Against the “Dying and Rising Gods” Theorem

There is a new post at Behold A Phoenix that made my day for several reasons. First, I learned something important, namely, that an idea I had grown up with and had assumed was fact was just plain wrong. The “Dying and Rising Gods” chestnut championed by Frazer in The Golden Bough (and by secularists contra Christianity ever since, not to mention Harry Haters in denial about Deathly Hallows) has been demonstrated to be another 19th century fashioning of the “scientific evidence” to strike out at the beliefs of the faithful (here the singularity of Christ’s Resurrection). While the irony of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named citing the same theory as Time magazine’s Lev Grossman to “prove” the books aren’t Christian is striking (and humorous), finding out that both are repeating ideas from “the history of scholarship” rather than facts from “the history of religions” is a real head-slapper.

I had the extra pleasure in reading the Behold a Phoenix post on this topic in knowing Jonathan Z. Smith, the University of Chicago Divinity School professor and Frazer authority cited as the myth debunker. Mr. Smith (all UC professors were addressed as “Mr” or “Ms” unless medical doctors) was “Dean Smith” for three of my four years in the College and helped me through the first chapters of Thomas’ Summa Theoligica and Pico’s Heptaplus in tutorial. As it was Jonathan Z. Smith who urged me to read Eliade way back when and it is Eliade’s thesis about the religious function of entertainment in a secular culture that is the heart of Looking for God in Harry Potter, I guess this is my moment to reflect on the ends of a circle meeting.

My apologies for this name-dropping, autobiographical moment. Thank you Behold A Phoenix for correcting still another one of my erroneous historical preconceptions! Next thing you know, we’ll learn that Saturnalia was scheduled in late December by the Romans to subvert Christian celebration of the Nativity rather than the reverse…


  1. Thank you for posting this. I’ve learned something worth knowing today.

  2. Theologian N.T. Wright has a good deal to say about the fact that the resurrection of Jesus Christ described by his followers in the NT (whether one believes it to be factual or not) was dissimilar to any preceding resurrection account. He discusses this several places but his imposing “The Resurrection of the Son of God” is where he treats it most fully, I think.

  3. Thanks for the link to the Behold the Phoenix article. Just as some Christians were determained to believe that Rowling was trying to convert children to WICA, even though she said she was a Christian, athiest now have to “explain away” the obvious Christian Symbolism in the seventh book in order to defend their own World View. Belief comes both from looking at the evidence as well as a choice from the heart.

  4. I’m not sure the essay thoroughly debunks the MIthras connection. It does suggest some reasons to cast doubt upon it, but I’m not sure why this is relevant to the Christian faith, in that the dating of Christ’s birth has very little importance to the truth or falsehood of Christianity. We have ample evidence of syncratic practices from later periods, so it isn’t inconceivable that some elements crossed into core Christian practices in one form or another, e.g., northern European Yule celebrations. But how important is Christmas to you, anyway John, as opposed to Easter and its associated holidays?

  5. dnexon, similarity does not necessitate borrowing. Human response to the greater creation is limited by human limitations and therefore results in similarities where no direct linkage is present. CS Lewis discusses this phenomenon in “TRANSPOSITION” in the sermon/essay collection title “THE WEIGHT OF GLORY”. It is not surprising therefore that one can relate various features of practice in religious enterprises. The question is of origin in context and how that argues for or mitigates against a hypothesis of connection.

    In this regard, the hypothetical relation posed by Frazer has been debunked by his peers, even if the common notion of it is still current in the general population. Analogous to the multitude of psychoanalytic schools and Freud. Just because Freud came first (in some historical sense) in Western cultural contexts does not mean that all psychoanalytic schools derive from Freud. However, the similarity in all human psychological process considered normal and abnoram would result in many realtions between the various schools even separated widely in time and geography.

  6. Pascha, Annunciation, Pentecost, and, some say, Theophany “out rank” (sic) Nativity in the Feast Days of the Church but certainly, because Christianity is based on historical events (most notably, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ) rather than a legendary or “mythic” revelation, having the correct date for Nativity is no small thing. The Enlightenment (sic) supposition that the 25 December/7 January date was chosen for cultural reasons rather than from imperial tax records – why the Eastern Patriarchs accepted the Patriarch of the West’s data — I suspect (without compelling evidence) was more secularist agenda than revelation of better information.

    Smith’s reading of Frazer’s Golden Bough and rejection of the “Dying and Rising Gods” thesis reminded me of this. I am sorry if posting the link to the “Dating Christmas” article from the Touchstone magazine archives distracted readers from the “Behold a Phoenix” post.

  7. The whole Abanes argument regarding pre-Christian myths (and I guess post-Christian ones too?) rang rather hollow to me. I remember the recitation of a friend of mine, an intelligent Jewish-agnostic who, in her studies of literature, has learned Christian symbolism. “Ten is the perfect number,” she explained, “because it’s three trinities plus a unity.” I imagine that she is correct. But does any such recitation offer anything satisfying? Does it give any sense of the wonder of the Trinity? No.

