It is A.D. 240 in Dura Europos, a Roman garrison on the Euphrates River. If you walk the streets at the western edge of town, you pass:

  • A temple of Mithras,

  • A temple of Palmyrene gods,

  • A Jewish synagogue,

  • A temple of Adonis,

  • A sanctuary of Tyche,

  • A Christian house church,

  • A shrine to Zeus Kyrios.

Elsewhere in the city you would find temples to Gadde (a local Palmyrene deity), Zeus Theos, Zeus Megistos, Atargatis (a Syrian goddess), Artemis, and Jupiter Dolichenus (a Syrian Baal), as well as the military temple next to the garrison's headquarters.

To put it another way, Christianity did not enter a religious vacuum. Such religious pluralism typified all ancient cities. People were not sitting around waiting for a new religion to burst on the scene. Dozens, if not hundreds, of religions were available.

Judaism was the competitor with the greatest similarity to Christianity. The Jews' Yahweh and literally hundreds of deities vied for attention, but people tended to channel their religious and moral aspirations in one of three directions.

Mithraism: From raven to father

Although its deity had a Persian name, Mithraism was a creation of Greeks and Romans. Mithraism's god wielded power over the movements of the heavenly bodies. It combined elements of astrology and the Greek mystery religions, which highlighted special rites of initiation. There were seven grades of this initiation—Raven, Bride, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Heliodromus, and Father (the usual title of the head of a community). Neophytes passed through tests of endurance and took an oath before admission to each level.

Like Christianity and many pagan cults, a communal meal was a central feature of Mithraic meetings. It also shared with Christianity (as distinct from most mystery ...

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