How Jesus became God

Before he was born, a visitor from heaven told his mother that her son would be divine. Unusual signs in the heavens accompanied his birth. As an adult, he left his home to become a travelling preacher. He told everyone not to be concerned about their earthly lives and material goods but instead to live for the spiritual and eternal. He gathered several followers who believed he was the Son of God. He did miracles, healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. He aroused opposition among the ruling authorities, and they put him on trial. After he departed from this world, he appeared to some of his followers, who later wrote books about him. This story is not about Jesus of Nazareth but Apollonius of Tyana, Bart Ehrman tells us in his book How Jesus Became God.1

In ancient times, critics used the similarities between the tales about Jesus and Apollonius to question and mock Christianity. In the ancient world, there was no chasm between the divine and the earthly realm. Kings were often called sons of the gods. The miracles attributed to Jesus are not exceptional either. There were other men of which people said that they did similar deeds. Legends about people spring up easily. You only have to observe what happens on the Internet and social media. People believe and spread ostentatiously false claims. Finding out the facts later can be an arduous task. And success is not guaranteed. It has been the work of biblical scholars for centuries.

Miraculous and virgin births occur in other religions too. Claiming to be the Son of God was not unusual either. Julius Caesar pretended to be a descendant of the goddess Venus. Of Alexander the Great, it was said that his father was the Greek supreme god Zeus. Kings in the ancient world often claimed to be descendants of the gods. That gave them legitimacy for who dares to go against the will of the gods? Jewish kings were also Sons of God. So, if Jesus called himself Son of God, this could mean the king of the Jews. And it probably was seen that way by the Jewish and Roman authorities.

About Jesus, much remains unclear. The Gospels date from decades after Jesus’ death and scholars believe that they are based on stories that are passed on orally. Oral storytelling is notoriously inaccurate but scholars believe that the Gospels at least partially describe what Jesus actually said and did. Much is plausible given the time and place in which he lived. The Gospels also tell us things that Christians would not have made up because it contradicts their teachings.1 And, the Gospels are copied from earlier sources that are now lost. The time gap between the events and these sources is smaller, so fewer errors may have crept in.

Paul could have written about what transpired. He knew several first-hand witnesses so he had insider knowledge. It seems that he did not. But why? There may have been reasons not to write about what happened or to destroy these accounts. Perhaps, the events were too disturbing. It may have taken Paul nearly two decades to come to terms with what he found out about the relationship between God and Jesus. The first three Gospels are remarkably similar and do not say much about this relationship. Scholars believe that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are based on the Gospel of Mark and another text with the sayings of Jesus. Only, the troubling insider knowledge may not have disappeared. It may have been worked upon instead to become the Gospel of John.

Jesus most likely did claim to be the Son of God. According to the Gospels, Jesus called God ‘Father’. And, he may have been the Bridegroom in a marriage representing the Kingdom of God. All the synoptic Gospels hint at Jesus being the Bridegroom. Perhaps Jesus believed that he would become king, but he never directly claimed to be king of the Jews. He did not deny it either. But why? We cannot know that with certainty as Paul of Tarsus probably invented Christianity. Still, we may get close. Paul joined the Christian movement early on. He knew the apostles and other first-hand witnesses personally. Hence, only his interpretation may stand between us and Jesus’ teachings. Paul was a devout Pharisee with knowledge of the Jewish religion and scriptures as well as Greek thought and philosophy.

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The identity of God

The Gospels state that Jesus had a personal and intimate relationship with God. Scholars agree that the Gospels have been edited.

The Jewish religion of the imagined Jewish deity Yahweh and its scriptures may be an obstacle to our knowledge of God. To understand God, we may need to take the perspective of this universe as the creation of an advanced humanoid civilisation to entertain one of its members. Hence, there could be more to the mysterious apocalyptic prophet who felt a close relationship with God and started a new religion with over two billion followers today. Christianity began as a branch of Judaism, a religion defined by its scriptures. Religious claims have to be justified by referring to the scriptures. Their scriptures outline how Jews, Christians and Muslims see the owner of the universe. So if God is a woman who married Jesus, and Jesus had preached somewhere else, for instance, in Egypt or China, then Christianity would have been a completely different religion.

Christianity is called the religion of love. God is love, Christians claim. Christianity paints a different picture of God than Judaism and Islam. Those religions present a vengeful warrior God. So, how is this to be explained? The God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is believed to be the same. Perhaps Jesus knew God personally, and maybe God is not the deity the Jews imagined. Paul likely went at great length to bring the new religion in line with existing Jewish doctrine while being as truthful as possible. To many religious people, the scriptures are infallible. Paul could have obfuscated the most controversial parts of what he discovered by making cryptic references to the scriptures. Viewing it in this way makes sense.

Biblical scholars tend to be agnostic about God and reason from what they can establish from historical sources. Christians, on the other hand, believe that the Jewish deity Yahweh is Jesus’ father. Both groups see Jesus within the Jewish context. And Jesus looked at himself in this way too. That may turn out to be a handicap as Yahweh is the imagined deity of the Jews, and not necessarily the all-powerful Creator of this universe. It may be better to view Yahweh as the cloak behind which our Creator is hidden. The most pressing problem for Paul may have been that God is a woman who had a romantic relationship with Jesus. Only to suggest so was considered blasphemy. And so, Jesus became married to the Church like God was married to the Jewish nation. It made Jesus eternal and godlike. That was not a great leap if he was Adam, God’s eternal husband. Jesus still lives, Paul believed, as he had seen Jesus in a vision.

