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In recent years proponents of the Christ-myth theory (e.g., Earl Doherty in his writings) have begun to argue that St. Paul in his epistles was setting forth the view that Christ was wholly divine and operated entirely in heaven, including his being sacrificed and resurrected there. This interpretation serves to eliminate what otherwise would be evidence from Paul of Christ's being on earth and therefore existing, such as his having disciples and teaching people, having brothers, being crucified by the Romans, etc.

This idea falls way outside the range of the discussion of Paul's Christology among mainstream New Testament and Pauline scholars that I'm aware of, meaning that they never discuss this possibility. Since these Christ-myth theorists are presenting this new interpretation of Paul as being based on a myth, I'm wondering whether there is any precedent in other myths of a god being sacrificed and then resurrected entirely in heaven (as opposed to on earth or in the underworld, as in the usual dying-and-rising god myths).

Is anyone aware of any such precedents? By this I mean myths that could have influenced such alleged appearance of such a Christ myth, which probably means myths from the ancient Near East, Egypt, or the Mediterranean, rather than from further away. I can't think of any. If there are none, an answer to that effect would be appreciated.

  • Interesting question. Does it really need the "christianity" tag? I understand the thought that sparked this question, but maybe the answers are not related to "christianity" at all? – Kreann Jun 26 '15 at 14:31
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    Thanks, Deion, for your question, which is a logical one. While the possible examples from other myths that I'm asking about (i.e., the answers) would come from outside Christianity, this whole issue arises in the context of Christianity because this notion is being used to characterize St. Paul's Christology (arguing that he had this myth of Christ dying and resurrecting entirely in heaven) and in an effort to prove that Christ did not exist, i.e,. that Christ is a myth. So that's why included the Christianity tag. – Arthur George Jun 26 '15 at 14:41
  • I love this question and couldn't resist plugging one of my favorite Yeats plays, The Resurrection which deals with the problem of interpretation relating to such subjects. :) – DukeZhou Apr 20 '17 at 15:59
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I have three myths that somewhat fulfil your requirements:

In Aztec mythology, the sun and the moon (and other celestial objects, like Venus) were created by the self-sacrifice of deities, who were then resurrected as celestial deities. I don't think the stories ever specified whether the sacrifice took place in heaven (I personally doubt that detail would have been relevant to the people telling the story), but the Aztecs had highly developed concepts of heaven and hell. If you're interested in learning more, the book Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind features an extensive analysis of that myth.

The includes a story of how two twins die and are resurrected in the land of the dead (i.e. hell, not heaven). I know that you asked for stories concerning heaven, but I'm including this example to show that many myths feature mortals dying and coming back to life in otherworldly settings.

This third example is really interesting: it's an Inca myth recorded after the conquest. It's called "The boy who rose to the sky", and it's about a boy who travels to the sky (which might be analogous to heaven?) in search of a girl.

In that sky-world, there is a pool that makes old people young, which could be compared to rebirth:

When they arrived in the sky, they were dirty and bearded. They had grown old. But when they came out of the water they were handsome and young.

It's also clear that this place is inhospitable to mortals:

For a year the young man lives with his wife in this manner. But when the year had passed, she began to neglect him and no longer brought him his food. One day she went out, saying, "The time has come when you must leave. After that she did not come back to the house. She had abandoned him at last.

Then the boy's eyes filled with tears and he returned to the edge of the sky lake. When he got there, he saw the condor rising up in the distance. As he ran to meet him, the condor flew to his side, and he saw that the sacred condor had grown old. And the condor could see that the boy, too, had grown old and wrinkled.

I found this story in John Bierhorst's book Black Rainbow: Legends of the Incas and Myths of Ancient Peru (also the source of the above quotations). I wish I could tell you more about the myth, but I haven't done any research into South American mythology (yet).

I hope this is helpful, and I wish you the best of luck with your research. I've been less rigorous with my sources in this answer because this is a myth identification question, and I'm just trying to point you in a few potentially useful directions (as opposed to explaining something in detail).

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    Thanks, Christofian, for sharing these interesting myths. I vaguely remember the one from Popol-Vuh, but the others are new to me and I will look them up, especially before traveling to Peru, which I hope will be soon! In my research, practically speaking I'm seeking a precedent that could have actually influenced the creation of any alleged Christ myth that had him dying and resurrecting in heaven, which should mean that we need a myth from the ancient Near East, Egypt, or Mediterranean, rather than elsewhere. I'll now edit my question to clarify this. – Arthur George Jun 28 '15 at 2:49
  • @ArthurGeorge sorry about that. If you don't mind, I'll leave this answer up: it might be helpful to someone else who has a similar question. – user62 Jun 28 '15 at 15:08
  • Sure, it is still interesting. And I Liked it. – Arthur George Jun 28 '15 at 15:15
  • agreed! This is excellent context. – DukeZhou Apr 20 '17 at 16:01
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Given the amount of influence both ways, I'm surprised you didn't include Norse/Germanic mythology as "near enough" in your question.

