CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2006 International Conference
July 13-16, 2006
San Diego State University, San Diego, California
Religion, Globalization, and Conflict: International Perspectives

New Traditions About Jesus and the New Religiosity

by Reender KRANENBORG (Free University of Amsterdam)

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2006 International Conference. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

We don't, in fact, know very much about Jesus of Nazareth. The only reliable information on him can be found in the gospels in the New Testament (we will leave aside the question of how reliable these sources are).These gospels tell us only about the very short time Jesus was active in Palestine.

We also find information on the importance of Jesus in the New Testament. The letters of Paul especially present Jesus as a more or less divine person who liberated and reconciled humanity with God by his death. In the gospels Jesus is depicted as an itinerant rabbi, proclaiming that the messianic period had begun with him and his kingdom would come through his death and resurrection.

In short, this is all we know about Jesus. It was soon apparent, however, that people wanted to know more about Jesus. We see new traditions about Jesus arising. This is something that happened not only in the first centuries of the church's existence but throughout history and is still happening today. I sometimes have the impression that in our modern era there are more new traditions and new information about Jesus appearing than was the case in earlier times.

In this lecture I will present some of these new traditions and answer the question as to why people believe these new traditions and new stories about Jesus.

1) The Infancy Gospels

Since the beginning of the second century there have been different infancy gospels – writings that report a great deal about the first years of Jesus' life and also provide information on his parents, Joseph and Mary. As a rule, these works confine themselves to the period between his birth and his visit to the temple when he was twelve. These works were very popular but, historically, they are unreliable. They do not provide any real information on Jesus and can be considered legends.

But the creation of infancy gospels was not restricted to the first centuries. Thus, in the first half of the 19th century, Jakob Lorber claimed that, through “channelling,” via so-called “automatic writing,” Jesus himself dictated certain books to him. He thus wrote The Youth of Jesus and Three Days in the Temple. These and related books have almost absolute authority for his followers, for – so they believe – if Jesus himself dictated all these books, then they must be reliable and true. I have the impression, by the way, that only a few people take Lorber's books seriously.

2) The Tradition of Jesus and Mary of Magdalene

Around the year 1000 a story originated about Mary Magdalene, which takes place in the Camargue region in France. The story is that, after a long journey by boat, Mary Magdalene landed there. There are different variations to this story. Some say that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' partner; sometimes the stories mention a child whose parents were Jesus and Mary Magdalene and who also came to Gaul. Other stories are about another Mary, etc. None of these stories, however, say that Jesus himself came to France. After some time it was claimed that the Merovingian kings were descendents of the child of Jesus.

It is in itself not a very important story, circulating only in certain groups in France. But in the second half of the 20th century it became very popular. The couple Meurois-Givaudan claimed that they received much more information about the true situation of the voyage to France through channelling. Margareth Starbird, in her The Woman with the Alabaster Jar elaborated greatly on this theme. Her book portrays Mary Magdalene to be without question the wife of Jesus.  She also shows that symbols can be found in a great deal of art of the Middle Ages that clearly demonstrate that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a couple. Her book became very popular in feminist circles. But the most important books in the respect are these of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln: The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Messianic Legacy. They present a very elaborate view of history in which the journey of Mary Magdalene and also that of Jesus to France is central. Also, they show how traces of this journey can be found in many French books and situations. These two books are very popular. As is well known, it is Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code especially that made these ideas so popular. By the way, Brown does not simply and servilely plagiarize from the authors mentioned above, for the concept of the “religion of the sacred feminine” can not be found in the latter. But the basic ideas found in Brown are indeed fully present in this literature. Thus Brown presented a new tradition about Jesus that has become immensely popular today. There are many people who believe that the story of Jesus happened as he sketched it.

