The Mythology of Easter II: Was Christ a “Dying and Rising God”?

In yesterday’s post I discussed what part of the Easter Resurrection story is history and what part is myth. Insofar as the Resurrection story is myth, it becomes important to distinguish which aspects of the myth partake of motifs common to other myths and which elements are more unique to the Christ Resurrection story. We can then see which aspects may be archetypal and which are more particular to the culture in which the myth emerged and developed. In this regard, we often hear claims that the crucified and resurrected Christ was just another “dying and rising god” of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, among whom usually figure Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, and others. This post analyzes this claim in order to clarify what kind of myth we really have in the Resurrection story, and the underlying basis of that myth.

We must begin by acknowledging that in recent years some scholars have questioned the very validity of the category of dying and rising gods, a claim that I discussed in some detail in my post of August 29 of last year, so I’ll not elaborate again here except to say that the category remains valid, so long as we understand clearly what the similarities and differences are and why. One potential explanation is that there was diffusion of the motif throughout the region; in Israel’s case, after all, one of the abominations that Ezekiel mentioned was women weeping for Tammuz at the north gate of the Temple (Ez 8:14), which would have been on September 17, 592 BCE, when Babylon (featuring that mythical/religious motif) was threatening. If such outside influence were the hypothesis for how the Resurrection story arose almost 700 years later, the question must not merely be whether the dying and rising god motif made some inroads into the thinking of some Jews at the time, but whether it was influential specifically on the followers of Jesus who after his death were the people who became convinced of his resurrection and started circulating the story.

In this regard, it is important to distinguish the content of the Christ Resurrection story from that of the usual dying and rising god motif in at least five respects:

  • First, the dying and rising god myths are based on the agricultural cycle. The god is dead for a considerable portion of the year before coming back to life, and the cycle repeats each year. And he comes to life on earth (and even in the earth); he is never borne up to heaven. He is always a god, at no stage a human. Dying and rising gods also were associated with goddesses (e.g., Inanna/Ishtar, Cybele, Isis). Jesus differs from these gods in all of these respects: no relationship to vegetation; no goddess companion; no repeated yearly cycle but was resurrected just once and for all time; no long period of being dead but rose on the third day; he was human (at least partly) while on earth; when he resurrected he left the earth for heaven; and he was not associated with any goddess but was borne of a human woman and thought of as the son of the Jewish god Yahweh.
  • Second, myths are closely related to accompanying rituals, and the rituals in Christianity and the cases of rising and dying agricultural gods are very different and unrelated. The difference in the ritual illustrates how the underlying myths are dissimilar. Further, Christianity quickly became a religion of creeds and beliefs based on the Christ Resurrection story, whereas creeds were lacking in dying and rising god religion and paganism generally.
  • Third, the dying and rising god myths have nothing to do with morals, individual spirituality, or salvation, whereas Christ’s own teachings and the story of his sacrifice and Resurrection embraced in Christianity are entirely focused on these matters, though in an apocalyptic context. And apocalypticism was not a feature of the dying and rising god myths.
  • Fourth, it is important to remember that Christ was a Jew, and that the belief that Christ was resurrected originated within a small group of his Jewish followers. Late Second Temple Judaism was solidly monotheistic, no dying and rising gods existed in it, and its mythology was not concerned with agricultural cycles. To the Jews, Yahweh himself provided all agricultural bounty, he never disappeared for part of the year, and there were no subsidiary agricultural/seasonal deities. Jews would never have viewed Jesus, or whomever the Messiah would be, as a typical dying and rising god. Rather, the Jewish literature shows that the Messiah was supposed to be a powerful figure who would play a political and/or priestly (never agricultural) role, principally to drive out the forces of evil from the land and restore the kingdom of Israel. According to Jesus’s own apocalyptic teachings, God would soon intervene in human history to establish the Kingdom of God on earth (Ehrman 1999). His followers among whom the Resurrection story originated embraced this belief, as also evidenced by the fact that the earliest Christian communities were apocalyptic communities (Ehrman 1999, p. 139). Agricultural cycles and associated gods were simply not on their radar screens, because the world was about to come to an end anyway! In the Kingdom of God there would be no hunger, so agricultural fertility would not be a concern.
  • Fifth, by Jesus’s time the notion of the bodily resurrection of humans had become established among certain communities of Jews. This notion had become prominent during the Maccabean revolt when martyrs died defending the Law, and it was believed that these heroes would be recompensed by enjoying bodily resurrection (Vermes, pp. 29-38). The Pharisees also believed in bodily resurrection, and the apocalyptic tradition embraced by Jesus held that there would be a general resurrection of the dead at the end of times. In none of these developments is there any evidence of influence from the older dying and rising god myths. Since belief in human bodily resurrection already featured in the cultural context of Jesus and his followers, there is no need to appeal to ancient notions of dying and rising agricultural gods to establish how his followers got the notion of Christ’s resurrection.

