Jesus and Christianity
Back to History | by Piero Scaruffi
The Roman dogma vs historyThe history of Jesus and the history of Christianity that we know today is the dogma that the Roman empire forced on all its provinces. When Constantine converted to Christianity, Rome became the center of power also for Christianity and any challenging center was wiped out. What Jesus really said and meant will probably never be known.
A new wave of "Historical Jesus" research has emerged in the wake of the discovery in 1947 in Egypt of the ancient manuscripts that are known today as the "Nag Hammadi library" and as "Gnostic Gospels", and of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Until then, little was known about the early Christians known as the Gnostics. "We've listened to the winners, and their story doesn't make any sense. So let's listen to the losers and see if their story makes more sense" (Freke).
The other gospelsMany gospels were written, including and besides the four official ones. The four official gospels were written in Greece in Greek, the earliest (Marks') dating from the year 70 and the last one (John's) dating from the second century after Christ. (The oldest manuscript of the gospels that we found dates from the fourth century, but we have fragments that have been dated from the mid second century and we can deduct the date of composition from references in the texts). There is general agreement that three of the official ones (the "synoptic" gospels) derive from a common source (or Luke's and Matthew's simply derive from Mark's), whereas John's is inherently different. One hypothesis is that John's and this common source derive, in turn, from a pre-existing text, called "Q", that has never been found. One of the banned gospels, the gospel of Judas Thomas, has been considered a potential candidate for "Q" or for something closer to "Q" than anything else we have found. Note that the very first gospel (70AD) was written when Christianity had already spread throughout the Roman Empire, and emperor Nero had already started persecuting Christians (64AD).
John's gospel is markedly different from the other three gospels: it names many people who are anonymous in the other three gospels and it includes two episodes (the wedding at Cana and the raising of Lazarus) that the other gospels seem curiously unaware of. It "sounds" more knowledgeable: it provides details about the early proselytizing of Jesus and the rivalry between Jesus' sect and John the Baptist's sect. The account of Jesus' trial and crucifixion is more credible. Yet, John's gospel is unquestionably a later work than the other three official gospels.
It is also likely that the gospels as we know them have been heavily rewritten after they were originally written. Papias of Hierapolis in 110 talks of the gospel of St Matthew as a collections of oracles, not of miracles.
All four official gospels were written after Paul wrote his letters. Paul's letters are the oldest Christian documents. But Paul admits he never met Jesus and, in fact, his letters contain almost no reference at all to Jesus' lives.
Irenaeus (at the end of the second century) is the first Christian writer who mentions the dogma of the four gospels. Before him there is no mention of those gospels as being the only "good" ones. Justin Martyr (150) does not mention a New Testament, does not mention Mark, Matthew, Luke or John. On the other hand, he mentions the "memoirs" of the apostles, which could be the letters and the "gospels" attributed to Peter and others (mostly not recognized by the Church) besides the letters of Paul and the acts of the Apostles. In 170 Tatian admits he was working on a new gospel that would summarize all the other ones, thereby implying that Christians were still writing and rewriting gospels based on their own assumptions and preferences, not on historical facts. Also in the second century, Clement of Alexandria admits that two versions of Mark's gospel existed but one was being suppressed because it contained two passages that should not be viewed by average Christians (both passages could be interpreted as Lazarus being Jesus' lover and his "resurrection" as being an "initiation" to some kind of sexual rite, the way most pagan "mysteries" implied a death and a rebirth). Thus, the texts were being chosen, edited and purged for the first two centuries of the Christian era. That process had solidified by the time Irenaeus wrote that there were only four gospels.
Irenaeus' choice was formalized in 325 at the council of Nicaea, where those four gospels became the official dogma of the Roman Church and all other histories of Jesus were banned.
Irenaeus picked only a fraction of the available literature on Jesus. He excluded some of the most popular texts, such as the gospel of Thomas and the gospel of the Hebrews (by far the two most popular texts among early Christians). Either the memory was lost of what was old and what was new (Irenaeus claims that Mark and Luke were eyewitness which of course they were not) or the Church was already at work to completely reinvent the story of Jesus to suit whatever ideology. For example, if one wanted people to believe in Paul's letters, then he would probably choose those four gospels over all the other ones. The fact is that the dogma immediately ignited a very contentious issue.
Texts outlawed by Rome paint a very different picture of Jesus' teaching, especially the ones written by the "gnostic" Christians. Sometimes Jesus appears as a sort of communist revolutionary, sometimes as a sort of Buddhist thinker. In the most ancient texts he rarely appears as the Jesus who makes miracles and ascended to heaven, and sometimes does not appear at all. Sometimes he barely appears at all, while others (James, Paul) are the predominant characters. Peter, the most famous of Jesus' followers, is actually a very minor figure in early Christian documents.
Today, it is sometimes difficult to understand why some gospels were banned. Several of the banned gospels are apparently consistent with the dogma: why ban them? The devil is probably in the details: in 325 Christianity had become the religion of the Roman empire and it was not nice to emphasize that it was the Romans who had killed Jesus; in 325 Christianity had taken the beliefs that would become the Catholic dogma, and it was not nice to emphasize that Jesus had brothers (although even the official gospels say so) or that Mary Magdalene was always with him (although even the official gospels say so) and it was nice to undermine Jesus' miracles. Most of the gospels may have been considered redundant (they didn't add anything meaningful to the story) and dangerous (they could stress aspects of Jesus' story that the Church would rather downplay).
