Stuff From Way Back # 6: Jesus And the Gods

The Judaic roots
of Christianity are universally recognized: the idea of the one personal
creator god who is the embodiment of the Good.
But there is the other important facet of Christianity, the concept of
the dying and resurrected god, and that ironically comes straight out of Greek
polytheism.

The inherited religion of the Greek
Archaic Age (c.750-479 BC) was that embodied in the works of Homer and Hesiod,
the world of the Olympic gods.  These
deities were perfectly anthropomorphic, differing from their mortal worshippers
in only two respects: they did not die and they wielded immense power.  Otherwise, they were perfectly human,
manifesting all the flaws and foibles of humanity and thus singularly
ill-equipped to serve as ethical role models for Greek society.  As a result, the Greeks possessed a religion
that allowed them the leeway to discover rationalism and humanism and thus
ultimately marginalize their belief system, at least for some.

The seventh and sixth
centuries were tough times for the average Greek, and men who find no justice
on earth inevitably look to heaven. But the inherited Olympic faith, primarily
a communal or civic religion, was devoid of any real inspirational quality, any
serious spiritual element that allowed the troubled suppliant to find emotional
solace. Zeus was essentially not concerned with the equitable dispensation of
justice, and as an evolving society attempted unconsciously to moralize the
Olympians, grim times only produced a grim vision of a supernatural world filled
with threats.  But men require some hope,
and as the years rolled by, these same needs and desires stirred the
development of an alternative religious form, the mystery cult.

Elements of these cults
appear to go back to prehistory, but it was the pressures of the Archaic Age
and the discovery of the individual that fostered their growth.  The cults varied in their content, but they
shared certain characteristics and all of them provided the worshipper an
intense and personal emotional experience generally missing from the civic
religion.  They focused on a single or
small group of gods, offering a more intimate involvement, and the participant
would undergo some sort of initiation (telein or myein, hence
“mystery”), which would ultimately lead him to the central mysteries of the
cult, in theory unknown to outsiders.  As
the continued popularity of fraternal organizations and secret societies
demonstrates, initiation and secrecy, which create special bonds and a sense of
elevated status for the group, are always a good draw.

The cults also revolved
around sex and most importantly the issue of death, the fear of which the cult
hoped to dispel with its rites.  The cult
of Dionysus (or Bacchus) offered temporary release from pain and suffering
through ecstatic possession, but the other important Greek mysteries, the
Eleusinian, Orphic and the later Hellenistic cult of Isis and Serapis,
possessed as central figures gods who died and were resurrected, either
literally or metaphorically, thus confronting the initiate with the terror of
death and the hope of rebirth.  It
appears that at first the cults thought in terms of a rebirth in this world,
that is, entering into a better life, but there is evidence that by the end of
the fifth century reward in the next life was expected.  Some sort of judgment based on the
individual’s behavior was involved, an element generally missing from the
everyone-goes-there underworlds of the Olympic and pre-classical religions.

In the constantly changing
and anxiety-filled world of post-Alexander Greece
the mystery cults grew in popularity, partly because of their salvationist
inclinations and partly because the old civic religion was so closely tied to
the declining polis (“city-state”) society.  In the new Greek-dominated eastern Mediterranean,
the cosmopolis (“world polis”), Hellenic culture, including its
religious forms, rubbed shoulders with non-Greek ideas, including the ancient
religious practices of the Hebrews.  This
sometimes led to friction and violence, such as the Maccabbean revolt, but in
the end produced a sort of hybrid religion, Christianity.  The idea of the dying and resurrected god, so
critical to Christianity, had played no important role in the Near Eastern
religious traditions, and while the new faith may have developed a fresh
understanding of death and rebirth, one linked to the rigorous moral code of
Judaism, the notion of the suffering god appears nevertheless to come straight
out of the Greek experience.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s