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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

§ 15. The Gospel Mystery-Play.

It is not disputed that one of the most marked features of the popular religions of antiquity, in Greece, Egypt, and Greek-speaking Asia, was the dramatic representation of the central episodes in the stories of the suffering and dying Gods and Goddesses. Herodotus has been charged with pretending to knowledge that he did not possess; but there is no reason to doubt his assertion 3 that on the artificial circular lake at Sais the Egyptians were wont to give by night—presumably once a year—representations of the sufferings of a certain one whom he will not name, which representations they called mysteries. The certain one in question we know must have been the God Osiris; 4 and that the sufferings and death of Osiris

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were dramatically represented, modern Egyptology has freshly established from hieroglyphic documents. 1 We, know, too, from the concluding rubric of the "Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys for Osiris that those Goddesses were personated in the ritual by two beautiful women. 2

In the worships of Adonis and of Attis there was certainly a dramatic representation of the dead God by effigy, and of his resurrection; 3 and in the mysteries of Mithra, as given among the Greeks, there appears to have been included a representation of the burial of a stone effigy of the God, in a rock tomb, and of his resurrection. 4 So, in the great cult of Dionysos, with whose worship were connected the beginnings of tragedy among the Greeks, there was a symbolic representation of the dismemberment of the young God by the Titans, this being part of the sacrament of his body and blood; 5 and in the special centres of the worship of Herakles, or at least at one of them, Tarsus, there was annually erected in his worship a funeral pyre, on which his effigy—but sometimes a man—was burned. 6 The same motive is worked out in the Trachiniæ of Sophocles. Among the Greeks, again, a dramatic representation of the myth of the loss of Persephonê, the mourning of her mother Dêmêtêr, and her restoration, was the central attraction in the Eleusinian mysteries; and the return of Persephonê was separately dramatised. 7

Of all those mysteries the mythological explanation is doubtless the same: they mostly originated in primitive sacrificial rituals to represent the annual death of vegetation, and to charm it into returning; and in the cult of Mithra, who, like Herakles, is specifically a Sun-God, there may have been an adaptation from the rites of the Vegetation-Gods. In the later stages the magic which had been supposed to revive vegetation is applied to securing the life of the initiate in the next world. We are not here concerned, however, with the origin of the usage. For our purpose it suffices

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us to know that such rites were rites of "salvation," and that they were the most popular in ancient religion. 1

As Christism first became popular by the development or adaptation of myths and ritual usages like those of the popular pagan systems, notably the Birth-myth, the Holy Supper, and the Resurrection, it might be expected that it should imitate paganism in the matter of dramatic mysteries. The mere Supper ritual, indeed, is itself dramatic, the celebrant personating the God as Attis was personated by his priest; 2 and in the remarkable expression in the Pauline epistle to the Galatians (iii, 1)—"before whose eyes Jesus Christ was openly set forth crucified"—we have probably a record of an early fashion of imaging the crucifixion. 3 In the same document (vi, 17) is the phrase, "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus"; and various other expressions in the epistles, describing the devotee as mystically crucified and as having become one with the crucified Lord, suggest that in the early stages of the cult it dramatically adopted the apparently dramatic teaching of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, wherein the saved and Osirified soul declares: "I clasp the sycamore tree; I myself am joined unto the sycamore tree, and its arms are opened unto me graciously"; 4 and again: "I have become a divine being by the side of the birth-chamber of Osiris; I am brought forth with him, I renew my youth." 5 In the fifth century, we know, mystery-plays were performed either in or in connection with the churches; 6 and the identity between the birth-story and several pagan dramatic rituals is too close to be missed. 7 But apart from the parallels above indicated the dramatic origination of the story of the Christ's Supper, Passion, Betrayal, Trial, and Crucifixion, as it now stands, has yet to be established. The proof, however, I submit, lies, and has always lain, before men's eyes in the actual gospel narrative.

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[paragraph continues] It is the prepossessions set up by age-long belief that have prevented alike believers and unbelievers from seeing as much.

Let the reader carefully peruse the story of the series of episodes as they are given in their least sophisticated form, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. From Matthew xxvi, 17, or 20, it will be noted, the narrative is simply a presentment of a dramatic action and dialogue; and the events are huddled one upon another exactly as happens in all drama that is not framed with a special concern for plausibility. In many plays of Shakespeare, notably in Measure for Measure1 there occurs such a compression of incidents in time, the reason being precisely the nature of drama, which, whether or not it holds theoretically by the unities, must for practical reasons minimise change of scene and develop action rapidly. Even in the Hedda Gabler of Ibsen, the chief master of modern drama, this exigency of the conditions leads the dramatist in the last act to the startling step of making the friends of the suicide sit down to prepare his manuscripts for the press within a few minutes of his death. To realise fully the theatrical character of the gospel story, it is necessary to keep in view this characteristic compression of the action in time, as well as the purely dramatic content. The point is not merely that the compression of events proves the narrative to be pure fiction, but that they are compressed for a reason—the reason being that they are presented in a drama.