The gnostic Christians were persecuted after Rome converted to Christianity and most of their texts were burned. The church also outlawed all other histories of Jesus but the four official ones.
The councilsInitially, there was strong disagreement among Christians about what Christianity was all about. The Christian dogma was formalized by a series of councils, whose conclusions were largely arbitrary. The council of Nicaea (325) mandated that only four gospels were true: the others were heretic. The council of Ephesus (431) sanctioned that the divine nature of Jesus was superior to his human nature. The council of Calcedonia (451) accepted pope Leone I's theory that Jesus was both human and divine (and this was based on Greek philosophy, not on historical evidence or on the gospels' testimony).
The historiansOther than the gospels, we know of early Christianity mainly through the Jewish historian Josephus (37-96 AD), but he himself became a Roman citizen and even an advisor to two emperors. Two centuries later, Eusebius and Irenaeus wrote about the origins of the Christian religion. Both of them basically codified Christianity as we know it. Irenaeus makes the oldest known claim that there are only four official gospels and the others are work of the devil. Eusebius (who was working for Constantine and even wrote his biography) compiled a history of the Roman church from Peter on (Eusebius wrote that the emperor is the vehicle of God on earth).
The early ChristiansRome was obviously not the place where Christianity had been born and was not the cultural center of the world. Christianity first spread in Palestine and Syria, then east to Armenia (the first country to convert) and to Greece, that was the cultural center of the empire. When the apostles spread, Peter went to Rome, but others went elsewhere. Notably, Taddeus went to Armenia.
Later, Paul went to Greece. The first community to call themselves Christians was in Syria. The man whom most (including Paul) considered the head of Christianity was James the Just, who remained in Palestine. These were all equal centers of Christianity. It was only after the Roman conversion that the Roman branch of Christianity became the official one, and the lineage back to Peter (the popes) was recognized as the only lineage worth knowing. It was then that only four gospels (probably written in Greece between 66 and the end of the second century) were accepted as true, even if for centuries several others had circulated. It was then that competing branches of Christianity were persecuted and annihilated.
What accounts for the rapid spread of Christianity around the Roman empire? It is not clear how many Christians there really were before Constantine forced the entire Roman empire to convert to Christianity, but it is reasonable to assume that at least a good number of them lived in Rome and in various provinces of the middle East. In the year 70, following a Jewish rebellion, Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem and expelled the Jews. That act may be responsible for the spread of Christianity: Jews of the Christian faith certainly ended up (as slaves) in Rome and probably (as refugees) in several middle-eastern provinces. While it is a mystery how they could make so many proselytes so quickly, it is quite normal that they could be found all around the eastern Roman empire. The number of proselytes (if it was indeed as high as the Church wants us to believe) could be explained in a simple way by assuming that there were already many Christians in Palestine itself, which, of course, would be possible only if Christianity was widely more popular than the official gospels admit and if Christianity predated Jesus.
Pre-existing legends and the gospelsThe Roman dogma is a mixture of historical and pre-existing themes. Mithraism, a religion derived from Zoroastrism, was very popular in Rome at the same time that Christianity was spreading. Mithras was believed to be the son of the sun, sent to the earth to rescue humankind. Two centuries before the appearance of Jesus, the myth of Mithras held that Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25 in a cave, and his birth was attended by shepherds. Mithras sacrificed himself and the last day had a supper with twelve of his followers. At that supper Mithras invited his followes to eat his body and drink his blood. He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again. Mithras' festival coincided with the Christian Easter. This legend dates from at least one century before Jesus. It was absorbed in the Roman dogma. Jesus' attitude often resembles the legendary greek philospher Socrates (eg, the way he refuses to respond to Pilate).
The Egyptian god Osiris was also born on the 25th of December, died on a friday and resurrected after spending three days in the underworld.
The Roman god Dionysus was hailed as `The Saviour of Mankind' and `The Son of God'. Dionysus was born (on December 25) when Zeus visited Persephone. Therefore, his father is God and his mother is a mortal virgin. Announced by a star, he is born in a cowshed and visited by three Magis. He turns water into wine and raises people from the dead. He is followed by twelve apostles. Dionysus' resurrection was a popular myth throughout the Roman empire, although his name was different in each country. The rituals in honor of Dionysus included a meal of bread and wine, symbolizing his body and blood. An amulet of the 3rd century has been found that depicts a crucified man (unmistakably Jesus) but bears the inscription "Orpheus Bacchus", which was yet another name for Dionysus. The 5th century Egyptian poet Nonnus wrote two long epic poems in Greek, one on the conquest of the world by Dionysus, and the other a verse paraphrase of one of the Christian gospels. Unfortunately, we know little of the Dionysus' faith because in 396 a mob of fanatical Christians destroyed the sanctuary of Eleusis, likely to have been the largest religious center in the world. We only know that the rituals were very popular and lasted several days.
