Myth and the Christian Goddess
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
These echoes would include the adoptionistic
Christology of Acts
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
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.
Robert M. Price