Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?
The five Main Articles following the Preamble present the basic case for the non-existence of an historical Jesus. Part One, "A Conspiracy of Silence," surveys the silence on the Gospel Jesus and Gospel events in the early epistolary record. Part Two, "Who Was Christ Jesus?" examines that early record for a more realistic picture of the original faith and the context of its period. Part Three, "The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth," presents the development of the Gospels (including Q) and their new Jesus figure as the founder of Christianity. The "Postscript" surveys the non-Christian record of the time and considers some general problems in current New Testament research. Finally, "The Second Century Apologists" examines the post-Gospel situation and the wider, non-canonical record of the second century. Discussions and arguments put forward in the Main Articles are developed in greater depth, with additional references and sources, in the Supplementary Articles (see Home Page), as well as in many Reader Feedback responses (see Reader Feedback Index).
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In Part One, I probed the mysterious silence about Jesus of Nazareth which lies at the heart of earliest Christianity. Neither his miracles nor his apocalyptic preaching, not the places or details of his birth, ministry or death, not his parents, his prosecutor, his herald, his betrayer, are ever mentioned by the first century Christian letter writers, and the ethical teachings which resemble his as recorded in the Gospels are never attributed to him. I called it, ironically, "A Conspiracy of Silence."
But if these silences mean anything (and it is impossible to accept the common scholarly rationalization that they reflect a universal "lack of interest" in the earthly life of Jesus by the first three generations of the Christian movement), then they ought to present their own integral picture. Can we derive from them a coherent, uniform concept of what earliest Christianity really was and what it believed in? Who was Paul's "Christ Jesus" if he was not the Jesus of Nazareth of the later Gospels?
First, we must understand the era to understand its ideas. After Alexander the Great conquered half the known earth in the late 4th century BCE, Greek language and culture (called Hellenism) inundated the whole eastern Mediterranean world; even the Jews, who always resisted assimilation, were not immune to its influence. Alexander's empire soon fragmented into warring mini-empires and eventually Rome rolled east and imposed its own absolute rule.
It was a troubled, often pessimistic time. Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists and others offered new moral and intellectual ways of coping with life and the unpredictable world. Understanding the ultimate Deity and establishing personal ethics were central concerns of all these movements. Wandering philosophers became a kind of popular clergy, frequenting the marketplace and people's homes. Healing gods, Oriental mysticism, a whole paraphernalia of magic and astrology were added to the pot to cope with another dimension to the world's distress: the vast panoply of unseen spirits and demons and forces of fate which were now believed to pervade the very atmosphere men and women moved in, harassing and crippling their lives. The buzzword was personal "salvation." And for the growing number who believed it could not be achieved in the world, it became salvation from the world. Redeeming the individual grew into a Hellenistic industry.
Many looked upon the Jews as providing a high moral and monotheistic standard, and gentiles flocked to Judaism in varying degrees of conversion. But even here there were strong currents of pessimism. For centuries the Jews as a nation had looked for salvation from a long succession of conquerors, until many had become convinced that only violent divine intervention would bring about the establishment of God's Kingdom and their own destined elevation to dominion over the nations of the earth. Such views were held by a mosaic of sectarian groups, each regarding itself as an elect, which flourished on the fringes of "mainstream" Judaism (Temple and Pharisees). Christianity in its early manifestations belonged to this melange of sects, comprised of a mix of gentiles and Jews, driven by an intense apocalyptic expectation of the coming end or transformation of the world.
Among both Jew and pagan there was a slide away from rationalism and a turning to personal revelation as the only source for knowledge about God and the ways to salvation. Mysticism, visionary inspiration, marvellous spiritual practices, became the seedbed of new faiths and sects. And no one possessed a richer hothouse for all this than the Jews, in their unparalleled collection of sacred writings, from whose pages could be lifted newly-perceived truths about God and ultimate realities.
