Was There No Historical Jesus?
by Earl Doherty

by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
HarperCollins, London 1999

This is a powerful book, and its impact, like a rolling express train, accelerates as one is carried along, page after page, through the authors' demolition of the Literalist Christian tradition. Literalist has a capital 'L' because the history of the western world's religious faith has been the story of the triumph of one strand of early Christian development, and the ruthless suppression of all others. One comes away from this book with the gut feeling that this 'triumph' was perhaps the greatest disaster ever to befall our civilization. Certainly, it was the most crippling.
Literalist Christianity was not the first manifestation, but arose almost a century after the beginnings of the movement. The term refers to the view that was adopted in certain circles about the developing Jesus story, the one which was ultimately entrenched in the Gospels, namely that it constituted factual history. In actuality, it does not, nor was it originally intended to be taken as such.
The Jesus Mysteries Thesis, as the authors title it, presents the Gospels as originally composed to be allegories, symbols of a deeper 'truth.' Allegory, and allegorical interpretation of older writings, was in that period a common and effective device for furthering religious faith and understanding. According to Freke and Gandy, the Christian Gospels, when first devised, were offered as yet another rendition of ancient and ongoing insights into mystical knowledge about ourselves and the universe we live in. (In that universe, the authors seem to envision spiritual and divine dimensions, but they wisely leave it to others--or a future volume--to expound on the existence of God or the veracity of unseen realities.)
Here they focus on the historical investigation of a Christianity which began essentially as a gnostic expression. (Gnosticism is the possession of secret knowledge about the nature of human life and its relation to the world, the formation of that world and explanation of its evil, and how such knowledge can be used to achieve salvation.) As a philosophical/faith movement, it was an extension, or parallel manifestation, of the ancient world's paramount philosophical-religious expression: the mystery cults with their savior gods and especially their concepts of achieving knowledge of the Self. I'll quote from page 101/103:

   But what is self? The Pagan sages taught that every human being has a mortal lower self called the 'eidolon' and an immortal Higher Self called the 'Daemon'. The eidolon is the embodied self, the physical body and personality. The Daemon is the Spirit, the true Self which is each person's spiritual connection to God. The Mysteries were designed to help initiates realize that the eidolon is a false self and that their true identity is the immortal Daemon. . .
   The quest for Self-knowledge leads the Pagan or Gnostic initiate on a remarkable journey of discovery. At first the initiate experiences themselves as the eidolon, the embodied personality, and sees the Daemon as a Guardian Angel or Heavenly Twin. The more mature initiate experiences the Daemon as their own Higher Self. To those blessed with the final vision of complete Self-knowledge or Gnosis, the Daemon is found to be more awesome still. It truly is the 'divine I,' as Valentinus puts it.
   Although it appears as if each person has their own Daemon or Higher Self, the enlightened initiate discovers that actually there is one Daemon shared by all - a universal Self which inhabits every being. Each soul is a part of the one Soul of God. To know oneself therefore is to know God. These mystical teachings are found both in the Pagan Mysteries and Gnostic Christianity.
What Freke and Gandy have done (to an even greater degree than in my own research) is to locate the roots of Christianity in the mystery ethos of Hellenistic tradition. And they have done it through an insight which seems absurdly obvious. While we regularly lament that we know so little about the Greek mysteries (and thus about Christianity's precise relationship to them), much about the cultic rites and their mystical significance can be gleaned--even quite compellingly revealed--from the thought of mystically minded philosophies in the Platonic tradition and from Christian Gnosticism, both of which focused on that quest for self-knowledge and consequent salvation.
I say obvious because Platonism and Gnosticism, the latter rivaling or even surpassing 'orthodox' Christianity in strength and distribution in the early centuries, are cut from the same philosophical cloth, and it would be foolish to overlook the likelihood that this powerful co-expression of thinking about the nature of the world and humanity was not simply a more visible manifestation of the thinking that lay behind the practice of the Hellenistic mysteries. Thus at a stroke we can lay bare the whole dominant philosophical-religious cast of ancient world thinking and see how Christianity was yet another--if somewhat distinct--expression of that universal ground.
