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Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity - The Religion Under the Ptolemies


The Religion Under the Ptolemies


After the conquest of Egypt by the Greeks in the year B.C. 332, and on the building of the Greek city of Alexandria, Heliopolis lost much of its importance as a. school. Alexandria then became the seat of that mixture of opinions which had made Heliopolis famous. The Jews there gained yet further acquaintance with Greek literature, and gave to the Greeks some knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. The Greeks of Alexandria embraced many of the Egyptian views of religion, and some of them even entered the Egyptian temples as priests, and lived under all the austerities of the Egyptian monastic rules. We even now possess on papyrus the original documents, in the Greek language, relating to the complaints of a Greek who lived as a monk in the Temple of Serapis, near Memphis, in the reign of Ptolemy Philometor. He suffered from the jealousy of the Egyptian monks in the same building. He lived confined to one cell, and our English, or rather, Latin word, a recluse, is simply a translation of the Greek name therein given to the Egyptian monks.

Greeks and Egyptians intermarried, and the children of these mixed marriages, who were declared to be Egyptians,. not Greeks, carried many Greek opinions into the Egyptian religion. Under Greek toleration, as we learn from the sculptures, the Theban temples freed themselves from the intrusion of gods from Lower Egypt, and returned to their old worship of Amun-Ra. But old religions are not easily re-established. Changes are always going forward, and during the reigns of the Greek kings, and particularly among the Greeks who held the Egyptian religion, we find one god rising in rank over the others, as if he were their chief or king. This was Serapis, who at first had united the two characters of Osiris and Apis, but was now receiving from his worshippers yet more of the attributes which had been divided among so many gods. He was, like Osiris, the husband of Isis, and judge of the dead, but, unlike Osiris, he had no portion of human nature. On the building of Alexandria, the chief temple, the largest in the world, was dedicated to his worship. It was called the Serapium. To Serapis the prayers and sacrifices of many were directed as to one only God, and when the altars were dedicated to "The Great God, the Sun, Serapis, and the other gods of the temple," these others, without names and of lower rank, took away very little from his oneness. In this way an approach was being made in some minds to monotheism, which was, of course, very much assisted by the doctrine of Plurality in Unity, by which it had been always held that many gods could be at the same time only one god. Other temples in Alexandria were that to Pan and that to Neptune for the use of the sailors in the harbour. Among the Greeks, however, we learn more of their philosophy than of their theology.

In Alexandria we find Platonism becoming every year more mystical, or if we may say so, more Egyptian and less Greek. We find traces of it in the Septuagint, and in the Apocryphal Book of Jesus, the son of Sirach, and in the Book of Wisdom, and in the works of Philo, all written in Egypt. When Christianity rises into notice in Alexandria, it in the same way always wears somewhat of a Platonic dress, as we see in the writings of Athenagoras, Clemens, and Origen. The quarrel between the Christian sects in Egypt arises always from the struggle between the Greek and Egyptian opinions, or rather the struggle how far Christianity, which entered Egypt as a Greek religion, and which readily met the Egyptian opinions so far as to ally itself with the new Platonism-how far it will yet further consent to become Egyptian.

In the Hebrew Scriptures we find frequent mention of Egypt, of its wars, and of its arts and civilisation. The writer of the Book of job shows some acquaintance with Egypt. The ornaments of its temple worship are sometimes. copied, while its idolatry and superstition are again and again forbidden in the Mosaic laws. But we find very few traces of the Hebrew writers having borrowed any Egyptian opinions, except in the second and third chapters of Genesis, where the garden of Eden is watered like Egypt without rain; where there is a sacred tree of Life, and another of the knowledge of good and evil; where the serpent is able to speak, and tempts the woman to sin, and is declared to be the enemy of the human race; and where the door of the garden is guarded by a cherub, or one of the Cabeiri, with a flaming sword, lest the sinner should approach the tree of Life. But, in more modern times, we become acquainted with a body of Jews who had been for centuries living in Egypt, and were no longer confined to their own towns, on the eastern branch of the Nile. They had learned the use of the Greek language, and were thence called Hellenists; and among them we find many philosophical and even religious opinions, which owe their origin to the Egyptian priests among whom they were living. They received a wise patronage from the Ptolemies, who founded the museum of learning in Alexandria. In the third century before the Christian era, some of them translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, for the use of their brethren who were less acquainted with Hebrew; and the translators often show a leaning towards opinions very foreign from those of the original writers. In the disputed question of the age of the world, in order to make it better agree with Egyptian history, they add largely to the age of each patriarch at the time of his son's birth, thus making the world older by an Egyptian cycle, of four times 365 years. They lessened the number of years during which the children of Jacob dwelt in Egypt, by 175 years, in which they may have been justified by the Egyptian records, though they neglected their duty as faithful translators. In the Book of Zechariah, the translator's knowledge of the climate leads him to omit the threat against the Israelites in Egypt, that they shall have no rain if they come not up to Jerusalem to the feast. The translator of the Chronicles changes the name of the great Jewish feast in a manner that gives to the word an Egyptian etymology, instead of a Jewish. He calls it not Pascha, the passing over, but Pasek, the leading forth.

