This Month
Date 08-07-2011
Time 15:44:39


The Passion of the Christ as a Scapegoat Ritual


The most important event of the career of the historical Jesus was his manner of death. Jesus was crucified. The Christian explanation is that a travelling holy man, the only begotten son of God himself, impoverished, docile and peace loving, who scarcely ever lost his temper, was thought such a threat to the rulers of Judaea that they sentenced him to hang on a cross, a death reserved for slaves and traitors. Christians say that Jesus was neither. He was not a criminal at all. But somehow this divine teller of parables had given the authorities the impression he wanted to be a Jewish king—to rival Caesar in one of his dominions—when all he really wanted to do was to save mankind from its sins. The Roman governor of Judaea even ordered the hanging man to be labeled with a sign saying “The King of the Jews”.
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In a survey of 2,700 members of the American Psychological Association, 12 per cent replied that they had treated cases of satanic ritual abuse. 30 per cent reported abuses done in the name of religion.

© Dr M D Magee
Contents Updated: 28 October 1998, Thursday, 07 August 2003

Apotropaeic or Pharmakos Rituals

An apotropaeic or pharmakos ritual is one in which a victim is chosen to take on and carry away a curse felt by a community. The best example, and the source of the common name for these rituals, is the Jewish scapegoat ritual. The word “scapegoat” was only coined by Tyndale in 1530 for the goat chosen by lot from among a pair of identical goats to carry off the sins of the Jews each year on the Day of Atonement. This biblical scapegoat was a pharmakos victim meant to cure the community of curses and sin.

The expression scapegoat has actually been expanded now to mean any victim disliked and picked on by a community or a mob—with no ritual involved in the least, quite the opposite—but the original scapegoat was picked as the victim of a carefully worked out ritual. It is better, according to theologian, B Hudson McLean (The Cursed Christ, 1996), to avoid unwitting confusion by using the term “apotropaeic” or “pharmakos” as technical terms for these victims and the ritual. The word “pharmakon” means a “cure”, whence pharmacy. Originally “pharmakoi” were magicians whose skill was presumably in healing. The pharmakos victim therefore became the one who cured the people.

We are heading towards the crucifixion. Jesus is depicted as a scapegoat, albeit of the conventional not the ritual kind, but the question remains whether the passion of Christ is a depiction of a pharmakos ritual. The point is not that he was treated historically as a pharmakos victim, but that, having been judicially murdered apparently for good reason, whether he was presented as if he had been a pharmakos. If he had been, the further question is whose idea was it. When Jesus is described as having died as an atonement, does it mean that his death was seen as lifting a curse from the people, namely his later followers, the Christians.

In ancient Greece, a pestilence was thought to be caused by a curse on the suffering people that had to be lifted. In Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius describes a pestilence in Athens thought to have been brought on by the deeds of a man called Cylon. The Pythian priestess told the Athenians to purify the city. Two pharmakoi, young men called Cratinus and Ctesibus, were murdered and the plague ceased. The pharmakos victims took on the curse and their expulsion and death lifted it from the city. The myth of Oedipus exemplifies the purpose of the ritual. Oedipus was faced with a plague in Thebes. The oracles said the curse had been placed because a citizen has been the cause of the death of king Laïus. The one who turned out to be responsible was Oedipus himself, and so he blinded himself and left the city “bearing the curse” to liberate it.

B H McLean shows that the ritual of the substitutionary victim to carry off the curse was common in the eastern Mediterranean—“geographically and chronologically pervasive” to use his words. The ritual had three stages:

  1. Selection of the victim, an animal or human marginal to society. The victim could be an animal, usually a goat, a steer or a pig, or a human being, usually a slave, a criminal or simply a poor volunteer.
  2. The victim was set apart and given special treatment in an investiture ceremony that consecrated them, and transferred the curse on the city to the victim. The innocent victim was accursed instead of society. The victim had to be thought of as innocent to be effective. They were treated specially, fed on good food, and dressed in noble raiments, or decorated in some way in the cases of animal victims. Often they were scourged, though this was generally symbolic, with branches or merely leaves of sacred plants, just as Christ was supposedly scourged with a reed. The plants were often aromatic and so thought to be purgative. This was a notional purgation of the curse on society.
  3. Finally, the victim was ritually expelled by being driven beyond the walls or boundaries of the city where they were sometimes killed to make sure they could not bring the curse back.

