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Christianity: A New Type of Myth - Part 1

By Michael Sherlock ~

The purpose of this series of articles is to provide the reader with a cursory understanding of not only what constitutes myth, for the purposes of analysis, but of how the narratives which form the basis of the Christian religion, fit into this category we call myth. First of all, myth, as distinct from mythology, refers to the body of traditional tales told by a given culture, or religious group. Mythology, on the other hand, connotes the theoretical study of that body of traditional tales, or myths. Quite often these terms are used interchangeably, and thus have become conflated to such a degree that, one can use either term and be understood. To be perfectly accurate however, mythology, like any other ‘ology,’ refers to the study of, myth.

This article will be employing the characteristics of myth, as laid out by one of the world’s foremost scholars of classical mythology and classical literature, Professor Elizabeth Vandiver.(1) In her lecture series entitled, Classical Mythology, Prof Vandiver sets out a number of criteria for identifying myth. This article will rest upon the six main criteria, described in Lecture two of the series, and they are as follows:

  1. Traditional Tale
  2. Change over time
  3. Set in the Extraordinary (remote) Past
  4. Myths as True Accounts
  5. Functions of Myth: Instruct, Explain, Justify, or Warn
  6. Supernatural and/or, Divine orientation (2)

I will analyse each of these elements comprising, what is in my opinion, one of the best working definitions of myth, and compare them to the myths which form the foundation of the Christian religion.

Before doing so however, it would be both useful and prudent, to briefly sketch out a distinction between stories that can be categorized as myths, as against other related and often overlapping categories of narratives like; folk tales and legends.

Professor Vandiver distinguishes between these three categories, myth, legend and folktale, by explaining:

“Myth, or myth proper, as it is sometimes called, would refer only to stories that have to do directly with the gods. So, a story about Zeus’ rise to power would be a myth in this threefold division. A story about Oedipus, Odysseus, or Achilles, would not be, because they were humans, not gods. In this threefold division, legend would refer to traditional stories rooted in historical fact, describing adventures of people who once actually lived, but whose adventures have been greatly exaggerated through the passage of time…. The third division, folk tale, would refer to stories that were primarily entertaining and that often involve animals, frequently talking animals, or clever human beings but not exceptional human beings. Common people who are particularly clever in one way or another. An example of folk tales would be, Little Red Riding Hood, Goldie Lox and the Three Bears, that kind of thing.”(3)

Now that we have this clear distinction between these three categories of traditional tales, let us acknowledge that the lines between these three categories can become blurred and that a traditional tale may involve one, two, or all three of these categories, interwoven in the one narrative, or group of narratives. Such is certainly the case with Christian myths. On the one hand, we have historical characters like, Pontius Pilate, Emperor Tiberius, the Roman Governor of Syria, Quirinius, and possibly even Jesus himself, etc. And on the other, we have the very mythological narratives of the four anonymous gospel authors, who describe supernatural and divine events, set on the backdrop of real history, making these stories a combination of both myth and legend.

1. The Traditional Tale

According to Professor Vandiver, a traditional tale which qualifies as a myth can only be in the form of a narrative. It cannot be a series of lectures, dot point instructions, a recipe, etc., it must be a tale. In other words, if it is not a story, it is not a myth. Further, according to Professor Vandiver, the original author(s) of the tale cannot be identified. In other words; the author of a myth is someone who is unknowable, they are and always remain, anonymous.(4)

Without spending too much time and space on such a self-evident element of myth as it relates to the Christian story, let us just say that the story of Jesus, as relayed by the anonymous authors of the gospels, is just that, a story. It follows a narrative formula, describing his birth, life, death, and resurrection in a narrative form. Also as alluded to above, the authors of the original Gospel tales are anonymous, or more accurately speaking pseudonymous (falsely attributed). (5) I think that is all that needs to be said on this criterion.

So already, we have one limb of Professor Vandiver’s definition of myth, satisfied for the purposes of this comparative investigation. The story of Jesus is one which follows a narrative scheme and was created by unknown and unknowable authors.

