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John Odendaal
 
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Jesus and the Ascension Mythotype

21 December 2013, 13:34

In the Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 129, No. 4 (2010), Richard Miller presents a list of common attributes ascribed to heroes in Greco-Roman ascension myth.

Richard Carrier lists them in his talk here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MclBbZUFSag

For the purposes of this article I will list them below:

1. The hero is the Son of God
2. Death accompanied by prodigies
3. … and land covered in darkness
4. Corpse goes missing
5. Receives a new immortal body
6. New body occasionally radiant
7. Meets followers on road from city
8. Speech from high place
9. Message of resurrection or “translation”
10. “Great commission”
11. Ascends in heaven
12. Taken up into a cloud
13. Explicit eyewitnesses (explicit roles for eyewitnesses)
14. Frightened by disappearance
15. Some flee
16. “dubious alternative accounts” (body stolen, etc.)
17. Occurs outside of a central city
18. Followers initially in sorrow
19. But resurrection story leads to belief, homage, and rejoicing
20. Hero deified and cult paid to him

Reading through the list, a certain name immediately comes to mind.  Are you thinking of the same person I'm thinking of?

These of course apply to -- amongst others -- Romulus as written by Titus Livius (Livy).  Romulus and Remus are the main characters in Rome's foundation myth.  Livy died in 17CE after writing "History of Rome", his only surviving work, detailing events from its foundation to the death of Augustus: http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_livy_1.htm

But you weren't thinking of Romulus, were you?

It is not surprising that we find many of those attributes apply to the central character of the Christian story, Jesus of Nazareth, written much later.  Religious syncretism was rife in that part of the world, and what better mythological backstory to draw from than that of the people making up the bulk of the followers?

The earliest mention of Jesus by a supposed eye-witness (Paul) did not really have anything to say about his earthly, physical life. By his own admission, Paul's sources were nothing more than scripture (Torah) and revelation (visions). It is fairly predictable that his own flavour of Jewish theology mixing with pagan mystery religions and Platonic concepts was always going to leave an unsatisfying hole in the story.  Paul, drawing from the Gnostics, clearly favoured a spiritual take on things where an account of an earthly life and ministry could have been quite compelling.

By the year 70 CE, one such account was carefully crafted as an attempt to flesh out the Jesus story.  This "gospel" -- much later attributed to a "Mark" although originally anonymous -- became the source of the other synoptics, each one offering a socio-political variation on the theme, taking opportunity to correct theological blunders, concoct explanations for failed prophecies or merely to guide followers down a different path. Mainstream biblical scholarship has conceded this for many years.  The human minds behind the gospels are all too clear.

The fact that there is no archaeological evidence showing that Nazareth was actually inhabited at the time Jesus was supposedly alive, combined with the fact that Jewish historian Josephus had no knowledge of such a village (when he dutifully chronicled the presence of so many places in the area -- many of lesser importance -- in his own writings), speaks volumes about the literal truth of the gospels and the historicity of the story as a whole. Nevermind Josephus - nobody writing at a time contemporary to Paul indicated any knowledge of Nazareth. Not even Paul himself.

The idea that Jesus may never have been an historical figure is not new, although it is gaining traction. Even if an historical Jesus did walk the Earth, there can be no way of determining what he was like.  The gospels are literary devices crafted by unexpectedly literate authors in a mostly illiterate climate, with clear socio-political purpose guiding their theologies.  They are myth, and are based on myth.

If we can't rely on the gospels (canonical or otherwise), and we can't rely on Paul (whose authentic letters strangely and conveniently skip the part where a flesh and blood Jesus walked the Earth), and all non-apologetic mentions of Jesus are either forgeries (i.e. Josephus) or mere reports about believers and their beliefs, what more is there to say about the historical Jesus?

At the very least, the defender of the historical Jesus of Nazareth needs to explain how the attributes listed at the top of this article manage to belong to Jesus when they were attributed to Romulus many years prior.  If they want to do a half-decent job, they can explain why mention of Nazareth is not an anachronistic blunder of the gospel authors.In the Journal of Biblical Literature, Volume 129, No. 4 (2010), Richard Miller presents a list of common attributes ascribed to heroes in Greco-Roman ascension myth.

