Death and Resurrection of Baal

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by Neil Godfrey

From Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion

References to works against and for the concept of dying and rising gods in the ancient world, with special focus on Weber’s explanation of an “ideal type” (addressed by Price, as many readers will know) — that’s a concept I have had lined up for a post here so with the prod from this discussion I must make that post soon. I have also often wanted to post on Jonathan Z. Smith’s books. (I don’t recall off-hand if I have yet done so on Trygge Mettinger’s Riddle of Resurrection.)

Last month I posted on a discussion between Christopher Hansen and Robert Price and remarked on their reference to Trygge Mettinger’s challenge to Jonathan Z. Smith’s attempt to deny a dying and rising god concept in the ancient world prior to Christianity.

Well, wonderful surprises can turn up when one does a spring clean and I discovered today that I did indeed post on at least one of Mettinger’s arguments way back in June 2008: Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus. (Since my accident in Thailand I have been laid up so have had the opportunity to plod through a recategorization and tagging of all Vridar’s 3700 posts to make them more findable — it has been a good experience so far: some of those posts I had forgotten about and found to be really quite good (I found myself learning old things I’d forgotten and wondered if I really wrote them), others questionable — but after beginning a post by post review of it I think it’s not a bad blog. I’m glad you’re here to share it with.)

Anyway, back to the point: If you are interested in Trygge Mettinger’s case against Jonathan Z. Smith’s then click on Death and Return of Baal: a reply to a near consensus. It’s not his complete argument. Just one chapter, I think. But it’s a start and will give you the idea. I hope to post on his other chapters in the reasonably near future.



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8 thoughts on “Death and Resurrection of Baal”

  1. Apparently Mark Smith also says Baal doesn’t die and resurrect. John Day disagrees in the book “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan”( Sheffield Academic Press, 2001):

    That Baal was regarded as a dying and rising god cannot seriously be disputed…There have been attempts to deny that Baal was a dying and rising god, but these have failed in my view. Mark Smith claims that Baal is a disappearing and returning god like the Hittite weather god Telepinus. However, the two myths use clearly distinct language: Telepinus vanishes, is sought for and eventually found, whereas, as noted above, in the Baal myth there are repeated references to his death, after which he is spoken of as alive. Both H.M. Barstad and Mark Smith claim that the words ‘mightiest baal is alive’ do not have to imply resurrection. However, their context in the text, which has previously spoken of Baal’s death, requires such an interpretation. I agree with T.N.D. Mettinger when he states that ‘The contrast between life and death is basic to the myth’.

    Also, Paola Corrente in an article titled “The Gods who Die and Come Back to Life: The Orphic Dionysus and his parallels in the Near-East” found in the book “Tracing Orpheus: Studies of Orphic Fragments”(De Gruyter, 2011) writes:

    It is possible to summarize almost one century of uninterrupted and systematic attacks on the Frazerian category with the words of J.Z. Smith, who is likely the most eminent among the opposing voices. Smith basically argues that gods can die or disappear and reappear, but that they never die and come back from the dead: the “resurrection” is in fact not applicable to the pagan deities, and serious doubts can be expressed on the death as well. Moreover,
    he argues that the texts used by Frazer to analyze the topic were too late and generally not taken from the original culture of the gods. His conclusion, therefore, is that ‘dying gods’ in the way Frazer described them (i.e., as gods who die and come back to life) did not exist in ancient society. Rather, cases of apparent ‘death and resurrection’ are simply the result of a Christian influence in the interpretation of the events narrated in the classical texts. It is precisely in reference to this affirmation that I would like to present the case of three deities who are not usually considered among the ‘dying and rising’: the Greek Dionysus, the Sumerian Inanna, and the Ugaritic Baal. After discussing each myth I shall return to Smiths’s assertions…

    This brief excursion through Greek and Near-Eastern mythology demonstrates that the idea of the death and resurrection of the gods is not as impossible as is usually argued. Moreover, the texts are ancient enough to consider them independently from the most famous case of the death and resurrection of a god, the history of Jesus. Perhaps it is time to discuss this famous and popular topic from a different perspective.

