The Birth and Early History of Christianity 1

The Birth and Early History of Christianity

1

A Man Named Jesus Or Something Like That

The Jesus on whom Christianity built its essential fictions probably did exist.

Jesus was a common name at the time, the Greek for Joshua or Jeshua or Jesse or some such Hebrew name. Think of it as a name like Kevin or Juan or Ronald today – nothing special.

What is also probably true of this particular Jesus is that he was a preacher, that he had a following of some tens or hundreds, and now and then perhaps an audience of hundreds and possibly thousands. He was one of the preaching laymen of his time, a rabbi. It was a time when rabbis were becoming an increasingly important feature of religious life in Judea. They were pious men, “Hasidim” – not to be confused with members of the Hasidic movement of our time – who imparted religious knowledge and offered moral guidance. They were ordinary members of their local communities who supported themselves with various trades and occupations. They were not – and never became – priests. The priests were members of an hereditary caste whose duty was to perform the rituals of the Temple, and when the Temple was destroyed an active Jewish priesthood ceased to exist.

It has often been said that if Jesus had been of any real importance in the Judea of his day, there would have been records of what he said and did. Both the Romans and the Jews were record keepers, the Romans meticulously so. However, the absence of records doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Its more likely that they were deliberately destroyed; not by (pre-Christian) Romans who would have had no reason to do it, nor by Jews who would probably have liked to preserve them. The only group who would have had reason to destroy true records of the Rabbi Jesus were the Christians themselves, but when and what cannot be guessed.

The truth is that nothing is known of this Jesus with any certainty. From Josephus we get some evidence of his existence, a passage in one version of his famous History which many believe to have been a forged interpolation, and an anecdote about one James, “a brother of Jesus”, being stoned to death in 62 C.E.

We also know that some who followed Jesus in his lifetime had believed him to be the longed-for Messiah. (The Messiah was desperately hoped for in those years, and now and then a “spiritual” or military leader was declared to be the Annointed One, come to save them from Roman rule and taxes. He would be a human being, a descendant of King David.) We know that Jesus’s followers had believed this of him because they survived him and founded a religious sect, consisting entirely of law-abiding Jews, who would not give up the idea of his Messiahship even after his shocking and humiliating execution as an insurrectionist leader. His death by the Roman method of crucifixion, with a notice over his head mocking him as “King of the Jews”, is also a probable fact about him.

The members of the sect, known as the Nazarenes – and/or the Ebionites – believed that Jesus would come back in the flesh to fulfill his Messiahship. Most Jews at the time believed in bodily resurrection after death. (The ones who didn’t were the priests, who were also the aristocrats, including the royal family of the priest-kings who had ruled the nation for some generations before Judea became a Roman province.)

They thought it would happen quite soon, in their lifetimes. This optimistic group are said by Christians to have been the first “Christians”, in that they were followers of the “Christ” – “Christ” being the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah”. But they were not Christians in the sense that is meant by Christians: they did not believe that Jesus was God.

When the last of those who had known Jesus in his lifetime died without witnessing his return, another generation waited for the event. This exercise in patience and disappointment went on for some hundreds of years. None of them ever believed that Jesus was divine (except for an obscure break-away group of Ebionites in the fourth century).

And that is as much as we can say about “the historical Jesus”. How much the biblical Jesus resembles him, we can only guess.

We know nothing of his family, except the one brother James. Ingenious historians have worked out that he had a number of other brothers, one named Judas (or “Jude”) who might have been his twin. Twins enter into the rumors of his life which we know as the gospels. There we find one Thomas Didymus, for instance. As both “Thomas” and “Didymus” mean “twin”, we have a man named “Twin Twin” (which if not improbable is at least odd and certainly redundant).

We can conjecture further, without proofs. He would probably have been married since orthodox Jewish men were required to marry. He probably lived in the Galilee, a fertile region of Judea, in a time when the economy of the Roman Empire was doing particularly well. His family were unlikely to have been poor, and may have been wealthy.

Nothing that is reported of him suggests any extraordinary insight or notable originality of thought. His sayings and moral tales were the common currency of rabbinical teaching. (The miracles attributed to him – changing wine into water, raising the dead, walking on water etc. – were a standard set.) But he must have had what the Greeks call “charisma”, a special gift that attracted followers and made them believe he had a high calling.

And that’s about as much as we can know or reasonably suppose about Jesus of Nazareth. We deduce that he lived, that he preached and taught, that an unknown number of people had high expectations of his fulfilling an historic role in Jewish history but he did not live to do so, being crucified as an insurrectionist leader by the Roman authorities.

This thin conjectured record can be put away now on the shelf. It will not need to be taken down again. For what subsequently happened in the great world, the momentous historical events connected to his name, the invention of a religion that was to prove the scourge of his people, he was not to blame. How appalled such a devout Jew would have been if he could have foreseen the atrocious persecution of his people in his name!

The real man can be forgotten, as he has been forgotten.[1] Very little of his history is necessary to the religion that was founded in his name; almost nothing but his death. He could only be an embarrassment to it after a fictitious figure, bearing his name and endowed with a biography tailored to prove that his life had been predicted by various Jewish prophets, was claimed to be God Incarnate by the adherents of a new religion: Christianity.

Jillian Becker September 23, 2011

NOTES

1. We do look at him again now and then in the following essays. In particular we focus on the probable events leading to his execution in The Fictitious Life of Jesus Christ.

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2

The Invention of Christianity

 Some two thousand years ago, a man named Saul had an idea that shaped history.

His idea was that a pious Jewish preacher, with a small but devoted following, who had recently been executed in Jerusalem by the Roman authority, was God in human form.

The name of the executed man in Greek (which was probably Saul’s mother tongue), was Jesus; presumably a translation of a Hebrew name lost to history.

Saul was intensely excited by his idea, but he did not rush to declare it in Jerusalem. He knew that to Jews – all Jews, including those who had followed the dead preacher – it would have been not merely absurd but blasphemous, and to preach it would have been punishable by law.

The followers of the dead man did believe that he would come back to life and lead them more successfully than he had the first time, all the way to liberation from Roman rule. It was not a strange belief among the Jews in those days that dead people would rise again in the flesh. Most of them believed in bodily resurrection. The dead Jesus’s followers claimed that he rose just three days after being executed for sedition, and that quite soon he would reveal himself to the whole nation as the long awaited “Messiah” (the Annointed One), a king destined to be as glorious as King David and King Solomon had been in their day.

Saul had never seen Jesus or heard him preach. He knew little or nothing of his life, and showed little or no interest in it. He knew of his posthumous following, a sect called the Nazarenes, or the Ebionites (meaning “the poor”); and of their belief that he rose from the dead and was the “Messiah” – “Christos” in Greek. He endowed the title with a new meaning: “Christ Jesus” was no mere earthly king but God incarnate, who had risen from his tomb to the heavens, there to reign over all creation forever. His divine mission on earth had been fully accomplished when he gave himself as a sacrifice; letting himself be killed, slowly and agonizingly by crucifixion, in order to redeem mankind not from political oppression but from sin.

According to the famous story about Saul, he was on his way to Damascus as a sort of policeman or special agent in the service of the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, to arrest some members of this sect for some wrong-doing, when he heard the voice of Jesus asking him why he was persecuting him and adding “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks”. Saul then asked Jesus what he should do, and Jesus told him to go on to Damascus where his question would be answered. The answer, whatever it was, directed him away from Jerusalem for years, and started him on a new life as the missionary of a new religion born in his own imagination.

Some years after he conceived his idea, he changed his name to Paul. “Saint Paul” the Christians call him.

He did not try to convert the Jews to his new religion: he was Christ Jesus’s “apostle to the gentiles”. He posted about the Roman empire tirelessly trying to convince gentiles that Christ Jesus was the divine being who had created the universe. He, God, had not ceased to reign in heaven while he had simultaneously been living on earth as Jesus. How could this be, God in heaven and on earth in human form at the same time? Well, Paul explained, Christ Jesus was the divine Son of God. They were different persons but each was part of the same divine being, the one God that the Jews believed in, but in two persons, God the Father and God the Son; two persons, but only one God.

On this idea Christianity was founded.

 

Jillian Becker October 28, 2011

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3

Tread On Me: The Making of Christian Morality

St. Paul is one of very few persons who have single-handedly set the course of history. In the last two thousand years, human affairs have been to a large extent shaped by what he thought and said. Yet very little is known about him: his background, his birth-name, the religion he was raised in. Those are subjects for a later essay. What is known is that he invented a new god, a new religion, and a new morality.

He gave out his moral instructions in letters to congregations of Greeks in the eastern Roman Empire. How many letters he wrote is not known. Of the thirteen letters ascribed to him in the Christian bible, only seven [1] are believed by most contemporary scholars to have actually been written by him. From these seven we learn how Paul wanted followers of his Christ Jesus to live and behave.

