Talk given to the Atheist Society on the 8th of March 2005 by Chris Gaffney, Secretary of the Victorian Labor College.
What first strikes you when approaching the history of Christianity is the complete absence of any contemporary non-Christian references to Jesus. Gibbon the author of "the history of the decline and fall of the roman empire" noticed this as early as 1774. This is all the more remarkable given the fact that Jesus is supposed to have performed all these marvellous deeds, including suspending the laws of nature. Even if one ignores the miracles, the fact that Jesus with his charisma and the devotion he inspired ,died, and was mourned as a martyr, and yet contemporary Roman and Hebrew sources are totally silent about him.
According to the Christian tradition Palestine was covered with darkness for three hours after the death of Jesus, but Pliny the elder ,who documented eclipse says nothing of it. The first mention of Jesus by a non-Christian is found in the work "Jewish antiquities" by Josephus Flavius, a pro-Roman Jewish tax collector who was born in 37 CE, four years after the supposed death of Jesus.. In one passage Josephus calls Jesus the Christ who rose from the dead. Doubts as to its authenticity began as early as the C16 and the consensus now is that it was a 3C forgery inserted into the original work. The Christian scribes of those days have no regard for historical truth if it did not suit their agenda.
The next reference is in Tacitus in his Annals written about 100 CE. He speaks of the followers of Christ who was executed in the reign of Tiberius ands whose followers were persecuted by Nero. Suetonius writing shortly after says much the same thing, but neither writer says anything about the activities of Christ (which means" anointed") nor do they even know his name as Jesus.
Like it or not we can not put anything in terms of what the founder may have meant ,and given that there are no contemporary references to Jesus while he was supposedly alive, we may even doubt his existence. There is not one mention of him in the many missives that passed from Palestine to Rome. He may have existed, it is just there is no direct evidence. In any event how reliable are the words of Jesus written down by people who never met him, writing in a different language, at least 40 years after the words were spoken.
The official beliefs of the Christian church are contained in the Nicene Creed. These hold that certain miraculous events occurred in Palestine under Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius, when god became man by way of a virgin birth. In the reign of Tiberius between 26 and 33 Jesus Christ was crucified by Pilate the Roman procurator. That he suffered death only to rise on the third day and ascend into heaven. He left a church to interpret his teachings until he comes again to judge the living and the death.
It is surprising that this now definitive summary of Christianity had to wait until the C4th (the 300s) to appear, and what is more, no creed or summary of beliefs like it can be found before the 3rd C. Why not?
Because the thrust of the Christian dogmas of the 300s CE had to be removed from their Jewish messianic origins in Palestine.
That is took so long is not surprising when we look at the New Testament, a collection of 26 books. In these books we find conflicting accounts of the events they describe, we find real doubts as to the authors of these books and the date at which they were written, revised, rewritten, added to and by whom we know not. What is more we find quite clearly conflicting tendencies not only in the message but also in the persona of Jesus. He can say "I come with a sword ", "Vengeance is mine saith the lord', can physically assault the money lenders in the temple, no turning the other cheek there, and yet fatalistically go without a struggle to the cross. Again, who is responsible for death of Jesus, was it the Romans or was it the Jews who betrayed him? Luke is the most pro-Roman of the gospels.
What I am saying is that we have two traditions here. One the hope of deliverance from the Roman oppressors of Palestine, a messiah who will lead the Jewish people to overthrow the Romans and usher in a era of peace and plenty, the other the adoption of this religion in the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE to the reality of life in the capitals of Rome where all hopes of a Jewish saviour were dashed. Cheek to jowl with Orientals and Greeks driven from the land by Alexander and the Romans, the next life was all that could compensate the exiles for this life of slavery.
Although the books of the New Testament represent the thinking of the church around 150 CE yet through all the rewrites and forgeries we can still detect the earlier tradition.
The New Testament commences with four books Matthew Mark Luke and John which are know as the gospels , although they were not know by people of the 1st and 2nd century as gospels but only as "the words of Jesus Christ". All our copies are in Greek and none are the work of Jesus or his disciples. The first writer to mention "the gospels" is Papias who live in the first half of the 2nd century. What Papias quotes show that Jesus is painting a very materialist picture of what the coming of the messiah will mean, plenty to eat and flowing wine. These sentiments do not appear in our current gospels, but they are very similar to a Jewish work called the Apocalypse of Baruch written just before the sacking of Jerusalem in CE 70 , that is towards the end of the Jewish revolt against the Romans which began in 65 CE.
