The Secret History of the New Testament?

In the summer of 2021 I read a book called The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name, by Brian C. Muraresku. It’s one book in a what is now practically a genre of books which discuss the apparent psychedelic roots of religion/ancient history and cultures. I have some interest in the latter, but those which concern religion–and especially the New Testament, and Christianity–especially interest me.

Current Context

While my introduction to the genre originated with a book now sixty-years old, there is a contemporary way in to the topic. In recent years, the medical and scientific study of psychedelics has swept popular culture due to major studies done under the auspices of labs at tier-1 research universities in the United States (like Johns Hopkins), and a social, political, and medical re-evaluation of the potential beneficial uses of these substances. An interesting feature of some of these medical studies is that appeal is made to religious experience as an analogy for psychedelic experience.

Some of the more well-known figures and researchers involved in the contemporary study of these substances have also authored or co-authored works dealing with the use of psychedelics in history, modern and ancient, where the connection to cultic and religious practices has been observed (for still extant shamanistic practices) or inferred (for a number of ancient religious practices). The term coined for substances used as such is entheogen–a psychedelic substance used for religious purposes. Entheogen research has at times included a reconsideration of early Christian spirituality, and thus conjures up a small network of books with interesting and radical claims.

I first became aware of such studies when I learned about John M. Allegro and his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. I’ll start with this book, and from here take the long road back to Muraresku.

Allegro was a well-known scholar who taught at the University of Manchester. Books of his in the fifties, like The Dead Sea Scrolls (1956), The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1958), and The Treasure of the Copper Scroll (1960), showed him to be one of the early experts on the scrolls. Yet by the end of that decade, his interpretations were becoming idiosyncratic and controversial–so much so that he had to be moved from the faculty of Arts in the department of Near Eastern Studies to the Faculty of Theology in the OT department; it was none other than F. F. Bruce who helped Allegro and facilitated the move.

It was not long, however, until Allegro had would go from eccentricity into absurdity, and lose whatever rapport he had in academia. This came with the publication of the aforementioned Sacred Mushroom, which proposed that Christianity emerged as one of many myths generated around devotion to the psychedelic mushroom Fly Agaric (or Amanita Muscaria), and that Jesus, the disciples, and other figures and places were literary myths expressing aspects of the mushroom and the psychedelic experience.

“How so?” you ask? Allegro’s labyrinthine methodology basically goes like this: Sumerian is said by Allegro to be the bridge language between the Proto-Indo European and Semitic worlds, and thus, etymological transformations can be surmised and forms and meanings of Hebrew and also Greek terms can be elucidated from potential similarities with Sumerian roots, which may at times require some creative interpretation themselves.

In his own words: “we can now trace Indo-European and Semitic verbal roots, and so begin to decipher for the first time the names of gods, heroes, plants, and animals. . . We can also now start penetrating to the root-meanings of many religious and secular terms whose original significance has been obscure.” (Sacred Mushroom, p.42). French anthropologist Paul Jorion summarized the conclusion well in his review in L’homme (easy to find): “Christ would lose all reality, and would become only the representative of the sacred mushroom in a cryptic discourse (i.e., the Gospels). The other actors of the New Testament would have no more consistency than the protagonist: their proper names or the context of the episodes in which they appear would help to link them directly or indirectly to the divine mushroom.”

This is, of course, what Allegro proposed. His creative speculations knew no bounds: Yahweh and Zeus originate with Sumerian terms meaning something like spermatozoa; “Peter” with a Sumerian term meaning “top of the head: penis”; “the most common Semitic name for the mushroom phutr (Arabic), pitra (Aramaic), portrayed in the New Testament myth as Peter.” (p. 66). His phallic-inspired speculations (about mushrooms and their portrayal in myth) go on to include the meaning of “Christ” and a great many other terms in the Bible.

The reception was not good. The reviews: in English, French, German (they are easy to find, too) in major journals are almost uniformly negative (and not all by those who are necessarily agitated about the religious implications): One reviewer summed it up well: “folk etymology.” [You can read more about Allegro in a biography of him called John Marco Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls, published by Eerdmans.]

Allegro et al.