Onto such a stage in the middle decades of the first century, into what one scholar has called "a seething mass of sects and salvation cults" (John Dillon, The Middle Platonists, p.396) stepped the apostles of a new movement. In Galatians 1:16 Paul says: "God chose to reveal his Son in me, and through me to preach him to the gentiles." Paul claims he is the instrument of God's revelation. He preaches the Son, the newly-disclosed means of salvation offered to Jew and gentile alike. But is this Son a recent historical man? Has he been revealed to the world through his own life and ministry? No, for as we saw in Part One, neither Paul nor any other early Christian letter writer presents us with such an idea.
Rather, the Son is a spiritual concept, just as God himself is, and every other deity of the day. None of them are founded on historical figures. The existence of this divine Son has hitherto been unknown; he has been a secret, a "mystery" hidden with God in heaven (e.g., Romans 16:25-27, Colossians 2:2). Information about this Son has been imbedded in scripture. Only in this final age has God himself (through his Spirit) inspired apostles like Paul to learn—from scripture and visionary experiences—about his Son and what he had done for humanity's salvation. And this Son was soon to arrive from heaven, at the imminent end of the present world.
If we remove Gospel associations from our minds, we find that this is exactly what Paul and the others are telling us. God is revealing Christ (as in the Galatians quote above), apostles inspired by God's Spirit are preaching him, believers are responding through faith. Ephesians 3:4-5 shows us the main elements of the new drama. "The mystery about Christ, which in former generations was not revealed to men [not even by Jesus himself, apparently], is now disclosed to dedicated apostles and prophets through the Spirit [by divine revelation]." God's Spirit, the divine power which inspires men like Paul, is the engine of the new revelation. All knowledge comes through this Spirit, with no suggestion that anything has been received from an historical Jesus and his ministry. (Part One dealt with Paul's few "words of the Lord", perceived communications from the spiritual Christ in heaven.)
The words of the first century writers never speak of Jesus' arrival or life on earth. Rather, they speak of his revelation, of his manifestation by God. 1 Peter 1:20 says: "Predestined from the foundation of the world, (Christ) was manifested for your sake in these last times." Here the writer uses the Greek word "phaneroo", meaning to manifest or reveal. Romans 3:25 says: "God set him forth (Christ Jesus) as a means of atonement by his blood, effective through faith." Here Paul uses a verb which, in this context, means "to declare publicly," reveal to public light. God is revealing Christ and the atonement he has made available to those who believe. Other passages, like Romans 16:25-27, Colossians 1:26 and 2:2, Titus 1:2-3, contain similar statements about the current unveiling of long-hidden divine secrets, and the careful eye that reads them can see that no room has been made for any recent life and work of Jesus.
It is God and scripture which Paul regards as the source of his inspiration and knowledge. Look at Romans 1:1-4. Paul has been called into the service of preaching the gospel. And note how this gospel is described. First it was announced beforehand in scripture by God's prophets. It is the gospel, Paul's message about the Christ, that has been announced in scripture, not Christ's life itself. Second, that gospel is not any that Jesus preached; rather, it is God's gospel, and it is about his Son. Again, all this is the language of revelation. Data like that in verses 3 and 4 of Romans 1 (to be addressed later) are part of what is being revealed, and this information has been found in scripture, which God's Spirit has inspired men like Paul to read in a new, "correct" way. Compare 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, which points squarely to scripture as the source of Paul's doctrines about the Christ. (The phrase "according to the scriptures," while traditionally interpreted as meaning 'in fulfillment of the scriptures,' can instead entail the meaning of 'as the scriptures tell us' or 'as we learn from the scriptures.')
Paul and other Christian preachers are offering salvation, but it is through a Christ who is a spiritual channel to God and one who has performed a redemptive act (the "atonement by his blood") in a mythical setting. We will look at both the medium and the act in a moment, but that act is not part of what has happened in the present time. Rather, the present is when the benefits available from this act are being revealed and applied: the forgiveness of sin and the guarantee of resurrection, "effective through faith" in the gospel. All this is the universal manner of expression in first century Christian epistles, and even beyond; one that ignores any recent career of Jesus and focuses all attention on those appointed to carry God's newly-disclosed message.
