For Easter, Richard Carrier Discusses the Evidence for Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East
The Easter weekend brings some dark news from the world of ufology. The History channel put out a press release yesterday announcing the imminent return of Ancient Aliens, which will launch its thirteenth season (and ninth calendar year) on April 27 with a two-hour season premiere. According to History, to fill the time, the upcoming season will strip mine recent news reports, including the recent revelation of the Pentagon’s UFO tracking efforts at the behest of former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the recent claims that voids discovered in Egypt’s Great Pyramid are secret chambers. The series will also claim that statues in the Marquesas Islands and on Sardinia are extraterrestrial because their stylized art resembles supposed “alien features.” History claims that the show reached 47 million viewers in 2017, though this number includes some creative math that counts the same 1.2 million actual same-day viewers multiple times if they watch episodes on different days and at different times.
However, since it is Easter, I thought it might be interesting to highlight atheist historian Richard Carrier’s blog post this week claiming that pagan faiths had dying and rising gods long before Jesus. This is an old claim, going back to the Church Fathers’ ideas about counterfeit Christs, but more recently favored by anti-Christian nineteenth and early twentieth century authors of the so-called “Christ myth” school, who claimed that Jesus never existed. It was also the conclusion of Sir James George Frazer’s Golden Bough, which pointedly compared Osiris, Attis, and Adonis as resurrecting gods. This caused a scandal in 1890 because of the implication that the Christian story was just another myth. In the full and final third edition of the book, Frazer devotes part of Part IV: Adonis, Attis, Osiris to a comparison of the story of Christ’s resurrection to its pagan counterparts, though it was tactfully omitted in the more widely read 1922 single-volume condensation of the book to avoid upsetting Christian readers.
Carrier titled his post “Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It.” It claims to explain why dying and rising gods were at the center of a network of competing cults of savior gods in the ancient Near East. Carrier believes that “Historians still tend to be dogmatically ignorant of the actual facts pertaining to these gods, refusing to look at any of the evidence. Which failure discredits them on this point. No correct opinion can be had, in ignorance of all the relevant facts pertaining to it.” His goal is to prove that dying and rising savior gods not only existed but were the inspiration for the myth of Christ.
I have a difficult time with this topic because it crosses between what I believe to be true and what can be demonstrated conclusively to be true. Carrier alleges that there are many dying and rising savior gods, and scholars have spent most of the last century trying to prove this contention wrong, despite what seems to me to be good evidence to the contrary. I explored this a bit in my book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages. In that case, I looked at the evidence that Jason started out as a dying and rising god figure, on the strength of ancient art that showed him being swallowed by a dragon and emerging from it in triumph. I concluded that a full reading of the oldest extant evidence—including Homeric references, art, and poetic fragments—suggested that Jason as a character emerged from a healing god figure who had descended into the underworld and returned with some sort of immortality salve. But I also explained that this was nothing more than informed speculation because of the lack of explicit textual documentation from the Mycenaean period and the Greek Dark Age. In many cases, exactly how much you see a god who triumphed over death as similar to Jesus is in the eye of the beholder because of the fragmentary and biased nature of the sources.
Carrier introduces into evidence Justin Martyr’s claim in Dialogue 69 that Hercules, Asclepius, and Dionysus died and were resurrected. These are among the clearest examples. Hercules killed himself on a funeral pyre, and his soul was granted immortality as a god on Olympus. This, however, was also the Romans’ belief about their deified emperors, and it did not involve a return to earthly life. Asclepius was struck dead for hubris, but Jupiter (Zeus) heard his son Apollo’s prayer and brought him back from the dead, and then raised him to a (minor) god. Frankly, he was more Lazarus than Jesus. Dionysus is the best example, for in the less popular Cretan telling of his life, perhaps inspired by a Minoan-Mycenean original, the Titans tore the infant Dionysus to pieces, but Zeus used his heart to reconstitute him by pureeing the remains and giving them to Semele to drink (Diodorus Siculus, Library 5.75.4; Hyginus, Fabula 167). Diodorus explicitly connects this to an initiation rite, which makes plain that the story was a symbolic one, meant to represent the rebirth of those undergoing initiation.
Carrier’s next god is, of course, Osiris, whom he says was not only brought back to life after his death but also returned to Earth, citing Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris 19, where the revived Osiris teaches his son Horus various arts. From our perspective, it certainly sounds like Osiris was walking the Earth, but that’s a Greek gloss on an Egyptian myth, and the Egyptians were more casual about the permeability of the division between the physical and spiritual realms. In their myths events often seem to take place simultaneously in the real world and the realm of the gods. Plutarch even admits this (25-27, 54, 58), noting that the parts of the story set in the real world were the vulgar belief, while the priests maintained in secret that the actual events took place in the sphere of the moon. It is of course irrelevant what the “official” belief was so long as a real tradition of earthly resurrection existed among the populace in some form.
These examples are fairly clear, but also have relatively little in common with Jesus, Osiris more than the others. The other gods Carrier cites are more difficult to deal with because less is known.
