The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God? Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. New York: Three Rivers Press. ISBN 978-0609807989 and 0609807986. Also available in hardback (ISBN 978-0609605813 and 060960581X).
Freke and Gandy argue that Jesus is a Jewish twist and reworking of the Osiris-Dionysus mystery cult myth of the dying and resurrecting godman. A part of their basic premise is that Jesus never existed and that the whole Christian myth was intended as allegory.
Our authors write that their research took them deeper and deeper to the roots of Christianity, with each chapter representing a further excavation that leads to the next chapter. The deeper they delved, the more they found that Christianity’s roots were not what we have been taught for the last two millennium. In fact, Christianity is a warmed-over reworking of allegorical myths from a variety of cultures, but put into the Jewish milieu. Freke and Gandy find that Jesus, far from actually existing, was in fact the theoretical embodiment of the prior wisdom, given a Jewish name (chosen for its numeric representation) to show the truth of the mystery cults.
The Christian myth, as written in the New Testament, is to be understood on two levels: literal history for the initiate and as allegories of truth, based on mystery writings, of man’s resurrection from this life and all its travails to knowledge, or gnosis. In short, their primary argument is that Christianity was originally a Gnostic cult of Osiris-Dionysus. They urge that every country or region had its own dying-resurrecting godman and Jesus was Palestine’s version of the myth.
Another big argument is that Paul, properly understood, was not a literalist (as in every word of the Gospels is 100% true history, accurate in every detail). Rather, Paul was a Gnostic mystic well steeped in the mystery cults of the areas he lived before he converted to Christianity. Much of the difficult material can be understood when seen through the Gnostic lens. Later Christians twisted these writings to mean a literal Jesus with a literal, flesh and blood body and a literal, physical resurrection. The so-called pastoral letters are, in fact, later forgeries. Many of the early heroes of the Christian church like Clement and Origen were, in fact, Gnostics (or at least highly sympathetic to the cause).
Much of what Freke and Gandy write makes sense and I want to believe it all. Unfortunately, I cannot, at least not in all its particulars. As Freke and Gandy write, the similarities between the mystery cults and Christianity are striking, and the claims of early Christians that the similarities were the devil’s work, to detract from the true faith (Tertullian, Justin Martyr, et al., etc.) are laughable. But many of the arguments put forth do not follow from others, and those weaken the overall, main premise.
One separate issue I have with their position is that they take Paul at his word, that he was, in fact, a Jew. Some Jewish scholars (principally Hyam Maccoby, see The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity) think Paul was likely not Jewish but a Jewish wanna-be (or, at the very least, not a Pharisee as Paul claimed ad nauseum). I think, based on Paul’s twisted logic and arguments, he likely was not Jewish. Not to mention the fact that he primarily used the Septuagint rather than the actual Hebrew Scriptures is dispositive proof that Paul was not a Pharisaic-trained Jew. Regardless, Freke and Gandy question the other New Testament writers and their backgrounds (claiming books like James and Jude are pseudonymous) but they take Paul at face value (but not the supposed Pauline speeches found in Acts). They also state that Paul wrote Hebrews, which is not even a minority opinion any longer – virtually no scholar today will state that Paul wrote the letter. That letter is truly anonymous and not Pauline in origin.
This is an interesting theory put forward by Freke and Gandy, one that should get wider play and consideration. However, literalist Christianity has the overwhelming support of Christian adherents and, despite all the contradictions, etc., they will not buy the arguments put forward here. The similarities between the Christian teaching and those of the mystery cults and what went before them is too striking to ignore. But literalist Christians today hate this kind of thing so push back.
Pity, because the mystery teachings could rejuvenate the faith. If you’re bold, read this book. If not, you’re probably not missing a lot. The arguments, though substantive, do fall short.
ETA: Some have claimed elsewhere this book is not well documented. That is hardly the case. Each chapter has many, many footnotes citing to well over 100 different sources. It’s written for popular consumption, not scholarly which might perhaps be what is meant. But it is well documented in terms of cross-references to more scholarly works. That should not prevent anyone from reading this work. – FJD