VARDIS FISHER'S "TESTAMENT OF MAN"
A GOAT FOR AZAZEL
Alan Swallow, Denver, 1956 (368 pages)
The previous novel, Jesus Came Again: A Parable, considered the question: Who was Jesus? A Goat For Azazel addresses the question that follows: What was the religion in his name and how did it develop?
The novel is cast as the story of Damon, son of an impoverished Roman noblewoman and a Greek slave. His mother, a Christian, is among those accused by Nero of setting the great fire that leveled much of the city in 64 CE. She is executed by burning, and her unflinching acceptance of this horrible death, witnessed by her young son, instills in him a life-long passion to learn what Christians are and where their faith has come from.
That quest, over half a century, carries Damon to all the great cities of the empire: cosmopolitan Rome, learned Alexandria, lush Antioch and licentious Corinth, to a ruined Jerusalem after the disastrous Jewish revolt, to other places rude and small as he seeks out Christian communities and their leaders, new writings and the men who wrote them, about the faith and about the misty figure of Jesus. Damon is trying to create for himself, and for a book he will eventually write, a coherent picture of a movement which seems to be growing into a major force. Three widely different women figure in his life and quest, and the picture of Rome’s diverse empire is broad and colorful. But the meat of the novel is the profuse wealth of discussion about Christian belief and its Jewish antecedents, about Greco-Roman mystery cults, ancient philosophy from Buddha to Plato to Philo. Because of this overriding raison d’etre, it could be said there are certain shortcomings in plot and characterization; and Fisher has perhaps tried to get too much into it. But the reader who approaches it as a novel of ideas will come away fascinated by its provocative consideration of the origin of history’s most influential religion.
A Goat For Azazel is really a philosophical detective story. It does not presuppose the specific events of the preceding novel; that was a symbolic representation of the birth of the Jesus movement. Damon begins his investigation as a young man toward the end of Nero’s reign. He finds that there is no central organization linking the diverse Christian sects which dot the empire; they have local leaders who preach, but no priests. A mix of Jews and non-Jews, the Christians believe they are an elect of Israel who have been saved by accepting the Messiah. This savior had been killed and rose on the third day. His imminent return will exalt his adherents and make them immortal. On other points of doctrine most groups are in violent disagreement, or in ignorance of one another. As for Jesus himself, he is a shadowy figure. The Gnostics believe he was a phantom and not a real man, others that he was the son of a soldier named Pandera, or that he had five disciples and was hanged in Palestine a century earlier as a rebel. Some groups have no knowledge at all about an historical figure.
Few details about Jesus’ life can be found, until at Rome Damon encounters a primitive book written by one Mark who tells of certain wonders performed by Jesus and maintains he was turned into a god at his baptism. Mark gives the first bare account of his betrayal, hanging and resurrection from the dead.
Damon finds that many elements of the Christian faith and ritual seem to have been derived from the popular savior-god cults of Mithras, Dionysos, Osiris. These similarities to their Jesus Christians impute to the wiles of Satan who, having foreknowledge of the Christian religion, set up in advance counterfeit systems in order to confuse believers when the real thing came along.
Over the years, Damon witnesses the rise of new ideas about Jesus: that he was born of a Jewish virgin in a stable in Bethlehem, that he was from the moment of birth the son of God, that he was rejected by the Jews, that he had twelve apostles. Many of these new details are contained in a book by Luke, whom Damon meets in Antioch. Luke admits that he knows personally of no one who actually met any of Jesus’ original disciples, and when Damon accuses him of reworking old legends and scriptures, of putting into Jesus’ mouth many of the ethical ideas already abroad in the world, Luke claims that he is not inventing "when the holy spirit is speaking through me."
Damon perceives that two strands are coming together: the lord and savior god of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, and the messiah figure of the Jews. God and man are being fused. The earthly salvation of one nation is being transformed into the personal and eternal salvation of every believer. One influence in this evolution, Damon discovers, was a hellenized Jew named Paul, whose highly poetic and symbolic mind had given new and deeper meanings to the mystery cults, to ideas like evil, sin and redemption. Paul had been convinced that faith and repentance were everything; he had jettisoned the need to conform to the Jewish Law of rituals like circumcision, and he had abandoned the emphasis which his fellow Jews placed upon good deeds. In this way he had made the new faith accessible to everyone with appealing ease.
But the Christians’ identification of their savior god with the Jewish messiah is leading to a foreboding enmity between the two religions. The Jews have no choice but to reject the messiah of the Christians, since they have made him the Son of God, an idea which is anathema to these uncompromising monotheists. The Christians on the other hand hold the Jews responsible for this rejection, as well as for Jesus’ death. (Damon realizes that the figure of the great betrayer Judas is an invention which represents all Jews.) The Christians are further exacerbating relations by appropriating the Jewish sacred books for themselves, distorting them into elaborate prophecies about Jesus’ coming. The new religion of love and charity, Damon laments, is turning into one of hatred and intolerance. A new book about Jesus, reputedly written by a man named Matthew but which Damon feels is a compilation from different sources because of its combination of contradictory views, is marred by shocking calumnies against the Jews.
