by Don Cameron
Many gospels were written but only four were admitted to the canon by those who had acquired power. The remainder, which had differing and contradictory beliefs, were mostly discarded or destroyed. Being dissatisfied with them all, I have written this gospel myself. I was not present during the events it describes, but neither were any other gospel writers. I think I am better qualified because, unlike them, I benefit from scientific knowledge and I will carefully distinguish between what is reasonably certain, what is probable and what is improbable, aiming to get as close as we can hope, to a gospel truth. It is 1600 years too late, but I am quite sure it would have been consigned to the apocrypha, even if it had been around in time.
The short answer to how Christianity began is that we can never fully know. The Canonical Gospels have been shown to contain substantial contradictions and they differ from other gospels which did not make it into the canon. They were written in Greek, 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus by people culturally, linguistically and geographically far distant from where things had happened. They were sourced from oral traditions, after any direct eye-witnesses were no longer alive. The tradition of careful historical accuracy did not yet exist and ancient writings are usually heavily biased polemics. It would be wrong, however, to regard the Gospels as useless. It is beyond reasonable doubt that a person named Jesus existed and that he made an impression during and after his lifetime.
It is, of course, impossible to separate truth from fiction in the Gospels, but the oral stories from which they came are likely to have been enhanced to better promote evangelism as they were told and retold. The supernatural claims are obviously the least probable. We should remember Hume’s advice that we should only believe a miracle, if we can also believe that it would be more miraculous for the report of it to be either false or mistaken.
We can reflect with some certainty on the conditions in Palestine during Jesus’ short career. Most people would have been engaged in agriculture or a few basic trades and long distance travel would be difficult and unusual. Records in pre-industrial England have shown that many lived their entire lives without travelling more than 50 km from their birthplace. It was probably the same in Palestine in those days. Communication was virtually non-existent and people would hear only sporadic news of what was happening outside their immediate area. There would have been an educated elite, including Temple priests who promoted an Old Testament style of religion which included blood offerings and burnt offerings of animals (rather than humans by this time). Reading and writing skills in the general population would be low.
It is against this background that Jesus learned his trade from John the Baptist and emerged as an orator who could attract crowds. He enrolled a team of helpers into his organisation and they went on tour promoting the idea of an imminent Kingdom of God, when all wrongs would be made right; there would be no more death, disease or injustice. A new Jewish Kingdom was going to come with God’s powerful help, achieving independence from Rome. It would be coming in this life, not the next and it would be soon, in the lifetime of those present. To listeners who believed that God had intervened before to rescue his chosen people from oppression, it was believable. Imagine what it would have been like to be a member of this group. There would be a great sense of meaning and purpose. They were enlightening the people and were looking forward to a position of privilege when this Kingdom would arrive.
Scripture does not tell us about the finances of the group, but they must have been able to eat, drink and have other necessities. And, if they could raise some funds, they could probably raise a lot. They may well have achieved a better financial position than they had been accustomed to. Maybe Matthew’s tax collecting skills came in handy. The whole business must have seemed much more exciting than the humdrum occupations from which they had come.
After building up an intoxicating level of fame, it was time to take the enterprise to the capital. We cannot be certain that Jesus entered on a donkey. It was known that there was an Old-Testament prophesy that the Messiah would do so (Zechariah 9.9) so Jesus may have done it to fulfil that, or the gospel writers may have inserted the story later for the same reason. The little band was a relatively unsophisticated group from the country and it seems that they must have been massively naïve. To enter Jerusalem telling large crowds about the imminent Kingdom of God (which would, of course, imply the end of Roman rule) was unbelievably rash. And invading the turf of the Temple priests did not make friends. Sadly, as usual, God failed to make an appearance. It is not surprising that the Romans, perhaps with the acquiescence of the Jewish elite, eliminated Jesus.
The later attempt to blame the Jews, instead of the Romans, for Jesus’ death was a fiction designed to make Christianity more acceptable as the new religion of the Empire.
Can we imagine what the mood would have been in Jesus’ little support group on the morning after the crucifixion? The enterprise that they had built up seemed completely destroyed. There was nothing left to do but avoid detection by the Roman authorities, disperse back to their areas of origin and revert to their old lives. Or was there any possible way to re-establish the formula that had been working so well?
To rationalize a story that showed their situation as other than a total defeat was not easy. But the idea of atonement is likely to have come early because it was an obvious fit to prevailing beliefs. The idea that the whole population was guilty of sin, and that God’s anger needed to be appeased by sacrifice, was already a long-established theme of Jewish religion. By this time, human sacrifices were history and the victim was more likely to be an unfortunate goat. But what could be more believable than the idea that Jesus had chosen to offer himself as a sacrifice to appease God for the sins of the Jewish people? “He died for you, so you must be grateful and accept what we say!” In addition to the atonement story, the followers probably realised that direct opposition to the Roman authorities was not a practical goal. Religion rather than politics was the way to go.
By this means, the Nazarene firm was back in business. Those running it would have found that more interesting, as well as more profitable, than going back to the day jobs. Initially it was only a Jewish sect; Jesus had died for the Jews just as the regular Temple sacrifices were being made for the Jews. (The names Christ and Christian did not yet exist. That occurred only when these ideas moved into a Greek-speaking population.)
Had matters continued in this way, it is likely that the Nazareans would have died out because they failed to make progress in the Jewish religious scene. But Paul arrived; he had been a persecutor of Nazareans, but for some reason he decided that it would be worthwhile to promote this new religion in the world outside Palestine.
