The Jesus Mysteries
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The cover of The Jesus Mysteries features a gem of Dionysus/Orpheus.
|Author||Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy|
The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? is a 1999 book by British authors Timothy Freke, a philosophy and religions scholar, and Peter Gandy, a classics scholar. Although it deals with Jesus, this book is not primarily a work of Biblical scholarship, but a secular investigation of early Christianity prior to the 4th century CE, when direct political intervention by the Roman Emperor Constantine forced various competing Christian sects to unify under a statement of faith (the Nicene Creed).
Freke and Gandy systematically examine evidence from ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilisations. In particular, they examine the remarkable similarity of important elements of Jesus' divinity with a number of mystery religions, such as those of the ancient gods Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, and Mithras, apparently manifestations of a single cult of a dying and rising "godman" myth, known to classical scholarship as Osiris-Dionysus.
The authors propose that Jesus did not literally exist as an historically identifiable individual, but was instead a syncretic re-interpretation of the fundamental pagan "godman" by the Gnostics, who were the original sect of Christianity. Orthodox Christianity, according to them, was not the predecessor to Gnosticism, but a later outgrowth that rewrote history in order to make literal Christianity appear to predate the Gnostics. They describe their theory as the "Jesus Mysteries thesis."
Jesus Mysteries thesis
Freke and Gandy base the Jesus Mysteries thesis partly on a series of parallels between their suggested biography of Osiris-Dionysus and the biography of Jesus drawn from the four canonical gospels. Their suggested reconstruction of the myth of Osiris-Dionysus, compiled from the myths of ancient dying and resurrected "godmen," bears a striking resemblance to the gospel accounts. The authors give a short list of parallels:
- Osiris-Dionysus is God made flesh, the savior and "Son of God."
- His father is God and his mother is a mortal virgin, 7 month pregnancy.
- He is born in a cave or humble cowshed on December 25 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 honor him.
- He dies at Eastertime 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.
According to The Jesus Mysteries, Christianity originated as a Judaized version of the pagan mystery religions. Hellenized Jews wrote a version of the godman myth incorporating Jewish elements. Initiates learned the myth and its allegorical meanings through the Outer and Inner Mysteries. (A similar pattern of "Lesser" and "Greater" Mysteries was part of the pagan Eleusinian Mysteries.Mithraism was structured around seven serial initiations.) Freke and Gandy suggest that, at some point, groups of Christians who had only experienced the Outer Mysteries were split off from the elders of the religion and forgot that there had ever been a second initiation, and that, later, when they encountered groups who had retained the Inner Mysteries, these "Literalist Christians" [as Freke and Gandy call them] attacked the "Gnostics" for claiming that what the Literalists considered false knowledge and false initiations, was, in fact, the original second initiation of primal (Gnostic) Christianity. Freke and Gandy claim that the Literalists won out when the emperor Constantine saw the political merit of 'one empire, one emperor, one god', practically exterminated the Gnostics, and saw to it that 'Literalist Christianity' became the officially-approved Roman Catholic Church and its modern descendants.
Despite a wealth of references and footnotes, Chris Forbes, an ancient historian and senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia has criticised the work, noting that Freke and Gandy are "not real scholars, they are popularisers.” He calls their arguments about Jesus "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.”
Paul Barnett, a New Testament scholar who has authored several books on the historical Jesus, argues that a good proportion of the citations are out of date. "Like the Gnostics, Freke and Gandy have a mystical mindset and therefore oppose Christianity as grounded in history," he wrote. "They hate the idea that the incarnation of the Son of God and his resurrection could have been a matter of actual flesh and blood and time and place."
When the BBC approached N. T. Wright, asking him to debate Freke and Gandy concerning their thesis in The Jesus Mysteries, Wright replied that "this was like asking a professional astronomer to debate with the authors of a book claiming the moon was made of green cheese."
Bart Ehrman, in an interview with the Fortean Times, was similarly asked for his views on the work of Freke and Gandy. Not having read their work, he responded by commenting on the thesis, "This is an old argument, even though it shows up every 10 years or so. This current craze that Christianity was a mystery religion like these other mystery religions-the people who are saying this are almost always people who know nothing about the mystery religions; they've read a few popular books, but they're not scholars of mystery religions. The reality is, we know very little about mystery religions-the whole point of mystery religions is that they're secret! So I think it's crazy to build on ignorance in order to make a claim like this.
David Allan Dodson, a reviewer for CNN, who found the book to be interesting, stated that "while the authors discuss many examples or elements of Osiris/Dionysus in the Jesus story, they virtually ignore the more direct ties to Jewish tradition and prophecy. This oversight undermines the credibility of many of their arguments, and could have the tendency to mislead the novice reader in this subject". However, while Dodson wasn't fully convinced by the authors that Jesus was completely fictional, he did end his review with the following supportive remarks: "The Jesus Mysteries left this reviewer more convinced than ever that the life of Jesus as we know it is filled with mythological, political, and even polemical elements. Freke and Gandy succeed in bringing some important points about Christianity to the public in a readable, compelling book. Perhaps their willingness to state 'the unthinkable thought' will lead to more objective thinking about religion and tolerance. If so, The Jesus Mysteries is a worthy effort indeed".
- Guthrie, William Keith Chambers (1952). Orpheus and Greek Religion. London: Methuen. p. 278.
- Freke and Gandy, Jesus Mysteries, p. 5.
- The Jesus Mysteries - a critique[dead link]
- The Jesus Mysteries - a critique[dead link]
- N. T. Wright, "Jesus' Self Understanding", in Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins, The Incarnation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 48
- Bart Ehrman, interview with David V. Barrett, "The Gospel According to Bart", Fortean Times (221), 2007
- CNN.com, "Review: Jesus -- man or myth?", September 21, 2000
- Books by Freke and Gandy on the Jesus Mysteries theme
- The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (1999)
- Jesus and the Lost Goddess: The Secret Teachings of the Original Christians (2002)
- The Laughing Jesus: Religious Lies and Gnostic Wisdom (2005)
- The Gospel of the Second Coming (2007)
- Reinventing Jesus, Komoszewski et al., Kregel, ISBN 978-0-8254-2982-8, (2006)