Within it, there are two stories of sacrifice that contain several parallels to the Christian story.

The first, and more literal and obvious of the two, is the story of Baldr. While not sacrificed, he was slain and is said to be reborn after Ragnarok. Often being associated with light and purity, he is very often drawn as a Christ parallel.

In fact, Gylfaginning has this to say of Baldr:

The second son of Odin is Baldur, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him. A certain herb is so white that it is likened to Baldr's brow; of all grasses it is whitest, and by it thou mayest judge his fairness, both in hair and in body. He is the wisest of the Æsir, and the fairest-spoken and most gracious; and that quality attends him, that none may gainsay his judgments. He dwells in the place called Breidablik, which is in heaven; in that place may nothing unclean be[.]

What little remains about Baldr suggests that the events surrounding his death and rebirth happen in places other than Midgard (presumably in Asgard, though time and Christian influence has changed it to "heaven" in the texts).

The second, as less obvious parallel is Odin's sacrifices for wisdom and the runes. The biggest difference here is that Odin did not sacrifice his life, but other things. His eye to Mimir's well for wisdom, for one. The sacrifice for obtaining the runes is more complex, but still applicable in its parallels, I think:

I know that I hung on a wind-rocked tree, nine whole nights, with a spear wounded, and to Odin offered, myself to myself; on that tree, of which no one knows from what root it springs. Bread no one gave me, nor a horn of drink, downward I peered, to runes applied myself, wailing learnt them, then fell down thence

(Havamal)

Both events took place in locations other than Midgard, and the sacrifice on the tree has a number of parallels to Jesus' crucifixion (spear wound in the side, lack of food and water, hanging from a tree or wood).

Whether you want to say that the Germanic mythology influenced the Christian one, or the other way around, it's pretty clear that there is precedent of sacrificial cycles occurring in a non-Earth realm.

But These Were Recorded In The 12th Century

They weren't written down until 12th century, true, but the Germanic tribes were a strong oral culture, not unlike the Jews were before the books of the Bible were written down.

So how would the Jews and the Germanic people interact? Simply put, via the Romans, and through their own trade and travel routes.

The Romans were spread far and wide. The Roman Empire, itself, spread into what is now Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the entire northern coast of Africa. Combine that with the Silk Road trade route, and they were mixing cultural aspects from as far east as China with that of the Gauls from England.

The Romans and Germanics were not strangers, by any stretch, and the Germanic tribes were well-documented by the Romans, including Julius Cesaer and Senator Tacitus. Tacitus even illustrates in Germania that several of the southernmost Germanic tribes were part of the Roman Empire (and the Roman Republic before it), among other details about them. Additionally, the Roman army under Gaius Marius captured some 20,000 Teutons at their final defeat in France in 100BC in the Cimbrian War, many of which went on to fight in the Third Servile War.

The Romans, even long before the Empire, were equal-opportunity slavers, bringing slaves in from all corners of their reach. Furthermore, the Romans intentionally mixed ethnic groups as a means of preventing solidarity, because they were fully aware of both the tensions between the non-Roman tribes and the ramifications of the slaves forming an army (particularly when headed by trained and tested gladiators). Combined with the Jewish Encyclopedia's attestation that the Jews had been in Rome since at least as early as the 100s BCE, it makes at least some contact between the Germanics and the Jews rather likely. Start combining stories of Baldr and Forseti with those of Jesus, and you start seeing both the Earthly Jesus story (Forseti's "12+1" motif) and the Heavenly Jesus sacrifice/resurrection (Baldr's sacrifice/resurrection motif). With the propensity of Earthly sacrificial gods, though (Horus, Mithra, Osiris, etc.), it's easy to see why the Earthly Jesus story won out in the canon.

Likewise, the northern Europeans traveled extensively on their own. Recent findings have shown that they had direct contact with the Arabian nations. This particular contact was a later dating, but says that the Germanic people were no stranger to the Arabians. Interestingly, while the Germanics' hostile movements were more westward, toward France and Spain, the known contacts with Arabian people were largely peaceful -- missions of trade instead of invasion (possibly for metals of various sorts, including silver and iron, due to the relative scarcity of such minerals in the northern parts of Germania).

Other Early Influence

I think most notably, the Canaanites' religion -- specifically Ba'al -- had some of the heaviest influence with regard to a death/resurrection deity. Hell, Ba'al is mentioned in several passages of the Bible, itself, as basically an example of "who not to worship," and the Bible goes to great lengths to make Ba'al out to be supremely evil. This (along with various other knowledge of the fluidity of religion around that time) suggests to me that worship or otherwise acknowledgement of Ba'al may have had more influence than a Greek or Roman counterpart (which, it seems, the Jews actively resisted as they resisted assimilation into the Roman culture in general). The story of Ahab in 1 Kings is a prime example of this issue.