Though all rituals eventually came to be called sacrifices (thusia), the apotropaeic ritual was the opposite of a sacrifice, in fact. A sacrifice was a gift to please a god and had to be pure and perfect. A sacrifice that was notionally cursed was a contradiction in terms. The pharmakos was not offered to a god, but was driven out of society. Today, any victim killed for a ritual purpose is called a sacrifice, but the distinction should be remembered. A sacrifice is to a god, whereas a pharmakos simply takes on a curse to dispose of it in exile or death.

The Levitical Scapegoat

At least there is no disagreement among the experts on biblical matters that this scapegoat ritual was a “late introduction” into Judaism. How do they know this? Because there is “no mention of the feast in any pre-exilic text”, as McLean puts it. How do they know which texts are pre-exilic and which are post-exilic? Because the texts tell them! Yes, this ritual is post-exilic, but then almost everything in the Jewish scriptures is post-exilic. No Jew or Christian is willing to accept this, despite the evidence. They have a simple method. They ignore it.

The two goats equally pure, unblemished and therefore spotless, were decided by lot as being for Yehouah or for Azazel. The goat for Yehouah becomes a normal sacrifice, and the goat for Azazel is the apotropaeic victim. Since either goat could have been the sacrifice, both had to be equally unblemished. The priest laid his hands on the scapegoat and confessed the sins of the people thus transferring them to the goat which was then led into the wilderness.

By the time of Christ the ritual had developed and become more important to the Jewish cult. The goat was killed to make sure it did not return. By that time, ten booths were set up en route from Jerusalem to a steep cliff about ten kilometers away. The goat was led out of the city then from booth to booth being watered and offered feed at each one. Between them, it was booed and thrashed at by the crowds. At the last one, a red ribbon was tied to its horns and it was tipped over the cliff where it was quickly dashed to pieces (m Yom 6).

Azazel is always now considered a demon, but the noted scholar G R Driver thought the name simply meant “rugged rocks” denoting the wilderness. Judaism had held with demons as well as angels, these spirits stemming from the original Persian religion, but demons were part of the wicked Creation of Ahriman, and neither Persian Zoroastrianism nor Judaism would have offered sacrifices to anything wicked. The goat was therefore not a sacrifice to Azazel, as some say, and perhaps it looks. Certainly, after the defeat of the Persians by Alexander and the independence of the Jerusalem temple, the Hellenistic priests, the Sadducees, rejected all things demonic except as a pejorative expression for idols or anything else worshipped in idolatry. The Sadducees could not have considered the ritual as pandering in any way to a demon, and the rule they devised in Leviticus 17:7 forbids it. They would, however, have been willing to accept the ritual as apotropaeic and Azazel as being the wild barren and rocky places where sins could safely be left because no one lived there. The scapegoat is not a sacrifice to a demon but a vessel to hold the sins of the people until they were carried far enough away to be no bother.

Philo says that the Day of Atonement was the one traditional Jewish festival that lapsed Hellenized Jews habitually continued to observe. Philo described the sins carried off by the goat as a curse. The author of the Epistle of Barnabas considers the sin of the people as a curse transferred to the goat, and he compares the goat with Christ, saying it is accursed, the type of Jesus, and spat upon. Tertullian made the same comparison. Long ago, Robert Roberts noted a similar ritual in Assyrian cuneiform tablets, but the victim was a sheep, and at the end its carcase was thrown into the river to remove any curse from the temple.

The Jewish scriptures have other examples. The story of the sons of Saul (2 Sam 21:1-9) has been noted by Walter Burkert as curiously similar to the pharmakos myth of Oedipus. A famine had raged for three years, and king David thought it was time to enquire of the Lord its cause—he consulted an oracle! It was the blood guilt of the city. The Gibeonites had been promised safety, but Saul had reneged on his promise and tried to kill them off. So, David selected seven of Saul’s sons as pharmakoi. They were handed over to the Gibeonites who promptly crucified them, leaving them hanging for the whole summer, and the famine ended.

Another Jewish example occurs in the story of Jonah. His intransigence in obeying God leads to him bringing a curse on to the ship he was travelling on. Threatened with shipwreck, the sailors decided to chose a pharmakos victim by lot, and the lot falls on to Jonah. Having been already chosen, Jonah volunteers anyway making the victim innocent. Cast into the sea, the storm ceased, and Jonah continued his Munchausen adventures by being swallowed by a large fish.

