It is remarkable what happens when you abandon your preconceptions about Christianity – hard though that might be, if, like us, you were brought up as a churchgoer – and approach the subject as objectively as possible.
When we began our latest book, The Masks of Christ: Behind the Lies and Cover-ups About the Man Believed to be God, we thought we had already reached certain conclusions in our 1997 The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ (which Dan Brown acknowledges as a major inspiration for The Da Vinci Code). But as our research progressed we became enthralled – perhaps even a little shocked – by what we were faced with, but which only served to reinforce and clarify our previous conclusions.
We begin with a great mystery.
The Great Debate
Of the many puzzles surrounding Jesus, perhaps the most fundamental is the clash between the Jewish and pagan elements in his mission.
Certain New Testament passages are unequivocally hardcore Jewish nationalist, such as Jesus’ claim to the title of Messiah, a role which (despite Christians’ later redefinition) only makes sense in Jewish terms. The Messiah – ‘Anointed’, in Greek ‘Christos’ – was to be the great deliverer, who would reassemble and lead the twelve tribes of Israel in kicking out the Romans, before finally fulfilling God’s promise to extend their rule to all other nations.
Of course, Jesus conspicuously failed to fulfil that role. From the Jews’ perspective he achieved the exact opposite, spawning a religion that, in his name, subjected them to centuries of subjugation. That is why his besotted early followers changed the whole emphasis of ‘Messiah’, with Paul initiating the new spin with the notion that has underpinned Christianity ever since: instead of being a hard-nosed Jewish military leader, the new Messiah was a god-man whose redeeming death and resurrection offered eternal life to all who accepted him, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.
Yet the gospel writers still ensured Jesus was associated with the old prophecies of the Messiah, such as entering Jerusalem on a donkey, which was an unequivocal declaration of Messiahship.
Even though by the time of the gospels the Christian movement had adopted Paul’s doctrine that the message was for all mankind, clearly the internal evidence shows that Jesus himself intended to confine the ‘Good News’ to the people of Israel. We see this in the tale of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark’s Gospel, where at first he refuses to heal her possessed daughter because she is not one of the chosen people – even calling her ‘dog’, the racist term used by Jews of Gentiles – only changing his mind when she implicitly acknowledges his God’s superiority. As several scholars admit, since this contradicts the gospel writer’s own position, it must be authentic.
Jesus the Pagan
On the other hand, some Biblical passages are hard to equate with Judaism, especially those about Jesus’ more private rituals, most obviously the Eucharist, the symbolic eating of his ‘body’ as bread and drinking of his ‘blood’ as wine that he supposedly established at the Last Supper. Such a rite, even symbolically, was unthinkable for a Jew, for whom ingesting human blood was an abomination. In fact, it resonates much more neatly with the mystery cults of the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, where gods were symbolically devoured to forge a spiritual communion between the cult member and the deity. Importing such practices into Judaism would have been regarded by the mainstream as blasphemous.
Evidence has also accumulated over the last few decades that Jesus modelled his cures and exorcisms on pagan magicians’, primarily from Egypt, echoing – or perhaps confirming – early Jewish claims that he had been schooled in sorcery in Egypt. And if the suppressed ‘Gnostic Gospels’ are accepted as genuinely representing certain sides of Jesus’ beliefs and teaching – as we do – then they, too, show a thinking not obviously associated with the Judaism of his day, especially where the spirituality of the feminine is concerned, as exemplified in his relationship with Mary Magdalene.
The majority of New Testament scholars simply reject the non-Jewish parts of the gospels as inauthentic, arguing that the Eucharist was invented by the apostles of the new religion – Paul again! – to make it more Gentile-friendly, something familiar from the sects that celebrated dying-and-rising saviour gods who incarnated as a mortal man. The academics assume that this was borrowed from one of many such cults, perhaps that of Mithras or Dionysus, and was applied to the meal that Jesus’ first followers held purely in memory of him (with no mystical connotations).
But in fact, there is no reason to reject these passages except the impossibility of fitting them into a Jewish context. The logic is that, since we know that Jesus was Jewish, and no Jew could possible have entertained such practices, then he couldn’t have done so, and therefore they must be later inventions.
