Plato’s Gospel

“I become holy by initiation. The Lord [Jesus] reveals the Mysteries. He marks the worshipper with His seal …” Clement of Alexandria, from The Protreptikos (Exhortation to the Greeks), ca 190 AD.

Here in America, Darwin is on the ropes again. After winning round after round since the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925, he’s facing thoroughly revived opponents—adversaries who are taking fewer standing eight-counts and getting in a few licks of their own. In 2005, for example, 11 parents in Dover, PA who resented having their children taught Creationism (repackaged as “intelligent design”), brought suit against the school board in what has been touted as a second Monkey Trial. Dr. Ken Miller, a professor at Brown University and the author of the biology book that agreed with evolution—the book that the suing parents wanted their children to use—stated on the witness stand that he believes God created the universe. Considering that Dr. Miller was a witness for the plaintiffs, it’s a small miracle they won.

A survey conducted in 2006 by political scientist Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University showed that only 14 percent of American adults consider evolution “definitely true” while roughly a third believe it to be “absolutely false.” Out of a sampler of 34 countries, only Turkey was less accepting of Darwin’s theories, while in nations such as Denmark, Sweden, and France, better than 80 percent of the adults questioned sided with Darwin. Perhaps more disquieting is the fact that 20 years ago about seven percent of U.S. adults were uncertain about evolution; that number has since tripled.

The uniquely American aspect to this resurgence of religious fundamentalism is reiterated by a chart showing the relationship of wealth to religious belief republished in the June 2, 2010 opinion section of by the New York Times (“Why Is America Religious?”), which demonstrates that the “the wealthier a country is, the less important religion is to that country. The one exception: The United States.” As USA Today pointed out (June 3, 2004), the “religion gap” is the “leading edge of the ‘culture war’ that has polarized American politics, reshaped the coalitions that make up the Democratic and Republican parties and influenced the appeals their presidential candidates are making.”

A somewhat medieval mentality, it seems, still holds significant sway in the world’s most powerful nation. If ‘medieval’ seems too close to hyperbole, recall Pat Robertson’s remark about Haiti and its “pact with the Devil” in the wake of the earthquake that hit the island. If you’re inclined to dismiss Robertson as a marginal political player, consider Ronald Reagan, who openly wondered whether Armageddon—in the form of a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union—was going to occur on his watch.  Or take the Bush White House, which in 2003 had to deny claims trumpeted by a BBC television program that Bush bragged to Palestine’s President Abbas, “God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did …” When it comes to credibility, Abbas and the BBC are probably safer bets. We are dealing after all with a man who, in his nationally televised debate with John Kerry, said, “I pray over my decisions,” including the one to invade Iraq.

Reagan and Bush (a millennialist more by implication than admission) are not alone. According to the 2008 documentary Waiting for Armageddon, 20 million Americans believe we are now living in the End Times. Among these End-Timers is Sarah Palin, one-time Republican darling, as well as Michele Bachmann and Republican frontrunner, Rick Perry, both of whom, according to Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, “have dabbled seriously in Left Behind belief systems, under which the righteous will be whisked away to heaven just before God comes down to Earth to kick ass and dispense justice to unbelievers via End-of-World troubles like wars and natural disasters.”[i]

The Left Behind series, for those unfamiliar, consists of16 volumes of pulp fiction about the Rapture authored by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. The books have sold some 70 million copies; at one time roughly one in eight Americans was reading them. “Scholars reconstructing the popular history of the first years of the 21st century … will have to grapple with the phenomenon of Left Behind,” writes David Gates in the May 24, 2004 issue of Newsweek. It should come as no surprise that, as Gates reports, “many critics of the series see a resonance between its apocalyptic scenario and the born-again President Bush’s apocalyptic rhetoric and confrontational Mideast policies.”

It was in this atmosphere of religious recidivism that I began writing The Christ Mosaic, a novel based on the suspicion among a number of religion scholars that the Christ of the Gospels is not a historical figure. I don’t remotely propose to prove that in the space of this essay; rather, I’d like to present what I hope is persuasive evidence that the Gospels are quite clearly a species of fiction—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, the author of Mark, at least, never intended his work to be understood by educated readers as literally true.

