The wrong questions to ask about myths — and the gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Ancient myths and the gospels are not modern novels but it’s tempting to ask questions about their characters and plots as if they were. Questions like, Why did such and such a person do this and not that? Are there not too many unlikely coincidences in this story to make it plausible? Ancient myths are not concerned with the psychological motivations and development of characters the way modern novels are. Nor do their parts have to hang together in the same unifying way.

Characters can be introduced without any explained motivation for their arrival or the actions they perform. What matters is the consequences they effect.

It is the same with reading the gospel of Mark. But before discussing that, a look at Mario Liverani’s chapter on the myth of Adapa (I know, Adapa is eons removed from the gospel, but the tools required for interpreting it are more applicable to the gospels than are the tools required for modern literary criticism):

Generally speaking, the procedures used hitherto in analysing the myth of Adapa act as if it were a realistic novel. The behaviour and psychology of the characters are supposed to fit the requirements of plausibility and consistency – or else they require a development that must be coherently justified from a psychological point of view. Otherwise a novel does not ‘stand’. I argue here that, on the contrary, we have to analyse the myth of Adapa according to the ‘rules’ of mythical narratives (but do I need to state such an obvious principle?), and more generally or traditional stories (especially fairy tales), with which myths share many formal procedures and narrative devices. (pp.5-6 of Myth and Politics in Ancient Near Eastern Historiography 2004).

The Myth of Adapa

  1. Adapa was the ‘son’ and priest of the god Ea, in Eridu
  2. Adapa’s boat was capsized by the South Wind (Shuttu) in a sudden storm
  3. Adapa responded by angrily cursing Shuttu
  4. His words broke the winds of the wind; it subsided immediately failing to blow again
  5. The supreme god Anu, on hearing Adapa had been responsible for violating the natural order, summoned him
  6. Fearing his son and priest would be punished by Anu, Ea, god of wisdom and cunning, gave Adapa two instructions to keep him safe:
    1. he was to dress in mourning clothes and tell the gods at Anu’s door, Tammuz and Gizzida, that he was in mourning because they had disappeared from the earth — this would ensure the good favour and help from these two gods
    2. he was to refuse the bread of death and the water of death that Anu would offer him, but he should accept the clothing and oil of anointing.
  7. All goes according to plan until the moment Anu offers Adapa bread and water: Anu has been so impressed by Adapa that he offers him bread and water of immortal life, not death; but Adapa, recalling his instructions from Ea, fears the banquet of death and declines the offer.

Liverani argues that modern readers miss the point completely when they ask questions like: Why did Ea, the god of wisdom, either lie to his own priest or fail so badly to foresee the offer Anu would really make? Such a question is a consequence of attempting to understand the myth the way we would expect to understand a modern novel.

Liverani also exposes the weakness of those arguments that attempt to see in the myth an explanation for mortality. Among other problems, those arguments fail to explain why the myth gives equal emphasis to the clothing and oil as to the fateful food and drink.

Algebraic oppositions and reduplications

But there is another property of a myth’s narrative logic that Liverani discusses at length, and that is the way they “proceed through oppositions and reduplications of a somewhat algebraic character. The positive or negative qualities of the single elements are always clear-cut, . . . ” — the rest of the description of this particular property requires a fuller discussion than will fit here. It also offers an interesting way of viewing the many “oppositions and reduplications” in Mark’s gospel. Another post.

But in brief, Liverani’s point is that the myth of Adapa is nested in the cultural significance of the four-fold (double-pair) cluster of clothing-oil and bread-water as the essentials of life. The former the external essentials, the latter the internal. All 4 are central to the myth’s narrative and how we understand it. And we understand it through noting their positive and negative associations, and the oppositions and congruences of the attitudes and actions among the characters.

Meaning in the myth — and in the gospel

Result: the myth of Adapa all hangs together, finds its logical coherence, when we view it through the above tools. It is an explanation of how the priest can find acceptance in the presence of the deities (as he regularly does in their sanctuaries), symbolized by the acceptance of the clothing and oil, but still not be immortal like the deities, as depicted in the rejection of the food and drink. The priest has his wisdom and power of magical words and the company of the gods; he also bears his penalty as a reminder against the rash abuse of those powers and privileges.

All a modernists’ questions about whether and why Ea ignorantly or knowingly deceived his priest fall by the wayside as meaningless chaff.

The gospel of Mark is not a myth like that of Adapa (although one might be tempted to argue the semantics of theology, mythology or polytheology) but when understood within the boundaries of what is in the text itself, and understanding the cultural meanings of the dramatic props, as well as the dynamics of the oppositional and congruent relationships and actions within the text, then Mark’s gospel becomes quite removed from any possibility of analysis as if it were a modern novelistic, biographical or historical document.

To take one example, an overlap with the Adapa myth, — clothing. I feel there is additional licence to do so when Liverani says of clothing with the other “survival” props in the myth that it “is amply attested [as such a mythical-literary prop] in Mesopotamia and throughout the entire Near East in all periods.” (Bread is another “survival” prop throughout the gospel.)

After Jesus arrived at the country of the Gadarenes and healed the wild possessed man, the man is described as healed and “clothed”. I am sure Mark would roll his eyes in frustration at anyone who interrupted to ask where his clothing came from. A novel can’t just bring in a spare set of clothes like that. There has to have been a laundry basket in the boat or something for the writer to call on in order to justify this little detail. The point is that the healed man is now back in the company of civil society, even more, in the company of the citizens of the kingdom heaven.

Ditto for the food of John the Baptist and Jesus when each was in the wilderness. John ate locusts and wild honey. Jesus had angels wait on him. The hard-earned food of mortality and the graceful provision of immortality could scarcely be more starkly set in opposition.

Likewise their clothing. John was wrapped in primitive animal skins; Jesus was possessed by a dove-like spirit that entered inside him from heaven. The outer and the dead contrasted with the inner and the living. Sure Mark took the image of John’s garments from Elijah, but he set them in opposition to what the reader sees of Jesus when he comes up from baptism. Elijah (and Moses) belong to the covenant of death, as Paul might have said. It was certainly outside the boundaries of the new order with animal skins pointing by comparison to the primitive, the wild.

If the text of the gospel can be read coherently in this way, then it is superfluous, and contrary to the original meaning and intent of the gospel to ask of it questions that have to do with modern novelistic coherence, let alone to do with any notions of “history” or “biography”.

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Neil Godfrey

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