As the story stands, Jesus partakes with his disciples of the Passover, an evening meal; and after a very brief dialogue they sing a hymn, and proceed in the darkness to the mount of Olives. Not a word is said of what happened or was said on the way: the scene is simply changed to the mount; and there begin a new dialogue and action. A slight change of scene—again effected with no hint of any talk on the way—is made to Gethsemane; and here the scanty details as to the separation from "his disciples," and the going apart with the three, indicate with a brevity obviously dramatic the arrangement by which Judas—who was thus far with the party—would on the stage be enabled to withdraw. Had the story been first composed for writing, such an episode would necessarily have been described; and something would naturally have been said of the talk on the way from the supper-chamber to the mount. What we are reading is the bare transcript of a primitive play, in which the writer has not here attempted to insert more than has been shown on the scene.

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In the Passion scene, this dramatic origination of the action is again twice emphasised. Thrice over Jesus prays while his disciples sleep. There is thus no one present or awake to record his words—an incongruity which could not well have entered into a narrative originally composed for reading, where it would have been a gratuitous invention, but which on the stage would not be a difficulty at all, since there the prayer would be heard and accepted by the audience, like a soliloquy in an inartistic modern play. No less striking is the revelation made in verses 45 and 46, where in two successive sentences, with no pause between, Jesus tells the sleeping three to sleep on and to arise. What has happened is either a slight disarrangement of the dialogue or the omission of an exit and an entrance. Verse 44 runs: "And he left them again, and went away, and prayed a third time, saying again the same words." If verse 45, from the second clause onwards, were inserted before verse 44—where, as the text stands, Jesus says nothing—and verse 46 introduced with "and saith unto them" immediately after the first clause of verse 45, the incongruity would be removed. Only in transcription from a dramatic text could it have arisen.

Then, without the slightest account of what he had been doing in the interim, Judas enters the scene exactly as he would on the stage, with his multitude, "while he [Jesus] yet spake." With an impossible continuity, the action goes on through the night, a thing quite unnecessary in any save a dramatic fiction, where unity of time—that is, the limitation of the action within twenty-four hours, or little more, as prescribed by Aristotle 1—was for the ancients a ruling principle. Jesus is taken in the darkness to the house of the high-priest, "where the scribes and the elders were gathered together." The disciples meanwhile had "left him and fled," and not a word is said as to what they did in the interim; though any account of the episode, in the terms of the tradition concerning them, must have come through them.

But it is needless to insist on the absolutely unhistorical character of a narrative which makes the whole judicial process take place in the middle of the night, a time when, as Renan notes, an Eastern city is as if dead. The point is that the invention is of a kind obviously conditioned by a dramatic purpose. In the dead of night the authorities proceed to hunt up "false witnesses" throughout

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[paragraph continues] Jerusalem, because the witnesses must be produced in the trial scene as closely as possible on that of the capture; and the process goes on till two give the requisite testimony. Then Jesus is questioned, condemned, buffeted, and (presumably) led away; and Peter, remaining on the scene, denies his lord and is convicted of treason by the crowing of the cock. Of what happens to the doomed God-Man in this interval there is not a hint; though it is just here that a non-dramatic narrative would naturally follow him most closely.

Morning has thus come, and "when morning was come" the priests and elders, who thus have had no rest, "take counsel" afresh to put Jesus to death, and lead him away, bound, to Pilate. But this evidently happens off the scene, since we have the interlude in which Judas brings back his thirty pieces of silver, is repudiated by the priests, and goes away to hang himself. The story of the potter's field is obviously a later writer's interpolation in the narrative. An original narrator, telling a story in a natural way, would have given details about Judas: the interpolator characteristically wants to explain that "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet."

