Abraham's Knife: The Mythology of the Deicide in Antisemitism

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The Mythologizing of Jesus

From the lecture series by Judith Civan

Not long ago there was a great furor over Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ. Reports of the movie by those who had seen it revealed an interesting split in opinion: generally speaking, Christians saw a spiritually uplifting film concerned with love and salvation while Jews saw a bloody, violent depiction of suffering and malevolence with themselves cast as the villains. Jews objected that the movie did not conform to current historical opinion about the facts of Jesus's life and death while Christians for the most part (there were a few scholarly dissenters) were content with the verdict suposedly rendered by the Pope, "It is as it was," or as some of them explained, "It's the Gospels, that's how it was." But, Jews complain, that is not how it was. We have conflicting historical evidence about many details of the story, the Gospels are not historically accurate and they do not even agree with one another about exactly what happened. Christians tend to shrug their shoulders and reply, the story is true and it's not antisemitic- Jesus himself was a Jew.

Let me say that I saw the movie, that it was horribly bloody and cruel and that it did lay most of the responsibility for Jesus's suffering on the Jews, despite the fact that Roman soldiers carried out the abuse. Nevertheless, I do not think it is an adequate explanation of Christian attitudes to say that these Christians are antisemitic and just don't want to admit it. I think many Christians did not see the antisemitism in the movie because they were focussed on something else, something more important to them, the establishment of salvation for their souls, and because they look at this movie and the Gospels themselves with criteria different from those which the Jews use.

For Jews Jesus is a historical figure but for Christians he is primarily a mythological one. That is not to say that Christians realize their Jesus, or as they call him, Christ, is a mythical figure, or that they do not claim historical status for him. Jesus is historical, Christ is mythical, and the Jesus Christ of Christianity is a mixture of history and mythology. And this is the nub of the problem. When Jews raise historical objections, Christians discount these objections because the Gospels are true, "It's the Gospel truth," and this is what matters to them. What we have to realize is that Gospel truth is spiritual and religious truth, not factual, historical truth, and if the two are in conflict, believers will choose the spiritual truth as the more important. What is more important- whether you end up in heaven or hell, or whether you get a few details right about the events of 2,000 years ago?

My dictionary defines a myth as a 'purely fictitious narrative" or a fictitious person or thing. And it defines fictitous as "not genuine...imaginary, unreal." This is the conventional notion of myth. But this is not what we mean when we talk about myths in the study of religions. If something is mythical rather than historical, it is not necessarily any less real and true. Myth is not the opposite of truth, but rather a particular category of truth, discernible from but no less valid in its own realm than historical truth. The trouble with myth is not that it is untrue or unreal within its own parameters but that it can get mixed up and confused with history and historical people, as it did in the Christian gospels.

To scholars of religion, myth is used to describe a story or group of ideas and images which tells the members of a community who they are, what they believe and why it is true. To quote William Nicholls, a myth is "the charter of a religious community, the energy center by which it lives. Usually the myth explains such ultimate mysteries as the creation of the world, the struggle between good and evil, and the way human beings can be saved in the future." And usually the myth is clearly non-historical, taking place in some realm beyond ordinary time.

History on the other hand makes ordinary time important and meaningful. It takes the events of day after day, year after year, and says, remember this, it matters. Historical accounts can make mistakes and publish errors, but they strive for factual accuracy. Mythological accounts on the other hand are not concerned with factual accuracy but with explaining the meaning of something so as to give us insight and enlightenment. Both kinds of stories can be valuable as long as we keep straight just what kind of story we are dealing with. History concerns itself with what is the first meaning of truth cited in my dictionary- accordance with fact or reality, not false or erroneous- while the truth of myth deals with the second meaning of the word explained in my dictionary's definition- in accordance with reason or correct principles or received standard. The truth of myth is a truth of ideas and beliefs, not of facts.

Now what happens when you create a myth which spells out important religious principles for a believing community but mixes the mythological story up with real flesh and blood historical persons living at a specific time in a specific place, and in its primary interest in religious ideas and beliefs doesn't bother to get all the factual details just right? What if, furthermore, political pressures at the time the myth is formulated dictate that certain people like the Romans should be appeased at the expense of others like the Jews who are religious rivals of the new religion but lack the political and military power of the Roman Empire? This in a nutshell is what happened when the historical Jesus was turned into the mythological-historical Jesus Christ. And now we must go on and crack the nutshell and examine all the pieces.

