Fun With Stats: Dwindling Christianity

Religiosity is declining in America. In 1948, the first year Gallup began tracking America’s religiosity, 91% of Americans identified as either Protestant or Catholic. In 2018, the total percentage of Christian Americans, which now tracks denominations beyond Protestant and Catholic,was 67%.

Much of this rapid decline occurred after 2000, at a time when 80% of Americans identified as Christian. Since then, Christian affiliation has fallen by a whopping 16%. In that same time, Americans who identify as having no religious affiliation have increased from 8% to 20%.

Below is a graph showing this decline. The steepest decline has been among Protestants. Catholic numbers have fallen too, but not as impressively as Protestants. The remaining non-Catholic Christianities have actually increased in numbers since 2000.


I built statistical models using Gallup data from 2000-2018. I omitted inclusion of pre-2000 data because it seems intuitively less predictive of future patterns than post-2000 data. Though Christianity’s numbers were falling before the turn of the century, the rate of decline increased after 2000.

I used these models to predict future growth or decline of Christianity.

The fields below show a range, which represents a 95% confidence interval, of anticipated Christian affiliation in the coming decades.


My models, which all used Caret-machine learning linear models in the statistics package R, anticipate a roughly 1% decrease in association in all Christianities per year. If these models hold, America will have fewer than 50% Christians between 2040 and 2050. If recent trends hold, American Protestantism may be entirely gone by then. These models also show those Americans with no denominational affiliation will represent about 40% of Americans by 2050, doubling its current number.

Interestingly, these models also predict alternative Christianities will increase during this time, and Catholicism will only trend slightly down.

Of course, there is a chance trajectory slows during this time, rendering these estimates entirely incorrect. But I was unable to find a realistic model which anticipated this, given the steep drop since 2000.

Below are predictions in graphical format from now until 2050.



The New Testament Through The Lens of Proverbs 1-9

Many of the themes found throughout the New Testament can be spotted in the Book of Proverbs, particularly Proverbs 1-9.

For example, consider a passage in Proverbs 2:

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you,turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

Consider how this passage would have read to someone who had in his mind the story of Judas betraying Jesus for a pocketful of silver.

This correlation between the New Testament and Proverbs is not an accident.

When you read the former part of Proverbs, you’ll notice much attention to knowledge or Wisdom. For example, Proverbs 1:22 poses the questions “How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?” Proverbs 1 continues its lament “…since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord. Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke,they will eat the fruit of their ways”. This fruit rings like the (absence of) fruit Jesus complained about on his way to the temple in Mark 11, when he cursed the fig tree. A popular theological interpretation of the fig tree cursing is that the fig tree represented the Jewish temple, which no longer produced religious fruit, and therefore needed to be destroyed.

Next consider a passage from Proverbs 2:

Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth…

The adulterous woman is a ringer for the woman who rode in on the dragon in Revelation 17:3, who was “sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns”. Therefore, the partner of this adulterous woman’s youth might either be the dragon or the beast to whom the dragon rendered his power in Revelation 13.

Consider this passage from Proverbs 5, another reminder of the adulterous woman:

For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil;but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword.

In the end, the lady was bitter as gall, the same gall Jesus refused on the cross the first time. But also recall that Jesus accepts the gall the second time. In my opinion, early Christians would have read this as evidence that the Christ Spirit had left Jesus – the Spirit-less man who was rendered a simple Jew who served his purposes, but was rendered empty like the fig tree; the Spirit would live on (to the early Gnostic group, the Basilideans) in the cross-bearer, Simon of Cyrene. Interestingly, the double edged sword shows up in various Christian literature, notably in Revelation 19, when the heavenly warrior who battled the beast, had a tongue as a double edged sword.

In Revelation, the adulterous woman, the Whore of Babylon, had rode in on the dragon which had earlier displaced the lady from Revelation 12. In the aftermath of the dragon (and beast) assuming power, we see a reference to wisdom in Revelation 13:18: “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast…” In other words, the antidote to the control that the beast had was access to Wisdom. Proverbs 7 gives an instruction:

Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and to insight, “You are my relative.” They will keep you from the adulterous woman, from the wayward woman with her seductive words.

