In 2006, Ronald R. Griffiths and his team at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated in a double-blind experiment that the hallucinogen psilocybin, extracted from a kind of mushroom, could induce mystical experiences. They chose thirty-six participants who at least intermittently had participated in religious and spiritual activities. All but one were college graduates. Two-thirds reported two months later that their psilocybin experience had been either the single most meaningful experience of their lives or among the five most meaningful experiences of their lives.
The above experiment started with a cause (a hallucinogen) and reported its effects (a religious experience). It is more difficult to start with effects and work successfully back to their causes. Moreover, the act of using concurrent facts and constructing a single causal narrative is risky in itself, often leading to the production of a charming but mistaken myth. Yet time and time again, scientists have discovered that paying attention to a discrepant fact is the key to the solution of a problem.
The four canonical Christian Gospels are like four gardens containing weeds. The weeds are discrepant facts and episodes that the gardeners failed to uproot or fully harmonize with their moral message. The Gospel writers treated them as miraculous and used them as proof of the divine nature of Jesus. But they had nothing to do with the moral message of Jesus.
One way to deal with such discrepancies is to color-code the text to indicate the degree to which each passage is probably authentic, that is, as expressions of what Jesus “really” meant. This was the approach of the Jesus Seminar in 1995’s The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. The authors identified discrepant material and color-coded it as grey or black. Their judgments were based on assumptions about Jesus, assumptions that may have been wholly or partly incorrect. Moreover, the Jesus Seminarians did not take into consideration the physical environment in which Jesus lived.
Another way to approach the Gospels, the one used here, is to take heed of the scientific experiment described briefly in the first paragraph. It shows that many people can have profound religious experiences when under the influence of a hallucinogen. Hallucinogens can be extracted from plants and fungi. Could these facts be of any use in understanding the “weeds” in the Gospels? Could they lead to a more accurate reconstruction of the origins of Christianity? Let us see.
Our analysis begins by exploring the possible causation of some of the visions reported in the Bible and probing the thinking associated with them. It is based on the working assumption that religious experiences may be chemically induced.
How can one decide whether a vision is chemically induced? Visions may be connected with sleep, produced consciously by the imagination, or a result of mental illness. But the effects induced by a hallucinogen always have a marker: at some point they involve characteristic distortions in visual perceptions. Many hallucinogens, including the psychedelics, cause mydriasis, the exessive dialation of the puplis even in bright environments. The subject feels overwhelmed by light.
Generally speaking, hallucinogens often cause a bright light to appear in the center of the visual field. They occasionally cause transient blindness and may cause auditory hallucinations and high anxiety as well.
There are no statements in the Bible to the effect that any individual ingested a hallucinogen. But this silence is not strange; consider the Greek priestesses in ancient Eleusis who served a sacred drink, kykeon. The priestesses kept its recipe secret for centuries. Scholars still argue about its ingredients, but they generally agree that kykeon contained a hallucinogen. Those with a monopoly of knowledge about the preparation of a sacred compound possess an advantage over their competitors. Little wonder that such knowledge, like an old family recipe or a trade secret, does not appear in the Scripture record.
In the New Testament, the only sacred drink mentioned is wine, which Jesus and his disciples, like other Jews, drank. But it is well known that a large dose of wine does not produce spiritual experiences and lasting peace of mind but rather a headache. Perhaps on occasion Jesus and his disciples made use of a more suitable drink, one that lifted their spirits instead of giving a nasty hangover. If so, how could it be detected?
- The probable ingredients would have to be identified.
- It would be necessary to show that the ingredients were available in first-century Palestine.
- It would be necessary to identify extraordinary experiences of Jesus and his followers that might have been induced by such a drink. Then it would be necessary to make a differential diagnosis of these extraordinary experiences.
Visual and Auditory Disturbances in the New Testament
The episode of the transfiguration of Jesus is found in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matt. 17:1–9; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:29). Jesus took three disciples, Peter, James, and John, with him to the top of a mountain. Matthew’s account is typical:
And he [Jesus] was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah talking with him. . . . Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice said, “This is my Son, The Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this they fell to the ground and were overcome with fear. But Jesus came and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Differential diagnosis: migraine headaches may produce visual and auditory hallucinations. So may temporal lobe epilepsy. However, it is improbable that three men would suffer the acute symptoms of such disorders simultaneously. A hallucinogen could have produced the effects reported in the Gospels simultaneously in a group of individuals.
