on September 30, 2000
The church father Tertullian said the questions that make people heretics are these: Where does humanity come from, and how? Where does evil come from and why? He could have added, Where do religious beliefs come from, and what gives them their authority? In The Jesus Mysteries, authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy take on these heretical question with some surprising results. In an interview with Harpers, the authors had this to say about their new book: "During the centuries leading up to the birth of Christianity various cults known as `Mystery Religions' had spread throughout the Pagan world. At the centre of these Mystery cults was a story about a dying and resurrecting godman who was known by many different names in many different cultures. In Egypt, where the Mysteries originated, he was known as Osiris, in Greece as Dionysus, in Asia Minor as Attis, in Syria as Adonis, in Italy as Bacchus, in Persia as Mithras. The more we discovered about this figure, the more his story began to sound uncannily familiar. "Here are just a few of the stories that were told about the godman of the Mysteries. His father is God and his mother is a mortal virgin. He is born in a cave or humble cow shed on the 25th of December before three shepherds. He offers his followers the chance to be born again through the rites of baptism. He miraculously turns water into wine at a marriage ceremony. He rides triumphantly into town on a donkey while people wave palm leaves to honour him. He dies at Easter time as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. After his death he descends to Hell, then on the third day he rises from the dead and ascends to heaven in glory. His followers await his return as the judge during the Last Days. His death and resurrection are celebrated by a ritual meal of bread and wine, which symbolize his body and blood. "On the basis of this and much other evidence we now believe that the story of Jesus is not the biography of an historical Messiah, but a myth derived from the Pagan Mysteries. The original Christians, the Gnostics, were Jewish mystics who synthesized the Jewish myth of the Messiah with the myth of the Pagan godman in order to make Pagan mysticism easily accessible to Jews. The origin of Christianity is not to be found in Judaism, as previously supposed, but in Paganism. Ironic don't you think? "Ironic indeed, but as a longtime student of mythology, philosophy and religion, their premise intrigued me immediately. I had long known of similarities between pagan religions and Christianity, but until The Jesus Mysteries I had not found a comprehensive source that tried to pull all these threads together and make a synthesis of them. Freke and Gandy take us on a wide ranging and well documented journey through numerous sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi library and Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy in an effort to show the mythical and philosophical antecedents of the Christian religion. Along the way they also survey the violent and contentious history of the early Christian church as it made its way from an outlawed sect to the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire. Not everyone will agree with their conclusions, but the authors thoughtfully provide hundreds of bibliographical references and footnotes so most anyone can review their research and make up their own minds. The book is provocative but compelling, and I rank it as one of the most important books I have read in the last 30 years.
on March 29, 2002
Abandon all hope ye who enter here! This is one of the most dangerous books I've come across in a while and I urge all open-minded Christians to steer well clear of this tome lest they uncover the truth behind Christianity and perhaps even discover the God of the Universe who exists beyond traditional religion in the process!
Seriously, though, I found The Jesus Mysteries to be one of the bravest and most thought-provoking pieces of work I've come across in years. It is a lucid and exhaustively researched expose of the history of Christianity and its battles with Gnosticism put forth in laymen's terms that really gets the mind racing and the heart pumping. In it, Freke and Gandy make an excellent case for the idea that Christianity is actually a Jewish version of earlier Pagan Mystery Religions then in vogue in the Roman Empire with Jesus but a mythological character designed to reflect earlier Pagan mangod beliefs. They show--successfully, I think--that what started out as a mystical Gnostic Christianity was ultimately superceded by a Literalist Christianity (by which they mean Christians who intepret the Jesus stories as literal, historical events rather than mythological analogies and metaphors as did the Gnostics) that denied the very mystical, mythological underpinnings that created the movement in the first place. Their reports on some of the early church fathers and their complicity in destroying what they consider to have been the original "true faith" of Gnostic Christianity are brutal, especially in using these men's own writings and words against them, and their overview of the role of the Catholic Church in suppressing all belief systems that were at variance with their own is nothing short of savage. These men name names and take no prisoners, and have the references to back it up!
