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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