Saturday, March 24, 2018

Corn gods

Continuing my analysis of Richard Carrier's On the Historicity of Jesus (Sheffield 2014). I'll comment on a section from chap 5,

Incarnate sons (or daughters) of a god who died and then rose from their deaths to become living gods granting salvation to their worshipers were a common and peculiar feature of pagan religion when Christi­anity arose…

i) Heathen deities are typically physical, and frequently humanoid beings to begin with, so they can't become what they already are. Some of them are shapeshifters (e.g. Proteus), but that's changing from one physical form to another. Heathen deities are modeled on the world. Modeled on human society and animals. They personify natural forces and natural cycles. Often they come into being through sexual reproduction. They can be killed. A fundamentally immanental and anthropomorphic view of deity. 

ii) Carrier fails to distinguish between incarnation/resurrection, apotheosis/translation, and descending/reascending from the Netherworld. But those are categorically distinct. much so that influence from paganism is the only plausible explanation for how a Jewish sect such as Christianity came to adopt the idea (again, Element 11). For example, you won't find this trend in ancient China. No such gods are found there.

i) But there's a first time for anything. After that the idea sometimes catches on. Carrier constantly appeals to Ianna's Descent. Well, was that original, or was adopted from a previous myth, which copied an earlier myth, and so and so forth? Carrier's argument generates an infinite regress, as if there can't be an original idea that spawns imitators. 

ii) Since the life of Christ involves unique historical particulars, there's no presumption that every pre-Christian culture should have a similar narrative in its indigenous mythology. 

iii) And Carrier's comparison is riddled with his trademark equivocations. That isn't just the view of Christian apologists. Consider the assessment of a standard secular reference work:

The category of dying and rising gods, once a major topic of scholarly investigation, must now be understood to have been largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts.  

There are two major forms of the Adonis myth, only brought together in late mythographical tradition (e.g. the 2C CE Bibliotheca, falsely attributed to Apollodorus of Athens) The first, which may be termed the Panyasisian form, knows only of a quarrel between two goddesses (Aphrodite and Persephone) for the affections of the infant Adonis. Zeus or Calliope decrees that Adonis should spend part of the year  in the upperworld with one, and part of the year in the lowerworld with the other. This tradition of bilocation (similar to that connected with Persephone and, perhaps, Dumuzi) has no suggestion of death and rebirth. The second, more familiar Ovidian form narrates Adonis's death by a boar and his commemoration by Aphrodite in a flower. There is no suggestion of Adonis rising. The first version lacks an account of Adonis's death; the second emphasizes the goddess's mourning and the fragility of the flower that perpetuates his memory. Even when the two versions are combined, Adonis's alternation between the upper and lower worlds precedes his death. 

The practice of addressing a statue "as if alive" is no proof of belief in resurrection; rather, that is the common presupposition of any cultic activity in the Mediterranean world that uses images. 
Considerably later, the Christian writers Origen and Jerome, commenting on Ezk 8:14, and Cyril of Alexandria and Procopious of Gaza, commenting on Isa 18:1, clearly report joyous festivities on the third day to celebrate Adonis (identified with Tammuz) having been "raised from the dead". Whether this represents an interpretatio Christiana or whether late third- and fourth-century forms of the Adonis cult themselves developed a dying and rising mythology (possibility in imitation of the Christian myth) cannot be determined. This pattern will recur for many of the figures considered: an indigenous mythology and ritual focusing on the deities death and rituals of lamentation, followed by a later Christian report adding the element nowhere found in the earlier native sources, that the god was resurrected.  

[Osiris] did not return to his former mode of existence but rather journeyed to the underworld, where he became the powerful lord of the dead. In no sense can Osiris be said to have "risen" in the sense required by the dying and rising pattern. 

The myth [of Inanna] emphasizes the inalterable power of the realm of the dead, not triumph over it. No one ascends from the land of the dead unless someone takes his or her place. The pattern of alternation–half a year below, half a year above–is familiar from other myths of the underworld in which there is no question of the presence of a dying and rising deity (e.g. Persephone, as in Ovid, Fasti 4:613-4, or the youthful Adonis as described above), and is related, as well, to wider folkloristic themes of death delayed if a substitute can be found.

As the above examples make plain the category of dying and rising deities is exceedingly dubious. It has been based largely on Christian interest and tenuous evidence. As such, the category is of more interest to the history of scholarship than the history of religions. "Dying and Rising Gods", Encyclopedia of Religion (2nd ed., 2005), 4:2535-39. 

