Miracle workers and magical papyri

Aarhus Aa2012-12-03 12.08.45-1

Brigitte Bogh, Jan Bremmer, and Rubina Raja

For a few days last week Jesus and Mithras were alive and well in Jutland, thanks to a workshop on Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity: Shifting Identities, Creating Change in the village of Ebeltoft, sponsored by Anders-Christian Jacobsen and Rubina Raja‘s Velux Project on Conversion and Initiation in Antiquity at the University of Aarhus.

There were wonderful papers on “temporary immortality” in the Mithras liturgy by Radcliffe Edmonds and a deconstruction of the “Mithras Catechism” by Roger Beck, and Rubina Raja changed our view of Christian baptism by considering the archaeological record for baptisteries in Jerash. Zeba Crook and Kasper Bro Larsen brought a social theory perspective to apostasy and conversion respectively–the focus on apostasy made an illuminating standpoint from which to think about conversion. Luther Martin gave an insightful account of the sociology of the mystery cults, and Jan Bremmer reminded us that the symbolon, which historians of Christianity know as a creed, was also the word used for the ‘secret password’ of a mystery cult.

Aarhus 2012-12-04 12.33.56

Anders-Christian Jakobsen and Jakob Engberg in Ebeltoft village

I especially enjoyed Anders-Christian’s paper on Cyril of Alexandria, and the following discussion, which ranged from the film Agora to the honour codes of Mafia dons.  I was delighted to see the Church fathers holding their own against the mystery cults in the strange-and-fascinating category!  Carmen Cvetkovic gave a sympathtic paper on the not-decisive view of conversion narrative in Augustine’s Confessions– shades of temporary immortality again!–I fear the shades of Arthur Darby Nock and William James were not entirely pleased. Meanwhile, Volker Menze sent us running for cover with his terrifying account of the Syriac Life of Barsauma, ‘a merciless and fearful creature’.



  1. Might the symbolon, as word used for the ‘secret password’ of a mystery cult, shed some light on the long-standing debate about whether the famous ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR inscription, of which we have an example in the collection here in Manchester, really does have early Christian significance?

  2. What a wonderful idea! I’ve always been fascinated by that inscription. Is there a digital image of it that I could post, perhaps along with the copy from the exhibition label and/or a paragraph from you? If it doesn’t raise problems for the Manchester Museum, it would be interesting to see if colleagues have interesting reactions. In any case, thanks for the inspired thought!

  3. Larry Hurtado has recently done a post involving the ROTAS-SATOR acrostic from a different perspective, arguing that it shouldn’t be used to build up a picture of early Christianity as a ‘as a secretive or covert movement that resorted to supposedly cryptic symbols to avoid detection. In fact, everything we know about pre-Constantinian Christianity indicates a movement seeking to make itself as known as possible.’ Worth a visit.


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