Christianity as Mystical Fact
X. Jesus and His Historical Background
In the wisdom of the Mysteries is to be sought the soil out of which grew the spirit of ChristianityAll that was needed was the spread of the fundamental conviction that this spirit must be introduced into life in greater measure than had been done through the Mysteries. But such a conviction was already widespread, as may be seen from the manner of life of the Essenes and Therapeute, who existed long before Christianity arose.
The Essenes were an exclusive sect, living in Palestine, whose numbers at the time of Christ were estimated at about four thousand. They formed a community which required that its members should lead a life calculated to develop a higher self within the soul, thus bringing about a rebirth. The aspirant for admission was subjected to a severe test in order to ascertain whether he were ripe enough to prepare himself for a higher life. If he was admitted he had to undergo a period of probation, and to take a solemn oath that he would not betray to strangers the secrets of the Essenian discipline. The object of this life was the conquest of the lower human nature, so that the spirit latent within the soul might be awakened ever more and more. Anyone who had experienced up to a certain point the spirit within him was raised to a higher grade and enjoyed a corresponding degree of authority, not imposed from without, but conditioned by the nature of the fundamental principles.
Akin to the Essenes were the Therapeutæ, who dwelt in Egypt. We get abundant details concerning their mode of life in a treatise by the philosopher Philo, On the Contemplative Life. 1The dispute as to the authenticity of this work must now be regarded as settled, and it may be rightly assumed that Philo really described the life of a community existing long before Christianity, and well known to him. Cf. on the subject, G. R. Mead’s Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. A few passages from Philo’s treatise will give an idea of the main tenets of the Therapeutæ. “The dwellings of the members of the community are extremely simple, affording only the necessary shelter from extreme heat and cold. The dwellings are not built close together, as in towns, for continguity has no attraction for one who seeks solitude; nor are they at a great distance one from another, in order that the social relations, so dear to them, may not be made difficult, and that they may easily be able to assist each other in case of an attack by brigands. In each house is a consecrated room called a temple or monasterion, a small chamber or cell in which the mysteries of the higher life are cultivated... They also possess works by ancient authors who once directed their school and left many explanations about the customary method used in allegorical writings. Their interpretation of sacred writings is directed to the deeper meaning of allegorical narratives.”
From this we see that what had been striven after in the narrower circle of the Mysteries was being made universal. But such a procedure naturally relaxed the austerity of the character of the Mystery strivings. The Essene and Therapeutic communities form a natural transition from the Mysteries to Christianity. But Christianity wished to extend to humanity in general what with the Essenes and Therapeutæ was the affair of a sect. This Christian attitude, of course, prepared the way for a still further diminution of the original severity.
The existence of such sects makes it possible to understand how far the time was ripe for the comprehension of the Mystery of Christ. In the Mysteries a man was artificially prepared for the dawning in his consciousness, at the appropriate time, of an awareness of the spiritual world. Within the community of the Essenes or Therapeutæ it was by an appropriate mode of life that the soul sought to become ripe for the awakening of the higher man. A further step forward is that man struggles through to a feeling that a human individuality may have evolved to higher and higher stages of perfection in repeated earth lives. One who had arrived at a glimpse of this truth would also be able to feel that in Jesus a being of lofty spirituality had appeared. The loftier the spirituality, the greater the possibility of accomplishing something of importance. Thus the individuality of Jesus could become capable of accomplishing the deed which the Evangelists so mysteriously indicate in the Baptism by John, and which, by the way in which they speak of it, they so clearly point out as of the utmost importance. The personality of Jesus became able to receive the Christ into its own soul, the Logos Who was made flesh in that soul. Thenceforward the Ego of Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, and the outer personality was the vehicle of the Logos. The event of the Ego of Jesus becoming the Christ is enacted in the Baptism by John. During the period of the Mysteries, union with the Spirit was only for those who were to be initiated. Among the Essenes, a whole community cultivated a life by means of which all its members were able to attain to the mystical union. In the coming of Christ something—namely, His deeds — was placed before the whole of humanity, so that it might share in the mystical union.