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Christian Beginnings

Greek Myths and Christian Mystery

by Hugo Rahner, by S.J., translated by Brian Batteshaw
Harper & Row, 399 pp., $10.00

Who came first, Homer or Moses? That question was vigorously debated between Christian and pagan apologists in the last centuries of antiquity, and often it was turned into a blunter question, Who plagiarized from whom? As an anonymous writer of about the year 200 phrased it,

I think you are not ignorant of the fact…that Orpheus, Homer and Solon were in Egypt, that they took advantage of the historical work of Moses, and that in consequence they were able to take a position against those who had previously held false ideas about the gods.

Among his many “proofs” were the “borrowing” of the opening of Genesis for one bit of the description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, the portrayal of the Garden of Eden in the guise of the garden of King Alcinous in Book VII of the Odyssey; and Homer’s referring to the corpse of Hector as “senseless clay,” copied from “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”

There were Jewish precedents for this kind of nonsense, especially in the Hellenized environment of Alexandria, going back at least to the middle of the second century B.C. In one sense the motivation is only too obvious. Claims of priority are common propaganda in all sorts of movements: we have had some remarkable examples in our own day. But there was much more to it in the Homer-Moses debate. At that time Judaism and Christianity were unique in their exclusiveness. Conversion to either religion required the complete abandonment of all previous beliefs, whereas among the prevailing polytheisms one could add new gods or new rites to the old, or create new combinations. Only with the former is it proper to speak of conversion at all, and the psychological difficulties are enormous. In the year 200, for example, what happened to a Graeco-Syrian from Antioch or a Graeco-Egyptian from Alexandria who, in his adult years, was converted to Christianity, still very much a minority religion and a persecuted one to boot? Was he capable, emotionally and psychologically, of ridding himself totally of the Mother Goddess or Isis or Serapis, of all the associations which went with their worship, of all his personal experiences (even of his language) which had in one way or another been connected with these cults up to the moment of conversion? Could he tell himself that it had all been falsehood, superstition, and idolatry, and then wipe the slate clean?

There can be no wiping of slates, however much one may change one’s intellectual position. Nor need there be, when there are so many other ways of adjusting one’s past experience to present needs. On the purely cerebral level, the priority argument offers one solution. Crude as it appears, it nevertheless attracted some of the most powerful of the apologists on both sides, Celsus and Porphyry, Origen and Tatian, for example. Another, more interesting and more satisfying, procedure—still on the cerebral level—is to resort to allegory (speaking broadly and somewhat loosely). Allegory is fundamentally a very simple device, and once one has learned the trick it has no limits, as Father Rahner’s book reveals by massive example. Although the book actually consists of a number of essays previously published in German in various learned journals, it is an integrated whole. Its central theme is the translation and absorption of Greek myths into Christian mysteries: the myths of two magical plants, the moly and the mandrake, of the willow branch and of Odysseus and the sirens; the mysteries of the cross, of baptism, of the sun and moon, of the “healing of the soul.”

Of course, neither the Hellenized Jews nor the Christians invented allegory as a rescue-operation. The Greeks already had a long tradition of this kind, and fundamentally for the same reasons. Although there was no question of conversion in their case, the more sophisticated Greeks, who could not accept the literal truth of the Olympic religion or of the accompanying myths, could equally not dismiss that central core of their culture, and so they allegorized it. The Stoics, in particular, went about doing so systematically, linking their explanations with their general notion of the brotherhood of man under God. However, their way of finding “hidden moral lessons in the myths of the ancient poet” is decidedly not to Father Rahner’s liking. Stoicism is “enlightened skepticism,” “smooth, plausible and supposedly self-evident,” the “emptying of all religion.” Of all the classical Greeks, Plato was the thinker who had the Truth “dimly intimated to him,” namely, “the truth which is fundamental to all true therapy of souls, that man, if he is to be made whole and become a creature of light, must be guided by the overwhelming truth that comes from above—by the Logos himself.”

When, therefore, the book opens (and closes) on the note, “We have become Barbarians and wish once again to be Hellenes,” the word “Hellene” must be understood in a very restricted, even one-sided way. It is not by chance that the idealization of Plato is accompanied by a total neglect of Aristotle. Father Rahner is a mystic. “Removed beyond the grasp of human wisdom” is the key phrase for the greatest of truths. Hence “we wish once again to be Hellenes” only insofar as there was a mystical side to Greek culture. And only insofar as it is recognized that even that Greek experience was “but a preparation.”

For all their wisdom, the Greeks could only express the goals towards which they were seeking to lead the soul in the form of myths. What they could not find words to convey was their intimation that a way existed. Only Christian interpretation would be bold enough to make its direction plainer and show that it led to Christ.


The Church alone is in her own person an antiquity that still lives on with the full life of youth, an anti-quity that will never be merely antiquarian. For she alone, through the light of the Logos, knows the measure of the heights and depths of the human soul. That is why she can discern the clear lineaments of truth which the Greeks only faintly apprehend.

None of this is arguable, or even discussable. Father Rahner may, and does, find a hundred ways to say the same thing; it always remains mere assertion. Either one accepts it or one is seduced by the fallacy of “enlightenment” and does not accept it.

