Tuesday, March 22, 2016

N.T. Wright on the "Dying and Rising God" Myth

An atheist I was dialoguing with said to me: “I do not believe Jesus was a real person. I believe the Jesus of the Bible is a mish-mash of previous “Sons of God” or “Sun Gods” such as Osiris, Mithras or Dionysus, all were born of virgins, all were martyred. All were resurrected. It’s just a re-telling of the old tales into a new tale.” I've heard this before. What can we make of it?

It’s false. Here’s why. But first note: If you want to read much more see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, Ch. 2, “Shadows, Souls, and Where They Go: Life Beyond Death in Ancient Paganism.” Wright combines excellent scholarship with clear writing to show that the idea that, e.g., Osiris, Mithras, and Dionysus et. al., “were [mythically] resurrected” is false because a misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘resurrection.’ In the ancient world in which Judeo-Christianity was situated “’resurrection’ was not an option.” (Wright, 60)

“Resurrection,” in the Judeo-Christian sense, means: “a new embodied life which would follow whatever ‘life after death’ might be.” (Wright, 83) The Greco-Roman world assumed that such a thing was impossible. The Isis, Osiris, and Dionysus myths are affiliated with fertility rites and “productivity of the soil.” (Ib., 80) These gods “died and rose” every year. “The new life they might thereby experience was not a return to the life of the present world.” Nobody actually expected the mummies to get up, walk about and resume normal living: nobody in that world would have wanted such a thing, either.” (Ib., 80-81)

“When the Christians spoke of the resurrection of Jesus they did not suppose it was something that happened every year, with the sowing of seed and the harvesting of crops. They could use the image of sowing and harvesting to talk about it; they could celebrate Jesus’ death by breaking bread; but to confuse this with the world of the dying and rising gods would be a serious mistake… When Paul preached in Athens, nobody said, ‘Ah, yes, a new version of Osiris and such like. The Homeric assumption remained in force. Whatever the gods – or the crops – might do, humans did not rise again from the dead.” (Ib., 81)

The two greatest influences on the Greco-Roman worldview were Plato and Homer. For Plato ‘resurrection’ was a detestable thought; for Homer an impossible thing.
The Christian idea of resurrection is antithetical to Platonic thinking because the human body, for Plato, is a “prison” and no one would want to inhabit it again after death.
For Homer the dead are “shades,” “ghosts,” “phantoms.” “They are in no way fully human beings, though they may look like them; the appearance is deceptive, since one cannot grasp them physically.” (Ib., 43)

The Egyptian Osiris myth has no concept of “resurrection” in it as Christians understood it. Egyptian mummification assumes the person is “still ‘alive’ in some bodily sense, despite appearances.” “’Resurrection’ is an inappropriate word for Egyptian belief.” (Ib., 47).
There’s a lot of reasoning and resources in Wright’s chapter. He concludes with three things.

“When the early Christians spoke of Jesus being raised from the dead, the natural meaning of that statement, throughout the ancient world, was the claim that something had happened to Jesus which had happened to nobody else. A great many things supposedly happened to the dead, but resurrection did not.” (Ib., 83)

“The early Christian belief that Jesus was in some sense divine cannot have been the cause of the belief in his resurrection…. Divinization did not require resurrection; it regularly happened without it. It involved the soul, not the body.” (Ib.)

The ancient non-Judeo-Christian world took the Judeo-Christian term ‘resurrection,’ which referred to something hardly anyone believed in, “and used it to denote something a great many people believed in”; viz., non-bodily life after death.

Wright writes: This “was a variation that attempted to retain Christian language about Jesus, and about the future destiny of Christians, whole filling it with non-Christian, and for that matter non-Jewish, content. If this mutation had been the norm, and belief in bodily resurrection the odd variant, why would anyone have invented the latter? And why would not Celsus have pointed this all out?” (Ib., 84) Good question!