That's not to say this book is perfect. Freke's and Gandy's attempts to demonstrate the modern gospels to be "full of contradictions" was weak at best in using examples that have been largely successfully refuted by modern apologists, though they did score a few good solid "hits." And their use of the Book of Hebrews to bolster their claim that Paul was a Gnostic entirely ignored the fact that almost no modern scholars consider Hebrews a genuine Pauline writing in any case, making any "pro gnostic" statements in it irrelevant to their argument. They also have little to support their contention that some of the Pauline letters are later forgeries while others are genuine other than an apparent bias against any supposed Pauline statements that do not support their original contention. Yet even then, I still had to admit that their case for a Gnostic Paul was not entirely without merit; I only question their methodology. Finally, to bolster their arguments that the literalists "doctored" the Bible to suit their needs, they date the main Gospels along with the Book of Acts (with the possible exception of Mark) to the mid second century, much later than even most liberal scholars are usually willing to accept.
Yet despite these problems and a few lapses in logic, Freke and Gandy make a good solid case for Christianity being but another reflection of much earlier and widespread Pagan mythologies that should give many open-minded Christians much reason to pause. I also found it heartening at the end of the book when they demonstrated that their intention was not to destroy Christianity--which is where the book initially seems to be going--but to restore it to its original spiritual meaning and vitality. Like Bishop John Shelby Spong, their intent seems to be to save Christianity from itself. Only time will tell whether they have succeeded, but knowing the mindset of the average fundamentalist--and I was one myself once--I doubt if they have a Gnostic's chance in Hell of being successful.
on December 12, 2000
This book is a revelation - not about the truth or fiction of an historical Christ, but about the phenomenon of Mediterranean culture known as Mystery Cults and their impact on the formation of Ancient Christianity. This thesis is not new with the current authors, but never has it been carried with such clarity for the general reader interested in Ancient Christianity but largely ignorant of its cultural milieu.
The influence of the Mystery Cults on Judaism didn't start with Christ. It may have even predated the influence of Alexander the Great; there's a strong argument that it reflects the influence of Egyptian religion and older religions that arose in the Mediterranean family of tribes and nations. These arguments cannot be discounted or dismissed because of the use the authors have put them. The book relies on the most recent studies by archeologists and Bibical scholars, two fields that have virtually exploded in the last 20 years with more accurate pictures of the Meditarranean cultures and writings and more accurate datings of familiar events. In fact the notes and the bibliography alone are worth the price of the book.
This book has led me on a wonderful voyage of exploration and discovery. If there are any out there who would like to plot their own voyage, I encourage you to get the book and start now on your trip. You won't be disappointed.
on October 12, 2000
Many will see the basic premise of "The Jesus Mysteries" to be the similarities between Christianity and the earlier Pagan Mystery Religions. This concept is not new and has been turned into a strawman and somewhat refuted by certain Christian Apologists.
What makes this work unique is the completeness of the story, from the Pagan origins of the themes of Christianity, to the Mysteries' influence in the areas surrounding the first known Christian churches, to the earliest debates within the church over the "heretical" views of Gnosticism. Earlier works on this subject left many questions unanswered, but the complete story from Freke and Gandy leaves no stone unturned.
Critics will attempt to knock out a few legs of their argument, but the completeness of the argument means it has a solid foundation that can handle a few valid criticisms. The criticisms I've seen so far, however, resort to ad-hominem attacks against the credibility of the authors (such as "they don't have a degree in Theology, so how could they write about Jesus", which would be like saying that the only ones capable of criticizing one of Bush's speeches is a life-time member of the Republican party), nit-picking about how hard it is to find the books they reference, or thinking that by refuting a single claim, one can refute the entire work.
But none of the criticisms of the theory have convinced me that their basic premise is not entirely feasible -- at least as feasible as someone walking on water and raising the dead.
The proposed "true" history of christianity from its roots as a hellenized mystery religion expressed through Gnosticism with the literal interpretation of the Gospels being only the "outer" mystery (and never intended to be taken as literal), followed by an enforcement of "orthodoxy" by later literalists is very much supported by what we know of the ancient times ... often from the very texts the church holds sacred.
Certainly no fundamentalist myself, I had been introduced to the complete silence of the earliest Christians to any historical Jesus..., and have been open to finding the complete story. I suspect it is somewhere between Freke and Gandy's hypothesis and Doherty's.
