June 25, 2003

Other bloggers have already noted Lynn's fine essay last week on why Catholics are not idolatrous pagans. It spawned the longest comments thread I've ever seen on Lynn's site, which took off in an interesting direction of its own.

Mac Swift, who started off this whole furor with his post, referred to an 1831 book called The Two Babylons to support his claim that the Eucharist is actually an appropriation of an Egyptian ritual celebrating the death and rebirth of Osiris, and is therefore not really Christian. Lynn pointed out that the same claim was used in a more recent book, The Jesus Mysteries, to claim that Jesus himself was an appropriated god and the historical Jesus didn't exist.

That claim rang a faint bell. I think someone was arguing for it on a message board I used to frequent a few years ago. I have been thinking about the fact that, as I'm reading a book about the historical Jesus from a highly skeptical point of view, I don't take seriously the idea that Jesus didn't exist. Anything's possible, I suppose, but I'm basically operating under the assumption that there was a person called Jesus.

The idea that there might be some similarity between pagan rituals and narratives and Christian ones is not shocking, and does not inherently imply causation. The peoples of the ancient world were well aware of the similarities between the gods of peoples from different places, and identified them with each other; even Paul, in Acts 17, was willing to identify the Athenians' "unknown god" as Yahweh. In the twentieth century the best known explanation for this is probably Carl Jung's theory of archetypes and common myths, popularized by folks like Joseph Campbell.

Indeed, once you've read a lot of myths they get pretty easy to recognize. Their narratives tend to be tidy and satisfying: every character plays a role, every event has symbolic import; there are no accidents or dead ends. They're often exotic and fantastical, but they speak to themes in ordinary life: birth, growing up, finding love, reaching goals, fighting fate etc. It almost feels like there's a slight shift in your mental reality when you're hearing a myth; you've left your daily life for another space, perhaps what the Australian aborigines call "dreamtime."

There are lots of real-life people who become mythologized over time, who get turned into archetypes. Historians think there really was a King Arthur and a Robin Hood, but the stories that developed about them changed them beyond recognition. It seems near-certain to me that Jesus has been mythologized at least to some degree.

What's weird about the Jesus-was-really-Osiris argument, though, is that it goes the other way. Rather than taking a character from earth into dreamtime, it takes a character from dreamtime down to earth. There are some parts of the Bible that really read like myth -- Genesis, Jonah, even the story of Jesus' birth, especially in Luke. But the stories of Jesus' adult life really don't. They're narratively clunky, they have characters who are hard to keep straight (even the Gospel writers seem to have confused some of the Jameses and Marys), and there are odd and cryptic things going on that scholars still haggle over.

This is, of course, a literary judgment more than anything else, and I could be wrong. And certainly the overarching theme -- God comes to earth, dies for the sins of man, rises again in triumph -- is mythic. I don't know if that's true or not. But something happened back then, and that it happened around a person called Jesus seems clear enough.

Posted by Camassia at June 25, 2003 07:29 PM | TrackBack

There is a brief article here about the similarities of the Jesus myth and other "godmen" dating back to 1200 BC. It is from The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors.

Mac obviously has a problem with Roman Catholicism, but if he would look more closely he would see that christianity in general shares many characteristics and beliefs with other religions.

Posted by: Rob on June 26, 2003 01:15 PM

Gods who rose from the dead were common in Middle Eastern religion. Baal, Osiris, Ishtar, and Manichee were among those who did so. Mac criticizes Catholicism, but leaves the central myth untouched. Which makes him no credible critic of the Catholic eucharist feast because he attempts to pose himself as a bearer of truth against their corruption by paganism.

He's no purer than they and perhaps less so if he insists that Christ rose from the dead. Mac stands for a statism: the Pope criticized U.S. foreign policy. I see him as infested by a far more hideous paganism, akin to that which led the Romans to kill Christians because they would not make sacrifices to the gods.

Posted by: Joel on June 26, 2003 09:55 PM

this is a very interesting piece of information.
i am doing Aboriginal Dreamtime stories in English and i would love to know more about it, can you please send me some information.
i have enjoyed reading your information.

Posted by: Lauren on November 21, 2004 02:45 PM
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