Beatrice Månsdotter

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Disciples of many beliefs



Jesus and the Disciples

Dr. Ignatius Jesudasan, SJ, has through a series of books and articles applied his searchlight to the intolerance, which tends to grew when religion and ethnicity get identified with each other. Such ethnicity is, in turn, linked to ethics and collective self-righteousness or self-conceit within a more or less secluded group.

By the use of reinterpretations and deconstructions of essential texts he has managed to point out the formidable, but unfortunate, aggression that arises between different religio-political identities, thanks to their fundamentalist promoters, and the implementation of their programs at the national and wider global levels. Dr. Jesudasan manages, in a very convincing manner, to show what alternative readings of different Holy Scriptures in general and the Bible in particular, may basically contribute to building bridges of dialogue and reconciliation between warring religious and ethnic groups. The task is delicate, but Dr. Jesudasan realizes it in a lucid, open-minded, an inviting manner and style.

As a sociologist, and within this profession perhaps especially concerned with ethics and religion, I must say that it has been an adventure to read most of his work. I have never come across interpretations in this field which are so provocative in a constructive sense then the books and articles of Dr. Jesudasan’s strong type. In line with this, my aim here is to present an eye-opening perspective concerning the mutual distrust among different disciples of many faiths – although the mythologies behind these faiths not only are mythologies but in fact siblings as well. And: orally transmitted myths often are as strong as written ore verbally ones, and very often they legitimate each other. 

I

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 Disciples of many beliefs tend to treat their scriptures as authentic history and the oral traditions of believers in other faiths as imaginary mythologies. Hidden behind such unequal treatment lies the common prejudice, which assumes that everything committed to writing is fixedly and factually true, while that which has not yet been written is subject to cleverly subjective oral manipulations.

Gaea and Uranus

There are also two more untested presuppositions concealed under this prejudice. The first is an unnecessary dichotomy between written and oral communication. The second is the equally unverified assertion that written texts cannot be manipulated. The fact of variant forms even among canonically sacred-deemed scriptures, points to the equal possibility of tampering and tinkering with written texts as with oral transmission. Hence it is high time to stop putting greater weightage on written than on oral sources of knowledge or revelation. It is equally urgent to stop contrasting scripture to mythology, as Bultmann and Paul Ricoeur have pointed to a lot of mythology in the sacred-deemed writings themselves, despite the claims of Paul and Peter to the contrary.[1] Incidentally, poetic and prophetic inspiration was oral in the first instance, before it was extended also to written versions of the oral compositions. It is with this thought in mind that I attempt to indicate some areas where scriptures and mythology seem to affirm rather than to negate each other.

I start with Greek mythology, to go on to touch Indian mythology as well.

According to Greek mythology, the Titans were a race of powerful primordial deities that ruled during the legendary Golden Age.[2] They were believed to have been created by Gaea, the goddess of the Earth and Uranus, the god of the Heaven who embraced Gaea strongly with his starry mantle. Gaea and Uranus were, supposedly, the first divine couple that the world worshipped. And the Titans were the first to dwell in and rule from Mount Olympus in Ancient Greece. But they were overthrown and expelled to the lower basement of Hades, the Tartarus, after their defeat in a huge battle with the Olympian Gods, known as Titanomachy.[3]

 The myth of the Titans being overthrown by the new Olympians must be a remembrance of a pre-historic change of regime and religion that had Mount Olympus as the centre and symbol of political and cultic power. Its decisive reason may have related to the fact that Olympus was the highest mountain peak in all Greece and the whole of Europe, as Mount Kailash is supposed to be in our Indian tradition. The change must have marked the transition from nature-cult to the veneration of personalized or personified historical forces. At its base, the myth points to rivalry for power between two ethnically related groups, one of which first occupied the hierarchically higher regions of the mountainous country, while the other was obliged to live and labor in the hot lower plains and valleys.