It must be remembered that Paul started spreading his new religion and writing his letters before the gospels were composed to narrate a life story of Jesus of Nazareth and report what he said. Paul himself shows little or no interest in Jesus’s life before the crucifixion. He says that “he was rich and became poor for your sake”. [2] But he claims to be repeating actual words of Jesus only when he tells the story of “The Last Supper”, in which he has Jesus breaking bread and instructing his disciples that it is his body, and taking a cup of wine and instructing them that the wine is his blood, and bidding them eat his body and drink his blood in memory of him. But that event and those words, Paul admits or boasts, were made known to him by revelation [3] in the same mystical way that his apostolic appointment and Jesus’s divinity were made known to him. In other words, he made up the whole thing; the entire dramatic episode and the commandments in obedience to which the rite of the Eucharist was instituted by the Christian church.

What Paul taught was his own prescription for how human beings should live and conduct their relations with others. He wanted his converts to believe that it was what Jesus asked of them, implying in his letters that that was the case. [4] But it is his own, original, moral teaching that founded and formed the greater part of what came to be known as “Christian morality”. [5]

Briefly, but including all salient points, here is Paul’s moral teaching:

We are the filth of the world, the scum, the muck that is scoured from things. [6] The lowest of the low. [7]

Let us abase ourselves; be fools; [8] be humble, and associate with the lowly. [9]

Do only the most menial work for a living. [10]

Bear affliction with patience,[11] even with joy. [12]

You must consider all others to be greater than yourselves. [13]

Love one another, love all. [14] Then you will be harmless and blameless. [15] That is what I ask you to do to make me proud of you. [16]

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. [17] Bless those who persecute you. [18] Let them do the most evil things to you, and return only good to them. [19] We glory in our suffering. [20] However hard your life is, rejoice and give thanks. [21] Never seek revenge. [22]

Obey the government. [23] Pay your taxes. [24]

Women, be silent in church. [25]

Marry if you must, but I would rather you remained unmarried and chaste as I am. [26] All of you should imitate me, as I imitate Christ. [27]

No matter how poor you are, no matter how hard you must toil, give all you can to me to take to the saints in Jerusalem. [28] Remember that when I was with you I worked night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you. [29]

Pray constantly. [30] Never feast or carouse, and stay sober. [31] Do not commit sexual immorality. [32] Attend quietly to what you must do, and mind your own business. [33] Be patient always, even when you need to admonish those among you who do not work hard enough. [34]

Share all you have so that you’ll all be equal in worldly possessions. [35]

Do all this for the sake of Christ. Because he died for you, because he suffered on the cross for you, you must bear all things for his sake. You belong to him because he bought you for a price. [36]

It is a morality that demands and glorifies self-abasement and self-abnegation, as a perpetual repayment of a debt imposed on all humanity by Jesus’s “self-sacrifice”.

It scorns talent, disregards personal ambition, forbids individual self-fulfillment.

So when conservative Christians claim – as they often do – that Christianity initiated and promotes individualism, they are plainly wrong. To the contrary: from its inception Christianity has been the enemy of individualism.

It planted the perverse value of subservience in Western culture; a value that was to re-emerge as an ideal in other collectivist ideologies. Paul’s idea that it was greatly good for the individual to subjugate himself to the community contributed even more profoundly to the ideology of Communism than did his doctrine of sharing and equality.

A morality that makes cruel and unnatural demands on human nature will nurture hypocrisy and breed despair: hypocrisy because sustained self-denial is impossible, so lip-service is substituted for obedience; and despair because to strive for the impossible is to ensure failure.

How then did a moral philosophy that requires men and women to be as worms in the dust succeed in attracting throngs of enthusiastic followers? That is a question for another essay on Paul and Christian morality.

 

Jillian Becker December 22, 2011

NOTES

[1] Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon

[2] 2 Cor 8:9

[3] 1 Cor 11:23-26

[4] Rom 15:15, 1 Cor 14:37, 1 Thess 4:2, 5:18

[5] Paul’s morality, but Jewish moral law remains in the background, with a shift of emphasis towards the sentimental, as in Rom 13:9

[6] 1 Cor 4:13

[7] Phili 2:3

[8] 1 Cor 4:10

[9] Rom 12:16

[10] 1 Thess 4:11, 1 Cor 4:12

[11] Rom 12:12-14

[12] 1 Thess 5:16,18

[13] Phili 2:3

[14] 1 Thess 4:9 , Rom 13:8, 1 Cor 13

[15] Phili 2:15

[16] Phili 2:16

[17] Rom 12:12

[18] Rom 12:14, 1 Cor 4:12

[19] 1 Thess 5:15, 1 Cor 4:12-13

[20] Rom 5:3

[21] 1 Thess 5:16-18, Rom 5:3

[22] Rom 12:19-21

[23] Rom 13:1-5

[24] Rom 13:6

[25] 1Cor 14:34,35

[26] 1 Cor 7:1-9.

[27] 1 Cor 4: 6 & 11:1

[28] 2 Cor 8:1-7 & 9:5-13, 1 Cor 16:1-3

[29] 1 Thess 2:9

[30] Rom 12:12

[31] 1 Thess 5:8, Rom 13:13

[32] 1 Cor 6:18

[33] 1 Thess 4:11,12

[34] 1 Thess 5:14

[35] 2 Cor 8:14, Rom 12:13

[36] 1 Cor 6:20

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4

St. Paul: Portrait of a Sick Genius

What is known or can be discovered about the man known to us as St. Paul, the author of Christianity whose imagination shaped human affairs from his time to our own?

Is it known what he looked like?

In the Epistle of Paul and Thecla, written by no one knows whom in the second century CE, probably within 100 years of Paul’s death, there is a description of him that may have come down from people who actually saw and heard him. According to this document, Paul was of “middle height” but sturdily built, with meeting eyebrows, bald head, bow legs, hollow eyes, and a large crooked nose, and he had a weak voice.

How short was “middle height” in those days? The Emperor Augustus is reckoned to have been just over five foot five inches and was considered average; so Paul was perhaps five foot three or four – short by our standards. A short man then, of somewhat simian appearance. Having a weak voice, he may have found it hard to command attention when he became, as he did, an itinerant preacher, or traveling salesman of his own newly confected religion.

Where did he come from, what sort of person was he, what did he do for a living?

Every piece of personal information he wrote about himself has to be taken with a pinch of salt, for reasons we’ll come to. But apart from what he means to say in his letters,[1] they inevitably reveal much about him: his character and mentality, his preoccupations, aims and talents. What they tell us, in sum, is that he was passionate, ambitious, creative, pertinacious, and a highly proficient fund-raiser: or to put it less kindly, fanatical, vain, mendacious, obsessive, and a subtly ruthless extortionist. [2] He was also a genius.

It is said that he came from Tarsus, [3] which was then a Greek-speaking city in the Roman Empire, the capital of Cilicia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. He claimed to be a Jew by birth, [4] but there are reasons to doubt this, at least one of them very strong, which we‘ll come to later.

He said his name was Saul. But if he was not born a Jew, he was unlikely to have been named Saul by his parents, in which case it was a name he chose for himself. (Later he chose the name Paul in honor of, or to flatter, a Roman patron.) Saul was the name of a king who had been head of the tribe of Benjamin, and as if to prove that he had an ancestral right to the name, he explained in a letter that that was the tribe he belonged to.[5] In his time, however, there was no distinguishable tribe of Benjamin; a fact that the gentile converts he was writing to could probably be counted on not to know. It is one of innumerable examples of Paul’s elaborating too much on a story, so that some detail, instead of lending it verisimilitude, achieves the opposite – a strong whiff of fabrication.

He had wanted to become a Pharisee, and he boasts that he’d achieved his aim. [6] But this is one of many instances where there’s reason to doubt his word. The Pharisees were learned rabbis who taught scripture and commentary, yet Paul took none of his scriptural quotations directly from the Hebrew sources, never translated any in his own words, but copied them from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish bible.[7] This could have been because those were the words his Greek audiences might be expected to recognize – or it could have been because he didn’t know Hebrew. He wrote a demotic Greek called koine, which would have been his native tongue as a Cilician; and he must have been fluent in Aramaic, the commonly spoken language of the Judeans, to do the job he is said to have had (which we’re about to come to); but Hebrew was the language of Judaism and there is no proof that he could read or write it. [8]

A stronger reason to doubt that he ever became a Pharisee is that the job he had (if the tendentious Book of Acts is to be believed at all) was a most unlikely one for a Pharisee to seek or get, working as a law-enforcer for the priesthood. [9] The High Priest, in addition to his sacerdotal function, had the responsibilities of a chief secular authority under the Romans. Members of the priestly caste were Sadducees, and they stood in fierce political opposition to the Pharisees because it was in their interest to be obedient to Rome, while the Pharisees were nationalists who yearned for the coming of the Messiah to liberate the nation from Roman rule. There were also strong religious differences between the two sects. The Pharisees, like most Israelites, believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead; the Sadducees did not. So it was not likely that a Pharisee would be employed as an enforcer by the Sadducee administration, and either Paul was lying about his being a Pharisee or the story of his working for the High Priest is untrue.

