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The Sacred Executioner
by Hyam Maccoby   Thames & Hudson, 1982

Chapter Nine

Christianity and Hellenistic religion

Christianity, with its concern with salvation, and its achievement of salvation through the death of a divine figure, shows a striking discontinuity with Judaism, which is concerned with neither of these motifs.  In Judaism the word 'salvation' is used often enough, but it refers usually to physical or political deliverance.  Moses, for example, was a 'saviour' (Hebrew- moshiy'a) because he delivered the Israelites from Egypt, and even the rather disreputable Samson was a 'saviour' because of his exploits against the Philistines.  In Christianity ‘salvation' means deliverance from eternal death, or hell; or, positively, it means the acquisition of eternal life for the soul.  A doctrine of the 'resurrection of the dead' existed in Judaism at the time of Yeshua, referring not the immortality of the soul but to the resurrection of the body in the time of the 'World to Come'; doctrines of the immortality of the soul have also existed in Judaism, but not with the full force of dogma.[1]  In so far as the term 'salvation' was associated occasionally with these doctrines, it was God Himself who was the saviour, not any emissary or sacrificial figure; and nothing could be further removed from Judaism than the concept of God Himself suffering death.[2]

Yet the idea of a divine figure who dies and thereby 'saves' was very common in the ancient world.  It therefore seems obvious that Christianity should be considered in relation to the other cults which had this concept.  Such comparison, however, has been strongly opposed by most Christian scholars of the ancient and modern world.[3]

From the special standpoint of this book, we may begin by considering whether there were any devices in the mystery religions for shifting the blame for the death of the god.  One of the best-known rites in the religions of Attis (Phrygia), Adonis (Syria) and Osiris (Egypt) was the rite of mourning the death of the god.  This mourning rite was the special concern of the women, and has been described in many ancient sources.[4]  How should we understand this rite?  The god died in each of these religions only to rise again in glory, so why was it necessary to mourn his death with paroxysms of simulated grief as if entirely unaware of the happy outcome?  There is of course a certain dramatic effect in this; the women are taking part in a kind of sacred play, in which the whole myth of the god and goddess is being enacted.  It is in such simulations, regarded as having magical effects on a cosmic scale, that drama as an art form has its origin.  Yet, at the same time, the mourning also has a motive of purgation of guilt.  By mourning, the women, acting as representatives of the female principle or goddess, are disclaiming responsibility for the death.  Yet we know that, in fact, the chief responsibility for the death lies with the goddess.  For the death of Attis, or Adonis, or Osiris, is actually decreed by the goddess; the myths arise from a social reality in which the young king had to die at the end of his short reign in order to make way for a new consort for the queen.[5]

This social reality, of course, had long ceased to exist at the time of the Hellenistic mystery cults that were concerned with the worship of Attis, Adonis and Osiris.  Though each was derived from a specific, non-Hellenistic region, each had adopted a universalistic colouring which would be helpful in spreading the cult throughout the Greco-Roman Empire.  Moreover, the specifically agricultural connotation of these religions had been transcended in the mystery cults derived from them.  It was no longer in the interests of a good harvest that the god died and came back to life, thus enacting the miracle of the revival of the fields in springtime.  Nor was any earthly representative of the god actually done to death, as had been the case in the earlier history of these religions.  Further, the 'mystery' aspect of the Greco-Roman cults was foreign to the religions into which it was grafted and which had originally been quite open and public systems of observance involving the total community, though containing some rites performed secretly, yet on behalf of the whole community, by a priestly caste.  This priestly secrecy had now taken over the whole cult, which was for the benefit of an initiated minority, not of a whole national or tribal community.

The indigenous mystery cult of Greece was that of Eleusis, where secret initiation rites were performed in connection with the worship of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.  These ancient rites, however, should not be confused with the mystery cults of the Greco-Roman empire.  The Eleusinian mysteries were carried on as a sort of adjunct to the public cult of the Olympian gods, not as a substitute for them.  They were frankly for the privileged few, and carried with them a stamp of ultra-respectability, rather like the Masonic lodges of our own day.  The majority, who were not initiates, were not thereby damned souls.  The mysteries were held to give special insight into the hidden world and to equip the initiates with special qualifications for the next world, but they were not regarded as essential for salvation.[6]  The less official Orphic mysteries, on the other hand, beginning in the sixth century B C, did have an evangelical tone, and can be regarded as the precursors of the Greco-Roman mystery cults.  In them also can be found the origins of the anti-world and anti-flesh orientation that became characteristic of the mystery cuIts.[7]