Revelation 12:17 gives a familial relation between the woman and the keepers, which would have been Nasar in Hebrew. However, in Revelation, the crowned sun lady was the mother.

Wisdom in Revelation 13:18 becomes a pointer to the woman clothed in the sun from Revelation 12. This happens via Proverbs 4:

She will give you a garland to grace your head and present you with a glorious crown.”

This notion from Proverbs 4 is echoed in the Book of Jesus ben Sirach: “you [the high priest] will wear her like a glorious robe, and put her on like a crown of gladness” (6:31). The her to whom Ben Sirach referred to was Wisdom (6:18).
This woman in Proverbs is a queen, and like the star-crowned lady in Revelation 12, is able to present a crown to the next King.

Proverbs 3 gives us more insight into who this woman, Wisdom, is: “She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.” Without delving too deeply into the details here, I remind the reader that the story of the 2 trees in Eden was likely a bastardization of an earlier story, constructed to redefine the tree of life as Mosaic law, rather than its earlier meaning, which I believe was a reference to the fashioned poles, known as Asherah poles, which legend has it were present during 1st temple times, prior to Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms; this is found notably in 2 Kings 23:4: “The king ordered Hilkiah the high priest, the priests next in rank and the doorkeepers to remove from the temple of the Lord all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. He burned them outside Jerusalem”.


The Gnostics seemed to remember the earlier tree story in On the Origin of the World, when Eve escapes the clutches of the creators of the material world (the archons), and goes to live in the tree of knowledge.

Then Eve, being a force, laughed at their decision. She put mist into their eyes and secretly left her likeness with Adam. She entered the tree of knowledge and remained there. And they pursued her, and she revealed to them that she had gone into the tree and become a tree. Then, entering a great state of fear, the blind creatures fled.

In this theory, the dual nature of the lady, who simultaneously represented the tree of life and Wisdom of God, was split and repurposed in the Orthodox Eden-Tree story. Eve is simply a reworking of an earlier Wisdom Queen.

The Proverbs’ writer’s memory had this lady present from the very beginning:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.

This is reminiscent of the rethinking of the creation story in the Gospel of John, which injects the Word into the creation (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God). The flip side of this coin in the Gnostic story is in various Gnostic creation stories, which had Sophia (Wisdom) acting as the proxy between God, the archons, and the creation of the material realm. Proverbs 8 continues on this creation theme, recalling something significantly different than what is in Genesis: “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.”

The last example I present is from Proverbs 9: “Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars.She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table.” But what is Wisdom’s house? We need only consider the context through which Wisdom was cast out of the holy land: it was when Josiah purged her from the 1st temple. Text in the so-called Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch 93 remembers this purge:

…in the sixth week, all who live in the temple shall be blinded. And the hearts of all of them shalll godlessly forsake Wisdom…in the seventh week, shall an apostate generation arise…

Therefore, the adulterous woman which Proverbs and Revelation remembers is simply a reference to the 2nd temple, which housed this “apostate generation”.  Revelation 21 makes reference to the Christian end-game, which would usher in a new Holy land (something which would have been absent after Jews and Christians were expelled from Jerusalem in the 130s):

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.

This impulse to call Jerusalem a woman is found throughout Jewish literature. One interesting story is in 2 Esdras 9-10, where Ezra encounters a grieving woman with ashes on her head, lamenting the death of her son in the bridal chamber. Ezra becomes upset with the grieving woman, who planned not to return to the city: “Zion the mother of us all is afflicted in sadness and utterly dejected.” The lady responded “I will not, and I will not go into the city, but I will die here.” The interaction ends with the lady converting the field she was in into the holy city: “Suddenly her face shone brightly…Without warning she let out a noise, a great voice full of fear, so that the earth itself shook…she no longer appeared to me as a woman, but there was a city built, and a place with great foundations appeared”.

The angel Uriel interpreted this interaction for the protagonist Ezra:

This woman whom you saw is Zion, whom you now see built as a city…As for what she said to you, that she was infertile for thirty years, it is because there were three thousand years in the world when offerings weren’t yet made in her. After three thousand years, Solomon built the city and made offerings. That is when the infertile woman bore a son…her son came into his wedding chamber and died and that misfortune happened to her, this is the destruction that happened to Jerusalem.