The early Christians revered Dionysus's birthday as Jesus's birthday (Christmas) and the three-day Spring festival of Dionysus roughly coincides with Easter. Jews had their own version of this festival (the "therapeutae") since at least the year 10 (it is reported by Philo of Alexandria), which is 23 years before the crucifixion of Jesus (Armenians still celebrate the birthday of Jesus on january 6).
(The most credible theory of why the Christians of the third century chose the 25th of december as Jesus' birthday instead of the first of january is that the 25th of december was already a major holiday, a festival called "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti" instituted before 220 AD).
Jesus lived right at the beginning of the Roman empire. The first emperor, "Augustus", had the title of "saviour of the human race". The legend was that Augustus had been born nine months after his mother was "visited" by the god Apollo. The greatest Roman poet of all time, Virgil, had foretold in 40BC that a king would be born of a virgin. It was false, but it was widely believed by ordinary Romans that, in the year of Augustus' birth, the Roman senate had ordered the murder of all other children. Incidentally, Augustus had launched a puritanical campaign to restore traditional moral values in a Roman empire that had been devastated by 20 years of civil war.
Pre-existing legends and current events influenced the way the official gospels were selected and doctored. Some scholars have even suggested the entire history of Jesus is a myth, based on pre-existing myths that were assembled by "gnostic" jews.
The official gospels were carefully chosen and edited to reflect a view acceptable to the Roman authorities and audience. For example, the official gospels blamed the Jews for killing Jesus, even if, of course, it was the Romans who killed him (for sedition). The earliest account of the life of Jesus, St Mark's gospel, was written during the Jewish rebellion of 66. It was not a time to claim that Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary. Jesus, in fact, is presented as a victim of the Jews.
Roman reaction to ChristiansThe only Roman reaction to Christians that is popular today is the persecution that killed thousands of them. No doubt those deaths truly happened. But Christians forget to add that all sorts of people were executed by the Roman empire. The Roman empire showed no mercy for the slightest indication of sedition.
There is another reaction, though, that is almost unique to the Christian case: mockery. Several Roman commentators seemed to be less than impressed by the new faith. Celsus, in particular, pokes fun at Christian beliefs and rites as if it was merely a modern variation on pagan beliefs and rites. His attitude can be compared to the attitude of conservative adults towards the hippies in the 1960s.
The great historian Tacitus mentions the Christians as a degenerate bunch, and talks of their "degrade and shameful practices". Hardly the description one would use for spiritual people.
Several early Christian writers such as Justin and Tertullian felt that they had to defend Christianity from such accusations. Early Christian literature is full of references to pagan legends and myths as work of the Devil for the simple reason that Christians adopted the very same legends and myths and the only explanation would be that the Devil was playing a prank on them by pretending that those legends and myths had existed before Jesus.
Paul's ChristianityChristianity as it is today is really what Paul wanted it to be, but Paul was not one of the twelve and candidly admits that he never met Jesus in person. Paul, a Roman citizen and proud of it, favored equal treatment for Jews and non-Jews, but there is no evidence that this was also the view of the other Christians.
It is interesting that Paul only wrote two facts about Jesus' life: that he was crucified, and that he had several brothers, including one named James whom he also refers to, implicitly, as the leader of the Christians. Either he didn't know much about Jesus, or whatever he knew was "espunged" from the New Testament as embarassing to the Roman dogma. It is interesting that the Roman dogma (Christianity as we know it today) is based on Paul's understanding of Jesus' message, even if Paul was the least acquainted with Jesus of all the early leaders. But he was the only one who was a Roman citizen, and who preached Christianity for all, not just for the Jews.
The New Testament includes Paul's letters as an appendix, but they may be the reason the New Testament is the way it is: first Paul coded Christian religion as a Greek and Roman-friendly dogma, then some gospels (written in Greece in Greek) were chosen as the official ones because they reflected that dogma. Paul's letters date from about the year 50, while the earliest gospel is from 60-70. Paul's letters came first and it sounds like the gospels were chosen and edited to justify what Paul wrote (as if to say "you see? that's precisely what Jesus had said").
Paul's letters may be the real foundations of modern Christianity, whereas original Christianity perished in the Roman persecutions of the "disposyni/desposini" (Jesus' heirs in Palestine) following Constantine' conversion.
Paul represented a different kind of Christianity than the one preached in Palestine. He was very young when he was admitted in the Agora of Athens. He must have had good credentials, otherwise educated people would not even have listened to him. Paul was a Roman citizen, and younger than the apostles (he was not one of the twelve). There are speculations that he may have been a member of the Herodian family. He represented the view that Christianity was not only for Jews, but for everybody.
James the JustJames the Just was the leader of the early Christians in Palestine. His importance was recognized by early Christians and by Paul himself, who treats him like a leader and seems more interested in James' leadership than in Jesus' teachings.
James was one of Jesus' brothers and appears to have been a revolutionary, more interested in rebelling against the Romans than in the kingdom of heaven. His ideology was probably very different from Paul's: where Paul admitted non-Jews into Christianity, it is likely that James was a "purist" who did not tolerate the contamination.
