Christianity and Mythology

Christianity and Mythology – John M. Robertson

The three treatises making up this volume stand for a process of inquiry which began to take written form in the 1870s. It set out with a certain scientific principle and a certain historical purpose: the principle being that Christian origins should be studied with constant precaution against the common assumption that all myths of action and doctrine must be mere accretions round the biography of a great teacher, broadly figured by “the” Gospel Jesus; while the practical purpose was to exhibit ” The Rise of Christianity, Sociologically Considered.” To that end the author was prepared to assume a primitive cult, arising in memory of a teacher with twelve disciples. But the first independent explorations, the first rigorous attempts to identify the first Jesuists, led to a series of fresh exposures of myth. ” Jesus of Nazareth ” turned out to be a compound of an already composite Gospel Jesus, an interposed Jesus the Nazarite, and a superimposed Jesus born at Nazareth. And none of the three aspects equated with the primary Jesus of Paul. Each in turn was, in Paul’s words, ” another Jesus whom we have not preached.” And the Twelve Apostles were demonstrably mythical.

Christianity and Mythology

Christianity and Mythology.

Format: eBook.

Christianity and Mythology.

ISBN: 9783849663056.


Excerpt from the text:




§ 1. The Problem.


THERE are stages in the history of every science when its progress can be seen to consist in applying to its subject-matter a wider conception of relations. Scientific progress, indeed, mainly consists in such resorts to larger syntheses. In Geology, as Mr. Spencer points out, ” when the igneous and aqueous hypotheses were united, a rapid advance took place “; in Biology progress came through “the fusion of the doctrine of types with the doctrine of adaptations “; and in Psychology, similarly, an evolutionary conception partly harmonized the doctrines of the Lockian and Kantian schools. It is true that Mr. Spencer proceeds to turn the generalization to the account of his theorem of a ” Reconciliation ” between ” Religion ” and ” Science,” on a ground which he declares to be outside both — that is, to belong to no science whatever. Nevertheless, the general proposition as above illustrated is just; and there is an obvious presumption that it will hold good of any science in particular.

It is proposed in the present inquiry to try whether the renewed application of the principle may not give light and leading in the science — if we can agree so to call it — of mythology. By some the title may be positively withheld, on the ground that mythology so-called is seen in recent discussions to be only a collection of certain lore, to which are applied conflicting theories; and it is not to be denied that there is enough of conflict and confusion to give colour to such an account of the matter. But inasmuch as there has been progress in course of centuries towards scientific agreement on certain classifications of the phenomena; and as this progress can be shown to consist in successive extensions of the relations under which they are contemplated, there is reason to conclude that mythology is a science like another, though latterly retarded more than others by the persistence of pre-scientific assumptions.

Myth, broadly speaking, is a form of traditionary error; and while the definition of mythology turns upon the recognition of the special form, the bane of the science has been the more or less complete isolation of it in thought from all the other forms. The best analogy for our purpose is perhaps not any of those cited from Mr. Spencer, but rather the case of Astronomy, where Newton’s great hypothesis was by way of seeing planetary motions as cases of motion in general. Any form of traditionary error, it seems clear, must occur in terms of the general conditions of traditionary error; and such error in general must be conceived in terms of men’s efforts at explanation or classification of things in general, at successive stages of thought. Yet in our own time, under the ostensible reign of Naturalism, after ages in which men looked at myth from a point of view that made almost invisible the psychological continuity between myth-makers’ mental processes and their own, we find accomplished students of the science still much occupied in setting up walls of utter division between the mythopoeic and all other mental processes; between the different aspects of early classification; between the aspects of myth; between myth and ” religion,” religion and magic, myth and early morals, myth and legend, myth and allegory, myth and tradition, myth and supernaturalist biography. If past scientific experience can yield us any guidance, it would seem that such a tendency is frustrative of scientific progress.


§ 2. The Scientific Beginnings.


Gains there have certainly been, in the last half century. When we compare its results with those of the previous ten or even four centuries, as sketched in the Introduction a l’ etude de la mythologie of Emeric-David, we must admit a considerable progress; though if we should chronicle as he did the backward treatises as well as the others we could make a rather checkered narrative. The definite gain is that the naturalist method, often broached but not accepted before our time, is now nearly though not quite as generally employed in this as in the other sciences, whereas in past times there was an overpowering tendency to handle it from the point of view of that belief in ” revelation ” which so seriously vitiated the study of Greek mythology in the hands of Mr. Gladstone, the last eminent practitioner on the old basis. How effectively that belief has retarded this science in particular may be partly gathered from Emeric-David’s historical sketch.

