. And all thy pomp. And all thy service." Then he recited another formula: "I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism of repentance."26

The initiate was then conducted to the inner chamber where he was stripped naked, anointed with oil, and baptized. Cyril described this process:

    As soon, then, as ye entered, ye put off your tunic; and this was an image of putting off the old man with his deeds. Having stripped yourselves, ye were naked; in this also imitating Christ, who was stripped naked on the Cross, and by His nakedness put off from Himself the principalities and powers, and openly triumphed over them on the tree.... O wondrous thing! ye were naked in the sight of all, and were not ashamed; for truly ye bore the likeness of the first-formed Adam, who was naked in the garden, and was not ashamed. Then, when ye were stripped, ye were anointed with exorcised oil, from the very hairs of your head to your feet, and were made partakers of the good olive-tree, Jesus Christ.... After these things, ye were led to the holy pool of Divine Baptism, as Christ was carried from the Cross to the Sepulchre which is before our eyes And each of you was asked, whether he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and ye made that saving confession, and descended three times into the water, and ascended again; here also hinting by a symbol at the three days burial of Christ....27

The Catholic editors of another English translation of Cyril's works explain that the "tunic was the garment worn by both sexes next to the skin. The candidates would already have removed their shoes and outer garments...."28 Who performed the anointing over the whole body? "For the men, no doubt, priests, deacons and the lower clergy. But for the women?... [Apostolic Constitutions] 3:15-16 says that the deaconesses completed the anointing after a deacon had begun it on the forehead."29

After baptism the initiate was anointed again, and Cyril gave a more complete description this time:

    [The] ointment is symbolically applied to thy forehead and thy other senses; and while thy body is anointed with the visible ointment, thy soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit. And ye were first anointed on the forehead.... Then on your ears; that ye might receive the ears which are quick to hear the Divine Mysteries.... Then on the nostrils.... Afterwards on your breast; that having put on the breast-plate of righteousness, ye may stand against the wiles of the devil....30

A subsequent passage in Cyril's lectures might indicate that the initiate was symbolically clothed in white after the baptism:

    ...and let thy garments be always white, for the Lord is well pleased with thy works; for before thou camest to Baptism, thy works were vanity of vanities. But now, having put off thy old garments, and put on those which are spiritually white, thou must be continually robed in white: of course we mean not this, that thou art always to wear white raiment; but thou must be clad in the garments that are truly white and shining and spiritual....31

This inference is more than likely, since J.G. Davies intimates that the clothing in white garments had been part of the baptismal ceremony as early as the second century.32 Our Catholic editors confirm this deduction as well.33

Cyril went on to describe the liturgy of the eucharist. First the deacon gave the officiating priest water to wash his hands and the elders positioned themselves to stand around the altar in a circle.34 "Then the Deacon... cried aloud, 'Receive ye one another; and let us kiss one another....' The kiss therefore is reconciliation, and for this reason holy...."35 A prayer was then offered by the priest in behalf of those in the circle and the others attending which included the giving of thanks, petition for blessing to be pronounced upon the eucharist, and petition "for the common peace of the Churches, for the welfare of the world(1); for kings; for soldiers and allies; for the sick; for the afflicted; and, in a word, for all who stand in need of succour...."36

Cyril then went on to explain that the prayer included petitions in behalf of the dead, who were expected to derive some benefit therefrom. (Perhaps this is a remnant of other ordinances for the dead?)

    Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God would receive our petition. Then on behalf also of the Holy Fathers and Bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word of all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls, for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth.... For if a king were to banish certain who had given him offence, and then those who belong to them should weave a crown and offer it to him on behalf of those under punishment, would he not grant a remission of their penalties?37

The editors of the Catholic edition explain that there was probably more to this prayer which Cyril does not repeat and which was "recited by the celebrant in a low voice and perhaps behind a curtain (veil, screen)."38

Next the priest chanted the Lord's Prayer and invited the participants to share in the sacrament of the eucharist.39 As the faithful approached the priest they put forward their hands in the shape of a cup to receive the bread:

