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 …

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