Richard Carrier lists them in his talk here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MclBbZUFSag

For the purposes of this article I will list them below:

1. The hero is the Son of God
2. Death accompanied by prodigies
3. … and land covered in darkness
4. Corpse goes missing
5. Receives a new immortal body
6. New body occasionally radiant
7. Meets followers on road from city
8. Speech from high place
9. Message of resurrection or “translation”
10. “Great commission”
11. Ascends in heaven
12. Taken up into a cloud
13. Explicit eyewitnesses (explicit roles for eyewitnesses)
14. Frightened by disappearance
15. Some flee
16. “dubious alternative accounts” (body stolen, etc.)
17. Occurs outside of a central city
18. Followers initially in sorrow
19. But resurrection story leads to belief, homage, and rejoicing
20. Hero deified and cult paid to him

Reading through the list, a certain name immediately comes to mind.  Are you thinking of the same person I'm thinking of?

These of course apply to -- amongst others -- Romulus, as written by Titus Livius (Livy).  Romulus and Remus are the main characters in Rome's foundation myth.  Livy died in 17CE after writing "History of Rome", his only surviving work, detailing events from its foundation to the death of Augustus: http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_livy_1.htm

But you weren't thinking of Romulus, were you?

It is not surprising that we find many of those attributes apply to the central character of the Christian story, Jesus of Nazareth, written much later.  Religious syncretism was rife in that part of the world, and what better mythological backstory to draw from than that of the people making up the bulk of the followers?

The earliest mention of Jesus by a supposed eye-witness (Paul) did not really have anything to say about his earthly, physical life. By his own admission, Paul's sources were nothing more than scripture (Torah) and revelation (visions). It is fairly predictable that his own flavour of Jewish theology mixed with pagan mystery religions and Platonic concepts was always going to leave an unsatisfying hole in the story.  Paul, drawing from the Gnostics, clearly favoured a spiritual take on things where an account of an earthly life and ministry could have been quite compelling to the would-be convert.

By the year 70 CE, one such account was carefully crafted as an attempt to flesh out the Jesus story.  This "gospel" -- much later attributed to a "Mark" although originally anonymous -- became the source of the other synoptics, each one offering a socio-political variation on the theme, taking opportunity to correct theological missteps, concoct explanations for failed prophecies or merely to guide followers down a different path. Mainstream biblical scholarship has conceded this for many years now.  The human minds behind the gospels are all too clear.

The fact that there is no archaeological evidence showing that Nazareth was actually inhabited at the time Jesus was supposedly alive, combined with the fact that Jewish historian Josephus had no knowledge of such a village (when he dutifully chronicled the presence of so many places in the area -- many of lesser importance -- in his own writings), speaks volumes about the literal truth of the gospels and the historicity of the story as a whole. Nevermind Josephus - nobody writing at a time contemporary to Paul indicated any knowledge of Nazareth. Not even Paul himself.

The idea that Jesus may never have been an historical figure is not new, although it is gaining traction in scholarly circles. Even if an historical Jesus did walk the Earth, there can be no way of determining what he was like.  The gospels are literary devices crafted by unexpectedly literate authors in a mostly illiterate climate, with clear socio-political purpose guiding their theologies.  They are myth, and are based on myth.

If we can't rely on the gospels (canonical or otherwise), and we can't rely on Paul (whose authentic letters strangely and conveniently skip the part where a flesh and blood Jesus walked the Earth), and all non-apologetic mentions of Jesus are either forgeries (i.e. Josephus) or mere reports about believers and their beliefs, what more is there to say about the historical Jesus?

At the very least, the defender of the historical Jesus of Nazareth needs to explain how the attributes listed at the top of this article manage to belong to Jesus when they were attributed to Romulus many years prior.  If they want to do a half-decent job, they can explain why mention of Nazareth is not an anachronistic blunder of the gospel authors.

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