The Idea that Paul conceived which profoundly affected history concerned, as all the world knows, a certain Jew who had been executed in Jerusalem by the Romans, as the leader of a rebel group, some quarter of a century earlier. We don’t know what the man’s name was, only that Paul brought him to the world’s attention with the Greek name Jesus. Paul had never encountered Jesus, whose pious, nationalist followers believed he had risen bodily from the dead and would soon return to lead the Jewish nation to freedom from Roman rule, so fulfilling the role of Messiah.

The fishy story has it that Paul was going, on his own conscientious initiative but in the line of duty as a police officer for the High Priest, to arrest followers of this Jesus in Damascus (although their belief was in no way a transgression of the Law, and although the High Priest’s writ did not run in a foreign country), when the Idea came to him out of a mystical audio-communication he received from Jesus himself.[10]

The Idea was complicated and wildly illogical: Jesus was a divine being, the Son of the one God of the Jews, so the one God was two gods while yet remaining only one. He was indeed the prophesied Messiah – “Christ” in Greek – but an immortal divinity. His mission was nothing so piffling as to save the Jews from political oppression; it was to save all mankind from sin by sacrificing himself as a blood-offering. When he returned to the world in the near future it would be to judge the living and the dead. He would raise some to dwell with him and his Father, condemn the rest to eternal separation from them, and so put an end to history. The story of the human race would then be over.

Even without being a learned Pharisee, Paul knew that his Idea that Jesus was a divine being would be shocking, if also ludicrous, to Jews; to all Jews – as much to those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead, as to the those who didn’t. To all of them the notion, taken seriously, would be the worst possible blasphemy.

And this is the strongest reason for doubting that Paul was born and raised a Jew (though it doesn’t exclude the possibility that he was a convert): the extreme unlikelihood of a Jew thinking – being able to think – that God had been incarnate for a while as a man, died a mortal’s death, and lives on eternally as Lord of the universe. If, however, Paul had not been raised as a Jew, it would not have seemed outrageous or ridiculous to him that a man could be a god or a god could be a man. There were many Greek and Roman human figures both in legend and history who were thought of as divine or were “made into gods”, and many divinities were said to have appeared as men and women. (The religious beliefs alien to Judaism that could have contributed to Paul’s idea will be the subject of another essay.)

The tremendous audacity of the Idea must have been at once thrilling and frightening. Excited though he probably was by it, urgently as he surely felt the desire to tell it – even longing perhaps (human nature being what it is) to fling it in the faces of those who would be most outraged by it – he restrained himself, took time to lay his plans for spreading his news as widely as he could, knowing he must proceed with caution. But his ambition soared. He meant to win the acceptance of the Idea by not just one nation among the many, the one which had long prophesied the coming of a Messiah and into which his executed man-god had been born, but by the whole world. After all, the Jews believed that their God was the God of all creation. He reigned over the whole human race, and Paul’s message was that with him reigned his Son, the risen Christ. All mankind must know it, and he, Paul – a man who was not honored among the Pharisees, not powerful among the Sadducees – would be the messenger, the apostle of the new revelation that had come to him and him only. He would be as great as Abraham, through whom had come the knowledge of the One God; as great as Moses, through whom had come the Law; greater than them, because through him came knowledge of the redemption of all mankind.

What did Paul mean by “redemption”? Redemption from what? The answer is, from sin. He felt himself to be appallingly stained with sin.

Yet almost in the same breath with which he confesses it, he protests that it wasn’t his fault that he had sinned. No, it was the sin’s fault. [11] It had worked in him. That’s the trouble with the flesh, with the body; it’s bad; “nothing good dwells in it”.[12] In any case, he argues, the Law made him guilty. It was when he learnt the commandment not to sin that he did, or knew that he did – which sounds very much like the statement of a convert to the religion of the Law.[13] It also raises the question whether he had really been on a mission for the High Priest when he was traveling to Damascus, or was escaping from him and his justice.

Paul’s sin was sexual. “Sin wrought in me all manner of concupiscence,” he wrote. [14] What, according to the Law, was sexual sin? Not mere copulation: unmarried men and women were not forbidden to copulate. The prohibited sexual acts were: adultery [15]; incest[16]; homosexuality[17]; rape if committed in the country, but not in town [18]; masturbation [19]; bestiality[20].

Which of these was Paul’s offense? One, some, all?

Adultery? Although in his letters he shows scant regard for women (he thought they should be dominated by their husbands and silent in church), he still may have lusted after them, he could have committed adultery or rape. Incest? He had (according to Acts) a sister in Jerusalem with a son who might have been his child (though that’s nowhere hinted at).[21] Homosexuality? Although, or because, he preaches emphatically against it and calls it shameful [22], it could have been the very thing he was ashamed of.

The punishment prescribed by the Law for adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality was death. Unless Paul had been very lucky in not being found out, his living on to write about his concupiscence suggests he hadn’t succumbed to any of those allurements – or not often, anyway. If, however, he had merely raped, nothing much would have happened to him; and if he’d done it only in the countryside, he’d have gotten away with it. But is this something a man with an urge could make a habit of? Lingering about in the wilderness on the offchance of encountering a rape-able victim is surely too chancy, demanding too much patience from a hot-blooded lecher. But perhaps he took her along with him for a nice brisk hike, and perhaps he did it only a time or two. But that would not amount to “all manner of concupiscence”.

Masturbation? With that he could rock, so to speak. It was forbidden, but it was not punished. It was considered impure, disgusting, very shameful, and those who stooped so low as to go in for it were ordered to keep away from the Temple for a week, and then, after some ritual washing, to bring a couple of birds as a blood sacrifice to be killed and burnt by a priest.

So perhaps that was Paul’s most frequent libidinous indulgence. It hardly fits the description of “all manner of concupiscence”. But add a rape or two at a picnic, some memorable moments with a bored housewife – for example – and the guilt could have built up.

Or was Paul lying about being concupiscent? No; it’s believable that he really was a libertine who became a celibate puritan because he confesses it, and a confession is generally easier to believe than a boast. But the very important reason to believe it is that it plausibly explains his Idea as a solution to his own desperate need. His “Son of God” brought him the relief from shame that he craved.

Let’s conjecture along lines that fit with the thoughts expressed in his letters. He needed forgiveness, but the Law would not forgive him. The Law taught him that he was a sinner by teaching him what sin was. The Law could punish him, but not cleanse him, not save him. Nothing he did or could ever do would wash the sin away. The God of the Jews was just; he required atonement and punishment. But Paul, sick with guilt and shame, felt that no matter how many spotless beasts and birds he might bring to the altar to be sacrificed, he would not be forgiven. The Law gave only what was deserved, what was earned; and as he himself said, “the wages of sin is death”.[23] He believed that death meant eternal separation from God – to him the most terrible of all possible punishments. He would have to be saved from so dreadful a fate without deserving to be saved. Divine mercy would have to overrule divine justice. There was no sacrifice he could make to elicit such forgiveness, but if God’s own son had made a blood sacrifice of himself for all mankind, then he, Paul, was saved.

In other words, Christ the Redeemer came into existence because Paul personally felt a need to be freed from sin, a hunger for forgiveness and cleansing, a longing to be saved from the wrath of God; and for that purpose Paul invented a new forgiving God who would take his sin upon himself and atone for it by self-sacrifice.

He did not banish the old, sternly just God. He did not even dethrone him. He just had him take a son into partnership with him, to whom all future enquiries should preferably be addressed.

Paul wanted his new religion to supersede Judaism. For this to happen the Jews would have to accept that the Law was now redundant. It had done well enough to teach mankind how to be righteous until the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. More than likely he tried to persuade some Jews of the truth of his vision and failed – a failure of which he himself , not surprisingly, made no (known) deliberate record. The obvious place for him to start was with the surviving followers of Jesus. But he needed their goodwill, couldn’t risk alienating them – and preaching blasphemy to them would have done that for sure. The recorded stories of his encounters with “the saints in Jerusalem”, as he calls them, are transparently spun to present a picture of amity. But try as they might, neither Paul himself nor his shill, the author of Acts, managed to conceal the disagreement, opposition, indignation, accusation, rivalry, and finally violent anger that arose between Paul and the Jews who were for Jesus in Jerusalem. [24] The Jewish followers of Jesus – called the “first Christians” by Christians – went on believing in one God only and that the Law of Moses was for ever. [25]

Paul must have despaired quite early on of converting Jews in large numbers (though he did convert some who lived outside Judea). He concentrated his efforts on gentiles. He found ready convert-material in the small crowds of Greeks who associated themselves with the synagogues in the eastern Empire. Called “God-fearers” by the Jews, and given a set of only seven laws easy to obey [26], they were attracted to Judaism, but hesitant or unwilling to take the prescribed steps to become Jews – perhaps because, for men, the process of conversion involved circumcision. [27] Paul told them they need not be circumcised (initiation would be by water); need not refrain from eating foods they liked which the Jews called unclean; and need not obey the Law, but only have faith in Christ.

He succeeded in winning some tens or hundreds or even perhaps thousands of gentiles – how many is not known – but they often lapsed from the new faith. Paul’s letters show his anger and disappointment when he learned that after he’d moved on from an apparently convinced congregation to conquer more hearts and minds, some other missionary (or “apostle”) had arrived among his converts or at their synagogue and preached something different about Jesus: perhaps a “saint” from Jerusalem who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, but was the Messiah who would overthrow Roman rule, and that to be ready for that day the congregants must scrupulously obey the Law.