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At the core of that message lies the Son. Christianity was in the process of creating for the Western world the ultimate, lasting reflection of the central religious concept of the Hellenistic age. This we must now consider.
Monotheism was the possession not only of the Jews, but of much of Greek philosophy. Ancient thinking had arrived at an ultimate high God who had created and governed the universe. But a problem had to be faced. As such a God was made ever more lofty, more perfect, he also became more transcendent. Any form of contact with the inferior world of matter was deemed inappropriate and indeed impossible, and so the idea arose that any relationship between God and the world had to take place through some form of intermediary.
The Greek solution was the Logos, a kind of subsidiary god or divine force, an emanation of the Deity. In the most influential school of thinking, Platonism, the Logos was the image of God in perceivable form and a model for creation. He revealed the otherwise inaccessible, ultimate God, and through him—or it, since the Logos was more an abstract than a personal being—God acted upon the world. We know of Hellenistic religious sects based on the Logos. (See the little Address to the Greeks, originally attributed to Justin Martyr.)
The Jewish God never became quite so inaccessible, but knowledge of him and of his Law was thought to have been brought to the world by a part of himself called "Wisdom." This figure (it was a 'she') evolved almost into a divine being herself, an agent of creation and salvation with her own myths about coming to earth—though not in any physical incarnation. (See Proverbs 1 and 8-9, Baruch 3-4, Ecclesiasticus 24 and The Wisdom of Solomon.) In fact, many parts of the ancient world seem to have developed the concept of an intermediary divine figure coming to earth to bring knowledge and salvation, but details of such myths, especially for pre-Christian periods, are sketchy and much debated.
Out of this rich soil of ideas arose Christianity, a product of both Jewish and Greek philosophy. Its concept of Jesus the "Son" grew out of ideas like personified Wisdom (with a sex change), leavened with the Greek Logos, and amalgamated with the more personal and human figure of traditional Messiah expectation. Christianity made its Christ (the Greek word for Messiah) into a heavenly figure who could be related to, though he is intimately tied to God himself. Unlike Wisdom or the Logos, however, the Christian Savior was envisioned to have undergone self-sacrifice.
We can now gain a clearer understanding of Paul's Christ Jesus and the sphere of his activity. The pseudo-Pauline 2 Timothy tells us (1:9) that God (!) has saved us through his grace, "which was given to us in Christ Jesus in eternal times."
There are two key phrases here. First, the term "in Christ" (or sometimes "through Christ") which Paul and others use over a hundred times throughout the epistles: it can hardly bear on its slender back the sweeping meaning some scholars try to give it, namely as a kind of compact reference to Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection. Check its use in other passages, like Ephesians 1:4, 2 Corinthians 3:14, and especially Titus 3:6: "(God) sent down the Spirit upon us plentifully through Jesus Christ our Savior."
Such references do not speak of the recent physical presence of Jesus of Nazareth on earth. Instead, Christ—the divine, heavenly Son—is now present on earth, in a mystical sense, embodied in the new faith movement and interacting with his believers. Like Wisdom and the Logos, he is the spiritual medium ("in" or "through Christ") through which God is revealing himself and doing his work in the world. "In Christ" can also refer to the mystical union which Paul envisions between the believer and Christ, as in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
But where and when had this intermediary Son performed the redeeming act itself?
Christ's self-sacrificing death was located "in times eternal," or "before the beginning of time" (pro chronon aionion). This is the second key phrase in 2 Timothy 1:9 and elsewhere. What is presently being revealed is something that had already taken place outside the normal realm of time and space. This could be envisioned as either in the primordial time of myth, or, as current Platonic philosophy would have put it, in the higher eternal world of ideas, of which this earthly world, with its ever-changing matter and evolving time, is only a transient, imperfect copy (more on this later). The benefits of Christ's redemptive act lay in the present, through God's revelation of it in the new missionary movement, but the act itself had taken place in a higher world of divine realities, in a timeless order, not on earth or in history. It had all happened in the sphere of God, it was all part of his "mystery." The blood sacrifice, even seeming biographical details like Romans 1:3-4, belong in this dimension.