Creation of the man by Prometheus

This myth may, on the one hand, run parallel to the rivalry between the worshippers of devas and asuras among the Aryans of ancient Persia and India.[4] On the other hand, it may be biblically echoed by the Priestly version of creation as calling order out of chaos and light out of darkness in Genesis 1:2-5. But, the book of Genesis speaks much less about cosmic creation and the beginning of humanity in general than the prehistory of the Israelite people in both allegorical and literalist forms, which the gospel writers of the New Testament adopted with interpretative modifications to retell their story about Jesus. When Luke, for instance, had angel Gabriel answering Mary’s question about her virginal conception of Jesus, he seems, on the one hand, to reverse the serpentine temptation scene in Gen 3 and, on the other, to echo the Titanic myth of Uranus, the god of the Heaven who embraced Gaea strongly with his starry mantle. Whereas Greek mythology described the genealogy with erotic imagery, Luke made his angel’s response to Mary’s question sound more spiritual: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

The Olympians were a family of 12 gods and goddesses who reigned after overthrowing the Titans. These twelve were Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis and Hephaestus. Poseidon and Hades were brothers of Zeus. Hestia was his sister, and Hera, was one of the wives of Zeus. Ares was his son, and Athena, his daughter. Apollo was a son and Artemis, a daughter through Leto; and Aphrodite a daughter through Dione. Hermes was a son through Maia; and Hephaestus a son through Hera.[5]

II

 The rivalry between the Titans and the Olympians may be reflected in the sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and among the twelve sons of Jacob.[6] Further, there seems to be a sacredly imitative parallelism between the twelve Olympians and the twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. The sacred number might very well point to analogies between the intrigues of the Olympians, the Israeli tribes versus one another and the rivalries between the twelve chosen disciples of Jesus, inclusive of their negation of the knowledge of Jesus and his betrayal to those who were seeking to destroy him.

 Evidently, the description of the Olympians above is confusing. Commentators try to clarify the confusion by plainly admitting that no one knows the exact number of love-affairs Zeus had, because they were too many and symbolic or allegorical to count in a strictly literal sense. But some of his well-known affairs were with the following:

 1. Metis was Zeus’ first love, and their offspring was Athena

2. Hera was his best-known wife, as she was also his queen of Olympus, with whom he produced Hephaestus and Ares

3. The third was Demeter, to whom he made love but once, producing the daughter, Persephone.

4. Leto was the first mortal that Zeus ever made love to. They gave birth to fraternal twins, Artemis and Apollo

5. Alcmene was the most famous mortal he laid with, generating Heracles (Hercules)

6. The third mortal was Maia, through whom he begot Hermes.

7. The fourth human was Semele, with whom he begot Dionysus. And there were more than another hundred women he laid with.[7]

dionysus

What are we to make of this narration? These myths carry many layers of meaning that relate the natural phenomena to divine causation. In doing so, they become allegorical. They also tell us of a time and ethics in which, like many other ancient people, the Greeks deified, feared, worshipped and obeyed their polygamous rulers. The deified rulers served as the role models or laws for the commoners and the elite alike to follow. As a literalized metaphor, polygamy justified and accounted for Greek polytheism as a way of reconciliation of conflicting attributes and attitudes by locating them all in the absolutized sphere of the divinity itself. Conversely, familial polytheism was also the Greeks’ ethical legitimization of polygamous marriage. Many gods implicitly meant the relative legitimacy of many codes of conduct.

When Gen 6:4 referred to Nephilim and giants, it was probably alluding to and incorporating mythical memories like these Zeus stories: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.” It seems that ‘sons of God’ and ‘men of renown’ were synonymous to each other. As the narrator of Genesis locates this description in his prelude to the deluge, it allows itself to be interpreted as his attribution of his ethical canons and prejudices to the God of his conception as well.

III

Since Dionysus and Jesus have been most frequently compared, it is worth our attention to look into the matter. In Greek mythology, Dionysus is presented as a son of Zeus and the mortal Semele, thus semi-divine or heroic: and as son of Zeus and Persephone or Demeter, thus both fully divine, part-chthonic and possibly identical with Bacchus of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Some scholars believe that Dionysus is a syncretism of a local Greek nature deity and a more powerful god from Thrace or Phrygia.

Modern scholars such as Martin Hengel, Barry Powell, and Peter Wick, among others, argue that Dionysian religion and Christianity have notable parallels. They point to the symbolism of wine and the importance it held in the mythology surrounding both Dionysus and Jesus Christ. However, Wick argues that the use of wine symbolism in the Gospel of John, including the story of the Marriage at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, was intended to show Jesus as superior to Dionysus. Moreover, some scholars of comparative mythology argue that both Dionysus and Jesus represent the mythological archetype of the "dying-and-returning god." Other elements, such as the celebration by a ritual meal of bread and wine, also have parallels. Powell, in particular, maintains that precursors to the Christian notion of transubstantiation can be found in Dionysian religion. Another parallel can be seen in The Bacchaewherein Dionysus appears before King Pentheus on charges of claiming divinity as compared to the New Testament scene of Jesus being interrogated by Pontius Pilate.

