Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch. 9: “Stupid Galatians and Resurrection of the Flesh”

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by Neil Godfrey

Signorelli, Luca - Resurrection of the Flesh, ...
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Continuing here my reviews of Jesus Potter Harry Christ by Derek Murphy. All reviews are archived here, and on the Jesus Mysteries discussion group.

In this chapter Derek Murphy offers an explanation for how and why the original teachings of Christianity, and Paul in particular, were lost and replaced by the narrative we are familiar with today, that Jesus was a literal flesh and blood historical person. Having begun with a spiritual message, Christianity eventually emerged with a teaching of a physical Jesus and even of a physical resurrection.

Paul’s Mystery Initiations

What Murphy describes as a “Jewish mystery cult” (addressed in the previous chapter) was a two-edged sword.

The Jewish mystery cult, a greater spiritual synthesis than even the mighty and popular Serapis, was immediately successful. It was fueled by both the desires and needs of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and the lust for a greater and more powerful magical name. It also allowed Jews to integrate more fully into their cosmopolitan pagan environment. But there was an inherent and powerful conflict in this new religious practice. Jesus was the anathema of everything the Jews believed in; he was a repugnant, crudely constructed, pagan mystery god dressed up as the Jewish Messiah and appropriating Jewish scripture for his own. (p. 338)

So those who embraced the “mysteries” were faced with practical questions and issues, such as details of law observance, paying taxes, etc. Competing teachers arose.

Murphy probably means us to think of a range of “mystery cults” since there was no one teacher behind them. Paul, he explains, was only one of many. One was probably John the Baptist himself. Tradition informs us that Simon Magus was one of John’s students, and that Simon Magus was a founder of what was known as “Gnostic” Christianity. The later Christian efforts to link Jesus to John the Baptist also testifies to the importance of John.

Paul entered this scene of competing teachers, perhaps being initiated into the mysteries at Damascus. The experiences associated with him there, Murphy suggests, sound something akin to the types of experiences initiates into the mysteries of Eleusis experienced. Murphy sees Paul’s success arising out of his “marketing technique” of presenting himself as the original sceptic-persecutor turned convert in spite of himself, and directing his efforts and distinctive teachings towards non-Jews. Murphy quotes W. H. C. Frend:

Paul transformed the Dispersion. Morality, mysticism, promise of salvation without the Law were what very many of its members wanted to hear.

But Paul had his critics, both from among Jews and other Christians who believed he went too far by his rejection of the necessity of keeping the law as a part of the requirements for salvation. So with Paul we find even more schisms and parallel Christian movements among the early Christians.

Murphy sees the often obscure character of Paul’s letters as indicative that Paul was really saying different things to different people.

This is because not every community was at the same level in the process of initiation. As a mystery religion, Christianity had several layers of meaning that would be divulged slowly when initiates proved their worth. To the beginners, Paul was careful not to reveal too much; the higher teaching would be wasted on them if they weren’t spiritually prepared, and the process could be ruined if rushed. To strengthen their willpower, Paul told them to have faith, to be strict in their habits and diet, and to become masters of their physical bodies. Once members had shown a certain level of spiritual maturity, they would be initiated into the higher mysteries and told that the Christ story was a metaphor for spiritual transformation. (p. 343)

These higher initiates were the “gnostics”. They went beyond the elementary doctrines (Heb. 6) and no longer considered Jesus “in the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16).  Crucifixion was understood metaphorically as mortification of bodily desires, and burial rituals (baptism) were a part of the acting out of this mystery of being “dead in Christ”. The new life in Christ was here and now in the believer, meaning that “resurrection” was not a literal future event.

Murphy suggests the possibility that early rituals may also have included images of crucifixion, and the possibility of another ritual of a Wedding Chamber not unlike what is found in the Gospel of Philip, so that the initiate could symbolically act out being one with the Logos or Christ.

Murphy finds support for this interpretation of Paul through his use of terminology that we know was used of mysteries and magical traditions in Hellenistic and Egyptian rituals (e.g. the formulaic “breadth, length, height and depth”, gifts of power (dynamis) and wisdom (sophia), the function of mirror images, etc).

Ethically, Paul’s teachings resembled those of Stoic philosophy. There was nothing revolutionary on this side of his religion, either.

