2 Nov 2009
Sorry. There are so many things wrong with this that it is hard to identify them all.
First observation: pagan Romans used, and Christians were content to adapt, a solar calendar. The Christian decision to go on using this calendar does not seem to me to have anything much to do with the shattering *event* on which all Christian faith and morals depend, at all, at all, at all. And does the fact of a shared calendar, or the Constantinian official recognition of the Church by the Empire, prove that Christian theology, cosmology and anthropology are identical with, or substantially derivative from, that of late Greco-Roman paganism, whether religious or philosophical or both? Celsus, the Emperor Julian...and for that matter, rather later, Friedrich Nietzsche, would be shocked at the very idea. As would Auerbach (see his 'Mimesis' and his discussion of the subversive shockingness and sheer incomprehensibility, within that Greco-Roman pagan world, of the tears of Peter the fisherman as portrayed in the Gospels).
Wolfe might as well have tried to argue that because Jews and Muslims use a lunar calendar this signifies that *their* theology, cosmology, anthropology and social ethic are identical. But of course one must then face the fact that Franz Rosenzweig in 'Star of Redemption', as also Jacques Ellul in Ce Dieu Injuste? and in 'Islam et Judeo-Christianisme', and a Christian priest and scholar, Mark Durie, author of a little book 'Revelation? Do We Worship the Same God?', comparing Biblical faith with Islam, emphatically disagree: all three, one Jew and two Christians, place Judaism and Christianity, Biblical faith, together on one side of a bottomless chasm, with Islam on the other along with all other forms of non-biblical religion and philosophy. Ellul - 'the Muslims are pagans like the others'. Though one should add a further proviso: that whereas Hinduism and Buddhism and the various systems found in Africa or the Pacific or the Americas are simply themselves, inhabiting their own worlds, Islam appears in all important respects as the deliberate, conscious antithesis - indeed, reversal, with hostile intent - of both Judaism *and* Christianity. Maimonides sees no congruence between Islam's god and the God of the TaNaKh. The Quran itself places Jews and Christians together when it sneers at their belief that God is their Father and that they are his beloved children. Islam's god is an unknowable and capricious master of slaves, the quintessential oriental despot, not a father; and Islam's god makes and keeps no covenants of love.
As for the claim that Christianity is merely, or nothing but, one more pagan mystery cult, indistinguishable from (and indeed, in all important respects derived from, or identical with, the others), this seems to me to betray a refusal to understand, again, the bottomless gulf between the Christian theology, cosmology and anthropology and that of Greco-Roman paganism (not to mention also the distinctiveness of early Christian social ethics within the Greco-Roman world, their Biblically-derived indomitable and ubiquitous and downright revolutionary ethos of universal practical charity both within and beyond their community, something that the earliest pagan observers remark upon continually). NONE of the other mystery cults - Mithras, etc - produced anything like the same effects among their adherents. For if they had, surely the contemporary pagan observers and critics of the church would have said so. They did not.
Christianity, when not treated as a peculiar subset of Judaism, was responded to as alien and surprising - lightning from a clear sky. In the book of Acts the townspeople in one town in Asia Minor complain of Paul and Silas - 'they have turned the world upside down'.
If it had been merely more of the same old same old, why did it provoke such violent responses? The postmoderns might like to look backward over two thousand years and theorise comfortably that Christian proclamation and adoration of the grittily-human crucified-and-resurrected Jesus of Nazareth as 'Kyrios Jesus', was 'just like' the cult of Mithras, or of Bacchus, or of Eleusis, or of Isis-Osiris-Horus, and so on, but its contemporaries, many of them familiar with these cults, did not seem to think so.
A reality check from my favourite theologian, D B Hart, in a footnote in 'The Beauty of the infinite, speaking of Bultmann and his claim that 'the story of the Incarnation obeys the dramatic morphology of certain pre-existing gnostic savior myths: this is, at best, extremely speculative: not only is there no evidence of such myths prior to Christianity, the only gnostic systems in which such myths do appear (and they are fewer than one might imagine) are those that have been demonstrably influenced by Christian thought' [pp. 22-23]. I should add that Hart has *read* the Gnostic literature, such of it as survives; he provides a detailed discussion in 'Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies'...the whole of which book I would commend to Mr Wolfe in order for him to know just how utterly preposterous is his attempt to dissolve Christianity into the soup of late Greco-Roman paganism.
He might find 'Beauty of the Infinite' also of interest; especially if he were to read it side by side with a book (recently reviewed in 'The Jerusalem Post') entitled, 'God According to God', by Gerald Schroeder. Because as I read the summary of the chief arguments of that book I saw yet again the deep coherence or congruence between Orthodox Christian theology and cosmology, and that of Orthodox Judaism.