3) The Esoteric Tradition

Although esotericism existed for a very long time in Western history, it grew more popular and knowledge of it spread in the 18th century. Writers from the circles of the Freemasons and Rosicrucians related many interesting new stories about Jesus. As a rule, it is mostly a more or less Gnostic vision, in which Jesus is not the son of God but mainly a teacher of wisdom who can initiate his disciples into the mysteries of the divine world. In most cases, this is connected with the idea that the Jewish Essene community, to which Jesus himself allegedly belonged and where he was educated, was a mysterious esoteric order. Jesus became a great master who could teach humans to find the inner light or, in other words, to come to full self-realisation. Stated in a different way, the human being has a spark of eternity within himself (sometimes alternately called “The light of the Christ” or “the Christ within you”) and human beings have to strive to become more and more unified with the light within themselves, with the divine inside them. Jesus is considered one of the greatest masters or teachers. These ideas are growing increasingly stronger and it is Madame Blavatsky who, in the latter part of the 19th century, played an important role in this. Since her publications appeared, the number of authors publishing works in this line has been steadily increasing. But there are many variations and differences within this tradition. A good example is A Course in Miracles, a book allegedly dictated to Helen Shucman by Jesus in the latter part of the 20th century. This book indeed contains a Gnostic view but is quite different from most esoteric views of Jesus. It is a kind of Gnosticism that has been strongly influenced by “New Thought” and “Positive Thinking.”

Esotericism has had a great influence on the popularity of Gnosticism in the Western world. Here we can again mention Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Brown/Brown's characters clearly states/state that Gnosticism was the true religion of Jesus, that Jesus was indeed a Gnostic teacher of wisdom, a kind of pioneer in this field. But Brown connects this notion of Gnosticism with the “religion of the sacred feminine” mentioned above. Within Gnosticism the most important aspect is the unification of the male with the female (see the ideas concerning the “hermaphrodite”) and Brown/Brown's characters takes/take this very literally through the ritual coitus of man and woman. That both this idea and practice were absolutely inconceivable within classical Gnosticism does not matter to Brown/Brown's characters and his followers. To them, it is clear: Jesus is a Gnostic master, who in mind and body united the male and the female in his contact with Mary Magdalene.

Thus we see that a new tradition about Jesus has formed and is growing more and more popular.

4) The Tradition of Jesus in India

A very unimportant work, The Life of the Holy Issa, was published in 1894 by Notovitch. It is a very small booklet, which Notovitch discovered in a Buddhist monastery in Kashmir and which describes how Jesus travelled to the east after his twelfth birthday and spent a long time travelling about in the north of India. Jesus wandered there, just as he did later in Palestine, offering support to the poor and running into conflict with the priests, preaching the One God over against the polytheism of India, and then leaving the Indian subcontinent because of the opposition of the priests. He went back to Palestine, arriving there when he was thirty years old.

It was and is a very unimportant and weak book. It contains, for instance, incorrect information on Hinduism and Buddhism and is full of errors and wrong information; it is clear it was written by someone who did not know very much about the East. This small manuscript would have been forgotten after a short time if it were not for a few who continued to keep its memory alive in their own way. The notion that Jesus had travelled to India remained inspiring. As a result, new stories about Jesus in India arose. In 1899 the book Jesus in India was published by the Muslim Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement. But his story was different from Notoviych's. In his version Jesus travelled to Kashmir with his mother Mary after his crucifixion which he had survived. Other writers combined the two stories. Thus, again and again new stories arise. The esoteric Levi Dowling, who wrote his The Aquarian Gospel in 1908 elaborated on Notovitch extensively. The Russian painter Roerich writes about this period of Jesus' life and claims that he found many traces of it during his journeys in Asia.  And so on.

