2020-12-31

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 4)

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by Tim Widowfield

A Short Excursus on Descensus

In previous posts, we looked at dying-and-rising gods as a category, specifically as a Weberian ideal type, which could help us compare Christianity to other religions in late antiquity. Jonathan Z. Smith (among many others) found the category misleading and lacking any firm foundation. Robert M. Price took Smith to task, accusing him of not understanding ideal types.

Sir James George Frazer (image from Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most rigorous refutation of Smith’s conclusions (which, incidentally, have become more or less the consensus among scholars of comparative religion) came from Tryggve N. D. Mettinger (see: The Riddle of Resurrection, 2001). However, even Mettinger admits one can hardly defend Frazer’s original conception. After all, Frazer’s “central idea,” as stated in the preface to the first edition of The Golden Bough was that of a “slain god” — which would seem to leave out those gods who voluntarily move to the underworld for alternate periods.

Moreover, despite Price’s apoplectic protests over Smith’s supposed “throwing out the box” just because many dying-and-rising gods don’t fit exactly, Smith has an important point. We should consider it reasonable to expect that members of the category would include (1) gods who (2) die and (3) return to life. Mettinger has his own core characteristics, in which the definition of “dying” includes not just murder, execution, accidental death, etc., but any descensus into the realm of the dead. He writes:

The minimum requisites for me to speak of such a dying and rising deity are:

(a) that in the specific cult the figure in question is a real god, whatever his previous history, and
(b) that he is conceived of as dying (his death represented as a descensus to the Netherworld or in some other way) and reappearing as alive after the experience of death.

Two other points are also worthy of particular attention, but do not hold the status of criteria, namely,

(c) whether the fate of the deity is somehow related to the seasonal cycle, and,
(d) whether there is a ritual celebration of the fate of the deity in question. [Mettinger 2001, p. 42, bold emphasis mine]

Mettinger, in case you were wondering, does view this category as an ideal type.

When in the following I use the term “dying and rising god(s)”, I use it in the Weberian sense referring to an ideal type (ldealtypus): the terminology does not per se presuppose genetic relations. We must always remember that the various deities belong to different religious contexts. It is no longer necessary to restate the profound differences between the symbolic universes of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the peoples of the West Semitic realm. Meaning is always contextual. Structural analogies may, however, occur, and these may be of the kind to indicate that we are, in specific cases, confronted with the results of contact and influence. [Mettinger 2001, p. 41]

The King of the Dead

Regarding Mettinger’s minimum requirements, I would argue that his second criterion should actually contain separate, albeit related, subcriteria — namely, these three actions: (1) dying, (2) sojourning in the realm of the dead, and (3) rising to the realm of the living. With these in mind, I find it difficult to regard Osiris as fitting the criteria, since he remained in the underworld. He isn’t visiting; he has taken up permanent residence. He isn’t merely dead; he has become the Lord of the Underworld and the Judge of the Dead. In fact, Osiris forms the pattern for dying Egyptian pharaohs, who will “live” in the world of the dead. Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 4)”


2020-12-21

Document Request: Jonathan Z. Smith’s Dissertation

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by Tim Widowfield

Greetings, Vridarians.

We have a humble request. Does anyone out there have a PDF copy of Jonathan Z. Smith’s doctoral dissertation, The Glory, Jest and Riddle. James George Frazer and The Golden Bough (1969)? I thought I’d found it today, but it’s incomplete. This appears to be one of those oft-cited, rarely read works.

Here’s the WorldCat URL:  https://www.worldcat.org/title/glory-jest-and-riddle-james-george-frazer-and-the-golden-bough/oclc/315509294/editions?referer=di&editionsView=true

Thanks!

–Tim


2020-12-09

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Smith and the Ideal Type

As you recall from the first post in this series, on several occasions Robert M. Price has accused Jonathan Z. Smith of not understanding and grossly misapplying Max Weber’s ideal type. For example, in Price’s critique of Drudgery Divine (see: Higher Critical Review), he wrote:

In the same way, Smith seems unwilling to admit the viability of an ideal type of the dying-and-rising god mytheme. If the various myths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, et. [sic] al. do not all conform to type exactly, then they are not sufficiently alike to fit into the same box, so let’s throw out the box. Without everything in common, he sees nothing in common. [Price 1996]

Eugene V. Gallagher

He has recycled this accusation elsewhere, sometimes copying and pasting the “et.” error, sometimes not. Price is quite proud of his “throw-out-the-box” turn of phrase, as he should be — if he were correct.

Fortunately for us, Smith actually discussed ideal types, so we have a window into his thinking on the matter. In a footnote on p. 99 of Drudgery Divine, he refers to a book by one of his students, Eugene V. Gallagher. In Divine Man or Magician, Gallagher examined the work of Ludwig Bieler, whose studies of the divine man (θεῖος ἀνήρ) type were groundbreaking and insightful, but often misunderstood.

