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:
- The earliest Christians were not martyred nearly as often as was claimed
- The invented Christian martyr traditions were borrowed from real historical characters who were killed during the Jewish/Roman conflicts.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.