However, the evidence simply isn’t there. It is hard to imagine later followers inventing Jesus using pagan magic in such detail – even down to specific phrases found in earlier Greco-Egyptian magical papyri. And the internal evidence of the New Testament itself points to the Eucharist being one of the earliest Christian practices, going back to Jesus himself. It is the one element that appears virtually identically in all four gospels and Paul’s Letters. (It is generally agreed that Paul’s Letters predate the gospels, although we would argue that Mark’s Gospel might be contemporary with some of Paul’s writings.)
Even odder, as Paul clearly struggled to fit the Eucharist into his ‘revealed’ version of Jesus’ mission, evidently he would even have been happier to ignore the rite entirely, but it was already too well established. His solution was to transmute the rite into a memorial, specifically to dodge the ‘communion’ aspect. So ironically the evidence points to the exact reverse of the conventional position – instead of Paul adding the ‘mystical communion’ element, he tried to get rid of it!
Part of the Christian process of redefining the meaning of the ritual meal was linking it to the Last Supper the night before his crucifixion. However, the evidence of John’s Gospel is that Jesus actually instituted the rite earlier, when he was preaching in Galilee – which led to a mass desertion of disciples appalled by his injunction that they must drink his blood.
It must be stressed that such practices are not merely difficult to reconcile with Judaism – as a would-be Messiah had to be – but impossible. They are totally incompatible.
So, as some scholars are now beginning to argue, could the Jewish parts be the invention? But that solution doesn’t work either, since it means rejecting passages that are strongly evidential – such as the episode of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the entry into Jerusalem.
So we hit an impasse. According to accepted thinking, Jesus could never have been both a Jewish leader and a proponent of mystery school rites. Is there any possible solution?
Enter the Magus
One potential way forward, we realised – with some astonishment – lay in exploring the parallel between Jesus and that flamboyant scriptural bad boy to end bad boys, Jesus’ hugely unconventional contemporary, Simon Magus, whose very name underlines his apparently pagan credentials, ‘Magus’ meaning ‘occultist’ or ‘magician’.
The earliest reference to Simon Magus (or Simon of Gitta, after the town of his birth in Samaria) comes in the Acts of the Apostles, the continuation of Luke’s Gospel that takes the story on after Jesus’ crucifixion. After the first persecution of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem that began with the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, some of Jesus’ disciples, led by Philip, fled to Samaria. This was within, at most, ten years of the crucifixion – probably less. Here they find that many Samaritans follow Simon Magus, regarded as the ‘Great Power’ sent by God. Philip not only successfully converts Simon’s followers to Christianity, but also the Magus himself. Some time later Peter and the disciple John go to Samaria to take the Holy Spirit to the community established by Philip, and Simon Magus reveals his true colours by offering them money for the secret of the Holy Spirit, earning a stern condemnation from Peter.
Clearly, as the Simonites found it so easy to switch their allegiance there must have been a marked similarity between the messages of Jesus and the Magus. And Simon himself was, albeit briefly, once a member of the Christian community in Samaria. Although Acts attributes his success there to sorcery, as we now know Jesus himself indulged in pagan magic, so this points up a similarity between them.
Although Acts’ story ends with Simon asking forgiveness, other early Christian sources show he went on to challenge the fledgling Jesus movement, appearing in the writings of the Church Fathers as the ‘first heretic’ who attempted to lead the early Christians astray. Again, the term suggests a basic similarity between Simon and Jesus – heresy being a variation of a religion.
A major source is the related texts known as the Clementina or the Pseudo-Clementine Literature. Written around 150 CE but drawing on earlier material, it describes the struggle between Peter and Simon Magus for the hearts, minds and souls of the Samaritans.
It is crystal clear that the Church Fathers’ big problem was that Simon Magus was far, far too similar to Jesus, performing miracles and healings – even being regarded as an incarnate god. The early Christians were anxious to point out to their flock that, although Simon appeared to be cut from the same cloth as Jesus, this was a ploy by the Devil to sow confusion. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote that Simon “worked under the cloak of Christ” and even hinted that he claimed to be Jesus resurrected. Hyppolytus of Rome said bluntly: “He was not the Christ.” But do they protest too much?