Smith put it this way:

While justifiable criticisms can be brought against both Bieler’s theoretical presuppositions and his methodological procedures, it is sadly revealing and utterly characteristic that most scholars of early Christianity have fundamentally misunderstood his enterprise, in that they have historicized the Typus and viewed the second comparative step as genealogical. E. V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician? Celsus and Origen on Jesus (Chico, 1982): 10-18, in the series, SBLD, 64, offers a sophisticated account of Bieler’s enterprise, and usefully compares his work to Max Weber’s notion of the ‘ideal type’. [Smith 1990, p. 99]

Let’s examine the two fundamental errors Smith has identified above. First, some scholars forgot (did they ever know?) that the ideal type is a modern construct. The “theios aner” exists not in the historical past, but in the realm of ideas. Hence, to criticize Bieler’s type as an anachronism misses the point entirely. Second, when Smith criticizes scholars on the basis of genealogy, he means they’ve jumped the gun on issues of dependence and who borrowed from whom. The second step should be that of analogy, which includes seeking evidence of both difference and similarity. In To Take Place, he wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)”


2020-12-03

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Was Jesus a Dying-and-Rising God?

Burton Mack

As I mentioned in the previous post, over the past few months I’ve been rereading several important scholarly works from 20th-century NT Studies. I found it interesting that several scholars seemed to be in dialog with one another — especially those involved in Q Gospel research and the cynic-sage Jesus theory. Jonathan Z. Smith, for example, relied heavily on Burton Mack’s works, while Mack referred to Smith in his books, including (among others) The Christian MythWho Wrote the New Testament, and A Myth of Innocence.

As you may recall, in the last book listed above, Mack argued that some of the earliest Jesus-following groups were not Christ cults. In fact, the notions of Jesus’ martyrdom, resurrection, exaltation, ascension, etc. could have seemed alien to them.

It should be emphasized at this point that nowhere in this tradition running from Q into the early stages of biographic interest in Jesus is there any evidence for a view of Jesus’ death as a “saving event,” much less for thinking that Jesus had been transformed by means of a resurrection. The express application of the notion that Jesus had suffered a prophet’s fate appears to have been made when the authors of the gospels combined the Jesus traditions with views of Jesus’ death and resurrection that had developed in the Christ cults. But the notion of rejection was very near the surface in some of the later oracles in Q, thus preparing the way for thinking of Jesus as the rejected prophet. That Jesus had died a prophet’s death would only have meant, however, that he also and especially had been a true prophet in the line of prophets, nothing more. That would have been, in itself, a striking claim about Jesus and his purposes, to be sure, a claim of great significance for the emergence of Christian thought. But it would be wrong to read in any additional Christian nuances about the importance of Jesus’ death for those thinking in these terms. [Mack 1988, p. 86, emphasis mine]

Smith agreed. He believed that several competing groups of Jesus-followers sustained their own different communities. Some communities believed in a dying-and-rising Jesus; some did not. Consider the community that produced and preserved the Didache. For them, the bread and wine had nothing to do with the body and blood of a martyred savior.

[T]here is a set of Jesus-traditions which either do not focus on his death, or conceive of his death without attributing either saving significance to the death or linking it to a resurrection. For these latter options — a significance to Jesus’s death without a resurrection or the development of a ‘dying/rising’ myth with respect to Jesus — we must turn from the ‘movements in Palestine and southern Syria that cultivated the memory of Jesus as a founder-teacher’ to the ‘congregations in northern Syria, Asia Minor and Greece wherein the death and resurrection of the Christ were regarded as the founding events’. [Smith 1990, p. 138]

In Smith’s view, the Apostle Paul took the Jesus traditions he had received and pushed them along a new path of development, emphasizing the death-and-resurrection motif to that point where even the most central cultic rituals drew their entire meaning from it. And yet other Jesus-following communities focused their concerns on other things. He cites Mack here, noting five groups that “constructed thoroughly satisfying Jesus-myths without either a death or a resurrection.” [Reformatted below:] Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)”


2020-11-25

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith

Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I’ve been catching up and rereading several important books on the New Testament, especially those that have approached their subjects from a sociological standpoint. Those works led me to others (sometimes the bibliography is more worthwhile than the book itself), and so on.

I remember reading Jonathan Z. Smith and noticing what he had actually written did not correspond well with what Robert M. Price had told us he wrote. Price has continued to insist for many years that Smith didn’t understand Weberian ideal types and that if an instance of a type did not conform exactly to the type, then we had to discard the instance.

Yet, in Drudgery Divine we observe in Smith’s writing an honest effort to categorize unique events within frameworks of classification. In fact, he pushed against “uniqueness” as a modern concept, too often used as an excuse to mystify, a lazy justification not to compare, for example, one event with another.

