What did the Apostle Paul get up to in Arabia? — Christianity and Magic Mushrooms
This is the latest in a series of articles discussing the question of whether Jesus was a historical or mythical figure, therefore the origins and meaning of Christianity, and the role of the apostle Paul, whom some have claimed was the founder of Christianity rather than Jesus. I’ll begin with a summary of what has preceded for those not familiar with the earlier material. (Please feel free to scroll down to the main article, if this is not felt necessary.)
My starting point was an article by Benjamin Cain where he outlined the mythicist case against a historical Jesus. I did not think that this did justice to the material found in the gospels, so wrote this article. He then replied here, clarifying his position. I made a response to that here.
Cain had stated that the theological, supernatural Christ that is crucial to Christian faith can be disposed of, because “the crucial questions are already decided by the atheist’s commitment to another principle, namely that of the critical-historical approach to the Bible and to Christianity’s origin, which amounts to a commitment to the scientific principle of methodological naturalism”. Or, put more simply, “can be swiftly eliminated because of its implausibility”.
These were statements that I profoundly disagreed with, not being a fan of atheism, or of atheism posing as science, or of the unwarranted devotion of much modern science to the philosophy of naturalism. I was also unhappy about the implication that we don’t need to have a proper discussion, but can decide the outcome in advance on the basis of these (I would say erroneous) preconceptions. These objections provoked me into writing the current series, in order to present a spiritual defense of Christianity, and specifically the theological ideas of Paul. (By this I mean the original, true Christianity, not the version created by the Roman Catholic Church.)
In the next article I asked the question, Was Christianity a New Religion? It almost certainly wasn’t.
The modern ‘scientific’ approach rejects the gospel miracles and anything supernatural. It is assumed that the miracles were intended by the gospel writers to be evidence of Jesus’s divinity. In this article, I therefore gave reasons why Jesus may have been just human, and defended the portrayal of him as a miracle-worker, arguing that the miracles he is said to have performed would be possible for a trained spiritual master.
In this article, I outlined the reasons why it is said that Paul rather than Jesus was the founder of Christianity. The main point is that his theology seems to be based upon pagan Mystery traditions.
In this article, given that some say that Paul was the founder of Christianity, I argued that the most important verse in the New Testament was his statement that, following his conversion, he went immediately to Arabia. This meant that the story in Acts of his conversion on the road to Damascus and what followed was a fiction. It is vitally important to know why he might have gone to Arabia, and what he found there. I also described there the attempts by Christians to sweep this problematic statement under the carpet.
In the following article, I discussed at length the ideas of Kamal Salibi, who took Paul’s claim seriously, and decided to investigate it. He concluded that much of the Old Testament took place in Arabia, that the Jews had their origin there, and that the historical Jesus (he believes there was one) came from the same area. This suggests that there must have been a Nazarene centre there (Nazarene is a word sometimes used by scholars to describe Jesus’s tradition); this may well have been Paul’s destination. It would seem that he discovered scriptures there related to an earlier prophet Issa (transcribed into Greek as Jesus), and a fertility-god Al Issa (thus the god Jesus). These scriptures were almost certainly inspirations for the gospels of Luke and John, which suggests that Christianity had its origins in Arabia.
The next important question is whether this was enough to explain Paul’s teachings, or whether more might have happened to him there. That is the starting point for the current article.
If, in the light of all the questions under discussion, the most important verse in the New Testament is Paul’s statement that, following his conversion, he went immediately to Arabia, the second most important would seem to be this one (2 Corinthians 12: 2–4): “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person… was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat”.
I’m not aware of any serious scholar who thinks that Paul, despite his use of the third person, is referring to anyone other than himself here. The verses which precede and follow, convoluted statements about boasting and not boasting, seem to give the game away, probably intentionally.
These three verses are extraordinary. They show that Paul is aware of different levels of reality, which he has actually visited, and out-of-body experiences. His own experience is so powerful that he cannot tell whether he is in the body or out of it. He makes a cryptic reference to “the third heaven”. We have no idea what he means by that. How many heavens does he think there are? Is that third from the top or from the bottom? We can only assume that it was a high heaven, since he learnt there profound but unrepeatable secrets.