The Magus, too, promoted a seemingly peculiar blend of Jewish and pagan ideas. The Clementina makes the apparently extraordinary statement that, while he taught that there were “many gods,” he was citing the books of Moses (i.e. the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament). This seemed so weird that the Clementina was dismissed as nonsense – but in 1842 a work of Hippolytus was discovered in which he had included (in order to point out the errors) large extracts from Simon’s own treatise, the ‘Great Revelation’, whose one-time existence was known but which was believed to have been lost.
The ‘Great Revelation’ reveals an elevation of the sacred feminine and an emphasis on sexual mysticism that fit awkwardly with the patriarchal character of Judaism, and which caused much outrage among the Church Fathers, to whom Simon’s rituals were obscene and disgusting. Notoriously, he is said to have travelled with one Helen, a former prostitute from Tyre – described as a black woman who danced in chains, and who he claimed was the incarnation of God’s ‘First Thought’, the female power through whom God had created the material world. (Of course there are intriguing parallels between the relationships of Simon and Helen, and Jesus and Mary Magdalene as portrayed in the Gnostic Gospels.)
An even more extraordinary link between Simon and Jesus is that, again according to the Clementina, the two men shared the same teacher: John the Baptist. Indeed, it states that it was Simon Magus, not Jesus, who John chose as his successor.
But what does all this have to tell us about the historical Jesus?
The big clue comes from the fact that Simon Magus was a Samaritan, one of those who, despite an ethnic kinship with the Jews, were detested by them – a feeling that was decidedly mutual.
On the subject of Jesus and Samaria, the gospel writers appear to differ awkwardly. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus is depicted as shunning the land and its people (with some exceptions, notably the parable of the Good Samaritan). On the other hand, John’s Gospel has him extending his mission into Samaria.
There is, in fact, strong evidence that the enigmatic Gospel of John was originally written for an early Samaritan Christian community, which would explain its positive view of the Samaritans. For example, it describes the first person to whom Jesus chooses to reveal his Messiahship as the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well in the heart of Samaria, and the first to recognise him as the Messiah are Samaritans. We suggest it was written for Samaritan converts from Simon Magus’ following – after all, some of the gospel’s unique stories, particularly those with an unexpected sexual subtext, seem to have been specifically included (or contrived) to subvert Simon’s teaching.
The key figure of John the Baptist was also active in Samaria. According to John’s Gospel, one of his centres was Aenon (modern Ainûn), in Samaria.
So, Jesus and John the Baptist both took their missions into Samaria – another parallel with Simon Magus. But what is it about that land that explains the Jewish/pagan paradox of both Jesus’ and Simon’s teachings?
The key lies in the reason for the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, which had its roots in the earliest days of Israel. The Samaritans were descended from the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh, and still inhabited their lands, between Judea and Galilee. Originally, Ephraim was predominant: Moses’ successor and the conqueror of the Promised Land, Joshua, was from Ephraim and the tribe was given the honour of being custodians of the Ark of the Covenant in its sanctuary at Shiloh. Some historians and archaeologists believe that Ephraim and Manesseh were two of only three tribes (the other being Benjamin) that came out of Egypt, the others being native Canaanites who were converted to the religion of Moses. And intriguingly, legend linked them with the Egyptian religion of Heliopolis, since their progenitors, Ephraim and Manesseh, were sons of Joseph and Asenath, the daughter of the high priest of Heliopolis.
After the creation of the kingdom of Israel a power struggle developed between the tribes of Ephraim and Judah. King David usurped Ephraim’s status by taking the Ark to Jerusalem, the new religious centre in Judah’s territory. After Solomon, the kingdom split in two, Ephraim heading the ten tribes of the larger Kingdom of Israel in the north, with the smaller Kingdom of Judah (which gave its name to the Jewish people and religion) in the south. A new sanctuary and temple, a rival to Jerusalem, was built in Ephraim’s land on Mount Gerizim.