E. Kessler argues in a symposium, Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire, Exeter, 17–20 July 2006, that Dionysian cult had developed into strict monotheism by the 4th century CE, so that together with Mithraism and other sects the cult formed an instance of "pagan monotheism" in direct competition with Early Christianity during Late Antiquity.[8]

Dionysian procession on a marble sarcophagus

According to author Michael Wood the ancestors of Aryans were part of a huge language group who spread out from the area between the Caspian and Aral seas 4,000 years ago, and whose language lies at the root of modern European languages, including English, Welsh, Gaelic, Latin and Greek, but also Persian and the main modern north Indian language.”[9]

This seems to echo the story of Babel reported in Genesis 11:1- 9.

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

I shall conclude this essay with largely the words of Supriya Savkoor that, for generations, we may have considered these legends as merely old stories; but as time goes on, and archeological findings confirm it, we feel obliged to recognize that they are grounded in quite a bit of historical fact. And how powerful these two entirely separate belief systems are that they continue to thrive today, both rooted in ancient traditions that have influenced so many others! Doesn't it boggle the mind to see how interconnected we all are?[10]

Carsten Palmer Schale

________________________________________

[1] In First Timothy 1:4, we observe Paul opposing myth to scriptural faith. In 4:7 of the same epistle, he instructs Timothy to have nothing to do with what he describes as ‘godless and silly myths.’ Apparently he implies no aversion to God-related mythologies, which he also span. In 2 Timothy 4:4, he opposes truth and myths. Likewise in 1:13-14 of his letter to Titus, he opposes what he calls ‘sound Christian faith’ to Jewish myths as the commands of men who reject the truth. In 2 Peter 1:16, its eponymous author seems to speak with the tongue in his cheek while claiming that he and two of his fellow-disciples “did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino[2] Jane Ellen Harrison asserts that the word "Titan" comes from the Greek τιτανος, signifying white earth, clay or gypsum, and that the Titans were "white clay men", or men covered with white clay or gypsum dust masks in their rituals. Other scholars believe the word to be related to the Greek verb τέμνω (to stretch), a view which Hesiod himself appears to share: "But their father Ouranos, who himself begot them, bitterly gave to them the name of Titans, the Stretchers, for they stretched out their power outrageously." Hesiod, Theogony, 207-210 Modern interpretations. This myth may point to a prehistoric time at which the priestly-prophetic class stretched itself to assume the royal role by claiming to be divinely generated and anointed or appointed. We can detect this pattern repeated in the way the narrator of Exodus depicts the Levitical Moses as a divinely ordained Israelite mimetic rival to the Egyptian pharaoh.

[3] http://www.greek-gods.info/titans/

[4] According to Indian lore, devas and asuras were both divine entities, but the kind that fought wars and spent precious time and energy keeping each other at bay. But the dominant tradition looked on devas as good guys, and the asuras as evil. But if we go back to the earliest Indo-Iranian texts, we find that there was a time when the asuras were on par with the devas, the latter ruling the natural world, and the asuras the moral and social order. If somewhere along the way, the texts started to depict the asuras as villains, it is a pointer to conflict of interests between the two groups. Accordingly Hindu myths described them as wicked and materialistic, while Buddhists alleged the asuras to be lacking in self control over their passions (wrath, pride, and aggression). Cf. “Battle of the Gods” posted on April 13, 2011.

[5] http://www.webgreece.gr/greekmythology/olympiangods/

[6] I assume, with the backing of many scholars that, irrespective of the ancientness of Israelite oral history, Pentateuch in our current redaction was post-exilic and heavily influenced by the Persian conquest of Babylon.

[7] How many wives did Zeus have? The 9th of the 10 answers supplied

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysus#Parallels_with_Christianity

[9] http://noveladventurers.blogspot.com/2011/04/battle-of-gods.html

[10] Ibid , Posted by Supriya Savkoor

 

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