Christianity: A Martyr Cult

It is no great leap to call Christianity’s earliest iteration a martyr cult.  Regardless of one’s position on Jesus Christ’s historicity or divinity, the statement that Christianity’s first practitioners had a martyrdom fixation is more or less self-evident.  This fixation carried through into apostolic traditions – most of the first generation apostles were murdered by Rome’s persecution machine.  These traditions include those of Paul, Peter, James, Stephen, and Thomas, all of whom suffered outrageous deaths at the hands of an empire hell-bent on Christianity’s destruction.  Second generation church leaders, such as Polycarp and Ignatius were also high-profile martyrs.

For those of us blasphemous enough to investigate the troublesome facts that accompany Rome’s supposed persecution policy, these martyrdoms seem unlikely.  Contributing to this dissonance is an astounding absence of non-Christian sources noticing Rome’s concerted persecution effort.

In the past year since I started looking into Christian history, a single recurring suspicion has led me to the following foundational assertions:

  1. The earliest Christians were not martyred nearly as often as was claimed
  2. The invented Christian martyr traditions were borrowed from real historical characters who were killed during the Jewish/Roman conflicts.
An 18th century engraving of Josephus

The artistic license used in the earliest (canonical and non-canonical) gospels relied heavily on the day’s most popular state-sponsored historian, Josephus, specifically Antiquities XX.  In my investigation, I have isolated many of the historical people at the root of the fictional characters depicted in the traditions.  This post enumerates some of the historical and fictional analogues that were used to construct Christianity’s historical framework.

