Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Answering. . .what now? Or "Baptism" in Bull's Blood.

Over on The Church of Jesus Christ we find a post on the usual populist tripe regarding the mystery schools and Christianity. While some cogent points are raised, I think the entire approach is endemic of the same problem.

I'm reminded of the cry of E P Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, for a comparison of religion that begins by first ensuring a solid understanding--in their own right--of the things being compared. With the exception of Smith's Drudgery Divine, I'm aware of no real inquiry into Christianity and any mystery cult that attempts to do this, and even Smith is, at times reactionary, and on the whole seems to me to have bitten off too much.

The problem, in the case of Smith, is that he discusses too many religions for the reader to really share an understanding of any of them. The problem, on The Church of Jesus Christ, is that it falls into the old trap of "yes it is"/"no it isn't." Which might help us catalogue some facts, but does nothing to further our understanding.

I'm certainly not about to suggest that I meet the description of the comparative scholar I long for, so instead I just wanted to touch a little bit on a cogent point raised: Namely the difficulty in telling which way syncretism might run.

In recent weeks I've spent some effort investigating the enigmatic rite known as the Taurobolium. It's frequent description as a "baptism in bull's blood" perhaps underscores the problems of comparison noted above, since in describing it as such we are "Christianizing" the ritual. A bibliography noting this phrasing would take far too long, but it's a conception of the ritual that makes it's way up to the highest level of academia, down to the outright layman who happened on the rite by chance. It's simply the description that best meets our post-Christian sentiments.

The "baptismal" form of the rite, as it's known to Prudentius in his Peristephanon, is in fact a quite late version, however. The earliest epigraphic attestation to the rite describes it as a sacrifice, frequently for the emperor or for the empire, a tendency that continued for quite some time. The cleansing or life-giving powers of the blood, with its 20 year efficacy, didn't appear until much later.

So, by indications of chronology and proximity, it is more likely Christianity that gave the bull's blood its powers, not the other way around, and while we should still avoid the term "baptism in bull's blood," there's a better than passing chance that it was the baptism of the exploding Christian movement that inspired the new interpretations. Certainly it is more plausible that the taurobolium was reinterpreted in the face of Christianity than it is that the taurobolium had had that significance all along, but nobody thought to mention it until centuries after.

Of course, in understanding the rite for its own sake, this just makes it all the more confusing. It was a sacrifice, but what, exactly, made it special? Differentiated it from other "bull-killings" such that it got it's own term? Clearly there was a concrete ritual involved, the full significance of which may be lost to us beyond conjectural speculation.


J. L. Watts said...

Populist tripe? That's funny. Before we descend into name calling, I'll make a few points.

First, that post was written last year, and while reading it I still couldn't find a major problem with it enough to merit it 'tripe.'

As a matter of fact, I try to acknowledge that many current Christian practices are picked up form pagans. As anyone who reads my blog might tell you, I am becoming a little less fundie as I explore such things as the NPP - which I believe offers a better method in some areas than the Reformation.

Still, though, tripe? Considering the nature of the blog and the post itself, well, it was suitable for a yes it is/say it ain't so type thing.

But, really, tripe? My ego doeth suffer wounds.

Merry Mithramas.

Rick Sumner said...

I'm not entirely sure what you're taking issue with. The "populist tripe" is the arguments you were refuting. Your post is fundamentally correct, at least in that it looks at the facts of the matter.

"Tripe" was meant to refer, for example, to the notion that Mithras was born from a virgin. He wasn't born at all. He sprang from a rock. And anyone could check that from the iconography with very little effort. It gets repeated a lot because people don't bother.

My caveat with your post, reflected in my title, is that you're not actually answering "Mithra," or "Mithraism," or, for that matter, anything like Mithraism. You're answering a popular caricature of it. A Mithraism that was created by the modern crusader, not by the ancient Roman.

J. L. Watts said...

Oh, well, then, I am sure my post was entirely sarcastic :) Please take my comment, in all seriousness, with a measure of fun.

I see that you post little, but I do hope that you do more.