Pauline Christianity: a mystical salad 5

Continuing our series on the beginnings and early development of Christianity, we look in this essay for possible and plausible sources of the Idea that launched the new religion.

The first four essays are: A man named Jesus or something like that (September 23, 2011); The invention of Christianity (October 28, 2011); Tread on me: the making of Christian morality (December 22, 2011); St.Paul: portrait of a sick genius, (January 7, 2012).

Our contention is that the whole vast, towering, ornate, gorgeous, powerful, many-winged edifice of Christianity was started on the flimsiest of foundations: the fantasies of an obscure, wandering, sex-obsessed liar and genius 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, 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



[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.

[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. The only certain borrowing was the choice of December 25th as the birthday of Christ on earth. 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.

Posted under Christianity, Commentary, History, Judaism, Mysticism by Jillian Becker on Sunday, February 26, 2012

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