The Eleusinian mysteries, centering on the worship of a goddess of agriculture, may be regarded as an outlet for the matriarchal religion which had been supplanted by Greek patriarchalism, but practice of the cult was strictly limited and not allowed to interfere with the duties of citizenship in patriarchal society, which were regarded with great respect as the chief business of that society.  It was when this respect began to break down, because of the decline of the city-states and the rise of great military empires in their place, that the mystery religions developed an aura of escape and ecstatic other-worldliness.  The matriarchal elements in mystery cultism now acquired a new importance, because patriarchal society had become oppressive in a way it had not previously been; a man could no longer identify himself with his society, but felt tiny and powerless before the great patriarchal machine.  The process of dying with the dying–and subsequently resurrected–god was a way of breaking down the patriarchal 'armour' (in Reich's term[8]) and achieving a new birth and a new identity, free of the crushing weight of a militarized and bureaucratic society.

Yet the matriarchal emphasis differed in the different mystery cults.  In Mithraism, which, despite its origins in Persian religion, was the most artificial of the mystery cults, the matriarchal element was entirely suppressed, and the death and resurrection of the god, with the attendant initiation rites, were elaborated in purely masculine terms.  This was a religion for the recovery of male pride rather than for escape into the maternal bosom.[9]  In Osiris-worship, on the other hand, there was great emphasis on the figure of Isis, a mother-figure who anticipated the figure of the Virgin Mary in later Christianity, being portrayed as the mourner of the god and also as a mother with divine infant in the setting of a manger or cow-byre (with overtones of the ancient worship of the cow as a sacred animal symbolizing motherhood).  The ecstatic sentimentality of Isis-worship was one reaction to the surrender of male supremacy, by which the death and emasculation of the male was diverted from the sphere of responsibility of the female.[10]  In this type of religiosity, there was a proliferation of distancing devices that were important for the development of Christianity, especially the emergence of a dark male figure of evil as antagonist and slayer of the god; but there was no grim father-god demanding the sacrifice of the young god on patriarchal grounds, as there was in Christianity–which thus provides a unique amalgam of patriarchal and matriarchal motifs, with distancing devices derived from both.

On the other hand, in the Attis-worship of Phrygia, there was no attempt to disguise the cruelty of the goddess in demanding the death of the young god.  The mother-goddess, Cybele, was worshipped in her full power.  There was an ecstatic male masochism, evinced ritually by the orgiastic self-castration of devotees described so graphically by Catullus,[11] in which the devotees, often seized by an unforeseen impulse, enacted the role of the god Attis himself.[12]  In Adonis-worship, however, the cruel aspects of the goddess Astarte (Venus) were muted; there were extended scenes of female mourning for the dead god; and the death was attributed to a malign male power in the form of a boar, sent by or incarnating a rival god.  Yet Adonis-worship did not develop the sentimental divine mother-and-child motif found an Isis-worship, and its emphasis seems to have been on a more adult love-relationship between goddess and young lover, renewed continually through the death and resurrection of the young god.[13]

Each mystery religion thus had its own tone and character.  They all had in common a turning-away from public to private religion, by which the cult no longer served to validate the tribal or national existence, but served the needs of the individual, alienated from the world around him and belonging to no earthly city.  There was thus a paradoxical character about the mystery cults, in that they combined an atmosphere of secrecy and separatism with a tendency to universalism, whereas the national cults, such as Judaism or the Greek Olympian worship, were openly practised, but confined to a given culture and historical background (these cults had universalistic aspects too, though of a multi-cultural and pluralistic, rather than individualistic, nature).

Perhaps even more important than the mystery cults for the development of Christianity is the movement known as Gnosticism.  This built largely on the mystery cults, but divested them entirely of their local affiliations.  Gnosticism was a religion not about a god of Phrygia, or Syria, or Egypt, but about planet earth and its place in the universe as an outlying region occupied by the evil force struggling against the power of good (in describing Gnosticism, it is almost impossible to avoid the language of science-fiction, which indeed is partly given over to a modern form of Gnosticism).

