My favourite definition of religion is “a misinterpretation of mythology”. And the misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references to symbols which properly are spiritual in their reference.
The populace at large have little understanding of, and perhaps even less interest in, the Easter Myth. As a concession to our Christian heritage, we Australians, enamoured of the long weekend, are even more joyful at the opportunity to avail ourselves of an even longer one.
Easter does not creep up on us. The supermarkets have been full of Easter eggs and hot cross buns for months. Our materialistic society has largely superseded any religious significance with another opportunity to indulge ourselves.
And, as usual, our news for the weekend will be dominated by the pious platitudes of largely irrelevant old men, dressed in costumes that would not seem greatly out of place in Oxford Street processions, along with a running commentary of how many have died in the road carnage resulting from people impatiently and inebriously trying to fit even more into the already generous window of a four-day long weekend.
So let me be so bold as to give you my own take on the significance of the Easter Myth.
(If I now articulate some criticism of Christianity, and its traditional adherents, please don’t accuse me of seeing Christians as an easy target. If you scroll through the archives of my blog essays you will find many more that are critical of radical Islam.)
As you would know from my previous musings, my principal concern is that Christians take the Easter Myth literally. Moreover, they also have come to believe that the Easter Myth is somehow uniquely Christian.
Buddhists knew the dilemma well. Famously they said, “When the sage points to the moon, the fool merely sees the finger.” This was to say that the allegory that the Master used to teach wisdom, was interpreted as a literal truth. This has been the main failing of most religions.
In the scope of human development language is a relatively recent acquisition, perhaps being acquired in the last fifty thousand years. Written language is even more recent probably developing in the Middle East around ten thousand years ago. And of course many native cultures never accessed the written word. The native American Indians and the Australian Aboriginal population for example, never learned how to capture their history and traditions in the written word. But human development hasn’t ceased and evolutionary processes continue to have an effect on us. In recent times our cultural evolution has been outpacing our physical evolution. This in itself should give us cause to pause and reconsider those things our ancestors regarded as immutable truths.
The great folk histories of the world helped provide a sense of identity for tribal peoples as their societies evolved. They helped such people make sense of their worlds. To begin with such stories were related orally and were committed to memory for repeated retelling for generations. But written language changed all that.
(It is interesting to reflect how the coming of Europeans to Australia impacted on the culture of the pre-existing indigenous peoples. Whilst many would decry the impact of the Europeans, it was only the European mastery of the written word that enabled many indigenous customs and stories to be recorded for later generations.)
One of the legacies that writing has left us is a more heightened awareness of the passage of time. Unfortunately, documenting many of the folk histories of our ancestors convinced many of later generations to believe they were a literal record of history.
All of this was part of the cultural evolution of that line of the great apes that blossomed into homo sapiens. An important trigger in this evolutionary process was the development of the consciousness of self and the subsequent awareness of our mortality. The existential angst this produced culminated for Christians in the Easter Myth which purported to deliver to believers a means of escaping death. But as we will see this was overstepping the message from the underlying mythology.
[The Greek epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey were masterpieces of this genre (ie folk histories). Strangely they weren’t subsequently taken over as religious documents like many of the folk histories of other peoples.]
The Jewish folk history recorded in the Torah was itself cobbled together from a number of sources. A majority of scholars agree it has little historical authenticity. But it is nevertheless still a document of considerable influence in Judaism. It was further augmented to become the Old Testament of the Bible.
Finally, Christianity after subsuming the Jewish folk history overlaid it with the books of the New Testament to create its own religious tome.
In some sense the creation of the Jesus Myth that the New Testament sought to propagate might be traced to the influence of Pythagoras. Pythagoras spent time in Egypt and when returning to Greece brought back the Egyptian Mysteries which were centred on the cult of Osiris. Osiris is the Egyptian God/man who in Egyptian mythology died and was resurrected. Pythagoras sought to make the myth more palatable to the Greeks by transferring these qualities to a minor Greek deity, Dionysus.
This connection is particularly relevant insofar as the gospels of the New Testament were all written in Greek, presumably by Greek scholars. (The great English historian, Arnold Toynbee, postulated that Christianity was a belief system created by the Greeks to render Judaism more palatable to them.)
In the Jewish mythology there were no minor gods to take on this mantle (of the God/man). So, almost inevitably, it fell upon the long awaited Messiah. But here the problem was exacerbated by embedding the God/man story into the gospels which were now portrayed as an historical record (confirming the concerns of Joseph Campbell as per the quote at the beginning of this essay.) And in this way, Christianity absorbed into its dogma many of the pagan beliefs that it would hold as abhorrent in other belief systems. What’s more it introduced a definite ambiguity into the Jewish story because most Jews believed that the Messiah would appear as a warrior king who would smite the enemies of the Jews and restore Israel to its rightful status as the chosen nation of God. Disconcertingly, the Jesus of the gospels preached only peace.
So the Christian religion is mired by the fact that what was obviously mythology was purported to be history.
What are we to make of this Jesus of the gospels?
There are only two plausible possibilities.
Either Jesus did not exist and was merely a mythological artefact to promote the special status of his believers. (Perhaps, as Toynbee suggested an initiative to make Judaism more palatable to the Greeks and Romans.)