Paul preached that everybody could be a member of the sect. James probably preached that only Jews could be members. Paul was in favor of opening Jerusalem to Roman citizens. James was against foreigners. James was the product of a resistance that had lasted centuries, first fighting against the Greeks and then the Romans.
Paul was probably not a traitor but a pragmatic: he wanted to win and realized that compromise was essential. James was an idealist: he wanted to the right, no matter what. Martyrdom is not inherent in Paul's preaching, it is in James' ideology.
He is but one of many blood relatives of Jesus who left their mark on early Christians in the Middle East. When Rome converted, they were wiped off. Some were killed, some were forced to disband. The "disposyni/desposini" (blood relatives of Jesus) disappeared from Christian genealogy.
His life ended in the years immediately preceding the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 and his stoning may have been related to the upheaval that caused that war, which in turn may have been related to his fundamentalist ideology, which in turn may have been a source of conflict with Paul.
Documents of that era spend more time talking of James than of anyone else. In the New Testament he is hardly mentioned, as if someone carefully removed any reference to the man who was the most influential Christian of the era.
An inscription in stone, found in 2002 near Jerusalem and written in Aramaic, with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus", is the oldest known reference to Jesus: it is dated 63 AD.
John the BaptistChristian literature is reluctant to deal with John the Baptist, although he was the one who "initiated" Jesus and he was the first one to be killed (beheaded by Herod's son Herod Antipas). The Jewish historian Josephus did not know Jesus but he did know very well John the Baptist. Josephus reports how John the Baptist created a large movement that came to threaten Herod Antipas. In the gospels Jesus seems to be one of the Baptist's disciples that somehow started his own movement (the gospels mention that he made his first recruits among John's disciples). John's movement disappears with his death, but John was still revered over the centuries (as attested by countless legends and paintings about his beheading).
(The Mandaeans, a religious sect centered on the Iran/Iraq border, claim that the Baptist was their greatest leader (although they deny he was the founder of their religion) and that Jesus, who started his career as one of John's disciples, was a false prophet who stole John's teachings and corrupted them, then misled the people who followed him with corrupt teachings. Andrew Rush )
Simon MagusThe story of Simon Magus, a Samaritan (Turkish) magician in the time of Claudius (41-54) who became popular in Rome, is strikingly similar to Jesus': he too was originally a disciple of John (in fact, he may have succeeded him at the head of his movement), he too performed miracles, he too traveled with a former prostitute, he too started a religious sect. Early Christian writers like Justin, Irenaeus, Eusebius and Epiphanius mention Simon Magus as a demon who proclaims to be god and his followers as performing sexual rites and living "immorally". They seem to imply that some people believed him a saint (or Jesus himself). At least, early Christian writers deemed it worth to mention Simon Magus as an evil man.
Simon Magus is mentioned in the Acts and in early Christian legends as competing with Peter for divine legitimacy.
Simon Magus wrote books but they were all destroyed. All the information we have on Simon Magus comes from his enemies.
The disposyni/desposini and IslamIslam is much closer to James' ideology than to Judaism or Christianity. It could be that James' ideology of faith and goodness ("believe and perform good actions") spread south to the Arabs and survived centuries later in Mohammed's Quran. The Romans, after all, persecuted the (real) Christians, the "disposyni/desposini", and forced them to disband and flee. They could have moved south to escape the Romans. Muslims believe in the prophets and in Jesus, but claim that the "books" were changed by evil people. Isn't this what a disposyni/desposini would claim today? Those books were indeed changed, forcing the whole Christian world to believe that Christianity started in Rome and that Paul's doctrine was Jesus'. The original books were banned. Christians who knew about those books were forced in exile. What Muslims tell us is exactly what a surviving Jamesian Christian would tell us.
After the Jews' Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, the Jews, led by Bar Kochba, recaptured Jerusalem, but eventually the legions of emperor Hadrian won the war. Hadrian changed the name of the city of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina, ordered the building of a temple of Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Temple, and expelled Jews from the city. Most Judeans (Jews) fled to Arabia, that already has a sizeable Jewish community (Medina itself was originally a Jewish settlement)
Jewish rebellions and early ChristiansThe legend of Jesus may also have a political aspect. The Jews of Palestine never accepted the rule of Rome. Their prophets were telling them that a "fifth kingdom" was coming (the previous ones being the occupations by Assyrians, Medes, Persians and Greeks), and it would be a Jewish kingdom, created by a messiah imbued with divine powers. For some or most of Jesus' followers, Jesus may have been identified with that messiah. The Jews then fought three bloody wars against the Romans, each one with "messianic" fervor. They lost all three and the third one ended with the Romans banning Jews from Jerusalem. Then it became impossible to deny that the Romans, not the Jews, were the fifth kingdom. Jesus was obviously not the messiah that prophets had predicted would free the Jews from external domination. No wonder most Jews made fun of Christians and even today do not recognize Jesus as the messiah.