A hallucinogen may also be suspected as a cause of the vision of Paul of Tarsus (Acts 9:3–4). As Paul was approaching Damascus:
suddenly a light from Heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” For three days Paul was blinded.
Differential diagnosis: as suggested by Kenneth Dewhurst and his colleagues, Paul could have suffered an attack of temporal lobe epilepsy. However, transient blindness has only been reported in cases of occipital lobe epilepsy (the brain’s vision center resides in the occipital lobe). Migraine headaches may cause transient blindness but only in one eye. However, all the effects reported by Paul could have been chemically induced.
There is other evidence for chemical inducement of mental phenomena. The next two sections of this article are discussions of two thought patterns prevalent in Palestine in the time of Jesus.
Light as a Symbol
The use of light in general as a symbol of divinity is especially prominent in John 1:3–9:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enli
ghtens everyone, was coming into the world.
In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” The Book of Revelation begins with a passage blazing with light (Rev. 1:13–16):
And in the midst of the lamp stands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes like a flame of fire, his feet like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace . . . his face was like the sun shining with full force.
But light has not always been a symbol of goodness in the Middle East. Before the sixth century b.c.e., there was sun worship in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, but light and darkness carried no ethical association. They were seen as complementary phenomena, not irreconcilable opposites. For in the Middle East, summers are much hotter and drier than in northwest Europe; the sun can be a killer. People often chose to travel at night across desert areas, welcoming the cooler air and the brilliant starlight. There is usually no rain from late spring to early fall in the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Here rain and clouds are welcomed more than abundant sunlight. No wonder the chief male god in ancient Greece, Anatolia, and the Levant was a thunder god, the bringer of rain.
Only in about the sixth century b.c.e. did light begin to assume moral significance in Middle-Eastern thinking, with light representing goodness and wisdom. The experience of Zarathrushtra (Zoroaster, Zardusht), whom some experts believe lived at this time, is a case in point. When Zarathrushtra was thirty years old, at the time of the spring solstice festival, one traditional account says that he went to a river and waded into the water until midstream. When he turned around to wade back, he saw a divine being “in the shape of a man, fair, bright, and radiant. . . . He wore a garment of silk . . . which was as light itself.” The shining figure took Zarathrushtra to a group of divine beings who gave off so much light that he could no longer see his shadow on the ground.
This symbolic use of light for goodness would be logical for those who have experienced brilliant light in connection with blissful feelings while in a trance. Ancient Zoroastrian texts reveal that Zarathrushtra drank the sacred drink of the ancient Persians, haoma, and scholars believe it was probably hallucinogenic.
Zoroaster taught that the chief god in his religion, Ohrmazd, lived in a place of “Endless Light.” This god created fire and linked its brilliance to Endless Light. The Zoroastrians were often called “fire worshippers,” but in fact for them fire was only a symbol of their chief god.
Many centuries later, in 1652, George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, reported in his journal while at an inn near Pendle Hill in northwest England: “Here the Lord opened unto me, and let me see a great people in white raiment by the river side, coming to the Lord.” This was typical of mentions of light as a symbol of goodness that appeared in Fox’s diary between 1648 and 1658. I have argued elsewhere that the trembling and other central nervous symptoms reported among Quakers between 1647 and 1659 may have been caused by the unintended presence of ergot alkaloids in the rye bread in the diet of English commoners. But long after 1659 and even today, Quakers use light as a symbol to suggest the love of God and Jesus.
Early History of Apocalyptic Thinking
Apocalyptic thinking pervades the New Testament. It is concerned with the end of the world, the afterlife, the last judgment of the dead, a savior, and a new age. Apocalyptic beliefs were important in the Christian message because they served to support the view that Jesus had the supernatural power of prophecy and was the expected savior. But the end of the world did not arrive on schedule (within a generation). This called into question the claim of early Christians that Jesus was a prophet and savior. So the Gospel of Matthew (90–110 c.e.) attributed to Jesus the saying that only the Father knew the actual date of the end of the world (Matt. 24:36). Luke suggested that the Kingdom of Heaven had already arrived (Luke 11: 20, 17:20–21).
Apocalyptic thinking was part of the climate of opinion among the Jews in the first century c.e. But the Jews had not always believed in the end of the world and the coming of a Savior. Apocalyptic thinking entered Jewish thinking from Near-Eastern, Greek, and especially Persian sources.
Apocalyptic thinking focused not on religious traditions but on the current and future work of supposed supernatural powers. At this time, the struggle between good and evil powers was seen in the rise and fall of nations. The judgment of the dead and their consignment to heaven or hell would occur on a single day. The forces of the good divine ruler would defeat the forces of the evil spirit.