No, no!, only have faith in Christ, Paul repeated in his letters to them.

But why should gentiles want to be saved from sin if they were not subject to the Jewish Law, disobedience to which was the very definition of sin? Those who did not know the Law could not know that they sinned, Paul says in his confession.

This problem of his own making Paul overcame with a stroke of pure genius. He decreed that all human beings are sinful, not because of anything each of them has done or failed to do, but by moral inheritance. He invented “original sin”. Because the first man and first woman had sinned by disobeying God (in the myth of Eden and the temptation), all their descendants, Paul decided, were guilty of sin and every one of them had to suffer the punishment, which was death.

But then, after many an age, Christ had come, the Son of God born as a man, to save mankind from his terrible fate by his own suffering and death. “Since by man came death, by man also came the resurrection of the dead.” [28] And, with Paul’s typical illogicality: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses [who gave the Law] … For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” [29]

Thus the gentiles learnt from Paul that they all needed to be saved from sin by the Christ Jesus. Being saved from sin meant being saved from death, and an eternal afterlife of bliss was on offer as a free gift to those whom Christ chooses to save. Those whom Christ does not choose to save will be dead forever. [30]

That uncertain hope of eternal bliss, and Original Sin, and a theology of one God who is two gods, and a rite of symbolically devouring God, and a prescription for a life of austerity and toil are what this randy, bandy, burly, cunning little man with an ape-like brow and a reedy voice gave the world as “Christianity”. And the world caught it like a terrible disease from which it has not yet fully recovered.

 

Jillian Becker January 7, 2012

NOTES

[1] the 7 letters scholars believe to have been written by Paul out of the 13 attributed to him in the NT are: Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon

[2] for Paul’s fund-raising see 2 Cor 8:1-7 & 9:5-13, 1 Cor 16:1-3

[3] in the Book of Acts, putatively written by a companion of Paul, a doctor named Luke. Not all the information given there about Paul accords with what Paul says of himself in his letters (some of it, such as how many years he waited before confronting the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, actually contradicting him), though Luke’s information must have come mostly from Paul himself. Presumably Paul told Luke that he came from Tarsus. It’s hard to see why he or Luke might want to make this up, so it’s more than likely true.

[4] Gal 2:15

[5] Rom 11:12

[6] Phili 3:5

[7] Hyam Maccoby, The Myth Maker, London 1986, page 71

[8] in the Book of Acts (26:14) Jesus is said to have spoken to Paul – in his vision “on the road to Damascus” – in Hebrew. Why does the author state this? The living Jesus would certainly have known enough Hebrew to read scripture, but his everyday speech would have been Aramaic. If Jesus was God, as Paul concluded he was after his visionary conversation with him, he could have “spoken” to Paul in any language, so why Hebrew? It would seem to be one of those touches that a story-teller puts in to make his tale seem more believable. Luke, the gentile author of Acts, assumed that the God of the Jews would normally speak the language of Judaism.

[9] Acts 9: 1-2

[10] Acts 3-5

[11] Rom 7:17

[12] Rom 7:18, 7:20

[13] Rom 7:9, 7:23

[14] Rom 7:8 KJV

[15] forbidden by the seventh commandment

[16] defined in Lev 8

[17] forbidden by Lev 18:22 and 20:13, Genesis 19:5-8 and the whole story of Sodom, and the similar, weirder, gruesome story in Judges 19:22-29

[18] rape according to Deut 22:25 was against the Law if committed in the country because it is too sparsely populated for a victim’s cries for help to be heard: but if committed in town it’s her fault for not crying for help.

[19] the sin of Onan, Gen 38:9-10

[20] Lev 8:23

[21] Acts 23:16

[22] Rom 1:26-27

[23] Rom 6:23

[24] Acts 21: 17-36

[25] The Jewish followers of Jesus were known as the Nazarenes, possibly because Jesus came from Nazareth. (To this day the Arabic word for “Christian” is “Nazarene”.) They were also known as the Ebionites, meaning “the poor”. Their refusal to accept the divinity of Paul’s “Jesus Christ” seriously hampered his efforts to spread his new religion, and might have utterly defeated the movement he started, had not civil war and war with the Romans ended in the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE – a total Roman victory – after which the Jews were dispersed from Jerusalem.

[26] the 7 Noahide laws: 6 prohibitions, against idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, eating a live animal; and 1 injunction, establish a legal system (to enforce the prohibitions).

[27] Edward Gibbon, in the famous chapter 15 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, expresses the view that one of the reasons for the spread of Christianity (other, he says with skeptical irony, than “the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself”) was baptism by water replacing baptism by blood. “The painful and even dangerous rite of circumcision was alone capable of repelling a willing proselyte from the door of the synagogue,” he writes.

[28] 1 Cor 15:21

[29] Rom 5:12- 19 KJV where Paul tries but fails to resolve a contradiction of his own making: that the Law created sin, and between Adam and Moses the Law had not existed, yet everyone who lived in that long age was tainted by sin. It’s a clumsy, fumbling, bad piece of writing because it’s a clumsy, fumbling, bad piece of thinking, as illogical as his theology.

[30] Paul did not preach Hell. Converts to Paul’s Christianity, the gospel writers, added the doctrines of Hell, the Triune Godhead, and the Virgin Birth.

*

5

Pauline Christianity: A Mystical Salad

Our contention is that the whole vast, towering, ornate, gorgeous, powerful, many-winged edifice of Christianity was built on the flimsiest of foundations: the fantasies of an obscure, wandering, sex-obsessed liar and genius who named himself Saul, and then Paul, and whose real name nobody knows.

The seed that grew into the Christian religion was the Idea that a certain crucified Judean rebel leader,[1] whom a sect of Jews claimed was the prophesied Messiah (Christ in Greek), was a divine redeemer, Son of the One God worshipped by the Jews.

By “redeemer” was meant one who had died for the benefit of mankind, but rose again bodily and reigns forever with his Father in heaven, thus composing a deity consisting of two gods in One.

The earliest known documents that tell us where the Idea came from are the letters of St. Paul, so it may be assumed that he thought of it himself. Of course he might have picked it up from someone else, but it was he who posted about the Roman Empire trying to convince as many people as he could that the Idea was true. And he claimed it as his own, recording that it had come to him as a revelation from the resurrected divine redeemer himself. [2]

But, granted it was his confection, from what sources might its elements really have derived?

His birthplace, Tarsus [3], the capital of Cilicia, was a splendid pagan city where Persian emperors had built a magnificent palace [4]. It had a school of philosophy that “surpassed those of Athens and Alexandria”. [5]. It was also an important center of trade and religion. Unless Paul had left it when he was a mere infant, he would inevitably have witnessed pagan rites that were publicly and grandly celebrated there.

The city was named for Baal-Taraz, a god who annually died and rose again. Iconic representations of the Baal of Tarsus show that “there was a pair of deities, a divine Father and a divine Son“. [6]

Also in Tarsus, in the first century, the death and resurrection of the god Attis was ritually enacted every year. Attis – the son of a virgin mother – “died” in a ceremony of pain and blood. He was hung in effigy on a pine tree at Eastertide, the spring equinox, and priests sacrificed to him by castrating themselves. After three days his return to life was joyously celebrated. Both Baal-Taraz and Attis were fertility gods whose death and resurrection were believed to be for the good of humanity in that they ensured the rebirth of nature. In this sense they could be said to have suffered and died for mankind.

Nowhere in his known letters, [7] or in the putatively biographical Book of Acts, is it recorded that Paul himself actively participated in these rites. (He claimed to have been born a Jew, but was more probably a convert to Judaism.) [8]) But the religious belief that a god – Attis – came to earth in the form of a man, suffered execution by being hung on a tree for the good of humanity, and rose again, must have been familiar to him; and it is highly likely that it influenced his thinking about the crucified man he called “Jesus”, and whom a sect of Jews believed had risen bodily from the dead. [9] The Father and Son pair of deities worshipped in Tarsus may also have been in Paul’s thoughts when he called him “the Son of God”. (But when, later on, Christians endowed Jesus with a virgin mother, Paul had nothing to do with it. He never mentions Jesus’s birth. If the birth-myth of Attis influenced Christian thinking at all, it was almost certainly not through Paul.)

Ever since Alexander the Great conquered (between 334 and 323 BCE) most of the world known to the Greeks, goods of all sorts including ideas had moved freely about the lands of his empire. Greek culture continued to flourish after the Romans conquered Greece in the second century BCE. Religions and philosophies from Persia, North Africa, Asia Minor, Greece itself, even from as far away as India into which Alexander had briefly penetrated, were by that time gloriously intermingled in what one might call a salad of ideas. (The French word for a salad, macédoine, derives from the name of Alexander’s home state, Macedon, perhaps because his empire was a colorful mixture of cultures.)

