The Christ cult, myth, and the story of the historical Jesus

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Where do we go from here?

There are different roads to take. One can do what Burton Mack did. He dismantled the New Testament as a singular collection and located each writing in its own time and place.
He showed that early Christian mythmaking was due more to borrowing and rearranging of myths than to creating original material (Mack 1995:13). He also showed that the New Testament was important because it gave the church the credentials it needed for its role in Constantine’s empire. He called it the myth of origin for the Christian religion and according to him the Bible is misnamed by calling it the “Word of God” (Mack 1995:15). In Mack’s view (Via 2002:34), it is not possible to locate a single, miraculous originating event for Christianity. That effort should be abandoned and be replaced with a quest to recover the historical circumstances, intellectual resources, and social motivations that occasioned the early Christians’ imagining of the cosmic Christ drama. He also claimed that there is no necessary connection between the historical Jesus of the Galilean ministry and the crucified Jesus of Mark’s passion narrative. According to Mack, (see Via 2002:35) these two Jesuses are too different to have belonged to the same history. Mack (1995:310) invites the postmodern reader to revise the biblical stories to keep it in line with our own vision of a just, sustainable, festive, and multicultural world. So, the process of mythmaking must carry on!
Or, one can take the road which Van Aarde led (2001b:148). God and not the Bible is, according to him, the church’s primary authority. To Van Aarde (2004a:28) the Bible is a book for the theology, for the church, and for the believer. It originated in a mythological world and it consists of myths, sagas, “historical” accounts, cultic texts, and symbols. Because of what the Bible says about Jesus, one can accept that God is love (Van Aarde 2004a:29). The cause of Jesus is for Van Aarde (2001b:149) the actual canon – the canon behind the canon. This cause of Jesus is what he calls “the Jesus event” and that means Gods becoming event for humankind (2001:156). He thus suggests a form of decanonization so that one can and must read beyond the politics and power struggles of the early Church to discover the testimony of faith. Faith that is seated in the heart, which cause the Christian believer to put his or her trust in God’s event through Jesus (Van Aarde 2001b:150).
Then there is the way Funk took. Funk (1996:2) maintains programmatically that critical history and religion should be kept in dialectical interaction. What we believe religiously should be informed by facts as far as we can discover them. The historical goal of the quest for the historical Jesus is factual information, what can be observed, and without regard for religious interest (Funk 1996:24). Funk (1996:306) suggests that Jesus be demoted from the status of divine Son co-eternal with the Father so that he might be more available to us. Jesus should be given a role in a new myth. Take him out of the story of the external redeemer who (like Superman) descends from another world, spends a brief time here, and then returns to the alien world. He suggests (1996:310) that one should rather see him as a hero who begins in the real world, leaves home for an alien space, undergoes trails and achieves victory over evil, returns home, and is reintegrated into society with power to help.
For a start, I accept the distinction that Bultmann made between history as Historie and history as Geschichte. Historie is the past as reconstructed by scholars and as remaining in the past, and Geschichte is the past as still impinging upon the present (Bultmann 1964:30). The kerygma of the death and resurrection of Jesus belong to the Geschichte and the Historical Jesus is part of the Historie. For Bultmann (cf Via 2002:8) the starting point of New Testament theology is the faith awakened by the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The basic and fundamental premise for me is, in the language of Bultmann and Dibelius: First, there was the kerygma!
This kerygma about the resurrection of Christ formed the basis for the Christ cult. According to Niebuhr (1957:130) the resurrection was the event to which the community looked to assure itself that its own present situation was both relevant to and supported by the past. The kerygma was institutionalized in the circles where it was proclaimed. This institutionalization happened along with the breaking of the bread24. Proclamation and preaching asked for more than just one sentence namely that Jesus was crucified and that he was resurrected. And so, narratives developed. Narratives that served as a foundational myth for the cult. When congregations started to form around this kerygma and the church started to grow, these myths got authority and it developed in what was, and is still called the Christian canon.
What was condensed in the few sentences above will be worked out in more detail in the rest of my study that follows.
Because the gospel narratives about Easter are mythological and legendary in character, a great deal of my study will focus on the nature of myths and their functioning. There are several ways of looking at myth. Karl Jaspers (in Fergusson 1992:114) argued that the myth and the message were inseparable for any religious outlook because the transcendental dimension of human experience can only be articulated through the medium of myth. Some have criticized Bultmann for his particular view. He defined myth as “primitive science”. It is science in that it assigns causes to certain events, but it is primitive in that these causes are otherworldly (Via 2002:61). However, for Bultmann, myth must be interpreted.
Demythologizing is thus not to get rid of myths but it is a hermeneutical method, a method of interpreting the text (Ashcraft 1972:53). According to Bultmann (Via 2002:61) demythologizing has two moments namely a positive and a negative. Negative in the sense that it acknowledge that the mythological motifs are not “literally true”, and positive because in interpreting myth, the myth’s original understanding of existence is recovered and it gets interpreted in a way that is compelling and pertinent in our situation. As Schüssler Fiorenza (1999:43) states: “Texts have a surplus of meaning that can never be fully mined.” It is like a multicolored tapestry of meaning. It needs constant interpretation. The whole issue of myths, their function and meaning will be discussed in chapter two.
The second issue is the issue about the resurrection. Within the mythological framework of the texts, the resurrection of Jesus is a historical event and fact. A postmodern reader would rather consider it as a mythological event that happened in an oral narrative, which was later written down. This study is therefore also going to focus on the resurrection and on the influence of Easter on the handing down of the Jesus tradition. Chapter three will therefore be an in depth search for a postmodern understanding of the kerygma of the resurrection.
These mythological texts about the resurrection of Jesus are found in what we call the Bible. The Christian church calls the texts in the Bible canonical. For the church, the Bible has authority. The question I am asking is: Must the whole of the Bible be called canonical, or is there a canon behind the canon? Must the canon not be decanonized to get to the real canon? The authority of the canon causes a hermeneutical problem for me. My question is: Is the authority rooted in the Bible, in the canon, or in God? In chapter four the canon as issue will be put on the table.
This study is thus going to search for the relationship between myth, resurrection and canon. In the final chapter, this relationship and dialectical interplay between the three issues will (I hope) become clear.