  1.  Jesus ben Ananias (Jesus Christ)
    Jesus ben Ananias was a prophetic soothsayer described by Josephus in Wars of the Jews Book 6.  He went to Jerusalem in the early 60s, and yelled “woe to Jerusalem” around the temple.  For his efforts, he was arrested and brought to Pontius Pilate’s later successor, Albinus, where he was tortured.  The local government eventually concluded JBA was insane, and was released.  Josephus wrote that JBA was near the temple as Rome’s seige machines started their attacks on the temple in 70, and this was the point at which Jesus ben Ananias died
  2. James (the Just/the Lesser/son of Zebedee)
    Like John and Mary, James is a recurring name throughout Christian tradition.  Like the other figures, James probably originated as a single character, and it was through a series of evolving traditions that multiple James were invented as an apologetic device.  There are several traditions of what happened to these James figures in Christian history, but the presumption is that he was either stoned or killed by a sword.  The character James was based on a James who was killed by a high priest named Hanan ben Hanan (Ananus ben Ananus).  HbH was a Rome-friendly Sadduccee (wealthy elite, controller of temple politics, contrasted with the Pharisees) who had recently assumed the high priesthood.  During the earliest days of Albinus’ procuratorship, Albinus was in Alexandria, several hundred miles to the south of Jerusalem.  While Albinus was away, Hanan ben Hanan called the local court system (Sanhedrin), then tried, convicted, and killed a certain James.  This execution caused enough uproar among the local citizens that Albinus returned earlier than planned to Jerusalem, deposed Hanan ben Hanan, and supposedly as a means of retribution, appointed Jesus bar Damneus to the high priesthood.  This act has led many skeptics to assume that James (although a later interpolation supposes that he was the brother of Jesus Christ) was actually the brother of Jesus bar Damneus.  James was mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities XX.
  3. Theudas (John the Baptist)
    Josephus wrote that Theudas was a magician who took followers to the Jordan River, practiced magic, promised salvation, and had a devoted following.  Theudas was active in the mid-40s.  Acts of the Apostles also mentions Theudas.  As a result of Theudas’ supposed crimes, he was beheaded at the request of Pontius Pilate’s later successor, Fadus.  Theudas was mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities XX
  4. Zachariah (Father of John the Baptist)
    Zachariah held a revered position in the Gospel of James, which was probably a Nazarene text and might have included the earliest version of the virgin birth (the Nazarenes were probably an offshoot of the Ebionites, and seem to have injected the virgin birth into the Christian story, perhaps as a counter to Simon Magus’/Paul’s claims to have been born of a virgin) – Zachariah was John the Baptist’s father and Mary’s guardian.  In Josephus’ Antiquities book iii, Zachariah was a fellow priest at the time of Hanan ben Hanan (after he was deposed).  The Zealots, who were an anti-Roman rebel group in Jerusalem, held a trial against Zachariah, but failed to convict him.  Two zealots approached him after the trial, and stabbed him to death.  This was around the same time as Hanan ben Hanan died, perhaps around 68.  Zachariah is also presumed to be John the Baptist’s father in Islam, as well.
  5. Judas of Galilee (Judas Iscariot)
    Judas of Galilee, also mentioned in Acts of the Apostles, was more-or-less blamed by Josephus for the instigation of the Jewish uprising.  He was mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities XX.  Judas was active around the year 6, and protested (Syrian Governor) Quirinius’ taxation of Jews.  Though historians are split on whether Judas of Galilee’s movement eventually led to the creation of the Zealot sect, a Josephus reader in the Diaspora in the late 1st or early 2nd century might have missed such nuance.
  6. Simon the Magician (Simon Magus/Paul)
    Though Josephus did not describe Simon, friend of Pontius Pilate’s successor, Felix, as a martyr, he definitely would have been perceived as a villain by morally upright Roman citizens – Felix recruited Simon (sometimes referred to as Atomus) to convince Herod Agrippa II’s sister Drusilla to divorce Azizus of Emesa and marry him instead.  Simon was mentioned by Josephus in Antiquities XX.  Iterations of Simon show up in two separate stories in Acts of the Apostles – 8 and 13, as well as several later polemical texts, including Recognitions and the Acts of Peter.
  7. Saulus (Paul’s pre-Christian predecessor, Saul)
    Mentioned in Josephus’ Antiquities book XX, Saulus was the brother of Costobarus.  Josephus wrote of Saul and Costobarus: “Costobarus also, and Saulus, did themselves get together a multitude of wicked wretches, and this because they were of the royal family; and so they obtained favor among them, because of their kindred to Agrippa; but still they used violence with the people, and were very ready to plunder those that were weaker than themselves. And from that time it principally came to pass that our city was greatly disordered, and that all things grew worse and worse among us.”
  8. Joseph, Mariamne, and Salome (Joseph, Mary, and Salome)
    In Antiquities XV, Josephus describes a peculiar relationship between Herod the Great, Mariamne (his wife), and Herod’s uncle, Joseph.  Herod tasked Joseph with protecting Mariamne after Mariamne’s mother (Alexandra) accused Herod of drowning Mariamne’s brother, Aristobulos. Herod was called in front of Mark Antony to put up a defense.  Herod gave Joseph instructions that if he (Herod) was killed by Mark Antony, that Joseph should kill Mariamne, because he could not bear the thought of Mariamne marrying someone else.
    Despite the classified nature of Herod’s order, Joseph revealed it to Mariamne.  This leak of classified information, coupled with the revelation that it was Mariamne’s mother who plotted Herod’s trial, compelled Herod to have Joseph put to death.   Herod’s sister Salome planted the seed that Joseph and Mariamne were having an affair (IMHO, it could not have been more obvious).Mariamne was initially excused of blame, but was eventually convicted and executed for plotting to poison Herod (after Salome insisted to Herod that Mariamne was planning to poison him). In Christian tradition, Salome was the mother of John and James (sons of Zebedee).  There was also a prominent Carpocratian named Salome.  There was also an assertion by Hegesippus (via Eusebius) that Cleophas (John 19:25) was the brother of Joseph and the father of Simeon, who succeeded James after his martyrdom in Jerusalem.