Therefore, I do not see how the Resurrection story could have originated as a “dying and rising god” story. Rather, as discussed in yesterday’s post, I agree with the many biblical scholars who believe that it probably arose when his bereaved followers perceived that they were seeing visions of him (e.g., Ehrman 2014, pp. 183-210), which has nothing to do with vegetation gods. As history has shown, historical humans can be mythologized.

Pierro della Francesca resurrection painting

The Resurrection motif links the dark and murky unconscious with the light of ego consciousness and life, leading to individuation of the self and wholeness, according to Jung. In this way Christ’s resurrection, older dying and rebirth myths, and the experiences of initiates in mystery cults (who die to their old selves and are reborn) are archetypically related.

Nevertheless, the dying and rising god motif does seem to have played a popularizing role in the subsequent spread of Christianity through the gentile Roman world. The cults of Osiris and of Magna Mater (Cybele) and Attis, at least, were popular including in Rome itself (Beard et al, pp. 384-88). Such gentile Romans, who would have known nothing of the Jewish background, could have uncritically associated Christ’s resurrection story with dying and rising gods, even if they converted and came to believe in the one true Christian god. On the other hand, more sophisticated and philosophical people in the Greco-Roman world held the belief popularized by Plato that during life the soul is imprisoned in the body but upon death is freed (resurrected), which belief had nothing to do with dying and rising vegetation gods. As a separate matter, Greek and Roman mystery cults involved initiates experiencing a form of dying (to one’s prior self) and rebirth even during the present life, while Christianity offered an alternative (in respect of both the present life and eternity) through the initiation of baptism and the promise of personal resurrection modeled on that of Christ.

This latter point leads into an important sense in which the Resurrection myth does appear to correspond with the motif of dying and rising gods, on the mytho-psychological plane. Specifically, dying and rising god myths, the Christ Resurrection myth, and the mysteries experience all may be expressions of the same archetypal process within the human psyche, only being revealed in somewhat different ways according to the differing cultures. In discussing the psychology of the notion of rebirth, Carl Jung argued that the similarities 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), and he viewed the Christ figure as a symbol of the self (CW 9.2). Some ancient Near East scholars have acknowledged the explanatory value of a psychological approach to such myths (e.g., Frankfort, pp. 20-22). From this perspective, the point is that the Christ Resurrection myth did not copy the dying and rising god motif, but rather that both emerged from the same structures of the human psyche. It is this aspect of the Resurrection myth, which I believe helps explain the appeal and ultimate success of Christianity in the Roman world, that I will take up in tomorrow’s final Easter post.

Sources and Bibliography

Beard, Mary, John North and Simon Price. Religions of Rome, vol.1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014.

Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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.

Jung, Carl. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Collected Works (“CW”), vol. 9.2, pp. 36-71.

Vermes, Geza. The Resurrection: History and Myth. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

© Arthur George 2016

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One Response to The Mythology of Easter II: Was Christ a “Dying and Rising God”?

  1. Hello! I really enjoyed this post. I recently started writing about ancient mythology in a blog of a friend. I was wondering if You would give it a look and give me useful advice.
    Thank you in advance!

    Like

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