There are plenty of enigmatic passages in the Bible, but three in particular lend themselves to unraveling ulterior motives written into the Scriptures: Why is a blind man healed outside of Jericho named after one of Plato’s most famous dialogues? Why does Jesus send a multitude of demons into a herd of 2,000 pigs? And why are the first words of another blind man healed by Jesus, “I see men like trees, walking”? If these questions are answered objectively and plausibly, it becomes clear that Mark is both more and less than a faithful recording of events as they happened.

Any attempt to answer these questions, however, brings us to our first obstacle, and it’s nearly insurmountable: We in the 21st century really can’t imagine the Mediterranean—particularly the eastern region known as the Levant—of the first century AD. The vast majority of us today don’t speak Aramaic (the supposed language of Jesus) or ancient Hebrew; we haven’t read the Gospels in the Koine Greek in which they were written. Moreover, most of us have no concept whatsoever of the religious milieu in which the Gospel writers lived, and even scholars can reconstruct it only vaguely for us. In short we’ve lost the calibrations on our compass.

So before getting to our questions, we need an impression of the ancient Mediterranean’s spiritual mindset … a brief biography of the Greco-Egyptian God Serapis is a good place to start. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Alexander’s generals divided up his empire; Ptolemy got Egypt and took Alexandria as his capital. Faced with ruling an Egyptian population and a large number of transplanted Greeks, Ptolemy needed a way to unite his subjects. Settling on worship as the most effective way to get everyone pulling in the same direction, Ptolemy created a composite god: Serapis. Serapis was the husband of the Egyptian goddess Isis, just as the Egyptian god Osiris had been. And Serapis’s animal was the divine bull, Apis—as was Osiris’s. (The name Serapis is a fusion of Osiris-Apis.) Whenever Serapis was depicted, however, the likeness was of a bearded, curly-haired Greek. Like Zeus, Serapis was the ruler of the gods, and like Dionysos, he was a fertility god.

Ptolemy’s god was created purely out of political expediency (although as we will see, the religion Serapis presided over was not). Today, except in the case of a very small, fringe cult, this would be unthinkable—you just don’t go around mixing and matching gods. In the first-century Mediterranean and in centuries previous, however, it was not only acceptable, it was routine. The Mystery religions, of which the cult of Serapis was one, were classic examples of this sort of syncretism. In Asia Minor the Greek goddess Artemis was grafted onto the cult of the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele and stood at the center of the Ephesian Mysteries. The Pythagorean Mysteries took the Mysteries of Osiris and replaced the Egyptian god with a Greek one—Dionysos, who evolved into Dionysos Zagreus, the divine figure worshipped in numerous Mystery cults. His dual name reflected that fact he was also a composite of two gods, but the minor figure of Zagreus (who is slain and resurrected) was almost completely assimilated by the more prominent god.

This syncretism worked on a local level as well; a city-state often chose a god who already had a strong following to head up their Mysteries. The Eleusian Mysteries near Athens, for example, venerated Demeter and her daughter Kore (also known as Persephone, who was the mother of Zagreus). Using a familiar god as the front man—or woman—was a simple but effective way of gaining converts to an alien religion or to a newly created one. (We can see a vestige of this practice in car interiors: the plastic Jesus sometimes glued to the dash often has blond hair, fair skin, and blue eyes, which, had Jesus lived, is hardly likely.)

Ptolemy’s strategy worked brilliantly. Serapis became enormously popular, and the cult spread well beyond Egypt; the Serapeum in Alexandria, destroyed by fanatical Christians in 385 AD, is thought to have been one of the finest edifices of the ancient world.

It’s interesting to note that when Christianity first took hold in Egypt, early church members venerated Serapis and Jesus equally.[ii]  Once again, we need to bear in mind that syncretism was the way of the ancient world, and practices unimaginable today were common enough when Christianity was in its infancy.

So far the Mysteries have merely been mentioned, but we really can’t begin to understand the ancient Mediterranean without at least a basic understanding of these Cults. Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, dug up the oldest of Christianity’s roots—the worship of a god who dies only to be resurrected—and followed it to its elemental source: the cyclical death and rebirth of plant life. It is as simple as it is ingenious: the turning of the seasons. Drawing upon examples from hundreds of cultures and peoples as divergent as African huntsmen and German peasants, Native Americans and Welsh farmers, Frazer proved fairly conclusively that a broad range of religions all reflected the death of the Earth in fall and winter and its rebirth in spring.