Allegro, however, cannot simply put into the box called “fringe,” and ignored. Because Allegro’s work did not emerge onto the fringe from out of the blue. An author by the name of R. Gordon Wasson (an amateur ethnomycologist, vice president of J. P. Morgan) wrote a book two years before Allegro called Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. In the book, Wasson claimed that Soma, the well-known but mysterious beverage of the Vedic texts, was none other than a concoction of Amanita muscaria (Wasson himself was the modern discoverer of the mushroom), and that this mushroom was also responsible for the ecstatic experiences in ancient mystery cults like those of Eleusis, the most famous of the Hellenistic mysteries.

Wasson’s work was taken seriously by some scholars of note: for example, the great Claude-Levi Strauss devoted 12 pages to an extensive review of Wasson’s work (from an anthropological point of view, with mixed reception); and Wasson was friends with the well-known Slavist Roman Jakobson at Harvard who helped him in his research (Jorion mentions this in his review).

So, Allegro was not alone, and into the negative space between Wasson and Allegro emerged Carl A. P. Ruck, who himself said that reading Allegro “ruined him” because Allegro put an idea in his head he could not get out: that psychedelic drugs featured prominently in classical religious experience; Ruck would link up with Wasson, and they were off to the races.

The Mysteries at Eleusis

Gordon Wasson had already maintained that the amanita muscaria was responsible not only as the substance behind the Soma of the Vedic texts, but also behind other ancient cultic practices like the mysteries at Eleusis. This idea also sparked Ruck’s interest who was, like Allegro, a bona fide scholar at a research institution (Ruck is professor classics—now emeritus—at Boston University).

Ruck, together with Wasson, and a third author Albert Hoffman (who was famous for discovering LSD) would put these threads together in what is now the classic text in the study of entheogens, The Road to Eleusis.

Ninnion Tablet. Votive plaque depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries. National Archaeological Museum, Athens; wikimedia commons.

Eleusis is a town in western Attica in Greece and house to an ancient cultic site known simply by the name “Eleusis,” the site where the famous Eleusinian mysteries were enacted.

The rite was the most famous of all the mysteries among the Greeks, and the cult at Eleusis taught that Hades, god of the underworld, had snatched away Persephone and her sorrowing mother, Demeter, in return for hospitality received at Eleusis during her search for her daughter, revealed her secret rites to its inhabitants. The mysteries themselves “included a type of passion play, probably centering on the suffering of the goddess, a revelation of sacred cult objects, and a communion celebration consisting of a barely drink and certain foods. In this service the initiate supposedly established mystic contact with the mother and daughter. By an act of faith, the initiate believed in the certainty of blessing from Demeter and Persephone in the next life because of the establishment of a friendship with the pair in this life. The main part of the initiation ceremony took place in the Telesterion—the large sanctuary hall—which has been excavated at Eleusis.” (see H. F. Vos. “Greco-Roman Religions,” in the ISBE for a very succinct summary).

The main intrigue with Eleusis concerns what precisely was going on in the inner chamber inside the telesterion and in the “greater mysteries” of the rite. References in literature are scant, but potentially dramatic: Plato (Phaedrus, p. 250 b-c) possible indicates that the Mysteries were “the blessed sight and vision” “the holiest of mysteries” and seen in “a state of perfection.” At least, this is surmised by Wasson, Ruck, and Muraresku, but if you read the Phaedrus text you will find no clear reference to Eleusis (thus, their supposition is based on the use of “mystery” language in that section of the work). A more plausible reference comes from Cicero On the Laws (which contains a fictionalized dialogue between Cicero [Marcus] and his brother Quintus and their friend Atticus), in book 2, in the context of discussing religious regulations the question is raised about womens nighttime rituals, and what will become of the “mysteries” if nocturnal rites be removed. Atticus indicates that Cicero and he (and others) have been initiated into the mysteries (a reference to Eleusis) and have made an exception for that rite, and Cicero replies: “I will make an exception. Your beloved Athens seems to
me to have brought forth many superb and divine things and given
them to human life, but nothing is better than the Mysteries through
which we have been developed and civilized from a rustic and crude
existence into humanity. We recognize the initiations, as they are
called, as the true beginning of life, and we have accepted with joy not
only this plan for living in happiness, but also a better expectation in death. What displeases me about nocturnal rites is shown by the comic
poets. If such license were given at Rome, what would that man have
done who brought his lewd plans into a sacrificial rite on which it was a
sin to gaze even unintentionally?” (Book 2, section 36).