The decoder key provided by 2 Esdras is quite useful in deciphering Revelation, and other early Christian keywords. The field is the place where the New Jerusalem shall be. The lady is the mother of the temple, and by extension, the people who worship there. The son is the temple. The bridal chamber is where the death of the son occurs. One consideration is that the bridal chamber is the heart of the temple, otherwise known as the Holy of Holies; indeed, the Holy of Holies was where the high priest would go once per year, and become a conduit between Earth and God. The Holy of Holies was separated by a veil – that same veil which tore while Jesus died on the cross.

The lady, the New Jerusalem, mixed wine in her house. Jeremiah (44:19) provides a potential reference to this, via Egyptian refugees who had been forced forced from Jerusalem following the Babylonian invasion:

“Moreover,” said the women, “when we burned incense to the queen of heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, was it without our husbands’ knowledge that we made sacrificial cakes in her image and poured out drink offerings to her?”

The Gospel of John remembers a tradition that made reference to the mother and the son, which featured wine. In this story (John 2), the servants were out of wine. The mother told Jesus they were out of wine, and Jesus wondered why she shared this with him. At that point, Jesus’s mother renders authority to her son, which prompts Jesus to convert water to wine and subsequently begins his messianic career.

The Nasarene Delivery

A curious aspects of the Mandaeans, a small Mesopotamian religious sect which reveres John the Baptist, who it juxtaposes against Jesus the Nazarene, is that they call themselves Nasurai.

Found within their religious texts are pointers to Christian traditions. For example, the Mandaean Book of John re-tells the story of Jesus’s baptism by John. The Mandaean version remembers what is presumably the earliest version of the story, where the Dove descends on Jesus during the baptism ritual, implanting him with the Holy Spirit.

Although this adoptionistic formula is preserved in the modern canon, the Christology of it deviates from Orthodoxy. Jesus’s real claim to fame, according to modern dogma, is not that he was Joe Nobody before baptism, special enough to receive this mysterious Spirit. Rather, Jesus was predetermined to be the messiah, implanted in Mary by God.

We can track the evolution from Holy Spirit adoptionism to virgin birth via the various beliefs of scattered Valentinian sects, particularly in Italy, who believed Jesus was born from Mary as through a pipe, never physically touching her. This rings as a subsequent evolution from the Eastern Valentinian traditions, who believed that the Christ entered Jesus’ psychic body at the time of baptism.

For the Mandaeans, this Holy Spirit was the Earthly malevolent Spirit Ruha. Thus we have a rethinking, but significant relevance for what adoptionism means in the Mandaean system. The general idea, which given its popularity and dispersion must have been the original one, is that Spirits live in people, animals, buildings, and land. This idea originated in Judaism, particularly as Apocalyptic literature became more popular.

In the Gospels, Jesus suceeds John. We can infer that Jesus attracted John’s followers after he was delivered up to Herod. We see evidence of some contention between the John and Jesus sects in Mark 2:18-20. In particular, the contention seems to surround who is the bridegroom – John or Jesus.

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

The term delivered (παρεδόθη) caught my eye this morning. Paul uses a version of it in 1 Cor 11:23 (παρεδίδετο). The term Paul uses is usually mistranslated as betrayed (“on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread…”). The term is often translated to handed over or delivered, rather than betrayed.

Versions of the term are used throughout the New Testament, but one place I recently noticed its use was in Matthew 4:12. Interestingly enough, this term is not used in the earlier Gospel, Mark, with regard to John. Given Matthew’s closer proximity to Judaism than Mark, I wonder if Matthew remembers something Mark omits by making reference to this term with regards to John.

If that is the case, we might consider reasons why Matthew’s Gospel diverges from Mark, and the motivation behind it. Matthew, even the prototype versions we might presume existed before embellishments about the virgin birth, family lineage, ministry, and resurrection, has a very different idea about Jesus than Mark does. As I have stated in previous posts, and various scholars have detailed from time to time, Mark is a Gospel which canonized Paul.

When we factor in the Mandaean parallels, specifically that they are an extension of the Nasarenes, as well as espousing a similar adoptionism which mirrors the earlier Christian theology, it seems the Christian canon is a bastardization of earlier Nasarene traditions which placed emphasis on this delivery. In other words, the true prophet is handed over to the authorities.

