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Kate Devlin

May 29th, 2011

What Would Jesus Do (Part II) @ 06:26 pm

This is really what I wanted to write about-theories of the historical Jesus. This is not a scholarly article, just a somewhat impressionistic overview of ideas which I've come across and that have struck my fancy.

Some points

1.) Its been said many, many times that the basic Christian story is derived from a very ancient pagan mythological system, common throughout the eastern Mediterranean, that of the "vegetative" or "sacrificial" god. A god, usually a young male, is dismembered, somehow torn apart. The god later is resurrected, comes back to his followers.This is obviously derived from agricultural cultures-the god dies in the winter, is reborn in the spring.

There are zillions of examples

Horus and his mother Isis from Egyptian mythology. From a review of "The Pagan Christ" on Amazon

"That the god Horus is "an Egyptian Christos, or Christ.... He and his mother, Isis, were the forerunners of the Christian Madonna and Child, and together they constituted a leading image in Egyptian religion for millennia prior to the Gospels."

That Horus also "had a virgin birth, and that in one of his roles, he was 'a fisher of men with twelve followers.'""


I believe its "The Pagan Christ" which suggests that Christianity, ostensibly a continuation of Judaism, actually borrows far more from Egyptian popular religion. Its been said that Egyptian immigrant communities in Rome prayed to "Mary, Mother of God:, a hundred years before Jesus was supposedly born.

Other gods fitting variations of the "sacrificial god motif"-Attis, Adonis,Tammuz. The song "John Barley Corn", by Traffic, based on an old English folk song, is another example.

Okay, this should be well known by now, its "Comparative Religion 101". People like Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about this.Christianity differs from paganism in its literalness. The savior god isn't a "myth to live by", its historic truth which you must believe or else.

2.) Outside of the bible, there is no evidence Jesus actually existed. As I understand the two sources we have for Palestine under the rule of Pontius Pilate are Josephus and Philo. Josephus was originally a general in the Jewish Revolt of the 70sAD. He switched sides and wrote "The Jewish War" and  "Antiquities of The Jews" , containing very detailed and gossipy accounts of the day to day goings on in Palestine in the previous period. There is a wealth of information in his accounts. Josephus may have been overly groveling towards the Romans, he is widely regarded as having been a Jewish traitor, but there is the possibility he was attempting to show his people in a good light to their Roman overlords and tried to "cut a deal" for the Jewish people.

The upshot is that Josephus doesn't mention Jesus even once. Other characters of that time mentioned in the gospel accounts are described-Pilate, King Herod. John the Baptist and others. There are two highly disputed descriptions of Jesus in two Josephus texts. As I understand both of them are written in a style much different from that of the other texts. Both are generally regarded as later forgeries. One is thought to have been written by the Christian theologian Ireneaus and the other, the "Bulgarian Josephus" has a brief, odd description of Jesus as a short and rather ugly man.

The other account of that time and place is from the Jewish Neo-Platonic philosopher Philo. Philo lived around the same time Jesus was supposed to have lived. He was heavily involved in politics and was mentioned by Josephus. He describes the oppression of the Jews and some of the political turmoil of his era in "Flaccus" and "Embassy To Gaia".
The Jesus of Christianity is not mentioned at all.As I understand he mentions 8 or 9 people named "Jesus" (Yeshua) which seems to have been a title.One of the Jesuses apparently was a rebel leader who lived decades after the Christian Jesus was supposed to and was crucified by the Romans.

On that note it should be realized that when Jesus was crucified, Barabbas, thought to be a revolutionary leader, in early versions of the bible was also called "Jesus".

Its very likely that what became the Christian Jesus evolved from folk memories of several Jewish revolutionaries, martyrs, and possibly spiritual teachers.

Other possibilities, in brief outline.

3.) Jesus was an Essene. Okay, the Essenes were an ascetic, apocalyptic group or groups which existed during the time of Jesus. John the Baptist is thought to have been an Essene.Hugh Shonfeld, one of the scholars who worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, described the Essenes as a product of a society under extreme stress where "all hell was about to break loose.There is today a group of people in southern Iraq, the Mandeans, who speak a dialect of Aramaic. There mythology appears to be a fascinating, highly garbled version of Jewish and Christian myths.At least one faction of the Mandeans claim that the Mandeans are descended from the Essenes who migrated to Iraq during the Jewish Revolt. If accounts of this are true, these Mandeans revere John the Baptist, but regard Jesus as something of a failed and evil leader who perverted the message and led his people to disaster.Its an intriguing idea that this band of Mandeans were the original "Nazoreans".

There are holes in this theory though. Its not known whether all Mandeans regard themselves as descended from the Essenes or just one grouping and how literally they take their mythology and lore.I have read a book last year on the origins of Freemasonry-quite interesting although I can't think of the name offhand and this theory was brought up. The scholarship behind this book may be a bit suspect, according to reviews on Amazon.

4.) The crucifixion was faked, although with the best of intentions. This idea was brought up by Hugh Shonfeld in "The Passover Plot". Shonfeld plausibly describes how this could have happened. One of Shonfeld's aims was to bring back what he thought was the Judaic elements within Christianity. For better or worse his idea has become something of pop culture meme. "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" carries this idea further and posits that not only did Jesus survive, but he had descendents who formed the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks. Pure BS but it makes for a fun read.

5.) Jesus was a revolutionary/.Obviously this can tie in with other ideas. I think, but I;m not sure, that the German socialist Karl Kautsky first came up with this. His Foundations of Christianity is an interesting read, the origins of Christianity from a Marxist a perspective.Kautsky and other Marxists saw early Christianity as a form of "proto-socialism", poorer, dispossessed people banding together in a hostile world. The problem was, according to Kautsky and others, is that early Christianity was a "socialism" of distribution and consumption, not of production.The economy, the means of production of the ancient world, was not advanced or productive enough to be taken under social ownership at that time. There were limits on what any revolutionary or reform movement could do.


Edward Gibbons, in his "Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" blames Christianity for the fall. Gibbon is generally regarded to be a reactionary supporter of aristocracy.

6.) Jesus was a Cynic. The Cynics were a "school" of Greek philosophy. One of the early Cynic philosophers was Diogenes, a man who lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and in effect told Alexander the Great, conqueror of most of the known world, to "fuck off". The Cynics were political radicals, opposed slavery and believed in equality of women. They were the  original hippy anarchists.

In the early 1990s a group of US Christian fundamentalist scholars sponsored by the Southern Baptist Church, began intense research into the origins of the gospels and the life of Jesus. These people apparently researched themselves out of their faith and came up with the theory that Jesus was a Cynic. I don't enough about this to comment on. Its fascinating nevertheless.

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Kate Devlin