    In approaching therefore, come not with thy wrists extended, or thy fingers spread; but make thy left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed thy palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen.40

Finally the participant took a sip from the cup and anointed his sense organs with the wine:

    Then after thou hast partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth thine hands, but bending, and saying with an air of worship and reverence, Amen, hallow thyself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still upon thy lips, touch it with thine hands, and hallow thine eyes and brow and the other organs of sense.41

Little of these rites now remain in the liturgies of the Christian churches of today, so one might wonder what became of them. C.W. Heckethorne asserts that the secret tradition of early Christianity was lost after the Church essentially became the only game in town and there really weren't very many people around to keep secrets from:

    The number of the faithful having greatly increased - the Christians from being persecuted having become persecutors, and that of the most grasping and barbarous kind - the Church in the seventh century instituted the minor orders, among whom were the doorkeepers, who took the place of the deacons. In 692 everyone was ordered thenceforth to be admitted to the public worship of the Christians, their esoteric (secret) teaching of the first ages was entirely suppressed, and what had been pure cosmology and astronomy was turned into a pantheon of gods and saints. Nothing remained of the mysteries but the custom of secretly reciting the canon of the Mass. Nevertheless in the Greek Church the priest celebrates divine worship behind a curtain, which is only removed during the elevation of the host, but since at that moment the worshippers prostrate themselves, they are supposed not to see the holy sacrament.42

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1 Mosheim, J.L., Historical Commentaries on the State of Christianity, vol.1, pp. 375-376.

2 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 1:12, in ANF 2:312.

3 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7:2, in ANF 2:524.

4 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 5:4, in ANF 2:449.

5 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 5:4, in ANF 2:450.

6 Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, 12, in ANF 2:205.

7 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, p. 19.

8 Epistle of the Apostles 13-14, in ANT, p. 489.

9 NTA 1:191.

10 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, p. 22.

11 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7:7, ANF 2:534.

12 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, p. 22.

13 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, pp. 24-25.

14 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 64

15 Odes of Solomon 27, in The Forgotten Books of Eden, p. 133.

16 First Book of Adam and Eve 58, in The Forgotten Books of Eden, p. 39.

17 The Secret Gospel of Mark, in Smith, The Secret Gospel, p. 15.

18 The Secret Gospel of Mark, in Smith, The Secret Gospel, p. 17.

19 Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, p. 18.

20 Origen, in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, p. 347.

21 The Ascension of Isaiah, in TOB, pp. 527, 529.

22 The Gospel of Nicodemus 8-9, in ANF 8:437. Cf. Compton, T.M., "The Handclasp and Embrace as Tokens of Recognition," in Lundquist and Ricks, eds., By Study and Also by Faith, vol. 1, pp. 620-621.

23 1 Enoch 71:3, in Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:49.

24 Pulver, M., "Jesus' Round Dance and Crucifixion According to the Acts of St. John," in Campbell, ed., The Mysteries, pp. 176-177.

25 Mosheim, Historical Commentaries on the State of Christianity, vol.1, pp. 390-391.

26 See Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 19, in NPNF Series 2, 7:144-146.

27 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 20, in NPNF Series 2, 7:146-148.

28 Cyril of Jerusalem, The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 2, p. 161.

29 Cyril of Jerusalem, The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 2, p. 163.

30 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 21, in NPNF Series 2, 7:148-151.

31 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 22:8, in NPNF Series 2, 7:153.

32 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 59.

33 Cyril of Jerusalem, The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 2, pp. 162, 184.

34 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:2, in NPNF Series 2, 7:153.

35 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:3, in NPNF Series 2, 7:153.

36 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:4-8, in NPNF Series 2, 7:153-154.

37 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:9-10, in NPNF Series 2, 7:154-155.

38 Cyril of Jerusalem, The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 2, p. 194.

39 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:11-20, in NPNF Series 2, 7:155-156.

40 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:21, in NPNF Series 2, 7:156.

41 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23:22, in NPNF Series 2, 7:156.

42 Heckethorn, The Secret Societies of all Ages and Countries, vol. 1, p. 107.