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Jonathan Z. Smith's
Drudgery Divine. On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity
University of Chicago Press, 1990

Reviewed by Robert M. Price




If, as George Tyrrell said, the Nineteenth-Century questers after the historical Jesus were seeing their own visage reflected at the bottom of a deep well and mistaking it for the face of Jesus, we might guess that F.C. Baur, employing his Tendenzkritik, had similarly glimpsed in the pages of the New Testament the reflection of axe-grinding scripture scholarship which persists to this day. In these 1988 Louis H. Jordan Lectures, Jonathan Z. Smith certainly demonstrates the surprising extent to which much that has passed for scientific study of early Christianity is more plausibly to be interpreted as theological apologetics.

It is, in brief, Smith's contention that the history of the work done by scholars in one particular corner of the vineyard, the relation of emergent Christianity to the Hellenistic Mystery Religions, has often functioned as a proxy-war between denominational super-powers reluctant to step into open combat. He argues that the earliest attention paid to the similarities between Christian myth and ritual and those of the Mysteries was that paid by Protestants who wanted to paint Roman Catholicism as an admixture of authentic proto-Protestant Pauline Christianity with the magic sacramentalism of heathenism. Likewise, Rationalists and Unitarians pressed the syncretistic process further back, making Paul the corrupter of the earlier, simpler, Jeffersonian faith of the Messiah Jesus. Harnack reflects this tradition when he makes Nicene-Chalcedonian Christianity a bloodless Hellenization of a simple Galilean gospel.

Just as E.P. Sanders and others have recently suggested with some force that our reading of the Pauline writings has been distorted by the lens of Reformation-era polemics, Smith sees the study of Christianity and the Hellenistic religions as thinly-veiled apologetics. Even if we no longer share this covert agenda, we are still fighting the same battle as long as we allow the game to be played by the same rules set down by the earlier polemicists. Or by the later ones, for, as some of us have long suspected and Smith demonstrates, the more recent apologetic ­Tendenz­ is still trying mightily to distance apostolic Christianity from any touch of the unclean Mystery Cults (or Gnosticism).

For this purpose Judaism is used as both buffer and whipping boy. This double, or as Smith says, duplicitous, use of Judaism as a foil has two moments. First one seizes upon any possible Jewish parallel with this or that feature of New Testament thought or myth that Bultmann or Reitzenstein had tagged a Hellenistic borrowing. Such a Jewish precedent is judged ­ipso facto­ preferable to any Hellenistic one. Albert Schweitzer adopted this course already in ­Paul and His Interpreters­, patching together from the Pseudepigrapha a vague but thoroughly Jewish, apocalyptic "mysticism of the Apostle Paul" just so he wouldn't have to yield the Pauline corpus up to the radical surgery of Pierson, Naber, and Van Manen. These "Dutch Radicals" saw a Mystery Religion soteriology in the epistles that could ill be squared with the ostensible Jewishness of the apostle. The Hellenistic passages had, they judged, to be excised as secondary interpolations.

W.D. Davies' Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, hailed as a monument of scholarship, might better be described as a mountain that labored and brought forth a mouse (a mouse easily trapped by Hyam Maccoby in his recent Paul and Hellenism). Precious little in the Pauline letters emerged looking very Rabbinic. The negligible results of the book demonstrate that the Judaizing path is a scholarly dead end, though its author and many readers did not seem to realize this. One may speculate that the acclaim given this work as well as that by Davies's disciple David Daube (a plastered cistern that lost not a drop), The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, stems from the imagined utility of both books for buttressing the bulwark against the incursions of parallels from the Mystery Religions.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were and still are proof-texted gleefully by scholars as a grand excuse to dismiss all the striking parallels drawn by Bultmann between the Gospel of John and various Gnostic and Mandaean sources, though it is hard to see how the minimal terminological agreements between John and the Scrolls can outweigh the sheer number of striking parallels with the  Mandaica. 