2. Change over Time

The second component in this investigation to be addressed is change over time. Like the beings who, created and propagated these tales, myths almost invariably change over time. Here we need to draw one of the first distinctions, or seemingly distinct characteristics of Christian mythology, as opposed to Classical and other ancient mythologies. In pre-literate societies, and even within literate ones, the details of mythological tales tend to develop and change with time. Of course, in pre-literate societies, the details of a given myth would logically change to a greater degree, than in literate ones, for when we write something down the details become fixed, well, to a relative degree anyway. Take the myth of the Egyptian God Osiris, for example. Even though Egypt was a literate or, semi-literate society, various details of the myth of the death of Osiris, changed over time.

In one of the more popular versions of the myth, Osiris is tricked by his evil brother Set, into laying in a coffin, which his evil brother nails shut and castes into the Nile, or ocean. Following this, Isis, the sister-wife of Osiris, goes in search for her husband, and eventually finds him in a Syrian city called, Byblos, within an Erica tree, that has grown up around his coffin. Isis brings her husband’s body back to Egypt where Set, who was hunting by the moonlight, discovers his brother is back and Egypt. Upon discovering this, Set scatters his bones across Egypt, in a bid to finish his brother off once and for all. (6)
Many of the details of this myth changed over time as the society developed. Some versions of the myth relate that Osiris was mutilated and cut into pieces by his brother Set, as opposed to the earlier accounts which described Set as merely scattering the bones of his dead brother Osiris. Even the number of pieces varied, ranging from 14, up to 42, the number of administrative regions (Nomes) throughout most of the Dynastic period of ancient Egypt.

With regards to the fluid nature of the mythology surrounding Osiris’ death, The Cambridge Ancient History Series, Volume 1, relates:

The older sources are less explicit. According to the Pyramid Texts Set struck his brother down in Nedyt, wherever that may be, and on the British Museum Stela, No. 797, a late production, but based on documents of the Pyramid Age, siris is represented as having been drowned.(7)

Even the nature of Osiris himself was subject to change over time. Edward I. Bleiburg, Associate Curator of Egyptian art, at Brooklyn Museum says:

Apparently, Osiris was not originally viewed in a positive light. He may have been the god of the unsuccessful dead, that is, those who did not ascend to the sky to become a star or gain a spot in Re's bark. Osiris seems to have originally been thought of in the form of a dog, based on a Pyramid Text passage, which says that the king has the face of a jackal, like Osiris. He quickly lost this form, however, and his earliest depictions show him as a mummiform human with his hands protruding from the mummy bandages and gripping the symbols of kingship, the crook and flail.(8)

So we see in this example, that myth is subject to change over time and if one is to survey the corpus of Classical and other ancient mythologies, it becomes evident that such change is common, in both literate and pre-literate cultures. Speaking on the subject of change over time within Classical mythology, the two Oxford Emeritus Professors, Mark Morford and Robert Lenardon, say:

“The tenacious persistence of Greek and Roman mythology as a living force throughout the ages but particularly in contemporary society has become one of its most identifiable characteristics. After all, the beauty and power of its inspiration have never died. It is retold and reinterpreted with infinite variations, repeatedly and continuously; these gods and goddesses, these heroes and heroines and their legends never have remained fixed but constantly change through refreshingly new metamorphoses that illuminate not only the artists but also their society and their times. We can never really pronounce with finality upon the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the legend of Heracles, or upon the character of Achilles or Helen, because no sooner is the pronouncement made than the myth, the legend, and its characters have been transformed anew…”

Ok, so ancient and Classical myths change over time, but the myth of Christ hasn’t changed! Or, has it?

To be continued….


References

1. http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/151655.Elizabeth_Vandiver ; http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=243
2. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver. Classical Mythology. Lecture 2: What is Myth? The Teaching Company. (2002).
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Bart D. Ehrman. Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. (2006). Oxford University Press. pp. 8-10; John Barton and John Muddiman. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press. (2001). p. 886; Paul. J. Achtemeier. Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary Revised Edition. Harper Collins, (1989). p. 661; Bart D Ehrman. Jesus Interrupted. Harper Collins Publishers. (2005) Pg. 111.
6.
7. J.B. Bury, S.A. Cook & F.A. Adcock. The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 1: Egypt and Babylonia - To 1580 BCE. Cambridge University Press (1928). p. 332.
8. Ibid.
9. Edward I. Bleiburg. World Eras Volume 5: Ancient Egypt. 2615-332 BCE. Gale Group. (2002) p. 243.
10. Mark P.O. Morford & Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology. Oxford University Press (2003).Preface xiii – xiv.

Website: http://michaelsherlock.org


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