Let us be clear at the outset. There is a quite ordinary sense in which the term ‘unique’ may be applied in disciplinary contexts. When the historian speaks of unique events, the taxonomist of the unique differentium that allows the classification of this or that plant or animal species, the geographer of the unique physiognomy of a particular place, or the linguist of each human utterance as unique, he or she is asserting a reciprocal notion which confers no special status, nor does it deny–indeed, it demands–enterprises of classification and interpretation. A is unique with respect to B, in this sense, requires the assertion that B is, likewise, unique with respect to A, and so forth. In such formulations ‘uniqueness’ is generic and commonplace rather than being some odd point of pride. In my language, I would prefer, in such instances, the term ‘individual’, which permits the affirmation of difference while insisting on the notion of belonging to a class. [pp. 36-37, emphasis mine]

He tackled the subject of categorization and classification in greater depth in his 1982 work, Imagining Religion. When trying to explain what a religion is and how one particular religion fits within a framework of categorization, we often stumble on the problem of necessary and sufficient criteria. He wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)”


2019-11-23

Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa

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by Neil Godfrey

In this post, I am presenting MacDonald’s case beside Litwa’s criticisms. One may disagree with MacDonald’s thesis and the significance he sees in certain comparisons but that is another discussion. Here I am interested only in an assessment of Litwa’s criticisms.

M. David Litwa opens chapter 2, “A Theory of Comparisons”, of How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, with the following epigraph:

The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.
Jonathan Z. Smith

It is all too easy to overlook differences, agreed. I seem to recall drawing questionable conclusions about the world’s religions from reading, many years ago, certain works by James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell. On the other hand, much of my reading in more recent years has been of scholarly discussions that give renewed insights into the significance and meaning of the differences between the compared works. Indeed, Smith is quoted elsewhere in that same book (A Magic Still Dwells) making that same positive point:

“. . . . The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.” Smith attempts to counter this trend by emphasizing that questions of difference are constitutive of the very process of comparison. [C]omparison is, at base, never identity. Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end.” See Smith, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” pp. 21, 35; 25-26, 40. Smith reiterates this point in his critique of Eliade in chapter 1 of To Take Place, pp. 13-14.”

(Holdrege, 89. Bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine.)

Unfortunately, Litwa continues to operate with the assumption that “comparativists” who have not embraced his methods of comparison have continued to “forget” the importance of differences. As we saw in my previous post, I think Litwa is mistaken here, and that the mythicist he sought with the most detail to expose as flawed did not at all fall into the “forget the differences trap”. Litwa made assertions without providing evidence, and the evidence that I cited, I believe, demonstrated that Litwa’s criticism was misguided in this particular area. I cover this ground again because Litwa recapitulates it in the opening of his second chapter:

To understand how mythic historiographies work, they must be compared in a way that is both thoughtful and sound. In chapter 1, I presented some instances of unsound comparison in my discussion of Jesus Myth Theory. In short, mythicists tend to genetically connect words and motifs for religious (or antireligious) ends. Often their zeal induces them to ignore or paste over differences in cultural setting and storyline. 

No evidence (or cherry-picked evidence that went contrary to the main arguments) was offered to support that claim.

. . . . Similarities that are isolated and superficial often conceal greater differences. What is worse, superficial similarities are sometimes employed to prove historical causation. Yet individual words, phrases, and ideas that are similar (in some respect) are not necessarily genetically related. Similarities, no matter how precise, never amount to causation. (p. 46)

At this point, I am inclined to direct the reader to the words of Holdrege (citing Smith) above. Most of us are well aware of the dangers of confusing correlation with causation. When we have sound theories or explanations for particular types of similarities (e.g. comparing DNA samples) then comparisons can indeed be strong supports for appropriate arguments ranging from causation to coincidence.

Despite early slight missteps, Litwa does make an important point:

All similarities, furthermore, must be contextualized. If a posited similarity is between mythoi in two different texts, then one must situate the texts in their sociocultural settings. When were the texts written? Where were they written? Who wrote them? For what purposes? Do they belong to the same culture or sphere of cultural codes? And so forth.

Only after this contextual work has been done can one even think about positing a relation between stories. The relation, moreover, is not always that the author of text B knew and copied text A. Sometimes the authors of texts A and B depended on another text, C, or perhaps they saw the same event X or heard a similar oral report Y or belonged to common culture Z. (p. 47)

Precisely. The only flaw I see in Litwa’s discussion is his inconsistency is acknowledging that even Jesus myth theorists, and another “comparativist” he discusses in-depth in this second chapter, do contextualize their comparisons as per above. And sometimes such contextualizing questions do lead to a strong case that the author of text B knew and copied text A. We know Virgil did copy Homer and that the authors of the gospels did indeed know and copy and adapt the Jewish scriptures.

The reason Litwa is attempting to cordon off arguments confusing correlation with causation and to demean suggestions that “genetic relationships” explain similarities is to establish the thesis of his book, “dynamic cultural interaction”:

We need to think of the relations between the gospels and Greek lore more as dynamic cultural interaction: the complex, random, conscious and unconscious events of learning that occur when people interact and engage in practices of socialization. (p. 47)

I don’t know of any Jesus mythicist — and I’m thinking of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie, Carrier — who would disagree. Nor does Dennis R. MacDonald disagree with the reality of such a process leading to similar literary motifs appearing in diverse literature. In this second chapter, it happens to be Dennis MacDonald’s turn to come under Litwa’s critical eye.