In the third century b.c.e., this historical apocalyptic thinking appeared among the Jews, becoming a “cultural epidemic.” It lasted until the early second century c.e. among Jews as well as Christians. But why? The Roman Empire was prospering in the first and second centuries c.e. Climatic conditions were favorable (see Figure 1); subject populations probably grew, producing heightened tax revenues. In return, the Romans were delivering many important benefits to their subjects: security from barbarian attacks, a flourishing agricultural economy, well-protected trade routes by land and sea, and a uniform system of law and justice. In the time of Jesus, then, there was no particular political or social crisis to produce a receptive audience for apocalyptic thinking.
Did apocalyptism result from Roman oppression of the Jews? One could explain the decline of apocalyptism that way. After Jewish revolts against Rome failed in the first and early second centuries c.e., apocalyptic thinking died down. Those who believed the apocalyptic prophesies may have been disillusioned by the failure of Jewish rebels. But that does not explain the previous emergence of widespread Jewish apocalyptic thinking in the relatively free and prosperous Hellenistic period. It does not explain its continuance during the centuries of peak Roman prosperity and stability.
Light symbolism and apocalyptic thinking bear remarkable resemblances to the mental effects of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) on volunteers in the United States between 1952 and 1972. These similarities suggest that the hallucinations of hippies and the “glory” in the Gospels might have had a similar origin.
Hallucinations and Recent Religious Experience
The hallucinogen LSD-25 has the capacity to produce visual and auditory hallucinations. It can induce apocalyptic visions. It can also induce mystical experiences. The chemical is derived from a group of natural chemicals found in ergot, a product of the fungus Claviceps purpurea or its relative, Claviceps paspali. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans have ingested LSD, legally and illegally.
Reports of LSD experiences usually include visual disturbances. Of his first LSD experience in the fall of 1961, Timothy Leary wrote: “Tumbling and spinning, down the soft fibrous avenues to some central point which was just light, just light, but not just light: It was the Center of Life. A burning, dazzling, throbbing radiant core, pure pulsing exulting light.” Of an experience during the winter of 1961 he reported:
The room was celestial, glowing radiant illumination . . . light . . . light . . . light. . . . The people present were transfigured. . . . Godlike creatures. . . . Gradually the brilliant illumination faded back to the Three-D world and I sat up. Reborn, Renewed, Radiant with affec
tion and reverence.
Between 1956 and 1962, the physician Oscar Janiger researched the effects of LSD by prescribing it to a total of 930 adult volunteers. He selected only volunteers who showed no sign of significant mental or physical illness. Then he provided them with a moderate dose of LSD in a secular, homelike environment with the company of a responsible guide and observer.
His volunteers typically reported visual hallucinations and frequently auditory hallucinations as well. Of the 930 volunteers, 223, or one-fifth, had mystical or spiritual experiences. A notable one was that of a woman who imagined herself moving up into “the light.”
Supernatural beings and supernatural events seen during a religious experience seem undeniably real to the subject. Some think they have experienced “ultimate reality.” Hence, the hallucinatory experience can produce conviction, belief, and lasting faith in supernatural realities.
It can be argued that by long spiritual training, individuals can learn to produce hallucinations and feelings of bliss without the use of psychoactive chemicals. Such methods include sensory deprivation, fasting, drumming, chanting, dancing, meditation, yoga exercises, and the like. But the New Testament does not report that the early Christians practiced such spiritual exercises. Jesus told them stories and performed “miracles.” They went to hear him and followed him around. The Gospel reader is expected to believe that supernatural forces produced the extraordinary experiences reported by these followers.
If we suspect a hallucinogen of creating some of the visions in the New Testament, then what might it be? Therein lies a real mystery.
The Missing Middle-Eastern Hallucinogen
From the Neolithic era, people in the Middle East enjoyed the use of psychoactive substances including beer, wine, opium, and hashish. But it is widely believed that no useful hallucinogenic plants grew in the Fertile Crescent. The datura plant grew there, but it was so toxic that it could send the user on a one-way trip to the spirit world. The other psychoactive substances available do not qualify as hallucinogens.
As for fungi, the usual climate in most of the Middle East was often too dry to encourage their growth. In addition, the staple cereal crops of the Middle East, wheat and barley, were not hospitable to the spores of the ergot fungus Claviceps purpurea, which rarely colonized any cereal except rye. As far as is known, little rye was grown in the Middle East in the first century c.e.