To some extent Gnosticism arose also out of Judaism, from which it derived part of its cosmic scope, but here too it shed the local colouring and nationalist rootedness of Judaism, thus becoming the perfect expression of alienation in the Hellenistic world.  From the mystery religions it took the idea of salvation through the death and resurrection of a god, but the sexual significances of salvation, still strongly retained in the mystery cults in male-female themes, were again made abstract.  The entity to be saved (the soul) was regarded as sexless, and the aim of religion was to achieve this sexless state.  As a consequence of this desexualization, the paranoia inherent in mystery religion became much sharper; the dualism of good and evil became central, and the discerning of evil forces, both on earth and in the heavens, became an urgent preoccupation.  Where the mystery religions had vaguely adumbrated evil gods responsible for the death of the young god, Gnosticism focused its anguished attention on the cosmic evil which it became the main aim to escape or overcome.  Zoroastrianism had previously regarded life as a struggle between cosmic good and evil, but not in terms that put the earth and its activities on the side of evil.[14]

There have been great fluctuations in the opinions of scholars on the history of Gnosticism.  The traditional Christian view was that this movement was an offshoot of Christianity, and was in fact a Christian heresy, founded originally by Simon Magus.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries scholars such as Reizenstein and, later, Bultmann took the view that Gnosticism actually began before Christianity, and that it had a strong influence on Christianity itself, especially in the formation of the view of Yeshua found in the Epistles of Paul and in the Gospel of John.  Then came a phase in which the view of Bultmann was discounted as without sufficient historical basis, and it became scholarly orthodoxy once more to regard Gnosticism as merely an eccentric variant of Christianity.  Quite recently, however, new light has been thrown on Gnosticism by the discovery of a great library of Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt.  These are Coptic translations of Greek originals, and are still being studied by an army of scholars.  But one striking fact that has emerged is that some of these texts are Gnostic without being Christian.  Consequently, it has become once more probable that Gnosticism preceded Christianity and was an important influence on it.[15]

Of the non-Christian Gnostic texts recently found at Nag Hammadi there are two main kinds: the pagan ones, without reference to either Judaism or Christianity, and the 'Jewish' ones, which contain much reference to Judaism, but none to Christianity.  It would be more accurate, however, to call these latter texts 'anti-Jewish' rather than Jewish.  Their wealth of references to Judaism has caused scholars to regard them as having been written by Jewish sectarians; but their uniformly hostile attitude towards Judaism as a limited or even evil religion makes it more likely that these texts were written by non-Jews who had come into contact with Judaism and were both fascinated and repelled by it; or perhaps an even more accurate description of their standpoint is that they wished to build their religious views on Judaism and at the same time repudiate it.  Thus they selected from the Bible the figure of Seth for special reverence, because he was not a Jew but a figure of the antediluvian period before Judaism began (in exactly the same way, and for the same reason, we find in the New Testament special reverence paid to the figure of Melchizedek).  The sources of Judaism are used, with great ingenuity, to attack Judaism and develop a religious system transcending, yet in a way incorporating, the tenets of the Jewish Bible.

The peculiar combination of dependence on Jewish sources and hostility towards them is shown especially in the Gnostic attitude towards Jehovah, the God of Judaism, It was acknowledged by the Gnostics that there was such a God and that He was the author of the Old Testament, which He had transmitted to Moses.  It was even admitted by some that He had created the earth.  But it was denied that He was the supreme God, or that His handiwork was admirable, in either its literary form, the Torah, or its material form, the world.  Far above Him was the true 'Highest God', to whom He failed to give due reverence, pretending to be the Highest God himself.  But there had always been some, starting with Seth, who had seen through His pretensions, and had true knowledge (gnosis) of the Highest God.  These people knew that one day the Highest God would intervene in the affairs of the lower world, so bungled by the jealousy and arrogance of the Jewish God, by sending down a son, who, by his death and resurrection, would overthrow the Jewish God, rescind the latter's imperfect Law, and rescue chosen souls for eternal life.

It is doubtful, however, whether Gnosticism itself contained the concept of sacrifice in the sense that is important for the present study.  There was certainly in Gnosticism, even in its pre-Christian varieties, the figure of a saviour called the 'Son of God', who descended from the 'World of Light' and later ascended again.[16]  But the accent was laid on the knowledge or esoteric information that he brought to the world, rather than on his suffering while on earth.  If he was temporarily overwhelmed by evil powers, this was the inevitable result of his selfless descent rather than the main aim of his mission; it was not his death that brought salvation, but the knowledge, or gnosis, that he imparted to his disciples while on earth, and which they transmitted to further disciples.  The Gnostics were thus the originators of the theory of the saviour as martyr, rather than as sacrifice, a theory that became popular in Christianity only at a very late stage, under the influence of modern liberalism, in which concepts of sacrifice had come to seem antiquated and irrational.  In Gnosticism, the figure of the dying-and-resurrected god, derived from agricultural rites of sacrifice, became for the first time divorced from the idea of the beneficial, death-producing renewal.  It is true that evil figures were concerned with the death of the saviour and these evil figures had their earthly incarnation, especially in the Jewish people, so that Gnosticism was a seed-bed for anti-Semitism; but the particular equivocal aura of the Sacred Executioner, the guilty performer of the necessary sacrifice without which the rest of mankind could not be saved, was absent.  The Jews were the villains of the story (even before the saviour was identified by some Gnostic sects as Yeshua), but only in the sense that they were the special minions of the Demiurge who had created this evil world, and were therefore the enemies of gnosis.[17]  It could even be said that Gnostics did not take death seriously enough to have a real concept of sacrifice, for death, to them, was merely a release from the material world and a highly desirable thing; on the other hand, the cosmic impact of death as the source of renewal of life is essential to sacrificial doctrine.  Alternatively, one could say that Gnostics did not take the world and the flesh seriously enough to have a concept of sacrifice; for sacrifice implies that the world is worth redeeming and that the suffering of the flesh is of real significance.  So it is not surprising that the heresy known as Docetism was characteristic of the Christian Gnostics: that is, that Yeshua did not really suffer in the flesh, but only appeared to do so.