A word must be said here about the connection often made between the mysteries and the idea of "dying and rising divinities," who are linked to the vegetation cycle…In addition to an uninhibited use of terminology (e.g. resurrection is usually understood in the biblical and Christian sense), the chief defect of this theory is its utter neglect of source criticism…As we know today, there is no evidence at all that any of these gods was thought of as "rising" in any proper sense of the term…The often only fragmentary mythology centering on these divinities told of the disappearance or stay of the god in the lower world, where he lived on (as lord of the lower world or, in the case of Osiris, as judge of the dead)… "Mystery Religions," ibid., 9:6328.

Back to Carrier:

In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote the following:
When we say that the Logos, who is the firstborn of God, Jesus Christ our teacher, was produced without sexual union, and was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call Sons of God. [In fact] . . . if anybody objects that [our god] was crucified, this is in common with the sons of Zeus (as you call them) who suffered, as pre­viously listed. Since their fatal sufferings are all narrated as not similar but different, so his unique passion should not seem to be any worse-

Thus even Christians acknowledged the ubiquity of the dying-and-rising son-of-god theme in their surrounding pagan culture, and recognized it as a common theme even when every story differed in details from every other (on that being how syncretism works…

As a Christian apologist in a pagan culture, Justin is seeking common ground for the sake of argument. Of course Greco-Roman mythology contains examples of pagan gods who suffer, who die, are sometimes restored to life, sometimes resume their place in Olympus. That's because pagan gods are scaled up versions of human men and women as well as pagan social mores. Promiscuous gods. Bickering gods. Rival divinities who murder each other to usurp the throne. 

Plutarch is explicit about the cosmic ver­sion of the Osiris myth: he says Osiris actually incarnates and actually dies (albeit in outer space; but he dies, too, as Plutarch admits, also in the myth that places his death on earth at a single time in history) and is actu­ally restored to life in a new supernatural body just as Jesus was, as Paul thoroughly explains in 1 Cor. 15).

i) Jesus doesn't have a "new supernatural body". Rather, he has an immortal version of the same body he died in. 

ii) Osiris remained captive in the Netherworld. He never left the realm of the dead. 

Speaking of the entire genre of incarnated dying-and-rising gods, Plutarch writes:
Now we hear the theologians affirming and reciting, sometimes in verse and sometimes in prose, that God is deathless and eternal in his nature, but due to some predestined design and reason, he undergoes transfor­mations of his person, and at one time enkindles his nature into fire and makes it entirely like everything else, and at another time he undergoes all sorts of changes in his forms and his passions and powers, even as the universe does today, but he is still called by the best known of his names. The more enlightened, however, concealing from the masses this transformation into fire, call him Apollo because of his solitary state, and Thus Plutarch attests to there being many historical narratives of pagan gods becoming incarnate and dying, their corpses vanishing, and rising from the dead, which are meant to allegorize what is really going on, which (as he implies here and explains elsewhere) is more cosmic in nature (see Element 14). 

There's a lot going on in that tract:

i) A syncretistic impulse to merge the different pantheons of different cultures in the Roman Empire. 

ii) Recognition that some gods, religious narratives, and fertility cults personify or allegorize natural forces and agricultural cycles. 

iii) The philosophical issue of how to harmonize the one and the many, change and persistence. 

iv) Plutarch's description is pantheistic and animistic.  

v) Why suppose Plutarch's philosophical reflection is in anyway representative of how NT writers thought about matters? 


  1. I haven’t read Carrier’s book, but it’s misleading if he simply asserts that all Plutarch does is pass on a well-known ancient belief that Isis/Osiris/Typhon was about fleshy and bloody beings who live in the sky beneath the moon.

    Miller, responding to Doherty’s original theories, notes that there are important distinctions to be made between Plutarch the mystery religion enthusiast, Plutarch the amateur Egyptian ethnographer, and Plutarch the platonic philosopher.

    The idea, specifics of the layered heavens (especially the below the moon stuff) had great import in philosophy (like Plutarch’s Middle Platonism), but not so much in mystery religions or “man in the street” religious reflection. Did some people believe gods could die and be buried in the sky? Probably. All people have always believed a lot of things. Does this do justice to Plutarch’s complex mytho/religio/philosophical analysis? Not really?

  2. By the way Miller’s discussion is at the bottom of the above link.