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HTS Theological Studies

On-line version ISSN 2072-8050
Print version ISSN 0259-9422

Herv. teol. stud. vol.67 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2011




Christians reacted differently to non-Christian cults



Eduard Verhoef

Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to




Christians were confronted with many other religions during the expansion of Christianity. What was their attitude towards these other religions? Apparently Christians reacted very differently. Earlier I argued that the Christians in Philippi adopted some elements of the cult of Euephenes, an initiate in the Kabeiric cult of Samothrace. The Kabeiric cult was very much present in Thessalonica as well. In this article I argued that, here too, Christians took over some elements of the Kabeiric cult. In some other cities non-Christian cults were eliminated. These different reactions towards other religions and cults seemed to stem from the local situation. In particular, local religious customs seem to have been adopted and to have taken precedence over well-known national or even international religions. Apparently, it was very difficult for people to abandon strong local rituals.

In 1997, Andries van Aarde and Sanrie van Zijl published a very interesting article in which they drew attention to the pagan Hellenistic background that may have played a role in the development of Christology. Though more aspects should be taken into consideration it is self-evident to me that the entire history of the Christian church can be understood only against the background of the whole contemporary world. For example, Christians reacted very differently to non-Christian cults after they had assumed power in the Roman Empire. Sometimes temples and shrines were devastated, sometimes they were reused as churches. And sometimes elements of other cults were adopted in a more or less Christianised form. Recently I argued that in Philippi the cult of Euephenes, an initiate in the cult of the Kabeiroi on Samothrace, was succeeded by the veneration of Paul.

In the present article, however, I focused on the cult of Kabeiros in Thessalonica and its impact on the cult of Demetrios that was already thriving there, whereby the latter cult began to incorporate elements of the former. I concluded the article with short remark about the way Christians elsewhere adopted or rejected other cults, touching on the question why, in some cases, an older cult was integrated into the Christian cult and why it was terminated in other cases.



Thessalonica and the cult of Kabeiros

In 1950, Bengt Hemberg wrote a thorough study about the cult of Kabeiros (singular) and of the Kabeiroi (plural). In it, he collected many data regarding the cities where this cult played a role. It is clear from Hemberg's study that there were several differences in the way the Kabeiroi were venerated in these cities. In Thessalonica, the cult of one Kabeiros (Hemberg 1950:208 speaks about eine Sonderentwicklung and Witt1 1985:975 speaks about 'Kabeiric monotheism') played a significant role next to other cults, such as those of Isis, Dionysos and others (cf. Steimle 2008:79–200; Vom Brocke 2001:115–142).

The first mention of Kabeiros, with respect to Thessalonica, is on local coins. Kabeiros was depicted on these so-called pseudo-autonomous or provincial coins from the reign of Vespasian through the reign of Claudius Gothicus, who reigned CE 268–270 (cf. Touratsoglou 1988:86, 325–337).2 Accordingly, Kabeiros must have been assessed as an important god from the time of Vespasian,3 and even decades earlier, because of the process that must have preceded the coinage with his picture. But even before that time, Kabeiros may have been known in Thessalonica, as he was venerated in Larisa in the 2nd century BCE at the latest, and, as early as in the 5th century BCE in Thebes (Hemberg 1950:159, 189–190).4 From the reign of Septimius Severus (CE 192–211) onwards, Kabeiros was mentioned on imperial Thessalonian coins as well. These coins had the portraits of the Roman emperor and Kabeiros (Touratsoglou 1988:201–314). Most often, Kabeiros is rendered with a hammer in his left hand and a rhyton in his right hand, wearing a short chiton, with a coat on his shoulder (Touratsoglou 1988: pictures 49–52).

