Was Jesus a Mushroom?
Some bloggers and podcasters have claimed that Jesus never existed. Instead, he was a metaphor for magic mushrooms.
How did this idea become so popular?
Does it have any validity?
"All of Christianity was a massive misunderstanding. [What] it was originally about was... fertility rituals and psychedelic mushroom use, and he traced the word 'Jesus' back to an ancient Sumerian word that [meant] 'a mushroom covered in God's semen."
- Joe Rogan Experience #1407, (~49:45)
In January 2020, Joe Rogan used his popular podcast to repeat the claims of Dr. John M. Allegro, a mid-20th century Dead Sea Scrolls scholar. In The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, Allegro argued that the New Testament was written by a secret Second Temple Jewish psychoactive mushroom cult. This cult was even more ancient in origin, beginning with Sumerian fertility cults which are also reflected in the Hebrew Bible. In this version of events, Jesus did not exist. He was merely a metaphor for the Amanita muscaria mushroom. It was only later that Gentiles took the New Testament at face value, creating what we understand as “Christianity.” When the book first came out, other scholars called it “the psychedelic ravings of a hippie cultist,” “an outlandish hoax,” and “a Semitic philologist's erotic nightmare.” The criticism ended Allegro’s academic career, but it also bolstered the book's popularity among some spiritual seekers and psychedelic enthusiasts.
Ironically, the book's association with "magic mushrooms" is erroneous. The mushroom Allegro connected with Jesus, Amanita muscaria, contains deliriant alkaloids, but no psychedelic alkaloids. Psilocybe genus mushrooms are mentioned only once, and only briefly, in his book. Allegro seems almost completely ignorant about the nature of psychoactive mushrooms. He inaccurately refers to “magic mushrooms” as poisonous, and he conflates the effects of all psychoactive mushrooms. To Allegro, the effects of Amanita muscaria and Psilocybe cubensis are one and the same, despite actually being markedly different.
Beyond the faulty psychedelic connection, Allegro's entire thesis is based on very questionable scholarship. He primarily argues his position through speculative linguistics. He identifies words in the Bible and words with alleged ties to mushrooms in various ancient languages which share phonetic similarities. For instance, he identifies Esau’s name with the Sumerian term *E-ShU-A, which he translates as “raised canopy,” and he identifies Jacob’s name with the Sumerian term *IA-A-GUB, which he translates as “pillar.” (p. 120) Together, Jacob and Esau are a pillar with a red, coarse canopy, which coincidentally does look like the Amanita muscaria mushroom. In the New Testament, Allegro claims that the Greek word skandalon or “stick snare” has its origins in an Aramaic word he renders as tiqla or “bolt-plant.” He also translates the Greek mōrios, usually translated as “folly,” to mean “mushroom” based on strained word associations in Sumerian, Akkadian, Greek, and Hebrew. “Christ crucified” in 1 Corinthians 1:23 is then interpreted as “a bolt-plant to the Jews” and “a mushroom to the Gentiles.” (p. 44; 233)
These and other language arguments use faulty reasoning. If two words sound similar, that does not mean that they are connected. The Hindi word for "night" is रैना, pronounced raina. Despite sounding similar to the word "rain," there is no linguistic connection between the two. Likewise, there is no connection between the Arabic word for water, Ma'an (مـَييـَه), and the English word "man." Allegro's linguistic arguments are hidden behind his extensive citations of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic, Coptic, and other languages. Without any training, these arguments may seem strong and difficult to fact-check. However, as every other scholar on this topic agrees, Allegro's linguistic connections between Biblical words and mushroom terms are as strained as connecting "night" and "rain" or "water" and "man."
It is notable that Allegro’s work has been called a hoax, as if he crafted a seemingly academic work with the intention of “trolling” the Mainline Christian scholars with whom he repeatedly argued. Allegro certainly thought that Christian sensibilities muddied the waters in Dead Sea Scrolls research, and he thought their speculative reconstructions were counterproductive. In light of this context, The Sacred Mushrooms and the Cross may have been an elaborate prank, intended to root out this bias in his colleagues by showing that they still had a vested interest in the nature and teachings of the earliest Christian communities.
There is some evidence to support this theory. In his final chapter, entitled “The Bible as a Book of Morals,” Allegro shifts his tone and lays down a theological challenge to liberal Protestant scholars. In his last paragraph, he presents a question that is not just valid for his thesis, but for broader Biblical interpretation as well:
"Perhaps more fundamentally, now that we no longer need to view the Bible through the mists of piety, does it really matter in the twentieth century whether the adherents of this strange Judaeo-Christian drug cult thought their community ethics valid for the world at large, or not? If some aspects of the 'Christian' ethic still seem worthwhile today, does it add to their authority that they were promulgated two thousand years ago by worshippers of the Amanita muscaria?" (p. 205)
Allegro’s question is more far-reaching than it may originally appear. Replacing “drug cult” with “apocalyptic cult” and “the Amanita muscaria” with “a crucified apocalyptic prophet,” this question could be asked of many historical critics who do not believe Jesus was God but still refer to themselves as Christian. If these liberal Christians already dismiss the orthodox understanding of Jesus, does it matter what the results of historical study are? Or do some liberal Christian scholars still have a vested interest in connecting the moral teachings of the Bible and early Christianity with their own morals today? This conclusion to Allegro's book seems to support the "trolling" hoax theory.
Regardless of whether Allegro created The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross as a hoax, its thesis is still wrong, and his arguments are poor. Despite what internet personalities may want to believe, Jesus was not a hallucinogenic mushroom. He was a real, flesh and blood human being who began the Christian faith.