Christianity, therefore, was not identical either to the mystery religions or to Gnosticism, but built from them a new synthesis which at the same time reverted to the ancient prehistoric doctrines of sacrifice of which they were sophisticated developments.  The fact that the sacrificial figure, Yeshua, was a historical personage, who had actually lived and died on earth, gave an actuality to the sacrifice that was lacking in the mystery religions.  There it had been a god who died and rose again, and no human representative of the god was killed as had once been the case in the remotely early times of the cults.  But what Christianity did take from the mystery cults was the idea of the saving power of the death of the god and the conviction that it was not any gnosis imparted by the god that brought about salvation, but a mystic participation in his death.  And from Gnosticism, Christianity took the cosmic framework, transcending all the local geographical reference of the mystery cults, and the concept of a battle between cosmic powers of good and evil (derived ultimately from Persian religion), as well as the concept of a saviour, or Son of God, descending from the World of Light.  From Gnosticism too came the idea of a fallen world ruled by an evil power, Satan, though this power was not identified, as it was in Gnosticism, with the God of Judaism.  From Gnosticism, it must also be said, came the anti-Semitic tone of Christianity, with the Jews cast in the role of antagonists of the Light, though in Christianity this role is sharper and more specific than in Gnosticism.  From Judaism itself came the apocalyptic scheme of history, by which the saviour was identified with the Jewish figure of the Messiah, and the whole sacred history of the Old Testament was pressed into service as prefiguring and leading up to the advent of Yeshua, while the Christian Church took over the role assigned in Judaism to Israel, becoming the 'chosen people' of God and the bearer of His message to mankind.

The person in whose mind all these elements fused into unity was Paul, who was thus the true founder of Christianity.  Yeshua himself cannot be regarded as the founder of Christianity, since he was not, in fact, a Christian, but lived and died as a believing and practising Jew, to whom the Hebrew Bible alone was the Word of God.  To him, the term 'Messiah' had no connotations connecting it with the Gnostic saviour or with the dying-and-rising gods of the mystery cults.  It was simply the title (meaning, literally, the 'anointed one') of every Jewish king of the Davidic dynasty, and by claiming this title (at a rather late stage in his career, which he began in the role of a prophet) Yeshua was claiming the Jewish throne and setting up a banner of revolt against the invading occupying power of Rome, which he identified with the invaders mentioned in the prophetic books of the Old Testament.  Yeshua thus had no intention of playing a sacrificial role, and his hope was to eject the Romans by means of a token resistance backed up by a mighty miracle from God, which was prophesied by Zechariah to take place on the Mount of Olives.  When his revolt was crushed after some initial success and wide support from the Jewish people, Yeshua was crucified by the Romans like many thousands of other Jews who took part in attempts to regain their liberty during this period.  Yeshua, like the other failed Messiahs, was quickly forgotten by the Jews,[18] except for a handful of his devoted followers who comforted themselves for his heroic failure by believing that he was still alive (like King Arthur in a later legend) and would come back soon to continue his mission of liberation.  These loyal Jewish followers of Yeshua (the Nazarenes), who continued to believe in him after his execution, did not regard him as a divine figure, but as a human Messiah whom God had brought back to life, like Lazarus, in advance of the general resurrection of the dead prophesied for all deserving human beings.  The Nazarenes did not regard Yeshua as an opponent of the Jewish Law or religion, and they themselves regarded themselves as Jews, observed Jewish laws, and attended the Jewish synagogues and Temple.

