The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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August 22nd, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history

I’m getting that sand-through-the-fingers feeling again. Just when I thought I had pegged the origins of “Christianity” via , I got all caught up on the question of pre-existing material. How can we know what it was he actually defined himself, and what was pre-existing? Of the pre-existing materials, why were some things chosen and not others? How do we distinguish satire from history, devotion from contrivance? More importantly, how does one identify any pre-existing and self-identified communities as “Christian”, previous to Constantine?

It does not readily appear that the distinction of Christian versus Pagan even came up before (of Caesarea). The concept of “Christos” seems to have been deliberately conflated with the Greek “chrestos”, the Platonic idea of good.  Whether or not the word Christos carried much weight outside of Hellenized Syro-Jewish mystical communities before this time is unknown, but is presumed to be present given the admixture of the two cultures over such a wide area. This appears to be a potent clue into the past.

“Jesus”, on the other hand, is a name so clearly anachronistic that it’s simply not worth looking for someone in Herodian Palestine named “Jesus”.  There is no Hebrew equivalent for this name, and attempts to conflate this name with Joshua or Jesse are fruitless. The reason is very simple: the name is Greek. It roughly transliterates into the Latin alphabet as “Iasous”. “Sous” or “sus” is the Greek root for our words sustain and resuscitate. In this context, we can say it means “saves”.  “Ia” references our favorite tetranym, thus “Jesus” = “Ja saves!”[1].

From this, I feel that I can put a greater weight of relevance on materials that talk about “Christos” or “Chrestos” over anything that directly speaks of “Iasous” in any context. Other things that I know were pre-existing include: mystery cults, resurrection dramas, healer cults, and messiah cults.

Interestingly, the items with the most detail in the Gospels are the hardest to find. John the Baptist was attested to by multiple, independent sources, whereas Jesus is mentioned by no one not associated with the . The Temple in Jerusalem was a real place, that really had money changers and blood sacrifices. Pilate really was the prefect of Judea around the time specified in the standard mythos (although his name didn’t rhyme with dial-it). But Peter or Mary, John or James — who were they, exactly? Since we have little in the way of identifying names or characteristics, it’s difficult to know where to place some of these characters.

In another tangent, the development of the emperor cult in Rome caught my eye. The path from Julius Caesar to Constantine is pretty clearly marked, nay paved by the graves of emperors, and it is a prominent forebear of modern Christianity. Constantine had the advantage of three centuries of history of schemes and manipulations of previous emperors to provide many negative examples of what to do. It seems that this may have lead him inexorably towards the development of Christianity as a matter of course.

The state cult of the Roman Republic was the militantly self-satisfied ideology of an expanding empire. It placed the traditional gods of Northern Italy into a stern and rigidly hierarchical system of temples and priests that reinforced traditional dominance of specific families throughout the peninsula. From these families came the Senators who guided the Republic. Political and religious roles were frequently carried by Senators and their families, such that the political and religious reality of the early Republic was generally one and the same.

This system worked until provincial colonies became economically relevant on their own works. Initially, local governors would command local military structures, such that the Senatorial class began to include many of these provincial types — but not their religious ties. When the Phrygian goddess cult was initially allowed into the Roman capitol, it was during a time of extreme duress for the Romans. Even so, She and her followers were kept on a short leash and behind a curtain so as to not offend the staid and traditional Roman gods.

Julius Caesar realized the power of the legions in seizing power from Rome itself, and had the opportunity to give it a shot. His error was in attempting to take power from the Senate, which the Senate was unwilling to concede. Octavian Augustus did not repeat this error, and thus began the long illusion of Imperial co-operation with the Senate. After ninety years of good governance from the “Adoptive Emperors”, came Commodus, who renamed the city of Rome, the Roman fleets, and anything else he could think of into some form of “Commodia”. He was the first to openly reject the rule of Senate[2] and those after him ruled by might of military prowess alone.

