10/16/2012 | Share this article:By Michael Sherlock ~
1. Set in the (remote) Past
With regards to this limb, Professor Vandiver says:
“Myths are stories set in the past. Myths do not deal with what is happening today, or this week, or even last year, we don’t have myths about current time. Myths are set in the past, often in the very remote past.”(1)
I think first, we need to establish what exactly constitutes the remote past, and what the likely purpose would be, for setting a myth in the remote past.
The word, ‘remote’ as it relates to the term, ‘remote past,’ is defined by the World English Dictionary, as being:
distant in time (2)
This is a rather vague definition and doesn’t really help us define what Professor Vandiver meant, when she said; a myth is often set in the remote past. The etymological root of the word, remote, may be of more assistance. The English word, ‘remote’ stems from the Latin ‘remotus,’ being the past participle of the word, ‘remove.’(3) So, the remote past is a time in the past, which is removed from the present. If one accepts this definition of the ‘remote past,’ then we could say, for the purpose of our investigation that; myths are often set in a time in the past, which is removed from the present. This makes sense when we look at the creation myths of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, and many other cultures, it also fits the descriptions of myths such as Hercules/Herakles, and his twelve labors, Demeter and Persephone, Osiris and Isis, and even Noah and his Ark, all being set hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years, from the time they were transmitted. But the Christian myth was written down just over half a century after the purported events were claimed to have transpired. So is this shorter span of time long enough to qualify as, ‘remote?’ Keep in mind, our definition; a time removed from the present. To provide some context here, we should acknowledge the fact that, what qualified for the remote past 2000 years ago is different from what would sufficiently describe the remote past, today. The reason for this difference is that, today and over the last few centuries, there has been a proliferation of chroniclers and chronicles. Since the advent of Gutenberg’s printing-press in the 15th century, history has been increasingly and more accurately documented as a result of the increased media capacity of the modern era. Thus, 50 years ago, say during the 1960’s, would not be considered the remote past, as we are not removed from it. We have video footage, newspaper archives, books, poems, and a plethora of various forms of media that serve to keep us in touch with that time. 2000 years ago however, this was not the case.
One of the reasons we should distinguish between what constituted the remote past 2000 years ago, from what we would consider the remote past, today, is that literacy rates 2000 years ago were much lower than they are today. This means that there were less people to record history or, keep people in touch with the past, during the first part of the first century, especially in such a rustic and remote location like Palestine.
Commenting on literacy rates throughout the Roman Empire, during the first century, Ehrman says:
Illiteracy was widespread throughout the Roman Empire. At the best of times maybe 10 percent of the population was roughly literate. And that 10 percent would be the leisured classes—upper-class people who had the time and money to get an education (and their slaves and servants taught to read for the benefit of such services to their masters). Everyone else worked from an early age and was unable to afford the time or expense of an education.(4)
Naturally, such extreme illiteracy, coupled with the lack of media technology, meant that there was comparatively less literature and means of chronicling events, resulting in a situation in which, many events would go unrecorded, especially outside of the major metropolises of the Roman Empire.
This brings us to an additional aspect of remoteness as it pertains to the Christian myth. The myths described in the Gospels were set, not only in the remote past, but in a remote location. Unlike many of the Classical myths, which described a dreamlike world, almost entirely dominated by supernatural forces, events and people, the Christian myth localized its supernaturalism around a small “insignificant figure,” who, lived in a small insignificant region, at a real definable point in history. For this reason, many scholars refer to the stories about Jesus as, ‘legends,’ rather than myths, for the reason mentioned above. Namely, they are composed of unreal events, superimposed onto an historical canvass. As I’ve already discussed, a traditional tale may be a complex creature, involving legend, myth, and folk-tale. The myth underscoring the Christian religion is one such tale, as we have seen and will see; it contains all the elements which comprise a myth, according to Professor Vandiver’s definition, anyway.
Returning to the issue of the remoteness of the location of the Christ myth, apologists love to hide behind this aspect of remoteness when sceptical inquirers come storming in with demands, not only for proof of Jesus’ earthly existence, but for the miracles which he was alleged to have performed and the supernatural events surrounding his birth, life and death. They argue that, Jesus’ contemporaries did not mention him in their vast and volumous chronicles, because he was an insignificant figure, living in an insignificant region of the empire. He was, in other words; a nobody from nowhere!