In previous posts, I have argued that John and Jesus are fictional representations of real history described by Josephus. John is Theudas and Jesus is the Egyptian.

In Josephus’s history, the Egyptian causes a riot after claiming he could knock down the temple walls; he escapes, and was never heard from again. A Roman commander mistakes Paul for the Egyptian in Acts 21:38.

Theudas was not so lucky. The Judean procurator sent a band of soldiers to collect his head after he ministered around the Jordan River and performed water rituals of some sort. These events occurred 15 to 25 years after the Gospel timeline.

We are told by Clement of Alexandria that Paul and Theudas had a student/teacher relationship. This is of course problematic for the timeline we get from Josephus; however, if we invert the relationship, we find that Theudas being a teacher of Paul is much more plausible. Clement goes on to write that Theudas was a teacher of Valentinus, who held a high position in the 2nd century Christian “church.”

Given the contention between subsequent Mandaean and Christian traditions, I wonder if this relationship between Paul, Theudas, and Valentinus represents the rift within the Nasarene religion which gave rise to the subsequent divergences within Christianity. If we follow these speculations, we have one tradition where the prophet is handed over, and another where he escapes – tricking the rulers who are pursuing him. Both tropes spring up in subsequent flavors of Christianity, particularly in Gnosticism.

Fun With Stats: Abortion Rate

Against my better judgement, I got drawn into a Facebook debate this weekend.

It became clear as I was e-conversing with my old friends that many non-pro-choice people do not realize abortion rates in the US are in decline, and have been for decades.  This phenomenon is an overall positive for anyone whose goal is to minimize induced abortions, which is desirable regardless of political ideology.

This post will not be a diatribe.  Rather, it will simply share statistical findings I pursued as a result of this conversation. These findings suggest a clear and likely continued reduction in abortions in the US for the foreseeable future.

Below is a chart of abortion rate by year.  As is evident from the below graph, the abortion rate in the US peaked in the early 1980s, several years after rapid increase following the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision.  It has fallen steadily since then.


Something happened in the early 1980s which caused a significant decline in abortions, and this trajectory has continued for decades.  There is no evident expert consensus on what caused this drop.  One possibility is that this directional change was caused by a combination of easier access to birth control, education, lower organic birth rate, and perhaps evolving social stigma associated with abortion.

There are slight increases (or at least slowed decrease) during economic recessions – those recessions were in 1987, 1990, 2000, and 2008.

I conducted statistical analysis to determine what might happen to abortion rates in the future by building statistical models and feeding future parameters into those models to derive predicted values.


Data is from Wikipedia, which uses CDC data.  I appended onto the data the political party which controlled the presidency during the years in the dataset.  I used R-Studio software, which in my mind is the best statistical package in the world…at the very least, the best free one :).  My dataset looked as follows:

*Note:  The AbortRt variable represents the induced abortion rate per 1,000 live births.  In 1980, around peak abortion rate, there were 359 abortions per 1000 live births.

The first model

I used a simple linear model, transforming Abortion count into its logarithm (log(Abortions)).  For example, the log of abortions in 1980, 1.29mln, is approximately 14.07.  The model therefore was

log(Abortions)=Year+Political Party

Below are coefficients of the model.

log(Abortions)=(-24945*Year)+(47753*Political Party)

In this model, the R² (correlation between the input and output variables) is about 83%, and the model’s p-value is nearly 0, indicating this is a good model.  In my own experience, this quality of model is very good, given the lack of other input variables.


Things to note:

  1.  The p-value of the Political Party variable is .25, suggesting it does not contribute much to the model.
  2. When I remove Party from the model, I get roughly the same results.  Occam’s razor says that the better model is simply
    log(Abortions)  = Intercept+(Coefficient* Year)
  3. The residuals (error) in the model is quite wide, and not quite centered around 0, suggesting a problem in the model.
  4. In the revised model, which excludes Party, the equation is
    log(Abortions) = 72.509077 + (-0.029358*Year)  (p=2.254e-09)
  5. Notice that the coefficient of the revised model is -.029358.  In other words, the negative coefficient in the model means that the trend line is decreasing every year.  This is self-evident, but noteworthy.

Another Model

I wondered if abortion rate might be more useful than raw abortion numbers.  When I built a model targeting abortion rate rather than count, political party again was again insignificant.