Beginning with Albric in the eighth century, Maimonides in the twelfth, and Boccaccio in the fourteenth, the learned academician makes out a list of between seventy and eighty scholarly writers on mythology down to Benjamin Constant. He might have extended the list to a hundred; but it is duly representative, save in that it oddly omits all mention of Fontenelle, whose essay Be Vorigine des fables, as Mr. Lang points out, substantially anticipated the modern anthropological and evolutionary point of view. This was of all previous treatises the one which could best have enlarged and rectified the French historian’s own method, and he either overlooks or wilfully ignores it, taking note only of the rather one-sided view of the anthropological principle presented later by De Brosses and his disciple Benjamin Constant. It may be helpful at this point, however, to note the manner of the progression, as very fairly set forth in the main by Emeric-David, and in part by Karl Ottfried Müller in his earlier Prolegomena.

The movements of advance and reaction in the history of mythological science, then, may be thus summarily and formally stated.

1. In rationalistic antiquity, the principle of evolution was barely glimpsed; and on the one hand the professed mythologists aimed at multiplying symbolical or allegorical meanings rather than tracing development, while on the other the school of Evemeros framed a set of false “naturalistic” explanations, being equally devoid of the requisite historical knowledge. The mythologists sank the fabulous personalities of the Gods in symbols; the skeptics sank them in actual human personages.

2. A substantially scientific beginning was made by the late school which reduced the symbolism of the older schools to a recognition of the large part played by sun and moon in most systems. In the hands of Macrobius (4th c.) this key is applied very much on the lines of the modern solar theory, with results which are still in large part valid. But that step of science, like nearly every other, was lost under Christianity and the resurgence of barbarism.

3. The Christian Fathers, when not disposing of Pagan Gods as demons, had no thought save to ridicule the old mythologies, failing to realize the character of their own.

4. The scholars of the Renaissance recognized the principle of Nature-symbolism, as set forth by Macrobius; but when, in the sixteenth century, scholarship began to classify the details of the pagan systems, it had no general guiding principle, and did but accumulate data.

5. Bacon, who made symbolism his general principle of interpretation, applied it fancifully, slightly, and without method. Selden and others, with much wider knowledge, applied the old principle that the pagan deities were personalized nature-forces, as sun and moon. But others, as Leibnitz, Vossius, Bochart, and Mosheim, confused all by the theological presupposition (adopted from the ancient atheists) that the pagan deities were deified men, and by assuming further that the early life of antiquity was truly set forth only in the Bible.

6. Other earlier and later theologians, as Huet, though opposed by critical scholars such as Selden, Basnage, and Vico, went still further astray on the theory that pagan Gods were perversions of Biblical personages; and that all pagan theologies were perversions of an earlier monotheism. Such an application of comparative method as was made by Spencer of Cambridge (De Legibus Hebrceorum, 1685) was far in advance of the powers of assimilation of the time.

7. Skeptics like Bayle derided all explanations alike and ridiculed the hope of reaching any better.

8. New attempts were in large part a priori, and some went back to Evemerism — e.g., that of the Abbe Banier, who saw myth origins in perversions both of historical fact and of Biblical narratives. The sound theorem of personalized forces was reiterated by Vico and others, and that of savage origins was thrown out by Fontenelle, but the theological method and premisses overrode scientific views. Other rationalists failed to apply the clue of evolution from savagery, and wrongly staked all on purposive allegorizing; though in the field of hierology the Jesuit Lafitau clearly saw the connection between ancient and savage religious customs, even comparing Psalm 186 with the Death-song of a North American Indian at the stake.

9. The Naturalism of De Brosses (De culte des fétiches, 1760) was as noteworthy as that of Fontenelle, and, though necessarily unscientific at some points for lack of anthropological data, might have served as a starting point for new science. But even the deists of the time were not in general ready for it; and the Christians of course much less so. On the other hand, the great astronomical and symbolical system of Dupuis (chief work, 1795), an application of the theses and methods of Macrobius to the gospels and to the Apocalypse, did not account for the obscurer primitive elements of myth, though it rightly carried the mythological principle into the surviving religions. This was eloquently done also in the slighter but more brilliant work of Volney, Les Buines (1791), which proceeds on an earlier research by Dupuis. In England and Germany the deistic movement of the eighteenth century also led to the recognition of myths in the Old Testament.

10. In the same period, Heyne — whether or not profiting by Fontenelle — developed a view that was in large part scientific, recognizing that myth is ” the infant language of the race,” lacking “the morality and delicacy of a later age,” and that in later periods early myths were embellished, altered, and poeticized. He radically erred, however, in assuming that the early myth-makers only provisionally albeit ” necessarily ” personified natural forces, and always knew that what they said had not really happened. On the other hand, while teaching that their myths came to be literally believed by posterity, he erred in ascribing to the Homeric bards a conception of these myths as pure symbol; this conception having originated with the theosophic priests of Asia and Egypt, whence it reached the post-Homeric Greek rationalists. Voss, opposing Heyne as he later did Creuzer, did not improve on Heyne’s positions, leaning unduly to the belief that primeval man allegorized reflectively, and making too much of the otherwise valid theory of deified ancestors, later insisted on by Mr. Spencer.

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