The Pharmakos Victim Elsewhere

Herodotus describes an apotropaeic ritual in Egypt in which the curses of Egypt were transferred to the head of a heifer which was fed to the crocodiles. Other animals heads were used for similar rituals, and it is the reason, Herodotus remarks, that no Egyptian will eat the head of an animal.

A Hittite ritual for cleansing the army of an epidemic was even more similar to the Jewish ritual. A ram was chosen and dressed with coloured wool, a fine necklace, a ring and a precious jewel. A chosen woman was also finely dressed. Both the ram and the woman were then driven into the enemy lines with the cry that whoever found them would be infected with the pestilence.

The Greek ritual was not necessarily just a one off. It was often an annual feast like the Jewish scapegoat festival. Two pharmakoi, one of each sex, were habitually expelled at the Thargalia festival to Apollo, held about the end of May. Initially, it seems it was to purify the city, May being a purification month, but it evolved to being a renewal of the people. It was done at the agricultural festival because the produce had to be protected from possible curses on the polis or the people. To omit it left a fear of drought, famine and plague.

A ram was sacrificed to Demeter. Barleycorn and other seeds and cereals were offered to Apollo, and between these two ceremonies, the pharmakoi were expelled in an annual purification of the people and spiritual renewal of them. So, its purpose was the same as that of the scapegoat ritual for the Jews. Pharmakoi were often decorated with a necklace of figs—black ones for men, and white ones for women—and were fed ritual food, including figs, barleycakes and cheese. They were also scourged seven times with fig branches particularly in the genitals while they were imprecated with curses. Besides Athens, the Ionian cities of Ephesus and Colophon had similar ceremonies.

John Tzetzes, the Byzantine chronicler, says the victims were the ugliest citizens, and their fate was to be burnt on a pyre, but Tzetzes also called the victim a sacrifice, which had never been said before.

The Greek colony of Marseilles, on the Mediterranean littoral of Gaul, had a pharmakos ritual that was told even by Christian chroniclers in the fourth century, like Lactantius. Servius says the ritual was performed when the citizens were suffering from pestilence and the scapegoat was merely cast out. Lactantius Placidus says the ritual was held annually, the victim was a poor man who volunteered to live at the public expense for a year, and, at the end of it, was led out of the city beyond the boundaries and stoned to death.

The city of Abdera (Thrace) had a pharmakos victim who was a slave bought in the market place to purify the city. He enjoyed a sumptuous feast, then walked round the walls purifying the city “in his own person”. He was then driven out by stoning. The commentator on a Callimachus line says he was stoned until he was driven over the borders, but a scholiast on Ovid confirms that a passage of the poet correctly implies that the victim was stoned to death.

What was the fate of the original pharmakoi? Plutarch and an episode in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana suggests they were stoned to death. B H McLean notes that, though the only extant account of the life of Apollonius of Tyana is preserved in Philostratus (c 249 AD), “it is almost certain that he was working with traditions that were contemporaneous with the New Testament”. According to Helladius, the pharmakos ritual held at Athens has its origin in the unlawful death of Androgeos which caused a plague. Harpocration says the Athenians would expel two pharmakoi during the festival of Thargelia. According to Ister, as cited by Harpocration, in the Athenian pharmakos ritual the victims were really stoned to death. In the myth given by Ister, the central character, Pharmakos, stole sacred chalices dedicated to Apollo, and the crime having been revealed, the companions of Achilles punished him by stoning him to death. The ceremonies of Thargalia commemorated this misdemenour. At the Thargelia of an unknown Ionian city rituals were performed in imitation of this event, probably a ceremonial stoning, being the pelting and expulsion of a symbolic pharmakos victim with bulbs of squills.

At Leukas in the Peloponnese, a criminal to whom a large number of birds had been attached by cords, was thrown from a cliff into the sea. The birds, attempting to fly away, were meant to lighten the criminal’s descent. Below, men in fishing boats, had to drag him from the water and ensure he was landed on some distant shore.