The model was:  AbortionRate = Intercept + (Coefficient * Year).  


This rate model is better than the first.  Its  error residuals were narrower and more centered around 0 than the first model. It has a lower p-value for the overall model, and a R² (correlation between the input and target variables) of about 93%.

Predictions with this model

The abortion rate per 1000 live births for the most recently available year, 2014, is 186.  Using the rate model, I predicted abortions for years 2017-2020 (2017 abortion data for the US is not evidently available).  By 2020, this model predicts the abortion rate will be 160.09 per 1000 live births (95% confidence interval is [126.5423, 193.6397]).  


Further Discussion

The primary problem with the best model in this paper is that it does not include any relevant explanatory variables which might give insight into what brought on the eventual drop in abortion rate.  We hypothesize reasons, but did not include any statistical tests, aside from presidential political party.  We investigated other variables not discussed in this paper, including minimum wage and unemployment.  Neither significantly affected the model’s performance.

We used other modeling techniques, as well, such as machine learning; however, the simple linear model was the best of the models we attempted.  Given the observed curvature of the actual data, some other sort of geometric transformation of the data would probably render better fit and predictions.  As with any non horizontal linear model, there is also the question of sustainability of the trend.  It is plausible that the decreases will slow in the coming years, especially if the US experiences another recession, following the earlier observation that economic recessions seem to put upward pressure on abortion rates.  Also worth studying is whether economic indicators apply significantly to this model.  We also suspect that political party of the president, as well as political party of Congress, may well have a contributing effect to a hypothesized model; this suspicion assumes that there is some lag between policy implementation and actual perceived effects on rate change.  For example, if a policy is implemented under one political party, it might not necessarily take effect until another political party comes to power.


It is difficult to know whether the abortion rate trajectory from 1980 to 2014 will continue to hold.  At present, it is falling 5.5 abortions per 1000 live births per year.  If it continues this rate, by 2020 the abortion rate will 160 per 1000 live births, which is a 55% decrease from its peak in 1980, and 14% lower than the most recently available year.  Given that many of the hypothesized reasons for the original trajectory change in the early 1980s,  including easy access to birth control, as well as early sex education,  it is plausible that ongoing abortion rate reductions will continue.  Anyone who wishes to see a significant reduction in abortion rate should take at least some comfort in these numbers.

Criterion of Embarrassment

The question is often posed by defenders of Jesus Christ’s historicity:
Why would Christ’s Apostles allow unflattering characterizations of themselves to permeate in the Gospels?

Throughout the Gospels, the Apostles are portrayed as dimwits, unable or unwilling to follow Jesus’s commands to the letter. Jesus even tells Peter to get behind him, and then refers to him as Satan! (Mk 8:33).

In my view, the answer to this question is quite disastrous to not only Jesus’s historicity, but also to the Apostles.

Let us consider some plausible reasons why the heroic Apostles would be characterized in a way as to paint them in an unflattering light:

1. Exposure of weaknesses set the stage for later epiphanies.
Most heroes must go through personal growth in order to become heroes. Personal growth implies prior imperfection
2. Exposing failings of his disciples juxtaposes Jesus and them.
Such juxtaposition creates the sort of differentiation which highlights Jesus. The Apostles were little more than supporting cast members
3. It was virtuous to have moral failings
Such virtue survives into modern Christianity. We often hear “I am born sick/a sinner/fallen”. Such failings create a bridge between the reader and Jesus via the Apostles

In my mind these solutions are the most intuitive.

However, during these past years of accumulating information about early Christianity, I have come to suspect the real solution is more insidious than what these solutions imply.

