In 1999 I came across a book called ‘The Jesus Mysteries’ by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. It was the first time I’d come across the idea that maybe Jesus never literally existed and that much of his story was taken from pagan sources.
Following that idea (which I initially dismissed) I started to really pick apart the Jesus story, and much of the New Testament, critically examining it and trying to figure out what I thought really happened during the origins of Christianity.
It was a puzzle I had already been picking at, partly because I could no longer believe in a literal incarnation of God (it didn’t make logical sense to me) and yet continued to be fascinated by the Gospel story. So I was desperate to figure out what really happened. If, as I believed at the time, Jesus’s original message had been so badly distorted then when, how and why did that happen?
Following the influence of the ‘Jesus Mysteries’ book I had a whole bunch of new questions. Did Jesus exist? Was the Gospel story a mixture of rehashed mystery religion myth combined with the Messiah prophecies of the Old Testament? How could it involve so many apparently real people (John the Baptist, Simon Peter etc) if it was completely fictional? Was Paul the first gnostic? What did Paul believe and what was he up to? How did gnosticism relate to the truth or fiction of the Gospel story? How did the more literal form of Christianity evolve?
Over the next few years I pieced together my own interpretation of the origins of Christianity and the content and historicity of the New Testament. I remained convinced that there must be some sincere attempt to tell a revealed truth at the heart of the New Testament writings, so I remained open to any spiritual insights I might stumble upon in my own search for truth. And eventually I arrived at a conclusion that still informs my understanding of what really happened.
I want to share that conclusion with you now.
Years before I stumbled upon the ‘Jesus Mysteries’ idea I had already been impressed by the myth of Osiris in Ancient Egypt. Isn’t it weird, I thought, that the Egyptians also had a dying and resurrecting god?
And I have since learnt that indeed the Ancient world was rife with such deities. There was Attis, Adonis, Mithras, Dionysus – lots and lots of dying and resurrecting deities. Usually they seem to represent the changing of the seasons, the way life dies in the winter and is reborn in the spring. But they also often formed the basis of what are known as “mystery religions”. In those religions, the worshippers underwent a kind of death and rebirth of their own, in elaborate and secret rituals that resulted in a kind of spiritual rebirth, an awakening of new understandings. Some of the ideas and rituals of those mystery religions seem to eerily predict the practises and beliefs of early Christianity. There were even baptism-like rituals and meals of bread and wine.
My current belief about the Gospel story however is not that it is totally fictional, but rather that real events may have had mythical stories tacked onto them. There were many Messiah type figures who revolutionary Jews latched onto in attempts to liberate themselves from the yoke of their Roman overlords. It was the attempt to thwart a zealot uprising that caused the Romans to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem in 66 CE after all.
But why would followers of a Jewish Messiah choose to include Mystery religion beliefs and pagan stories in the creation of a new faith?
The place we need to look to understand the origins of Christianity is I believe in the writings and activities of the apostle Paul. The oldest writings in the New Testament are after all the letters of Paul.
Paul was a troubled man I believe. He was in his own words “zealous” in his Jewish faith but he also proudly believed in his status as a Roman citizen. It is my opinion that he was seriously conflicted within himself. Partly he admired Hellenistic society and culture very greatly. But he also felt an enormous pressure to be a good Jew. He probably was the kind of person who didn’t do things by half. If there were aspects of Greek or Roman culture that inspired him, or even myths that he found genuinely insightful, then he would want to embrace and celebrate his Roman citizenry. But if he was going to be a Jew then he must stick rigidly to the codes and beliefs of his faith, becoming almost militant about it. So these two sides of him were in conflict with one another.
He speaks in his letters many times of the “church in Jerusalem” and clearly this group of believers (including James and Peter) predates his own mission. It was them he was sent to persecute and it was in the action of doing so that he received his great revelation that caused him to go off into the desert alone to work out just what it was that he had come to believe.
So who were these believers in Jerusalem? What did they believe and what were they doing before Paul came along? And what was Paul’s great revelation that changed everything? And how did he arrive at it?
