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3.9 out of 5 stars
The Jesus Mysteries: Was The Original Jesus A Pagan God?
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 9 April 2011
The Jesus Mysteries is a radical reinterpretation of the Jesus story. Freke and Gandy argue that nearly all of the miracles (and the moral teaching given by Christ) were constructed from elements of the surrounding Pagan Greco-Roman culture. Historically, we regard Christianity as being 'set apart' from the Pagan cultures of the classical world and this is perhaps inevitable given the primacy of the Christian church in Western culture. However, when we study the Bible in the light of modern scholarship a very different version of the origins of Christianity emerges from that propagated for millennia by the institution of the church.

For most of the Christian era the 'Gnostics' were the shadowy enemy of the true Church; we only really knew about their beliefs and practices through the writings of their detractors and of course that isn't a very good way of obtaining accurate information. All this changed in 1945 with the discovery of a cache of 'Gnostic' Gospels at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. For the first time in over 1000 years the Gnostics-through these rediscovered writings- could speak for themselves.

The fact that the Gnostic Gospels were condemned by what we now think of as the 'mainstream' church doesn't make them any less spiritually interesting or any less spiritually potent. After all, who is to judge that the faith of a small group of early Christians gathered around 'The Thought of Norea' or 'The Gospel of Thomas' was somehow deficient compared to a similar group gathered around 'Mark' or 'Matthew,' though it must be said that the Gnostic Gospels are not all sweetness and light. I'm not sure that Gnosticism offers a better version of Christianity just a very different one (the idea that material world is intrinsically bad, for example) and many of them are of significantly later date than the four canonical works. However, Freke and Gandy's central point is a valid one: people tend to forget that centuries passed before there was such a thing as a fixed Christian Bible. We somehow assume (and we have been culturally conditioned to assume) that the Bible in the form that we have it now was part of Christianity from day one. It wasn't.

The Jesus Mysteries I found to be a fascinating read and Freke and Gandy do a good job in reconstructing and defending the beliefs of the Gnostic Christians which they themselves seem to share or at least have sympathy with. Central to the Jesus Mysteries thesis is the idea that Jesus was a mythical and archetypal 'God-Man' not an actual historical person. Indeed, they go so far as to suggest that the Jesus story is-almost-a kind of 1st Century Star Wars. In other words a story with an underlying mystical meaning but essentially a story. Many people would-naturally-dispute this.