For background, I would ask the reader to consider some background facts:

  1. The Gospels were not written in Hebrew or Aramaic. They were written in Greek, a fact which implies the authors might not have been from Judea (and indeed probably were not)
  2. Mark, the least Jewish of the Synoptic Gospels, and perhaps the least knowledgeable of Judean geography and culture, was the first Gospel written.
  3. Later writers, more familiar with Jewish culture, redacted Mark to correct obvious errors.
  4. Consumers of traditions in Mark’s Gospel, namely the Basilideans, were adoptionists, believing that the Spirit moves from person to person
  5. These adoptionistic themes are found throughout Mark

Adoptionism means that the Spirit is up for grabs. There is contention over it. Different players in the communities want it, claim it, and do not want to give it up. As evidenced in Acts 8:9–24, the key players, namely Peter and John, will not even give up the Spirit for money! Paul’s eyelid maintenance technician, Ananias, died in Acts 5:1-11 for attempting to withhold money from these same Apostles, which means that money was not entirely unimportant within these groups.  The fact that Ananias had to die for withholding earnings from the church smacks of a not-so-subtle attack (by proxy) of the Apostle Paul (given the relationship Ananias played in Paul’s epiphany).

According to the Basilideans, the Spirit did not move to the proximily close Apostles after Jesus died; rather, it was to the previously unknown Simon, the heroic cross-bearer who had the unhappy task of bearing Jesus Christ’s cross while he was marched to his death to fulfill a prophesy to save humanity.

As I have proposed for quite some time now, I suspect that the anomalous demon-caster in Mark 9:38-40, who had his own version of the Spirit and had the ability to cast out demons without Jesus’s explicit authority (which was in contrast to the Apostles’ authority in Mark 3:15), was a foreshadowing of this Simon, and subsequently, the unexpected later recipient of the Spirit.

Incidentally, Mark’s redactors explicitly went out of their way to have Jesus subjugate this demon caster. Matthew 7:22-23 makes it clear what its authors thought of this demon-caster:

Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Matthew, whose adoptionistic roots are as detectable as Mark’s (although later versions included a rethinking of this theology via the virgin birth), had different ideas about who the Spirit recipient was. I will spare the reader any guessing and put forward that Matthew’s users believed Peter was the next Spirit-holder.

This forces us to consider who the earliest Gospel writers had in mind, in terms of the contention over the next generation’s Spirit wielder. If it is not obvious at this point, consider a passage from one of Paul’s letters (Gal 2:11-13)

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

This remarkable insight into the very earliest Christian in-fighting, which frankly is never resolved by Paul (although efforts are made in Acts of the Apostles), confirms to us exactly who stood in contrast to Cephas/Peter. It was Paul!

Paul’s alter-ego, at least to some Ebionites, was Simon. Therefore, the Simon Magus encounter in Acts 8 is little more than the alternative perspective of the Antioch incident Paul describes in Galatians.

In this context, let us revisit the initial question in this post:

Why would Christ’s Apostles allow unflattering characterizations of themselves to permeate in the Gospels?

What I have implied here is that the earliest Gospel authors wrote the Apostles in a negative light because they were hostile to the Apostles and they believed that Paul was the true revealer of Christian Gnosis. The personal shortcomings of the Apostles were designed to demonstrate their inferiority to Paul. To the earliest authors, Paul was the rightful owner of the Spirit. He was the Paraclete.

Which author fits this profile? Who loves Paul but is somewhere on the spectrum between hostile and ambivalent towards the Jerusalem Apostles?

In my mind, the answer could not be more obvious: it was the Marcionites!


The Marcionite canon included 10 of Paul’s letters, along with a scaled down Synoptic Gospel. We can also plausibly put the Marcionites’ activity at the time when these Gospels were authored.

The next question in this line is: why do later Gospels repeat Mark’s characterization of the Apostles? In my mind, this is explained by the fact that the proto-Mark was already very popular – too popular to withstand too drastic of a reworking without Orthodoxical authority behind it. The cat was out of the bag, and frankly, such a drastic reworking was unnecessary and untenable.

Reworking of the Apostles would instead be done in various Acts literature by communities focused on emphasizing historicity and writing the ancient equivalent of fan fiction.

The implication here is that much of the intellectual property developed by the earliest Christian practitioners was hijacked and repurposed by a later Orthodoxy.

10 Unexpected Facts About Early Christianity

I shared an article written by Candida Moss on my personal Facebook page today, and couldn’t help but write an accompanying diatribe about underlying facts that inform my interpretation of articles and books such as these. I thought I’d modify it and post here, as well.