Those two, plus Mimesis, plus Tom Cahill's The Gifts of the Jews, and of course Rosenzweig, might teach Wolfe a thing or two about the *content* and character of Biblical faith - whether Jewish or Christian - and how radically different all its core assumptions are, from those of the belief systems practised by other inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean and Levantine world.
I will end with two passages, one from Charles Williams' Descent of the Dove, on the difference between the Gnostics and the Christians: and a second, from Hart, 'Beauty of the Infinite', written in the course of his response to Nietzsche in a chapter entitled 'the will to power'.
Williams: 'What did the Churches believe? They believed that Almighty God - the final Deity - had itself created heaven and earth, and was, as the First and Only Cause, finally responsible for them. They believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of the Father - in that Deity - and had been materially born on earth, ex Maria virgine. They believed, that is, that the First and Only Cause initiated, operated and concluded Redemption. They rejected with great energy the idea that cause belonged to a subordinate Demiurgus, and that there was a special kind of superior redemption for superior persons...they repudiated any opposition between faith and vision. Faith was not a poor substitute for vision; it was rather the capacity for integrating the whole being with truth...By definition, all men were in need of salvation; therefore, of faith and repentance in faith. The Gnostics left little room for the illuminati to practise love on this earth...The Church anathematised the pseudo-Romantic heresies; there could be no superiority save in morals, in labour, in love. 'See, understand, enjoy', said the Gnostics. 'Repent, believe, love', said the Church; 'and if you see anything by the way, say so'. - p. 25 of the modern paperback edition.
Now, Hart: he notes that there was in the late antique pagan world 'a growing awareness...that the pagan cosmos was a region of strife, in response to which one could adopt only the grammars of empire or spiritual retreat, and an increasingly fashionable tendency to elect the latter [retreat]. Christianity suffered from the contagion...but was also able to resist it as paganism could not, for it had at its disposal means for renarrating the cosmos from the ground up..
'It was into this crepuscular world of twilight longings, of a pagan order grown weary of the burden of itself, that the Christian faith came as an evangel promising newness of life, and that in all abundance, preaching creation, divine incarnation, resurrection of the flesh, and the ultimate restoration of heavens and earth;
"a faith, moreover, whose symbols were not occult sigils, or bull's blood, or the brackish water and coarse fare of the pagan sage, but the cardinal signs of fellowship, feasting and joy: bread and wine.
"There was in such a faith an undeniable assault upon pagan values: a certain very Jewish subversion, a rejoicing in the order of creation as gift and blessing, an inability to grow too weary of the flesh, an abiding sense of the sheer weightiness - kabod - of God's glory and the goodness of all that is; but it is a subversion that Nietzsche does not grasp....". [Beauty of the Infinite, p. 106-107].
And which Wolfe does not seem to grasp, either. For if Hart is right - and I think he is - then any claim that Christianity is nothing but, or the same as, or no different from, or merely yet another though unaccountably more successful version of, the cult of Horus or of Mithras or Dionysus or Attis or whatever, such as were fashionable in the late Roman Empire, is pure ahistorical nonsense.
24 Nov 2009
While searching online for information about the Phrygianum, I came across this article and the following curious statements:
"On March 24, the “Day of Blood”, the priests of the Phrygian mysteries marched in procession in Rome, flagellating themselves for the sins of Attis. They carried a pine tree, symbol of the dead Attis. But the next day, Attis was resurrected in a ceremony enacted in the “Phrygianum”, a temple devoted to the worship of Cybele. The main feature of the ceremony, notes Maarten Vermaseren on page 118 of Cybele and Attis, was a ritual meal, probably of bread and wine, which was said to confer immortality on the initiates. Vermaseren also points out, on page 46, that the Vatican was later built on the site of the Phrygianum."
This paragraph would lead any casual reader to suppose that this information comes from Vermaseren. But it does not. Vermaseren states (p.121) that the "dies sanguinis" is the day on which Attis chopped his willy off. If I recall correctly, this is the day on which the would-be Gallus did the same. The "sins of Attis"? The idea sounds very non-pagan! On p.115 Vermaseren states that the procession tookplace; but not the addition about why! This is playing games with the reader.
Likewise the article states that Attis was resurrected on the Hilaria. But Vermaseren doesn't say this. No-one knows what the Hilaria celebrated. The most V. will say is "Consequently it must seem clear that both from the texts and from the archaeological monuments no more than a hypothesis can be advanced about the Hilaria , and that this hypothesis tends towards a resurrection conception." Just a theory, not a fact, and no evidence for it.
Nor do I find on p.118 the statement that the central event of the Hilaria was a meal, "probably of bread and wine" that was said to confer immortality.
Please do not contribute to the wealth of misinformation about ancient paganism. It was not like Christianity, and such claims of similarity are invariably produced by forcing the data and omitting material of far more relevance.