The historian Josephus chronicles the events of the first century. The Jews believed in the prophecy that one of them (the messiah) was destined by god to rule over the entire world. Therefore they kept revolting against the Romans. As the Romans kept winning, that belief moved further and further in time. But the Jews who fought the Romans in 66 and then again in 132 probably did so because 1. they were opposed to accepting Roman rule (i.e., Herod and the Herodians) over Palestine (that had been ruled by the Maccabeans) and 2. they were convinced that one of them (the messiah) was meant to rule over the world (not the Roman emperor). Jesus' blood relatives (the "disposyny/desposini") were probably among the leaders of the rebellions. In 136 emperor Hadrian definitely crushed the Jewis resistance and forbad Jews from ever entering Jerusalem again. That is the time when the "gnostic" attitude is born: instead of interpreting Jesus as the messiah, some Jews started interpreting his message as a message of knowledge (of love, fraternity, piety, etc). And the kingdom moved to the heavens.
The people who did not participate in the various uprisings were the Pharisees (who, like Paul, favored coexistence with the Romans), the Herodians (members of the royal family) and the high priests (who had been appointed by Herod and the Romans). These must have been viewed as enemies by James and the early "Christians" of Palestine. These may well be the same "Zealots" that killed the high priests and led the crusade against Rome.
The Dead Sea scrollsThe Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran are probably the best preserved document of pre-Christian ideology. They are from the Roman era, but they were never "edited" by the Roman empire. Both the writing style and the contents reflect the real thinking of the pre-Christian era. The date of the Dead Sea Scrolls has not been determined for sure yet. One theory has it that the Essenes who wrote it predate Jesus (they are not mentioned in the New Testament), and that therefore Jesus was just one of them. One theory is that they were written right after Jesus' death and that they represent early Christian thinking (according to this theory, the Essenes are not mentioned in the New Testament precisely because the New Testament is written by Essenes). In the latter case, James the Just would then be a protagonist of the story, whereas Jesus would be only a marginal figure, a sort of magician who happened to become famous.
But there is disagreement on when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. They deal at length with a good man and with an evil man who were fighting for control of the "movement". If the Dead Sea Scrolls predate Jesus, then Jesus was the product of a culture that had been around for a while and we may never find out who the two protagonists were. If the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by the early Christians, then a strong possibility is that James is the good man and Paul is the evil man (challenging James' doctrine). But then the Dead Sea Scroll don't talk of Jesus at all. Why wouldn't a Christian text talk of Jesus at all?
Nag Hammadi and the gnosticsNag Hammadi is the place in Egypt where a library of ancient scripts was found in the 1940s. It includes a number of Christian documents, known as the "gnostic" gospels. These gospels provide a glimpse of what Christianity may have been at the very beginning, before being contaminated by political power. For example, one gospel clearly states that it is the gospel of the "twin of Jesus" Judas. That gospel is completely different from the official gospels not only because it doesn't chronicle miracles but because it depicts Jesus as a Buddhist-style cryptic wise man.
The gnostics (as well as the disposyni/desposini) disappeared after 381, when Theodosius made heresy a crime and (presumably) persecutions began against anybody who argued with the Roman dogma.
For a long time gnostics have been viewed as opposed to "Pauline Christianity", Christianity as it is today. But now we know that the gnostics actually revered Paul and considered one of theirs. We also know that only seven of the 13 letters attributed to Paul are authentic and one can suspect that the other six were written to prove something that was not proven in the original seven. (Some of the letters appear for the first time with Irenaeus, in 190, the same man who codified the official gospels and must have been to be fakes because not even the Christian historian Eusebius included them in his version of the bible). If one removes the fakes, the originals are strikingly similar to gnostic literature and not a single attack against the gnostics remains. So much so that early Roman letters (such as Clement's and even Peter's) accuse Paul of being a heretic. Commentators have long speculated that there may have been a rift between Paul and James.
Paul's authentic letters talk of allegories (Galatians, 4/24) and symbols (Corinthians 10/6) as if to warn against a literal interpretation of the old testament, and depict a philosophy not too different by the Platonism preached by Philo of Alexandria (a contemporary of Jesus). Could it this be the reason why he was so disliked by Peter and James and why he was so popular with Romans and Greeks?
One can toy with the idea that Paul was such an influential person from the very beginning of Christianity that he could not be dismissed by the Roman church. At the same time, Paul may have been the true founder of Christianity, but not what today we regard as Paul's Christianity, rather just about the opposite: the gnostics may have been closer to Paul's ideology. When the gnostics were persecuted, Paul's ideology was simply "tweaked" with the fake letters so that it would support the Roman ideology. Thus Paul could be involuntarily be regarded as the founder of today's Christianity when in fact he was preaching something else and had no idea future generations would distort his teachings.
Irenaeus and the dogmaThe Christian historian and bishop Irenaeus, who lived between 125 to 202, was probably the first one to state what was legal and what was not in Christianity. He banned books that would remain banned for thousands of years. Those books were sometimes early accounts of the life of Jesus and of the spread of Christianity, but conflicted somehow with the Greek-Roman version of events. When Rome became Christian, Irenaeus' view became dogma.
It is certainly odd that Irenaeus chose gospels written by people who had not been eye-witnesses and discarded gospels such as Thomas' and Peter's. It is certainly odd that such a crucial role is played by the letters of Paul, who had never met Jesus.
