Carrier on Osiris from OHJ


Element 14: Mystery cults spoke of their beliefs in public through myths and allegory, which symbolized a more secret doctrine that was usually rooted in a more esoteric astral or metaphysical theology. Therefore, as itself a mystery religion with secret doctrines, Christianity would have done the same.

The most explicit discussion of this fact can be found in Plutarch's book on the myths and teachings of the mystery cult of Isis and Osiris, which he wrote and dedicated to a priestess of that cult, Clea. [121] 

Plutarch says the highest aim of any religion is to learn the truth behind its stories and rituals, the truth about the gods. And part of that consisted in realizing that the stories and narratives of the gods were only allegories for higher truths:

Clea. whenever you hear the mythical stories told by the Egyptians about their gods—of their wanderings, dismemberments, and many experiences like these—you must remember what I said earlier and not think that any of these things is being said to have actually happened like that or to have actually come to pass.[122]

He then goes on to summarize what is essentially the 'gospel' of Isis and Osiris, a typical mythic narrative of events transpiring on earth leading to Osiris's death and resurrection.[123] He then closes by repeating the point that Clea knows better than to really believe these stories, that 'in fact, you yourself detest' those who take them literally, and that she (like all true believers) sees them as 'but window dressing' that points us to something else more profound.[124]

Plutarch then goes on to survey what this underlying truth might actually be. He first brings up the theory of Euhemerus that all such tales are the mythification of past kings into current gods, but then he rejects this as impious and absurd.[125] Instead, 'better', he says, is the theory that these earthly tales are of the 'sufferings' (pathemata) not of gods or men, but of'great divinities' (daimonon megalon, 'great demons" in Christian vernacular), divine beings with incarnate bodies capable of suffering and corruption. This, he says, was just as in other mystery cults (he alludes definitely to those of Dionysus and Demeter, meaning the Bacchic and Ele-usinian mysteries, of which Clea was also a participant), where there are also 'mythical stories" told of the wanderings and sufferings of those gods, but 'all is concealed behind mystic sacraments and initiations, not spoken or shown to the multitude', thereby preserving the truth. Plutarch says the stories of Isis and Osiris 'have the same explanation'.[126] Hence it's important to note that Paul also speaks of'the sufferings' {pathemata) of Christ, just as Plutarch says 'the sufferings' of other savior gods were spoken of in other mystery cults.[127] As Plutarch explains, the true story is that Isis and Osiris are celestial gods engaged in a war in outer space between good and evil demons.[128] The tales that relate their adventures on earth are just an allegory for this higher reality, which is actually going on in heaven (see Element 37).

Plutarch also explores another explanation, in which a god's narrative myth is reduced to purely naturalistic and mystical allegories, and thus not about actual beings at all—but he indicates this is not the view he shares.[129] He prefers the demonological theory, and accepts the other more thoroughgoing allegorization as only a supplemental explanation at best, concluding that 'individually these theorists are wrong, but collectively they are right" because all the things they describe are a part of the gods in question, not identical to those gods.[130] He says these demigods control all the things their myths are said to allegorize; in fact, those who think the gods simply are these natural forces and mystical truths he denounces as atheists or idolators.[131] Thus, Plutarch continually returns to and defends the demon-ological theory (in which cosmic good and evil beings, and their struggles and battles, lie behind it all) as being 'the wisest' view (just as Paul calls the secret teachings of Christianity the real wisdom, a wisdom not of this world, in 1 Corinthians 2).[132] Plutarch cannot, of course, come out and tell us what the initiates to the Isiac mysteries are actually told. If he knew he would have been sworn to secrecy, and in any event would not offend Clea by exposing them to the public. But we can read between the lines: he would of course prefer of all explanations the one actually in accord with what the highest ranking initiates like Clea were taught. Thus we can infer it accorded most closely with his demonological theory. And as he says all other mystery religions have 'similar explanations', we can infer this was the common trend among them all.