The gospel myth presents Jesus not as an ordinary human being but as a divine being who is sacrificed to atone for the sins of humans and procure for them eternal life. We are told by Christianity that the killing of Jesus was an act of deicide, and the Jews who are held responsible for it by the Gospels are a deicide people. Jews are puzzled by the notion of deicide because we believe God is an eternal being who cannot be killed. In the words of Adon Olam which we sing every shabbat in the synagogue, God is without beginning, without end; He was, is, and will always be. Thus deicide is an impossible, meaningless concept. If He were to die, He would be human, not God, and the crime would be homicide which is a serious crime but common enough, hardly earth-shaking as the death of Jesus was literally described to have been in the Gospel of Matthew. Where then could Christians have gotten this extraordinary notion of deicide?

Did they invent it? Not at all. Among the pagans of the Mediterranean world, gods were always being born or reborn and dying. Some died a more or less natural death but some were murdered by villainous opponents. Although gods died frequently in the ancient pagan world, knowledge about their deaths was largely suppressed, along with their cults, in the centuries after Christianity gained control of the former Roman Empire and adjoining lands of Europe. Early Christians were always distressed by the many parallels between their doctrines and practices and those of the pagan mystery cults which celebrated the deaths and resurrections of gods other than the Christian Jesus. They tended to attribute such similarities to the work of the Devil, out to confuse newly converted Christians. The less known about such gods the better, in the minds of the Church Fathers.

It was only in the early years of the past century, with the rise of the modern discipline of comparative religion, that scholars rediscovered the dying and rising gods of the old, pre-Christian world. Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough describes these gods and T.S. Eliot said in the notes to his "Wasteland" that this book influenced his generation "profoundly." Some scholars were very excited about their discoveries while others were distressed and reluctant to confront this old-new material which threw into question some of their most cherished assumptions about the uniqueness of Christianity. The author of the entry on deicide in the 1951 Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics is clearly uncomfortable and uneasy although intrigued by this modern rediscovery of dying gods. He refers to "facts which seem to show that there has been a wide-spread custom of putting to death both men and animals thought to be gods incarnate" and he concludes:

None of the phenomena which the scientific study of religions has made known has aroused more interest than those obscure rites and ceremonies, those strange customs, which seem best explained by the theory that deicide, once supposed to find its only example in the Crucifixion, has been, in fact, a wide-spread custom, which has left a deep impress on the religious thought of the race.

The obscure rites and ceremonies and strange customs to which the Hastings Encyclopedia refers are those of what scholars term the mystery religions, so called because their core experiences were not public knowledge but were restricted to those who underwent a secret initiation and were sworn not to reveal the heart of their faith. These religions were active and influential in the Mediterranean region for over a thousand years. The mysteries preceded Christianity by many centuries, flourished alongside it during the early Christian centuries, and only died away with the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century C.E.

All the peoples of the ancient world living in predominantly agricultural civilizations shared the same concerns about the fertility of the earth and their flocks, the repetitious cycle of the seasons, and the unpredictable happenings of the weather, sometimes favorable to them, sometimes disastrous. In modern America we take the availability of food for granted. Food is always procurable as long as we have money in our pockets, and rather than Nature the Economy is the mysterious entity which arouses our hopes and anxieties. But for the peoples of some two thousand years ago Nature was a living and powerful presence, their ally and adversary in the struggle for life, the central concern of their existence. No year's harvest could be taken for granted, subject as it was to so many factors beyond man's control, such as frost, drought or plagues of insects. Those who went out into the fields and struggled with such problems every day tended to worship similar gods, no matter in what region they lived and what names they called them.

And all people were concerned with the related human phenomena of birth, sexuality and death. Like the earth on which they lived, like the plants and animals upon which they fed, human beings went through the same cycles of springtime, summer, fall and winter; birth, flowering, fertility, and death. The sun seemed to weaken and succumb to darkness every winter, only to be reborn and reinvigorated every spring. The plants which sprouted from the earth followed the pattern of the sun: growth, faltering and rebirth every year. Vegetation died down and disappeared into the earth, only to sprout up again with the renewal of the year. People worshipping the earth and the sun and elements of the weather as great gods naturally imagined that these gods must be subject to birth, death, and rebirth. And they themselves, the human beings, subject to birth and death, must they be different from the sun and the earth's vegetation, or could they too be reborn after death?

