Cyclical Time and the Historical Jesus

Cyclical Time and the Historical Jesus March 2, 2009

by Vorjack

One of the greatest problems when dealing with ancient history is the difficulty of thinking like an ancient human. We are all aware that humans have looked at the world in different ways during different eras, but despite the difficulties we are frequently called upon to try and imagine ourselves as a resident of ancient Rome, or a 1st century Jew, or some other ancient character.

I’d like to speak for a moment about one of the most important differences between ourselves and ancient peoples. Most of this is drawn from the lectures of Professor Darren Staloff, and in specific his lectures drawing from Mircea Eliade’s work on the ancient understanding of history.

Linear vs. Cyclical Time

Pullquote: Ancient people understood great events and influential people by casting them in terms of mythic themes or figures.

Since the Enlightenment, we have lived in linear time. We understand that time moves along in a straight line, with one event happening after another. Each event is influenced by the previous events, and in turn it influences future events. Nevertheless, each event is unique in its context. This gives us our idea of history, a record of events in the past and how they relate to each other.

Well before the enlightenment, however, people lived in cyclical time. Time did not move forward for them the way it does for us. Instead, it moved in endless loops, reminiscent of the cycles of the seasons. History did not advance — instead, it continually recapitulated previous archetypal stories. People understood great events and influential people by casting them in terms of mythic themes or figures.

Cyclical time is still with us to some degree. Consider the way we talk about our presidents. Have you noticed how we continually compare Obama to men like Abraham Lincoln, FDR or Martin Luther King? Bill Clinton was compared to JFK, Truman and FDR. Of course, if you go back, you find we did that to all our great men. George Washington was called the American Cincinnatus, while Robert Livingston was the American Cicero.

When we compare Obama to Lincoln, we don’t mean that Obama is a tall, white and unattractive railsplitter. We mean something basic, like he’s a great statesman. But we’ve reduced a complex and contradictory man like Lincoln down to an archetypal figure in our national story, and we use figures like that to understand our current situation. Eventually Obama himself will be reduced to an archetypal figure; perhaps even within his lifetime.

The Uses of Cyclical Time

The ancients used the same techniques to a much greater degree. When something unique and impressive occurred, they rushed to wrap it in a layer of mythic language. This was how they could understand it. Stories were recast and retold using mythic themes and characters.

If I could sum it up in one sentence, it would be something like this: modern people care about what happened; ancient people cared about what it meant. It may seem odd to us, but I suspect we’d seem shallow and fussy to them. Why quibble over the details? It’s all a part of the same cyclic drama anyway.

The Myth of the Historical Jesus

Pullquote: The followers of Jesus were interested in what his life and death meant.

This theory has implications for the argument over the historical Jesus. For starters, it’s sometimes argued that there wasn’t enough time between the crucifixion and the writings of the Gospels for fanciful stories about Jesus to pop up. This is false; fanciful stories were likely popping up before Jesus was even dead.

On the other hand, the mythicists argue that the gospel story of Jesus seems to be stitched together from mythic themes. Well, yes, but this is exactly what we’d expect to see, even if Jesus were a historical figure. The followers of Jesus were interested in what his life and death meant. So Paul understands him using the figure of Adam, Matthew uses Moses, Luke uses Isiah, and the author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek. This is a classic example of archetypal understanding.

I’ve grossly simplified a complex topic, and for that I apologize. If there’s one take-away message for this, it’s that the modern idea of history is a recent and strange invention. Eliade suggests that we’re likely to abandon it before too long. Whether we do or not, we shouldn’t assume that people in the distant past shared our historical concerns. They had their own way of making sense of history.

Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.

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  • Wow … I found this really interesting and new. From what you write, I think the ancients had a much more interesting, and useful concept of time and history.

    I’ve often thought that what happened and when it happened is far less interesting that why it happened and what it means for me, here and now. So it seems that trying to get any kind of clarity about an historical, real person Jesus is kind of hard, wrapped up as it is in myth and archetypes! Much more fruitful to consider the meaning of, for example, the New Testament, rather than treat it as a true record of events?