It was common in fact to see all sacred literature (even revered poetry about the gods) as allegorical, not meant literally, such that one had to 'lift the veil' through interpretation to reveal the true meaning of a text, much as Paul says Christians must approach the OT (2 Cor. 3.12-4.6). Though Paul could imagine actual historical events being arranged to convey the allegory (1 Cor. 10.1-11) it's obvious (as with Plutarch) that this would not always be a necessary understanding, even among Christians. For instance, Paul clearly does not regard the historicity of the tale of Sarah and Hagar to be relevant to his allegorical understanding of it, which he assumes his Christian congregations will readily accept (Gal. 4.22-31: see Chapter 11, §9). And anyone who welcomed the reading of sacred stories as allegory would welcome the writing of sacred stories as allegory. Obviously, since Paul believed the OT was so written and endorsed as such by God.

The same had already occurred among the pagans. Homer, for example, came to be increasingly read (even from as early as the time of Plato) as allegorically representing deeper cosmic truths through his superficial narratives of the gods, and as such Homer was treated as divinely inspired scripture.[133] The Jews had already caught the same bug and were treating their scriptures the same way before Christianity arrived on the scene. And as Paul attests, Christians adopted the same practice. All simply embraced the same way of reading divine secrets out of sacred texts. The Jewish theologian Philo, for example, a contemporary of Paul, interprets the tale of Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt as an allegory for spurning a teacher's instruction and locking one's gaze instead on what one knew before.[134] Thus such a story did not have to be historical to be 'true'.

Not all myths and interpretations had merit. Philo could simultaneously denounce 'cleverly devised fables' while himself interpreting a biblical text as symbolic allegory and calling that the 'real truth'. It depended, he argues, on whether one saw correctly, being in the right state of mind as one read: "as many as are able to contemplate the facts related' in the stories of the Bible while they are 'in their incorporeal and unclothed state, living rather in the soul than in the body', will see that the true meaning lies in the allegory, not 'what are contained in the plain words of the scriptures'.[135] Philo thus says the tales of Eve and the Serpent 'are not mere fabulous inventions, in which poets and sophists delight, but are rather types shadowing forth some allegorical truth, according to some mystical explanation', and thus the story is symbolic.[136] He regards Abraham's father, Terah, as nonhistori-cal, merely an allegory, in contrast to Socrates, 'who really existed', and he likewise deems Sarah and Hagar as not real people but just allegorical symbols (just as Paul apparently did).[137] Accordingly, Philo composed entire books about how to read the scriptures allegorically, and frequently relies on this procedure for understanding what the scriptures 'really' meant.[138]

If Philo respects reading sacred stories that way, he would have to respect composing them that way. Indeed, as historical events never in fact work out so neatly as an allegory requires, even if someone believed an allegorical story 'had' to also be superficially true (though it is clear Paul and Philo didn't), an allegorical tale would still have to be invented and then passed off as superficially true. And as Plutarch explained for the mystery religions, this same thing would also be done to conceal the true meaning from the public. He describes the result of this as the multitude 'supersti-tiously' believing the stories are true, while initiates like Clea and himself knew better. For instance:

There is a doctrine which modern priests hint at to satisfy their conscience, but only in veiled terms and with caution: namely that the god Osiris rules and reigns over the dead, being none other than he whom the Greeks call Hades or Pluto. The truth of this statement is misunderstood and confuses the masses, who suppose that the sacred and the holy one. who is in truth Osiris, lives in the earth and under the earth, where are concealed the bodies of those who appear to have reached their end. He is actually very far removed from the earth [i.e., in outer space], being undefiled, unspotted, and uncorrupted by any being which is subject to decay and death.[139]

In fact, Plutarch believes, the souls of the dead ascend into outer space, where Osiris will preside over them as their heavenly king.[140] This much Plutarch can reveal. The more sacred details he omits.

