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If you’ve been following my blog posts, you’ve noticed that most of them are focused on stimulating conversations about the origin of Christianity and its many customs. I try to avoid coming across as a professor of theology or history because that’s not what I am. I’m just an amateur historian seeking answers to mysteries of the past—the riddles that my churches never addressed.
I am in awe of how little we know about the origins of a religion that has motivated millions of people to kill or die in its defense. Today, Christianity has more than two billion adherents around the world and most of them don’t understand the ideology that defines and shapes their entire lives.
Christianity isn’t like Buddhism, Islam, Lutheranism, or Mormonism, which can all be traced back to a founder and one point in history. With Christianity, there are so many unknowns that it’s anybody’s guess as to how it came into being. That’s why this post is so significant. I’ll present a theory that’s new to me. It helps explain how a religion with such a humble beginning became so successful that at times it tried to take over the world.
The importance of chronology
Understanding the chronology of events in the first few centuries of Christianity turns many of the things we learned in church upside-down. If Paul’s epistles were written before any of the canonical Gospels (which is the scholarly consensus), and they didn’t say much about a historical man named Jesus, did that mean that Paul may have invented what would eventually become Christianity? Once accepted as orthodoxy, his version would become the one and only way to define Christianity. Those who didn’t agree faced terrible consequences.
In a series of four blog posts I addressed what is known and what confused me about Paul and his role in the creation of Christian orthodoxy. The entire process is very hard to decipher due to significant gaps between known events. The more I learn, the more I’m compelled to go back and fill in those gaps. And, since I’m learning this information anyway, I don’t want to keep it to myself. I want to share my findings and my speculations with anyone who is interested.
What we do know and what we don’t know
No one living at the time of the crucifixion of the man known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, could have had any inkling as to how that routine Roman execution would affect the future of humanity.
Those of us living today bookend that time in history with what little knowledge we have of events in the first century. We think we understand how the story unfolded after a certain time, but there were many complicated and unexpected developments that the original Christians couldn’t have foreseen.
Scholars from across the spectrum have theories about those decisive early centuries and they’re all worthy of consideration. Also, all historians are hoping that more and better information about this era will be available in the future. Patience is what’s necessary, and let’s cheer on the archeologists and linguists who will uncover that evidence.
As of now, biblical scholars still have a long list of questions in need of answers.
Was Jesus of Nazareth a real person? If so, was he from the town Nazareth that gave him his name or did that name mean something else? Was Nazareth in Galilee even occupied during Jesus’s lifetime?
If he was a historical person, we want to hear more about him historians. The real Jesus is certainly not exactly like the one portrayed in the New Testament Gospels. They only began to be written about forty years after his death so there is a disconnect there. The New Testament Gospels mostly dwell only on his life from age thirty until he was thought to have died at age thirty-three.
Enter Saul of Tarsus
To further confuse matters, much of early Christianity revolves around another man named Saul of Tarsus. Some interesting trivia is that the name “Saul” is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek name “Paul”. So, he was both Saul and Paul all along. No one changed his name except the author of the book of Acts who began at verse 13:9 to refer to him consistently as Paul instead of Saul. Paul was said to have preached “a gospel”, but it certainly wasn’t the biblical Gospels because they wouldn’t be written until years after his death.
What was the real story behind Paul’s “three visions” of Jesus? Were they caused by epileptic seizure, sun stroke, hallucinations, illness, or were they outright lies? There have been alternative theories about these events because many people just don’t believe in supernatural visions. They did believe them in Paul’s day, and that’s what he needed to be believable.
Theories about Paul
Some theories rely on whether Paul was really heading to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus. Maybe he made the whole thing up in order to identify himself as a “chosen” representative or apostle of Jesus. We only have Paul’s word for any of this, and there are scholarly suspicions that he wasn’t the most trustworthy person who ever lived.
Another important question was, why was Paul so intent on evangelizing for Christ once his spirituality was “rebooted”? As a legalistic pharisee and former Christian bounty hunter, his turn around on the road to Damascus was very strange. I suppose he could have believed that God struck him down. If so, that traumatic event could have been frightening enough to make him reevaluate what he was doing and totally reverse his priorities.
Paul became a passionate, even obsessive, missionary for Christ after he had been a passionate and obsessive hunter of Jesus’s followers. This demonstrates an apparent obsessive-compulsive personality. Often, people with that psychiatric diagnosis can easily exchange one obsession or addiction for another.
Paul and Jesus’s disciples in conflict
How serious was the rift between Paul and Peter and any Jesus’s other remaining apostles, such as James? Was it a minor disagreement about whether the gentiles had to follow Jewish traditions, or a major schism in the young religion?
