'The Jesus Mysteries', Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy

There is no doubt in my mind that Freke & Gandy's book (or thesis) is a worldview-shattering concept ... at least to a Catholic born atheist who has, for most of his life, accepted the existence of a man called Jesus Christ as actual (but not, I stress, his claimed supernatural aspects). I had envisaged such a man as some kind of, then, Jewish leader (perhaps terrorist, perhaps "freedom-fighter", perhaps wise, perhaps soft-spoken) and the kind of man around which legends are built ... a kind of early-day Robin Hood if you like. Prior to reading Freke & Gandy's book I had read some of Frank R. Zindler's work at the American Atheists site and I had begun to consider the possibility of a world in which there had never been a Jesus as a literal historical individual. To an atheist who, because of his religious upbringing, is more active against fundamentalist Christian claims this is a key consideration, the foundation of the claims of modern Christianity are built upon this. If there was no literal Jesus Christ then everything every Christian cult has claimed since 1000CE or earlier is built upon a lie (or at least a mistaken claim).

\ Core to those who believe in Christianity is the crucifixion & resurrection of their Jesus Christ whose father is the one true god and whose mother was a virgin. According to the authors Christianity is not unique in these claims and has not only been copied but, it seems, pre-dated (by several hundred years) by similar pagan beliefs, the so-called "mystery religions". The Egyptian Osiris, the Greek Dionysus, the Syrian Adonis, the Italian Bacchus & the Persian Mithras all show an uncanny similarity to the central claims made by Christianity. Yet all of these pagan beliefs are regarded as myth or fable by theist & historians alike and no such charge is levied against Christianity. Why?

In their book, the authors reveal the mystery religions, whose various dying & resurrecting godmen they refer to as "Osiris-Dionysus", as showing a great degree of similarity in their multi-level teachings that were interpreted more literally by the uninitiated and allegorically by the initiated. Core to this belief system was the concept that "self" comprised of two components, the lower being or eidolon, and the upper, spiritual being, or daemon. Initiation into these religions involved the initiated dying to one's old self and resurrecting as one (the eidolon & daemon united) and, interestingly, the Greek word for "resurrect" also means "awaken."

So, are the claims made by Christianity are based on lie or error? Perhaps modern-day Christianity is more the result of political power plays & human corruption than it is a real attempt to discern some kind of spiritual truth?

Viewed in this light Freke & Gandy's book makes a number of quite extraordinary claims that revolve around the central concept that Jesus Christ did not literally exist but was, instead, a composite character created to represent a higher spiritual being that we all have within ourselves (the Christ within). So, was the Jesus we all know (and either hate, love or ignore) a Pagan God?

According to Freke & Gandy, Christianity makes a number of claims:

  • Jesus was the saviour of mankind.
  • Jesus was God made man (a Godman).
  • The Son of God equates to the Father.
  • Jesus is born of a virgin who, after her death, is honoured in heaven as divine.
  • Jesus is born in a cave on either 25th December or 6th January).
  • A star heralds Jesus' birth.
  • Jesus is portrayed as a quiet man long hair and a beard.
  • At a wedding, Jesus turns water into wine.
  • Jesus' divinity is only later recognised by his disciples.
  • Jesus has 12 disciples.
  • Jesus rides triumphantly on a donkey with crowds waving branches.
  • Jesus is a just man who is accused of heresy and the introduction of a new religion.
  • Jesus is hung on a tree or crucified.
  • Jesus dies as a sacrifice to redeem the sins of the world.
  • Jesus' corpse is wrapped in linen and anointed with myrrh.
  • Jesus dies, descends to hell, resurrects before his disciples and ascends into heaven where he is enthroned by God and waits until judgment day to appear as the divine judge.
  • Jesus' empty tomb is visited by three women followers.
  • Jesus offers his disciples the chance to be born again.