[Whether in fact that universal conception, the division of the human 'self' into inner and outer, apparent and real, physical and spiritual, human and divine, was valid or continues to be an ultimate truth, is a larger question, even if modern scientific investigation of the human self and the universe it inhabits makes it increasingly difficult to cast things in such terms, and even though New Age Spirituality has been trying to give it new life. However, that judgment lies outside the scope of The Jesus Mysteries, and I will let it lie outside the scope of this review.]
As Freke and Gandy present it, Christianity in its early phases fell into that broad ancient-world mainstream. Paul's Christ was its 'redeemer/enabler' deity. Like the cultic gods, he brought the initiate into a state of knowledge and salvation. As such, the movement is a melding of two things: it is essentially gnostic, and it is the Jewish version of a mystery cult. In other words, the first formulators of Christianity were Jews (even if strongly Hellenized) who created Jewish Mysteries. Their savior god could not be derived from a subordinate deity in the Jewish pantheon because by this time there were no subordinate gods in Judaism. Thus the Messiah (Christ) concept was pressed into service, adapted and transformed into a divine Son of God and savior figure.
In this syncretism of Jewish and Greek ideas there were, of course, distinctive features determined by the Jewish dimension in the mix. The Messiah element made the savior Christ a figure who would arrive at the end of time, to establish a universal judgment and a new kingdom. Motifs of Jewish history and mythology lent their character to the finished product. But essentially Christianity was the conscious creation of a Jewish-oriented version of the mystery tradition, with a deity who is a version of the universal mystery-type savior which Freke and Gandy refer to by the composite name Osiris-Dionysos. These were the two most prominent, ancient and representative examples of the dying and resurrecting mythical godman who governed the thinking of centuries of pagan religious thought and hopes.
This fundamental reading of the nature of Christianity (which my own research has presented, if not as heavily or exclusively emphasized) is virtually undeniable in the face of all the comparative data and careful interpretation which Freke and Gandy marshal throughout the book. They have managed to pull together widely scattered support from all sorts of writings of the time, even within the 'orthodox' Christian stream, such as those of Clement of Alexandria and Origen, two 'Literalist' Christians with strong gnostic leanings. Nor have I ever seen the recorded fragments of Celsus so effectively used. And as suggested earlier, the authors draw compellingly on the writings of the gnostics (most of them unearthed at Nag Hammadi) to make their case that Christianity began as yet another way of offering the fundamental truths about human nature and its destiny which it shared with the Greek mysteries and Platonic/Orphic philosophy. They also suggest that the Gospels were written, at a certain stage of development in this 'new' religion, as a way of allegorizing those truths in the story of a godman on earth in an historical setting.
I am in full agreement with The Jesus Mysteries' basic contentions. What differences I might express are probably only a matter of emphasis. I might not so precisely define incipient Christianity as a conscious or semi-conscious 'decision' by persons unknown to emulate the Greek mysteries for Jewish consumers. I would envision a little more natural outgrowth from traditional Jewish elements, including the influence of scripture, concepts of the Righteous One, personified Wisdom speculation--much of it, of course, prodded and given shape by Hellenistic philosophy and mystery precedents, leading to a true syncretism of ideas and practices. I would see Christianity growing up simultaneously in many places, in a 'border territory' between Jew and Greek, certainly with a strong Jewish character but with a significant element of that mix being gentiles who have embraced features of Judaism.
I also hesitate to see as marked an expression of the Inner and Outer Mysteries in the early Christian epistles as the authors postulate, even in Paul. One of the aspects of the mysteries we can glean is that their rites and myths were presented first on a 'superficial' level, which the mind of the initiate could supposedly grasp more easily: a viewing of sacred objects, or a tale like that of Demeter descending to the lower world to rescue her kidnapped daughter. Such things, with minimal explanation perhaps, were presented as the Outer Mysteries to beginning initiates. Later, if the initiate progressed further, such things would be perceived and explained according to the secret, mystical meanings, allegories for deeper truths which the rites and myths only symbolized. These constituted the Inner Mysteries. The essence of Gnosticism, too, was the penetration to that deeper meaning, and the knowledge (gnosis) it bestowed on the believer, a knowledge about the nature of the self and the world which made salvation possible.