The Romans continued the tradition. They believed that the old vegetative deity of the previous season had to be expelled and the people purified to welcome the deity of the forthcoming year suitably. At the first full moon of the old Roman year (beginning at the vernal equinox), a man was chosen as the god of the old year. He was called Mamurius Veturius (The Old Mars), was dressed in skins and was driven off by scourging. Matching this, and probably another version of the same ceremony, was the expulsion of Februarius in the last month of the old Roman year (February, from the word “februare”, “to purify”). Here again, an old man was selected as the old year, was wrapped in a mat of rushes, and scourged to drive him from Rome.

Another pharmakos victim of the Romans was chosen whenever an army faced defeat. The army was seen as cursed, and to lift the curse, a soldier was chosen, dressed in imperial purple, and commanded to recite a prayer in which he offered himself for the good of the army and to bring destruction on to its enemies. He then ran ahead of the rest of the army into the thickest concentration of the enemy and gave his life to prove the curse had been lifted. So, said Livy.

Apollonius of Tyana made the people of Ephesus stone the “plague demon”—an old beggar—to purify the city, according to Philostratus.

The Passion

The treatment of Jesus during the so-called Passion begins to look much like an apotropaeic ritual with Jesus as the pharmakos victim. It is presented as history, but has so many elements of the pharmakos ritual that it is hard to imagine that people at the time would not have seen it as one, or mythically symbolic of it. Jesus had a special meal, was dressed in finery, was scourged, was reviled, was led from the city to a place beyond its walls, and there killed. John Dominic Crossan claims the story has been deliberately influenced by the Jewish scapegoat ritual. Jesus is even selected from two identical victims, just like the goats, Jesus, the son of God, and Jesus Barabbas, which means Jesus, the son of God. Crossan thinks it appeared most completely in the Gospel of Peter which Mark and the other evangelists used as a source. The Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Tertillian and Origen all draw the same parallel. Indeed, Origen in Contra Celsus, draws the parallel with the pharmakos victim in general:

Jesus, who had been recently crucified, voluntarily died for humanity, like those who died for their fatherland, to evert plague epidemics, famines and shipwreacks.

In Euripides’s Bacchae Dionysus says to Pentheus:

Alone you bear the burden of the city.

Later Pentheus is stoned to death and E R Dodds has suggested that he too was a pharmakos. Curiously, Gregory of Nazianus (329-389) says of Jesus:

Alone you bear the burden of human nature.
A Tuilier, cited by McLean

S Paul is fond of using expressions that were best known in connexion with the pharmakoi, and in Galatians 3:13, he declares Christ to have been a pharmakos:

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.

Paul justifies his conclusion that Christ was accursed because he was hung on a tree, and the law (Dt 21:22-23) declares a hanged man to be accursed. The Temple Scroll from Qumran is clear that such a man is hanged to death and not merely hanged after death, so it fits Jesus.

Justin Martyr takes this to be the correct interpretation:

The Father of the universe purposed that His own son Christ should receive on himself the curses of all, in the place of men of every race.

And nearly all modern Christian scholars accept it:

Jesus… died on the cross as a substitute for the sins of the many.
J Jeremias
We went free while he was considered accursed.
A T Robertson

Perhaps most important of all is what Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest says, according to the New Testament:

If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation.
John 11:48-51

There is no knowing whether this is historical or not, but it certainly expresses the author’s intention of showing that Jesus was meant to be a pharmakos of the Jews. It might be part of the intention of the author to smear the Jews, or Jesus could more readily have been a pharmakos for the Romans who had suffered a defeat and wanted to ensure any curse that had led to it had been lifted. An excellent way was to kill the man who caused the defeat. Since Pilate and Caiaphas had ruled together for some time and evidently got on together, both might have been true, each of the leaders calling for the apotropaeic death of a criminal to lift the curse he had brought down on to each of their constituents.

Crucifixion Parallels

Christians who see clearly enough the significance of the similarity of ritual details from other societies that look like details of the crucifixion story, have invented the word “parallelomania” to disparage it. No one should be deterred, especially when societies have plain points of contact when ceremonies could have been passed from one to the other.

Though human sacrifice was made illegal in the Roman republic in 97 BC, it seems to have continued till later, particularly associated with the military. In many places in Roman Britain for example human skulls or skeletons are found with the bones of sacrificed animals at the sites of temples or shrines. They might have been people who died naturally though it seems unlikely that a ready made corpse would be thought to propitiate the curse rather than a sacrificial victim. More probably they were criminals who had been sentenced to capital punishment and so were used to double up as a pharmakos.