As the Jews, in their Greek translation of the Bible, thought fit to accept from the Egyptians, and to introduce some improvements as they might call them, into the Chronology, so they were not willing to be behindhand in mysticism and spiritual refinements. By a refinement of criticism, they sometimes found more meaning in their scriptures than had ever entered the minds of the writers. Thus, when the Psalmist, speaking of the power of Jehovah, says, with a truly eastern figure (Psalm clv. 4): He maketh the winds his messengers and the lightnings his servants, these translators change the sentence into a philosophical description of the spiritual nature of angelic beings, and say, He maketh his angels into spirits and his servants into a flame of fire. Again, when Isaiah (chap. xi. 2), describes the spirit of the Lord, as a Spirit of wisdom and understanding, a Spirit of counsel and might, a Spirit of knowledge and godly fear, the Jews of Egypt made these six qualities of the mind, into six angelic beings, which had proceeded from the Almighty, and they added a Spirit of piety, to complete the mystic number of seven, which with the Almighty himself, afterwards made the Ogdoad. We have seen in our notice of the gods of the Egyptians, as learned from the monuments, how they often supposed that a god divided himself into two, three, or more characters, which may have given rise to this opinion of spiritual beings proceeding from the Almighty. But we now begin to see hints of some, at least, among the Egyptians beginning to reject polytheism, and to declare that all their numerous gods were only so many characters of the one Almighty, or else inferior beings which proceeded out of him. Osiris-Apis, or Serapis, the judge of the dead, by becoming chief of the numerous gods, was making some approach to being the sole god. The Alexandrian Jews seem to have had in their mind this Egyptian system of defending polytheism, by declaring that it was only a Plurality in Unity, when they translated Deuteronomy vi. 4. We there read in the Hebrew, Jehovah is our God, Jehovah alone; but the Greek translation says, The Lord our God is one Lord, meaning simple and undivided, as opposed to a unity formed of plurality. At the same time the Greek translators removed from their Bible some words which declare that God appeared upon earth in a human form to Moses and his companions; and they alter Exodus xxiv. 10, 11, to make it say that they, saw, not the Almighty, but only the place on which he stood to speak to them. In these two cases the translators, instead of making any approach to the Egyptian opinions, retreated yet farther from them.

The opinions of the Egyptians show themselves equally clearly in two of the Apocryphal books of the Bible, which were written by Jews living in Lower Egypt, perhaps in Alexandria; namely, The Wisdom of the Son of Sirach, and The Wisdom of Solomon. The Egyptians had believed that some of their gods, and particularly the four lesser gods of the dead, acted as mediators with the judge Osiris, to turn aside his wrath and the punishment for their sins, and they thought that even their kings had power to do them the same service. No similar opinion appears in the Hebrew Bible; the prophets never speak of any mediator or intercessor as standing between man and his Maker; but the Son of Sirach, misquoting the last words of the Hebrew prophet Malachi, says that Elijah was taken up to heaven for the purpose of acting as a mediator to pacify the wrath of God's judgment before it break forth into fury, and to turn his heart towards his children (chap. xlviii. 10). This writer also, in his strong figurative expression in praise of Wisdom, follows the Proverbs of Solomon. He makes Wisdom into a person created before the world, who says, "I am the mother of love, and fear, and knowledge, and holy hope." In the second of these two books, The Wisdom of Solomon, God's Word and God's Wisdom, are both spoken of in terms yet more befitting a person. God is said to have made all things by his Word, and to have ordained man by his Wisdom (chap. ix. 1). And again, Wisdom was said to have been with him when he made the world (chap. ix. 9), and his Word afterwards to have leaped down from heaven as a fierce man of war, to punish the Egyptians (xviii. 15). In this way these Alexandrian Jews, making use of bold figures of speech, not unusual in the Hebrew poets, at the same time indulging themselves in a love for Egyptian mysticism, introduce us to a trinity, of God, his Wisdom, and his Word. This is the Trinity described by Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch (fl. 120), who is the first Christian writer who makes use of that term, since so common in controversial divinity. This is also the Trinity of Pistis Sophia, a Coptic treatise of a later age, which describes the penitential hymns which Wisdom sang at the Creation, and which the Word afterwards conveyed to mankind. It is a Trinity of the Almighty and two of his attributes, and it helped to prepare the minds of the Alexandrians for the Arian Trinity of the third century, and the Athanasian Trinity of the fourth century.

