Is the death and resurrection of Jesus an agrarian allegory?

Mar 27, 2019 1:37 PM

The Resurrection of Christ

Rembrandt van Rijn

Recently someone posed the following question on Quora:

Could the death and resurrection of Jesus as portrayed in The Bible be construed as an agrarian allegory? If offered the option, would you choose to do so? If so, how might you proceed?

Here is my response.

I presume you’re referring to the similarities that Frazer (The Golden Bough) and others have proposed exist between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and agrarian cycle myths of Osiris, Tammuz/Adonis, etc. Leaving aside the fact that most modern scholars reject the idea that these agrarian myths involve a resurrection at all, there are several reasons why the concept is untenable.

First, there is the Hebrew context from which Christianity sprang. While Israelite monotheism struggled mightily against the agrarian, polytheistic Baal cults that pervaded the environment, the Jews who returned from Babylonian captivity never looked back nor were tempted by that kind of earth-based approach to religion. It seems highly unlikely that the Galilean Jews who first spread the message of Jesus would have turned back to that mythology as a model, so whoever proposes this thesis must come up with a rationale for its source.

Second, there is nothing in the kerygma—the fundamental message preached by the earliest Christian evangelists concerning the life, work, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that gives any hint at all of a connection with an agrarian way of life, or with an emphasis to the cycle of life that these myths represent. Rather, the emphasis is profoundly eschatological, calling on hearers to repent of their sins and looking to a judgment to come and to the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Third, not one of the earlier myths proposed to have a basis in fact, whereas the earliest proponents of the Christian message put their lives on the line—and largely gave up their lives—for the premise that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate, had risen from the dead and appeared to many before ascending into heaven. For example, the Christian apostle Paul, converted a few years after the death of Jesus, impressively argues that there were hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus still living at the time of writing (1 Corinthians 15:3–7, written ca. A.D. 55). Whether one believes this fact or not, it cannot be denied that the earliest Christians did believe that the resurrection of Jesus was a fact, not a myth.

Fourth, the effects of that message as it spread throughout the Roman empire were far beyond what might be expected of an agrarian myth. It begat a fast growing movement, a community of people who were known even to their adversaries for their love to one another and their tenacious hope of eternal life that caused them to reject offers of clemency in the face of death if only they would deny their Lord. The apologists and theologians of the Christian church that emerged from the first centuries of its existence never argued on the basis of commonly held myths, or of the commonality between the “Christian myth” and “pagan myth,” but always held to the fundamental premise that Jesus died and rose on the third day.

So, could the death and resurrection of Jesus as portrayed in The Bible be construed as an agrarian allegory? Not without doing terrible violence to it and making it something besides what it is.