The twinOne of the books that became illegal and was long lost was the gospel of Didymos Judas Thomas, one of the apostles and the one who was sent east. Didymos in greek and Thomas in aramaic both mean "the twin". It sounds too much of a coincidence. This is consistent with a belief among early Christians that Jesus had a twin brother. Even in one of the official gospels (Matthew's), Pilate asks the people who they would like to crucify: Jesus Messiah or Jesus Barabbas. While this is interpreted as a choice between Jesus and a bandit, it could be that Pilate was trying to ascertain which of the two twins was the one accused of sedition, the other one being a mere thief.
A version of that gospel was found in Nag Hammadi. It is likely that the apostle Taddeus and Judas "the twin" are the same person. Taddeus reached Armenia and then possibly traveled further east. The gospel of Judas Thomas has always intrigued historians and theologians because it doesn't sound Christian at all: its style is closer to Buddhist meditation scripts than to Christian chronicles of Jesus life. After Rome converted, eastern Christianity was forgotten. The truth is that it probably stayed closer to Jesus' thought precisely because it was not contaminated by Roman power.
Taddeus and the Jesus of the eastThomas/Taddeus may have reached India. There is a place in Srinagar (Kashmir) that is considered Jesus' tomb. If Thomas was a twin brother of Jesus, or simply a spokesman for Jesus, and did reach India this could explain the misunderstanding. Jesus (Yuz Asaf, Yus Asaph, Yesu, San Issa) is mentioned in several documents of Kashmir and even Tibet and all refer to him after his death.
Jesus' tombWe know the burial places of most early Christians, except one: Jesus himself. If you believe that the body of Jesus disappeared when he ascended to heaven, as the Church does, you don't have to explain where his bodily remains are. Everybody else should at least wonder why we haven't found the tomb of the very man who is at the center of the Christian faith (the four official gospels list four different burial places). Jesus' date of birth and death are also disputed. Herod died in 4 BC, so (if the gospels tell the truth) Jesus can't be born after that date. The Acts of Thomas record that Jesus was in Taxila at a marriage ceremony in the year 49. Irenaeus himself (not a heretic) writes that Jesus reached an old age.
Was Jesus still alive when James the Just, Paul, Peter and Taddeus were spreading Christianity around the world?
The historian Jesophus mentions a "Jesus" who was alive during the years of the Jewish war (66-70 AD), who was an oracle and who was tried in front of Pilate (except that Pilate released him, not crucified him).
If the body of Jesus was buried somewhere, at least two people must have known and visited that place: his mother and his closest friend.
Mary (the mother of Jesus, James the Just and Taddeus) is known to have traveled to Turkey and may have died near Ephesus (according to local legend). James was almost certainly with her. They were, de facto, exiles.
Mary Magdalene was closer to Jesus than anyone else. "Miriam" was the "apostle of the apostles", and the first witness of the resurrection. The gospels give different accounts of her whereabouts and movements before and after the death of Jesus. There is a legend that she traveled to France, to La Sainte-Baume (near Marseilles), and lived in solitude in a cave for the rest of her life. There is a legend that she followed the Virgin Mary to Turkey and died there.
HerodHerod became king in 37 BC because his father Antipater had helped the Roman general Pompej conquer Jerusalem in 63 BC. Herod was a ruthless ruler whose first and main goal was to destroy the Maccabeans who had ruled before him. He killed all of them, except the princess Mary whom he married. Mary committed adultery with Herod's brother Joseph while Herod was in Rome (29 BC). When Herod returned and was informed of the adultery, he executed Mary. He then executed her sons because they were more popular than him with the Jews: they had Maccabean blood. This story is somehow reflected in the legend that Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph and that Herod wanted to kill all the Jewish children to make sure none of them would claim the title of king. It is unlikely that Jesus was the illegitimate son of the historical Mary and Joseph, because it would make him too old, but the coincidence is striking.
Who was Jesus?And what was Jesus' name? "Jesus" simply means "Savior" in hebrew, just like "Christ" is the Greek for "anointed" (a term used in the Old Testament for many kings). But what was his real name?
The family name Barsabas is attributed in the Acts to both a Joseph and a Judas. There is evidence pointing to the fact that Judas Barsabas could be Thaddeus, who is also Judas the "twin brother" of Jesus (Thaddeus is a contraction of "Judas Thomas", that in turn means Judas the brother). Names similar to Barsabas (and Barabbas) recur in Jesus' relatives. The very bandit Barabbas could just be a split in the story, that separated the prophet from the bandit (they were one for the Romans).
Irenaeus himself writes that "Iesous... is a symbolic name".
The Romans kept accurate records of every political and judicial event. There is no record of Pontius Pilate trying and executing a man named Jesus. Only two Roman writers of Jesus' time mention Christians (Pliny and Svetonius) but they don't mention Jesus. The first Roman to mention Jesus is Tacitus, but almost a century after the death of Jesus.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Yosef ben Matityahu) certainly mentions Christians, but his words about Jesus are generally considered a later forgery. The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Egypt at the time of Jesus, does not seem to know anything about Jesus (his philosophy is similar to Christianity and several scholars think that it influenced Christian theology). Justus of Tiberias, who lived a few decades after Jesus, wrote a lost history of the Jews that, according to Photios I (the 9th-century archbishop of Constantinople), did not mention Jesus. Plutarch, one of the most famous historians of the era who too lived a few decades after Jesus, wrote quite a bit about Jewish religion and religious cults, but never mentions Jesus.