In the search for the recipe for kykeon, investigators have turned to possible ergot hosts other than cereals. In 1978, Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered the effects of LSD, proposed that hallucinogenic alkaloids might have become available when the fungus Claviceps paspali colonized a ubiquitous Mediterranean wild grass, Paspalium distichum, or some other wild grass. LSD can be produced from the ergot alkaloids produced by Claviceps paspali. (One of the products of Claviceps paspali, as well as other members of the genus Claviceps, is honeydew, a sweet liquid. When honey is not available, honeydew can serve as a sweetener to offset the bitterness of natural alkaloids in a recipe.) All told, however, the appearance of a natural hallucinogen has not been suspected in the arid flatlands and hills of Palestine.
However, Jesus lived in a time of favorable climatic conditions in Palestine: indeed, moisture was at a peak. Apocalyptic thinking began at the beginning of this moist period and died out in the third century c.e., when the climate was drying out (see Figure 1).
Furthermore, Galilee, the home of Jesus, has a higher rainfall (c. 900–1,200 millimeters per year) than the rest of Palestine. Here one finds Mt. Meron, which at 3,955 feet is the highest mountain in Palestine. The ergots of Claviceps paspali are more likely to appear in the mountains of Galilee than in any other place in Palestine.
Shepherds living on the slopes of the mountains of Galilee may have known that in the spring the milk produced by their flocks had “magical” power and may have told Jesus about it. This would explain the appearance of the shepherds in the birth story, with its well-known imagery of light (Luke 2:8–18): the shepherds were “keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were terrified.” Here we find evidence of a possible drug-induced hallucination: brilliant light at night, a central focus of light, a feeling of fear shared by a whole group. Why did the vision come to shepherds? Perhaps these shepherds had consumed the fresh spring-contaminated milk produced by their flocks. Perhaps shepherds were the ones who told Jesus the secret.
In addition, some Greeks may have known the secret recipe for kykeon. Jesus may have met Greeks familiar with the cult of Demeter in Eleusis in Sepphoris, a Greek trading center just five miles from Nazareth, about an hour’s walk.
Greek towns had a cosmopolitan population. The Persians, who had taken the ritual drink haoma at least since the Bronze Age and probably longer, may have been represented in Sepphoris by Zoroastrian priests, whom the Greeks called “magi” (often translated as “wise men”). Those in Matthew 2:1–12 were “from the East.” This probably referred to Persia, the home of Zoroastrianism. They may have been telling fortunes by the stars, a common practice of such priests. Hillman and others report that the magi used a drug when they wished to “call up the gods.”
We are told in the Gospel of Matthew that three magi revered Jesus as a newborn baby. But perhaps the contact came later, when Jesus was an adult. Then the reported gifts of the magi would have made better sense. The gold would have served to buy food and clothing for Jesus and his disciples as they went about preaching the gospel. The smoke of frankincense resin is not merely pleasant: research in 2008 showed it psychoactive, relieving depression and anxiety. Myrrh, another fragrant resin, was an ingredient in oil used to anoint a king.
So there were many possible people—shepherds, Greeks, and magi—who might have told Jesus the recipe for a hallucinogenic drink.
The Missing Middle-Eastern Potentiator
But the solution to the mystery of the missing hallucinogen is not complete. Even if collectors at Eleusis had meadows full of colonized grasses, they might not have been able to find enough ergots to provide for thousands of celebrants. This would have depended on the spring rainfall, which varied from year to year. The solution may have been that the priestesses of Demeter and the magi knew of a potentiator, or booster, that could increase the strength of a hallucinogenic drink and the number of effective doses of it that could be prepared.
The answer may be found in the recipe for the famous South American psychedelic drink ayahuasca. This drink has at least two psychoactive ingredients: harmaline, from the plant Banisteropsis caapi, and DMT, or dimethyltryptamine, from Psychotria viridis and other South American plants. Ayahuasca achieves its effect by the synergy of its two main ingredients. Harmaline is a beta-carboline indole alkaloid; taken alone it can serve as antidepressant, creating a state of calm elation. DMT is a hallucinogen. The beta-carbolines, by inhibiting the output of monoamine oxidase, may increase the amount of serotonin at work in the synapses. Thus harmaline can potentiate the DMT. The two drugs taken simultaneously are more potent than if taken at different times.
