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Jesus & Mystery Cults

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The Jesus Mysteries: Was the 'Original Jesus' a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Published by Three Rivers Press.

Did Jesus really exist? Most arguments by critics tend to be negative in nature - they takes information internal to Christianity and argue how and why it does not support the existence of a historical Jesus. This is complimented by Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries, because they spend more time on positive arguments, examining all of the amazing parallels between Christianity and pagan mystery religions.

These authors are coming from an interesting perspective. Most books of this nature tend to be from liberal Christians or atheists. I don't know what the religious persuasions of the authors are, but Freke has an honors degree in philosophy and is an authority on world mysticism, while Gandy has an M.A. in classical civilization and specializes in ancient pagan mystery religions. Thus, they would appear to be uniquely qualified to look into the connections between Christianity and other religious beliefs of the time.

On the negative side, they appear to be a bit polemical. They seem to have nothing but harsh words for the orthodoxy that was eventually established (over and above gnosticism and mysticism) and refer to this development as a "great cover-up."

However good their scholarship is, such language will inevitably annoy people who might otherwise be somewhat receptive to some of the ideas. At the very least, those who are unreceptive will latch on to such language as a reason to dismiss everything else. But I wonder if, on the other hand, such language will appeal to contemporary pagans?

The authors do create a sharp dividing line between two main camps: Literalists and Gnostics. The latter constituted a tradition which was older and more diverse than Christianity - it was gnosticism which stood behind the pagan mystery cults which flourished throughout the Mediterranean region, possibly starting in Egypt as long as 4000 years ago.

In these cults, mystery was quite literally the name of the game. Members were initiated into ever deeper and more symbolic information. People who just joined were told tales that were to be taken at face value - but if they persevered, they would be initiated into teachings which showed that the literal reading was not the truth. Instead, the story was an allegory for deeper truths about humanity and the universe. Thus, an initiate passed from "Outer Mysteries" and on to "Inner Mysteries."

According to Freke and Gandy, early Christianity was part of the same tradition. Paul's Christ was the 'redeemer/enabler' figure found in them all, and like the other cultic gods, his figure brought initiates into a state of knowledge and salvation.

This early Christian movement was a blending of "gnostic" mystery traditions and traditional Judaism. It was, in other words, a Jewish version of pagan mystery cults. Unfortunately, the Jews had a problem: other religious traditions could create a mystery cult out of a minor deity in their pantheon, but there was no pantheon in Judaism. This left only the Messiah (Christ) concept to fill the role, and so according to Freke and Gandy, it was adapted and transformed into a savior figure.

But by the early second century, matters had taken a dramatic change. By this time, the whole concept of the outer vs. inner mysteries had been dropped, while a literalist reading of the stories and concepts had become the dominant tradition. Traditionally, it has been argued that Christian gnosticism developed out of orthodox Christianity, but the thesis of the Jesus Mysteries is just the opposite. This book places gnosticism at the origins of Christianity and identifies the later orthodoxy as the interloper and heresy.

Curiously, for gnostic Christianity, the existence of a historical Jesus is pretty much a non-issue. As has been described, the mystery religions presented a picture in which the superficial image was not to be taken literally. They had deeper and more important truths to offer - thus, while they did not argue that a real Jesus existed, they wouldn't have considered it important if he had.

So where does all of this leave the question of a historical Jesus? Not in a good position: at the very least, it has to be admitted that the existence of a historical Jesus cannot simply be assumed as a given and absolute fact.

On the one hand, the evidence of such a person is equivocal at best. People keep trying to write biographies of the man that Jesus was supposed to be, but those biographies keep looking an awful lot like the authors themselves. The authors all pick out different details to focus on and arrive at radically different Jesus-figures.

They can't all be Jesus - so we are left with an embarrassment of riches. There are, quite simply, too many Jesus figures running around. And the unfortunate fact is, once all of the alleged mythology has been stripped away and the remnants of a person are left behind, there just isn't enough left to consider seriously. If there was anyone at the original center of the tradition, we no longer have sufficient information to be sure.

On the other hand, we have a tremendous amount of information which allows us to create amazing parallels between early Christianity and numerous pagan traditions. These mystery religions were popular throughout the Mediterranean region - although they may have started in Egypt, they seem to have spread from one area to the next, always growing in popularity.

The idea that the Christian parallels are just coincidence would stretch credulity to the breaking point. But while it is clear that pagan religions had a strong influence on early Christianity, could there be even more to it? According to Freke and Gandy, there is quite a bit more - early Christianity was, essentially, a mystery religion. But instead of pagan, it was a Jewish version.

So what is the truth? It's unlikely that we'll ever know for sure. But we do know that history is not as clear-cut as orthodox Christian tradition has told everyone and that the existence of a historical Jesus can justifiably be doubted.

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