Apotheosis of Hercules c. 1539. Oil on canvas. Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna
Christianity didn’t start with Jesus, any more than the Easter story did. Paul, who never even met Jesus but who played the largest part in explaining his life, and his death, had a big hand in both.
Jesus’s death was a secular event his followers struggled to explain. He had arrived from nowhere, talking mysteriously about bringing the kingdom of god on earth – interpreted hopefully by many as the coming of a “Messiah”1 to liberate the Hebrews from Roman rule – before arriving in Jerusalem and almost immediately being put to death.
Any followers who believed Jesus was the Messiah may well have dreamed of some form of political or military triumph in which the priestly authorities would be overthrown and Israel liberated. Instead, Jesus had been arrested, subjected to a rudimentary trial and executed as a common criminal by the most humiliating punishment of all, crucifixion.1
His brutal death ended their hopes and plans, and put their leader in whom they’d placed all their hope in the pathetic and very public position of being an “unprophetic prophet.” What to do?
In short, the crucifixion may have been the result of a serious miscalculation. If so, that most haunting of cries, recorded in Matthew and Mark and in the original Aramaic, `My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me', rings out with particular resonance. It was only later, especially through the theology of Paul, that the emphasis shifted towards the crucifixion as the defining moment of Jesus' life.2
The gospels supposedly describing Jesus’s life by his followers were written decades later, “by educated Greeks, themselves outsiders to Judaea, but not to Judaism, between AD 70 and AD 100. The gospels illustrate how four Christian writers envisaged Jesus and his message in the period forty to seventy years after his death.”3 Even so, we see how reluctant these writers were to include what becomes the Easter story in the fact that the earliest versions of the first “canonical” gospel, Mark, for instance, do not even have a resurrection. The story is grafted on later.
[Mark’s] is a rough, breathy telling, with a Jesus in constant motion, as if in a hurry to get his work done before the End comes. And, hugely significant to most scholars, Mark’s gospel does not end with a resurrection … And we are left, as perhaps Mark and his first readers were left, waiting, expectant, ready for the End to arrive. But the End didn’t come. Mark was wrong about that.4
And about much else besides.
Not only did “The End” not come in the hopeful manner wished for by followers, but in 70AD a true disaster struck the Hebrews: the total destruction of The Second Temple after another unsuccessful Hebraic revolt.
Secular success for Jewish Messiahs was just not going to happen.
So the morphing of Jesus’s autobiography began, guided first by a tentmaker originally called Saul and then by early church and Roman bigwigs, from un-prophetic prophet leading a hoped-for secular revolt to a “son of a god” promising heavenly blessings through his sacrifice – as if his death and resurrection had been his main life’s work and only purpose all along – a “narrative” that was the creation out of whole cloth by the tentmaker, writing some twenty years after the events he was supposedly interpreting about a man he had never met.
Making Paul perhaps the world’s first and most successful postmodern historian.
Remember: “The apostle Paul's own knowledge of Jesus' life appears to have been very limited.”
Paul comes across as an outspoken and violent protagonist, something of a loner (there is no evidence that he ever married and he is puritanical about sex) and probably obsessive about the mastering of texts... Even if Paul did learn something of Jesus' life it made little impact on him. There is scarcely a reference in any of the letters to any of Jesus' teachings… At some point Paul must have shifted his focus to the symbolic importance of Christ's death and resurrection. His psychological make-up may have been of crucial importance here… Like other Christians Paul had to confront the problem of a messiah who had broken with conventional expectations of messiahship by dying. By the time he writes Galatians, Paul has transformed Jesus into a form of messiah who is radically different from the one expected. Rather than triumphing on earth through his majesty he had chosen to die because humankind was sinful (see Galatians 1:4, 2:20). He had risen to his Father in heaven, his humanity transformed in the process (see later Romans 1:3-4), but his return to earth was imminent.5
So the resurrection itself, of which Tertullian famously pronounced it must be true since it is so absurd (the sort of logic enjoyed by both early and present-day church fathers), was a story manufactured almost wholly by Paul/Saul of Tarsus, seeing perhaps his own chance for fame and fortune by leveraging himself to the helm of this new movement.
The first reference [to the resurrection] comes from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, written about AD 55, but even this is twenty years after the events Paul describes. By now Jesus is referred to as `the anointed one', Christos in Greek. Paul does not mention the tradition of the empty tomb at all. He has heard of four appearances or visions of Christ, none involving women and none related to any particular place, although an appearance to James, the brother of Jesus, was presumably in Jerusalem. One of these, to five hundred brethren, some of whom were no longer alive, is recorded nowhere else. Paul ends by adding his own vision of Christ, `on the road to Damascus', as a conversion experience. None of these six accounts, three in Paul's letters and three in Acts, suggests a physical, in the sense of a touchable, dimension to Jesus. In Acts he is simply a light with the power of speech, a clear contrast with Luke's earlier gospel account of a Jesus of `flesh and bones' (Luke 24:39). Paul [who had never met Jesus, let alone heard what he had to say] appears determined to give himself the same status as the other [disciples by manufacturing a meeting] that those travelling with him did not see.6
His limited knowledge of his hero’s actual life was helpful, since he had little to unlearn and much raw material to work with outside of Jesus’s own scanty resume, particularly if he were to sell this new myth to pagan Greeks and Romans already overflowing with their own.
How better to do your marketing than adopting the myths and heroes of your very market place?
