The Mythic Jesus and the Fragmentation of Shamanism

A critique of Jesus mythicism

Image by Stephanie LeBlanc, from Unsplash

Imagine there was no historical Jesus. Suppose the man celebrated in the New Testament for being sent by God to be killed as a sacrifice at the hands of ignorant Jews and Romans never lived on earth. What if the foundational narrative of Christianity were pure fiction?

There are a handful of radical scholars known as “Jesus mythicists,” who argue indeed that Jesus wasn’t an historical figure. These scholars include Alvin Boyd Kuhn, George A. Wells, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, and Richard Carrier, and their views are rejected by the majority of New Testament scholars, which isn’t surprising since most of the latter are Christians.

One of the main mythicist arguments is that the gospel is comparable to numerous myths of dying and resurrecting gods such as Osiris, Dionysus, Inanna, Adonis, Asclepius, and Baal. Defenders of the historicist view reply that there’s no such dying-and-resurrecting god mytheme in the first place. As Jonathan Z. Smith says, the characters in those myths either rise from the dead but don’t die or they die but don’t rise.

Which Jesus was just another Dying and Rising God?

Arguing either case would require detailed analysis of the stories in question, but there’s a more blatant problem with the comparison between Jesus and those gods: as far as the earliest audiences of the synoptic gospels were concerned, Jesus isn’t a god. According to that primary Christian narrative, Jesus was a spiritual kind of messiah, a heroic human who was given divine power to heal, to perform miracles, and to conquer death to fulfill God’s plan for our salvation. But those gospel narratives are cagey about identifying Jesus with God himself, because the authors were caught between Jewish and Hellenistic influences.

Eventually, though, Christians did codify the idea that Jesus was God incarnated in human flesh, but that was with the Nicene Creed in the early fourth century.

There were at least two forerunners to that doctrine of God’s incarnation in Jesus. The Gospel of John treats Jesus as a preexistent figure, identifying him specifically with the Logos or with God’s capacity for reason, a concept borrowed from Greek philosophy. Technically, all prophets would similarly be vessels for God’s Word, but John takes this a step further with tedious hyperbole about Jesus’s elaborate, metaphysical connections to God.

Paul’s letters, too, treat Jesus as divine. But as Doherty and Carrier show, Paul doesn’t write as if Jesus were an historical person who lived and died on earth. For Paul, Jesus was a saviour spirit who died and was resurrected in a lower heaven and whose message came to Paul through the Jewish scriptures, not through anyone’s historical impact. The few references in Paul’s letters that seem to make Jesus out to be historical are cryptic, ambiguous, and consistent with the more mystical, metaphysical, or Gnostic view of Jesus as a purely spiritual being.

For example, in Gal.1:19 Paul says James was “brother of the Lord,” but Paul used the same expression to refer to Christian fellow-believers in general, so there’s no need to interpret that epithet as implying biological brotherhood. And in Rom.1:3 Paul says Jesus “arose from the seed of David, according to the flesh,” applying Jewish scriptural expectations to his mystical theology of the spiritual Son of God. (See Chapter 11 from Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man for a lengthy discussion of the strange phrase “according to the flesh.”)

So what we have here are Mark, Matthew, and Luke, which view Jesus as a miracle-working prophet and messiah or Jewish hero; the Gospel of John, which sanitizes that narrative with neoplatonic metaphysics; and Paul’s letters which deal with a spiritual saviour as revealed in Jewish scripture, not so much in any historical person.

We’re so used to regarding the Jesus figure from those sources as one and the same, because we encounter those writings in the same volume, the New Testament. But of course there were various Jesus movements in earliest Christianity, so when considering whether the Jesus narrative is comparable to a dying-and-rising god myth, we have to pick one of the Christian narratives.

The one that’s most applicable would be the saviour god cult of Paul’s letters. His concept of the Eucharist (1 Cor.11:23), for example, was derived most likely from the Mithraic sacred meal rather than from Judaism.

The Jewish Heroism of Mark’s Jesus

But in any case, the main Christian narrative we’re interested in is that of the synoptic gospels, which reduce to Mark since Matthew and Luke are revised editions of Mark (and of Q). That’s the Jesus narrative of interest, because it’s the only one in Christianity that’s primary: John is late, likely also based on Mark, and is obviously influenced by Greek philosophy rather than just by history, while Paul includes no detailed historical narrative of Jesus’s life.

