The question of parallels has been raised in different posts and comments lately on Vridar.
Firstly, I questioned Joseph Atwill’s claim that there was a parallel between Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men” beside the “sea of Galilee” and a scene in Josephus’ War where Romans kill drowning Judeans in a battle that had spread to a the lake of Galilee. I also took exception to his parallel between the act of cannibalism that Josephus narrates in the same work and the gospel accounts of the Passover.
Soon afterwards, I posted about parallels between the Hebrews Bible and certain Hellenistic myths and other literature in relation to the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Further, I posted something by a classicist, Bruce Louden comparing a scenario in the Odyssey with the biblical story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to which I added further details between Greek myths and the Lot story identified by Wajdenbaum.
So am I being inconsistent in being critical of one of Atwill’s parallels but posting without critical commentary some of the work by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum and Louden?
One reader, Austendw, has posted a frequent criticism when this topic surfaces, and no doubt he speaks for many others. I copy just part of his comment:
And as for Saul in Mizpah, you relate Saul in hiding among the baggage, to Rachel hiding the teraphim in the saddlebag. The Hebrew says merely that Rachel “put” them in the saddle-bag; a nit-picking difference perhaps, but bearing it in mind reveals that, apart from the common place-name Mizpah, (a different Mizpah of course – it’s an extremely common place name in the OT), there isn’t a single verbal correlation between the two passages. Therefore your comment that Saul turns up like “Laban’s long-lost idol” (singular, though Laban’s teraphim were plural), strikes me as nothing other than your own imaginative eisegesis; you have imposed a meaning on the text and thereby constructed a parallel between the two stories that simply isn’t found in either of the texts themselves.
The details are indeed very different. But what is it, then, that makes it a “genuine” parallel in the minds of some others? Are we stretching different images almost to breaking point to make them seem somehow, even bizarrely, like one another? Is it reasonable to compare a person hiding in baggage and another person putting an incriminating object in a saddlebag?
Ideal Type compared with specific details
In order to try to understand what is going on here, to help us understand if we are manufacturing artificial parallels or discovering “real” ones, here is something written by Robert Price in The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Price is addressing a concept developed by the sociologist Max Weber, the Ideal Type. (Ideal relates to the world of ideas, not perfect ideals.)
The third commandment is to remember what an Ideal Type means. Conveniently forgetting it, many have ignored the importance of the Mystery Religions, the Θεηνο αλεξ (divine man),10 the dying and rising gods,11 Mystery Religions, 12 and, most recently, Gnosticism,13 for the historical Jesus question. An Ideal Type is a textbook definition made up of the regularly recurring features common to the phenomena in question. The Ideal Type most certainly does not ignore points of distinctiveness of the member phenomena, nor does it presuppose or require absolute likeness between all members of the envisioned category. Rather, the idea is that if discreet phenomena possess enough common features that a yardstick may be abstracted from them, then each member may be profitably measured and better understood against the yardstick. If the Ideal Type of “religion” includes the feature “belief in superhuman entities,” then we do not conclude that Buddhism is not a religion after all. Rather, we turn around and use the yardstick of what is generally true of religions to better understand this particular exception.
Nor do we conclude that, since all members of the proposed category do not match up in every respect, that there is no such category after all. There is a natural range of variations on the theme, and it is only the broad theme that the Ideal Type sets forth. Neither do we expect that all typical features will be present in all specific cases. We do not deny there is such a thing as a form of miracle stories just because not every one of them contains, say, the feature of the skepticism of the onlookers, though most do.
(Price, 30, my emphasis)
Structure compared with specific details
In a recent post I used the term “mythic grammar” in the title, borrowing it from Bruce Louden where he compared certain stories of Odysseus and Lot. That term brings us back to Claude Lévi-Strauss and his pioneering of structural analyses of myths. Grammar is more than a single phoneme or a single word. It is a set of rules that structure our words to create a meaning. To understand grammar we don’t look at the meanings of single words alone but we look at their functions: verb, objects, subject, tense, etc. Better, in concentrated summary, as Lévi-Strauss puts it:
2.6 To sum up the discussion at this point, we have so far made the following claims: 1. If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, this cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined. 2. Although myth belongs to the same category as language, being, as a matter of fact, only part of it, language in myth unveils specific properties. 3. Those properties are only to be found above the ordinary linguistic level; that is, they exhibit more complex features beside those which are to be found in any kind of linguistic expression.