Overlooking MacDonald’s agreement with the principle of “dynamic cultural interaction”, Litwa misguidedly objects to MacDonald’s argument for “genetic” connections between the Gospel of Mark and Homeric epics and wants to posit, instead, a more “complex, random, conscious and unconscious” series of interactions as an explanation for apparent similarities (or to deny even the reality of many of the similarities on the grounds that differences outnumber points in common). I don’t see the point of this argument. Does this sound like déjà vu back to my discussion of Litwa’s chapter on the Jesus myth theory? There is surely no problem with accepting Litwa’s overall explanation for similar motifs appearing in the gospels and classical literature but that explanation for some similarities does not mean another explanation for a more limited number of similarities must be ruled out. I know MacDonald’s Homeric thesis is of interest to many readers so I’ll take time to address Litwa’s criticism of it in detail.

The criteria MacDonald uses to judge probability of a text’s dependence on other works:

    1. accessibility to the author of the potential borrowed text
    2. analogy with borrowings of the text by other authors (did other authors also borrow and re-write the same stories?)
    3. density of the numbers of similarities between the texts
    4. order or sequence of the parallels
    5. distinctiveness of special features of the stories
    6. interpretability or intelligibility — the capacity of the original text to make sense of some detail in the new work (e.g. why does Jesus want his Messiahship kept secret?)

MacDonald developed a 7th criterion since publishing Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:

7. Often Greek readers prior to 1000 C.E. seem to have been aware of affinities between New Testament narratives and their putative classical Greek models. Such ancient and Byzantine recognitions often suggest imitations in the original composition of the Gospels and Acts. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 6 f)

Here is what MacDonald wrote about Litwa’s case for a more general cultural influence:

Response to objection 1: Because the Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture, any similarities between Mark and Homer are more likely to reflect general cultural influence than literary mimesis.To some extent I would agree, but one must not exclude imitation prima facie. Certainly some similarities between Mark and Homer may be due to general cultural influence, but it also is true that many ancient authors consciously imitated the epics; after all, they learned to do so in school. Furthermore, ancient narrative is rife with examples of obvious and subtle imitations of the epics as texts.

The challenge, then, is to test if similarities between two works issue from cultural osmosis or rhetorical mimesis. The last four of my six criteria attempt to do this very thing: (3) density (the number or volume of parallels between the two texts), (4) order (recognizable affinities in the sequence of the parallels), (5) distinctive traits (characteristics found in these two texts and not found widely elsewhere), and (6) interpretability (why the author imitated the target, which may include emulation or transvaluation). To my knowledge, no critic of my work has proposed alternative criteria for establishing literary connections. Although some parallels satisfy these criteria weakly, others do so magnificently and are sufficient to establish mimesis as a dominating strategy in Mark, not merely general cultural affinities. 

(MacDonald, 4f)

It is not an either/or argument.

Dennis R. MacDonald and Mimesis Criticism

Mimesis refers to an author’s conscious imitation of another text. The imitation can have a range of functions: the author shows off a certain intellectual sophistication; the author is striving to write a work comparable to the artistry of the “masters”; the author is using the contrast for humorous effect; the author creates a character or event that both recalls and surpasses its traditional counterpart, and probably more.

One rarely encounters objections to the notion that gospel authors (evangelists) copied or played with Jewish scriptures. Litwa implies that the reason for acceptance in this case is that

[t]he evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts. (p. 47)

But that is not entirely so. Yes, on occasion the evangelists did so advertise:

Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. — Matthew 26:31

Sometimes they advertised their debt to Jewish scriptures less explicitly but nonetheless quite obviously. We all know that John the Baptist is modelled on the prophet Elijah when he is introduced as follows and subsequently called “Elijah” by Jesus (Mark 9):

. . . in the wilderness . . . John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. — Mark 1:3-4, 6

But there are many times when there is no advertising at all. 160 scriptural quotations and allusions have been identified in just five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. How many do you think were “advertised” as such? See 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16.

Recognize that the evangelists were quite capable of “mimesis” on Jewish scriptures without advertising and it follows that we have a right to ask if they similarly work with other literature that we have good reason to believe they knew about.

Litwa’s criticisms of MacDonald’s method

Litwa points readers to earlier more detailed criticisms of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes (links are to their articles on Jstor) and acknowledges MacDonald’s response to those articles, but adds,

In my judgment, MacDonald’s response does not adequately address the concerns raised by Mitchell and Sandnes. (p. 235)

Okay, so I’ll let you be the judge. I’ll quote each objection of Litwa along with MacDonald’s indirect response. Continue reading “Review, part 3a (Homer and the Gospels) : How the Gospels Became History / Litwa”


2019-08-29

On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES

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by Neil Godfrey

Max Weber

It’s long overdue for me to type something serious in response to this sort of comment that one sees all too frequently:

Litwa writes, “The fact is, few Mediterranean gods actually die; even fewer die and rise. . . . To be sure, a few gods die; and of these, some of them return, in some fashion, to life. Yet they do so for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Mythicists such as Carrier fixate on abstract similarities. As a result, they often ignore or paste over important differences in the stories.” — from a comment on this blog.

