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Review: Jesus -- man or myth?
"The Jesus Mysteries"
(CNN) -- Was there really a Jesus of Nazareth? Historically, the question is more open for debate than most people know or care to admit.
With "The Jesus Mysteries," Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy provide us with the latest (and possibly most controversial) installment in the important religious and scholastic journey to discover "the historical Jesus." If the book generates some discussion about the origins of Christianity and western religion's debt to pagan mystery cults, the book will accomplish one part of its stated purpose, and will eventually create a much-needed better understanding of our early roots. God knows (no pun intended) that in our current age we need a few lessons in history.
"The Jesus Mysteries" is willing to instruct us, and if it doesn't definitively prove its most controversial assertion, it certainly serves to provoke thought. While the reader should be cautioned against making a life-changing decision without further research, most people will find the book provocative, stimulating, and perhaps infuriating.
'The unthinkable thought'
Freke and Gandy's thesis is indeed revolutionary. The book sets out to prove what they call "the unthinkable thought" -- that Jesus the man never actually existed, but was a mythological figure created from the Osiris/Dionysus character of pagan lore. Their theory goes on to state that the Gnostics -- a mystical Christian sect that was squashed by the Roman Catholic church -- was actually the original form of Christianity, and that orthodox (or literalist) Christianity was a second-rate religion that understood only the superficial elements of Jesus' teachings.
This concept is a leap from current historical Jesus and theological research; while many scholars acknowledge that Christianity has borrowed heavily from pagan mythology -- both in the gospels and in later developments -- the idea that Jesus was created by a Jewish Gnostic cult is indeed radical.
"The Jesus Mysteries" is most successful when the authors stick to the material they know best -- pagan and mystical religions -- and when the history they discuss is documented and relatively uncontroversial. The best section in the book comes toward the end as they discuss the various factions of Christianity in the second and third centuries. The sordid tale of strong-arm tactics, narrow-mindedness, and violence in the early church is a good reminder that religions are created by humans.
The book also reminds us that orthodox Christianity as we know it today was only one of many Christian sects fighting for dominance before Constantine legalized the religion. Freke and Gandy also do a good job of tying many Christian traditions to pagan rites. The fact that December 25 was the birthday of the god Mithras, who was born of a virgin, speaks for itself. Unfortunately, the best examples, while important to our understanding of Christianity, are tied to dogma that originated very late -- some as late as the 11th century -- and have little to do with Jesus the man.
Arguments less convincing
When the authors enter the realm of the gospels and Paul's epistles, the book's arguments are less convincing. While the authors discuss many examples of elements of Osiris/Dionysus in the Jesus story, they virtually ignore the more direct ties to Jewish tradition and prophecy. This oversight undermines the credibility of many of their arguments, and could have the tendency to mislead the novice reader in this subject.
Also virtually ignored is the long tradition of historical Jesus research. John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and E.P. Sanders, all modern recognized authorities on Jesus the man, do not even appear in the bibliography.
The chapter entitled "Was Paul a Gnostic?" seems to be the book's intended coup de grace. The authors bring out some important points about Paul, including the fact that he never discusses the life or words of Jesus, even when it would benefit him to do so (Freke and Gandy rightfully ignore the later pseudopauline letters). Paul's few and vague references to the historical Jesus has been a subject of discussion for some time.
The book also makes considerable headway in discussing the many mystical elements of Paul's teachings. The chapter, however, is marred by its use of direct passages from the epistles. A few verses are clearly taken out of context, and the translations used are extremely untraditional and conveniently Gnostic. The book rarely points out specific words that have been traditionally mistranslated, and those of us without command of Greek are left to take the authors' word that their translation is better.
No knockout punch
While the book succeeds in tying Christianity ever more closely to its pagan roots, the ultimate argument about Jesus' non-existence is unconvincing. This fact should not undermine the important and controversial information contained in the book, but it is difficult not to be disappointed when Freke and Gandy fail to deliver a knockout punch.
"The Jesus Mysteries" left this reviewer more convinced than ever that the life of Jesus as we know it is filled with mythological, political, and even polemical elements. Freke and Gandy succeed in bringing some important points about Christianity to the public in a readable, compelling book. Perhaps their willingness to state "the unthinkable thought" will lead to more objective thinking about religion and tolerance. If so, "The Jesus Mysteries" is a worthy effort indeed.
Harmony Books (Random House)
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