Still papias writing in the early C2 gave no particular authority to this gospel. None of the writers of the gospels was a disciple of Jesus. Papias knows of a gospel by Mark and of competing versions of Matthew. Mark we should note was disciple not of Jesus but of the later Peter.
The next writer to mention the gospels is Justin (late C2). He refers to the gospels but makes no mention of the fourth gospel John which was not accepted as having special authority and was only accepted as authoritative in the 3rd C.
Irenaeus bishop of Lyons about 180 CE is the first to name the four gospels accepted today . There is clearly a real difference between the first three books usually called the synoptics and the last gospel John. John has various dogmas that are not found in the early books.
The first three gospels call Jesus the son of man. The Christ, the son of god but never god. By the time of John, Jesus is no longer man but "the word made flesh" in other words, God.
Jesus was not alone, there were many claimants to the messiah title, as a messiah in the Jewish tradition. The sacking of Jerusalem in CE 70 ended this prospect. Christianity as it developed in Rome broke with this early Jewish tradition. Absorbing and incorporating myths of many pagan religions that inhabited the roman empire, salvation was no longer on earth but in the promise of life everlasting in the next life. No longer is Jesus a human actor, but a spirit of god planted by god in the womb of the virgin Mary. In fact the virgin birth was one the last acquisitions of Christianity only becoming an article of faith in 313 CE. A religion that now represented no threat to the existing world order could thus rise to become the ideology of the state at the beginning of the 4th C
But back to the bible. We can see a real difference between the synoptic gospels Mark, Matthew and Luke, which scholars believe derive from a common source now lost, but know as Q, and on the other side John and all the epistles attributed to the later Paul on the other. Mark is thought to be the oldest of the gospels and was written not earlier than 70 CE and probably a bit later, then Luke and Matthew some years later and John in the middle of the 2nd Century around 150 CE. There is a progression in the miracles as the gospels are written. Mark has the miracle of Jesus summoned to the bed of a girl whom the parents believe dead. Jesus lays his hand on her and says she is but sleeping. Luke has a man dead enough to be on his way to the funeral being raised from his bier by Jesus. By the time John we have Jesus awakening Lazarus, dead 4 days and "By this time stinketh".
The gospels have been edited, reedited, had insertions, rewrites at different ages for different purposes. C19 writers concluded that the Bible was worthless as a biographical source on Jesus and some like Otto Bauer believed that person called Jesus never existed. One example of this rewriting process can be seen in the book of Mark.
The oldest and best copies of Mark end at chapter 16 verse 8, that is they leave off at the point where the women are looking in the tomb for the dead Jesus. Scholars now know that what follows this is our present Bible is a much later interpolation. But the story must have had an original end, now there must have been an original ending to the unfinished story that some zealot did not like and removed it.
Only two of the Synoptic gospels Matthew and Luke relate the virgin birth. Mark obviously has not heard of it and more surprisingly nor has John. Furthermore as Luke repeatedly calls Joseph and Mary the parents of Jesus it is clear that the reference to virgin birth is a later addition. What is more Matthew begins with a long family tree for Jesus stretching back to the Hebrew king David. Luke has another contradictory account.
This would be quite legitimate if you had pretensions to be a totally Jewish messiah, but quite irrelevant if the birth is virginal and planted by God. Then of course the family tree of the male is unimportant.
When Matthew and Luke tell us of the teachings of Jesus it is full of denunciations of the rich, "it is easy for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven," full of exaltations of the poor and calling upon them to face danger and struggle and predicting that the kingdom would come after the fall of Jerusalem. In one passage Jesus tells his follows that some of them will see the kingdom in their lifetime.
Mark compresses these teachings and John omits them altogether substituting in its place arguments asserting the divinity of Jesus.
Each of the accounts of the birth and crucifixion between the three books are full of contradictory details some include details in common, and details that are unique to one book or the other. Authorities dated Q the common source for the first three gospels about 75 CE. None of the gospels are by the authors claimed but they do represent the church thinking between CE 70 and CE 150 when the gospels were taking shape. We see writers amending the older texts to fit the new reality of Rome, but they were unable to completely expunge the older Jewish earthly traditions.
For example the Q source (see Matthew xi 12) has it "From the days of John the Baptists until now the kingdom of heaven suffered violence and men of violence take it by force". We know from Josephus that John was executed for fear his preaching would led to rebellion so the passage suggests that the early Christians saw John as a leader of a revolution movement that still continued. Luke who is more pro- Roman substitutes "is preached" for the phrase "suffers Violence".