Struck either by seemingly clear, or otherwise inferred, reference to the magnitude of the greater mysteries, as well as by interpretations of art–and with the unwavering conviction that psychedelics were widespread in ancient cultures–Ruck, Wasson, and Hoffman concluded that the barely drink of the rite must have contained a psychedelic substance. The argument has corroborating evidence, because ergot, a natural but potentially deadly growth on barley, can produce psychedelic experiences. And Hoffman, the third author, would have known—his discovery of LSD involved the study of barley ergot.

Thus the classic text was born: the mysteries at Eleusis were psychedelic; they were about immortality, and such convictions came from visions produced in concert with the substances there partaken.

The reception of Ruck’s et al.’s work was mixed, a number of scholars were warm to the idea (see a particularly detailed and positive review in the American Journal of Philology, 122.1 135-38 by Georg Luck) while others rejected it as ludicrous.

Others yet were and have been relatively uninterested (i.e., the thesis goes unmentioned), yet clear that we simply cannot know exactly what was going on in the “greater mysteries” of Eleusis. Were the “greater mysteries” truly about immortality as the authors I’ve mentioned suggest? The great Walter Burkert discussed what the “goal of the mysteries” at Eluesis actually was: “no matter how surprising it may seem to one Platonically influenced, there is no mention of immortality at Eleusis, nor of a soul and the transmigration of souls, nor yet deification.” Jan Bremmer (who cites Burkert) adds in his monograph Initiation into the Mysteries “in other words, the actual performance of the Mysteries points only to agricultural fertility.” (Bremmer, Initiation, 18). There is a perhaps underwhelming sobriety to such scholarship (but only for those looking for a certain kind of sensation and no others), but then, that is often the nature of good scholarship.

My intention here, however, is not to draw out the theories about Eleusis, and the authors (and those writing in the genre) do not stop at Eleusis, they extend their work into early Christianity, which is my main concern.

Out of Eleusis and into the Church

In The Apples of Apollo Ruck and his co-authors make the claim of the Eleusis > Christianity connection: “Christianity evolved within the context of Judaic and Hellenistic healing cults, magic, shamanism, and Mystery initiations. All four of these inevitably imply a sacred ethnopharmacology, with traditions going back to the earlier ages of the ancient world. When the apostle Paul proclaimed the new Christian mystery to the factious congregation at Corinth, there was no one who would not understand that his eucharist was meant to replace the pagan mystery that had been celebrated for over a millennium just a short distance away up the shore at the sanctuary of Eleusis”

And here, we come all the way back around to Brian Muraresku. He is a sharp lawyer and a skilled popularizer of scholarship. The details of essentially Ruck’s argument (but some others) are popularized The Immortality Key (named to sell well at airports).

The claims of this book are sweeping and as radical as any of the other books it popularizes. However, while those books warrant some academic respect (depending on the mood, or the day) this book comes with an insidious bite: there is a political through-line which calls for a “reformation” in Christianity which (I kid you not) proposes that future of Christianity, and its profound spiritual experiences, lies in labs, with medical professionals, and the administration of substances. The author is at paints to assert a tired gnostic/new-age line that true religion is within, and the Bible and theology are pathetic attempts to control a person’s autonomous vibrant connection with the divine (in this case, presumably aided by corporations and government grants and researchers). Call it “substance spirituality”; the author’s distance from Christian spirituality is palpable. This sort of radical reformation is not new to the genre, by the way. It was already a feature of Allegro’s work, whose follow-up book The End of the Road proposed new human purpose liberated from the constraints of traditional religion; the goal is not merely criticism, but proposal of reformation.

But shockingly, The Immortality Key enjoys the endorsements of some scholars with relevant credentials (Gregory Nagy of Harvard [back of book]; Candida Moss of Birmingham [media blurb]), and growing fame as a NYT best-seller and the subject of popular media outlets (with multiple millions of views online of long-form content across multiple channels, including massive popular outlets Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, Lex Fridman, and others). Harvard Divinity School’s Centre for the Study of World Religions, called the book “a ground-breaking dive into the role of psychedelics in the ancient Mediterranean world.”