If we take Mark as foundational to the story that Christians care about most, we face that obvious problem with the mythicist argument: How could the death and resurrection of Mark’s Jesus be comparable to that of a pagan god, when that Jesus wasn’t originally understood to be divine in Mark’s community?

For Mark, Jesus was the Son of God and the Son of Man. In the Jewish context, “Son of God” meant only that Jesus was favoured by God as a messianic king or suffering servant. In the Hellenic context, that title would have signified a demigod or a supernatural being like Heracles or Dionysus. Mark’s Jesus is somewhere between those two, as the Son of Man’s attributes balance out those of the Son of God.

Mark’s Jesus had divine power, but what was most important to Mark’s Christian community was evidently Jesus’s suffering as a man. This is why Mark’s main sources for his narrative were the Jewish psalms and prophets. The metaphysical nature of a Son of God isn’t as important to Mark as it is to John and the later, more organized Christians. What matters to Mark is the character of this heroic figure.

The Jewish hero suffers because he represents Israel, which suffered under its multiple conquerors. By contrast, the Greek demigods were triumphant overcomers of obstacles; true, they sometimes met with tragic fates, since they weren’t powerful enough to avoid the machinations of the full-blown gods. But if Asclepius was killed by jealous Zeus, for example, this demigod would triumph in the end as he had in life: Zeus resurrected him to serve as the god of medicine.

Jesus, too, would reign triumphantly only after his resurrection, meaning that although he performs numerous heroic feats (miracles) in Mark, the heart of Mark’s narrative is Jesus’s suffering in Jerusalem from his betrayal, torture and execution. Judging from the structure of his narrative, at least, what matters most to Mark is the Jewish, underdog character of the heroic Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark: A Christian Midrashic Fiction

If we follow Mark in focusing on the Jewish and mortal aspect of his protagonist, and we lay aside the comparisons with the pagan demigods, we’re hardly forced to conclude that Mark’s story is historical. On the contrary, the key details of Mark’s entire plot are lifted straight from Jewish scripture, such as from the suffering servant passages of Isaiah.

Christians subsequently took that extensive literary connection between Mark and the psalms and prophets as a miraculous sign of Christianity’s magnificence, since here was Isaiah, for example, prophesying the life and death of Jesus! That inference becomes sheer casuistry, though, if we refrain from begging the question of Jesus’s historicity and if we hypothesize, on the contrary, that rather than Isaiah foretelling the gospel narrative, the author of Mark adapted the suffering servant passages in classic midrashic fashion.

Instead of being prophecies, Isaiah 49, 53 and the like would be first drafts of Mark’s fictional narrative. At least, that would be a much simpler explanation of the obvious literary relationship between the two texts — especially since Isaiah’s suffering servant is national Israel, which means there’s no supernatural prophecy afoot. (See Isa.49:3, “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will display My splendor.”)

If there were no historical Jesus, the claim that Isaiah foretell Mark’s gospel would be as audacious as a twentieth century forger of the Mona Lisa saying that Leonardo Da Vinci’s work was only pointing ahead to the forged painting.

Again, you can go through Mark’s entire plot, and if we assume there was no historical Jesus, every alleged prophecy becomes just another piece of a midrashic fiction. As Doherty shows in The Jesus Puzzle, Jesus’s dramatic entry to Jerusalem is from Zechariah 9:9; the cleansing of the Temple is from Malachi 3:1, Hosea 9:15, Zech.14:21, Isa.56:7, and Jeremiah 7:11; the betrayal by Judas could have been inspired by Obadiah 7 and Psalms 41:9 and 55:12–13.

Robert Price goes through the synoptic gospels more extensively and shows, for example, that the transfiguration of Jesus is based on Moses’ ascent of the mountain in Exodus and on the appearance of Elijah in Malachi 3:2, while many details of Jesus’s exploits as a miracle-worker are based on Elisha. The story of Jairus and his daughter, for example, comes from 2 Kings 4.

Death and Rebirth in Shamanic Initiation

If Mark’s basis in Jewish scripture removes much of the mystique from Christianity and if the similarity with pagan gods is less relevant specifically to the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, we should still consider the source of the symbolic power of a suffering servant character, a power that would have motivated Mark to write his narrative with that emphasis. Why does the idea of a heroic saviour who suffers, dies and is reborn resonate?

Again, there’s the immediate example of historical Israel as a whole, which motivated the psalmists and the prophets in turn. But there’s also a neglected figure in the history of religion that helps dispel the mystery, and that’s the shaman. For untold tens of thousands of years, nomadic clans of hunter-gatherers would have had a “witch doctor,” a social outsider who might have suffered from epilepsy or hypersensitivity and whose illness or social dysfunction was interpreted as a spiritual gift that enabled him to travel to the spirit world and bring back crucial knowledge to heal and guide the tribe.