As other reviewers have helpfully pointed out Freke and Gandy are not the first writers to make these or similar points. Professor Elaine Pagels (who is liberally quoted here) has advanced similar arguments years before Freke and Gandy and decades earlier still the esteemed professor of oriental religions Edward Conze posited the idea that the Gnostics may have been familiar with Hinduism and/or Buddhism. The book also leans heavily on the work of Joseph Campbell. In summary The Jesus Mysteries is an interesting and controversial book though I doubt that it is the final word on this millennia old subject.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on 31 October 2005
This book is well researched and provides compelling detail on the origins of Christianity. I've been searching for a book like this for years and I'm glad I've found it. My only quibbles are that it does tend to overstate its case at times (there really is no need; the evidence is clear enough on its own) and the style is a bit sensationalist. The irritating and wholely excessive use of exclamation marks encapsulates both of these faults. However, those are essentially surface points. The meat is in the arguments and evidence. Here, the copious footnotes are invaluable. Ironically, a little less missionary zeal on the part of the authors (and a little less of the occasional speculation presented as fact) would have made their underlying analysis even stronger. Still, if you want a good analysis of this difficult subject, here it is.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 1 July 2013
This book send a pretty interesting shock wave through christianity, and it takes a lot to shake a christian these days, the chuch being too busy trying to cover up one scandal after another in the present, it doesn't have time anymore to deal with the ones rooted at its origins.
Tim Freke makes it clear at the beginning of the book that its aim was not so much a single minded attack on christianity (and reitereates this at various points in the book) but to offer a different path, an alternate way of lookin at and dealing with its legacy, which no doubt the church will ignore and its proponents will decry as some of the books critics have tried, which some of the negative comments here are proof of, falling back on very weak arguments that the writer is not enough of a scholar or lacks the academic pedigree to be taken seriously or that the secondary literature on the subject he refers to is too obscure and hard to find. Really? That's the best they came up with?
Just read the book and judge for yourself and no, he's no Dan Brown, thank unconscious field, he makes a very convincing case and offers a glimpse to a different path of spirituality which I can recommend and read some of his other work, especially The Mystery Experience.
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42 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on 9 May 2000
This book might be aimed at different types of reader. It succeeds on several levels. If it is aimed at the newcomer to critical review of the canonical sources then it is an excellent work to start with. If it is aimed at more experienced person, then it succeeds even more. I am well familiar with critical evaluation of the gospels, Paul's letters, Acts, etc. together with the Apocrypha, the early Church Fathers and all the ancient sources. Likewise I am familiar with the ancient religious rituals and myths. No one who has studied Frazer's Golden Bough and Graves' The White Goddess or his Greek Myths will find too much here that is horrifying. The authors themselves modestly and honestly point out that there is nothing much here that is new. Their revelation of the Osiris/Dionysus cults' similarity with the story of Jesus reminds me of when I read Joel Carmichael's the Death of Jesus when I was at college many years ago. He compares the Mithras cult with that of Christianity and, like messrs. Freke and Gandy, he is not surprised that the 'new' religion took hold in the mediterranean world.
But even an old hand like myself is impressed by the clarity of these authors. They set out all the arguments in a way that is of great use in discussion. I might have known much of the stuff from different sources but Freke and Gandy set them out in a way that relieves me of the need to refer to a number of works. They may have set out to produce a 'popular' type work to bring the arguments to 'the masses' but I feel quite at home with them on a scholarly level as I do with EP Sanders, Geza Vermes etc.
To be honest, like Sanders, Vermes, A.N. Wilson, Carmichael, Brandon and Winter, I am of opinion that there was an historical Jesus of Nazareth and I applaud their laudable efforts to produce such a personage. But I do agree with Freke and Gandy that, even as strongly as I hold this view, I cannot gainsay anyone who asserts that Jesus never existed; and this is another example of the value of this book. The authors succinctly set out the arguments that show that there is no evidence that this person ever existed. That is not the main argument of this book but it is one of the many gems which are but side issues to the argument.
This book should be required reading from secondary schools up.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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".)
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 10 December 2001
The book begins with a very interesting demonstration of the parallels between Christianity and pagan religions such as the worship of Mithras. The idea that Christianity is a combination, by Paul, of pagan workship with a Jewish preacher seems quite plausible. It then becomes a lot less convincing as instead of simply doing a demolition job, they attempt to establish some kind of true Christianity. Be sceptical, but its a fun read.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 12 May 1999
As someone with a Catholic upbringing the book was disturbing. It reveals that Jesus, the Virgin Mary, communion etc. are themes developed by previous Mysteries religions and have seemingly been adopted by the Judeo-Christian tradition. I am ignorant of the classical and biblical research which underpins the conclusions of the authors theories but the historical and literature references alone are eneough to raise many questions about established Christian dogma. The book is not negative . It offers the potential of rising above or beyond the myth and practice of any particular religion to achieve a belief or faith in something beyond our physical / scientific life. The book shows that this has been sought by humans from the earliest pre-history just as we now seek it in the era of the internet cyberself. The book seeks to reunite Christianity with this bigger reality.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 28 April 2006
I like this book as it gets people to question what they have learnt about Christianity. A certain amount of 'unlearning' is needed if someone is to start to get to the core of the Jesus story . Freke and Gandy's illustration of parallels with pagan religions, in particular the 'mystery' religions is very striking. The shock value this book holds to a reader is strong, but having now researched the topic in detail i can see there are many flaws.

Firstly the theory is not new, secondly its been analysed in great detail about 100 years ago, and thirdly its not accepted by scholars of today. Stripping away layers of dogma and interpolation are absolutely necessary to getting a more true picture of Jesus, but saying he was a completely fictional character is not a valid conclusion i feel.

Bits that were very dubious indeed were:

- Stating that St Paul was a gnostic despite his emphasis on the literal interpretation of the crucified Christ.

- Throwing out the testimony of Josephus - they were right to question its authenticity but a more authentic version has been found which corroborates that Josephus talks about Jesus as a real person

- Over simplification of some of the subtle similarities between ritual rights in the pagan and Christian traditions.

Overall this is a useful book and a good one to stimulate interest in this area. For me i do not support the conclusions and have found them to be untrue, but were it not for this book i would not have under taken that journey.

Many claim its 'well researched' yet many contemporary sources are overlooked and ignored. The writers have gone for a more sensationslist approach to their book - but its worth a read to consider the information.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 26 May 2009
Posited as a thesis, the authors move skillfully through a series of questions and answers (supported by references) to a convincing conclusion. However, the book raises many other questions which may be answered in the later publications. A good, thought-provoking read!
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on 11 March 2015
Interesting and refreshing, but not in the least comforting if you are looking to feel confident about your religious position. This book is for those moments when you want to be intellectual about god stuff, but not for when you are feeling vulnerable and want to feel better.
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