The Book of Daniel comes with an enigmatic individual who will bring final judgement and start God’s kingdom. In Daniel’s vision, it was a human being coming with the clouds of heaven (Daniel 7:13). His kingdom will be everlasting, and all rulers will worship and obey him (Daniel 7:27). Daniel did not think of Jesus, but that did not stop Christians from applying it to Jesus. Jesus himself may not have thought that he was this person called Son of Man. On several occasions, Jesus mentioned the Son of Man as if he is someone else.1 In other instances, Jesus appeared to imply that he is the Son of Man. Scholars reason that the latter is what Christians believed so that the former more is likely is what Jesus said. That is because your belief can affect how you interpret words.

Jesus may have thought himself to be in the position of Adam or perhaps even the reincarnation of Adam. Adam was God’s son (Luke 3:38) and Jesus the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15). People understand these words in relation to the Jewish scriptures, but they may be cryptic references to Adam being born first as the son of Eve, and Jesus being the reincarnation of Adam. It may also apply to the phrase ‘born of God’ (John 1:13) as all of humanity is born of Eve if you consider Adam to be Eve’s son. They together are the mythical ancestors of humanity. From this perspective, it makes sense that the message of Christianity applies to all of humanity like Paul inferred.

The firstborn son was of importance in traditional agricultural societies for the inheritance of land and the leadership of the family clan. The Jews were no exception. The theme occurs on numerous occasions in the Hebrew Bible. The story of Jacob and Esau is well-known. King David was also called God’s firstborn son (Psalm 89:27). Far more interesting is that the Jewish nation Israel is God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22) as Israel is also God’s bride (Isaiah 54:5, Hosea 2:7, Joel 1:8). It presented Paul with an escape as God married his firstborn son in this way. In a similar vein, Jesus became married to the Church like God was married to Israel. And so Jesus may have become God as the Christians became Jesus’ people like the Jews are Yahweh’s people.

That is not as problematic as it may seem. A widely held belief among the Jews was that there are two powers in heaven.1 In Genesis, God speaks in the plural, ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’ It may reflect a polytheist past of the Jews, in which they believed that the gods created the universe. If you presume this universe to be a simulation created by an advanced humanoid civilisation for the entertainment of one of its members, then it makes perfect monotheist sense too. The beings of this civilisation are the gods and the owner of this universe is God. The Jews did not see it this way. Instead, this phrase produced speculation about the existence of a godlike sidekick working alongside God.

The Hebrew Bible claims that God appeared to people from time to time. For instance, some people saw God sitting on a throne (Exodus 24:9-10) while no one has ever seen God and lived (Exodus 33:20). Others saw the Angel of the Lord, who is also God, and survived. Abraham and Hagar are among those who have seen the Angel, and the Hebrew Bible then tells us that they have seen God. Hence, the Angel of the Lord is God but not God himself. Otherwise, they would not have survived.1 And so there must be two gods, an invisible all-powerful Creator and his visible godlike sidekick. From this perspective, Jesus could be the Angel of the Lord and the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).

Many Jewish scholars like Paul were influenced by Greek philosophy. In Platonic thinking, there is a sharp divide between ideas and matter. The spiritual world of ideas is superior in the Platonic view. God is pure spirit, the most superior being. For Platonists, ‘spirit’ can use words to produce matter. Platonic reasoning thus agreed with Judaism as God created all things by using words. And so, words must have existed before creation. The Jewish philosopher Philo lived at the same time as Jesus. He asserted that the Word is the highest of all beings, the image of God, according to which and by which the universe is ordered. Philo called the Word the second god. The Word is thus God’s sidekick. The Gospel of John starts in a similar fashion, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Here, the Word had become Jesus.

In Proverbs, Wisdom speaks and says that she was the first thing God created. And then God created everything else with the help of Wisdom alongside him (Proverbs 8:22-25). She is a reflection of the eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness (Wisdom 7:25-26). Wisdom is female because the Greek word for wisdom is female. Wisdom was present when God made the world and is beside God on his throne (Wisdom 9:9-10).1 And so, there are two contenders for being God’s sidekick, the Word and Wisdom. Or perhaps, there are two sidekicks. If the Word has become Jesus then Wisdom could be the Holy Spirit, and we might arrive at the Trinity.

Eve gave birth to Adam. What to do with this? It contradicts the Jewish scriptures. And the scriptures are sacred. So, why not claim that Jesus was born from a virgin instead? After all, Jesus was Adam, and Eve was a virgin when She gave birth to Adam. And God’s name was Mary like Jesus’ mother while God was also Jesus’ Mother. That may have been convenient for those inventing a scheme to work around this issue. And so, Jesus may have become born from the Blessed Virgin Mary instead. Early Christians may have understood Jesus’ virgin birth as code for Eve being the Mother of Adam.

Virgin births were not a theme in Judaism even though Christianity teaches otherwise. Isaiah wrote that a young woman will give birth to a son as a sign that God will destroy Judah’s enemies (Isaiah 7:14). Isaiah addressed king Ahaz in the eighth century BC and did not think of Jesus who was to come seven centuries later. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible available in the first century AD, ‘young woman’ was translated as ‘virgin’. The author of the Gospel of Matthew used it to forge a prophecy of Jesus’ virgin birth. In this respect, it is remarkable that the Quran consistently calls Jesus Son of Mary and not Son of God, thus implying that Jesus had no father. It could be code for God’s name being Mary.