Paul was literate and to an extent educated, and would have been aware of, if not well-informed about, many of those ideas. Philosophies and religions, both the popular and the esoteric, borrowed myths, rites, and beliefs from one another. So while the Attis cult may have been most vivid in his memory, and Judaism was the faith he was instructed in, other religions from near and far could have contributed to Paul’s invention. Some certainly did. They have left their traces in his writing.

There can be no doubt that Gnostic ideas were in his head. Most of the known Gnostic cults arose after Paul, and though deriving their elaborate cosmogonies in the first place from Greek philosophy, were also strongly affected by Christian theology; but one Gnostic cult at least was contemporaneous with him, the one that the Church Fathers believed to have been the first: that of Simon Magus, whom they called “the father of all heresies”. The Gnostic elements in St. Paul’s mysticism may have come from Simon, though it is possible there was a common source which both Paul and Simon knew but is entirely lost.

What are these Gnostic elements in St. Paul’s writings? Paul lamented that to live in this world was to be condemned to exist in spiritual darkness, and to be oppressed by “principalities and powers” (10]; and he spoke of a multiplicity of heavens [11], and “the god of this world” [12] – all of which chimes with Gnostic doctrine.

Gnostics held that a lesser god, a “demiurge” who was just but not merciful, had created, and continued to rule over, the material universe and mankind. St. Paul does not assert this, nor does he echo the Gnostic belief that the great true God, the Primal Father who was all good, was too far off in his highest heaven to be known to mortals, except by a small minority gifted with intuitive knowledge (“the gnosis”). However, in Simon Magus’s system, a divine redeemer descended to earth from the highest heaven on a mission of salvation. Paul might well have heard Simon Magus preach that he, Simon himself, was the divine redeemer through whom alone mankind could hope for spiritual salvation.

Simon claimed that his own divine origin was the Godhead, the Source of all things. His lady consort too, he taught, derived from there. She was Ennoia, the First Thought of the Source, incarnate on earth as Helen of Troy. As Helen she had been suffering for long ages, but now that Simon had descended to redeem all mankind from this evil world, she would be restored to her place in the highest heaven. All this Simon spun from Greek philosophy, which had long before him conceived of a Godhead consisting of three beings, or “hypostases”, variously named: for instance, an unknowable source of all things called the Depth, Bythos in Greek; his First Thought, the Nous or Ennoia; and his Word, the Logos.

Was this the origin of “the Trinity”, the three-in-one god of Christianity? Probably – but not through St. Paul. It is found in the gospel of “Matthew”, probably as a late addition to the original text. [13] And the writer of the first verse of the gospel of “John” declares that “the Logos” – the Word – was the beginning of creation. [14] It is a direct borrowing from Greek philosophy, and inseparable from the philosophical idea of a triune Godhead. It was written some forty to sixty years after St. Paul’s letters, and cannot be traced back to him. Nothing in the letters, or in anecdotes in the Book of Acts, distinctly shows Paul to have conceived a Trinitarian God. As he did not explicitly formulate the idea of a Christian three-person Godhead, he cannot be either credited with or accused of the invention of “the Trinity”. [15]

Paul’s Idea was One God, Two Persons, and though it makes no rational sense, it was the idea that began Christianity. By the time the Christian God came to be described as a three-person deity, two-in-one had already been swallowed, and it could not have been much harder for the same people to accept three-in-one, however illogical and even downright insane it strikes non-believers. (But the idea of the “Holy Trinity”, did in fact remain a difficult one for believers to grapple with, giving rise to tortuous intellectual puzzles that have pestered Christian theologians right up to the present day.)

Numerous notions from pagan and heretical sources accumulated in the mythology and doctrines of the Christian Church after St. Paul’s time. [16] But a centrally important doctrine and ritual that began with him was the eucharist (meaning the “thanksgiving”), a rite in which “Christ’s flesh” is devoured and “his blood” is drunk. From where (other than by revelation from Christ as he claimed) [17] did Paul derive it? Did he invent it in the hope of winning over worshippers of Dionysus? If the savage Dionysian rite of intoxicated acolytes eating raw flesh and drinking blood in order to get the incarnated god inside them [18] was still being practiced in Paul’s time, it was surely not by such large numbers that he felt compelled to find a way to draw them into his faith. Yet to do so would have been consistent with his proselytizing method: to integrate ideas already sacred to his audiences and adapt them to his evolving doctrine.

What is certain is that Greek religion and philosophy were brought to bear, in the first instance through the mind of one man, on events of the Jewish rebellion, and on Jewish beliefs and Jewish prophecy, to bring a new, initially passive, ominously sentimental religion into the world. Christianity was fathered by a vulgarized Hellenism upon a demoralized Judaism.

Despite his awareness of how his Roman-Greek contemporaries thought and felt, Paul offered them a religion that fitted poorly with the virile values of the age, and its appeal was chiefly to women and slaves. It might have faded away quite soon had not a volcanically disruptive historical event helped to sustain it: the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, a climax of the war the Judeans had been fighting against the Romans. The probability is that no one remained in Jerusalem after that who could actually remember the executed rebel leader and what he taught; no one who could credibly contradict Paul’s and the gospel-writers’ fictions. Paul could allege anything he liked about Jesus’s chosen disciples “Peter” and “John” and “James”; that they encouraged him to be Jesus’s “apostle to the gentiles”; that “Peter” allowed the dietary laws to be considered outdated; that converts need not be circumcised. He was rid of the bothersome need to deceive and conciliate the old men who constituted the Jewish connection with the man he called “Jesus” (though Jewish sects – Nazarenes and/or Ebionites – that believed he was the Messiah and would return to complete his earthly mission, continued to exist in lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean for some centuries).

Within a hundred years after the destruction of the Temple, the greater part of the Jewish nation was scattered through the world. Bound together only by their religion, they held to an adjusted orthodoxy, it being impossible any longer to obey all the 613 laws of their Temple-centered faith. Jewish proselytizing ceased, while Christian proselytizing intensified. So the historic catastrophe of the Jews allowed Pauline Christianity to outlive its inventor; and as it rolled on it gathered myths and legends, doctrines and rituals, institutions of administration, and eventually power.

By the beginning of the 4th century, about 10% of the people under Roman rule had been drawn into the new religion. By then Christians were no longer thought of by the Roman rulers as a sub-sect of the Jews. When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 as a result of a superstitious bargain [19], strong-minded men began to look hard at the religion and find formidable intellectual difficulties in what it claimed for its truths. They felt a yearning for orthodoxy; a need to straighten it all out, clarify the muddles it was born with, lay down a correct dogma. But that was to prove an endless, arduous, emotionally charged, utterly impossible task. It was to extend combatively through centuries, darkening them with ignorance, fear, and intense suffering, while uncountable numbers of lives were destroyed in Christian wars, massacres, martyrdoms, and persecutions.

 

Jillian Becker February 26, 2012

NOTES

[1] It is a curious fact that scholarship cannot discover the parent-given names of either the inventor of Christianity who became “St. Paul”, or his Jewish “Christ” whom he called by the Greek name “Jesus”.

[2] Acts 9:3-5

[3] St. Paul claimed to come from Tarsus, and there is no obvious way in which his lying about this would have served any purpose.

[4] The city and palace are described appreciatively in Xenophon’s Anabasis.

[5] & [6] J.G.Frazer, The Golden Bough: Adonis, Attis, Osiris Volume 1

[7] Most scholars now believe that only 7 of the 13 letters attributed in the New Testament to the authorship of St. Paul were written (at least for the most part) by him: Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon (to name them in the order in which they are arranged in the New testament, which might not be the order in which they were written. I very much doubt that St. Paul himself wrote Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity [or “love”  –  αγάπη (agape) in Greek], I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” The whole chapter is a beautiful poem, and as far from St. Paul’s capabilities as any writing could be. Compare it to the infelicitous writing and thinking of Romans, and the contrast becomes very clear. eg. 2:25-29. “For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; either is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

[8] Apart from persuasive evidence deducible from his letters and the Book of Acts that he was not born a Jew, there is an apparent confession that he only pretended to be one in 1 Cor 9:20, “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews.”

[9] As on other subjects in Paul’s writings, there is an ambiguity to be found in what he says about bodily resurrection. He certainly believed that “Christ” had “risen”, and that the “redeemed” would “live” with God, but whether in the body or the spirit he was not clear. Attempting explanation, he confounds confusion (1 Cor 15).

[10] Rom 8:38

[11] 2 Cor 12:2

[12] 2 Cor 4:4

[13] Matth 28:19

[14] John 1:1

[15] St. Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit as something that a human being could be filled with or accompanied by: a spirit of holiness, eg. “Do you not know that that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God …?” (1 Cor 6:19); “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” [ 2 Cor 3:14]. And when he says, “They that are in the flesh cannot please God, but ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you” (Rom 8:9 ), the “Spirit” has more in common with the inner spark of holiness which is cognate with “the gnosis” in the Gnostic systems, the spark by which a mortal might be saved from his entombment in the flesh, than with the Greek philosophical idea of a divine hypostasis.

