Triplets and Trinities
The birth of Christianity, part 05
Omne trium perfectum
In the four previous posts, I built on the idea that if Jesus taught in parables, the gospels could, to some extent, have been parables themselves. Over time and the further removed from the forms of classical composition, we may have come to forget this. I continue on this thought but again, like to stress that I am thinking “out loud” here. Rather than present a finished product, this post is yet another step on a path of discovery… or a dead end. I’ll just see where it takes us.
If the Christian Joshua the Anointed is a personification of the idea of salvation, can we find additional support for this proposition within the gospels? In other words, is this principle recognizable in other characters of the gospel stories? I did not have to look very far to find significant examples.
The title is already lifting the veil a bit, but it seems the Christian idea of a triune god is nothing new or revolutionary. From the dawn of time, many gods have been worshipped as either a triad of three separate but thematically linked characters or as one “three-headed” god, hence in Christian terms: a trinity. These trinities or triads come in both male and female representations as well as in the combination father-mother-son. We already mentioned the Moirai (Fates) and the Charites (Graces), but a clear example of a triune male god is the Hindu god Trimurti (meaning Trinity), who had a female counterpart Tridevi, who was herself a trinity. The Roman goddess Diana was venerated as Diana Triformis from the 6th century BC onwards.
As a three member family we found of course Osiris-Isis-Horus, alongside many other Egyptian triads. The Wikipedia page “List of deity triads” gives you a good overview. The page evidently mentions the Christian trinity but passes over the triad deities and the triune goddess of the gospels.
Apart from the triune male god, the gospels brilliantly combine all three forms of triplet gods known to man since the earliest religions, constructing a three to the power three pantheon (incidentally also the number of books of the New Testament).
The male triune god: god-the-father, god-the-son, god-the-spirit
The family triad: god-the-father (replacing Joseph), Mary-the-mother, Jesus
The female goddess: Mary the Maiden, Mary-the-Mother, Mary-the-Widow (or crone)
Now you may argue that Mary is not a goddess, but that may only be true in name, as for all intents and purposes she is a female triune goddess worshiped by approximately 1.2 billion Christians.
Like the ancient goddess Diana to the Romans, shrines and worshipping places are built for and dedicated to her.
Like the ancient Romans to their goddesses, Christians pray to her with prayers specifically written for her (Hail Mary, Sub tuum praesidium, Memorare…)
Like Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods she is a protector deity of i.e. the Benedictines, bicyclists, captives and prisoners, seafarers, pilots…
Like other gods, she ascended bodily into heaven without (depending on the Christian sect) having physically died.
Like the god-the-son, she appeared after her “death” to many Christians.
Like with her son Jesus, many Christians make claims about a personal experience of or with the mother of "god", no different than the claims about her son.
Even if every Christian would negate all the above, does that remove the possibility that the gospel authors may have fashioned the Theotokos (god bearer) after the goddesses every reader in the Greco-Roman world would be familiar with? The Christianity of today is not the same as the 'Christianity' of the gospel writers.
The gospel Virgin
When (allegedly) seventy Hellenized Jewish scholars in Alexandria started to translate the Old Testament into Greek in the third century BC (finishing approximately around 130 BC), they were accused of intentionally mistranslating (1) a particular word: almah. For my own ease, I will cite the following commentary (2) on a debate that has gone on for 2,200 years.
I admit that in years past, I have used this linguistically grounded argument to denote the historicity of Jesus and the inerrancy of the bible and while I think this argument still stands (3), I have come to think I used it for the wrong reasons. If you read Jesus to be a real human being, then you cannot reconcile this with him being born from a woman that had not been impregnated by a real, human sperm cell. The translation of the word ‘almah’ into ‘virgin’ is wrong, plain and simple. But one thing seemed to escape me (and many others with me): the authors of the gospels are not translating anything!
To use the argument of mistranslation as a weapon in the arsenal against the historicity of Jesus is therefore completely irrelevant.
