2011-05-06

Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch.5 – astrological foundations

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by Tim Widowfield

This post belongs to a series of chapter by chapter reviews archived here.

I have yet to read the pioneering Christ myth arguments of the eighteenth century French savants Dupuis and Volney who, I understand, argued that Jesus Christ was based on astrological, in particular solar, myths. So I looked forward to Derek Murphy’s chapter 5 where he (re-)introduces astrological arguments purportedly underlying the Gospel Jesus myth.

This chapter of Jesus Potter Harry Christ turned out to be a mixed bag for me. I’ll give the good stuff first. This is from the second page of the chapter, with the underlining and bold being my own emphasis:

While I will not claim that Jesus Christ is just a sun myth or solar deity, I hope to demonstrate that certain symbols and motifs found in Christianity can only be fully explained after exploring this ancient tale of the sun’s journey. I will also establish that at least some early Christian communities associated Jesus with the sun (or previous solar deities) and deliberately incorporated astrological symbolism into their texts, rituals and practices. (p. 186)

Most biblical scholars would acknowledge that there is much mythology bound up with the Jesus tales in the canonical gospels, and Murphy himself reminds readers that to this extent there is nothing radically new about the grounds upon which the question of Jesus’ historicity can be asked.

Murphy discusses here the place of astrology in ancient cultures, and describes a number of myths that are mapped out in several of the heaven’s constellations. He also describes what he sees as the astrological origins of various religious symbols such as the solar cross and the serpent. His most detailed account is of the solar myths. It is here that we learn of the astronomical bases for several key motifs in Christianity and other religious myths: the cross, death for three days, death and resurrection, darkness and the underworld, conflict and overcoming of darkness and the power of the underworld, significances of the numbers 12 (disciples), 30 (Jesus’ age, betrayal amount, John’s disciples) and 40 (days in the wilderness), relationships to a ram and to fish.

Murphy makes an interesting suggestion of a link between Herod’s massacre of the innocents and earlier tales of an escape of an infant hero from an evil tyrant being traced back even beyond the story of Moses and as far back as the myth that, in its Greek form, spoke of Chronos (Saturn/Time) who, on learning from a prophecy that one of his children was to replace him as ruler, began to eat his infant offspring one by one.

What is distinctive about Murphy’s presentation is that he shows how such themes as these from ancient mythology have been with us in literature for centuries and continue to reappear in popular literature today. The solar myth tropes are applied both to historical and fictional characters: Alexander the Great (Murphy discusses the 2004 movie), Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Lion King (1994 movie). The basic story is millennia old, and each culture (and religion) re-presents it in new garb.

This leads to the obvious question:

The question now is to explore how deeply these symbols go in the story of Jesus, and whether they came from the sun myth either unconsciously or deliberately. If inclusions were accidental, or later additions, then we should be able to take them away from the figure of Jesus Christ without any ill-effect; without changing the basic core structure of Christian belief. (p. 205)]

Murphy’s answer in the case of Jesus is:

However, we will see that astrological symbolism permeates the gospel story in such a way that it is unlikely to be coincidental, and also impossible to extricate it from “the real Jesus.”

Murphy draws on Ulansey’s research into the significance of the precession of the equinoxes for certain changes in religious symbols across the millennia, and the related mutations or extensions of certain myths.

Jesus today, of course, is far removed from any conscious association with the solar myths, but Murphy seems to point to some evidence that some early Christians depicted Jesus as a sun god. The Gospel of Matthew’s narrative is set out chronologically against “subtle clues” that it is structured along a twelve-month zodiacal cycle from Aquarius to Capricorn. Not everyone will find this a slam dunk argument, but it could well serve as a discussion starter that has the potential to lead into many areas of gospel studies.

Now for the less good.

I would have liked more consistency or clarity of referencing by Derek Murphy. Specialist scholars like Walter Burkert are quoted alongside works of others like Joscelyn Godwin. I have no problem with that in principle, but without further elaboration it does potentially lead to confusion over what views are grounded in research and those that are better described as opinion pieces. One can try too hard to link the Christian motifs to the solar myth. I don’t think anything would be lost by addressing more bluntly the fragile nature of some of the evidence for this view. This still leaves the door for debate open, and minimizes the risk of less informed readers prematurely attempting to place too much weight on certain claims. Murphy does from time to time qualify his arguments (e.g. the Chi-Rho symbol “may also have been a solar symbol . . .” — my emphasis) but my sense is that overall such qualifications are too easily missed under the mass of material that is presented.