Early Christian writers’ borrowing of these Josephus-described characters makes the trope clear – martyrs were useful in early Christian traditions and in their Gospel stories.  An interesting point is that some historical characters were treated well, despite conflicting political ideologies.  For example, Zachariah was associated with the Sadducees, who were not remembered fondly by any group after the wars; yet, Zachariah seemed to have been a voice of moderation, and discouraged the uprising against Rome; in other words, he supposed that Roman taxation (etc) did not justify spilled blood.  Consider this in the context of Mark 12:17, which has Jesus saying “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s”.  This rule is also repeated (and/or invented) in the Gospel of Thomas, which says the same thing in saying #100.

Likewise, people who opposed Roman intervention (and who advocated war) were treated poorly.  For example, Judas of Galilee staged an uprising against Roman taxation (etc).  For his efforts, he was integrated into Christianity as its arch-villain, Judas Iscariot.

One temptation, which is rife with logical danger, is to assume that Christianity’s inventors referenced Josephus’ historical matrix because they were actively involved within the groups in which these characters emerged.  There are a few reasons why this assumption is problematic:

1.  Christianity’s writers often borrowed word-for-word passages from Josephus, which would imply a slavish reliance on Josephus’ writings, rather than occasional references to the same historical situations which Josephus described.
2.  Even when early Christians had Josephus as a reference, they still got it wrong.  For example, the Theudas problem, which was committed because Josephus made reference to Judas of Galilee after he mentioned Theudas in Book 20.  Yet, Josephus made it quite clear that Judas of Galilee was active decades earlier than Theudas.
3.  The Gospel of Mark, which is given earliest priority of the canonical gospels by most modern scholars, gets many technical details about geography and social conventions incorrect.
4.  Though the Joseph, Mary, Herod, and Salome saga is incredibly intriguing (and elaborated on by Riaan Booysen in Barbelo: The Story of Jesus Christ), the integration of Joseph and Mary (and the virgin birth) was probably not original to the Christian Gospel; so if this encoded reference to the Herodian soap opera indeed exists within the Gospels, it was probably not injected until later.
5.  An alternative speculation, particularly in light of the Carpocratian concern for transmigration of souls, is that these communities believed themselves to be reincarnations of the characters depicted in Josephus.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

17 thoughts on “Christianity: A Martyr Cult”

  1. Josephus’s works were mined, strip mined actually, by third and fourth century Christian content producers. There were, apparently, no libel laws involved.

    On Mon, Nov 28, 2016 at 9:39 AM, Tim Stepping Out wrote:

    > Tim…Stepping Out posted: “It is no great leap to call Christianity’s > earliest iteration a martyr cult. Regardless of one’s position on Jesus > Christ’s historicity or divinity, the statement that Christianity’s first > practitioners had a martyrdom fixation is more or less self-evide” >

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You’re right, they weren’t martyred, but Christianity isn’t so much a martyr cult as it is a full-blown Death Cult, starting with the Hammer of the Arians (Bishop Hilary of Poitiers) who predicted the mass liquidation of all earthly species in 365 CE. Since then there have been over three-hundred prominent captains of Christianity who have announced that time was up and Yhwh was about to lay waste to all life on earth. Today it’s a multi-billion dollar Christian apocalypse industry that has in just the last twenty years produced 29 End Times films (with such grand titles as “Tribulation” and “Judgement”), 60 documentaries (like “Racing to the End Times”), and some 1,120+ grotesquely warped End Times books, of which the Left Behind series has alone sold over 40 million copies.


    1. Agreed. In my opinion, a lot of the death cult thing stems from Mark 9:1 – Then Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God arrive with power.”

      This might very well be evidence that Christianity was an end-of-days cult by the time Mark was written (Revelation seemed fixated on it too)…they certainly did seem to think the end of the world was coming soon – who could blame them?