Ba'al is attested to be the son of another deity (usually attested as El, though Dagon is a close contender), though is the principal god of the Canaanites. He basically represented life in pretty much all its aspects -- fertility, rain, the sun, the cycle of the year. He, himself, died and was reborn every year (presumably in the Canaanites' version of heaven or non-earthly plane).

But Christianity Doesn't Have That Kind Of Cyclical Nature

You may be thinking that the cyclical nature rules them out as influences on the Jesus story. I disagree. For one, Jedeo-Christianity does actually have a cyclical nature to it, it just happens that the cycles tend to be quite a bit longer -- in multiples of 7. The most common, of course, is the week, but year-length ones exist, too. Every 7th year is a sabbatical year, every 7th sabbatical year (well, technically, the year after, since that year is the sabbatical, and like the Sabbath day, it's pretty much required to rest, so every 50th year; at least, that's how I understand it, but I'm not a Jewish scholar) is a Jubilee.

The lengths of these cycles seem to hold up with Judeo-Christian lore, as they seem to line up with times of prosperity or distress among the Israelites or prominent Biblical figures, though often on timelines of several centuries (basically, they faced Jehovah's wrath if they missed too many Sabbatical years, or worse, too many Jubilees). In the case of Jeremiah, it was a 70 year punishment after 490 years of the Israelites not obeying the Sabbath years. It was also not uncommon for punishments to be laid out over the course of a generation or more (the Israelites lost in the desert for 40 years, for example).

Likewise, the prophecy of Daniel about the rebuilding of Jerusalem is 1000 years in length, as is the reign of Jesus after the Second Coming and Tribulation period, further lending to very long cycle lengths. In other words, it's not that there's no cycle, it's just that the cycles in Judeo-Christianity are really long, so we only see information about a couple completed regarding Jesus.

Misc

Unfortunately, detailed data gets pretty scarce pretty quickly once you start getting into Pre-Roman and Proto-European stuff, though tracing the Proto-Indo-European language tree suggests common ancestry at some point, so it's possible the myths you're looking for also trace back to the Proto- time, forming before the clearer deliniations of peoples. That's beyond the scope of this answer at this point, and would probably require quite a bit deeper digging than I have the resources to do, if there's data on that at all.

  • Thanks, Shauna, for your reply. As I explained in response to Deion's comment on June 26, my interest is whether there were any myths that would have been relied upon to conceive of a celestial Jesus who was killed and resurrected in the heavens. This would have occurred in the middle third of the 1st century CE, so I was looking for myths that were contemporary with or had preceded that time window. As such, I was actually asking for myths outside Christianity, but they would have to have been ones current in the eastern Mediterranean then. But I did like your answer; gave it an up. – Arthur George Sep 2 '15 at 4:21
  • Keep in mind that while many of the myths of that era were not written down until later centuries, travelers even of the first couple of centuries would likely have heard them shared orally (this also goes for Judaism and early Christianity). So, just because the texts weren't around until later centuries, it doesn't mean the stories weren't. Unfortunately, though, all we have is what's been preserved in a physical format. – Shauna Sep 2 '15 at 12:55
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    Thanks, Shauna, I understand that. But I am looking for evidence. Are you saying that the myths you mention about Baldr and Odin existed and were known in the Eastern Mediterranean in the middle of the 1st century CE? If you think so, why and what is the evidence? That would answer my question. – Arthur George Sep 3 '15 at 4:23
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    The picture you describe is rather anachronistic, though. There is no evidence that the Huns knew of Baldr's death, nor are the Huns traveling through the the eastern Roman empire, nor are the slaves from northern Germany exported to Israel, and it doesn't make sense that they would have had any influence on Judaism at that time. There's no plausible trajectory here that isn't anachronistic. – C. M. Weimer Sep 3 '15 at 19:38
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    I don't have the time or energy to try to prove beyond doubt whether or not the northern Europeans had contact in a time for which we have very little information about them in general. You asked for likely influences, and as their direct neighbors and I made a suggestion and explained how I came to the conclusion that I did, giving you a base from which to delve further. I happened to find an interesting and potentially relevant article, which I've added to my answer, but this is going to be my last update to it for the foreseeable future. – Shauna Sep 11 '15 at 14:30
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I understand your question but has it occurred to you that Paul/Saul already knew that the mythos of the Sun of god is celestial to begin with? And are you aware of the many gospels that were already in existence by those we now call the Gnostics, including one titled "The Gospel of the Egyptians"? You must also take into account that historian scholars are of the opinion that six of Paul's epistles are forgeries and some parts of those attributed to Paul have been to them added interpolations. Ask reasonably, why anyone would need to say that a man was "born of a woman" as if who would in their right mind think otherwise, so that it was necessary for Paul to put such a thing into writing? In other words, the mythos that Paul is writing is the same celestial mythos as the Egyptian Sun god mythos of Ra and Set all of which takes place above and below the earth.

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