He didn’t have to go far. Paul’s own hometown of Tarsus re-enacted every four years the sacred drama of Heracles’ martyrdom by fire (“…he went upon Mount Oeta, having built a high pyre and mounted it. He commanded his servants to set it afire… The pyre was still burning when a thunderclap was heard, and the hero, freed of his mortal self, was taken up into the sky”). Heracles was called Prince of Peace, Sun of Righteousness, Light of the World—his “sun” was greeted daily with the words “he is risen,” and his body ritually sacrificed at the spring equinox.
The Roman/Persian/Indian god Mithra, widely celebrated across Persia, the Middle East and Rome, also had his festival on the spring equinox (a potent time on the agricultural calendar). His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper,” at which Mithra said “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him shall not be saved.”
As the primary competitor to Paul’s new made-up religion, his new god would at least have to compete with the the Roman/Persian Mithras on equal terms by having his own rituals and resurrection. How much easier for a new cult leader if he could simply borrow the stories and re-label them.
Because, powerful though they were, the stories were hardly unique.
Those familiar with Germanic myth and folklore for example will recall that in the Icelandic Edda, it is told that the All—Father Odin (Wotan, Othin, Woden) hung himself on the world tree, Yggdrasil,in order to gain knowledge “by sacrifice of himself to himself”:
I ween that I hung | on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, | and offered I was
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none | may ever know
What root beneath it runs.
None made me happy | with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, | shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell…
Then began I to thrive, | and wisdom to get,
I grew and well I was;
Each word led me on | to another word,
Each deed to another deed.
In fact, the theme of pagan deities breaking bread, saving souls by their sacrifice, by vanquishing darkness, by being hung on trees or nailed up and crucified, is legion. Its A to Z includes, but is not limited to:
- Adad and Marduk of Assyria, who was considered "the Word" (Logos)
- Adonis (right), Aesclepius, Apollo (who was resurrected at the vernal equinox as the lamb), Dionysus, Heracles (Hercules) and Zeus of Greece
- Alcides of Thebes, divine redeemer born of a virgin around 1200 BCE-'
- Attis of Phrygia
- Baal or Bel of Babylon/ Phoenicia
- Balder and Frey of Scandinavia
- Bali of Afghanistan • Beddru of Japan
- Buddha and Krishna of India
- Chu Chulainn of Ireland
- Codom and Deva Tat of Siam
- Crite of Chaldea
- Dahzbog of the Slavs
- Dumuzi of Sumeria
- Fo-hi, Lao-Kiun, Tien, and Chang-Ti of China, whose birth was attended by heavenly music, angels and shepherds-'
- Hermes of Egypt/Greece, who was born of the Virgin Maia and called "the Logos" because he was the Messenger or Word of the Heavenly Father, Zeus.
- Hesus of the Druids and Gauls
- Horus, Osiris and Serapis of Egypt
- Indra of Tibet/ India • leo of China, who was "the great prophet, lawgiver and savior" with 70 disciples3
- Issa/Isa of Arabia, who was born of the Virgin Mary and was the "Divine Word" of the ancient Arabian Nasara/ Nazarenes around 400 BCE4
- Jao of Nepal • Jupiter/Jove of Rome • Mithra of Persia/India
- Odin/Wodin/Woden/Wotan of the Scandinavians, who hung himself on the World Tree to acquire knowledge, and was "wounded with a spear."
- Prometheus of Caucasus/Greece
- Quetzalcoatl of Mexico
- Quirinius of Rome
- Salivahana of southern India, who was a "divine child, born of a virgin, and was the son of a carpenter," himself also being called "the Carpenter," and whose name or title means "cross-borne" ("Salvation")
- Tammuz of Syria, the savior god worshipped in Jerusalem
- Thor of the Gauls
- Universal Monarch of the Sibyls
- Wittoba of the Bilingonese/Telingonese
- Zalmoxis of Thrace, the savior who "promised eternal life to guests at his sacramental Last Supper. Then he went into the underworld, and rose again on the third day"
- Zarathustra/Zoroaster of Persia
- Zoar of the Bonze
So on this holiday of all holidays, enjoy it in the safe and certain knowledge that while it’s certainly an age-old religious holiday (in the Northern Hemisphere at least), it really has nothing at all to do with the nailing up of an itinerant and largely unimportant Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.
Instead, it was mostly the creation of a troubled megalomaniac from Tarsus, based on the myths and stories from ages past.
* * * *
NB: Contains excerpts and notes from Joseph Campbell’s Thou Art That, S Acharya’s The Christ Conspiracy, T.W. Doane’sBible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, Kersey Graves’s The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours, Russell Shortos’s Gospel Truth: On the Trail of the Historical Jesus, Peter Cresswell’s Invention of Jesus: How the Church Rewrote the New Testament, and Charles Freeman’s, A New History of Early Christianity.
1. `Messiah' had meanings within Judaism which do not accord the figure any necessary divinity, especially being “a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel.”
The word … does not mean "saviour." The notion of an innocent, divine or semi-divine being who will
sacrifice himself to save us from the consequences of our own sins is a purely Christian [Pauline] concept that has
no basis in Jewish thought.
* More tomorrow…
Previous posts in this series:
1. From Charles Freeman’s, A New History of Early Christianity
4. From Peter Cresswell’s Invention of Jesus: How the Church Rewrote the New Testament
5. From Russell Shortos’s Gospel Truth: On the Trail of the Historical Jesus