Passion as a Roman Ritual Sacrifice
March 14, 2004 3:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm as sick of stories about Gibson's gorefest as anyone... however this article offered a fascinating perspective on the Passion's narrative structure.
posted by pandaharma at 3:48 PM on March 14, 2004

Well that's a pretty neat read... But what does it mean?
posted by crazy finger at 4:13 PM on March 14, 2004

The thesis:

It's my contention that as a piece of Greek literature, written for a Greek audience, the Gospel writers would most certainly have drawn upon existing Pagan cult practices to add weight and dramatic tension to the narrative of the Passion.

Many of today's Christian practices have pagan tie ins. The timing of Christmas and Easter celebrations to fit with European pagan holidays, for example, may have been used as a tool of conversion. Pagans could renounce their multi-deity beliefs without giving up their times of celebration. But this happened well after the crucifixion.

If I understand correctly, the article's author is saying that dramatic elements portrayed in the Gospels may have been arranged to appeal to the pagan practices dominant at the time the stories were written. By appealing to popular sensibilities, the Gospels would have elicited a profound reaction. The next step in this logical chain: the Gospels could have been written like they were in part to become a more powerful tool of conversion.

It's an interesting argument. Anyone with a religious studies background know if this is an accepted theory? Debunked? Not even considered?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:22 PM on March 14, 2004

If you're interested in this kind of thing, there is similar discussion in this ancient MeFi Post.
posted by willnot at 4:45 PM on March 14, 2004

No degree, but I've read up on the topic. C. S. Lewis addressed the issue in an essay whose title completely escapes me at this moment. The gist of it was that it shouldn't be unsettling at all to any Christian that the foundations of their beliefs have parallels or origins in older cultural traditions. Crosses, prayer rituals, creation accounts, sacred texts, messianic figures, and cycles of death and resurrection are nothing new, but Christianity's one different factor is the element of grace.


Oh wait, it wasn't an essay, it was a story about C. S. Lewis told by Philip Yancey. Just google for the phrase "Oh, that's easy. It's grace."

Much agreed with crouton above. I don't stand with the average fundie that the Gospels were each written to be primarily factual-historical accounts; each was a retelling of the same stories for a different audience, and they felt free to rearrange or emphasize events to make a certain point to a certain group of people, e.g. Jews, Gentiles, believers in Ephesus, a slaveowner, etc.
posted by brownpau at 4:50 PM on March 14, 2004

Why do I get the feeling that if this guy had gotten swept up in a different religious tradition, he'd have written an excited essay about how the crucifixion was exactly like a vodoun ritual? "My hair stood on end as I realized Jesus was simply a Jewish loa!"

I am assuming that Greek ritual sacrifice was not terribly different from Roman sacrifice, excepting the garments one wore, and the lack of head covering in Greek ritual.

Uh huh. I am assuming this MeTa post is not terribly different from any other MeTa post, except for the links and the discussion.
posted by languagehat at 4:56 PM on March 14, 2004

languagehat, this is at least the first interesting Front Page Passion Post (FPPPTM) that's interesting and not based on incredulity at antisemitism|stupidity| gore|what have you of the film or its makers.

Nor do I think it's always bad thing to walk into someone elses religious experience and find ties to your own (or another) way of interpreting the world. At the very least it keeps other people from seeming like complete aliens, and therefore treating them that way -- a sin that's quite common here on MeFi (though you are usually not a perpetrator!).
posted by weston at 5:13 PM on March 14, 2004

Oh, I agree, I agree. I just wanted to inject a little dollop of skepticism. I'll go worship Mithra now.
posted by languagehat at 5:30 PM on March 14, 2004

His first two assumptions are hard for me to swallow.

Koine was a common language throughout the eastern half of the empire at that time. It's in no way clear that an account in koine is for a specifically Greek audience.

His second assumption invalidates the rest of his argument. "I am assuming that Greek ritual sacrifice was not terribly different from Roman sacrifice." That's a bit rash, isn't it? How does he know?

This is interesting as a neo-pagan's account of his reaction to the passion, but it's not at all persuasive.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:47 PM on March 14, 2004

It's my contention that as a piece of Greek literature, written for a Greek audience, the Gospel writers would most certainly have drawn upon existing Pagan cult practices to add weight and dramatic tension to the narrative of the Passion.

As an addendum...a friend of mine makes the good point that at the time the Gospels were written, the Jews had been staging an unsuccessful series of uprisings against Roman rule. As a group that was probably already ostracized by the traditional Jews, the early Christians had a lot of incentive to write the Gospels in such a way that the Romans looked fairly blameless and the Jews looked responsible for Jesus' execution -- to distance themselves from the Jews, who weren't doing so well, and curry favor with the Romans. I thought that shed an interesting light on the anti-Semitism question. Make of it what you will.
posted by uosuaq at 6:00 PM on March 14, 2004

I just wanted to inject a little dollop of skepticism. I'll go worship Mithra now.

posted by weston at 6:24 PM on March 14, 2004

Metafilter: interesting ... but not at all persuasive.
posted by namespan at 6:25 PM on March 14, 2004

His first two assumptions are hard for me to swallow.

