Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mythicism and Mythography in Earliest Christianity

I guess I am still too simple-minded to understand what exactly the point of the 'mythicist position' on Jesus is supposed to prove. I find the debates between those who support a 'mythical Jesus' versus a 'historical Jesus' to be worthless mostly because both sides are hiding their true positions. The 'mythical Jesus' side is mostly compromised of atheists who want to 'disprove' Christianity because it relies on 'myths.' The 'historical Jesus' side wants to 'defend' Christianity against these calumniators and so many end up taking a reactionary position that the gospel was developed as a historical document which can and should be taken 'literally' at every turn. 

One could argue very convincingly I think that these debates only 'work' in a Protestant milieu where the divine aspect of Jesus's person is typically downplayed. 

Could you engage Origen with such 'mythicist' ramblings? I don't think so but I don't think the purpose of any of this is to actually get at the truth as much as it is to 'prove' or 'disprove'/'attack' or 'defend' the other 'side' in a stupid and worthless endeavor which only reflects a particularly shallow cultural understanding of religion, art and truth (i.e. OUR OWN).

I am more interested in finding out what the sources tell us about the truth of ancient Christianity rather than impose modern standards of truthfulness and authenticity on those sources. As such I am intrigued by what Philip Schaff has noticed about mythography in those same early sources and ESPECIALLY the same Church Fathers who now are understood to attack these same tendencies among the 'heresies.' 

Schaff develops his discussion in terms of the concept of 'redemption' or ἀπολύτρωσις which appears as both a ritual (specifically baptism among the Marcosians) and a mythopoeic concept in writers as diverse as Irenaeus and Marcion. The passage reads as follows:

all the essential elements of the later church doctrine of redemption may be found, either expressed or implied, before the close of the second century. The negative part of the doctrine, the subjection of the devil, the prince of the kingdom of sin and death, was naturally most dwelt on in the patristic period, on account of the existing conflict of Christianity with heathenism, which was regarded as wholly ruled by Satan and demons. Even in the New Testament, particularly in Col. 2:15, Heb. 2:14, and 1 John 3:8, the victory over the devil is made an integral part of the work of Christ. But this view was carried out in the early church in a very peculiar and, to some extent, mythical way; and in this form continued current, until the satisfaction theory of Anselm gave a new turn to the development of the dogma. Satan is supposed to have acquired, by the disobedience of our first parents, a legal claim (whether just or unjust) upon mankind, and held them bound in the chains of sin and death (Comp. Hebr. 2:14, 15). Christ came to our release. The victory over Satan was conceived now as a legal ransom by the payment of a stipulated price, to wit, the death of Christ; now as a cheat upon him (1 Cor. 2:8, misapprehended) either intentional and deserved, or due to his own infatuation. (This strange theory is variously held by Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, Augustin, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. See Baur, ch. I. and II. p. 30-118.093).[Schaff, History of the Christian Church volume 1 p. 296]

The Catholics of course formulated the myth of ἀπολύτρωσις in terms of being 'redeemed' from Satan which in my mind makes very little sense. The Marcionite who are - in my estimation at least - much closer to the beginning of Christianity argue that Christianity is an ἀπολύτρωσις from the Jewish god who is in all respects traditionally conceived as a slave-owner with respect to Israel. 

According to the traditional Jewish view expressed in the book of Leviticus, the Jewish God owns the members of Israel as slaves: 'For to me the sons of Israel are slaves. They are my slaves whom I brought out of Egypt, I the Lord your God' [Lev 25.55]. This traditional Israelite interpretation of one's belonging to its δεσπότης might have been the source of the frequent use of expressions as 'slave of Christ' in the language of Paul and the Pauline literature. [cf. Rom 1:11, Gal 1:10, Col 4:10, but the Apostle also emphasizes that Christians are 'sons' rather than 'slaves' of God] 

Whatever the origin of the Christian usage of the master and slave metaphor may have been, the Acts of Thomas for example uses it in a uses it in a different way than the pagan religious systems. It might be useful to see an 'easy to read' example of ἀπολύτρωσις (and without the requirement to filter out Patristic interpretation of that interpretation) involving what I see as Jesus 'purchasing' his initiates from the Jewish God. 

So we were just referencing the 'theological innovation' in cultic slavery in antiquity. As I see it the basic difference is, namely, that Jesus neither buys nor owns Thomas, but sells him to someone else. The traditional Christian usage appears in the in the story when Abbanes asks Thomas, 'Is this your master?' and Thomas answers, 'Yes, this is my Lord'. Thomas, however, does not repeat the merchant's word δεσπότης, but says κύριος, the more usual title of Jesus. Although both words can refer to an actual slave-owner, the use of two different expressions, of which the second is the usual title of Jesus, indicates that there is an element of cheat in the situation. This 'cheating' consists of an unusual application of the slave metaphor in the text, and Thomas falls prey to this theological innovation. 

