Christianity as Mystical Fact
VII. The Gospels
The accounts of the life of Jesus that can be submitted to historical examination are contained in the Gospels. All that does not come from this source might, in the opinion of one of those who are considered the greatest historical authorities on the subject (Harnack), be “easily written on a quarto page.”
But what kind of documents are these Gospels? The fourth, that of St. John, differs so much from the others that those who think themselves obliged to follow the path of historical research in order to study the subject come to the conclusion: “If John possesses the genuine tradition about the life of Jesus, that of the first three Evangelists (the Synoptists) is untenable. If the Synoptists are right, the Fourth Gospel must be Tejected as a historical source”. 1Otto Schmiedel, Die Hauptprobleme der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, (The Main Problems of Research into the Life of Jesus), p. 15. This is a statement made from the standpoint of historical research.
In the present work, in which we are dealing with the mystical contents of the Gospels, such a point of view is to be neither accepted nor rejected. But attention must certainly be drawn to such an opinion as the following: “Measured by the standard of agreement, inspiration, and completeness, these writings leave very much to be desired; and even measured by the ordinary human standard they suffer from not a few imperfections.” This is the opinion of a Christian theologian. 2Harnack, Wesen des Christentums, (The Essential Nature of Christianity).
One who takes his stand on a mystical origin of the Gospels easily finds an explanation of what is apparently contradictory, and also discovers harmony between the fourth Gospel and the three others. For none of these writings are meant to be mere historical tradition in the ordinary sense of the word. They do not profess to give a historical biography (cf. p. 113 et seq.). What they intended to give had always existed as a prototype in the traditions of the Mysteries, as the typical life of a Son of God. It was these traditions which were drawn upon, not history. Now, it was only natural that these traditions should not be in complete verbal agreement in every Mystery center. Still, the agreement was so close that the Buddhists narrated the life of their God-Man almost in the same way in which the Evangelists narrated the life of Christ. But naturally there were differences. We have only to assume that the four Evangelists drew from four different Mystery traditions. It testifies to the exalted personality of Jesus that in four writers, belonging to different traditions, he awakened the belief that he was one who so perfectly corresponded with their type of an initiate that they were able to describe him as one who lived the typical life marked out in their Mysteries. For the rest they each described his life according to their own mystic traditions. And if the narratives of the first three Evangelists resemble each other, it proves nothing more than that they drew from similar Mystery traditions. The fourth Evangelist saturated his Gospel with ideas reminiscent of the religious philosopher Philo (cf. p. 68). This only proves that he was rooted in the same mystic tradition as Philo.
There are various elements in the Gospels. First: facts are related that seem to lay claim to historicity; Second: there are parables in which the narrative form is used only to symbolize a deeper truth. And third: there are teachings characteristic of the Christian conception of life. In St. John’s Gospel there is contained no actual parable. The source from which he drew was a Mystery school which considered parables unnecessary.
The part played by ostensibly historical facts and parables in the first three Gospels is clearly shown in the narrative of the cursing of the fig tree. In St. Mark XI, 11-14, we read: “and He (Jesus) entered into Jerusalem, into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, it being now eventide, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. And on the morrow, when they were come out from Bethany, he hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon; and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs. And He answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit from thee henceforth forever.” In the corresponding passage, StLuke relates a parable (XIIIL, 6, 7): “He spake also this parable: A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the vine dresser; Behold these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why doth it also cumber the ground?” This is a parable symbolizing the uselessness of the old teaching, represented by the barren fig tree. That which is meant metaphorically, St. Mark relates as a fact appearing to be historical. We may therefore assume that no facts related in the Gospels are to be taken as historical, as if they were only to hold good in the physical world, but as mystical facts; as experiences for the recognition of which spiritual vision is necessary, and which arise from various Mystery traditions. If we admit this, the difference between the Gospel of St. John and the Synoptists ceases to exist. Historical research does not enter into mystical interpretation. Even if one or another Gospel were written a few decades earlier or later than the others, they are all of equal historical value to the mystic, St. John’s Gospel as well as the others.
And the “miracles” do not present the least difficulty when interpreted mystically. They are supposed to break the laws of nature. They do this only when they are assumed to be events which have come about in such a way on the physical plane, in the perishable world, that ordinary sense perception could have seen through them without difficulty. But if they are experiences which can only be fathomed in a higher state of existence, namely the spiritual, it is obvious that they cannot be understood by means of the laws of physical nature.
