A critical review of The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
In their 1999 book The Jesus Mysteries Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy claimed that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. He is supposed to have been the creation of Jewish Gnostics who copied the details of his life from other dying and rising gods in the pagan mystery religions of the ancient world. However, their arguments are not supported by the historical evidence.
Freke and Gandy give the impression that Judaism at that time was heavily influenced by pagan beliefs, so it sounds like a fertile place for a Jewish/pagan mystery religion to arise. They write,
“A Jewish scripture called 2 Maccabees records that the temple of Jerusalem itself was transformed into a Greek temple to Zeus and festivals of Dionysus were celebrated.” (Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries, Thorsons, London, 1999, p 217)
2 Maccabees actually says that in 167 BC the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the Temple by setting up a statue of Zeus, tried to suppress Judaism by forcing them to participate in the festival of Dionysus and convert to paganism (2 Maccabees 6:1-11). This provoked the Maccabean Revolt in which the Jews won their independence and there was a conservative Jewish backlash against paganism. Judaism at the time of Jesus was anti-pagan, rather than open to pagan influences.
Freke and Gandy suggest that the idea of a Jewish dying and rising godman may have come from the Therapeutae, a Jewish mystery religion sect in Alexandria. They are supposed to have merged the pagan dying and rising god motif with the Jewish expectations of the Messiah (The Jesus Mysteries, p 232-233). Our only knowledge for the Therapeutae comes from On the Contemplative Life by the Alexandrian Jew Philo (circa 20 BC -50 AD). He did not say anything about them believing in a dying and rising god.
Freke and Gandy claim that the ancient mystery religions, devoted to Dionysus, Osiris, Mithras, Attis and other gods, believed in a godman who was born of a virgin, died and rose again and did other things which Christians later attributed to Jesus. However they write,
“Although no single Pagan myth completely parallels the story of Jesus, the mythic motifs which make up the story of the Jewish godman had already existed for centuries in the various stories told of Osiris-Dionysus and his greatest prophets.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 34)
In other words, they went through the literature of the ancient world about both historical and mythological figures and found instances where someone did something similar to Jesus and argued that the Christians copied this. I could probably do the same thing and find parallels from the ancient world about the lives of Freke and Gandy. They went to university – so did Plato.
Moreover, the parallels, which Freke and Gandy purport to have found, are dubious and unconvincing. They claim that the Christian communion or Eucharist was copied from pagan mystery religion sacred meals. They quote an inscription where Mithras says,
“He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will not be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 60)
This does sound like Jesus (John 6:53-55), however it is found in a medieval text and the speaker is not Mithras, but Zarathustra (James Patrick Holding(editor), Shattering the Christ Myth, Xulon Press, Tennessee, 2008, p 211), so it cannot be evidence of Christians copying paganism.
They also claim, “Initiates of the Mysteries of Attis also had some form of communion, for they declared: ‘I have eaten from the tambourine, I have drunk from the cymbal.’ What they ate and drank from these sacred instruments is not recorded, but most likely it was also bread and wine.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 61) Actually, bread and wine were forbidden during the Attis festivals. They may have drunk milk (Shattering the Christ Myth, p 230)) .
Moreover, the followers of Attis did not call this ritual “communion”. This is a common tactic of writers like Freke and Gandy, describing a pagan practice in Christian terms. Ronald Nash writes in The Gospel and the Greeks,
“One frequently encounters scholars who first use Christian terminology to describe pagan beliefs and practices and then marvel at the awesome parallels that they think they have discovered.” (Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, New Jersey, 2003, p 116)
Just because people in the ancient world used to eat together does not prove the Christians got the idea of communion from them. Christian communion was not copied from any pagan ritual. It was an adaption of the Jewish Passover which was arguably 1400 years old (Matthew 26:17-30, Luke 22: 1-23).
The ancient pagans believed Christians were cannibals. It is easy to see how this belief developed. They heard that Christians met together where they ate the body and drank the blood of Jesus and did not realise it was only a metaphor. They did not assume that it was just another symbolic eating of the god, like in the mystery religions. This suggests such rituals did not exist at that time or they were so different from Christian communion that pagans did not make the connection.
Another example of misapplying Christian terminology to pagan practices is when they describe ritual washing in the pagan mysteries as “baptism”, such as “Baptism was a central rite in the Mysteries” and “In some Mystery rites baptism was simply symbolized by the sprinkling of holy water. In others it involved complete immersion.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 46-49)
Some mystery religions had ritual washing or even being drenched in animal blood, but they did not call these rituals “baptism”. Freke and Gandy are calling them “baptism” to give the impression that the early Christians borrowed the practice of baptism from them.
