by Geoff Robson
Biblical Christianity is under attack on all fronts today or at least that's what it might feel like sometimes. In the last decade, there has been a plethora of new research and new theories on Jesus of Nazareth. The Jesus Seminar, abundant newspaper and magazine articles, books by authors like Bishop John Spong and Dr Barbara Thiering, and TV shows such as The Search for Jesus on prime time US television, have all undertaken the quest to find the 'real Jesus'.
These searches regularly conclude that the traditional, New Testament-based view of Jesus is false and outdated. Modern scholarship and new discoveries have apparently left such an ancient interpretation behind, and only now, with the benefit of two thousand years of study and knowledge, are we able to know the 'truth' about Jesus.
The latest re-reading on Jesus comes from UK-based authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy in their controversial new book, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the original Jesus a pagan god? And you need look no further than the subtitle to see why this book has garnered so much attention.
The thesis is unpacked over the course of 300-plus pages, but is in essence fairly simple. They write: We have become convinced that the story of Jesus is not the biography of an historical Messiah, but a myth based on perennial pagan stories. Christianity was not a new and unique revelation but actually a Jewish adaptation of the ancient Pagan Mystery religion.
According to Freke and Gandy, the Christ of the Gospels was an adapted version of various pagan myths about dying and rising god-men, and there was in fact no historical person called Jesus. They say the second century Gnostics, devoted to mystical Christian experience, were the 'true' Christians, and were wiped out by the early 'literalist' Church which sought to preserve its own power.
Freke and Gandy go on to state that the New Testament documents including the gospels are unreliable, and contain embellishments and alterations that occurred over time. They say many of Paul's letters were forged in his name by later disciples to cover up growing heresies in the Church, and that the authentic Pauline letters (which they list as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon) contain no mention of an historical Jesus at all.
The Jesus Mysteries is carefully and skilfully put together. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by almost 100 pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography, which give the book the feel of being a deep scholarly tome. But the book is written in a popular style, as the authors aim to make their findings plain to the average reader. In fact it almost reads like a detective novel, where readers share the apparently amazing journey of discovery taken by the authors themselves. The writing is urgent and in-your-face, littered with exclamation marks so the reader won't miss any moments of major revelation.
The sheer volume of material means that a brief review cannot properly deal with the depth of the book's claims. Dr Chris Forbes lectures in Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney, particularly specialising in New Testament history and the relationship of Christianity to its Graeco-Roman environment. He is also a member of the Synod of the Diocese of Sydney. And while admitting that a proper analysis of the book would probably require six months study leave, Dr Forbes says it is possible to address the basic thesis of The Jesus Mysteries.
Not surprisingly, Dr Forbes believes that Freke and Gandy's assertions about Jesus are well off the mark. Despite appearances, he says that there is actually very little new material in the book, and that the authors use poor or outdated scholarship as their evidence. These people are not real scholars, they are popularisers, said Dr Forbes. Their argument about Jesus is grossly misconceived, and their attempt to draw links between Jesus and various pagan god-men is completely muddled. It looks impressive because of the sheer mass of the material, but when you break it down and look at it point by point, it really comes to pieces.
As an example, Dr Forbes points out that parallels drawn between the virgin birth of Christ and so-called virgin births in the Mystery religions are false. While there are a number of 'extraordinary' births referred to in the pagan mysteries, Dr Forbes says he can find no evidence of any case where the mother is said to be a virgin. If you examine the case, you discover that it doesn't prove what it says it does. You look at the parallels and it all just comes apart.
This instance seems typical of Freke and Gandy's methodology. Like others who have drawn similar parallels in the past, the authors freely adopt the language of Christianity in order to strengthen the apparent links, when in reality the similarities are much more vague or non-existent.
This is most true at the central point of the thesis, where the authors claim that stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus are adopted from the Mysteries, which they say came together around the idea of a dying and rising god-man. However, Dr Forbes says that this basic assertion is not accurate. This is incredibly misleading, because most of the Mystery religions aren't about dying and rising anything, he says. Their composite picture of dying and rising god-men covers a multitude of sins. And any good historian of Graeco-Roman religion would say so you don't have to be Christian.
While stories of the pagan god Osiris do fit this pattern in some ways, according to Dr Forbes there are few other genuine parallels in ancient mythology. Stories of the gods Mithras and Tammuz are not about death and resurrection, the god Dionysus dies in only some myths, while the Eleusinian mysteries are about a goddess not a god who travels to the underworld alive and is brought back alive.
In fact any story of death and resurrection in the Mysteries was generally connected with the cycle of nature and regeneration, quite removed from the Christian idea of Christ's death once for all. Biblical scholars have also pointed out that pagan gods did not die voluntarily or in anyone else's place, as did Jesus.
Dr Paul Barnett, Bishop of North Sydney, is a renowned New Testament scholar who has authored several books on the historical Jesus. He believes that the nature of the gospel message largely rules out the thesis proposed by Freke and Gandy. He says that, as far back as the 1920s, historian AD Nock pointed out that the Mysteries developed as myths over hundreds of years, while the message of Jesus' death and resurrection was being proclaimed within one year of the historical Jesus. In other words, says Bishop Barnett, the two-pronged Message is so close to the events it reports that it must be historically based; it was not myth.
Another major sticking point for the authors is the nature of first century Judaism, which most scholars agree was highly insular and unlikely to adopt and promote elements of pagan mythology. Jews had a deep awareness of their heritage and their unique religion, even fighting the war of 66-70 AD in resistance to pagan attempts to overturn their beliefs. While Freke and Gandy attempt to explain this apparent quandary, Bishop Barnett says their explanations fall short, and he points out that Jews, particularly around Judea, had fiercely resisted Greco-Roman religious influences for centuries. The proposal that Jews would take over pagan myths and make Gospels of them is astonishing, he says.