The fascinating thing about this reception is that this work is not at all ground-breaking, but is popularizing mostly decades old works that made their authors pariahs, and in a less academically authoritative (even if slicker) way. The arguments are not better, but the culture receiving has changed. Muraresku is no pariah, he’s enjoyed a modicum of fame.

Unfortunately for him, his coup de grace is waiting for him back there in the annals of the not-so-secret history he’s failed to make himself aware of (or disclose).

Reviewing The Immortality Key

I wrote a short report exposing some of major problems with the book (I’ve linked to it below). But I share below–with additions–evidence that renders the entheogen thesis of the early Eucharist incredible. Read on below, and then follow the link, to get some idea of the manifold problems.

~~~

An addendum to “Eleusinian Mysteries, Eucharistic Myths: Problems for B. Muraresku’s Immortality Key” : the final criticism I offer in the paper is, I think, a defeater for the whole convergence of “entheogen” arguments at the foundations of Christian spirituality. I summarize that point and add to it below.

Water in the Eucharistic Cup. In her article “Water in the Eucharistic Cup” Margaret Daly-Denton shows that the use of water was widespread in the early eucharist—at least in communities taking their cue from John’s Gospel. The only ante-Nicene text specifically devoted to the substance of the Eucharist and discussing John’s Gospel to boot (which is the major Gospel source argued by Muraresku to contain hints of the true ‘psychedelic’ Eucharist as an analog to the Dionysian rite–itself a questionable claim), happens not only to say that so-called Johannine communities were water drinkers, but shows that early authorities (like Cyprian of Carthage) were agitating for the drinking of wine against water. But Muraresku wants to envision an anachronistic “paleo-Christian” (read, ante-Nicene) where big bad church men snuffed out any vibrancy, yet the big bad church man wants the wine!

Not only was water wide-spread among Johannine Christians (if we want to refer to early communities as such–I’m not convinced it’s the best way but for sake of argument…), but was also widespread among Marcionites and early Gnostics (the first generation of heretics were invariably ascetics–even Tertullian praises them for this (!). The Marcionites rejected wine-eucharists, as Andrew McGowan shows in his Ascetic Eucharists and other essays. So, diverse groups in the early church (proto-orthodox and those deemed heretical) practiced water drinking.

The evidence, widespread and early, works together for a conclusion which is devastating for the entheogen thesis, because the picture that emerges overall is simply not hyper-focused on what is in the cup (which we should expect if the entheogen thesis were true). Worse (for the thesis), we see a degree of ambivalence about the cup. Stewart-Sykes in his essay “Marcionite Menu” indicates “that Marcionite drinking habits are no different from those which were regularly employed by other Christians in Rome and Asia in the second century; wine might be used, but need not, and water might suffice.” (in the de Gruyter book, Marcion and his impact on Church History).

But this is a terrible turn for Muraresku and his thesis: the earliest Christians (orthodox and heretics, “Johannine” and otherwise, widespread) exhibit a degree of ambivalence about what was in the cup! They just don’t care as much as some had to have if what was in the cup per se (on its own) was the “drug of immortality” Muraresku says it was. Yes, Ignatius called it that in his letter to the Ephesians (the medicine/drug of immortality), but context, and concern for etymological fallacies, do not score high on Muraresku’s list of priorities (or they do not blip on his cognitive radar).

Speaking of context, some early Christians do speak of the Eucharist as a mystery initiation. For example Melito of Sardis, speaks of the “initiation into mystery” of Pascha (On Pascha, Igntaius press ed. p. 55-56). But he does so in terms revelatory, and explicitly theological, and biblical (the very things Muraresku and others explicitly reject as false groundings for Christianity). The real spirituality of the Eucharist was, for early Christians, this: the person of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of meaning of the Jewish scriptures.

Were psychedelics of some sort ever consumed in the ancient world? Undoubtedly. Were they the beating heart of Eleusis? Who knows. Burkert and Bremmer certainly don’t, and that should give people significant pause. Did Christian converts ever have substance-related experiences before and after their conversion? Perhaps, but the latter was condemned. Were such experiences formative and generative of Christian spirituality and Jesus teaching? Did they come from the substance in the cup? Was this diverse and vibrant spirituality snuffed out by the “powers that be”? Undoubtedly not.

See the article here: https://doi.org/10.20935/AL4213

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