I only touched on the fallacy expressed here a couple of months ago in Death and Resurrection of Baal.

The first indication that there is something wrong with Litwa’s argument is the use of “some” and “all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways”. Already Litwa is acknowledging that these gods can indeed all be classified as a group even though there are “all sorts of differences” among them. We know their respective stories are very different indeed but that does not prevent us from grouping them as, let’s say, a particular “type”. So the question that arises is, On what grounds do we omit Jesus from among “the few” and “the some” in his statement?

Robert M. Price has explained that comparisons among ancient “dying and rising” gods are based on the famous sociologist Max Weber’s explanation of “ideal types”. (Ideal here does not mean perfect but belonging to a common idea.) Price rightly identifies the fault in a milestone critic of such comparisons, Jonathan Z. Smith, as failing to grasp Weber’s discussion of how sociologists, historians and others justify making comparisons in the first place.

So here is a little background reading. I will quote liberally from a translation of ““Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy”, an essay in Max Weber’s On the Methodology of the Social Sciences.

To begin, note that Weber points out that the notion of an ideal type is not a fanciful extra, some ad hoc plaything, but is an absolute necessity for any historian who is making comparisons of different cultural groups:

If the historian (in the widest sense of the word) rejects an attempt to construct such ideal types as a “theoretical construction,” i.e., as useless or dispensable for his concrete heuristic purposes, the inevitable consequence is either that he consciously or unconsciously uses other similar concepts without formulating them verbally and elaborating them logically or that he remains stuck in the realm of the vaguely “felt.” (94)

Imagine we want to make comparisons between a church and a sect. How do we go about defining our terms: what is it (to take an example Weber uses) that makes a church a church and a sect a sect? To answer that question we look at the vast array of groups we classify as churches and sects. And when we do we soon find we are in trouble because there are simply so many different sorts of churches and sects. I know from first hand: when I belonged to the Worldwide Church of God cult I and fellow members frequently noted criticisms of cults and we saw core reasons why our church was not any of the cults listed and critics were making an ignorant mistake to classify us with them. If we pin down the attributes that define one sect as a sect we will almost inevitably encounter another instance that defies some of those determinants. If we want to compare different democratic governments, or specific social classes, or economic systems, or family structures, or religions, we will face the same problem.

Keep in mind that the word “ideal” in ideal type refers to the idea of something, not a “perfect” representation. So let the authority on ideal types speak. All italics are original, bolding and paragraph breaks are mine: Continue reading “On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES”


2019-06-22

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.

 

 


2019-05-29

Robert Price and Christopher Hansen Discussion

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by Neil Godfrey

Thanks to the emailer who brought me up to date with what’s happening elsewhere on the web, in particular a youtube discussion between Robert M. Price and Christopher Hansen about Christian origins, or more specifically the question of Jesus’ historicity.

Some points I particularly liked:

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.)

Another comment worth registering: nothing should be dismissed out of hand by anyone sincerely interested in scholarly inquiry. It is too easy to say Arthur Drews should be dismissed because so many books “debunking” his views have been published; what a scholar should do is always address an argument in his own terms, seriously, not dismissively.

Price cannot hold back from injecting his political views from time to time, but at least he does so with humour and we have to indulge him (hoo boy!). One has to sympathize with his agony when he points out the (one would think) obvious evidence that the pagan concepts of dying and rising gods preceded Christianity yet finding that some scholars seriously contemplate the possibility that Christianity was the influence that these religions copied in late(r) antiquity.

One little detail mentioned in passing by Price was a reference to a scholar (not Charles Guignebert) who said that a historical Jesus would not likely have been named Jesus. If anyone does hear that detail I would welcome a note in the comments on his name. I have posted Guignebert’s argument on the same point and would like to know how the two compare.

That moment was part of a discussion on whether or not we could call a figure a “historical Jesus” if he was so much at variance with our concept of Jesus. (That discussion reminds me of a colleague at the Singapore National Library Board who used to raise the question of the relationship of technology to copyright and identity by pointing out that Cindy Crawford has a beauty mark on her left cheek, but if we reverse her photo it will appear on her right cheek: deep philosophical question coming up — is that reversed image really that of Cindy Crawford given that CC’s mark is on her left, not right, cheek?

 

Another question that comes up in the discussion: what literature in the “pagan world” is comparable to the gospels insofar as it treats a historical character in mythical terms? An example of Augustus Caesar was given, also Vespasian. I think that that answer left something to be desired. The gospels can arguably be sourced from nonhistorical narratives and are clearly mythical (or some scholars would prefer to say “christological”) in their presentation of Jesus; accounts of Roman emperors are clearly derived from historical events and the mythical additions are generally noted as such, or with some reservation usually being expressed by the historian/biographer.

Christopher Hansen says he is a “historicist”, currently accepts that there was a historical Jesus who was a distinctive personality (how can one “do anything” with a very ordinary person?) who did claim to be god (I hope I have recalled that correctly). Similarly he thinks there was a historical Gilgamesh, and a Trojan War behind the Iliad. I can’t see those arguments, myself. Much good fiction (including ancient novellas) is placed in real settings and includes some introduction of historical persons. (I mean, there may have been a historical Jesus, Gilgamesh, Trojan War between Agamemnon and Priam, — but if so, we can never know.)

