“WHAT IF EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT JESUS IS WRONG?” – From the cover of Michael Baigent’s book THE JESUS PAPERS – Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History. Michael Baigent is a religious historian and leading expert in the field of arcane knowledge.
Jesus and Egyptian Mysticism
The Egyptian Mystery Schools were not about cloaking the truth of God in mystery so as to hide it from the uninitiated layman, as a reader recently alluded to in a comment on my last post. Or was it? There does seem to have been a certain secrecy about the “initiation” process which introduced one to Egyptian mysticism.
Now, there’s a word that could use some cleaning up. Mysticism need not imply a cloaking of truth in the illusory clouds of mystery. On the contrary, mysticism dates back to ancient times as a doctrine or belief that one can obtain communion with God, have a direct experience of the Divine Source of Life itself, through contemplation and meditation – “and love without the medium of human reason,” the New World Dictionary adds in its first definition of the word. It’s only the third option that defines mysticism as “vague, obscure, or confused thinking or belief.” The second option defines mysticism as “any doctrine that asserts the possibility of attaining knowledge of spiritual truths through intuition acquired by fixed meditation.” A mystic is a person who has found a spiritual path that takes him/her directly into the Light of the Divine Presence. This is what Egyptian Mysticism was reportedly all about. So, why would Jesus not be interested in exploring Egyptian mysticism?
According to Michael Baigent, Jesus was more a mystic than a messiah — in the sense that he opened a pathway to the “Kingdom of Heaven” that is within us and all around us for everyone. He knew the Way. According to the Gospels, he reportedly said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Where did he learn the “way” to the spirit world of heaven? Had he mastered Egyptian mysticism?
An essential aspect of the Master’s miraculous healings – and I call Jesus Master with purpose – was in the way he reached out to touch people where they were, not requiring them in any way whatsoever to rise up to where he was in order for him to heal them. These people had been led by the God of Abraham and of Isaac to their City of Habitation in Jerusalem. The Prophets of the Old Testament had foretold that a messiah would come and restore Israel and deliver its people from the bondage of the powers that were at the time, which was the Roman Empire. Jesus knew that and he respected their belief in a messiah – so much so that he took on the role of that messiah in order to touch them where they were in their state of expectancy. He rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, as we saw earlier, in order to fulfill the prophecy and satisfy their expectancy, an event Catholics celebrate even to this day on Palm Sunday. Where did he learn his mastery?
According to Michael Baigent, Jesus was taken by his parents to Egypt where he grew up and spent eighteen years studying Jewish law and the Sacred Scriptures in preparation for his public ministry among the Jews in Galilee and Judea. I resonate with his scenario for the simple reason that it would seem necessary that Jesus fully understand the task he was about to take on with a people steeped in tradition and scriptural beliefs. But beyond his education into the beliefs and traditions of the Jewish people, I see no heresy in allowing that Jesus may have explored the mysticism of the Egyptian people. After all, he came to minister to the entire world and not just to the Jewish people. His deep passion was to lead all souls back to the path that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven – which he said on many occasions, according to the record, is “within.” To enter the kingdom of heaven, one has to turn around, the literal meaning of “repent,” and look within oneself to find the “way” in.
The Egyptian mystics had found a doorway to that kingdom, only they called it the “Far World.” And here is where Baigent treads on sacred beliefs. Dare he, dare I, even consider the possibility that Jesus explored and underwent training in the mysticism of the Mystery Schools of Egypt? Yes, Egypt was a “‘land-of-darkness’ – or the state-of-darkened consciousness, gross darkness,” as a reader characterized Egypt in his comment on my last post. However, there was a light shining in the gross darkness of Egypt in a community of holy men and women.
I would like to turn now and consider a contemplative community of healers with whom Jesus may well have lived and studied. Baigent writes about them in his book. I will share the entire story with you mostly in the author’s own words, words that drew me out with a deep sense of deja vu.
On a low hill in southern Egypt, situated between the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Maryut just southwest of Alexandria, lived a small community of Jewish philosophers. Being situated between two bodies of water, they benefited from the fresh breeze of cool and healthy sea air that swept over the limestone spur. In an atmosphere of peace and “relative security” in this rural setting with nearby villas and towns, they lived a contemplative lifestyle. As Baigent describes it best, I will let him tell the story, which is largely based on accounts written by Philo of Alexandria and a couple of other historians.
This community was given the name of Therapeutae, which, as Philo explains, carries both the sense of healing – not only of the body but also of the soul – and a sense of worship. Therapeutae worship centered on the “Self-Existent” – a belief in the One Divine Reality, never created but eternal. This was a concept of divinity far beyond the capability of language to describe.
In one important way, the Therapeutae were very different from the other dedicated groups Philo describes, such as the Essenes. Among the Therapeutae, women were admitted as equal members and participated fully in the spiritual life of the community. By contrast, the Essenes, according to Philo, Josephus, and Pliny, were proud of the fact that they excluded women; women, they believed, were a distraction. We should recall here the inclusive attitude of Jesus toward the women in his entourage and the criticism that this engendered among some of his male disciples in the Gospels, for there have been many questionable attempts to ally Jesus with the Essenes.
Comprised of upper well-educated upper class elite from Alexandria who had divested themselves of all worldly possessions, the Therapeutae’s communal life was one of simplicity – and they were not the only group in all of Egypt that followed a contemplative lifestyle. They were, however, the only group representing a “Jewish version of a widespread mystical tradition that found expression in all lands.” Baigent gives another distinguishing characteristic of this group.
The implication of the Therapeutae’s inclusion of women, however, is that when a group is dedicated to the contemplation of the highest experience of the soul – to that sight of the soul “which alone gives a knowledge of truth and falsehood” – the gender of the worshiper is irrelevant. This may seem self-evident to us today, but in the world of Philo and Jesus this concept was truly revolutionary.