If the book were no more than that, there would be no need to say more. But the book is at the same time a serious historical account (published with extravagant claims) of an interesting and significant intellectual process, learned and heavily documented, and it is therefore legitimate to judge it by the accepted canons of historical writing. There is a vast literature on the interplay between early Christianity and Greek myths, Greek philosophy, Greek religion. Inevitably so, for, as the late Werner Jaeger wrote in his posthumous book, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, “among the factors that determined the final form of the Christian tradition Greek civilization exercised a profound influence on the Christian mind.” The historical question is about the nature, quality, and extent of that influence and the ways in which it was transmitted. Jaeger is acknowledged to have been one of the most important students of the subject in our time, and it is at first puzzling to discover that Father Rahner virtually ignores his work in all his huge bibliographical apparatus. It is even more surprising to discover the total omission of Jaeger’s Harvard colleague, Arthur Darby Nock, who also died last year, and whose 100-page article, “Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background,” published in 1928, has become a classic statement on precisely the question to which Father Rahner devotes his first, most critical and brutally polemical chapter. (I am unable to find a single reference anywhere to any of Nock’s writings.)

In the end, the conclusion is imposed on the reader that for Father Rahner it is not only “the Greeks” and “the Christians” who are defined one-sidedly so as to exclude all men and all doctrines with which he disagrees or of which he disapproves, but that the whole of modern historical scholarship on the subject is treated in the same way. Such phrases as “the words of a profound scholar which represent the latest utterance on the subject” or “that most erudite and perceptive writer” must always be translated into “the writer or writing whose point of view I accept.” With that key, we know how to interpret, for example, the assertion that “serious scholarship has passed its sober and, in the main, annihilating judgment” on the work of Richard Reitzenstein, perhaps the greatest authority of the early twentieth century on Hellenistic religion and mythology.

A comparison between the first chapter of this book and Nock’s article is revealing. Both discuss the question whether or not in its early years Christianity borrowed in any significant sense from the so-called mystery religions of the Hellenistic world, with their mixed Greek and Near Eastern elements. Both answer firmly in the negative, Nock on the basis of a quiet, reasoned presentation of the evidence, Father Rahner by an angry rejection of the very idea that Christianity could have “borrowed” at all.

Christianity is a thing that is wholly sui generis. It is something unique and not a derivative from any cult or other human institution, nor has its essential character been changed or touched by any such influence.

He goes further. To insure his position, he grossly distorts the history and nature of the Hellenistic mystery religions, denying them any ethical content whatever until a date so late that, if anything, the influence would have had to be from Christianity to them and not the other way round. And he omits a third element from the picture altogether, and that is Judaism. Where Nock writes, about a particular Christian doctrine, that its roots are not Greek but that “the key…is given to us by Jewish conceptions alone,” Father Rahner would say that its roots are not Greek—full stop. Nor is this omission restricted to the first chapter. It is pervasive. The non-knowledgeable reader must come away from the book with the firmly fixed view that the Christian apologists were the first and only ones to allegorize myths “guided by the overwhelming truth that comes from above—by the Logos himself.” It would then astonish him to browse in the twelve volumes of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Philo Judaeus (born about 30 B.C.) and to discover vast quantities of precisely this kind of allegorizing (applied to the Old Testament as well) linked with the Logos or Divine Reason. I am not suggesting that St. Paul, for example, borrowed from Philo, or even that he had read Philo (as later Christian thinkers indubitably did). But I suggest—and more than suggest—that omission on such a scale becomes suppression and is unacceptable in an historical account.

It is one thing to insist on the originality of Christian doctrine; it is something else again to treat its history (or that of any other religion) as if it were nothing more than the history of a few ideas in a vacuum. When a man like Clement of Alexandria (born about 150) devoted so much of his attention to the Christian implications of the Greek myths, his concern was not just an interest in ideas as such but a profoundly psychological one. He had no alternative, first because of his own conversion and then because of his desire to convert others like himself for whom Homer was the beginning of wisdom and true culture. Father Rahner is by no means unaware of psychological issues: some of the chapters in this book were originally papers read at meetings of the Jungian Eranos group in Switzerland. Here too, however, his one-sidedness becomes quickly apparent. The moment phallic symbolism is suggested, even Jung is dismissed along with the historians of religion whose research provided Jung with the necessary raw material. Similarly, in the very long and interesting section on the folklore of the mandrake, the magical (as distinct from the symbolic) lore is given some space on the pagan side, whereas for the Christian side one gets merely a bibliographical reference to a rare German work published in 1671, and the reader is further warned off by inverted commas: “the ‘Christian’ side of this magic.”

There is no need to multiply examples: they recur in every chapter and on every topic. In the prologue to Gargantua, Rabelais asked the allegorizers of his own day with simple irony:

Do you honestly believe that Homer, when he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, had in mind the allegories which have been foisted off on him by Plutarch, Heracleides Ponticus, Eustathius and Phornutus, and which Politian has purloined from them…[or that] Ovid in his Metamorphoses could have been thinking of the Gospel Sacraments?

Father Rahner’s answer, I believe after spending much time with his book, is an affirmative one, though not in the literal sense. I see no other way to interpret the many phrases such as “the evangelical truth hidden in the Homeric myth.” Indeed, I see no other way to explain the very existence of this book. For all the interesting material it contains, it is not history as that word is customarily understood, but a witness, a testimony of faith.

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