However, Freke & Gandy claim these are matched by fables of the composite being they refer to as Osiris-Dionysus:

  • Jesus is visited by three wise men or Magi.
  • The Magi bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  • Jesus is baptized.
  • Jesus' disciples symbolically eat bread and drink wine to commune with him.

But Freke & Gandy note that many pagan religions featured baptism & the symbolic eating & drinking of bread & wine as a means of communing with their saviour. They also note that the Magi are followers of Osiris-Dionysus.

  • Jesus offers his followers elemental baptisms of water, air and fire.
  • Jesus heals the sick.
  • Jesus exorcises demons.
  • Jesus provides miraculous meals.
  • Jesus helps fishermen to miraculous catches of fish.
  • Jesus calms storms.
  • Jesus is a wandering wonder-worker who is not honoured in his home town.
  • Jesus attacks hypocrites.
  • Jesus stands up to tyranny.
  • Jesus goes to his death predicting he will rise again.

Freke & Gandy note that many of the wandering Mystery sages are credited with similar or identical deeds.

The authors make the point that a historical figure of Jesus is central to western culture & religion, so much so that it is now hard to question his existence. The mere mention of his name brings easy visualisation of flowing white robes, long hair, beard etc. of Jesus and the 8th century Jesus is portrayed in a more Romanic style, wearing a roman tunic, short-haired and clean-shaven and this is likely to be how St. Paul would have viewed him.

They also claim that the "historic" Jesus is a human creation and that there is little or no evidence for his existence and what we do have " reveals itself as forged, flawed or non-verifiable".

From this Freke & Gandy make the following statements, the essential core of the book:

  • Christian history is not an accurate reflection of real history.
  • Christianity was not revolutionary as it claimed even today but grew out of pre-existing pagan religions and, in its original form, differed in relatively minor ways from them.
  • Like the followers of other pagan or "Mystery" religions early Christians were Gnostics whose scriptures were allegorical encodings of initiation rites & teachings acting at multiple levels for the uninitiated & initiated.
  • Early Christian initiates knew that their teachings were not literal.
  • Christian Gnostics believed that Jesus represented one's ability to die to your old self and be reborn at one with the universe and in this respect were more-or-less identical with pre-existing & and co-existing pagan religions.
  • Circumstances (revolving around the Roman dominance of Israel & brutal reprisals against uprisings) conspired to split non-initiated & initiated allowing unscrupulous individuals acting in the name of the non-initiated to dominate the religion.
  • In the 4th century CE the Roman Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity beliefs in order to use its core message of "One Kingdom, One God" to justify his parallel desire for "One Empire, One Emperor" and, by doing so, formed the basis for the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
  • All of the other Christian cults derive from Catholicism.

The authors' claim that Rome converted to Christianity under Emperor Constantine, and then went on to strengthen its power becoming the one true religion of the Rome Empire is convincing (even beguiling). To achieve this the Holy Roman church began a systematic campaign designed to "erase" other faiths (particularly the Pagan mysteries) by altering & destroying those religions' scriptures, by branding those who disagreed with them as heretics and when that was insufficient turning to lie & forgery (both Eusebius, the Catholic church's "father", & Justin Martyr claimed that the Mystery religions only had their own dying and resurrecting godmen through Satanically inspired plagiarism ("diabolical mimicry").

The Authors go on to explain how they feel that the original Christian mysteries were perverted into the more orthodox religions due to persecution of the Jews resulting in the need for a saviour to lift the Jewish people from despair. The eventual sacking of Jerusalem in first century CE threw the Christian believers across the Roman Empire as slaves & refugees, splitting apart non-initiates from initiates and thus allowing a more literal form of Christianity to rise from the scattered ashes of the outer mystery form of the religion. The new religion preached that salvation could be found only by believing in a literal Jesus Christ and, once adopted as the official religion of Rome, hunted down the original Gnostics as heretics and apostates of true Christianity. The authors strongly imply that Christianity alone would likely not have survived to what it is today had it not been for Rome ... the hierarchical nature of Rome lent itself far better to the strictly literal outer mysteries and Emperor Constantine used them to justify his stance of one Empire, one Emperor.

