Doherty's Mythicism

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_Kishkumen
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Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _Kishkumen »

Earl Doherty, B.A. Classics, has written a couple of the more influential mythicist works and has been discussed approvingly by Robert M. Price, Richard Carrier, and others. I am starting this thread, as much for my own edification as anyone else's, to evaluate his arguments. I start with Doherty instead of Carrier because I am not in a place where I want to dig into Bayesian analysis, but, as has been claimed in the Bayes thread, the mythical Jesus offers us a more probable explanation for the earliest stage in the evolution of the Jesus figure.

From what I have gathered in the past and in refreshing my memory through Doherty's website, Doherty believes that Paul wrote of a mythical Christ Jesus who never existed on the earthly plane, but who instead contended with demons in a supramundane realm. The notion of an earthly Jesus evolved from this mythical Christ as a later accretion.

At the outset I will begin to point out various problems in the way Doherty argues from Mediterranean religious history, as his overall understanding seems to me to be weak and full of errors.
"Petition wasn’t meant to start a witch hunt as I’ve said 6000 times." ~ Hanna Seariac, LDS apologist
_Kishkumen
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _Kishkumen »

Doherty wrote:The most popular expression of religious faith during the era which saw the rise of Christianity was not the official state religion of "Olympian" gods, but the salvation cults known as the "mystery religions"


While it is true that mystery religions increase and proliferate widely beginning in the Hellenistic period, it would be difficult to ascertain their relative popularity in comparison with domestic and civic cult. Very often mystery religions required people to pay for their initiations, and this would doubtless have limited the ability of the majority of people--living at subsistence level--to participate. Doherty's assumptions about mystery cults are based on old assumptions, now shown to be inaccurate, about the decline of civic cult and traditional religiosity in favor of so-called oriental cults such as the cults of Attis, Isis, and Dionysus.

Also, and this is crucial, the idea that mystery cults all concerned salvation of the sort one finds in Christianity is simply false. Doherty gets a lot of mileage out of omitting important differences between various conceptions of salvation. The most widespread salvation belief was the Roman imperial notion of salus--the welfare of the people under the emperor's rule. Furthermore, it is not the case that all mystery cults were primarily concerned with some kind of salvation.
"Petition wasn’t meant to start a witch hunt as I’ve said 6000 times." ~ Hanna Seariac, LDS apologist
_Kishkumen
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _Kishkumen »

Doherty wrote:Most of these cults possessed myths in which the savior deity had overcome death in some way (not necessarily raised from it), or performed some act whose effects guaranteed for the initiates good fortune in this world and a happy existence in the next.


Again, Doherty elides a lot of messy differences for the sake of pushing the idea of the existence of some sort of ancient monomyth to which he can also assign his Christ Jesus. It is altogether unclear what the myth of Mithras in the Roman cult of the god was, beyond what can be extrapolated from a few iconographic scenes. One cannot be certain of the narrative content involved, or any supposed ideas of salvation of any kind therein. There are a number of stories about Attis/Atys, and many of them revolve around his loss of male reproductive organs. Any notion of salvation in the cult or mysteries of Attis is probably quite far removed from the proposed Jesus myth.

Doherty's depiction of mystery religions is overly abbreviated, innacurate, and therefore misleading.

Finally, soter, or "savior," was a common epithet applied to various gods, monarchs, and benefactors. Often it concerns material and mundane salvation, not anything mystical. A wealthy man who saves his city from famine can be honored by the city by the title "soter."
"Petition wasn’t meant to start a witch hunt as I’ve said 6000 times." ~ Hanna Seariac, LDS apologist
_Kishkumen
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

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Doherty wrote:Their rituals included communal sacred meals, often involving such things as bread and wine and bearing strong resemblance to Christian sacramentalism (Paul’s Lord’s Supper myth may well have been influenced by Mithraic counterparts), and the mystical relationships between initiate and deity are very similar to those expounded by Paul in his branch of Christian belief.