The Therapeutae were mystics and visionaries: “It is well,” Philo writes, “that the Therapeutae, a people always taught from the first to use their sight, should desire the vision of the Existent and soar above the sun of our senses.”
Members of the Therapeutae wanted to have a direct vision of reality – or of the “Self- Existent,” to use Philo’s term – in order to experience what truly exists behind the rough-and-tumble world of this transitory life. This too was the aim of many groups operating in the classical world, especially in those great and secret cults called “the Mysteries.” Here we appear to have a Jewish version, seeking the same end, but operating in a much simpler manner within the Jewish tradition.
The Therapeutae prayed at dawn and sunset. During the day they would read the holy texts, but rather than taking these as the history of the Jewish nation, they understood them as allegory. According to Philo, they considered the literal text a symbol of something hidden that they could find only if they looked for it.
Every seven days they would gather together and hear a talk by one of the senior members; every fifty days they would have a major assembly where they would all put on white robes, eat a simple sacred meal, and form a choir, men and women together, to sing hymns with complex rhythms and vocal parts. This festival would continue all night until dawn, revealing the solar nature of their worship: “They stand with their faces and whole body turned to the east and when they see the sun rising they stretch their hands up to heaven and pray for bright days and knowledge of the truth.’?”
Clearly this is a very different type of Judaism, one that does not depend upon temple worship at all. In Therapeutae worship, which has a very Pythagorean tinge, there is no concern with the cult of Judaism, which was so important to the priests in the temples of Jerusalem and the Egyptian delta, or with the purity of the high priests serving that cult, which was of such concern to the Zealots, or with the coming of the Messiah of the Line of David. For both male and female members of the Therapeutae, there was simply the possibility of a visionary experience of Divinity.
Their kingdom was truly not of this world: Jesus would have approved.
There is one further implication of the Therapeutae’s beliefs that warrants more discussion, and that is the practice of treating the entire Old Testament as symbolic. They would have read all the messianic predictions made by the prophets symbolically. There would have been no reason in their minds for an actual messiah to come to liberate Israel; there would have been no reason for Jesus to be the actual king and high priest; the oracular pronouncements of the messiah would have been simply symbolic of something deeper and more mysterious. We have seen before how the “Star” is a symbol of the messiah, but can we now take this concept a little further? Can we see the statement by Peter in the New Testament as reflecting this kind of speculation, albeit in a Christian context? Could the phrase “Let the Day Star rise in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19) be interpreted as an encouragement to let the mystic light rise from within?
With such attitudes apparently widespread, perhaps even common, it is no wonder that Judaism in Egypt, and Christianity afterwards, had a distinctively mystical quality: it was in Egypt that Christian monasticism first began; it was in Egypt at Nag Hammadi that someone hid the Gnostic texts, that collection of Christian and classical mystical texts – including one by Plato and one from the texts of Hermes Trismegistus, the Asclepius – that had been compiled and used by a desert monastery.
The Christian Church in Egypt had mystically minded figures even as late as the third century – theologians Clement of Alexandria and Origen, for example. We have Egyptian traditions leaking into Judaism from very early days – the times of Joseph and Moses – and in more recent times, as we see in the writings of Philo. In the midst of all this we have groups such as the Therapeutae working a mystical type of Judaism and the Temple of Onias maintaining the true Jewish Zadokite priesthood.
At this point one is tempted to ask “What was it about Egypt that gave this mystical focus to Judaism and the Christianity born out of it? What kind of soil were these foreign faiths growing in?”
The irony of these questions is that it was not so much the land that nourished these faiths as it was the sun, which poured out its life-giving sustenance from above. A clue lies in the fact that both the Therapeutae and the Jewish Zadokites adopted the solar calendar from the Egyptians, whose major deity, Ra, was in fact an expression of the sun as the source of life, the source of all creation. Texts reveal that the pharaoh, at least, sought mystical union with Ra as the “deepest fulfillment of our human divine nature.”
I find this to be a curiously significant aspect of Egyptian Mysticism, as the sun is the central focus of cosmic energy for our solar system – which I would rather call a “Solar Entity” to emphasize its living and breathing nature. As we shall see in the next post, the Egyptians viewed the visible material world as the cloak of an invisible spiritual “Far World” which governed the world of form. Their gods lived in that spiritual world.
Could it be that their worship of the sun was prompted by a latent subconscious memory of their origin in the sun. Yes, the sun, the Star at the center of our world. Is our Judeo-Christian “Heaven” perhaps located in the cool center of our Star? It that where God lives as the “Lord of lords” and “King of kings,” in his Kingdom that “is not of this world?” Is the Sun the radiant outer garment of the LORD GOD Creator of our universe – the fire that burns and the light that glows – that gives evidence of the Presence of the One that dwells within – the” Shekinah”? A possibility upon which to meditate and ponder.
The profound mysticism that lay at the very heart of the Egyptian experience of reality clearly influenced many of the other faiths that had established themselves there. This Egyptian mysticism, which employed secret readings of myth and private rituals, often played out in secluded underground chambers and temples, professed to connect this world with the next, to connect heaven and earth.
The approach of the Egyptians was not a kind of philosophy, a speculation on divine possibilities, or a faith built solely upon the hope for a better life after death. The Egyptians were not only mystical but intensely practical. They did not want to talk about heaven, they wanted to go there. And return. Just like Lazarus in fact.
It’s time now to look at the hidden mysteries of Egypt.
Until my next post, when I will tell you about the mysteries of Egypt as Michael Baigent describes them.
Be love. Be loved.
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