Missing the Point

Murphy finds evidence of the early church having had two baptism rituals: one for beginner initiates and another for those being ushered into the higher mysteries. This explains the narrative detail in Acts 18:24 where Apollos could preach a basic knowledge of Christ having known “only” the baptism of John, but needed to be taken aside and taught the higher truths by Priscilla and Aquila; and Acts 19 that speaks of two baptisms among believers at Ephesus, one of John and another of the Holy Spirit. Until Paul arrived these disciples had no idea there was any more to the story than what they had known.

It also explains the teaching attributed to John in the Gospels where he says that while he baptizes with water, another would follow him who would baptize with spirit and fire. Coptic texts, partly quoted by Murphy, have left us a detailed record of a baptism of fire. This baptism of the spirit (and fire) was the one that took believers into the “gnostic” mysteries.

Paul clearly distinguishes in his letters between the spiritually mature and spiritual babes, and among three categories of people: the spiritual (pneumatikos), the natural (psychikos) and the fleshly (sarkikos). Only the spiritual, he taught, could understand the mysteries of God, having truly died to the flesh. Paul complained about those at Galatia, however, who had reverted to observing significant dates in the calendar, thus demonstrating that they had failed to understand the full spiritual message. (Pagan mysteries celebrated astrological events, and such events were thought to be related to planets that themselves were associated with various kinds of divinities. Jewish and Christian observances likewise should have lost their meaning for those who were spiritually mature, Paul infers.)

It is interesting that the Pauline letters preserved in the Bible were written to communities Paul was unhappy with; these are the communities that became the modern church. Besides constantly reprimanding them for their selfishness, contentiousness and debauchery, Paul was also frustrated by their inability to understand finer points of the message. . .  (p. 354)

Murphy explains the nature of the different levels of teachings of Paul:

The pattern of Paul’s initiation was to first tell the stories about Jesus as a man, and later expand those teachings into transformative spirituality in which the figure of Jesus Christ as an actual person could be discarded. Initiates at higher levels were told to develop Gnosis and use the Logos as a mirror to transform themselves into Christs. They were also told that laws concerning specific moral conduct were no longer necessary, because the Logos living in them would spontaneously seek out the greater good. (p. 354)

Some Christians found this too difficult to accept, fearing its apparently implicit “lawlessness”. Murphy suggests that these Christians turned away from Paul and preferred to think of Jesus as a real historical person who fulfilled the law, and thereby set an example for them also to keep the law. While Paul had taught that Jesus was the Sophia (Wisdom) in us, and the kingdom of God was also present and available to us, other Christians began to believe in Jesus as a historical person who had recently risen from the dead. Forged letters claiming to be from Paul appeared, teaching differently from what Paul had taught. 2 Thessalonians and the Pastoral letters are widely acknowledged as being penned by another hand. The Pastorals in particular taught a strict moral code and traditional social structure. Where Paul had taught that all were one in Christ, slaves and masters alike, these taught that slaves were required to submit with all reverence to their masters. Truth became a matter of external codes and rules.

The Promise of the Flesh

The more spiritual Gnostics believed in a Jesus Christ that was not restricted to a bodily form (indeed, it was impossible that the Logos could have been tainted by human flesh). Hence, he could continue visiting initiates, in spiritual form, for as long as he liked. Christians who resisted an evolutionary faith needed an authority figure that didn’t come from Gnosis but from history. They were terrified of the Jesus that was just a spirit; he could appear to anyone, at anytime, giving new doctrine. As long as Jesus was only an internal spirit, it was impossible to prove which doctrines were true. Jesus had to have been fully human, in the flesh, so that the church could claim that Jesus had personally taught a precise message that had been directly transmitted to them in an unbroken succession of apostles; something the Gnostics regarded as nonsense. (p 358)

Murphy proposes that the doctrine of the physical resurrection at the end of time was influenced by other mysteries such as those of Serapis that also taught a resurrection of the flesh. To support these views, the story of the historical Jesus was expanded and emphasized, including the narrative of his physical resurrection.

The Gnostic level of understanding, however, continued to stress “reason” and “spiritual” meanings. The idea of a god literally suffering was nonsense to them. Jesus only appeared in human form and was not literally human.

Murphy then leads readers through an overview of the way the second century Church Fathers attempted to defend their inherited anti-Gnostic Christianity. It was largely done through the usual tactics of character assassination and personal insults. In responding to challenges that the resurrection was not a literal physical event, they often responded simply declaring that one needed faith, or by appealing to analogies of seeds being planting and sprouting, failing to point to historical examples of this happening, not even to the resurrection of Jesus himself.