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Such ideas are, to us, strange and even alien, but they were an integral part of the mythological thinking of the ancient world. To obtain a better insight into them, we will draw a comparison between Christianity and another prominent religious expression of the Graeco-Roman world of its time. It will also help us to understand the evolution of the idea of Christ's sacrificial redemption (though this will not be fully answered until Part Three.)
By the first century CE the Empire had several popular salvation cults known as the "mysteries," each with its own savior god or goddess, such as Osiris, Attis and Mithras. There has been a seesaw debate over when these cults became fully formed and how much they may have influenced Christian ideas, but the root versions of the Greek mysteries go back to those of Eleusis (near Athens) and of the Greek god Dionysos, in the first half of the first millennium BCE. At the very least we can say that Christianity in many of its aspects was a Jewish-oriented expression of this widespread religious phenomenon.
Each of these savior gods had in some way overcome death, or performed some act whose effects guaranteed for the initiate a happy afterlife. Christianity's savior god, Christ Jesus, had undergone death and been resurrected as a redeeming act (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), giving promises of resurrection and eternal life to the believer. This guarantee involved another feature of ancient world thinking, closely related to Platonism: the idea that things and events on earth had their parallels in heaven; this included divine figures who served as paradigms for earthly human counterparts. What the former underwent in the spiritual realm reflected the experiences and determined the destinies of those who were linked to them on earth. For example, the original "one like a son of man" in Daniel's vision (7:13-14) received power and dominion over the earth from God, and this guaranteed that his human counterpart, the saints or elect of Israel, were destined to receive these things when God's Kingdom was established on earth. Christianity's Son, too, was a paradigm: Christ's experiences of suffering and death mirrored those of humans, but his exaltation would similarly be paralleled by their own exaltation. As Romans 6:5 declares: "We shall be united with Christ in a resurrection like his."
Savior gods also conferred certain benefits in the present world. They provided protection from the demon spirits and fates; Christ's devotees, too, claimed this for him (see Colossians and Ephesians). Rites of initiation in the mysteries, which included types of baptism, conferred rebirth and brought the initiate into a special relationship with the god or goddess. In Paul's baptism, the convert died to his present life and rose to a new one; of this new state, Paul says: "We are in Christ and Christ is in us."
Some of the savior gods had instituted sacraments: Mithras, after slaying the bull as a salvific blood sacrifice, had dined with the sun god, and this supper became the Mithraic cultic meal, similar to elements of the Christian Eucharist. Here, then, is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Paul is not referring to any historical Last Supper, but rather to the origin myth attached to the Christian sacred meal (at least in Paul's circle). The words are probably Paul's personal version of things, since he clearly identifies it as revealed knowledge, "from the Lord," not passed-on tradition through apostolic channels. The spiritual Christ himself, in a mythical time and place (including "at night"), had established this Supper and spoken the words about his body and blood that gave the meal its present meaning. The frequent translation "arrested" or "betrayed" in verse 23 is governed by the later Gospel story. The literal meaning of the Greek word is "to hand over" or "deliver up," a term commonly used in the context of martyrdom; it has no trouble fitting the context of myth. It can hardly mean "betrayed" in Romans 8:32 where God is the agent, or in Ephesians 5:2 where Jesus surrenders himself.
All this is not to say that there could be no differences between the ideas and rituals of the mysteries and those of Christianity, if only because they arose from different cultural milieus. The Greeks, for example, had no desire to be resurrected in the flesh; they generally found the idea repugnant, and salvation after death was a question of the pure soul freeing itself from the impurity of matter and rejoining the divine in the eternal world. There was no need for their gods to be resurrected in the same way Jesus was. However, it should be noted that earliest Christianity conceived of Jesus only as raised in the spirit, exalted to heaven immediately after death (eg, Philippians 2:9, 1 Peter 3:18, Hebrews 10:12, etc.). A bodily sojourn on earth with the Apostles came only with the Gospels. Indeed, the whole Easter event as the Gospels portray it is missing from the first century epistles.