It was when Paul began to see the resurrection of Yeshua in an entirely different light that Christianity was born.  Paul was brought up not in Judaea or Galilee but in Tarsus, a great Hellenistic centre in Asia Minor.  Here all the mystery cults were represented, and the conventicles of Gnostics were beginning to impart their secret knowledge.  Later, Paul called himself a 'Pharisee of the Pharisees', and was careful not to mention in his Epistles that he was born not in Judaea but in Tarsus, which was certainly no centre of Pharisaism.  It is probable that Paul was at some time briefly attached to the Pharisees, though he was certainly not a disciple of the great Gamaliel, as was claimed for him by Luke, though not by Paul himself.  It seems, however, that he soon left the Pharisees and became attached to the Sadducees, for we find him carrying out a mission against the Nazarenes under the instructions of the High Priest, who was a Sadducee.  The Pharisees had no quarrel with the Nazarenes, who were loyal adherents of Pharisaic Judaism and were protected by the Pharisees under Gamaliel from the persecution of the High Priest, who was a Roman appointee and regarded the Nazarenes as followers of a rebel against Rome.[19]

There is extant a report by the Nazarenes about the early life of Paul.[20]  This is a valuable corrective to the picture of Paul as Pharisee that is given in Acts and in Paul's Epistles.  In this account, Paul, so far from being a 'Pharisee of the Pharisees', and 'descended from the tribe of Benjamin', was the son of Gentile parents of Tarsus converted to Judaism.  If this is true, Paul's background of Judaism was recent and superficial.  He was brought up in near contact with Hellenistic religion, and would have been familiar with notions of dying-and-resurrected gods–concepts that were alien and unfamiliar to Yeshua'ss Judaean and Galilean followers, the Nazarenes.  Paul left Tarsus and came to Judaea, where he sought a Jewish identity, first with the Pharisees, then with the Sadducees, and perhaps with other Jewish groups too, such as the Essenes.  He was a man seeking some way of reconciling and amalgamating the welter of influences to which he had been subjected, including the strange new sect which he had undertaken to harass on behalf of the quisling High Priest, but which evidently had a striking effect on him.  The solution to his spiritual turmoil came to him on the road to Damascus, when all the religious influences that had impinged on him from his childhood onward suddenly coalesced into a new synthesis, ratified by a vision of Yeshua as the culmination of the succession of dying-and-resurrected gods.

In Paul's Epistles we find expressed the synthesis that he created, which has remained characteristic of Christianity, despite efforts from time to time to suppress the Gnostic and mystery-religion elements in favour of Jewish concepts (as was done, for example, by Pelagius in his controversy with the Paulinist Augustine[21]), or to suppress the Jewish elements in favour of pure Gnosticism or mystery religion (as was attempted by Marcion[22]).  Paul's debt to Gnosticism is shown in his vocabulary and basic framework of concepts: for example, in his distinction between 'spiritual' man (pneumatikos) and 'natural' man (psychikos); and in his terms for cosmic powers of evil, such as ‘principality' (arche), 'power' (exousia) and 'might' (dunamis).  It is seen also in his insistence that the Torah was given to Moses not by God, but by 'angels’[23] a strange idea for which there is no warrant in the Hebrew Bible or in later Jewish literature, but which is Paul's somewhat watered-down version of the Gnostic doctrine that the Torah was given by the Demiurge, or inferior power, who created the world and was identical with the Jewish God.  For Paul, the God of the Old Testament was identical with the Highest God, and the role given by the Gnostics to the Demiurge was given by Paul, in a modified form, to Satan, a figure derived not from the Hebrew Bible (where he hardly appears, except as a being entirely subservient to God) but from the Apocryphal literature, which is regarded as authoritative only by a tiny minority of Jews.  Satan was regarded by Paul not as the creator of this world, but as its 'prince' (in John's phrase), who had corrupted the world and thus gained power over it.  The purpose of Yeshua'ss descent to the world was to break the power of Satan, and return the world to its true owner, the Highest God, to whom Yeshua had the relationship of son, and through whom he was lord and saviour.  The terms 'lord' (kurios) and 'saviour' (soter) are used in a sense indistinguishable from their use in Gnosticism and quite different from the use of the corresponding terms in Hebrew.  Paul even at times uses the expression gnosis, but for him the 'knowledge' which saves is that of faith and participation in Yeshua'ss death, not the system of mystical exercises and passwords by which the Gnostics claimed to circumvent the powers of evil and pass through the 'Seven Heavens' to the domain of the Highest God.

