The artfully Christianized New Testament tells us that a brand new mystery religion called Christianity was suddenly thrust from the chaotic bowels of Palestine nearly 2000 years ago. This unusual cult – unique in the sense that the new salvation-deity called Jesus the Christ was the first Jewish savior-god in the history of Western Asia – appeared and developed in the space of one brief lifetime. Supposedly, the new Jewish-born Messiah, the Son rather than the Servant of the Jewish God, Yahweh, was a pre-existent God who became human via a virgin birth. He then performed great miracles; he was acclaimed by the multitudes; he preached a gospel of salvation – among other things; he was murdered; and then, miraculously, he rose from the grave and ascended to heaven.
What makes this Gentile-conceived plot totally impossible in any objective sense, is that it is inconceivable that a Galilean Jew would under any circumstance have believed himself to be a savior-god in the tradition of the Gentile mystery cults.1 Under no conditions, however unique or remarkable, would he have accepted the validity of the virgin birth of a heathen Christ-child, or engaged in the obscene body and blood ceremonies; nor would he have allowed himself to be offered up as a scapegoat for the sins of not only Jews, but Gentiles as well.
The “anointed one” of the Christian salvation-sect can be described as a philosophically schizophrenic creation of Graeco-Roman theologians who were indifferent to, or ignorant of, deeply ingrained Jewish traditions. The Nazarene Jesus is portrayed as being pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish, pro-Law and anti-Law, liberal and reactionary. He is sufficiently a Jew not to contest the lawfulness of the function of the teacher of the Law, which is to “sit in Moses’ seat” and explain and comment on the Law. He is enough of a racially exclusive Jew to forbid his disciples to declare to the Gentiles the coming of the kingdom of God. He never disparages the Sabbath, nor does he speak of doing away with it. And he regards himself as having a message for no one but the Jews – “Go nowhere among the Gentiles… but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
In another part of the New Testament forest, we find a Gentile Jesus liberalized almost to the point of radicalism through the stressing of the principles behind the Law along with a measure of freedom in its application of life. He represents views and attitudes that are less ascetic and less representative of a closed, secretive, exclusivistic outlook. At times, he is even ministered to by women, something no orthodox Judean of that day and time would have considered or allowed. He is portrayed as being more peaceful in spirit than militaristic, more concerned with moral and spiritual values than with the ceremonial aspects of sacred days, seasons, strict conformity to the solar calendar and ritual ablutions. And he manifests attitudes emphasizing the loving of one’s enemies rather than hating them, along with an espousal of the Stoic belief in the brotherhood of all mankind as opposed to the practice of national and religious exclusivity found among the Jews.
Scarcely anything could be less indicative of the formalistic rigor of the strict Galilean Jew than the Gentile portrait of Jesus just drawn. Considering the fixed and complicated ritual of Palestinian Jews in which the Mishnah laid down no fewer than 39 principal classes of prohibitions, and in which the rabbis counted 248 classes of things to be done and 365 things forbidden, the possibility of a messianic-pretender or a radical religious cult espousing these two alien and conflicting lifestyles and then attempting to live them simultaneously is so far beyond the sunlight of reality that mere words cannot describe it. The principle of mysticism invariably leads to the combination of irreconcilable attributes, which are accepted nonetheless on the grounds of faith.
From the time the Habiru – the Semitic people who emerged from the wilderness beyond the Jordan river – became a One-God-centered nation (“The Lord our God, the Holy ONE of Israel; ONE, and no oneness like him…”), the Judaic emphasis was on God’s creation of a special people to serve him, to proclaim his name and identity in the world, and to exhibit knowledge of him. They were the special people of Yahweh because all other nations had refused the wisdom offered by the Holy One. According to rabbinical teaching, the Ancient of Days had given nine of the ten measures of poverty to Babylon, nine of the ten measures of magic to Egypt, and nine of the ten measures of folly to Greece. Nine of the ten measures of wisdom he had given to Israel.
Hand in hand with the struggle to make the Jews into an exclusive people with a single god belonging to Israel were the efforts of the prophets to prevent anyone – even high priestly rulers like Alexander Janneus – from changing, or compromising in any way, or introducing heathenish ideas from the outside world into, the rigid Jewish way of Life. Everything indicates that the Israelite/Judeans feared and opposed compromise – theological aristocracy, exclusivity, and nearly total tribal unity. For these reasons, Judaism could never have compromised – even to the smallest degree – with a heathen mystery cult.