The need for fertility of fields, of flocks, and of one's own body, to provide a continuity of life, and the yearning for some assurance of rebirth after death, were the great concerns of religion throughout the lands of the Hellenistic world. Agricultural fertility, human fertility, and the attainment of immortality were all inter-related needs and in the domain of the same inter-related gods, whether they were called Isis and Osiris in Egypt, Adonis and Astarte in Syria, Cybele andAttis in Phrygia, Dionysis and Demeter in Greece, or Bacchus and Ceres in Rome. As industry and urban life grew in importance, the stress may have shifted in these cults from the worshippers concern for fertility of the earth to their concern for the rebirth and immortality of their own souls, but the connection between the life and death cycle of the heavens, the plant and animal realms, and the human one remained.

We tend to know little about these very important and widespread religions for a number of reasons. Aside from their secretive mystery aspect, their gods have been overshadowed by the Olympian gods who had a great PR man in the Achaean poet Homer. He presented them as memorable and vivid characters and they continued active in subsequent Greek and Roman literature. The Homeric gods were distinct and well defined individuals who lived endless, immortal lives high above mankind on Mount Olympus. They were the gods of an aristocratic, warrior society, detached from the life of the soil, and mirror the qualities of the Achaean ruling class who invaded and conquered Greece in the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E. Once they became anachronisms, as they eventually did, they were no threat to the spread of Christianity.

However the gods of the soil, the agricultural gods, were different. They never entirely disappeared from the life of the common people who had been conquered by the Achaean warriors, and they reasserted themselves with the weakening of the Olympian religion in the age of classical Greek civilization. The Homeric Olympian gods who had served as a focus of patriotic feeling and political unity became irrelevant to the needs of Greeks as the city-state weakened under the new social and political conditions created by Alexander's empire, and people returned to the older gods, finding them very similar to the gods worshipped in the lands Alexander had conquered. In Rome too the state religion was lifeless and did not meet the spiritual needs of the people who imported eastern mystery religions to supplement the official cult.

What were these mystery cults like and why did they appeal so powerfully to people? They told a dramatic, gripping story of a god who was killed, in the case of Osiris by his evil brother Set, of Adonis by a wild boar, or Tammuz by his lover Astarte, mourned with displays of intense grief, and finally resurrected to a new life with great joy and celebration. The worshipper identified with the sufferings of the slain god and the god's rebirth which, he was promised, could produce his own rebirth from his human death if he became an initiate of the god. An ancient Egyptian text promised to the initiates of Osiris:

As truly as Osiris lives, so truly shall his followers live; as truly as Osiris is not dead he shall die no more; as truly as Osiris is not annihilated he shall not be annihilated.

In order to benefit from the promises of such a religion, a person had to apply for admission to the cult, undergo preparatory purifications, go through an initiation ceremony and then swear not to reveal the secrets he had learned. References to the initiations therefore are veiled and vague. Apulcius described his initiation into the cult of Osiris as follows:

I approached the confines of Death; I trod the threshold of Proserpina; after being carried through all the elements, I returned to earth. At midnight I beheld the sun shining with its bright splendor: I penetrated into the very presence of the gods below and the gods above, where I worshipped face to face.

This is about as much detail as we get. It is meant to impress without clarifying. Only fellow initiates could know more. But those who joined the cult were promised they could achieve eternal life.

Besides these secret rites, open only to the initiates, the mystery religions also held public services of prayer and meditation in their temples and celebrated annual holidays of the death and resurrection of their gods. These gods needed to be killed so that they could be resurrected and thus confer eternal life on their worshippers- deicide was an essential part of the plan of salvation, just as the winter death of vegetation and weakening of the sun were essential parts of the cycle of nature and prelude to its spring rebirth.

The creator of the Christian myth about the historical figure of Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, was someone who grew up in a city in Asia Minor which was the center of the cult of the vegetation deity Sandan, also known by the Greek name of Heracles. H.J. Schoeps tells us about the religious environment in which the young Paul had lived before he came to Jerusalem:

In honour of Sandan-Heracles there was celebrated every year in Tarsus a funeral pyre festival, at the climax of which the image of the god was burned. The dying of nature under the withering heat of the summer sun and its resurrection to new life was the content of this mystery, which at once suggests its kinship with the cults of the Syrian Adonis, the Phrygian Attis, the Egyptian Osiris, and the Babylonian Tammuz.