Thus, though the outward limbs of Paul's system are those of Gnosticism the heart of it is derived from the mystery religions, which preserved the ancient concept of the sacrificial death of a god.  Whenever Paul writes about the sacrificial efficacy of the Crucifixion, he uses the language of the mystery religions.  The interpretation of the Communion meal, for example, as a participation in the blood and body of Christ (for instance, in I Corinthians 10:16) is entirely alien to Judaism, and has no part in Gnosticism, but is a common theme in the mystery religions.  Such communal meals, in which the food eaten was held to represent mystically the body and blood of the sacrificed god, are known to have featured in Mithraism and in the worship of Attis.[24] These communal meals are in fact sophisticated versions of a much older type of communal meal, found for example in the worship of Dionysus, in which an animal, often a bull, was tom apart and eaten raw as representative of the god.  This ceremony itself is derived from an even earlier rite in which the animal was not regarded as representing a god (since the concept of personal deity had not yet arisen) but simply as the carrier of life-force which could be incorporated in the members of the tribe through a ceremonial meal.  The Communion, or Eucharist, indeed, goes back to the basic reason for the god sacrifice, which is simply to eat the god.  It may be said that the Christian Communion meal has Jewish origins too, being based on the Kiddush ceremony, in which a festival or Sabbath meal is inaugurated by blessings on wine and bread.  But the Kiddush ceremony has no sacrificial connotation whatever, being merely thanksgiving blessings to God for providing food, combined with a blessing for the festival day.  It is true, however, that there is a historical connection between the Kiddush ceremony and the Eucharist, for it was the Kiddush ceremony performed by Yeshua on the occasion of the Last Supper that was reinterpreted in mystery-religion style and thus transformed into a sacrificial rite.  In the Gospels, Yeshua is represented as giving this interpretation to the Last Supper himself, and the latest Gospel, John's, even represents Yeshua as referring to the spiritual nutrition of his blood and flesh independently of the Last Supper: 'Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat of the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.  Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day ... He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him' (John 6: 53-4).  These expressions are good examples of the reworking of the historical traditions about Yeshua in order to make them accord with Paul's mystery-religion interpretation of Yeshua'ss life and death.

It is clear that the manner of Yeshua'ss death, by hanging on a cross, was itself of great significance to Paul, since it was so evocative of the mystery religions, especially that of the Phrygian god, Attis.  Here Paul has recourse to an interesting interpretation, or misinterpretation, of a verse in the Hebrew Bible (which Paul, incidentally, read in Greek, not in Hebrew, since it can be shown that his quotations are from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament[25]).  Deuteronomy 21:22-3 reads (in the Authorized Version):

And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God; that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

In Jewish exegesis, this was not held to mean that a hanged man was under a curse, for, on the contrary, it was held that an executed man was purged of all guilt by his execution.  If his dead body, contrary to the law, was allowed to hang overnight, this could bring no curse upon the dead man, who had paid the penalty of his crime, but only upon those who contravened the law by exposing his body.  Thus the relevant sentence is translated in the New English Bible, 'A hanged man is offensive in the sight of God', a translation very much in accord with Jewish traditional exegesis.[26]

Paul, however, understood the sentence very differently.  His comment is, 'Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree' (Galatians 3:13).  Many commentators have assumed that Paul was merely repeating here a current interpretation of the verse in Deuteronomy; some commentators have even given this as an example of Paul's 'rabbinical' mood.  But the idea that a crucified man was under some kind of curse (presumably in the next world) would have been regarded by all Jewish authorities of the time as bizarre.  After all, Yeshua was only one of many thousands who were crucified by the Romans during this period.  So far from being regarded as under a curse, these crucified people were regarded as martyrs and saints who had secured their place in the World to Come by their suffering.

How then did Paul arrive at his interpretation?  The answer is that the theme of the hanged god was one that carried for him a charge of meaning from mystery religions.  The god Attis, the lover of the goddess Cybele, was represented every spring by an effigy that was hung on a pine-tree.  The actual myth of Attis does not tell that the god  was hanged on a pine-tree, but that he met his death under a pine-tree by self-castration.  But the annual rite points to an older version of the myth, in which he (or his human surrogate) was not only mutilated but hung alive on a tree so that his oozing blood might fertilize the fields.  That such a story once existed is shown by the legend of Marsyas, also a devotee of Cybele, who was tied to a pine-tree and flayed and otherwise mutilated (allegedly as the result of his rivalry with the god Apollo).  Norse religion too offers relevant evidence: human sacrifices to Odin were strung up on a tree or a gallows, wounded with a spear and left to die.[27]