The Mysteries are the clearest embodiment of this truth. The high priest was the hierophant (“one who reveals sacred things”). “Secrecy,” according to Walter Burkert in Greek Religion, “was radical” and an essential element.[iii] An initiate into the cults was called a mystes.  The root, tied to the Greek verb myein, means to close or to shut. It’s often conjectured this is because initiates had to keep their mouths closed about the ceremonies, but they hadn’t participated in the central ceremonies yet. Perhaps a more likely explanation for “shut” to be at the root of mystes is that before a mystes become an epopt (a witness), their eyes were closed—spiritually speaking. Because of the secrecy clause, a great deal of information about the exact nature and practices of the Mysteries has been lost, but Burkert identifies an agrarian aspect as among the most important. Not surprisingly, Demeter (goddess of grain) and Dionysus (god of wine and fertility) were two of the most important Mystery deities.

Another key element, Burkert notes, “is the aspect of myth: mysteries are accompanied by tales—some of which may be secret hieroi logoi—mostly telling of suffering gods.” Joseph Campbell agrees: “[T]he principle of divine life is symbolized as a divine individual (Dumuzi-Adonis-Attis-Dionysos-Christ) …”[iv] Life, in the form of the god, will suffer, die, and be reborn.

We also know that the initiation rites, purification ceremonies, and processions culminated in a final drama, the purpose of which was to bring the initiate face to face with God. Aristotle, drily detached as ever, puts it this way, “It is not necessary for the initiated to learn anything, but to receive impressions and to be put in a certain frame of mind.” Plato was well acquainted with the Mysteries but, respecting their vow of silence, made comparisons to them rather than writing about them directly:  “[W]e philosophers followed in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed …”[v] Here, raising philosophy to the status of a divine experience, he likens it to initiation into the Mysteries.

Christianity’s connection to the Mysteries is no longer obscured by the centuries. Campbell, for example, citing the work of Jane Harrison, doesn’t even bother to argue the issue—it’s too obvious. He points out that “numerous elements” included in the heritage of “the mysteries of Demeter and the Orphics … were passed on to Christianity—most obviously in the myths and rites of the Virgin and the Mass.”[vi] (Notice Campbell includes Christ in his list of Mysteries deities cited above).

The great Roman orator Cicero, who died in 43 BC, actually criticized Mystery celebrants for taking their rites too literally: “Is anybody so mad,” he wrote, “as to believe that the food he eats is actually a god?”[vii] I mention Cicero not to detract from belief in the Eucharist, but to point out that well before Christ was born, a nearly identical rite had already been firmly established. The fact is, Cicero was no enemy of the Mysteries; far from it. But he believed in a symbolic interpretation of the rites, not a literal one. In De Legibus, (II, xiv, 36), he has nothing but praise for the Greek Mysteries, saying that through them “We have gained the understanding not only to live happily but also to die with better hope.

Campbell believed that “whether accurate or not as to biographical detail, the moving legend of the Crucified and Risen Christ was fit to bring a new warmth, immediacy, and humanity, to the old motifs of the beloved Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris cycles. Indeed, it was those early myths filling the atmosphere of the whole eastern Mediterranean that had furnished the ambient readiness within which the Christian legend so rapidly grew and spread.”[viii]

Campbell’s argument can be varied slightly: it wasn’t warmth and humanity Mark was after so much as a Jewish god at the center of a new Mysteries religion that, for all intents and purposes, Paul had set in motion. Paul’s letters are, by scholarly consent, the earliest Christian documents, which, as Campbell indicates, “were written to his converts in the busy Hellenistic market towns to which he had introduced the new faith, and in these the fundamental mythic image of the Fall by the Tree and Redemption by the Cross was already firmly defined.”

It shouldn’t come as such a surprise that Paul promulgated a Mystery religion with a Jewish dying-and-rising God at its center.  He was after all a Hellenized Greek from Tarsus (a center for the Mysteries of Mithras) and preached in Antioch (famous for the Mysteries of Adonis), Ephesus (for those of Attis, the consort of Cybele/Artemis), and Corinth (Dionysos). Making Christ into a god at the center of another Mystery cult fit in perfectly with Paul’s task of converting Greeks—who was more familiar with the Mystery cults?

