How Christianity began – by mistake!
STEUART CAMPBELL claims Jesus’ crucifixion was part of a failed plot to provide evidence for resurrection
THE huge edifice of the Christian Church stands (or falls) on the life of Jesus, so its origin lies in the story of his life. But what can we know of that life and Jesus’ own plan?
The problem of Jesus is basically historical, but with associated problems in ancient languages and religions. But these skills are useless without some insight into the mind of Jesus himself. Albert Schweitzer suggested that every life of Jesus remains a reconstruction on the basis of a more or less accurate insight into the nature of the dynamic self-consciousness of Jesus (1) and J Middleton Murry believed that Jesus can be known only through intuition (2).
Even historians need to make intuitive guesses about the past. Camille Jullian wrote that historians should not avoid making conjectures when necessary to connect the rare details that remain of the past, although they should carefully distinguish between such conjectures and the data to be handled (3).
The explanation that follows is a conjecture.
To Christians, Jesus was (is?) the incarnation of God, sent to save the world from the consequences of their sins. To non- Christians, and even to many Christians, Jesus was a good but naive itinerant preacher who unaccountable fell foul of the authorities.
To both groups of believers, Jesus’ life is a mystery, for one a mystical superstition and to the other a hodgepodge of confusing vignettes.
However, by making some fundamental assumptions, one can construct a coherent and logical sequence of events that explain Jesus’ life. These are, firstly, that, as Schweitzer insisted, Jesus can only be understood in his historical milieu, as an aspirant Messiah within the Jewish community in Judaea. Secondly, that Jesus was part of a movement with a plan that was connected with the Messianic aspiration and that this plan failed (Jesus did not get to rule Judea, let alone Israel). Thirdly, that the Gospels are partly historical and partly propaganda for the Early Church.
Contrary to claims, history and propaganda in the Gospels can mostly be distinguished. The reason for that is that what suited the Early Church did not agree with history or with what is known of Jewish customs. One blatant example is the claim for the divinity of Jesus, and hence the incarnation.
In Judaism, only God is divine; the Messiah is a thoroughly human character: God’s viceroy. Jesus himself never claimed divinity. The other, even more blatant, is the attempt to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death when the evidence that he was tried and sentenced to death by the Romans is overwhelming (crucifixion was a Roman, not a Jewish punishment).
It is clear that the evangelists tried to tell a story that was undermined throughout by evidence of a quite different story.
Shorn of propaganda, the scenario that emerges is that Jesus was a disciple, and/or a close relative, of John the Baptist and inherited from him the leadership of a small Gnostic sect (the Nazarenes) that had worked out, not only the details of the Kingdom of God, but how and when it was to appear. In particular the Nazarenes had plotted (from Scripture) the life of Messiah-ben-Joseph, the first of two Messiahs and one who had to suffer on behalf of his people.
Jesus became convinced that he was this Messiah and that he would become the second Messiah, the ultimate ruler of Israel. This explains the record in John of his enigmatic promise to return as a new “Comforter”. (4)
It is important to understand that Jesus’ outlook was Pharisaic. Despite the gospel accounts that appear to pit him against Pharisees, Jesus’ belief in resurrection marked him as a Pharisee philosophically. The Jewish historian Josephus, himself a Pharisee, explained how this important and extensive sect believed that although fate determines everything, men have freedom to act for good or evil. (5)
Elsewhere he explained that “to act rightly, or otherwise, rests indeed, for the most part, with men, but in each action fate co-operates”. (6)
Jesus also believed that he could not call on divine intervention; the Jews had been forbidden to test God by performing miracles.(7)
This meant that Jesus could not rely on God to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven; he had to do it himself. He had to arrange events so that they fulfilled prophecy, even to the extent of arranging his own arrest, trial, execution and resurrection. Jesus arranged his whole life to fulfil what he saw as prophecy. Examples are his entry to Jerusalem riding an ass, (8) overturning the tables of the money changers (9) and equipping the disciples with swords. (10)
Even Judas’ betrayal, which facilitated his arrest, was fulfilment of a prophecy. (11) While Christians believe that Jesus’ actions fulfilled prophecy by accident as it were (ie he was unaware that he was doing so), in fact he arranged things so that prophecies were fulfilled as part of a plan.
Jesus facilitated his own arrest knowing that he would be crucified but confident that he had the means to be “resurrected”afterwards. This means was opium, administered during the crucifixion but tested earlier on his friend Lazarus.(12)
He must have believed that this substance actually caused temporary death. In fact, as we now know, it can cause the appearance of death (coma), but it was evidently sufficient to convince a Roman centurion that Jesus was indeed dead. This permitted him to be removed from his cross after only a few hours and transferred to a nearby tomb (another part of the plan).
But why go through the torture of crucifixion at all? The purpose was to show evidence of resurrection, so confounding the Sadducean rulers, who claimed that there was no resurrection. As a resurrected Messiah he would have the country behind him and the High Priests on the run. They could not have held onto power when there was “proof ” of resurrection.
