(All posts in this series are archived here.)
Chapter four of Jesus Potter Harry Christ is predominantly a survey of pagan deities and heroes whose stories contain echoes of the Jesus Christ story: Gilgamesh, Dionysus, Pythagoras, Orpheus, Asclepius, Osiris, Tammuz (Adonis), Attis, Mithras. Derek Murphy is not arguing that the Jesus story was a direct borrowing of any of these or that these pagan gods and heroes are the same thing as Jesus. What Murphy does argue is that it is important to understand the cultural and ideological background from which Christianity emerged. To this end, the very clear similarities between these pagan figures, and certain practices associated with the worship of some of them, are significant, and especially so in an age of unprecedented religious tolerance and syncretism.
The title of the book is an attempt to focus readers on the argument that literary borrowing is often a more subtle and complex cultural process than a simplistic, deliberate, one for one correspondence from earlier iconic figures and stories. The author is currently a PhD student in comparative literature so it is not surprising to find a wider range of literary models than the Harry Potter series sprinkled throughout the book.
Fans of Marvel Comic’s The Incredible Hulk might have already noticed the similarities between Cúchulainn and Dr. Bruce Banner’s alter ego. The parallels are fascinating and demand the question, are the similarities purely coincidental? Given the difference in geography and time, we might assume so. On the other hand, the story of Leinster may have remained for centuries in the “collective unconscious,” or even been passed down from mothers to sons as a bedtime story, before unconsciously popping up as the big green monster. However, if it could be shown that one of the creators of the Marvel character was Irish or had studied Irish myths of that time period, and was most likely familiar with the story of Leinster, then of course we could make a pretty strong argument that The Incredible Hulk was a deliberate re-telling of the myth for a more modern audience. (p. 108, my emphasis)
So what does one do when one encounters some precise parallels between the Jesus story and earlier myths? Can it be demonstrated the authors of the gospels were familiar with those myths?
Murphy acknowledges that this question is handicapped today by naïvety and flawed arguments of some past researchers who used often flawed translations of texts and made unfounded sweeping generalizations to find parallels.
Nevertheless, some of today’s scholarly critics of of the question of such parallels have even attacked the idea of similarity itself rather than particular similarities. (Robert M. Price has addressed this in his discussions of an ideal type.) But of course the obvious rebuttal to such criticisms, as Murphy points out with various quotations, is that the ancient church fathers themselves acknowledged the similarities between Jesus and the pagan gods. Murphy makes the interesting comparison between ancient Christians complaining that the similarities were planted by the Devil and our modern C.S. Lewis attributing them to the divine plan of God. Murphy also cites the evidence that Jews themselves were not so uniformly abhorrent of pagan customs and ideas.
So Murphy justifies the relevance of his discussion of pagan gods and heroes to his argument that the Jesus story is best explained as originating as a literary or ideological construct and not as a historical figure.
One detail of Murphy’s discussion I found intriguing was his argument that in some cases where certain specific images are found in very dissimilar functions in pagan and Christian stories (e.g. fish), the thematic meaning of such symbols are often very similar. Additionally, certain practices of followers, their communal organizations and rules, are also of interest as comparisons with our understanding of early Christianity.
The discussion of Asclepius was one I found particularly rewarding. Asclepius the gentle and personally accessible deity, lover of children, gentle, exorcist and healer, and one whose cult was considered at certain times the greatest threat to Christianity.
As mentioned in my previous installment, the one complaint I have is that I wish Derek had taken more time for proof-reading and tidying up some points of presentation. Quoting scholars is fine, but I found myself often turning to the end notes and bibliography to identify a particular author of a quote, or if the author was named in the chapter, I was sometimes having to make a pencil note to check later exactly who that person was, what were his or her credentials, etc. Sometimes, however, there is no cited source when I really do want to see one, such as when he remarks that it was the cross formed by the elliptic and celestial equator that was one of the signs of Mithras. I can understand not wanting to hit an audience new to these ideas with too much detail, but sometimes there is a lack of consistency that I think would even confuse a new reader at times. After speaking of Apollo, for example, there is an unexpected reference to Phoebus. I know the two are identical, but how many others do?
Murphy has amassed a great wealth of detail for each of the figures he discusses, and it is all well-worth reading and thinking about. Questions he raises against some modern scholarly views — such as the evidence for Mithraism borrowing from Christianity rather than the other way around — are pertinent. Why, for example, would the successful cult of Mithraism feel a need to borrow from a despised and persecuted sect?
A dark side of Christianity is that as Christians did gain strength in numbers, too many of them displayed a violently destructive (sometimes murderous) contempt for their pagan rivals. Murphy reminds us that the success of Christianity was not necessarily all due to the sublime example of the blood of their martyrs.
Against the wealth of similarities between pagan myths and the Jesus story, what remains of the hypothesis that there was a historical Jesus behind it all and that he was merely lost beneath the layers of Jewish stories and pagan motifs used to interpret his life?
However, since the earliest accounts of Christianity do not point to a historical Jesus, and since many early Christians believed that Jesus did not come in the flesh at all, this theory lacks credibility.
This is not to say that Jesus is just the same as or identical to other figures of mythology; indeed, Jesus would be something entirely new simply by virtue of his being an assimilation of the best features of each. Jesus is the culmination and combination of all other religious traditions of his time: while Orphism had a human prophet (Orpheus) and a divine god (Dionysus), in two separate stories, Jesus became both human and divine — prophet and god — in a mysterious, impossible Truth that was beyond all sense and logic. Without any attempt to make the story coherent, Jesus was given every feature, every power, every moving anecdote, parable and saying found in rival literature. (p. 178)
What made the Jesus story distinctive, Murphy concludes, is the unusual claim that Jesus had been a historical figure and had risen physically from the dead. It was this insistence on the resurrection of the flesh that proved the most difficult for contemporaries to accept. Murphy has already given hints — and they are found in other scholarly literature too — of the political impetus behind the development of this doctrine.
Overall, despite the shortcomings of some referencing and proof-reading, this chapter contains a valuable 65 page chunk of detail of myths and practices associated with a constellation of pagan gods and demi-gods or heroes. The extent to which the Jesus story is the product of direct or indirect cultural influences is still something I’m personally thinking through. It is not a line of thought I have paid much attention to, and that is probably partly a reaction against my own past bad experiences with some over generalized bad scholarship that did attempt to grapple with this question in an earlier generation. But the richness of detail Murphy provides here makes stimulating and thought-provoking reading when applied against what is known of the beliefs and practices of early Christians.