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On the Mythological Background of the New Testament Miracles

van den Bergh van Eysinga


This is Klaus Schilling's summary in English of van den Bergh van Eysinga's article "De mythologische achtergrond van de Nieuwtestamentische  wonderen", available as http://www.radikalkritik.de/mythachtergrond.pdf.  The article is also available in a German version, translated by Frans-Joris Fabri.


van den Bergh van Eysinga emphasizes the necessity of objectivity in the research of the history of religions, which is often lacking even in academic circles.  The same standards must apply as for secular history.

According to Dibelius, a liberal theologian, it can be trusted that Jesus travelled Palestine as a healer.  Of course as a rationalist, he won't claim that Jesus performed any miraculous healings, and tries to defend Jesus against theoretical charges of having been a quack.  Jesus did not work as healer on a regular basis, but only sporadically, pretty much as minimal as appeared necessary.  But Dibelius fails to see that according to Matthew 4:23, no sick people were left.  Jesus did not have to come to the sick, they came to him.

The main thought of rational, liberal theologians is that everything in the Gospels that casts a shadow on Jesus must be seen as a confirmation of the historical words and deeds of Jesus.  Matthew 13:58 is such a passage where Jesus admits his own limitations (according to liberal theologians).  But Asclepius, the famous pagan healing deity, is similarly subject to some limitations, yet that doesn't prove the historicity of Asklepius, and few theologians would assume so.  Healing is there restricted to the faithful.

A miracle (Dutch: 'wonder', Greek: 'thaumasion') is something that makes you wonder, because it contradicts daily experience.  For ancient people, a miracle does not have the connotation of something that's impossible, as it is seen by post-Enlightenment, so-called rational people.  Enlightenment thinking understands itself partly as the explanation of more and more formerly supposed miracles on a scientific, rational basis.  Thus liberal, rational theology continues purging the New Testament exegetically from miracles, which are explained as the products of exaggerating fantasy or nonsensical explanations of not-yet-understood phenomena.

During the industrial revolution, the miracles became an obstacle to the acceptance of the Gospels in rationalist circles.  In van Eysinga's times, it was acceptable to use parapsychology, the science of the borderline of normal and pathological states of consciousness, for explaining apparently irrational passages of the Gospels.  Modern psychology tries to find an explanation for irrational phenomena once examined scientifically-critically.  Extreme nervous excitement and sensory confusion are employed to explain the visions of Paul and Mary Magdalene. 

Many researchers don't realize how irrational their attempts are to explain everything rationally.  Telepathy, quantum beaming, and the likes are employed for explaining miracles.  All this looks likes efforts to turn the mythical son of God into a human being with extraordinary PSI abilities.

That type of explanation only makes sense under the assumption that the miracle passages report actual historical events.  But a science like parapsychology has to start from empirical facts, not from legends.  Possible modern PSI adepts cannot be used to explain passages of the Gospels.

Van Loon started in the late 19th Century to question the character and nature of the Gospel stories, especially the resurrection tales.  He recognized and pointed out that most scholars, when approaching the question of how resurrection stories arose, illegitimately silently assume the historicity of the resurrected person.  Such a procedure is of course nonsensical.

When explaining details of the Gospels such as the resurrection tales, we must first consider the more general question of whether the Gospel tales in general were historical or idealist.  The historicity question was duly answered in Van Eysinga's essay "Leeft Jesus of heeft hij alleen maar geleefd?" (Does Jesus Live, or Has He Only Lived?  A Study of the Doctrine of Historicity).

The resurrection 'miracle' is much better explained, more rationally, when seen in the context of resurrection tales of pagan mystery gods like Osiris, than accusing ancient witnesses of pathological fantasy.  Christianity started out in the framework of mystery religions present in the Roman empire back then.  Unlike local/ethnocentric cults, they were tending towards a universal brotherhood.

Cultic actions were accompanied by dedication and righteous behavior.  Unlike the immortal Olympic gods, the deities of the mystery cults were subject to death and revival cycles, like the seasonal cycles of nature they emulated.  Man is thought to be saved by participation in the destiny of the deity, through sacraments.

The broad masses were attracted by the realistic theatrics and magical, thaumaturgic (supernatural magic ritual) aspects of mystery cults, whereas the spiritualist/mystic piety attracted the educated followers.

The Orphic branch of the Dionysian mystery cult appears to exhibit various parallels to the Gospel tales.  In van Eysinga's comment on Matthew's gospel it is shown that conflicting tales about the ancestry of Jesus have been connected in Luke's and Matthew's Davidic paternal bloodline versus a virgin birth.

Many scholars ridiculously tried to misuse that ambivalent tradition as a confirmation of the historicity of Jesus, although they fail to believe in virgin birth, or the reliability of genealogies reaching back over ten centuries.  But Matthew 1:16 excludes Joseph's fatherhood of Jesus: "and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ."

Luke 3:23 offers the sternest conflict between a Davidic male bloodline and virgin birth: "Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph,".  The increasing historization of the former 'son of God' myth required an acrobatic fixing of the genealogy, trying to show Jesus' provenience from David.