There are two crucial questions in relation to this statement. Firstly, at what point in Paul’s life did this vision/revelation occur? We know that he had a vision which converted him to the Nazarene (or whatever name one chooses to give to the followers of Jesus) cause, and led him to go immediately to Arabia. According to Paul, this was a revelation by God of his Son (Galatians 1: 15–16), which therefore sounds like the incident on the road to Damascus, recounted in Acts 9. Paul, however, swears an oath that everything that follows in that account is a lie, so that may mean that the actual revelation as described there was also not true. The general outline is the same, however, the most important point, as agreed in both accounts, being that he had a revelation of God’s Son.
Kamal Salibi, whose theories were the subject of my previous article in this series, suggested that the Corinthians passage quoted above was this converting revelation¹. There is nothing in the text to suggest that, however; there is no reference to the risen Christ. On the contrary, the text gives the impression that this was something that happened later. The reason I say this is that it sounds like some kind of initiatory experience from the ancient Mystery Schools, something that would not have happened spontaneously, which is what we assume Paul’s original conversion vision would have been, given that at the time he was a conventional Jew.
The second crucial question is, what could have induced such an extraordinary experience? Could it have happened spontaneously? Perhaps, since there are reports of such occurrences. A famous example is that of the medieval Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas. He had devoted himself to reconciling Catholic theology with the philosophy of Aristotle, his magnum opus being the Summa Theologiae, which became the bedrock of later Catholic theology. Before its completion, however, he had a vision/revelation that affected him so profoundly that he left it unfinished, saying: “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me”, and: “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”
There is, however, a more likely explanation. A spontaneous experience like that of Aquinas is rare; it is more likely that something triggered Paul’s experience. My perhaps controversial suggestion is that this was a psychedelic drug, the most likely candidate being the mushroom Amanita Muscaria. This makes sense given everything that I’ve said so far, that Paul is often considered to be the founder of Christianity, which, as many writers have noted, has close links with ancient Mystery traditions — cults of Mithras, Orpheus, Attis etc. We know that psychoactive drugs were used in these ancient Mystery Schools. The experience described in Corinthians would therefore seem to be the best evidence that Paul had indeed been initiated into a Mystery tradition, and that this occurred somewhere in Arabia.
Others who agree, at least about the Mystery initiation, are:
- Jonathan Black, who has written an extensive study of the Mystery traditions from ancient times down to the present day², says that “St. Paul… was an initiate of the Mystery tradition” (p93). He also says that “in the ancient world the teachings of the Mystery schools were guarded as closely as nuclear secrets are guarded today” (p18). So, when Paul says that he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat”, this is circumstantial evidence that he has had such an experience.
- Raynor Johnson, who may be a forgotten figure, but someone I treat as an authority on spiritual matters. He says that within the Mystery schools, “there were Enlightened or Illumined Souls who were willing to teach esoteric truth to those who proved by their character and insight that they were ready to receive it. Again, however, the students were bound by oaths of secrecy. Many allusions are made by Paul in some of his letters to the Mysteries of the Kingdom, and it seems likely from some of the terms that he uses that he had been admitted into one of these schools”³.
If my suggestion that Paul took psychedelic mushrooms seems surprising or shocking to anyone, I’ll spend some time trying to justify that point. I’ll begin by describing an experience of the transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof, whose work is highly relevant. He began as a psychiatrist in Czechoslovakia, where he became involved in an experimental programme using LSD, soon after it was discovered, for therapeutic purposes. It was considered to be an unconventional training tool, but the idea was that it might help therapists if they were able to spend some time in the worlds of their patients. They could then communicate and treat better. So the therapists had the opportunity to take the drug, at the same time participating in an EEG experiment which drove the brainwaves. Grof was an early volunteer, and describes the following transformative experience.
As his session was culminating, he was “hit by this incredible source of light… My consciousness was catapulted out of my body, I lost the research assistant, then the clinic, then Prague, and then the planet. I had the feeling that my consciousness had absolutely no boundaries, that basically my consciousness became commensurate with the whole universe… (This was) an incredible cosmic experience”⁴. This is the effect that a psychoactive drug can have; doesn’t this sound similar to Paul’s experience quoted above?