As the years pass, and Damon’s knowledge and writings about the Christians take shape, the concept of Jesus evolves further. From Mark’s human figure who became a god, Jesus is now presented as a pre-existing one, standing with the Father in heaven before creation, awaiting the eventual playing of his redeeming role. This mystic revolution takes place in a new Gospel written during the reign of Trajan by John the Elder of Ephesus. Jesus has become the Logos, the Word, the personification of divine reason and will, an aspect of God the Father. This is an idea derived from the Jewish philosopher Philo, as well as from the Greeks. Paul too held this cosmic view of Jesus (even before the Gospels were written), and his delayed influence had contributed to the Gospel of John.
Damon also witnesses the beginnings of an authoritarian church hierarchy. Ignatius, the Christian leader in Antioch, preaches an unprecedented insistence on obedience and reverence for the bishop and his assistants who now lead most communities; he demands an unquestioning acceptance of what they teach. Ignatius is in the forefront of the struggle with rival Christian sects, whose ‘unorthodox’ views about Jesus are fast becoming the principal evil against which proper Christians must fight. When the Jews are utterly dispersed by Rome early in the second century, it will be a bitter war against heretics that will occupy a growing Church’s attention. In Ignatius, too, is focused a burgeoning passion for the joys of martyrdom, as Rome increases its persecution against the Christians. In fulfillment of his greatest wish, Ignatius is eventually taken to Rome and burned in the arena. Damon follows to witness this replaying of the great shaping influence of his own mother’s martyrdom, and here his life and quest reaches its climax.
When early in his investigation Damon perceives that the Christians have borrowed most of the elements of their ‘new’ religion from other sources, from the Jews, from Greek philosophy, from mythologies and mystery cults all over the Near East, the focus of his thinking shifts to the question: Have the Christians thus created a new synthesis, a new and nobler myth? Its greatest virtue, he believes, is its capacity for tenderness and compassion, its attempt to apply the principle of love in the everyday world ("charity"). Christianity is accessible even to the lowest, to those too destitute to afford initiation into the pagan mystery cults, to those too ignorant to study and follow the Jewish Law. "Blessed are the poor and the meek, the accursed and the outcast!" This is a cry Damon hears ringing across the whole Roman world. Three-quarters of the population of the empire were slaves or little better, a sick, despairing host scorned by the aristocratic classes. For these unfortunates, "Christian promises were the oasis in the desert. (They) opened the temples of holiness to the unholy; gave hope to the hopeless; offered another life to the toiling slaves who labored to enrich the few; and brought God’s son down to suffer with them and show them how to carry their cross." For such simple people without resources, the requirements had to be equally simple and undemanding, truths had to be literal and unsophisticated. Thus the membership of the early Christian faith determined much of its outlook, but it promised to be a pivotal step toward creating a society with fairer principles of justice and compassion, with an entrenched idea of human equality.
However, Damon perceives that many of the immediate effects of the Christian outlook are negative. In this early stage, there is no thought of reforming the world on principles of equality, for Jesus’ coming is expected soon and he will exalt his believers and condemn all others. And with all hope and attention projected onto a life after death, the great need and energy for a system of justice and compassion in the present world is set aside. Several people Damon speaks to are fearful that a new religion of the lowest denominator in society will drag down all human thought and accomplishment to their level: what will happen, if the Christians become dominant, to art and science and philosophy, all of which they openly despise and deride? And how will they treat the rest of the world from their new vantage point of truth? Here, for Damon, lies the crux of the matter: the worthiness of the new religion will be determined by how well they put their principles into practice. He wishes he could look into the future and see whether they too will torture and kill in the name of their God, as the old faiths have done.
Damon’s other misgiving is based on the very ease of salvation which Christianity offers. Only faith and repentance are required, because the consequences of sin have been placed on the shoulders of a scapegoat, namely the crucified savior. The novel’s title, A Goat For Azazel, refers to the Judaic element from which the idea of Jesus’ redeeming role is partly derived: the sacrificial animal upon which, on each Day of Atonement, the Jewish priests symbolically laid the sins of the people. The goat was driven into the wilderness "into the arms of the demon Azazel." With its death, the sins it bore were destroyed and the nation was freed from their burden. But this gives rise to a great moral question: Shall we never be required to pay the scapegoat a fee? Should forgiveness not require that we do accept the burden of our sins? That we "save" ourselves through good deeds and by acting for the good of society? Damon is disturbed by the Christian parable of the prodigal son: he who has led a profligate, destructive life but repents at the last moment will be accorded as much if not greater welcome than the faithful child who has labored all his days in duty and honor. Upon what is mankind’s ethical wisdom to be based? On penitent relations with a deity, or upon responsible and productive social behavior in this world, to eliminate its pains and injustices? This issue is Damon’s guidepost in trying to evaluate the promise of the new religion, and it is the moral bedrock of Fisher’s novel.
The role of myth which Fisher has been developing through the Testament comes to a climax in this novel. Christianity became a religion based on the myth of Jesus, the concept of a saving figure whose roots Fisher has traced through the course of preceding millennia. Even if the birth of the new religion were triggered by the life of a man who actually lived and died, the author is saying, the religion itself is the product of this long-developing myth.
