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Raising a holy ruckus

Authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy contend in their book "The Jesus Mysteries" that the Jesus of the New Testament was a mythical figure  

'The Jesus Mysteries' opens a controversial can of worms

In this story:

'The message ... was far deeper'

A wave of discussion

The mystics speak for themselves


ATLANTA (CNN) -- Timothy Freke doesn't sound like an evil intellectual intent on destroying the moral underpinnings of our society, but he is certain to be accused of being just that. Soft spoken and articulate, he seems like a man with the best intentions, a person who truly wishes to improve the state of religion and spirituality in Western society.

So what's all the fuss about?

  • Excerpt: 'The Jesus Mysteries'
  • Review: Jesus -- man or myth?

    Freke, along with his lifelong friend Peter Gandy, is the author of "The Jesus Mysteries," a radical new look at Christian origins that suggests that Jesus the man did not exist at all. Freke and Gandy pose the view that Jesus was a mythical character created in the mold of the mythological Osiris/Dionysus god-man character. While the so-called "Quest for the Historical Jesus" is nothing new, the thesis in "The Jesus Mysteries" takes the mission one step further.

    When interviewing Freke during his recent U.S. tour, the first question was obvious: Why did you write "The Jesus Mysteries"?

    "I think we focused in on Christianity particularly because we felt it was our own culture," Freke said, "and because it seemed very stuck. It seemed determined to say it was different, and it had a unique claim on truth. Our gut feeling was, 'That can't be right. Truth is something human and universal.'

    "We weren't looking at it at that point to try and uncover that there was no Jesus," he continued. "It was as much a shock to us as it will be to our readers. We resisted it for a long time in our research. But once the idea crystallized, the evidence has just come piling in. So many things that didn't make sense suddenly do, once you turn everything around."

    'The message ... was far deeper'

    Far from being turned off Christianity by their research, Freke and Gandy say their premise actually strengthened their faith.

    "What it's done," Freke said, "is completely transform our understanding of Christianity. Its message is not tied to belief in a historical event, so that you either believe it happened, or you don't -- and if you believe it, you're saved, and if not, you're damned. What we've discovered is that the message of original Christianity was far deeper than that. It was about, for the original Christians, becoming a Christ oneself.

    Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy  
    In this marble sarcophagus from the second or third centuries, a man brings the holy child Dionysus a large cross as an omen of his ultimate fate  

    "The great tragedy of literalist Christianity, which focuses on the historical Jesus, is that it ends up dividing itself from everyone else and we end up with these horrendous religious divisions that have bedeviled the world," he continued. "Christians are not united. Baptists hate Methodists and Methodists hate Catholics and round and round it goes, because each one has their version of Jesus. (But) once you understand it as a myth, everyone can have their version of Jesus because it's about finding a relationship with a mythic archetype, not arguing over history."

    A wave of discussion

    The success of "The Jesus Mysteries" in England has created a wave of discussion in academic and religious circles. While one might expect a firestorm of controversy, the book has been remarkably well-received, reaching bestseller status in the United Kingdom, garnering at least one "Book of the Year" award, and receiving support from American religious figures such as the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.

    And while their central thesis -- the non-existence of Jesus the man -- has been the focal point of discussion, Freke downplayed its overall importance. "The key thing really is understanding that the Jesus story as we have it is a myth," he said. "We can argue in the dark about whether it was based on a living man, but the fact is that if all that remains are these mythic archetypes that pre-dated the Jesus story and have been laid onto somebody, then still what we have is a myth."

    The life of Jesus as myth is not a new assertion. In recent years, a new wave of "Historical Jesus" research has emerged in the wake of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Gospels (also known as the "Gnostic Gospels") in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Academic figures such as John Dominic Crossan ("The Historical Jesus"), Marcus Borg ("Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time"), and Burton Mack ("Q: The Lost Gospel"), among others, have struggled to separate fact from fiction in the canonical gospels.

    But most scholars agree that a man known as Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified around A.D. 30. Freke and Gandy challenge that assumption, and also take on another major belief: the preeminence of the Roman Catholic belief system in early Christianity.

    The mystics speak for themselves


    Until 1947, when a group of ancient manuscripts were discovered near Nag Hammadi in Egypt, little was known about the mystic Christian groups known as the Gnostics. The only information came from orthodox writers, usually in the form of a polemic. The discovery of the actual Gnostic texts allowed the mystics to speak for themselves for the first time in nearly 2000 years. Using the writings of Paul and early Christian history as a basis, Freke and Gandy attempt to prove that the Gnostics were the original Christians.

    "Paul doesn't have a historical Jesus," according to Freke. "His Jesus is a Christ within, it's a mythical figure. He gives us no details of his life, he doesn't quote a single quote from Jesus, even when it would really help him. There's a massive silence in Paul, which is a huge issue for most scholars in this area.

    "But it's only a problem if you believe the Roman story that Paul is this great literalist Christian. If you listen to the Gnostics, he's the great hero of Gnosticism."

    The Gnostic tradition is now revealed to be widespread, he added, and has its own take on matters. "It's about listening to the losers (the Gnostics)," said Freke. "We've listened to the winners, and their story doesn't make any sense. So let's listen to the losers and see if their story makes more sense. And we think it does."

    Still, Timothy Freke does not dismiss Christianity outright. "The Christ story is the foundation story of our culture in the West," he said. "Having said that it's a myth, the next question becomes, 'What does it mean, and can it still be useful to us spiritually?' And for us, the answer is definitely yes."

    So what would Freke and Gandy see as a positive outcome to "The Jesus Mysteries"? Timothy Freke is emphatic: "We want to start a debate, we want to open up these questions, we want to break some taboos so that we can ask these questions. And ultimately, for us personally, we want to be able to suggest that there is something universal about Christianity. It's not exclusive, it's pointing to a universal truth, and Christians who adopt that position can take part in the great meeting of faiths which is actually possible in the modern age."

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