Are “Dying and Rising Gods” Dead?

Recently I’ve been researching the mythology behind Easter (see my April 3 post) and thus also that behind Christ’s resurrection. When reading the literature on the subject, one inevitably comes across claims that Christ was just another “dying and rising god” of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Further, the Christ Myth theory (which I have been following with interest for quite a while, although I am yet to be convinced) embraces this idea to argue against the historicity of Jesus. Since I have had this recent opportunity to update and refine my thinking on the notion of dying and rising gods, I decided to share that here. It is not feasible to cover the vast body of evidence in question in a blog post, so my main purpose here is to chart a framework for thinking about the subject, which I hope will be helpful to my readers. The sources that I reference in this post are listed at the end.

The notion of a category of “dying and rising gods” is most famously traceable to James Frazer, who in The Golden Bough wrote at length about Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus in particular as exemplars of this category. According to Frazer, the dying and rising god was closely connected with the seasonal cycle of vegetation, so that the god’s death marked the onset of the barren season and his resurrection marked the coming of the fertility of spring (or analogous season depending on the climate). Since this seasonal pattern is ubiquitous, Frazer thought, it is not surprising that this mythological motif was so common.

Beginning with an article in 1933 by Roland de Vaux and through to the end of the 20th century and beyond, various scholars have attacked the notion of “dying and rising gods.” In my reading of this literature, the criticism has come mainly from two camps. One has been from regional specialists generally hostile to comparative approaches to religion and myth (e.g., de Vaux; Mark S. Smith in respect of Ugaritic studies and the god Baal), who were keen to point out how the gods in question from Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt did not fit completely into the alleged category. The other has been from Christian apologists, who in principle oppose the idea of Christ being viewed as a “dying and rising god,” and so have been inclined to deny the category itself (e.g., Eddy & Boyd, pp. 142-46). This trend reached a high point in 1987 when Jonathan Z. Smith published his entry, “Dying and Rising Gods,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, opposing the concept. Although in such a short (6-page) essay it was impossible for Smith to detail the evidence supporting his views, the piece resonated widely and found a welcoming audience well out of proportion to the essay’s value (not that it was badly written; it was just too short and conclusory to be of much consequence). Thereafter, the essay was frequently cited as if it were a definitive refutation of the notion of dying and rising gods, and commentators began to speak of a scholarly consensus disfavoring the idea. When I see this kind of thing happening, alarm bells go off in my mind: It is a sign that the pendulum may have swung too far based on too little, that groupthink may have taken hold, and that the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.

Indeed, the Swedish biblical and ancient Near East scholar Tryggve Mettinger seems to have thought so too, and in 2001 published the most thorough study on the topic to date, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Mettinger adopts a middle position, concluding after an exhaustive review of the evidence that, while it is not wise to hypostasize the gods in question into a “type” (p. 218), the fact remains that, despite the differences in each case, most of the gods under review did die in one manner or other (or were represented metaphorically as doing so) and were revived after the experience of death. Moreover, this motif was typically tied to seasonal cycles, and in most cases there was some accompanying associated ritual. To my thinking, this situation is analogous to the hero-cycle in myths, in respect of which mythologists point to a series of typical events in the hero’s birth and adventure (though mythologists – Joseph Campbell and others – differ somewhat over what the elements are). No single myth hits all the data points (itself a moving target), but it would be wrong to deny that there is a hero-cycle present among world myths.

If one looks for an underlying reason for the similarities in dying and rising god myths and rituals, Frazier, though he oversimplified and overstated his case, does seem to have made a real contribution here in pointing to seasonal cycles, which surely have influenced people’s minds and their activities for eternity (Mettinger, p. 219). Beyond that, the similarities seem to arise from psychological factors. In discussing the psychology of the notion of rebirth, Carl Jung argued that the similarities in myths of dying and rising gods derive from archetypes of the collective unconscious and represent an effort of the psyche to experience a “permanence and continuity of life which outlasts all changes of form,” which helps develop the wholeness of the Self (CW 9.1, p. 117, describing in this case Osiris). Some ancient Near East scholars have acknowledged the explanatory value of a psychological approach to the symbolism (e.g., Frankfort, pp. 20-22).

1280px-Osiris_Philae

Osiris as generating the corn, as portrayed in a Bas-relief from the temple at Philae. Egyptians in fact made similar “Osiris beds” (also called “corn mummies”) in a funerary context by heaping earth in the shape of a mummy on a bier and planting seeds in it. Once the seeds germinated, the bed/mummy was placed in the tomb, serving as a spell for resurrection. The bier here is supported by the ankh and was scepter symbols, which respectively symbolize life and welfare (among other things).