Again the Q source (in Mathew) has it "blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the earth". The later revision has it "Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall see God".
Or thirdly Mark's introduction to the story of Barabus who supposedly was crucified alongside Jesus. Mark xvi 7 " there was one called Barabus lying bound with the insurgents, men who in the insurrection had committed murder". Hang on what insurrection? Mark refers to a specific insurrection twice. In Matthew and Luke the definite article disappears, and Barabus in John is represented merely as a criminal bandit which puts Rome in a much better light. In Rome, Jewish revolution was not in fashion. Unlike other religious cults of the time, Judaism with its promise on heaven on earth was quite able to be the ideology of Jewish rebellion preaching a primitive form of communism, a communism of consumption in which the first will be last, and the last first, where the rich would be sent empty away and the poor filled with good things, homes and land. The followers of John the Baptist and Jesus were called Nazoreans which means "to keep", a reference to their ideology rather than an insignificant small village called Nazareth. John the Baptist was a martyr to the attempt of the Nazoreans to take over Jerusalem. Could a Jesus perhaps be part of this struggle. Maybe?
The gospel of John is quite different. It is written 100 years after the death of Jesus. The author has no knowledge of the life of Jesus and at no point does he quote from the words of Jesus except at the resurrection. The fact that he does not quote the words of Jesus suggests that he had no knowledge of the Q document or the works of Matthew Mark or Luke.
After the four gospels come the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of Paul. Paul is usually given credit for 14 of these, but Hebrews doesn't even pretend to be by Paul, and Timothy and Titus are well recognized C2 fakes. The status of many of the others is suspect but what is more startling is that all the denunciations of the rich and the coming of heaven on earth where there is material plenty are gone. The historical Jesus is nowhere to be seen. Paul knows nothing of the actual life of Jesus and doesn't pretend to. He claims has teaching comes from God and not through any human source. Paul calls his teachings "a mystery" and it bares more than a few similarities to the mystery cults found all over the Roman empire. In its place we find a divine being, the image of God who was crucified by the demonic rulers of this world, but rose again and this act of sacrifice would enable the initiated to go to heaven with god. We are no longer dealing with a human founder but a cult of a god who died for the salvation of man. This world apart from the crucifixion and the resurrection are not important, what is important is the next world and our access to it. Consequently the Pauline texts are socially and politically conservative, accepting of the powers that be: "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's".
The Pauline Epistles are followed by books that claim to be by followers of Jesus though they are more like John and the Acts, and do not read like a personal disciple's account. They were only accepted in around 150 CE. The last book in the Bible is Revelation has even less connection to Jesus. It has been rewritten and amended, but it is a vision of vengeance written 66-73CE in the period of Jewish revolt. Its references to the Beast with seven heads are a clear reference to Rome with its seven hills. It may be one of the early books of the New Testament.
After the fall of Jerusalem the Jews were disbursed throughout the known world. Mainly town dwellers, they joined wretched peasants from many countries, torn from the land and thrown into the big cities. They had no hope of change in this world. Their mystery religions were sprung from ancient rituals like the corn king of an ancient past who was killed and his body was eaten in the ripening corn and whose blood they drunk. But in the crowded cities vineyards and corn had little relevance so the myths tendered to focus on a better world beyond the grave. So for example, the myth of the murder and resuscitation of Osris spread from Egypt to Greek and Rome before the Christian era. It was believed to ensure they made it to heaven.
Attia another cult god of Asia Minor was mourned, buried, but on the third day rose. This peasant myth referred to Attia as "the reaped corn".
These cults competed with the exiled Jews who were not necessarily hostile. They had adopted from the Persians the idea that the Messiah must, like the ancient myth, have suffered death and over come it so that his people might live. The Wisdom of Solomon written soon after the Hasmoean king Alexander Jannaeus repressed the Pharisees in 88 BCE when he crucified 800 rebels and killed their wives and children in front of them writes: "They seem to die, but they shall judge nations and have dominion over people."
Crucifixion was the Roman response to rebels against oppression and Spartacus and his 6000 supporters of 79 BCE were remembered as martyrs. Plutarch tells the story of Cleomenes a Spartan king of 300 BCE who tried to redistribute the land and cancel the debts. In one story Cleomenes and his 12 friends have a supper together the night before his death. He is betrayed to his enemies, he tells his supporters not to fight and he is crucified. He is known by the people of Alexandria as a hero and a son of the gods. Sound familiar?
