Stumblingblock?
By Steven Wyre

BIBLE STUDIES 
l
  HOME

In I Corinthians, chapter 1 and verse 23, Paul writes that "we preach Christ crucified: a stumblingblock to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (NIV).  It seems that Paul, in the section from which this verse has been lifted, is trying to assert the veracity of his gospel.  He also describes the types of people who have been following his preaching and those who have mocked it.  Paul proclaims the fact that most of his followers are "not wise by human standards," not successful (influential), and not of noble birth is because God deliberately chose a vehicle of salvation that those with any intellect would find troubling.

My last remark may seem somewhat harsh, but if you read the text several times it is easy to get that impression.  And, if one has some cultural and religious facts about the society in which these people lived it becomes easier to understand why Paul's Jesus was so attractive to the baser elements in life.

What I will do now is lay out some history that could (should) affect the way you view Paul's assertions.  The angle I want to take is answering why the gospel Paul preached was indeed a stumblingblock to the Jews.  For the sake of clarity I will reduce Paul's gospel to a few key points: Jesus was born from the union of God and a human, the birth was considered "virginal"; Jesus preached a message of ethics and mystery; Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected after three days; Jesus then ascended to Heaven; the consequences of these actions for the average human being is some form of salvation for those who "believe."  Certainly there are many other important parts of this story but I believe I have the basics to which all who know anything about Christianity would agree.  It is the parts I've left out that have met with the greatest amounts of disagreement.

It must also be pointed out that there is much argument that the gospel preached by Paul was different from the message of Jesus.  This is a very complex subject and we will not attempt to prove any points for one side or the other.  However, if the history I'm presenting is correct (and most non-sectarian histories will confirm it), then it should be very easy to see how the "plan of salvation" preached by Paul would have been very hard for Jesus, as a Jew, to accept much less be a part of.

Perhaps one reason this account was so abhorrent to the Jews was that it resembled an all too familiar story. A story the Hebrews chose (or were guided ) to exclude from the make up of their religion. To better understand this we must go back to the end of the second millennium BCE and look at the Egyptian myth of Osiris.  Actually the myth goes back much further, but as in all myths there was an evolution into the form we will be examining.

To make a long story short, really short, I will stick to the basics.  Osiris was held to have been a great pharaoh in the land of Egypt and, like all pharaohs before and since, a god, the son of another god, incarnate into human form.  Seth, the brother of Osiris, succeeded in murdering him.  Osiris's wife, Isis, somehow managed to become pregnant by her now dead husband.  The child she bore was named Horus and he was held to be the last pharaoh in a period called the "Beginning of All Things" when the gods established the rules and order for the land of Egypt (if not the entire cosmos).  Horus grows up and, after being recognized as Osiris's true successor, kills Seth and then, somehow, Osiris is restored to life and becomes the judge of the dead.

What is important to us is how the story came to be associated with later Pharaohs and even the common human being.  Pharaohs had always been held to be gods incarnate and when they die they are held to "become" Osiris and pass through death to live again.  Over the course of time Osiris became the paradigmatic model for all, royal or not, who hoped to conquer death.  In short, Osiris came to be seen as a god, the son of the Great God, who died, was raised to eternal life, and was set in the position to judge the dead.  All those who trusted in Osiris's resurrection and faced death with the special knowledge priests of Osiris had disseminated would, too, pass through death into a glorious afterlife.  A god, through death and resurrection, provided salvation to those who trusted in him.

If, indeed, Moses had been raised in Pharaoh's house, it would have been impossible for him to not know about these teachings.  It would also have been highly improbable for him, as part of the royal family, to have avoided participating in the rituals involved with this belief system.  When Moses led the people out of Egypt cleansing them of this type of myth would have been a high priority. Indeed, what was unique about the new Hebrew religion was its intense monotheism.  History demonstrates that the Hebrews did not always deny the existence of other gods and that, from time to time, they actually included some of these gods in their everyday lives.  Nonetheless, the tide always shifted to a strict belief that the Hebrews had only one God and that, as far as they were concerned, there was to be no other worshiped.  The first of the so called "Ten Commandments" makes it clear that the Hebrews were to have no other gods beside the One and that precluded seeing the product of any human being as anything other than human.

However, the belief in god/human saviors was not isolated to the ancient Egyptians.  Nearly every ancient society throughout what is now called Europe and the Middle East had at least one myth involving a god or the product of a god/human sexual union providing salvation and/or deliverance for human beings from some great evil.  In fact, such myths are found throughout the entire world.  When the Hebrews entered the land of Canaan they were met with, and most likely became familiar with, the Hittite and Canaanite myths of how a dragon which threatened the whole of human civilization was defeated by the offspring of a god/human coupling.

It must be understood that these types of beliefs were easy to come by and helped human beings understand the cycle of seasons and extended periods of cold or drought.  The ancient mind associated much of the way of the world was to the actions of divinity.  When they saw the cycles of the life, death, and rebirth of the crops which sustained them it was all too easy to construct such myths to explain things.

In reality, saying that the son of a god died, went into the underworld, was resurrected, ascended to heaven, and that by such an action effected salvation for human beings was a well worn story.  It had been part of many mythological systems for thousands of years before Jesus walked the Earth.  And, even though it can be well documented that the Hebrews borrowed much from their neighbors' religions, this seemed to be a story which did not mesh at all with the monotheism espoused in Jesus' religion.

Such beliefs, however,  were well known to the Greeks and Romans to whom Paul preached.  Through the stories of Dionysus and Orpheus they were well accustomed to hearing that a god sired a god/man though a human woman who would meet with a horrible death and be resurrected.  They were also very familiar with the notion that such acts brought about some kind of blessings to human beings.

It is interesting that Paul said this teaching was "foolishness" to the Greeks.  Perhaps one reason this epithet was used was that the Greeks were seeing just one more god trying to have his name placed on the "star's door" of this perpetual drama.  It could also be that the teachings of Paul looked very much like those about Dionysus and Orpheus that had a great many secrets and mysteries involved in their rites  As such, Paul's Christianity would have been just another one of those "strange" non mainline religions that abounded in the countryside where Paul preached.  It is also a very defendable theory that attributes Christianity's success more to politics than to the hand of God.

Indeed, Christianity, as Paul preached it, was just one case among many of a very old story, a banality to the Greeks and an offense to the Jews.  

SOURCE: DISCOVERING THE BIBLE 1999 Number 5

BIBLE STUDIES 
l
  HOME

 

Free Web Counter
free counter

Thank you for visiting our site!
Sign up to receive BHC News & Updates by e-mail.

Tell a friend about BHC & FOLLOW BHC ONLINE -- click here.
Copyright 1999-2015 Biblical Heritage Center, Inc.
* Information on this website comes from a wide variety of sources and the inclusion of any source is not to be understood as an endorsement of the position, person, or group.   All comments or statements are those of the source and have been included for educational and research resources.
Jim Myers, Webmaster