It is Paul who says, “Now we see in a glass dimly, but then face to face,” echoing the Mysteries’ emphasis on direct experience and virtually plagiarizing Plato, who, discussing the recollections of the soul when “she” (the soul) was in the presence of God, writes that those memories “are seen through a glass dimly.” And don’t think for a minute Paul hadn’t read Plato; he was an educated Greek who wrote in Greek, and Plato was required reading in any school of the time.

Intimate knowledge of Plato’s work applies to Mark as well, and we are now in a position to address the question of why a blind man in Mark’s gospel is named after one of Plato’s most famous dialogues. Here is Mark 10:46-52: “Then they came to Jericho. And as [Jesus] went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging.” First of all, note that “son of Timaeus” in the original manuscript is a translation of Bartimaeus into Greek. Mark does not do this for any other Jewish name; he wants to make sure his Greek readers don’t miss the point.

“And when [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out …”

Jesus asks him what he wants, but instead of asking to be cured, he asks to “receive” his sight.

“Then Jesus said, to him, ‘Go your way, your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road.”

Despite the fact that there is no Aramaic root for Timaeus, some scholars, such as those cited by Michael Patella in Lord of the Cosmos: Mithras, Paul, And the Gospel of Mark, still argue that a connection with Plato “seems unlikely.” This is a good example of how even academicians are not accustomed to thinking of Mark as a writer who had undoubtedly read and been influenced, not just by Plato, but by any number of Greek authors.

In the Platonic dialogue, a character named Timaeus expounds the whole of Plato’s cosmology, including the creation of man and the universe, and in so doing details some of the core beliefs Plato has left as his legacy—prominent among them an “eternally unchanging” realm of perfection, which Timaeus insists is the pattern for the visible universe. The cosmology outlined in Timaeus, Patella argues, is the reigning model of the universe in the first century Mediterranean. He doesn’t have to argue too hard; it’s still the reigning model of the universe. In spite of the findings of astronomy and physics, most people are religious and most of the religious still believe that our transitory, flawed, earthly realm is somehow situated below a perfect, wispy place called heaven. In another key part of this dialogue, particularly germane to Mark’s gospel, Timaeus not only explains the mechanics of sight, but also, in section 14:47, he makes a case for sight as the foundation of philosophy, which he calls “the greatest gift the gods have ever given or will give to mortals.”

For centuries the healing of Bartimaeus was read as a simple miracle story—and so it would appear to the uneducated Christian convert of the first century. To an initiated Greek, however, it would be clear that Jesus is playing the part of the hierophant and opening the eyes of an initiate to the truth. Bartimaeus is taken from mystes (closed off) to epoptone who has seen. No longer blind, his eyes have been opened to the eternal, and he throws off his cloak (the only material wealth he has) to follow Jesus.

While the connection with Plato is difficult to refute, the one with the Mysteries may seem less so. This brings us to the second question and Mark 5:2 in which Jesus is accosted by a man “with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs.” The man as it turns out is possessed by a legion of demons, who—with exorcism imminent—beg Jesus to send them into a nearby herd of swine. Jesus agrees, and the 2000 swine “ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned …”

To readers in the 21st century who aren’t acquainted with the ancient Levant (which is pretty much all of us), this seems simply a bizarre miracle, but … 2,000 pigs? In a country where pork is outlawed? The text doesn’t say so, but we can assume the swineherds in the text are Greek. While it’s hard enough to imagine how two or three or even a half dozen swineherds handled that many animals, it’s more difficult still to explain why they don’t demand reparation. Even today 2,000 pigs would fetch a hefty price. All the swineherds do is ask Jesus to take his magic show on the road.

Mark dispenses with realism because, of course, the incident is allegorical. And fortunately for us, Frazer has written at length on the pig[ix], pointing out that swine often embodied the “corn-spirit”—the invisible life of grain crops. The pig was also, as it happens, sacred to Demeter, who we should recall was goddess of grain and chief deity of the Eleusian Mysteries, the most famous of the Greek Mysteries. We should also recall her daughter Persephone was worshiped (as Kore) at the same Mysteries. The myth relating Persephone’s kidnapping by Hades provides one of the keys to understanding this pericope in Mark. “At the moment that Pluto carried off Proserpine [Frazer uses the Roman names] a swineherd called Euboleus was herding his swine on the spot, and his herd was engulfed in the chasm down which Pluto vanished with Proserpine. Accordingly at the Thesmophoria [a women-only religious festival held in autumn] pigs were annually thrown into caverns in order to commemorate the disappearance of the swine of Euboleus.”

