A fellow “Voices” columnist tweaked me a few weeks back for differentiating myth from story, when I defined myth as “deep truth.” In popular usage, of course, myth means a fictional story. But for me, myth is true — it’ s a story heightened by the mix of historic truth with eternal truth. Myth resonates truth.
Well, since the Union Street Brick Church is about to present its seventh annual Passion Play, (times and dates at the end of this article), I thought I’ d comment further on why I set myth apart as a very special category of tale. First of all, let me say the power of Jesus’ story makes acting it both a joy and a revelation. This year’ s production is done in modern dress, and it only demonstrates how timeless the story really is.
The story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, betrayal, death and Resurrection is perhaps the most discussed, analyzed, loved and reviled story of all time. The story is told by four writers, known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and some scholars believe there was a pre-Gospel text, known as Q, on which the Gospels are based.
Some have called Christ’ s Passion “the greatest story ever told.” Some have called it the archetypal monomyth, the “hero’ s journey,” and therefore the only hero’ s journey story ever told — that is, it is a type for a story told again and again, by different cultures, in different times and places, with different names and characters — but still it remains consistent with the underlying, universal hero’ s tale.
That is the nature of Jesus’ story — the man sent by God to save the world, who then is murdered by the powers that be, because they fear his challenge to the world’ s established order. And yet his goodness triumphs in the end.
Recently, Bible scholars were titillated by reports of a “Dead Sea Scroll in Stone,” 87 lines inked onto a stone, which describe the coming of a suffering messiah. The text, signed by someone named Gabriel, has been dubbed “Gabriel’ s Vision.”
In its July 6, 2008, edition, The New York Times cited Hebrew University textural scholar Israel Knohl as claiming the text sheds important light on early Jewish and Christian notions of the messiah. Some claim it was created in the century before Jesus’ birth, but since stone cannot be dated, no one really knows how old it is, or even whether it’ s authentic or a forgery.
Now scholars will fret and fume for years over such a find, but for me it makes little difference to what the monomyth of the Passion really means: that Jesus Christ, from the beginning of time, was crucified and died for our sins, and we were saved thereby. Did I say from the beginning of time? What about the historic event that occurred 33 years after Jesus’ birth? And what about earlier, pagan versions of a suffering savior who came to benefit mankind?
Throughout history there are parallel stories of the sacrifice, and the Internet is full of Web sites claiming that Jesus’ story was plagiarized from other traditions, such as Mithras, Osiris and Dionysus.
Yes, there is a recurring theme of death and resurrection throughout pagan literature. An early church father, Justin Martyr, blamed the devil for earlier versions of the Jesus story. He wrote: “For when they say that Dionysus arose again and ascended into heaven, is it not evident the devil has imitated the prophesy?”
The church continues that argument today, and I wouldn’ t say that Justin Martyr is entirely wrong. I would say instead that echoes of Jesus’ story resonate throughout time because time itself is a phony dimension when it comes to spiritual matters. Jesus is the lamb slain from the beginning of the world (Revelation 13:8). If the event did not happen in history until 33 A.D., or thereabouts, that is only one part of the story: It does not stop reverberations of the monomyth from breaking into human consciousness, on a regular basis, throughout time.
But Justin Martyr’ s theory is not entirely out of the picture. A slave named Manes, the founder of Manicheanism (which taught the notion that good and evil were equal forces struggling for control of things) adopted the Roman’ s version of Mithra, offspring of the sun, as the Gnostic version of Christ’ s story. Parallels in the two stories abound: born of a virgin on Dec. 25, Mithra also was called “the good shepherd,” “the way” and “messiah,” and Mithraism espouses baptism and resurrection.
Up until recently, many thought Mithraism arrived in Rome in the centuries preceding Jesus as an ancient religion from Persia. Thus, the claim was made that Christians merely imitated Mithraism. It now turns out the Roman version of the mystery cult evolved parallel to Christianity, and they borrowed details from one another (for example, Jesus was not actually born on Dec. 25, the sun’ s son’ s birthday).
These parallels not only emphasize the power of the mono-myth, but show the contending forces of Gnosticism and Christianity use the same myths against one another, throughout time, to gain the advantage.
I hope you’ ll have the chance to come see The Passion Play at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Aug. 8, 9, 15 and 16, and at 3:30 p.m. Sundays, Aug. 10 and 17, at the Union Street Brick Church, downtown Bangor. Admission is free. For information, call 945-9798.
is a chaplain at Eastern Maine Medical Center and pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.