In all of this the reasoning seems to be that even a vague Jewish parallel is automatically to be preferred over even a close Gnostic or Mystery Religion parallel as the source of a New Testament doctrine or mytheme. And the reason for this bias can only be the traditional theological desire to have the New Testament grow out of the Old as by a process of progressive revelation. Let us widen the scope of Jewish origin to include Rabbinism, Qumran, and the Pseudepigrapha if we must, but God forbid we should have to admit that Christianity had non-Jewish roots as well as Jewish.

The second moment in the use of Judaism Smith describes is the deprecation of Judaism as a sow's ear from which the silk purse of Christianity was cut. Everywhere we meet with invidious comparisons leaving Judaism like Moses lonely on Mount Pisgah looking wistfully at the fertile plains of a Promised Land it was destined not to enter, a religion blindly studying the scriptures in which it thinks to have eternal life, but too near-sighted to behold the true Christian gospel.

I see here a covert use of what I call "dissimilarity apologetics," borrowing the term from Norman Perrin's famous criterion of dissimilarity. The idea is that Christianity will seem more truly to be a divine revelation the more we can isolate it from either Judaism or the Hellenistic world. First we employ Judaism to exorcise suggestions of Hellenistic influence, then we turn on Judaism and insist on its inferiority and utter inability to have produced the imagined distinctives of the revealed gospel. Judaism serves to minimize Christian similarities with the Mystery Religions, and once it has thus served its purpose, the apologist minimizes the similarities between Judaism and Christianity.

Yet for all his acuity in perceiving this agenda, Smith himself almost seems to be doing his best to seal off Christian origins from the possibility of syncretism. It is apparent that he so wishes to avoid the error of superimposing stereotypes of Catholicism onto the evidence of the Mystery Religions that is unwilling to see any significant similarities between them and Christianity. And thus I fear he may be selling short some genuine and instructive parallels between them.

It is wise to seek to explain any religion, whether ancient Christianity or Mithraism or the Attis religion, on its own terms and not simply as a function of another religion it may have borrowed from, but neither is it unreasonable in the case of significant similarities to suggest borrowing. Is it problematic to suggest, for instance, that Mithraism borrowed the representation of Mithras wearing the Phrygian cap or accompanied by a divine consort from the Attis cult, or that the Attis cult borrowed the Taurobolium from Mithraism? Certainly not. And then why should one avoid the possible conclusion that Christianity borrowed from its competitors as well? One fears Smith, having rejected the polemics of an earlier generation, fears too much being found guilty of being "ecumenically incorrect."

            Here and elsewhere Smith declares the famous "dying and rising god" mytheme a modern myth, one concocted by scholars, not an ancient one. If there was no such myth it would obviously be vain to claim that Christians had borrowed it for their own mythos. He seems to admit that Attis was eventually regarded as a resurrected deity, though he will not grant that Attis was thus pictured in the first century. It is certainly true that Attis was not always and everywhere regarded as a risen savior. Many variants have him die and remain dead, or simply survive his wounds. Much of the clear evidence of a cult of a resurrected Attis comes from the fourth century (e.g., Firmicus Maternus).

But it seems to me that here, as well as in the case of Osiris and Tammuz/Dummuzi, Smith is trying too hard to prevent these gods from rising! He dismisses Maarten J. Vermaseren's citation of B.C. iconographic representations of a dancing Attis (his characteristic resurrection posture in later iconography) as "unpersuasive" but in doing so gives little idea of the breadth of Vermaseren's refutation of Lambrechts (Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, the Myth and the Cult, Thames & Hudson, 1977, pp. 119-124) on whose theories Smith seems dependant. Hyam Maccoby's criticisms of Smith at this point deserve attention, too (­Paul and Hellenism­. SCM Press and Trinity Press International, 1991, pp. 69-72).

Smith seems to be taking up the apologetical arguments of Bruce Metzger and Edwin Yamauchi to the effect that the Mysteries borrowed the death and resurrection motif from Christians, surely an improbable notion, as Reitzenstein pointed out long ago: which direction of borrowing is more likely when one religion is newer and converts from the older faith are streaming into it bringing cherished elements of their familiar creeds with them?