According to Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, the shaman typically underwent a spiritual secondary birth with an initiation ritual in which he symbolically died in an altered, “ecstatic” trance state, traveled to the spirit world and was “reborn” with the shamanic powers.

As Eliade wrote, “to demonstrate his real ability to ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld,” the shaman had to ritually die. The shaman used guardian spirits to authenticate signs of his “ecstatic journeys in the beyond.” These signs “represent the periodical repetition (that is, begun over again at each new séance) of the shaman’s death and resurrection. The ecstasy is only the concrete experience of ritual death; in other words, of transcending the profane human condition” (95).

“We have several times observed the initiatory essence of the candidate’s ‘death’ followed by his ‘resurrection,’ in whatever form this takes place — ecstatic dreams, sickness, unusual events, or ritual proper.” Eliade interprets this common theme of shamanic death and resurrection as being inherited from the underlying symbolism of initiation rites: “Indeed, ceremonies implying passage from one age group to another, or admission into some ‘secret society,’ always presuppose a series of rites that can be summarized in the convenient formula: death and resurrection of the candidate.” Among these rites are the candidate’s “symbolic burial in the temple or fetish house” (64).

For example, a Yakut shaman “states that each shaman has a Bird-of-Prey-Mother, which is like a great bird with an iron beak, hooked claws, and a long tail. This mythical bid shows itself only twice: at the shaman’s spiritual birth [initiation into the shamanic vocation], and at his death. It takes his soul, carries it to the underworld, and leaves it to ripen on a branch of a pitch pine. When the soul has reached maturity the bird carries it back to earth, cuts the candidate’s body into bits, and distributes them among the evil spirits of disease and death. Each spirit devours the part of the body that is his share; this gives the future shaman power to cure the corresponding diseases. After devouring the whole body the evil spirits depart. The Bird-Mother restores the bones to their places and the candidate wakes as from a deep sleep.

“According to another Yakut account, the evil spirits carry the future shaman’s soul to the underworld and there shut it up in a house for three years (only one year for those who will become lesser shamans). Here the shaman undergoes his initiation. The spirits cut off his head, which they set aside (for the candidate must watch his dismemberment with his own eyes), and cut him into small pieces, which are then distributed to the spirits of the various diseases. Only by undergoing such an ordeal will the future shaman gain the power to cure. His bones are then covered with new flesh, and in some cases he is also given new blood” (36–37).

Of course, we don’t know the details of prehistoric shamanic practices, nor do we know if they were as similar as Eliade theorizes. But the most plausible account of prehistoric religion is that it was animistic, which is consistent with the magical thinking of the shaman’s account of his initiation, as portrayed by Eliade.

The shaman has a revelatory experience and the social function he acquires as a result is interpreted as spiritual death and rebirth: the shaman leaves the mundane world behind in which his suffering made him so much baggage for the tribe; he travels to the world of the unconscious, dreams, and altered states of consciousness; and he’s vindicated as he gains the power to act as the group’s spiritual guide.

Shamanism and the Passion of Jesus

What this means is that the mytheme of death and resurrection was hardly confined to stories about pagan demigods. The long prehistory of world religions featured that same theme, as applied to legends of human shamans. That’s a comparison to draw with Mark’s human, suffering and Jewish Jesus.

See, for example, Mark 1:12–13: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

That sounds very like a shamanic initiation, complete with suffering, spiritual death by way of isolation in the wilderness, and even a reference to guardian spirits who attended Jesus.

And what of the heart of Mark’s narrative, the “passion” of Jesus? Again, the plot points and their theological significance are drawn from Jewish scripture, but notice that the Christian sense of “passion” stems from the Latin passio, meaning suffering or submission. That, too, is reminiscent of the shaman’s “technique of ecstasy.”

The shaman sacrifices his comfort to aid the tribe, by courageously traveling to the underworld in trance states, sometimes in extreme forms with the aid of powerful hallucinogenic drugs. Thus, the shaman wasn’t just the world’s first actual religious hero, putting aside the ancestral spirits; the shaman was the first religious sacrifice that lived to tell the tale.

Those who were physically rather than just symbolically sacrificed were killed and they didn’t return. But the shaman’s religious experience was so profound and transformational that it came to seem like a death of his consciousness, a mental journey to the world of disembodied (dead) spirits. Like the Eastern bodhisattva, the shaman returned to the tribe with greater power and wisdom.

