What About Christianity?
WHERE DID THIS THING COME FROM?
If you’ve ever wondered where Christianity came from there’s a book called ‘Acts of the Apostles’ in the New Testament that lays out the early days very concisely. But did it really happen the way it’s written? Let’s take a closer look.
According to ‘Acts’, after Jesus’ execution he rose from the dead and hung out with his friends for forty days1. He didn’t show himself to anyone else, just his disciples2. Then he said it was time to go and disappeared into the clouds. Just before he left he promised he’d come back someday. A lot of people are still waiting for the big day.
The disciples were deathly afraid of the Jewish priests so they were hiding out together in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem. Suddenly a great wind blew through the house and tongues of fire shot out through the room and came to rest on each of the disciples. They were immediately filled with the Holy Spirit and started prophesying and speaking in foreign languages.3
Straight away they burst into the street proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, the fulfiller of all prophecy and savior of the world. The city was full of tourists and pilgrims from all over the world who were amazed to be hearing this strange message in their own language. In a single day over 3,000 people were convinced of ‘the Way’.
This day is called the ‘Day of Pentecost’ and it is here where the entire narrative concerning Jesus dramatically changed. He was no longer a humble healer extolling the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. He was no longer a prophet who proclaimed we were all gods and ‘the Father’ loved and embraced us no matter what4. He was now the ‘Good News’ itself, ‘The Christ’, the ultimate sacrifice and fulfiller of all prophecy. He had risen from the dead so that we might live.
This is when we first hear about being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ5 and being ‘saved by the blood of Christ’.
Almost immediately the disciples were healing people left and right. They were even raising the dead. Honestly, it sounds like they were doing more miracles than Jesus himself. But they did it all ‘in his name’’.
Their numbers steadily increased and, not being welcome in Israel, according to the Bible, they spread out mostly northward into Asia Minor, Greece and even Rome. We now know a significant number went southward into Africa.
Then a guy named Paul came along.
Paul was a contemporary of Jesus and although there’s no direct evidence that they ever met, it wouldn’t take much to believe they had
Paul was a well educated guy, born in Tarsus6 but now living in Jerusalem. He had grown up in a devout Hebrew sect called the Pharisees. His mother tongue was Greek but, being Jewish, he was fluent in Hebrew too.
Jesus was also a well educated guy7 who had a unique ability to inspire and influence the masses. What’s more, he was constantly on the warpath against the Pharisees. He didn’t like them at all and was forever calling them out as hypocrites and a brood of vipers. It’s easy to see how Paul would have had Jesus on his radar, and not in a good way.
As I previously stated, after ‘the Day of Pentecost’ a lot of Jesus’ followers hightailed it out of Jerusalem8 and spread out across Asia Minor where they started little communities dedicated to Jesus’ teachings. The Jewish hierarchy frowned on this new ‘Christian’ cult and enlisted Paul to track these heretics down and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. Paul jumped at the chance and was so good at his job he quickly gained a reputation as a ruthless bounty hunter. How much of Paul’s enthusiasm was fueled by Jesus’ animosity toward the Pharisees is anybody’s guess but I’ll bet it was significant.
As the story goes, Paul was on his way to Damascus to arrest some of these malcontents when he was struck blind and Jesus appeared to him in a vision and asked him why he was being such a dick. Three days later, “something like scales fell from his eyes”9 and his blindness was immediately lifted. Jesus came to him in another vision and Paul became an instant convert, immediately proclaiming Jesus as ‘the Christ’, heaven sent to save all mankind.
From here on Paul dominates the New Testament narrative. He traveled all over the Mediterranean teaching his version of ‘the Way’ to his mostly Greek converts. He was eventually taken to Rome to stand trial for sedition and apparently died there. Tradition says he was martyred but nobody knows for sure how, when or where he died. Paul’s ministry spanned less than forty years.
