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Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Coniectanea Biblica Old Testament Series 50. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


Let me first avail myself of the author’s own abstract of his book: “From the 1930’s through the rest of the century, a consensus has developed to the effect that the ‘dying and rising gods’ died but did not return or rise to live again. The present work – which is the first monograph on the whole issue subsequent to the studies by Frazer and Baudissin – is a detailed critique of this position. It is based on a fresh perusal of all the relevant source material from the ancient Near East, Egypt, and the Graeco-Roman world and profits from new finds of great importance. Modern theory in comparative religion and anthropology on the nature of rite and myth informs the discussion. The author concludes that Dumuzi, Baal, and Melqart were dying and rising gods already in pre-Christian times and that Adonis and Eshmun may well have been so too. Osiris dies and rises but remains all the time in the Netherworld. The deities that die and rise do not represent one specific type of god (e.g., the Baal-Hadad type) but are deities of widely divergent origin and character. The book is of interest to scholars and students of the Bible, the ancient Near East, the Mediterranean world, and Comparative religion.” One might say “great interest” or “tremendous interest”—especially to those of us who indulge the guilty pleasure of trying to undo the polemical obfuscation of self-styled apologists for the Christian faith (as if they held the copyright on it!).

I have long chafed at the revisionism of Jonathan Z. Smith (great scholar though he is) and others on the question of resurrected gods, and this for two reasons. First, I believe their criticism of Frazer’s paradigm is basically and drastically flawed, partly from a strange failure to grasp the nature and heuristic value of Ideal Types, partly from what seems to me a perverse reading of ancient evidence. Second, I regretted the aid and comfort Smith’s position seems to give to the efforts of spin-doctors like William Lane Craig and N.T. Wright, who are mighty glad to be free, they imagine, of one serious headache. For if Frazer (Adonis, Attis, and Osiris; The Golden Bough) was even half right, Jesus can easily be understood as the last in a long succession of resurrected redeemers and revivified gods. Just as western Comparative Religion scholars isolate one of the twenty-five legendary Buddhas, Prince Siddhartha, for the honor of being the historical Buddha, Christian scholars seek to exempt their own personal savior from the pervading mythic character of his fellow resurrectees. Significantly, Professor Mettinger does not espouse the Christ-Myth theory, or even the “light” version of it espoused by writers so diverse as Joseph McCabe and Rudolf Bultmann: that Jesus did exist, but that his figure has been clothed, more or less completely, in the myths of the Corn Kings.

In this conclusion I think he is altogether too sketchy. It seems to be enough for him to rehearse the pointless claim of J.N.D. Anderson and others that the resurrection of Jesus is supposed to be a one-time event involving a historical individual, unlike the saviors whose myths he expounds, who were, e.g., eternally returning figureheads of the harvest. That is beside the point, since the Christ-Myth theory posits a process of historicization through story-telling, by which the initially nonhistorical Jesus Adonis became transformed into a supposed figure of history. In precisely the same way, Herodotus sought to fix the dates of mighty Hercules. The Christ-Myth theory rejects Bultmannism as an attempt at Euhemerism, the derivation of wholly mythical characters from ostensibly historical figures of remote antiquity. But it is good that Dr. Mettinger does not espouse the Christ-Myth position; this way no one can dismiss his conclusions a priori because they think he must be ax-grinding. Of course, even if he were, that would say nothing as to the validity or invalidity of his arguments. The vested interests of N.T. Wright do not invalidate his arguments either. The true scholar will evaluate each argument on its own merits and rejoice to learn from their author, no matter his reason for writing.

Several lesser but still important points are clarified in this monograph. One of them is that not every part of a mythic saga will necessarily be the object of liturgical representation. Not every myth is a script for a ritual. Many more are guesswork attempting to provide etiologies for puzzling things, or else charters to legitimate certain current socio-religious norms. This is itself nothing new, but Mettinger sees the relevance of the insight for the present subject: Smith and others had pointed out that gods like Adonis and Tammuz inspired rituals of mourning for their deaths, but that the sources made no mention of any celebration of their resurrections. Mettinger’s implicit point is that such a criticism is as futile as those which condemned Jesus Christ Superstar for not depicting Jesus’ resurrection, failing to recognize it was a Passion, like Bach’s, and meant to cover but one specific segment of the gospel story, available in its entirety elsewhere.

In some case, though, as Mettinger shows, there were celebrations of a god’s resurrection, but they were separated by some months from the mourning rites. This is altogether natural, celebrating each portion of the story at its proper spot on the calendar, waiting till Spring to celebrate the Springtide resurrection. There were others in which the divine death and resurrection were separated as a single complex, mere days apart, as in the case of Jesus. (In fact, Mettinger finds vestiges, nothing more, of a possible pattern of third-day resurrections in these myths.) When modern scholars come upon something like Ezekiel 8:14, a ritual of mourning for Tammuz, with no mention of a resurrection celebration, they are inclined to conclude there was no resurrection sequel when there is a good reason for one not being noted in the same reference: it was yet months away.

Mettinger rightly disposes of the absurdity, urged by Jonathan Z. Smith and apologists, that Patristic authors who speak of pagan death-and-resurrection rituals are misconstruing some entirely different thing as a copy of their own Easter faith. (If they were so different, where was the point of comparison?). This is to propose that it was Christians who manufactured highly embarrassing parallels between their own faith and practice and those of rival pagans. Picture the ancient apologists first trying to convince pagan hearers that Christianity paralleled paganism (when they actually didn’t) and then proceeding to discount the parallels or to explain them away! The picture implied is fully as ludicrous as Luke’s notion that a Roman taxation census would require people to register, not where they themselves lived, but where their remote ancestors had resided a millennium earlier.

Finally, something Mettinger certainly did not mean to suggest, but which occurred to me as I read him. He quotes Plutarch (Alchibiades XVIII, 2-3): “There were some unpropitious signs and portents, especially in connection with the festival, namely the Adonia. This fell at that time, and little images like dead folk carried forth to burial were in many places exposed to view by the women, who mimicked burial rites, beat their breasts, and sang dirges” (Mettinger, p. 117). Such memorial images put me in mind of the household gods, or teraphim of Israel (related to the shades of the dead, Rephaim). And then I wonder if perhaps the exceedingly strange passage Matthew 27:52-53, “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Might this Matthean prodigy stem from a misreading of an account like Plutarch’s, if not that very account? We have the occasion of a divine savior’s death. Portents are abroad. And perhaps Matthew, like Plutarch, read an episode in which the pious of Jerusalem brought out for display the memorial effigies of their sainted ancestors, suing them as an apotropaic device against their unwelcome return along with the resurrection of the savior, who has thrown open’s Sheol’s doors. Only Matthew rewrites it so that the return of the dead is the result!



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