What the priests were doing by speaking this way was not deemed lying. For instance, Philo says Moses (whom Philo, like many Jews, believed wrote the Torah) tells no fable when he says 'there were giants on the earth in those days' (Gen. 6.4), but meant only allegorically that there were men of heavenly wisdom. Philo then says Moses would never tell a fable, because he only tells the truth, so, just like Plutarch, anyone who takes that statement about giants literally Philo compares to idolaters and men deceived.[141] Thus, for Philo 'the truth' is the allegorical meaning of the text, not its literal meaning. We have to appreciate the significance of this. For us, even as Philo explains it, 'Moses' told a lie, plainly saying what is not true, that giants once walked the earth. But for Philo, as long as this statement has a higher symbolic meaning that is true, Moses isn't lying. Those who don't have the holy spirit of wisdom and understanding will only think he's lying—or believe the literal meaning and thus believe what is false. Take note of this. Because people who think this way will both read and write books differently than we expect.[142]

The gospel story found in Mark, for example, could have begun as a set of mythic models for common Christian rituals and realities such as baptism and the Eucharist and facing persecution and martyrdom and performing miracles of healing, exorcism and prophecy. If that were so (and we'll see how likely it is in Chapter 10), then we would have to conclude it also establishes a model for initiation into the secret teachings of the Christian mysteries (in Mk 4.11-12):

And [Jesus Christ] said unto [his closest followers]. 'Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but to outsiders, everything is given in parables, so that seeing they may see, but not know: and hearing they may hear, but not comprehend: lest they should turn and be forgiven.'

Within the narrative Jesus is speaking of his parables (paraphrasing, or quoting a lost variant of, Isa. 6.9-10). But insiders might have been taught that the narrative itself is constructed the same way, and thus the notion that Jesus is speaking only of his parables is what outsiders are meant to think. Indeed, that the Gospel actually tells the secrets behind his parables suggests the real secrets lie elsewhere in the text, as otherwise they were here being revealed, which defeated the purpose of concealing them in the first place. We'll see evidence of all this in Chapter 10. But here I mean only to establish its plausibility.

In his early-third-century rebuttal to the pagan critic Celsus (who wrote in the late second century), the Christian teacher Origen says an allegorical understanding of sacred writings is common to pagans, Jews and Christians, and that in fact Christians frequently understand the scriptures alle-gorically, including their own Gospels. 'The historical parts' of the Bible, Origen declares, 'were written with an allegorical purpose, being most skillfully adapted not only for the multitude of the simpler believers, but also for the few who are willing or even able to investigate matters intelligently'. Indeed, he says, 'what other inference can be drawn than that they were composed so as to be understood allegorically in their chief signification'[143] Those who approach the text literally, he says, have 'a veil of ignorance' upon them and thus 'read but do not understand the figurative meaning', whereas this veil Ms taken away by the gift of God' from those who have achieved sufficient philosophical perfection.[144] Origen thus echoes what is said by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, that readers of the Bible have a veil over their hearts which prevents them from understanding its true meaning—which, Paul makes clear, is the allegorical meaning. Origen even says that the Jewish and Christian narratives are better because they have been designed to be more morally edifying than the licentious fables of the pagans. Thus 'our narratives keep expressly in view the multitude of simpler believers', just as Plato had commanded be done, as Origen says, by purging all immoral tales from the poets and crafting only acceptable myths in their place (a leading theme of Plato's Republic).