Although larger and more powerful, the northern kingdom collapsed when it was invaded by the Assyrian empire in the eighth century BCE. The Jews later claimed that the Assyrian influence corrupted the religion of the north, a taunt that was returned when Judah underwent its own trauma of invasion and mass deportation in the Babylonian Captivity two centuries later. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem after their seventy-year exile, they set about codifying and reforming their religion, incorporating concepts from that of Babylon. So both the Jews and the Samaritans believed that only they practised the ‘pure’ religion of Moses, and that the other’s version was heretical. Victors’ history decided that the Jews won, but the Samaritans could have been right…
The rivalry reached a climax when, about two centuries before Jesus, the Jews conquered Samaria and destroyed their temple – yet another reason for Samaritan resentment. It was only with the advent of Roman rule that Samaria was freed from Jewish subjugation.
Not unnaturally, by Jesus’ day, the Jews and Samaritans detested each other. The hostility even affected their respective end times speculations: all the prophecies foresaw a re-gathering of the twelve tribes – one of the functions of the Messiah – and a reconciliation of Judah and Ephraim, but opinions differed over which tribe would come out on top. Naturally, the Jews thought it would be them. Moreover, their deeply-ingrained prejudice made the idea of bringing the Samaritans back into the fold deeply distasteful. Meanwhile, the Samaritans believed in a coming saviour, the Taheb (‘Restorer’ or ‘Returner’), who would reassemble the tribes under the authority of Ephraim, restoring the situation that had existed at the very beginning of Israelite history. And part of the Taheb’s function was to overthrow Judah. (The Samaritan woman would therefore have recognised Jesus as the Taheb.)
Many scholars and archaeologists have shown that the Israelites’ original religion was far from the monotheistic and patriarchal institution it was to become, and that it owed much to either, or both, the native, pagan religions of Canaan and Egypt. The classic study is Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess (1967, revised 1990), which argued that, before the split after Solomon’s reign, the Israelites had worshipped a goddess, Asherah, alongside Yahweh, revealing both polytheism and an awareness of the sacred feminine. (Images of cherubim excavated from ninth-century Israel are almost identical to Egyptian depictions of the winged Isis.) Patai also showed that early Israelite tradition incorporated a female figure which manifested God’s power of creation.
And as we know, all of these are characteristics of the teaching of the Samaritan Simon Magus – which makes sense if, as the Samaritans claimed, they really did preserve the original form of the Israelite religion.
But we believe it would also resolve the basic contradiction about how Jesus’ career could incorporate ‘Jewish’ and pagan elements. If, instead of ‘Jewish’ we think in terms of the ‘people of Israel’ – i.e. the original religion and tribes – then much about his mission falls into place.
The Samaritan connection also offers an explanation of the origin of the Eucharist. One of the texts that might include a possible Jewish precursor to the Christian Eucharist is the late BCE or early CE ‘The Book of Joseph and Asenath’. Normally described as a product of the Jewish community in Egypt, it includes a ritual involving the eating of bread and the drinking of wine – the nearest ceremony to the Eucharist in any Jewish source, and, although the key element of equating the bread and wine with body and blood is absent, some have suggested that it may have influenced either Jesus’ rite or the practices of the first Christians, who added the communion element.
However, as ‘The Book of Joseph and Asenath’ describes the Biblical tale of the union of the patriarch Joseph and the daughter of the Egyptian high priest of Heliopolis, it was clearly written by or for a community to which their marriage was particularly important. As the sons of Joseph and Asenath were Ephraim and Manesseh, the legendary ancestors of the Samaritans – and there was a large Samaritan community in Egypt – it seems the text is Samaritan and not Jewish.
So in the Samaritan connection we find clues to the apparent discrepancy between the Jewishness and paganism found in Jesus’ teachings. And it was against the background of age-old simmering tribal hatred that the extraordinary character of Simon Magus – the ‘bad’ Samaritan – arose, challenging the cult of Jesus with his miracles and claims of divinity.
It is all too easy to accept the rather garbled version of his later life as given by the early Church fathers, in which he is tamed by the apostles and dies in a magical battle with Saint Peter. Yet this is the man who it seems John the Baptist nominated as his official successor – and not Jesus… But that, as they say, is another story…
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