Myth Wins Out—Resistance is Futile

Imperial Mythology

The ancient Mediterranean world was highly stratified and hierarchically organized. Power and wealth were concentrated in less than the one percent with which we Americans are so familiar. Between 35 percent and 40 percent of the population was enslaved. Since Rome’s economy depended on enslavement, the need for more and more people to enslave fueled almost constant wars.

This violence and extreme social inequity cried out for a mythological solution. Why should some rule and others serve? The master/slave relationship provides a mythology that justifies such cruel inequity as the organizing principle for the Mediterranean world.

Aristotle deploys the myth when he asks whether slavery is against nature in his Politics.

And it is not difficult either to discern the answer by theory or to learn it empirically. Authority and subordination are conditions not only inevitable but also expedient; in some cases things are marked out from the moment of birth to rule or to be ruled. (I.II 8, 1254a, 30)

Aristotle looks around, observes that some are meant to rule, while most are meant to be ruled, and he judges that nature intended things that way. For Aristotle, it’s obvious. The purpose of myth is to resolve conflict and its power is its ability to make the unnatural appear natural. Enslavement was natural to Aristotle, a shrewd observer of reality. Myth successfully paraded as philosophy, but the fact that it was myth was hidden. His conclusion stood without serious challenge until the Enlightenment.

The master/slave myth held throughout the Mediterranean world. Spartacus, the gladiator who led the slave revolt in Rome in 70 BCE, enslaved others once he won his freedom. Spartacus thought slavery was natural but did not think it natural for him. He thought he was one of those few destined to rule that Aristotle wrote about. His experiences of enslavement and revolution failed to change his view of slavery as justified. The myth won out.

So basic was Aristotle’s understanding of slavery as natural that he applied a master/enslaved myth to describe household organization.

The household in its perfect form consists of slaves and freemen. The investigation of everything should begin with its smallest parts, and the primary and smallest parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. (Politics, I.II.1, 1253b5)

For us, a husband and wife form the household’s primary unit, but Aristotle controverts that view. The ancient household organizes around master and enslaved and the enslavement model replicates itself in husband (master) and wife (enslaved), and father (master) and children (enslaved). (See my Religious History of Abortion, 10–11, for how that myth plays out in Ephesians 5:22–24, “Wives, be subject to your husband.”)

The master/enslaved myth also organizes the emperor and his subjects, with the emperor as Master, Lord, kurios, dominus, and his subjects as his slaves. They owe him loyalty and servitude. Mythologically, the emperor deserves this status because the gods show him favor. The emperor’s duty was to ensure the gods’ favor toward the Roman people. Military victories demonstrate the gods’ continuing favor toward the emperor/master. Beginning with Augustus, only the emperor and members of his family celebrated triumphs, victory parades through the streets of Rome after major battles. All victories publicized the emperor and demonstrated the gods’ favor toward him and his subjects.

Kingdom without a King

Against this backdrop, Jesus’ announcement of basileia tou theou, God’s kingdom or empire, takes a different approach.

•Kingdom of God is not used in the Hebrew Holy Writings. It only occurs with frequency in later rabbinic writings.

•The parables are strikingly inappropriate metaphors for a kingdom or empire.

•In Jesus’ authentic language God is never described as a king.

While English translations have traditionally rendered basileia tou theou as “kingdom of God,” more recent scholarship has argued for “empire of God” because THE basileia in the Roman world was Rome. “Kingdom” sounds heavenly, ethereal or otherworldly to us because its sense is traceable to Old English, where it means God’s eternal spiritual sovereignty (OED). By contrast, “empire” feels more threatening and this-worldly to us, perhaps because of associations with the evil empires of Star Wars and other fairy tales. This one word affects our mythology about God even before we ask what it means. As Caputo says, it’s interpretation all the way down; no “literal” translation avoids interpretation. I prefer “empire” because it reminds us that Jesus somehow correlated God’s activity to the basileia of Rome. (Caputo, Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information, vii.)

But basileia only covers half of the phrase. Jesus preached basileia tou theou, the empire of god. “God” as a translation of theos presents new problems. Whose God, Israel’s God or that of the Christians? Most would assume those are identical, but is that so? In the Christian telling, Israel’s God abandoned the chosen people. A more accurate translation of theos in the phrase basileia tou theou is “g-d,” which recognizes that the name of Israel’s g-d was not pronounced. (See my blog post “Does God Deserve a Capital Letter.”) When you read “g-d,” silently say “Adonai.”

Jesus’ audience would have understood “empire” and “g-d,” but not the combined phrase. I think Jesus told parables precisely because his audience did not recognize “g-d’s empire,” a rare and unusual phrase. A simple point, but often overlooked. His parables delivered a new, imaginative experience of g-d’s empire.

Jesus’ parables also provoked new questions: How is g-d’s empire like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds? How is it like leaven, a symbol of moral corruption? A mustard seed is the opposite of an empire and leaven is the opposite of g-d. The answer is not immediately obvious but requires imagination. The parables offer a counterintuitive, anti-mythological view of g-d’s empire. G-d’s empire is like neither the normal or default understanding of g-d (or God) nor empire. Both require reimagination, with parable as a guide.

Jesus talks about g-d only by indirection. He does not address g-d as king or, so far as we can tell, as lord/master. King parables, so frequent in the rabbinic corpus, are remarkably few among Jesus’ parables. Jesus addresses God as “abba,” father, or dad. Regardless of its translation, the word is diminutive, inappropriate for g-d, but like the invasive mustard seed, it subverts the mythical view of g-d.

Myth Rides Again

Because Jesus’ parables offer a counterintuitive, anti-mythical vision of g-d’s empire, myth’s meaning-making power reversed the metaphor’s direction. Instead of speaking against myth, mythical assumptions about g-d and empire eventually overran and overwhelmed the parable. Instead of the parable enlightening g-d’s empire, g-d and empire determined the parable’s meaning, reversing the metaphorical direction. G-d’s empire was not like the parable, but the parable was like g-d and empire.

Luke’s version of the parable makes no mention of a mustard seed’s smallness. Instead, Luke’s mustard seed grows into a tree—a biological puzzle. But the birds nesting in its branches provide a clue to solve the puzzle. The nesting birds refer to the great cedars of Lebanon, a fitting image for g-d’s empire. But a mustard plant, a weed, mocks the giant cedars of Lebanon. An audience must puzzle out what this means. But when the metaphor reverses direction, it makes a very different point. Matthew, Mark, and Thomas all use the parable to show that the smallest becomes the greatest—

imperial mythology is restored. (See Complete Gospel Parallels, #84)

Similarly, in the case of the leaven, a little leaven forms large loaves in the Thomas version of the parable (96). From a small thing, the preaching of Jesus, comes a great thing, the church. This traditional, allegorical understanding of the leaven parable occurs only in the gospel of Thomas. Is it also not odd that this traditional interpretation made Jesus the little thing and the church the big thing? Myth plays strange tricks. (See Complete Gospel Parallels, #85.)

By the time the parables show up in the gospels, their enrobing into full mythological regalia was underway. New interpretations defanged the parables’ anti-mythical thrust. The smallest became the biggest. Fathers became God stand-ins. The Samaritan was no longer an enemy but a good neighbor. Myth wins out because of its stability, the way things naturally are. Parable as anti-myth is unstable because it attacks what appears as natural. Maintaining for a long period of time an anti-mythical position, what Caputo calls a theopoetics, is difficult, if not impossible. But the effort is the only way into the g-d’s empire.  

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