The mere use of water in a pagan ritual does not prove there was a connection with Christian baptism. If the pagan ritual had a similar meaning or symbolism, there would be a case for copying. However, Gunter Wagner has shown in Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries that none of the mystery religions had a ritual with a similar meaning to the Christian doctrine of identifying with the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:3-5). (Gunter Wagner, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1967, p 259-267)
Another supposed parallel which is so general as to be meaningless is when they write that other historical figures, like Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana, and mythological beings like Dionysus were, like Jesus, also believed to have performed miracles (The Jesus Mysteries, p 46-49). This does not mean that the belief that Jesus performed miracles was copied from them. There are people today who claim they can perform miracles. Regardless of whether or not their miracles are real, no one would suggest that their claims of miracles are necessarily copied from each other.
They claim that other gods Mithras, Osiris and Dionysus also had 12 disciples (The Jesus Mysteries, p 51, 75). There is no evidence for this. This is not a parallel. They seem to have made it up.
Freke and Gandy point out that there were other “sons of gods” in the ancient world. Some were mythological. Others were historical like Plato, Pythagoras and some Roman emperors who were thought to be the son of a god or divine (The Jesus Mysteries, p 35-37) . While Freke and Gandy claim that Jesus did not exist, no one would suggest that these philosophers and Roman emperors did not exist because they or others said they were divine. Pagans, who believed in numerous gods and demigods, could easily believe that a powerful or influential man could be divine. Jesus was different in that some Jews, who believed in one God, the creator of the universe, came to believe that a carpenter from an insignificant village who got crucified, was this God in human form.
In their book Documents for the Study of the Gospels David Cartlidge and David Dungan write that pagans believed in two types of saviour gods. The first were demigods who had one human and one divine parent and were half-human and half-god. They became full-fledged gods after their deaths. The second type was the temporary appearance or incarnation of a god in adult human form (David Cartlidge and David Dungan, Documents for the Study of the New Testament, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1994, p 10-11)).
Jesus did not fit either of these pagan types. He did not simply appear as an adult. He was born and grew up. The New Testament further says that Jesus pre-existed before he was born (John 1:1-14, Colossian 1:15-16). He was not a demigod, half-god and half-human. Orthodox Christianity says Jesus was both fully God and fully human. There was no pagan precedent for this.
The pagan philosopher Celsus was a second century critic of Christianity. He argued that it was impossible for God to change and assume a mortal body (Origen, Contra Celsum, 4:18) and he even asked why God would want to come down to earth, was it to learn what was going on? (Origen, Contra Celsum, 4:3) His attitude suggests that pagans were not familiar with the Christian concept of the Incarnation, so the Christians could not have copied it.
Freke and Gandy claim that early Church Fathers, like Justin Martyr, were “understandably disturbed” by the parallels between Jesus and the pagan godmen. They tried to explain them away by “diabolical mimicry”, that is, “they accused the Devil of ‘plagiarism by anticipation’, of deviously copying the true story of Jesus before it actually happened before it actually happened in an attempt to mislead the gullible!” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 7) Justin Martyr did make the admittedly silly argument that Satan had copied prophecies about Jesus and applied them to pagan gods (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 69, First Apology, 54). However, it was not the case that Justin was disturbed by these parallels. He was trying to find parallels.
During the period Justin was writing Christians were a despised and persecuted sect. He was trying to defend Christianity against persecution by making it appear more legitimate and arguing that they believed the same things as their pagan persecutors. He appealed to the pagan belief that Perseus was born of a virgin to make their own belief in Jesus’ virgin birth more respectable (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 22).
Perseus was believed to have been conceived when Zeus impregnated his mother in the form of a golden shower of rain (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 67). This appears to be the closest thing to a virgin birth in paganism and it was an exception. Most of the time Zeus would “seduce” women who were no longer virgins by the time he had finished.
