Review Article

Early Christian History: Fact or Fabrication?

By Sarah Belle Dougherty
My favorite definition of religion is "a misinterpretation of mythology." The misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references to symbols which properly are spiritual in their reference. — Joseph Campbell

Who was Jesus? And who were the original Christians, what did they believe, and how are they related to contemporary Christianity and the material which makes up the New Testament? In two accessible, well-documented books Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy* present unorthodox answers based on biblical scholarship accumulated over several centuries, and their own study of Gnosticism, Pagan Mystery religions, and world mysticism.

*The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God?, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2001, 343 pages, ISBN 0609807986, paperback, $14.00; and Jesus and the Lost Goddess: The Secret Teachings of the Original Christians, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2002, 336 pages, ISBN 1400045940, paperback, $14.00.

The Jesus Mysteries, centering on the history of Christianity, presents convincing evidence that the account given by the Western Church, and still accepted today, is inadequate; that in fact it is built on a literal interpretation of mythic allegories never originally intended as history, enforced by sectarian propaganda and the systematic destruction of conflicting writings and sects. While biblical researchers and seminary students have long been aware of problems in the traditional accounts of Jesus and the New Testament, this information did not often reach the laity until the last few decades, which saw a resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in the birth of Christianity and the historical Jesus. The current trend in Jesus studies has been to assume as axiomatic the historical existence of the teacher Jesus, and then attempt to deduce from scripture, archeology, cultural studies, and the Judaism of the last few centuries BC who and what Jesus might actually have been. Many of these scholarly attempts have produced a "Jewish" Jesus — whether peasant, Cynic philosopher, rabbi, or political revolutionary — and have rejected the large body of non-Jewish material in the New Testament and Church teaching as extraneous accretions to an original, "pure," Jewish message.

Freke and Gandy take an opposite view. As students of world and classical mysticism, they recognized the overwhelming similarities between the story of Jesus and those of Pagan dying and resurrecting godmen such as Osiris, Dionysus, Mithras, Adonis, and Orpheus. The authors provide compelling evidence for their thesis that

Nearly all the peoples around the Mediterranean had at some point adopted the Pagan mysteries and adapted them to their own national taste. At some point in the first few centuries BCE a group of Jews had done likewise and produced a Jewish version of the Mysteries. Jewish initiates adapted the myths of Osiris-Dionysus to produce the story of a Jewish dying and resurrecting godman, Jesus the Messiah. In time this myth came to be interpreted as historical fact and Literalist Christianity was the product. — Jesus and the Lost Goddess, p. 123

The striking parallels with Pagan myth have long been apparent to scholars, though Jesus as a mythic figure is currently out of academic favor. These parallels were obvious in classical times as well. Dogmatic Christians — termed Literalists in these books because they interpreted the Christian stories literally as historical fact — explained similarities with older Pagan myths and figures either as plagiarisms by the Devil "before the fact" or as the historical fulfillment of events present in other cultures only as myths — rationales which have been advanced under one or another form down the centuries.

To support its thesis, The Jesus Mysteries details how little evidence there is for the historical existence of Jesus or the biblical Apostles to be found in non-Christian sources: Pagan and Jewish historians of the time, and Jewish scriptures. As archeologist John Romer remarks in Testament, our knowledge of earliest Christianity

is founded solely upon the Book of Acts and later church tradition. There is no mention at all of this period of Christian history in any other literature. We know only what later churches wanted to tell us. And this is also true of the beginnings of the Gospels. We are left with the evidence that can be gleaned from the Four Gospels themselves and a large number of conflicting statements made in the writings of the early church fathers. — p. 188

Freke and Gandy make clear that the New Testament Gospels and Acts of the Apostles are not reliable historical reports, let alone independent eye-witness accounts. Though the relationship in time and of dependence among early Christian writings, canonical and non-canonical, is still very much debated, many biblical scholars agree that the Gospel of John was written as a theological document later than the other canonical gospels, and that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark, the last usually dated around 70 AD, though Freke and Gandy feel it is probably later. Nor is Mark, the first biographical treatment of Christian material, an actual chronicle: careful analysis has shown that it represents a joining together of many preexisting vignettes and wisdom sayings, organized to correspond to various Old Testament texts and episodes such as the Exodus. It does not include the birth or genealogy of Jesus and originally did not continue past the women finding the empty tomb and an implied resurrection. In the early version no resurrected Christ appears to the Apostles or anyone else.

Discovering a valid source for biographical facts about Jesus continues to be a problem for scholars. In The Birth of Christianity John Dominic Crossan, a firm believer in the historicity of Jesus long associated with the Jesus Seminar and the Society of Biblical Literature, affirms that the earliest Christian writings were scriptural exegesis and parable, not history. Lack of other evidence leads him to postulate a women's lament tradition, stemming from female eye witnesses in Jerusalem, as the source of whatever genuine biographical data is in the Gospels and other early Christian writings. No doubt those committed to a historical Jesus and those favoring a mythic Christ will continue to differ. As Crossan remarks, "We all build on our presuppositions and we all stand or fall on their validity" (p. 111).

The existence, then, of a historical teacher remains moot. Even Paul, at 50 AD the earliest contributor to the New Testament, does not mention a historical Jesus or quote any of his sayings or teachings found in the Gospels. His emphasis is on the dying and resurrecting godman Christ, and its birth in each individual. The "good news" he has for his followers is not that Jesus walked the earth and died for them, but that "Christ is in you." Noteworthy are the translations/interpretations of his words used by Freke and Gandy, which reveal unexpected layers of inner meaning. In the early centuries AD groups all over Asia and the Mediterranean considered Paul the preeminent Gnostic teacher (his anti-Gnostic pastoral letters are widely believed to be later forgeries, as are the canonical letters of the other apostles). The authors do not class Paul as a Gnostic, however, since they feel that at the time he lived there was as yet no distinction between Gnostic and Literalist; the Inner and Outer Christian Mysteries were still coexisting peacefully. The struggle in Paul's time was between those who wished to keep Christianity an exclusively Jewish sect and those who wished it to be a cosmopolitan movement including gentiles.