Origen is clear in meaning that the Gospels were likewise allegorically constructed and not to be taken literally as Celsus was doing.[145] Origen cannot mean all the stories were 'also' literally true, as Celsus was arguing that they are in that case absurd, and Origen is responding by saying they are not absurd because they have a sublime allegorical meaning. But that only cancels their absurdity if they are not also literally true. At most, some of them may be true, while for the others their literal meaning only had use in edifying the 'simpler' believers in the way Plato had meant: false tales told in order to trick the masses into doing the right thing. Origen cites Plato's very argument to that effect in his own defense, so he clearly meant the Bible (the NT included) served the same role. Elsewhere he is explicit: when it comes to the actual meaning of what the Gospels say, 'mature' believers are taught one thing, but 'simpler' believers are taught another, and in result, he says, many passages in the Gospels are literally false and only allegorically true; as Origen put it, 'the spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in a material falsehood'.[146] And indeed, from extensive analyses of his writings, Joseph Trigg and Gunnar Hall-strom have each found that Origen did indeed believe it was better for the 'simpleton' to believe literally in what the Bible says even when that literal meaning isn't true.[147]

This reasoning is most explicitly endorsed by Eusebius (in the early fourth century), who argues that it was necessary to lie like this for the cause of Christianity, and that the Bible thus contained many such lies— Eusebius even claims Plato got this edifying idea from the Bible. In fact, Eusebius's entire treatise on God's Preparation for the Gospel argues that every good idea the Greeks had actually came from Moses. And among those 'good ideas' Eusebius includes the following, under the heading 'that it is necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a medicine for those who need' it:

[As was said by the Athenian in Plato's Laws] "And even the lawmaker who is of little use.. .if he dared lie to young men for a good reason, then can't he lie? For falsehood is something even more useful than [the truth], and sometimes even more able to bring it about that everyone willingly keeps to all justice.' [Then is said by Clinias] "Truth is beautiful, stranger, and steadfast. But to persuade people of it is not easy.' You would find many things of this sort being used even in the Hebrew scriptures, such as concerning God being jealous or falling asleep or getting angry or being subject to some other human passions, for the benefit of those who need such an approach.[148]

To understand what Eusebius means, it is important to know how the Platonic dialogue he quotes continues:

Athenian: Be it so: yet it proved easy to persuade men of the Sidonian fairytale, incredible though it was. and of numberless others. Clinias: What tales?

Athenian: The tale of the teeth that were sown, and how armed men sprang out of them. Here, indeed, the lawgiver has a notable example of how one can. if he tries, persuade the souls of the young of anything, so that the only question he has to consider in his inventing is what would do most good to the State, if it were believed: and then he must devise all possible means to ensure that the whole of the community constantly, so long as they live, use exactly the same language, so far as possible, about these matters, alike in their songs, their tales, and their discourses. If you. however, think otherwise. I have no objection to your arguing in the opposite sense.

Clinias: Neither of us, 1 think, could possibly argue against your view.[149]

Plato had already had the Athenian argue that justice is the only real road to happiness, and therefore by this argument people can be persuaded to be good. But he then addresses the possibility that the truth will not suffice, or that justice is not in fact the only real road to happiness, by arguing that lying is acceptable, and in fact even more effective in bringing about what is desired—that the people will be good—and thus teachers should employ lies for the benefit of the community.

The added significance here is the distinction being made between the 'young' as the targets of this manipulation: here we have the conceptual parallel to the 'babes' in Christ who need 'milk' because they are not yet ready to receive the real food (the true teaching) of the Christian religion (see Element 13). This is the very point Plato makes, saying that one thing is to be told to 'the mature' of understanding, and another thing told to 'children' (including adolescents, but metaphorically he means anyone philosophically immature), and from the latter the real truth will be kept, such that, he says, only after an initiation into the appropriate mysteries can they receive it.[150] The second-century pagan orator Maximus of Tyre attests the same concept, even evoking the 'milk' metaphor.[151] Eusebius agrees, as did Origen. This same attitude could thus have been ingrained within the church from its very inception.