But Paul was a prodigious writer and in those forty years he extolled the virtues of Jesus Christ10 and “the Way” in his many letters to the various churches he’d visited on his travels These letters, along with the 4 Gospels11, make up the bulk of the New Testament. Even those books not directly written by Paul were written by his own disciples and were heavily influenced by his teaching.12
Paul was the driving force behind the establishment of the early Christian church and his writings were the foundation of all that followed. According to the New Testament, Paul’s vision of Jesus as the Christ and consequent savior of humanity quickly caught on among the small bands of this early Christian sect. It was simple, it was easy and it fit right in with the thought process of his mainly Greek converts.
In its essence Paul’s Christianity is very simple:
- God is all-powerful and good.
- We human beings are evil to the core13
- God and the Devil are constantly struggling for our souls but, since we’re essentially evil, the Devil has the upper hand.
- Jesus, the Christ, the ‘only begotten’ son of God, came to earth to provide the ultimate sacrifice that would reconcile us with God and defeat that evil Devil guy14.
- The only requirement is we acknowledge his sacrifice, recognize his divinity and accept him into our hearts as our ‘Lord and Saviour’.15
- If we do this, we are ‘saved’ and if we don’t, we’re ‘lost’ and Jesus’s sacrifice doesn’t do us any good16
- Everyone will rise on ‘the last day’ and be judged about their life on earth. The ‘saved’ ones will go to heaven to live with Jesus happily ever after and those who are ‘lost’ will burn in hell forever.
To these new Christians, Jesus was the sole, divine authority under heaven. Their salvation came from his sacrifice, ‘the blood of the lamb’ as they called it, and they were more than willing to die and be martyred in his name.
At this point in history divine rulers were nothing new17 but these kings only recognized their own divinity, not that of some upstart dead guy. They were none too happy with this new cult who recognized only Jesus as their supreme master. If you’ve ever heard about Christians being fed to the lions this is when all that was going on. Many of the early Christians paid the ultimate price for their beliefs
That’s the official story, but is that how it really went down?
Let’s see how this might have gone down if we look at it with a slightly more secular view.
First, it helps to know that these stories were first relayed by word of mouth for decades, sometimes even centuries, before ever being written down18. Most Biblical scholars believe the earliest any of these books could have been written was about 80 CE, years after Paul’s death. But that number is entirely theoretical because, in fact, the oldest surviving physical fragments of the New Testament we have were written anywhere from two to three hundred years after Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s plenty of time for the original meaning to be obscured at best, or manipulated at worst.
Recognizing the ancient Middle Eastern penchant for exaggeration, embellishment and putting story before fact, I’m going to assume most of the miracles attributed to Jesus’ followers19 in the book of ‘Acts’ are either exaggerations, metaphor, legend or pure fabrication. At this point in history glorifying leaders to the point of deity was nothing new and I’m sure the early Christians were no exception.
Let’s start with the ‘Day of Pentecost’. Were the Apostles hold up in an upper room? Probably. Did a tongue of fire run through the room and bestow the Holy Spirit on everyone? Probably not. So what really happened?
Consider that these people had just recently seen their beloved friend and spiritual leader brutally killed for beliefs they, themselves, passionately held. Can you imagine them up in that room trying to decide what to do? Should they pack it in and go back to being fishermen or should they risk their lives and continue to spread the message?
Can you also imagine one of them, probably Peter, being filled with the Holy Spirit, giving an impassioned plea that they should go forth and spread the ‘Good News’?20 Personally, I’ve heard many a preacher whose passion was “like a hot wind blowing my soul” and whose message “pierced my heart like the fiery hand of God.” I contend the ‘wind’ and ‘fire’ were originally metaphors but as the legend grew in telling after telling, the original trope of the ‘wind’ and ‘fire’ of the spirit were literally interpreted as.physical wind and fire.