Who were Paul’s competitors in his teaching about Jesus Christ in those formative years of Christianity? We know very little of what Paul knew about the human Jesus. He didn’t seem to know much. If he did, why didn’t he write and teach more about what Jesus taught? Why didn’t Paul acknowledge that Jesus had recently lived in Palestine? Why didn’t he make it a priority to visit people and places that were important in Jesus’s life?
It’s almost as if Paul wasn’t aware of a human Jesus. If that’s true, where did he get his ideas about his “Jesus Christ”? In Greek, “Christ” was the translation of the Hebrew word “messiah”. In the Hebrew language, the name “Jesus” means “savior”. So saying “Jesus Christ” is like saying “Savior Messiah”, not the name of an actual person.
Yet, in those earliest of days Paul wrote about false teachers who were trying to undermine his brand of proto-Christianity and lure followers to a different theology. At that time, it seems that maybe his “false teachers” were the original Jewish disciples who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. They were also the “Jewish Christians” who followed the Hebrew laws. Maybe they were more opposed to Paul’s attempt to dilute the Hebrew laws than we realize.
Paul would travel extensively in the Eastern Mediterranean region, spreading his own version of Christianity and writing letters to the churches he had founded and aided. Many of those letters would be preserved and eventually chosen as holy scripture by fourth-century theologians.
Were the Gospels an extension of oral history or an entirely new creation?
This is where James S. Valliant and Warren Fahy come in. At first, the title of their book, Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity, struck me as too far-fetched to be believed. That’s a natural reaction to new information that may contradict what someone has believed their entire life. That defensive barrier in our minds, or “confirmation bias”, prevents us from seeing things from someone else’s perspective. It places us in a situation where our ability to learn is paralyzed. Well, despite my reluctance, I couldn’t resist seeing what they had to say.
I recently finished the book, and my mind is still spinning. Since Valliant is an attorney, the pace of the book was constructed as a legal case. The authors built their case of a pagan origin to Christianity one brick at a time. Admittedly, for someone who wants to get right to the point, this made the book a bit hard to read. Although not legalese, it was often redundant, advancing incrementally to its conclusion. I stayed with it and began to appreciate the case they were building.
The authors believe that the Romans intentionally constructed the offshoot of Judaism known as Pauline or orthodox Christianity as propaganda. The reason for this was to pacify the violent Jewish people who had revolted against Rome in the Jewish War of AD 66-70.
The Roman emperors of the Flavian dynasty, mainly Vespasian and Titus, knew that because of the Jewish unyielding fixation on monotheism they would never accept the Roman gods unless something changed. They supposedly decided to apply the methods the Greeks had used after they conquered Egypt and modified its existing religion in the Greek’s favor. The Roman version of the Judaism—Christianity, emphasized peace, submission, and a respect for the emperor. The authors traced a pattern that throughout the Gospels and most of the New Testament, the Romans were portrayed as the “good guys” and the Jews as the villains.
One of the few things that most historians can agree on is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. If he was crucified, that implied he committed a crime against Rome. That was Rome’s preferred method of execution. Here’s what Valliant and Fahy wrote in their notes about the Gospel writers’ portrayal of Jesus’s death sentence. “Since there was no way to avoid a Roman trial, complex, repeated, and unmistakable steps had to be taken to exonerate the Romans. Thus, the betrayal by Judas, the triple denial of Peter, the trial before the Sanhedrin, Pilate’s belief in Jesus’s innocence, the triple demand by the Jewish crowd for the Crucifixion, are all consistent with the motive to inculpate the Jews and exonerate the Roman state in the face of a method of execution that had in itself otherwise implied Jesus to have been a rebel”.
Why so many Gospels?
At first, the main problem I had with their theory was that if the Flavian emperors “invented” Christianity, why did they need more than one gospel? I suppose the answer could be that they only created one—the Gospel of Mark. In Mark, Jesus was significantly more human than in the other gospels, but maybe Mark’s version wasn’t “divine” enough for other evolving Christians. Bart Ehrman traced this concept very extensively in his book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, He showed how other gospel writers took it upon themselves to turn Jesus into more of a god than Mark had. That progression culminated with the Gospel of John, written about twenty years after Mark. So, the Romans could have used Paul’s epistles and the Gospel of Mark to get the ball rolling, but then future Christians expanded the theology and Christology from there.
The authors even presented evidence showing that Saint Clement, the leader of the church in Rome in the late first century, and therefore one of the first to be considered a “pope”, was Emperor Titus’s nephew. This would show a intimate connection between the Roman emperor and Christianity, at least in the region of Rome.