It is my belief that the “church in Jerusalem” was a group of what I might call “symbolic messianists”. Let me explain. It has become apparent to me in my own studies of the Old Testament scriptures that there is more than one possible interpretation of the Messiah prophecies contained therein. As well as a literal new King of Israel, there is hidden among the prophecies a prominent idea of God becoming the new King of Israel. It is in passages that suggest this that we also read about the Law being written on the hearts of the people. Could it be that the promised Messiah was actually symbolic of a spiritual awakening, a change in the hearts of the Jewish people so that they don’t need the laws of the Torah anymore, or a literal King to liberate them, but that the law would be written on their hearts and God would rule over his people?
Could it be that there was some figure in 1st Century Palestine, almost totally obscured by the miracles and myths of the Gospel story but still dimly visible within those pages, who although technically a Messiah figure chose to reject the political element of his mission in favour of a spiritual revolution, a winning of hearts and minds and a far more expansive ethical and theological vision than mere political revolution? Could it be that he met an untimely end and that his followers, desperate to figure out what just happened, came to read their scriptures in a new way and saw the more symbolic reading of Messiah prophecies that is hiding within the pages?
And when Paul was riding out to persecute them it may not have been because they were troublemakers as such, but instead because they were “bad Jews” in his more zealous eyes. Perhaps he was weighing up their outrageous beliefs in his mind when suddenly his conflicted sentiments and loyalties came crashing together in a glorious synthesis of new ideas and beliefs. This revelation changed everything and was so monumental and unsettling that he had to mull it over in solitude for a long time before returning with his new revolutionary theology.
So what was this new belief? What did Paul actually believe? It is curious that the historical Jesus never really surfaces in the writings of Paul but the Christ he promotes seems to be an almost entirely spiritual entity. It is worth bearing in mind also that Jesus is actually the same name as Joshua, the Old Testament figure who actually led the Israelites into the “Promised Land”. The Hebrew name Yeshua (Jesus) is an alternative spelling of Yehoshua (Joshua) and Joshua son of Nun (who led the Israelites into Canaan) is actually referred to as Yeshua in some later parts of the Old Testament. Christ is also a Greek word that literally means Messiah. So Jesus Christ can also be rendered Joshua Messiah. I sometimes find it useful to think “Joshua Messiah” when I read “Jesus Christ” in the New Testament, just to try and shake away the baggage of a conventionally Christian reading of the text so that a fresh new light might possibly be thrown on it.
Anyway it certainly seems likely that Paul is promoting the idea of a symbolic Messiah and he seems to include many mystery religion, almost proto-gnostic ideas in his portrayal of his “Joshua Messiah”. The full combination of mystery religion god and Jewish Messiah in the Jesus narrative only really arrives with the Gospels of course, but some of the seeds are already there in the letters of Paul.
But you can’t really realise what all the fuss is about or why the New Testament writers are so enthused and excited about this spiritual renewal until you grasp what is really meant by the idea of redemption and atonement.
When you combine the ideas of a dying and resurrecting god with the Jewish Messiah a remarkable new concept of God emerges. It is not so unfamiliar really as it is a core tenet of the Christian faith. But even this fundamental idea often gets lost in modern day Christianity and I think a belief in a literal incarnation of God in the historical person of Jesus actually serves to obscure this deep meaning at the heart of the Christian faith.
I had my own moment of revelation when I was figuring out the origins of Christianity, my own “road to Damascus” moment if you like, when suddenly the message I had been told by Christians all my life took on a new significance and meaning for me. It goes something like this:
God, according to Judaeo-Christian belief, is good. But because he loves us he has granted us Free Will. But this means that evil can happen in the world. In effect God gives up some of his goodness, he sacrifices his true essence, he symbolically offers himself up to die. So that we may live!!! Now one thing I’ve learnt from life is that the whole point of Free Will is so that we can learn and grow. The whole point of being able to make mistakes is so that we can learn better. And a morality arrived at by learning from our mistakes is far more real and worthwhile, far more valuable, than one merely learnt by rote. You will always doubt and wonder why you are being good if you do not understand the reason for it. But make mistakes, get things wrong, and then learn from your mistakes. Then suddenly you do not doubt anymore. You know why things are right and wrong. You have experienced it for yourself. This process of learning from our mistakes is what allows God to be resurrected from death. And it is also the process by which we die to our former selves and are spiritually reborn. This is the very message of Paul’s letters. I’m almost paraphrasing him! And this is why the Law is no longer necessary. It really is as if the Law is written on the hearts of the people. Through this process of spiritual renewal, of dying and resurrecting, we are reborn anew in the spirit and no longer need rigid codes because we have an ethical code written on our hearts.
