Unfortunately, many who profess to be Christian know very little about the history of Christian beliefs or about the many serious questions surrounding the historicity of Jesus. They rarely seek to know if any physical and historical evidence actually supports the hypothesis that Jesus existed as a person in the world.
The rarity may seem strange since, presumably, Jesus is the central figure of Christianity. Except that often the centrality of Jesus seems not to be the case. In the beliefs and practices of even major holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, Jesus is not so much a person as the person that stuff happened to. Someone was miraculously born of a virgin (who was herself born of a virgin) in a stable? Oh, it was Jesus. Someone was crucified and later rose from the dead? Oh, it was Jesus.
I've always been struck at the emptiness of Jesus, and I think this emptiness may actually contribute to keeping people in the churches. All the shit happened to Jesus, but he doesn't ask anything of you directly. His emissaries in church ask, but you know them and they're OK. Go to church and celebrate the shit that happened, and then pass the money over to the emissaries.
It's about being together in a community and affirming that shit happens. It's not about Jesus; it's about the shit that happened. It's not about Jesus; it's about Christianity.
And so we come to Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, authors of The Jesus Mysteries, who offer a different view of Jesus and Christianity. As I see it, they hypothesize that modern Christianity is based around one big misunderstanding about Jesus. They say:
The traditional history of Christianity is hopelessly inadequate to the facts. From our research into ancient spirituality it has become obvious that we must fundamentally revise our understanding of Christian origins in the most shocking of ways. Our conclusion, supported by a considerable body of evidence in our book, The Jesus Mysteries, is that Christianity was not a new revelation. It was a continuation of Paganism by another name. The gospel story of Jesus is not the biography of an historical Messiah. It is a Jewish reworking of ancient Pagan myths of the dying and resurrecting Godman Osiris-Dionysus, which had been popular for centuries throughout the ancient Mediterranean.The similarity of the Jesus narrative to pagan myths is well known. In modern times, however, we tend to equate myths with lies. This is not how the ancient world understood myths.
It is hard for us today to imagine the Jesus story being consciously created, but this is because we have misunderstood ancient spirituality. Myths were not seen as untruths as they are now. They were understood as allegories of spiritual initiation, which encoded profound mystical teachings. Reworking old myths to create new ones was a standard practice in the ancient world.These are serious and high-impact claims being made. It should be noted that neither author is, so far as I know, an academic researcher. But folks such as G.A. Wells, Gerd Lüdemann, and many others have done real work that makes a "Christ-myth" theory not only viable but very likely. After all, according to the myth, a man comes to life after being dead three days. That man then ascends to heaven. It's a nice story, but let's not forget that such an occurrence would go against the way the world actually works. We need to employ the reality principle every now and again.
So, having taken a several grains of salt, we hear more from Freke and Gandy:
The conquests of Alexander the Great had turned the Mediterranean world into one culture with a common language. This created an age of eclecticism, much like our own, in which different spiritual traditions met and synthesized. Jewish mystics of this period, such as Philo Judeas, were obsessed with synthesizing Jewish and Pagan mythology. In light of all this, it is actually no surprise that some group of Jewish mystics should synthesize the great mythic hero of the Jews, Joshua the Messiah, with the great mythic hero of the Pagans, Osiris-Dionysus.The authors clearly make a target of the Roman Catholic Church's brand of Christianity, as well they should. But I part ways with the authors when they obviously sympathize with the Gnostics:
At the time, both Pagans and Christians were well aware that the Jesus story was a myth. The early Christians, known as Gnostics, understood the Jesus story as allegory, not history, and even called Jesus by the names of the Pagan Godman. The Gnostics were brutally eradicated by the Roman Church in the 4th and 5th centuries, and since then we have believed the official propaganda that these Christians were dangerous heretics who had gone Pagan.
Actually the evidence suggests the opposite is closer to the truth. The Gnostics were the original Christians, just as they themselves claimed. They had synthesized Jewish and Pagan mythology to produce the Jesus story and many other extraordinary Christian myths largely unknown today. The Roman Church was a later deviation, which misunderstood the Jesus story as history. It was, as the Gnostics said at the time, an imitation Church teaching a superficial Christianity designed for the masses.
Roman Christianity, and all its subsequent offshoots, is based on the idea that if you believe in the existence of an historical Jesus you will go to heaven when you die. For the Gnostics, however, Jesus is an everyman figure in an initiation allegory. They taught that if you yourself go through the process of initiation symbolized by the Jesus myth, you would die to your old self and resurrect in a new way. The Greek word we translate as resurrect also means awaken.I am intrigued by the different picture of Jesus that the authors paint, clean-shaven and such:
For the Gnostics, Christianity was about dying -- the idea of giving up your mortal body and awakening to your immortal essence as the Christ within -- the One Consciousness of the Universe. This mystical enlightenment was not something that happened after death, but could happen here and now.
The historical figure of Jesus has been so central to Western culture that it is hard to question his existence. As soon as we hear his name we can see him in our mind's eye, in his flowing white robes, with long hair and a beard. Yet this picture of Jesus was not created until the 8th century. Early portrayals of Jesus show him clean-shaven with short hair and wearing a Roman tunic. St Paul says that long hair disgraces a man, so presumably his image of Jesus was not the same as ours.In the next passage, the authors err by going all sensationalist on us - "everything you thought you knew is WRONG!!!" If anything makes me think these folks are snake-oil salesman, this is it. However, their points about the paucity of physical evidence for a historical Jesus are legitimate. I wish more Christians would ponder these ideas a bit more.
The fact is that everything we think we know about Jesus, like this romantic picture of the bearded savior, is a creation of the human imagination. Actually there is barely a shred of evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus and this dissolves on closer inspection. Paul, the earliest Christian source, shows no knowledge of an historical man, only a mystical Christ. The gospels have been thoroughly discredited as eyewitness reports. Other bits of traditional evidence, such as references to Jesus by the Jewish historian Josephus, have been shown to be later forgeries. If solid evidence had existed, there would have been no need to have created such fabrications.The authors try to close out with a statement that basically they are helping people be even more spiritual. They somehow have the secret to help people be happier and more personally in touch with the divine. This is voodoo mystical shit. It's the same old story: there's something better, somewhere, out there, "beyond" this reality. I don't understand why people repulse themselves from reality.
A little over a century ago most people believed the story of Adam and Eve to be history. To most thinking people today its is obviously a myth. We predict that within a generation a similar revolution will have taken place in our understanding of the gospels. People will look back at the beginning of the 21st century and be amazed that a culture with the technology to travel to the moon could see the fabulous story of Jesus as anything other than a myth. However, we do not want to dismiss the Jesus story as nonsense. For us it is truly the greatest story ever told, because it has been thousands of years in the making. It is a perennial tale that has fascinated the human soul since the dawn of time.So, this is interesting stuff unfortunately packaged in sensationalism. Interested readers will be better served by reading the excellent review by Richard Carrier of Earl Doherty's book, The Jesus Puzzle.
Whilst our ideas clearly rewrite history, we do not see ourselves as undermining Christianity. On the contrary we are suggesting that Christianity is in fact richer than we previously imagined. According to the original Gnostic Christians, the Jesus story is a perennial myth with the power to impart the mystical experience of Gnosis, which can transform each one of us into a Christ, not merely a history of events that happened to someone else two thousand years ago.