Paul had to first modify the product to make it more marketable. The Nazareans insisted that all male converts had to have the foreskin of the penis cut off. It is not surprising that Paul thought this would lose customers, so he got rid of it. Strict observance of other Jewish requirements was also dropped. Christianity spread rapidly and split into many different versions. It is difficult to know why, but it seems to have out-competed the prevailing polytheistic ideas of Greece and Rome.
For many decades the belief was only an oral tradition and it is inevitable that the story was “improved” during that time to make evangelism more successful. For a preacher it was much more satisfying to found a believing and financially contributing community than to be repulsed by an incredulous audience and thrown out of town. For anyone striving to establish a priestly career, the temptation to embellish supernatural claims must have been intense and the risk of being found out was zero. And once invented, each element would have spread to others who would have included them in their preaching with no reason for doubt. In Hume’s terms, it would certainly not be miraculous for them to be either false or mistaken.
It is safe to assume that, of those setting themselves up as priests, there would be the full range of human types. Some would be idealists seeking the truth while others would be there because it gave a richer life than tilling the fields or hewing stone. For the latter, what worked best with the audience would have been more important than what was historically certain.
Of particular note is the close resemblance between many of the Christian stories and earlier pagan themes. Being a son of a god and an earthly woman, performing miracles, rising again after execution and many of the minor stories were features of Pagan religions. Later Christian writers described them as “diabolical mimicry”. The Devil, apparently, had created these stories in anticipation of them really happening, just to make mischief. Less fancifully, it seems likely that early evangelists incorporated many of the old Pagan themes to build up their repertoires.
It was probably during this time, before written accounts appeared, that most of the supernatural claims were added, because they were persuasive selling points. The gospels were written late in the first century CE, between 40 and 100 CE, by unknown educated Greek authors assembling these oral traditions. They certainly had no contact with the Aramaic-speaking country folk who were the followers of Jesus.
Bearing in mind Hume’s view of miracles, we can guess how the supernatural claims became interpolated in the story, but the big one was the resurrection. This is described with much corroborative and sometimes contradictory detail in the New Testament. We have no idea when this entered the narrative but, if it is not true, it is a big lie. Yet it has all the characteristics of a fabrication. Jesus appeared on only a few occasions before disappearing for good. He allegedly made a spectacular ascent into the clouds. It is claimed that five hundred saw him, but we learn about that from only one: Paul (1 Corinthians 15.6) who did not claim to be one of those present. If Jesus had really come back to life, why did he not carry on his speaking tours as before, over the following years? Of course, we must respect the fact that Jesus’ followers were in a state of emotional distress in the days following the crucifixion and the stories may have had an origin in hallucinations or dreams. Fiction is often grafted onto a seed of truth rather than being entirely original. In some references, Jesus appeared to people who had known him well, but they did not recognise him; what could that mean? The reports of the resurrection fall a long way short of Hume’s criterion for miracle belief.
The religion grew and continued to evolve spreading over the whole Roman Empire and beyond. It diverged into mutually contradictory versions. In the early centuries there were several differing forms of Christianity with conflicting and bitterly disputed beliefs. This is conclusive proof that stories were changing as time passed. In the end, one version triumphed in the Empire and the others were suppressed as heresies, their writings condemned as apocryphal. There is no reason to believe that the victorious orthodoxy was more accurate than the others.
Even orthodoxy continued to evolve. The earliest gospel, Mark, around 70CE still promotes the coming Kingdom in the lifetime of those alive today. The latest one, John, around 95CE drops it in favour of an invisible heavenly realm because it obviously hadn’t happened. In Mark, Jesus does miracles, but does not allow news of them to spread. This is perhaps an answer to those who said “I was around then, how come I didn’t hear about it?” In John, with fewer contemporary survivors, Jesus is alleged to make his “signs” a public proof of his status.
Between 90 and 400CE Jesus was transformed. He began as an orator preaching a Kingdom of God which would change affairs here on earth with himself as king during the lifetime of his hearers. Over two or three centuries, he became a god who had always existed, even before the creation, and who sat in Heaven as the equal of God the Father. No-one seems to have asked how this, if true, could ever have been discovered.
The theologians had walked into a trap because, as they became sure that the Father and Son were both gods, they remained sure from scripture that there was only one god. The Holy Ghost was hanging around as a third candidate for godliness. But a solution was at hand. The self-contradictory idea of the Trinity was ratified in 325 at the Council of Nicaea. The three gods are really one god, but they remain three at the same time; problem solved!
New beliefs were invented like the Trinity in the 300s, purgatory in the 1100s and the Immaculate Conception in the 1500s. The doctrine of very extreme rewards and very extreme punishments during an eternal life were easily believed in a gullible world with no access to contrary evidence.
The church in time became totally powerful, obliterating classical culture and beliefs and suppressing all opposition. Temples were vandalised and statues were toppled and smashed. Classical science and philosophy went on the pyre. Opposition was met with punishment by death, a penalty extensively and ruthlessly carried out. Hundreds of thousands suffered the agony on being burned to death. This grip only slowly began to be loosened from the 1500s and some of its effects remain to this day. But with declining church power, new cults are multiplying again.
This picture, like any picture of these far-off events, can only be a conjecture, but it fits the evidence better than any other. It is more than possible to understand the information we have today without supernatural assumptions.