Not only were the gospels originally written in Greek, they were written as new stories about new events. While the authors may have intentionally or unintentionally been referring to passages of the Old Testament, they did not need to look for the most appropriate translation of the word 'almah'. They used the word virgin knowingly and intentionally, because they wanted their readers to make the connection with the world of Greek symbolism they and the authors were familiar with or even deeply educated in. There are as much layers to the gospel Mary as there are to the goddess(es) she is being equated with:
The OG Virgin: Athena
The most famous goddess in the Hellenistic world was the Virgin, Athena. Athena is such a multifaceted and complex goddess that describing the parallels between her and the functions portrayed by the character Mary would take an elaborate separate treatise. Therefore, I will give but a few thoughts below.
When people now refer to the Blessed Virgin, millions of people will automatically know who you are talking about. It was the same in classical antiquity. If you talked about the Virgin, everyone knew you were talking about Athena. Mary is such a generic name that it can apply to anyone (as today, a vast amount of people in the world are named Mary, just as many women in first century Palestine were). Neither does Athena represent a physical, biological superwoman. She is the representation of ideas, both philosophical as the political ideas that flow from them. Clearly the gospel authors were not writing about one single girl when introducing the Virgin, just as Jesus was not a single man. Both represent part of a trinity to the trinity.
The trinity is often explained by analogy with a human man. A man is always a son; he can be a brother or he can become a father. And though these attributes seemingly describe three different men, this man is still his undivided self. However, for the man to be a son or a father, he needs a woman. Conversely, without the son, the woman cannot be a mother. For the woman to have a son, she needs a man (or at least, a sperm cell). In the gospels, Jesus is conceived without sexual intercourse. This does not take away that Mary still needed to have an egg cell impregnated in some way. How a human egg cell could have been impregnated by an a-biological entity is something I will set aside for now. But it mirrors the stories surrounding the birth of Erichtonios, the adoptive son of Athena. This legendary king was born from the seed of Hephaestos, the τεκτων (carpenter, smith, metal worker...) of the gods. Hephaestos tried to have sex with Athena. Depending on the tradition, Athena either fought him off or vanished just as Hephaestus ejaculated. In both accounts, the result was that Hephaestos' seed fell on the ground and it is from this that king Erichtonios was born. In both accounts, Athena adopted the future king and became a mother while keeping her virginity. With the rise of Christianity, Athena, Hephaestos and Erichtonios were gradually pushed from the front stage and replaced by the 'Holy Family", but the ideas expressed in the traditions remained very much alive and kept appealing to the audience's imagination. At the time the gospel writers introduced "their virgin", most every reader would immediately have made the connection to the mythology of the Hellenistic world and its most famous virgin, Athena. This connection remained so strong that even up to the mid-4th century Christian authors vehemently condemned the persistent popularity of Athena (4), while at the same time some of her attributes were being shifted to the mother of the gospels' Jesus.
The foremost idea represented by Athena, hence Mary, is Wisdom. Joshua (Yah Saves) is born of Wisdom. Jesus did not say “Physician, heal thyself” for nothing (5). Only through wisdom and knowledge, research, in short “science” can mankind reach a divine kingdom on earth. Not by a total submission or surrender (Islam) of thought to a rigid, unchanging and immovable absolutism or extreme fundamentalism. You cannot complete a puzzle by worshipping one piece of the puzzle and throwing away the other pieces. This is Nazarenism: embracing all the pieces to complete the picture. Christianity is nothing like this. Christians may often say "god helps those who help themselves", but this is not a uniquely Christian idea (6). It can be found in any religion and in sources centuries older than the earliest Christian writings. In Nazarenism, the marriage between the divine and the physical, material world of mankind is perfectly possible. A divine state, god’s kingdom (Nirvana, or whatever name you prefer) is to be realized on earth, not in an afterlife that benefits no living being. What good is a god if god benefits no one, or some at best? Jesus said the first must become the last, and the master must serve. But Christianity claims that humanity exists to serve and worship god, turning “Jesus’ message” completely on its head.