Before we get into the 'innovation' let me note that I think there is good evidence to support the idea that δεσπότης was the actual title applied to the Most High God by the Jews - Philo uses it frequently, Hellenistic prayers interestingly often have the person petitioning the deity with δεσπότης or some such variant (Karl Rengstorf, “δεσπότης,” TDNT 2.44-45.) It also happens to be Josephus's favorite title for praying to God: “Lord (δεσποτα) of all the ages and Creator of universal being. . .confirm these promises” (Ant 1.272; see also 4.40; 5.41; 11.64; 11.162; 20.90).

The reinterpretation of the slave metaphor consists of two elements. Firstly, the social status of Christians did not change because they regarded themselves as 'slaves of Christ'. The ATh, however, translates the sociological metaphor 'slave of Christ' into sociological reality. Secondly, the very purpose of being Christ's slave was not to be the slave of someone else. [both aspects are discussed in 1 Corinthians 7:17 - 24] In both respects, Jesus breaks the rules of the game, giving a radically new interpretation to the slave metaphor. 

The commission episode of the Acts of Thomas presents Jesus as a manstealer or kidnapper, who sells the free man Thomas as a slave. The analysis of Thomas' selling into slavery, his function as a craftsman receives a crucial importance. This is emphasised already in the commission episode itself, when on Abbanes' inquiry Thomas enumerates the things he can fabricate: 'Of wood ploughs, yokes, scales, boats, oars for boats, masts, and disks, and from stone columns and temples and royal palaces.' 

The concept should now be clear enough to initiated readers. Thomas is the man made after the image of the demiurge (δημιουργός) a term which originally meant 'craftsman.' He is mystically 'purchased' from the ownership of one master to another according to the rituals of ἀπολύτρωσις common to the earliest Christian mysteries. 

The point I am trying to make here is that it wasn't just the 'heretics' who were inventing 'myths' to expound the core beliefs of Christianity. The Catholics weren't simply 'literalists' who wanted to 'stick to the words on the page' of the Bible. They retained an ability to formulate mythographic interpretations of the world and Christ's place in the world but I would argue that these myths have a reactionary characteristic to them. In other words, there was an original 'myth' about Jesus coming and purchasing proselytes from the Jewish God and selling these slaves to a new owner (i.e. another God, another slave-master besides the original δεσπότης of Israel) which was so popular and so deeply ingrained in the souls of believers that a rival 'myth' had to be created involving the Devil. 

This not only proves the primacy of the Marcionites and other related traditions in my mind but also sheds an important light on the nature of pre-Catholic Christianity. 

We can also explain this by means of a reform of the interaction of myths and rituals too. Elaine Pagels in her'Irenaeus, the 'Canon of Truth' and the Gospel of John 'Making a Difference' Through Hermeneutics and Ritual (Vigiliae Christianae 56, 339 - 371) attempts to show just this (although she can be accused of some serious sloppiness preferring to identify the ἀπολύτρωσις baptism ritual with the followers of gnostic Ptolemy because of Epiphanius's late work rather than the Marcosians which is clear from the much earlier manuscripts of Irenaeus). 

I will cite from her work (even though I implore the reader to substitute 'followers of Mark' for 'followers of Ptolemy') in which we read:

Irenaeus sets out to make a difference between Christians in order to demonstrate that he calls 'followers of Ptolemy' while commonly accepted as fellow believers, were in fact, apostates and heretics. This article suggests that what concerned Irenaeus was not so much that they held beliefs and ideas different than his own, but that they engaged in practices intended to affect apolutrosis ('redemption' sometimes called 'second baptism'). Second this article shows how Irenaeus, determined to develop a practice antidote to this heretical 'poison,' used language he found in the Gospel of John to radically revise what he called 'the canon of truth received in baptism' [AH i.9.4] to establish the efficacy of 'ecclesiastical' practices of baptism and eucharist. [p. 339, 340]

In other words, Pagels has argued that it wasn't just that the heretics were inventing myths at story time. In that regard they wouldn't be that different from the orthodox. What Irenaeus was specifically opposed to - according to Pagels - was the idea of blending mythography into Christian rites and rituals. 