I would also have liked to have seen a clearer elaboration of the chronological strata to which much of the evidence belongs, and where the evidence cited is late, to include a justification for applying its relevance to an earlier period. Evidence for Egyptian astrological beliefs is taken from a third to fourth century text (Iamblichus), but why not justify its relevance for the time when the Christian myth was in development?

Derek Murphy seems at times to say that the ancients derived much the same ideas or myths from their observation of the stars, whether they were in South America, China, or the various regions of the Levant. Yet there were significant differences. The stars don’t obviously present themselves as certain shapes to all people; pre-existing cultural ideas have to be read into them.

Conclusion

Murphy concludes this chapter with the following questions —

But if the similarities between Jesus and pagan gods were accidental, how can we reconcile the evidence that many early Christians themselves worshiped Jesus as the sun? . . . .

If these events in the life of Jesus were taken from solar mythology, was the sun used as a metaphor to enhance Jesus’ saving role? Or, conversely, was Jesus the metaphor . . . . ?

If we let go of the biographical details of the historical Jesus that are similar to solar worship, can we maintain, at the very least, the spiritual image of Jesus? . . . . (p. 224)

If Derek Murphy’s purpose in chapter 5 has been to push such questions to the consciousness of readers then he has succeeded. My understanding of the stated purpose of the book is to raise awareness that the evidence is such that it allows for the asking of such questions.

I do not find every datum in chapter 5 convincing. But I do know that much evidence from early Christian times (into the second, third and fourth centuries) does not sit well with our canonical view of Jesus. The main features of the solar myth certainly do raise questions about the number of coincidences one finds with the gospel narrative of Jesus and the Christ myth in general. Will explore some (or one in particular) of these in the next chapter.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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7 Comments

  • John
    2011-05-07 02:53:26 GMT+0000 - 02:53 | Permalink

    This is exactly what historyhuntersinternational.org is getting at, that Jesus “Chrest” is deliberately modeled on other solar dieties, and things like Philo’s “Christology” and Paul, to create a more Rome-friendly messianic Judaism in order to gain more power and wealth. I’m not able to properly summarize the argument, and I realize that their articles are long and numerous and might not immediately sink in, but I find it to be quite persuasive, and it sounds like Murphy is barking up this tree in this chapter.

  • 2011-05-08 04:38:53 GMT+0000 - 04:38 | Permalink

    Thanks for the review of this chapter – I agree it is weak in many points, and most of the associations aren’t properly grounded. And yet what we’re talking about can’t be “proved”, but is still possible. Although it’s the weak point of the book, as an independent researcher I wanted to go into a speculative area (astrology) that most biblical scholars dare not tread; hopefully the next couple of chapters will tie together some of the unsupported claims.

  • James Raynard
    2016-03-26 17:46:19 GMT+0000 - 17:46 | Permalink

    Hi, this post made me wonder whether Constantine, in converting from Mithraism to Christianity, had merely swapped one form of sun-worship for another. When I went to Google the subject, I found this article by Flavio Barbiero, a former Italian admiral turned university archaeological researcher:

    http://www.viewzone.com/mithras.html

    He claims, although he doesn’t give much evidence, that the Roman cult of Sol Invictus Mithras was a kind of ancient Freemasonry which appropriated Christianity (or at least, Paul’s version of it) in Rome near the end of the 1st century. This was at the behest of a group of Jewish priestly families who had escaped from Jerusalem and wished to live in the style to which they had been accustomed. They wanted to have the same level of power and influence over Roman society that they had enjoyed in Jerusalem when they controlled the Temple. The architect of their cunning plan was none other than – Flavius Josephus!

    The cult was very popular among the “equestrian” class of Roman, who rose at the expense of the traditional pagan aristocracy, gaining control of the Senate in the 2nd century. After three centuries, the Mithras cult had triumphed, paganism was on its last legs and the Empire became officially Christian.

    Well, at least this would explain why so many wealthy Romans were devoted to a failed Oriental peasant revolutionary!

