Once I realized that so much of the scholarship on the Christian accounts of journeys to the realms of heaven and hell was focused almost exclusively on the ultimate question of where this idea of taking an actual trip to the afterlife came from – ancient Greek myths? Jewish apocalypses? – I was deeply puzzled by it. Why is the *origin* of an idea the most important or revealing thing about it? Would any scholar of Victorian English dealing with David Copperfield be concerned *only* with knowing where the idea of writing a novel originated? It’s an interesting and important question, but is that really the main thing we want to know about the book?
Why would it different with this kind of ancient religious writing? Why this one focus? And what was driving the concern? I immediately realized that it was tied in to lots of other fields of inquiry going on in the 19th century. Origins seemed to be everywhere. Scientists were interested in the origins of life, and the origins of humankind (Darwin “The Origin of Species,” 1859!); linguists were interested in the origins of language (what was the “original” language; how do they all go back to common roots); anthropologists were interested in the origins of the “races”; cultural historians were interested in knowing where/when the earliest civilizations were and what they were like; etc. etc.
This kind of interest just seems natural to us. It’s second nature. It’s common sense. Of course this is interesting and important. But it occurred to me that it is a completely modern obsession. Throughout most of history …
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