Although somewhat one-sided (and who isn't), I still give it 5 stars due to the completeness of the theory. Is it true? Maybe. Is it entirely plausible and supported by history? Definitely.
on September 26, 2000
'The Jesus Mysteries' is both very enlightening and very annoying at the same time. Among the irritations are the authors pretensions (they repeatedly claim that they started out with no particular agenda when it is quite obvious that this is untrue) and the book's tabloid style (they tend to use a lot of exclamation marks as though they are astounded by their discoveries). Despite these annoyances, the authors' argument - that there is no evidence for a historical Christ and that the Jesus story was cobbled together from elements of Platonism and contemporary Mystery cults - is extremely persuasive. So much so that this book, despite its tabloid style, demands a serious counter-argument from theologians.
on May 8, 2005
As the authors state:
"While the Jesus Mysteries Thesis clearly rewrites history, we do not see it as undermining the Christian faith, but as suggesting that Christianity is in fact richer than we previously imagined."
I agree with the authors.
How was Christianity richer in the past than it is now? Simple. The good guys lost and the bad guys won.
In the 4th century CE Gnostic Christians who claimed Jesus was an allegory were brutally destroyed by Literal Christians who claimed Jesus was a real person.
So, was Jesus an allegory or a real person?
Paul the Apostle was a real person. Both religious and modern scholars agree the first seven letters of Paul were written in the first century CE by Paul himself. The Roman Empire had many prolific writers and Paul is mentioned on many occasions. But the Romans wrote nothing about Jesus.
What about books in the New Testament? Since 1500 CE, honest, unbiased scholars have repeatedly exposed as frauds documents that supposedly proved Jesus really existed. Scholars may quibble over minutia but after 2,000 years there is no historical evidence a literal Jesus who founded Christianity ever lived.
Evidence increasingly shows Jesus was meant to be an allegory that taught about the greatest Mystery of all - life itself.
Individuals earning millions of dollars a year promoting a literal, historic Jesus may protest their reduced income but if they are honest they will admit there is no historical evidence Jesus the founder of Christianity was a real person. The Apostle Paul, yes; Jesus, no.
Science continues to expose historical frauds from Literalist religions, yet Science and Gnosticism continue to support each other. Both question what is taken for granted. Both reject blind faith. Both have working models of the universe that are changeable. Both challenge unquestioned beliefs we inherit from the past. In fact, "Gnostic" and "Scientist" mean the same thing: knower.
As the authors state:
"Literalist Christianity is built upon the unsteady foundations of historical lies. Sooner or later it must topple over. But mystical Christianity rests securely on the bedrock of timeless mystical truth and is as relevant today as it has always been."
Again, I agree with the authors.
For a glimpse of first century CE Christianity without second century CE Literalist dishonesties go to Google.com, search for "Christian Mysticism" and visit a few of the 50,000 plus sites.
In my opinion "The Jesus Mysteries" view is more accurate, more honest, and better fits historical evidence than the Literalist view.
Filled with historical evidence by both religious and modern scholars "The Jesus Mysteries" is an excellent book. It took courage for the authors to write and if you are a Fundamentalist in any religion it takes courage to read. The question is, "Do you have the courage to face the 'The Jesus Mysteries' in an honest, unbiased manner or do you want to hide your head in the sand?"
on July 21, 2001
A careful study of the gospels could lead anyone to conclude that they cannot be biographical, however there would seem to be no viable alternative to thinking they ultimately arise from the teachings of a real man. This book is not one of history but of comparative mythology, and sets out an interesting thesis that is difficult to dismiss. That is, that the figure of Jesus is an incarnation of the mythical dying and resurrected god figure that existed at the center of common pagan religion. But the book might be less interesting if you know how they prove this, so I won't get into the arguments. Some of its points are not surprising, and often there is no attempt to separate what are early parallels with paganism with later adoption of pagan ceremonies and dates to make Christianity more palatable. It relies heavily on certain sources deemed more reliable and also on the genuine letters of Paul. As such it can easily be dismissed by some as being selective in its evidence, and it still leaves the possibility that Jesus lived and was later equated with the pagan god. Also at times they aren't entirely convincing and occasionally make sloppy arguments and weak associations. The last fifty pages seem to be the weakest, when they attempt to reconstruct true history. Always a difficult task, but it clearly is meant as an attack on the traditional Christian histories, and is not in any way meant to be balanced (since it is always uncovering the hypocrisy and degenerate nature of the early catholic Christianity while praising the pagans and Gnostics throughout), but they are not unreligious or hostile to religion and God. The authors at least have made their point well and have done their best to provide evidence when they can, but on the very last page there is a statement that says "[the authors] are now offering lectures and seminars exploring the mystical Inner Mysteries of the ancient Pagans and the original Christians" which, together with their concluding chapter, suggests they are attempting to revive these ancient pagan rites in preparation for the age of Aquarius. Its rating derives from the book itself, plus an additional star for how compelling it was to read.
on September 27, 2004
It's common enough for writers on early Christianity to note that the church took on various attributes of pagan religion, out of tradition or to attract the masses of people who were attached to the old gods and ceremonies. Few if any, though, have gone as far as Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Their thesis, which will be shocking or offensive to many, can be summed up broadly as follows:
1. Jesus was not a historical person but another in the long line of pagan dying-and-resurrecting myths that were rife in the ancient world. They cite numerous parallels to Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Mithras, Orpheus, et al. All of their cults had what were called "outer mysteries," in which the myth was presented as literal fact for followers who were not ready or fit to understand the deeper meanings, and "inner mysteries," revealed to initiates, who came to understand that the death-resurrection "story" was not an aspect of the world of fact, but an allegory or symbol of metaphysical truth. It was an attempt to talk about something that can't be put into words because it relates to an experience of spirit, beyond our normal categories of space and time.
In this thesis, the Christian religion began as an attempt by Hellenized Jews (of which there were many, especially in Alexandria) to adapt the death-resurrection theme, or "godman" as the authors describe it, to Judaism. Because Judaism had its own very special historical and political situation, stemming from centuries of tradition and more recently Palestine's domination by Rome, the myth had to be tailored to the Jewish world and categories of thought. (Hence, Jesus as the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament, his death ordered by a Roman governor, execution by crucifixion, etc.)
2. Even after Christianity took its place among the many religions of the Roman Empire and began to spread far and wide, it was not a single unified phenomenon. It divided in many ways, but the major fault line, according to the authors, was between the Gnostics and what they call the Literalists. Gnostics were those who understood the inner mysteries, who saw the story of Jesus as one more example of higher truths being taught by analogy with events in the physical world. They were the spiritual heirs to the pre-Christian mystery religions. The Literalists - who included most of what are now considered the church fathers - took the Jesus story as fact, and proceeding to graft onto it various further ideological meanings, such as that Jesus had died to save mankind from its heritage of sin.
History, as the saying goes, is written by the winners. The Literalists won. They not only argued against the Gnostics (who, far from being a fringe sect, were a large percentage of Christians, say Freke and Gandy), but suppressed and destroyed almost all of the Gnostics' literature - not to mention persecuting the Gnostics themselves and destroying their places of assembly. Only in the past century, primarily with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, have we even begun to piece together the viewpoint of the Gnostics.
That, in a rough and simplified form, is the authors' case. By its nature, it is virtually impossible to prove or disprove because of the distance in time from the world it refers to and the loss of almost all the written documentation of Gnosticism, owing to its suppression by Literalist (i.e., what has come to be standard) Christianity.
I do not profess to be an expert on church history. At the same time, the accredited experts (most of whom, I'm sure, would scoff at the book's arguments in whole or in part) are not exactly neutral or objective commentators. Let's admit it, you are unlikely to devote years of your life to learning ancient languages, and many more years delving into millennia-old texts, unless you start with a fundamental belief in the religion whose history you are researching. Most experts on early Christianity and its connections with the pre-Christian world are theologians or teach at Bible colleges. That isn't saying that they can't bring analytical intelligence to their field, but I think it's fair to point out that they can hardly be sympathetic to a book that contradicts the basis of their life's work.
But while I can't pronounce an authoritative verdict on the substance of Freke and Gandy's discussion, I must give them full marks for thorough research and logical argumentation. These guys really know their sources: you have only to check out the 88 pages of end notes to see that. Many of their sources are unfamiliar to me, but are from reputable publishers (major houses and university presses, for instance); the sources known to me (Eliade, Kerenyi, Campbell, et al.) are acknowledged authorities; they frequently cite ancient authors (e.g., Philo of Alexandria) and very often Literalist Christian writers themselves, such as Eusebius (who according to the authors is totally unreliable as a historian).
And if you grant the authors' assumptions, their arguments are presented logically and convincingly. They make what to me is a strong case that virtually everything we "know" about Jesus has no historical basis (which is not the same thing as saying it has no philosophical or spiritual truth). The contradictions among the Gospels are well known. The so-called "history" of the church was not written contemporaneously with the events that supposedly happened, but centuries later, when there were no longer historians (known to us) of the same stature as Herodotus, Tacitus, and Plutarch.
What about the letters of Paul, who wrote in the very early days of Christianity, perhaps even before some of the four accepted gospels? Here, frankly, the authors go way out on a limb. Paul, they say, was actually a Gnostic. His letters were later edited to make it appear otherwise, and some of them are forgeries. It is certainly arguable that Freke and Gandy are cherry-picking the letters that they can use for their case, and rejecting the others as fake.
Without claiming that they have made unanswerable points, I credit Freke and Gandy with many convincing ones. This is a work of serious scholarship that can be read as a remarkable intellectual adventure.
on August 17, 2000
This is an incredible reassessment of Christianity as the outgrowth of pagan Mystery Religions. Specifically, they connect the figure of Jesus to Dionysus and Osirus, depicting him as an amalgam of pagan godmen. The book demonstrates that most of the significant elements in the life of Jesus were already present in the myths of pagan gods. Beyond that, it suggests that Gnostic Christianity came before the Christian literalist tradition. It is very well documented and informative. It must have taken courage to question tradition, received history and the nature of Christian spirituality, but Freke and Gandy do it with balance, documentation and finesse. Their conclusions, while sensational, are quite logical and well argued.
on February 12, 2005
George Orwell's Animal Farm is a classic of modern literature. Superficially, it is a story about talking farm animals. But if that were all it was, it would not be very interesting, and certainly would not be considered a classic. But it is both, because Orwell's animals engage in an allegorical struggle that not only echoes specific instances in Russian history but also encodes a deeper study of human drives for power and domination.
Now, if you will indulge me, imagine the rise of a cult that believes in the literal historicity of these talking pigs and demands that they be taken at face value. Not only does this hypothetical cult deny that the superficial elements of the story encode any deeper significance, but it considers anyone who seeks this significance a heretic and threatens them with eternal damnation. Now imagine this cult becoming the most powerful religion in the world. It would ruin lives, certainly, and it would also ruin a really good story.
As the authors of The Jesus Mysteries illustrate, this is exactly what has happened to the Christ myth. Now, before you come burn my house down, let me explain what I mean by "myth." Today this word is often used to mean something that is untrue, but this has not always been the case. A "myth" is a symbolic story that contains meaning that transcends the realm of history, language and rationality. In many ways, myth is truer than history, since it is concerned not just with the physical facts about objects, but their deeper metaphysical significance.
The Christ myth fits this description. On the surface, it is a story that contains supernatural elements. But if this were all it was, it wouldn't necessarily be any better than those talking pigs would be without their allegory. It IS good, however, because the story is packed with symbolic meaning. Christ is a "Son of God" incarnate in human form--a motif that embodies the ancient dichotomy of spirit and matter. But his suffering and death release him from his physical body so that he can be reborn as an entirely spiritual being. Furthermore, his Hebrew title "Son of Man" reveals that he is constructed as an Everyman figure. Early Christian mystics knew that by becoming an initiate to the Inner Mysteries, anyone could experience this spiritual rebirth. (The Kingdom of God is within YOU!)
Forcing this clearly symbolic story into a historical, rational context cheapens and trivializes its deeper spiritual implications.
Christ's story is so good, and so universally significant, that it has been a recurring theme throughout Mediterranean and Middle Eastern mythology for much longer than just twenty centuries. The death and resurrection of various earlier Sons of God (Osiris, Attis, Bacchus, Dionysus, and Mithra, just to name a few,) is echoed in the Christ story. This was obvious to Pagan scholars at the time, whose writings figure prominently in this book. It was also obvious to the first Christian literalists who went out of their way to claim that the Devil himself had created all those ancient myths in order to confuse people when the real dying/resurrecting Son of God came along centuries later. It's even alluded to in the Gospels, in the reference to the "Magi" from the east, who were followers of the dying and resurrecting Mithra of Persian mythology.
This book is well researched and follows a logical progression. However, I do feel that the "sensationalist polemic" format that the authors have chosen undercuts their own message slightly. (The parenthetical title "Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God?" is embarrassingly cheesy to religious scholars and needlessly alienating to Christians.) But in defense of the authors, most of the negative reviews here are from people who have obviously neither read this book nor researched the history of their faith. Many of them clearly feel threatened by the challenge this book presents to their superficial literalist understanding of Christ.
This book is not for everyone. If you are interested in the history of Christianity, it is a must. If you drive a Hummer or you voted for Bush, you are probably not ready to seek your inner Christ (no offense). But if you are truly interested in a deeper spiritual significance of allegory and myth, this book can only strengthen your faith.