My Easter Epiphany

In the summer of 2002, having completed my master’s thesis in early Christian and early Jewish apocalyptic literature at Princeton, I had relocated to New Haven, Connecticut. I was thrilled! I had been admitted to Yale for advanced graduate language study in preparation for my coming doctoral research. Then a devout Christian, little did I suspect during my summer German reading course that the basis for my religious faith would soon altogether vanish before my eyes. That autumn, along with studies in Syriac, Aramaic, classical Greek, and Hebrew, I began my coursework in classical (Roman) Latin texts. As a matter of strategy, I set to work at further broadening and secularizing my education beyond the traditional confines of Biblical and Christian Studies. 
You see, prior to Princeton, I had graduated with a Master of Divinity with high honors from Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, the seminary that employed the famous evangelical apologist Dr. William Lane Craig. At Biola, not only were we not to dance, to smoke, to drink, or to watch ‘R-rated’ movies, we also had an unbearably limiting on-campus library, a heavily curated reading collection that promoted the good and holy path of our evangelical Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Despite this naive and parochial beginning to my academic journey, my honest, near-insatiable appetite for truth rapidly outgrew the faith-restrictive sandbox of biblicist evangelicalism. I was now at Yale, studying under some of the top humanist academicians, taking courses that were no longer under the thumb of theologians, contractually signed “confessions,” or religiously motivated institutions. In my Latin reading course in the Classics Department, we were reading Livy’s Latin Ab Urbe Condita Libri, Book 1, Livy’s recounting of the etiological legends of the earliest founding kings of Rome, a canonical history composed in the latter half of the first century B.C.E. I recall the very day, I had been translating Livy on my own, seated in the garden outside of the Sterling Memorial Library, the second largest academic library in North America. Little did I know that by the end of my reading, I would find myself at once crying tears of loss, fear, joy, and unprecedented mental exhilaration. Allow me to share with you now what I had read, in English translation, and the concomitant profound epiphany that for me irreversibly transformed the meaning of Easter and the postmortem tales of Jesus given in the bible. In Book 1, 15-16, the great Roman historian passes along what he had previously confessed to be legendary accounts of Romulus, founding king of Rome (...poeticis magis decora fabulis…; preface 6-7), arguably the foremost iconic figure in Roman classical antiquity; Romulus was, within 2-3 centuries, to be eclipsed by the Jesus of Christianity. Completing his life-story of the deeds of Romulus, Livy finally writes:

 

Such were the principal achievements of the reign of Romulus, at home and in the field, nor is any of them incompatible with the belief in his divine origin and the divinity which was ascribed to the king after his death, whether one considers his spirit in recovering the kingdom of his ancestors, or his wisdom in founding the City and in strengthening it by warlike and peaceful measures. For it was to him, assuredly, that Rome owed the vigor which enabled her to enjoy an untroubled peace for the next forty years. Nevertheless, he was more liked by the commons than by the senate, and was preeminently dear to the hearts of his soldiers. Of these he had three hundred for a bodyguard, to whom he gave the name of Celeres, and kept them by him, not only in war, but also in time of peace

When these immortal deeds had been done, as the king was holding a muster in the Campus Martius, near the swamp of Capra, for the purpose of reviewing the army, suddenly a storm came up, with loud claps of thunder, and enveloped him in a cloud so thick as to hide him from the sight of the assembly; and from that moment Romulus was no more on earth. The Roman soldiers at length recovered from their panic, when this hour of wild confusion had been succeeded by a sunny calm; but when they saw that the royal seat was empty, although they readily believed the assertion of the senators, who had been standing next to Romulus, that he had been caught up on high in the blast, they nevertheless remained for some time sorrowful and silent, as if filled with the fear of orphanhood. Then, when a few men had taken the initiative, they all with one accord hailed Romulus as a god and a god's son, the King and Father of the Roman City, and with prayers besought his favor that he would graciously be pleased forever to protect his children. There were some, I believe, even then who secretly asserted that the king had been rent in pieces by the hands of the senators, for this rumor, too, got abroad, but in very obscure terms; the other version obtained currency, owing to men's admiration for the hero and the intensity of their panic. And the shrewd device of one man is also said to have gained new credit for the story. This was Proculus Julius, who, when the people were distracted with the loss of their king and in no friendly mood towards the senate, being, as tradition tells, weighty in council, were the matter never so important, addressed the assembly as follows: “Quirites, the Father of this City, Romulus, descended suddenly from the sky at dawn this morning and appeared to me. Covered with confusion, I stood reverently before him, praying that it might be vouchsafed me to look upon his face without sin. 'Go,' said he, 'and declare to the Romans the will of Heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world; so let them cherish the art of war, and let them know and teach their children that no human strength can resist Roman arms.' So saying,” he concluded, “Romulus departed on high.” It is wonderful what credence the people placed in that man's tale, and how the grief for the loss of Romulus, which the plebeians and the army felt, was quieted by the assurance of his immortality.

 



For those of you with even a cursory familiarity with the New Testament Gospels, you will have noticed a variety of striking analogues between this tale and the narratives concluding the Gospels, as well as the ascension narrative given in the opening of Acts of the Apostles. Nearly every sentence given here in Livy finds strong mimetic reference within these canonical Christian passages. By the time of the first circulation of the Gospels, these etiological stories given in Livy were quite universally known, affording a place in nearly every early retelling of the origins of Rome (e.g., Ennius, Plutarch, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ovid, et alia). Note the striking tropological analogues between Romulus and Jesus:

  1. Both assigned divinity and demi-god rank via cultural and cultic exaltation
  2. Both recognized as preeminent founding, charter figures.
  3. Both exalted at their respective deaths.
  4. Both lives concluded (and signified) with prodigies (darkness over the land, thunder claps, etc).
  5. Both taken away in a cloud, ascending to heaven.
  6. Both “kings” leave behind confused followers with varied alternative accounts of their master’s fate.
  7. Both assigned accounts of deification with followers granting such tales “belief.”
  8. Both provide post-translation appearance accounts with eyewitnesses testimony.
  9. Both provide a Great Commission wherein the translated figure sends his followers out on a principal mission.

As I would soon discover, namely that which I comprehensively set forth in my recent book Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity, classical literature was replete with such tales of divine translation, missing bodies, physical postmortem visitations and ascensions to heaven. Unlike the mere veneration of remains traditionally observed at tomb-sites in the cult of heroes, divine corporeal translation was reserved for the most iconic figures in antiquity, the classical Mediterranean “Hall of Fame,” as it were. In funerary consecratio, such panegyric (exalting) embellishment had become the standard protocol for canonizing the greatest and most cherished figures of the ancient world. One finds in this the thread-lines of continuity between classical Mediterranean antiquity and Christian Mediterranean antiquity, the surviving tradition of exaltatio memoriae.

Behind the fa├žade and sophistry of biblical studies, I had uncovered a matter of abject deception. Biblical studies, you see, is a field all-but-entirely defined by faith money, confessional anxiety, and theological tradition. The “experts” in this field more often than not operate as custodians of Western mythology, conveniently avoiding and obscuring that which is patently obvious, namely, that the bible was little more than an anthology of ancient myth, legend, and folklore, a garden-variety sample permuting the cultural and literary conventionality of its time. 

In coming articles, I intend to share more of my research into these discoveries with you.  

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Dr. Miller, author of Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge, 2015), is a humanistic critic of contemporary religion and a trans-disciplinary research scholar exploring the cultural and literary nexus between classical antiquity and the social origins of earliest Christianity. His published work focuses on the mythological roots of the New Testament Gospel portraitures of Jesus, the sacralized founding emblem of the Christian religion.

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