Interest in the idea of Jesus in India has recently picked up considerably because of two books that were published about 25 years ago: first, there was the The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, the leader of the esoteric movement The Summit Lighthouse (“Church Universal and Triumphant”), and, second, the German writer Holger Kersten's Jesus lebte in Indien.  At the same time, important Hindu gurus like Sathya Sai Baba and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh related information about Jesus' stay in India. Since that time it has become more and more popular. It happens regularly during the lectures I give in Holland that someone asserts seriously: “But it is a fact; it is true that Jesus has been in India. That is a generally known fact!”  And a not insignificant Dutch author who wanted to write on the history of Christianity presented the idea of Jesus in India as important information (but abandoned it after I spoke with him).

So, here a new tradition has arisen that is rooted very much in the West and is considered to be actual historical fact, an important supplement to what we can read in the New Testament.

5) The Tradition of Jesus as a Precursor

This tradition can perhaps be considered to be secondary, but the story is important enough to be mentioned here. It concerns the idea that Jesus already prophesied that Muhammad would appear as an important prophet, much greater that himself. We can find this idea in The Gospel of Barnabas. It is a quite large work and contains many new and unknown facts about the life of Jesus that are not found elsewhere. It is striking that Jesus is quoted many times as saying that a much more important mediator, Muhammad, would appear after him, much greater than he is himself. The propaganda about this gospel claims that it is much older than the four gospels of the New Testament and that it was been written by Barnabas, a companion of Paul. Someone who lived so close to the origins of Christianity cannot be other than a true insider who knows much more than other people.

It will not come as a surprise when I say that the case for this gospel is not as tight as sketched above. Experts in this field have shown that it was written about 1600 by a Spanish Jew who had converted to Islam. His book, The Gospel of Barnabas, remained quite inconspicuous for a long time. Nobody showed much interest – its content appeared too strange and bizarre to be credible. At a certain point somebody discovered this manuscript written in Italian and translated it into English. But even that did not make it very well known. In 1908, however, its translation into Arabic turned it into a big success, becoming very popular among Muslims. For here it was clearly written that Jesus had spoken of Muhammad and this was found in a manuscript that was appeared to be much older than the classical gospels. So it must be true!

A new tradition about Jesus has thus arisen within Islam. Critical comments on this gospel are rejected by Muslims. Encounters between Muslims and Christians regularly fail, because the Muslims hold that Barnabas is the true gospel and the biblical gospels are forgeries, and that Christians should heed this older gospel. Thus, here we have a new tradition about Jesus, which is still growing within Islam.

6) Explanation

We have presented five new traditions about Jesus. These traditions are very popular today; people find them appealing and they have great authority, in many cases more authority than the stories in the Bible. The question is: Why have these traditions become so authoritative? And: Why do people believe these new traditions and reject the Christian tradition about Jesus? Or: Why do people accept these stories, which are historically unreliable, and why do they do not accept the information provided by the Christian tradition, which is much more reliable? I will mention eight points.

1. A point that plays an important role is that the Bible is very brief with respect to its information about Jesus, as I already mentioned. We know almost nothing about his youth or his family; we do not know anything about the period of his life between the ages of twelve and thirty; we do not know if Jesus was educated nor do we know anything about his specific relations with certain people. Thus, there is so much more information that seems to be missing and many people see this lack of information as negative. The orthodox believer will say that such things are unimportant, since all we need to know can be found in the scriptures. But, as a rule, people want to know more. We can see this already early on, in the first centuries when the infancy gospels began appearing. We can see it in the writings and stories of many individuals and groups who want to fill the gap of Jesus' “lost years” with his education in India and Egypt. People want to know more and, when some new information is allegedly found, people will readily believe it.

2. Connected with this aspect is the fact that the New Testament is in a certain way very one-sided.  People feel not only that some facts about Jesus are missing but certain aspects as well. The most striking in recent years is the idea that the New Testament is very one-sided with respect to women. On the one hand, the Gospel is much more positive about women than other manuscripts from that period, but, on the other, it is very brief on the subject of women. It is no surprise that Starbird's book has become very popular and it is no accident that the story of Mary Magdalene has become a matter of great interest today. Nor is it is coincidental that Brown's The Da Vinci Code puts so much stress on “the religion of the sacred feminine.” Such books and movements correct a certain one-sidedness and people look upon Jesus as a someone who was much more diverse than the Christian tradition presents him.