The basis for the claims of Christianity in the Jewish scriptures is problematic at best. The facts contradicted the scriptures, and the efforts to resolve these logical difficulties helped to turn Jesus into God. It should not surprise us that early Christians disagreed on the issue of Jesus being God and that most Jews did not buy into it either. If Jesus had preached in Egypt and had claimed that his wife is the goddess Isis, the all-powerful Creator and that he was the reincarnation of her son Horus, his teachings may have been preserved unscratched, but it may not have worked for what God had in mind. Egypt was a polytheist nation that could have adopted another cult alongside the existing ones. The Jews, however, were monotheists with established scriptures. It made Christianity, and later Islam, uncompromisingly monotheistic too. Converts had to renounce all other gods. That allowed Christianity and Islam to wipe out the other religions, first in the Roman Empire, and later everywhere else where Christianity and Islam became dominant. And if this universe comes with an all-powerful owner, that may have been the plan all along.

Featured image: Christ Pantocrator in Hagia Sophia. Svklimkin (2019). Wikimedia Commons.

1. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher. Bart D. Ehrman (2014). HarperCollins Publishers.

World civilisation and universal culture

The West and the rest

During the last 500 years, the living conditions of humans on this planet changed dramatically because of modernisation. Modernisation involves division of labour, industrialisation, urbanisation, social mobilisation, and increased education and wealth. Social mobilisation means organising via purpose-based groups, for instance, corporations. Expanding scientific and engineering knowledge allows us to shape our environment in unprecedented ways. Modernisation is one of the most dramatic changes in the history of humankind.

The West was the first civilisation to modernise. But why? Samuel Huntington mentions the characteristics of Western civilisation that he believed to be crucial for modernisation.1 It is not clear to what extent these features will remain important in the future, but modernisation itself affects nearly everyone in this world. And so, finding clues about what might constitute a future global civilisation and culture includes investigating which elements of Western culture could be universal rather than typically Western. According to Huntington, the defining characteristics of Western civilisation are:

  • The Classical legacy. The West inherited from previous civilisations, most notably Classical civilisation. This legacy includes Greek philosophy and rationalism, Roman law, and Christianity. The Islamic and Orthodox cultures also inherited from Classical civilisation, but not as much as the West.
  • Western Christendom, Catholicism and Protestantism. Western Christian peoples believe they differ from Muslims, Orthodox Christians and others. The rift between Catholicism and Protestantism did not change that.
  • Separation of the spiritual and the temporal. Jesus taught that his kingdom is not of this world and that his followers should respect worldly authorities, even pagan ones like the Roman Empire. And so church and state could become separate authorities.
  • The rule of law. It was often a distant ideal, but the idea persisted that power should be constrained. The rule of law is at the basis of constitutionalism and the protection of human rights.
  • Individualism. Individualism gradually developed during Middle Ages. Eventually, people began to promote equal rights for everyone.
  • Social pluralism. The West had diverse autonomous groups not based on kinship or marriage, like monasteries and guilds, and later other associations and societies. Most Western societies had a powerful aristocracy, a substantial peasantry, and an influential class of merchants. The strength of the feudal aristocracy helped to check absolutism.
  • Representative bodies. Social pluralism gave rise to Estates and Parliaments to represent the interests of the aristocracy, clergy, merchants and other groups. Local self-government forced nobles to share their power with burghers, and in the end, yield it. Representation at the national level supplemented autonomy at the local level.

The above list is not complete, nor were all those characteristics always present in every Western society. Some of these characteristics were also present in non-Western societies. It is the combination of features that makes Western civilisation unique. Huntington claimed that Western culture is not universal and added that such a belief is a form of arrogance promoted by centuries of Western dominance.1

That view is not beyond dispute. For instance, liberal democracy has at least some appeal to people from other civilisations. The experiences from Taiwan and Hong Kong indicate that the Chinese may prefer liberal democracy too if they are free to choose. On the other hand, recent developments in the United States and Europe suggest that the legitimacy of democracy can still be contested. Most people would prefer food and security to political influence. So, if a dictator promises to address a real or perceived threat, he might even become popular. In any case, the West has seen an unprecedented amount of social experiments, and in the process, the West may have uncovered elements of universal culture.

The list above does not tell us why the West came to dominate the world for so long. Western culture is a product of a historical accident, but not entirely so, and therein lies the issue. The accident may be about how these characteristics emerged. Their interaction may be a different story. Presumably, there is competition between societies, and the most successful tend to win out. This process involves trying ideas and discarding less successful ones. Conquest usually comes with imposing ideas on others. And you cannot go back in time, so once successful ideas have spread, there is no going back. It is, therefore, not always clear what is typically Western about Western culture.

There are reasons to believe that the future will be entirely different from the past. Humanity is using far more resources than the planet can provide. Something has to give. If humans succeed in dealing with this issue in a civilised manner, then the world may change to the point that the present cultures have lost most of their meaning. The future is unknown, but the past is not. To explain where we are now and why Western civilisation has led the modernisation process, we can investigate the characteristics of Western culture and how they interacted.

Greek philosophy

Traditional cultures centre around an idea of wisdom reflected in belief. Wisdom was a greater good than knowledge. If you studied the teachings of the great ancient prophets and philosophers, whether it was Buddha, Confucius, or Christ, you know all you need to know.2 Traditional cultures do not pursue new knowledge for the sake of it, for instance, by studying gravity to come up with a theory of gravity. Greek philosophy was different. Greek philosophers engaged in a rational and fundamental inquiry into the nature of reality and our knowledge and beliefs. It was a quest for knowledge rather than wisdom.

Western Christendom

From Christianity, the West inherited a claim on universalism. Christianity, like Islam, claims to represent the only universal truth that everyone should accept. Christianity, like Islam, also maintains that all people are equal. Everyone could either embrace or reject the only true religion so that there are only believers and non-believers. Non-believers may be inferior to believers, but that is due to their own choice. The West inherited the principle of equality from Christianity.

Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism do not claim to be the universal truth, while Judaism lacks missionary zeal. Equality was not the main concern for these religions either. Ideologies invented in the West like Liberalism and Socialism and prescriptions to organise societies promoted by the West like human rights, democracy, and free trade also came with passionate claims on universal truth. This kind of missionary zeal is not prevalent in other civilisations, except Islam. For instance, China and India do not demand other nations to copy their economic and social models.

Christianity features a division between the profane and the spiritual. Jesus allegedly has said that his kingdom is not of this world.3 Hence a Christian does not need to challenge worldly authorities. And you should give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.4 And so, a Christian could pay Roman taxes. This feature of Christianity made it possible to separate church and state so that in modern Western societies, all religions can be equal before the law. And, Christianity came with a powerful message of mercifulness and equality that appealed to the masses.

These features allowed Christianity to spread within the Roman Empire without causing wars and uprisings. As a result, Roman authorities did not consistently view the new religion as the most urgent threat to the empire as there were barbarian invasions and rebellions to deal with. Periods of persecution thus alternated with periods of relative peace for the Christians. Christians believed the Creator to be a higher authority than the emperor, and they renounced the Roman gods, but they did not challenge Roman rule. The Jews did resist, and so Roman armies practically wiped them out.

Not challenging worldly authorities allowed the Catholic Church to establish a vast network of priests, monasteries, and convents and a hierarchy to manage them. As a result of the Investiture Conflict, the Catholic Church gained control over the appointment of bishops and thus became an independent institution with political influence all over Europe. That contrasts with other civilisations. In Orthodox Christianity, the emperor oversaw the church. In Islam and Hinduism, priests and religious scholars could have considerable influence on political affairs. Only, these civilisations had no centralised independent religious institution like the Catholic Church. In China, established religion did not play a prominent role in politics.4

Rule of law and representative bodies

Law consists of the rules of justice of a community. In premodern societies, the law was often believed to be fixed by a higher authority, for instance, custom, a divine authority or nature. It made law independent from rulers, at least in theory, and to some extent also in practice. Religious law is administered by priests explaining holy texts. That applies to Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. In China, the state provided the law.4 There never was Christian law, and Christians accepted worldly authorities and their law systems.

The Catholic Church embarked on a project of introducing Roman Law throughout Europe. Consequently, Roman Law is nowadays the basis of the laws of most European nations and many nations outside Europe. Roman Law is a civil law meant to regulate affairs between citizens in a society and is not religious. The involvement of the Catholic Church in this project reflects the Christian separation between spiritual and worldly affairs. In England, another tradition of civil law called Common Law emerged.

The rule of law requires the law to be a countervailing power to worldly rulers. Feudal Europe did not have centralised states, so the Catholic Church could use its political power to introduce Roman Law. In England, a power struggle between king and nobility led the king to promote Common Law in the Royal Court to undermine his opponents who administrated the local courts.4 The king prevailed but remained checked by the rule of law and a strong aristocracy who forced him to sign a document, the Magna Carta, that guaranteed the rights of the nobility. The Magna Carta is a precursor to modern constitutions.

The rule of law often was a distant ideal rather than a reality. The outcome depended on the balance of power between the political actors in each society. These were the king, the aristocracy, and the clergy. Traditionally, the aristocrats and clergy were powerful. They had a representation in the Parliaments called Estates that decided over taxes. After the Middle Ages, centralised states began to emerge with kings trying to acquire absolute power and aspiring to decide on their own over taxes.

A power struggle between the kings and the aristocracy ensued. In Poland and Hungary, the aristocrats prevailed. These states soon collapsed because the aristocrats did not want to pay taxes for the defence of the country. In France and Spain, the king more or less prevailed by bribing the aristocracy with tax exemptions and putting the burden of taxes on peasants and the bourgeoisie, who had no representation in the Estates. This move undermined the tax base of the state. In England, a civil war broke out that ended with the arrangement that the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie represented in Parliament decided over the taxes they paid.5

It made taxation legitimate as it required the consent of those who paid taxes. The aristocracy and bourgeoisie in England had a stake in the success of the state. They profited from the colonies, for instance, via the slave and opium trade, so they were willing to pay taxes if they believed that it was necessary. In this way, England could win out in the colonial wars with France in the century that followed despite having fewer resources. England’s finances were in good shape, so England could borrow more money at lower interest rates to finance these wars than France could.

Individualism and social pluralism

In traditional societies, male family lines were the basis of the organisation of families. Families rather than individuals owned property. Family elders made important decisions. In Western Europe, individuals could make important decisions about marriage and property themselves. They already had substantial freedoms in the Middle Ages. This development started soon after Germanic tribes had overrun the Roman Empire and converted to Christianity.5

The Catholic Church took a strong stance against practices that held family structures together, such as marriages between close-kin, marriages to widows of dead relatives, the adoption of children and divorce. It allowed the church to benefit from property-owning Christians who died without an heir. For that reason, women could own property too. These individual property rights undermined family structures.5 Individual property rights later became crucial for the development of modern capitalism.

As a result, the Catholic Church could finance its large organisation, provide relief to the poor, and become a significant power. Western Europeans in the Middle Ages did not trace their descent only through the family line of their father, which would be necessary to maintain strict boundaries between families. In this way, it became harder to carry out blood feuds as the circle of vengeance was smaller, and many people felt related to both sides.5

It allowed feudalism to replace kinship as a basis for social solidarity so that social organisation could become a matter of choice rather than custom. In theory, feudalism was a voluntary submission of one individual to another based on the exchange of protection for service. In practice, this was often not the case, but with the spread of the rule of law, feudal relationships turned into legal contracts in which both the lord and serf had rights and obligations.5

In the Middle Ages, there were no strong states in Western Europe. The aristocracy was powerful and responsible for the defence of their realms. As the economy began to flourish, an influential class of merchants emerged in the cities. Many cities gained independence and became responsible for their governance and defence. Serfs flocked to cities in search of opportunities and freedom, thereby further undermining the power of feudal lords. In Northern Italy, feudalism had already ended by 1200 AD and cities run by wealthy merchants came to dominate the area.

