This article, which discusses the Mystery School origins of Christianity, comes from my new memoir, The Electric Jesus: The Healing Journey of a Contemporary Gnostic through Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books.
In December 1945, during the tail end of the most devastating war in human history, a peasant named Mohammed Ali of the al-Samman clan stumbled upon an earthenware jar near limestone caves in the deserts of Upper Egypt. He feared an evil djin (genie) resided inside, but hoping for lost riches, he still opened the jar. To his disappointment, twelve ragged leather-bound codices fell onto the ground. He didn’t realize these 1,200 weathered pages contained a priceless treasure with dozens of lost Christian gospels that had been hidden away for 1,600 years. Mohammed carried them home to his mother, who kept warm throughout the night by feeding pages of what we now call The Nag Hammadi Library to her fireplace.
These fifty-two texts, with titles like The Gospel of Thomas, Secret James, The Gospel of Mary, The Origin of the World, The Gospel of Philip, Secret John, and The Sophia of Jesus, showed that first-through-fourth century Christianity was much more varied than previously thought, comprised of diverse sects claiming “secret knowledge” of heavenly realms. Modern scholars now label these texts as “Gnostic,” since they lay out an initiatory process for candidates to overcome the “forgetfulness,” “drunkenness,” “blindness,” and “sleep” of the illusory world in order to access gnosis, direct experience or personal revelation of a divine reality.
The Nag Hammadi Library supported the popular theory that Christianity stemmed from the ancient mystery school traditions of the Mediterranean, which featured “dying and resurrecting godmen.” In Egypt they worshiped Horus; in Greece, Dionysus; in Syria, Adonis; in Asia Minor, Attis; in Persia (and later Rome), Mithras; and in Israel, Jesus (historically the most recent). The similarities among these hierophants were uncanny. Several of them, according to the legends, were born on December 25 around the winter solstice to a virgin in humble surroundings (a cave or a manger) with a star in the Eastern sky. Some grew up to be spiritual masters with twelve disciples (Horus, Mithras, Jesus), performing miracles, giving baptisms and communions. They all died (Dionysus dismembered by Titans, Attis and Adonis eaten by wild boars, and Horus, Mithras, and Jesus crucified) before experiencing a miraculous resurrection.
In The Jesus Mysteries, authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy discuss how the Vatican sits atop a destroyed Mithraic Temple. “Where today the gathered faithful revere their Lord Jesus Christ, the ancients worshiped another godman who, like Jesus, had been miraculously born on December 25 before three shepherds. In this ancient sanctuary Pagan congregations once glorified a Pagan redeemer who, like Jesus, was said to have ascended to heaven and to have promised to come again at the end of time to judge the quick and the dead. On the same spot where the Pope celebrates the Catholic mass, Pagan priests also celebrated a symbolic meal of bread and wine in memory of their savor who, just like Jesus had declared: ‘He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.”1
Freke and Gandy argue adamantly that there never was a historical Jesus who walked the sands of Israel, but rather he is a composite of the earlier godmen. But perhaps that’s too hard of a line to draw, since mythical figures are often based on real people — think of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, for example.
According to Freke and Gandy, a number of the Mystery school godmen were called the “Son of God,” and some the “Sun of God.” The word “horizon” comes from “Horus-Sun,” meaning sunrise. As the Egyptian God of daytime, Horus battled his jackal-headed enemy Set (“Sun-Set”), the bringer of night, in a cosmic battle of light and dark. Jesus played a similar role as Horus being “the light of the world” surrounded by twelve disciples who represented the twelve months of the year, and the twelve signs of the zodiac. The sun enters each zodiac sign at thirty degrees (30 x 12 = 360); thus, these “Suns of God” embarked on their ministry at the age of thirty. The classic zodiac cross bisects the twelve astrological signs within a circle. The sun hangs “crucified” in the center as it passes through the precession of the equinoxes, something the mystery schools followed closely as each new sign marked the next world age.
Given the astrological significance of the cross, wisdom traditions often depicted the crucifixion in their writing and art. A notorious second-to-third century European talisman reveals a human figure that looks like Jesus on the cross (with a crescent moon and seven stars above him), but the inscription reads “Orpheus becomes a Bacchoi.” Orpheus was a prophet in the Dionysian mysteries and Bacchio refers to an enlightened disciple who had undergone the final stages of initiation. Around the same time as the talisman had been crafted, a Roman graffiti artist sketched on a pillar the image of a crucified donkey, which symbolized the initiates’ death to their animalistic nature and ascension to the higher Self. The first portrayal of Jesus on a cross wouldn’t appear until 200 years later.