    1. Smith, Mark S. (2001) [NOW BOLDED]. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press.

      [Chapter 6] The Life and Death of Baal 104
       1. Frazer’s Hypothesis about “Dying and Rising Gods” 105
       2. Problems with the Category 108
       3. The So-Called Dying and Rising Gods 110
       4. Foundations for a Theory of Baal’s Death and Return to Life 120
       5. The Conceptual Ideology in Baal’s Life and Death 128
       6. The Mythology of Death and the God of Israel 130
      —(p. xii)
      Chapter 6 addresses the methodology and viability of Frazer’s claim as it has been applied to Baal of Ugarit. Here I have been influenced by Jonathan Z. Smith’s massive critique of Frazer’s category of dying and rising gods as well as recent studies on ritual and myth. —(p. 9)
      dying and rising gods
        conceptual ideology for, 128-130
        fertility of, 104, 106, 109-110, 119, 121,…
        Frazer’s hypothesis about, 104-108; problems with, 108-110, 117, 119-120
        individual gods as, 99, 104-107, 109-121
        overview of, 9, 98-99, 104-105, 107
        rituals for, 106, 108, 114, 116-121, 123-127, 129,…
        theoretical foundations for, 120-128
      —(p. 315)

      Evans, Craig A. “Mythicism and the Public Jesus of History”. Christian Research Institute. This article first appeared in the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, volume 39, number 05 (2016).

      Few historians, and even fewer experts in comparative religion and mythology of late antiquity, have been persuaded by the arguments of the mythicists. They observe that the alleged parallels between Jesus and the pagan myths are not especially close and often require very questionable interpretation of either the pagan myth or the putative parallel in the Gospels, or both. Moreover, the mythological “construct” that supposedly explains Jesus is often just that—a construct made from many myths and sources from different times and geographical locations. The whole procedure is regarded by most as invalid. [For a critique of this method, see Mark S. Smith, “The Death of ‘Dying and Rising Gods’ in the Biblical World: An Update, with Special Reference to Baal in the Baal Cycle,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12 (1998): 257–313.]

  2. Ehrman, Bart D. (2012). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne. pp. 228–230. ISBN 978-0-06-208994-6.

    [Per] Osiris, commonly cited by mythicist as a pagan parallel to Jesus. Osiris was an Egyptian god about who a good deal was written in the ancient world. We have texts discussion Osiris that span a thousand years. None was as influential or as well known as the account of the famous philosopher and religion scholar of the second Christian century, Plutarch, in his work Isis and Osiris. According to the myths, Osiris was murdered and his body was dismembered and scattered. But his wife, Isis, went on a search to recover and reassemble them, leading to Osiris’ rejuvenation. The key point to stress, however, is that Osiris does not—decidedly does not—return to life. Instead he becomes the powerful ruler of the underworld. And so for Osiris there is not rising from the dead.

    [Jonathan Z.] Smith maintains that the entire tradition about Osiris may derive from the processes of mummification in Egypt, where bodies were prepared for ongoing life in the realm of the dead (not as resuscitated corpses here on earth). And so Smith draws the conclusion, ‘In no sense can the dramatic myth of his death and reanimation be harmonized to the pattern of dying and rising gods.’ The same can be said, in Smith’s view, of all the other divine beings often pointed to as pagan forerunners of Jesus. Some die but don’t return; some disappear without dying and do return; but none of them die and return.

    Jonathan Z. Smith’s well-documented views have made a large impact on scholarship. A second article, by Mark S. Smith, has been equally informative. Mark Smith is a scholar of the ancient Near East gods and Hebrew Bible who also opposes any notion of dying and rising gods in the ancient world. Mark Smith makes the compelling argument that when [Sir James George] Frazer devised his theory about dying and rising gods, he was heavily influenced by his understanding of Christianity and Christian claims about Christ. But when one looks at the actual data about the pagan deities, without the lenses provided by later Christian views, there is nothing to make one consider them as gods who die and rise again. Smith shows why such views are deeply problematic for Osiris, Dumuzi, Melqart, Heracles, Adonis and Baal.

    According to Smith, the methodological problem that afflicted Frazer was that he took data about various divine beings, spanning more than a millennium, from a wide range of cultures, and smashed the data all together into a synthesis that never existed. This would be like taking views of Jesus from a French monk of the twelfth century, a Calvinist of the seventeenth century, a Mormon of the late nineteenth century, and a Pentecostal preacher of today, combining them all together into one overall picture and saying, “That’s who Jesus was understood to be.” We would never do that with Jesus. Why should we do it with Osiris, Heracles, or Baal? Moreover, Smith emphasizes, a good deal of our information about these other gods comes from sources that date from a period after the rise of Christianity, writers who were themselves influenced by the Christian views of Jesus and ‘who often received their information second-hand.’ In other words, they probably do not tell us what pagans themselves, before Christianity, were saying about the gods they worshiped.