Kinship as an organising method had largely vanished. Europeans could organise themselves for a wide array of purposes. In the Middle Ages, there were monasteries, convents, and guilds. There were also military orders, such as the Knights Templars. Later on, societies and corporations emerged. This European pluralism contrasted with the absence of civil society, the weakness of the aristocracy, and the strength of centralised bureaucracies in Russia, China, and the Ottoman Empire.1

The Renaissance

The Renaissance began in the merchant towns of Northern Italy. The elites of Northern Italy became less religious. This process is called secularisation. Wealthy merchants had money to spend on frivolous pursuits like art and literary works. Optimism replaced pessimism. Medieval virtues like poverty, contemplation and chastity came to be replaced by new virtues like participating in social life and enjoying life. The Italian cities needed the active participation of wealthy individuals to finance public efforts like defence.

The pursuit of wealth became seen as a virtue, which signalled the emergence of modern capitalism. People in traditional societies and Medieval Europe frowned upon trade and the pursuit of wealth. They believed that wealthy people must share their riches with their community. Trade often comes with questionable ethics and was seen as a necessary evil.

Building on the existing European tradition of individualism, entrepreneurial individuals came to be cherished. The Italian Renaissance tradition includes individuals like Michelangelo, who was known for his unparalleled artistic versatility, and Giovanni Giustiniani, a mercenary who organised the defence of Constantinople against the Turks and Christopher Columbus, who discovered America.

The separation between the worldly and spiritual realm reduced the obstacles to secularisation. The Renaissance started in the cradle of the Roman Empire. Italian merchants sailed the Mediterranean. The legacy of the ancient Greeks and Romans was everywhere around them. It prompted a renewed interest in classical antiquity, including ancient Greek and Latin texts. The works of the Greek philosophers and their rational enquiries into the nature of reality were rediscovered and began to affect European thought. These texts were secular and promoting virtues different from Christian virtues.

Printing and gun powder were Chinese inventions that came to Europe. Around 1450, the first movable type printing system was introduced in Europe, making it possible to print books in large numbers. From then on, new ideas could spread faster. Constantinople, the last Christian stronghold in the Eastern Mediterranean, fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks, blocking traditional trade routes with the Indies. The Portuguese then began to look for new trade routes by sailing around Africa, starting the European exploration of the world.

Double shock

Around 1500, two developments rocked Europe. The first was the discovery of a previously unknown continent, America. It uprooted the belief in traditional knowledge as Europeans discovered their ignorance. It spurred a fundamental questioning of existing ideas and a drive for knowledge2 that would lead to modern science that uses observations to produce general theories. The works of the Greek philosophers turned out to be helpful in this respect.

The second was Protestantism challenging the moral authority of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church had become corrupted by the buying and selling of church offices. Martin Luther taught that salvation is a gift of God that you might receive through faith in Jesus Christ. In line with European individualism, he made faith a matter of personal choice rather than tradition. Luther taught that the Bible is the only source of divine knowledge, thereby challenging the authority of the Catholic Church. He translated the Bible into German, making it accessible to laypeople.

The Portuguese had found new trade routes to the Indies, and Columbus had discovered a continent that promised unparalleled riches. Small bands of Spaniards with firearms overran existing empires and plundered them. After plunder came exploitation. Colonisation was a profitable enterprise that could sustain itself. It generated sufficient revenues to expand the colonies further. Enterprise and investment capital rather than state armies and taxes drove European colonisation. The resulting larger markets favoured economies of scale. After the invention of the steam engine, these economies of scale propelled the Industrial Revolution.

A revolutionary mix

In 800 AD Western Europe was backward compared to the more powerful Islamic, Orthodox Byzantine, and Chinese civilisations. By 1800 AD, China was still a match for England and France, and the Ottoman Empire was a significant power. But the Industrial Revolution was taking off, tilting the balance of power decisively towards the West in the following decades. Europeans had acquired a mindset that made them more curious, enterprising, and flexible. When the gap between industrial and non-industrial nations became clear, Italy, Austria, and Russia started industrialising too. China, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire did not. It may now be possible to identify the elements of Western culture that were crucial to modernisation and shape the ways how Westerners behave:

  • a religion with a message of equality, missionary zeal and an uncompromising claim on the truth;
  • individualism promoting flexible organisation for different purposes;
  • a separation between spiritual and worldly affairs allowing for secular law and secular pursuits;
  • a quest for knowledge and truth, for instance, reflected in science and the scientific method;
  • an absence of a strong centralised political power, but instead, an uncertain balance between countries and political actors within countries that promoted competition;
  • a rule of law that limited the powers of political actors and guaranteed individual property rights so that investments were more secure;
  • entrepreneurial spirit and a drive for profit.

The introduction of railroads exemplifies this trend. The first commercial railroad opened in 1830 in England. By 1850 there were already 40,000 kilometres of railroads in Europe. Asia, Africa, and Latin America together had only 4,000 kilometres.2 The first railroad in China was opened only in 1876. It was 24 kilometres long and built by Europeans. The Chinese government destroyed it a year later. In Persia, the first railroad was built in 1888 by a Belgian company. In 1950 the railway network of Persia amounted to only 2,500 kilometres in a country seven times the size of Britain that had 48,000 kilometres of railroads. The technology of railroads was relatively simple, but the Chinese and the Persians did not catch on. They could not do so because they thought and organised very differently.2

Until 1800, Europe did not enjoy an obvious advantage over China, Persia or the Ottoman Empire, but Europe had gradually built a unique potential. It had developed a culture of individualism, curiosity, and enterprise. When the technological inventions of the Industrial Revolution appeared, Europeans were in the best position to use them.2 They were more innovative, motivated by profit, and organised themselves flexibly for new purposes like building and maintaining railroads.

