The Pokey Finger of God

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Seeking, Not Found

January 29th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, culture

A recent religion post contained something of a broad statement. It was a conclusion I had drawn without the benefit of third-party confirmation. What I had said was that the term “Christian” did not just apply to those who followed the “Jesus Movement”, but also those who followed any of a dozen Hellenized, Asian mystery cults, including cults of Mithras, Attis, and Osiris. They all worshiped an “Anointed Savior”, and shared significant elements of their various cults, including a tendency towards a Neo-Platonic, Persian-style monotheism.

However, although I have frequently heard references to “many false Christs”, I have never heard anyone name the “false Christs” specifically as “Mithras” or “Attis”. This is a connection I drew myself. I’m looking for secondary confirmation of this now, but if anyone else already knows of such (or a specific definition of what third-century Christian would have believed that would prove or deny my thesis), a pointer at this time would be appreciated.

I had always been surprised at the rate at which Christianity spread throughout the . If one understands “Christianity” to encompass all imported Asian mystery cults, then suddenly, there is an historical document trail for each that allows us to understand how each spread through the Empire. There was a clear cultural division introduced by these Hellenized Savior cults that caused endless Imperial headaches. It’s clear to see why they were collectively co-opted and generalized by Imperial authorities.

But if we restrict our understanding of “Christianity” as strictly a “Jesus movement”, this certainty fades away from lack of relevant documentation. It quickly becomes ludicrous to imagine that any political distinction between the Syrian and Egyptian variations of offshoot Jewish cultism would have even been noticed in Rome. Further, there is very little evidence that the first Imperial definitions of Christianity included any material from a Jesus Movement or even the Jews. From my readings of the first Nicean Creed, the pledge could be as easily sincerely said by a Mithraist or one pledged to Attis.

In fact, my biggest problem with a “Jesus movement” is that it doesn’t seem to really exist in a way that rationally connects it both to traditional Temple and also to Roman Christianity. First off, “Jesus” isn’t a Hebrew name, it’s a Romano-Anglicized variant of a Greek word for ‘Savior’, Isa. Traditional associations of “Jesus” as a variation of Joshua or Josiah are simply wishful thinking since none of the books about “Jesus” were written in a Jewish tongue, but in Greek. The Greek name used in Greek stories about a Syrian Jewish culture hero was “the Nazarene Savior”, or “Jesus the Nazarene” — Isa Nazaraean.

“Nazarene” does not indicate that the hero was raised in a specific place, but rather describes the sort of person he was. Any association with the town of “Nazareth” is linguistically challenging, since neither word appears in Hebrew scripture: the Greek word “Nazarene” is apparently a mis-translation of the Hebrew “Nazirite”. The Nazirite tradition is mentioned in the Bible several times, most famously to describe the hirsute strongman, Samson. A Nazirite was someone dedicated to God. Like warrior monks: they took additional oaths of dedication to God, and led austere and restricted lives in order to better serve God. They were notable on sight because they never cut their hair. Nazirites are attested to in Maccabees — in the Late Greek period immediately before Roman occupation.

The earliest, identifiable “Jesus the Nazarene” was the leader of a political splinter group that separated from the Temple authorities at a time when Roman sympathizers among the Maccabee family battled over the High Priest job at the temple in Jerusalem. (Not long after that, Romans were “invited” to take over the whole country.) This rebel leader was referred to as “The Teacher of Righteousness” in a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and his death can be dated around 150BCE. Collections of the sayings of this “Teacher of Righteousness” seem to form the basis of most of what we understand to have been said by “Jesus the Nazarene”.

And now, something about the Hellenization of Asia of which one should be aware: the Greeks had an attitude that theology was something to be exploited by philosophy and manipulated politically. Everything boiled down to a template of generally consistent features to them, so when all of these Asian Savior cults hit Roman shores, the predominately Greek culture digested each as a variation on all previous savior cults. The idea of a generic ‘Jesus Christ’ is apparently something thought up on several occasions, so while some cults had gods with localized names, these “third-generation”, Greek-school, savior cults simply worshiped ‘Jesus Christ’, perhaps as an attempt to draw membership from several competing cults.

