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 earthly lives and material goods but 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 died, 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, there was no chasm between the divine and the earthly realm. Critics of Christianity used the similarities between the tales about Jesus and Apollonius to question and mock Christianity. The miracles attributed to Jesus were not exceptional either. Other men allegedly did similar deeds. Legends about people spring up from time to time. And there are gullible people. For instance, some people claim Elvis still lives and that they have seen him. So, who is to say that Christians didn’t make up the tales about the miracles Jesus did? The Gospels contain contradictions, and scholars believe stories have been modified, exaggerated and embellished. The Gospels were never written as an exact account of what happened. They were meant to spread the good news about Jesus. Finding out the truth 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 occurred in other religions too. For instance, in Roman mythology, the mother of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, was a virgin. Greek mythology also includes a few virgin births. 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, claims circulated 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. If Jesus called himself the Son of God, he could have meant he was king of the Jews. And it was seen that way by the Jewish and Roman authorities.
About Jesus, much remains unclear. The Gospels date from decades after Jesus’ death, which makes them unreliable historical sources. Scholars believe that the Gospels partially describe what Jesus said and did. Much is plausible, given the time and place in which he lived. The Gospels also tell us things Christians would not have made up because it might undermine their teachings. For instance, John the Baptist probably baptised Jesus. The one who baptises is usually spiritually superior to the one receiving the baptism, so Christians probably didn’t make it up.1 To deal with this uncomfortable truth, Christians might have invented that John said that someone more powerful than him would come whose sandals he was not worthy to touch (Mark 1:7-8, Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16, John 1:26-27). And the Gospels might be copied from earlier sources now lost. If these sources were decades older, fewer errors might have crept in as written texts don’t change during copying as much as oral stories.
An account of an Apostle could have been of great help in uncovering the truth. Paul knew several first-hand witnesses, so he had insider knowledge. He could have written about what transpired but did not. And so, the obscurity surrounding Jesus and his relationship with God could be intentional. The first three Gospels are remarkably similar. Scholars believe the sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the Gospel of Mark and another text with the sayings of Jesus. They have an unclear origin and appear not written by people close to Jesus. Nevertheless, there may have been an insider account that, after several revisions, became the Gospel of John. And that might be why this Gospel is so remarkably different.
The Gospels say that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and called God Father. That looks like a close relationship with God. To Jesus, being the Son of God probably meant something different than being king of the Jews. In The Parable of the Ten Virgins, the kingdom of heaven compares to a wedding where the bridegroom was a long time in coming (Matthew 25:1-13). All the synoptic Gospels hint at Jesus being the bridegroom. The Romans convicted Jesus for claiming to be king of the Jews. In the Gospels, Jesus never made this claim, but he didn’t deny it either. In the Jewish understanding, the king of the Jews is a son of God. But Jesus might have believed himself to be Adam, the eternal Son of God, and because of that, king of the Jews.
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The scriptures as an obstacle
The Jewish religion of the Jewish deity Yahweh and its scriptures can cloud 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 with over two billion followers today. Christianity began as a branch of Judaism, a religion defined by scriptures. Many religious people think the scriptures are infallible. Their scriptures outline how Jews, Christians and Muslims see the owner of the universe.
Christians say that God is love. Christianity paints a different picture of God than Judaism and Islam, which present us with a vengeful warrior God. Many religious people think the scriptures are infallible. So, how can we explain it if the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the same? Paul likely went to great lengths to align the new religion with existing Jewish doctrine. Paul could have obscured the most controversial parts of the new religion by making cryptic references to the Jewish scriptures. So if God appeared as an ordinary woman who married Jesus, and Jesus had preached somewhere else, for instance, in Egypt or China, Christianity would have been a different religion.
Biblical scholars reason from what they can establish from historical sources, while Christians believe the Jewish deity Yahweh is Jesus’ father. Both see Jesus within a Jewish context. Jesus looked at himself in this way too. That may obscure things as Yahweh is the imagined deity of the Jews. It may be better to view Yahweh as the cloak behind which our Creator hides. The most pressing problem for Paul may have been that God is a woman who had a romantic relationship with Jesus. 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 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 relate to Eve giving birth to humanity. Within the context of the Jewish religion, these phrases have other meanings that can be useful for obfuscation.
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). 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. But God marrying Her firstborn son Jesus in a romantic relationship seemed inappropriate. And so, Jesus may have married the Church instead. In this way, Jesus became like God, and the Christians became Jesus’ people, just like the Jews were God’s people.
Jesus as God
That is not as problematic as it might seem. Many Jews believe there are two powers in heaven.1 In Genesis, God speaks in the plural, ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’ It may be a relic of the polytheist past of the Jews when they believed the gods created the universe. When the Jews became monotheists, large parts of the Hebrew Bible already existed. If we live in a simulation created by an advanced humanoid civilisation to entertain one of its members, it makes 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, Greek philosophy influenced Jewish scholars like Paul. 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. Platonists think that a spirit can use words to produce matter. God is a pure spirit, the highest being. Platonic reasoning thus agreed with Judaism, as God created all things using words. And so, words must have existed before creation.
The Jewish philosopher Philo lived at the same time as Jesus. He claimed that the Word is the highest of all beings, the image of God according to which and by which the universe receives its order. Philo called the Word the second God. The Word is thus God’s sidekick. The Gospel of John starts similarly: ‘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 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 it is a female term in Greek. She was present when God made the world and is beside God on his throne (Wisdom 9:9-10).1 And so, we end up with two contenders for being God’s sidekick, the Word and Wisdom. Or perhaps, there are two sidekicks. If the Word had become Jesus, Wisdom could have become the Holy Spirit, so we arrive at the Trinity.
Eve giving birth to Adam contradicts the Jewish scriptures. And that is a problem as religious Jews consider their scriptures sacred. So, why not say 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, just like Jesus’ mother, while God was Jesus’ Mother. That is very convenient indeed. Early Christians may have understood Jesus’ virgin birth as code for Eve being the Mother of Adam. That presented them with yet another problem. The Virgin Mary was the mother of God’s son and a substitute for God. That may have been the origin of the Virgin Mary veneration.
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 would give birth to a son as a sign that God would 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.
The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible available in the first century AD translated a young woman as a virgin. The author of the Gospel of Matthew came to see it as a prophecy of Jesus’ virgin birth. By then, the virgin birth probably had been a circulating story. In this respect, it is remarkable that the Quran claims that God has no son and consistently calls Jesus the Son of Mary and not the 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 founded their religion in the Jewish scriptures. 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 the godlike nature of Christ and that most Jews didn’t buy into it.
If Jesus had preached in Egypt and claimed 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, however, were monotheists with established scriptures. It also made Christianity uncompromisingly monotheistic. Converts had to renounce all false gods. That allowed Christianity to wipe out the other religions in the Roman Empire. And if this universe comes with an all-powerful owner, that may always have been the plan.
Latest revision: 17 March 2023
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.