Lactantius and Firmicus Maternus, writing in the 3rd and 4th century CE, respectively, both state that Kabeiros was worshipped in Thessalonica.5 Firmicus Maternus argued that this Kabeiros was murdered by his brothers and that he was venerated by the Thessalonians. He was assessed to be the 'tutelary deity' (Edson6 1985:925). This role as tutelary deity becomes clear as Kabeiros is portrayed standing on the city wall (Touratsoglou 1988:309 and plate 45). In CE 254 and CE 268 the Goths had attacked Thessalonica and both times the Roman army had managed to drive them away. On a coin, perhaps issued by Claudius Gothicus in CE 269 (cf. Arrigoni 2003:20; Hemberg 1950:206), it says 'Deo Cabiro', in honour of God Kabeiros. These words might refer to these victories (Witt 1977:976). The rescue of the city was thought to have been achieved by Kabeiros (Vitti 1996a:92). Holy games were held in honour of Kabeiros from the time of Gordianus III (CE 238–244). They were called the Pu/qia Kabei/ria, 'Kabeiric Games', in order to distinguish them from the Pu/qia Kaisa/reia, 'Caesar's Games', (Steimle 2008:163; Vacalopoulos 1963:14; Hemberg 1950:206–207). In the Octagon, part of Galerius's palace in Thessalonica, a marble capital has been found that shows Kabeiros in a short chiton and with a rhyton in his right hand (Tzanavari 2003:230). This rhyton could suggest that some elements of the cult of Dionysos had been adopted. One of the Kabeiroi may even have been known by the name of Dionysos (Vitti 1996a:91). Three other capitals in this palace depict Zeus, Hygeia and one of the Dioskouroi (Vitti 1996a:212, pictures 61–64). The capital with the sculpture of Kabeiros confirms that he had a prominent place in Thessalonica.

Kabeiros is mentioned in some inscriptions as well, one of which was written on a marble altar that was found nearby the monumental church of Saint Demetrios. This altar dates from the 3rd century CE, and was nearly 2 metres high, about 41 centimetres wide and 22 centimetres thick. Someone is mentioned on this altar who was newko/rov tou~ a(giwta/tou patri/ou qeou~ Kabei/rou, 'temple servant of the most holy ancestral god Kabeiros' (Edson 1948:925–926, 1972:83–84, inscription 199). According to Touratsoglou, this heavy altar with the noun newko/roj, 'temple servant', indicates that a temple for Kabeiros must have been located in this area (Touratsoglou 1985:76; cf. Tzanavari 2003:230; Vitti 1996a:92.117; Theocharidis 1980:80). Apparently this temple servant was a high official, because he held the office of a magistrate as well. It is worth mentioning here that Kabeiros is depicted standing in a small temple on several coins from the 2nd and the 3rd century CE (see e.g. Touratsoglou 1988:206–208, 279, 305, 313; plates 23–24, 40, 45–46). Another inscription from the 3rd century mentions someone who was i(erofa/nthj tou~ a(giwta/tou qeou~ Kabei/rou, 'an initiating, teaching priest of the most holy god Kabeiros', and a)gwnoqe/thj, 'organiser of games' (Steimle 2008:159). Consequently, at least two different functions were connected with the cult of Kabeiros, that of newko/rov, 'temple servant', and that of i(erofa/nthj, 'initiating, teaching priest'. These inscriptions confirm that Kabeiros was highly esteemed in Thessalonica in that time.

Maria Lagogianni published a 2nd century inscription, in which the deceased, Kleupa/tra, 'Cleopatra', summoned people in the name of Kabeiros to dance, e)corki/zw se to\n Ka/beiron a0nagnou/v o0/rxhse, 'I swear you by Kabeiros, after reading this, to dance a while' (Lagogianni 1998:77, inscription 83).7 This inscription was found in Thessalonica, at Monastiriou 131, to the west of the western city wall, an area that may have been a graveyard. Very often, tombstones have been found at main roads outside the cities.

A fourth inscription should be mentioned here: in Agios Mamas, about 80 kilometres south-east of Thessalonica, a 3rd century inscription was found on a herm. It was dedicated to Kabeiros and to his son (Demitsas8 1988:630, inscription 752). This inscription mentions Herennius Orestinus, a well-known citizen of Thessalonica (cf. Edson 1972:160, inscription number 488). He was the son of Orestinus, the i(erofa/nthv, 'the initiating, teaching priest'. This herm was probably related to a temple of Kabeiros (Hemberg 1950:170–171).9 It is worth mentioning here that Kabeiros and his son were venerated in Thebes as well (Hemberg 1950:191–192).

It is clear from the occurrences of the name of Kabeiros that the cult of Kabeiros played an important role in Thessalonica in the first centuries of the Common Era, next to other cults (cf. Steimle 2008:7–200; Vom Brocke 2001:113–142). Unfortunately we do not have much information about this cult there. The altar found in the neighbourhood of the Agios Demetrios certainly had a function related to sacrifices. The call to dance indicates that dancing belonged to the rites of the Kabeiric cult and it is clear that some feasts were organised in honour of Kabeiros.