To take the point further, I’ll turn now to a brief history of the claimed use of psychoactive mushrooms in early Christianity. John Allegro was not the first author to suggest that mushrooms were used in early religions, but he certainly created a stir when, in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross⁵, he claimed that early Christianity was a fertility cult that was based on the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms. He actually went so far as to say that Jesus, far from being a historical person, was a name for the psychedelic mushroom amanita muscaria, and that the gospel writers were incorporating secret allusions to the mushrooms in the text for the benefit of those in the know. Apparently he stopped saying this later, but “he still believed that the use of hallucinogens had been an essential part of many or most ancient religions and offered a clue to understanding their mythologies”, and “he continued to discover references in the Bible that linked back to ancient drug cults”⁶.
I have a suggestion as to why Allegro might have made this mistake, if that is what it was. John’s gospel has Jesus say: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life… for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink… whoever eats me will live because of me” (6: 51–57). It is easy to see here why Allegro might have thought that it was the mushroom itself that was speaking. An alternative explanation for passages like these, as put forward by Kamal Salibi (discussed in this earlier article), is that John is putting into Jesus’s mouth the words of the Arabian fertility god Al Issa. There might, of course, be a strong connection between such fertility-cults and Mystery traditions, so that Jesus here is speaking as the dying-and-resurrected god of the Mysteries. The mushroom (or other hallucinogens) played a central role in these traditions, but that does not mean that the word Jesus became merely a symbol for it, although the close connection between mushrooms and Christianity might lead one to think that.
How Allegro came to his conclusions is not clear. He was one of the first team of scholars engaged in the translation and interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He became frustrated, however, because he believed that he had discovered some explosive material which would be highly damaging to Christianity. He thought the Scrolls should be published for the benefit of everyone, but that the team, under the directorship of Roland de Vaux of the Catholic Church, was deliberately refusing to publish them in order to avoid independent scrutiny, and possibly editing some of the texts. (I’ve written about this in an earlier article.)
There are no obvious references to mushroom use in the published texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, although Allegro occasionally refers to what he considers to be coded references (p162, p168). If there were, this would be good evidence of their use in early Christianity, since it is widely believed that the Qumran Essenes, keepers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were its forerunners. Interestingly, in a letter to the Guardian newspaper (December 13th 1983) Allegro referred to “the discovery of more scrolls in 1956, one of which at least has mysteriously ‘disappeared’ ”. One wonders what these texts might have contained but, of course, we will never know.
So we cannot say for certain whether Allegro’s hypothesis was based upon the Dead Sea Scrolls, or whether he was working merely from the New Testament texts and his knowledge of ancient languages.
His book was heavily criticised when it first appeared. The critics fell into two camps. There were Christians who simply could not cope with what he was saying with all the implications, and others who thought that his philology, based as it was on the use of the ancient Sumerian language as a key to the roots of Semitic and Indo-European was far too speculative, and therefore unproven. Here is a flavour of the argument. Fifteen eminent professors wrote to The Times (May 16th 1970), calling the book “an essay in fantasy rather than philology”. Allegro’s response was to call them “Driver and fourteen of his cronies”. He criticised them for making their comment “without offering any real objective criticism. (This) stems from sheer emotion and not from reasoned critical assessment. It is what one might expect from ecclesiastics, but hardly from the British Academy”⁷.
Following the publication of The Sacred Mushroom, Allegro became involved in a semi-public row with Gordon Wasson, who was:
- author of: Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality⁸, in which he argued that the Indian psychoactive plant Soma was in fact the mushroom amanita muscaria, otherwise known as fly-agaric.
- co-author of The Road to Eleusis⁹, which established that a psychoactive drink kykeon was used in the Eleusinian Mystery tradition.
Wasson had stated categorically that there was no evidence of mushroom use in religious traditions after 1000 BC which, if true, would obviously blow a hole through Allegro’s theory. Because I believe that this has some merit, it is important to delve into this argument in order to investigate his credibility. Wasson was a better known figure, so one might believe that his opinion was more reliable, and therefore that he had won the argument. This was indeed the public perception. Thus, as J. R. Irvin says: “Wasson is perceived as credible in comparison with Allegro. But Wasson doesn’t cover entheogens in Christianity: Allegro does. Thus, this anti-Allegro and pro-Wasson stance gives the appearance that the theory of entheogens in Christianity is baseless”.