    Carrier (21 March 2012). “Ehrman Trashtalks Mythicism”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    Ehrman says “we do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum [sic] in their propagandized versions).” Taken strictly literally, this sentence is true. But that is misleading, and therefore disingenuous.

    Carrier (19 September 2016). “Virgin Birth: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    Bart Ehrman is one of those secular historians who, all too often, can’t be bothered to check his facts, but just repeatedly apes Christian apologetics, again and again, on both the dying-and-rising mytheme (no, Dr. Ehrman, Jonathan Z. Smith did not refute that mytheme; he didn’t even address 99% of the evidence for it, but flat out ignored almost all of it, and focused on only one obscure and consequently irrelevant example—much as did, also, N.T. Wright), as well as the virgin-birth mytheme.

    Carrier (30 March 2018). “Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    Historians still tend to be dogmatically ignorant of the actual facts pertaining to these gods, refusing to look at any of the evidence. Which failure discredits them on this point. No correct opinion can be had, in ignorance of all the relevant facts pertaining to it. Bart Ehrman, for example, ignorantly claimed that the notion of Osiris “return[ing] to life on earth by being raised from the dead” is a fabrication because “no ancient source says any such thing about Osiris (or about the other gods).” That’s so wildly false it’s shocking any honest scholar would say it (as I’ve already demonstrated).

    Carrier (20 April 2012). “Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life (literally: he uses the words anabiôsis and paliggenesis, which are very specific on this point, see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and that in the public myths he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19.358b).

    1. Doherty, Earl (13 July 2012). “26. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 26”. Vridar.

      Robert Price takes on Jonathan Z. Smith

      There is not sufficient space here to fully debunk Smith’s case against dying and rising gods, but let me offer first a few quotes by Robert M. Price from my website book review of his Deconstructing Jesus:

      Godfrey, Neil (28 April 2012). “The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)”. Vridar.

      That Dying-and-Rising God Thing

      Ehrman scarcely tries to defend himself against Carrier’s criticism.

      If Ehrman had acted like a real scholar and actually gone to the sources, and read more widely in the scholarship (instead of incompetently reading just one author–the kind of hack mistake we would expect from an incompetent myther), he would have discovered that almost everything Smith claims about this is false.

      Ehrman can only reply that Smith is very influential authority and not a hack (Carrier did not say Smith was a hack but that that Ehrman was using Smith in a hack job one would expect from incompetent students. I object to Carrier’s use of the insulting term “myther” here. But I covered that theme in my last post.) Ehrman does not admit he has read more widely in the scholarship on this point.

      1. Ehrman (25 April 2012). “Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

        In my book I argue that there is very thin evidence indeed for anything like a widespread pagan belief in a dying-rising god, on which Jesus was modeled.
        Carrier and I could no doubt argue day and night about how to interpret Plutarch. But my views do not rest on having read a single article by Jonathan Z. Smith and a refusal to read the primary sources. As I read them, there is no resurrection of the body of Osiris. And that is the standard view among experts in the field.

        Carrier (30 April 2012). “Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round Two)”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

        Ehrman says his views are the standard in the field, but in defense of the claim he still only names one advocate (Smith). In the link above, in support of my view, I name eight. And in my chapter on resurrection bodies in The Empty Tomb I cite more, including abundant primary evidence. So you decide who to follow on this point.

  3. • Per Christopher Hansen, “An absolutely magnificent tome” @time 1:39 YouTube.

    Cook, John Granger (2018). Empty Tomb, Apotheosis, Resurrection. Mohr Siebeck. pp. 56–57. ISBN 978-3-16-156503-8.

    The analogies in this monograph are between the NT images of resurrection and similar narratives in paganism and Judaism. The evidence, by necessity, for resurrection in paganism is from widely diverse chronological eras and appears in diverse contexts in the authors who preserve the traditions.* Nevertheless, one can discern patterns in the pagan narratives of resurrections that are clearly analogous to resurrection in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Resurrection traditions should be distinguished from translations.
    The present study is not designed to defend James G. Frazer’s concept of “dying and rising gods,” although that category — redefined — is still of heuristic value. . . . These markers or characteristics are drawn from the work of Frazer, which has not fared well among historians of religion. I do, however, believe that there are gods who may be described as “dying and rising” (markers one and two) in an attentuated sense.

    Tryggve N. D. Mettinger has, in my view, clearly demonstrated that the category remains viable in examinations of the fates of gods who either return from the dead in some sense or reemerge from the Netherworld.

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