In the early years of the Christian tradition there were two parallel approaches to faith, one was Gnostic and the other was Literalist. This phenomenon has been studied by two academics and spiritual historians Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.
They draw the following contrasts between the two approaches.
Literalists teach that the important thing is to blindly believe in religious dogmas.
Literalists see their teachings as literally the truth itself.
Literalists mistake Gnostic myths for literal accounts of miraculous historical events.
Literalists believe that the sacred scripture is the Word of God.
Literalists want a fixed canon of scripture which has absolute authority for all time.
Literalists want us to believe what they believe so that we will join their cult.
Literalists believe their religion is the only way to the truth and condemn everyone else as lost in diabolical error.
On the other hand Freke and Gandy contend that Gnostics had the following beliefs.
Gnostics teach that the important thing is to “wake up” and experience gnosis for ourselves.
Gnostics interpret their teachings as signposts pointing to the experience of awakening.
Gnostics use symbolic parables to communicate the way to “wake up”.
Gnostics know that all books contain the words of men.
Gnostics understand that way the wisdom of awakening is expressed must constantly evolve to address the ever changing human condition.
Gnostics want us to think for ourselves so that we become more conscious and wake up.
Gnostics understand that life itself is a process of awakening.
Most of the horrors associated with religion can be attributed to those that hold the Literalist point of view. These evils have not occurred because the perpetrators were bad people, but because they were in the thrall of some very bad ideas. This aberration is not solely a Christian one but can also be found in Islam, Judaism and elsewhere. It is not hard to connect the false notion of Literalism with the atrocities we are currently seeing propagated by fundamentalist Islam. And indeed it has been Literalism of various religious varieties that has resulted in supposedly divinely sanctioned violence over the centuries throughout much of the world.
Fundamentalism manifests itself in many different ways but irrespective of its religious background it can be reduced to one very simple, flawed idea viz. that sacred scripture is the infallible word of God. This results from a very simplistic way of circular thinking. The Fundamentalist holding his religious tome declares, “Everything in this book is literally true.” And when challenged how he might support such a dogmatic statement, he replies “Because it says so in the book!”
As Freke and Gandy write:
“No sooner than humans begun writing than God Himself started publishing. Literalism’s big idea was born. God writes books. He might occasionally use a secretary, such as Moses or Muhammad, but nonetheless he likes to communicate with his subjects via the written word. A new genre called ‘sacred scriptures’ was created. Sacred scriptures are special and off-limits to the kind of criticism that might be applied to any other pieces of literature.”
Now all that was well and good when countries and religions were insular and parochial. But it caused great problems once the populations of the world became more mobile and inquisitive. Wherever one culture rubbed up against another it soon became apparent that there were many different sacred scriptures attributed to many gods saying different things. By definition only one of these religions can be true – but which one? Well the most common answer was of course, “The one I belong to!”
There are many instances in history (and unfortunately even in current times) where the Literalists, not wanting to have their preferred version of sacred scripture challenged, have suppressed or destroyed competing texts. It is a sign of their own vulnerability of belief that the Literalists are not prepared to confront opposing ideas. One of the cleverest strategies designed to avoid having their core ideas challenged was adopted by the Catholic Church which persisted in delivering the scriptures in Latin so that their inconsistencies would not be challenged by the laity.
These so-called ‘sacred scriptures’ have held us in their thrall too long. They are dangerous documents and those Fundamentalists that hold them as the inerrant word of God are just engaging in another form of idolatry.
Listen to the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong (who I will quote again later):
“I look at the authority of the Scriptures as one who has been both nurtured and then disillusioned by the literal Bible. My devotion to the Bible was so intense that it led me into a study that finally obliterated any possibility that the Bible could be related to on a literal basis ……….. A literal Bible presents me with far more problems than assets. It offers me a God I cannot respect, much less worship.”
But that is the subject of another essay. Today I am more interested (given the season of the year) how the Literalists created and propagated the Jesus myth.
In the century after Christ was supposed to have lived and died the Gnostic version of his history prospered. The tension between Gnostic and Literalist interpretations of scripture had of course been present well before this. Literalists despite its contradictions, fabrications and errors had taken the Old Testament (Tanakh) to be literally true. It was all a factual history of God’s relationship to man right from Adam and Eve, through Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and so forth. But the Gnostics believed the Old Testament contained a collection of allegorical myths. For example Gnostics interpreted the books of Genesis and Exodus as complementary symbolic stories. Genesis was seen as an allegory of how human beings became lost and exiled in the world whilst Exodus was seen as an allegory of awakening to gnosis.