3. Another important element is that people no longer believe in the message of the Gospel and the church. It is a growing conviction that the church is only one interpretation of Jesus. The conviction that Jesus died on the cross for our sins is very one-sided, according to many people. There must be other interpretations that are more amenable to the human spirit. It is no accident that Gnosticism has gained in popularity in recent decades. Was Jesus not actually a great teacher of wisdom? We can find this in The Gospel of Thomas, which, according to many people, is even older than the gospels of the New Testament. This also is the reason we can find so much interest in the earliest history of Christianity, a Christianity that is much more colourful than is generally known.

Also, people are studying specific texts of the New Testament again, for they are discovering that many texts have always been read from the perspective of the official church. In this respect, the recent discoveries of manuscripts is very important: the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a great deal of interesting information on Jewish thought and beliefs around the beginning of our era; the Nag Hammadi manuscripts present an almost unknown aspect of Christianity, Christian Gnosticism, and the recent discovery of The Gospel of Judas made clear to many people that the history of Jesus may have been entirely different.  In short, people no longer view Jesus as the church or Christian doctrine has presented him but want to be open-minded to what really happened. Nevertheless, this view is not as open-minded as claimed, for it is ruled by the conviction that this new view is, in fact, the true one and much better than that of the church.

4. In these discussions the notion that there is some major conspiracy taking place is very important. People believe that the church has consciously falsified and modified the scriptures and made clear choices concerning the origin and determination of the canon. The Da Vinci Code is a good example. Various characters state many times that the Vatican has manipulated the scriptures and has forbidden or destroyed certain manuscripts. “Constantine's Bible” is mentioned, i.e. the idea that the emperor Constantine made a conscious choice about which books could belong to the New Testament and which not. When this choice was made, all other books and manuscripts were eliminated from the Bible and absolutely forbidden. Brown's novel includes the theory that Jesus as the Son of God is also a construction, initiated by Paul and also used by Constantine. In short, according to Brown/Brown's characters, the church was far too manipulative in this matter and made a caricature of what Jesus said and did. Since then, the church has always fought against heretics and those who questioned doctrine or who wanted to think differently about Jesus.  Thus, it is now said that The Gospel of Judas was forbidden by the church; the church excluded it from the canon. We, therefore, can find several conspiracy theories. When I lecture in the Netherlands on The Da Vinci Code, there is always someone who remarks reproachfully: “they” did not tell us the truth; “they” deceived us all these centuries; “they” have concealed the reality of Jesus. Although conspiracy theories can always be falsified, nevertheless many people believe in them profoundly.

5. Another important issue has to do with the authority people give to certain phenomena. I mean the following. When, through channelling, some specific information is given by a “higher being” and certainly if it is claimed that it is Jesus himself who is speaking, people almost automatically believe this is true. For a voice coming from the transcendental realm is always trustworthy: the beings from this transcendental realm do not lie or cheat – they tell the ultimate truth. This information from the other world is better and higher than the usual information that can be found, for instance, in the Bible. When, for instance, Jesus tells what really happened on the cross, this is much more trustworthy than what is written in the gospels. This direct information from Jesus is much better than the old and familiar information in the New Testament. People truly believe it. I have met many people who are absolutely convinced of the reliability of the content of their channelling experience, for that truth is the best truth of all. We can see this in the interest in The Course in Miracles. This book is interesting not only because its content or quality is good but also because of the conviction that it is Jesus himself who is speaking and indicating what his message in fact had been. This conviction that it is Jesus himself who is dictating the book is what makes it so fascinating to many people. Of course, it is possible to question this idea. For instance, there is the problem that the many highly authoritative channellings are mutually contradictory, but nevertheless people believe the voices from heaven without any difficulty. At last we now have the real, ultimate truth!