As we saw before (in Element 13), in the early third century Clement of Alexandria also referred approvingly to the letters of Plato in which he makes the same argument, that the common people aren't prepared to understand the truth and thus must be told a superficial lie to conceal it from them, and that it would be concealed within riddles and myths only symbolizing or pointing to the truth.[152] Centuries later Augustine would condemn this widely held principle (that 'it is expedient to deceive the people in matters of religion', a view he suggests was also endorsed by the Roman scholar Varro in the early first century bce), yet at the same time still defends allegorical readings of the Bible when the literal meaning clearly could not be true (as when, e.g., it contradicted established science, a specific problem Augustine was apologetically addressing).[153] Today we call that hypocrisy. At any rate, even Augustine, for all his protests, only confirms that the view was entrenched and widely embraced—even by himself.

Origen gives us the most candid discussion of this doctrine within the church: 'Each person understands the Scriptures according to his capacity. One takes the sense from them more superficially, as if from the surface of a spring. Another draws up more deeply as from a well.'[154] Though Origen thinks literal interpretations can be 'helpful' for edifying the 'simple' believer, they are not the actual truth, which can sometimes even be exactly the opposite. Sometimes Paul himself, Origen says, 'wanted to conceal the forbidden meaning of a passage as something not appropriate for simple folk or for the common hearing of those who are led only by faith to what is better', and yet, 'so we would not mishear his words, he was then compelled' to give clues to the real meaning of what he said, so that we would know 'there was something forbidden and secret in that passage'. As for example, when Paul says, 'Behold, I tell you a mystery' about the nature of the resurrection, Origen says, 'this is his way of introducing things deeper and more secret which are appropriately kept hidden from the multitude'. Origen concludes, 'as is even written in Tobit, "It is good to keep the king's mystery a secret", but respectable and fitting "to honorably reveal the works of God" to the multitude with what is conveniently true'.[155] Thus, there is a gospel for the simpleton (the 'babes' in Christ) and a gospel for 'grown ups', and Origen explains that the latter is concealed from the 'simpleton' because it might turn him away from the faith and thus away from salvation, while only a few people of sufficient maturity are really fit to understand the truth.[156] Clement of Alexandria makes the same argument, using Paul's own language of 'carnal' vs. 'spiritual' understanding of the Gospel text.[157]

It is in this context that we might better understand Paul's claim that the gospel preached in public appeared to be 'foolishness' to outsiders, a 'stumbling block' to their understanding (1 Cor. 1.18-25; see Chapter 12, §4), but was not such to those who understood its secret meaning—the gospel not preached in public, but only to insiders (1 Cor. 2.4-3.3). This was quite the same in other mystery cults: when in his own mythic narrative Dionysus speaks in riddles and is called foolish, he responds, 'One will seem to be foolish if he speaks wisely to an ignorant man'.[158] Paul is in effect saying the same thing. So, too Origen. Thus it is plausible that, like other mystery cults, Christianity also came to be packaged with a set of earthly tales of its savior that were not meant to be taken literally, except by outsiders—and insiders of insufficient rank, who were variously called even by their own leaders 'babes' or 'simpletons'.


Notes :


121. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 1.351c and 351 f (this Clea was also the dedicatee of his book on The Bravery of Women 1.242e-f). Another discourse on this topic was delivered by Maximus of Tyre, in his fourth oration. "Poetry and Philosophy on the Gods" (sometime in the second century), which also explicitly links allegorical mythmaking to mystery cult practice.

122. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 11.355b.

123. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 12.355d-19.358e.

124. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 20.358e-359a.

125. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 21.359c-24.360d.

126. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 25.360d-f.

127. 2 Cor. 1.5 and Phil. 3.10. Likewise 1 Pet. 1.11:4.13:5.1 (on which see Chapters 7 and 11).

128. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 26.361b-27.361e.

129. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 32.363d-46.369e: 49.371a-80.384c.

130. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 45.369a-d.

131. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 64.376f-67.378a (see also 70.379b-71.379e).