Rather than rejoicing in their similarities, “literalist” Christian leaders — those who had not experienced the secret gnosis (direct knowledge) of the highest mysteries — created dams and divisions between the diverse spiritual streams that originally flowed from the same mystical source. As Freke and Gandy explain, the parallels between Mithras and Jesus threatened the emerging “Literalist Church.” Roman bishops such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Irenaeus made the ridiculous claim that the devil had engaged in “diabolical mimicry,” “plagiarizing by anticipation” the story of Jesus before it had actually happened in order to mislead the weak-minded.
The Golden Bough’s James Frazier noted a similar contention between Attis, the mystery god from Asia Minor, and Jesus. “In point of fact it appears from the testimony of an anonymous Christian, who wrote in the fourth century of our era, that Christians and pagans alike were struck by the remarkable coincidence between the death and resurrection of their respective deities, and that the coincidence formed a theme of bitter controversy between the adherents of the rival religions, the pagans contending that the resurrection of Christ was a spurious imitation of the resurrection of Attis, and the Christians asserting with equal warmth that the resurrection of Attis was a diabolical counterfeit of Christ.”2
Literalist Christians refused to accept that the rites of the mystery schools form the central narrative of The New Testament. But the similarities are too plentiful to ignore. Jesus encounters a baptism (spiritual cleansing), a eucharist (communion), an anointing (“Christ” means “the anointed one”) and the death and resurrection ritual. These mystical rites provided a rare alchemical education, unifying spiritual energies (pneuma, as the early Christians called it) for candidates. In the words of The Gospel of Philip, one of the so-called Gnostic texts, “The Lord did everything in a mystery, a baptism and a chrism, and a eucharist and a redemption and a bridal chamber. […] he said, ‘I came to make the things below like the things above, and the things outside like the things inside. I came to unite them in the place.”
The word “mystery” appears twenty-seven times in The New Testament with Paul telling fellow Christians, “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of God.” Jesus speaks of clandestine teachings for those in the inner circles when he says to his disciples, “You have been given the secret of God’s imperial rule; but to those outside everything is presented in parables.” (Mathew 4:11)
As an energy healer, I found myself especially drawn to how early Christians utilized pneuma for personal transformation. Jesus baptizes with “fire and spirit,” heals with “power,” and transmits wisdom to his disciples through the “bubbling spring” drawn from a higher source. The purpose of these schools was to create Pneumatics, people full of spiritual energy. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus announces to his disciples, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.”
Even common Christian terms revealed clues to this ancient transformational process. I studied the original Greek word for “sin,” Harmatia, which turned out to be an archery term meaning “missing the mark.” It lacked the guilt and shame pastors used to control their flocks and simply indicated when seekers strayed from their path and needed to get back on course. Similarly, the Hebrew word Satan (“adversary”) highlighted the ego/personality attachment the soul needed to overcome in order to reach higher states of consciousness.
Repent (metanoia) meant to “change one’s mind” or “have a shift in consciousness,” which can occur when absorbing higher frequencies from someone closely connected to source-energy, like Jesus. Most surprisingly, Christ was not our Lord and “savior” but rather our “soter,” meaning “healer,” “bestower of health,” or “one who makes whole.” Staying connected to universal spirit, Jesus travels through the rift of separation consciousness to heal us and bring us back to our celestial home. “I am the one who comes from what is whole” (Gospel of Thomas). When we finally release our attachments to the material realm, we become “redeemed” (apolytrosis), meaning “released.”
Of course, I couldn’t help wonder what happened to the original meanings of these words, as well as the numerous Gnostic churches that had proliferated in the Middle East. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Second Temple in 70 AD, after the Jewish revolt, they left one-third of the population dead, and the Christian mysteries fractured into pieces. Members joined the mass exodus out of the country. Those who hadn’t been exposed to the inner mysteries started up literalist churches. The remaining Gnostics called these rigid sects “imitation churches” as they did not teach the secret gnosis of “the Christ within.”
According to the Apocalypse of Peter, literalist church fathers were “waterless canals” bereft of consciousness-expanding pneuma who arrogantly claimed to be the sole gatekeepers of heaven. “Some who do not understand mystery speak of things which they do not understand, but they will boast that the mystery of truth is theirs alone.” These “empty” churches sprouted up across the Roman Empire. In a sad touch of historical irony, their leaders, like the infamous Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, became heretic hunters attacking those who still carried the inner teachings of their religion. “We were hated and persecuted, not only by those who are ignorant, but also by those who think they are advancing the name of Christ, since they were unknowingly empty, not knowing who they are.” (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth).
