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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Resurrection Myth–Why Everything Is Derivative And Nothing Original, But Does It Matter?

Richard Carrier a historian whose On The Historicity Of Jesus caused not a little controversy in the Christian community, largely because of his argument that many resurrection myths existed long before Jesus in the Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian, and Roman worlds. The cultic myths of Osiris, Tammuz, Attis, Mithra, and others were well known.  While it is difficult to prove a direct relationship between them and the authorship of the New Testament Gospels, it would be illogical to completely dismiss their influence.  Carrier gives one example:
It is far more likely that a resurrected Adonis cult was not new. The more so as we can confirm several other examples of clearly pre-Christian dying and rising gods well known across the Roman Empire: the savior cult Zalmoxis (of Thracian origin) is clearly attested in Herodotus centuries before Christianity; the imperial cult of the resurrected Romulus is likewise attested in several pre-Christian authors…and the Egyptian savior cult of the resurrected Osiris is likewise undeniably ancient.
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Perhaps more importantly the concept of resurrection is as old as human civilization.  Joseph Campbell who wrote extensively about the nature and persistence of myths called the resurrection story a ‘monomyth’, one that sums up the lessons of all others.  The myth of human resurrection is not surprising since the concept of death and rebirth is essentially the story of human existence.  One cannot look at the seasons, mythologists contended, or the rising and setting of the sun, and sleep and awakening without assuming the principle of rebirth, regeneration, and natural resurrection.

Leon McKenzie, a mythologist like Campbell, noted that Jung had similar ideas and wrote of a ‘resurrection archetype’ – a meaning structure in the human psyche based on universal human experience. This meaning structure, McKenzie went on, is the primary model for the death-revival myths of antiquity.  From ancient times resurrection myths began emerging out of this archetypal matrix. Experience of the resurrection theme in the natural world led to the formation of a resurrection archetype in the collective unconscious of the human race. This archetype is the source of myths of dying and reviving pagan gods; and in his opinion is distinctly associated with the Christian myth of the resurrection.

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None of this should be a surprise, for human beings have always created myths to explain the unexplainable, to codify and legitimize popular perceptions of human and physical nature, and to give religion an easily understandable, visible face.  Myths often if not always are about some aspect of the divine.  Roman and Greek paganism was based on divine character, personality, and interaction with human beings.  Earthly things happened because of the intervention of the gods – their anger, their unhappiness, their pleasure, and their often capricious will.   When a myth like resurrection is so intimately linked to familiar, observable natural cycles, the conflation of that assumption with both the human need for myth and religion, the appearance of resurrection and divine intervention in human affairs in the Bible should be expected.

The contention that the Biblical Resurrection is derivative and used in as illustrative, mythological way just as it was in the ancient past is very difficult for Christians to accept because Christ’s death and resurrection are at the very heart of the faith.   The Epistles of Paul, Galatians in particular, are the most explicit about the foundational nature of the cross.  Belief in Christ’s death and resurrection, his forgiveness of sins, his grace, and the nature of justification, is the absolute sine qua non of the gospel he was promoting.  How then, can a faithful Christian even consider the possibility that this central, formative feature of their faith was derived and anything but the unique, God-given story told in the Gospels and the Epistles?

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The same of course can be said of the Old Testament.  The story of Moses and Sargon, ancient king of Assyria (The Birth Legend of Sargon of Akkad) are remarkably similar.  In the Sargon myth, the future king ‘was born in secret, placed in a reed basket, the hatch sealed with pitch, left to the river,and  found by a drawer of water’.  The parallels to the Moses myth are especially remarkable because of their almost word-for-word similarity. 

