Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Earl Doherty on the corporeality of gods

I’m going to lay out a serious contradiction in Earl Doherty’s thesis of the mythical Christ. I posted the following in a rougher draft form at the Secular Web's discussion board, in the same thread that I began by reconstructing a life of the celestial Christ.

On p. 98 of The Jesus Puzzle Doherty says,

In this higher world, the myths of the mystery cults and of earliest Christianity were placed. Here the savior god Attis had been castrated, here Mithras had slain the bull, here Osiris had been dismembered. (For more sophisticated thinkers like the first century Plutarch ... such mythical stories were not literal, but merely symbolic of timeless processes which the human mind had difficulty grasping.)

In support Doherty adds this on p. 104:

These [philosophers] saw the stories of the Greek salvation cults as "eternal meanings clothed in myths." They were allegorical interpretations only, even if the minds of 'ordinary men' might see them as more literal.

And on p. 103:

The lowest level of the spirit realm was the air, or “firmament,” between the earth and the moon. This was the domain of the demon spirits – in Jewish parlance, of Satan and his evil angels – and it was regarded as closely connected to the earthly sphere. The demonic spiritual powers belonged to the realm of flesh and were thought of as in some way corporeal, though they possessed ‘heavenly’ versions of earthly bodies.

And on p. 105:

... no Christian writer or hymnist expresses the view that the Christ myth is allegorical or symbolic. Paul seems to have very much believed in the divine Jesus' literal suffering at the hands of the demon spirits.

By contrast with all this, he says on p. 122:

The Greek salvation myths ... spin stories about their deities, born in caves, slain by other gods, sleeping and dining and speaking. None of these activities were regarded as taking place in history or on earth itself. The bull dispatched by Mithras was not historical; the blood it spilled which vitalized the earth was metaphysical. No one searched the soil of Asia Minor hoping to unearth the genitals severed from the Great Mother's consort Attis.

He says that these events were not regarded as taking place in history. What does this mean? That they were not regarded as acts which human beings committed? Of course: Zeus and Hera were not regarded as human. That cannot be what Doherty means. If we hold to the plain meaning of his statements, then these events were not a part of what humans would have regarded as their history, or the history of the material world. And I’m sure the ancients would have regarded at least some of the things in the firmament between the earth and the moon as taking place within the history of the material world that they lived in. They would have considered birds to be a part of that history, and would have also included, for instance, a rock that fell from space, or the rain that fell from the sky. So when Doherty says that the events of the salvation myths were not regarded as “taking place in history or on earth itself,” the only thing clearly stated is that these events did not touch the ground of earth. They certainly could have been a part of human history. Zeus copulated with human women. He took on a human form, even if he was not restricted to it, and could therefore be regarded as in some sense corporeal. By sight and by touch, and possibly other senses, he was in human form.

But what does it mean to say that such a deity’s doings were not thought to be a part of history? Perhaps Doherty is saying that commoners may have retained a traditional view in which the doings of the gods occurred in a distant primordial past, and therefore not in a way that anyone could regard as taking place in his own age and in the sky above his own home. He does allude to that possibility. But Doherty has never argued that Paul taught of Christ's death as belonging to the distant past: no form of Christianity has ever taught that.

Perhaps Doherty means that commoners regarded the gods as continually dying and rising with each yearly cycle. This ancient belief is attested. But again, Doherty has not argued this, because Christianity has never argued it. Paul says that Christ's sacrifice was a onetime event.

Doherty seems to be saying in one place that these doings were thought of as being corporeal, which seems to me correct, especially given that the genitals of a god could interact with the genitals of a human; in the last quote he is saying that these things were regarded as so insubstantial that no one associated them at all with human history and no one would have dreamed of looking for the genitals of a castrated god. If some people, as Doherty speculates, believed these things to have occurred long before their own time, then that is the reason they did not look. But Doherty cannot argue that all commoners thought this way, because he does not know. I see no reason why commoners would believe that supernatural powers had stopped acting in the world: look at the exorcisms in the gospels. Certainly the ancients believed that world events were under the present control of gods.

In that context, Doherty’s last quote actually implies that the bull’s blood was not corporeal, for if it had been, some people would have thought that it was possible to search for it. The ancients, per Doherty, did not think it possible to apprehend any past or present remains of divinities. So for them, a thing like the bull's blood could not be seen, tasted, smell, touched, or heard in its splashing on the earth. It was invisible, colorless, tasteless, soundless, untouchable. Certainly, “metaphysical” is the right word for it. But “in some way corporeal” is not at all the right phrase for it. This blood, per Doherty’s last quoted statement above, was in no way corporeal.

If you can conceive of metaphysics, then the blood from the bull, while not having any material properties, had a mysterious effect on matter such as the earth. This can certainly be believed. By moderns, or by ancient philosophers. But what ancient commoner would have been able to conceive things this way? They thought the blood, as I put it, was corporeal, but filled with mysterious powers that could not, themselves, be apprehended by humans. They thought the blood fell, which suggests the pull of gravity and does not suggest metaphysical blood. Doherty argues that the firmament was closely connected to the earth, and that the demons belonged to the realm of flesh: all of this would suggest to commoners a proximity or similarity between themselves, other material creatures living on the ground or flying through the firmament, and the other denizens of the firmament.

