Sunday, May 01, 2005

Why not Zeus?

In conversations with Dess about my passion for the issue of Jesus denial, it came up that not all religious figures are regarded as historical persons. At that point it becomes logical to ask why not. What about Zeus, for instance? What is the difference with Jesus? Why did Zeus not live? Was he not also believed once to be capable of appearance in a human form?

I remember an exchange between a professor and a student in a class I attended at Union Seminary years ago. The student said she believed in all the great religious figures, East and West, as teachers. The professor, Dolores Williams, asked her if she thought of the Greco-Roman gods in the same manner. None of us in the room, in this class designed around issues of religious tolerance, could aver that we looked to those gods except as literary figures. So there are some interesting issues here, though this post is not about them.

Nor do I want right now to get into the complex question of the relationship between early Christianity and all the mystery cults of the Greco-Roman world. Here I want to focus on the more narrow and simple issue of whether these deities go back to real people, and why the divinity of Jesus is a different kind of question. Zeus was the most famous of the nearly countless gods worshipped in the Greco-Roman world. By discussing Zeus, I don't pretend to have answered questions about the origins of all the other figures. But what we can say about Zeus would have to be very similar to what we could say about all the other figures of whom we use exclusively the term "deity", and not those figures we speak of as holy men, magicians and the like. In other words, we're talking about figures whom no modern scholar, including the deity's own specialists, have regarded as real people. Mithra, the deity most often compared to Christ, belongs to this category; Apollonius of Tyre belongs to the category of legendary wanderer who may have lived. About both figures there is much to say if you're studying Jesus denial, so let's leave them for later posts. I also want to leave for later posts any discussion of figures from contemporary non-Christian religions, as well as Biblical figures apart from Jesus; they all deserve fuller treatment. Zeus is a good enough starting point for this post.

Zeus was a Greek god known later by his Roman, Latin name, Jupiter. It's quite probable that people in the Roman world, other than the Jews, thought of him as something real, in the sense of a being who could appear, when he chose to descend to earth, in a human, animal, or other physical form (already we see a profound difference with Jesus). Almost a century after Christ, the Roman historian Tacitus composed his Histories, in which he speculates about the origins of the Jews. He refers obliquely to the story that Rhea, pregnant with Zeus, fled from heaven to the island of Crete and gave birth there to her child, who later returned to heaven and overthrew his father Cronus -- or Saturn in Latin. Tacitus refers to Jupiter and Saturn as he does to all other deities in his account, as if they were once real monarchs by which the past could be dated. He seems to think of Jupiter and Saturn as former kings of Crete; see here for his text with modern footnotes. But modern inquiries into the origins of these myths mention nothing historical on Crete, nor even any specific events elsewhere. Tacitus also offers accounts of Jewish history that are badly mistaken (except for the one he seems least ready to recommend as authoritative) , including one in which the Jews originated from Crete as part of those peoples who had once lived on that island's Mount Ida, the legendary birthplace of Zeus. This is what a skeptical historian of the time (not a modern historian as we know the term) did with the myths: having nothing of our ability to research other lands and times, he rationalized the myths in a literal way, putting Jupiter and Saturn right on the island of Crete; and he loosely linked the myths with unrelated stories about real peoples like the Jews. In his literalism and his loose associations he is unwittingly imitated by amateurs seeking to deny Christianity; but it is probably best to note here how similar such loose associations are with the ancient world's popular habit of conflating deities with one another.

So Zeus could be regarded by commoners and elites alike as capable of taking on a physical presence. But who claimed that they had seen him? Maybe we can safely say that he was seen in dreams, hallucinations, or rituals. Probably there were those who, experiencing those events in nature that Zeus was thought to incarnate or control, said that they had experienced Zeus or even that they had seen him in the midst of natural events. By contrast, the Gospels speak of people who claimed to have seen Jesus, before and after death, in simple encounters, removed from natural phenomenon or ritual, and always as a man rather than an animal or other physical entity.

So although we could speak of Zeus and the gods of Olympus being denied as physical, historical figures, there is no parallel with Jesus. The ancient world spoke of gods coming down to earth for various purposes; and indeed Christians came to speak of God descending to earth in the body of a human being who was known to others around him as Jesus of Nazareth. But while he lived, probably no one in his Jewish milieu regarded him as divine (though they may have regarded him as a prophet). Jesus never calls himself the son of God; rather he always refers to himself as the Son of Man. The evangelists of the Gospels, however, do speak of him as the Son of God, with successive gospels stressing the divinity more strongly. Postbiblical Christianity, both orthodox and gnostic, explores and stresses this divinity even more, with the gnostics going farthest, by arguing that the human part of Jesus was no more than an illusory appearance to human eyes. Christian literature, in sum, goes from a very human and unadorned Jesus to a divine Christ. As the centuries wear on, Christianity becomes almost exclusively concerned with this Christ, presently living in the Church, and reigning over history, not the Jesus who lived within history. Perhaps in this we have a reason that later Christianity could do things so unlike Jesus. Perhaps, too, this is the reason that amateurs can read early Christian writings and say that the early Church Fathers knew Christ to be only a spirit and not a historical being of any kind.

At any rate, the direction seems clear: Jesus Christ began as Jesus, a man from Nazareth, and became known as Christ, descended from heaven -- not the other way around. Zeus and the other gods of Olympus began in heaven, living apart from earth, having a role here or there in its creation or its history, descending every now and then, but regarded as remote and uncaring. There is, in a very real sense, no history to speak of with Zeus. He was always thought to reside outside of history -- except, ironically, by educated skeptics like Tacitus who allowed that the deities may have once resided exclusively on earth within a historical existence. Christ, whom skeptics today deny as a historical figure, began altogether differently.

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