Murphy reasons that reason itself became the enemy to these early anti-Gnostic Christians, since they had no way to refute the arguments of reason advanced by the Gnostics and others, such as the impossibility of God being tarnished with flesh, the absurdity of God speaking to just one people and not to all of humanity, etc. Authority and appeal to scriptures became the weapons of the orthodox.

Scriptures were interpreted allegorically, and stories of Jesus sometimes pivoted around mystical meanings of numbers. This was true of the Gnostics, and there are remnants of these methods in the Gospel stories, too (e.g. the Pythagorean 153 fish caught in the final chapter of the Gospel of John). Murphy expands on this particular example, discussing its meaning in ancient mystery symbolism. He also alerts us to other symbolic practices such as the mystery of the wedding chamber attacked by Hippolytus of Rome. The Gospel of Thomas speaks of the need for a woman to become a man to be saved, but this is another instance  Gnostic mystery meanings are lost without the allegorical key to know how to understand their deeper meaning.

Without access to the allegorical meaning, the scriptures became obtuse and difficult, full of contradictions and confusing parables. Church fathers had to keep their flock away from communities who actually knew how to interpret these symbols, and taught that some of the scripture’s secrets, like the natural world, were meant for only God to know . . . (p. 369)

Thus for the “orthodox”,

Reason began to be viewed as an enemy to the truth, while blind faith in scripture, and a blind eye to anyone teaching different ideas, became the highest virtues . . .

Rather than question why their faith had so many critics, they claimed that God had made the gospel sound foolish as a stumbling block to all but the chosen . . .

This was not faith in God, or in the saving power of Jesus, but only faith in the truth of an historical event. Being “Saved” by Jesus required nothing more than believing that this event had actually happened . . . .  (p. 369-70)


Derek Murphy gives a sweeping overview of one possible scenario of how orthodoxy may have emerged from something that originated as a quite different belief system. I personally still suspect that the processes involved were more complex, probably involving cultic ideas now lost from historical view. I sometimes sense that Murphy is attempting to fit a potentially valid idea into too limited a range of evidence — into the only remaining evidence. (e.g. he uses passages from the first epistle of John to illustrate an author expounding a gnostic-like teaching, and another author expounding an anti-gnostic instruction). Did Paul really teach a physical Jesus to his first contacts? How would those have reacted to hearing him say in his epistle that he had no interest in a Jesus “according to the flesh”?

I think Murphy has an idea that is potentially able to explain lots about the emergence of the Christian myth. The idea is epitomized in the title: myths evolve, are borrowed, adapted, and Murphy has shown that the Christian myths, both gnostic and orthodox, as well as the central Christian myth per se, are clearly related to pre-existing literary and mythical constructs. His arguments about the power of a physical interpretation, and the advantages that would come from embracing this view against the “uncontrolled” spiritual free-for-all, makes a lot of sense to me. We can see evidence of this development even in the canonical Gospels, with the story of the resurrection appearances becoming increasingly detailed in their physicality, presumably in response to Docetic or other (non-physical) views of the risen Jesus. It is harder to explain the appearance of a wide diversity of “spiritual” interpretations arising so quickly in response to a genuine historical event.

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14 thoughts on “Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch. 9: “Stupid Galatians and Resurrection of the Flesh””

  1. It also explains the teaching attributed to John in the Gospels where he says that while he baptizes with water, another would follow him who would baptize with spirit and fire. Coptic texts, partly quoted by Murphy, have left us a detailed record of a baptism of fire. This baptism of the spirit (and fire) was the one that took believers into the “gnostic” mysteries.

    In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Ulysses returned home, found that his wife has been harrassed by a group of suitors, and so he massacred the suitors. Then Ulysses decided to purge the suitors’ pollution that remained in his home. In the process to purify his home, Ulysses ordered his housemaid first to clean the home with hot water and then to use fire to heat sulfter and finally to heat brimstone so that the two smokes would complete the purification. (Odyssey, Chapter 22)

    This ancient Greek, three-part purification process might be the origin of the idea of a baptism of water, followed by a baptism of fire. followed by a baptism of a holy spirit.

  2. I don’t believe the Q explanation of the Synoptic problem. Rather, I believe that Matthew and Luke were written before Mark, which was a compromise summary of the other two gospels.