On the back of these advantages, European ideas spread over the world. Ideologies invented in Europe like capitalism and communism inherited the missionary zeal and uncompromising claim on the truth from Christianity. Similar thoughts were formulated elsewhere, for instance, by Chinese philosophers, but not as a coherent ideology. A few Chinese philosophers proposed that theories require the support of empirical evidence, but they did not develop a scientific method. Science was at the basis of European inventions. Science produced results, which promoted European power and superiority thinking.

The culture of the future

As the first civilisation to modernise, the West has led in the culture of modernity for over four centuries. During those centuries, the West could impose its will on other civilisations and often did so. Western ideas and values have spread over the globe. As other societies are catching up and are acquiring similar patterns for education, work, wealth, and class structure, there may be a universal culture in the future, possibly based on Western culture.1 That is, however, by no means certain.

The future may be very different from the past, so that currently existing cultures may not last. Humanity may need to face issues like environmental degradation as one civilisation. And modernisation does not have to mean Westernisation. Japan was the first non-Western country to modernise. Today it is one of the most advanced countries in the world. At the same time, Japan has retained its unique culture and identity. So far, non-Western cultures have been modernising without disappearing. On the contrary, in many ways, Chinese, Islamic, Buddhist or Hindu cultures reassert themselves. As the wealth and influence of non-Western societies is increasing, they are becoming more confident about the merits of their cultural heritage and are less likely to Westernise.1

Furthermore, the West may not be in the best position for the future as the future may put different demands on societies than the past. There exists competition between countries. Other countries, for instance, China, may be better positioned to deal with future challenges so that other civilisations, including the West, will have to adapt to China. That does not necessarily imply dictatorship, but other nations may increasingly copy features from Confucian societies to keep up with them. For the West, it may mean that individualism will be reversed to some extent, as will individual rights. And it may well be that interest on money and debts promotes wealth inequality, financial instability, excessive government interference in the economy, and short-term thinking so that other societies may have to adapt to the Islamic civilisation and abolish interest on money and debts.

People from different cultures interact more often, so a global culture may emerge in the longer term. In any case, the West cannot impose its ideas and values upon others in the future. Often people from other civilisations are resentful of the West’s imperialism.1 The Chinese speak of one hundred years of national humiliation when referring to the period between 1850 and 1950 in which Western powers broke the Chinese Empire and plunged it into civil war. Among Muslims, similar sentiments exist. The West’s recent military interventions in Islamic countries stirred up these sentiments.

These feelings may subside over time, and non-Western peoples may develop a neutral stance towards the West and its past. In the process, they may discover that at least some elements of Western culture have universal appeal. Societies from different civilisations have much in common because human nature does not depend on culture. There may be concepts, for instance, democracy, that can work in other civilisations. The West has tried out more ideas than other civilisations, so it more likely has uncovered elements of a possible universal culture in the process than other civilisations.

Barring a collective challenge coinciding with the emergence of a universal religion that inspires people from all backgrounds, global culture is unlikely to emerge anytime soon. A universal religion has not yet arrived, but this universe may be a virtual reality created by an advanced humanoid civilisation for the personal entertainment of someone we can call God. And so, the advent of such a religion is a realistic possibility. This religion could provide a plausible explanation for our existence, promote a shared destiny, and allow for a greater degree of diversity than currently existing religions and ideologies.

Featured image: Map from Clash of Civilisations, Wikimedia Commons, User Kyle Cronan and User Olahus, GFDL.

1. The Clash of Civilisations and the remaking of world order. Samuel. P. Huntington (1996).
2. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
3. John 18:36
4. Mark 12:17
5. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Francis Fukuyama (2011).

The religion Paul invented

Christianity is an invention of Paul of Tarsus. Paul was a Pharisee who devoutly observed the Jewish religious laws. Christianity began as one of the small Jewish sects founded by an end-time prophet who claimed to be the Messiah. Many Jews awaited a messiah. They expected a strong leader who would liberate the Jewish nation. Jesus did not live up to this expectation. Paul was at first a fervent persecutor of the followers of Jesus. But then he received a vision. According to his own words, Jesus appeared to him. It was a turning point in his life and an event that shaped the future of humankind. In his book The Triumph of Christianity, Bart Ehrman tries to reconstruct Paul’s reasoning that is the foundation of Christian thinking.

His vision proved to Paul that Jesus still lived as his followers claimed. Jesus had died by crucifixion, so he was resurrected, Paul reasoned. And therefore, he must be the long-awaited Messiah. Following this rationale, Paul ran into theological problems. The Romans had executed Jesus after humiliating him in public. So, why did he have to die? Then Paul came up with an answer. In many religions, people sacrifice animals to please the gods. These animals do not die for their transgressions but to cover for the sins of others.1 And so, Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Paul did not make up that Jesus died for our sins. Christians probably believed that already when Paul joined the movement.2 In the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the twelve apostles.’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5) These were the things passed on to him, possibly as a creed.2

And it must have been God’s plan all along to save Her His chosen people in this way, Paul reasoned further, so observing Jewish religious laws is not critical for your salvation, nor do you have to be a Jew. That Jewish religious law is irrelevant is a dramatic change of mind for a former Pharisee, but it may make sense if he knew what had actually transpired. Several prophecies in the Hebrew Bible promise that all peoples in the world will accept the God of the Jews. To Paul, Jesus was the fulfilment of these prophecies. Rejecting all false gods and having faith in Jesus should be enough. Paul believed himself to be God’s missionary to spread the good news as this was also prophesied.1 Paul was a Jewish scholar who knew the Jewish scriptures, while most other Apostles lacked such education. And so, he could shape the theology of the early Church.