Philo, the eloquent Jew of Alexandria, shows an Egyptian fondness for the mystical properties of numbers, and for finding an allegory or secondary meaning in the plainest narrative. He thus makes the Old Testament speak a meaning more agreeable to the modern views of religion. He says that Abraham's wife Sarah is Wisdom, while Hagar is Instruction, who, after being banished, is recalled by the Word in the form of an angel; and he elsewhere explains God's word to be his first begotten Son, by whom he governs the world. He was the first Jewish writer that applied to the Deity the mystical notion of the Egyptians that everything perfect has three parts. Speaking of the Creator, he says that there are three orders, of which the best is the being that is, and that he has two ancient powers near him, one on the one side and one on the other, the one on the right hand being called God, and the one on the left Lord; and that the middle divinity, accompanied on each side by his powers, presents to the enlightened mind sometimes one mage, and sometimes three. Philo's writings thus explain to us how Platonism became united to Judaism, and again show us several points of agreement between the New Platonists and the Platonic Christians, and jointly, with the "Wisdom of Solomon," teach us the steps by which the Egyptian doctrines of plurality in unity, and of everything perfect having three parts, found their way first into the Alexandrian philosophy, Jewish as well as Pagan, and then into Christianity, and at last established the Christian Trinity. From Philo also we learn that a large body of Egyptian Jews had embraced the monastic rules and the life of self-denial which we have already noted among the Egyptian priests. They bore the name of Therapeut. They spent their time in solitary meditation and prayer, and only saw one another on the seventh day. They did not marry; the women lived the same solitary and religious life as the men. Fasting and mortification of the flesh were the foundation of their virtues. They thus introduced into the neighbourhood of Alexandria a way of life which, though common among the Egyptians, had been unknown in that dissipated city.

We have already seen that the Egyptians gave to every one of their kings the title of God, and in this custom of idolatrous flattery, they were followed by the Greeks of Alexandria. The Ptolemies and their queens were all styled gods. The Saviour-gods were succeeded on the throne by the Brother-gods, the Beneficent-gods, the Father-loving gods, the Illustrious-gods, and others. Such were the titles given to the several Ptolemies. This custom was copied by some of the Greek kings of Syria, and in part continued under the Roman emperors, though Augustus, on his Alexandrian coins, only claims the lower rank of being a Son of God. From such political flattery the meaning of the word in the Greek language got changed. It had by no means the grave and solemn meaning that it has with us, and hence we shall hereafter see that when the Alexandrian theologian penned the Nicene Creed, and wished to declare the true deity of Jesus, it would not have been enough to declare him to be simply God; it was necessary to add emphasis, and to say that he was God from God, very God from very God, and of one substance with God, as the simple word had with the Greeks lost much of its meaning.

The Eleusinian mysteries had been introduced into Alexandria from Greece about 300 years before the Christian era. But it seems probable that they were then only returning to their native soil. What little is known of them seems to be of Egyptian origin, coloured by the Greeks, Egyptian grossness cloaked over by Greek elegance. The temple dedicated to Ceres and Proserpine stood in the south-east quarter of the city, which was thence called the Eleusinis; and there the priestesses, a troop of young women, were to be seen carrying the sacred basket through the streets, and singing hymns in honour of the goddess while they charged all profane persons who met the procession to keep their eyes upon the ground, lest they should see the basket and the priestesses, who were too pure for them to look upon. What was shut up in the basket was, of course, a secret meant never to be known beyond the walls of the temple; and it is only after two centuries that we learn from a coin of Asia Minor (see Fig. 85) that this sacred basket held a serpent, the enemy of the human race, who introduced sin and death into the world. This is the serpent of which we have seen the conquest in page 46, the serpent of the third chapter of Genesis, which misled Eve, and the serpent of wickedness of the Gnostics. Within the temple the hierophant wore the dress and mask of the god Kneph, the crier the mask of Thoth, the priest at the altar the emblem of the moon, while another with the dress of Ra carried a torch. The celebration of these mysteries, whatever their meaning was, was said to be a screen for immorality and vice, and probably with much truth.

Fig. 85

Alexandria under the Ptolemies, a Greek city built on Egyptian soil, and colonised by strangers who were courted to settle there. shows a strange mixture of European, Asiatic, and Egyptian civilisations. There the, religious opinions and the philosophy of all these nations were alike patronised by the sovereign, and alike struggled for mastery, and in some minds moulded themselves into union. Political despotism was there, united with freedom of philosophic thought, active trade with industrious scholarship, credulity with scepticism, Egyptian superstitions with Greek satire, the self-denying asceticism of the Jewish Therapeut with the immoralities of the Eleusinian mysteries, the science and cold criticism of one half of the Museum, with the imaginative Platonism of the other. There flourished in particular, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, verbal criticism, together with fortune-telling, mysticism, and scoffing. The despotism of the sovereign checked all lofty aims after moral excellence; but the toleration, or rather impartial patronage, which descended like an heirloom with the crown, allowed such a free play to speculative opinions in religion and philosophy, as the world has never seen in any other country, or at any other time whatever. This was in part interrupted by the wars in Judea, during which the Egyptian Jews rebelled against the government, and blood was often shed in the streets of Alexandria. But if this political warfare in some respects took the form of religious persecution by the government, it very little disturbed the minds of the Alexandrian men of letters, The Greeks in that city were too little in earnest, too indifferent to all opinions, to be intolerant of any, till Christianity gave a new importance to religion, and it became a bond of union between Egyptian slave and Greek freeman, which clogged the hitherto unchecked despotism of the rulers.

The Bull Apis and Winged Sun on Coins of Cyprus.

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