To what extent did Paul preach the equivalent of Outer and Inner Mysteries? Gnosticism always focused on scripture--principally Genesis--as the allegorical embodiment of a higher truth. Even Philo (a mystic certainly, though not a gnostic by any meaningful definition of the term) interpreted the Jewish scriptures as an allegory for a Platonic world view and a mystical understanding of and attainment to God. (This insight Philo and others before him claimed had ultimately proceeded from Moses!) Here there is always a strong dichotomy between what scripture says or seems to say, and what it is actually saying in regard to true reality. But that strong a dichotomy in Paul is not so evident. Despite what he says (eg, in 1 Corinthians 2:11-3:3) about those who think or have capacities on a 'sarkic' (flesh) level and those more 'pneumatic' (spiritual) people who are possessed of the Holy Spirit, this may refer only to a graded level of capacity for understanding (which is to say, willingness to accept Paul's own doctrines), and not to two different levels of teaching on Paul's part, as though he tells of Christ one way to beginners or those of more limited intellect, and in a quite different way to his more Spirit-enabled listeners. Besides, the dichotomy in full-blown Gnosticism is based on the 'scriptural' tale of Jesus in the Gospels: presented as a seeming historical tale on the simpler level (the Outer Mysteries) and as merely allegorical on the higher level (the Inner Mysteries). But Paul didn't know the Gospel tale. That only appeared after him in the Gospel of Mark (which the authors acknowledge), and thus he hadn't those two layers of material and meaning to present in his preaching. In other respects he is also not as genuinely 'gnostic' in his concepts and kerygma as Freke and Gandy might suggest, although the rudiments, the foreshadowings, were there which enabled second century gnostics like Valentinus and Marcion to claim that he did teach their full-blown doctrines. Certain aspects of Paul might better be styled proto-gnostic.
None of these mild reservations on my part compromise the essential Jesus Mysteries Thesis. Christianity began as an expression of the universal mystery ethos, within Jewish or Jewish-oriented circles, and Christ was preached as a divine being who bestowed knowledge through spiritual channels and was an agent of salvation through a myth of death and resurrection in the spiritual world.
What then, of the Gospels? I fully support Freke and Gandy's contention that the Gospels were an attempt to provide for the Jesus Mysteries a tale similar to those of the pagan savior god myths, and that Jesus was set into an earthly-sounding story, in this case in recent historical times. The purpose of the first evangelist was to make the meaning of the spiritual Christ more accessible--a kind of Outer Mysteries to lead into the Inner Mysteries of Christianity. Freke and Gandy present these fashioners of mystic allegory as gnostic, though again I would suggest that proto-gnostic might be more apt. The one important element which the authors do not introduce into their equation is the Q dimension of the Gospels, the preaching career of Jesus. This I would not regard as mystical allegory but simply as representing one of the shaping antecedents of the composite Gospel, the Kingdom of God preaching movement in Galilee and beyond, of which the community of Mark was a part. Nor are strictly 'gnostic' teachings placed in the mouth of the Gospel Jesus, even if he alludes to hidden meanings as in Mark 4 (which may signify no more than the parabolic meanings within the parables about the nature of the Kingdom of God).
But by the early second century the idea of Jesus as embodied in the Gospel story was being turned into history by a new stream of thinking which gave rise to Literalist Christianity, and the Jesus Mysteries Thesis is on solid ground here in portraying the great, burgeoning struggle between the Literalists and the Gnostics. The former affirmed that Jesus was a real historical person and the Gospels told of actual historical events. The latter argued vainly that it was all a metaphorical representation of deeper wisdom. In this context, one can clearly understand things like the practice of forging and altering documents, the formation of a restricted and doctored canon, the tendency to authoritarianism and exclusivism on the part of the Literalist movement. The latter became increasingly focused on Rome's Catholic Church, which created apostolic succession lists, the idea of apostolic tradition going back to the historical Jesus, and much else. In their portrayal of second century Christian history and beyond, into the later era of Christian dominance after Constantine's 'conversion' and the eventual eradication of all non-Literalist expression, Freke and Gandy are masterful. Here, and indeed in the book as a whole, the Jesus Mysteries is a real page-turner, and even their occasional indulgence in colloquially emotional language feels fully natural and justified.
This book is already having an impact, and deserves to continue to do so. It makes an absolutely compelling case for the non-existence of the Gospel Jesus. The Jesus Mysteries and The Jesus Puzzle make effective companion pieces in the task of laying the Christian myth to rest.
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy have previously co-authored three books: The Complete Guide to World Mysticism, Hermetica - The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs, and The Wisdom of the Pagan Philosophers



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