Paul dedicated his life to spreading the good news that faith in Jesus can save everyone. During his many travels, he founded Christian communities. His mission was not easy. The Jews often expelled him from their synagogues. But he was determined, and he worked hard. Paul’s universal message of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ that is open to everyone appeared to have been attractive. It allowed Christianity to become a major world religion. Another, perhaps more important reason for people to convert to Christianity during the first centuries, were stories about miracles Christians performed.1 But Christianity never became a success with the Jews.

There have been several contending versions of Christianity. The most well-known are the Nazarenes, the Marcionists, the Ebionites, and the Arians. They all derived their teachings from the scriptures that appear to contradict themselves. The Nazarenes continued to observe the Jewish religious laws. Jesus probably did not intend to abolish them either. The Marcionists preached that the benevolent God of the Gospel who sent Jesus Christ into the world as the saviour is the true Supreme Being opposed to the evil creator God of the Old Testament. Indeed, God may not have been the deity the Jews imagined. The Ebionites claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was human and the last prophet before the coming Kingdom of God on Earth. They did not believe that Jesus was divine, nor did they think that he was born from a virgin. Jesus might have agreed. And Arians claimed that Jesus Christ, even though he was the Son of God, did not exist from the beginning of Creation.

For centuries, Christianity was in a state of flux, but Christian theology was gradually taking shape. There were several contradictions to deal with. For instance, Christians believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. And Jesus is God but the Father is also God. They are not the same but there is only one God. The Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the favoured religion of the Roman Empire. He oversaw the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the first effort to attain consensus about a uniform Christian doctrine. Constantine had invited the bishops of the Christian Church in the Roman Empire. More efforts to establish an official doctrine and a canon of scriptures were to follow. The Roman state promoted the official teachings so that the other strains of Christianity faded into obscurity.

The four Gospels of the New Testament probably were written between 70 and 95 AD, more than forty years after Jesus preached. The Apostles Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, most likely never wrote them. Scholars believe that they are based on collections of stories that were circulating. Storytelling is extremely inaccurate if nothing is written down. The authors of many letters of the Church Fathers are not the people those letters claim either. And we do not have the original texts of the New Testament. There are only copies made centuries later. Scholars have used these copies to reconstruct the original texts as much as possible.

Paul became a follower of Jesus early on. He came to know Jesus’ disciples who were first-hand witnesses of the events that had taken place. Paul probably would not have dared to deviate too much from what he believed to be the truth. He had been a devout Pharisee and was a knowledgable scholar of the Jewish scriptures, so it is not far-fetched to presume that Paul intended to bring his own epiphany and the beliefs of Jesus’ followers in line with the Jewish religion and scriptures. Paul may have had help, but it is fair to say that he invented Christianity. His view that Christianity is not only for the Jews but for everyone won out. And he may have obfuscated what he thought to be the most troubling elements of the new religion so that we may find only traces of them in the writings of the Church Fathers and the Gospels.

Featured image: Head of St. Paul. Mosaic in the Archbishop’s Chapel, Ravenna, 5th century AD (public domain)

1. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. Bart D. Ehrman (2018).
2. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher. Bart D. Ehrman (2014). HarperCollins Publishers.

Explaining the unexplained

The paranormal has been a subject of controversy. The evidence is often problematic. Take, for instance, psychics. Scientists have investigated their abilities. In experiments, psychics fail to do better than guessing. In a controlled setting, a psychic is isolated so that others cannot supply the psychic with information. Sometimes psychics make stunning guesses, but not in controlled experiments. That may often be due to fraud or manipulation, but perhaps not in every case. The same is true for the paranormal in general. Many paranormal incidents could be natural phenomena or the result of fraud or delusion, but a large number remains without explanation.

Thinking that science will give all the answers is a belief too. It can become like a religion once you begin to discard evidence to the contrary. Evidence for the paranormal does not meet scientific criteria. Science requires, for instance, that we can use a theory like the existence of psychic abilities to make predictions that we can subsequently check. If a psychic does not do better than guessing during an experiment, there is no such thing as psychic abilities, at least from a scientific perspective.

And yet, there are countless testimonies of people who have witnessed unexplained phenomena. The total number of these incidents is impossible to guess, but it could be billions. In the early twentieth century, Charles Fort collected at least 40,000 notes on paranormal experiences. These notes were about strange events reported in magazines and newspapers such as The Times and scientific journals such as Scientific American, Nature and Science. Millions more might exist in other journals and diaries.

Strange things also happened to me. In December 2010, my wife Ingrid and I were sitting at the kitchen table. She was discussing her late mother and father. Her mother had outlived her father for more than three decades. She then recalled that her mother had once asked her father to contact her as a spirit if he was to die first. She then remembered her mother later saying that he had never made himself noticed, ‘not even by stopping a clock.’

Just after my wife had finished speaking, a gust of wind blew a flower pot over the balcony. It made a loud noise. Even though it was windy, the blow suddenly came out of nowhere. It was a bit eerie. The next day she noticed that a clock and an alarm clock were both back one hour. One was connected to the power grid while the other ran on a battery.

