I just finished reading the book The Jesus Mysteries, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. The book’s main idea, which I’d come across before, is that Christianity is essentially a Jewish version of the mystery religions that were popular in the Roman world at the time. These religions had both inner and outer mysteries. The outer ones consisted of old-school myths and rituals, while the inner would inform initiates of the true meaning behind the mythology. They were typically monotheistic, or perhaps more accurately pantheistic, as they taught in the inner mysteries that God was an ultimate transcendent being, and there was a spark of the divine in everyone. The outer mysteries tended to adapt local gods, like the Greek Dionysus and the Persian Mithras. Since Judaism had only one deity, the mysteries became tied to the Jewish Messiah and the historical context in which he might have lived. As such, the authors posit that Jesus never really existed, a definite minority position. The Jesus version of the mysteries became what is now known as Gnostic Christianity, but over the years it was supplanted by literalism, which taught that the historical existence of Jesus was the important part. In other words, the outer mysteries survived and flourished, while the inner mysteries largely died out. The authors take a stance in favor of the mysteries and Gnosticism, and I can’t say I believe that either (in fact, Gnosticism is perhaps even more obsessed with the immortal soul than Literalism, and that’s an idea I can’t get behind), it’s difficult not to sympathize with people who, if the theory is correct, had their religion hijacked by ignorant fundamentalists. Unfortunately, however, the authors often come across as just as sure of their own beliefs, some of which have little if any historical backing, as the Christian fundamentalists are of their own. While I think there’s definitely something to the main thesis, and I agree that Christianity contained more pagan influence than its followers would care to admit, some of the specific examples were quite tenuous.
One common theme in many mystery religions was that of the death and rebirth of a god-man. The authors of the book hypothesize that this started in Egypt, with the resurrected deity Osiris.
Picture by Judith Page
While other cultures included the idea of a god dying and coming back to life, it really wouldn’t have made sense in classical Greek religion, since they taught that the gods were fully immortal. As such, those who adapted the mystery into a Greek context used Dionysus, a somewhat minor god who was already associated with bizarre rituals (he was, after all, the god of wine) and resurrection.
Mythology tells us that Dionysus, a god born to a mortal mother, was resurrected by Zeus and born out of his thigh, or sometimes torn into pieces and restored by the Olympian ruler. The authors try to argue that a tradition had Dionysus crucified, but I’ve seen no real evidence for this. The death and rebirth cycle is a common one that quite likely influenced the Jesus story, but the closest I’ve heard to another god specifically being crucified is the tale of Odin on the World Tree, and even that differs quite a bit in its particulars.
I think the main problem with discussing this topic is that people who find similarities between Christianity and older pagan religions often get carried away with trying to find direct correlations, while Christians often have their own reasons for dismissing such similarities. It’s kind of hard for me not to sympathize with the pro-pagan camp simply because they’re underdogs and often have more interesting myths, but as I’ve said before when commenting on both sides of this divide, wanting something to be true doesn’t make more likely to be true. What bothers me more than anything else, perhaps, is how so many people are so eager to defend their beliefs that they’ll censor and falsify to do so. I suppose that, once again, my plea is for people to examine religion with less emotional baggage. But do you really think that will ever happen?