The Jesus Mysteries: Was the 'Original' Jesus a Pagan God?
By Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
Whilst we were puzzling over these discoveries, we began to question the received picture of the early church, and have a look at the evidence for ourselves. We discovered that far from being the united church of saints and martyrs that the traditional history would have us believe, the early Christian community was actually made up of a whole spectrum of different groups. These can be broadly categorised into two different schools. On the one hand there were those who we call 'Literalists', because what defines them is that they take the Jesus story as a literal account of historical events. It was this school of Christianity that was adopted by the Roman empire in the 4th century CE, becoming Roman Catholicism and all the subsequent offshoots from it. On the other hand, however, there were also radically different Christians known as 'Gnostics'.
These forgotten Christians were later persecuted out of existence by the Literalist Roman Church with such thoroughness that until recently we knew little about the
Gnostics except through the writings of their detractors. Only a handful of original Gnostic texts survived, none of which were published before the nineteenth
century. This situation changed dramatically however, with a remarkable discovery in 1945 when an Arab peasant stumbled upon a whole library of Gnostic gospels
hidden in a cave near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. This gave scholars access to many texts which were in wide circulation amongst early Christians, but which were deliberately excluded from the canon of the New Testament when it was created - gospels attributed to Thomas and Philip, texts recording the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Disciples, Apocalypses written by Paul and James, and so on.
To Literalists, the Gnostics were dangerous heretics. They wrote volumes of anti-Gnostic works, which is an unintentional testimony to the power and influence of Gnosticism within early Christianity. The Gnostics were painted as Christians who had 'gone native'. They had become contaminated by the Paganism that surrounded them and abandoned the purity of the true faith. The Gnostics, on the other hand, saw themselves as the authentic Christian tradition and the orthodox bishops as an "imitation church". They claimed to know the secret Inner Mysteries of Christianity which the Literalists did not possess.
As we explored the beliefs and practises of the Gnostics we became convinced that the Literalists had at least been right about one thing. The Gnostics were little different from Pagans. Like the philosophers of the Pagan Mysteries, the Gnostics believed in reincarnation, honoured the goddess Sophia, and were immersed in the mystical Greek philosophy of Plato. 'Gnostics' means 'Knowers', a name they acquired because, like the initiates of the Pagan Mysteries, they believed that their secret teachings had the power to impart 'Gnosis'- direct experiential Knowledge of God. Just as the goal of a Pagan initiate was to become a god, so for the Gnostics the goal of the Christian initiate was to become a Christ.
What particularly struck us was that the Gnostics were not concerned with the historical Jesus. They viewed the Jesus story in the same way that the Pagan philosophers viewed the myths of Osiris-Dionysus - as an allegory which encoded secret mystical teachings. This insight crystallised for us a remarkable possibility. Perhaps the explanation for the similarities between Pagan myths and the biography of Jesus had been staring us in the face the whole time, but we had been so caught up with traditional ways of thinking that we had been unable to see it.