For a moment consider a novel I’m writing (not really but pretend for a second). It’s a novel about global warming politics. In it a radical environmentalist group uses the assets of a wealthy donor, and the best technology that money can buy, to set off a series of disasters that appear “natural” and are attributed to the effects of global warming. At this point you may scream: “What a second fella. That’s the plot of Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear.”
And you would be right. If I published that story I would probably be guilty of plagiarism. I could change the name of the characters, the location of the story, the period when it took place, etc., but if the plot stayed the same it would be stealing.
And that is one reason I am so baffled by Christianity. Most Christian doctrines are nothing new. The idea of the virgin birth, the crucified saviour who rises from the dead and much, much more were beliefs that were lifted from previous cults and sects that were well known in the region. The Jesus story is not unique. I will go into some specifics but first want to make clear what I think, based on the best evidence I can find, really happened.
I think there was some man named Jesus who went around preaching. I don’t think he was much like the Jesus described in the New Testament. Just the unreliability of the Bible itself is enough to make it’s characterization of Jesus open to suspicion. The fact that the earliest shreds of the New Testament were only written decades after Jesus was dead are sufficient reason to mistrust them.
I really doubt that Jesus was anyone special. But I do think he had a small following. That isn’t unusual. Many preachers had such a following. But Jesus had an advocate who did something others didn’t do. He re-branded his product. The old Jesus was unknown to most people. He was almost totally unmentioned in contemporary accounts and the few, very brief mentions he receives, didn’t indicate that the writers thought him particularly news worthy. Jesus was kept alive in the memory of people by his brother James and the sect around him.
About this time a new preacher comes along calling himself Paul. Paul is a clever fellow for sure. He never knew Jesus at all; never met him, never heard him preach, never even saw him except in a “vision” he claimed. Paul wanted to take the Jesus story to places where it had not gone before -- to the Gentiles. So he dug into the mythology that was popular with these “pagans” and adopted it to fit the Jesus story.
Now most of us get our view of Jesus from reading the Gospel. But Paul never read the Gospels, not a one of them. He couldn’t have done this as they were only written after he wrote much of what became the New Testament. So Paul’s view of Jesus is not one based on personal experience or on any contemporary written records. He just made it up as he went along. And the Jesus he invented was very similar to the crucified saviours that cropped up in pagan mythology for hundreds of years.
The Hebrews thought God was a spirit and not flesh. But the Gentiles were used to gods who walked around in fleshly bodies --- such as Zeus. So Paul claimed that Jesus was just like that -- a god in human flesh. The sect around Jesus practiced Judaic rituals including circumcision. Converting to Judaism was not popular as few of the Gentiles were anxious to have their foreskins cut off as adults. Paul simply did away with the practice much to the consternation of James, the brother of Jesus. The followers of Jesus followed Old Testament rituals and rules. Again that was not popular with the Gentiles so Paul scuttled that idea as well.
Jesus was declared a heretic and executed. Some verses in the New Testament refer to him being hung on a tree. The sins of Jesus were religious not political. So the punishment would have been religious not political. The Gospels say he was accused by the Sanhedrin of heresy. The punishment for that was hanging not crucifixion, a punishment that the religious leaders handed out not the Romans. Yet it was claimed Jesus was crucified which was a political punishment. So the Sanhedrin accuses him of heresy but we are supposed to think he Romans then executed him in the style of a political prisoner. Perhaps this was another rebreeding. The Romans were not well loved throughout their empire and having Jesus executed by them would appeal to the Roman underclass that were the main recruits to the new Pauline religion. Rome made a more popular villain than did the Sanhedrin.
Jesus was a relatively unknown, minor religious figure before Paul rebranded him into The Christ. Paul started preaching this new Jesus before the Gospels were written. His letters regarding Jesus are the earliest written documents about the man though Paul himself never met Jesus. Paul had no eyewitness testimony to give as he wasn’t there. He had no records to rely upon yet he preached a new Jesus that produced many converts. His rebreeding was a success. It caught on with the Gentiles. The tiny band of Judaic followers of Jesus were mainly centered in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. And they probably disappeared when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. With the destruction of the Jerusalem followers of Christ the competition to the Pauline view disappeared. The last obstacle to the rebreeding was gone. And once the Pauline Christians gained political power they spent centuries torturing and killing anyone who challenge the fantasies of Paul.
After the sacking of Jerusalem the only thing left was Paul’s teachings and the Gospels which were to only be written later. There is scant evidence that any of the stories regarding Jesus came directly from people who witnessed him themselves. Parts of the New Testament probably date from about a century after the death of Jesus. No parts are contemporary to him. The writers were recounting stories but not stories which they witnessed themselves. They were repeating stories they heard not writing reports of events they saw. The New Testament is a collection of tales told by primitive and superstitious people. But without it’s account the Christian is left with nothing on which to base their faith but the raw emotions they feel, emotions which are self-generated. When it comes to the historical Jesus we know almost nothing!
We don’t know which doctrines he preached and which were ascribed to him. We don’t know which parables he told for sure or how he expressed them. Some think the foundation for the Christ story is an unknown book which was assembled together by one man. He listened to stories recounted by someone who claimed to have known Jesus and told stories about him. After this “witness” died the man wrote down what he remembered. But even this is just a theory. We have no reliable account of Jesus what so ever. And the reason Christians cling to the fantasies and exaggerated tales of this collection of hear say stories is because it is all they have of any substance. But that to which they cling is pure gossamer.
Paul was basically free to invent any kind of Jesus he wanted. Consider the possible evidence that would prove Paul wrong.
Jesus: Jesus could challenge Paul’s views and say he got it wrong. But Jesus had been dead for years before Paul was “converted” and started preaching his doctrines.
The New Testament: It could contradict Paul except it didn’t exist until after Paul started preaching his gospel. So there is no written record predating Paul’s views which can prove him wrong. And “gospels” that corresponded with Paul were accepted while dozens that viewed Jesus differently were dropped. Most Christians don’t even know that there existed dozens of gospels all purporting to tell the Jesus story.
The Church: The followers of Jesus in Jerusalem could challenge Paul. And there is some indication that they did. Paul and James, the brother of Jesus, clearly were in different corners when it came to their theology. But by 70 A.D. the Jerusalem church had been wiped out. The only sects of Christians to survive were those outside Jerusalem and they were “converted” by Paul to his teachings.
The theological coup d’etat that Paul instigated was a success because the Romans, in attacking Jerusalem, had wiped out the only alternative Christianity to that being peddled by Paul.
In the next few postings we will look at some of the Christian doctrines and show how they were merely badly copied pagan doctrines applied to a man called Jesus.