So she argues that Irenaeus represents a break from Justin owing to a much different preoccupation on the part of Irenaeus in terms of disentangling Christian rituals from myths and mythography:

we need to consider what constitutes 'heresy' not so much, as we have traditionally, in terms of people holding different beliefs and ideas, but in terms of people involved in different forms of practice both hermeneutical and ritual. [p. 340]

And again:

Irenaeus charges that what apolutrosis really means is something very different (from what the heretics claim): namely, that Satan has inspired these so-called 'spiritual teachers' to 'deny that baptism is rebirth unto God, and to renounce the whole faith." [AH i.21.1] By depreciating what they hold in common with other believers, and by 'initiating' people into various subgroups, such Christians may create potentially innumerable schisms throughout Christian groups worldwide, as well as in each congregation. For, Irenaeus continues "they call those who belong to the church 'common,' and 'ecclesiastic' ... and if anyone goes himself up to them like a little sheep, and follows out their practice and their apolutrosis, such a person is so elated that he imagines he ... has already entered within the 'fullness of the God' ... and goes strutting with a superior expression on his face, with all the pomposity of a cock." (AH iii.15.2) [p. 358] 

Pagels argument revolves around the idea that Gospel of John was introduced by Irenaeus (or 'reformed' by him) in order to correct the beliefs of the aforementioned heretics who promote ritual 'apolutrosis' - i.e. 'spiritual baptism.' This part of her analysis is worth examining in detail because I think there is something of substance to it. 

Pagel's notes that Irenaeus condemns the followers of heretical doctrine while at the same time arguing that they fell from an original doctrine they never likely heard of in the first place - i.e. the 'Catholic Church' of Peter centered in Rome and goes on to ask:

How then, could [Irenaeus] persuade believers that their 'common' baptism, far from being merely the preliminary step, actually effects, in his words, 'rebirth to God,' and conveys not just elementary teaching but, indeed, the 'whole faith'?

To accomplish this, Irenaeus sets out to reformulate the 'canon of truth' and so to reestablish the truth of the faith received in baptism ... Irenaeus intends first of all, to limit the sources of revelation by outruling recourse to what he calls 'innumerable apocryphal and illegitimate writings" [AH i.20.1] that his opponents often invoke along with their alleged access to 'secret revelation' orally transmitted by Paul (or any of the apostles).[AH iii.3.2f] Then in order to control which of many Christian writings legitimately convey 'the gospel' [AH ii.11.9] - that is the living, oral preaching which the apostles conveyed in common - Irenaeus takes the bold step of defining the 'fourformed gospel' as the whole constellation of truth supported by the four 'pillars' which are, he explains, the written gospel accounts attributed to Matthew, Luke, Mark and John.

But Irenaeus is well aware that taking this step - so crucial to the development of what Christians in later generations would call the 'New Testament canon' - would not suffice to curb Valentinian Christians' 'heretical' practices of exegesis and apolutrosis ... Irenaeus may have realized, too, that many of his fellow believers might regard the Gospel of John as problematic, even suspect ... What then impels Irenaeus to join the Gospel of John with the much more widely accepted synoptics and to claim it as an indispensable elements of what he calls the 'fourformed gospel'? And while he admits that John was written only after Matthew, Mark and Luke (and so has the least claim to antiquity) who does he place it not (as Christians did later) as the fourth gospel, but instead as the first and foremost pillar of 'the church's gospel'? [AH iii.11.8] Irenaeus says that this gospel deserves its exalted position because John - and John alone - proclaims Christ's "... original powerful and glorious revelation from the Father, thus declaring, 'In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God (Jn i.1.2).' Also 'all things were made through him and without him nothing was made (Jn.i.3).'

Astonishingly, Irenaeus declares that it is the Gospel of John - and especially the prologue - that establishes the canon of truth. Irenaeus identifies himself with 'John, the disciple of the Lord' in whom he attributes this gospel, when he says that John actually wrote his gospel for the same purpose that he himself now writes his own treatise - namely to expose 'heretics,' to confound those who propagate 'falsely so-called gnosis' and above all 'to establish the canon of truth in the church.' 
[p. 259 - 262]

Now I have to admit I think that a lot of Pagel's scholarship is quite slipshod but the basic idea has something going for it. A better formulation might be to refer to David Trobisch's assertion that OUR Gospel of John is not the original but a 'corrected' version of one that was known to earlier generations of Christians. In other words, that Irenaeus THIS Gospel of John that has come down to us for this purpose. One could argue that part of this methodology has been reflected in aa5874's recent thread about Irenaeus's use of John to prove that Jesus was almost fifty years old.

The bottom line here is that it is impossible to argue that Christianity developed from a literal reading of the gospel. This interpretation that the text is ONLY a 'historical narrative' without any mythopoesis whatsoever is a wholly reactionary position developed by modern Protestants. If we put the concept of Christian 'redemption' (ἀπολύτρωσις) under the microscope it is impossible not to see that it developed FROM the heresies of an earlier period. 

To this end, I would argue that merely attacking Christianity and its myths about Jesus is misguided. A much more nuanced approach is required where it is demonstrated that even at the time of Irenaeus, a century and a half after the Passion (yes, I still believe there was an actual historical event) Christians were not only combating mythography in their tradition but actually developing new variants of old myths to bring people from earlier traditions into their fold.

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