    I think that the initial purpose of Mark was to serve as the text that would be read to Christian initiates during an initiation rite. The last chapter (Easter morning, etc.) was separate from the main text because the last chapter was read separately in the rite’s separate conclusion.

    One unique element in Mark is an incident during the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gestheme. A soldier grabbed a nearby youth wearing a linen cloth, and the youth slipped out of the cloth and ran away naked. My explanation for this passage is that the initiates, who likewise were dressed only in linen cloths, were told during their own initations that Jesus had been conducting a similar initiation right before he was arrested. The youth who escaped when Jesus was arrested then passed on the secrets of the initiation rite to the following generations of Christians.

    Apparently, this Mark initiaton rite did not last long. I suppose it began after Matthew and Luke were written and at about the time when Mark was written. Maybe the initiation rite ended when the Gnostics were suppressed. I don’t think that the Mark initiation rite was a Gnostic rite, but I speculate that the Mark rite was suppressed because it seemed to be too similar to Gnostic practices that were denounced.

    1. I’m willing to keep an open mind when it comes to the order and process of Synoptic authorship. However, it’s hard to imagine the editing process Mark would have had to use while writing his Gospel. We have to imagine him moving from Matthew to Luke, and back again, stitching his story almost word by word. This practice of micro-conflation seems hard to defend, since we don’t have other examples in the ancient world.

      It’s even harder to imagine the deliberate omission of so many teachings that to us sound like archetypal Jesus sayings, like the Sermon on the Mount or, specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. I have yet to hear a remotely convincing argument that explains why on the one hand Mark would massively expand the story of 2,000 demon-filled pigs running to their doom, but on the other, excise the Beatitudes.

      “Blessed are the… Nah, boring. Blah-blah-blah… Our Father… Nope. Don’t care… Ooooh! What’s this? Possessed pigs? Cool!”

      1. A text for an initiation rite might well emphasize miracle stories at the expense of sermons. An initiation rite is a secretive process that reveals mysteries to a selected few. Jesus’ sermons, parables and sayings were public knowledge. Initiates participating in a secret rite were much more intested in learning details and explanations of supernatural phenomena. Mark is dense with miracles.

        The Q explanation of the Synoptic Problem assumes that the authors of Matthew and Luke moved back and forth between Mark and Q, “stitching their stories almost word by word”.

        1. Mike: “…back and forth between Mark and Q, ‘stitching their stories almost word by word.'”

          Actually, no. They tend to follow either source pericope by pericope or block by block. Micro-conflation is serious problem that any Griesbach adherent needs to address and explain away. Quoting Derrenbacher (in Ancient Compositional Practices and the Synoptic Problem):

          “The most significant problem for the Two-Gospel (Neo-Griesbach) Hypothesis continues to be the picture of Mark as one who ‘micro-conflates’ Matthew and Luke. The imagined procedure is mechanically unworkable and unattested in ancient literature.”

          I don’t dismiss the idea that Mark was initially used as part of, or that its contents arose from, an initiation rite. I also think there are points in the Gospel in which Jesus says some strange things that the original readers understood as mysteries, like the significance of the numbers of people, loaves, and baskets of leftovers at both miraculous feedings. They knew the answer, and it probably had religious import.

          However, I don’t see how we get beyond idle speculation.

          1. They tend to follow either source pericope by pericope or block by block. Micro-conflation is serious problem that any Griesbach adherent needs to address and explain away.

            I don’t see any problem at all. I imagine a small group of people deciding to establish an initiation rite for Christians, similar to the initiation rites of the pagan religions.

            The initiation rite revolves around a drama that over the course of about one day is told and enacted for a small group of young men gathered in a secret location. One of the organizers is assigned to write the drama’s text, so he takes the two current gospels, Matthew and Luke, and assembles some vivid parts from each into one, much shorter text. This drama writer is not obligated to follow any rule that he “follow pericope by pericope, block by block”.

            The main rule that he does follow is that the drama can be told and enacted in a manner that holds the youthful audience’s attention continuously and suspensefully to a climactic, revealing conclusion that explains all the mysteries along the way. The conclusion, revealed in a separate chapter at the very end, was that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, which proved he was God, which explained how he did all those miracles.

            One problem is that this initiation rite was rather lame, because the end was not some special secret that was revealed only to the initiates in a secret manner. In other words, experience showed soon that Christianity did not lend itself to an effective initiation rite, because the supposed “secret” was taught publicly. Nevertheless, the short effort to establish an initiation rite still left The Gospel of Mark as an enduring result.