Anyway, those are some of the details that came to my mind reflecting back on the discussion.

One thing I appreciated was being alerted to some books I have not yet read and have now put on my wish list.

One piece of good news came up — Acharya S’s book The Christ Conspiracy is apparently being re-written (at her request) with Bob Price’s involvement to be a more scholarly presentation.

I am a little perplexed by Price’s leaning to the possibility that “the Romans” invented Christianity to somehow help pacify messianic Jews. I will have to read the book he mentioned (Creating Christ by Valiant and Fahy) with Brandon’s in mind to see what lies behind his thinking. I can understand Judeans elites “inventing” a form of “Judaism”  under the Persians since Thomas L. Thompson has pointed out that such religious innovations were a practice in those time to persuade people who had been resettled that they were there at a god’s bidding. But we have a very different sort of situation in the wake of the two Jewish wars against Rome. Something I need to read more about before further comment.

Price once again mentioned his personal friendship with Gregory Boyd, co-author of The Jesus Legend. Price has mentioned that relationship before and it pulled me up because some years ago I wrote a very judgmental review of Boyd’s (and Eddy’s) approach to the question of interpolation in 1 Thessalonians 2:16. Price’s comment reminded me that we are addressing our fellow human beings and it pays to treat them with respect and not get carried away with the quasi-anonymity or distance set up by the internet.

 

 

 


2013-04-29

Jesus and Dionysus: The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae

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by Neil Godfrey

No, I am not going to argue that Christianity grew out of the worship of Dionysus or that the original idea of Jesus was based upon Dionysus. Rather, I am exploring the possibility that the portrayal of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of John is in significant measure a variant of the Greek Dionysus myth.

This possibility arises, I suspect, when we bring together the following:

  1. the insights of theologian Mark Stibbe into the way the Jesus story is told in the Gospel of John
  2. an understanding of the techniques used by ancient authors to imitate earlier literary masters (this goes well beyond Stibbe’s own contributions)
  3. the various ancient versions of the myth of Dionysus (this is preparatory to the fourth point . . . . )
  4. an anthropologist’s structural analysis of myths, in particular the methods of Claude Lévi-Strauss (this brings together key themes and information from the above three areas in a manner that strongly indicates the Jesus we read about in the Gospel of John is a Christian variant of the Dionysus myth.) — And yes, I will take into account the several works of Jonathan Z. Smith supposedly overturning the possibility of such connections.

This should hardly be a particularly controversial suggestion. Most theologians agree that the Christ we read of in the Gospels is a myth. These posts are merely attempting to identify one source of one of those mythical portrayals.

Let’s look first at what Mark Stibbe (John as Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel) tells us about the literary affinities between the Gospel of John and the Bacchae, a tragedy by Euripides. Though the Greek play was composed five centuries before the Gospel it nonetheless remained known and respected as a classic right through to the early centuries of the Roman imperial era. Moreover, we have evidence that as early as Origen (early third century) the Gospel was compared with the play. See Book 2, chapter 34 of Origen’s Against Celsus.

But Stibbe does not argue that the evangelist directly borrowed from the play. Despite the many resonances between the two he writes:

It is important to repeat at this stage that I have nowhere put forward the argument for a direct literary dependence of John upon Euripides. That, in fact, would be the simplest but the least likely solution. (p. 139)

It certainly would be the simplest solution. The reason Stibbe thinks it is the “least likely” option, however, is the fact of there being significant differences between the gospel and the play. What Stibbe has failed to understand, however, is that literary imitation in the era the Gospel was characterized by similarities and significant differences that generally served to set the new work apart on a new thematic level. The classic illustration of this is the way Virgil imitated Homer’s epics to create the Aeneid. The differences that are just as important as the similarities and that even establish the very reason for the imitation. But all of this is jumping ahead to the next post.

Let’s look for now at the similarities, similarities that according to Stibbe may well be explained simply by the evangelist’s general awareness of the “idea of tragedy” in his culture.

Water into Wine

It is often noted that Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana reminds us of the myth of Dionysus turning water into wine. Stibbe writes that such a miracle is entirely possible Continue reading “Jesus and Dionysus: The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae”


2012-07-13

26. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 26

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by Earl Doherty

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Mythicist Inventions: Part One – Creating the Mythical Christ from the Pagan Mystery Cults

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Jesus as a dying and rising god
  • Common creations of the religious mind
  • The demise of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough
  • The case for borrowing lies in syncretism
  • Jewish and Greek forms of resurrection
  • Paul on Jesus’ resurrection as “firstfruits”
  • Jonathan Z. Smith’s case against dying and rising gods
  • The resurrection of Adonis: did the mysteries copy Christianity?
  • Gunter Wagner on discrediting the mysteries
  • The appeal of the mysteries
  • The lack of evidence on the mysteries
  • Historicist methodology and a Jewish camouflage

