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The Jesus Story, Myth, And Oral Culture

R. S. Martin



Originally posted Nov. 30, 2006.


I spent the best part of half a century to find a reason to believe in Jesus. I have searched the literature of a number of Christian communities (I am speaking of large international communities of different types of Christianity i.e. pietism, evangelical, and liberal). I have been studying theology on the graduate level for several years. Nowhere anywhere by anyone do I find sufficient explanation for what changed when Jesus died to support belief that his death was significant.


I am finally at the point where I am asking whether he even existed. I took a graduate course in religious studies on the Greco-Roman mystery religions. The course text was Marvin W. Meyer's The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. He includes a piece by Clemet of Alexandria. Clement of Alexandria was an orthodox Christian. In other words, traditional Christians today (RC, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopalian, Mennonite, etc.) consider Clement of Alexandria to have been a "real" Christian as opposed to the Gnostics and other so-called heretics. The term orthodox is sometimes used for these Christians.


Meyer also includes Gospel of Philip, and writings by Philo of Alexandria, and Plutarch. These are all in a chapter with the title Mysteries Within Judaism and Christianity. Other chapter titles include:


The Roman Mysteries of Mithras

The Egyptian Mysteries of Isis and Osiris

The Greek Mysteries of Dionysos


Some Homeric hymns are included, Orphic Hymns, Cybele, etc. So you see, it covers the Christian-Judeo God along with the Greek gods. I did a paper on Lucian of Samosota's Glycon Mysteries. I found a piece by Lucian on the internet called The Passing of Peregrinus. That piece had a profound impact on me. Lucian tells the story of the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus's death and how he embellished it depending on who he was talking to.


No imagination is required to extend the same style of embellishment to the NT writers. When I apply this style of embellishment to the stories about Jesus in the NT, I come up with a charismatic itinerant preacher who made quite a stir in his part of the country and was killed by the Romans.


That is one possibility. The other possibility is that Tom Harper is right--Jesus is a mythical figure; nothing more and nothing less. My prof made the statement yesterday that he does not think the church leaders of the first century just made up the story. I told him that I don't think so, either. He seemed relieved by that. What I did not tell my prof is that I think it is possible that Jesus is an amalgamation or blend or mishmash of a batch of mythical figures from various mythologies of the Mediteranean world of the first century.


I don't know too much about oral culture, but perhaps I know more than most North Americans because I lived most of my life in a religious community that spreads across North America as a subculture. Radio and TV are forbidden in these communities because they are seen as part of "the world." These people have enough education to read and write. The various communities are connected with publications and personal letters and telephone. There are enough of these communities to make it possible to travel by car from Ontario to the Rocky Mountains and spend the night mostly with others of the culture. I'm not quite sure but I would hazzard a guess that it is possible to travel from coast to coast in the same manner. So we are talking about a significant population in the present day in Canada and the US that can perhaps be seen as a semi-oral culture.


News travels from mouth to mouth (telephone is mouth to mouth in a sense), by letter, and by publications. I lived most of my life without telephone. Part of the oral tradition, as I experienced it, is to remember accurate accounts of news-worthy happenings so that these can be told whenever two people meet. News of births, deaths, and marriages was spread in this way. The same goes for accidents, calamities, and other tragedies. News of building projects, business ventures, and other accomplishments spread in the same way. Any meeting, whether for a work bee or church service or by coincidence, was occassion for sharing any news one had.


If Dad helped his brothers on another farm he was expected to hear and bring home any news that might be floating around. I remember my mother's instructions when I was a child when she told me and my sisters very solemnly that if we hear about a birth or death when we were at school (or on the road) we should be sure to tell her when we got home. It was the expectation. Sometimes, in cases of emergency, messengers would travel from home to home with news of a death or fire where help was needed. If such a messenger came across a group of children walking home from school, the message might be given to them, with the expectation that the children would tell their parents. That was the kind of thing my mother was drilling us about.


General society is no where near as accurate when it comes to relating things that happened as my people are. I find even on this site, people talk in general terms, concepts, or experiences, rather than in vivid factual detail. I think that is the difference between an oral society and a multi-media society where news is flashed via the air waves.


Thus, in this culture people are trained from childhood to remember and pass on news-worthy items within the community. The only source of information is word of mouth, letter, or newspaper. Manual labour is the order of the day. "Nothing ever happens." There is massive amount of opportunity for the mind to dwell on whatever a person knows. At meal time and when working together as a family or larger group, people pass the time by discussing issues they know about. This includes anything from local news to methods of work to religion, folklore, and lay philosophy. Gossip or the "grape vine" is the normal information highway.


In such an environment, ideas and beliefs about reality develop that may have little connection with the ideologies of the larger world. Put this in the communities of the ancient Mediteranean world. Keep in mind that the super-highways of the world were built by the Romans at the time, the likes of which the western world would not see again for the next thousand or more years. Via these superhighways, messengers on horse-back could zip through the countryside at break-neck speed and news flashed all over the world in no time. Ideas meshed and mingled and blended and divided and changed and syncretized.


Sacred myths of miraculous births, deaths, and resurrections were part and parcel of the ideas floating around at the time. At a time when change was happening so fast and unpredictably as it was happening at that time would be major cause for philosophizing on a grand scale. Why, for instance, was it that in recent times i.e. the past few centuries war lords were able to conquor far-flung lands all the way from Spain to India?


We are talking about an environment where the line between the waking world of concrete objects that could be sensed with the senses and the dream world of invisible gnomes and spirits and the likes was almost non-existent. In other words, the two worlds blended into each other. Information from one world was used to explain things that happened in the other world. That the Jesus stories happened to survive for a couple thousand years is probably just the luck of the draw.


In such an environment, the Jesus stories could develop from mythical roots or from a real live person. Read The Passing of Peregrinus (link above) and you will see to what extent embellishment commonly took place.



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