So what could have been the potentiator of the natural ergot alkaloids in Greece and the Middle East? It could have been a drug known to the Greeks as moly (mentioned by Homer in The Odyssey) and to others as wild rue or Syrian rue. Wild rue contains harmaline, the same beta carboline as the potentiating component in ayahuasca.
In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, wild rue plants may have proliferated throughout the Middle East, especially along the camel caravan trails. David Flattery has argued that wild rue was the sacred plant known as soma and haoma to the ancient Indo-Europeans. The difficulty with this theory is that those who ingest extracts from this plant may attain calm elation but do not hallucinate unless they take an almost toxic dose.
The religious importance of wild rue is that if combined with a hallucinogen, it could greatly amplify the potency of the latter. It has been reported that Syrian rue seeds used to potentiate LSD can make it three or four times as potent. Was this the great secret of Eleusis: the combination of two drugs, in exact proportions, neither of which alone would have been able to produce a great psychological high?
If this hypothesis is to have any relevance to Christianity, then both ergot and wild rue would have had to be available in Palestine in the first century c.e.
In the first century c.e., Dioscorides, a Greek botanist who lived in Cilicia (in southeastern Turkey just north of Syria), identified a bush that was already known in Iran, Egypt, and Greece and had spread to the Levant. Dioscorides called it Peganon agrion. Today it is known in Western botany as Peganum harmala or wild rue, Syrian rue, African rue, and so on. The Arabs call it harmal; the Iranians call it esfand. Dioscorides considered that wild rue was more effective but more dangerous medicine than common rue, a similar plant without psychoactive properties.
The herb rue (peganon) is mentioned once in the New Testament in Luke 11:43. Jesus says, “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue [peganon] and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is those you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others” (New Oxford Annotated Bible). Jesus did not disapprove of the tithing of mint and rue unless it caused neglect of justice and the love of God.
From this context it seems that rue was considered a valuable herb. Biblical scholars usually interpret peganon to mean common rue, a questionable translation—especially when we consider that in this passage rue was paired specifically with mint. Mint is a remedy for mild nausea. Common rue does not cause nausea; wild rue does cause mild nausea. Mint linked with rue may be a pointer to the interpretation of Luke’s rue as wild rue.
Wild rue is a bright green perennial succulent plant, resistant to drought (see Figure 2). Its stems form concentric fans, with white flowers of radial symmetry growing at the tip of each stem. These flowers take the form of a pentacle, a magic symbol in Europe. It is the official symbol of the Wiccan religion today.
The fruit of wild rue forms and ripens in late summer or fall. Each golden trefoil-shaped seed pod contains about fifty reddish-brown triangular seeds. The seeds and roots, when crushed in a hand mortar then boiled, yield the alkaloid harmaline. When the dried bush is burned it gives off a musky, pleasant fragrance. In the folk belief of Arabs and Iranians today, the burning of the dried plant is thought to ward off the effects of the Evil Eye. It is burned as incense at Persian weddings and other festive occasions, adding to the gaiety.
The seeds of wild rue are very bitter. Those ingesting them must find something sweet to offset their bitterness. Honey was the principal sweetener in ancient times. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the priestesses at Eleusis were beekeepers, and the priestesses bore the name melissae, bees.) As noted above, the alternative sweetener when honey was unavailable was honeydew, a product of Claviceps.
The Christians could have harvested the seeds of wild rue in the fall, kept them in a dry place, and then combined them with ergots in the spring for Easter and Pentecost celebrations.
In addition, from wild rue a dark red/purple dye called “Turkey red” can be extracted and used in making oriental carpets and fezzes. This color is similar to that in the sclerotia of the fungus Claviceps purpurea. The coincidence may have led to experimentation with the two sources of red dye. Red wine can also be used as a dye, as anyone who has spilled it on a light carpet knows. A sacred drink made from ergot and wild rue would have had much the same red color and the same dyeing property. Like wine, it too would have symbolized blood and thus life itself.
The evidence presented here suggests that some of the visions in the New Testament and the apocalyptic thinking associated with them may have been the result of the ingestion of a hallucinogen. The main ingredients for this drink may have included ergot alkaloids from Claviceps paspali, the seeds of wild rue (potentiators), and honeydew. They may have induced mystic experiences that stimulated apocalyptic thinking and the use of light as a symbol of goodness.
Using this approach, it is possible to harmonize many discrepant elements of the Gospel stories into a more meaningful whole. The “transfiguration” of Jesus, the sudden conversion of Paul, and the role of the shepherds and magi are no longer discrepant but serve to support a new and perhaps more plausible explanation of the origins of Christianity.
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