Christianity as a Mystery Cult and Richard Carrier's "On the Historicity of Jesus"

[originally posted at Facebook on October 15, 2015]

I’m only 150 pages into this tome. Not far at all given its 600-plus pages of text. I’m taking it slow and easy, as there is a lot of information to digest. But the research in Richard Carrier’s comprehensive study on the origins of Christianity already has me thinking this may be the most important book I will ever read. Though far less ambitious in their aim, I’ve read many others of its kind over the last fifteen years. From Randel Helms and Robert M. Price to G. A Wells and David Fitzgerald (plus the less serious people in the field, including D. M. Murdock and Timothy Freke). Not one of these comes close to the erudition and wide-ranging expertise that we see in Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. Carrier’s book is footnote-heavy and the end notes section is laden with all manner of sources and citations. To say this is a well-researched, scholarly volume is something of an understatement. On top of that, Dr. Carrier, to my great relief, is an excellent and entertaining writer.

I had put off buying this book so long due to two factors: its hefty price tag ($31.00 at Amazon (and this is a paperback not a hardcover)); and also from many of the reviews I read at Amazon and elsewhere, it sounded as though Carrier’s book was a dry academic exercise certain to put the lay reader to sleep. I got the sense it was impenetrable to all but historians and college professors. Thankfully that’s not the case and I’m quite happy to have been proven wrong. Richard Carrier writes in a very accessible style.

One of my strong suspicions after having read all those works is that Christianity must surely have begun as a mystery cult, not unlike the Dionysian, Eleusinian, and Mithraic mysteries. Curiously, we frequently refer to the salvation religions of antiquity as “cults.” I think part of the reason for that is to cast them in a disparaging light, as though to say “Those religions were fraudulent and entertained the hopes of fools, whereas WE (Christianity) are the true faith and definitely NOT like those charlatans.” That is to say, Christianity as a whole does not wish to be painted with the mystery cult brush and seems overly sensitive to that particular slander because it bears so much in common with the very same cults it denounces. But I rather thought I was among the few to suspect these connections to the salvation religions of old. That’s probably because there was no one to talk to about this subject. Try saying something like this to anyone you know. The groans and eye-rolling are immediate. This pretty much cuts off all further discussion of the matter. I think today had I tried a little harder I would have found many a sympathetic ear.

About two weeks ago I was watching a David Fitzgerald presentation on YouTube. From out of nowhere Fitzgerald said, and I’m paraphrasing here: Christianity is not LIKE a mystery cult. It IS a mystery cult! Needless to say, I was shocked to hear him announce this so unambiguously. Imagine then my further surprise when I discovered two days ago this is one of the arguments Richard Carrier is making in his On the Historicity of Jesus. But unlike Fitzgerald’s brief statement, Carrier has laid out all the evidence and makes a very compelling case.

Although I have a long way yet to go before finishing On the Historicity of Jesus, I have little doubt Richard Carrier has in store far more surprises for the reader

On a related note, something odd occurred at the very beginning of the Christian era. It’s referenced in Paul’s epistles, but Paul is vague on the subject, giving us far too little information to make much sense of it. But it’s also alluded to elsewhere in historical documents (the commentaries of some of the church fathers, for example), and what we see is the following. There were strange groups of people who were apparently Christians preaching, practicing, and believing something far different from Paul's message. These groups are often placed under the umbrella term of “Gnostics.” The perception is they were somehow fringe elements and later offshoots of literalism. At least that’s the refrain we hear so often from many modern day scholars. But it appears more and more that was not the case—the Gnostics appear to have been there from the very beginning. Many of the Gnostics viewed Christ not as a historical person but rather as a cosmic, spiritual entity. And the oddity I mentioned is this: how is it that so soon following the alleged crucifixion of Jesus we see such wildly different interpretations of the kind evident in Gnostic thinking? It seems to have happened immediately. This is a very conspicuous WTF moment in history. I think it suggests—and it is ONLY a suggestion, which should not to be confused for proof—that Christ as a mythical figure was the original belief, and literalism the later development.

Bart Ehrman says in his Lost Christianities that contrary to popular perception these groups of Gnostics were very often NOT separate movements, they were not bands of wandering mystics, or anything of the kind. Rather these people were right there in the churches, sitting in the same pews as the rest of the congregation. They were co-religionists. What is further illustrated by the aforementioned commentaries is—wait for it: there were different levels of initiation within the early church. There were the beginners, the outer levels initiated into the church by baptism and who partook of the Eucharist and understood scripture in the literal sense. And then there were those occupying the elevated ranks, who understood scripture as allegories meant to convey higher spiritual truths. Paul and others allude to this as well. All of this information leads us to conclude Christianity was in all probability a mystery religion or salvation cult. Like the Orphic mysteries or the cult of Isis and Osiris, Christianity had a mythical founding figure (Jesus Christ). One of the big differences between the adherents of the mysteries and Christianity is that the former KNEW their savior deities were not actual people having lived on the Earth. Not so with the later Christians of the 2nd or 3rd centuries and beyond. Somewhere along the way, either intentionally or by accident, the adept levels of initiation were dispensed with. Today there seems only to exist the exoteric or outer understanding of Christian scripture. These are read literally as historical documents, which has led to a great deal of misunderstanding over the last two millennia.

I suspect the doing away with the various levels was deliberate. I just read in Carrier’s book something fascinating about Plutarch (46 CE – 120 CE). Plutarch lays out the problems with the mysteries HE was affiliated with. The short version goes like this: if novices were exposed to the higher meanings of the faith without the spiritual maturity to understand these allegories, they would see them as ridiculous and abandon the group altogether. So to maintain membership the newcomers were kept in the dark and only introduced to the information in dribs and drabs as they attained higher ranks within the system.

Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Eusebius echo very similar sentiments about the early Church.

The following is for your further consideration.

See video