The first is Zalmoxis, a Dacian or Thracian deity whom I have examined in connection to the Dracula story, for Zalmoxis’s weather-magician priests became, in time, the evil scholars of the Scholomance, where Dracula studied. Herodotus, who doubted such things, nevertheless reported that the Thracians believed that Zalmoxis had descended into a cave for three years before he rose from the dead (Histories 4.94). Herodotus believed Zalmoxis had really been in hiding, but as I said years ago, I agree with Carrier that the original story almost certainly involved a cult of resurrection and immortality. Carrier, though, tries to tie too nice a bow on it by suggesting that Herodotus wrong reported three days as three years, thus making the story better agree with Christianity.
His next god—actually, goddess—is Inanna (Ishtar), who in a famous poem known in Sumerian and Babylonian forms, descends into the Netherworld and becomes a corpse, her body hung upon a hook for three days and three nights until the gods sprinkle it with the water of life and she returns to life. While Carrier claims that her resurrection was “transferred” to her husband Dumuzi (the biblical Tammuz), portions of the poem discovered in the twentieth century made plain that Dumuzi was also believed to have spent half the year dead in the Netherworld and half the year alive among the gods—basically like Persephone. While Inanna died once, Dumuzi died and was resurrected each year. Thus, the next god Carrier discusses, Adonis, isn’t really a resurrection story in his own right but rather a Greek syncretizing of the Tammuz story. After all, both Jerome and Origen confirm their identity. It is both petty and silly for Carrier to describe either god as living in “outer space,” literalizing the heavenly realm of the gods in a way that neither Greek nor Mesopotamian would accept.
He doesn’t need to do this because the stories he presents are pretty compelling on their own. Plutarch’s account of the death of Romulus mirrors the story of Jesus, with elements of the transfiguration, the resurrection, and the road to Emmaus reflected. After the Romans condemned Romulus to death and executed him, one of his followers came across the resurrected Romulus, who announced his own divinity, as Quirinus:
At this pass, then, it is said that one of the patricians, a man of noblest birth, and of the most reputable character, a trusted and intimate friend also of Romulus himself, and one of the colonists from Alba, Julius Proculus by name, went into the forum and solemnly swore by the most sacred emblems before all the people that, as he was travelling on the road, he had seen Romulus coming to meet him, fair and stately to the eye as never before, and arrayed in bright and shining armour. He himself, then, affrighted at the sight, had said: ‘O King, what possessed thee, or what purpose hadst thou, that thou hast left us patricians a prey to unjust and wicked accusations, and the whole city sorrowing without end at the loss of its father?’ Whereupon Romulus had replied: ‘It was the pleasure of the gods, O Proculus, from whom I came, that I should be with mankind only a short time, and that after founding a city destined to be the greatest on earth for empire and glory, I should dwell again in heaven. So farewell, and tell the Romans that if they practise self-restraint, and add to it valour, they will reach the utmost heights of human power. And I will be your propitious deity, Quirinus.’ (Life of Romulus 18.1-2, trans. Bernadotte Perrin)
The story is repeated in nearly identical words by Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.63.3-4 and Livy, Roman History 1.16. Livy’s version is the most important because he is the only one of the authors to have composed prior to Christianity, but he is also missing many of the elements that look to us most like Christian ones. Livy, too, puts Proculus down for a faker and asserts that he made it up to gain power for himself.
Carrier finishes up with Baal—who definitely died after his battle with Mot (death) before being ground into meal, sewn into the ground, and resurrected in some way that does not survive in the extant tablets—and Melqart, the Phoenician god, whose death and resurrection in perfected divine form can be inferred circumstantially, but which can’t be entirely proved.
But Carrier wants to overstate his case, so he expands his definition of “resurrection” beyond what we would consider the definition of the term. Therefore, he starts to include what the Greeks called nekia, or a voyage to the Underworld. The Greeks (and many other non-Greek peoples) believed that living men could descend to the Underworld, communicate with the dead, and return to the land of the living. Odysseus does this, as does Hercules, and so, too, Orpheus. They did not die and undergo resurrection as a result. Carrier recognizes this, but he includes them as similar tales, and he expands still further to include myths of basically ghosts. Since the Greeks didn’t have a clear distinction between the physical body and the spirit—which had the shape and solidity of the earthly body—he includes stories of ghosts, miracle stories of risen corpses (like, again, Lazarus, whose own resurrection is reported by the Gospels themselves), and even instances of people mistakenly declared dead.
“It’s time to face this fact. And stop denying it. It’s time to get over it already. Resurrected savior gods were a pagan idea. All Christianity did, was invent a Jewish one,” Carrier writes.
The problem I have is more one of tone than of facts. Carrier is snippy and rude, and seems downright contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with him. While I disagree around the edges, and also think that Carrier overstates some of the evidence, it is true that there were dying and rising gods. This fact was well-known down to the twentieth century. When the myth-and-ritual folklorists and mythologists of the 1800s overstated the number of resurrecting gods—as Carrier sometimes does, notwithstanding his debunking of canards about Mithras, for example—the reactionary forces tried to wish them all away, and even at present we still read of scholars who deny the existence of dying and rising gods. As I found in writing my Jason book, in which I tried to argue that the Mycenaean Jason might have been one such god, this position has remained the default even though it is patently false, thus we have the absurdity of recent arguments that while there were gods who died and came back to life, there is no such thing as a dying-and-rising god (other than Jesus, of course) because the category simply can’t exist as a category. It made writing my own book that much more difficult due to the need to thread the needle and explain how gods could die and come back to life even if the mandarins of mythology both knew this and pretended not to know it.
The fact is that some gods and demigods died and came back to life in some form or another.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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