Now I don’t object if someone says that ancient commoners regarded certain denizens of the firmaments as having some corporeal qualities but not others. That has been believed of the resurrected Christ, and it was believed of the pagan gods: they appeared in material form, and could interact with matter or flesh (like Zeus impregnating women), but they had supernatural powers. A close analogy we might use is Superman.

What I do object to is flipping back and forth between arguments, letting one completely forget the other one, for whatever purpose happens to be at play. You can’t say in one place that commoners believed things literally or that they took them to be corporeal in some sense, and in another place that they did not regard the blood as having any material properties that human senses could apprehend. If a human can’t apprehend it in any way, then it would never be regarded as corporeal in any way.

Doherty makes the first of the quoted statements, as noted, on p. 98. He has just finished arguing that “the time and place of mythical happenings had, in the minds of the philosophers at least, been shifted from the distant primordial past to a higher world of spiritual realities". Sophisticated thinkers, Doherty says, did not believe these spiritual realities to have any literal reality, so commoners believed these things to be corporeal and possessed of great power beyond the human. If this is all true, Christ can be seen as one more myth of the kind that the ancients moved to the firmament. Jewish salvation history, instead of looking to Abraham or Moses, looked into the air between the earth and the moon. Commoners, who looked to this air, bought the myth of the Christ literally; they regarded these events as having some corporeal properties that humans could perceive. Doherty has been challenged on all points of this account, but at least it is intelligible.

Now what if Doherty did not use this argument here? What if he used instead his statement from p. 122? Instead of saying that myth had shifted from the past to the heavens, and saying, In this realm, the gods played, he would say his peace about myth shifting to the heavens through the insights of philosophers and follow with, “None of these activities were regarded as taking place in history or on earth itself. The bull dispatched by Mithras was not historical; the blood it spilled which vitalized the earth was metaphysical. No one searched the soil of Asia Minor hoping to unearth the genitals severed from the Great Mother's consort Attis.”

The problem then would be: did commoners really buy Christ in this incorporeal manner? Did they really think of Christ as descending to the heavens and taking on a form that, as Paul says, was like our own form, and yet was completely a formless spirit? How is that possible? Human likeness, to be regarded as a likeness, needs to be apprehended somehow: through the human senses. Doherty can suggest that commoners bought Christ more easily if he relates Christ to the pagan stories, which were literal to the commoners, and corporeal in some way, because Christ’s story is about a spirit that took on human likeness and came down toward earth. The ancients depicted him crucified: plainly a scene of the kind that many senses could apprehend. Doherty cannot suggest his mythicist theory with any ease if he says that the commoners did not search for the bull’s blood because it just didn’t have any likeness to matter, and because while it may have impacted history it clearly did not belong to the history of material objects between earth and moon. That just doesn’t lead into a story about the Son taking on human likeness in such a way that he can be crucified in a fleshly realm. The mythicist case could not really get off the ground like that. So Doherty places Christ in the fleshly realm and says that the commoners bought this picture, instead of saying that the commoners just weren’t thinking of flesh at all and were thinking about formless spirits that they could never look for.

On p. 122 he does make the statements implying formlessness, and concludes that no one believed these things to occur within the history of material objects between the earth and moon. These statements support his purpose there, which is to describe the epistle to the Hebrews as presenting a purely immaterial portrait of Christ. This he uses to interpret all the Pauline references to “blood,” as if to say, none of the blood in the New Testmanet, outside the Gospels, was regarded as material. The mythicist case flies much better this way than if Paul is referring to blood that is in any way corporeal. All the meanings of “corporeal” that I know of refer to things that can be seen, touched, heard, smelled, or tasted.

But what if on p. 122 he did not use the statements implying incorporeality, but instead used his statements from p. 98 and p. 103? Instead of arguing what he does about Hebrews and the Pauline references to blood and saying that no one on earth could possibly think of apprehending blood from a god, he makes the arguments about Hebrews and Paul and follows with, “In this higher world [that Hebrews and Paul speak about], the myths of … earliest Christianity [like the shedding of Christ’s blood] were placed. Here the savior god Attis had been castrated, here Mithras had slain the bull, here Osiris had been dismembered … For more sophisticated thinkers like the first century Plutarch ... such mythical stories were not literal….[but commoners did think that such stories about the blood of the bull and the blood of Christ were literal].” Then both Paul and Hebrews seem like they’re talking about literal stories in which corporeal blood was spilled somewhere. Hebrews might be reporting a literal blood-spilling or referring back to such a scene with its own metaphor, but in either case it would be referring in some way to corporeal-like blood. And so would Paul. They would both be referring to a story that was in some way regarded as corporeal (in some way able to apprehended by the senses) if Doherty uses his statements from p. 98 and p. 103.

The mythicist model can live with this, if the phrase, in some way, means that the blood could, perhaps, be seen but not touched: it is therefore a spiritual thing, in the visible form of corporeality, but no more. But in some way opens up the door to other forms of corporeality; and commoners who see things tend not to stop themselves from believing that their other senses have also apprehended what they saw; so it’s better for the mythicist model if Paul and Hebrews are referring to stories that no one in the ancient world took literally.

To support his model, Doherty is switching between incompatible statements. He uses the first set of arguments to get his theory flying, and the second to keep it flying. I wonder what would happen to his mythicist model if he switched between compatible statements, or better yet, kept to a consistent, synthesized picture throughout.

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