Was the custom of the exchange of the criminal referred to in the gospel accounts a reference to the sacrifice of a condemned criminal at Passover by Jews or Romans alongside the traditional Jewish sacrifice of a lamb? In troubled times was a symbolic “bar Abbas” chosen from among the condemned, dressed as a king and sacrificed? Caiaphas said it was expedient for a man to be sacrificed for the good of the nation. This sounds like an apotropaeic purpose.

The mockery of Jesus by the Roman soldiers who dressed him in robes and crowned him with thorns prior to his crucifixion was plainly some such ritual—Jesus might have been a pharmakos victim in fact. The Roman legionaries cannot have been too pleased to have lost a battle, to have endured a forced march of 60 miles uphill with their heavy packs, then to have had to fight a band of religious fanatics to free Jerusalem of the rebels. Pilate turned over the leader of the gang of rebels to the soldiers for them to free their legions of the curse they must have had.

In the Roman Saturnalia, slaves are freed and are treated as Lords by their masters. Here the soldiers mock Jesus with this sort of treatment. He is elevated to the mock position of a king to ridicule what, to Roman eyes, seemed his pretentious claims. The Saturnalia probably involved some such ceremony (or play) because it is reminiscent of a similar ceremony from Babylonia called the Sacaea which might have entered Roman culture along with the eastern mystery religions. In the Babylonian Sacaea, the substitute was dressed in fine robes to represent the prince, a crown was put on his head, he was scourged and finally hanged or crucified—just as Jesus was!

Could the time of year have been Saturnalia when the soldiers mocked Jesus? The festival of Saturnalia began on December 19 and lasted a week. Since the events depicted in Mark take place in spring there seems no connexion. But the Roman new year originally fell in spring, and Saturnalia would then have been held at about the same time as the Jewish Passover. Some communities retained, at least partially, the earlier festival, and the period of celebration of Saturnalia eventually extended over the whole period from December to March. The modern day relic of the Saturnalia, Christmas aside, is the European tradition of the Carnival (Fasching in Germany) which begins at Epiphany and ends at Easter. Christianity, as was its wont, took over the extended Saturnalia and made it into Carnival. Thus, for the Roman soldiers the mockery of Jesus might have been their bit of Saturnalia fun, allowing them to get their own back on the man who had caused them some trouble. Alternatively they might have simply used Saturnalian practices to mock the man as a false king whether or not it was actually Saturnalia, as a pharmakos.

However, the scene as described in Mark and echoed in Matthew is a private scene. Jesus is turned over to the soldiers who lead him away to some part of the palace—probably meaning the Antonia fortress. There they abuse him but who would have seen it to report it. It is highly unlikely that the soldiers would have told Jews. They simply would not have been on good enough terms with the Jews—they treated them with contempt, as Josephus shows us on another occasion, describing one legionary as peeing onto the Jews below from the height of the temple portico. After a forced march and a battle they would certainly not have been friendly. Furthermore it is at least doubtful that the paraphernalia of the mocking—the thorns for the crown and the reed—would be readily at hand in a fortress in the centre of a city.

Much scholarly opinion is that the passage in Mark is an insertion and Luke choses to omit it, but it is hard to believe that Mark, who is careful to put Romans in a generally good light, will have a cohort of them mistreating a god—even if he felt soldiers were louts—unless it represented some sort of standard practice that no Roman would be surprised at. It seems it was! Exactly the same is recorded of the legionaries stationed at the frontier post of Durostorum in the Balkans who at Saturnalia treated another mock king to identical indignities. One has to conclude that it is genuine tradition which Mark could not leave out. And since the scourging and mockery recalls the treatment of the suffering servant in Isaiah, he had good reason to put it in. It could not therefore have been a private affair. There seems no reason why it should have been—the Romans were trying to make an example of Jesus and his followers and had every reason for mocking him publicly.

Ecce homo!

In John, Jesus is publicly paraded in his mock regal attire and Pilate, behaving in character, jeeringly declares: “Ecce homo!” “Behold the man!” If this is genuine Pilate had an unusual interest in Jewish beliefs because he is quoting Zechariah 6:12-13 where God’s message is:

Behold the man whose name is The Branch; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord: Even he shall build the temple of the Lord; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.

Possibly Pilate had been advised of this passage by the priests and was being appropriately sarcastic.