Anyhow, you all know how the Literalist story of Jesus goes. God so loved us that he sent his Son to live with us in human form to die for us with the object of saving us all from sin. The Christmas story concerns the birth of Jesus to fulfill that obligation. For 2000 years the West has been dominated by the idea that Christianity, built around the story of Jesus, is sacred and unique. The various forms of paganism that flourished prior to Christianity have come to be despised, in contrast, as superstitious, idol worship.
Most of us have little knowledge of the Pagan religions beyond perhaps the Greek myths we learnt at school. We have been persuaded by the early Literalist Christians, who were trying desperately to gain a footing for their new religion that the beliefs of their Pagan competitors were at the best primitive or at the worst inspired by Satan. In trying to differentiate themselves from the Pagans, they highlighted their differences and brushed over their similarities.
Yet the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, pointed out that underlying all the mythologies, Christianity included, was “the same anatomy”. In many belief systems there is the story of God who becomes man and who subsequently dies but is resurrected. (Does this sound familiar?). In Greece it was Dionysus, in Italy Bacchus, in Egypt Osiris, in Asia Minor Attis, in Persia Mithras. In their writings about such matters the classical scholars Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy refer to the mythical Godman using the combined name “Osiris-Dionysus”.
History tells us the Greek, Herodotus, sometimes called “the father of history”, journeyed to Egypt some five hundred years before the birth of Christ. Here, on the shore of a lake on the Nile he witnessed a huge ceremony celebrating what he termed “the passion of Osiris”. Sometime later, Pythagoras spent 22 years in the temples of Egypt becoming an initiate. After his return to Greece, his disciples inspired by Pythagoras’s Egyptian experience, transformed a minor God, Dionysus, to the equivalence of Osiris with a similar mythology of miracle birth, death and resurrection.
So the story of a God who became man and so on was quite prevalent in the Middle East by the time of Jesus.
Let us return to the Christmas story. The pagan Godman in many instances also experienced a virgin birth just as the Jesus myth portrays. Attis’s mother is the virgin Cybele. Adonis’s mother is also a virgin, Myrrh (an interesting name that occurs in another context in the story). Dionysus’s mother is the virgin Semele.
The early Roman Catholic Church was quick to distance itself from these Pagan connections. However, it is striking that the Christian apologist, Justin Martyr who lived only a century after the assumed death of Christ wrote,
“In saying that the Word was born for us without sexual union as Jesus Christ our teacher, we introduce nothing beyond what was said of those called the Sons of Zeus.”
It is interesting too, that neither the Gospels of Mark nor Paul refers to the virgin birth. Paul writes that Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh” which hardly sounds miraculous at all. Nor indeed does the Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas (discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and thought to predate most of the New Testament Gospels) mention a virgin birth. And John seems to have dismissed the virgin birth story and on two occasions in his Gospel refers to Jesus as the “son of Joseph”.
Some biblical scholars speculate that as Christianity came to dominate in some of the areas where Paganism previously prevailed, it usurped some of the elements of the Pagan mythology to facilitate the attraction of Pagan converts.
The conventional myth has Jesus being born in a stable. However in the gospels the Greek word translated as stable is katalemna which according to Freke and Gandy can alternatively be translated as temporary shelter, or cave. In mythology the cave often represents the womb of mother earth. Dionysus and Mithras were both purported to have been born in caves.
After the birth Jesus is visited by the “Three Wise Men” and three shepherds. In the gospels the “Three Wise Men” are actually called the Magi. The Magi were the followers of the legendary Godman Mithras. His birthday was celebrated on 25 December just like Jesus and his birth was said to have been witnessed by three shepherds.
In the Jesus story, the “Three Wise Men” were purported to have found Jesus by following a star. The myth of Adonis told how his coming was foretold by the rising of a star. In Egyptian mythology the Morning Star (which we know as Venus) was called Isis and she was the consort of Osiris. For millennia she was associated with Sirius at the foot of the constellation of Orion. Freke and Gandy report that the first appearance of Sirius was taken as an omen of the rising floodwaters of the Nile. This was thought to be due to the world-renewing power of Osiris. Thus the star foretold the coming of the Lord.
