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I am an atheist, a believer in the real universe, described as best as man can describe it. Part of our local universe is the swarm of human cults that call themselves Christian, supposed followers of one Jesus of Nazareth. The origins of religions are of interest to me. We know a lot about how Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the only truly American religion, conned people into accepting his leadership. We know a lot about the founding of Islam by Mohammed and his followers. But the founding of Christianity is much more obscure.
If you want to change the world today, it is worth studying how it was changed in the past.
I believe Christianity was engineered, perhaps purposefully at times, and certainly in the survival of the fittest struggle of cults inside the Roman Empire. Tthe original engineer was Jesus himself, who I believe was a real historic figure (unlike many atheists who believe he was a symbolic god, made up by his followers).
Key to understanding Jesus is the known context of his times. Scholars generally agree that Jesus was a Hellenizing Jew (one willing to borrow from Greek culture). It also has also been argued that Jesus himself was a strict Jew and that it was his followers that hellenized his cult.
The following table can provide much insight into the culture in which Christianity got started:
The first column, Hellenizing, might easily be generalized to mean liberal in the sense of willing to adopt new ideas. The Greeks in general, and some Greeks in particular, were modernizers who started replacing folklore and myth with knowledge based on factual observation. But if it is the opposite of is Conservative, Hellenizing may mean embracing any sort of new fashion, even if it is just a change in how garments are worn. Jews were most opposed to Hellenization in the sense of worshipping Greek gods; least opposed to practical improvements and trade relationships.
The most conservative Jewish movement of the times of Jesus, the Sadducees are not on the chart, but are worth a bit of contemplation. Sadducees were literalists, like the fundamentalist Christian sects of today. They believed in interpreting the Old Testament, and in particular the Torah, literally. Compared to the Sadducees the Pharisees were liberals, for they believed in interpreting the Torah, with something called the Oral Torah, but otherwise they were equally conservative, perhaps somewhat the equivalent of today's mainstream, non-fundamentalist Christian sects.
The second column, Davidic, is more political than religious. It refers to whether or not a group believed that Jewish Kings had to be of the House of David, either descended from King David, or at least members of his tribe, Judah. The bitter reality for tribe of Judah was that neither the Hasmonean kings (see below) nor the Herodian kings were from the tribe of Judah. Nor was it clear who might have a dynastic right to that kingship, since it had been centuries since there had been a Davidic king.
In the first active line of the truth table we have No Hellenizing and No Davidic king. This was the basic position of the Hasmonean Dynasty, which corresponds to our first reasonably certain and continuous historic records of Israel/Judea. The Maccabee were a family in rural Judea that revolted against the Seleucid empire and all things Greek. They eventually set themselves up as Kings, which not only upset the Jews who liked some things Greek, but also the Jews who thought only descendants of David should be kings.
The Pharisees believed the old Jewish religious documents were subject to interpretation, and generally seem to have been a pretty ethical group. But they were against any hellenization. They did not like the Hasmoneans, who they saw as rural hick upstarts. Presumably many if not all Pharisees were themselves of the House of David.
King Herod and family, the Herodians, get a very bad rap in the Bible. They were from a local tribe the Jews had conquered and forced to accept Jewish customs, the Idumeans. Herod sided with the Romans, and they made him king of Judea. Clearly he was not a Davidian, and he tried to introduce civilization to the backward Jews, which put him in the Hellenizing camp. Supposedly he tried to have Jesus killed as an infant, but more likely if any babies were slaughtered it was because he was trying to kill Hasmoneans or other possible usurpers.
Which brings us to Christianity, the religion founded by Jesus of Nazareth. There are four Gospels about Jesus, but they disagree to a remarkable extent. Much of the rest of the New Testament is composed of letters (correspondence) ascribed to one or another of the Twelve Apostles or to Paul, who apparently was the main builder of the Jesus franchise outside of Judea.
Hellenization is big in this New Testament. It is notable for parables ascribed to Jesus. Taking parables literally makes absolutely no sense at all. You would think Jesus was a farmer, not a rabbi or carpenter, judging by the long passage in Matthew about sowing grain, and the many other parables about farming, including about grapes and wine. But it is not all Greek: the tolerance for other gods is not there. One world, One God seems to be the rule. The relaxing of the Jewish dietary laws, and laws about stoning various sinners, are a hallmark of Jesus's teaching.
However, history intrudes. Acts of the Apostles, the first book of the New Testament after the Gospels, and covering the history of the movement after the death of Jesus, is hard to reconcile. Acts records Paul arguing with the original Apostles for relaxing Jewish law when converting pagans to what, in those early days, should be called the Christ cult. But the Gospels, in places, put nice precedents into the mouth of Jesus. It is hard to tell if Jesus, while alive, said that Jewish dietary and ritual laws were not that important, or if those view shifted later, and were then written into, or edited into, the documents we now call the Gospels.
The contradictions in the text are endless, and therefore the arguments about what can be attributed to Jesus, his immediate Apostles, Paul, and finally later editors, are endless.
The key to the engineering of Christianity is that it was a hellenized form of Judaism, and it was also Davidian. While it is highly unlikely that Jesus was even from the House of David, the fact that his followers claimed he was (perhaps he also claimed that), was important to the success of the religion.
Unlike Islam, which went from consisting of a handful of Mohammed's friends to having conquered most of the civilized world within a hundred years of its founding, Christianity was slow to catch on. It also fragmented early, as shown by the many documents (Gnostic Gospels and other apocrypha) attributed to Jesus, his family, and his disciples.
The Davidian claim was likely most important among the Jewish followers of Jesus. It provided a base of faith and financing necessary to keep a tiny organization going. The Herodians were unpopular, and the Romans were not popular either. Staking a rebellious flag, saying that Jesus was not just some poor con artist or preacher but the rightful king, would have drawn considerable sympathy among both Judean Jews and the widespread Jewish communities around the Roman Empire that served as the initial ground for the dissemination of the new cult.
Hellenization was the more important ingredient in the long run. It meant the possibility of widespread acceptance within the Roman Empire, which was itself still undergoing hellenization. It gave the early Christians a much larger toolbox for their mission than Judaism had provided. Its tools included methods for making logical arguments, methods for making transcendent declarations, and little bits of popular god-myths that were incorporated into the Christian road show. Making water into wine, resurrection, and promises of Heaven were all ingredients that had been missing from Jewish culture. In particular Christianity borrowed heavily from the popular Mystery Cults of Greek culture.
In the end, as with Islam, preaching was not enough. The Roman Emperor Constantine and his successors imposed Christianity upon the Roman Empire. In fact, he imposed a uniform system upon the Christians themselves, who up until then had been highly fragmented in their beliefs. After that the engineering continued, resulting in the gradual creation of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the trends that eventually led to Protestantism.
Agree? Disagree? You can comment on this post at Natural Liberation Blog at blogspot.com
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