The demon-infested man in the Gospel lived in the tombs; what better way of suggesting the Underworld where Persephone, according to the myth, presided over the dead for seven months out of the year?

The connection, however, is incomplete. In The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (citing Walter Burkert and Jane Harrison) point out that “As part of the purification ceremony before initiation [to the Eleusian Mysteries], some 2,000 initiates all bathed in the sea with young pigs. …[T]he pigs … were then sacrificed … by being chased over a chasm.”[x] Part of the endnote to Burkert and Harrison reads: “When Eleusis was permitted to issue her own … coinage it was the pig that she chose as the … symbol of her Mysteries, an animal that since Neolithic times has been associated with the Underworld.”

To the credulous and the uneducated in the first century AD, this was simply a demonstration of Jesus’ power to cast out evil. To the Greek epoptae, the allusion to the Eleusian Mysteries couldn’t be missed.

The two questions answered so far involved the Mysteries, the latter fairly irrefutably. The third question is perhaps the most puzzling. Mark  8:22-26 recounts the healing of another blind man. Jesus leads him out of town (Bethsaida), “And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything. And he looked up and said, ‘I see men like trees, walking.’ Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly.” “Everyone” in this case is Jesus and a throng of followers.

Let us make no mistake here: When the blind man first opens his eyes what he sees is not there. Jesus has to try a second time to restore his sight. So what is the point of his strange vision of tree-like men?

To answer this question, we have to keep in mind that Jesus was far from the only miracle-worker and healer known to the ancient Mediterranean. Among those who were famous during Jesus’ lifetime were Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, and Asclepius. While miracles are attributed to all three, only Apollonius and Pythagoras seem to have been historical figures. Said to be the son of Apollo, Asclepius was raised by the famous centaur Chiron, who taught him the art of medicine. He was reputedly killed by Zeus after bringing back one man too many from the dead (the stories vary), but the point here is that is that Asclepius was a renowned healer. In fact, the original Hippocratic Oath invoked his name: “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods …” Hygieia (hygiene) and Panacea (cure-all) were two of his daughters.

By 300 BC, Asclepius’s cult, which was not one of the Mysteries, had reached the height of its popularity, and numerous supplicants were drawn to his temples and sanctuaries, where they hoped to be healed. In the second century AD, Asclepius was still so well known that Justin Martyr, one of the earliest of the Church Fathers had to answer claims that the stories of Jesus’ healing abilities had been based on the Asclepius’s. Indeed, as Freke and Gandy point out, after Emperor Theodosius lifted imperial protection and allowed Christians to attack pagan temples in the Roman Empire without fear of reprisal, “Many of the inscriptions to Asclepius were taken over by early Christians by simply replacing his name with that of Jesus.”[xi]

Fortunately, some monuments still bearing his name have survived, and one in particular relates to Mark. According to Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity: a Sourcebook by Wendy Cotter, the following inscription was found on an ancient stele: “Alcetas of Halieis. The blind man saw a dream. It seemed to him that the god [Asclepius] came up to him and with his fingers opened his eyes, and that he first saw the trees in the sanctuary.” And there we have half of the mystery.

Cotter lists a number of healings of the blind and at least two of them require the application of a salve or a drug; and this, I believe, is the reason Jesus spits on the blind man in Mark (the application of a little divine saliva was unnecessary in the case of Bartimaeus). Be that as it may, it seems clear that Mark is alluding to Asclepius and Alcetas; why else would Jesus’ beneficiary claim to see something that is not there?

