Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Snap: Richard Gabriel's "Jesus the Egyptian"

From the December 2009 E-Block.
Richard Gabriel's Jesus the Egyptian (JTE) proposes yet another thesis that Christianity borrowed all it owns from Egyptian religion; the only question therefore is not "Is it nutty?" but "What type of nuts does it take from the tree?" 

We should begin with a preliminary comment on the author, who is a professional historian: But a specialist in military history, and thus writing well outside his expertise. We should also note that it is put out by iUniverse, despite Gabriel's past record of credible publishing; take that as a signal that he'd never have gotten it done with a serious academic press. 

Finally, note that unlike every other version of the "copycat" thesis that connects Jesus and Osiris, Gabriel is not a Christ-myther; rather, he supposes that Jesus did exist, and while living in Egypt learned about their religion, then started his own countercult(ural) revolution against Judaism because he was offended by being treated badly by his neighbors and kin. More on that anon. Let's start with the basics. 

JTE consists of 130 pages, 100 of which could have been shed and made the book much less tedious at once. Those 100 pages are too-detailed recountings of Egyptian history which do little or nothing to add to Gabriel's case. The remaining 30 pages are Gabriel's case for borrowing. 

The case is more general than specific in this one. Gabriel thinks that Christianity borrowed six elements from Egyptian religion [32]:
  1. a single trinitarian god
  2. a cosmology in which all things have a place that can be comprehended by man
  3. man's possession of an immortal soul
  4. resurrection of the dead
  5. a final judgment where ethical life is weighed
  6. eternal life for the virtuous
The regular reader of my material already knows that I am shaking my head at this. Gabriel's errors are the standard ones we find in "copycat" theorizing:
  • Failure to recognize practical universal concepts (all except 4) -- Gabriel actually goes as far as saying that all other cultures of that time and place -- such as the Romans and Greeks - borrowed ideas like an immortal soul from Egypt [57], which places him in the range of lunacy espoused by the likes of Yosef ben-Jochanan. One is constrained to ask what Gabriel supposes people believed in this regard until the Egyptians allegedly enlightened them. And who informed the Aztecs of the notion? It's clearly one of those things that is arrived at independently as a matter of practical deduction.
  • Redefining terms to a least common denominator to achieve a parallel (4-6, on 4 especially, see October 2009 issue, "Defining Resurrection")
Gabriel's errors are thus primarily logical rather than historical, but when it comes to Christian history and theology he doesn't get a good grade either. This is of little surprise since his bibliography contains only a handful of sources related to NT scholarship, and includes nearly-fringe elements like Crossan and Morton Smith. Here are comments on a couple of those six as well as other points of interest.
  • A single trinitarian god. Unfortunately, Gabriel is apparently unaware of Jewish pre-NT speculations concerning hypostatic Wisdom and the Spirit, as well as related concepts being in Assyria, Greece, etc. The ideas of hypostases is a "common solution" to the problem of how a transcendant god might interact with the mundane world, and is not unique to Egyptian or Christian religion. Even so, Gabriel's attempt to find a "trinitarian" conception in Egyptian religion is far from successful. He appeals to a supposed "trinitarian conception of god" found with the entities Ptah, Sokaris, and Osiris in a document called the Memphite Drama. While he is right that triads may be found frequently in Egyptian religion, Gabriel is oblivious to the reason for it. That reason may be found explained here, the first page of an article Gabriel lists in his bibliography but somehow manages to not report the full contents of, particularly where it explains the practical reason why triads were so common. There is no more reason to claim "borrowing" here than there is to see "borrowing" between a Yugo and an Audi because both have four wheels.
  • Resurrection of the dead. This one is simple, for all Gabriel does is improperly define "resurrection" so generally that it loses its correct meaning (see again our Oct. 2009 article, as well as our response to D. M. Murdock in the same issue). A parallel is thus created illicitly.
