The Christ Myth and the Christian Goddess
For generations New Testament scholars have been busily engaged in what Albert Schweitzer, in one of the most important books in the field, called "the quest of the historical Jesus." The idea is that the canonical and non-canonical gospels are none of them biographies in the modern sense. Some were simply collections of sayings attributed to Jesus or stories about Jesus, some of them allegorical, some legendary, few historical. Others were attempts to write for Jesus the sort of literary and edifying biography then written about certain great Greco-Roman figures like Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana. But these, too, were far from what the modern scholar would consider to be historical.
Thus the work of the student of the historical Jesus is rather like looking for a historical needle in a legendary haystack. There is little to find, and it is not easy to find even that. Even so, some scholars have done a passable job reconstructing possible versions of the historical Jesus. Some paint him as a peasant revolutionist, violent or non-violent. Others make him a magician. Some an apocalyptic prophet, others a wandering sage.
And of course some of these Jesus-constructs are combinable. Each is a "historical Jesus" in that each is a viable product of the science of historical reconstruction. The trouble is, there is really no way of knowing how close to the real thing any of these reconstructions has come. And there never will be until someone smarter than us New Testament scholars invents a time machine.
The "historical Jesus" in the sense of "Jesus as he really was," must remain, I am convinced, unknown to us. Thus it is fair, though admittedly a bit clever, to say that whether or not there was a historical Jesus, there is no longer. That is, even assuming Jesus of Nazareth to have been a historical character who actually lived, we have no access to him and never will.
But suppose there never was any historical Jesus? In a previous article in these pages ("Corn King Christianity") I sought to set forth the case for the possibility that the figure of the gospels is the literary deposit of a syncretistic concatenation of myths and religious initiation mysteries. I will briefly review that case here and add a new twist or two.
The "Christ Myth theory" is by no means new. It has been advanced by Arthur Drews, James Frazer, and Qthers, and today it is defended with great ingenuity and skill by G.A. Wells (see his The Jesus of the Early Christians, Who Was Jesus? and The Evidence for Jesus) There have been three main props supporting the theory.
First, Jesus is practically unknown outside the gospels. Extrabiblical writers of the period make only the most glancing references to him, and several of these are suspect textually or unclear in meaning. The main Jesus passage in Josephus is certainly a Christian interpolation. Tacitus offers only bland and second-hand information derived from Christians. Suetonius may not even be talking about Jesus at all, but rather an unknown agitator in Rome named Chrestus. Pliny only describes a Christian worship meeting, and I think this letter of Pliny is a Christian forgery anyway. With no non-Christian evidence it begins to look suspicious. How could the world not have noted the wonder man of the gospels?
Second, the New Testament epistles (by most scholarly accounts earlier than the gospels) scarcely know of any historical Jesus, of his miracles, sayings, etc. All they know is that a divine savior died for mankind and rose again to receive heavenly sovereignty. How could they be silent about the gospel material if it existed in their day? Paul never mentions any miracles in connection with Jesus, except of course for the resurrection, and the whole point of the Christ Myth theory is to ask whether Jesus did not originate as a dying and rising myth-deity. So one would expect mention of the resurrection.
Third, as I have just anticipated, the death and resurrection of Jesus are so similar to the clearly mythic death and resurrection schemas of Hellenistic vegetation deities that we must ask if the origin of the Jesus figure were not purely mythical, not historical. These similarities include Jesus changing water into wine like Dionysus; his death and resurrection being compared to the planting and sprouting of a seed like Persephone's; the eucharistic wine being his blood, the bread being his body, just as the blood and body of Osiris were sacramental beer and bread; his resurrection on the third day like Attis; his mourning by holy women who search for his body, like Isis and the women devotees of the Mystery cults.
On this reading, the epistle writers wrote at a time when the only Jesus Christians worshipped was not a historical figure but a dying and rising Mystery cult deity. By the time the gospels were written the god Jesus had been made into a quasi-historical figure by the accumulation of stories originally told of various rabbis and Hellenistic wonder-workers. Such parallels are abundant, whatever one makes of them.
Obviously, the guardians of orthodoxy were not slow to respond to this blasphemous conjecture, as they perceived it. Even the skeptical gospel critic Rudolf Bultmann questioned the sanity of any one who doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. Here are some of the arguments against the Christ Myth theory, together with my evaluations of them.