From the perspective of an atheist and a child of Catholic dogma I found it incredibly easy to accept the author's basic claim that orthodox Christianity set culture & science back many years. The authors note that the ancient Greeks had established the diameter of the Earth fairly accurately (Eratosthenes of Cyrene, 275-195 BCE) and that accurate models of the solar system had been proposed (though I could find little to support this claim) ... that the majority of this knowledge was destroyed by literalist Christianity's human-centric view of the universe is easy to believe.

I found it particularly interesting that St. Paul (the earliest cited Christian) appeared to believe in a Christ that was mystical rather than real and that his later letters (where he attacked heretics and Gnostics) are now understood to have been forgeries. It has long been my understanding that the gospels have been discredited (at least as eye-witness testimonies) and subject to significant doubt as to their claimed authorship and that references by the Jewish historian Josephus have been claimed to be forgeries. Interestingly I noted on a major pro-Christian TV production recently that Josephus was born some 5 years after the claimed death of Christ ... exactly how relevant such evidence should be if this is so is probably something worth debating.

Though the idea that Jesus was created by a Jewish Gnostic cult is radical and believable the authors do not seem to touch greatly on Jewish scripture as a resource and a number of modern "authorities" on Jesus Christ are ignored though in their defence I would note that many such "authorities" are not necessarily objective and such evidences can, in principle at least, be rejected. Of course, exactly how objective Freke & Gandy are in their book is open to question, nevertheless, the authors do succeed in tying Christianity closer to what appears to be its pagan origins. Apparently, St. Augustine even declared that the priests of Mithraism worshiped the same God as he did.

One of the main arguments I encounter when debating biblical historicity is that, as CNN put it, "most scholars agree that a man known as Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified around A.D. 30" & Freke & Gandy have done an excellent job in challenging that assumption. Not that I believe that they have definitively defeated or dismissed biblical claims but they have certainly opened the whole area up for discussion and that can, in my opinion, do little but good.

In the course of researching this review, I encountered a number of critics who showed exceptional bias against the book, Geoff Robson & the "Venerable Bede" to name two. The majority of Robson's defence appears, to my mind, to be based on quibbles and claims that that biblical history is entirely accurate something I understand the majority of objective historians to not agree with. The supernatural aside, that is not to say the basic claims of Christianity are untrue, just that there appears to be little truth its claim to absolute historicity. Bede, on the other hand, chose to attack Freke & Gandy's qualifications and lack of peer-reviewed publications however, a brief search of the web however, revealed that Freke & Gandy are graduates of philosophy and classical civilisation (MA) respectively the former with some 20 books to his name. History is replete with examples of superbly qualified scientists who are quoted as authorities when opining (often wrongly) in areas that have nothing to do with their areas of expertise (and sometimes even within them) ... qualifications, whilst important, are often irrelevant at such times. It should have been quite obvious to the critic that if qualifications cannot definitively prove a person "fit" to have an opinion or be an "authority" on a subject then the lack of them cannot be used to definitively dismiss a view that has been expressed by that author. It is also worth noting that many of our greatest scientists and researchers have had no particular qualifications of note and I feel it pointless to criticise the authors on the basis of their qualifications when these (along with their interests) potentially make them ideal candidates for authors of such material. It is interesting that another reviewer of the book also says the exact opposite of Bede and refers to the authors as appearing to be "uniquely qualified to look into the connections between Christianity and other religious beliefs of the time."

Bede goes further to criticise the authors for claiming that ancient mystery sages "knew" the earth revolved around the sun and dismisses it on the basis of being "untrue" and "daft" and, though he does provide some brief reasoning in support of view, he appears more than anything to demonstrate his own lack of objectivity. The remainder of his critique appears to be a general dismissal based on the work of a number of pro-Christian historians whereas I feel that this book not so much proves its point as opens up the arena for a whole area of discussion.

