J.G. Frazer (1854-1941): the Crucifixion as Purimspiel

posted Nov 12, 2012, 10:42 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated Nov 12, 2012, 10:46 AM ]

The Old Testament was merely another source of ethnographic data for J.G. Frazer, and he was not above making great leaps of logic on the basis of little hard exegetical evidence.  His discussion of the book of Esther and the Jewish holiday of Purim in the second edition of The Golden Bough, published in 1900, for example, is stunning in its wrong-headedness.  According to Frazer, the story is not that of Jews escaping mass murder in Persia, but rather yet another middle eastern holiday of misrule, of Babylonian origin, based on agricultural magic, and in its original form involving human sacrifice.  Purim, he argued, began as the rite which ratified the gods' approval for a king's rule for another year, a ritual which originally had involved ritual murder, but which at some point made use of a mock king instead.  This explanation also solved the meaning of the Passion narrative.  Frazer claimed that at Purim the Jews would stage a Passion play starring two prisoners who would play Haman (the mock king who is killed) and Mordecai (the true king who is enthroned).  Jesus, playing the part of Haman, was killed; Barabbas,  appearing as Mordecai, was spared: even his name has the ring of a role title.  Frazer thought his theory solved the question of whether the pattern of the dying/reviving god, common to the middle east, also existed in Palestine.  Most people thought not.  Frazer, on the other hand, argued that Jesus was included among the adherents of this motif, and was given the undesirable role of Haman in the first place because his revolutionary preaching had angered the wrong people.

Frazer's reinterpretation of Purim and the Book of Esther quite naturally did not go down well with either Christians or Jews.  He knew that himself, and warned his good friend the rabbinical scholar Solomon Schechter (1850-1915) that the second edition of his book would get him into trouble everywhere.  Reviews this time were far more negative, not only from Jews like Chief Rabbi Moses Gaster (1856-1939), but also from Andrew Lang (1844-1912), an important contemporary intellectual.  Indeed, Lang's review was so severe that when Frazer read it he had to quit writing and take a long holiday to recover from the blow.

The third edition of The Golden Bough (1911-15) repaired much of the damage, and incorporated the development of his recent thinking, which was not nearly so anti-religious.  The first thing to go was his interpretation of Purim, especially the claim that Jesus was crucified while playing Haman in a Purimspiel.  Frazer's main point in this flight of fancy had been to show that the Palestinian Jews already had the motif of the dying and resurrected god, so it was easy for them to accept the story of Jesus when it crystallized.  Frazer also made it clear that he did not think that Jesus was a mythical figure, and even compares him with Muhammad.  Jesus fit in well with Frazer's notion of the great role that individuals had in history, in helping mankind make the inevitable progression from magic to religion and finally to science.  'Quite apart from the positive evidence of history and tradition,' he ruled, 'the origin of a great religious and moral reform is inexplicable without the personal existence of a great reformer.'  But since Frazer never threw anything out, he printed the Purim idea in an appendix, with some new information that he had since acquired.

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Professor Katz,
Nov 12, 2012, 10:42 AM
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Professor Katz,
Nov 12, 2012, 10:42 AM
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