This bit of Roman fun seems to have become quickly well known because a few years later, in 40 AD, Philo reports the Jews of Alexandria, a town with a large expatriate Jewish population, mocking the Roman puppet Agrippa I who had just been appointed king of the Jews by the mad Emperor Caligula. They dressed up an old Jewish simpleton in mock finery, gave him a sceptre and a purple robe and hailed him as Karabbas and Maris, pretending to make obeisance to him as the king of the Jews. Maris signified a king.

Why though did they call the mock Agrippa, Karabbas? Was it a badly remembered version of Barabbas, or a deliberate pun on Barabbas. Was this another example of the old custom revived or was it a demonstration by orthodox Jews against the growing cult of the false god, Jesus Barabbas, The Christ? The Hebrew word gur, transliterated here as kar, pertains to a stranger or foreigner, with connotations of fear or dislike, but another word pronounced similarly means a fatted ram—probably the semitic word behind that used by John when he speaks of the lamb of God, a sacrificial lamb—and therefore means simply “fat”. It is easy to see how all of these could have been applied to Agrippa, a descendant of the hated Herod. They were saying:

Barabbas, Karabbas! Son of my father, fat foreigner of my father, more like.

Note that the number of troops mentioned in Mark is a cohort which is about 500. Whether this implies that the number of troops in Jerusalem was a cohort or whether this cohort guarded the Palace or whether this cohort was off-duty is anybody’s guess. More than a cohort will have come from Caesarea.

Finally, it seems unlikely that after the mockery they would have bothered clothing Jesus in his own clothes—such as they were—Essenes wore their clothes completely to rags. Part of the indignity of the punishment was to be hung up naked. Later in the story, when Jesus hangs on the cross, the soldiers divide his garments among themselves. They would surely have done so at the mockery when they stripped him to mock him showing that the scene is included to fulfil prophecy.

Even if the Romans did not intend the crucifixion as a human sacrifice, anyone who knew of the old custom must have seen it as just that. Thus, following ancient and largely superseded traditions, early Christians thought of Jesus’s crucifixion as sacrificial, or more correctly apotropaeic (1 Cor 15:3: “Christ died for our sins”). Paul’s teaching of Christ crucified was central to the success of the evangelist in the world of the gentiles. The followers of Jesus were able to convince themselves that their hero had died as a human victim, a sacrifice like the the paschal Lamb, and an atonement like the Levitical goat—it was God’s will. The dead Christ became more important than the live one almost as soon as the death occurred and certainly by the time Paul had taken it to the gentiles.

The piercing of Barabbas’s side by the lance of the soldier testing whether he was still alive also ties in with ancient sacrificial custom. Strabo records that the early Albanians offered a human sacrifice to the moon goddess by piercing his side with a sacred spear. Similarly the sacrifices at Salamis, Odin where the victim was hung on a tree before being pierced, and in the worship of Mithras where the bull as Mithras incarnate was pierced in the side by a spear or dagger.

Most of the eastern religions of the Roman Empire had an incarnate god who died as a divine sacrifice and returned to life. It was a sine qua non of a decent religion! But here was something really novel—this one actually happened! And similarly most gods of the time ascended into Heaven. Adonis, Dionysus, Hercules, Hyacinth, Krishna and Mithras were among those who so ascended usually in full view for the benefit of their followers. And so did the epitome of Old Testament prophets, Elijah. The Christian God could do no less!

Origin of the Easter Crucifixion of the Gods

The theme of a divine or semi-divine being sacrificed often against a tree, pole or cross, and then being resurrected, is common in pagan mythology. It was found in the mythologies of all western civilizations stretching from as far west as Ireland and as far east as India. It is certainly found in the mythologies of Osiris and Attis, both of whom were often identified with Tammuz. Osiris is depicted with his arms stretched out on a tree like Jesus on the cross. This tree was shown in the same shape as the Christian cross.

At the vernal equinox in spring, pagans in northern Israel celebrated the death and resurrection of Tammuz as even the bible confesses. In Asia Minor, where the earliest Christian churches were set up, a similar celebration was held for Attis. Attis was shown dying against a pine tree, being buried in a cave and then being resurrected on the third day. Is this where the Christian story of Jesus’s resurrection comes from?