As usual, not a word is said of the details of the transit from place to place: the scene simply changes all at once to the presence of the Governor; and here, with not a single touch of description such as an original narrator might naturally give, we plunge straight into dialogue. Always we are witnessing drama, of which the spectators needed no description, and of which the subsequent transcriber reproduces simply the action and the words, save in so far as he is absolutely forced to insert a brief explanation of the Barabbas episode. The rest of the trial scene, and the scene of the mock crowning and robing, are strictly dramatic, giving nothing but words and action. In the account of the trial before Herod, which is found only in Luke, the method of narration is significantly different, being descriptive and non-dramatic, as the work of an amplifying later narrator would naturally be. The words of Herod are not given; and the interpolation was doubtless the work of a late Gentile, bent on making Jewish and not Roman soldiers guilty of mocking the Lord. 1 In the first two gospels, even the episode of the laying hold of Simon of Cyrene, to make him bear the cross, might have been introduced at this point on the stage, without involving the attempt—impossible in drama—to present the

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procession to the place of crucifixion. Of that procession Matthew and Mark offer no description: they simply adhere to the drama, leaving to the later narrative of Luke the embellishment of the mourning crowd of daughters of Jerusalem, and the speech of Jesus to them on the way. Even Luke, however, offers no description of the march; and even his added episode might have been brought into a dramatic action, either at the close of the crowning-scene or at the beginning of that of the crucifixion.

Here, as before, the action is strictly dramatic, save for the episode of the Scriptural explanation of the casting of lots, which may or may not have been a late addition to the action. No word is said of the aspect of Jesus, a point on which an original narrator, if writing to be read, or telling of what he had seen, would almost certainly have said something. In a drama, of course, no such details were needed: the suffering God-Man was there on the stage, seen by all the spectators. The same account holds good of all the remaining scenes in the gospel story, with a few exceptions. The three hours of darkness and silence could not be enacted, though there might be a shorter interval; and the rending of the temple veil, which could not take place on the scene, is to be presumed a late addition to the transcribed narrative; but a machinery of commotion may very well have been employed, and the wild story of the opening of the graves of the saints may actually derive from such a performance, though the absurdity of the 53rd verse is wholly documentary. Such a story would naturally be dropped from later gospels because of its sheer extravagance; but such a scruple would not affect the early dramatists. Even the episode of the appeal of the priests and Pharisees to Pilate to keep a guard on the tomb, though it might be a later interpolation, could quite well have been a dramatic scene, as it presents the Jews "gathered together unto Pilate, saying....."

The resurrection scene, like that of the crucifixion, is wholly "staged." The two Maries, who sat before the sepulchre when Joseph closed it, appear again late on the Sabbath day, having presumably been driven away by the guard before. Nothing is said of what has gone on among the disciples; nothing of the communion of the mourning women: the whole narrative is rigidly limited to the strictly consecutive dramatic action, as it would be represented on the stage. Even the final appearance in Galilee is set forth in the same fashion, and the gospel even as it stands ends abruptly with the words of the risen Lord. When the mystery-play was first transcribed, it may have ended at Matt. xxviii, 10, verses 11-15

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having strong marks of late addition. But it may quite well have included verses 16-20, with the obvious exception of the clause about the Trinity, which is certainly late. In any case, it ended on a speech.

Why should such a document so end, if it were the work of a narrator setting down what he knew or had heard? Why should he not round off his narrative in the normal manner? The "higher criticism" has recognised that the story of the betrayal and the rest do not belong to the earlier matter of the gospels. The analysis of the school of Bernhard Weiss, as presented by Mr. A. J. Jolley, 1 makes the "Primitive Gospel" end with the scene of the anointing. I hold that scene to have been also dramatic, and to have been first framed as a prologue to the Mystery-Play; 2 but the essential point is that all that portion which I have above treated as the Mystery-Play is an addition to a previously existing document. Not that the play (in some form) was not older than the document, but that its transcription is later. And this theory gives the explanation as to the abruptness of the conclusion. Where the play ended the narrative ends. Only in the later third gospel do we find the close, and some other episodes, such as the Herod trial and the account of Joseph of Arimathea, treated in the narrative spirit—in the manner, that is, of a narrative framed for reading. In Luke's conclusion there is still a certain scenic suggestion; but it is a distant imitation of the concrete theatricality of the earlier version; description is freely interspersed; speeches are freely lengthened; and the story is rounded off as an adaptive writer would naturally treat it.

In the earlier gospels such a treatment has not been ventured on. There are but a few doctrinary and explanatory interpolations; the descriptive element is kept nearly at the possible minimum; the scenic action is adhered to even where interpolated description would clearly be appropriate for narrative purposes; the transcriber even stumbles over his text to the extent of joining two speeches which should have an entrance and an exit between them; and when the last scene ends the gospel ends. The transcriber has been able to add to the previous gospel the matter of the mystery-play; and there he loyally stops. His work has been done in good faith, up to his lights; and he does not presume to speak of matters of which he knows nothing. Later doctrinaires, with a dogma to support, might tamper with the document: he sticks to his copy. Doubtless the addition was made by Gentile hands. In the play the apostles

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are unfavourably presented, and the episode of the treason of Peter is probably a Gentile invention made to discredit the Judaising party, who held by a Petrine tradition, though on the other hand the gospel text about the rock is presumably a late invention in the interest of the Roman See.

