Continuing my review of Jesus Potter Harry Christ. All review posts are archived here. (Updated 1 hour after original posting)
I found this chapter one of the most interesting so far because of the questions and possibilities it raises. In my youth I was a keen amateur astronomer but knew much less about the northern than the southern sky. Since those days I have become much more interested in ancient cultures and beliefs, so I was especially interested to learn that the constellation of Draco (= Dragon) marked the northern celestial pole and appeared to be eternally turning the cosmos around that pole. Another serpentine constellation, Hydra, surfaces and submerges along the horizon. Derek Murphy writes an interesting chapter suggesting how the movements of these constellations could have given rise to a number of our famous myths, and have been the basis for certain religions making symbolic use of them.
I was reminded of Ulansey’s work explaining the emergence of Mithraism in relation to mythologies associated with constellations and the movements of those constellations, and Murphy alluded to this himself in his previous chapter.
The astrological discussion is important because it offers an explanation for what is central to the very idea of Jesus in Christianity. Jesus is not simply a timeline of biographical data, but is “God’s answer to all the problems of the world — he is the solution to the problems of evil, suffering and death, which were brought into the world through original sin.” (p. 225)
While many researchers have noted the inclusion of Greek or pagan philosophical concepts in the development of Christian theology, the link between these ideas and astronomical knowledge has been almost completely ignored. In this chapter I will assert that most core religious ideologies can be traced back to early responses to astronomical observation — specifically, regarding the constellation Draco. (p. 226)
Murphy then takes us through a rich constellation of myths pointing out where they meet in common images and concepts that relate to the serpent around the pole or tree concept, accounting for the many varied significances of the serpent (it variously represents both good or wisdom and evil and suffering), its position as a guardian of something eternal, its role as creator and destroyer, its link between heaven and earth, its meaning for division and unity. I found it a fascinating and thought-provoking adventure to read this portion of the book.
Many of the ideas are interpretative, perhaps even speculative, but against the realities of the movements of the heavenly bodies, and much that is found in common among a variety of ancient cultures, one is toying with real possibilities. That is not to say there needs to be a straightforward direct link between an ancient astrology. Murphy, as I understand him, is pointing to explanations at a more general level, at a level of cultural osmosis, perhaps via a circuitous route and filtered through other philosophical or religious concepts. He does not say directly. But he does introduce much that is worth thinking about.
Murphy’s next step is to relate these astrological (mythical) beliefs and astronomical observations to the common theme of suffering gods for the benefit of mankind: the slaying of Kingu by Marduk; the sacrifice of Dionysus; Prometheus who, according to the playwright Aeschylus, suffered for mankind’s sin. All of these are associated with early sun god mythology. I was particularly intrigued by a passage from a later oration to the sun by Julianus that places Asclepius in a very Christ-like role:
And since he (the Sun) fills the whole of our life with fair order, he begets Asclepius in the world, though he has him by his side even before the beginning of the world.
The one frustration I had in reading this, however, is that I found myself wanting more detail about the background of some of the quotations. I like to check sources and understand the provenance of things like this. So when Murphy cites a frequently encountered passage about Tammuz from Ctesias’s Persika, he would feel much richer having the source and history of that quotation explained to me. It may well be very significant in the history of religious thought as suggested, but I like to see this established with a contextual discussion.
Murphy tends to use the word “crucified” as shorthand for any piercing or binding to a tree or rock or attachment of bits of bodies to the world of matter.
In the final part of this chapter Murphy discusses the way these mythological tales were eventually interpreted in more philosophical concepts. In particular he undertakes “a theoretical description of how the ‘Sun God’ became ‘The Son of God.'” (p. 243)
His discussion is an attempt “to generalize what [he believes] to be a nearly universal cosmology in ancient times”. With respect to the theoretical description of how the Sun God became the Son of God,
a clear, linear outline of this historical development is not possible; the best I can do is explain the philosophy of the Son of God and prove that this idea was associated with the various sun-gods. The Son of God is also directly related with the concept of Draco discussed earlier . . . . (pp. 243-4)
Murphy leads readers through a discussion of principles underlying ancient cosmological views, and makes some interesting observations about the possible significance of the function of the mirror, of a deity’s copy or image of itself, of the division and descent of higher essences into lower matter, and in particular the Logos. What Heraclitus taught about the Logos centuries before the Christian era is remarkably similar to the description found in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John: it comes to mankind, but people comprehend it not. The central life- and universe-sustaining and human saviour roles assigned to Christ were likewise attributed by pagans to Asclepius in the early Christian centuries.
Murphy sees the early Draco myths involving a fall or scattering of this heavenly figure upon the earth being replaced by myths of a saviour figure, one often associated with a world tree bridging heaven and earth. There’s a lot here to think about. I have often wondered about certain religious symbols in common across different cultures, yet with different meanings. Murphy’s discussion of ancient astronomical observations and astrological meanings has a lot of potential for explaining both the similarities and differences.
It is possible, of course, to question whether Murphy has seen links across different religions and religious symbols that take us too far into abstract speculations. If Adam represents the sun and Eve the moon, there is still a long distance between that possibility and the narrative details we read in Genesis. The possible cosmic symbolic meaning of Peter’s inverted cross is interesting, but there still seems a very wide gulf from that to the narratives we read in the Gospels. No doubt I sense this partly because this is a set of ideas I have never seriously engaged with before. But then again, when Paul criticizes the Corinthians for divisions, that emphatic line, “Is Christ divided?” can, I understand, really be understood as a rhetorical “Christ is divided!”
Most of this is new to me. I am less interested in the discussions and links with eastern religions, but my curiosity has certainly been piqued. Murphy has suggested a line of thought that I would very much like to explore more carefully over time. I do not see enough detail to justify suspicions Christianity began specifically as a solar cult, but I am interested in understanding more completely this side of the cultural background to Christianity, and the origins and broader meanings of some of the key ingredients that have gone into its mix.
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