Christ’s Uniting of Myth and History; or, me processing how the hell stories, historical facts, and Jesus make sense
History is complex and multifaceted. No event is without its many interpretations. But it seems we can always talk about history, or a collection of events, as something substantive. We recognize that whatever may have happened was real to people in the same way our own experiences are real to us. Yet, when we read stories, however grounded in reality they may or may not be, their analogies, metaphors, and allegories are, in their own way, interpreted to be true. Are a given story’s literary devices as true as historical events? If they are going to be true, do they need to be rooted in history? Or, is history rooted in those devices?
For the ancients, “history” was often understood as an eternal cycle. That cycle was usually grounded on some sort of creation narrative, or a foundational myth that gave rise to the whole of their religious ethos. History and time, being something that constantly repeated themselves, were thus participated in through rituals. In some way, these people saw their profane (i.e. quotidian) experiences in life as being part of a greater cosmological cycle. For instance, the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat was always liturgically recited as a way to not only participate in creation, but actually heal it, reform it back to a state of antiquity. Marduk killed the serpent Tiamat, and from its carcass created the cosmos. The blood of Tiamat’s second in command, Kingu, was mixed with the Earth to create humanity. This myth was always reenacted at the New Year. Priests and kings called the people back to a time of superabundance. They were themselves re-living Marduk’s destruction of Tiamat, who was born anew through social decay.
Today, few in the West have a concern for a cyclical understanding of time. There is no eternal replay for an ancient cosmology. There are historical events, and thus, historical “facts,” and a scientific method of understanding that somehow enlightens the whole of reality. Today, God is less dead as he is irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong, there are myths being spun to make sense of our experience, but they lack any scent of transcendence. History is atheistic. Of course, we don’t want to say the English defeated the Spanish in the 16th century because God loved Protestants more… but Christians also don’t want to assert Judaism was simply a complex amalgamation of ancient Near Eastern mythologies, or that Jesus of Nazareth was just a lunatic—merely a madman with disciples who asserted his divinity. No, Christianity must assert a historical event that took place in a way as tangible as our daily experience.
What Christians are looking for is a union of this historicity with the mythical; I think we need to keep ourselves open to accountings of reality and history that allows room for transcendence.
This contemporary focus on a flat, non-mythical history is something Christianity has an answer for. In fact, it was Judaism that stopped interpreting history as cyclical, believing time to be linear. Creation has no eternal return; it has a beginning and an end. God acts in history, and thus, those events do not change. The Old Testament is filled with calls for the Jews to remember those moments Yahweh acted in history—theophanies like the promise of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, the example of David. Interestingly, never do the Scriptures attempt bring us back to the garden. Remembrance is meant to push us forward.
Christ, however, is the ultimate case of union between linear history and cosmological myth. God incarnate provides the middle ground for historical reality and ancient myth. God’s affirmation of the goodness of history and finitude fulfills our current desire to ground understanding in actual events. But what grounds this event only makes sense given a particular narrative, which includes a particular mythology. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Christ is a new Mosaic figure (Matthew 5); Paul interprets Jesus as a new Adam, which harkens back to the original creation myth (1 Corinthians 15); John connects Jesus to Greek philosophy. Christ is the Logos, the Word made flesh (John 1). In Christ we find a concept that, to me, is almost completely intangible made historically real: myth, history, and metaphor are one when the logos is incarnate.
So what is Christianity asserting? That nothing is simply the sum of its parts, and that there is, in some way, a myth woven into its historical substance. Further, Christ is the summation of that myth and historical substance (whatever is finite). I’ve yet to make sense of how metaphorical concepts are inherently true and attached to historical realities. It runs my mind in circles. There is much more to say about how Christian worship enacts this union perfectly with liturgy, song, scripture reading, and Eucharist. For now, I’ll just say I think the way Christianity unites ancient approaches to understanding cyclical history, mythology, and historical events is compelling.
Compelling enough to go to Church on Sunday.
[inspiration and information comes directly and indirectly from the following sources: Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane; John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament; and Ziony Zevit’s The Religion of Ancient Israel]
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