Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cargo Cults and the Jesus Myth

One of the arguments of the Jesus Myth people is that myths can develop rather quickly – within months if not just a few years.  So it is not at all impossible for a myth that came to be known as Christianity to have developed within the relatively few years between the events of Jesus’ life – whatever they might have been – and the development of the stories of Jesus’ life, the Gospels.  As proof they present the cargo cults of the South Pacific.

Cargo cults are religions that development when modern civilization encountered the primitive cultures of the isolated peoples of the South Sea islands in the late 19th  and  early 20th centuries.  The simplified description of the development of these cargo cult religions is that the primitive islanders saw the Western missionaries and other technologically advanced Western people - the Western military that occupied the islands in the Second World War - as so remarkable that they assumed them to be gods or emissaries from gods.  Then these primitive South Sea islanders noticed that when these emissaries asked for supplies (cargo) they arrived.  They reasoned It must have been sent by the gods.

That cargo was a wonder to these primitive people. It was a miracle; they had no conception of where it might have come from; they could not comprehend modern industrial societies. But it made life so much easier.  And possessing cargo made the possessor powerful in these primitive societies. So when the missionaries and the U.S. Army left, these primitive people continued to believe in gods who could supply the cargo if asked correctly.

Praying to these gods and rituals that resembled the way the missionaries and other Westerners lived developed with the hope that the gods could be persuaded to supply cargo.  Names were given to the gods. In one case John Frum and in another a variation of Roosevelt, the president during the time of the occupation of the islands by American troops in the Second World War,  became the names of these gods. (You can look up the Scientific American article about these cults Scientific American and a web page describing the John Frum cult John Frum  )

The point of all this is that the cargo cults have become what the Jesus Myth folk see as an example of rapid development of a myth and a type of myth  development which they claim happened in the Jesus myth.

However, they overlook something important in their hasty analogy: there was cargo delivered to the missionaries and to the American troops.  There was a real basis for the beliefs of these primitive people.   (Worsley in the Scientific American article wrote that their belief had a reasonable basis.) And it was a rather sustained experience;  that is, it was something  observed over a period of decades.

On the other hand, the Jesus Myth folk will deny that there was anything of real substance to the myth of Jesus.  Some will say that the origin of the Jesus myth is in the vision of  Paul rather than  a real person named Jesus.

Others will say that the origin of the Jesus myth was in one or another or a combination of the various messiah’s who populated the first century Palestine landscape, but who in no case that we know of truly produced anything more than the hope of independence from Rome or the king established by Rome, Herod. In other words, there was no cargo.  There certainly was no cargo that resembled the acts of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels.

The problem then is the development of a “cargo cult” when there was no cargo delivered. The "cargo," which in this case might be the miracles Jesus performed or the message he spoke or the resurrection, is imagined to be  themselves a part of the myth that developed. The result is a circular argument: some promised benefit resulted in the development of the Jesus myth, but the promised benefit is found only in the myth that developed. That is not the way the cargo cult myths developed.

That leaves the Jesus Myth folk with a myth that has no foundation. The cargo cults at least had the cargo delivered to Westerners and the obvious power of the Westerners as a hope. Both were real things. That a cargo cult could develop without those is not believable. It did not develop around any of the other messianic hopefuls of first century Palestine. Why? The simple answer is that they delivered no cargo. They died not having fulfilled in any way the promises they made. Who would create a cult around a failed messiah?  And the idea that a cargo cult developing with no benefit certainly is not supported in the scientific literature.

Jesus, on the other hand, delivered on his promise of life. He rose from the dead. He was seen by many. He spoke to them. He ate with them. He displayed the wound of crucifixion. They touched him. This was evidence, and dramatic evidence at that, that the promise of Jesus was real. This was a reality on which to build a faith.

Marching with guns is still a ritual of some cargo cults.
There is another problem.  Modern societies do not develop myths. Moderns may create mythical stories, but they are recognized as fiction. Primitive societies do develop myths. They develop myths to explain the unexplainable and rituals to try to bridge the power gap between their society and the far more advanced society they have encountered. (See Cargo Cult, Wikipedia ) Primitive societies do this.  The key concept in the scientific literature is “primitive.”

Was the society of first century Palestine primitive? I suggest it was not. It was far more like a modern society than a primitive South Sea island society. It was a highly educated and literate society. The average Jew in Judea may not have been literate, but he knew by experience about the larger literate and advanced society of the Roman Empire. He had daily contact with that society. He imagined no magic that enabled Romans to be more powerful than themselves. And then there were people like Paul.

Paul was educated in the literature, philosophy, history, and the religions of the Greeks. He was a citizen of Rome and came from a major city. As a student of the Hebrew Scriptures and a Pharisee, he was especially literate and knowledgeable in the Old Testament. He was not primitive. If he was, as many of the Jesus Myth people suggest, the original conveyer of this “myth,” it would be exceptionally remarkable. He in no way fits the model of “primitive” which the scientific literature indicates is the seedbed for the development of a cargo cult.

Most who have actually studied the cargo cults and the myths and rituals that developed in these societies do not use them as illustrations for how Christianity developed. But I still encounter in the popular literature of the Jesus Myth people reference to John Frum and the cargo cults. Many times those who are impressed by this phenomenon don’t dig deeper to understand the cargo cults. My objective is simply to suggest that the Jesus Myth people are mistaken. To suggest that the cargo cults provide an example of how a myth may develop quickly - if it is used to support the Jesus Myth proposition - is too simplistic. The analogy is not there. The differences are too great.

But the attack of the Jesus Myth people on the historicity of the Gospels is nevertheless serious. Christians, too, seldom dig deeper and think critically about what we read in the news magazines and see on TV.  And there are an increasing number of these articles. (I noted earlier the piece in the December 18 edition of the Washington Post in which Raphael Lataster argues for the non-existence of a historical Jesus.)  Christians need to be prepared with good information.

No comments: