on July 18, 2010
Debate on the origins of Christianity touches emotional beliefs, taboos and assumptions. In the 1860s, conventional Christian faith was cracked wide open by the earthquake of Darwin's theory of evolution, producing cultural fissures that remain to this day. Christians simply could not imagine that the Biblical stories of Adam and Noah were as mythical as the pagan tales of Zeus and Apollo. The backlash against Darwin's Origin of Species produced Christian fundamentalism and the ongoing schism between faith and reason. The emotional hold of faith, reinforcing its institutional and social power, led adherents to retain the literal interpretation of Biblical claims as a higher authority than the evidence of their minds and senses. It takes a shuddering shock the size of an earthquake to penetrate the armor of faith.
The theory of evolution added momentum to the modern demolition of Biblical tradition. Geology had already made clear that the world is much older than the Biblical timeline. Psychology had observed that traditional claims of faith can be interpreted as projections of human desires. As the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach noted, the authors of the Judeo-Christian tradition had made God in their own image. Anthropology continued the assault. Ideas previously viewed as absolute and eternal, such as God the Father, were now traceable through their finite linguistic evolution among different societies. Textual analysis found that Moses did not write the first five books of the Old Testament as conventionally believed, and that the stories of Moses and Abraham could not have happened as presented in the Bible.
These modern findings were shocking for the faithful, many of whom retreated into their faith community and regarded all outsiders as hostile. Christians then protected their tradition with the teaching of Saint John's second letter that all skeptics are deceivers. Criticisms of faith often brought political baggage, such as the Marxist view that religion is an obsolete trick aimed at protecting class privilege. So it was easy to claim nefarious motive on the part of all doubters. The resulting polarization of intellectual debate formed into camps, with a healthy dose of economic interest supporting each pole. At one extreme, atheists have sought abolition of all religion, seeing its rituals and myths as museum specimens of the primitive history of human development. At the other extreme, Literalist Christians view any criticism as the work of Satan, although in more charitable moments they do pray for the souls of the sad rationalists.
Once one strand of the web of faith starts to unravel, the whole tapestry becomes dubious. Could Jesus really be as mythical as Noah? The blows to conventional faith from philosophy, evolution, geology, psychology and anthropology are formidable, and have prepared the ground for the assault now underway from the mythicist argument that Jesus Christ did not exist. Many Christians have got used to Voltaire's witticism in response to Anselm's ontological argument, that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. Now we see the same argument applies to His Son, the supposed founder of the faith, with the mythicist claim that Jesus Christ Himself was a necessary fictional invention of the early church.
The Jesus Mysteries - Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God? provides a detailed scholarly presentation of the argument that Jesus never existed. As you might expect, orthodox reception has been cold. Leading Anglican theologian Bishop N.T. Wright likened their book to the argument that the moon is made of green cheese, and flatly refused to debate these new heretics. This church reaction, shunning the heathen, is indicative of the bigoted tribal nature of religion. Claims of love and dialogue are freely made by the church until they are tested, and then the true brittle hypocrisy of this corrupted human institution becomes obvious. The orthodox hope is that if they can hide their feet of clay well enough, the whole tottering edifice can be saved from collapse.
Reading The Jesus Mysteries, it is easy to see why Bishop Wright would anathematize its authors. It is bad enough for absurd miracles such as the virgin birth and the physical resurrection to be held up to mockery and ridicule, but to claim that the entire Christian faith is fraudulent takes skepticism to another level entirely. With 64 pages of detailed scholarly footnotes and a superb bibliography listing almost 250 reference sources, The Jesus Mysteries is a serious work. Any Christian foolhardy enough to engage the authors in open debate would surely lose. Sniping from the safety of the pulpit is so much easier. The flock can be protected from shock and scandal by the proven methods of censorship and slander, while critics can be cast into the outer darkness. Where the real shock may reside in this material, however, is in the implicit claim that the mythic view is the authentic Christian faith. The real shock is that with their suggestion that the literalist church is the real imposter, mythicists are reclaiming the true legacy of Christ, without the fantasy of the historical Jesus.
The true scandal is that Christianity has got away with such threadbare dogma for so long, with such weak accountability to reason and evidence, while hypocritically claiming to bear witness to ultimate truth. The lack of debate around this scandal of faith illustrates how this material touches on sensitive taboo questions. Beliefs that we form in youth are immensely hard to shake, regardless of contrary evidence. The conservatism of religion, valuing cultural heritage and tradition, means that, as Orwell observed, once a clique has gained control of the past, it has control of the future. Christians who grow up with Jesus as a spiritual friend, a real personality who is central to their idea of human identity, may experience a sort of vertigo and denial when confronted by the claim that his story is a pure myth. Surely this claim is the work of crackpots and cranks? Surely this eccentric mythicist rumbling can simply be dismissed as fringe rubbish, with UFOs, the yeti and bending spoons?
The historical record shows the real conjuring was committed by the Church Fathers. Church success has relied on the psychological weakness seen in recovered memory syndrome, where people hold fervently to a false belief that has been deliberately planted in their mind by others. This Orwellian brainwashing is precisely what happened on a world historical scale with the establishment of orthodox Christianity.
The question here turns on the most plausible explanation for the rise of Christian faith. Freke and Gandy argue there was originally an inner church that only revealed part of its secret teachings to the public outer church. The ignorant masses called for signs and wonders before they would take any interest in new ideas. The early church serviced this mass demand for a new wondrous religion with the allegorical story of a historical messiah. The aim was to attract members to the cult, so secret mysteries could then be revealed to initiates. The Gospels as we have them were written for the outer church, as a simplified and `dumbed-down' historicized account of the inner spiritual myth.