To Paul, who came from the very area where the religion of Attis and Cybele was indigenous, the fact that Yeshua died on the cross would have seemed especially significant–once he began to think of Yeshua as a mystery god.  Here was the very mystery of the hanged god, for which, as he would feel, mystery religion of the Phrygian variety had already prepared mankind.  And he would very naturally look into the Septuagint to see whether Holy Writ contained any veiled prophecy of these things.  He found such an allusion in the verse of Deuteronomy about the curse involved in leaving a corpse of a condemned man hanging overnight.  This seemed to him to be much more than a strongly worded prohibition about the respectful treatment of corpses; it conjured up a dramatic picture of a hanged figure suffering from some cosmic curse.  The sacrifice of Yeshua, in Paul's eyes, was directed not towards the fertility of the fields but towards the removal of the curse of sin.  Thus Yeshua took the curse upon himself, and assumed the character of a condemned criminal bearing the weight of sin that mankind found intolerable.  This is stated explicitly by Paul in another Epistle: 'For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him' ((II Corinthians 5:2 1). (The New English Bible translation is 'Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with the sinfulness of men, so that in him we might be made one with the goodness of God himself'.)

That the innocent should take upon himself the sins of the guilty had always been essential to the purificatory kind of sacrifice, especially belonging to times of crisis such as famine or foreign invasion, but it was now being applied by Paul to the crisis of mankind as a whole faced with the wrath of God.  Only the most innocent person could qualify as the sacrifice, not only because of the need in any sacrifice for perfection or lack of blemish, but because in a guilt-offering for the people any guilt in the sacrificial person himself would detract from his efficacy as a vicarious offering.  There was thus an extraordinary paradox in the sacrificed person: a combination of total innocence with total depravity.  It is this paradox that Paul read into the verse of Deuteronomy about the curse on the hanged man, and applied to the sacrifice (as he saw it) of Yeshua.

It may even be that Paul saw further into the historical background of the Deuteronomic verse about the hanged criminal than did the rabbis.  For it is very possible that the Deuteronomic curse on leaving the body of a criminal hanging overnight was based originally on a desire to stamp out any vestiges of the fertility-worship in which the prolonged hanging of a human victim was a central rite.  There is evidence that in some periods capital punishment itself became a kind of religious sacrifice; a condemned criminal might be treated with the same kind of ceremony as an innocent sacrificial victim, in the hope that the execution might have the same effects as a sacrifice without the need for the crueller performance of sacrifice of the innocent.  The same kind of shifting can be seen in the use of enemy prisoners as sacrificial victims.  Crucifixion itself began as a sacrificial rite and only gradually became a form of civil execution, and probably never quite lost its religious overtones.  Thus Paul, like a modern anthropologist, was disinterring traces of paganism in a post-pagan document.  He was bringing back to life the pagan ways of thought against which the Hebrew Bible had carried out its long struggle and of which there remained only fossilized remnants in certain passages whose meaning had been forgotten in rabbinical Judaism.

Christianity, therefore, as it developed under the influence of Paul, was much indebted to the mystery religions for its central concept of a divine sacrifice.  But whereas in the mystery religions the divine sacrifice took place in the mythological realm, Pauline Christianity located it on earth and identified the sacrificed god with a historical figure, Yeshua, who died at a particular time and place, and was involved with historical communities, the Jews and the Romans.  Thus the human-sacrificial aspects, which had become muted in the mystery religions when these became detached from their agricultural origins, were strongly revived in Christianity.  Not only was the victim an actual person, but the other actors in the sacrificial drama, particularly the Jews, became mythologized while remaining a visible, actual body of people in the world.  Given the strong Gnostic colouring of dualism and anti-Semitism which Christianity added to its mystery-religion central drama, this mythologization meant that it was the Jews who were given the role of Sacred Executioner, which in previous religion had never been attached to a whole people, but only to individuals or mythological personages.

It now becomes necessary to consider how the mechanisms which I have called 'distancing devices' operated in this revitalized atmosphere of a human-sacrificial cult: how, in this sharpened awareness of the actual death of a victim for the sake of the community, it became possible for that community to detach itself from the responsibility for the death whose value they prized to such a point that they regarded it as essential to their salvation.

[1] See: Jacobs, 1964, pp. 398-454.

[2] That God suffers in sympathy with the sufferings of mankind, however, is a well established Jewish doctrine (e.g. Bava Batra, 73b).  This Jewish view, however, was denounced as blasphemous by Christian theologians (e.g. at the Disputation of Paris, 1240) as akin to the Patripassian heresy, the orthodox Christian view being that God the Father was 'impassible', and even the Son of God could suffer only in the flesh.  See: Maccoby, 1982.