[16] Among such alleged influences is the cult of Mithraism, centered in Rome and popular with the Roman army in Paul’s lifetime. Although it took the name of its god Mithras from the Persian god Mithra, it developed its own arcane rites. Little is known about its doctrines or practice. Some theologians, mythologists, and historians of religion assert that Mithra/Mithras had a virgin mother (though others say that icons prove he was born out of a rock); that three Magi (Zoroastrian grandees or priests) brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the new-born god; that Mithras celebrated a “last supper” with twelve disciples; that he was crucified, laid in a rock tomb, and rose again at the spring equinox. It is not known when these stories were attached to Mithraism, but it is most probable that they were taken over from Christian beliefs, rather than that the borrowing happened the other way about. It is possible that the choice of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath was taken from Mithraism. One borrowing may have been the choice of December 25th as the birthday of Christ on earth. Some theorists say that the date was deliberately chosen by the Catholic Church towards the end of the second century, because it was already being celebrated as the birthday of Mithras. In any case, of the alleged similarities in the two mythologies only a “last supper” (1 Cor 11:23-26), crucifixion and resurrection were included in Paul’s teaching; the rest came into Christianity years later.

[17] 1 Cor 11:23-25

[18] From Wikipedia: “Cultic rites associated with worship of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus (or Bacchus in Roman mythology), were allegedly characterized by maniacal dancing to the sound of loud music and crashing cymbals, in which the revellers screamed, became drunk and incited one another to greater and greater ecstasy [a state of being outside oneself]. The goal was to achieve a state of enthusiasm [the god being inside one] in which the celebrants’ souls were temporarily freed from their earthly bodies and were able to commune with Bacchus/Dionysus and gain a glimpse of and a preparation for what they would someday experience in eternity. The rite climaxed in a performance of frenzied feats of strength and madness, such as uprooting trees, tearing a bull (the symbol of Dionysus) apart with their bare hands, an act called sparagmos, and eating its flesh raw, an act called omophagia. This latter rite was a sacrament akin to communion in which the participants assumed the strength and character of the god by symbolically eating the raw flesh and drinking the blood of his symbolic incarnation. Having symbolically eaten his body and drunk his blood, the celebrants became possessed by Dionysus.”

[19] Just before a clash of arms known as the Battle of Milvian Bridge in a war with his co-emperor Maxentius, Constantine saw a light in the sky in the form of a cross. He swore that if he won the battle he would convert to Christianity. Tragically, he won.

*

6

The Fictitious Life of Jesus Christ

The gospel stories of Jesus’s life – almost everything they tell about the man whom St. Paul deified, except the manner of his death – are fictions of laughable transparency.

All religions need their myths, usually set in a distant past. The gospel-writers had to invent historical facts of their own era. In other words, to spin tendentious lies, addressed to gullibility and ignorance, around events within living memory.

Their stories had to achieve three main ends: to prove that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah; to establish that he was the divine Son of God; and to shift the blame for his execution from the Romans to the Jews.

Paul converted dozens, or hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand to his new religion, Christianity. The Romans classed them as a Jewish sect. After 70 CE when the uprising in Judea was crushed and the Temple destroyed by Titus, the Christians felt an urgent need to put not just distance but implacable enmity between themselves and the Jews. Titus’s triumphal parade through Rome, with his loot from the Temple and his Jewish captives, was probably the event that prompted “Mark”, a man or group of Christians living in Rome, to set about composing, in haste and fear, an account of Jesus’s life and teaching that would dissociate Christianity from Judaism and distinguish the Christians from the Jews.

Mark’s was the first gospel, started some twenty years after Paul had begun to preach. Matthew’s and then Luke’s followed, about ten and fifteen years later, taking much of their material from Mark. [1] Over the next hundred years they were all subjected to revision and interpolation. They are supremely malicious documents, grounding the myths of the new religion in the false inculpation of the race to which the man had belonged whom the authors worshiped as their god. That the Christians felt this to be an existential necessity may explain, but hardly excuse, the immorality of their ploy: making a ransom bid for their own security at the expense of the Jews. Nothing more thoroughly exposes the shallowness of the Christian commitment to love, than this demonizing of the people out of whose religion theirs was born. When it came to ferocious denunciation, the acolytes of the new God of Love were a match for the prophets of the old God of Vengeance. The hatred would be sustained throughout the history of Christianity.

St. Paul wanted the Church to repudiate the Jewish scriptures, insisting that the Law had been superseded by the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But the Church fathers found it impossible to relinquish them as the pre-history of Christianity. They found they could not, after all, do without the old moral law. And they needed the prophecies in order to claim the title of Messiah for their Christ.

The life they made up for Jesus fulfilled all relevant prophecies. An example of how they worked this is the story of the Birth. Although one of the few things known about the crucified man is that he had lived in Nazareth in the Galilee, Matthew and Luke assert that he was born in Bethlehem, and Luke spins a tale to explain how it happened, so as to fulfill a prophesy in the Book of Micah [2]. He explains that Augustus Caesar ordered a census to be taken throughout the empire, and the rules of the census required every head of a household to return to the place of his birth for the period being surveyed. [3] This is patent nonsense. The whole point of a census is for the ruling authority to know where its subjects are and what is their standing at a particular moment. Re-arranging everything, having families travel hither and thither, scurrying about all over an empire before they provide information, would defeat the purpose. But Luke alleges such a rule, has the husband of Jesus’s mother be a native of Bethlehem, and so has him return there with his pregnant wife. On the night they arrive Jesus is born. Prophecy fulfilled.

To shift the blame for the crucifixion from the Romans who did the deed to the Jews who did not, the story tellers have the High Priest find Jesus guilty of blasphemy for not denying that he called himself the king of the Jews (though if he had called himself that, it would not have been blasphemous) and hand him over to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, to be executed for it. [4] The procurator is made extremely reluctant to condemn him to death, but “the Jews” insist that he must be crucified. Matthew even has a crowd of Jews – speaking for all Jews, it is implied – vow to bear the guilt of his execution forever: “his blood be upon us and our children”. [5] (There lies the root of the Holocaust.)

In particular, those Jews who had been the companions of the executed man had to be discredited. They were still annoyingly hanging about after his death, holding on to their belief that he was the Messiah (but not divine), and that he would return to complete his political mission. They formed a sect among many sects within Judaism. [6] Nothing they believed was considered blasphemous – which a belief in the divinity of Jesus would have been. Although they were dispersed after the fall of the Temple, ceased to proselytize (as the Jews did generally), and so became less of a living threat to Christian credibility, explanation was still needed for the Christian record as to why they had not recognized Jesus as God in his lifetime. So the writers of the gospels show them to have been too stupid to understand what Jesus revealed to them – without apparently considering why Jesus chose disciples who were such dunces, setting himself up to be frustrated and let down time after time by their incomprehension, cowardice and treachery. [7]

It is in John’s gospel that Jesus most insistently declares that he is the Son of God, and he is made to be in constant bitter conflict with “the Jews”. This gospel was written at the earliest near the end of the first century and more probably in the second century. It is a mystical disquisition consisting largely of tales of miracles, denigration of the Jews, and tendentious discourses bearing on controversy within the Church. John’s Jesus is a long-winded bore, repetitively explaining that he could only perform his miracles because God the Father gave him the power; an indication that Christian theologians must have been arguing about whether Jesus, being God, was omnipotent while he was on earth. It is one of the many questions that the extra-absurd theology of Christianity inevitably gave rise to and cannot be answered.

The gospels were written to solve problems, not to record facts. As difficulties were perceived they were dealt with. The popular cult of John the Baptist was a stumbling block to the followers of Jesus, so a story was devised in which John baptizes Jesus and recognizes him as one who is far above him. This is so important to Mark that he begins his story with it. [8] The wide appeal of Zoroastrianism in the eastern Roman Empire had to be similarly appeased, so three Zoroastrian priests, or Magi, travel from the East to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. [9] To prove that Jesus had divine powers – whether his own or worked through him by “the Father” – he had to perform miracles: so in the stories he calms tumultuous seas, heals the sick, cures blindness and deafness, raises the dead, casts out evil spirits, works success with getting food, feeds multitudes – the usual sort of miracles found in the legends of numerous magicians. [10]

The gospels had to say what the fictitious Jesus taught. The writers cannot be blamed for creating a God-man who said nothing original or profound, since they themselves were not specially gifted men. They were not highly educated: they wrote in demotic Greek. The transparency of their contrivances suggests that they were not even very intelligent. To invent a great thinker one has to be a great thinker, and none of them was.

They lifted some of his wisdom from the rabbinical stock: gnomic wise-saws and injunctions against showing off your virtue and piety. [11] Much was adapted or freshly composed to promote the Pauline Christian values of self-abnegation, meekness, other-worldliness, poverty, continence, the glorification of suffering. Revisions presented in the form “You have heard it said … but I say unto you…”, were to establish that the new religion of Jesus Christ was doctrinally different from the old, superseded it, and was morally superiority to it.

New was the creation of Hell. Again one notices the hypocrisy of a religion that preaches forgiveness, love, and mercy, yet invents an eternal punishment of unremitting agony for those whom Christ rejects.