3.0. If the above three points are granted, at least as a working hypothesis, two consequences will follow: 1. Myth, like the rest of language, is made up of constituent units. 2. These constituent units presuppose the constituent units present in language when analyzed on other levels, namely, phonemes, morphemes, and semantemes, but they, nevertheless, differ from the latter in the same way as they themselves differ from morphemes, and these from phonemes; they belong to a higher order, a more complex one. For this reason, we will call them gross constituent units.
3.1 How shall we proceed in order to identify and isolate these gross constituent units? We know that they cannot be found among phonemes, morphemes, or semantemes, but only on a higher level; otherwise myth would become confused with any other kind of speech. Therefore, we should look for them on the sentence level. . . .
Social-Political structures compared with Freudian and Jungian details
Let’s take an example from another much disputed concept, the Rank-Raglan class for a mythic hero. Biblical scholar Richard Horsley was having difficulty with the idea that the Jesus nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke fit the details of the Rank-Raglan elements, so much so that Jesus looked more like the very opposite of what the R-R list was meant to identify.
When we focus on the particular details in the narratives rather than on the motifs similar to hero legends, then Jesus begins to look almost like an antihero, the very opposite of the typical hero.
Rank included the stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy as one of the principal illustrations of his hypothesized “myth of the birth of the hero.” He suggested that “a standard saga” could be reconstructed from “a series of uniformly common features” found in stories about such figures as Moses, Cyrus, Oedipus, Paris, Perseus, Romulus, and Hercules.
(I) The hero is the child of most distinguished parents; usually the son of a king.
(2) His origin is preceded by difficulties, such as continence, or prolonged barrenness, or secret intercourse of the parents, due to external prohibition of obstacles.
(3) During the pregnancy, or antedating the same, there is a prophecy, in form of a dream or oracle, cautioning against his birth, and usually threatening danger to the father, or his representative.
(4) As a rule, he is surrendered to the water, in a box.
(5) He is then saved by animals, or by lowly people (shepherds) and is suckled by a female animal or by a humble woman. After he has grown up, he finds his distinguished parents, in highly versatile fashion; takes his revenge on his father, on the one hand, is acknowledged on the other, and finally achieves rank and honors.11
Most of these features can be found in most of the summaries of stories about the heroes cited by Rank. The series of features is most evidently manifested by Cyrus, Perseus, and Romulus. At first glance, however, the Gospel stories about Jesus would not appear to fit very well into Rank’s series of features. . . . Of Rank’s six motifs, only parts of the first, third, and sixth apply to stories about Jesus. In many other respects he would appear almost to be an antihero.
Horsley then identified a serious limitation in Rank and Raglan analysis. Rank’s list of story elements was generated through a Freudian paradigm. For Rank, a box represented a womb. A father figure could be anyone in authority, even an unrelated king. Such an interpretation enabled quite complex narratives with multiple actors and actions to be reduced theoretically to a single relationship between two or three persons. Most of us will probably nod in agreement with Horsley when he says:
Rank’s Freudian scheme is objectionable as a psychoanalytical and psychosocial interpretation of symbol and myth. It personalizes or individualizes what should be understood at a transpersonal cultural level, where a more complex set of relations may be involved.
Jungian interpretations are also problematic:
Rank, the Jungians, and their avid recent readers were searching for the psychological or spiritual significance of the hero (birth) myth, with little thought for the sociopolitical circumstances or implications of myths that they viewed as analogous to (collective) dreams. But there is no reason to separate the psychospiritual dimension from the sociopolitical, much less to argue the validity of the one as opposed to the other.
So the Rank-Raglan list is flawed because of its narrow focus on specific images that would fit a particular psychological paradigm. Not every myth from his dataset matched every element.
Horsley, however, examined the same dataset of myths (primarily those of European/Hellenistic hertage) and found when viewed through a broader sociopolitical paradigm, the relationships among them all are seen to be more complete. Horsley’s sociopolitical paradigm as applied to the nativity episodes in myths. In the sociopolitical model we focus on relationships (authority figures, obstacles, threats, liberation and rescue, etc.):
If we attend more closely to the very “myths” cited by Rank, some significant revision of his descriptions of features becomes necessary. Thus
(1) it is not always the immediate parents who are “distinguished” (esp. royal) but often the paternal or maternal grandfather or other ancestor; and the hero is often the son of a god as well, with his mother often being a virgin.
(2) The difficulties preceding (or surrounding) the hero’s birth seldom include prolonged barrenness, but they do often include obstacles placed in the way by the present ruler. That factor, moreover, is often closely related to
(3): the birth prophecy is usually threatening not to the hero’s own father but, as just noticed, to the present ruler, who may or may not be related.