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Mythicist Inventions: Creating the Mythical Christ

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 219-230)

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If there has been one paramount apologetic concern in the long combat against Jesus mythicism, it has been the need to discredit any thought of Christian dependence on the Hellenistic savior god traditions. This has led historicism to adopt a ‘scorched earth’ strategy. Not only must any dependence on the mystery cults be refuted on Christianity’s own turf, the war has been carried further afield in an attempt to eliminate even the alleged sources. Thus, the armies of Christian independence are dispatched to the enemy’s home territory, there to destroy its own precepts.
No longer do the mysteries believe in dying and rising gods; no longer are they based on the cycle of agricultural death and rebirth; no longer do they practice rites which could have resembled and influenced the Christian one; no longer do they even worship such deities.And no longer do ancient Christians contemporary with the mysteries genuinely know anything about them.But the mysteries knew about Christianity, and they liked what they saw so much that they recast their own ancient beliefs in imitation of the Jesus story.

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“Did the Earliest Christians Invent Jesus as a Dying-Rising God, Based on Pagan Myths?”

Having asked that question, Ehrman presents the situation this way:

ONE OF THE MOST widely asserted claims found in the mythicist literature is that Jesus was an invention of the early Christians who had been deeply influenced by the prevalent notion of a dying-rising god, as found throughout the pagan religions of antiquity. The theory behind this claim is that people in many ancient religions worshipped gods who died and rose again: Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Heracles, Melqart, Eshmun, Baal, and so on. Originally, the theory goes, these gods were connected with vegetation and were worshipped in fertility cults. Just as every year the crops die in winter but then come back to life in the spring, so too with the gods who are associated with the crops. They die (when the crops do) and go to the underworld, but then they revive (with the crops) and reappear on earth, raised from the dead. They are worshipped then as dying-rising deities. (DJE?, p. 221)

According to Ehrman, the view of almost all mythicists is that Jesus is an artificial Jewish version of a dying and rising deity of the above type; the significant parallels between the mysteries and the Jesus story prove this claim.

But this is something of a straw man. It envisions that some founder of the movement, or some Jewish study group (a scriptural book review club perhaps?), consciously sat down and ‘invented’ a new version of an old religion by emulating the latter’s features. Occasionally this sort of thing may happen (Ptolemy I deliberately syncretizing two gods into one to create a national-unity religion, or Joseph Smith inventing the whole gold plates business). But more often than not it is ‘in the air’ concepts and expressions that throw up a new set of ideas and interpretations within a break-away group or a particular cultural or sectarian entity.

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Common inventions of the human mind
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There is much in early Christianity which owes its presence to the Jewish culture . . . But there is also no question that fundamental aspects of the early Christian faith do not have a Jewish character but a Hellenistic one.

Almost every sect that looks back to a divine event or interaction with a deity develops a sacred meal as a commemorative thanksgiving or ritual reflection. (What is more fitting, or available, to give to a god than food and drink, or more traditionally associated with a god’s own nature and bounty?)

If the most fundamental religious impulse is to find a way to believe in a life after death, this is almost inevitably going to take the form of creating a deity who will bestow such a thing; and given our mystical predilections it should not be surprising that a process many would tend to come up with is the principle of the god undergoing the desired goal himself. It would indeed take a god to conquer death, but if we could just find a way to ride through that formidable barrier on his divine coattails. . . .

This is one mythicist who does not overplay the ‘deliberate borrowing’ principle to explain the origins of Christianity. Continue reading “26. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 26”


2012-07-09

25. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism — Part 25

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by Earl Doherty

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Is Jesus Based on Pagan Precedents?

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • A cult of parallels
  • Comparing Apollonius of Tyana
  • Kersey Graves as punching bag
    • Compare John Remsburg
  • Evaluating a range of different parallels
    • Birth of Mithras
    • Water into wine by Dionysos
    • Horus the shepherd-king
    • Isis and Horus, Mother and Child
  • Do Christian fathers give accurate knowledge of the mysteries?
    • Justin, Tertullian
    • Celsus via Origen
  • Cultural differences
    • Divine copulation or virgin birth
    • Variant forms of resurrection
    • Dying for sin
  • The pre-Gospel record contains no biographical parallels
  • Paul’s soteriology dependent on pagan concepts
  • The “cult of parallels” only arises with the Gospel story
  • Robert Price’s “mythic hero” archetype
  • Leaving a mark on history
    • Homer, Confucius, Lao-Tze, Buddha, William Tell, Aeneas, Romulus, Remus . . .

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Claim 4: The Nonhistorical “Jesus” Is Based on Stories About Pagan Divine Men

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 207-218)

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Bart Ehrman now addresses what is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of mythicism, or at least of some expressions of it. It forms very little of my own case for a mythical Jesus and I admit that this whole area must be approached with caution and qualification. One might call it “a cult of parallels.”