Paul himself, one of the founders of Christianity, never talks about Jesus' life, while he definitely talks about Jesus' brother James.
A synthesisBy analyzing the historical records, one possible explanation of the events emerges. Jesus, whether because related by blood (via his mother) to the Maccabeans that Jews still revered, or because related to Herod whom Jews feared, claimed to to be the king of the Jews. Some Jews liked him because they recognized his credentials (especially if he was indeed a Maccabean), some Jews despised him as a madman. Eventually, his claims came to the hears of the Romans, as well as his teachings (he was probably a sort of "communist" philosopher, preaching that all humans are equal), and that is what the Romans killed him for. He was probably killed with no trial, just like many other "rebels" of the time that Rome did not deem worthy of any bureaucracy. That is the reason why nobody knows where his tomb is: the Romans did not bother to bury him or return his body.
Paul, heir to the Jewish establishment that wanted to coexist with the Romans and adopt Greek philosophy, was the first Roman citizen to become Christian and spread the Christian word around the world. He was also the first to claim that Greeks and Romans could be as Christian as Jews. In Rome, it was a natural decision to adopt his version of Christianity. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity was "relocated" from Palestine to Rome: instead of recognizing the thread that starts with Jesus and continues with James and the following disposyni/desposini, Rome decided to start counting with Peter (the first Christian martyr in Rome) and his descendants, the popes.
The Shroud of TurinI frequently get asked for an opinion about the Shroud of Turin. This is a shroud that has preserved the body image of a crucified man in his 30s. For centuries devout Catholics believed that it is the shround in which Jesus was wrapped after the crucifixion and that a miracle preserved the body image. Historical records only go back to the 14th century. Then it came into possession of the Savoy family that ended up uniting and ruling Italy, and today the Shroud belongs to the Vatican and is stored in Turin (the old capital of the Savoy kingdom in northern Italy). Countless theories have been advanced to explain the "miraculous" image. Scientists were allowed to conduct tests in 1978 and delivered a verdict: the Shroud was manufactured in the Middle Ages. However, the scientific method was rather unscientific and it did not settle the question at all. Personally, i suspect that the Shroud is indeed real: it dates from Jesus' time and it might well be that the corpse wrapped in it was the corpse of Jesus. It is just implausible that someone (someone with an amazing knowledge of chemistry) would create such a perfect fake that would last for centuries and fool everybody for centuries. There is no other artifact from the Middle Ages that even remotely belongs to the same category. There is no document of anyone having discovered a technique to manufacture this kind of images. It is simply implausible that someone would achieve this feat but no record would remain of it, and that person would never take credit for such an amazing creation, and nobody else would ever learn that craft and continue it. The first skeptic was John Calvin, who objected that the Gospels never mention this quasi-magical Shroud. There might be two simple reasons: 1. It was discovered later, during the Roman persecutions, and the Christians had no motivation and no power to publicize it; 2. It was already known at the time of the Gospels but the Gospels were meant to tell the story of Jesus by people who already believed him to be a divine being, and did not need to mention a shroud as further evidence after having listed much more spectacular miracles. In fact, i suspect that the Shroud (and possibly other relics that we have never found or that are not as dramatic as the Shroud) is the very reason that so many people believed in Jesus' superpowers: in an age awash in all sorts of irrational legends, the Shroud must have looked like a very rational proof of Jesus' divine status even to those who never met Jesus and who would not have otherwise believed the tales of the apostles.
Henk Meeter writes:
This was routinely a title for the Jewish king. One could argue quite convincingly that the earliest of the Gospels show no more than "this" (whatever "this" meant, given the complexity and newness of Jesus's message) as the first understanding of Jesus's divine sonship, and that allegations of, or belief about, it being something more only cropped up later - with the movements associated with Paul perhaps, or those associated with the Gospel of John.
My own suspicion, or rather, what I like to believe, is that Jesus was not only the Son of God, he was actually, more or less exhaustively, God Himself, in human form, come to subject Himself to all the worst that His obviously flawed Creation had to offer - and that His death, and subsequent resurrection, not only represented, but also accomplished, the elimination of the gulf between Him and His world - not just figuratively or conceptually, but in reality.
I also suspect, or rather like to believe, that though Jesus himself may have had inklings of this, and may have hinted about these inklings to his followers, by and large he was as unsure about it as we would have been if we were in his shoes - because the idea that God became man means literally that - again, that God subjected Himself to all the worst that the world had on offer, or in other words, in essence, that God became, for a time, quite finite, and that He may have taken a gamble which He (just) might have lost.
What I'm quite sure about is this: that, if Jesus actually did rise again from the dead, and did spend some time with his followers thereafter, much of what he said and did was so terribly mysterious to them that it left them in a state of (awestruck)bafflement, which they then spent years trying to come to grips with.
Regarding the belief of the Jews, as to their being the chosen people...