Regardless, having been thoroughly energized and emboldened, can you see these same disciples fearlessly spilling into the streets, on fire to spread their message?21 Surprisingly they met very little resistance and even gained a respectable amount of acceptance. After all, just a little over a month before many of these people on the street had been enamored with Jesus enough to lay palm fronds beneath his feet. No doubt a significant number were glad to see Jesus’ disciples continuing his mission.
So ‘The Way’ grew as small bands of believers began to gather and then spread slowly throughout Asia Minor and Africa. Jesus’ actual disciples stayed in Jerusalem so these groups were made up of people who had been on the fringes, following Jesus around for the last couple of years. They did their best to understand this charismatic rabbi but how much they actually understood is anybody’s guess.22 They weren’t true disciples or part of the inner circle and, in fact, they were people who Jesus himself said didn’t really get it.23 But they got it enough to want to try to continue to live by his teachings.
THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS
Most scholars recognize the claim that Paul was some ruthless bounty hunter as complete fiction. Under Roman law he had no power to arrest, detain or imprison anyone.24 He was a private citizen just like anyone else. In any case, it’s unlikely the Jewish priests would enlist Paul to kidnap members of this new cult to be tried by the Romans. The Romans were none too happy about the whole Jesus fiasco and weren’t about to become the priest’s personal executioners. They’d seen cults come and go and the odds were good this would be more of the same, especially since they’d already killed the leader.
So what happened on the way to Damascus? Was Paul actually struck blind? Did ‘the scales fall off’ after his conversion?
Why Paul was on his way to Damascus, or if he actually was, is anybody’s guess but as far as going blind goes, it reminds me of a line in the old spiritual song ‘Amazing Grace’ that goes, “I once was blind, but now I see.” I contend Paul’s ‘blindness’ wasn’t a physical blindness at all, but a blindness of insight, a blindness to the truth that had not yet been revealed. Taken in the same context as the burning bush in Exodus and Jacob wrestling with an angel on his way back to the Palestine,25 we can see Paul was struggling with a huge emotional dilemma culminating in his revelation where the “scales fell off”26 and he could finally see the truth.
I can see this story getting easily lost in translation. Taking idioms and phraseology literally is the pitfall of any translation. Throughout this treatise we’ve seen it plenty of times. Through the telling, re-telling and embellishment deeply rooted in the oral tradition, Paul the bounty hunter turned convert became a compelling story that gave him immeasurable credibility. And it made his revelation and conversion all the more powerful.
Taking all this into consideration, just what was Paul’s revelation?
Before we get to the actual revelation we need to know a little bit more about Paul.
Paul came from a hard core Jewish sect called the Pharisees. Most people don’t have a clue what the Pharisees believed but when I started looking into it I was floored.
The Pharisees believed strongly in adherence to Jewish tradition and law but they also had some pretty radical views compared with traditional Judaism.
One of the things that set them apart was they believed in an afterlife. Most Jews believed you just died and that was it. But in the Pharisee afterlife the dead would be resurrected and rewarded or punished for what they had done in this lifetime. In other words, there would be a Judgement Day.
They also believed in heaven and hell, supernatural beings like angels, demons and the devil, and they were certain an ‘anointed one’, a messiah, would rise up in the manner of King David and restore Israel to its former glory.
The Pharisees were basically Christians waiting for their ‘Christ’.
Imagine Paul’s real revelation, when “the scales fell off” so to speak, was when he realized Jesus was the mystical fulfillment of all his Pharisaical beliefs.
Jesus had spoken often of angels, demons, the ‘evil one’, the resurrection of the dead, even judgment day, all staples of Pharisee doctrine. Paul’s vision made it crystal clear that Jesus’ message of a loving Father was a high spiritual concept unlike any the world had seen before27.
Jesus’ simple teachings not only accomplished what the Law of Moses and Jewish tradition had been trying to accomplish for thousands of years, but with his death, the final sacrifice, they transcended the need for physical constraints of any kind.