When the Praetorian Guards executed him, they sold the throne to the highest bidder and lost their place in history: their choice lived very briefly, and his successors left little to chance with the Guards[3]. Thereafter, it was the various military legions who would select claimants for the Imperial throne. These contests would rarely last more than a year, and successful generals could be expected to live at least a couple of years afterward before being knifed in bed or poisoned at breakfast.

The results of one such conflict placed the hereditary high-priest of El-Gabal, a 14-year-old Syrian,  upon the Imperial throne. While the short reign[4] of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (known to history as Elagabalus) was not remarkable for any military achievement, it was remarkable in that he replaced Jupiter at the head of the Roman pantheon with the Syrian sun deity El-Gabal, retitled Deus Sol Invictus. A festival at the summer solstice was established which was wildly popular for its distribution of free food. Elagabalus built a lavish temple in which was placed the sacred relics of all the leading cults of the day, such that only El-Gabal would be worshiped. After Elagabalus was assassinated by his own guards and his humiliated, headless corpse was thrown in the Tiber, the Elagablium was dismantled and the artifacts were returned to their home temples, including the black stone of El-Gabal to Emesa.

Aurelian[5] was one of the better general-emperors of the “Crisis Period”, who was able to re-establish Roman dominance in the breakaway Gallic empire in the West and Palmyrene empire in the East. He also strengthened the position of the sun in the Roman state cult, establishing a holiday on December 25th, a pontifical college, and a new temple to the sun in Rome. Presumably, it was his hope that the sun would be something that citizens from all of the Eastern provinces would be able to agree upon worshiping. Aurelian actually wore a golden diadem of solar rays, which may be the source of the later artistic depictions of emperors as having halos.

Constantine[6] also championed Sol Invictus, and in 321, declared Sunday to be the Roman day of rest for urbanites[7]. He had a special reason for pulling this one out of the closet — as a usurper against the Tetrarchy, he needed his own “branch” of the Imperial cult to legitimate his own rise to power. The Sol Invictus cult provided a cultural link to relative strengths of the Severan dynasty, as opposed to the disintegrating Tetrarchy. The Syrian connection of El-Gabal would need addressing, as Constantine would not allow the priesthood of a minor cult to direct or correct Him.

From this perspective it seems almost necessary that Constantine would have had to create a replacement origin for the Sol Invictus cult that would allow him to retain the position of king of priests. An alternative narrative, centered in the relative backwater of Galilee, would obviate any power the families of Syria might have retained. Given the time and place of the established narrative, the Romans could easily shrug their shoulders at the lack of proof by saying that the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 79AD had wiped out all evidence.

Constantine had learned the lesson of Commodus, in that all of his changes would be impermanent if there are not significant efforts made to retain these fixtures. Such efforts are generally only expended by those attempting to preserve their positions of power and authority, and so Constantine carefully constructed an Imperial hierarchical network of interconnecting dependencies, along with his creation of Bishops as secondary administrative functionaries, such that the empire continued to run for nearly 900 years after his death.

Conveniently, Constantine was, himself, the returned messiah, as predicted by the scriptures he personally had commissioned. Remember that the origin of the Christian , as we know it, was the request by Constantine to Eusebius to create 50 Bibles for the consecration of the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia. Whether or not sacred text actually existed at the time, when the Emperor requested 50 Bibles, he got 50 Bibles. And we know that Eusebius of Caesarea was responsible for filling this order, so his hand in editing, if not authorship, is most immediately suspected.

The transition of the Sol Invictus cult into Christianity is pretty clear from this perspective. Inasmuch as this indicates pre-existing materials, we can point to at least two other emperors as being responsible for establishing, if not laying the groundwork for, Christianity, through their support of the Sol Invictus cult. We also have a direct line to Syrian mythology through the El-Gabal connection.

  1. Making the slogan “Jesus saves” unnecessarily redundant.
  2. in fact, he abandoned his civic obligations
  3. they were officially disbanded by Constantine
  4. ruled 218-222CE
  5. ruled 270-275CE
  6. ruled 306-337CE
  7. farmers were encouraged to work whenever there was work to do

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