As Christianity spread, Freke and Gandy argue the outer church took on a life of its own, gradually losing contact with the secret mysteries. The `orthodox' soon found a source of temporal power in denial of the inner church teaching that the story of Christ was a cosmic myth. By allying with the ignorant, the Church Fathers isolated and suppressed the cosmic mysticism of the old inner church, which they branded as Gnostic heresy. In an ironic parallel with the purging of the Old Bolsheviks by Stalin, control of institutional power became a more decisive criterion for influence than spiritual purity. As Orwell said in 1984, ignorance is strength.
The mystics had taught that salvation comes from within the heart, but the Literal church needed a belief system that placed no burdens on a mass audience. They insisted that salvation is objective, resulting from belief in the once-for-all atoning blood of the suffering messiah.
And yet, despite these efforts to simplify the message, some of the mystic material still found its way into the Bible. One example given in The Jesus Mysteries is the story in John 21 where the disciples miraculously catch 153 fish under the instruction of the Messiah. The Greek inventor Archimedes had earlier used the number 153 to derive the square root of 3, via the fraction 265/153. This mystic ratio is used to produce the traditional Christian ichthys fish drawing. Here we see the cosmic symbol of the New Age of Pisces the Fishes coded into sacred geometry in the Gospel story. Such cosmic symbols are throughout the New Testament, but their presence has been ignored because of the aggressive bigotry of orthodox faith. Cosmic vision provided the impetus for the original story, but was kicked away as politically inconvenient for the Literalist church.
Freke and Gandy define the Jesus mystery as the deliberate transfer of the pagan mystery religions into a Jewish framework. Comparing this thesis against the traditional claim of Jesus Christ as a literal historical messiah, forensic analysis can examine the rival stories for motive, method and opportunity. There is no historical evidence that Jesus actually lived, so the traditional literal claim of a historical Jesus would need strong circumstantial support to remain persuasive. Such support does not exist.
The motive for writing the Gospels is clear from the mythicist interpretation. In the aftermath of Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70AD, a believable new narrative was needed that could unite the community. The story of Jesus provided a rallying point to challenge the conscience of the pagan empire. The supposed date of Christ, generations before the time the Gospels were written, meant no eyewitnesses were around to check the accuracy of the stories.
With the word `believe' appearing more than one hundred times in the Gospel of John alone, the main objective was to lead people to believe. Historical accuracy was entirely secondary.
The method to write the Gospels as a new myth derived from the widespread Osiris-Dionysus mystery religion of the Hellenistic world. The Jesus Mysteries provides a compelling explanation of how existing myths of a dying and rising Saviour were used to invent Christ as a new hero, but with the special twist that his most powerful mythic attribute was that he actually lived as a recent historical person. Voltaire and Anselm eat your heart out - a real Saviour is so much more perfect than an imaginary one.
The story of an actual Messiah would prove far more popular than imaginary Gods like Attis, Dionysus, Mithras, Horus, Osiris, Adonis, etc, especially if He assumed their best attributes. In this creation of a world Saviour, the Gnostic inventors of the Jesus mystery story were, however, somewhat like the sorceror's apprentice, giving life to a broom that would take on a life of its own and sweep their ideas away until the end of the age.
The opportunity to invent the Christ story appeared in the city of Alexandria, the melting pot of the eastern Roman Empire. All the religions of the western world meshed together here, at a time the astrologers saw as the beginning of a new cosmic age, as the spring equinox point moved from the sign of Aries into the sign of Pisces. The cosmic brotherhood known as the Therapeuts, students of this ancient star lore, had ample opportunity to convert the mythic imagery of the turning point of time into believable Gospels, combining the perennial wisdom of mystery religion with historical anecdotes into a narrative that would render the whole fantasy plausible.
The detective investigation shows clear motive, method and opportunity to invent the story of Jesus as the basis for a new religion. By contrast, orthodox faith tells a farcical magic story, acceptable only through suspension of disbelief.
The `smoking gun' for the mythicist case is the story of Philo. As Freke and Gandy put it (p136), "Philo was an eminent Jewish author who lived at the same time that Jesus is supposed to have lived and wrote around 50 works that still survive. They deal with history, philosophy and religion, and tell us much about Pontius Pilate - yet make no mention at all of the coming of the Messiah Jesus." And this at a time when Jesus addressed large crowds, walked on water, caused tumult at his death in Jerusalem, and was famed far and wide. Really.
Fraud on such large scale seems unbelievable. Looking at Christianity with dispassionate eyes, we can see the `big lie' in operation. Hitler's dictum was that a small lie is easily spurned by the masses, but truly massive deception, when carried through without blinking, will convince those who could not imagine anyone having the audacity to deceive on such a scale.
Freke and Gandy are too polite to mention the Nazis, but they do explicitly compare the early church to the communist movement of the twentieth century. Both Christianity and communism "began with a message of freedom and equality but ended up creating an authoritarian and despotic regime." Once you sell your soul, the devil proves a stern master, insisting that small initial lies be expanded to maintain the fiction. Stalin took Christianity as his model, selling a myth of redemption to the general public to conceal his wholesale debauchery of the truth in the interest of political power.
The tragedy is that a germ of eternal truth can be twisted, abused and corrupted in the interests of temporal control. Christianity quotes the Apostle John in blaming the father of lies for all denial of the incarnation. Against this crude manipulation, scholars who study the Gospel stories should set aside their prejudices and assumptions, and try instead to see through the blackmail and bullying and blindness that enabled Christianity to destroy ancient pagan civilization and pave the way for the Dark Ages. Such a transformed historical vision, understanding Jesus Christ as myth, may be the only thing that can save Christian faith from its steady downward slide, and recapture the redemptive message of Christianity as a relevant story for the modern world.