But how could all this redeeming activity by savior gods, in both the mysteries and Christianity, be thought of as taking place "in the world," or even "in flesh," yet not at a specific historical time and location? This, of course, is the nature of myth, but it depends on certain views of the world held by the ancients.
One of these saw no rigid distinction between the natural and the supernatural. The two blended into one another. The earth was but one layer of a tiered system that progressed from base matter where humans lived to the purely spirit level where God dwelled. The spheres between the two contained other parts of the "world," populated by classes of angels, spirits and demons. This view was especially prevalent in Jewish apocalyptic thought, which saw various figures and activities involved in the coming end of the world as located in these layers above the earth.
Nor did time function the same way at all levels. In the 4th century the Roman philosopher Sallustius put his view this way: "All of this did not happen at any one time, but always is so...the story of Attis represents an eternal cosmic process, not an isolated event of the past."
Here we have crossed over into a somewhat different line of thinking from the continuous layered universe just described. The way Sallustius put things is essentially Platonic: what is perceived by contemplation and revelation on earth is only an imperfect reflection of eternal truths and spiritual processes in the upper world of ultimate reality. Various early Christian writers show different blendings of the Platonic and layered universes, and all of it was constructed over the ancient foundation of a more primitive myth-making view, one found around the world. This view placed divine figures and processes in a dim, primordial past: here the gods had planned and established things which gave meaning to present-day beliefs and practices, and from this "sacred past" humans drew benefits and even redemption. All these ideas contributed to the myths of the era in which Christianity was born.
For the average pagan and Jew, the bulk of the workings of the universe went on in the vast unseen spiritual realm (the "genuine" part of the universe) which began at the lowest level of the "air" and extended ever upward through the various layers of heaven. Here a savior god like Mithras could slay a bull, Attis could be castrated, and Christ could be hung on a tree by "the god of that world," meaning Satan (see the Ascension of Isaiah 9:14). The plainest interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews 9:11-14 is that Christ's sacrifice took place in a non-earthly setting and a spiritual time; 8:4 virtually tells us that he had never been on earth. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44-49 and elsewhere can speak of Christ as "man" (anthropos), but he is the ideal, heavenly man (a widespread type of idea in the ancient world, including Philo: see Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ as "Man"), whose spiritual "body" provides the prototype for the heavenly body Christians will receive at their resurrection. For minds like Paul's, such higher world counterparts had as real an existence as the flesh and blood human beings around them on earth.
It is in much the same sense that Paul, in Romans 1 and Galatians 4, declares Christ to have been "of David's stock," born under the Law. The source of such statements is scripture, not historical tradition. The sacred writings were seen as providing a picture of the spiritual world, the realities in heaven. Since the spiritual Christ was now identified with the Messiah, all scriptural passages presumed to be about the Messiah had to be applied to him, even if understood in a mythical or Platonic sense. Several references predicted that the Messiah would be descended from David: thus Romans 1:3 (and elsewhere). Note that 1:2 points unequivocally to scripture as the source of this doctrine. (As does 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 for the source of Jesus' death and resurrection.) Isaiah 7:14, to give another example, supposedly spoke of the Messiah as born of a young woman, and so Paul in Galatians 4:4 tells us that Christ was "born of woman". (Note that he never gives the name of Mary, or anything about this "woman." Nor does he identify the time or place of this "birth".) The mysteries may not have had the same range of sacred writings to supply their own details, but the savior god myths contained equally human-like elements which were understood entirely in a mythical setting. Dionysos too had been born in a cave of a woman.