Now for the tree-men. Recall that Asclepius was a god of healing and medicine but was not associated with the Mysteries; Jesus, however, was—as were many of the other dying-and-rising gods. Adonis is a good example. According to Frazer, Adonis was worshiped by the “the Semitic peoples of Syria” from whom the Greeks borrowed the cult “as early at least as the fifth century before Christ.”[xii] Adonis “was said to have been born from a myrrh-tree, the bark of which bursting, after a ten months’ gestation, allowed the lovely infant to come forth.” [xiii] Dioynsos was the god of the vine and was often depicted with branches and/or leaves growing out of his head; Attis died under a pine tree and after his death was believed to have been turned into a pine tree. As Frazer points out: “The original character of Attis as a tree-spirit is brought out plainly by the part which the pine tree plays in his legend and ritual.”[xiv] Frazer goes on to say “His tree origin is further attested by the story that he was born of a virgin, who conceived by putting in her bosom a ripe almond or pomegranate.”[xv]  Body parts of the murdered and dismembered Osiris were discovered by his wife, Isis, inside a living tree. More importantly, Jesus is associated with the tree, which of course is what the cross was. In fact the word used in the Gospels is actually stavrosstake, not cross, for which Plato uses the word chi, denoting the Greek letter X. And a stake is little more than a tree stripped of its branches.

Acts of the Apostles makes the connection overt. In Acts 5:30 an accusatory Peter says, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.” (Quite different from the Crucifixion scenario to which we’ve all grown accustomed.) Peter reasserts his claim in Acts 10:39, saying Jesus was “killed by hanging from a tree.” In Acts 13:29 Paul states that after his death Jesus was taken down “from the tree” (not from the cross). In Galatians 3:13 Paul again insists on a tree rather than a cross, saying Christ has “become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’)”

The blind man Jesus heals with spit and a laying-on-of-hands seems to have been presented primarily as a reference to Asclepius, in whose tradition Jesus is following, and secondarily to reinforce Jesus’ status as a god of the Mysteries. At this point the reader may ask why speak in riddles? Jesus himself answers this question in all three Gospels although the following is from Mark (4:10-12): “When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “To you it has been given to know the secret of the kingdom of God; but to those on the outside, everything is said in parables so that,  ‘They may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

This is a very interesting passage because the first two-thirds were written by Mark, but the last third, in single quotes, is Isaiah 6:9-10. And it illustrates the double-sidedness of the Gospels precisely. In the two-thirds written by Mark, Jesus follows in the tradition of the Mysteries: before you go from mystes (those on the outside) to epopt, you need to be initiated. In other words, before you can be trusted with the secrets of the cult and its members, the members need to know they can trust you. But the verse from Isaiah was for his Jewish listeners: Jesus appears to be fulfilling scripture.

What we have in Mark’s Gospel is not merely a matter of reconciling two cultures, as was the case with the creation of Serapis; rather, Mark consciously imitated the Mysteries because they were wildly popular (Judaism was not). And this meant imitating their tradition of secrecy as well as their allegorical approach. As should be clear by now, Mark is essentially talking in code, and deciphering his message calls for a thorough grounding in the thought and important events of the time. Martin Luther, it seems, was not entirely correct when he insisted every man can read the Bible for himself. In fact even he was somewhat underqualified.

The idea that Mark modeled Christianity on the Mysteries is not at all far-fetched. Philo of Alexandria, also writing in the first century AD, believed that Moses (as well as Jeremiah) was a hierophant and that Judaism was already a Mystery religion. Philo, whose work Mark almost certainly read, was an incredibly well-known commentator on Judaism. If Philo believed Judaism was a Mystery religion, why wouldn’t Mark graft Paul’s Christ Jesus/Jesus Christ onto a new Mystery cult? (Remember: Paul was writing decades before Mark and had won over large numbers of Greeks whereas Jews did not readily take to Christianity.)

Interesting also that the name Jesus Christ contains one Greek element (Christos is the Greek translation of messiah), and one Hebrew (Y’shua), which might be coincidental or might fall in with the idea that Christianity was attempting to join Greek worshipers with Jewish ones. (This of course would be Paul’s innovation as he is the one who coined the name, or at least was the first to write it down. He is also the one who, in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, said in so many words, “I am a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks”). Is it purely coincidence that Mark is meticulous about demonstrating how Jesus is the Messiah, often writing, “And this was done to fulfill the prophecies”—except for the one stating that the messiah “shall be called Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14)? It’s much more likely that Mark wanted to hang onto Paul’s Greek recruits. The healing of Bartimaeus, the exorcising of the numerous demons known as “Legion,” and the healing of the blind man in Mark 8, along with a number of other incidents in the New Testament, are not “plagiarisms” of the Mysteries (as Freke and Gandy would have it) but allusions to them. What better way to attract pagan—mostly Greek—converts?