This is a more superficial glance into early Christianity than I usually give here, and it also avoids straying too much from scholarly consensus…but I still think these facts make it much more difficult to believe the traditional narrative remembered about early Christianity:

1. The Gospels aren’t written in the right language. Most of the earliest manuscripts are in Greek, but some exist in other languages, as well, such as the Egyptian Coptic language. There were rumors of early Gospel manuscripts written in Aramaic and Hebrew, but no such manuscript has ever been found
2. The Gospel authors didn’t use the right version of the “Old Testament”. References to the Old Testament in the Gospels were readings from the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. One would expect the Gospels to make reference to the Hebrew Old Testament, but they don’t.
3. Despite it appearing first in the New Testament, Matthew was not the first Gospel written. Rather, the first Gospel appears to be Mark, or some version of it. This is to say, the first Gospel lacked a virgin birth. Some early Christian sects were adamant that Jesus was not born of a virgin. The earliest manuscripts of Mark also lack a resurrection.
4. According to some of the earliest Christian writers, Christian sects tended not to use multiple Gospels; rather, they used a single Gospel (AH iii.11.7). The Gospels were not compiled into a multi-text “canon” until the late 2nd century. Some combinations were “harmony Gospels”, but the prototype for the current New Testament was assembled by a bishop named Irenaeus, Circa 185.
5. The earliest Christian to compile a multi-text canon was named Marcion, a native of Northern Turkey. One might expect Marcion was an ardent follower of the Jewish Apostles, but he was not. Rather, he saw the Apostles, such as Peter, James, and John, to be inferior to the person he considered to be the true revealer of Christian knowledge, the Apostle Paul. Marcion’s name translates to “Little Mark.”
6. Despite the geography referenced in the New Testament, there is not much evidence Christianity was actually popular around Jerusalem. The Gospel of Mark even seems unfamiliar with geography, having Jesus walk some 50 unnecessary miles on foot to a city called Tyre.
7. Christianity was very popular in Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, before it moved into Rome.
8. According to some early Bishops, some Christian sects believed Jesus lived 100 years earlier than tradition states. There is also a Jewish anti-Christian text called the Toldoth Yeshu which makes reference to Jesus living at this time.
9. There was a contemporary and competitor of Jesus, named Simon – a magician, who referred to himself as “the Standing One”. Some “radical” scholars in the late 19th and early 20th century believed that the person we remember as the Apostle Paul was actually an encryption of this Simon. Many words were written about Simon by early Christian writers, and he even shows up in the New Testament, in Acts of the Apostles 8. Though the Paul=Simon theory never became popular consensus, one can build an interesting narrative around it.
10. There are references throughout Mark’s Gospel to magic. Jesus is clearly a magician in Mark. He uses saliva to restore hearing and sight to people who were without. Such practices were common for 1st and 2nd century magicians. An interesting detail about the Gospel of Matthew is that it removes such magical references. This makes sense, given what we know about the Matthew community; in particular, they were more attached to the day’s Jewish Orthodoxy than was Mark’s community. The rest of Christianity followed suit, but it makes the question of who originally authored and used Mark much more intriguing.

Implications of the Simon-Jesus Parallels

In my previous post, I discussed parallels between the Simon Magus traditions and scenes in the Gospel of Mark. The most significant parallel in my mind comes with the woman in Tyre who begged Jesus to heal her daughter. I argued this woman was dual cast as Helen and Mary Magdalene. She makes a pithy argument on behalf of her daughter, and Jesus cured her. The subtext hiding in this anecdote is that Jesus took an extraordinarily inefficient by-foot route, traveling some 50 miles out of his way. This trip, which observers have noticed over the centuries, is nonsensical in most contexts; however, it makes more sense given various assumptions:

  1. Mark’s author was unfamiliar with the local geography. This admittedly is the most plausible explanation.
  2. Jesus was attempting to get out of Dodge. This is plausible if the Gospel Jesus character was, as I suspect, influenced by the so-called Egyptian, who Josephus wrote eluded Jerusalem law enforcement after causing riots. Incidently, Paul is accused of being this Egyptian by a Roman commander in Acts 21:38.
  3. The whole Gospel story was constructed to intertwine Simon Magus traditions with Jesus traditions.