For Fisher, the elements of the Jesus myth go back many centuries to prehistoric times. At the furthest level, Jesus is the sacrifice that has prevented the Sun’s death at the winter solstice. And because primitive thinking had long associated the sacrificial offering with the deity to whom the sacrifice was made, Jesus became God, an aspect of the Sun itself. The Sun, and with it the life of the earth, was resurrected in the spring (at Easter time). These strands of thought passed primarily through the channel of the pagan mystery cults and their more primitive antecedents.
At the next, more sophisticated level, Jesus is the Son who submits to and is sacrificed to his father’s wrath, averting that wrath from the rest of his children. Evolving out of patriarchy’s enthronement of the father as society’s power-wielder, Judaism embodied a strong "fear of God." The redeeming Jesus/Son provided a psychological escape from that fear, and became a more human, accessible substitute for the Father. In the same way, the Christian emphasis on "love" was a part of the reaction against the Father and his demands, for it was a bringing back of some of the lost feminine emotions embodied in the suppressed Mother. This is why Joshua in Jesus Came Again was something of an androgynous figure, so that he could embody Fisher’s female characteristics of intuitive and unconditional love.
Jesus is also the personification of the sense of separation from the group which Yescha felt in The Divine Passion, and which all human beings have come to feel by virtue of the evolution of self-consciousness. By identifying with Jesus’ redeeming act, the Christian can feel his own "at-one-ment" back into the whole, back into contact with a newly understood truth (which all religions claim), back into a state of mind which no longer fears death or the misfortunes of the world. Fisher considers it unfortunate that this atonement has been achieved through the concept of death and sacrifice rather than through physical and emotional communion—the male-produced solution as opposed to the female. For this leaves the human being still separated from the deeper instinctual world, the female principle frustrated, the sexes still incapable of reconciliation, given that the savior figure always involves a denial of sexuality and woman is seen as the source of evil.
Fisher’s fundamental point is that the casting of the mythical redeeming act as one of suffering and death rather than love and life has directed the psychological values of religion and society on a largely harmful course from the dawn of patriarchy to the present day. Damon’s wife Ayla declares that the deity has always been a creation of men for men. The cult of Mithras was open only to men. Jewish women were not permitted to be scholars of the Torah. One of Christianity’s appeals was its accessibility to women, but women soon found they were still looked upon as second-class citizens. (As Fisher shows in the next novel, Peace Like A River, the Christian religious establishment soon reached new heights of misogyny.) Ayla points out that in the Jews’ creation myth, despite the obvious and universal reality that life arises from the female womb, Eve is nevertheless ‘born’ from Adam’s rib! She asks: "Would man make himself the vessel of birth, and so rob woman of her marvelous powers?"
Damon’s final conclusion is that Jesus "has now been swallowed by the mists, like a lonely figure climbing a high mountain, that vanishes from sight and forever when the clouds enfold him; and what he taught, or to whom, or how he lived and died we can never know."
And yet despite his rationality and his understanding of the myth’s derivation, Damon finds himself drawn irresistibly to the figure of Jesus. "Even if there never was such a man, even if he never said a word that they have him say, there is such a man for me now." The power of myth is overriding. Damon realizes that the idea of Jesus was the product of a great and universal human yearning; that so many of the details now being written in the Christian books are valid for what they represent symbolically. Paul’s great poetic vision and mission had been to fuse the salvation promise of the hellenistic mystery cults with the living, universal elements of the Jewish heritage: to create something beyond them both, for every person, Jew or pagan, noble or slave. The tendency as Christianity developed, however, was to create a literal biography of Jesus, requiring a literal belief in the man himself, in the performance of each miracle, the utterance of each saying. This degraded people’s critical and poetic faculties into uncritical credulity, it reduced mythic universal truths to mere superstition. The Christians were creating a great and beautiful new poem for the religious mind of man, but they were severely compromising it by insisting that it was factual history.
"Poets create a poem," Damon muses, "and theologians reduce it to dogma."
In both Jesus Came Again: A Parable and A Goat For Azazel, Vardis Fisher leaves the reader in no doubt that Christianity is rooted in mythology rather than history, and the very existence of Jesus is placed in question. At the same time, while he fearlessly conveys the failings and detriments inherent in religious societies, he also acknowledges the positive elements, and he is not above expressing sympathy for the pervasive human need for faith and figures like Jesus. Indeed, it was Fisher’s conviction that only by understanding how these myths developed, their roots and evolving processes which he is tracing throughout the Testament of Man, that the western mind would ultimately find a way to free itself from an enslavement that had begun almost with the very dawn of intelligence. That blind, groping progress of a collective mind unguided by any outside agency, down through the long eons from Darkness and the Deep, was still searching and still learning. From the vantage point of A Goat For Azazel, Fisher knew (as do we all) that there still was and still is a considerable way to go.
Part Six will review the final two historical novels of the Testament, about Christian development into the Middle Ages, Peace Like A River on early Christian asceticism, and My Holy Satan on the Inquisition.
PART SIX: Peace Like a River, My Holy Satan; Postscript