These myths and legends must have been told amongst the oppressed people in the cities. Resurrection appears elsewhere. The Essenes, a Palestinian sect active from 48 BCE wrote in "dead sea scrolls of a martyred leader who reappears and judges the world". So the idea of a suffering messiah was clearly in the air. When the story of Jesus came to be told, nothing could be more natural than for details to be supplied from the myths and legends of the mystery religions.
A few examples. The old custom in Babylon of dressing the condemned prisoner in the king's robes, seating him on the king's throne and after five days he was stripped scoured and hung. This points back to the prehistoric sacrifice of the king and also to the Christian yarn about how the soldiers put Jesus in a purple robe crowned him with thorns and called him "king of the Jews." We can see the ancient strains of this belief but it is not history. No Jew would have allowed to attend the events described and the gospels assert that they "all left him and fled". Although the later church would not have liked it, the designation of Jesus as "king of the Jews" was obviously part of the original story. It must have too well known to delete.
We know that human sacrifice was widespread in ancient society in Babylon Greece and Egypt. When they came to tell the story of the martyred saviour it is not hard to see details being supplied by the downtrodden, the inevitable subjects of the human sacrifice that were familiar to them. The expectation that a matured messiah would return victorious over death saw an assimilation of the messiah idea into the mystery cults.
Though it started in Palestine the messianic ferment spread amongst the Jews of the dispersion. Amongst the poor word spread that the messiah, the Christ had come, that the Romans had caught him, but that he had cheated death and would come back to wreak vengeance on the rich and powerful. We know Claudius acted to stop such propaganda in Alexandria and in 49 CE he expelled the Jews from Rome for making "disturbances" at the instigation of Christos. They were seen, according to Suetonius not as worshipers of a new god but partisans of a political leader called Christos or Chestos. To the wealthy non-revolutionary Jew, this preaching made them uncomfortable. Paul brought in the gentiles into the church It became vital to subvert the messianic propaganda especially for those influenced by Greek Gnostic philosophy, to turn this messiah from an earthly deliverer to a non-earthly spiritual figure whose kingdom was not of this world and who came to earth to conquer death. Not only for the Jews but for everyone.
Rome must be endured not because they are godly but because they are of this world and will pass away. Rome was very keen on executing Jewish revolutionaries. It was essential to divert the masses into other unworldly channels. This met resistance. In Galalations 1.11 we find rages against "a different gospel " and we know that Paul was not accepted by many Christians in the second century. Justin, writing at the same time ignores him completely, while Marcion treats him as the only true apostle.
Even as late as the 3rd and 4th century two Jewish-Christian works, one called Homilies and the other Recognitions, both of which incorporate much earlier material are clearly attacking the Pauline changes to the messianic message. Peter, in Homilies complains that some gentile converts have rejected his teachings and accepted that of "the enemy which according to the writer attacks the Jewish law". Superficially the division was over the acceptance or non-acceptance of the Jewish law. In reality it was between those who hoped for an earthly millennium and those who did not.
One of the accretions along the way was the virgin birth which is related in one questionable passage in Matthew, two obvious forgeries added later in Luke, and John ignores it altogether. This belief had its parallels with the pagan cults and dates from the days when paternity was unknown. The god was a mother god in theses myths and until paternity was understood she had no need for a consort. In Egyptian myth Isis conceives hours after her husband is dead. Even in the time of Plutarch (about 100 CE) virgin births in Egypt were thought to be possible. So the virgin birth of Jesus was not to hard to integrate.
In formulating the creeds of the church, the Pauline epistles played a greater part than the revolutionary apocalyptic propaganda of the original synoptic gospels, which were edited and re-edited to conform to the later more conservative ideology of Paul. Paul knows nothing of the historical Jesus just as the synoptic original authors would have known nothing of Christ as god incarnate.
It is this transformation which happen much more quickly in the holy texts than in the practice of the early Christian church, but even that was bound to change.
Christianity arose in the time when the slave society of ancient Rome was in decline, where slaves replaced peasants on the big latifundia. These peasants flooded in to the cities where they remained jobless, there was no industry to absorb them. Locked outside production they could never have the social power to change anything and besides they lived on public charity. The early Christian communities reflect this hopeless situation and it was natural that they would organize as self-help poverty co-operatives, a sort of primitive communism in which all riches of the members would become common property. But this could only be a communism of consumption as all the work was done by slaves and they owned no productive property. They wanted only that the rich would become Christians and make their property common property. Acts iv 32, 34 and 35 tells us "On one regarded as being his what belonged to him everything was held in common" and to each was distributed according to his needs". Meals were taken in common and family life was largely abolished.