            1. The only unique information that the participants of this initation rite obtained was the story that Jesus Christ was conducting a similar initation for a youth, who was dressed only in a linen cloth, on the evening when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gesthemene.

            2. This drama writer is not obligated to follow any rule that he “follow pericope by pericope, block by block”.

              But it’s not a matter of any arbitrary rule, it’s a practical constraint on the production of a manuscript using two or more sources. As Tim said, the process the author of Mark would have had to follow to produce the text we have on a conflation hypothesis is not evinced by a single other text from antiquity.

              Furthermore, while in principle it’s possible that a literary relationship can be the result of copying in either direction, the weight of the evidence in the Synoptic problem is for Markan priority because time and again we come upon both omissions that would have been very curious and additions to Luke and Matthew’s versions that cut against all text-critical expectations. The literary cohesiveness, continuity of symbolism and frequent use of structures like chiasm in Mark also argue for it being predominately an original composition.

              In the comments that follow, you seem to be adducing your initiation-rite text idea as actual evidence that Mark is a conflation, but those are two very different issues. The textual relationships are best analyzed by textual criticism, and the uses to which the texts may have been put don’t enter into the considerations of those methods.

              1. Exactly so. It isn’t just the problem of micro-conflation and the problem of extended percopae by themselves. Coming up with a process that explains the two phenomena working in tandem boggles the mind. We have to imagine Mark sitting with quill in hand and scroll on lap, his eye wandering back and forth from Matthew to Luke in zig-zag fashion. Then on top of this bizarre and unprecedented writing process, we must picture Mark adding extra material to every pericope and grouping several stories together into Markan sandwiches.

                This theory turns Mark into a compositional superman. But then we have to explain why this same literary genius started every other sentence with καὶ. We must conclude that he was a literary genius who was so good at his game that he made his gospel appear to be rougher and more primitive, even though it was later and derivative.

      2. I think that Matthew and Luke are compilations of “gospels”, which were a genre in which a fictional, happy-end story is told about the mystical Jesus Christ visiting the Earth as a human-like being. The religion began as a group of mystics who had shared mountain-top visions of Jesus Christ being crucified, buried and then rising from the dead on the Firmament. When James joined the group, there was a termination of validations of such mystical experiences.

        From then on, new members could only hear about the mystical visions of the first members — the new members themselves were not authorized to experience similar mystical visions. This prohibition led to the new practice of creating gospels. This genre was similar to the modern genre of “fan fiction”, in which fans of movies and novels write their own short stories that adorinlgy elaborate on the source’s plot and characters.

        A somewhat common theme in the first gospels was Jesus Christ showing compassion for people who for some reason had not been able to complete the pilgrimage to the top of Mount Hermon to share the mystical experience. Jesus Christ would appear in Bethsaida or somewhere along the road that passed through Bethsaida toward Mount Hermon, and Jesus Christ would encounter some person who was blind or crippled or possessed and therefore had not been able to climb to the top of Mount Hermon. Then Jesus Christ would heal that person’s infirmity and thus also allow the person to experience the missed mystical experience in a lesser, vicarious manner.

        Gospels with this theme served as a consolation for people who joined the religion after James prohibited new members from enjoying the original, mystical experience. The writers of these gospels were themselves like the characters whose infirmities had stranded them along the road through Bethsaida to Mount Hermon.

        Writing these gospels was a hobby of scattered, nerdy but enthusiastic oddballs, who were late-comers to a mystery cult that was stagnating under the domination of aging founders who re-told and re-told and re-told the mystical vision they had experienced long ago. Those oddballs of that time were the same kind of oddballs who write fan fiction now. In other words, a lot of energetic writing was going on in a communal manner for a long time, but practically nobody in ordinary society was paying any attention to it.

        Eventually these gospels became less fanciful and amusing and more realistic and profound, and eventually the best gospels were assembled into several compilations. Further, the various compilations were ultimately compiled by Matthew and Luke into long, sustained, coherent, didactic narratives that could be believed to be histories of real people and events.

        Mark was a disassembly — a short picking of some vivid stories from both Matthew and Luke — just enough to be heard and absorbed during an initiation rite that lasted only a day or two. This initiation practice lasted for only a few years, but it left the Gospel of Mark as an enduring text.

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