Cults of many kinds had dining groups. This does not constitute some kind of special link between the mysteries and Christianity. One should rather have been surprised if there had been no dining ritual in Christianity. Paul's Lord's Supper could only have been influenced by Mithraism if we could be confident that Roman Mithraism existed before Paul. Then we would have to know more about Mithraic dining ritual and its meaning. The archaeological remains of Mithraic feasting usually include lots of animal bones and fruit residue, and this is hardly consistent with the Lord's Supper.

The part about mystical relationships in the context of dining is left unexplained. Did a Mithraic feaster feel mystically connected to Mithras in the feast? Was that the point of Mithraic feasting? We don't know. The evidence is too slight. Cult feasting seems to have been mostly about the conviviality of the cult group, and there is little evidence of mystical experiences in the epigraphic record of cultic dining associations.
"Petition wasn’t meant to start a witch hunt as I’ve said 6000 times." ~ Hanna Seariac, LDS apologist
_richardMdBorn
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _richardMdBorn »

Hi Kish,

I don't want to derail this fascinating thread, but I also wonder if using mystery cults to explain Jesus imports Greek and Roman thought into stories which obviously originate in 1st century Judaism. Does it make sense that a cosmic Jesus would be transformed into a human Jesus? Most skeptics posit the reverse.
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _Symmachus »

richardMdBorn wrote:Hi Kish,

I don't want to derail this fascinating thread, but I also wonder if using mystery cults to explain Jesus imports Greek and Roman thought into stories which obviously originate in 1st century Judaism. Does it make sense that a cosmic Jesus would be transformed into a human Jesus? Most skeptics posit the reverse.


Certainly they did in antiquity. Euhemerus, for instance. We have lots of examples of humans later being divinized, we have argument's like Euhemerus's that the gods were just human beings who were later divinized; but I don't think we have any cases of mystical beings who were later humanized in very specific, historical settings, and certainly none humanized as rural Jewish day-laborers.

Also, I would say that mystery cults don't go very far in explaining the genesis of the New Testament gospels. I think they're supposed to help explain the attraction of Christianity and influence on some of its theological developments and liturgical practices.
"As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them."

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_Symmachus
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _Symmachus »

Kishkumen wrote:[
Cults of many kinds had dining groups. This does not constitute some kind of special link between the mysteries and Christianity. One should rather have been surprised if there had been no dining ritual in Christianity. Paul's Lord's Supper could only have been influenced by Mithraism if we could be confident that Roman Mithraism existed before Paul. Then we would have to know more about Mithraic dining ritual and its meaning. The archaeological remains of Mithraic feasting usually include lots of animal bones and fruit residue, and this is hardly consistent with the Lord's Supper.

The part about mystical relationships in the context of dining is left unexplained. Did a Mithraic feaster feel mystically connected to Mithras in the feast? Was that the point of Mithraic feasting? We don't know. The evidence is too slight. Cult feasting seems to have been mostly about the conviviality of the cult group, and there is little evidence of mystical experiences in the epigraphic record of cultic dining associations.


And what about collegia etc.? Or I think even of Horace's Satires and Petronius, or even the popina: dining is essentially communal in one way or another, not a private family affair. One can make much out of the "communal meals" but the evening meal with the spouse and kids was probably not the norm; getting together with others was. Indeed, that's one of the appeals of the earliest Christian groups that met in houses: there's going to be a dinner there. That's a big selling point in a culture where most people don't have easy access to food. That's also one of the allures of traditional religion, though, since the sacrifice means meat eating in a communal meal. This is a major tension in 1 Corinthians, of course.

I guess what I'm saying is, this "communal meal" stuff is presented as if it were some kind of marked social practice. Actually, this was pretty normal, even outside of cultic contexts.
"As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them."

