Story by Chris Bennett
In February of 2003, HIGH TIMES published my controversial article, “Was Jesus a Stoner?” Shortly thereafter, the concept broached in the piece—specifically, the biblical references to Christ’s use of cannabis in healing—received international attention.
The article was a follow-up to an earlier piece in HIGH TIMES, “The Burning Bush” (June 2002), on the possible references to cannabis in early Judaism and Old Testament texts. This exploration followed the research of scholars like Sara Benetowa and Immanuel Low regarding the identification of an ancient Hebrew term, keneh bosem, as the etymological ancestor of the modern word cannabis.
As discussed in “The Burning Bush,” the first of these references to keneh bosem is found in Exodus 30:23, in which Moses is instructed by the voice of God—emanating from a burning bush—to make an anointing oil of myrrh, cinnamon and roughly six pounds of cannabis (“250 shekels of keneh bosem”) mixed into about a gallon and a half of olive oil.
While this “holy anointing” was originally restricted for use among the priestly class, centuries later the prophet Samuel anointed Saul, the first king of Israel, thereby extending the use of “holy oil” to monarchs as well. Thus, cannabis-infused oils became part of the coronation rite for Jewish kings.
However, with the prophet Jeremiah’s eventual condemnation of cannabis-infused oils and incense in conjunction with the fall of Israel and the loss of Jewish independence, the anointing rite seemingly disappeared from Judaism until its re-emergence years later at the inception of the early Christian period.
As I discussed in “Was Jesus a Stoner?”, the Greek title Christ is the translation of the Jewish term Messiah, which in English becomes “the anointed one” and makes specific reference to the cannabis-based anointing oil described in Exodus. In fact, there is evidence that many of the so-called miracles performed by Jesus and his followers were accounts of actual medical applications of this topical oil. Embellished over time, these stories became the miraculous healing tales of the New Testament—accounts that were written decades after Jesus’ terrestrial life had come to an end.
Although largely regarded as a recent phenomenon, our current controversy over the use of cannabis had its counterpart in the formative years of the Christian religion, when the ancient sect that would later become the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church was challenged by other Christian groups, now collectively known as the Gnostics. As we can see through their rediscovered texts, the Gnostics believed that much of their own spiritual experience came through the use of the keneh bosem–enriched holy oil. Additionally, the Gnostics openly criticized the Roman Catholic Church for the ritual of baptism, which they considered a mere placebo with no spiritual effect.
Indeed, one important Gnostic tractate, the Gospel of Philip, declares that “the anointing [chrisma] is superior to baptism. For from the anointing we were called ‘anointed ones’ [Christians], not because of the baptism. And Christ also was [so] named because of the anointing, for the Father anointed the Son, and the Son anointed the apostles, and the apostles anointed us. He [therefore] who has been anointed has the All. He has the Holy Spirit.”
Unfortunately, these ancient Gnostic sects were brutally persecuted and destroyed (along with countless entheogen-based pagan cults) by the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, our knowledge of the Gnostics would have been more or less limited to the accounts of the early church fathers, who condemned and suppressed them, had it not been for the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library—a cache of Gnostic documents that lay hidden in an Egyptian cave for over 1,600 years before being found by a sheep herder in 1945.
To the Gnostics, as in the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ was the Logos, or the “Word,” and it was the power of what he said that established him as a transcendent religious figure, even the Son of God, in the minds of those who knew him. In a sense, the rediscovery of these words, as contained in the Nag Hammadi library and other surviving Gnostic documents, marks the literary resurrection of Jesus. Needless to say, the reintroduction of such a revolutionary figure poses a grave threat—as Jesus did in his own lifetime—to the very power and sanctity of established states and religions. That these texts should resurface at a time when the early Gnostic holy plant was experiencing a botanical renaissance seems to hold certain divine implications.
The Evangelist Agenda: Bush Born Again
As with the early controversy over the use of cannabis-infused holy oil among competing Christian sects, today’s Christianity is struggling with a similar phenomena, with some churches denouncing the “devil’s weed” and others speaking out in defense of the medical efficacy of cannabis.