Once we stop thinking of the Gospels as historical accounts or as being strictly Jewish and uninfluenced by the milieu in which they were written, the Gospels show themselves to be richly layered allegories. The wise men, who appear only in the Gospel of Matthew, furnish a final example of dual-edged eloquence. They are referred to in the original Greek as magoi apo anatolon—literally, magi from the risings of the Sun or more simply magi from the east. Matthew never mentions how many there are; this is a later interpretation based on the fact that they bring three gifts, two of which were no doubt inspired by Isaiah 60:3-60:6: Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense.
But the Greek word magoi cannot mean kings; priests came, not kings—specifically, as most scholars now agree, priests of Mithraism, one of Christianity’s competing Mystery Cults. Nor did anyone come from Sheba (Ethiopia). The question that immediately arises is why would Mithraic priests from Persia pay homage to either a Jewish king or a Jewish messiah? If they were divinely inspired, as the gospel suggests, why didn’t they return to Persia and convert the population? Or at least post a few bills to alert the public to God’s will? Nothing of the sort can be found in any chronicle. (Nor is there the faintest trace of any “slaughter of innocents”—not even in the other Gospels.) After their handful of paragraphs in Matthew, the wise men disappear forever.

Paralleling Matthew’s birth narrative—sort of—Luke has the divine newborn attended by shepherds. This is fascinating because, at his birth, Mithra was adored by gift-bearing shepherds.[xvi]  Notice the conflation: Matthew’s wise men are not shepherds, nor are they present at Jesus’ birth[xvii], but they do bring gifts; Luke’s shepherds attend Jesus’ birth, but they do not bring gifts. The constant in the “nativity” scenes in the only two Gospels that depict them seems to be the evocation of Mithra.

Rather than imagining that either of these accounts actually happened, it makes much more sense to see this incident—and many scholars do—as allegorical.[xviii] Patella points out that Mithraism was “the most popular astrological system at that time.” Clearly, a force to be reckoned with, Mithraism followed a westerly trajectory “from the eastern regions of the Roman Empire into the heart of Rome itself.”[xix] Matthew is signaling to worshipers of Mithra that Jesus supersedes their god-man; this is why the priests of Mithra worship the child. Similarly, the shepherds in Luke venerate not Mithra but Jesus; Jesus has replaced the Persian god-man. Even Tertullian, a Church apologist writing around the turn of the third century, understood this incident allegorically. The fact that the wise men took an alternate route when they returned home meant, in his view, “that they should no longer walk in their old way.”[xx] This, of course, is precisely the case I’ve been making.

Notice also that the wise men bring myrrh, a gift that isn’t mentioned by Isaiah. Myrrh is of course incense, but it was also the name of Adonis’s mother (Myrrha), who was turned into the tree from which he was said to have been born. Myrrha was also said to be name of the mother of Bacchus, another name for Dionysos. Once again Jews reading Matthew would see the prophecy of Zechariah more or less fulfilled while Greeks and other pagans would recognize allusions to their own god-men.

What we’ve uncovered in this handful of biblical passages is the time-tested method of superimposing one religion on various aspects of others in order to assimilate them. This is why churches were built over pagan temples. This is why the Celtic cross still incorporates a circle—a symbol the Celts refused to give up. This is why Christians chiseled in Jesus’ name on monuments where Asclepius’s had been. This is why the Church created Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day and laid them over the Celtic New Year, which consisted of three days overlapping the end of October and the beginning of November.

In “What Did Jesus Do?”, published in The New Yorker (May 24, 2010), Adam Gopnik  moons over the prophet he thinks he’s found in the Gospels: “there is also something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ morality that makes it fresh and strange even now. Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes on the ground while his fellow-Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of an adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the honor of throwing the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn’t sinned himself.” This is a perfect example of the pitfalls involved in interpreting the Gospels.

As Helmut Koester points out in Ancient Christian Gospels (p. 248), “the pericope about Jesus and the adulteress … is missing in the older papyri (p66 and p75) and in the oldest uncial codices … as well as in the oldest translations … and appears for the first time in the 5th century.” In other words, some scribe snuck it in about 400 years after Jesus had already met his much-discussed end. And it caught on (it is good). Thanks to this anonymous copyist, we see with crystalline clarity how even certain things we have come to think of as “pure Jesus” (quotation marks mine) are pure fiction.