    In no way am I knocking the logic of it, but without faith, all such things are rather empty. People can look at history and decide that All Saints Day was stolen by St. Patrick from a Druidic feast, or look at it merely as good marketing skills. We can find the demanded science or history for any feast or belief or celebration if we want. And we can draw connections where we want as well, such as saying a Christmas Tree was also stolen from European pagans. But does any of that change that the tree at Christmas reminds us that our precious Christ Child would to be nailed to a tree for us?

    Abanes can see connections where he wants– I just wish he weren’t so convinced of his own logic, as it seems rather flawed, particularly since Christianity has the resurrection story that’s lasted the longest, and I haven’t met any worshippers of Osiris lately.

    for my own part, I prefer a more faith-inspired view of it.. one of my favorite quotes is from GK Chesterton: “Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate.”


  8. John, not to hijack this discussion, but do you mean the Dormition rather than Annunciation? That had been my understanding of the “Big Four” among the Great Feasts. (Of course, even those twelve are not fixed, as I’ve seen icons displayed with a slightly different list of Great Feasts.)

    I believe the number of those who hold 25 December as the date of the Nativity According to the Flesh as a “small T tradition” is not small, but I haven’t seen anyone who holds it at or near the dogmatic level. The *reality*, and the *full humanity* of the birth are dogmatic elements, of course.

    There are some Orthodox circles (a small minority, as far as I know) who will hold that the birth itself was miraculous to the point that Christ did not pass through the birth canal , but somehow simply passed through the abdominal walls. That issue would seem to be more problematic for genuine theological reasons.

    But the date itself is, as far as I know, a matter of pious tradition (rather than Tradition).

  9. Ranking the Great Feasts is a matter for saints and no-nothings. I am not one of the former and I try to conceal my membership in good standing among the latter. Forgive me for bringing this up! Dormition is my wife’s nameday, my son Zossima’s birthday (hence his Panagiotes “middle name”), and the Feast day of our home parish here on the East Coast and favorite church back in Washington State. I certainly didn’t mean to neglect or diminish the importance of this Feastday!

    I scratch my head, nonetheless, no-nothing incognito that I remain, at your ranking Dormition with the Annunciation. The Dormition is one of the four Feast Days that involve a longer fast, but like the Feast of Sts. Perter and Paul, it is not a Feast of the Lord per se.

    Ah, but there I’ve done the ranking thing again and shown my no-thing ID card…. I yield in my ignorance of these things and apologize again for bringing it up! I loved Nzie’s quotation from Chesterton which I post here again:

    “Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate.”

  10. Well, JG, I hope the things I have read over the about the “biggest” of the Great Feasts came from saints rather than no-nothings. With any luck (and humility) I know enough not to try it myself! All I can say for sure is that I’m in the altar for all of them.

  11. I have right in front of me C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms, Chapter X – Second Meanings. I’d like to quote a small section from this book:

    “And what are we to say of those gods in various Pagan mythologies who are killed and rise again and who thereby renew or transform the life of their worshippers or of nature? The odd thing is that here those anthropologists who are most hostile to our faith would agree with many Christians in saying “The resemblance is not accidental”. Of course the two parties would say this for different reasons. The anthropologists would mean: “All these superstitions have a common source in the mind and experience, especially the agricultural experience, of early man. Your myth of Christ is like the myth of Balder because it has the same origin. The likeness is a family likeness.” The Christians would fall into two schools of thought. The early Fathers (or some of them), who believed that Paganism was nothing but the direct work of the Devil, would say: “The Devil has from the beginning tried to mislead humanity with lies. As all accomplished liars do, he makes his lies as like the truth as he can; provided they lead man astray on the main issue, the more closely they imitate truth the more effective they will be. That is why we call him God’s Ape; he is always imitating God. The resemblance of Adonis to Christ is therefore not at all accidental, it is the resemblance we expect to find between a counterfeit and and the real thing, between a parody and the original, between imitation pearls and pearls. Other Christians who think, as I do, that in mythology divine and diabolical and human elements (the desire for a good story), all play a part, would say: “It is not accidental. In the sequence of night and day, in the annual death and rebirth of the crops, in the myths which these processes give rise to, in the strong, if half-articulate, feeling (embodied in many Pagan ‘Mysteries’) that man himself must undergo some sort of death if he would truly live, there is already a likeness permitted by God to that truth on which all depends. The resemblance between these myths and the Christian truth is no more accidental that the resemblance between the sun and the sun’s reflection in a pond, or that between a historical fact and the somewhat garbled version of it which lives in popular report, or between the trees and hills of the real world and the trees and hills in our dreams.” Thus all three views alike would regard the “Pagan Christ” and the true Christ as things really related and would find the resemblance significant.