The era that produced the New Messianism, which in turn led to Catholicism, was one in which the spirit of subjection was for the masses far more influential than self-reliance. Conditions were so primitive that men used scythes and sickles for mowing; their ploughs were of wood, rarely shod with iron; and threshing was done laboriously with the clumsy flail. Small, undersized oxen, hardly as large as modern calves, dragged the ploughs back and forth, barely breaking the surface of the earth. As for the misfortunes faced by the poor, the peasants were incapable of theorizing about the reasons for suffering or for “divine punishment.” It was sufficient explanation of evil to say that “the anger of God was kindled.”
Palestine during that chaotic age had more than its share of quacks, vagrants and messiah-pretenders, who endlessly prophesied that the crash and doom of the world was at hand. The less educated masses listened to their chatter and raving until their minds were reduced to a chronic state of fear and confusion. Along with the sick and suffering, the physically stunted or deformed, and the deaf, dumb and blind, there were abnormal mental conditions of every sort – a veritable goldmine of pathology for every messianic-pretender with hand-on experience in the field of abracadabra who could miraculously eliminate demonic possession, or awaken people who appeared to be dead, but who was never known to replace a wooden leg with the real thing.
Everywhere the cry for salvation was loud, persistent and universal as people sought deliverance from the burdens of grief and sorrow; from the oppressive tyranny of fate, the consciousness of guilt, the wasting of disease, and the tedium of life. Because our modern scientific attitude of mind was of course unknown, the supernatural realm was conceived to be far more important than the natural world. Most people tended to think of events as the result of the more or less capricious activities of spirits and demons. Thus, fancy, ritual, mysticism, unsound science, and the miraculous were commonplace. Rabbis, priests of the mystery cults, and messiah-pretenders regularly performed miracles such as exorcising satanic spirits and “magically” raising the dead. As late as the 5th century Augustine was declaring that in his own diocese of Hippo, 72 miracles, including five cases of restoration of life, occurred in the space of two years.
Everywhere human beings were plagued by demons. Man had no real privacy because every phase and form of life was ruled by them. They sat on thrones; they hovered around cradles; they caused all diseases, sickness and infirmities; they turned life into a living hell. The 2nd century theologian Justin Martyr was impressed with the demonology to the degree that he believed that the new Messiah had been made mortal to destroy demons. Indeed, this was a time marked by a state of great mental fermentation, the political agitation of centuries having reduced multitudes, especially in the East, to a condition bordering on actual hysteria. It was an age steeped in Oriental mythology, with the masses of ignorant people expecting the end of the world any day. Even mighty rulers weren’t immune to superstition. Tiberius was the slave of astrologists; Domitian lived in fear of the fulfillment of Chaldean prophets; Aurelius surrounded himself with magicians.
I trust that the reader can begin to comprehend by now how difficult it is for the modern scholar to project himself into a day and time that is light years away from the 20th century; and how difficult it is to determine with some degree of certainty what actually happened more than 1900 years ago. We do not know for certain who killed President Kennedy a mere quarter of a century ago; and yet every priest and preacher in Christendom tells us that he knows exactly what happened during a primitive, superstitious and ancient age in which the masses were willing to accept any mystical or magical voice of revelation that offered to solve the mysteries of life and death.
The study of history reveals an intimate connection between crushing oppression and hopes of people for divine intervention. It was characteristic of Judaism in all of its manifestations that it looked to the future for the full realization of its hopes. Two great hopes characterized the religion of the Israelites in pre-Christian Palestine: the hope for the arrival of the Great Day of Yahweh and the powerful earthly king (the Davidic Messiah) who would usher in for them a period of national history; and the hope for the eventual salvation of all good and faithful Jews. Secure in the belief that they would be rescued from foreign rule, the Judeans saw the heathen strangers crushed and conquered, Israel consoled, and the Messianic Kingdom with its center in Jerusalem suddenly bursting upon the world. The Kingdom of God, or the sovereignty of Yah in the world, was to be a kingdom of Jews, a pure murim, or miracle, because their chronology led them to believe that they were on the cusp of the 6th Millennium – the threshold of their long-awaited Golden Age.
Everywhere in Judea during that turbulent era, rabbis eagerly solved the riddle of redemption as they determined the exact hour of the Messiah’s advent. Intricate calculations based on the writings of the prophets were authoritatively declared throughout the land, with some of them causing the migration of whole communities of people. In fact, a huge apocalyptic literature developed during the two eventful centuries leading to AD. 1. In that of Enoch, the Messiah is described as a super-mundane, semi-divine person, as well as a “son of man” (meaning, perhaps, “son of Adam,” since son referred only to succession or descent). In the Psalms of Solomon, he is described in the manner of the prevailing prophetic ideal: a man of the earth, of the seed of David.