Of course this primitive simple communism could not last. It was all right for small communities gathered in one city, but as Christians spread over the Roman Empire this disappeared along with the common meals, which soon became for only the poor members. This remains today only in a ritualistic form in the ritual of the sacrament. As wealthy Romans began to enter the Christian communities the sharing of property disappeared. They would then donate all they did not need, and then it became a tithe (usually 10% of your income).
Inequality returned within the church and by the 4C, St. Basil and St. John Chryssostom, the patriarch of Constantinople, both ardently urged their followers to return to the communism of the apostles but this was in vain.
The growth of the clergy went along with this process. At first in the early small communities a member would be elected to do the service without having special powers and subject to recall, but as the church grew in wealth a special person was given exclusive responsibility for these functions and was paid by the church. Alongside the division of wealthy and the poor appeared a division between the people and the clergy. The first council of ecclesiasitics met at Nicae in 325. No lay believers were there. The Bishops of the biggest and richest communities took the lead at the councils and there was competition and rivalry between the bishops, but eventually by the year 300 CE Rome was the accepted seat of the Pope.
Money donated to the church which once went to the poor now came under the control of the clergy who used it to run and expand the church. These tendencies dramatically increased when Christianity became a state religion. The rich flooded in and large grand churches were built where they could pray in comfort. The sharing of the past gradually declined, the communal meal disappeared today only remembered symbolically in the mass. By the 5th century the revenue of the church was divided four ways. One to the bishop, one to the minor clergy, one for church upkeep and only one quarter was left for the poor and it was the bishops who decided who got the money. They soon demanded that the poor also bring gifts to the church. In the 6th century the tithe of 10% of all crops was introduced. It became for centuries a scourge on the peasantry. The poor had lost all round.
Even the church could not save the Roman Empire from collapse when Germanic tribes sacked Rome in the early years of the 4C.
The church retained its organization and it was accepted as a state religion. Not because of religious belief but because of its role in social control.
Charlemagne at the height of feudalism wanted to continue the tradition of reserving 25% of the church property for the poor. It was know as the Patrimonium pauperum.
The clergy after his death took a vow of poverty and soon swallowed the remaining quarter. This theft was made law when in the 12 C the church declared that the Holy Scriptures required that the wealth of the church belongs not to the faithful but to the clergy and of its chief the Pope. In the course of the 11C the Pope demanded the clergy remain celibate, mainly to stop priests absconding with church property. This grew and grew until the church owned between one quarter and one third of all the land in Europe. They were the largest landlord in Europe. They not merely served the ruling feudal class they were an essential part of it and remained so. The Catholic Church was able to establish its own state, a sinkhole of bad practice until it was over run in the 1870s, about the same time that the pope declared his opinions on doctrine to be infallible.
Joseph McCabe has done a history of the popes which shows graphically that goodness had nothing to do with any of this.
Christianity had become its opposite. It had gone from the being the hope of the oppressed Jews suffering the Roman occupation, a message of material liberation and advent of a new prosperous paradise for humanity to a religion that threatened no worldly interests, that took its content from the various Gnostic cults that crowed in poor self help sects and absorbed their myths into the Christian narrative. A narrative that accepted defeat in the real world and looked only for liberation in the next. A cult that knew nothing of the historical Jesus but only the crucified spirit that was God on earth who fulfills some primitive rite by dying for his followers in order to guarantee for them eternal life.
The Bible we have today is the product of many rewrites by unknown authors anxious to purge the religion of its more plebeian revolutionary beginnings in Palestine and to adapt it to the new world of the Diaspora in which all hope or thought of rebellion was gone. It became a cult in which the rich could worship alongside the poor, buying their place in heaven. Christianity could live with slavery and injustice while preaching to the poor and desperate the wonders of the next life where justice and plenty would rule. To all it offered an imaginary answer to a real problems. By sweeping and co-opting the many ancient myths of the mystery religion it was ideally placed to serve as the faith of an Empire, an empire of many peoples.
Let me end not with the many absurdities of the bible but with a frank comment on the role that religion, still plays today.
Let me conclude with a quote from Napoleon on the role of religion:
"One must re establish religion in order to have morality. How can one have order in the state without religion? Society (and he meant capitalist society) cannot exist without inequalities of fortunes and in equalities of fortunes cannot exist without religion. How can a man dying from hunger sit next to a man who is belching from over eating unless there is an authority that says God wills it so?"