    I appreciate that you grossly simplified it as I fear I might not have followed anything more complex! :-)

  • Excellent piece! This interests me quite a bit. Thank you.

  • To the point…well done.

    I have always felt that non-believers, of which I am one, fret too much over whether there was an historical Jesus. (I come down on the “probably” side, simply because there is a well-delineated “focal point” for the stories of and about him.)

    The existence of an historical Jesus however does not mean that any of the myths regarding him…virgin birth, shepherds, magi, healings, resurrection…are true.

    Your piece does an excellent job in explaining how and why such myths came to be connected to him. No fraud or deception by his followers was necessary…they were merely doing what ancient traditions demanded.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I have always felt that non-believers, of which I am one, fret too much over whether there was an historical Jesus.

    Agreed. If we discount the divine paternity, the resurrection, the miracles, the healing, etc.; as non-believers do, what we are left with is a man with a rather common name. It’s like asking whether you believe there is a man named Antonio living in Rome today.

  • claidheamh mor

    I am devoutly Non-christian, believe in the likelihood of a historical Jesus, fully-developed human qualities in some people, and the possibility of them being great prophets.

    How that gets turned into the “born of a virgin” crap, and this particular prophet, Jesus, is the only one that asked us to worship him (things I’ve actually heard people say!), and that we need to be “saved” “through” him, is the nonsense that escapes me, and does incredible damage to people.

    VorJack! I’ve enjoyed your posts; nice to see you here.

  • Good post!

    I know it’s hard to keep a post from being too long sometimes, but I would have enjoyed reading further. From the way you were going, I was hoping for more elaboration on how this idea that ancient people’s history was more about meaning than a statement of event accounts pertained to your view on the validity of the bible, particularly the new testament.

    Regarding the idea that we may change our idea of what history is, it doesn’t seem likely anytime soon for the simple fact that we seem so information driven. There’s so many people on this planet with so many different ways of interpreting events that the most efficient way of explaining them to ourselves and our great great grandchildren is by telling them “this happened, then this, then this”. Information bounces to the other side of the planet in a matter of seconds. We are likely to never have to rely on storytelling as a means to keep up a history again.

  • Barry

    Nice post Vorjack

    I don’t think we can neatly divide such a view of time based on modern versus ancient though. Some cultures today still have a cyclical view of time but also I have to disagree with you in the sense that Judaism and then Christianity were very linear in the way they view time.

    Views of history as being cyclical are much more in tune with the Eastern faiths, though there are elements to be found in the Bible. Solomon writes about seasons that change, think of the Byrd’s song, but viewed as a whole Hebrew scripture always looked forward with well defined view of past, present and future narratives. They looked to a beginning point with a creation story, dealt with the struggles of being an “elect” people, and looked forward to a messiah.

    Compare this to the wheel of suffering or reaching for enlightenment, these types of concepts were foreign to Judaism. The archetypes you mentioned in scripture are viewed as precursors to a fulfillment such as Melchizedek and Christ. Archetypes don’t have to be simply the epitome of a trait.

    I would still agree that we view the world different than our ancestors did, I find that view most people don’t know anything about history in general and tend to be very superficial in their judgements about current events. Maybe that’ always been the case to a certain degree, but I can’t help but think that even going back to the Puritans we can find a people in this country who viewed history different.

  • MilitantAtheist

    Great post, Vorjack!

    The bible is rife with allusions to other “historical” events, in many cases being self-referential. When modern christians refer to the bible being so full of prophesies that have been fulfilled, they neglect to mention that many of these prophesies are made in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament, which is probably due to ancient peoples’ concept of cyclical time.

  • If BOARDNUTTERZ reads this::

    Bring your comments to my contact. Thanks for contacting me but your rant was just cute. I don’t have conversations via comments, only on email. If you want to carry on a conversation, ANYONE READING THIS, feel free to email me and we’ll talk. Comments are just for that – COMMENTING!

    Thanks to Daniel Florien for open comments and great conversation starters. I won’t use the blog comments all day long to chat. That’s the beauty of “chat” systems and email. Imagine that.

    Looking forward to the next hot button. Thanks again, Daniel!