It's one of Wright's contentions that this is precisely what got Jesus killed. Because there was in many of the Old Testament prophets the idea that salvation (whatever that was) would come to the whole world, and that what it meant to be God's chosen people was that they would be the instrument of that salvation, for the whole world - and that Jesus was picking up on and elaborating on that message (hence his condemnation of Temple worship, the precise incident which, according to more or less everybody, occasioned his arrest and trial) .
Henk Meeter on Jacques Ellul:
Now somewhat (just a little) dated, perhaps, but still eminently worth reading. His interpretations of Scripture are singular, far less "tradition-bound" (by which I mean either Catholic or Protestant or secular-humanist) than most everybody else.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the apparent "development" of the person and role of Jesus within the New Testament. I suspect that in the beginning he was perceived as much more human, and separate from God (a human being "acted upon" by God), but that, as time progressed, and with it the deepening of reflection on what had actually happened (still, in the immediate aftermath of the events of the first Easter, and like most everything else Jesus said or did within his lifetime, a riddle), it began to become apparent that what had actually happened was this...
In attempting to save his creation, which for him had become a disaster (this from Ellul), God took the dramatic, and quite possibly the risky (this again from Ellul) step of diving into the creation, in the form of a human being, and from there diving even further, with it, into death, and coming out the other side, into something completely, unforeseeably new (the risk being, quite possibly and simply, that death would defeat and claim even him), the world of spirit.
In this God actually disappears into (or as the later New Testament writings seem to most often put it, "behind") the person of Jesus; and, after Jesus, into the person of the Holy Spirit, the life-giver, the animator of all things new (for this especially the Gospel of John, and the Revelations of John).
A couple key concepts...
1. The real enemy was not, for St. Paul, for example, sin, but death ("for the sting of death is sin" - somewhere in I Cor. 15).
2. The way God defeated death was by totally eliminating the gulf between himself and the creation (Ellul, again), replacing the old Temple, which had, until Jesus, been the single point of contact between himself and the creation, with a new Temple, actual people, and not just people, the whole creation itself, with which he has become one (N.T. Wright for this one).
What's particularly interesting about this (at least to me, this morning), is that this idea of the "immanence of God" seems to be the most fundamental differentiator between Christianity and everything else; and that in this the core concept of Islam seems to be a return to the core concept of Judaism, the only real difference between the two being that, with Islam, the age of the prophets didn't stop until the time of Mohammed.
And that this seems to set the fratricidal feud of Jews and Moslems, the modern day conceptual-descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, into a particularly poignant light.
So Pliny was picking up anybody suspected of being a Christian, giving them the chance to sacrifice to the emperor and spit on Jesus's name, and then executing them if they refused. One of his most interesting rationals for doing away with them was that, if they were so obstinate as to refuse to do what he was demanding of them, then they were anti-social characters and not worthy of living anyway.
What's interesting about this is that it shows that already, at the time of Trajan Christianity, was spreading so quickly - and taking hold so deeply - that it was causing religio/political havoc.
What accounts for this? How could it have spread so quickly, and even in the face of the most awful persecutions (starting with Nero, but certainly not ending with him)?
I'm beginning to think more and more that it was because of people like Mary Magdalene, who might very well have ended up in France for all we know, being "on fire" with something very, very new.
Or John, who apparently ended up in Ephesus with Mary, Jesus's mother; or Paul and Peter who ended up in Rome.
What was so new, I think, was that people were running around telling people that, not only did the heavy-duty, incredibly powerful God of the Jews come to earth as a person, he also died as a person, and he did so in order to get through Death and out into the Beyond, so that we could all follow him there.
And furthermore, that you didn't have to be a high priest in order to talk to him (Zeus, after all, was the god of the Roman state, and really only cared about the Roman state - if you wanted to talk to a deity personally, you had to go to one of the little lower-level household gods), but could talk to him as much as you wanted yourself. This was a pretty revolutionary message in those days, and it offended all kinds of entrenched social, poltical, and religious sensibilities.
But people really liked it. Apparently so much that a lot of them were even willing to die for it.
My simple theory of Jesus
A brief history of Islam
The Old Testament
A Timeline of ancient Christianity
A Timeline of the Hebrews
My simple theory of Jesus
A brief history of Islam
The Old Testament
A Timeline of ancient Christianity
A Timeline of the Hebrews
Ancient history of Christianity:
Mythology of Jesus' times:
Roman history and PalestineIn 332 BC Palestine was invaded by Alexander the Great. In 168 BC Judas Maccabean revolted. The Maccabeans were granted relative independence and rule from 140 BC till 137 BC.
In 63 BC Pompeus annexed Palestine to Rome. In 69 BC Herod was appointed king by the Roman senate and exterminated the Maccabeans.
Octavian (Augustus) was emperor from 12 BC till 14 AD. Herod died in 4 BC and his sons split the reign. Jesus was therefore born in the Roman Empire during the rule of Augustus. In 6 AD Pilate was appointed governor of part of Palestine.
Tiberius was emperor from 14 till 37. Jesus therefore died under Tiberius.
Caligula was emperor from 37 till 41. Claudio was emperor from 41 till 54. Nero was emperor from 54 till 68. Vespasiano was emperor from 69 till 79. His son Tito destroyed Jerusalem after the 66 AD insurrection of the Jews. Tito was emperor from 79 till 81.
The Ten Commandments
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