Higher Critical Review

Jonathan Z. Smith.  
Drudgery Divine. On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. x + 145 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price. Institute for Higher Critical Studies
JHC 3/1 (Spring, 1996), 137-145.

George Tyrrell said that the nineteenth-century questers after the historical Jesus were seeing their own visages reflected at the bottom of a deep well and mistaking it for the face of Jesus. Of course, they are still doing it, and Jesus hops aboard every conceivable politico-theological bandwagon. He is always a first-century "precursor" of something, really a twentieth-century proof-text for something. Jesus the first-century Whitehead, the first-century E. F. Schumacher, the first-century feminist, the first-century Girardian, if only one reads the texts with the proper gematria. And what is good for Jesus is good for the early church as well. In these 1988 Louis H. Jordan Lectures, Jonathan Z. Smith demonstrates the surprising extent to which much that has passed for scientific study of early Christianity is more plausibly to be interpreted as theological apologetics.

It is, in brief, Smith's contention that the history of the work done by scholars in one particular corner of the vineyard, the relation of emergent Christianity to the Hellenistic Mystery Religions, has often functioned as a proxy-war between denominational super-powers reluctant to step into open combat. He argues that the earliest attention paid to the similarities between Christian myth and ritual and those of the Mysteries was that paid by Protestants who wanted to paint Roman Catholicism as an admixture of authentic proto-Protestant Pauline Christianity with the magic sacramentalism of heathenism. Likewise, Rationalists and Unitarians pressed the syncretistic process further back, making Paul the corrupter of the earlier, simpler, Jeffersonian faith of the Messiah Jesus. Harnack reflects this tradition when he makes Nicene-Chalcedonian Christianity a bloodless Hellenization of a simple Galilean gospel.

Just as E. P. Sanders and others have recently suggested with some force that our reading of the Pauline writings has been distorted by the lens of Reformation-era polemics, Smith sees the study of Christianity and the Hellenistic religions as thinly-veiled apologetics. Even if we no longer share this covert agenda, we are still fighting the same battle as long as we allow the game to be played by the same rules set down by the earlier polemicists. Or by the later ones, for, as some of us have long suspected and Smith demonstrates, the more recent apologetic Tendenz is still trying mightily to distance apostolic Christianity from any touch of the unclean Mystery Cults (or Gnosticism).

For this purpose Judaism is used as both buffer and whipping boy. This double, or as Smith says, duplicitous, use of Judaism as a foil has two moments. First one seizes upon any possible Jewish parallel with this or that feature of New Testament thought or myth that Bultmann or Reitzenstein had tagged a Hellenistic borrowing. Such a Jewish precedent is judged ipso facto preferable to any Hellenistic one. Albert Schweitzer adopted this course already in Paul and His Interpreters, patching together from the Pseudepigrapha a vague but thoroughly Jewish, apocalyptic "mysticism of the Apostle Paul" just so he wouldn't have to yield the Pauline corpus up to the radical surgery of Pierson, Naber, and Van Manen. These "Dutch Radicals" saw a Mystery Religion soteriology in the epistles that could ill be squared with the ostensible Jewishness of the apostle. The Hellenistic passages had, they judged, to be excised as secondary interpolations.

W. D. Davies' Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, hailed as a monument of scholarship, might better be described as a mountain that labored and brought forth a mouse (a mouse easily trapped by Hyam Maccoby in his recent Paul and Hellenism). Precious little in the Pauline letters emerges looking very rabbinic. The negligible results of the book demonstrate that the Judaizing path is a scholarly dead end, though its author and many readers did not think so. One may speculate that the acclaim given this work as well as that by Davies's disciple David Daube (a plastered cistern that lost not a drop), in his The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, stems from the imagined utility of both books for buttressing the bulwark against the incursions of parallels from the Mystery Religions.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were and still are proof-texted gleefully by scholars as a grand excuse to dismiss all the striking parallels drawn by Bultmann between the Gospel of John and various Gnostic and Mandaean sources, though it is hard to see how the minimal terminological agreements between John and the Scrolls can out-weigh the sheer number of striking parallels with the Mandaica.

In all of this the reasoning seems to be that even a vague Jewish parallel is automatically to be preferred over even a close Gnostic or Mystery Religion parallel as the source of a New Testament doctrine or mytheme. And the reason for this bias can only be the traditional theological desire to have the New Testament grow out of the Old as by a process of progressive revelation. Let us widen the scope of Jewish origin to include Rabbinism, Qumran, and the Pseudepigrapha if we must, but God forbid we should have to admit that Christianity had non-Jewish roots as well as Jewish.

The second moment in the use of Judaism that Smith describes is the deprecation of Judaism as a sow's ear from which the silk purse of Christianity was cut. Everywhere we meet with invidious comparisons leaving Judaism like Moses lonely on Mount Pisgah looking wistfully at the fertile plains of a Promised Land it was destined not to enter, a religion blindly studying the scriptures in which it thinks to have eternal life, but too near-sighted to behold the true Christian gospel.