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So, did my wife’s father make himself noticed from the other side? Or were the wind gust and the clocks being back just bizarre coincidences caused by natural phenomena? Or did my wife made it up to have a good story to tell at birthday parties? I do not think that she did. Given the number of strange incidents in my life, I do not doubt it either. It is unlikely that she was mistaken, as she could only have noticed that these clocks were back by looking at other timepieces. And if she was wrong and did not find out about it, it still is a remarkable coincidence.

In virtual reality, the laws of nature do not have to apply. So clocks can stop for an hour, and elephants can fly. So far, we have not seen elephants fly, but it is possible in virtual reality. Psychic abilities may exist while the scientific method cannot certify them. And Jesus could have walked over water and revived dead people even though these stories may have been made up. Alternatively, the laws of nature could apply in an arrangement suggesting that someone is pulling the strings. The wind gust was already peculiar. The incident with the clocks made it even more mysterious.

Building a nation with religion

Throughout history, humans have imagined thousands of gods. Yahweh, the God of Israel, was one of them. The Israelites started as a tribe in Canaan, much like other tribes living there. For a long time, the area was under Egyptian control. That began to change after 1150 BC. Egypt was beset by droughts, food shortages, civil unrest, corruption, and endless bickering in the court, causing it to retreat from Canaan. Agriculture was the basis of existence in the area. That required territorial defence, hence states. In the resulting power vacuum, several petty kingdoms emerged. Israel and Judah were among them. This situation lasted until new imperial powers emerged on the scene four centuries later.

Map of Israel and Judah
The kingdoms of Canaan

Yahweh was one of several gods and goddesses worshipped in Canaan. At first, El was the supreme deity in the Canaanite belief system. The goddess Asherah was his wife.1 The new small states in the area needed religion to justify their existence. The kings of Judah, and perhaps also Israel, promoted a national religion around Yahweh to solidify their authority. Other kingdoms in the region had adopted national deities too. For instance, Molek was the deity of Ammon, while Moab had Chemosh to defeat its foes and to supply the country with blessings.2

Even though the worship of Yahweh may have become the state religion in Judah and possibly Israel, people still worshipped other gods. The Hebrew Bible testifies of tensions between those who worshipped other deities alongside Yahweh and those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone. But even those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone, still believed that the other gods existed. As Yahweh had become the primary deity, El became a generic word for god, and Asherah then became Yahweh’s wife.

As time passed by, new empires arrived on the scene. Israel was overrun in 720 BC by the Assyrians. The Babylonians conquered Judah in 597 BC after taking over the Assyrian Empire. The Babylonians destroyed the country and deported many of its inhabitants. Others moved to Egypt. The Jewish communities in Egypt, Babylon, and Judah became dispersed. The biblical authors responded to the situation by reconnecting them and showing that they share a common heritage. In this way, the Jewish community was not split up and did not go back to their prior identities of being the town of Bethlehem or the town of Lachish that had nothing in common. They belonged to a larger group, a nation, a family with common ancestors. The Hebrew Bible became a compilation of existing tales from these communities and the royal archives of Judah.3

After the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire, Emperor Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Israel. He also commissioned the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. Those still living in the area opposed this and a political struggle unfolded. After seven decades, Ezra and Nehemiah finally succeeded in rebuilding the temple. At the time, Jewish society was on the brink of being wiped out. Israel and Judah did no longer exist. The remaining Jews were mixing with the surrounding population. Jewish leaders had to find a way to keep their people together. The editors of the Hebrew Bible aimed to preserve Jewish identity around a common religion, history and cultural heritage.

Judaism gradually became monotheist under the influence of Zoroastrianism. The prophet Zoroaster believed in a single good creator god and an opposite evil power. The Jews probably were henotheists at first. It means that they believed in other gods but only worshipped Yahweh. It is expressed, for example, in the commandment that you shall have no other gods before me rather than you shall believe there is only one God. Most of the Hebrew Bible has a henotheist perspective.4 Zoroastrianism was widespread in the Middle East. This religion influenced Judaism by bringing in monotheism, messiahs, free will, heaven and hell, and Satan. Zoroastrianism not only affected Judaism. Some of the Greek philosophers around 400 BC were also monotheists.

The Hebrew Bible emerged under the reign of five successive empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Hellenistic Rulers, and the Roman Empire. Judah probably had royal archives, so several writings date from centuries before the Hebrew Bible was compiled. There is however no evidence for the historical account of the Hebrew Bible from before the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The first chapters of Genesis resemble previously extant Mesopotamian myths. Moses most likely never led the Israelites out of Egypt. Israel and Judah may have been united under the reign of David and Solomon but this united kingdom could also have been invented to promote unity. It made the inhabitants in the area all descend from one great nation. And before that, history becomes truly murky. No written records exist from these times. The tales about Abraham, Isaac, and Moses may have been legends from different communities merged into one narrative to promote a sense of single Jewish people.3

The survival of the Jews and their religion has been hanging by a thread for a long time. More than 2,500 years later, the Jews are still a people, so building a sense of peoplehood around a religion proved to be a successful long-term survival strategy. The Jews even managed to rebuild their nation. The odds of this happening were zero from the outset, but it has happened nonetheless. It is also remarkable that Judaism stood at the cradle of Christianity and Islam. In a controlled virtual reality, it may not be a historical accident but part of a scheme.

Featured image: Torah scroll (public domain)

1. “El the God of Israel-Israel the People of YHWH: On the Origins of Ancient Israelite Yahwism”. In Becking, Bob; Dijkstra, Meindert; Korpel, Marjo C.A.; et al. Only One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. Dijkstra, Meindert (2001).
2. 1 Kings 11:7
3. The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. Wright, Jacob L. (2014). Coursera.
4. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Bart. D. Ehrman (2014).