Schoeps concludes: "That the young Saul had seen processions in honour of this deity in the marketplace or the streets of Tarsus is something which, of course, cannot be demonstrated, but appears highly probable. "

Paul claims to have been not only a Jew but a Pharisee who had studied at the feet of Gamliel, the leading Pharisee teacher of his day. Hyam Maccoby in The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity goes so far as not only to question Paul's Pharisee credentials but also to suggest he was a gentile convert to Judaism who found his new religion never fit his spiritual needs and therefore created an original mixture of his newly acquired Judaism and the mystery cult known to him from childhood. My own opinion about Maccoby's controversial theory that Paul was not born Jewish is that he may well be right, but the matter cannot be proved or disproved, and that Paul could just as well have been an assimilated Jew growing up in a pagan environment who became a baal teshuvah, a returnee to Judaism, for whom this new enthusiasm did not prove a lasting religious solution.

What does seem clear is that Paul incorporated several mystery religion elements into his new creation. Christian scholars generally do not want to recognize the mystery religion elements in Paul but try to characterize them as coming from Jewish sources. This is largely because they do not consider Paul the originator of Christianity but attribute it rather to Jesus Christ himself. I use the term Jesus Christ, the name for the mythological figure, because we know the historical Jesus, despite the distortions and inaccuracies reported in the Gospels, remained a Jew, an observer of halachah and indeed a Pharisee. We know this not only from some of his statements in the Gospels but also from the behavior of his followers who continued to believe in him personally but also to observe Jewish law and worship in the Temple. He clearly had not taught them to do otherwise.

The historical Jesus was a messianic figure in the Jewish understanding of that term, i.e. he was a human being, a descendent of the Davidic line who was to reestablish Jewish sovereignty and expel the Roman occupier from the Holy Land. There is argument about whether Jesus indeed had such ambitions, and if he did, whether he expected to lead an armed uprising or whether he expected God to perform some miraculous feat at his behest. But if he thought himself the Messiah or if his followers thought this, his purpose was to get rid of the Romans and not have the Jewish land subject to pagans any longer. And this is what the Romans suspected him of and why they crucified him. On his cross they affixed a sign saying, "Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews."

Paul invented a new role for the Messiah, or rather, he transformed his role from that of a human national saviour to that of a mystery religion saviour god: to save individual souls, Jewish or gentile, from sin and death. Paul personally felt the need of such a saviour, and he hit upon the idea in his need that the Jesus who had been a charismatic leader of the Jews and was therefore crucified by the Roman authorities was something like the Sandan of his childhood in Tarsus but much better- a saviour who could unite the emotionally powerful cult of the mystery god with the more majestic God of Judaism. Although Paul did not find the Jewish approach to sin and morality helpful to his own spiritual problems he recognized the value of the Jewish concept of God and tried to effect a merging of Judaism and paganism. He thought he had improved Judaism, and he preached his gospel, which means literally "good news", hoping Jews as well as gentiles would accept it.

He did not accuse the Jews of the deicide necessary to his new mystery cult. There is only one place in his writings where such a charge is made and both James Parkes and Maccoby agree this is probably a later insertion by an editor. It is certainly not characteristic of Paul's attitude to the Jews. Nor does he accuse the Romans of the deicide although he must have known of their role. He was not himself present at the crucifixion but he knew the Romans were the wielders of power in the land and he also talked with James, the brother of Jesus, at a later time. However Paul was politically no fool. He was not out to antagonize the Romans. He had dropped the nationalistic element from messianism and made it compatible with Roman power.

Besides, Paul had another instigator of the deicide in mind, one appropriate for a mythological story, the Devil himself. In Ephesians Paul identified the enemy unequivocally:

Put on the full armor provided by God, so that you may be able to stand firm against the strategems of the devil. For our struggle is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers . . . against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (6: 11-12)

It is a great pity that the gospel story was not kept on this mythological level but mixed in some historical ingredients. That it did so was partly due to Paul himself and his intellectual and emotional involvement in Jewish tradition. He did not mean to blame the Jews for the deicide but he dragged them into the picture and others, the gospel writers, carried on where he left off.