I totally see where the worship of a generic anointed savior is a completely Greek answer that would have been so soothing to Roman sensibilities. I have no problem accepting that Jewish myth would have been calculated into that mix. I have no doubt that “Anointed Savior” stories collected until something like a biography could been created, and further, that this process probably happened many times with similar results — as these stories would form the basis for the Gospels.

I can even set aside my disbelief to allow for the very specific existence of Hellenized Jewish breakaway cults that worshiped nameless, wandering peasants, cruelly slaughtered shortly before the Romans scraped the entire Jewish state into the Mediterranean Sea. What I cannot fathom, and specifically refuse to admit, is any notion that such a group had any influence whatsoever on the establishment of Roman Christianity.

What is more: I refuse to accept that any pre-Roman “Jesus Movement” Christian group or organization had a structure, theology, or practice that was specifically adopted as the “alpha release candidate” of Roman Christianity. The best argument here is that the earliest creed does not specifically mention any element of the “Jesus” mythos, but is instead encompasses some pretty generic Neo-Platonism. The next major creed, from the ecumenical council of Constantinople, some 50 years after Nicea, include the first references to both the Passion and the Birth narratives.

I find it extremely difficult to believe that something as monolithic as the Roman Empire could create a “general” form of Christianity, and then would come around fifty years later and somehow get everyone to commit to a form of worship more like Judaism and less like Roman paganism. What makes more sense is that, after Nicea, the architects of the Imperial faith cast about for supporting material and found a treasure trove in the written documents of a significantly Hellenized, Syrian-Jewish savior cult. This is when these accumulated “Anointed Savior” tales were identified and disseminated, such that, 50 years later, these tales are accepted as historical documents.

I’m not at all clear about the amount of adding and editing done at the hand of the Imperial theologians vis-a-vis that of any upstart Savior cult. We assume that the material from Paul, Mark, and Luke are relatively early, but how do we know that some significant portion of these books as we have them today weren’t actually written until after 325CE? There are a number of oddities and curiosities in the Birth and Passion narratives that can only be pinned down with a very late date of authorship (or, more likely, late additions to previously existing material).

A significant example of such anachronism are the “Three Persian Kings” in the birth narrative. The problem is that the Persians weren’t in power in 7BCE, or even in 33CE — the Parthians were. It wasn’t until the Sassanid revival of Zoroastrianism, which certainly would have seemed ancient by the time of the formation of Roman Christianity, that something like the Persian Magi would have existed and might have been able to travel to Palestine. Having Persian Magi supplicate to the Roman Christ was potent propaganda in the 4th Century in a way that made it nonsense in the 1st.

To be clear, it is well understood that Christian ritual and dogma owe a great debt to Zoroastrianism and the cults of Attis and Mithras, Isis and Cybele — far more so than to any known forms of Jewish worship. The political power of these cults is well documented and traceable through written history. The line between these and Roman Christianity is understood. Such is not the case for any Jewish influences.

The fact that the Jewish state had been eradicated in 70CE may have played a part in the selection, or creation, of an “Anointed Savior” located in an untraceable part of that province. Although there is a subtle undertone of anti-Roman sentiment in the Gospel stories, everything is orchestrated to highlight the violent retribution visited upon those who demonstrate anti-Roman behavior. What happened to the Jews was a demonstration to anyone who would harbor anti-Roman rebels. Making a Jewish character the Roman Christ is akin to dressing Aunt Jemima up as Goddess Liberty — it’s a humiliating stab to drive home the absolute domination Rome had over all cultures.

All of this is very clear to me, but I still don’t have a secondary source to confirm a wider definition of “Christian” in the distant past than is currently understood. I’m reading biographies of the Emperor Constantine in an attempt to glean more about the political situation at the time. Unfortunately, a good deal of his story has been obscured by generations of Christian apologists and mythologians and lost to the fires of censors. Any suggestions for appropriate authors or topics are appreciated.

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