According to Bultmann, the Matthean prologue is about divine exaltation of the human Jesus figure.  But that is quite clearly the converse what actually happened: the older concept of a pre-existent Jesus who descended in adult human likeness at some point (per Marcion, Valentinus, and many others) did not need to make any assumptions about a birth of Jesus. 

Only the historization of the Jesus figure, started at Rome in the middle of second century, required statements about a birth and genealogy of Jesus.  A lot of traits have been added in the manner of ancient pagan half-gods.  Thus the development of the mythos did not involve the later divinisation of an originally historical Jesus, but rather, the later humanization of an originally mythical 'son of God'.

Such a being fights demons and manipulates natural forces, in order to prove its divine origin.  It won't get us anywhere to assume a human being with some paranormal forces like telekinesis and telepathy at the beginning of the Gospel tradition, which subsequently magnified and exaggerated those paranormal forces.  The humanified godson had to perform the miracles prescribed by the Tanakh, in order to establish the Jesus legend as a perfection of the Old Testament's law and prophets.

It's funny to see exegetes at work, who fail to recognize the simple mechanisms described above and try to rationalize, for example, the wedding of Cana passage; such a naive exegesis invites ironical remarks.

van Eysinga prefers a solid scientific base.  Jesus says to Mary: "What do I have to do with you, woman?"  This is an obvious rejection of the mother-son birth relationship.  Like Mark's and Marcion's Jesus, that of John's Gospel is without mother, descended as an adult from the heavens.  Mary serves here to represent the old covenant and Israel, thus John's gospel emphasizes that Jesus is alien to the old covenant of Yahveh and Israel, which is deemed irrelevant for Christians.

The huge amount of water that was turned into wine also invoked the wildest fantasy of the rationalizing theologians.  The large amount was worthy of a festivity dedicated to Dionysos.  The main feast of Dionysos at Elis was celebrated on the eve of Epiphany.  That day was celebrated as Jesus' birthday until fourth century. 

According to a tale, three empty containers were locked away on the eve of the celebration, and were found full of wine the next day.  According to a legend from Andros (Cycladic islands), the fountain water of the local temple dedicated to Dionysos tasted like wine for several days after the mentioned feast.

Justin the Martyr was familiar with these parallels, and saw in them the work of malicious demons who imitated Christianity in anticipation.  Those demons were accused of making Jesus appear as just another son of Zeus.

van Eysinga shows further parallels that make it impossible to see several elements of Christian rites and writings as independent from the Dionysic tradition.

The eve of what became Epiphany in Christian times is especially noteworthy, as early church tradition celebrates there the wine miracle as the first public demonstration of Jesus' supernatural powers.  Jesus donates wine, which is identified with his sacrificial blood. The logos incarnate gives us the wine that washes us free from sins, and is thus superior to the Jewish baptismal rite which only uses water.

The mass feeding is a related miracle. Some so-called rational theologians dare to downgrade the miracle to an accelerated natural process. But this fails because grinding grain and baking bread is not a natural process at all!

Matthew and Mark let the walking on water follow the miraculous feeding. The allusion to Sirah's wisdom floating on top of the sea is evident.  Water is seen as a fatal abyss, and the walking on water is metaphorical for overcoming death. It's clearer even than that in John's Apocalypse 15:2: "And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God".  Something similar was told about Heracles by Emperor Julian. One should see the walking on water as originally being ascribed to the risen Lord.

Jesus is said to have raised Lazarus from the dead, and this is seen as a sort of prologue to his own resurrection.

Jesus provoked his own spirit. It must have been deemed necessary to create such a tension for performing miracles. Enormous concentration of energy is essential. Jesus feels when power emanates from himself while performing miracles. Thus risen Jesus warns Mary not to touch him before his ascension, as he needs to preserve his energy for the event. The Emmaus situation, where Jesus only hesitatingly stays with the disciples, is in a similar vein.

Some theologians try to invoke the return of clinically (pseudo-)dead people as sign for the non-miraculousness of the resurrection tales. This is stretching medical science.

When some women try to visit Jesus' tomb, they can't find it and talk to a gardener who tells them that Jesus isn't there.  Rationalists now construct explanations such as the gardener having tried to tell them where the tomb is, but failed to do so as the women ran away panic-stricken before the gardener had a chance to explain. The disciples would have constructed the Easter miracle from this.

Such unscientific rationalizations makes one smile and cry at the same time, as they completely fail to recognize the character of the Gospels.

The Gospels only know the 'son of god' Jesus. Jesus as a human is the arbitrary construct of Enlightenment-era theology.  There's absolutely no way to explain Christianity from the life and work of the Jesus man constructed by liberal theology.

The deification of a man whom one was acquainted with in life is a much more monstrous sort of miracle than all the biblical miracles added together. The core of Christianity is the belief in the celestial son of god and savior residing in the heavens, the Christian mystery deity.

Alas, the humanizing representation in the Gospels was necessary for Christianity in order to become a mass religion.

In modern times, the miracles became less central in Christianity. There's also some anti-miracle tendency in the Gospels, when some Jewish authorities require miraculous signs from Jesus, which are denied. That is because they lack faith, which is seen as a prerequisite for miracles.

van den Bergh van Eysinga then discusses the relation between ancient magical idealism and modern idealistic philosophy.

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