Athena was the protector deity of the polis, or city. In Latin, citizenship is ‘civitas’ and it is the root of civilization. The Athenians would severely frown upon anyone withdrawing from society or shirking their civic responsibilities. Wisdom should serve the individual as well as the group and the wisest man would be completely useless if he took his wisdom to a monastery to never partake in society again. To the ancient Greeks, the polis or city was the embodiment of civilization and stood in sharp contrast with the uncultivated, uneducated world outside of it. This view still echoes on in our days and in our language. A pagan, from Latin ‘paganus’ or ‘paganicus’ was simply someone from the countryside and in the ancient world often uneducated simply because he or she had no access to the religion, philosophies and rhetoric taught in the cities. The word ‘heathen’ is its Germanic counterpart, expressing the same idea. To the people in classical antiquity, the poleis or cities with their temples or philosophy schools were the centers of civilization and enlightenment. Everything outside of that was the ‘Wilderness’, a cultural void. Almost literally at the feet of Athena, the Athenians gathered in the first ever documented ecclesia: the gathering of the chosen ones or of the ones who are called upon to participate in the first experiment of humankind with self-governance or democracy. This early form of democracy was of course a very limited one, as it equally was in the Roman Republic [Another major difference with modern democracies is also that the Athenians would be shocked and disgusted with any politician asking or expecting to be paid for his public service- I’m just throwing that in here].
The importance of wisdom, knowledge, inquiry and critical thinking for the development of society and humanity cannot be overstated. Technological and ethical improvements cannot be achieved without the former. Athena is not born from Zeus’ forehead as a fancy folly and neither is the choice of the gospel authors to equate Mary with Athena by calling her the Virgin. The imagery is literally saying: “Wisdom (Athena) is born from the mind of god (Zeus / deus). To the Greek philosophers, wisdom was however not a goal achieved by bowing down to authority or the principle of ‘Magister dixit’ (because the master said so), but by the study of the natural world; and the Nazarenes would probably have joined them enthusiastically. In the gospels the coupling of the divine to the natural, physical world is clearly represented by the triad of Marys.
Another aspect of Athena is her patronage of craftsmanship and industry, in particular spinning and weaving. By association one would be reminded of another triad in Greek mythology: the Moirai (or Fates in Latin terms). I think the phonetic similarity between Mary/Miriam and Moira is coincidence, but it’s a nice bonus none the less. The Moirai came in different shapes and forms over time, but were generally standardized as
Clotho, the spinner
Lachesis, the allotter
Atropos, the unturnable
Clotho is usually represented as a young, adolescent woman. She is the image of the mother, giving birth / spinning one's life's thread. Lachesis, the adult woman is the one measuring out the length of everyone's life while the Unturnable does the one thing no one escapes: she cut's the thread at the end of the allotted length by Lachesis. As the mother of Jesus, Mary is not the most prominent character in the gospels. As a combined character however, the Marys seem to be present at all the crucial points in Jesus' life, ministry and especially death and resurrection. The four gospels differ when they number and name the witnesses to Jesus' death and resurrection. What stands out none the less, is that all four gospels name three women in relation to Jesus' death.
Mary, mother of James and Joseph (or Joses)
Mary, mother of James and Joseph (or Joses)
Mary, mother of James
Mary, mother of Jesus
mother of the sons of Zebedee
Mary, aunt of Jesus, wife of Clopas
There are so many layers to the symbolism used by the gospels that it would deserve a series of books on this one topic alone, and I doubt I have the lifetime left to read all the material that has already been written about this. But to sum up, it is clear that Mary is not one single peasant girl giving birth to a boy, but a representation of interwoven concepts, among which civilization, philosophy, the inevitable laws of nature, the cycle of life. One of the ideas expressed by the Moirai is that no one escapes death, not even the gods. And this is quite remarkable for a philosophy that is regarded as rooted in Judaism. The idea that god’s or the gods’ lifespan is measured out by fate just as it is for humans, is very typical for the religions around the Mediterranean, but not for the Hebrew god of the bible. In the cultures of antiquity, the gods may have had incredible long life spans, but they were not immortal. Osiris is killed by his brother Seth and reassembled by Isis. Usually gods are killed by other gods. But in the Iliad, a human Diomedes almost kills Aphrodite by slicing her wrist and she has to flee back to the heavenly realm to save her life. I think it is no surprise that the Jews rejected Jesus as a god, because they were right to frown upon the very notion that god can be killed. This is only possible in the “world of the gentiles”.