In this connection there arises the question whether the specifically dramatic "Acts of Pilate," as contained in the non-canonical "Gospel of Nicodemus," may not likewise represent an original drama. Broadly speaking, it seems to do so, and it may conceivably proceed upon a dramatic text independently of the synoptics. On the ground, not of its dramatic form but of the occasional relative brevity and the general consistency of its narrative, it has even been argued 1 that its matter is earlier than the version of the story in any of the gospels. With that problem we are not here concerned; but it is relevant to note that the dramatic action of the non-canonical gospel is not earlier but later than that preserved in the canonical. In the "Acts of Pilate" the trial scene is composed by reducing to drama a whole series of episodes from the previous gospel history, the various persons miraculously cured by Jesus coming forward to give evidence on his behalf. Even the story of the water-wine miracle is embodied from the fourth gospel. This expansion is manifestly a late device, and has the effect of making the already impossible trial scene newly extravagant. And while the trial in the "Acts" is in passages more strictly dramatic than in the gospel, those very passages tell of redaction, not of priority. Thus Pilate is made to utter in his address the explanation concerning the usage of releasing a prisoner, and volunteers allusion to Barabbas, where the gospel gives those details by way of narrative. It is clear that in the natural and original form of such a drama Pilate would not so speak: the speech is a sophistication.

Whether or not, then, the "Acts" proceeded on a separate dramatic text, it does not preserve an earlier version. That it does not give the absurd detail about the risen saints visiting the holy city after the resurrection is merely a fresh proof that the first gospel is at that point interpolated. The mere fact that the "Acts" gives names to personages who are without names in the canonical gospels—as, the two thieves and the soldier who pierced the Lord's side—tells of lateness. What the document does signify is the apparent extension of the mystery-play beyond the limits of that embodied in the first gospel, and under the same pressure of

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[paragraph continues] Gentile motive, the whole effect of the extension being to throw a greater guilt of perversity on the Jews and to put Pilate in a favourable light. That the play in the "Acts" came from a source to which the Syrian sacrificial tradition was alien is further suggested by the fact that it places the act of mock-crowning at Golgotha, not in the Praetorium, and that for the scarlet robe it substitutes a linen cloth; while a formal sentence of scourging is passed by Pilate. Finally, the resurrection does not happen upon the scene, but is related by the mouths of the Roman soldiers, as if the dramatist or compiler were bent on producing new and stronger evidence in proof of the event.

On any view, however, the dramatic form of the "Acts" serves to strengthen the presumption that dramatic representations of the death of Jesus were early current, and thus to support the foregoing interpretation of the gospel story. That interpretation, it is submitted, fits the whole case, and at once explains what otherwise is inexplicable, the peculiar character of what is clearly an unhistorical narrative. Assume the story to be either a tradition reduced to writing long after the event, or the work of a deliberate inventor desirous of giving some detail to a story of which he had received the barest mention. Either way, why should that impossible huddling of the action, that crowding of the betrayal and the trial into one night, have been resorted to? It does not help the story as a narrative for reading: it makes it, on the contrary, so improbable that only the hebetude of reverence can prevent anyone from seeing its untruth. The solution is instant and decisive when we realise that what we are reading is the bare transcription of a mystery-play, framed on the principle of "unity of time."

As has been remarked, it is not to be supposed that the play as it stands in the gospel is primordial; rather it is a piece of technical though unliterary elaboration, albeit older than the play in the "Acts of Pilate," for if we divide it by its scenes or places we have the classic five acts:—first, the Supper; second, the Agony and Betrayal, both occurring on the mount; third, the trial at the high-priest's house; fourth, the trial before Pilate; fifth, the Crucifixion. If we suppose this to have been one continuous play, the resurrection may have been a separate action, with five scenes—the removal of the body by Joseph; the burial; the placing of the guard of soldiers; the coming of the women and the address of the angel; and the appearance of the risen Lord. But similarly the early action may have been divided: the anointing scene, the visit of Judas to the priests, the visit of the disciples to the "certain man" in whose

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house the Supper was to be eaten—all these may have been dramatically presented in the first instance. The scene of the Transfiguration, too, has every appearance of having been a dramatic representation in the manner of the pagan mysteries. But the theory of the dramatic origin of the coherent yet impossible story of the Supper, Agony, Betrayal, the two Trials, and the Crucifixion, does not depend on any decisive apportionment of the scenes. It is borne out at every point by every detail of the structure of the story as we have it in transcription; and when this is once recognised, our conception of the manner of the origin of the gospels is at this point at least placed on a new, we might say a scientific, basis.