Some of the mythical Godmen were believed to have been born on either January 6 or December 25. Indeed early Christians argued over whether Jesus’ birthday was one or the other. Whatever the date it seems quite likely that it was chosen to be the day of the winter solstice. This is the shortest day of the year, which signals the turning point of the year and the returning of the life-giving sun. Due to the precession of the equinoxes this date has changed over the centuries from January 6, through to December 25 and now to December 22. The winter solstice was the time of a number of Pagan feasts and it is likely, as in many of the other aspects of the Christmas story, Jesus’ birthday was also stolen from Pagan tradition.
I could go on to point out the many other parallels between the story of Jesus and the other mythical Godmen, from baptism, performance of miracles the temptation of Satan and the trial in the desert right through to his death and resurrection. But I just wanted to focus on the Christmas story so will elaborate no further.
Bishop John Shelby Spong has warned us that embellishing the Jesus myth with theistic motifs is in error. If there was an historical Jesus (and of that I am not convinced) he was certainly a man and not the Son of God. The theistic Jesus is a product of some of the gospel writers and the early Christian followers attempting to compete with the other Osiris-Dionysus figures that populated the competing strands of paganism in the Middle-East.
Spong comments, “The theistic God-pattern born in human anxiety was not original to Christianity. Can Christianity now throw off theism’s chains? So totally has the Christian story been entwined with the theistic definition of God that the collapse of the latter threatens to trigger the collapse of the former.”
Let us go back again to the tension between the respective interpretations of the Jesus story by the Gnostics and the Literalists.
The Gnostic explanation is straight forward. To them Jesus is the equivalent of the Pagan dying and resurrecting Godman but under a new name. The Gnostics equate Jesus directly with Attis. For the Gnostics the Jesus tale is an allegorical initiation story based on ancient Pagan myth.
By the second century the Christian literalists were beginning to have more influence than the Gnostics. They had an invaluable, persuasive tool. This is a tool common to all Literalist theology. The tool was a proposition that merely believing the literal truth of the Jesus story was sufficient to “save” you and give you access to eternal life. But how did the Literalists explain away the similarity of the Jesus myth to the pagan myths? They used a device later taken up by Islam to explain some of the discrepancies of Muhammad’s teachings. The Literalists explained that Satan, knowing Jesus was going to come in the flesh, created the myths of the Godman in advance to deceive the faithful and lead them astray.
So now on the eve of celebrations marking the miraculous birth of Jesus it is appropriate to pause and ask ourselves whether Jesus is a myth or a man with divine nature sent by God to rescue us.
There is little historical evidence to support the fact that a man called Jesus actually existed.
Whilst the Romans kept detailed records there is no record of Jesus’s trial or crucifixion. There are many miracles and supernatural events supposedly associated with his life but there is no historical corroboration. Most Christians rely on a single reference in the many works of the Jewish historian Josephus to prove the historical validity of the Jesus story. There was just one glowing reference to Jesus, “the Messiah”. However the great scholar Edward Gibbon dismissed the reference as a “vulgar forgery”. He demonstrated that the passage was not to be found in Josephus at the end of the third century and appears to have been inserted at the beginning of the fourth century after Christianity had been made the religion of the Roman Empire. Josephus eventually went to Rome became a Roman citizen and abandoned Judaism.
The Protestant scholar, Albert Schweitzer in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus wrote:
“There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus …..it has fallen to pieces, cleft and disintegrated by the concrete historical problems which came to the surface one after another.”
I wouldn’t want you to think because I don’t believe in the literal truth of the myth of the Christmas story I am anti-Christmas. I am glad that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas and I am glad Scrooge was converted to be an advocate for the Christmas cause. It is a nice story. More than that, as I have continually stated in my writings, the principal truths of Mankind are propagated by myth, parable and metaphor. The birth of the mythical Christian Godman is a delightful and engaging story. Partly that is because many elements of the story have been “cherry picked” from similar Pagan traditions. But despite that it reflects some useful truths even if you don’t take it literally. (Remember the Buddhist admonition, “When the sage points to the moon, the fool sees the finger”!) And I would like to gently remind Christians, that no matter how attractive the story is, it is not uniquely Christian.
Acknowledgments: Much of the source material for this essay has been taken from The Laughing Jesus and The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Also referenced is A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong. The essay title is a chapter heading from The Laughing Jesus.