  • Gabriel becomes more outlandish in his claims as the book progresses. He makes the outrageous statmement that "[i]ncarantion is a very sophisticated concept and is unlikely to have been developed independently and out of whole cloth by a Jewish holy man living in Galilee..." [88] It didn't have to be; the idea was present in Old Testament theophanies. Gabriel tries to force a dichotomy by saying that this wasn't a concept in which the deity incarnated into a body that could e.g., die or be harmed, but that is merely a secondary extension of the primary idea of incarnation. It is not a "sophisticated concept" in the least and additionally, despite Gabriel, Osiris was not "incarnate" in a human body; he had a divine body like that of the other Egyptian deities.
  • In his analysis of the origin of the idea of a "soul," [93f] Gabriel completely muffs Jewish anthropology (see on this here) confusing the identity of "soul" with that of the "spirit". We may note in close Gabriel's two notions for how Jesus himself allegedly started a religion in Palestine based on Egyptian religion, and the problem of course is not so much how Jesus might have heard of such things (for he did after all travel to Egypt) but why he came to adopt them. To accomplish this, Gabriel contrives an imaginative scenario in which Jesus rebels against Judaism because his feelings were hurt by those who made fun of his illegitimate birth, and so preached an Osiris-Isis faith" [106, 111-2] which threatend the Jewish orthodoxy. Unfortunately this thesis fails on numerous accounts, aside from being an argument from silence:
    1. It envisions Jesus as a radical individualist in a time when collectivist thinking was all that was available.
    2. It must suppose that Jesus was put on trial for disputing Jewish "monotheism" [85] -- a questionable category to apply to Judaism of the time to begin with (here again, Gabriel is unaware of the thesis of hypostatic manifestations of deity in Judaism), and also found nowhere in the NT text among the accusations delivered by Jesus' accusers, or in the secular record of Josephus. If anything, it was not so much that Jesus claimed this identity per se; the problem was that he was claiming honor over and above his station by claiming that identity.
    3. It forgets to explain the step wherein Jesus preached belief in Osiris and Isis, and somehow made himself the object of faith, as opposed to Osiris or Isis.
    4. Gabriel makes the astonishing claim that Jesus is rarely depicted as practicing Judaism in the Gospels [111]. What about his teachings in synagogues as an adult? What about his profession that he came to fulfill the Law? What about his disputes with the Pharisees over fine points of Jewish law, and absolute mastery of the OT? What about his direction to Peter to contribute to the Temple tax?
    Gabriel's absurd theorizing in this regard reaches a climax with a forced eisegesis of Gal. 6:17, where Paul speaks of having the "marks of Jesus" on his body. The best contextual understanding is that these "marks" refer to the scars Paul has as one persecuted for his faith. As Witherington notes in his Galatians commentary, this makes sense of the place in Paul's argument, in which he compares himself to the agitators and uses the marks as the subject a conquestio, a "final remark which stimulates pity for the speaker and his cause." [444] Paul is also likely metaphorically indicating that these "marks" are like the brand of a slave, for him as one who is a slave of Christ. Gabriel is aware of these interpretations, but rejects them in favor of an outlandish proposition that the "marks" were tattoos that Paul was claiming to have which he wished for his audience to understand where tattoos of the Jesus cult, related to the Egyptian practice of magic (but which were actually tattoos of the Attis cult, which Paul had once been a member of, which is logical to assume since he had "a propensity to change religions"! [114]). Needless to say, such an identification does not cohere with the purpose of a conquestio as a rhetorical element. Gabriel is unaware of any of this, save the idea of the marks as a slave brand, which he rejects by saying that Paul had never been anyone's slave (he misses passages like Rom. 1:1, where Paul calls himself a slave of Christ).
    Finally for our sample, Gabriel supports his case with standard misreadings of passages like John 2:4 and Luke 14:26 to argue that Jesus hated his mother and family. [123]

    In sum, while the ride Gabriel offers us is nowhere as wild as that offered by, say, Acharya S, the scholarship he offers is quite nearly as dismal.
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