6. There is a more general comment to be made. In his Turning East Harvey Cox speaks of “modern greed” and the need to experience new things continually. It is an essential part of our culture to look for new things and new experiences; everything you can try you should try. Cox points to the fact that in his time (the 1970s) people really did try all kinds of religions and all kinds of spirituality. You have to experience it. So you go to a guru who can teach you many things you never had known about and you do things you had never before heard of. The regular and traditional paths are no longer interesting – they are part of the past and have nothing more to offer. In New Age circles the church and Christian doctrine are consistently viewed negatively: they are part of the Old Age and are bland, petrified, immobile and rigid. It is asserted with all certainty that the church and the Christian doctrine will vanish and be succeeded by the religion of the New Age. The consequence of this need for experience is that we can regularly see new forms of believing arising. In the 1970s the East was very popular, but in the 1980s it was New Age that attracted the most attention and now Gnosticism is the most popular form of religiosity. And it is this tendency of our time that makes The Gospel of Judas so popular (although almost nobody has read it, and those who have do not understand it).

7. A very important shift in our modern culture is that from rationalism to experience. Until the 1970s religion in the Western world was very rationalistic and intellectualistic. It was important what exactly someone believed. One did not need to experience the things one believed; it was necessary only to accept the doctrines or creeds as they were presented. In the 1960s this began to change, first within the hippie movement and later on strongly within New Age. Experience is growing in importance. It is the things we experience, rather than those we simply believe, that are true and important. What exactly do you believe? was the question that was formerly posed. Now we ask: What and how do you experience this? Or, as a girl in the Bhagwan movement told me once: I can speak only about the things I have experienced and not about other things. This is also the case in the Christian religion: believers do not want dogmas, they do not want rules or creeds; all they want is to experience in themselves what the truth is. It is no coincidence that in this modern period the Pentecostal movement and the evangelical movement are very popular. In these groups one has to experience the Holy Spirit or that God is living in one's heart. One does not have to speak about conversion, but one does have to explain how it felt to be converted and how it affected one.

The experience is normative. This is also the case in the already mentioned interest in Gnosticism. For that is the most important thing: that one experience the divine spark or the eternal kernel within oneself, that one realise the unity with the divine, that one experience enlightenment and find ultimate self-realisation. We can find this Gnostic experience also very clearly in The Da Vinci Code. As was already mentioned, this experience has to be a complete experience: in mind, in heart, in soul and in body. Thus, this new religion of experience is much more fascinating than traditional Western Christianity.

8. The last point we have to mention is the individualism of our Western culture or, perhaps better, the still growing independence and maturity of modern human beings. They no longer wish to be bound by the church or dogma or doctrine or the priest: everyone chooses her own particular religion. In line with a postmodern attitude, people are going to the religious supermarket and putting together their own particular spiritual religion, a religion that is strictly personal, comprised of the elements that they themselves prefer. Nobody can impose rules on another, only the person concerned can do that. Someone in the Netherlands one spoke of “solo-religiosity”: we make our own individual religions, just as we like. It has nothing to do anymore with community or solidarity but only with one's most personal wishes and choices. There are some constant elements to be found within this solo-religionist package: the centrality of experience, the need to work at self-realisation, the importance of reincarnation, meditation, the search for the divine within oneself, the necessity of certain alternative forms of healing, the invocation of the “divine energy”(or whatever name one wishes to give it), etc. Here a dash of The Da Vinci Code is also included. The actual composition of this package will change in the course of time and mutate into yet another form. But the fact of solo-religiosity is here to stay and will not disappear: we are living in a time of very individualistic religion.

I have presented a number of arguments as to why alternative traditions about Jesus are very popular nowadays. A different question is: How do we handle this? The answer to this question depends on one's personal vision and beliefs. But we have to accept the fact that today, in our culture, we are faced with millions of small mini-religions.