The Sons of Israel all knew that before another century would pass, the glorious king commissioned by Yahweh would come to deliver the island of the innocent out of darkness, out of shadows, out of death. But whether the Coming One would come like a light and like thunder out of the East, or on clouds of glory, or riding on an ass, or whether he would rise from some ancient tomb, nobody knew. They knew only that he would come – and that all nations would then be the footstool of Israel.
Even though it was dangerous to speak of a King-Messiah or a political Messiah in the days of Roman rule, each visionary who arose could count on a following who would be ready to hail him as the long-awaited Coming One. Significantly, the Judeans were obsessed with the messianic concept to the point that, while Roman soldiers were actually preparing to fire the Temple, a self-proclaimed prophet could assemble large numbers of men, women and children in its courts and porches to await then and there a miraculous deliverance from heaven.
There was also a great spread of messianic ideas over the Gentile world during the first century preceding the Common Era, since neither ancient religion nor philosophy drew a hard-and-fast line between the divine and the human. Hence the widespread belief in the deliverer, or savior, in an incarnation of divine power in a human form on earth, in order to save and regenerate perishing humanity. Virgil’s Messianic Eclogue reflected very clearly that state of the public mind. The Roman poet blended the ancient yearning of the East with Greek and Etruscan divination when he prophesied a savior who would descend upon earth as a divine child, wipe out the sins of the past and introduce the golden age. Among the Greeks, Plato had confidently declared that “We will wait for One, be it a god or a god-inspired man, to teach us our religious duties and to take the darkness from our eyes.” Everywhere except in Israel people seemed to hunger for a truly DIVINE being in human form rather than a man born of man like the Davidic Messiah with the SPIRIT of divinity upon him. What commanded the allegiance of the mystery cultists was a son of a god by a daughter of earth; and she, on the analogy of many myths, an earthly Kore, a maiden made fruitful by the divine touch.2 As the fruit of the marriage of earth with Heaven through the spring Sun and Rain, a Babe would be born who would then become King and save the world. Ail the savior-gods of Western Asia and beyond were created in that image – with the second god always being the son of the great god.
There was nothing unusual about the fact that many men became gods and many gods became men in the mythology of the ancient world. And it simply isn’t coincidental that Gentile Christianity drew heavily on the mythology of the mystery cults. Many aspects in the life of the Jesus of the Gospel belonged to savior-gods all over Asia. The Egyptian Pharaoh of old was born a god and the son of a god. The Chronican Paschale revealed that the Egyptians deified a child-carrying virgin, and adored a child in the manger. As a typical tale of a god “who walked on earth unknown,” the beloved hero Krishna was a perfect prototype of the Christ to come. The descent of the savior-god into the underworld as a representation of his symbolic death appeared in Babylonian and in Egyptian religion, with the ascension into the sky being the usual end to the mythical legends of the lives of the deliverers. Baptism preceded initiation into the mysteries of other cult-figures, Isis and Mithra, for example, and it was chosen as a similar symbol – “Die and become!” – by the Catholics. The sacrifice of the Eucharist, or love-feast, common to both East and West at the time, had its fullest significance when the god himself was the victim. In eating and assimilating the god, his worshipers were (and are) deemed to assimilate his virtues. The Catholic Eucharist has no other significance.
As indicated earlier, this convoluted transformation into Catholicism occurred later in the development of the theocratic system that eventually wreaked so much havoc within the Western world. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that some of the Hellenic participants in the New Messianism began to see the value of a salvation-deity during the first century, perhaps during the latter decades. It must be noted, however, that most of the scholars and theologians involved in studying the origins of the faith have concluded that what I have termed the New Messianism was solely a product of orthodox Judaism. Typical of the comments to that effect are these: “The originators of Christianity stood wholly upon the ground of Judaism.” “All the oldest Christian theology is Jewish.” “Nothing indicates that Christians desired to break away from Judaism.” “Christian origins can be traced directly back to Jewish origins.”
These conclusions are not only illogical, they are absurd. In particular, Jewish origins have absolutely nothing to do with Christian origins. One of the more remarkable and little known, or little realized, facts about the Christian conundrum is that the historical figures involved as philosophers, organizers, and teachers throughout much, if not all, of the 1st century, were Hellenic Jews – NOT orthodox Jews.
What, then, of the many Fathers of Catholicism whose names are etched within the annals of Gentile Christianity? Surprising as it may seem, they all came later. Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Melito and Ignatius of Antioch, in the 2nd century; Cyprian, Jerome and St. John Chrysostom in the 3rd; Augustine, Ambrose and the notable church historian Eusebius in the 4th. The most eminent Doctors of Catholicism were Augustine, Clement, Jerome and Gregory the Great, who served as Pope from AD. 590 to 604.