Yes, an invisible all knowing being who has existed for all time, and watches everything we this easier to swallow? Come on, you don't actually believe in any of this? What's next, Jesus riding into town on a Unicorn?
posted by CrazyJub at 7:05 PM on March 14, 2004

Of course the gospels were heavily influenced by other religions. Is it supposed to be coincidental that the idea of a (zoroastrian) struggle of good versus evil for the fate of the world entered into the bible only after Persia and the exiles of the southern kingdom met each other?
posted by Hildago at 8:25 PM on March 14, 2004

It's an interesting's been interesting every time I read it. This particular page was more personal than educational.

It's certainly not a new theory, as people have been equating various stations of the cross with it's pagan underpinnings for as long as there have been Christians and philosophers.

Christianity's greatest power for over a thousand years, was it's ability to mimic, absorb and obliterate any religion/ritual that stood between it and new members.

We're coming up on one of the biggest ones. Easter has got to be one of the biggest thefts of ritual from women of all time. Taking a female spring ritual that celebrates the renewal of life and giving it over to a dead...but risen...male god was a stroke of memetic genius. Evil, mind you...but brilliant.
posted by dejah420 at 8:47 PM on March 14, 2004

CrazyJub, existence of God is a theological question, but the details of religious rites or who spoke koine are historical matters. You did read the linked article, didn't you?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:08 PM on March 14, 2004

you know all this shit existed 5 years ago too?
posted by Satapher at 9:46 PM on March 14, 2004

perhaps just a little too humorous that everyone's now an expert.
posted by Satapher at 9:48 PM on March 14, 2004

Quadruple post. I'd post in metatalk but there seems to be a double standard for Jesus-related posts.
posted by skallas at 9:57 PM on March 14, 2004

Quadruple post? This article wasn't available until yesterday evening.
posted by pandaharma at 10:50 PM on March 14, 2004

I wish I could find my copy of the article... or the paper I wrote... or anything to substantiate what I'm about to mention since I'm short on memory at the moment... but during a course on the ancient novel, I read an article comparing the Acts of the Apostles to the romances of the time. Many striking similarities in structure and elements.
posted by ferociouskitty at 3:32 AM on March 15, 2004

Go Dejah, Estrea sends her regards. ;)
posted by dabitch at 5:59 AM on March 15, 2004

Dude, you cannot compare Greek sacrifical rites and Roman sacrifical rites! Get your nose out of Mythology For Beginners and actually read about Greek religion and Roman religion! Two totally different things! It's like comparing the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages with that storefront evangelical church on the corner -- sure, they both mention the same things, but they're totally different!

However, his entire argument doesn't have to include his random "oh, the Romans were like the Greeks". The Romans were the ones who crucified Jesus, therefore it could be seen as a Roman sacrifice. So he could've removed a lot of the badly inserted Greek religious connections and references, and had an actual decent essay.

Despite ignoring Jewish sacrifical tradition. That would've made for a better read -- comparing Roman sacrifical rites, Jewish sacrifical rites, and the crucifixation of Jesus. In fact, people have already done that. And I'm certain there are more, but I don't know where my "Sacrifice And Religion" books are currently hiding -- if I did, I would've definitely dug out Throughout Your Generations Forever, because I know Nancy Jay has an entire section on Jesus.

Also, instead of just a single website for your information source (although, I must admit, it's a damn cool website), maybe you should, y'know, read some actual books on the subject?
posted by Katemonkey at 6:42 AM on March 15, 2004

I remember reading a rabbi's book on Judaism where he's comparing and contrasting it with other religions and finds a great many comment elements and themes both obvious and subtle. One aphorism of his stuck with me: "There are many mountain peaks and they all point to the stars."
posted by alumshubby at 6:59 AM on March 15, 2004

You know you can listen to infrasound and induce respiratory alkalosis without joining these clubs right?
posted by snarfodox at 8:49 AM on March 15, 2004

"The story of the Passion is the story of a human sacrifice, done unknowingly, and yet according to Roman ritual sacrifice structure." .
He is some what correct if you recall that the Jews sacrificed clean lambs on an altars in remembrance that one day Christ would come and die on the cross.
posted by thomcatspike at 11:00 AM on March 15, 2004

There's a parallel thread going on at MonkeyFilter, with interesting contributions from the knowledgeable Skrik (" the sacrificer supposed to pray (precatio)? If so, why did Jesus pray, whereas it was the Romans who crucified him?... Who in any Christian context has ever understood the death of Jesus as anything other than sacrificial? The author is revealing a secret that has been hidden from absolutely nobody.") and Nostrildamus ("The crucified/reborn deity itself is an ancient concept which goes back centuries before the era of Yeshua ha-Nostri. I think he was only about the 10th or 11th crucified deity... Anybody who claims to be a 'true pagan' is full of it, anyway. Modern paganism does not derive from an unbroken line of wisdom-traditions going back into prehistory...").
posted by languagehat at 11:48 AM on March 15, 2004

Quadruple post.

Links? Where has it been posted three times before?

I'd post in metatalk but there seems to be a double standard for Jesus-related posts.

um... or politics-related posts; get over it.
posted by Stauf at 2:27 PM on March 15, 2004

THE Mr. Smith Goes to THE Washington.

posted by seanyboy at 3:58 PM on March 15, 2004

< the story of the passion . quadruple post./em>
skallas may be referring to the "words".

posted by thomcatspike at 11:26 AM on March 16, 2004

I'd post in metatalk but there seems to be a double standard
You assume that there are any standards left.
posted by darukaru at 10:54 AM on March 17, 2004

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