Irvin has examined in great detail all the available material and written a book about this argument¹⁰. His conclusion comes out decisively in favour of Allegro:
- Wasson makes “erroneous and unfounded attacks against Allegro” (p80).
- “Upon critical review (of each of Wasson’s contentions against Allegro’s scholarship), in every instance, the evidence has weighed heavily in Allegro’s favor, and to Wasson’s own detriment” (p107).
- Wasson “appears to act more out of jealousy or resentment toward Allegro for doing what he never had the guts to do — investigate Judeo-Christianity” (p99).
- “Wasson, by his own missives, appears to be more concerned with being on top, or being the expert, rather than with discovering the truth in regard to Judeo-Christianity” (p154).
Regarding the quality of Allegro’s work:
- “The errors directly attributable to Allegro are minimal, and largely understandable” (p155).
- Allegro “took the blame for many errors that were not his own but those he simply copied from other scholars” (p6).
- All the (listed) accusations against Allegro “have now been shown to be baseless accusations” (p158).
Perhaps more important than all this bickering between the two men is the inclusion by Irvin of approximately 50 illustrations from Christian art containing mushrooms, more often than not obviously amanita muscaria. In the final illustration Jesus, as a baby, is portrayed as a mushroom! I’m not saying that this is evidence for Allegro’s original contention that Jesus was the name for the mushroom, but at least it makes you wonder what was going on. Obviously, none of this art dates from the time of Jesus, rather from the Middle Ages. Most are dated from the 11th to 14th centuries, but there is one from the 9th, and there are two dated as late as 1811 and 1813. They come from all over Europe, primarily Germany, England, and France, but the last two mentioned are found in Russia. This means that for hundreds of years Christian artists and church builders believed that there was an intimate connection between Christianity and amanita muscaria. Why did they think that, and how did they know?
On the same theme John A. Rush has written The Mushroom in Christian Art¹¹. In the foreword (by Martin W. Ball), it is stated that Rush “had asked several Christian art historians about the curious presence of mushrooms in Christian art. The response he was given by all he asked was the same: there were no mushrooms in Christian art. (This book) proves this statement to be profoundly mistaken”. (One wonders how one can be an art historian if one is blind! Or, as the philosopher Henri Bergson put it: “The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend”.)
Interestingly, Rush agrees with Allegro’s provisional assessment that “Jesus was never an actual, historical person, but rather was understood by early Christians to literally be the mystical experience occasioned by the ingestion of entheogenic plants and fungi. Quite simply, Jesus is the mushroom experience, and this fact is depicted in several stylized, and sometimes literal, ways in Christian art” (also the foreword by Ball, Pvii). As discussed above, he might be making the same mistake as Allegro. However, the fact that one can even think this indicates the close relationship between Christianity and psychoactive mushrooms. Rush provides well over 200 pictures dating from 200 CE to the present, which are not in the book, but which can be viewed at www.clinicalanthropology.com¹² He accepts that not every single one is conclusive, but there are enough convincing ones to make his case.
I should say that Irvin’s and Rush’s interpretation of the pictures has been criticised, notably by Thomas Hatsis, who believes that their analysis is flawed (see, for example, this article on his website). I’m obviously not an expert, and am willing to accept that they may be mistaken in some cases. However, they seemingly provide enough obvious examples of amanita muscaria in Christian art to accept their general thesis.
Another important book on this theme is The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity by Jerry and Julie Brown¹³. They have identified further examples of mushrooms in Christian art not mentioned by the other authors, for example in the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, and the Great Canterbury Psalter, where “numerous red, blue, orange, and tan stylized mushrooms dot the first hundred pages, including a picture showing God as the… creator of sacred mushrooms” (p137), and where “there are numerous images of Jesus in association with mushrooms” (p144).