It is thus first of all necessary to read the Gospels correctly; then we shall know in what way they are speaking of the Founder of Christianity. Their intention is to narrate in the manner in which communications were made through the Mysteries. They narrate in the way a mystic would speak of an initiate. Only, they give the initiation as a unique peculiarity of a single, unique Being. And they make the salvation of humanity depend on man’s holding fast to the initiate of this singular order. What had come to the initiates was the “Kingdom of God.” This unique Being has brought the Kingdom to all who will cleave to Him. What was formerly the personal concern of each individual has become the common concern of all those who are willing to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord.
We can understand how this came about if we admit that the wisdom of the Mysteries was imbedded in the folk-religion of the Israelites. Christianity arose out of Judaism. We need not, therefore, be surprised at finding those Mystery conceptions engrafted on Judaism with Christianity, those Mystery conceptions which we have seen to be the common possession of Greek and Egyptian spiritual life. If we examine folk-religions we find various conceptions of the spiritual; but if, in each case, we go back to the deeper wisdom of the priests, which proves to be the spiritual nucleus of them all, we find agreement everywhere. Plato knows himself to be in agreement with the priest-sages of Egypt when he is trying to set forth the core of Greek wisdom in his philosophical view of the universe. It is related of Pythagoras that he travelled to Egypt and India, and was instructed by the sages in those countries. Thinkers who lived in the earlier days of Christianity found so much agreement between the philosophical teachings of Plato and the deeper meaning of the Mosaic writings that they called Plato a Moses with Attic tongue.
Thus, Mystery wisdom existed everywhere. From Judaism it acquired a form which it had to assume if it was to become a world-religion.
Judaism awaited the Messiah. It is not to be wondered at that when the personality of a unique initiate appeared, the Jews could only conceive of him as being the Messiah. Indeed, this circumstance throws light on the fact that what had been an individual matter in the Mysteries became an affair of the whole people. The Jewish religion had from the beginning been a folk religion. The Jewish people looked upon itself as a single organism. Its Jao was the God of the whole people. If the Son were to be born, He must be the redeemer of the whole people. The individual mystic was not to be saved apart from others, the whole people was to share in the redemption. One of the basic assumptions of the Jewish religion is that one shall die for all.
It is also certain that there were Mysteries in Judaism which could be brought out of the obscurity of a secret cult into the folk religion. A fully-developed mysticism existed side by side with the priestly wisdom attached to the outer formalism of the Pharisees. This Mystery wisdom is spoken of among the Jews just as it is elsewhere. Once when an initiate was proclaiming it, and his hearers sensed the secret meaning of the words, they said: “Old man, what hast thou done? Oh, that thou hadst kept silence! Thou thinkest to navigate the boundless ocean without sail or mast. That is what thou art attempting. Wilt thou rise upwards? Thou canst not. Wilt thou descend into the depths? An immeasurable abyss yawns before thee.” And the Kabbalists, from whom the above is taken, also speak of four Rabbis; and these four Rabbis sought the secret path to the Divine. The first died; the second lost his reason; the third caused monstrous evils; and only the fourth, Rabbi Akiba, entered the spiritual world in peace and left in peace.
We thus see that within Judaism as elsewhere there was a soil in which a unique initiate could develop: He had only to say to himself: I will not let salvation be limited to a few chosen people. I will let all people participate in it. He was to carry out into the world at large what the elect had experienced in the temples of the Mysteries. He had willingly to assume the responsibility of representing, through the spirit of his personality, what formerly the Mystery cults meant t0 their adherents. It is true, He could not at once give to the whole community the experiences of the Mysteries, nor could He have wished to do so. But what He wanted to give to all was the certainty of what the Mysteries regarded as truth. He wished to cause the life that flowed within the Mysteries to flow through the further historical evolution of humanity, and thus to raise mankind to a higher stage of existence: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” He wished to plant unshakably in human hearts, in the form of confidence, the certainty that the Divine really exists. One who stands outside initiation and has this confidence will surely go further than one who is without it. It must have weighed like a mountain on the mind of Jesus that there might be many standing outside who do not find the way. He wished to lessen the gulf between those to be initiated and “the people”. Christianity was to be a means by which every one might find the way. Should one or another not yet be ripe, he is, at any rate, not cut off from the possibility of sharing, more or less unconsciously, in the benefit of the spiritual current flowing through the Mysteries. “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Henceforward even those who cannot yet share in initiation may enjoy some of the fruits of the Mysteries. Henceforth the Kingdom of God was not to be dependent on outward ceremonies; “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, Lo there! for, behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.” With Jesus the point in question was not so much how far this or that person advanced in the kingdom of the spirit as that all should be convinced that this kingdom exists. “In this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.” That is, put your faith in the Divine. The time will come when you shall find it.