First, the silence of extracanonical writers means little. Even by the gospels' account of the matter, the feats of Jesus would not necessarily have attracted much notice beyond the small circle who witnessed them and were told not to spread the news. Based on what most people were in a position to know, Jesus would have been perceived as a typical Hellenistic healer/exorcist, and these were too common to call forth much remark. I agree, and I would only add that there is even less of a problem if we judge that Jesus was a historical figure, but that many of the miracles attributed to him were exaggerations or legends. With such a “no-frills” Jesus, there would not have been all that much for outsiders to remark.
Second, we are told by apologists for a historical Jesus, the epistle writers simply had no occasion to refer to the facts of the historical Jesus or his teaching. They had preached this initially and saw no need to cover the same ground again in their letters. Thus the paucity of references to the historical Jesus. This I regard as wholly false. Paul's letters contain numerous reminders of his previous teaching (Galatians 3:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). He obviously did not fear being redundant. Numerous topics (giving to the poor, paying Roman taxes, celibacy, going to court with fellow believers) fairly cry out for the citation of a relevant saying now found attributed to Jesus in our gospels, but there is no citation. 1 Corinthians contains a handful of apparent exceptions to this rule (7:10; 9:14; 11:23; 14:37), but they are not decisive (cf. immediately below).
Often we find in the epistles what sound like parallels to the gospels (see, e.g., Romans 12-13), but it is wholly gratuitous to suppose they are quotes from Jesus (especially when we might expect his name to be invoked with suitable gravity in connection with these). Why not rather assume that various early Christian sayings were later attributed to Jesus once he was imagined to have been a teacher?
As is well known, even the sayings attributed by Paul to "the Lord" in 1 Corinthians (even including the whole of the Last Supper pericope!) may have had their origin in Pauline prophecies, not historical memory. The early Christians seem to have regarded the spiritual, resurrected Jesus as. the source of new prophecies, and the citation of what may very well have been some of these cannot be taken as secure evidence that the epistle writers had information about the teaching of a historical Jesus.
Third, apologists assure us, the supposed parallels to the resurrected nature deities are attested too late, second or third century AD, by which time the Mysteries may have copied Christianity. Again, I reject this utterly. It seriously underestimates the far-reaching permeation of even early New Testament texts with Mystery religion concepts at many points, not just that of the Jesus figure. Bultmann's Theology of the New Testament and Richard Reitzenstein's Hellenistic Mystery Religions make this absolutely clear. Paul's letters are fairly swimming in the terminology and concepts of the Hermetica. Worse yet, this apologetical argument ignores the existence of attested pre-Christian evidence for the belief in the resurrection of Osiris and Attis. Worst of all, it ignores the presence of the same death and resurrection prototype already in ancient Israel and her neighbors in the form of the Baal cult: "Baal" means "Lord" and was the title conferred on Aelyan, the Son of El (= "God," cf. Elohim), after his death at the hands of the Death Monster Mot and his miraculous resurrection and enthronement as Lord of gods and men. This myth is alluded to twice in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 8:14; Zechariah 12:11) and spelled out in detail in the ancient Canaanite Ras Shamra texts. We seem to have a vestige of the passing of power from the aged God El to the victorious young deity Baal in Daniel 7:9-14.
The fourth and most serious difficulty standing in the way of the Christ Myth theory, to my mind, has been the apparent absence of any catalyst to crystalize the various currents and account for the rise of the new Jesus cult. But I say the absence of this bit of knowledge need not be judged fatal to the theory. The strength of the parallels is enough in my judgment to make the theory highly plausible, whatever degree of probability one may assign it.
However, if we lack a crystallization point, we might then count it more plausible for there to have been a historical Jesus who formed the nucleus around 'which various legendary and mythic elements clustered. Can we justify a stronger form of the theory that would explain the creation of a Jesus myth with no historical Jesus at all at the base of it?
We might postulate two distinct roots for the Jesus Christ myth, as follows: First, the old proscribed Baal cult simply continued to trickle through the channels of popular Palestinian folk piety. And just as "Baal" was a title granted to Aleyan, so perhaps an epithet "Jesus," "Yeshuah," “Savior" (popular etymology; literally, "Yahweh is salvation") became substituted for the proper name or the earlier title, much as "Siva" ("Auspicious One") came to supplant the proper name Rudra. On Hellenistic soil "Baal" gave way to "Kyrios," "Lord," which meant the same thing. Wilhelm Bousset, in his classic Kyrios Christos, argued, correctly as I believe, that the title Kyrios was borrowed by Christians from the Mystery religions, where Serapis or Mithras would be hailed as Kyrios. I am suggesting that it was a convenient equivalent for Baal which already meant the same thing in the same sort of religious context.