  • John C

    Vorjack is a good fiction writer. Unfortunately, there is nothing new, nothing substantive here, just another denial of the love of God in a very, very long list. There is no life in it.

    The real life is not one of denial, but of belief, the uncreated Life living His through ours.

    There is a life, there is more.

  • A very interesting post.

    Would another big (and possibly related) difference be with regard to ancestor worship: how historic people viewed those who came before them? The writings of Sun Tzu along with other ancient orders seem to indicate that the ancients possessed all the knowledge, and that subsequent generations somehow wasted it away, leaving today’s generation with mere scraps of knowledge. It’s a common refrain of conservative thought even today, that somehow we are descending into greater sinfulness with each generation.

    Today we have turned this idea completely on it’s head. Scientific thought pays no attention to tradition, and the discoveries of the present can be seen to surpass what was learned in previous times. We see the people of the past as having huge gaps in their knowledge and we see ourselves as knowing much more.

  • A simplistic way to sum up this article — a very good one, I might add — is context. Every aspect of history can only truly be understood in reference to its context. When context is cast aside, the meaning gets mangled.

  • LRA

    EXCELLENT post Vorjack!!! BRAVO!!!

  • I, too, enjoyed your words.

  • Jesse


    So what are the implications of this cyclical way of thinking for our understanding of secular ancient history? How does this impact our understanding of Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire and its Caesars, ancient Greece, etc? Does this cast into doubt every work of history up until the enlightenment?

  • a2audrey

    This has got me wondering if a cyclical view of history leads one to circular reasoning?

  • Fabulous post, Vorjack! We’ve been reading stories of mythology to my daughter for this exact reason. Even at 4-1/2, she understands that these stories’ purpose is to explain the parts of life we don’t yet understand.

    Daniel, I hope to soon participate more in the threads — just have to get the grad school monkey off my back! Re: the link I sent you on FB, realized I didn’t have my friend’s permission to post it, and I withdrew it from my blog. Seeing that you’re taking submissions, I may ask him to send it to you for posting.

  • NightHiker

    The post applied an interesting perspective to the matter at hand, but I am not sure about its relevance, even if true.

    I say that because to me the historicity of Jesus is mostly a non issue. Aside from the fact we have very little, if anything, in regard to undisputed direct citations of Jesus in sources other than the gospels, even if there was a real person that might have served as an original mold to the myth, any meaningful link was likely lost, eventually.

    What we have is a collection of paraboles and accounts that, even when attributed to a person named Jesus, may have originated elsewhere, and in such a way that we cannot tell what real connection to this supposedly historical person is left – the Jesus we talk about, including his teachings, what most would deem the most important aspect of him, seems to be little more than myth one way or another.

  • Linear Time and the Historical Lamb

    Let him with eyes to see, see, and let him with ears to hear, hear. The written records are left as solid proof to man until the earth shall be no more.

    Flying Spaghetti Monster created the earth 7,000 years ago. Thou shalt have no other gods before him, and indeed it is impossible for you to do so, for all those other impostors came after him, a piddling 6,000 years ago at the most.

    He sent into the world his only begotten son, born of a virgin olive oil, the Lamb, known in America as Meatball, or Mutton Chop, which means “the anointed one”, for he was anointed with mint and mustard.

    The Old Menu was the old covenant. It was the giving of the law, and demanding obedience, and there were no substitutions, except that one be allergic to onions. The New Menu is the new covenant, and it serveth forgiveness, though not upon a silver platter, but upon fine china, which tarnishes not. If imperfect man shall be guilty of the overindulgence of gluttony, he may seek the Pepto-Bismol of the Lamb, and he shall be relieved.

    Unless you be washed in the tomato sauce of the Lamb, you shall not enter the Dining Room of heaven. And then you shall be washed as white as snow, and every stain and blot shall be removed from you, for dry cleaning solvent and a baking soda rinse shall remove even the stains of tomato sauce with olive oil.

    FSM commanded that we know, and not just believe. I know in my heart I have a personal relationship with the Mutton, the Son of FSM. I kneel in my heart before Him, for after a spaghetti dinner this reduces heartburn, and does gird our loins against acid reflux.