Different religions, no doubt. But the ideas and the representations thereof remain remarkably similar.
Many Jews have accepted many Messiahs over the course of the first centuries BC and AD, but none of them have been able to fulfil what a Messiah was supposed to do. Some may even have gone as far as calling a few of those Messiahs a son of god (but aren’t we all children of god according to many religions?), but never would this Messiah been seen as god. This is a perversion based upon a complete misunderstanding of the gospels. The gospels are brilliant, but are not the inerrant word of god. If this were the case, you wouldn’t have four versions of them contradicting each other at points, and you would not need ‘versions’ of it. There would be only one. Apart from the four gospels accepted into the New Testament, there were still others, because they are writing about humans, about human history and the history of their religion, with god overseeing it all behind the scenes.
The fact that the gospels use so much mythological imagery from the Greco-Roman world should not really surprise us that much. Its authors, who were clearly well educated writers, drew a lot of water from many different wells. What specific aquifer all those wells would in turn have drawn from still remains a very fluid mystery, whether we approach that from a religious, theological perspective or a "purely historical" one. To come back to the historical aspect of the gospels, I will devote the next post to a major aspect of Athena which deserves and requires its separate attention: War.
Darryl P.A, 28 April 2022
Notes, sources, references:
(1) Komaberri Bat Translation and Interpreting Services, “Young Mary vs Virgin Mary: A mistranslation of epic proportions”, 22 March 2012
(2) Zhava Glaser, "Almah: Virgin or Young Maiden?", 01 September 1993, JewsforJesus.org, Publications > Issues https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v09-n01/almah-virgin-or-young-maiden/
(3) Excluding the gospels according to Matthew and Luke, no historical or medical record has ever confirmed the asexual conception of a human child. While no negative can ever be proven, it is fair to (colloquially) say that no virgin can conceive of a child.
(4) See for example Julius Firmicus Maternus in his 'De errore profanarum religionum', written around 346 AD; the development of the traditions around Mary and the 'Mariology' within the Catholic Church. The immaculate conception of Mary was declared a dogma in 1854 by pope Pius IX's papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. i.e. Wikipedia, "Immaculate Conception", https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immaculate_Conception
(5) This teaching of Jesus was nothing new. Whether copied directly or used independently, this idea already appeared as part of the moral lessons expressed in Aesop's fables. (6) The same applies to the idea of god helping those who help themselves, as this is equally expressed in some of the fables. Perhaps at a later point in time, we can point at Luke's use of the famous collection of Aesopos in more detail. This does not mean that the gospel authors would have needed to directly cite from "Aesopos", as the moral lessons contained in the fables were moral lessons known to all the cultures and societies of the eastern Mediterranean (and to one extent or another, every society). The Talmud recounts how Yoshua ben Hananan, featured in our post 'Three Tannaim" equally used the stories "attributed to Aesopos" as parables to instruct his students.
Comet P1/Halley, as taken March 8, 1986 by W. Liller, Easter Island, part of the International Halley Watch Large Scale Phenomena Network
Isis and Horus compared to Mary and Jesus, retrieved from Pinterest pin: https://www.pinterest.ph/pin/714031715900532636/ File name: Goddess Isis with Horus and Mary with Jesus File: scontent-iad3-1.xx.fbcdn.net