      But I think the primary reason for putting these words (Mark 9:1) into JC’s mouth was to demonstrate that a messiah had come to foretell the destruction of Jerusalem, which is why JC was put decades prior to the temple’s destruction…

      But I think the timeframe is definitely a clue, especially in light of Jesus ben Ananias being whipped by Albinus, who held the same position as Pontius Pilate – Mark even makes allusion to this in Mark 5:3-5 – This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

      To a Josephus reader, they might very well have read about JBA and concluded that he was sent by God to foretell of the coming destruction. My suspicion is that Mark’s writers backed up this prophesy several decades – to be before JBA, Theudas, and the start of the war in the mid 60s.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep, as Steve noted above, Josephus was pilfered to create the canonical gospels. How so strikingly odd that the 70+ other Jesus books (gospels) never saw the light of “official”day 😉


      2. Ever read the Gospel of the Egyptain? It’s GREAT! Jesus is an utter bastard and demands total abstinence, no babies at all. Ever. And the Infancy Gospels are great, too. Jesus murders all these kids, blinds all the adults in Nazareth (and threatens to kill them), and slaughters a whole gaggle of dragons. Yes, real dragons… and that was when he was just 5 years old!


  3. For those of us blasphemous enough to investigate the troublesome facts that accompany Rome’s supposed persecution policy, these martyrdoms seem unlikely. Contributing to this dissonance is an astounding absence of non-Christian sources noticing Rome’s concerted persecution effort.

    Given the fact that a lot of happening not only in the US but also to the world is somewhere similar between Nero and Caligula, there are very few moments where I say to myself “how I wish Jesus is one prayer away“. Too bad he’s not and will never be.

    In the past year since I started looking into Christian history, a single recurring suspicion has led me to the following foundational assertions:
    1. The earliest Christians were not martyred nearly as often as was claimed
    2. The invented Christian martyr traditions were borrowed from real historical characters who were killed during the Jewish/Roman conflicts.

    Tacitus (b. 58 AD, d. 117 AD) is a notorious one. It’s a shoddy reference not only for the historical Jesus but also to the alleged Christian martyrdom. I found this review of Bob Price’s website about Candida Moss’s book “The Myth of Persecution”, Bob Price is not in full agreement with Moss but he agrees with her that there are few Christian persecutions not because of theological differences but their refusal to adhere Roman social contract. I was hoping however that Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 5:1-11, 6:8-15) is also from Josephus but I guess it’s more of a midrash of 1 Kings 20 & 21.


      1. Yup, it was his book James the Brother of Jesus (I haven’t read it yet) who mentioned Stephen’s martyrdom comes from Antiquities XX. IX, but given that the passage is likely to be interpolated, I think that claim is standing on thin ice unless because of the interpolations unless the James passage is real minus the “Jesus who was called the Christ”. He mentioned that the name “Stephen/Στεφανος” is a pun for crown of long hair. This pun applies more to Jesus than to Stephen in my opinion but I could be wrong.


      2. That’s my opinion – that it was just “who was called the Christ” that was an interpolation…it was the Nasoreans who refused to cut their hair and drink wine, right?

        **EDIT** Nazirites…


  4. Yes it was the Nazirites who refuse to cut their hair. They seem to be followers of Samson whose strength comes from his long hair.

    Even authorities like the Catholic Encyclopedia casts a doubt on Stephen’s life since nothing is known about him except from the Acts of the Apostles. CE writes that his name is Greek and not Jewish so he must be a diasporic Jew. We know nothing about his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Some even considered him as a student of Rabbi Gamaliel but not yet proven. It’s possible that Stephen is a real diasporic convert to Christianity in the second century that was modified when Acts was being written in the middle of the 2nd century or he could be James the Just or he’s a made up story.


    1. BTW – one stretch is that Stephen was based on Hyrcanus II, who was in Herod’s inner circle (Mariamne’s Grandfather) – Josephus wrote that Antigonus bit Hyrcanus’ ears off…compare that to Stephen’s tantrum he threw at the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised”

      Then Stephen was tried by the Sanhedrin, just like Hyrcanus in Antiquities 15.6

      Again, a bit of a stretch…


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