According to Mark, Jesus was a man who was tortured and crucified and he was miraculously reborn after being buried in a tomb. Moreover, Jesus had foreseen his death and proclaimed he would afterward return with full, divine power. The passion of Jesus, then, can be read as a neo-shamanic initiation. If there were no historical Jesus, the inner meaning of Mark’s fiction would be that Christians can imitate Jesus and be shamanic servants of God.

Existential Christianity

After all, strictly speaking there were no more shamans in the organized religions within large societies. With the advent of civilization and more entrenched social hierarchies, the shaman’s spiritual role became fragmented as knowledge became more specialized. Instead of the shaman as a spiritual jack of all trades, there were magicians, healers, prophets, scribes, and gibbering madmen.

In particular, after the Axial revolutions, spirituality became democratized. No longer did the shaman have to serve as a kind of elite scapegoat for the rest of the group that didn’t dare venture into sacred territory. With the discovery of our common human nature and godlike potential, mystical applications were passed along in Greek philosophy and in secret societies such as the Mysteries.

In Judaism, the prophets acted as neo-shamanic interlopers, although instead of reserving spiritual matters for themselves, they announced that everyone has to answer to the same deity. The theological simplicity of monotheism laid the groundwork for the universalization and dumbing-down of spirituality. (If “spirituality” strikes you as a tainted word, you can substitute “existential authenticity,” which for me signifies the same depth of character.)

By the time of early Christianity, there were the Essenes who were ascetics that set themselves apart from profane society, just as the shamans renounced an ordinary secular life. And there were the Gnostics who were influenced by Greek humanism and tragic pessimism, maintaining that the elect who felt called by a transcendent power should see to their salvation by learning secret spiritual knowledge to escape the prison of nature.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus admonishes his followers to keep his divine power a secret (8:28–29, 1:43–45), and he says he speaks in parables to guard the mystery of God’s kingdom, which isn’t fit for outsiders (4:11). It’s plausible, then, that Mark intended the appearance of Jesus’s historicity in the narrative to act as a filter or as a test for the reader. Was Mark’s point that there really was a man named Jesus who did everything Mark said he did? Or was it that everyone should serve by suffering like the character Jesus?

In effect, the point of Mark’s Christianity may have been that with the end of shamanism and the rise of imperial oppression, there was still a role for spirituality and indeed for a more open and universal kind. As Freke and Gandy suggest in The Jesus Mysteries, the official, Catholic version of Christianity may have taken up only the exoteric interpretation which freed Christians from greater spiritual responsibilities, condemning them ultimately to the kind of blindness and heartlessness required to be, for example, a “conservative Christian” in the United States.

If Jesus was historical and the only begotten Son of God, Christians could imitate Jesus or confess their faith in his sacrifice to be reborn symbolically as God’s adopted children, empowered by the Holy Spirit. But the chance for an immediate encounter with divinity would be lost in the present life, since you’d have to go through the Church hierarchy or through canonized scripture (although Greek Orthodox Christianity is more neo-shamanic in this respect). In short, the existential, universal message of the Christian narrative would be forgotten in all the centuries of politicized theology.

What if the author of Mark was operating not as a biographer but with a literary vision of how Jewish scriptures could be adapted to tell a story about the spiritual hardships and promise of Everyman? My point, then, isn’t a version of the Jesus mythicist’s criticism, which would be that Mark, for example, copied some shamanic texts, since there was no shamanism at that time and place.

But what happened is that animism and shamanism, which had likely thrived for at least tens of thousands of years in the Upper Paleolithic, fragmented or went underground in large societies. The dying-and-rising god theme and the emphasis on death and rebirth in Paul and Mark (and in Christianity in general) are echoes of that real, human encounter with strangeness, which is the shaman’s initiation.

Eliade said the ultimate basis of this theme is the nature of social initiations, as we die to one stage of life and enter another. But I think there’s another basis which has to do more specifically with the shaman’s status as a social outsider. The more enlightened you are or the closer you are to the spirit world, if you like, the more you withdraw from profane concerns and the more feared and ostracized you are from the ignorant group.

Shamans, bodhisattvas, and even priests are supposed to guide their flock, and it’s that social dynamic, between transcending mundane concerns and being condemned to return to ordinary reality with spiritual or existential insights, which may be a source of the death-and-resurrection theme that’s been garbled in pagan and Christian myths alike.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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