I see here a covert use of what I call "dissimilarity apologetics," borrowing the term from Norman Perrin's famous criterion of dissimilarity. The idea is that Christianity will seem more truly to be a divine revelation the more we can isolate it from either Judaism or the Hellenistic world. First we employ Judaism to exorcise suggestions of Hellenistic influence, then we turn on Judaism and insist on its inferiority and utter inability to have produced the imagined distinctives of the revealed gospel. Judaism serves to minimize Christian similarities with the Mystery Religions, and once it has thus served its purpose, the apologist minimizes the similarities between Judaism and Christianity.

Yet for all his acuity in perceiving this agenda, Smith himself almost seems to be doing his best to seal off Christian origins from the possibility of syncretism. It is apparent that he so wishes to avoid the error of superimposing stereotypes of Catholicism onto the evidence of the Mystery Religions that he is unwilling to see any significant similarities between them and Christianity. And thus I fear he may be selling short some genuine and instructive parallels between them.

It is wise to seek to explain any religion, whether ancient Christianity or Mithraism or the Attis religion, on its own terms and not simply as a function of another religion it may have borrowed from; but in the case of significant similarities it is not unreasonable to suggest borrowing. Is it problematic to suggest, for instance, that Mithraism borrowed the representation of Mithras wearing the Phrygian cap, or accompanied by a divine consort, from the Attis cult; or that the Attis cult borrowed the Taurobolium from Mithraism? Certainly not. Why then should one avoid the possible conclusion that Christianity borrowed from its competitors as well? One fears that Smith, having rejected the polemics of an earlier generation, fears too much being found guilty of being "ecumenically incorrect."

Here and elsewhere Smith declares the famous "dying and rising god" mytheme a modern myth, one concocted by scholars, not an ancient one. If there was no such myth it would obviously be vain to claim that Christians had borrowed it for their own mythos. He seems to admit that Attis was eventually regarded as a resurrected deity, though he will not grant that Attis was thus pictured in the first century. It is certainly true that Attis was not always and everywhere regarded as a risen savior. Many variants have him die and remain dead, or simply survive his wounds. And much of the clear evidence of a cult of a resurrected Attis comes from the fourth century (e.g., Firmicus Maternus).

But it seems to me that here, as well as in the case of Osiris and Tammuz/ Dummuzi, Smith is trying too hard to prevent these gods from rising! He dismisses Maarten J. Vermaseren's citation of B.C.E. iconographic representations of a dancing Attis (his characteristic resurrection posture in later iconography) as "unpersuasive" (why?), but in doing so gives little idea of the breadth of Vermaseren's refutation of Lambrechts (Vermaseren: Cybele and Attis, the Myth and the Cult, Thames & Hudson, 1977, pp. 119-124) on whose theories Smith seems dependant. (Not to mention that Lambrechts himself is a Roman Catholic apologist! Has Smith really transcended the old proxy warfare? Or has he just switched sides?) Hyam Maccoby's criticisms of Smith at this point deserve attention, too (Paul and Hellenism. SCM Press and Trinity Press, 1991, pp. 69-72).

Smith seems to be taking up the apologetical arguments of Bruce Metzger and Edwin Yamauchi to the effect that the Mysteries borrowed the death and resurrection motif from Christians, surely an improbable notion, as Reitzenstein pointed out long ago: which direction of borrowing is more likely when one religion is newer and converts from the older faith are streaming into it bringing cherished elements of their familiar creeds with them?

Smith notes that it is Christian writers who make the death and resurrection parallels between their own faith and the Mysteries clearest, and thus he theorizes that Christians may have been projecting the categories of their own faith onto their rivals'. But this is just the opposite of what we might expect of embarrassed Christian apologists who already had to deflect the charge that Christian mythemes were copies of pagan ones (e.g., that the supposed virgin birth of Jesus was nothing but a poor copy of that of Theseus). Why invite such criticism by suggesting just such parallels where pagans themselves had not previously seen them?

And it is obvious that Christian writers would have special reasons for accentuating the aspects of rival religions that most closely paralleled their own. Here was where they had some explaining to do. If we had extant copies of Mystery Religionists' polemical writings against Christianity (a Mithras- or Isis-worshipping Celsus, so to speak) we might have more pagan testimony about the parallels; but, given the tastes of early Christian censors, that is just the kind of thing we do not have. (We only have as much of Celsus and Porphyry as we do because these were preserved as quotations in the books of Christian apologists.)