The process of Mental Religious Reconstruction
With all this new information, I tried to mentally integrate these new ideas into what I’d learned in the past.
This is where my thoughts are taking flight now. First, as mentioned before, we don’t know for certain if there was a historic Jesus—it’s a matter of how open one’s mind is to considering new evidence.
Review of relevant events of the period
One of the first historic bits of evidence about Christians I learned through early Christian writers was that Emperor Nero executed Christians in Rome around AD 64. That was after he blamed them for the fire that destroyed much of the city. I’ve always assumed the victims were the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, but this could be a misunderstanding.
Valliant and Fahy wrote that it was the Jewish Zealots and Sicarii that Nero was concerned with, not the presumably peaceful (at least as far as the Gospel portrayal) followers of Jesus. It’s possible that some of the followers of Jesus got caught up in the Messianic Jewish round-up in Rome. All those groups believed in a messiah, or “Christ” in Greek, so it gets very confusing as to who the Romans thought of as “Christians”. It could have been any of those Jewish sects that believed in a messiah.
The Jewish war against Rome began in AD 66 and lasted until AD 70. It demonstrated the magnitude of the Jewish commitment to monotheism and freedom, and how much they despised the Romans and their gods. The Romans were just the latest in a long history of powers that had dominated the Jews.
Alignment with the book, Pagan Christianity
According to Creating Christ, the whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark designed it as a blueprint for how to be a peace-loving and submissive Jew. That concept is very much in sync with what Frank Viola and George Barna wrote in their book, Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. In their book, they pointed out many of the similarities between early Christianity and pagan Rome.
I know I’ve unloaded a lot here. This theory of Roman-introduced Christianity may be the missing link between the prophet Jesus and the clergy-led and well-organized Christianity that developed by the end of the first century.
I see three distinct stages in the formation of early Christianity.
This was the era of the prophet and rabbi Jesus of Nazareth and his original followers, whoever they were. There is still much confusion about who this man was since “Jesus” was a common name in first-century Palestine. He and his followers knew nothing of Paul’s “Jesus Christ” since that concept hadn’t been developed yet. They also may have known little to nothing of what ended up in the New Testament Gospels. The questions persist. Who were these people, what did they believe, and why did Paul want to kill them? They seem to have been maverick Jews who at least believed that “their Jesus” was baptized by the important prophet, John the Baptist.
His baptism by John and his crucifixion by the Romans are the only two events that most historians can agree happened to the authentic Jesus. Also, someone, either Mary Magdalene, Peter, or someone unknown to us thought they saw him alive after his crucifixion. That’s when the oral tradition of this man began.
This was the period shortly after the death of Jesus, when Paul said he had a mysterious conversion. Following that experience, he began spreading Christianity to the gentiles as a self-proclaimed apostle. Paul did not require his converts to obey the same Jewish customs that he had so faithfully and ruthlessly defended in the past. He believed in the god, Jesus Christ, but seemed to know little of his life on earth. Most New Testament scholars believe that the Gospels were written after Paul’s death. If that’s the case, he may have known little to nothing about the stories of Jesus as a human being—his birth, genealogy, teachings, relationships, death, and resurrection. Paul had mentioned almost none of those things in his letters, which is very strange.
By the fourth century, Paul’s version of Christianity would become orthodoxy, meaning the only right way to be a Christian. That was what the empire decided, and orthodox Christians would hunt down and punish anyone who didn’t agree with their version of Christianity.
Following the Jewish War, around AD 70, with Paul already dead, unknown writers created the Gospels. Second-century theologians gave the earliest one the title, the Gospel According to Mark. This short book would finally introduce us current readers to the human Jesus and create the image of him that we have in our minds. Legends of Jesus had circulated since the time he lived, but the Gospels filled in many of the gaps.
One suspicious aspect of the Gospels is that those who filled in many of those gaps did so with ancient pagan and Old Testament traditions. Also, Gospel writers disagreed on the facts in many of the stories they told. I assume that those writers never imagined that someone would later collect their works bind them in the same book. That was a correct assumption until the late fourth century when four Gospels were collected and made part of the New Testament. Even today, preachers tend to downplay the differences between these accounts and harmonize them into one Gospel.
Marks presented Jesus as a human who God seemingly adopted and then abandoned at the end of his life. Mark’s version further evolved in Matthew and Luke. But the fully blossoming came in the Gospel of John that presented Jesus as a godman and even the “Word of God”.
Obviously, I have many more questions than answers concerning these subjects. Readers are always welcome to leave comments that might help us all better understand these issues.