To digress for a moment, Christians skilled in the art of revising history in order to disguise their motives, frequently employ the psychological phenomenon known as rationalization for the purpose of giving the absurd and the nonsensical a more relevant façade. Consider the repulsive, offensive, or just plain ridiculous passages in the “revealed” Word of God, for instance. In the language of apologetics they are simply “common bits of understanding at the time of writing,” parts of the “earthen vessel,” as it were, and not of the “divine treasure” of revelation. By carefully selecting the biblical passages that he wishes to be known as “revealed truth” and discarding the rest, the artful Christian subordinates reality to his whims.3
One area of duplicitous selectivity involves the ominous components of the mystery religions. Non-Catholics cavalierly dismiss them as negative elements of Catholic paganism, because Protestantism “eliminated the pagan doctrines that had burdened the faith for so long” when it developed as the “true” faith – a judgement partially true and wholly misleading. The Eucharist, the rosary, holy water, relic worship, among other things, were discarded. Everything that remained, however, including the virgin birth, baptism, original sin, the concept of the savior-god, and the death and resurrection of the god, was just as heathenish as the elements eliminated.
The more scholarly rationalizers would have us believe that the anti-mind, anti-body philosophy, which ascetic Christendom found so alluring, was derived from the Gnostic4 sect. Not true. It was Augustine in the company of the Neoplatonists of the 4th century who forged the philosophic fabric that enabled Christianity to blend more thoroughly and more quickly with the Greco-Roman world – and with an assault on reason and human nature that eclipsed the primitive supernaturalism of the Israelites.
To the mystical Greek philosopher Plato, the “apparent” world of sense was more important than the “real” world of ideas. The material world, he declared, was only an imperfect appearance of true reality, a semi-real reflection or projection of it. Any investigation of nature was to be disdained and avoided. “We must be free of the body,” preached Plato, “and use the eye of the soul alone to behold the actual realities.” This blind faith in supernatural absolutes was the element of Academic philosophy that by way of Neoplatonism was transmitted to the early Catholic Church. Contempt for the world of matter, belief in the liberation of the soul through asceticism and mystic revelation, the subordination of reason to faith, and a blueprint for turning human beings into beehive drones, made this philosophy congenial to the mystics who were building the new religion.
Unable to completely ignore his Greek heritage, Plato exhibited a certain respect for reason, a respect which was implicit in Greek philosophy; but the worst elements of Plato, not the best, came to dominate Christianity and the Western world.
Turning once again to the subject of orthodox Jewry, it is essential to be equally clear in our minds about who they were and what they taught. Intense psychological conditioning along national-religious lines motivates a definiteness of purpose, persistence and a burning desire for exclusivity. To the Israelites, Yahweh was their God alone; they were his ONLY chosen people. To them their religious truth was unique in all the world; their Torah was without parallel; their ethics could not be equaled in any other nation. Most significant of all is the fact that the devout Sons of Israel were willing to engage in a civil war for the purpose of maintaining their exclusivity, their rigid desert ways, and their contemptuous outlook for all heathen nations. For these distinct and irrefutable reasons, orthodox Judaism did not play an active rôle in the origins of the New Messianism.
And that brings us to one of the more provocative questions in this study: Who were those Hellenized Jews who were involved in developing, organizing and teaching an ethical/religious philosophy during the first century?
Logically, they were the descendants of the Letzim who led the movement to Hellenize Israel, which provoked in turn the disastrous War of Independence known as the Maccabaean War. Approximately 150 years following that conflict, the descendants of the radical Letzim were established in numerous Greek-tinctured communities located primarily within the boundaries of Eastern North Africa and Southwest Asia bordering on the Mediterranean: Alexandria in Northern Egypt, Antioch in Southern Turkey, Thessalonica and Athens in Greece, Caesarea in Southern Palestine, Damascus the capitol of Syria, the Ionian Greek city of Ephesus, Corinth in Peloponnesus, Tarsus in Asia Minor, Philippi in Macedonia, the Phoenician port of Tyre, and the Greek colony of Cyrene.
These are a few of the important cities that Stephen and Saul may have visited during their missionary travels.