Smith seems to me to have contracted a certain contagious squeamishness now making the rounds among scholars. Apparently embarrassed by the bold synthetic visions of Reitzenstein, Bultmann, and others, contemporary scholars are beginning to practice a kind of theoretic asceticism, daring to move nary an inch beyond the strictest interpretation of the evidence. Such modesty leads to a mute minimalism. For instance we may compare the marks of the Mystery Religions listed in S. Angus's The Mystery-Religions (1928) with the spare and generic taxonomy of Helmut Koester in his History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age. For Angus the Mystery Religions offered redemption and purification from sin through sacramental identification of the initiate with the savior deity, elite gnosis of the gods, cosmological/astrological lore, the promise of rebirth and immortality, and participation in a syncretic Hellenistic pantheism or henotheism. Little of this survives in Koester, for whom Mystery Religions were marked by congregational polity, ritual initiation, regular participation in the sacraments, moral or ascetical requirements, mutual aid among members, obedience to the leader, and certain secret traditions. Is that all? What would exclude the Southern Baptists or the Knights of Columbus?

One senses here a certain fastidious angst, a hesitancy to make any but the most innocuous generalizations about the Mystery Religions lest one be accused of painting with too broad a stroke, as some accuse Reitzenstein of doing. Was there really so little of substance that these exotic faiths shared in common? Koester has fashioned a lowest common denominator that obscures rather than reveals the distinctiveness of the Mystery Religions because he will not dare to venture an ideal type (as Angus and Reitzenstein did). As Bryan Wilson has pointed out, an ideal type is not some box into which the phenomenon must be neatly dropped. If it were, then one might be justified in either whittling away the rough edges of each religion or of making the box big and shapeless enough for all to fit. But an ideal type is a yardstick abstracted from the admittedly diverse phenomena which represents a general family resemblance without demanding or implying any absolute or comprehensive conformity. Indeed the very lack of conformity to the type by a particular Mystery Religion would serve as a promising point of departure for understanding its special uniqueness.

In the same way, Smith seems unwilling to admit the viability of an ideal type of the dying-and-rising god mytheme. If the various myths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, et. al. do not all conform to type exactly, then they are not sufficiently alike to fit into the same box, so let's throw out the box. Without everything in common, he sees nothing in common.

And here he seems to me to approach the apologetical strategy of, e.g., Raymond E. Brown in The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, where Brown dismisses the truckload of Religionsgeschichtliche parallels to the miraculous birth of Jesus. This one is not strictly speaking a virgin birth, since a god fathered the divine child on a married woman. That one involved physical intercourse with the deity, not the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. But, we have to ask, how close does a parallel have to be to count as a parallel? Does the divine mother have to be named Mary? Does the divine child have to be called Jesus? Here is the old "difference without a distinction" fallacy. And it is strange to see Smith committing it. He becomes an improbable but real ally of the apologists he criticizes.

In his influential Encyclopedia of Religion article, "Dying and Rising Gods," Smith aims at prying apart the dying-and-rising god mytheme into disparate skhandas: disappearing and reappearing deities on the one hand and dying gods who stay dead on the other. Adonis, he says, is never said to die, but only to undertake a bicoastal lifestyle, splitting the year cohabiting with two romantic rivals, Aphrodite and Persephone. To winter with the latter, Adonis must head south, to Hades. And then, with the flowers, he pops up again in Spring, headed for Aphrodite's place. But what does it mean to say someone has descended to the Netherworld of the dead? Enkidu did not deem it quite so casual a commute "to Hell and back" as Smith apparently does: "he led me away to palace of Irkalla, the Queen of Darkness, to the house from which none who enters ever returns, down the road from which there is no coming back." One goes there in the embrace of the Grim Reaper. Similarly, Pausanias tells of a myth of Theseus: "About the death of Theseus there are many inconsistent legends, for example that he was tied up in the netherworld until Herakles should bring him back to life" (Guide to Greece, I:17:4). Thus to abide in the netherworld was to be dead, even if not for good.

Aliyan Baal's supposed death and resurrection does not pass muster for Smith because the saga's text has big holes in it "at the crucial points." Mischievous scholars may like to fill them in with the model of the resurrected god, but Smith calls it an argument from silence. But is it? Even on Smith's own reading the text actually does say that "Baal is reported to have died" after descending to the Netherworld. There he is indeed said to be "as dead." Anat recovers his corpse and buries it. Later El sees in a dream that Baal yet lives. After another gap Baal is depicted in battle. What's missing here? Smith seems to infer that in the missing lines it would have been discovered that Baal was the victim of a premature burial, that the reports of his demise, like Mark Twain's, were premature. But does he have any particular reason to be sure of this? And even if his guess were to prove correct, it seems evident that a premature burial and a rescue via disinterment is simply a variant version of the death and resurrection, not an alternative to it.

