Religion in the time of Jesus
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 The parallels are striking.
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. 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 a 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 called 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 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 than most scholars nowadays assume.
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? He may have had reasons not to write about what happened. It may have taken Paul nearly two decades to come to terms with what he found out about the relationship between God and Jesus. His first surviving letters date from fifteen years after he joined the Christian movement. 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 insider knowledge may not have disappeared at all. 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 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 stands between us and the original message of Christianity. Hence, we may get close. Paul joined the Christian movement early on. He knew the apostles and other first-hand witnesses personally. 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 scriptures as an obstacle
The Jewish religion of the Jewish deity Yahweh and its scriptures may be an obstacle to our understanding 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. And so, there could be more to the mysterious apocalyptic prophet who felt a close relationship with God and started a new religion that has over two billion followers today. Christianity began as a branch of Judaism, a religion defined by its scriptures. Their scriptures outline how Jews, Christians and Muslims see the owner of the universe. So if God 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 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 the same. 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.
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 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.
Firstborn of all creation
Jesus may have thought himself to be the reincarnation of Adam. Adam was God’s son (Luke 3:38) and Jesus the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15). These words relate to the Jewish scriptures, but they can also be cryptic references to Adam being born first as the son of Eve and Jesus being the reincarnation of Adam. The phrase born of God (John 1:13) may have a similar origin. Humanity is born of Eve if you consider Adam Eve’s son. They together are the mythical ancestors of humanity.
In traditional agricultural societies, the firstborn son was crucial 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 God’s firstborn son (Psalm 89:27). The Jewish nation Israel is God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22) while Israel is also God’s Bride (Isaiah 54:5, Hosea 2:7, Joel 1:8). It provided Paul with a theological escape because God married His firstborn son Israel. In a similar vein, Jesus married the Church. And so, Jesus became like God as the Christians became Jesus’ people like the Jews are God’s people.
Jesus as God
That is not as problematic as it may seem. Many Jews believe that there are two powers in heaven.1 In Genesis, God speaks in the plural, ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’ It reflects the polytheist past of the Jews, in which they believed that the gods created the universe. If we live in a simulation created by an advanced humanoid civilisation to entertain one of its members, 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, so this phrase fuelled speculation about a godlike sidekick working alongside God.
In the Hebrew Bible, God appeared 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).
The road to Trinity
In the first century AD, Jewish scholars like Paul were influenced by Greek philosophy. Plato claimed that ideas are the basis of knowledge and that ideas, not objects, are the building blocks of reality. In Platonic thinking, the world of ideas is superior. God is pure spirit, the most superior being. Platonists think that spirit can use words to produce matter. Platonic reasoning agreed with Judaism as God created all things using words. To create things, you need 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 have become the Holy Spirit, so that we arrive at the Trinity.
Eve may have given 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 very convenient indeed. And so, Jesus may have become born from the Virgin Mary instead. Early Christians may have understood Jesus’ virgin birth as code for Eve being the Mother of Adam.
Christians made up the birth story. Virgin births are not a theme in Judaism. It does not appear in the Jewish scriptures, so Christians may have had a pressing reason to introduce the idea. 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 came to see it as a prophecy of Jesus’ virgin birth, which by then may have been a circulating story. In this respect, it is remarkable that the Quran claims that God has no son and consistently calls Jesus Son of Mary and not Son of God, thus implying that Jesus had no father. It could be code for God having been Mary.
Logical issues leading to arcane theology
Christianity began as a Jewish sect, so Christians came to found their religion in the Jewish scriptures. The basis for the claims of Christianity in the Jewish scriptures is problematic. The observed facts may have contradicted the scriptures, for instance, God being a woman who can take a human form. The efforts to resolve these logical difficulties helped turn Jesus into God. It should not surprise us that early Christians disagreed on this issue and that most Jews did not buy into it.
If Jesus had preached in Egypt and had claimed that his wife was the goddess Isis, the all-powerful Creator of the universe and that he was the reincarnation of her son Horus, there may still be records of his teachings. Egypt was a polytheist nation that could have adopted another cult alongside the existing ones.
The Jews were monotheists with established scriptures. It also made Christianity uncompromisingly monotheistic so that converts had to renounce all other gods. That allowed Christianity to wipe out all the other religions in the Roman Empire. And if this universe comes with an all-powerful owner, that may have been the plan all along.
Latest revision: 13 June 2022
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.