The demonization of the healing herb is not limited to a few regional Southern Baptist preachers. Instead, it has become a familiar subject in the sermons of America’s best-known and most influential evangelists—religious leaders who have strong political ties and even the ear of the president.
George W. Bush “accepted Jesus Christ” in 1986 and, after a life of alcohol and drug abuse, was led to conversion by the Rev. Billy Graham, whose influence on the White House can now be felt in Bush’s faith-based drug-treatment programs. Indeed, having renounced drugs and alcohol, it seems that Bush is intent on making the whole nation—if not the whole world—follow that lead, even if this has to be accomplished through the brutal force of the state.
In 1972, when Bush was still puffing reefers, snorting coke and binge-drinking, Billy Graham was asked about the part that organized religion could play in combating the “growing drug problem” on his radio show, Hour of Decision. His response speaks volumes to his influence on Bush’s faith-based political agenda:
“I think that a professor has written a book over here at Berkeley on this subject of religion and drugs. And he says that it’s a very interesting phenomenon to him that there is definitely a relationship between religion and drugs. The word ‘pharmacia,’ which is a Greek word that we translate in the Bible as ‘witchcraft,’ is the root word that we get the word ‘drug’ from. And there is a relationship of some sort. And he said this in this book, he said that the only total complete cure that he knows for hard drugs is a very deep spiritual experience …. And, of course, we know the reason as Christians, because we believe a supernatural act takes place when a person is born again.”
Graham’s reference to “pharmacia” (pharmakeia in Greek) was reiterated in the works of the evangelical Christian writer Hal Lindsey, who, in his best-selling 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth, pointed to Revelation 18:23 and its references to sorcery. Lindsey wrote: “The word ‘sorceries’ comes from the Greek word ‘pharmakeia,’ which is the word from which we get our English word, ‘pharmacy.’ It means a kind of occult worship or black magic associated with the use of drugs. This word is mentioned several times in the Book of Revelation.” Lindsey was quick to make the connection to the psychedelic-ingesting youth of his time, noting: “These drugs reduce a man’s thinking and mentality to a point where he is easily demon-possessed.”
Expanding on this notion, Media House International director Jay Rogers stated in a review of the 1994 book Politically Incorrect, written by Pat Robertson’s former right-hand man, Ralph Reed, that the “moral Law of God requires only two punishments for lawbreakers, restitution or execution. A repeat violent offender would spend the rest of his life in servitude or would be executed.” Rogers’s shocking conclusion: that convicted drug dealers who sold drugs to children should be executed for the crime of sorcery. Rogers based this extraordinary recommendation on the scriptural admonition in Exodus 22, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Not one to be left out of the fray, evangelical end-times guru (and sometime unofficial White House policy advisor) Jack Van Impe wrote, in his April 1997 “intelligence briefing” on the widespread use of Ecstasy, that the ninth and 18th chapters of Revelation had prophesied the modern-day popularity of “drugs,” noting: “The term ‘sorceries’ in these texts comes from the Greek term pharmakeia, translated ‘pharmacy’ or ‘drugs.’”
Turning the Tables: Elitist Sorcery
Ironically, in the words of Jesus himself, “Nothing that enters a man from outside can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’” (Mark 7:18). It was likely with such a view in mind that another Christian writer, Fredric Madeleine, in his 1988 book The Drug Controversy and the Rise of Antichrist, saw the enforcers of prohibition as the true practitioners of the “sorcery” referred to in Revelation. Like Lindsey, Madeleine noted that the word was derived from pharmakeia, “an occult science involving secret knowledge about drugs and herbs,” but differed in his interpretation of what this meant. “Although some have suggested that the use of illegal drugs is sorcery,” Madeleine continued, “I suggest instead that control of drugs is part of a system of sorcery, reinvented by the corrupt minds of men in high places.