Justin also said that no pagan godman was believed to have crucified,
“But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter did they imitate the being crucified.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology,55)
There was no pagan precedent for a pagan godman being crucified. Justin did not cite any cases of pagan godmen being resurrected from the dead, that is, coming back to life and their bodies physically rising from the dead
Freke and Gandy claim, “According to the gospels, Jesus is an innocent and just man who, at the instigation of the Jewish high priests, is hauled before the Roman governor Pilate and condemned to die on spurious charges. Exactly the same mythological motif is found five centuries earlier in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, about Dionysus.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 55)
They give the impression that the stories of Dionysus in The Bacchae and Jesus in the Gospels are similar, saying both had long hair and a beard, both brought a new religion, both were brought before a ruler who plotted to kill them, both allowed themselves to be caught, both warned of vengeance on their persecutors and both were “led away” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 55-57). Dionysus was not killed, instead “King Pentheus sets out to kill Dionysus, but is himself lifted up on a tree” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 63).
What actually happened in The Bacchae is that Dionysus decided to punish King Pentheus of Thebes for not worshipping him. After his trial Dionysus is imprisoned but an earthquake destroys the palace and prison. Dionysus talks Pentheus into dressing as a woman so he can infiltrate his followers. Dionysus pulls down the top of a pine tree, places Pentheus on it and lets it go. Dionysus’ female followers throw rocks and branches at Pentheus, then uproot the tree and he falls to the ground. Pentheus’ mother and the other women rip him apart. His mother returns to the palace carrying her son’s head, not realising what she has done. Does this sound anything like the crucifixion of Jesus to you? Just because there was a tree in the story does not mean the crucifixion of Jesus has any connection to this myth.
The cover of The Jesus Mysteries contains an image of an amulet which shows a person being crucified with the inscription “Orpheus Bakkihos” which is supposed to portray Dionysus (Bacchus). They say the amulet is dated to the third century AD (The Jesus Mysteries, p 15). An image of Dionysus being crucified from the third century does not prove that Christians in the first century copied the idea of Jesus’ crucifixion from Dionysus. If anything, it suggests the worshippers of Dionysus copied the idea from the Christians.
However, this amulet appears to be a medieval forgery. In an article “The Orpheus Amulet from the cover of The Jesus Mysteries” James Hannam shows that its portrayal of the crucifixion, the shape of the cross and the bent arms and legs, resembles crucifixion scenes from the Middle Ages rather than Late Antiquity.
Freke and Gandy do not say where they found this amulet, only that “we came across a small picture tucked away in the appendices of an old academic book.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 15) In the same article James Hannam says he emailed the authors about their source for this amulet. Gandy replied that it was W.K.C. Guthrie’s Orpheus and Greek Religion and R. Eisler’s Orpheus the Fisher. However, Guthrie believed the amulet was a medieval forgery. Freke and Gandy did not mention that their source for this amulet doubted it was authentic .
In fact, many historians say there was no such thing as a mystery religion belief in a dying and rising godman (Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend, Baker Academic, Michigan, 2007, p 142-146, The Gospel and the Greeks, p 159-162, Shattering the Christ Myth, p 203-248, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries, p 61-68, 259-266). For example, The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, edited by Martin Meyer, is an anthology of surviving ancient texts about the mystery religions. None of these texts mention any belief in a dying and rising godman (Martin Meyer (editor),The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, Harper and Row, San Francisco,1987).
No historian in a university history department anywhere in the world would agree with Freke and Gandy’s argument that Jesus never existed. Historians may not necessarily believe he was the Son of God, but they believe there was a historical figure Jesus of Nazareth who founded Christianity.
The Jesus Mysteries has a seven page bibliography but they list only two books which deal with recent historical Jesus scholarship, The Lost Gospel by Burton Mack and Jesus: The Evidence by Ian Wilson. Mack is on the fringe of New Testament scholarship and Wilson has qualifications in art and modern history. This suggests they are not that familiar with the subject.
Freke and Gandy produce a list of 27 Greek and Roman writers from within about 100 years of Jesus and say that none of them mention Jesus (The Jesus Mysteries, p 163-164). Early pagan writers who did mention Jesus or Christ (Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Galen and Lucian) are omitted. Their list includes Arrian whose only surviving work is a biography of Alexander the Great who lived about 400 years earlier. I am not sure how Arrian was supposed to mention Jesus in his life of Alexander.
To put things in perspective, only four of the 27 writers on this list (Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Seneca and Valerius Maximus) mention Tiberius who was emperor when Jesus was crucified. Most of them did not mention the most powerful man in the world at the time but they are supposed to have mentioned someone from a small village at the edge of the empire. As far as I know, none of these writers mentioned anyone who lived in Galilee at that time. That does not mean there was no one there.
Freke and Gandy claim “there is no record of Jesus being tried by Pontius Pilate or executed.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 163) There are no Roman records of Pilate doing anything. All the records and archives were lost with the fall of Rome.