132. Plutarch. On Isis and Osiris 46.369d.

133. See Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (Berkeley. CA: University of California Press, 1986). For broader analysis of this whole trend among pagans see J. Gwyn Griffiths. Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride (Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 1970). pp. 100-101 and 419-20. and Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology (trans. Catherine Tihanyi: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); for pagans, Jews, and Christians see Annevvies van den Hoek. 'Allegorical Interpretation', in Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation (ed. Stanley Porter; New York: Routledge. 2007). pp. 9-12: and Jean Pepin, Mythe el allegoric: tes origines grecques el les contestations judeo-chretiennes (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes. 1976). See also Chilton. 'Commenting on the Old Testament'.

134. Philo. On Flight and Discovery 22.121-22.

135. Philo, On Abraham 41.236 and 41.243. See also Philo. On the Descendants of Cain 7 and On Abraham 98-102.

136. Philo. On the Creation 55.157.

137. Philo, On Dreams 1.58 and On Mating with the Preliminary Studies 6-7.

138. We have three of his books On Allegorical Interpretation; for other examples of his reliance on the procedure, see On the Change of Names 28.152, On Dreams 1.27.172. etc. See Jean Pepin (ed.). La tradition de I'allegorie de Philon dAlexandrie a Dante: Etudes historiques (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1987).

139. Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 78.382e.

140. Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 78.382f-383a (and see Elements 31 and 34-38).

141. Philo, On the Giants 58-60. See also Philo, On Providence 2.40-41 (translated and discussed in Lamberton. Homer the Theologian, pp. 49-51).

142. For discussion of this point see Peter Struck, Birth of the Symbol: Ancient Readers and the Limits of their Texts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2004): Bruce Malina. The Social Gospel of Jesus: The Kingdom of God in Mediterranean Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2000); and Bruce Malina, The New Jerusalem in the Revelation of John: The City as Symbol of Life with God (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), with Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000). See also John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus became Fiction about Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2012); Thomas Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books, 2005): Thomas Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004); and Randel Helms. Gospel Fictions (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

143. Origen. Against Celsus 4.48-49 (see also 1.42). Origen is not alone. The pagan critic Porphyry observed that all Christians and Jews treated their text this way, and Eusebius concurs: Rusebius. History of the Church 6.19.4 (quoting Porphyry. Against the Christians 3).

144. Origen. Against Celsus 4.50. See also Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho 90.

145. Origen. Against Celsus 4.51-52. Thus, Origen asks that Celsus 'seek the help of one who is capable of initiating him into the actual meaning of the narratives" before judging their veracity: Origen. Against Celsus 6.23: that is. he asks that Celsus become a Christian, as then he will be taught these secrets.

146. Origen. Commentary on the Gospel according to John 1.9-11 and 10.2-6.

147. Joseph Trigg. "Divine Deception and the Truthfulness of Scripture", in Origen of Alexandria: His World and his Legacy (ed. Charles Kannengiesser and William Peterson: Notre Dame. IN: University of Notre Dame Press. 1988). pp. 147-64: Gunnar Hallstrom. Fides simpliciorum according to Origen of Alexandria (Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica. 1984).

148. Eusebius. Preparation for the Gospel 12.31. The passage he quotes is Plato. Laws 663e. Note that the section heading could possibly be by a later editor, though I doubt it. and it accurately describes the argument Eusebius makes nevertheless.

149. Plato. Laws 663e-664b. See also Plato. Republic 2.414-17.

150. Plato, Republic 2.378a-e.

151. Maximus of Tyre, Orations A3.

152. Plato. Letters 2.312d; 2.314a-14c. See Julius Elias, Plato's Defense of Poetry (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984): Radcliffe Edmonds III, Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2004). pp. 161-71 (in context, pp. 159-220): Kathryn Morgan, Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

153. Augustine, City of God 4.27 vs. Augustine, Confessions 5.14. See also Augustine. On Lying 7 and 24-26.

154. Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah 18.4.2.

155. Origen, Against Celsus 5.19 (see also 5.14-16).

156. Origen, Against Celsus 1.9-10 and 3.45-46.

157. Clement of Alexandria. Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved 5.

158. Euripides. Bacchae 479-480.


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