(4) The infant hero may indeed not always or even ordinarily be “surrendered to the water in a box,” but he is usually exposed or threatened with death in some way.
(5) The infant hero is often saved (and suckled) by animals or lowly people, but while many are then also raised by lowly foster parents, some are raised by “distinguished” or royal foster parents.
This correction of Rank’s descriptions better to fit the other hero myths he cites was done without taking the Jesus stories into account. Thus it is all the more striking that the stories about Jesus’ infancy display parallels to nearly all of the features integral to stories about the other heroes.
Horsley produced the above social and political analyses of Hellenistic myths and suggested it is striking that the Jesus nativity story from a Jewish-Palestinian world should match them so completely.
(1) Besides his distinguished royal ancestry, Jesus is born of a virgin and is the son of God as well.
(2) While the Jesus stories do not contain the motif of the mother’s prolonged barrenness, which is infrequent in the hero myths anyhow, they do involve the more frequent motif of obstacles thrown in the way by rulers: the journey made necessary by Caesar’s census decree.
(3) Closely connected, the prophecy of the child’s eventual heroism implicit in the Magi’s star is taken by King Herod as a direct threat to his own rule.
(4) Herod’s hostile reaction threatens death for the newly bom hero Jesus, who is “spirited away” (as in many of Raglan’s traditions as well as Rank’s).
(5) Especially if the “son of God” (distinguished parent) motif is emphasized in (1), then it is clearly the “lowly people” Joseph (foster father or stepfather) and Mary who rescue and raise the hero Jesus.
The series of parallels between the Jesus stories and the myths cited by Rank is impressive, especially considering that they constitute many of the central motives and relationships of the Gospel infancy narratives. More particularly, in terms of typical scholarly biblical studies, nearly all of these features and relations occur in the fundamental (often pre-Matthean and pre-Lucan) traditions to which the distinctive Matthean and Lucan interpretative touches have been added.
What Horsley has done is identify the elements or motifs of political and social relationships in the myths and it is those elements that make the Jesus nativity story a genuine parallel sharing many elements with other nativity myths such as those of Heracles, Perseus, Romulus and Cyrus.
Mythic grammar or structures
Compare Bruce Louden’s elements of the apocalyptic narrative, those myths in which a wrathful deity destroys an entire “world” or community but spares just one righteous individual who has proved himself worthy. I refer to the details elements at the beginning of my previous post. In its simplest form:
- There is a prophecy of the destruction of a group by a wrathful deity.
- A divine consultation limits the destruction of the group.
- The group is destroyed and the favoured one divinely spared.
The earliest myth structured around these elements is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The goddess Ishtar, offended by Gilgamesh’s refusal to be her lover, requested of the sky god Anu a bull to wreak great destruction on earth but Anu insisted that the destruction not be total but must be limited. In this case the goddess was not particularly just and it was up to the hero Gilgamesh to slay the bull and end the slaughter.
We can recognize Ishtar as the offended deity, Anu as parallel to Zeus, the more powerful deity who ensures that the more devastating of her threats will not be enacted, settling on the less threatening of her two angry wishes. Furthermore, we recognize in her threat of greater destruction a close parallel to Helios’ threat to go down and shine in Hades (12.382-83). I suggest, then, that the second half of the narrative pattern, together with the Lot narrative and the Gilgamesh divine council, may be seen as a subgenre of apocalyptic narrative, depicting a “local” or partly contained version of the destruction of an entire race.
The details are obviously quite different — Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Lot — but the motifs or “grammatical elements” are the same. They are built with the same type of structure.
The reason I dispute Atwill’s attempt to link the lake of Galilee killings and the mother’s cannibalism in Josephus’ War with “fishers of men” and Passover in the gospels is because I think the connections are made by linking specific details in the stories instead of showing how they are comparable in terms of story structure, motifs, or “grammatical elements”.
This essay has turned out to be much longer than I anticipated so I will leave it there for now and perhaps return for more posts covering other aspects requiring explanation.
Horsley, Richard. 2006. The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. Reprint edition. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock Pub.
“Ideal Type.” 2018. Wikipedia. November 27, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ideal_type&oldid=863143464.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68 (270): 428–44.
Louden, Bruce. 1999. The Odyssey : Structure, Narration, and Meaning. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press.
Price, Robert M. 2011. The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. American Atheist Press.
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