"Born of woman" is a lot like another phrase used almost universally of the activities of Christ: "in flesh" (en sarki, kata sarka). It may actually mean little more than "in the sphere of the flesh" or "in relation to the flesh." In his divine form and habitat a god could not suffer, and so he had to take on some semblance to humanity (eg, Philippians 2:8, Romans 8:3); his saving act had to be a "blood" sacrifice (e.g., Hebrews 9:22) because the ancient world saw this as the basic means of communion between man and Deity; and it all had to be done within humanity's territory. But the latter could still be within those lower spiritual dimensions above the earth which acted upon the material world. And in fact this is precisely what Paul reveals. In 1 Corinthians 2:8 he tells us who crucified Jesus. Is it Pilate, the Romans, the Jews? No, it is "the rulers of this age (who) crucified the Lord of glory." Many scholars agree that he is referring not to temporal rulers but to the spirit and demonic forces—"powers and authorities" was the standard term— which inhabited the lower celestial spheres, part of the territory of "flesh." (See Paul Ellingworth, A Translator's Handbook for 1 Corinthians, p.46: "A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here." These include S. G. F. Brandon, C. K. Barrett, Jean Hering, Paula Fredriksen, S. D. F. Salmond, and it also included Ignatius and Marcion.) Colossians 2:15 can hardly refer to any historical event on Calvary.
It was in such spiritual, mythological dimensions that Paul's Christ Jesus had been 'taken on a body' (cf. Hebrews 10:5) and performed his act of redemption. Such was the timeless secret which God had hidden for long ages and only recently revealed to visionaries like Paul. And it was all to be discovered in scripture, or at least in the new way of reading it. It is very difficult for us to get our minds around this kind of "mythical thinking," because in our scientific and literal age we simply have no equivalent. This is perhaps the major stumbling block to an understanding and acceptance of the Jesus-as-myth theory. (For a comprehensive discussion of this area, including a detailed examination of passages like Romans 1:1-4 and Galatians 4:4-6, see Supplementary Article No. 8, Christ as "Man".)
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There are a few passages in the epistles which seem to speak of a recent coming of Christ, as in Galatians 3 and 4. But in 3:23 and 25 Paul stresses it is "faith" that has arrived in the present, while verse 24, despite a common misleading translation (as in the NEB), is literally "leading us to Christ," which can mean to faith in him. In 3:19, it is the gentiles who belong to Christ (verse 29) that are in mind. In any event, references to the sending or coming of Christ should be taken in the sense of the present-day revelation of Christ by God. (In the case of Galatians 4:4-6, verse 6 specifies that it is the "spirit" of the Son that has been sent into the hearts of believers.) Early Christians saw the spiritual Christ as having arrived in a real way, active in the world and speaking through themselves. This is certainly the sense of passages like 1 John 5:20, "We know that the Son of God is come," and Hebrews 9:11 and 26.
And probably Ephesians 2:17, which is especially interesting: "And coming, he (Christ) announced the good news..." But what was the content of that news? Instead of taking the opportunity to refer to some of Jesus' Gospel teachings, the writer quotes Isaiah. All the first century documents, as well as some later ones like the Epistle of Barnabas, show that the only source of information about Jesus was scripture. 1 Peter 2:22-23, with its description of Christ's exemplary sufferings, simply summarizes parts of Isaiah 53. (Cf. 1 Clement 16.) Scripture is not the prophecy of the Christ event, but its embodiment. The Son inhabits the spiritual world of the scriptures, God's window on the unseen true reality.
The reference to Pontius Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13 comes in a set of "Pastoral" epistles which are almost universally judged by critical scholars to be a product of the second century, and not by Paul. Mention of Pilate could therefore be a reflection of the developing idea of an historical Jesus. It may be contemporary with or a little later than Ignatius, who is the first writer outside the Gospels to maintain that Jesus died under Pilate. However, this passing reference is also a possible candidate for interpolation (later insertion). More than one scholar has pointed out that there are problems in its fit with the context, and there are many indications within the Pastorals that they are still dealing with a non-historical Christ. (See the Appendix to Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus? for an examination of the dating of the Pastorals and the question of 1 Timothy 6:13.)
Another, more obvious interpolation is 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, the only reference to the Jews' guilt in killing Jesus to be found in Paul or anywhere else in the New Testament epistles. The great majority of critical scholars agree that it comes from a later time because it contains an unmistakable allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem (a later event), and because it is foreign to the way Paul elsewhere expresses himself toward his countrymen. (On this question, see Who Crucified Jesus? and Reader Feedback Set 19.)