The cult of the Kabeiroi is most often associated with the island of Samothrace. Lemnos, Imbros and Delos could be mentioned as well (cf. Blakely 2006:36–37), but, apparently, the cult centre on Samothrace was the most influential. There, the so-called Anaktoron was excavated, among other buildings. This was the hall where people were initiated into the Samothracian cult. The doors between the main hall of the Anaktoron and the inner sanctuary were flanked by the Kabeiroi (Lehmann 1966:47). It was indicated in an inscription written in Latin and in Greek that only the initiated were allowed to enter this inner sanctuary. Elements that played a role in the initiation and in reaching the degree of epopteia, the highest grade of initiation, in another building, the Hieron, were for example ritual dances (Lewis 1959:97–98, inscriptions 215–217), confession of sins, purification (Lewis 1959:111–112, inscriptions 239–240) and a symbolic baptism in blood (Lehmann 1966:33–35; cf. Witt 1977:968–969). Animals were slaughtered on this occasion (cf. Ex 24:8). It goes without saying that these rites remind us of Jewish and Christian rites and though we do not know if all of these elements were performed in Thessalonica, we can imagine that Thessalonian people acquainted with the Kabeiric rites recognised certain elements in the Christian cult. And the fact that Kabeiros was understood to save people even after he was murdered made it probably easier to understand the Christian message that Christ gave salvation to his adherents even after he died on the cross.

Another city where the Kabeiric cult is demonstrable is Thebes. It is even suggested that the buildings on Samothrace influenced the style of a temple in Thebes (Lehmann & Spittle 1960:65–66). The Kabeiric cult probably played a role in Amphipolis as well (cf. besides the inscription mentioned above, Papastavru 1936:54, 97). In Philippi, a certain Euephenes was venerated who was an initiate in the Kabeiric cult on Samothrace (Verhoef 2008:701). However, as with Thessalonica, little information is known regarding the activities of these cults in Amphipolis and in Philippi.

We can affirm the connection between the Thessalonians and the cult on Samothrace on the basis of the following arguments:

• Firstly, there is an inscription from Samothrace that mentions a citizen from Thessalonica, Archepolis the son of Archepolis, as mu/sthj, 'an initiate' (Fredrich 1909:63, inscription number 195). This inscription can be dated around the beginning of the Common Era.

• Secondly, in another inscription, dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE, several persons from Thessalonica are mentioned as initiates in the cult of Samothrace (Chapouthier 1936:234, footnote 4; Dimitrova 2008:100).

The name of Kabeiros, or of the Kabeiroi, is not mentioned in these two inscriptions. Nevertheless, in my opinion, we can be certain that the Kabeiroi were venerated there, though the relation between the Kabeiroi and Samothrace has not yet been clarified. A problem is that, until now, the singular, Kabeiros, or the plural, Kabeiroi, have not been found on Samothrace (Cole 1984:1). According to Collart, the faithful people on Samothrace, and maybe on nearby Lemnos as well, did not like to pronounce the name of their deities, they simply said 'the great gods' or 'the gods' (Collart 1954:180). In any case, a connection between the Kabeiroi and Samothrace can be established on the basis of the following texts:

• A certain Euephenes is mentioned in an unpublished inscription that was found in Philippi as an initiate into the mystery cult of the Cabiri at the Sanctuary of Samothrace' (Koukouli & Bakirtzis 1995:54; cf. Pilhofer 2009:393).

• A list is given of initiates of the temple of the Kabeiroi in an unpublished inscription from Samothrace (Pelekanidis 1978b:395).

• A third important inscription probably originates from Amphipolis. It is an epitaph dated after the 2nd century BCE (Karadima-Matsa & Dimitrova 2003:335–338). In this inscription a connection is made between the Kabeiric cult and the cult of Demeter in Eleusis. It is said that a certain Isidoros, the son of Nikostratos,10 saw as an initiate the double holy light of Kabeiros among the Samothracians and the holy rites of Demeter in Eleusis. The mention of just one Kabeiros in this inscription is striking, as the plural Kabeiroi is used most often. We saw that just one Kabeiros was venerated in Thessalonica in Roman times.

• The fourth text is by Plutarch. He referred in Marcellus 30.4, to the gods of Samothrace ou(\j Kabei/rouj w)no/mazon, 'that they called Kabeiroi', which they called Kabeiroi.