By contrast, conservative apologists have argued against Bousset that Palestinian Christians were simply using Kyrios to translate the Aramaic "Mar," which also means Lord, but in an entirely different context, that of Messianic/apocalyptic expectation. The original Aramaic is actually preserved in the (otherwise) Greek text of the New Testament at 1 Corinthians 16:22): "Maranatha!" which means "Our Lord, come!" Yet Paul also uses Kyrios, and if he thought it was simply equivalent to Mar, why would he leave the latter untranslated in one place and not the other? As Werner Kramer pointed out (Christ, Lord, Son of God), this is strong evidence that Kyrios and Mar represent two different strands of early belief about Jesus.
It is possible, as some have suggested, that there was already a Jewish god named Joshua, who had later been concretized as a human hero just as Samson (originally the Sun, which is all "Samson" means anyway) had been. We hear in the Old Testament Book of Joshua that Joshua performed various feats that sound curiously like feats elsewhere attributed to Yahweh himself, such as stopping the sun and the moon in the sky (10:12-14), stopping the flow of the Jordan (3:14-17), making a covenant and ordaining laws for his people (24:25-27), miraculously sweeping unbelievers before his own people (e.g., 10:40). He is called "Son of Nun" (1:1), which seems to mean "Son of the Fish," denoting perhaps, as some scholars hold, son of Oannes, the mer-god who taught wisdom to men in the Phoenician mythology.
Also note there is a Joshua anointed as Messiah in Zechariah 6:11-12. Are these precursors to Jesus the Anointed One in the New Testament? We can only speculate.
The second root of the Christ Myth would be a Syrian Gnostic preaching of the Christ, the Primal Man, one of the Aions from the Pleroma of Light, who had been scattered in the material world, and whose fragments now lay concealed both in the Gnostic apostles and in certain of their hearers. In the person of the apostles he had descended to earth to defeat the Archons who sought to keep the fragments of the Ur-Mensch trapped in a prison of ignorance. The Christ was a "redeemed redeemer" who had never existed in the form of a physical individual at all, save in the persons of his apostles and their hearers. As we awaken to his presence in us we are redeemed, and as he is reintegrated into his original form ("the Body of Christ"), his fragments now released from their sundered slumber within us, he is redeemed.
This represents the theory of Walter Schmithals (The Office of Apostle in the Early Church), who denies that the apostle concept came from within Judaism, but rather was a borrowing from Syrian Gnosticism encountered in the course of the outward thrust of the Christian gospel.
Bultmann and others have ascribed the "descent-ascent of the Redeemer" motif in New Testament Christology to a Gnostic source, a theory now unpopular among scholars who would find a Jewish origin more theologically congenial. So the notion of Gnostic origins for key pieces of the Christology of the New Testament is by no means new or unprecedented. And we should note that in the second-century system of the Gnostic Valentinus we do have a heavenly Aion Christ who is not the same as the historical Jesus.
Schmithals also argues that the original, pure form of Gnosticism offered self-knowledge as the way to salvation, without any ritualism, but that eventually this simple gospel was overlaid with syncretistic ritual. The admixture came from the Mystery religions, one of which was perhaps already devoted to a dying and rising Jesus.
Reinhold Merkelbach suggested that the Hellenistic romance novels were secularizations of the ancient Mystery myths (the novels perhaps still being understood by the initiated as religious allegories). The separation of the lovers, their arduous search and final reunion reflect the death of Attis, Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris, the pursuit into the underworld by Cybele, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Isis, and their glorious reunion after the resurrection of the beloved. In the same way we might speculate that the myths of the corn king Jesus and the Gnostic Aion Christ have somewhere along the line been rendered into historicized narrative form, hence the sudden attribution to this Jesus Christ of various teachings and legends drawn (as Bultmann and others have shown on other grounds) from all manner of sources.
But this would still leave one major gap in the theory. In the myths of the other resurrected gods there was always this element of a goddess rescuing/resurrecting the dead god. Ishtar (or Inanna) went down to the Nether World to bring Tammuz up again. Cybele raised her lover Attis, as Aphrodite raised Adonis. Isis regathered the sundered members of slain Osiris and brought him back to life. Where is the consort of Jesus if he, too, originally belonged in this context? Was there at first a Christian goddess who raised Jesus from the dead? Admittedly the New Testament texts as we now read them present the Father as raising Jesus his son from the dead. This, however, is just what we might well expect given the increasingly patriarchal character of early Christianity as it developed. What was first attributed to a goddess might then have been attributed to a Father God.