—B. Redd McConkie
_Kishkumen
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _Kishkumen »

richardMdBorn wrote:Hi Kish,

I don't want to derail this fascinating thread, but I also wonder if using mystery cults to explain Jesus imports Greek and Roman thought into stories which obviously originate in 1st century Judaism. Does it make sense that a cosmic Jesus would be transformed into a human Jesus? Most skeptics posit the reverse.


Good point, richardMdBorn. My guess is that Doherty may have had later Gnostic teachings in mind, wherein divine redeemers descend into the mortal sphere to perform their work. One can also point to the opening of the Gospel of John, wherein the Logos comes from the heavenly realm to dwell among humankind. And you do have that episode in the OT of the messengers who come to Abraham, whose status as mortals, angels, or even deities is uncertain. Finally, in the myth of the Watchers, these angels come down to teach and couple with human beings. Of the four, the first is the least likely influence on Christianity in its first century.
"Petition wasn’t meant to start a witch hunt as I’ve said 6000 times." ~ Hanna Seariac, LDS apologist
_Kishkumen
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _Kishkumen »

Symmachus,

Thanks for those thoughts about communal dining. You are right about its ubiquity. The fact of communal dining in Early Christianity does not connect it with the mysteries in a significant way. Rather, both Christianity and these cults participated in the communal dining culture of the ancient Mediterranean world.
"Petition wasn’t meant to start a witch hunt as I’ve said 6000 times." ~ Hanna Seariac, LDS apologist
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Re: Doherty's Mythicism

Post by _Kishkumen »

Doherty wrote:As the Pauline letters convey through the use of their ubiquitous phrase "in—or through—Christ" (e.g., Romans 6:11, Ephesians 1:4, Titus 3:6), Christ is a spiritual medium through which God is revealing himself and doing his work in the world. He is a mystical force, part of and interacting with his believers, and he is God’s agent of salvation.


Here are the passages in question:

Romans 6:11 wrote:In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.


Ephesians 1:4 wrote:According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:


Titus 3:6 wrote:6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,


By way of comparison, consider the following:

Suetonius, Divus Augustus 98.2 wrote:As he sailed by the gulf of Puteoli, it happened that from an Alexandrian ship which had just arrived there, the passengers and crew, clad in white, crowned with garlands, and burning incense, lavished upon him good wishes and the highest praise, saying that it was through him (per illum) that they lived, through him (per illum) that they sailed the seas, and through him (per illum) that they enjoyed their liberty and their fortunes.


Suetonius, Divus Claudius 11.2 wrote:Then turning to the duties of family loyalty, [Claudius] adopted as his most sacred and frequent oath "By Augustus." (per Augustum)


In these two passages, Suetonius reports elements of imperial cult for Augustus. The first occurred during his lifetime, the second long after he was dead. The notion that a historical person could be the recipient of credit for being the power by which or through which something happened is not by any means unusual in the ancient Mediterranean world, nor is it necessary that such a figure was solely mystical in order for this kind of thing to happen.

In the case of Paul, we see a charismatic religious figure (Paul) who has, in fact, imported elements of Hellenistic ruler cult into his missionary activities. He makes himself into the messenger of the king's arrival and the one who is a harbinger of the coming of the kingdom. Jesus is presented to us partly in the mode of a ruler who is the benefactor of his partisans. The rhetoric of Hellenistic rulers pervasively influences Paul. It is not the case that he is simply borrowing from some mystical monomyth that takes place in the upper spheres. He is preaching the coming of the kingdom of God on the model of the arrival of the Hellenistic king and the arrival of that king's kingdom. (A fine late example of this is the career of Mithridates Eupator, king of Pontus, who exploited Greek and Persian prophecy to announce his arrival, his future destruction of the Romans, and his restoration of religion.) The pseudo-Pauline 2 Thessalonians picks up on this and makes it more explicit. Here ps-Paul warns people of false news and false messengers. He predicts that another ruler will arrive, the Man of Lawlessness, who will be destroyed by the Lord at his advent.
"Petition wasn’t meant to start a witch hunt as I’ve said 6000 times." ~ Hanna Seariac, LDS apologist
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