So I just read a post by April DeConick where she’s ruminating about the progress on her latest book. In it (it’s a very short post), she writes:
I really find in the fabric of that text [John’s Gospel] Gnostic spirituality merging with Jewish scriptures and nascent Christianity. It is not just later Gnostic interpretation imposed on an orthodox gospel. It is there in the soul of the Gospel.
My next chapter is on Paul… I remember as a young woman really disliking Paul. What I didn’t know then is that what I disliked was not Paul but Luther’s Paul. That is when I discovered Paul the mystic. I read Albert Schweitzer’s book and then Alan Segal’s book, both on Paul the mystic. Suddenly Paul made sense to me. But he wasn’t anyone that contemporary Christians could relate to. What he was saying was way out there. Undomesticated. Wild. He was a visionary who realized union with Christ whom he saw as the manifestation of God. He developed rituals that helped democratize this experience so that all converts could similarly be united.
Of course as I am thinking about Paul the mystic, I am also wondering about Paul the Gnostic. Have we worked so hard over the centuries to domesticate Paul that we have lost touch with his Gnostic aspects too, like with the Fourth Gospel?
That got me to remembering something I thought about a long time ago, but never had any evidence for, other than in a general sense. Mystery religions in antiquity, (of which Christianity was a part of), had public stories and then private stories. Think about Scientology: They have the public story they sell on the streets with their e-meters and Dianetics books but then they have the private story they tell about Xenu and his nuking of humans in volcanoes millions of years ago. The same dichotomy was happening in antiquity. Richard Carrier gives an example with the cult of Osiris:
In fact, Plutarch attests that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life (literally: he uses the words anabiôsis and paliggenesis, which are very specific on this point, see my discussion in The Empty Tomb, pp. 154-55), and that in the public myths he did indeed return to earth in his resurrected body (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 19.358b).
Although Plutarch does say that in the private teachings Osiris’ death and resurrection took place in outer space (below the orbit of the moon), after which he ascended back to the heights of heaven in his new body (not “the underworld,” as Ehrman incorrectly claims on p. 228), that is irrelevant to the mythicist’s case (or rather, it supports it, by analogy, since this is exactly what competent mythicists like Doherty say was the case for Jesus: public accounts putting the events on earth, but private “true” accounts placing it all in various levels of outer space: see my Review of Doherty). In fact the earliest Christians also believed Jesus was resurrected into outer space: he, like Osiris, ascended to heaven in his resurrection body, appearing to those below in visions, not in person (see my survey of the evidence in The Empty Tomb, pp. 105-232; the same is true of many other dying-and-rising gods, like Hercules). The notion of a risen Jesus walking around on earth is a late invention (first found in the Gospels).
That these kinds of beliefs about Osiris’ death and resurrection long predate Plutarch is established in mainstream scholarship on the cult: e.g. S.G.F. Brandon, The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation (Greenwood 1963), pp. 17-36 and John Griffiths, The Origins of Osiris and His Cult, 2nd ed. (Brill 1980). But we hardly need point that out, because there is already zero chance that the entirety of Isis-Osiris cult had completely transformed its doctrines in imitation of Christianity already by 100 A.D. (I shouldn’t have to explain why such a claim would be all manner of stupid). Ehrman’s claim that Plutarch is making all this up because he is Platonist is likewise nonsense. Ehrman evidently didn’t check the fact that Plutarch’s essay is written to a ranking priestess of the cult, and Plutarch repeatedly says she already knows the things he is conveying and will not find any of it surprising.
It should be that Christianity shares that same pattern. You can see this a little bit in Paul, e.g. 1 Cor 3.1-3. My thought was that the gospel of Mark is the “public” story and the gospel of John (and Paul himself) are part of the tradition of the “private” story. Eventually the public story gained social currency and overshadowed the private story, and the private story fell to the Gnostics to maintain. Of course, there’s no evidence of this, so it will have to remain in the realm of speculation.