Jewish historian Gary Greenberg remarks on the Hebrew adoption and adaptation of Babylonian myths, a not surprising fact given the long Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews during which time the Torah was begun (according to Biblical scholars it was finished in Jerusalem after liberation).
The most difficult problem concerned the flood stories. Originally, the biblical flood story was a Creation myth based on the [Egyptian] Hermopolitian traditions… In Babylon however, the Hebrews encountered a new worldwide flood myth that occurred in the tenth generation of humanity rather than at the beginning of time. In an attempt to synchronize their own history with that of the learned Babylonians, the Hebrews moved the flood story from the beginning of Creation to the tenth generation of the local version.
The existence of pre-Hebrew myths that parallel many of those in the Old Testament suggests either a direct or indirect influence; or, in the spirit of Jung and Campbell above, the persistence of common, human experience.  The Garden of Eden, The Floor, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead which is remarkably close to the Ten Commandments are but a few myths of common origin and influence.
Shakespeare had a different take on human history.  If all his Histories were laid down in chronological order and read sequentially, it would be obvious that although the characters and personalities changed, the stories themselves did not.  Human nature, considered the Bard, was essential, unchanging, and remarkably consistent.  Kings, queens, and courtiers always acted out of territorial interest, self-preservation, legacy, and wealth.  Only the ways that they pursued their ambitions changed, and for Shakespeare that was enough to craft his historical fictions. Shakespeare himself was influenced by Machiavelli whose radical new world view was consistent with his amoral, deterministic view of history.

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Modern scientists cannot agree on the relative importance of nature and nurture; but the human product has not changed since the Paleolithic.  Genes, historical precedent, and upbringing have combined to produce the same results today as 10,000 years ago.  We are just as aggressive, territorial, self-interested and self-preserving as we ever were.

All human endeavor is derivative.  Even the works of assumed geniuses like Einstein, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton did not do their work independent of any prior influences but because of them. Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and especially James Clerk Maxwell, whose work directly inspired the theory of relativity, were noted and credited influences on Einstein. Einstein revered Maxwell, who, using the language of mathematics in a new and radical way, resolved the seemingly insoluble controversy between Faraday’s idea of lines of force and Newton’s theory of action-at-a-distance.

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Perhaps the greatest American novelist of all time, William Faulkner, a contemporary of James Joyce wrote The Sound and the Fury in 1929, seven years after Joyce’s Ulysses. As in the other cases of derivation cited above, it is difficult to prove by unmistakable nonetheless.
When asked about the influence of Joyce on his own writing during the early years of his fame, following the publication of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, Faulkner tended to be understandably evasive. In a 1932 interview with Henry Nash Smith, for example, Faulkner claimed, in fact, that he had never read Ulysses, invoking instead a vague aural source for his knowledge of Joycean methods: ” ‘ You know,’ he smiled, ‘sometimes I think there must be a sort of pollen of ideas floating in the air, which fertilizes similarly minds here and there which have not had direct contact. I had heard of Joyce, of course,’ he went on. ‘Some one told me about what he was doing, and it is possible that I was influenced by what I heard”.
In a moment of irony that may not have been lost on the interviewer, Faulkner reached over to his table and handed Smith a 1924 edition of the book. . . By 1947, Faulkner hardly needed to be so coy, telling an English class at the University of Mississippi that Joyce was “the father of modern literature. By 1957, Faulkner’s pronouncements on Joyce had become fully classical: “James Joyce was one of the great men of my time. He was electrocuted by the divine fire” (Hamblin and Peek)
Modern critics have noticed the influences of Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Conrad; but this could be said about a number of writers. The point is only that there is never anything new under the sun, only a retelling of familiar favorite stories.

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The point is, does derivation matter? Should the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament be devalued or even dismissed because of their reliance on antecedents? Perhaps they should, since anything derived from myth is itself myth.  Or perhaps they should not.  The Bible, however influenced by ancient pagan myths, tells its own particular story and should be valued as such.  The mythological context within which it is written can be looked at as enrichment and a pedagogical aide.  Absalom, Absalom whose title recalls the Bible, is one of the most original, creative, and insightful works of literature.  Its Biblical references and themes, the literary critic Harold Bloom are not only predictable but essential.  No work of Western literature is independent of Biblical tradition.

We all think we’re unique in some way.  Christians believe that their uniqueness comes from a unique, God-given soul while most others believe in the incalculable possible combinations of DNA and environmental influences.  We simply have to be different from one another.  Yet, like the kings and queens of Shakespeare’s history, we act and perform no differently than our ancestors.  So it is no surprise that we have similar aspiration, ambitions, desires, and natural responses.  What we do, one from another, may be different but never, ever unique.

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