The doctrine of salvation by crucifixion, like most ancient forms of religious faith, had an astronomical origin. People were saved by the sun’s crossing (crucifixion) of the equinoctial line into the season of spring, giving out its saving heat and light to the world and stimulating animal and vegetable life to grow. The ancients would carve or paint sexual organs on the walls of their holy temples with this regeneration in mind. The blood of the grape, which was ripened by the heat of the sun, as he was crucified, as he crossed over by resurrection into spring, was symbolically “the blood of the cross”, or “the blood of the Lamb”.

Passover occurs in the spring at the pagan Easter festivals because it had the same origin. Then to distinguish the Jewish festival from pagan festivals, the priests and sages returning from exile deliberately changed Pesach customs. Pagans believed that when their nature god, Tammuz, Osiris or Attis, died and was resurrected, his resurrection revivified nature to permit another cycle of vegetation. The plants would grow again. The bread made from the spring harvest was his new body and the wine from the grape harvest was his new blood, symbols of the hope for good harvests.

In Judaism, the bread of the cereal god was changed into the poor man’s bread which the Jews ate before leaving Egypt, a memorial of the nation’s plight. Instead of telling stories about Baal sacrificing his first born son to the god of death, the Jews told how the angel of death slew the first born sons of the Egyptians. The pagans ate eggs to represent the resurrection and rebirth of their nature god, but the egg on the seder plate represents the rebirth of the Jewish people escaping captivity in Egypt.

The Jewish changes, arguably a conceptual advance, were parallelled by changes in the worship of all the corn gods. Urban swellers were not interested in corn and all of the vegetative gods metamorphosed into spiritual gods. The mystery religions promised their initiates spritual life though they began promising good harvests. Jews were initiated by circumcision at eight days old and their customs became a ritual of national identity rather than a shamanistic and bloody fertility cult.

Christians however came full circle and returned to pagan interpretations. The last supper of Jesus, thought to have been a seder, was reinstituted to the last supper of Tammuz commemorated at the vernal equinox. The bread and wine once again became the body and blood of a god, now Jesus. Eggs were again eaten to commemorate the resurrection of a god and also the rebirth obtained by accepting the sacrifice of his life.

So, Jesus Barabbas was executed on the eve of Passover, the vernal equinox, considered important by astrologers as the crossing of the two celestial great circles, the celestial equator and the path of the sun, and this was symbolized by a cross. To die at the vernal equinox was metaphorically to die on the cross.

The centre of astrological superstition in the Roman Empire was the city of Tarsus in Cilicia—the home of the apostle Paul. Early Christians familiar with astrology will have thought the crucifixion was really the celestial event mythologised, as it was for most religions, and and added celestial allusions they thought had been omitted. An early Christian document, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or Didache, has the astronomical sign of a cross in the sky as a symbol of Jesus but no mention of an actual crucifixion. It seems the historic crucifixion of the Essene leader was given mythical attributes and forgotten. Either that or it was always mythical!


The Indian chief Red Jacket is reported to have replied to the Christian missionaries:

Brethren, if you white men murdered the son of the Great Spirit, we Indians have nothing to do with it, and it is none of our affair. If he had come among us, we would not have killed him. We would have treated him well. You must make amends for that crime yourselves.

This view of the crucifixion, from the viewpoint of a people regarded as savage, is more sensible and rational than that of Christians, who make it meritorious and a moral necessity. If the act were a moral necessity then Judas as well as Jesus was a saviour, because without him in the Christian story the act which saved the world could not have happened. If it was necessary for Christ to suffer death upon the cross as an atonement for sin, then the act of crucifixion was right, and a monument should be erected to the memory of Judas for bringing it about. Only Christian logic can find a flaw in this argument. They say that even though it was God’s fore-ordained plan, Judas could only have played his part because he was wicked! So the Christians finish up believing that the means justify the end, because their own Father would use a wicked man to achieve the salvation of the world. It is hardly any surprise that the Christian world remains so wicked despite being saved.

Further Reading

Last uploaded: 19 December, 2010.

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The Cathars called the Devil Rex Mundi, King of the World. They said Christ had taught the doctrine of “amor”, love, but love had been inverted into “Roma”, the Roman Catholic Church. These “good people” were Christians but repudiated the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. They thought Rex Mundi had set it up to pervert human souls.

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The Wisdom of Carl
Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas. Its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty. Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we are true to its values, it can tell us when we are being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.
Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World (1996)