Smith notes that it is Christian writers who make the death and resurrection parallels between their own faith and the Mysteries clearest, and thus he theorizes Christians may have been projecting the categories of their own faith onto their rivals'. But this is just the opposite of what we might expect of embarrassed Christian apologists who already had to deflect the charge that Christian mythemes were copies of pagan ones. Why invite such criticism by suggesting just such parallels where pagans themselves had not previously seen them?

Smith seems to me to have contracted a certain contagious squeamishness now making the rounds among scholars. Apparently embarrassed by the bold synthetic visions of Reitzenstein, Bultmann, and others, contemporary scholars are beginning to practice a kind of theoretic asceticism, daring to move nary an inch beyond the strictest interpretation of the evidence. Such modesty leads to a mute minimalism. For instance we may compare the marks of the Mystery Religions listed in S. Angus's The Mystery-Religions (1928) with the spare and generic taxonomy of Helmut Koester in his History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age. For Angus the Mystery Religions offered redemption and purification from sin through sacramental identification of the initiate with the savior deity, elite gnosis of the gods, cosmological/astrological lore, the promise of rebirth and immortality, and participation in a syncretic Hellenistic pantheism or henotheism. Little of this survives in Koester, for whom Mystery Religions were marked by congregational polity, ritual initiation, regular participation in the sacraments, moral or ascetical requirements, mutual aid among members, obedience to the leader, and certain secret traditions. Is that all? What would exclude the Southern Baptists or the Knights of Columbus?

One senses here a certain fastidious angst, a hesitancy to make any but the most innocuous generalizations about the Mystery Religions lest one be accused of painting with too broad a stroke, as some accuse Reitzenstein of doing. Was there really so little of substance that these exotic faiths shared in common? Koester has fashioned a lowest common denominator that obscures rather than reveals the distinctiveness of the Mystery Religions because he will not dare to venture an ideal type (as Angus and Reitzenstein did). An ideal type is not some box (as Bryan Wilson has pointed out) into which the phenomenon must be neatly dropped. If it were, then one might be justified in either whittling away the rough edges of each religion or of making the box big and shapeless enough for all to fit.

But an ideal type is a yardstick abstracted from the admittedly diverse phenomena which represents a general family resemblance without demanding or implying any absolute or comprehensive conformity. Indeed the very lack of conformity to the type by a particular Mystery Religion would serve as a promising point of departure for understanding its special uniqueness. 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. 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.

And here he seems to me to approach the apologetical strategy of, e.g., Raymond E. Brown in The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus where Brown dismisses the truckload of Religionsgeschichtliche parallels to the miraculous birth of Jesus. This one is not strictly speaking a virgin birth, since a god fathered the divine child on a married woman. That one involved physical intercourse with the deity, not the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. But, we have to ask, how close does a parallel have to be to count as a parallel? Does the divine mother have to be named Mary? Does the divine child have to be called Jesus? Here is the old "difference without a distinction" fallacy. And it is strange to see Smith making it. He becomes an improbable but real ally with the apologists he criticizes.

But finally Smith comes down, it seems to me, as an advocate of the principle of analogy. He champions the creative work of Burton Mack who, in A Myth of Innocence, suggests that the Sitzen-im-Leben of the various gospel pericopes may be as disparate as the pericopes themselves. That is, they may have emanated from quite different types of Christ cults or Jesus movements for whom very different aspects of the teaching or stories of Jesus were important.

Smith asks if this implied diversity does not parallel the diversity of the Attis myth and cult. There were traditions of an Attis who did not rise as well as those in which he did. Different groups cherished them. Can we be sure that, e.g., the Q community believed in a resurrected Jesus? Perhaps some did and some didn't. It hardly seems that the historical Jesus was important for the communities of the Pauline epistles. Smith suggests that we might be able to learn something about emergent Christianities as well as about the Mystery Religions if we can figure out what social or psychological factors lead a group to adopt or to dispense with a resurrected savior. The same factors may prove to have been at work in analogous fashion in the cases of the Attis cult and of the Christian cult, with or without direct borrowing.

All of Smith's books are gems, and we as biblical students should be grateful for the attention given our subject by this wide-ranging anthropologist and historian of religion.




Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
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