“Sorcery is a religious system of control and exploitation which operates by restricting knowledge of and access to drugs to a ruling priesthood. This ruling class uses its secret knowledge not to protect the people and culture, as is supposed, but rather to maintain power and to exploit unwary believers. In order to maintain power they must institute certain laws, called taboos, which prevent the common people from gaining free access to certain herbs, drugs, and knowledge. In order to maintain power, this ruling class must eliminate those who do not believe in their power or submit to their rules. It is this system of exploitation and control that is referred to in the Bible as sorcery.”
Indeed, the sorcery of the American military/industrial/Drug War complex, with its “guns for cocaine” deals in the Iran-contra scandal and its similarly shady trade in heroin during the Vietnam War, seems far more sinister than the counterculture’s use of mind-expanding substances such as psychedelics and cannabis. Is it not sorcery for a nation to fight a self-righteous War on Drugs in which, on the one hand, millions are pumped full of pharmaceuticals like Valium, Ritalin and Prozac, while, on the other, pot smokers continue to be targeted by government forces and have their lives disrupted or even destroyed?
An Issue of Mercy: Modern Churches and Medical Marijuana
These days, however, there is reason to believe the tide is turning. One indication of this is the number of churches that have evolved around the sacramental use of cannabis. In 1991, I joined the Canadian Assembly of the Church of the Universe, which since 1969 has recognized cannabis as the biblical Tree of Life mentioned in Revelation 22.
Intuitively, others have followed this same path, and numerous cannabis churches have begun to appear: THC Ministries, the Fragrant Cane Ministry, the Congregation of Jesus Christ Keneh-Bosem, the Healing Church of God, the Cannabis Assembly and many others. Not surprisingly, a number of these ministries operate as medical-marijuana sanctuaries, notably those headed by activists like the Rev. Eddy Lepp, the Rev. Lynnette Shaw and the Rev. Roger Christie, who has been actively treating people with cannabis-based ointments prepared according to the recipe in Exodus 30:23.
The well-known medicinal properties of cannabis have even caused a number of the more mainstream Christian churches to rise to its defense, despite the Bush administration’s strong “moral” stance against the healing herb. Recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the seventh major denomination to speak out in support of those who use and supply medical marijuana. The Presbyterian resolution, which passed by consensus on June 21, 2006, urges “federal legislation that allows for [marijuana’s] use and that provides for the production and distribution of the plant for those purposes.”
“Medical marijuana is an issue of mercy,” said the Rev. Lynn Bledsoe, a Presbyterian minister from Alabama who works as a hospice chaplain. “As people of faith, we are called to stand up for humans who are suffering needlessly. It is unconscionable that seriously ill patients can be arrested for making an earnest attempt at healing by using medical marijuana with their doctors’ approval.”
In May of 2004, the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society acknowledged in a statement of principal: “Licensed medical doctors should not be punished for recommending the medical use of marijuana to seriously ill people, and seriously ill people should not be subject to sanctions for using marijuana if the patient’s physician has told the patient that such use is likely to be beneficial.” Many other religious denominations have taken similar positions, including the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The question of whether Christians will ultimately return to the ancient roots of their faith and embrace pot remains an open one. Some seem bent on persecuting cannabis users with the same poisonous ideological zeal as those who persecuted “witches” for their use of cannabis and other plants throughout the Dark Ages and up to a few short centuries ago, as well as the Gnostics and pagan cults in the centuries prior to that. Others seem less interested in persecution and more influenced by the example of the healing ministries of early Christianity and the unconditional love they tried to encompass.
For the most part, on either side of the question, few people in the mainstream Christian churches are aware of the sacred role that cannabis played in the earliest days of their faith—or of a similar pivotal role that it is playing in our own time. Let us pray that, this time around, we can avoid a repeat of the Dark Ages, and instead partake in a new age of enlightenment shared by all as we join hands in unity around this sacred herb, breathing new life into an old religious prophesy, that “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelations 22).