Or, perhaps there was an historical Jesus. But if that was the case he certainly wasn’t the son of God and was probably at the best an exemplary man.
Bishop John Shelby Spong concedes:
Of course the resurrection narratives are mythological. Dead bodies do not walk out of tombs three days after execution. Angels do not descend out of the sky, earthquakes do not announce earthly events, soldiers are not reduced to a state of stupor by angelic power, stones are not rolled away from tombs to let the dead out or to allow the gaze of witnesses to come in, bodies do not materialize on the road to Emmaus or dematerialize after the breaking of bread, nor do they walk through walls to enter a room where the windows are shut and the doors are locked in order have Thomas examine the divine wounds.
In trying to reveal spiritual truths, our language often fails us. Our portrayal in mythology of miracles and phenomena beyond the ken of everyday experience, when viewed as mythology are not designed to mislead but enlighten.
In modern times the word “myth” has come to take on the connotation of falsehood. But myths aren’t lies and many of our most important truths have been conveyed by myths and allegory. These are not literal truths but require us to look beyond the finger at the moon.
So what are we to make of this allegorical story of the death and resurrection of the Jewish God/man?
To begin with, the term resurrection seems to be misplaced. In the original Greek the word for resurrection is similar to the word for awakening.
Now most would acknowledge that weaving Jesus into the biblical story marked a major transition in our concept of God. The God of the Old Testament portrayed very human attributes like anger and the desire for retribution. But the God portrayed by Jesus was a loving God. It is hard to overstate the significance of this change.
The God of the Old Testament was a tribal God dedicated to the promotion of the welfare of the Jews. The God of the New Testament is a universal God. The love of this God is total. He has no concern for such petty differences as gender, nationality, race, sexual preferences, or whatever. He confirms the Oneness of Mankind.
This in many ways is evidence of the further evolution of Mankind. It signifies an ability to get beyond separateness to Oneness. (This is a theme I have taken up in other essays, as a necessary step towards enlightenment.) Such awakening had occurred to others including Buddha and many of the Eastern mystics.
But in the first centuries of the Common Era it became apparent to some in the Judaic tradition as well. The major proponents of this liberating idea were the Gnostics. They understood the allegorical nature of the stories of the mystery traditions. They, in turn, were persecuted by the literalists who could not see the moon for the finger and the literalists eventually prevailed. Unfortunately in their wake they have left a Christian church which has come to depend on the existence of a real God/man who performed improbable miracles and whose body was physically restored after death and which ascended into heaven.
We can see the added layers of improbability added to the Jesus stories as it evolved.
Scholars largely agree that the first gospel was written by Mark. In this abbreviated history of Jesus there are no miracles and no resurrection. Subsequent gospels considerably embellished the Jesus story with many elements of the pagan traditions in order, I suspect, to make it more broadly appealing. To my mind it just made the narrative less believable (except if you accept this is not a literal history).
As some biblical scholars have opined, either a story is allegorical or it is not. It is difficult to come to grips with a position that would maintain that the Jesus story is largely true but with some allegorical elements! We must concede that is either all literal, or all metaphor.
So, what’s so special about Easter?
If we accept the literalists’ point of view, the only thing special about Easter is the strain on our credibility it requires to believe that Jesus was the real God/man that came to save us from our sins and the incredible events which occurred after his death. This notion is predicated on the understanding that human beings are innately sinful because of the “fall” where Adam and Eve, disobeying God, chose to eat of the fruit of the “tree of knowledge”. As a result of this, somehow not being able to atone for our own sins, we needed someone to make the sacrifice for us. This concept has been used by the Church since its beginning to manipulate people through fear and guilt.
The literalists believe that God created Mankind in a final irrevocable masterstroke. But, it would seem to me that under evolutionary processes Mankind is still being created. As a result it is understandable that we are an incomplete creation, with more than a little way to go yet!
Let me quote Bishop John Shelby Spong again. He wrote:
There is a vast contrast between the definition of fallen creatures and that of being incomplete creatures. Our humanity is not flawed by some real or mythical act of disobedience that resulted in our expulsion from some fanciful Garden of Eden. It is rather distorted by the unfinished nature of our humanity .The fact is that we do not yet know what it means to be truly human, since that is a status we have not yet fully achieved.
In A Course in Miracles it is convincingly argued that what our theologians label as sin is merely ignorance. And of course we don’t hold people culpable for what they do out of ignorance. If we dismiss the “fall” as an argument for the inherent sinfulness of Mankind and accept that sin is merely a reflection of our ignorance much of the traditional dogma of Christianity falls away.
In my view the Easter myth is a metaphor for the raising of consciousness beyond the parochial concerns of traditional tribal religions which focussed on separateness and the special nature of their relationship with a tribal God who acted more like a tribal chieftain than a deity. The emphasis on separation is a large contributor to the fear and guilt felt by the adherents of such a religion.
The God revealed metaphorically by the Easter Myth is a God of Love. He is a universal God of Unity who eschews the trivial issues of human differentiation. And if we could but put the finger aside we would know we are all One with him. Pursuing a material solution to our mortality, hoping that we might in turn experience a bodily resurrection subsequent to our physical demise is a trifling concern compared with the liberation of such an awakening.