The Serapis Cult and Christianity

by Lorenzo Baehne

One of the views I've become attached to over the last decade is my suspicion that somewhere in the dusty closet of history, if only I searched hard enough, I would excavate a connection between early Christianity and the Serapis cult. Although I have accumulated some evidence in that vein, this evidence is circumstantial and not the smoking gun I had hoped to find. But why would anyone think there is a connection between the two in the first place?

The preceding paragraph may sound odd to anyone unfamiliar with the Jesus myth hypothesis (mythicism). In a nutshell, mythicism is the theory that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Jesus likely was not a historical person. Rather, it posits the central figure of Christianity was far more conceivably a pre-existing celestial being, a mythical entity which was historicized, rather than a historical figure who was subsequently mythologized. There are many precedents for this.

When the argument's minutiae are cleared away, the primary reason for this line of thinking is that during his alleged lifetime, the Jesus of the Gospels, with all his miraculous, attention-grabbing activities, never made a dent in the historical record. That is to say, he is not mentioned by any contemporaneous source. We first encounter Christ in Paul's letters, written sometime in the 50s CE, where it is not at all clear Paul is talking about a historical person. We tend to believe otherwise, apart from tradition, because in the New Testament canon the Gospels precede Paul's epistles. We then import the Gospels' content into the letters of Paul, filling in the blanks, as it were. Therefore, if Jesus did not exist and Christianity had no historical founding figure, mythicists must propose a viable, alternate origin for the religion.

Many scholars of ancient history have detected in the religion of Christ a resemblance to the mystery cults of old. There exists common features between some of those cults and Christianity, such as: a dying and rising salvation figure; a communal meal in remembrance of the salvation figure; a symbolic baptism by water to cleanse one's sins; as well as other commonalities. It's long been recognized by a great many biblical scholars that the Gospels are largely fictional. They can perhaps best be compared to historical fictions. Like historical fiction, the Gospels are set in actual geographical locations, with a few people plucked from the pages of history and inserted into the stories.

One question that arises, is: If, for the sake of argument, Christianity did derive from a mystery cult (also called salvation religions, which is precisely what Christianity is), from which one did it spring? This is an exciting question. Like some of my evidence, I found a possible answer to that query purely by accident.

I cannot recall today just how this missive came to my attention (I believe I was reading on an unrelated subject when I tripped over the letter), but when I found it I was blown away. Initially, I was very excited by its discovery, but as the years unwound I began to look at my best piece of evidence with some skepticism. Today I am not at all certain of its authenticity. The letter in question is from the Roman emperor Hadrian and is addressed to his brother-in-law Servianus. The date of this letter is circa 134 CE. Hadrian discusses in this epistle a recent trip to Alexandria, Egypt—

From Hadrian Augustus to Servianus the consul, greeting. The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumour. There those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis. There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ.”

As one can well imagine, this bit of correspondence, which is in fact lengthier than the excerpt posted here, raises some questions, for it insists on a few controversial claims.

The letter is found in a collection of biographies of Roman emperors called Historia Augusta. For centuries this collection, whose authors are unknown, was viewed as completely above board. It was only in the last 200 years or so that some scholars began to notice discrepancies between claims found therein and other accounts of the Roman emperors. In this case, Hadrian's trip to Alexandria does not accord with his official visit to that city. It seems to be off by a couple of years. Which may be a minor issue, and of itself does not invalidate the letter altogether, yet it remains something we must take into account. Another complaint about the letter's claims is an obvious one: how can anyone confuse worshipers of Serapis for worshipers of Christ? The argument being, they're two separate deities and two different groups. However, I'm not sure I buy this argument. My reason for this position is a simple observation.

Even today it is a common practice of converts to a religion to change their names to reflect their new faith. That was true of old, as well. In this case no one less than the Christian patriarch of Antioch comes to mind. He was the patriarch of that city from 191-211 CE. His name was Serapion. Serapion means “one who worships Serapis.” Witness—this was in the early third century, and from then till now no one thought it strange or even worthy of mention that a Christian patriarch should bear the name of a pagan deity. This leads me to suspect there may have been a time in history when this was not news, when in its early centuries perhaps Christianity's connection to the Serapis cult was common knowledge.

There are additional pieces of evidence I've collected on this subject, but as the situation currently stands they are not enough to make a definitive claim in that vein. It requires more evidence. Among the subjects yet to be plumbed is the possibility there is not a direct connection between them, but rather an indirect one. To my thinking, this may necessitate a bridging sect, one that spans the gap between the worshipers of Serapis and those of Christ, a sect that gave Christianity its Jewish flavor. Enter the Therapeutae. I've found evidence on either side of that bridge, which are suggestive, but to date, like the rest of this endeavor, are insufficient. I need more.

None of this is to say I should give up the quest, but rather that I may have to, for the moment, at least, set aside this idea until such a time that I've acquired enough data to move forward with it. At minimum, my current findings suggest this avenue, as unlikely as it may have seemed at the outset, has proven worthy of further research. Though some of the evidence I've accrued is tantalizing, I am still many leagues from making a good case for a Serapis-Christianity connection, yet I remain hopeful the day will come when all of that may change.