It doesn’t seem likely that a few deconstructed biblical passages (though there are plenty more where they came from) will persuade anyone of faith that the Gospels are not the unerring word of God. But they do suggest that layman and scholar alike revise his or her attitude toward the New Testament. It seems nothing short of irresponsible for scholars to dismiss as “unlikely” a connection between Bartimaeus and Plato when Plato’s cosmology is still the dominant world view. (Both Augustine and Nietzsche recognized there was very little difference between the Christian and the Platonic worldviews—Nietzsche going so far as to say, “Christianity is Platonism for the people.”) But it is also irresponsible because we have a potential 2012 presidential hopeful who, for 28 years, attended a church that believes Alaska will be a refuge during the End Times. We also have a pair of Republican frontrunners, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, who have demonstrated clear sympathies for Rapture theology. Moreover, there are 20 million End-Timers in this country who welcome war in the Middle East as a heavenly signal that the joys of Apocalypse are not far off. Nor did the tarry geyser in the Gulf of Mexico much upset them because it was another hopeful hint that the angelic trumpets are about to sound and that this world isn’t going to last much longer anyway.

If, however, we made more of the New Testament transparent, if we wrote in abundant detail about the complex milieu in which the Gospels took root, if we approached the Bible with greater open-mindedness, and we answered the biblical techno-thrillers of Jenkins and LaHaye with more substantial volumes, it’s possible that, two or three decades from now (assuming we avoid a nuclear conflagration in the meantime), future presidents will realize it’s best not to consult a millennia-old book—which has baffled scholars for centuries—as though it were a window onto the future.



[ii]  Otto Friedrich Meinardus, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, American University in Cairo Press, 2002, p. 143

[iii]  p. 276

[iv]  Occidental Mythology, p.138

[v] Phaedrus

[vi] Ibid, p. 28

[vii]  On the Nature of Gods

[viii] Ibid, p. 362

[ix]  Golden Bough, vol. II, 42-59

[x] p. 41

[xi] p. 38

[xii] Ibid, vol. I, p. 279

[xiii] Ibid, vol. I, p 281

[xiv] Ibid, vol. I, p. 298

[xv] Ibid, vol. I, p. 298

[xvi] Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. xvii, p. 623

[xvii] A close reading of Matthew shows that Jesus was a “young child” not a new-born infant. This is why Herod decrees that children two years old and under be put to death.

[xviii]  In an article in The Guardian (December 22, 2005), Karen Armstrong, author of numerous books on religion, writes, “The gospels are not accurate biographies of Jesus …. Throughout his gospel, Matthew argues that Jesus came not only for the Jewish people but also for the Gentiles. He therefore makes the three wise men from the east the first people to recognise [British spelling] and pay homage to him.” As I have argued, Matthew is looking to win over adherents of Mithra.

[xix] Lord of the Cosmos: Mithras, Paul, and the Gospel of Mark, p. 1

[xx] De Idolatria


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Kurt Jacobsen: A Rambling Introduction

By Paul Hoover: The British Small Arms Company: A Motorcycle Memoir

By Andrey Gritsman: Stranger at Home: Poetic Sensibility across Cultures and Languages

By John Nichols: Epistles from the Roadside

By Leonard Quart: Revisiting in the Heat of the Night

By John Long: Got My Kicks on Route 66

By Max Vanzi: Traipsing after Sawada: An American Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir

By Phaedra Greenwood: Two for the Road

By Warren Leming: Looking for Woody

By John Sinclair: Still on the Road

By Anne Waldman: Interview with Anne Waldman: On All Kinds of Roads

By Thomas de Zengotita: Modernism Revisited: Artistic Works, Academic Disciplines, Divided Minds

By Vincent Czyz: Plato’s Gospel

By Joseph Lowndes: Looking Forward to the History of the Tea Party

By Stephen Eric Bronner: On Judging American Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Political Realism, and the Arrogance of Power

By John Clark: Bad I.O.U.: Badiou’s Fidelity to the Event

By Carmen Francesca Banciu: Pollen and Diamonds

By Aaron Leonard: Twilight Saga of the American Empire?

By Lawrence Davidson: Review of Basem Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean.

By John Ehrenberg: Tristram Hunt, Marx’s General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels

By Denise Poche Jetter: Steven Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if it were Produced by People

By Jason Scott: Megan Boler, Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times