[3] Among those who have argued against the connection are, in ancient times, Justin Martyr and Tertullian, and, in modern times, Cardinal Newman, C. Colpe, W. D. Davies, W. Meeks, A. Schweitzer, G. H. C. MacGregor, H. G. Marsh, A. D. Nock, W. Manson, C. A. A. Scott.  Christians of the school of Bultmann, however, have affirmed the influence of mystery religion and Gnosticism on Christianity.

[4] See: Ezekiel 8:14: 'There sat women weeping for Tammuz.' See: Frazer, 1907, p. 189.

[5] See: Frazer, The Golden Bough, for the case of the priest of Diana at Nemi, which he relates to the deaths of Hippolytus, Adonis, Attis, all 'mortal youths who paid with their lives for the brief rapture of the love of an immortal goddess'.  In practice, the consort of the earthly representative of the goddess was sacrificed yearly, e.g. at lolcus, Thessaly; See: Graves, 1952, p. 127.

[6] Plato, Gorgias, 497c; Hippolytus, Philosophumena, 5, 8;

[7] Otto, 1940, pp. 99-106; Campbell, 1969, pp. 185-7.

[8] See: Reich, 1950.

[9] See: Cumont, 1903; Campbell, 1964, pp. 255-61.

[10] Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris; Frazer, 1907, pp. 267-400; Campbell, 1969, pp. 424-7.

[11] Carmina, Ixiii, 'Attis' (edition of W. Kroll, Leipzig, 1923).

[12] Lucretius, ii, 598 sqq; Frazer, 1907, pp. 217-65.

[13] Vellay, 1904; Frazer, 1907, pp. 3-216.

[14] For example, Zoroastrianism regarded agriculture with the highest reverence.  See: Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, xii, p. 865.

[15] M. Krause, 1964, pp. 215-23. MacRae (1976, p. 618) writes, 'The Nag Hammadi library cannot yet be said to prove conclusively the non-Christian origin of Gnosticism, but it adds a great deal of probability to this classic position.'

[16] In Hellenistic thought, the expression 'Son of God' appears in the Logos philosophy.  Plato (Timaeus) refers to the world-organism as 'the only-begotten son of God'.  Philo uses the same expression about the Logos (De opificio mundi, 21).  The expression was common in the soteriological cults, and was applied to charismatic cult-founders such as Apollonius of Tyana.  It was also a title of the Roman emperors and of the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt.

[17] For anti-Semitism in the Gnostic cults, See: Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ix, p. 500.

[18] Judas of Galilee, Theudas and Athronges all go without mention in the Talmud.  The sparse references to Yeshua in the Talmud are responses to Christian missionary activity of the third and fourth centuries AD, and are not based on preserved traditions.

[19] Acts 5:33-9.  See: Maccoby, 1980, pp. 67-8, and (for Paul) pp. 179-83.

[20] See: the Ebionite account of Paul quoted by Epiphanius, Heresies, xxx, 16.

[21] Pelagius, a British monk (perhaps Welsh or Irish) came to Rome about AD 400 and attacked Augustine's views on Original Sin and the inefficacy of good works, on the ground that they precluded free will and the possibility of morality.  Pelagius's views were condemned in 416, and Pelagius himself was excommunicated.

[22] Marcion was excommunicated in AD 144.  He regarded the God of the Old Testament as the Demiurge, an inferior and despotic god who had created the world and given the Torah, being a god of law, unlike the Highest God, who was a god of love.  Yeshua had been sent by the Highest God in order to overthrow the God of Judaism.

[23] See: Galatians 3:19.

[24] See: Hatch, 1890, p. 291f.  Justin Martyr describes the Eucharist of the Mithras cult.

(Apology, i, 66).  See also Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, 40.  See: Robertson, 1911, p. 307.

[25] This view has been challenged in recent years (e,g.  J. C. O'Neill, Paul's Letter to the Romans, 1975) but without justification.  See the correspondence in Commentary, April 1977, pp. 13-16.

[26] The explanation is that of Rabbi Meii (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 46b).  Another rabbinical interpretation is that the verse refers to the punishment of a blasphemer.  The translation, on this view, would be: 'He is hanged on the tree because he cursed God.'  Here, too, there is no question of the man himself suffering from a curse because he has been hanged; on the contrary, his punishment expiates his crime of cursing God.  See: Mishnah, Sanhedrin 6:4, and Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 45b.

[27] Frazer, 1907, p. 244.

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