Jesus had consistently separated the “Law of God” from the “statutes of Moses” and now Paul knew why. He knew the only “Law of God” was that we love one another28. The “Good News” was that this love lived within each one of us and once we consciously connected with it, it would set us free to enjoy all the “fruits of the kingdom”.
Jews had been following the statues of Moses for generations in a vain attempt to achieve the one true Law that Jesus’ life demonstrated so clearly. Jesus did indeed lighten their burdens and his yolk was indeed easy29. Thus, Jesus, through the way he lived his life, had “fulfilled the Law”.30
Paul saw that, just as Jesus had said, the ‘Life’ of God was eternal, separate from the physical body and if we would but follow his simple teachings we would indeed “break the bonds of death”. His vision showed that what we saw as death was an illusion. Jesus had specifically said God was eternal and lived within each one of us. In fact, he said we were all gods and thus we were all eternal. By living in and as the spirit of the living God we would indeed be living “in the body of Christ” and never taste death.
He saw that heaven and hell were metaphors, states of being, not places to go. Paul finally understood that what man had been looking for in the physical world was not ‘out there’, but deep within himself. The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was indeed within each one of us. Real salvation, as Jesus had so often said, came from a sacrifice of the heart, a surrendering to the Spirit within. God loved all of us as precious as a first born son and wanted nothing more than that we should have all the gifts of ‘the kingdom’.
Paul’s revelation showed the true messiah, what he called the ‘Christ’31, was that spark of divinity that lives within each of us, the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ within. The ‘Christ’ was not a person, but a state of being. Jesus recognized this ‘Christ’ within himself and was able to use it as few had before. Jesus was not a mere messiah here to save the Jews from the Romans but a ‘Christed one’ who, through his example and simple message, could show humanity ‘the Way’ and save mankind from itself.
Jesus was ‘the Way’ alright, but not in the way most people think. As the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn related, when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” he meant that to have a true relationship with God, one must practice the ‘way’ of Jesus.
To walk in ‘the Way’ we must walk in the footsteps of the master, we must walk in the way of unconditional love.
I believe this was Paul’s true revelation. All his Pharisaical aspirations, and so much more, were fulfilled in this one man’s life.
Once revealed, Paul was an instant, enthusiastic convert and he embarked on several journeys throughout Asia Minor to share his revelation with the small communities of early adherents of ‘the Way’.
It’s easy to see how these communities would clamor to hear Paul speak. After all, he’d come from Jerusalem, hung out with the disciples and, according to him, been chosen by Jesus himself to spread the word.32 He was fluent in Greek and deeply understood their customs. Under Paul’s guidance, followers of ‘the Way’ became followers of ‘Christ’ and the Christian Church was born.
If you look closely, you can see Paul’s original version of Christianity was much closer to Jesus’ core teachings but told through the lens of his original Pharisaical beliefs. With Jesus’ life having fulfilled the law and his death having been the ultimate sacrifice, Jewish tradition had not so much been negated, but ‘fulfilled’, accomplished to the point of not being necessary anymore. Jesus was the perfect Pharisaical messiah.
So what happened? Why is the Christianity we know today so far removed from Jesus’ original teachings? Two things mostly.
First, we need to remember that the people who scribed the original scriptures never knew Jesus or heard a word he said. And since these communities were largely isolated from each other, they ultimately developed their own belief systems concerning Jesus and circulated the various stories and letters to fit what they had decided to be true.
Once Paul came along he was able to get them more or less on the same page with his version of ‘the Way’. The people who wrote the New Testament were Paul’s disciples through and through and they did their best to document what he’d taught them. Even so, what Paul had taught was a constant source of contention.
The one thing they all agreed on was Paul’s core teaching that Jesus was the final sacrifice and if we were washed in his blood33 we would be saved.