There are no short cuts

Before one can make an informed and learned conclusion about the foundational myth of the Christ cult, one has to investigate all the options, as well as the phenomenon called myth. What follows is thus a journey into mythology. I explored the definition, the history of the interpretation of myth, its role in religion, psychology and philosophy, its connection with rituals, and at the end, I appreciate myth even more. Myths are just as important to postmodern man, as it were to our pre-modern ancestors. To understand myth, one must do the whole exercise. So, if there is no short cut, let us hit the road.
Mythology is the body of myths of a particular culture. Mythology is also the study and interpretation of such myths. A myth may be broadly defined as a narrative that through many retellings has become an accepted tradition in a society. Usually it is a story about gods or other superhuman beings, or one told to account for a custom, institutions, or natural phenomenon (Gaster 1982:481). When people began to device their myths and worship their gods, they were not seeking to find a literal explanation for natural phenomena. According to Armstrong (1999:11) the symbolic stories, cave paintings and carvings were an attempt to express their wonder and to link this pervasive mystery with their own lives; indeed poets, artists and musicians are often impelled by a similar desire today. Thus, as Kerényi (1976:446) states, every view of mythology is a view of man and every theology is at the same time anthropology.
Myths are universal and they occur in almost all cultures. They typically date from a time before the introduction of writing, when they were passed orally from one generation to the next. We are, according to Fontenrose (1959:5) likely to think that, for example, Greek myths were always told as Ovid tells them. They most certainly were not. A myth moving from place to place, passing from one person to another, and from one generation to another, is constantly undergoing change. New versions are formed in every region and age. “A traditional plot, on entering a new region, usually becomes attached to the gods and heroes of that region” (Fontenrose 1959:6). Asclepius, for example, according to Smith (1971:184), inherited from folklore a prodigious death. Epidaurus provided him with a typical birth story and he let Asclepius taught Delphic morality. When he was admitted to Athens, he was associated with the Eleusinian mysteries and became an initiate. The Stoics equated him with the air and neo-Platonism made him the soul of the universe. In the solar theology, he was identified with the sun, the light of men, the savior. In Syria and Palestine, he was identified with the dying and reviving god Eshmun and when the oracles had a revival he gave oracles and mediated those of Hermes.
Myths deal with basic questions about the nature of the world and human experience, and because of their all-encompassing nature, myths can illuminate many aspects of a culture. Ancient peoples used myths to express their sense of the past (cf Stewart 1971:76). According to Mircea Eliade (in Segal 1999:21), myth narrates a sacred history. It relates an event that took part in primordial time. Myth tells how, through the deeds of supernatural beings, a reality came into existence. Myths not only narrate the origin of the world, of animals and plants, but also the primordial events in consequence of which man became what he is today. Therefore, myth makes the present less arbitrary and more tolerate by locating its origin in the hoary past. Myths can therefore be characterized by Honko (1984:51) as ontological, because they are incorporated and integrated into a coherent view of the world.
For Bultmann and Jonas (cf Segal 1999:24) myth does not explain the world because myth is not about the world. The true subject matter of myth is the place of human beings in the world, and the function of myth is to describe that place, to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives. Therefore, myth must be interpreted existentially.

Chapter one It wouldn’t be easy, I have to say
1.1 Prelude
1.2 Autobiography as epistemology
1.3 Situational discourse
1.4 Kerygma as meta-narrative
1.5 Where do we go from here?
Chapter two A theory on myth
2 At the foot of Mount Olympus
2.1 My starting blocks
2.2 There are no short cuts
2.3 Categories of myths
2.4 Types of myths
2.5 Interpreting myths and rituals
2.6 Interpreting myth in the New Testament
2.7 The Christ cult, myth, and the story of the historical Jesus
2.8 Conclusion
Chapter three A theory on resurrection
3 A stone rolled away became a stumbling block
3.1 The death of Jesus
3.2 The resurrection
3.3 The empty tomb
3.4 Jesus was raised
3.5 The origin of the resurrection tradition
3.6 Jesus appeared
3.7 What most probably happened?
3.8 Resurrection in the myths
3.9 Conclusion
Chapter four A theory on canonizing and decanonizing
4 Our Scripture reading is taken from
4.1 But what is a canon?
4.2 When writings become Scripture
4.3 Limiting the scope
4.4 The criteria for the canon
4.5 Canonization
4.6 Decanonization
4.7 Conclusion
Chapter five
I rest my case
Works Consulted


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