Saturday, 27 August 2016

A review of Jonathan Z. Smith's book "Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Jordan lectures...31 Dec 1990"

(I originally posted this review on Amazon.)


Jonathan Z. Smith's study on how the antique 'mystery' religions got mistaken in the modern era for antecedents of Pauline Christianity is nine tenths a masterpiece, and one tenth somewhere towards the other end of the spectrum, which I will come to last.

Entitled to reflect the task of painstakingly sifting through evidence, the book delivers in spades. My shamefully broad brush of a summary is as follows: we have virtually no evidence of the content of the ancient mystery religions apart from what was written by Christians in the 2nd, 3rd & 4th centuries. What they found in mystery religions in their day struck the church fathers as having similarities to what they had been doing in their Christian rituals since the first century. Were the mystery religions copying them? There is no real evidence to say. Where they just breathing the same cultural air? We cannot tell. A classic Christian apologetic was irresistible to the church fathers - that is, to write their reports of the mystery religions that made them sound more like Christianity than the mystery religions really were. Although Smith hardly draws this point out, the church fathers were rather fond of making it look like ancient beliefs were unsuspecting signposts to the ultimate truth found in Christ and the church. Not content to leave us a Christianized version of the mystery religions (making it more difficult for us to say what their real content actually was), the likes of Jerome even added details to them to make them appear more Christian still.

In an extraordinary twist of the Reformation, Protestant ideologues turned this on its head. To make a stick to beat Roman Catholicism with, they co-opted the church fathers' words to make it appear that the mystery religions were actually the genealogical antecedent of the be-robed priestly rituals of the accursed Catholics. The Protestants constructed a new ideal: that primitive Christianity was free of religious ritual JUST LIKE PROTESTANTS ARE, whereas the accursed church fathers had developed their benighted rituals polluted by the mystery religions, and poisoned the roots of European Christianity. With a sleight of hand, the mystery religions skipped from the earlier fakery of being Christianized by the church fathers into the new illusion of being the dark heart of Roman Catholic hocus pocus.

But in another turn of events, the Protestants' work was then seized on by anti-Trinitarians who found it a useful tool for beating all mainstream Christianity with, claiming the Christian conception of God was derived from paganism. The history of religions school then built an entire corpus on just the sort of dubious academic principles the Protestants had engineered: that is, artificial taxonomy, based on uncritical categorisations of things that appear to have similarities while ignoring their key differences. Enter Frazer's 'The Golden Bough' and much else. And this is a version of the 'truth' the internet is awash with. In fact, the root of all this nonsense is Protestant anti-Catholic rhetoric which was a misuse of the evidence to begin with.

Academic method is very much Smith's point. He shows how shoddy scholarship on this subject - virtually all either anti-Christian polemic and pro-Christian apologetics - has been a non-starter for real academic progress in this subject for generations. From Frazer's Golden Bough to the correspondence of American presidents, it is a history of scholars missing the point, the day being carried by presumptions due to not unpicking the wilful errors of prior generations of scholars. This book is a demonstration of how rigorous academic method can now bring a house of cards crashing down. The history of religions school didn't just get many things very wrong, but were part of a whole chain of cause and effect, with poor taxonomy, misuse of language, and weak method at best.

Nine tenths a masterpiece. The one tenth, my disappointment, is what Smith offers in place of the house of cards he has destroyed. He supposes that such correspondences that might exist between mystery religions and early Christianity - if they cannot be explained by one leading to the other - might be explained another way. Good so far. But he then throws his lot in uncritically with Burton Mack's speculation that Jesus was a wandering Cynic preaching marginality, only for his message to be distorted into something more Jewish afterwards. We are in the territory of supposed redactions never found of Q which itself has never been found either. Smith acts as cheerleader, forsaking his role as the sifter of evidence. As N.T. Wright points out about this thesis: 'Mack may be equally in danger of setting up a new, merely different, myth of Christian beginnings, in which his own heroes, a Cynic-style Jesus and his Cynic-style early followers, take centre stage instead.' (NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pg 453.) Smith says Mack's version of non-Pauline Christianity is a bit like the mystery religions were before they became more ritually orientated (he is putting too much weight on uncertain ground here). On the way to setting the scene, Smith makes claims as familiar as Mark not having a resurrection narrative (ignoring the one in Mark 9:31, 16:6-7) to posit a Christianity that was originally free of a dying and rising God but supposedly acquired this element at the same time as the mystery religions did, supposedly around the 2nd century. That's the one tenth disappointment anyway.

Don't be put off by that. Drudgery Divine a fine, fine book. Worth it just to see how Gilgamesh and Ishtar are put to use as an example of how very ancient religions of the near east did NOT believe in dying and rising gods. Their religion was very much about keeping their dead in their place, dead and underground, not out of their graves to terrorise the lives of the living.

Gerald Downing's review in JTS observed a few further flaws, and that Smith is not the first to press with this sort of analysis, also noting Smith's approach to Mack's polemic in which Smith's critical faculties are unwarrantedly switched off. (JTS, 1991, no.42, pg 705.)

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