But rejects on what grounds? The gospels have Jesus teach tolerance of evil; not only must you appease evil by passively enduring persecution and practicing forgiveness, you must permit it by abandoning moral judgment and putting up no resistance to it. Forgive, judge not, and “Resist not evil.” [12]

Among Jesus’s messages, there are sayings that go against the drift and purposes of the gospel-writers. These may well have been words spoken by the real man, remembered and repeated by word of mouth, and well enough known to the converts that their omission could have roused doubt over the authenticity of everything the writers claimed to be recording about Jesus. They include a firm statement that the Law will never be superseded: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” [13] And he orders his followers not to preach to the Gentiles but only to “the lost sheep of Israel”. [14] Yet that is the very thing Paul did: preach to the Gentiles. And what he preached was that the Law was obsolete.

And there is this: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” [15] It is one of the few hints in the gospels that all was not peaceful in Judea in Jesus’s lifetime. Another sign is the presence of at least one dagger-wielding Zealot among Jesus Christ’s own followers. [16] It is notable that this rebel, Judas Iscariot (Judah the dagger-man), is the same character who is made to betray Jesus to the Romans, so that his evil violence contrasts with Jesus’s implied peacefulness. Judas Iscariot may well have been one of the real Jesus’s band. Behind the fictional teacher, preacher, healer, miracle worker and God, a shadowy figure of no use to Christianity can be glimpsed: a man who claimed his mission was not to send peace but a sword.

This shadowy figure had a cause to fight for. It could only have been the liberation of his people from Roman rule, which was the task of the Messiah. He came to believe that that was who he was, that he would free Judea and be crowned king. The defeat of the Romans would happen by means of a miracle, worked by his God through him. He had only to pray, take certain ritual actions, and the Romans would go. How? Sicken and die, or convert en masse to Judaism, or sail away, or vanish into the air perhaps? This was no common religious fanaticism. It was insane delusion.

What sort of man can believe such a thing? A madman.

In the Christian story, Jesus tells his disciples to arm themselves; if necessary, to sell a garment and use the money to buy a sword. [17] Only two of them do it. They all go with him to the foot of the Mount of Olives. He prays fervently. [18] What next?

Taking as a starting point the fairly certain fact that Jesus was executed as a rebel leader, and reasoning plausibly as to what might have led up to that event, this was the probable sequence of events: Jesus sends one of his band to raise alarm – by reporting a disturbance, perhaps – and bring a contingent of the enemy to the chosen place. He and the rest of the band wait, convinced that when the Romans come they will need only the two swords they have [19], a blow or two will be struck, and God will do the rest. [20]

The Roman guards approach. Those of the Jesus band who have swords strike at random, and that’s enough of the rough stuff. The moment has arrived. The miracle must happen now!

But no miracle happens. Jesus is disappointed, but is sure it will yet happen, because he is insane. And he goes on expecting it until he is nailed to a cross as a rebel leader. [21] Only when he is nearly dead he despairs and asks his God why he has forsaken him – quoting Psalm 22, being a Pharisee well versed in the Jewish scriptures. [22]

His disciples must also have been insane to believe he would bring off the miraculous liberation. Irrationally if not insanely, they went on believing he would yet make it happen even after he had been executed. If they had not, Paul would probably not have heard of him, and the history of the last 2,000 years would have been entirely different.

 

Jillian Becker April 8, 2012

NOTES

[1] Many (mostly German) scholars say that the information in Mark (the first gospel), and so in Matthew and Luke, derived from a lost source they label “Q”. It stands for “Quelle”, the German for “source”. There is no evidence that “Q” existed, and whether it did or not makes no difference to what is known: that, following Paul’s preaching about a Savior-God who lived for a while on earth as a man, a number of people wrote largely fictitious stories about his life.

[2] Micah 5:2.

[3] Luke 2:1-6. A census was ordered in 6 CE, when Quirinius, the governor of Syria mentioned by Luke, was appointed. It was in preparation for imposing new taxes, and marked the beginning of the Zealots’ rebellion in Judea against direct Roman rule. It did not require people to give their information from the place where they were born.

[4] Matth 26:59-66

[5] Matth 27: 11-25

[6] Jesus’s brother James – according to both St. Paul and Josephus – was the leader of this Jewish sect after Jesus’s crucifixion. He believed what Jesus had believed, and far from being accused of blasphemy, he was held in high esteem and prayed often in the Temple. The sect, known as the Nazarenes or Ebionites, was still in existence in the fourth century.

[7] Luke 20:2-8, 22:45, 24:13-27; Matth 26:40-50; Mark 14: 66-72; John 8:27-28, 12:37-40

[8] Mark 1:4-11

[9] Matth 2:1-2

[10] See for instance The Myth of the Magus by E.M Butler Cambridge Univ. Press 1948, which traces the repeated pattern of the Magician figure – among whom he includes Christ – from ancient to modern times. Among the most frequently related magical or “miraculous” deeds of the hero/sage/god/magus are: calming tumultuous seas; healing disease and curing blindness/deafness; raising the dead; casting out evil spirits; success with hunting and fishing; feeding multitudes.

[11] Most of the teaching of the biblical Jesus summed up in this essay is to be found in Matth 5,6,7

[12] Matth 5:39. Yet according to a parable in Matth 22, a man is rightly cast into outer darkness for not being properly dressed when he has been rounded up in a random crowd and made to attend a wedding. And in Matth 5:22 Jesus says that if you call your brother a fool you will be in danger of hell fire.

[13] Matth 5:18

[14] Matth 10:5-6

[15] Matth 10:34

[16] See note 3. According to Hyam Maccoby in Revolution in Judea, Ocean Books London 1973 page 159, no fewer than five of Jesus’s closest followers named in the gospels were probably real men and Zealots: Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot, James and John known as Boanerges (“sons of thunder”), and Simon known as Barjonah [“outlaw” or “rebel”]. The last is the Simon whom Matthew (16:18) has Jesus rename Peter, meaning “rock”, because he says he is the rock on whom he will build his church.

[17] Luke 22:36

[18] Luke 22:44 “He prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were drops of blood falling to the ground.”

[19] Luke 22.23

[20] Hyam Maccoby, in Revolution in Judea, also theorizes that the real Jesus expected God to work a miracle through him that night to liberate the Jews from Roman rule, but does not believe that he was mad. He believes he was accepted by many Jews as their king, that a coronation was enacted, he was ceremonially anointed, and was hailed as king by a vast crowd when he rode into Jerusalem. But if that had happened, Josephus would surely have written about it, as he wrote about other leaders who were believed by large numbers of people to be the Messiah, each in his turn.

[21] Matth 27:35-37. The inscription on the cross “King of the Jews’’ was an explanation of why he was executed: for attempting to overthrow the Roman government of Judea, for which crucifixion was the prescribed penalty.

[22] Matth 27:46

*

7

Christian Theology: “The Word Made Flesh”

Theology is the study of – nothing. Of a figment, a rumor, a superstition. “God-study”.

For hundreds of years it has preoccupied studious persons, and still does. Through most of the last two millennia, brilliant men of the sort that in our time are scientists and inventors, concentrated on the intricate vapidities of Christian theology.

Most medieval universities had four faculties: Arts, which all students entered, and three of “higher learning”, Theology, Law, Medicine. Until the Enlightenment, Theology was the most esteemed. This was the case whether the university was under the authority of the Catholic Church (as at Paris), or of the students themselves (as at Bologna), or of the state (as was Oxford). Philosophy came under Theology. Christian theology, of course.

And yet Christian theology had sprouted out of philosophy. Greek philosophy. Not out of the unsophisticated polytheistic religion of the Greeks; and not out of rabbinic Judaism. No, Christian theologians had to take the fuzzy idea launched by St Paul – that a man he called “Jesus Christ” was the divine “Son of God” – and try to make sense of it. They found a paradigm in Greek metaphysics, the “science of the immaterial”. [1]

Among the first converts to Pauline Christianity, and among those who received the first three gospels, there must have been some who found questions arising inevitably out of Paul’s idea. Even the odd intelligent slave might ask some of the more obvious ones, such as: if Jesus was God how come he didn’t save himself from his agonizing death on the cross? And: if he was God he didn’t really ever die, did he, so he couldn’t have actually died for our sins, could he? And: come to think of it, if he died for our sins how come we can still be punished for them in hell? And: if being all-knowing God he knew everything in advance, he must have known he was going to be crucified, he must even have planned it, so why is everyone who played a part in carrying it out blamed for it?

And again, if he was God, then from the time he was born (or conceived) were there two Gods, one above the earth and one on it, and if so why do you say there’s only one God? Some might even have gone so far as to ponder the question: if God has always existed, and if Jesus Christ is God, where was he before he was born? Which is to say, when and how did he come to be God, and how and why did he come to be a man?

These last questions seriously bothered the intellectuals of the age. They were the very questions that set Christian theology going; the ones that sent great minds searching in Greek philosophy. [2] Although there were many versions of Christianity in the first few centuries after Paul’s idea began to catch on, all the various theorists – Paulinists, Gnostics, Marcionites … the list is long – stumbled over the same questions and found their answers in the same shop. They adapted them variously to suit their individual theologies, with wild fantasy and astonishing dramatic flair. [3]

The Catholic Church’s answer to how the Son came into existence is stated in the opening verse of the gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And it goes on to say that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” This is the big point of Christian theology: “The Word was made flesh”.