As Ehrman puts it,

. . . now rather than arguing that Jesus was made up based on persons and prophecies from the Jewish Bible, it is claimed that he was invented in light of what pagans were saying about the gods or about other “divine men,” superhuman creatures thought to have been half mortal, half immortal. (DJE? p. 207)

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Apollonius Tyanaeus
Apollonius Tyanaeus (Photo credit: Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara)

Comparing Apollonius of Tyana

He gives as an example the career of Apollonius of Tyana, an ancient sage who was reputed to have had a miraculous birth, gathered disciples, taught a spiritual ethic, healed the sick, was in part divine, and after death at the hands of authorities came back to appear to his followers.

Apollonius is perhaps not the best analogy to offer in these circumstances, since he was a figure who apparently lived not prior to or even contemporaneous with the reputed Jesus, but a little after him (he is supposed to have died 98 CE). So there can be no question that early Christians modelled their Jesus on Apollonius. But he does represent a class of ‘divine man’ (the theios anēr) in the ancient world, including much older figures of dubious existence like Heracles, some of whose characteristics the story of Jesus shared.

Ehrman claims quite legitimately that such comparisons with someone like Apollonius of Tyana have little if anything to do with the question of Jesus’ existence. Since Apollonius himself is almost certainly an historical figure (we have a little better attestation to his existence than we do for Jesus), this shows that historical persons can acquire extensive legendary characteristics. But what of those figures who are generally not judged to be historical, more god than man, incarnated to earth in an undefined or primordial past?

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Trotting out Kersey Graves

image of Kersey Graves
image of Kersey Graves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here Ehrman latches onto the very worst and most notorious expression of parallel-hunting in the history of mythicism: Kersey Graves’ 1875 The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. Poor Kersey has become the favorite punching bag of historicists, much of it due to his own fault. Ehrman styles his work as “an exaggerated set of mythicist claims” with some justification, but his own remark that

Graves provides not a single piece of documentation for any of them. They are all asserted, on his own authority. (DJE? p. 211)

is itself an exaggeration. Graves’ references are anything but exact or even useful, but he is not quite appealing to his own authority when he says things like: “Their holy bibles (the Vedas and Gita) prophesy of [Chrishna] thus,” and goes on to quote several sentences from those bibles (1960 reprint, p.297). Graves hardly made up these passages himself. Continue reading “25. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism — Part 25”


2012-04-28

The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s sit down and look at the score sheet. Richard Carrier kicked 11 “errors of fact” at the net of Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist?

Carrier says he could have kicked many more but that it was getting dark and the referee told him he had limited time.

Since beginning to write this post I have learned Richard Carrier has posted his own reply to Ehrman. But I have avoided reading his response so as to continue with my own thoughts for my own “review” of Ehrman’s book.

Here are the “errors of fact” Carrier kicked at Ehrman’s book, in order:

  1. The Priapus Bronze
  2. The Doherty Slander
  3. The Pliny Confusion
  4. The Pilate Error
  5. The “No Records” Debacle
  6. The Tacitus Question
  7. The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
  8. That Dying-and-Rising God Thing
  9. The Baptism Blunder
  10. The Dying Messiah Question
  11. The Matter of Qualifications

Here are the “errors of fact” Ehrman attempted to defend, in order:

  1. The Priapus Bronze, or Cocky Peter (Or: “A Cock and Bull Story”) (in a separate post)
  2. The Matter of Qualifications
  3. The Pilate Error
  4. The Tacitus Question
  5. The Dying and Rising God
  6. The “Other Jesus” Conundrum
  7. “No Roman Records”
  8. The Doherty “Slander”
  9. The Pliny Confusion

That means goalie Ehrman stood there texting on his mobile while two went through uncontested:

  1. The Baptism Blunder
  2. The Dying Messiah Question

Keep in mind that these “Errors of Fact” in Carrier’s critique of Ehrman’s book are not the only, nor even necessarily the most, serious faults in Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? But I cannot cover everything in one post so I deal with these before moving on in a future post to the even more significant errors and fallacies of Ehrman’s work. Continue reading “The Facts of the Matter: Carrier 9, Ehrman 1 (my review, part 2)”


2011-10-02

That Mysterious Young Man in the Gospel of Mark: Fleeing Naked and Sitting in the Tomb

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by Neil Godfrey

Baptism of Christ. Fresco in Cappadocia
Image via Wikipedia

An old (1973) article in the Journal of Biblical Literature by Robin Scroggs and Kent I. Groff make a case that the young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and the young man (reappearing?) in the tomb to announce Jesus’ resurrection were originally created as symbols of the baptism ritual for new converts to Christianity.

The young man having his linen cloak (σινδόν / sindon) snatched from him is substituted by Jesus who is entering into his “baptism” of suffering, death and burial — as depicted by Jesus himself being wrapped in a σινδόν/sindon for burial. The young man then reappears in the tomb, sitting on the right side, clothed in white like Jesus at the transfiguration. These narrative scenes find their meaning in the baptism ritual of early Christians: the initiate first removed his garment and entered the baptism naked and was then given a new robe to symbolize a new life in the resurrected Christ. Continue reading “That Mysterious Young Man in the Gospel of Mark: Fleeing Naked and Sitting in the Tomb”