But I wonder if we cannot yet find in the New Testament a lone vestige of the goddess who raised her lover Jesus. In Acts 17 we read of the unfriendly reception given the preaching of the Apostle Paul by the dilettantes of Athens. Luke reports one of the crowd saying, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities." Luke hastens to explain the occasion for this mix-up, as he sees it: "because he preached Jesus and the resurrection." What Luke means is that the Athenians, listening with only half an ear, mistook Paul's preaching of Jesus and his resurrection for a polytheistic Mystery religion doctrine of the god Jesus and his divine consort Resurrection, or in Greek Anastasis (still a Greek proper name today, of course). This much you will find in any critical commentary on Acts. It is neither new nor controversial.
I am suggesting, however, that Luke may have had it right the first time, righter than he knew. Scholars agree that while the various speeches attributed to the characters in the Book of Acts are Luke’s own compositions, he still seems to have built them around remembered traces of the kind of thing people had said in those long-gone early days (Luke probably wrote his gospel and Acts in the late first or early second century). Thus even though all the speeches reek of Luke's own style and vocabulary, here and there we seem to catch an echo of what one had commonly heard in the dawn era of Christian preaching.
These echoes would include the adoptionistic Christology of Acts 2:36; 3:20; 13:33 (the notion that Jesus was made God's son only as of or subsequent to the resurrection), as well as the semi-digested and ill-understood fragment of Pauline theology in 13:39. Could the mention of a divine pair Jesus and Anastasis be another such echo? One would think not, since Luke explicitly excludes it as a misunderstanding as soon as he mentions it. But not so fast. As all scholars recognize, Luke also has a tendency to dismiss as false testimony facts he does not like, that he thinks reflect badly on the "orthodox" image of the early church he wishes to construct. It is for this reason, for instance/that he ascribes to false witnesses the report that Stephen preached against the Jerusalem Temple (Acts 6:11-13). But Luke was unable to cover his tracks because he himself attributes a speech (chapter 7) to Stephen in which his antipathy to the Temple is all too clear!
Similarly, I wonder if perhaps early on there had been Christian preaching of the resurrection of the god Jesus by the agency of his consort Anastasis; perhaps this version of the gospel was still being preached in enough quarters in Luke's own day that he felt the need to raise it and dismiss it as a misunderstanding, which, from his standpoint, it must have seemed.
And to return for a moment to the possible Gnostic origins of the Christ Myth, we need only remind ourselves that in Valentinian Gnosticism the Aion Christ was paired with one of the female Aions in the Pleroma. Indeed he had to be since the Pleroma was a chain of paired male-female Aions, each pair of which begat the next pair in the chain. Could we see here a philosophized version of an earlier Mystery myth of Jesus and Anastasis?
Was there, then, a Christian goddess? Obviously, we can never know. She must take her place in the hypothetical pantheon of "Lost Goddesses of Ancient Greece" built by Charlene Spretnak in her fascinating book of that title.
All I have said here runs diametrically against the grain of contemporary New Testament scholarship. It is far from provable. It is entirely speculative. The evidence upon which it is based is fragmentary and unclear in the extreme. I myself am hardly convinced of the intriguing possibility I have here outlined. And in fact I am simultaneously at work on two other alternative theories-about the historical Jesus and Christian origins.
Yet it seems to me that the too-easily dismissed Christ Myth theory ought to be on the table for scholarly discussion. I offer this rehabilitation and extension of the theory in the spirit of philosopher-historian of science Paul Feyerabend who, in his book Against Method, argues for a principle of "counterinductivity." He observes that many of what we now regard as the assured results of scientific discovery began as crazy-sounding quack hypotheses utterly ruled out by the canons of contemporary scientific thought. Had hardy souls not been willing to hang onto their hunches in the face of this opposition until the tide turned and new experiments vindicated them, we would today be many centuries behind scientifically. Thus Feyerabend's only offered "scientific method" is "anything goes!" To hell with the learned consensus! Take your theory and run with it! See where it leads! Maybe one day the consensus will catch up with you!
Maybe one day, to the great utility of the Christian feminist cause, the consensus will recognize that at the beginning there were two redeemers: Jesus the redeemed redeemer, and the one who redeemed the redeemer, the savior goddess Anastasis.
By Robert M. Price