Secondly, about 300 years after Jesus’ execution, the Roman emperor Constantine became a convert to ‘the Way’ and Rome basically took over the whole thing. Over time and through a series of councils, political wranglings and back door compromises, the church sifted through the myriad stories, letters, legends and folklore that had grown up around this man Jesus and decided which ones they would canonize to be true and which they would condemn as heresy.
During this time Jesus was ‘officially’ ordained to be divine, to be the one and only son of God who had sacrificed himself on the cross so that we might be saved. This is when it became ‘official’ that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. This is when it was ‘officially’ declared we had to believe all this in order to be saved, otherwise we were condemned to hell.
Believe it or not, up until then, all these claims had been hotly contested among the followers of ‘the Way’. But the Roman Catholic Church put a stop to that.
The books that make up what we now call the New Testament34 were picked specifically because they support this ‘official’ version of Jesus and his reason for being. The ones that didn’t were condemned as heresy.
For over 1,000 years the Roman Catholic Church held Christianity in an iron grip and brutally purged the world of as many of these ‘heretical’ writings, teachings and adherents as it could.35 Many Christians paid the ultimate price for their beliefs except this time it was at the hand of their fellow Christians.
Fast forward to the modern era and we find a Christian church as fragmented as it’s ever been. From hyper-conservative fundamentalists to ultra-liberal Unitarians, the gap between what different groups think about Jesus and how to interpret the Bible has never been greater.
But the one thing they all agree on is this; God sacrificed his only begotten son so that we might live.
How this happened is beyond me. Jesus was adamant that God didn’t care for sacrifice and God specifically prohibited child sacrifice36.
So how did Christianity become a blood cult based on the sacrifice of the first born son of its own God? Was it because Paul’s Pharisee indoctrination demanded the ritual sacrifice? Was that part of his revelation? Or did some of his converts with more Pharisaical leanings twist the meaning after Paul died. I guess we’ll never know.
However it happened, the fact remains that modern Christianity is a religion based on the blood sacrifice of the first born child. I’m going to go out a limb here and just say it; that is just NOT what Jesus was teaching.
1Forty days, there’s the number again.
2I always wondered why he didn’t go for broke and just walk into the temple and blow their minds.Also, there were no independent witnesses so we have to take the disciples word for it.
3This is where the ‘speaking in tongues’ thing comes from.
4See the Prodigal Son in the section on the Parables.
5 I always thought it funny they’d come up with the ‘Jesus Christ’ moniker so quickly.
6Modern day Turkey
7Remember the priestly connection? Chances are better than even he was at one time training to be a priest.
8Except his actual disciples who stayed put.
10I always find it interesting that people almost immediately after his death began to call him ‘Jesus Christ’, like Christ was his last name. Shouldn’t it be more like “Jesus, the Christed one” or something like that?
11Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
12Contrary to popular belief, none of Jesus’ original apostles wrote any of the New Testament books.
13Original sin; whatever that is
14No more sacrificing goats
15Reminds me of the loyalty tests the Old Testament God constantly demanded.
16I’ve often wondered why we have to believe the sacrifice took place. Why should it matter? If someone pays off my house do I really have to ‘believe’ it? It’s done anyway, right? Asking for a friend
17Especially in Rome.
18Just like the Old Testament.
19And maybe to Jesus himself.
20Think Knute Rockney or Martin Luther King, Jr..
21I’m going to write off the speaking in tongues to common Aramaic exaggeration and embellishment.
22There’s a scene in Monty Python’s movie, “The Life of Brian”, that illustrates this brilliantly.
23Matthew 13:13. That’s a significant fact in and of itself.
25Or Jonah in the belly of a fish, for that matter
26Having had such an epiphany myself I can totally see how that could happen.
27At least in that part of the world.
28Matthew 7:12, John 13:34, Hillel the Elder
31Christ is the Greek word for messiah.
34Depending on your version; the Catholic Bible is different from the Baptist Bible, etc.
35Thanks to archeologists all over the world many of these writings have resurfaced for your perusal.