• As fifth statement I mention Herodotus, who said in Histories II, 51: (/Ostij de\ ta\ Kabei/rwn o)/rgia memu/htai, ta\ Samoqrh/ikej e)pitele/ousi ... oi)~de to\ le/gw, 'anyone who is initiated in the rites of the Kabeiroi that the Samothracians perform ... knows what I mean'.11

We can conclude with certainty that the Kabeiroi had a function on Samothrace. And, as was argued above, there were several connections between the Thessalonians and Samothrace. Some citizens from Thessalonica were initiated in the Samothracian cult. Witt calls them 'Kabeiric Mystes' (Witt 1977:968).

We conclude that Kabeiros was worshipped as the tutelary deity of Thessalonica and that he was honoured in the Kabeiric games in the 3rd century of the Common Era. We can deduce from coins and from the inscriptions mentioned above that there was a temple connected with this cult. This temple was probably situated in the area where the Church of Agios Demetrios was later built. There were connections between Kabeiros and Samothrace. Some elements from the cult of the Kabeiroi on Samothrace are reminiscent of some aspects of the Christian cult. People acquainted with the cult of Kabeiros, or of the Kabeiroi, will have recognised well known elements in the Christian cult.


The cult of Demetrios

With respect to the cult of Demetrios we have the first and the second collection of the Miracles as the most imporant literary sources (for the text and a paraphrase see Lemerle 1979:47–241 and for the text next to a translation in modern Greek, see Bakirtzis 1997:50–333; the text of these collections is subdivided in paragraphs that have, together, one consecutive numeration). The first collection of the Miracles is composed by John, archbishop of Thessalonica, in the beginning of the 7th century CE. The author of the second collection is unknown. Besides these, the two passions of Demetrios, known as Passio prima and Passio altera can be mentioned (for the Greek text of the Passio prima see Delehaye12 1975:259–263, for the same text with a translation in modern Greek, see Bakirtzis 1987:28–35 and, for an English translation, see Skedros 1999:155–157; for the Greek text of the Passio altera with a translation in modern Greek, see Bakirtzis 1987:34–47 and, for an English translation, see Skedros 1999:149–154). These two writings offer some fascinating details, but their historical reliability is rather weak (Lemerle 1979:10, they have 'en commun leur insignifiance historique', 'they are both historically insignificant').13

These documents provide many data, though they sometimes contradict each other. They say that Demetrios lived at the end of the 3rd and in the beginning of the 4th century CE. He was a brave soldier in the time that Galerius, Caesar of Illyrium and Thrace, was seated as Augustus in Thessalonica (i.e. around the year 305). Demetrios is even said to have been a proconsul (see Passio altera §2 in Bakirtzis 1997:36). He converted to Christianity and became a zealous defender of the Christian faith. Christianity was still forbidden at the time and Demetrios was imprisoned in the kilns of the public baths after some intrigues and Galerius had him killed there by his soldiers shortly after (see the Passio prima in Bakirtzis 1997:28–35). At night, friends of Demetrios would have looked for his body and have covered it with a mound of earth in order to protect it against beasts of prey. Faithful people are said to have often visited this place. They perceived that miracles happened there and that people recovered from their illnesses apparently because Demetrios had been buried there. In the following decades Demetrios's fame continued to grow.

Galerius died in 311 and, a few years later, Christians had received permission to practise their own religion. According to tradition, it was shortly after these events that Christians brought into use part of the public baths for their meetings around the martyr's body (Passio prima §7 in Bakirtzis 1997:32.34). Tradition has it that they built a small church at the place where the body of Demetrios was supposed to lie in the ground. Later on, a certain Leontios, eparch (governor) of Illyricum had fallen ill and was brought to this holy place. Leontios begged Demetrios for recovery. He subsequently recovered and ordered a beautiful, larger church to be built as substitute for the rather small room for worship. This new church was situated between the public baths and the stadium according to the Passio altera §15, me/son tou~ dhmosi/ou loutrou~ kai\ tou~ stadi/ou, 'between the public bathhouse and the stadion' (Bakirtzis 1997:44). According to the relevant texts the stadium was situated close to the Roman baths (Vickers 1971:339–340). Actually these baths were constructed by converting an older gymnasium (Vitti 1996a:54, 98–99) and would later be called the baths of Saint Demetrios. Some scholars argue over whether the stadium was located north or south of the Roman baths, but a location south of these baths is more probable, because, among other reasons, this lightly sloping area was much more appropriate to build the stands than the steep area to the north (see Vickers 1971:341–342; Vitti 1996a:96–98 and 1996b, map 7).14