    In other words, when we examine things said which take on, in the light of later knowledge, a meaning they could not have had for those who said them, they turn out to be of different sorts. To be sure, of whatever sort they may be, we can often profitably read them with that second meaning in mind. If I think (as I cannot help thinking) about the birth of Christ while I read that poem of Virgil’s, or even if I make it a regular part of my Christmas reading, this may be quite a sensible and edifying thing to do. But the resemblance which makes such a reading possible may after all be a more coincidence (though I am not sure that it is). I may be reading into Virgil what is wholly irrelevant to all he was and did and intended. But when I meditate on the Passion while reading Plato’s picture of the Righteous One, or on the Resurrection while reading about Adonis or Balder, the case is altered. There is a real connection between what Plato and the myth-makers most deeply were and meant and what I believe to be the truth. I know that connection and they do not. But it is really there. It is not an arbitrary fancy of my own thrust upon the old words. One can, without any absurdity, imagine Plato or the myth-makers if they learned the truth, saying, “I see…so that was what I was really talking about. Of course. That is what my words really meant, and I never knew it.” …….For we pray and with good hope that they now know and have long since welcomed the truth; “many shall come from the east and the west and sit down in the kingdom.”

    Thus, long before we come to the Psalms or the Bible, there are good reasons for not throwing away all second meansings as rubbish. Keble said of the Pagan poets, “Thoughts beyond their thoughts to those high bards were given.”

  12. Chrystyan—
    What Lewis was trying to say was that certain ideas of the Pagans were precursors of Christianity–preparation, if you will, for God’s greatest Gift to humanity. Talking about “throwing away all second meanings as rubbish” misses the point. There isn’t really a lot of folkloric basis for believing in the pagan vision of the Dying and Rising God. There are hints, and only hints–no more. The great Truth was yet to come. That’s what Lewis was saying, and it may indeed be what God was trying to tell us.

  13. What makes Christ’s Resurrection so wonderfully unique is that it actually happened.

  14. There is a fine and fuller discussion of the dying-god dodge in a good resource called Reinventing Jesus, which I reviewed here.

  15. For cigar95, John, and everyoe, many greetings.

    I was surprised to learn that a “minority of Orthodox believers” holds that the Mother of God did not undergo childbirth as the rest of us mortals do–i.e., via the birth canal plus the expulsion of blood and the placenta. Indeed, the Mother of God is Ever-Virgin, as defined by the Fifth Oecumenical Council (Constantinople II, 553 AD). Furthermore, Canon 79 of the 6th Oecumenical Council (Constantinople III. 681 AD) declares that one should not boil fine flour on the second day of the Nativity, under the pretext of honoring the Virgin’s childbed. For the Virgin’s childbirth was “ineffable,” and since she conceived God without seed, gave birth in a manner not understandable to us.

    It’s interesting that our Christian ancestors had a custom of making a sort of pudding in honor of childbed–labor pains, blood, and the placenta–a when their friends and family gave birth, a custom which would never have made it into the Victorian parlor. Unfortunately, some people had the usage of carrying it a bit too far, which the Church condemns as error.

    Well, the point of this long-winded discussion is that our ancestors were a rather earthy and practical lot, not inclined to believe anything “off the wall.” But when they saw a miracle, they accepted it as true. And really, for One who rose from the dead, this is all “kids’ stuff.’

    So, many greetings for the forthcoming Dormition, and may the Virgin who fell asleep and was translated unto Life, being the Mother of Life, protect us all.

    Certainly the “Golden Bough” and similar works don’t “get it,” but God can use anything to convert those of good will. (I’ll study the article in detail.) As I recall, C.S. Lewis described the “dying god” stories, and others, as “good dreams.” So our human race, being made in the image of God, preserves some spiritual knowlege, despite our many faults.

    And perhaps we should leave the Harry-haters and nay-sayers to their own devices. Take Pullman, for instance. The ultimate joke is really on him: he denies the existence of God, but his efforts at establishing a remotely viable sub-creation have at their root God, the author and artificer of all that is good, of all Creation.

    This is our secret. Let us rejoice in it.

  16. Thomas Talley, in the foundational scholarly work, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (2nd Edition, The Liturgical Press, 1991), explains that the reason why the Nativity of Christ came to be celebrated on Dec 25/Jan 6 has to do with something other than the desires of any pagan emperor (and that the foundations of Emperor Aurelian’s public festival ARE based on a desire to compete with Christian celebrations rather than the other way around). It is based on the date of the conception of Christ, which was held to have taken place on March 25/April 6 (the difference is based on the new/old calendars). When you add nine months, you get Dec 25/Jan 6. The Anunciation (conception) date set the Nativity date.

    Why was the conception date set on March 25/April 6? Because this was the date for the Passion/death of Christ. Historically, the date of Jesus’ death was understood to have taken place on that date. It was a widely held idea in the ancient world that great people die on the same day they were born. One might today find this idea rather odd, but historically this idea was widely accepted. Since Christ died on March 25/April 6, He was therefore born on March 25/April 6, and therefore conceived 9 months before.

    The Festival of the Unconquered Sun had nothing to do with it. 🙂

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