Much of the case against dying and rising gods has been based on the argument that most evidence supporting the category is from Greco-Roman times and from within that culture complex (rather than the earlier Mesopotamian, Anatolian, and Egyptian cultures in which the gods arose). The opponents of the category recognize that in Greece, Rome, and Alexandria the deities had become conflated, and that in that late environment it was indeed possible to speak of dying and rising gods; their point, though, has been that the category did not exist earlier in these gods’ places of origin. Thus, for example, although there is little information about Attis from his original home in Asia Minor, once he and his consort Cybele had migrated to Rome, his death and rebirth were ritualized each spring during the Hilaria festival. Yet it is surely this later situation that is most relevant to whether the category can be applied to Christ, because that was the period and geography in which Christianity originated and grew. Nevertheless, commentators writing from a Christian perspective who deny the existence of dying and rising gods usually miss this point, conveniently focusing instead on the situation in earlier centuries and other geographies.

When examining whether Christ was viewed as a dying and rising god, it is important to distinguish between (a) the origin of the notion of Christ’s resurrection in Judea and (b) the subsequent reception and expansion of Christianity in the Roman Mediterranean world. As to the latter, it is certainly possible that Gentiles were making this kind of comparison; we even see early Church fathers such as Origen and Jerome writing about these dying and rising gods. (Some scholars have even argued the reverse, i.e., that it was Christianity’s Christ story that inspired the contemporary reworkings of the dying and rising god myths.) An influence of the dying and rising god myths on the reception and growth of Christianity is thus entirely plausible, though it has proved difficult to pin this down.

The origin of the Christ resurrection story, however, is quite another matter. The notion that Christ resurrected must have originated right after his death, among the people who knew and followed him, who were pious, monotheistic Jews. There is no evidence that notions of dying and rising gods were entertained in late Second Temple Judaism when and where Jesus lived and died. Rather, the relevant existing belief seems to have been late Second Temple Jewish apocalypticism, which the majority of New Testament scholars now agree Jesus himself espoused (also John the Baptist, the Qumran community, and St. Paul). According to this belief, the Jewish God was about to intervene in history to overthrow the forces of evil (the Romans in particular), resurrect the dead and render judgment on all people who have ever lived, select the just and good people, and establish for them a kingdom of God on earth. Jesus (and John and Paul) taught that this would happen imminently, within the current generation, and that the first signs of this were already appearing. If one takes Jesus’s own sayings as authentic, he predicted to his disciples his own death and resurrection on the third day (e.g., Matt. 12:40; 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19; Luke 9:22; 18:33), in which case they would believe and expect that this would happen. But even if one leaves aside these sayings as inauthentic, it would still have been logical for Jesus’s followers to expect that he would be resurrected as the first fruits of the coming of the new kingdom (since he would be its king and his 12 disciples the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel), so it is not at all surprising that they would experience visions of him. To my mind, this scenario for the origin of the resurrection story has greater explanatory power. (I consider the eventual  gospel stories of the empty tomb to be not credible evidence because the notion of burying him in a tomb runs contrary to Roman crucifixion practices, in which the bodies were left on the cross to be exposed to the elements and scavengers and to decompose, as part of the humiliation intended through such punishment.)

To the above I’d add other factors mitigating against the earliest Christians seeing in Christ a “dying and rising god”:

  • The accounts of Jesus’s life, teachings, death, and resurrection have nothing to do with vegetation or seasonal cycles, and everything to do with Second Temple apocalyptic Judaism. This resurrection was a one-time event, expected to be ushering in the end of the world. In God’s new kingdom, fertility and hunger would not be concerns.
  • Christ’s death and resurrection was linked to his humanity (God having become human, or adopting this human as his son), whereas none of the dying and rising gods had this human factor, at least in the later era when Christianity arose.
  • In the Christian understanding, the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection was tied to his vicarious suffering for the sins of the world, rewarding the virtuous, and ushering in the kingdom of God. No such moral concerns are evident in the dying and rising god myths.
  • Myths are normally reflected in rituals, and Christianity has a lot of rituals. The early Christian rituals did not resemble the rituals connected with rising-and-dying god myths (which reflected seasonal cycles and vegetation), nor do they have any logical conceptual connection with such myths.

Finally, it is worth noting that even if the Christ resurrection story as it developed were to be found to conform to a dying and rising god motif, this would be technically irrelevant to the question whether Christ actually existed. A historical figure could be mythologized in such a way, and indeed many historical figures have been mythologized. The question of Christ’s historicity, however, is one of history that must be analyzed by historians using proper historical methods.

Sources and Further Reading:

Eddy, Paul Rhodes, and Boyd, Gregory A. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.

Frankfort, Henri. The Problem of Similarity in Ancient Near Eastern Religions. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.

Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.1.

Mettinger, Tryggve. The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2001.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Dying and Rising Gods,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion 4:521-27 (1987).

Smith, Mark S. “The Death of ‘Dying and Rising Gods’ in the Biblical World: An Update, with Special Reference to Baal in the Baal Cycle,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 12: 257-313 (1998).

© Arthur George, 2015

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One Response to Are “Dying and Rising Gods” Dead?

  1. Pingback: The Mythology of Easter II: Was Christ a “Dying and Rising God”? | Mythology Matters

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