194:3 B. i, c. 171.

194:4 Cp. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, cc. 25, 35, 39.

195:1 Budge, Papyrus of Ani, Introd., cxv-cxvi, citing Ledrain, Monuments Egyptiens, Pl. xxv. Cp. Brugsch, "Das Osiris-Mysterium von Tentyra," in Zeitschrift für Aegyptische Sprache, 1881; Wiedemann, Rel. of the Anc. Egyptians, Eng. tr. p. 215; Prof. Erman, Hdbk. of Eg. Rel. Eng. tr. p. 249; Grant Allen, Evolution of the Idea of God, 1897, p. 399; and art. by Chabas, in Révue Archéologique, 15 Mai, 1857, p. 76.

195:2 Records of the Past, 1st ser. ii, p. 119. Cp. Brugsch, Religion and Mythologie der alten Aegypter, 1885-88, p. 623 sq.; and Chabas, Révue Archéologique, 15 Juillet, 1857, pp. 207-8.

195:3 The main authorities are given by Dr. Frazer, G. B. 2nd ed. ii, 116, 131. Cp. Foucart, Des Associations religieuses chez les Grecs, 1873, p. 82.

195:4 Below, Part III, § 7. Cp. Firmicus Maternus, De Errore, c. 22 (23); and see Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. p. 381, note, as to the significance of the passage, which Dr. Frazer, as I think, misapplies to the cult of Attis.

195:5 Clemens Alex. Protrept. ii.

195:6 Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, p. 353. As to the resurrection of Herakles, see pp. 449-450. See also above, pp. 124, 126.

195:7 Cp. Newton, Essays on Art and Archæology. 1880, p. 185.

196:1 Cp. Lactantius, Div. Inst. v, 20; Cheetham, The Mysteries, Pagan and Christian, 1897, p. 71.

196:2 This usage seems to have been normal in Egypt (see Tiele, Egyptian Religion, p. 107) and common in primitive cults (J. G. Müller, Amerikanische Urreligionen, pp. 77, 493, 597).

196:3 Cp. 1 Cor. xi, 26, A.V. and margin. The expression in Galatians suggests either a pictorial setting forth or an effigy. Cp. Canon Cook's Comm. in loc.; and note the bearing of the doubtful passage in a rubric to ch. cxlviii of the Book of the Dead (Budge's tr. p. 263), apparently describing a eucharist in presence of painted figures of the Gods. Such a eucharist would approximate to the Roman Lectisternium. Mr. E. K. Chambers (The Medieval Stage, 1903, ii, 3 note), citing the essay in which the above argument was first formulated, takes it as suggesting a dramatic representation in the case of the epistolary references. That was not the intention. His citation of Lightfoot's denial that the word προγὰφειν can mean "paint," I may add, does not meet the case.

196:4 Book of the Dead, ch. lxiv, Budge's tr. p. 115. Cp. the rubric to ch. clxv (p. 296) describing a figure with the arms outstretched; and see also the account of the pillar, p. 46, as to which compare Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. p. 410, and Tiele, Egyptian Religion, Eng. tr. pp. 46, 187. It will be remembered that in France in the eighteenth century, among the wilder Jansenists, "une des dévotions les plus appréciées consistait à se faire crucifier comme le Christ" (A. Réville, Prolégomènes de l’histoire de religion, 3e édit. p. 173).

196:5 Book of the Dead, ch. lxix, p. 125. Cp. p. 82, and p. 261 note.

196:6 See Christianity and Mythology, pp. 218-23.

196:7 Id. Part II, §§ 11, 12, 13.

197:1 See the author's essay, The Upshot of Hamlet.

198:1 Poetics, v. Mr. Chambers (Med. Stage, as cited), understanding that I suppose the mystery-play to have been "on classical lines," remarks that the narrative before us "cannot on the face of it be derived from a classical drama." I entirely agree. It is a non-literary drama, "classical" only in regard to the unities. Mr. Chambers suggests as a type the Græco-Jewish Ἐξαγωγή of Ezechiel, 1st c. B.C.

199:1 Such a scene may have been enacted in one version of the mystery-play; but it is not transcribed in Luke as the earlier play is in Matthew.

201:1 The Synoptic Problem for English Readers, Macmillan, 1893.

201:2 Cp. Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 337-8.

202:1 By C. B. Waite, in his History of the Christian Religion to the Year 200, 3rd ed. Chicago, 1881, pp. 108-212.

Next: § 16. The Mystery-Play and the Cultus