    Until the end of days, the Holy Gas Bubble pleads for us in groaning too deep for words, and on that awaited day there shall Beano discomfort.

    He is the only Creator, and we await the long hoped for redemption of his Second Helping.

    Then shall he say to us, well done, thou good and faithful servant, thou mayest eat eternally of dessert, and pig out yet fatteneth not, and no gas pains shall ever trouble the sons of the Mutton in the Dining Hall of heaven.


  • murrowcronkite

    They recently found the fossilized footprints of a wholly developed Homo Sapeins that are one and one half million years old.
    I wonder if this jives well with the evolution timeline for humans beginnings.
    Leaves open the door for the third possibility- that of extra terrestrial hybridization/DNA manipulation to produce humans and possible seeding of the planet.
    That natural selection is real is not in doubt but our beginning and development are far from clear.
    Delusional-I know

  • murrowcronkite

    Jesus proto types and similar stories go back through all cultures to the begiining of history. Joseph Campbell and others have addressed this.
    Jesus had the luck of being around at the dawn of western civilization which made His story not only somewhat relevant to His time but also allowed the story to spread and work its way even into the top levels of governments.
    Whether Jesus was contructed , ripped off from these earlier stories or quite genuine isn’t clear, but the story and message are powerful which is why it exists even today.

  • **crickets**

    Surely, John, it would be nice to know the truth, but as many of us have said many times… In order for us to feel reasonably confident that something is true, especially a claim on the existence of a mystical being, it would require at least some level of liklihood on par with other aspects of our world that we have more reason to believe are true. Oh, and a little evidence wouldn’t hurt.

    Stop trying to change us.

    What you call mocking, we call discussing an alternate viewpoint.

  • claidheamh mor


    I will go back and find all the questions you have not answered, and all the points to which you have not stuck.

  • claidheamh mor

    Do not mock FSM if you truly do not know him.

    The interior life that Meatball (Mutton Chop, “the anointed”), the Lamb of FSM, offers is peace, life and liberty. He offers a new nature.

    FSM can have no other gods before Him, because he came first, and the others were invented later. External sky-gods or internal heartworm-gods, it matters not where they live, they are fables the true seeker uses before finding The FSM.

    His Bible came first, and the other phone bibles that came later plagiarized many of His words.

    Does anyone (really) want to be washed inthe tomato sauce of the Meatball?

    I *know in my artichoke heart the peace that comes from knowing the mutton. It’s not a belief; it’s true! We have the written records to prove it, and my feelings just *know* it right down to the tinglies I get when I think of Him. Sometimes it was my cell phone set on “vibrate”.

    But I KNOW.

    There is MORE!

  • Roger


  • John C

    You cant pin me down to some theology…am not religious like that. Am a God lover, not a bible thumper. Need to appreciate the disparity between the external print (bible) and the internal blue…print, His nature within. That’s what its all about.

    As far as your sky-God” reference, Christ taught just the opposite. He says “I will be in you and you will be in me” John 17:21-23. And Paul shared the “mystery of the ages is Christ IN you” Col 1:27.

    Now I dont know about you, but I dont live “up in the sky”. You are making the age old mistake of associating Him with what you have observed in “religion”. Religion being external and Christ internal…not literally “in ur heart” as you guys are so fond of mocking but literally in one’s spirit, united as it was in the beginning before man lived from the tree of independence whose fruit was death (separation).

    Spirituality is what He offers. Truth is always liberating. Religion and “sky-God” mindsets are incorrect and not scriptural.

  • Wow, I never knew that. My eyes are opened!

  • John C’s attempt to explain his delusion remind me of Richard Dawkin’s term, “Epistilogical Hedonism”.

    Definition: It makes me feel good, so I believe it.

    Of course there are many things that will make us feel good…the opiates come to mind, though I prefer old fashioned sex.

    However John C…the fact that something makes you feel good is not evidence for its truth. You need to do better.

  • Ty

    Glad I caught up with this post. Good job, Vorjack.

  • It’s just too bad that all those first century people were so gullibule and all. After all, people who have never been exposed to the dead up close and personal are often easy to misled. :)