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Neo-Gnostics on shaky ground
on 30 December 2011
"The Jesus Mysteries" is a fascinating, compelling and almost mesmerizing book, written by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. I read the book years ago, and it did rock my world! The book made me interested in the quest for the historical Jesus. And perhaps the Christ of faith, as well.
But is it true? That, after all, is the really important question. Personally, I strongly doubt it.
Freke's and Gandy's thesis is that Jesus never existed. He is a purely imaginary character. The Gospels are myths. The point of the exercise was to create a Jewish version of the myth of Osiris-Dionysus, the dying and resurrecting god-man of the pagan mystery religions. The original form of Christianity was identical to Gnosticism. Paul was a Gnostic. However, the Gnostic message was secret. The "outer mysteries" claimed that Jesus actually had been a real historical figure. Around AD 100, Ignatius and other powerful bishops suppressed the "inner mysteries", which were all but forgotten within main line Christianity. Instead, we got a hierarchical, literalist Church which have dominated the Western world ever since. It should be noted that Freke and Gandy aren't anti-Gnostic. On the contrary, they want to claim Paul as one of their own, and use the myth of Jesus as a vehicle of Gnostic enlightenment and transformation. In plain English, Freke and Gandy are neo-Gnostics. This is made explicit in the sequel, "Jesus and the lost Goddess", an exposition of the Gnostic message projected back onto the early Church.
Freke's and Gandy's arguments aren't as compelling once they are looked into more closely, however. I suppose a case *could* be made for Jesus being a myth, but the traditional historical-critical position (that the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels is somewhat freely based on a true story) seems more robust and parsimonious. Freke and Gandy date the New Testament extremely late, much later than standard scholarship. For instance, they believe that Acts weren't penned until AD 150 (sic). The letters of Ignatius, which speak for an earlier date, are simply brushed aside as forgeries. Naturally, the authors claim that Josephus never mentions "our" Jesus. Meanwhile, the Jewish-Christian Pseudo-Clementines are dated much *earlier* than usual (by a couple of centuries), since the authors like the idea of Paul being a "heretic" in comparison to the "Jewish" Peter. The lack of an overtly Gnostic message in the New Testament is explained away as the result of the Gnostic teachings being secret - not an argument that would go along well with a historian. Freke's and Gandy's Gnostic spin on Paul is also problematic. Paul clearly believed in *some* kind of bodily resurrection, since the "heavenly bodies" were transformed earthly bodies, rather than pure souls or spirits leaving a decaying material body behind. While this wasn't identical to the sometimes embarrassingly physical interpretation of the resurrection developed by some Church Fathers ("what happens to people eaten by cannibals"), it was also different from the Gnostic position. Essentially, Freke and Gandy have simply pinned a later, Valentinian exegesis on Paul.
The parallels with the mystery religions are a very mixed bag, once you read the actual legends, rather than just rely on the author's descriptions. The image of a crucified pagan god on the book cover isn't earlier than Christianity, but belongs to a period when Christianity had began to compete with the pagan religions. Thus, it might very well be a Christian influence on paganism rather than vice versa. But yes, I admit that the pagan mystery element in Christianity is a complex issue - after all, Plato talked about the righteous man being hung on a pole, the Son of God lying cross-wise in the universe, etc. The Christian apologist Justin Martyr even used this as an argument for Christianity, something Freke and Gandy find very ironic. And is it really a co-incidence that Jesus is said to have performed a "Dionysian" miracle (turning water into wine) in Cana, only 18 miles from pagan Scythopolis, a centre of Dionysian worship? (I got this from the Christian theologian Martin Hengel, not from Freke and Gandy!) However, it seems that the direct dependence on the mystery cults postulated by the authors is an exaggeration of some early historical-critical writers, and that modern scholars are more circumspect on this point. Some kind of criss-crossing and mutually reinforcing elements might be the true picture. Besides, why couldn't a real Messianic figure who actually was executed by crucifixion be turned into an object of worship by Hellenized Jews and pagans? What's the problem, really?
A curious trait of "The Jesus Mysteries" is that the authors often reject Christian arguments by an appeal to naturalism, while simultaneously believing in a supernatural reality. This strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. Thus, Freke and Gandy sardonically reject the claim of some Church Fathers that the pagan religions were the results of "Diabolic mimicry". Well, I don't believe that either, but can it be ruled out by a sleight of hand if you are a neo-Gnostic? Can't evil or jealous spirits create a counterfeit religion? Why not? On another point, the authors point out (unless I'm mistaken), that the story of Barabbas must be a myth, due to a number of weird parallels between Jesus and the fortunate hoodlum. The real name of Barabbas was Jesus Bar-Abbas, which means "Jesus, Son of the Father" (!). But if the supernatural realm exists, there could be occult correspondences between it and the material world. Why can't a robber named "Jesus Son of the Father" show up at the exact moment when Pilate is going to decide the fate of Jesus, the Son of God? I'm not saying this actually happen - I'm saying that two New Age authors don't have the right to reject it on prima facie grounds. Ever heard of Jungian synchronicity? Another suspicious facts cited by the writers is that Jesus' name has the numerical value 888, or that the early Christians were obsessed with the symbol of the fish. Jesus was born at approximately the same time as the astrological Age of Pisces began. But once again, this could be given a supernaturalist twist. Perhaps Jesus was the avatar of the Piscean Age, as proposed by Elizabeth Clare Prophet?
I'm not saying everything in "The Jesus Mysteries" can be rejected out of hand. However, the book should be approached with great caution due to its reliance on outdated or fringe scholarship, its partisan tendency to constantly assume that the most extreme position simply must be true, its anachronistic projection of developed mid-2th century Gnosticism on Paul's letters, composed about a century earlier, and its problematic method when approaching the supernatural traits of the Gospels.
Everyone should read this book and attempt to come to terms with it. However, since the authors are on really shaky ground, I'll only give it three stars.
(Some of these issues are also dealt with in my reviews of Martin Hengel's books "The Hellenization of Judea in the First Century after Christ" and "The Son of God".)