According to one critic the Jesus Mysteries is one of those books that "develops its thesis by finding again and again that every fact unearthed by the authors supports its original argument" and I agree that it does make it difficult for those without relevant qualifications or experience to assess it in an unbiased frame of mind.

Nevertheless, the Jesus Mysteries remains an interesting piece of work, serving to provoke thought and bringing new understanding to the way Christianity may have arisen. I found it particularly interesting in the area the early church's brutal tactics & corruption and an excellent reminder that ordinary men (with all their base desires) created religion. With this kind of religious dogma & violence featuring in our past it is little wonder that historians refer to these times as "the dark ages".

In terms of readability, I found this book initially quite easy going but tending towards verbosity as I moved on through. Unlike Bede I feel that the authors are well qualified to research & write such a thesis but, as I wound my way through the book, I found their style increasingly irritating and the book ultimately came across not as a neutral discussion (as I felt it should) but more as a justification of the correctness of the pagan/mystery religion versus the wrongness of literalist belief systems ... I agree with the latter but I cannot agree with the former.

In this respect, I feel that the most extraordinary claim made by Freke & Gandy is that their research not only rewrites history (which it does to some extent) but serves not to undermine Christianity but to enrich it. Undoubtedly that has something to do with my views ... there was great emphasis throughout the book on the essential truths and implied correctness of the Mystery religions but being an atheist (and a strong one at that) I had found out most of what I wanted to know in the first three chapters. All of the similarities between Christianity and the pagan religions serve not, in my view, to enrich it but to give an understanding of its human nature and thus allow us to dismiss it for the supernatural rubbish it is.

Despite my reservations, I feel that the book is, as one critic put it, "A breath of fresh air" to those who rebel against religion (Christianity in particular) and have rejected the religious dogma that fundamentalists promote.

I have no doubt that the book will allow many more rational Christians to reconnect with their heritage and re-evaluate the various aspects of their beliefs (we might even gain a few more atheists out of it) but more than that, if what the authors claim is true, it could aid the world's return to a more mutually tolerant system of beliefs rather than our current system of many divisive & mutually exclusive religions. Somehow, though, the cynic in me feels this is unlikely.

The ultimate issue though is where this book leaves the historical Jesus Christ. Undoubtedly it has struck at Christianity and struck hard but, at the end of the day, Christianity is big, ugly & quite capable of looking after itself. Christianity will emerge from this dented but essentially whole and will continue to spread its awful message around the world. Whilst this book will, no doubt, contribute to what I hope will eventually be the demise of Christianity and religion in general it is not the straw that will break the camel's back. This book, I believe will have an impact and deservedly so, I just doubt it will put the Jesus myth to rest.

Nevertheless, most rational individuals will at least concede that there is reason to doubt the existence of a historical Jesus i.e. that his actual existence simply cannot be assumed as absolute fact. Ultimately, unless time travel becomes a realistic possibility, it is unlikely that we will never know what the real truth is but whatever it isn't there remains little doubt that the Jesus myth is the greatest story ever sold and one that will preoccupy us for many hundreds of years to come.

References

  • "The Jesus Mysteries: Was Jesus A Pagan God?" Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy
  • "Did Jesus Exist?" Frank R. Zindler
  • "Review: Jesus, man or myth," David Allan Dodson
  • "Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy's 'The Jesus Mysteries'," Anthony Campbell.
  • "Was The 'Original Jesus' A Pagan God?" Tom Paine
  • "Don't be fooled by this Jesus Freke," Geoff Robson
  • "Tweedledee and Tweedledum on the Christian Faith," Venerable Bede
  • "'The Jesus Mysteries' opens a controversial can of worms," CNN Editorial
  • "Pagan Jesus?" Jenny Chisholm
  • "Historical Jesus," Austin Cline
  • "The Jesus Puzzle: Was There No Historical Jesus?" Earl Doherty

Thanks for reading.

James C. Rocks, Author ("The Abyssal Void" Trilogy)



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