The Jesus Mysteries: was the original Jesus a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (Thorsons 1999)
reviewed by Jenny Chisolm of Wellington
This 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. This makes it difficult for the non-scholarly reader to make an unbiased assessment of it.
I have accepted for some time that the Pauline development of the Jesus story had given it a framework of the earlier Mystery religions in order to make it credible in the Graeco-Roman world: hence the confused additions by the evangelists of the birth, passion and resurrection narratives and the miracles. The authors' very detailed comparison of the Osiris-Dionysis stories with the gospel myths gives credence to this.
Paul's apparent ignorance or lack of interest in almost all the teachings of Jesus was another problem that is emphasised here, as well as the ignorance on the part of the evangelists. Two examples: Jesus is reported as going through Sidon on his way from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee (Mark 7:31). Not only is Sidon in the opposite direction, but there was in fact no road from Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the first century CE... (I. Wilson). Likewise Jesus is reported as quoting from the mistranslated Greek version of the Old Testament, when the original Hebrew would not have been relevant to his argument. [see endnote - ed].
All this I found both fascinating and convincing, along with the evidence of constant editing, re-writing, selection and de-selection, purging and censoring of founding documents-I learned that every book now in the NT canon had at some early stage been regarded as not genuine.
An interesting anomaly came to light when the stages of perfection in the Mysteries were discussed. The Literalists of the established church seem to correspond to the people who had reached only the outer mysteries, while presumably those who read the bible as myths and have gone beyond the literal readings have progressed to a deeper level of under-standing. But where do the charismatics fit in? Literalists all, but given to ecstatic states and glossolalia, their experiences seem to have something in common with what was experienced by the initiates into the deepest mysteries.
When it comes to the authors' triumphant conclusion, however, that the historical Jesus himself is part of the myth - Osiris-Dionysis grafted on to the Messiah figure because the Jews would accept only an historical Jesus-my reservations came to the surface. This is in spite of the fact that Josephus is discredited as the only contemporary writer with unequivocal confirmation of the Jesus story, apparently added later by a different hand.
Maybe this is because after a lifetime in the Christian church I want a "real" Jesus. But oddly enough, it is the work of the Jesus Seminar, accused by some critics of destroying Jesus by their methods, that has left me with the impression of a dim and distant but nevertheless live preacher, from whom some offbeat sayings and unorthodox parables have come down, along with a faith and philosophy that, if universally followed, would indeed bring a "kingdom of God" on earth.
I question the authors' account of a thoroughly hellenised culture in first-century Galilee. Crossan's development of Lenski and others, and Malina & Rohrbaugh's Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, give a picture of a small, wealthy and educated upper class in a handful of cities, and a countryside populated by peasants and, below them, several levels of the dispossessed, speaking Aramaean, observing the Jewish customs, paying attention to their traditional Jewish teachers, though with little interest in the temple set-up in distant Jerusalem.
The book was a slow read, because the frequent end-notes were much too interesting to skip or leave till later. I am left, too, with a reading-list culled from the bibliography that will take me a while to work through.
[Endnote: In a followup email Jenny amplified this point: "I consulted David Simmers ... and received a lengthy commentary on the passage referred to in my review. The short answer is that in Mark 7:6-7 Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13. Readers with theological qualifications will be aware of the passage and may take sides on the questions of whether Jesus actually spoke Greek as well as Hebrew and Aramaic. In any case, if you want translations, we can offer you for Mark "in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the traditions of men", and from Isaiah "their fear of me is a commandment of men, learned by rote.""]