Baal's variant self, Hadad, is even less prone to dying according to Smith, since he is merely said to sink into a bog for seven years. He is only sick, but when he reemerges, languishing nature renews itself. For Smith, "There is no suggestion of death and resurrection." Nor any hint of ritual reenactment of the myth. What about Zechariah 12:11, where we read of inconsolable ritual mourning for Hadad-Rimmon? What are they mourning? Is this evidence too late for Smith? Probably not post-Christian, I'd say. And even if one were to deny that seven years' submersion in a bog is as good as a death, the difference would be, again, only a slight variation in a natural range for a wide-spread mytheme. We see the same variation among the Nag Hammadi and other Gnostic texts as to whether the Redeemer took on flesh. Some deny he did. Others say he did, but it was a condescension, and the Savior stripped off the flesh-shroud as soon as he got the chance. Some have a fleshly body but an apparent death. Others a real death, but only of the human Jesus, once the Spirit Christ has fled. These are all equivalent versions, simply reflecting different choices from the menu of options. The differences are within a definite range along the paradigmatic axis, but the story is the same along the syntagmic axis.

Osiris, Smith admits, is said, even in very ancient records, to have been dismembered, reassembled by Isis, and rejuvenated (physically: he fathered Horus on Isis). But Smith seizes upon the fact that Osiris reigned henceforth in the realm of the dead. This is not a return to earthly life, hence no resurrection. But then we might as well deny that Jesus is depicted as dying and rising since he reigns henceforth at the right hand of God in Paradise as judge of the dead, like Osiris. And the long constancy of the mytheme ought to make us wary of Smith's constant suspicion that later, Christian-era, mentions of the resurrections of Adonis, Attis and the rest may be late innovations. In the one case (Osiris') that we can in fact trace, it is no innovation. Why, in effect, assume as Smith does that it was originally absent in the other cases?

Smith describes how scholars early speculated from the fragmentary Tammuz texts that he had been depicted as dying and rising, though the evidence was touch and go. Then more texts turned up, vindicating their theories. Again, we must wonder why Smith is so quick to assume that speculations that make a god dead and risen are automatically suspect. But Smith quibbles even here. Though new material unambiguously makes Ishtar herself to die and rise, Smith passes by this quickly, only to pick the nit that Tammuz is "baaled out" of death only for half a year while someone else takes his place. Death, Smith remarks, is inexorable: you can only get a furlough for half a year. That makes it not a resurrection?

The general structure of Smith's arguments sounds as if, instead of trying to explode a baseless theory as he claims, he were trying to defend an established one against challenges. The tendency of his argument seems to be "there is not enough circumstantial evidence to sustain a conviction." And then you realize that is in fact just what he is doing: defending an old theory. But which one? Obviously not Frazer's! Rather, he seems to be defending the old apologetic line that there was no pagan prototype for the Christian resurrection myth (with the implication that it wasn't a myth). And he seems to be doing this, not so much for the sake of traditional Christianity, but rather to rule out once and for all the old opportunistic use of the Mystery Religions as a polemical tool against Christianity. He wants to make that game impossible, so henceforth the Mystery Religions may be discussed on their own terms, free of theological or anti-theological polemics. And in doing so he bends over backwards so far that he winds up playing the game himself, taking the field as a pinch hitter for the Christian apologists. But we lack any reason to give the benefit of the doubt to a reconstruction whose only merit would seem to be its function of overthrowing Frazer's hypothesis and allowing Christian apologetics to breathe a little easier. In other words, it is special pleading. And why? Is it necessary to maintain there were no Christian-pagan parallels or Christian borrowings? That the old polemicists fabricated or hallucinated everything? What is it Smith is trying to prove? I suspect it is part of his scorched-earth campaign against Frazer in Drudgery Divine and elsewhere.

But finally Smith, in Drudgery Divine, does come down, it seems to me, as an advocate of the principle of analogy. He champions the creative work of Burton Mack who, in A Myth of Innocence, suggests that the Sitzen-im-Leben of the various gospel pericopes may be as disparate as the pericopes themselves. That is, they may have emanated from quite different types of Christ cults or Jesus movements for whom very different aspects of the teaching or stories of Jesus were important. Smith asks if this implied diversity does not parallel the diversity of the Attis myth and cult. There were traditions of an Attis who did not rise as well as those in which he did. Different groups cherished them. Can we be sure that, e.g., the Q community believed in a resurrected Jesus? Perhaps some did and some didn't. It hardly seems that the historical Jesus was important for the communities of the Pauline epistles. Smith suggests that we might be able to learn something about emergent Christianities as well as about the Mystery Religions if we can figure out what social or psychological factors lead a group to adopt or to dispense with a resurrected savior. The same factors may prove to have been at work in analogous fashion in the cases of the Attis cult and of the Christian cult, with or without direct borrowing.

All of Smith's books are gems, and we as biblical students should be grateful for the attention given our subject by this wide-ranging anthropologist and historian of religion.


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