Perhaps this is an unorthodox or radical interpretation of Paul’s theology. But it really does seem to be contained in the texts of his letters. It’s not a million miles away from what he is actually saying! And I can feel his enthusiasm about this new idea. He is inspired and excited, committed to spreading this good news.
So what went wrong? How did this exciting vision of new life in the spirit, of unity between Hellenistic myth and Jewish morality, of a true and life changing ethics and spiritual insight become twisted into a guilt tripping worship of a man as literal incarnation of God? How did the passion and radical energy of the movement become stifled by conformity, hierarchy and feelings of guilt and unworthiness? Why did literal belief in mythical events take over from symbolic insights and understandings?
Well I think the message Paul was preaching may have been a bit too subtle and nuanced for many of the people he converted. Most of the people he reached in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome were simple folk, not very educated and they also were not as knowledgeable about the Jewish faith and scriptures as Paul was. Most of Paul’s life he was struggling against zealous Jews (including some of the “Church in Jerusalem”, such as James) who found it utterly offensive that he was teaching people that they didn’t need to follow the laws of the Torah. But as he struggled against those heavily Jewish elements in early Christianity it’s possible he became blind to the poison spreading amongst his gentile converts.
There may be early signs of what was happening from the things he is arguing against in his letters to the Corinthians. But these simple gentile folk, who knew virtually nothing about the Old Testament scriptures, may have confused the mythical Jesus that Paul was talking about with stories about a literal person whom the Christians from Jerusalem had followed. The Gospels may not have been simply a creative synthesis between the two, with full knowledge of the many-layered narrative that is being spun. Maybe Matthew and Mark were like that. But by the time of Luke’s Gospel I think it is clear that there is a very real confusion between mythical metaphor and literal historical truth.
Before long the mythical Jesus of Paul’s theology became synonymous with a real flesh and blood human being. God was believed to have literally incarnated as a man. Others who accepted Paul’s original vision of a symbolic, spiritual Messiah began to convolute the message with heavy pagan philosophy, piling myth onto myth, complication onto complication until the simplistic beauty of the original message was also lost.
In this way Gnosticism was born as well as “literal incarnationism” (if I may coin a term) and the original message was lost. On the one hand you had Gnostics claiming that the Old Testament God was evil and that matter and the flesh is corrupt, following a neo-platonic philosophy of disembodied rational forms or ideas. On the other hand you had a belief in a God-man who you could never be anything like, a continual need to repent and ask forgiveness for your sins to a God that died for you so you’d better be grateful for it and behave yourself, all tied to a hierarchy of priest and bishops.
The rest is bloody history. The literal version of Christianity worked its way up into the higher echelons of Roman society until Emperor Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then the persecution of heretics and Gnostics began, followed by the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the Reformation, burning of witches etc.
It’s a shame when good things get ruined by the pettiness of the world. Genuine insight and spiritual enlightenment can be so easily stifled by the narrow mindedness and lack of vision of far lesser human beings that come later. A lot of religions reveal a similar sad tale.
It’s why I do my best to remain detached from them. I simply straddle the divide between atheism and theism in my own agnostic pantheist way and pick whatever pieces of wisdom seem best to me, whether they originate from Pagan myth, Hinduism, Buddhism or even the Bible. I’m no Christian. I haven’t been that for a long time. But that was my own personal interpretation of what I think might have happened during that 1st Century CE in the New Testament world of Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.