Excommunicated heretics like Thom and myself are so familiar with and accustomed to discussing the Gospel story that it rarely occurs to either of us to wonder whether Jesus ever existed. We talk about, write about and rubbish so much the tall stories told by the four evangelists, who were not even eye-witnesses and wrote many decades after the “events”, that we tend to ignore the more fundamental question : What if the whole story were a first century fabrication of a composite myth, combining and carbon-copying those of ancient Egypt, Greece and Persia ?
The doubt is as old as Christianity itself, but has been repackaged in “an erudite and well-researched book stuffed with plenty of controversial ideas”, dixit the “Daily Telegraph” which declared it “Book of the Year 1999”. Not surprisingly, theologians of the Establishment and renowned historians dismissed it summarily, in the words of a Professor of History at Macquarie University in Australia, as the work of “not real scholars”. Notwithstanding one of the authors’ honors degree in Philosophy and the other’s M.A. in Classical Civilization, they were brushed aside in Academe because, admittedly, neither had completed his doctoral thesis (that can happen, to even the best of us . . .).
However, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy’s book, “The Jesus Mysteries. Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God ?” (Harper Collins, London, 1999 and Random House, N.Y., 2000) deserves reading and reflection. If it were less readable, less unpretentious, less documented (63 small-print pages of footnotes !), it could have passed for another sensational exploiting of the market for conspiracy theories. Wikipedia quotes (“real”) scholars’ unsubstantiated dismissals in terms including the amateur authors’ “mystical mindset”, which “will disease” the minds of the naïve and uneducated, describing their thesis as “an old argument, with the same claim every ten years”. Descending to the level of a cocktail party where the drinking is more serious than the discussion, it would be comparable, one scholar says, to a debate between a reputed astronomer and an ignoramus who thought that “the moon was made of green cheese”. One CNN reviewer is quoted, however, as calling the book “a worthy effort”.
In the first century C.E. (so much less partisan than “A.D.” !), critics of what became known as Gnosticism (“gnosis” – “knowledge”) like Justin Martyr, Tertullian and even Irenaeus, denounced this “diabolical mimicry”, calling it the Devil’s “plagiarism by anticipation” (!). You see, the essence of the Freke-Gandy claim is that the earliest Christian writers invented a God-man-Savior based on the myth of Osiris-Dionysus who was :
— “God made flesh and Son of God,
— the son of a mortal virgin,
— born in a cave on December 25,
— who turned water into wine at a marriage ceremony,
— rode into town on a donkey, while people wave palm leaves to honor him,
— who dies at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and
— who descends into Hell and on the third day rises from the dead and ascends into glory,
— whose followers await his return as the judge during the Last Days, and
— whose death and resurrection are celebrated by a ritual meal, which symbolizes his body and blood”.
It is not hard to understand why such claims and the evidence for them would be kept under wraps, and ridiculed – without detailed analysis – as soon as anyone would dare to remind Christians of the possible foundations of their faith.
Readers of this Blog will make up their own minds. But if they bother or dare to read the book, they are in for the shock of their Christian lives. In any case I would hope that your judgement will be a little more objective that that – predictably – of the “Christian Research Journal”, content to dismiss the painstaking research of the authors with the self-evident “Similarity does not necessarily (!) prove dependence”, meant as a coup de grâce. The book, with its “fact-twisting” and “biased rhetoric”, exaggerates formal similarities while ignoring essential differences”. “We simply do not have much credible information” (63 pages of evidence are not enough ?) “regarding the beliefs and practices of mystery religions”. In fine, they denounce “the carelessness of research and ignorance of the Greek language” in “this misbegotten book”.
Oh ! Well, all right then !