Why did Christianity become historicized and then literalized? The authors explain that

In synthesizing the perennial myth of the dying and resurrecting godman with Jewish expectations of a historical Messiah the creators of the Jewish Mysteries took an unprecedented step, the outcome of which they could never have guessed. And yet, upon analysis, the end was already there in the beginning. The Messiah was expected to be a historical, not a mythical, savior. It was inevitable, therefore, that the Jesus story would have to develop a quasi-historical setting. And so it did. What had started as a timeless myth encoding perennial teachings now appeared to be a historical account of a once-only event in time. From this point it was unavoidable that sooner or later it would be interpreted as historical fact. Once it was, a whole new type of religion came into being — a religion based on history not myth, on blind faith in supposed events rather than on a mystical understanding of mythical allegories, a religion of the Outer Mysteries without the Inner Mysteries, of form without content, of belief without Knowledge. — The Jesus Mysteries, p. 207

Jesus and the Lost Goddess attempts to reconstruct the Inner Mysteries of Christianity in light of the entire Christian myth cycle which includes the dying and resurrecting godman and the lost and redeemed goddess in their cosmic and human aspects. The authors' extremely clear explanation of the Gnostic teachings in these spiritual allegories discloses an underlying spiritual message valid in all times and places. While the New Testament message of love, forgiveness, and progressive spiritual development has traditionally been presented as a radical departure from what came before it, the authors demonstrate that its sentiments and teachings were perfectly familiar to students of eminent Pagan philosophers such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato.

Crucified man on Orphic seal, 3rd century AD Reproduction based on an Orphic seal, 3rd century AD.

The Christians divided their Mysteries into three stages corresponding to the three parts of man: physis or body, psyche or soul, and pneuma or nous, Greek terms traditionally translated as "spirit" and "intellect" respectively. But this rendering fails to capture in its entirety the Gnostic concept which refers to our essential identity "which each one of us calls 'I.' It is the sense of being in every human being. It is who we are" (p. 61). In this context the authors feel that a more useful modern translation for pneuma and nous is "Consciousness." This threefold human nature can be symbolized by a circle, where the circumference represents the material world, each radius a psyche or individualized consciousnesses, and the center the universal divine source or underlying Oneness. In the Outer Mysteries, the disciple's psyche still identifies with the visible world, creating an illusory self or eidolon (image) which is merely a reflection of the real person or pneuma.

The Gnostic path of self-knowledge is discovering that the eidolon is not our true Self and progressively becoming aware of our essential nature as Consciousness. It can be imagined as the process of moving our point of identification from the circumference of the circle of self up the radii to the centre and realizing ourselves to be what we have been all along: Consciousness. — Jesus and the Lost Goddess, p. 68

Beginners on the path are attracted to the Mysteries by the mythic story itself, which they tend to take literally rather than allegorically.

Freke and Gandy term the second level of Mysteries "psychic" because they center on the psyche or intermediate portion of the human being, represented by a radius of the circle. At this stage the allegorical meaning of the myths is explained to disciples, who seek self-perfection by following ethical and spiritual guidelines and practices in order to become fit vehicles of spirit. Entering this stage was symbolized by the baptism of water, denoting a purification "through which initiates are cleaned of identification with their earthly self" (ibid., p. 112).

The highest or pneumatic stage of the Inner Mysteries was realization of Gnosis, direct knowledge of our oneness with the mysterious source of all, called by Christians the Mystery of God, the Good, or the "dazzling darkness." Those reaching this level experience a conscious identification with their divine source, the unity behind diversity, symbolized as the center of the circle. They have died to their lower self or separate identity and resurrected as the Christ or godman. As Paul says: "Psychics don't grasp things which concern the consciousness of God. They seem like foolishness to them, because they are pneumatically discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14); and "We are only on the pneumatic level if God's consciousness dwells in us. Those who don't possess the Christ Consciousness are not Christians" (Romans 8:9). Identifying with the central point, rather than the radii (psyche) or the circumference (body), brings a realization of oneness with all other bodies and psyches. The fundamental Gnostic message, then, was that all is One — in other words, universal brotherhood.

The authors contend that Christianity in its present form developed after groups of people in the Outer Mysteries were cut off from teachers conversant with the Inner Mysteries. These uninitiated Christians proclaimed that the mystic events in the Jesus myth were historical facts, and that followers were saved only by believing in their historicity rather than by perfecting themselves until they experienced birth of the Christ within themselves. Once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the Literalist sect suppressed all other types of Christianity as "heretical" and the vast majority of Pagan documents, temples, and inscriptions were deliberately destroyed.

For a general audience these books are a valuable reexamination of Christian origins and elucidation of Gnosticism and the inner meaning of the Pagan Mystery religions. In the last chapters of Jesus and the Lost Goddess, the authors discuss the reason they wrote these works. They believe that in this rare period when there is freedom to search for truth in many ways, unhampered by authoritarian religious establishments, it is crucial to understand what actually happened at the birth of the last "New Age" in order to avoid a similar dogmatic and repressive outcome for this one. They do not, however, advocate a resurrection of ancient forms: "We are not promoting the regressive romanticism of getting back to the 'lost ancient wisdom' of the original Christians. But we are suggesting we do what they did. They reinvigorated the perennial philosophy of Gnosticism, by successfully reworking it into a form that was accessible to their own day and age. Now is the time for us to do likewise" (p. 190).

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Go Godward: thou wilt find a road. — Russian Proverb