Around 90 AD the Jewish historian Josephus mentioned Jesus in The Antiquities of the Jews;
“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:3:3)
This passage is controversial because Josephus says that Jesus was the Christ which would make him a Christian. Freke and Gandy claim, “No serious scholar now believes these passages were actually written by Josephus.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 167) Some historians believe the whole passage is a forgery, but the majority believe there was an authentic passage in which Josephus mentioned Jesus, but it was altered by a later Christian scribe (John Dickson, Investigating Jesus, Lion Hudson, Oxford, 2010, p 74) .
Freke and Gandy do not mention another passage in The Antiquities of the Jews which says that in 62 AD Ananus the high priest in Jerusalem ordered the stoning of “the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ [or “the so-called Christ”], whose name was James.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9:1)
No historian thinks this passage is a forgery. It shows that James, the brother of Jesus, was a historical figure who died around 62 AD, so Jesus must have also been a recent figure.
Freke and Gandy claim that Paul was actually a Gnostic who was familiar with the pagan mysteries. When Paul used words like “spirit”, “knowledge”, “glory”, “wisdom”, “initiated” and “gifts”, they argue that he was using mystery religion terms and he was promoting a Jewish version of the mystery religions (The Jesus Mysteries, p 199) . Just because Paul used the same words as the mystery religions does not mean he was an initiate, any more than if any of us use words like “knowledge” or “spirit”, it means we are mystery religion initiates.
Paul was originally a Pharisee (Acts 23:6, 26:5, Philippians 3:5). When he became a Christian, he did not reject his Jewish worldview. He built on it. He still believed that the God of the Old Testament was the creator of the world and that our sins had separated us from God. He now also believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God and the promised Messiah of the Old Testament and that through his death and resurrection our sins are forgiven. This is especially clear in Romans and Galatians. In contrast, Gnostics taught that the Jewish God, which they called the Demiurge was an inferior false god. Gnostics believed they knew about the hidden true god who had sent Jesus to reveal the truth. Paul was clearly not a Gnostic.
Freke and Gandy claim the original Christians were Jewish mystery religion initiates who believed the life of Jesus was a myth which never actually happened. They argue that after the defeat of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 70 AD, “Jews who had been initiated into only the Outer Mysteries, with limited half-baked ideas of what Christianity was all about, would have been flung far and wide around the ancient world, taking what they believed to be the ‘biography’ of Jesus the Messiah with them. Those Jews in the western areas of the Empire became cut off from the established centres of the Jesus Mysteries in Alexandria and the eastern areas of the Empire.” (The Jesus Mysteries, p 248) Within a few decades these Western Christians developed a new religion, which took the story of Jesus literally, which Freke and Gandy call “Literalist Christianity”. The original Jesus Mysteries were called Gnosticism (The Jesus Mysteries, p 248-249).
However, even by 180 AD, 150 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the majority of Christians were still in the eastern half of the empire (Rodney Stark, Cities of God, Harper and Collins, San Francisco, 2006, p 72). Even those in the west were hardly “cut off” from the major city of Alexandria.
Furthermore, Nero persecuted the Christians in Rome in 64 AD. The Roman authorities persecuted Christians because they would not sacrifice to the pagan gods. Christians were free to believe Jesus was the Son of God, as long as they also sacrificed to the local pagan gods and kept them happy so they would not punish the whole community. Because Christians literally believed Jesus was the Son of the only God, they believed that to sacrifice to the pagan gods would be to deny Jesus’ uniqueness. They refused so they were killed. Gnostics and mystery religion initiates had no problem sacrificing to the pagan gods, which is why we do not hear of the Romans persecuting Gnostics.
This means the Christians, who were persecuted in Rome in 64 AD, including Paul, must have been “Literalist Christians”. Literalist Christianity did not emerge after 70 AD. It had been around for long enough to have reached Rome by 64 AD. Freke and Gandy’s hypothesis is clearly wrong.
When historians study the past, they draw a distinction between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are the original sources or evidence, such as literary texts or inscriptions. These are contemporary to the events being studied or the closest evidence which survives to them. Secondary sources are the works of more recent modern historians who interpret the primary sources and use them to reconstruct the past. If the secondary sources, modern history books, cannot point to the original primary sources to support what they say, they are no better than fiction.
The claims of The Jesus Mysteries are not supported by the original primary evidence. There is no evidence the ancient pagans believed in a godman who was born of a virgin, was crucified and rose physically from the dead. The historical Jesus of Nazareth was unique.