Recall the implication of Mark’s Gospel: the Spirit is the centerpiece. Jesus is a slave (δοῦλος) to the Spirit, just like Paul is in Romans 1:1, Gal 1:10, and 1 Cor 7:22. An implication is that Jesus cannot be held to account by the local rulers, because the Spirit acted on his behalf, which meant Jesus was crucified an innocent man; this violation of nature caused the rulers to fold in on themselves (Mk 3:26), which eventually causes the temple veil to tear, thereby removing the barrier between Earth and heaven.

In this context, or at least this version of the story, the Spirit passes to Simon of Cyrene. That is what the Basilideans believed, anyway.

The leap I make is that I think that a lot of groups believed similar things. This transient spirit is detectable even in the Orthodoxy. For example, when Simon the magician attempts to buy the Spirit from Peter in Samaria in Acts 8, the implication hiding underneath is that the Spirit is transferrable under the appropriate circumstances – it was not Simon’s audacity to attempt to purchase the Spirit which would have rung with early readers; rather, it was an inappropriate manner of transfer – one where appropriate initiation had not been done.

This is why I believe the notion of the Paraclete was such a critical component of the early theology: He who possessed the Spirit was the new leader. The leader gets to direct the movement of the religion. This explains why Matthew’s Gospel minimizes Simon of Cyrene; it seems to me the instance where Jesus’s servant chops off the high priest’s servants ear (Mthw 26:51) reflects the official Spirit transfer in Matthew. John’s Gospel recognizes Jesus’s ear-lopping servant as Peter, which I think early Matthew readers would have recognized as well; this action was compelled by the Spirit, which implies that Peter became the Paraclete, and was subsequently innocent of the act which the Spirit compelled.

The Spirit hopping in Mark can be reasonably decrypted with some help from Irenaeus, who discusses the Carpocratians in AH i.25. The Carpocratians bear resemblance to, and indeed probably were, Marcionites. Irenaeus writes that Carpocrates believed “Jesus was the son of Joseph,” and “…he differed from [other men]…that his soul was steadfast and pure.” This is a match to the Paraclete, whose crimes are forgiven because they were the Spirit’s responsibility. The admission Irenaeus inadvertently makes is that Jesus “…perfectly remembered those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God.”

In other words, the Carpocratians believed that significant events occur in other realms. In other words, Jesus’s actions were not on Earth. They were in a realm between the unbegotten God and Earth. This is why I think Paul’s claim that God set him aside from his mother’s womb (Gal 1:15) is so important. Paul is laying claim to the Paraclete.

He received the Spirit prior to his birth; therefore, the anomalous magician in Mark 9:38-40 is a reference to Paul, who acted independently of Jesus and his apostles. This demon-casting magician beat the Apostles to the punch. While those inferior apostles were still in Jerusalem trying to receive the Spirit from Jesus, Paul was out wielding the Spirit.

Irenaeus goes on that “some of [the Carpocratians] declare themselves similar to Jesus; while others, still more mighty, maintain that they are superior to his disciples.” Irenaeus uses the examples of Peter and Paul, whom Carpocratians believed themselves superior to. However, if we remove Irenaeus’s example of Paul, then we [finally] have an adequate explanation for Marcion, who believed Paul was superior to the apostles who supposedly heard Jesus’s words directly.

Again, Marcion must have seen Paul as this anomalous magician who received the true Spirit, rather than the inferior Spirit which Jesus granted his apostles (Mk 3:14-15).

If we extrapolate further, relying on this “sphere of the unbegotten God”, we can adequately understand the relationship between the Spirit and the Paraclete. Whoever possesses the Spirit gleans insight into the “sphere of the unbegotten God.” Therefore, the Paraclete is Jesus Christ. The traditions which fed into the various Jesus mysteries were actually attributes of Paraclete claimants.

This, I think is what some early Christians found so appealing about the so-called Egyptian, who claimed he could knock down the temple walls with his words, just like Jesus claims in all the Gospels. The Egyptian proselytized in Jerusalem, pissed off the authorities, and escaped, presumably to another major metropolis, such as Rome or Alexandria. While the dunce apostles remained in Jerusalem, the Egyptian was busy bouncing around the empire, spreading the word and casting out demons.

And the impulse to replace Simon of Cyrene’s Spirit transference with the Peter ear chopping incident: this was an attempt by the Jamesians – for the Peter group, James was the 1st generation Jesus Christ on Earth. For the Paul group, the Egyptian/Simon/magician was.