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 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.