The traditional mystery religion was concerned with three elements: agricultural fertility, human fertility, and immortality. Paul's new hybrid religion dropped the first two elements and focussed on the third. Paul was not a farmer but an urban man, and he was not concerned with increasing and multiplying and replenishing the earth, convinced as he was that the kingdom of God was imminent and that therefore there was no need to be concerned for the future. In I Corinthians 7 Paul advised his congregation about marriage: "To the unmarried and to widows I say this: it is a good thing if like me they stay as they are; but if they do not have self-control, they should marry. It is better to marry than to burn." And further on he explains: "I think the best way for a man to live in a time of stress like the present is this- to remain as he is. . . . What I mean my friends, is this: the time we live in will not last long. . . . For the world as we know it is passing away." Because the kingdom of God was coming, it was imperative to purge sin from one's life and be eligible for salvation. Paul aspired to Jewish morality but he did not find living by halachah the right path for him to take. For Paul human nature was the problem and thus he felt defeated by his sinfulness. Knowing the law only made him aware of how greatly he strayed from it. In his despair he turned to the sacrifice of Jesus and found his answer there- identifying with this saviour god would cleanse him from sin.

Why did Paul accuse the Devil of deicide? Satan did not play a very big role in Jewish thought. In the Bible he is the accuser, like a prosecuting attorney in God's heavenly courtroom in Zechariah and also in the book of Job, urging God to afflict Job to try the genuineness of his piety. He is a minor figure, very much subordinate to God. The source of Paul's Satan, a powerful being who challenges God for control of the universe, lies outside Judaism, in the ideas of the Gnostics who exerted a great influence on Paul. Scholars debate the origins of Gnosticism as well as just how Gnostic Paul's thinking was, some Church leaders of the second century having claimed him as their ally in the fight against what they considered Gnostic heresies within Christianity, while important Gnostics of the same period considered Paul their teacher and his epistles important Gnostic documents. From our fragmentary knowledge of it, Gnosticism does not seem to have been a monolithic, unified movement but rather a conglomeration of different groups who shared certain basic ideas and attitudes, and even looking at this Gnostic consensus, Paul does not seem at have been an 'orthodox' Gnostic. It was not Paul's way to have been an orthodox anything, for he was not the sort of person to swallow someone else's system of thought whole, but would always take what he wanted from it and use it in creating his own synthesis. However, there is no doubt that he was affected by Gnostic thinking, used Gnostic vocabulary at times, and was influenced significantly in his approach to the deicide by his dabbling, or immersion, in Gnosticism, depending on which reading of the evidence you lean towards. Paul obviously felt gnostic ideas helped him explain what his spiritual problem was and how to solve it.

Gnostics believed that the world we live in is not the real world created by the genuine High God but a false world created by a usurping inferior god, the Demiurge, while the High God dwells far away from man in a remote heavenly region. Man can only be saved from the evils of this world, which include the imprisoning physicality of the body and all its ills, by the descent of a saviour who will bring the secret knowledge, or gnosis, from the realm of the High God, and enable man to pass from our evil physical world to the liberation of the spiritual world beyond it.

Some Gnostics identified the Demiurge with the God of the Jews. Paul, with his strong emotional attachment to Judaism, seems to believe the God of the Jews is indeed the High God, although not rightly understood by those Jews. He identifies the Demiurge to some extent with Satan. When he calls Satan "the god of this world", as he does, this could not be derived from a Jewish source because Satan in Jewish sources is only an adversarial attorney, or at most a fallen angel, never a god. Here Paul seems to be echoing the Gnostic description of the Demiurge as the god of this world and the source of evil. But he rejects the Gnostic idea that the world was actually created by an evil power. He seems to hold onto the account of Genesis, that the world was created by God and that it was good, but departs from Jewish thought in believing that it has come under the control of an evil power, the Devil, and that it can be freed from this evil only by the descent of salvation from above, from God Himself. This idea of salvation coming down from God through Jesus to humans, imprisoned and fettered by their own faulty human nature and their bodies' wants and needs, is one of the basic ideas of Christianity. Paul melds it with the mystery religion idea that sharing in the death of a sacrificed god will confer immortality on the worshipper. Gnosis is intellectual and spiritual; the blood of Jesus on the cross is very physical. Together these themes from very different sources and with different natures unite in the mind of Paul to produce the powerful mythological transformation of Jesus from Galilean rabbi to superhuman crucified saviour god.

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© Copyright Judith Civan 2005

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