Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Saviour God

S.G.F. Brandon, ed.  The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation Presented to Edwin Oliver James, Professor Emeritus in the University of London by Colleagues and Friends to Commemorate His Seventy-Fifth Birthday.  Manchester University Press, 1963.

This 1963 book was edited by S.G.F. Brandon, who would later go on to write Jesus and the Zealots (see my review of that here).  The Saviour God is a collection of scholarly essays about the concept of salvation in various religions, including ancient Near Eastern religion, mystery cults, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Buddhism, Taoism, Yoruba African religion, Islam, and Hinduism.  “Salvation” is a broad-ranging term, and it can encompass gaining eternal life, receiving blessings in the here and now, becoming enlightened or freed from selfishness, being released from the cycle of reincarnation, or political liberation.  A common thread across these religions (with exceptions) is a reliance on some higher power for salvation, whether that be defined as a deity, an advanced human being, or something more impersonal.

At least three issues in particular stood out to me as I read this book:

1.  A couple of scholars touched on the question of whether Christianity influenced certain non-Christian conceptions of salvation.  The Yoruba in Africa have a story about the Supreme Being sending a divine sort of being (though some versions say he was human) named Qrunmila to the land to persuade the gods to accept the elements or to give people guidance and blessing.  The author of the essay about this topic, E.G. Parrinder, does not believe that this story came about through Christian influence, for “most of these myths seem indigenous and they are not hard to explain from local materials” (page 121).  While stories about Qrunmila and other African saviors may overlap with Christianity, it is important to recognize that Yoriba religion and its treatment of the savior deity have their own emphases, some of which differ from Christianity; such emphases include divination, a focus on fertility, and avatars.

Another scholar in the book asked the question of whether certain Buddhist conceptions of a savior could have been influenced by Nestorian Christianity, but this scholar chose not to to answer that question.

2.  Within popular debates, people wonder if the myth of Osiris had any influence on the story of Jesus, since Osiris was a dying and a rising god.  Detractors among both Christians and non-Christians emphatically say “no,” noting that Osiris after he was resurrected impregnated Isis and went to the underworld to rule, which was quite different from Jesus’ resurrection (see my post about this topic here).  Interestingly, the scholars in The Saviour God who wrote about Osiris knew a lot of the Egyptian story—-Osiris and Seth fight, Seth kills Osiris, Osiris is resurrected and impregnates Isis with Horus, Isis later exacts revenge on Seth, etc.—-but they left out the part about Osiris going to the underworld soon after his resurrection.  One scholar quoted a passage by Lucius, a participant in the Isis mystery religion, that denied that Osiris was even under the earth, placing him instead in some pure, deathless realm.  All of this puzzled me.  Was not Osiris the Egyptian lord of the underworld?  Did these scholars not know that?  Did Osiris going to the underworld become more evident to scholars over time?  If so, did such a discovery or fresh reading mark the time when scholars concluded that the Osiris-Jesus parallel did not hold water?

3.  When I was reading David Marshall’s books, an issue that came up was tribal and Asian acknowledgment of a Supreme Being.  Marshall was criticizing the view that religion went through animist, polytheist, then monotheistic stages, arguing instead that belief in a Supreme Being was long a part of tribal and (certain) Asian religions.  See my posts about that topic here, here, and here.  Where did the essays in The Saviour God line up on this issue?  The essay about African religions disputed that the Yoruba religion was animistic instead of theistic, noting a belief in a Supreme Being, while also acknowledging diversity and complexity.  An essay about Chinese religion, however, regarded Chinese religion as focused on ancestors initially, before there developed some sort of belief in a Supreme Being.

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