As the number of Christians multiplied in Roman lands, power-hungry Constantine switched the state religion to co-opt this growing movement, uniting Rome under “one God, one religion,” and incidentally, one emperor. In 325 he oversaw the Council of Nicaea, where church fathers reduced the vast library of Christian written knowledge to a few documents that we now call The New Testament.
In 391 Emperor Theodosius passed an edict to close all “pagan” temples and burn their books. Christian hordes set out on murderous rampages across the empire smashing all traces of the mystery traditions from which their own religion had blossomed. They killed off the last of the Gnostic circles, including their libraries, churches, scrolls, and most importantly, the flame of gnosis that had been carefully passed down throughout the ages. By 410 AD, the Roman Empire had nearly torn itself apart and the Visigoths strolled in to finish the job. Only 85 years after the Council of Nicaea, the Dark Ages had begun.
While poring over the lost Gnostic texts of The Nag Hammadi Library, I was surprised how many of them focused on reframing the Garden of Eden story. These tales, like The Secret Book of John, explained the human origin story quite differently than Genesis. They described a complicated cosmology that began with a single being (or parent), who was ineffable, eternal, immeasurable light, and created an image or reflection of itself, Barbelo, which in turn begot a multitude of heavenly planes (aeons) that were part of a wider divine realm (the pleroma).
Christ was not just a man but a distinct aeon or larger divine being in the pleroma. Those who fully realized the mysteries became one with “Christ,” carrying this high vibrational force inside themselves. Bedazzled by the cosmic palace, Sophia, the aeon of wisdom, created her own world without consent from the über-parent or her male counterpart. This experiment went awry and Sophia separated from the pleroma, creating a sinister Frankenstein ruler called the Demiurge (craftsman or maker), who manufactured our “counterfeit” material world.
This was The Old Testament God, who Gnostics called Yaldabaoth, Samael (God of the blind), and Saklas (a fool), as he believed himself to be the only god in the universe, ignorant of the pleroma and the omnipresent light of the parent. Breathing life into Adam (and unknowingly the divine spirit of Sophia), the Demiurge ruled over humans with his demonic bully-friends, the archons. The angelic realms of the pleroma embarked on a rescue mission for both Sophia and Adam and Eve. Like an undercover agent, Jesus snuck behind enemy lines into the Garden, inviting the first humans to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (“the Epinoia of pure light”) to “awaken them out of the depth of sleep” and their “fallen state.”
The Gnostic’s description of archons immediately intrigued an activist side in me. These devilish autocrats seemed representative of the oppressive empires that dominated Western history books. Today’s Halliburtons and Bechtels, Neo-cons and Exxons, seemed to follow a long shadowy lineage of hierarchical powers profiting from human suffering while expanding their empires. Maybe the Gnostics understood that we needed mystical agents of transformation smuggling in celestial light to liberate lost souls on the planet.
And the Christ story seemed to be the perfect place to help free us from worldly bondage. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that millions of people living today have been wounded or mislead by literalist Christianity, robbed of their own divine spark. For more than a millennia, the Judeo-Christian tradition has supplied the underlying operating platform for our whole society — our languages, laws, mores, work ethic, sexuality, even our way of perceiving time (with the Gregorian calendar) — shaping our worldview, whether we realize it or not.
Integrating this tradition could prove a powerful tool in coming to terms with ourselves, and our history. And that doesn’t necessarily mean plodding through obscure Gnostic texts, making sense of strange Demiurge names. The mysteries lay right there in The New Testament for those with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” But we need an upgrade of the Protestant Revolution, one that incorporates the gnosis of Christ-consciousness. Imagine already established churches, the ones on your block, enhancing their services with meditation, prayer, breathwork, energy healing, body movement, possibly even late night dancing, and among the more radicalized churches, the ingesting of psychoactive sacraments in a safe and protected space. Why build entirely new systems for connecting us to pneuma when the institutions have already been created, whether Methodist, Lutheran, or Baptist? But these “waterless” religions would have to give up their addiction to dominating worshipers, address the evolution of the spirit, and infuse the essence of the mysteries into their hollow edifices.
Many of the popular Eastern disciplines of today have us turning away from the world around us, meditating on our navel. But Christ wasn’t only a yogi; he was a mystical activist, carrying his message to those who most needed it. In this time of great transition, our ailing planet needs spiritual warriors, ones capable of standing up to the Western materialist machine, so we can create sustainable societies that care for their citizens, harmonize with the cycles of nature, and receive and honor the vast healing light that quietly connects us all.
1. Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 1.
2. Sir James George Frazier, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan, 1992), chapter 37.