Finally, from Galatians 1:19 comes the tradition that James was the sibling of Jesus, whereas the phrase "brother of the Lord" could instead refer to James' pre-eminent position as head of the Jerusalem brotherhood. Apostles everywhere (e.g., Sosthenes in 1 Corinthians 1:1) were called "brother," and the 500 who received a vision of the spiritual Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:6 were hardly all related to Jesus. The phrase in Philippians 1:14, "brothers in the Lord," is a strong indication of what sort of meaning the Galatians phrase entails. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the phrase began as a marginal gloss, subsequently inserted into the text. Some later copyist, perhaps when a second century Pauline corpus was being formed and after James' sibling relationship to the new historical Jesus had been established, may have wished to ensure that the reader would realize that Paul was referring to James the Just and not James the Gospel apostle. (For a fuller discussion of this verse, see Reader Feedback Set 3.)
Before proceeding to the Gospels in Part Three, one question must be answered. Where and how did Christianity begin? The traditional view, of course, is that it began in Jerusalem among the Twelve Apostles in response to Jesus' death and resurrection. But this is untenable, and not just because of a lack of any historical Jesus.
Within a handful of years of Jesus' supposed death, we find Christian communities all over the eastern Mediterranean, their founders unknown. Rome had Jewish Christians no later than the 40s, and a later churchman ("Ambrosiaster" in the 4th century) remarked that the Romans had believed in Christ even without benefit of preaching by the Apostles. Paul could not possibly account for all the Christian centers across the Empire; many were in existence before he got there. Nor does he convey much sense of a vigorous and widespread missionary activity on the part of the Jerusalem circle around Peter and James. (That comes only with Acts.)
A form of Christian faith later declared heretical, Gnosticism, preceded the establishment of orthodox beliefs and churches in whole areas like northern Syria and Egypt. Indeed, the sheer variety of Christian expression and competitiveness in the first century, as revealed in documents both inside and outside the New Testament, is inexplicable if it all proceeded from a single missionary movement beginning from a single source. We find a profusion of radically different rituals, doctrines and interpretations of Jesus and his redeeming role; some even have a Jesus who does not undergo death and resurrection.
Paul meets rivals at every turn who are interfering with his work, whose views he is trying to combat. The "false apostles" he rails against in 2 Corinthians 10 and 11 are "proclaiming another Jesus" and they are certainly not from Peter's group (See Supplementary Article No. 1: Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate). Where do they all come from and where do they get their ideas?
The answer seems inevitable: Christianity was born in a thousand places, in the broad fertile soil of Hellenistic Judaism. It sprang up in many independent communities and sects, expressing itself in a great variety of doctrines. We see this variety in everything from Paul to the writings of the so-called community of John, from the unique Epistle to the Hebrews to non-canonical documents like the Odes of Solomon and a profusion of gnostic texts. It was all an expression of the new religious philosophy of the Son, and it generated an apostolic movement fueled by visionary inspiration and a study of scripture, impelled by the conviction that God's Kingdom was at hand.
"Jesus" (Yeshua) is a Hebrew name meaning Savior, strictly speaking "Yahweh Saves." At the beginning of Christianity it refers not to the name of a human individual but (like the term Logos) to a concept: a divine, spiritual figure who is the mediator of God's salvation. "Christ," the Greek translation of the Hebrew "Messiah," is also a concept, meaning the Anointed One of God (though enriched by much additional connotation). In certain sectarian circles across the Empire, which included both Jews and gentiles, these names would have enjoyed a broad range of usage. Belief in some form of spiritual Anointed Savior—Christ Jesus—was in the air. Paul and the Jerusalem brotherhood were simply one strand of this widespread phenomenon, although an important and eventually very influential one. Later, in a myth-making process of its own, this group of missionaries would come to be regarded as the whole movement's point of origin. Part Three will show how many diverse strands were drawn together by the Jesus of Nazareth who first came to life in the Gospels.
Next Part: The Evolution of Jesus of Nazareth