Even more significantly they have found examples in the city of Göreme in Cappadocia, in Turkey. This area was the cradle of Christianity, since many very early Christians fled there to escape persecution by the Romans, and some “took refuge in cave dwellings or in underground cities” (p184). Göreme was “one of the most important centers of Christianity between the fourth and ninth centuries” (p189). There are churches there cut into the rocks. The art found there would therefore be based on traditions that go back a long way, perhaps even to the first century. The authors speculate: “Given the long-term persecution faced by Christians in ancient Turkey, what if, in contrast to the clear images of psychoactive mushrooms we’d seen throughout Europe, the monks of Cappadocia were clandestinely depicting the role of entheogens in the life of Christ?”. They believe they find such evidence for, in a painting depicting the crucifixion, the sponge used to offer the vinegar to Jesus has red-with-white speckles, and “looks exactly like a round Amanita mushroom on top of the stalk” (p190).
The Browns also shed further light on the dispute between Wasson and Allegro. They are keen to understand “Wasson’s greatest paradox: the discrepancy between his zealous exploration of entheogens in early religion and his reluctance to pursue that theory into the hallowed halls of Christianity” (p90, their italics). Agreeing broadly with Irvin that his ego was a significant factor, they describe him as a “brilliant researcher turned into a ruthless self-promoter who single-handedly destroyed one of the world’s last living mushroom cults” (p62). They provide some significant further information, that in his former life as a banker, “Wasson was an account manager to the Pope and Vatican for J. P. Morgan”, even to the extent of having private audiences with the Pope, as confirmed by two of his former colleagues. As the Browns say, he “never mentions his role as the Vatican’s banker, not once, not in any of his books or articles”, which is “unethical” and “a significant conflict of interest” (p181). This “calls into question everything Wasson ever wrote to justify his position on the absence of entheogens in the Judeo-Christian tradition after 1000 BCE”, and “provided the motivation for Wasson’s insidious personal attacks on Allegro” (p182).
In conclusion, it is therefore reasonable to dismiss everything that Wasson ever wrote or said in relation to the use of mushrooms in early Christianity. Allegro may have been a groundbreaking philological genius, or his philological ideas may have been either completely or partially misguided. His main hypothesis is supported, however, by the numerous examples of mushrooms in Christian art. As the Browns say, their conclusions are not based on the “speculative interpretation of ancient languages… (but) the plausible identification of entheogenic images” (p218). Despite criticisms that have been made against some of the images presented, I would suggest that there are enough obvious depictions of the amanita muscaria in the Christian art presented by Irvin, Rush, and the Browns, to conclude that magic mushrooms have long been a significant factor in Christianity, probably from the earliest days.
There is therefore no reason not to believe that the apostle Paul was initiated into such a tradition. If we need any further evidence, I offer this passage from the highly respected scholar Mircea Eliade, commenting on the Greek and Oriental Mysteries: “It is known that the essence of initiation into the Mysteries consisted of participation in the passion, death and resurrection of a God… One can conjecture that the sufferings, death and resurrection of the God, already known to the neophyte as a myth or as authentic history, were communicated to him during initiations, in an ‘experimental’ manner. The meaning and finality of the Mysteries were the transmutation of man. By experience of initiatory death and resurrection, the initiate changed his mode of being (he became ‘immortal’)”¹⁴.
Isn’t that precisely the teaching of Paul, who must therefore have had such an experience? More to follow.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Conspiracy in Jerusalem, I. B. Tauris & Co., 1988, p147
2. The Secret History of the World, Quercus, 2010
3. The Spiritual Path, Hodder & Stoughton, 1972, p164
4. The Transpersonal Vision, series of audiocassettes, Sounds True, tape 1
5. Hodder & Stoughton, 1970
6. John Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Judith Anne Brown (Allegro’s daughter), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005, p274
7. ibid., p203–4
8. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., undated but I believe 1968
9. with Albert Hofmann, Carl A. P. Ruck, Hermes Press/William Dailey Rare Books Ltd, 1998
10. The Holy Mushroom: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity, Gnostic Media, 2008, the quote is from p4
11. North Atlantic Books, 2011
12. enter http://www.clinicalanthropology.com/mushroom-in-christian-art/mushroom-in-christian-art-chapter-one/ two/three/four
13. Park Street Press, 2016
14. The Forge and the Crucible, University of Chicago Press, 1962, p149