Was There No Historical Jesus?
by Earl Doherty


Return to Home Page

by Acharya S

Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999

The further one goes into this book, the more one recognizes how vast is the mythological background of the ancient world that the modern era has completely lost sight of. Those who imagine that the Gospel story represents singular historical events are in for a shock when they realize the degree to which the Christian myth of Jesus of Nazareth was a reflection of mythical motifs and traditions which saturated ancient and even prehistoric cultures. There is barely an original or virgin bone in Christ's body, and Christians in the early centuries were regularly assailed by pagan detractors who accused them of reworking old ideas and copying from a host of predecessors.

The other thing the reader comes to recognize is that Acharya S has done a superb job in bringing together this rich panoply of ancient world mythology and culture, and presenting it in a comprehensive and compelling fashion. Moreover, she grabs the reader from the first page and doesn't let go. Her style is colorful, bold, occasionally (and justifiably) indignant, even a touch reckless at times, but never off the track—a little like an exciting roller coaster ride. It may take a fair amount of concentration to absorb all this material, but even if you don't integrate everything on first reading, the broader strokes will leave you convinced that the story of Jesus is simply an imaginative refashioning of the mythological heritage of centuries and that no such man ever existed.

The litany of comparisons and parallels that can be made between the Gospel story and elements of ancient world mythology, astronomy/astrology, ritual and scriptural precedent, is astonishing. This book scarcely falls short of documenting them all. By way of example, the fundamental concept of a sacrificial redeemer grew out of the scapegoat ritual, known in many societies, "in which the evils of the people are placed upon the head of a person or animal, such as a goat, often by shouting at him as he is paraded through the streets" (p.202). A subset of this practice was the very ancient and even prehistoric killing of a king or his proxy, a kind of "scapegod" drama. The author quotes Edouard Dujardin, writing in 1938:

"The god is anointed king and high-priest. He is conducted in a procession, clothed in the mantle of purple, wearing a crown, and with a sceptre in his hand. He is adored, then stripped of his insignia, next of his garments, and scourged, the scourging being a feature of all the analogous rites. He is killed and the blood sprinkled on the heads of the faithful. Then he is affixed to the cross. The women lament the death of their god . . ."
Commemorative ceremonies of gods like Dionysos, Attis, Osiris, and even the Phoenician god Baal as recorded on a 4,000 year old tablet now in the British Museum, move in virtual lockstep with the Passion story of Jesus in the Gospels. Gospel characters and their features mirror astrological symbols and divine pantheons of contemporary cultures; the workings of the heavens (astro-theology) and especially solar myths have uncanny parallels in elements of the Christ story. And so on.

One of the things which strikes the reader are the multiple parallels that can be made with features of the Gospel story and its character Jesus of Nazareth. My own work has focused primarily on parallels with the savior gods of the mysteries, and the minute details of the Passion story which have been drawn from the Jewish scriptures (in the fashion of midrash). But another, equally rich backdrop exists in the many parallels with solar and astrological observation and mythology, illustrating the deep interdependence and even a form of unity within the various manifestations which the ancients saw in the universe around them. All these interdependent motifs they incorporated into their allegorical myths, into their written scripture which served to create the past they desired for themselves, in support of a present identity and set of religious truths they wanted to live by. Christianity, unfortunately, worked at divorcing itself from all this rich, unifying heritage.

One example will suffice (p.158). Jesus rides an ass into Jerusalem in the Gospel story, which in midrashic fashion is drawn from verses in Zechariah and Zephaniah. But Egyptian mythology portrays the god Set as riding an ass into the city in triumph, and that mythical motif parallels astronomical signs. One of the points this book reiterates is the dependence on Egyptian, Sumerian and Canaanite precedents of so many Israelite stories, sayings and teachings which ended up in the Hebrew bible, all of which in turn were outgrowths of even more primitive ideas and practices of earlier phases of Near Eastern prehistory. Christianity, in its 'orthodox' strain (or "Literalist," to borrow a term from The Jesus Mysteries), struck out on its own with claims of uniqueness, originality and exclusive historicity, breaking the link to that unified ground out of which it sprung.

Believers, scholars and critics alike are stuck in this Literalist, historicizing view of the Christ faith, and only when the genuine roots of the movement and its formative mythology are brought back into our consciousness can the modern world decide what to do with it and where we will go from here. If only half of these astrological and mythological symbols in the atmosphere of the time which closely conform to Gospel features were in the minds of the Gospel writers when they fashioned their tale, there can be no doubt that such writers were well aware that their work had nothing to do with history.

The author covers an even wider range of interesting and provocative topics, with plenty of stimulating insights. Especially effective is the attention to elements of the Old Testament that one doesn't usually encounter in biblical studies: the presence of astrology in the bible, the mythological nature of much of the Old Testament material and the dubious authenticity of its "history," the falsity of the idea that the Hebrews were monotheistic, even a chapter on Sex and Drugs. She delves into Egyptian and Indian precedents for the possible derivation of many of the bible's traditions. When she ranges even further afield and notes the surprisingly widespread commonality of certain religious and cultural motifs from one end of the planet to the other, extending back into very ancient times, we are on intriguing if speculative ground, but for the most part the author simply lets the data speak for itself, and readers can draw what conclusions their own adventurous spirits might wish.

There are those who have expressed some uncertainty about the scholarship which originally presented some of the subject matter dealt with in this book, since much of it comes from the 19th and early 20th centuries. But there is a prominent reason why today's researcher is inevitably thrown back on this early period of investigation. The so-called History of Religions School was a feature of that period, represented by such luminaries as Reitzenstein, Bousset and Cumont, and other, less famous scholars. Its conclusions about the relation of Christianity to the thought and religious expression of the time, especially in regard to the mystery cults and even solar mythology, proved unpalatable to mainstream New Testament study. This was also the period of intense examination of the idea that no Jesus had existed at all (J. M. Robertson, Arthur Drews, the Dutch Radical School, etc.). The result was a backlash and a circling of the wagons, creating a fortress mentality against such scholarship for the latter three-quarters of the 20th century. As a result, there has been little recent investigation of that History of Religions material, especially sympathetic investigation. Acharya S may draw to a fair degree on that older scholarship, but while certain aspects of it are necessarily somewhat dated, one of the things which struck me in her quotations from it (and more and more of it is now being reprinted) is how perceptive and compelling much of it continues to be. We sorely need a new History of Religions School for the 21st century, to apply modern techniques to this important ancient material. Perhaps this book will help bring that about.

*          *          *          *

Visit The Christ Conspiracy web site.

(Those who have been to Acharya’s site know that she is mystically-minded, and subscribes to many of the tenets of today’s "New Age Spirituality." This, as visitors to my own site will know, is not my personal orientation. Her book, however, is largely free of expressions of this nature and takes a more standard approach to the scholarship she presents.)

Return to Home Page