Now what would your average Christian converts – for the most part probably slaves, women, illiterates – have made of that? They would no doubt have accepted it as a mystery that they couldn’t understand but their betters could; like the mystery of how God was simultaneously up above and down here; how he’s immortal yet he died; how he died but didn’t stay dead; how bread and wine, ritually blessed, became the body and blood of Jesus when it got inside them (another of St Paul’s strange ideas, but one which theologians have not overstrained their brains to explain).

“The Word made flesh”. What can we make of it? It makes no sense. And even when we‘ve found where the idea comes from, it will still make no sense. But we’ll look for its source anyway.

By the time of the Roman Caesars, starting with Augustus in 1 BCE in whose reign Jesus was born, Greek philosophical ideas about the origin of existence – ontology – had become very elaborate. Faithful though the Greek and Roman sages were in their daily lives to the many gods and goddesses of their culture, when they set themselves the task of explaining how What Is came to be, these polytheists were philosophical monotheists – of a sort. Their ontological narrative had to start with a single source of the universe, a God who was One.

Why? Because of what Plato had propounded. Plato said that the things of this base world, so many and various, are not “real”, but the mere reflections of existences in a higher reality, an immaterial heavenly sphere. We everyday folk say that what we can touch, hold, see, eat is real, while what we imagine is unreal. Plato said, Oh no, it’s the other way about: the things of this world are unreal, mere illusions, shadows of the things in the really real world which is somewhere else and which we can only know in our thoughts. [4] In Plato’s real world there was The Perfect Form of everything. In our unreal world, he said, things of a particular kind – let’s take stones and fish – are manifestations of a single essence – an essential stone-ness or fish-ness – the Perfect Form of which exists in the immaterial sphere where nothing perishes. Just one perfect form for each sort of thing we see on earth furnishes that heaven. Why only one? Because there can only be one stone-ness, one fish-ness. There can be only one essence of anything. Only one essence of ideas, the Idea of ideas. Only one essence of existence itself. And the essence of existence is God.

So God is singular. He is everlasting. Those attributes are implicit in the concept of him. But other than that we can know nothing about him. So we can say nothing about him. He is “ineffable”.

Yet billions of words have been poured out, and continue to be poured out about this ineffable concept.

Platonists of the early centuries of our common era held that the One is simple and unmoving. Which means that he does nothing. He does not act. He does not create. How then, out of such a one, have many come? How can one, doing nothing, be the source of all things that exist?

Ah, now it gets canny. His existence emanates existence, as a lamp emanates light, as a fire emanates heat. He thinks, and thinking, he emanates a First Thought. That Thought is a second being, an hypostasis. [5] In some schemes (or cosmogonies) the One emanates a pair (“syzygy”) of beings: First Thought (Ennoia in Greek), and Mind (Nous). And there, lo!, is a Triune Godhead.

From the first pair may descend more hypostases in syzygies, for instance, Truth (Alithea) and Word (Logos). Disputes over which scheme was true were many and often bitter, and by their nature of course totally incapable of resolution. Did they all agree at least that everything came from the One Simple Source? Well, no. Some say not everything. Not – surprisingly? – matter. Generally in Greek philosophy matter was already there. Matter was eternal. It had no beginning and would have no end. It was always there, just as the One was always there. What then happened to matter so that it became the material things we know? It was worked by an agent in the heavenly hierarchy. Just where this agent was placed in a hierarchy varied from scheme to scheme. But wherever he stood, he was called the Demiurge: the craftsman; the big holy smith. He took matter and shaped it into the things we know: our base world and all that’s in it; our base material bodies; the whole “unreality” which we imagine to be real. [6] In John’s scheme, there is no agent who makes the Word flesh. The One emanates the Logos, and the Logos is made flesh as Jesus Christ in the passive voice.

Perhaps with the appearance of John’s gospel there was silence among intellectual Christians for a quarter of an hour or so as they digested the information that Jesus Christ was the Word made flesh.

And then a clamor of argument broke out which was to last for hundreds of years, and has still not ended though it has become more muted. Not one argument but a babble of arguments, of arguments within arguments. And so passionately did the arguers feel that they often killed those who would not agree with them. Those who had the power to order the killing of dissenters from their own point of view did so with all the zeal of righteousness. Those who could claim to be orthodox according to one or another ruling at one or another congress on a point at issue, accused the rest of heresy. War broke out between factions defending what might seem to us teeny-weeny points of difference that could affect nothing in actuality. And all, remember, about entirely imaginary existences and processes; nothing that could be ascertained by going to the thing itself and testing it, experimenting with it, analyzing it, since it – the divinity – wasn’t there.

For example: a controversy arose because, in the Christian scheme, God the Father emanates his Son the Logos and the Holy Ghost, the three together composing the Triune Godhead of Christianity.

But does the Holy Ghost proceed from the Father only, or also from the Son? Can two beings emanate a third being simultaneously? It was considered an immensely important question: Is the Holy Ghost an emanation from the Father only, or from the Father and the Son? The Latin for “and from the son” is “filioque”, so this rancorous disagreement is known as the filioque question. It was one of the disputes over which Christians mercilessly persecuted other Christians.

Another conflict of even greater importance in Christian history was – and is – over the question of just how divine Jesus Christ was when he lived as a man among men on earth. When he was a mewling puking baby, a toddler, a boy, an adolescent, a young man, a mature man, one who ate and digested and sweated, hiccupped and sneezed, got headache and toothache, clipped his nails and combed his hair, was he God? Were those nail clippings and hairs and feces and drops of sweat dropped by Jesus on the soil of the Galilee bits of God? When he was crucified, and cried out to ask his God why he had deserted him, was he himself then not God?

There was no escaping the questions. Once declare a man to be the ineffable unknowable invisible God incarnate, and you’re inevitably stirring up a hornet’s nest of logical difficulties. [7] They groped for answers.

Perhaps his human nature was illusory, his real nature always and only divine? Or did he become divine at a certain moment, when he was baptized, or when he “died”, or when he “rose again”? Or could he have been simultaneously wholly human and wholly divine?

The answers to these conjectures depended, the theologians said, on whether his “substance”, or nature, was the same as the Father’s or only similar to the Father’s. In Greek terms: were God the Father and God the Son homoousios or homoiousios?

That “i” in the middle of homoiousios – the iota from which we derive our word “jot” meaning a very little – made the most enormous difference to Christian theologians. Great councils were held to ponder that iota. Should it be there? Same or similar? It was one of the biggest bones of contention in Christian history. Wars were fought over it. Countless men and women and little children died because of it. But over what, in sober judgment? Two versions of a fiction, a figment, a rumor, a superstition.

 

Jillian Becker December 24, 2012

 NOTES

1. If, however, one looks back far enough, Greek philosophy – as in Pythagoreanism – was inseparable from religion.

2. All respectable intellectuals of the time had to take account of Greek philosophy, to endorse it or to argue with it. The Jewish philosopher Philo was a contemporary of the crucified Jew on whose life and death “Jesus Christ” was based, though the philosopher gives no indication of ever having heard of him. Philo believed neither in the Messianic promise, nor in the bodily resurrection of the dead. He lived in the important and thoroughly Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt, where many famous schools of philosophy flourished for centuries. He tried to show how some Greek philosophical ideas could be compatible with Jewish teaching. He said, for instance, that the Logos was the first-born son of God, Wisdom being the Mother; and that the Divine Logos had two natures, human and divine. He understood Logos to be the capacity of reason, so human beings possessed logoi, and “the Divine Logos” was the essence of human reason.

3. See for example our post Valentinus, February 14, 2011.

4. With this invention of higher and lower worlds, the one divine the other profane, the one pure the other impure, Plato imposed a pattern on Western thought from which neither the Enlightenment nor modern science has yet been able to set it entirely free.

5. Its first-ness does not mean it came first in time. None of this happens in time. Nous, or Logos, or whatever is named as “the first -born of God”, is first in the hierarchy of divine hypostases.

6. In some schemes (of Platonists, Middle Platonists, and Neo-Platonists), Nous or Logos directly emanates the Demiurge as the third being or hypostasis. The Gnostics put him much lower down, and identified him with the Creator God of the Jews, some regarding him as evil, some as “merely just”.

7. Though for pagans, god-men or man-gods were not problematic. Caligula, one of the Roman emperors in St Paul’s lifetime, blithely declared himself “Zeus made manifest”. As Zeus, he knew he could change his mind and on a whim take some other form, human, animal, vegetable, or vental (becoming a wind). He was a bright satirical young man and in claiming to be a god incarnate he was doing nothing out of the ordinary, as his family counted several deified emperors among their close ancestors.

Posted under by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, February 19, 2014

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  • Cogito

    I am wading through your
    History of early Christianity. It is marvelous – a well argued polemic,
    and I thank you very much for it.
    I doubt there is anything in it with which a scholar could argue.
    Many thanks, and continued success.