Regarding Jesus’ obscurity, Ehrman says:
“What do Greek and Roman sources have to say about Jesus? Or to make the question more pointed: if Jesus lived and died in the first century (death around 30 CE), what do the Greek and Roman sources from his own day through the end of the century (say, the year 100) have to say about him? The answer is breathtaking. They have absolutely nothing to say about him. He is never discussed, challenged, attacked, maligned, or talked about in any way in any surviving pagan source of the period. There are no birth records, accounts of his trial and death, reflections on his significance, or disputes about his teachings. In fact, his name is never mentioned once in any pagan source. And we have a lot of Greek and Roman sources from the period: religious scholars, historians, philosophers, poets, natural scientists; we have thousands of private letters; we have inscriptions placed on buildings in public places. In no first-century Greek or Roman (pagan) source is Jesus mentioned.”(5)
According to the Christian apologists, on the popular apologetic website, Tektonics, the reason why no contemporary made mention of Jesus, was due to the fact that:
“As far as the historians of the day were concerned, he was just a "blip" on the screen. Jesus did not address the Roman Senate, or write extensive Greek philosophical treatises; he never travelled outside of the regions of Palestine, and was not a member of any known political party. It is only because Christians later made Jesus a "celebrity" that He became known.”(6)
So, let us now look briefly at a possible reason why mythographers seemed to always employ the devise of remoteness to their tales. Why did they set their tales in the remote past, and in the Christian’s case, in a remote region of the empire?
Looking at the issue critically and somewhat sceptically, it is likely that these tale-tellers set their fictitious stories in the remote past and in remote locations for the sake of apology. By doing so, they could defend the alleged truth of these tales within the obscurity afforded by a lack of witness.
Imagine if someone was to tell you that; 2 years ago, the earth was covered with a great flood and that a 600 year old man, was given a weeks’ notice to build a giant ark, upon which, he was told to take two of every kind of animal, from bears to kangaroos, to grasshoppers and snakes! Following this, the storyteller claims that, this 600 year old man succeeded in achieving this miraculous task and subsequently the flood covered the earth, and only he, his family and the animals were saved. First of all, you were alive two years ago and can probably remember most of the events of that time. Surely, you would remember a global flood, or would have not been around to hear the storyteller’s tale! Furthermore, you would question the storyteller with regards to the age of the man. Human’s do not live this long, let alone build giant arks at such an advanced age. Also, you may, with your knowledge of geography, see the ridiculous nature of the claim made by the storyteller that, this 600 year old man managed to herd two of every animal onto this ark, in a week no less! You even may wonder how on earth, he could have built the kinds of refrigeration and heating systems, required to keep the polar bears cool and the snakes warm! Ultimately, you would come to the conclusion that, this storyteller is not telling the truth and that what you are hearing is fiction.
But what if, as a storyteller, you localized your myth? You could subtract the universal dreamlike state of the earth and replace it with a more localized supernatural event, one which could not be easily observed and thus, remain safe from refutation. You could set the tale as far back in time as necessary, to separate the audience from the time and place of the tale. You could say that, the miracles occurred around one little obscure man, a “blip on the screen,” in an equally small and obscure location. This way, your tale would be relatively safe from immediate dismissal and refutation. Finally, you could initially relay it to the meek, unlearned, the illiterate masses, who are prone to credulity, whose hopes can be fanned by the flagrant fantasies, those who wouldn’t know who Pontius Pilate was, or that Quirinius could not have been governor of Syria at the same time as Herod the Great’s rule. You could sell your tale, not only upon the grounds of remoteness, as it applies to both the location and the obscurity of a single insignificant figure, but also, upon the intellectual remoteness of your audience. This is precisely how I see the element of remoteness, as it applies to the development and propagation of the Christian myth.
To be continued…
1. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver. Classical Mythology. Lecture 2: What is Myth? The Teaching Company. (2002).
2. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition 2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009; cited at: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/remote
4. Bart D. Ehrman. Jesus Interrupted. Harper Collins (2005). p. 105.
5. Ibid. p. 148.