Greek thought was the supreme factor that influenced the Letzim to settle in neighboring countries where Hellenism was prominent. While an attitude of intolerant prejudice was characteristic of Palestinian Jews, the Judeans of this minor dispersion regarded the larger world with a tolerance that permitted an association with their Gentile neighbors. In the light of this cultural indoctrination, it is well within the periphery of possibility that the descendants of the original Letzim were responsible for initiating a movement that was geared to converting both Gentiles and Jews to a theological way of life devoid of despairing visionaries, extreme moralists and angry prophets – the first time in their history, perhaps, that some of the Habiru had attempted to blend their hopes and aspirations with the Gentile ethics in a canonical milieu.
The three most important names in that movement – the only names that we can be reasonably sure of – are Philo, Stephen and Saul of Tarsus.
CUMONT, FRANZ: “To the sophisticated Gentile tourist, who with his own eyes had looked upon the Rome of marble left behind by Augustus, the chaster beauties of Athens, the strange enclosure at Baalbek with its stones of unparalleled size, and the huge agglomeration of gloomy temples at Egyptian Thebes, the little Jewish shrine (the Temple) must have appeared poor and even tawdry.”
FRAZER, JAMES GEORGE: “Man has created gods in his own likeness and being himself mortal he has naturally supposed his creatures to be in the same predicament.”
GUIGNEBERT, CHARLES: “[In the age of Messianism] people were then generally incapable of distinguishing a subjective experience, an hallucination or even a dream from a really objective experience… in the history of religious enthusiasm nothing appears more contagious than visions.”
JACKSON, F. & LAKE, K.: “There is no proof outside of the Gospels that any city of Nazareth existed in the time of Jesus.”
JEFFERSON, THOMAS: “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his Father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
LATOURETTE, K.S.: “In art again the debt of Christianity to pagan cults is certain. There can be little doubt that representations of Mithras shooting at the rock or Mithras mounting the chariot of the sun directly influenced Christian representations of Moses at Horeb or the ascent of Elijah… pagan prototypes of the Christian basilica.”
McCOWN, CHARLTON C.: “When once it comes to be recognized that almost every heathen shrine boasted its miracles, that stories of miraculous healings were told of almost every heathen deity and semidivine hero, and also that the Jewish rabbis worked miracles by calling upon divine aid… the problem of the Gospel miracles is subjected to a new illumination.”
REINACH, S.: “In the days of her infancy… Christianity borrowed much from the rivals over which she was in the long run to reign supreme… When a heathen temple was taken over by the Christians it was frequently dedicated to some saint, who was honored with precisely the same rites and prerogatives as had been given to the old god.”
RHYS, JOCELYN: “The idea of a man-god born of a virgin was conceived so early in the history of mankind that it was carried into America in that remote age when men first migrated into that continent.”
ROBERTSON, J.M.: “The Christian cult adopted the very terms of the heathen practice, and its initiates were called mystae, like those of all rival religions.”
SCHMIDT, N.: “It was the transformation of the coming Messiah into a god that made the Christ cult possible.”
SCHWEITZER, ALBERT: “The messiaship of Jesus, as we find it in the Gospels, is a product of early Christian theology correcting history according to its own conceptions.”
SMITH, G.: “I believe the legend of Jesus was made by many minds working under a great religious impulse… Jesus has been made the receptacle into which every theologian pours his own ideas.”
SCHECHTER, SOLOMON: “The student of the Talmud finds that such marvels as predicting the future, reviving the dead, casting out demons, crossing rivers dry-shod, curing the sick by a touch or prayer, were the order of the day, and performed by scores of rabbis.”
1 Among the important mystery religions of the day were the cults of the Cappadocian Men, Eleusinia, the Phrygian Sabazios and the Great Mother, the Egyptian Isis and Sarapis, the Samothracian Cabiri, the Dea Syria and her satellites, and the worship of the immemorial Persian sun-god, Mithra.
2 Nana, the virgin mother of Attis, conceived by putting a ripe almond or a pomegranate in her bosom. Zeus visited Persephone in the form of a serpent, and she bore him Dionysus. Poseidon, the god of the seas, was known for having impregnated women by whispering into their ears – the knowledge of which enabled Christians to solve their own celestial impregnation dilemma: “God spoke to an angel and the Virgin was impregnated through the ear…” Thus spake Augustine.
3 Whom the Gods destroy they first tempt to deny reality.
4 What was Gnosticism? “It drew into itself elements from many sources, Babylonian, Persian, Phrygian, Syrian, Egyptian, Greek. It had affinities with the Babylonian dualism of an upper and a lower world, with the Persian dualism of light and darkness, with the Greek dualism of matter and spirit,” says J.E. Carpenter. By the by, the Christians did “borrow” the doctrine of atonement from the Gnostics.
SOURCE: The Liberty Bell, November 1990