    Anything interesting here, or just an entertaining conspiracy theory?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-27 08:47:25 GMT+0000 - 08:47 | Permalink

      I think the latter — entertaining conspiracies are also very interesting to many 🙂 As you said and as I can imagine, he offered little to no evidence. Much indirect inference substituted. But it’s also a very long time between the first century and Constantine and any continuity of movements or groups would need to be established, not assumed.

      As for wealthy Romans being dedicated to a failed Oriental peasant — I don’t accept this scenario though one hears of it often enough. Jesus was not at all depicted as a failed peasant but as a conquering god. To say his image was that of a failed peasant is not very different from saying that Orpheus and Aeneas and Odysseus were all failures because they ended up in Hades. Just like Jesus they “died” but it was their coming out of Hades that was their selling point. That idea of people being persuaded by a failed peasant derives from apologetic arguments, those trying to salvage a bit of “historicity” to the myth.

      • James Raynard
        2016-03-27 13:19:56 GMT+0000 - 13:19 | Permalink

        Sorry, I was being flippant with the “failed Oriental peasant” bit. Indeed, the image of Jesus triumphing over death and busting open the gates of hell was central to Patristic Christianity. (I’m not sure whether you also object to the “wealthy Romans” bit, but a surprising number of upper-class Romans, especially women, found Christianity attractive. I’ve always found this a curious phenomenon: it’s as if significant numbers of rich Americans in the 1950’s were openly flirting with Communism).

        One obvious objection to the conspiracy theory is the persecution of Christians. If the Empire was being controlled by a secret cabal of Christian Mithraists, which installed all the Emperors from Septimus Severus onwards, why did Decius and Diocletian give their fellow religionists such a hard time? (Let me guess: this was a fiendishly clever device to conceal the conspiracy and is actually further evidence of its existence…)

        Trying to be serious now: I’ve learnt from your blog there are traces of Josephus in the New Testament (not just allusions to his historical writings, but also parallels with episodes from his life). It’s tempting to wonder whether he had some kind of direct contact or even involvement with Christianity, but it sounds rather speculative. Do you know if any scholars have investigated this?

        Happy Equinox celebration 🙂
        James

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-03-27 13:35:02 GMT+0000 - 13:35 | Permalink

          I would love to know more about the social backgrounds of those attracted to Christianity in the second century, but especially the nature of the Christianity to which each group was attracted. I can’t imagine our canonical gospel version being of much interest. What lay behind those other gospels and tracts such as the gnostic ones?

          But then again we have early Christianity associated with honouring of celibacy even in marriage. This has been taken as a direct response to the “erotic novels” valuing physical beauty and love. What else lay behind all of this that we don’t know about? Questions.

          (And yes, I’ve also scratched my head at the thesis that claims Christianity was started by the power that tried to wipe it out — but then again I suppose that’s what God did to his creation with the Flood.)

          I don’t know of anyone (apart from some conspiracy theorists outside the academy) who suggest Josephus himself had anything to do with Christianity. I personally suspect he knew nothing about it or thought it so insignificant he didn’t care about it. But he flourishes in the “gap years” when we lose all sight of what’s going on. I can understand the works of Josephus being preserved by Christians and used by them.

          • James Raynard
            2016-03-28 15:37:29 GMT+0000 - 15:37 | Permalink

            The obvious guesses are: esoteric speculations for the idle rich who enjoyed that kind of thing, the promise of an apocalyptic settling of scores for slaves and the oppressed poor, maybe even a Methodist style preaching of self-discipline, hard work and conspicuous virtue for freed slaves and army veterans who wanted to improve their status. But no doubt there was a lot more to it. It’s so easy to read our social assumptions into a different culture.

            Another obvious explanation is that Christianity offered a convenient excuse for wives in loveless marriages, or widows and teenage girls who wanted to avoid marriages arranged for political or financial reasons. (Or, to give a more modern alternative, a handy cover for lesbian lifestyles). Again, I doubt it’s that simple.

            There is too much to say about Josephus for this comment. Maybe I’ll come back to it when I find a more relevant post. Suffice it to say I’m tantalised by his “near misses” to the Gospel accounts and silence about the Biblical Saul/Paul.

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