Understanding Christianity’s Trajectory

By: Alton C. Thompson

It is sometimes said that the religion of Jesus became, with Christianity, (merely) a religion about Jesus—so that Christianity utterly distorts the “ministry” of Jesus. In so far as that observation is correct (which it is, substantially!), it raises at least two questions:

  • Did Christianity inevitably develop in this manner?—as I may seem to have suggested in a recent essay; or
  • Did an event occur—one that did not have to occur, but did anyway—which set off a chain of other events that eventuated in Christianity becoming ever more a religion about, than of, Jesus? A transformation that occurred rather rapidly, in fact?

In this essay I argue for the second possibility, and in doing so find that I offer an explanation not only of why Christianity developed as it did, but why the gospels—including the canonical ones—are a mixture of the plausible and the fantastic.

Stained Glass Depicting Jesus Christ

Stained Glass Depicting Jesus Christ
(Picture Courtesy: Microsoft Online)

Any reader of the gospels will encounter both the believable and the unbelievable. The modern reader, however, tends to “passover” the latter precisely because of its fantastic quality, and pay attention only to the plausible. What the modern reader tends to perceive as “plausible” in the gospels—whether or not canonical—is that which resonates with him or her—including teachings (including those embodied in parables and stories) regarding how one should relate to others, wisdom statements, etc.

If, while reading fantastic elements in the gospels, one (subconsciously) asks oneself why those elements are present, one is likely to answer: “This was spoken (then written) during a pre-scientific age, when much of what people believed was simply baseless.” Interestingly, however, one tends not to use that material to help one explain, e.g., Christianity’s development. In this essay, however, I do precisely that—and in the process comment on the mixture of “fact and fantasy” that one finds in the gospels.

In an earlier essay I had noted that I had long thought that the early Christians had borrowed the idea of “resurrection” from the Mystery religions that were popular in the Mediterranean Basin 2,000 years ago, but that such a belief had a problem: In the Mysteries (reflecting, as they did, the vegetation cycle), the birth of the god occurred in the spring, and the god’s death occurred in the fall; with Christianity, however, the birth occurred in the dead of winter, and the death in the spring.[2] Being perplexed by this lack of correlation, I sent an email to noted scholar of early Christianity Bart D. Ehrman (at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina), and his response was as follows:

“I don’t think pagan fertility cults really had much of anything to do with ideas of Jesus’[‘] resurrection. I talk about this a bit in a book coming out next week, called Did Jesus Exist. Specifically, I think [that] the disciples were already Jewish apocalypticists who subscribed to the idea of ‘resurrection’ (unlike pagans); my guess is that soon after Jesus’[s] death (a week or two later?) one or more of his disciples had a vision (or dream interpreted as a vision?) of Jesus (much as my grandfather ‘saw’ my grandmother a couple of weeks after her funeral) and interpreted that as meaning that Jesus was still alive. And still alive, for a Jewish apocalypticist, meant raised from the dead. So the resurrection has started, and will be completed soon. Maybe next week.”

I found Dr. Ehrman’s argument convincing, and so stated in the earlier essay.

While reflecting recently Ehrman’s explanation for how the resurrection concept entered the early Jesus movement, the following developmental scenario occurred to me:

After Jesus’s death (by crucifixion, by the Romans), his followers may have been in varying degrees of confusion as to what to do next. However, “soon after Jesus’[s] death (a week or two later?) one or more of his disciples had a vision (or dream interpreted as a vision?) of Jesus,” and interpreted this dream/vision as meaning that Jesus was still alive. Rumors began to spread to this effect, and became elaborated[3]. That is, the early followers began to think of Jesus more and more as a special person—which for Jews of the time, meant thinking of him as the Messiah.

Now that they were beginning to perceive Jesus differently than they had before, they began to not only remember stories about him, but to invent such stories—being partially guided here by Hebrew Scripture (i.e., finding passages that “predicted” him”). Thus, they invented stories about his birth, his early years, John the Baptizer’s baptism of him (perhaps), and some of his actions[4]; they perhaps invented parables which they put in his mouth, invented post-“resurrection” appearances, etc. For example, the following passage (Luke 24:36 – 49) I read not only as pure fiction, but as an excellent example of pure fiction:

36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.

38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?

39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.

41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?”

42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,

43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,

47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

48 You are witnesses of these things.

49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

My point here is that as the early followers turned their attention more and more to Jesus as a being—more and more as a divine being, indeed—they were increasingly de-emphasizing what Jesus had been “about”—i.e., a person who had taught them (using various means) how they should live their lives—or, as he would have phrased it, how God wanted them to live their lives.

Although they may not have been intending this, the Jesus that they were creating came more and more to resemble a savior of the Mysteries. With a difference, however: This savior was being thought of as having been a real person (actually, a divinity in disguise). Thus, a Jew of the diaspora, such as Paul of Tarsus (that city in what is now Turkey), in preaching this Jesus to “gentiles” in the Mediterranean Basin, could be understood by those to whom he was speaking, with some of them becoming converts to the newly-emerging religion.

This new religion retained an ethical component (i.e., the teachings attributed to Jesus), but more and more the religion became oriented to “facts” about Jesus, and even an insistence on correct facts about Jesus—i.e., orthodoxy. In addition (and perhaps especially after Constantine’s [272 – 337 CE] reign), ritual became ever more important with the religion, and governance came more and more to resemble that of the Roman Empire. In short, Christianity became more and more merely about Jesus, and Jesus’s teachings faded into the background more and more. As this was occurring, the religion became a useful tool of the elite for controlling the non-elite.[5]

But not only did the Movement change greatly in character over time. The books that came to be written about Jesus (in Greek mainly) contained elements that were of varying degrees of veracity. This fact may not have been noticed overly much by those in the Movement centuries ago (although educated “pagans” who became familiar with early Movement writings were of a different opinion [6]), but scholars, over the past few centuries, have produced mounds of literature attempting to separate the true from the fictional.

Endnotes

  1. Title: The hypothesis that I present herein is somewhat related to the thesis developed by Barrie Wilson in his How Jesus Became Christian. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008. Publisher’s Weekly (per the Amazon site) states, regarding the book, that “Wilson calls his argument the Jesus Cover-Up Thesis and claims that the religion of Paul displaced the teachings of Jesus so that Paul’s preaching about a divine gentile Christ covered up the human Jewish Jesus.”
  2. Except that, given that the resurrection also occurred in the spring, one might say that a “second birth” occurred in the spring.
  3. Remember a game that we used to play, called “the telephone game,” Chinese whispers, etc.?
  4. The beautiful story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3 – 11) is regarded as a later interpolation, thus may be a story that not only lacked “Old Testament” roots, but was otherwise fictional. It does, however, make for a good story!
  5. Even as Christianity became less monolithic after the Protestant Reformation (beginning in the 16th century), the fact that the new denominations that emerged tended to reflect nationality and social class groups made the New Christianity even more useful to the elite.
  6.  See, e.g. Francis G. Fletcher’s Conversion and Reaction, and Bart D. Ehrman, Forged, 2011.

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.