Who was this eparch Leontios? This question cannot be answered definitely. A Leontios is mentioned as eparch of Illyricum for the year 412–413 in the Codex Theodosianus (Mommsen 1954:322, 706). But the church of Demetrios is most often dated to the second half of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century (Bakirtzis 1995:60). Vickers mentioned a prefect of Constantinople in 434–435 with the name Leontios and argued that this Leontios was 'probably' the Leontios mentioned in the Passio prima and the Passio altera (Vickers 1974:347). Price (1999:168) opted for this Leontios to have had this church built without any argument. However, as far as we know, this Leontios did not hold the office of eparch in Illyricum. Spieser pointed to an eparch Leontios who was in office in 510 and he proposed, as an hypothesis, that it was this Leontios who had this church built (Spieser 1984:214; cf. Cormack 1989:549 argued: 'around 500'). However, in my opinion, this is rather late. As the emperor Justinian (527–565) asked for a relic of the famous Saint (Miracles §53 in Bakirtzis 1997:118) it must have been a well-known cult that was celebrated in the Church of Agios Demetrios.

Another important factor is that a cruciform reliquary was found and an apse was discovered under the altar of the Agios Demetrios during excavations. It was argued that this apse originally belonged to the Roman baths and that it later formed part of an earlier church, rather than the church built in the second half of the 5th century (Soteriou & Soteriou 1952:58–61; cf. Lemerle 1953:670; Lemerle 1981:206–218). The fact that the width of the present day narthex is only three aisles of the five-aisle church could be seen as an argument that a smaller, three-aisle, church once existed there.

The following reconstruction cannot be proven, but is arguable: Leontios, the eparch of Illyricum in 412–413, had a three-aisle church built in Thessalonica, and, after 441, as the seat of the prefecture was moved to Thessalonica, a new, larger five-aisle church was built in the place of the three-aisle church of Leontios (see Skedros 1999:38; Soteriou & Soteriou 1952:246–247; cf. Popovic 1987:112–115). This would fit in with the 'period of building activity, which saw the erection of monumental Christian buildings in Thessalonica after 441/442' (Skedros 1999:37), as the seat of the prefecture was moved from Sirmium to Thessalonica. This reasoning tallies with the data that archaeologists found with respect to the architecture and style of the church as we know it. Authors such as Kautzsch (1936:75) and Kleinbauer (1970:40, 44) make use of these architectural and stylistic aspects, both concluding that the current Church of Agios Demetrios was built in the second half of the 5th century (cf. Soteriou & Soteriou 1952:247). This was some decades before Justinian asked for some relics of the then famous Saint. In any case, it is significant for us, to know that the cult of Saint Demetrios was practised at least since the end of the 5th century, and maybe some decades earlier at the place where the church had been built not long before. Data with respect to Leontios, and regarding the life of Demetrios himself, are much less certain.

Paul Lemerle (1981:13–26) gave an overview of the many studies regarding the stories about Demetrios and his cult. He mentioned among others, H. Gelzer (1899:53–54) who argued: 'Das ganze Christentum der Thessalonicher besteht nur in Demetrioskult. Christus wird nur noch honoris causa genannt', 'whole Christianity is only worship of Demetrios and Christ is menioned only honorarily'. This statement is certainly exaggerated. But we can easily see that Demetrios was a prominent figure in the Christian church of Thessalonica. Holy water played a role in the veneration of Demetrios (Grabar 1946:453). The water was supplied from a well in the northeast of the church and was channelled through plumbing conduits to a holy basin in the so-called crypt. This is the place where, according to tradition, Demetrios was murdered and buried. Water taken from this place was considered holy and medicinal. Worshippers came here to venerate Demetrios and to take some of this holy water to be cured from their diseases.

Water also played an important role in the cult in Philippi (Verhoef 2008:704). Bakirtzis argued that there were om( oiot/ htev twn~ ud( raulikwn~ eg) katastas/ ewn ag( ias/ matov (Agi/ou Dhmhtri/ou kai\ )Oktagw/nou Fili/ppwn, 'similarities between the hydraulic system of Saint Demetrios' shrine and that of the Octagon in Philippi' (Bakirtzis 1997:505). But there are more examples of cults where water was used for peculiar rituals. Euripides knew of purification by washing with water before sacred rituals; see Euripides's Ion 96–97;