Evidently Jesus had intended that, after his “resurrection”, he would gather an army in Galilee and march on Jerusalem to claim the throne of Israel as its Messiah. That would have thrown him into conflict with the might of Rome, but he thought his destiny more powerful than Caesar and that hewould rule the Kingdom of Heaven. This kingdom was not in the sky; it was here on earth.
But the plan failed. Mortally wounded on the cross by an unexpected coup de grace, his body had to be removed from the tomb prematurely in order to avoid embarrassment. That was why the tomb was found empty.
A dead Messiah could not emerge triumphant. Joseph of Arimathea must have disposed of the body, which was never found.
So what was it that caused his disciples to start preaching that he was the Messiah and that the Kingdom was about to appear, a message that was later transformed by Paul into a belief that he was a universal saviour god?
There is one incident recorded in John’s Gospel that appears to be the trigger, the event that started Christianity (it wasn’t so-called at the time). Chapter 21 of that Gospel appears to be an afterthought (the Gospel proper ends at the end of chapter 20). It appears to have been added to deal with the problem that, contrary to the general expectation, John had died in Ephesus before the return of Jesus.
It records the very likely scenario that the disciples had returned to Galilee and had taken up their previous occupation as fishermen. They must have been disillusioned and depressed, not having been privy to his plan.
Then they see a figure by the shore who asks about their catch and suggests they try fishing on the other side of the boat. The resulting large catch causes John to claim that the figure is Jesus and he dives into the water to get to shore; the others follow and find a small fire with fish cooking. They are invited to bring their fish and join the mysterious figure.
However, it is evident that while disciples did not recognise this person as Jesus, none of them asks for his identity. They assumed that it was Jesus, but somehow changed.
After the disciples have eaten a meal with this stranger, he and Peter engage in a strange conversation during which the former says: “Feed my lambs”, “Shepherd my little lambs”, and “Feed my little sheep”. The traditional interpretation of these words is that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, instructing Peter, in line with the commission of Matt. 16:18, to take care of the young Church as a shepherd takes care of his sheep.
However there is a simpler explanation. If the mysterious man was not Jesus then he cannot have been talking about the Church, which in any case Jesus did not intend to found. Even though Jesus is occasionally reported to have spoken of people as sheep, a common metaphor, a man talking about sheep un-metaphorically is much more likely to have been a shepherd. He might simply have been taking a break from tending sheep, whose welfare still concerned him.
It appears that he had left the sheep a little way off in the hills around the lake and that he was looking for someone to help him care for them. He singled out Peter and asked him if he loved him more than the rest (did). Later, he instructed Peter to follow him, back to the sheep. That the question was thrice repeated, and the way Peter reacted only convinces us that here was no Jesus. As Peter pointed out, Jesus already knew the feelings of the disciples and would not have needed to ask such questions.
The observation that old age brings incapacity suggests that the shepherd was elderly and wanted Peter’s help because he realized that he would not be able to carry on with the work much longer. He was offering Peter the job, but wanted to be sure that Peter’s heart was in it. Peter was just about to follow the stranger away to the flock, when he turned and noticed John beginning to follow.
“What about him?” he asked the person he thought was Jesus. “If I wish him to remain here until I come [back] (13) , what is that to you?’ replied the shepherd. He intended to return to the fireside after he had shown Peter the sheep.
Thus was a new religion born: the disciples mistake an elderly shepherd for their master! Utterly convinced that he was alive, they returned to Jerusalem preaching his resurrection,
In a parallel universe where the disciples do not encounter the shepherd or any other figure mistaken for Jesus, he vanishes like the other Messianic claimants recorded by Josephus and Christianity never arises, replace perhaps by some other religion.
• Steuart Campbell is the author of The Rise and Fall of Jesus (WPS, 2009). This article appeared in the final print edition of the Freethinker, May 2014.
1. The Quest of the Historical Jesus (A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede), 1954 [ET by W Montgomery of Von Reimarus zu Wrede – Eine Geschichte der Leben – Jesu-Forschung (1906) Tubingen], 3rd. ed, with a new introduction by the author (1950) [ET by J R Coates], London, A & C Black.
2. The Life of Jesus, 1926, London, Jonathan Cape (in USA, Jesus – Man of Genius).
3. Quoted by Maurice Goguel in his The Life of Jesus, 1933 [ET by Olive Wyon of La vie de Jésus (1932)], London, G Allen & Unwin.
4. John 14:26
5. The Antiquities of the Jews, 18:1:3.
6. The Wars of the Jews, 2:8:14.
7. Deut. 6:16, which refers to Moses producing water from a rock (see Exod. 17).
8. Zech. 9:9.
9 Zech. 14:21
10. Isa. 53:12.
11. Ps. 41:9.
12. John 11:1-46.
13. This is the origin of the belief that Jesus would return before John died.