An interesting detail about Christianity’s evolution from the late first until the late second century is that the earliest Christian theologies did not have a virgin birth. This is not just some reckless opinion of a bloviating atheist blogger. The fact that the earliest Synoptic Gospel (Mark), and the latest canonical Gospel (John) both lack a virgin birth story offers compelling support, despite the barrage of historical apologetics invented to explain away such critical omissions. The reason Mark and John lacked a virgin birth, which becomes clear when we glean information about what sort of people were using them, is because the communities that consumed these stories did not have a theology which required a virgin birth; in fact, the virgin birth would have only obfuscated their theologies. In other words, the virgin birth was born later due to evolution within the surviving sect’s theology.
Matthew, which is the earliest Synoptic Gospel which includes a birth story, does not seem to have originally included it, either. Matthew’s first consumers were a group of Jewish-looking Christians called the Ebionites. The Ebionites, like Mark’s consumers, the Cerinthians and Basilideans, likewise rejected the virgin birth and post-death resurrection. Specifically, Mark and Matthew’s consumers had a theology which presumed that Jesus and the Christ were separate, and it was via the Spirit descending onto Jesus after baptism that he gained his demon-casting ability and his mandate for martyrdom.
According to the church father responsible for the modern 4-gospel canon, Irenaeus of Lyons, the remaining extant canonical Gospel, Luke, was used by a group called the Marcionites, who did not even believe Jesus Christ was made from human flesh, let alone was born on Earth from a virgin woman. Though there is growing contention about whether the group’s figurehead, Marcion, personally used a version of Luke’s gospel, one intriguing speculation is that it was Marcion’s disciple, Lucan, who took Luke’s Gospel to Rome and propagated it.
These details, although they highlight bold inclinations to adjust Jesus Christ based on each sect’s agenda, is not hard proof Jesus did not exist; but, upon deeper investigation, they do expose more cracks in Christianity’s foundation than a simple problem of later interpolations.
The major problem, aside from the fact that none of the earliest Christians seemed to have believed in the virgin birth (and were perhaps oblivious to any notion of it), is that the group that most resembled the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, the Ebionites, heavily relied on the Gospel of Mark to construct their own Gospel. The reason this detail is so existentially problematic is that Mark’s earliest users (at least the ones we can identify) not only seemed reverent to Paul, the Ebionites’ most staunch adversary (AH 1.26.2, Gal 2:12), but neither Mark’s consumers nor its authors seem to have been from the geographic area where Jesus lived. There are many examples where Mark’s author exposes his own ignorance about the geography and customs in Judea, including his reference to the night trial, the annual release of a prisoner, his mischaracterization of Pontius Pilate (a brutal governor who would never have entertained such a frivolous tradition as releasing a prisoner), and Jesus leaving Tyre going through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis, a very odd and inefficient route (50+ miles on foot).
The traditional story about these Gospels’ authors does not help to clarify this matter.
Mark was presumed to be Peter’s interpreter, where Matthew was Jesus’ direct disciple. If those traditions are true, why should Jesus Christ’s disciple need to rely so much on a second hand account? The economical solutions are either that Matthew did not rely on Mark, or the traditional story about authorship is not true. In this case, given the fact that Matthew clearly relies on Mark, the latter seems most likely.
The Ebionites, who supposedly resembled Jesus in terms of geography and theology, indeed corrected some of Mark’s technical errors, but they still relied on the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. This is especially problematic because, if the Ebionites were Jesus Christ’s original followers, it implies they spoke Greek, which seems unlikely for poor (Ebion in Hebrew means poor), illiterate fisherman-types in Aramaic-speaking, backwoods Judea. It also means they used the more foreign scripture, the Septuagint, rather than the more local Hebrew bible.
In light of these logical dilemmas, the question of who Jesus was becomes much more complicated, because it raises the question: who was taking note of Jesus’ actions? Tradition would have us believe it was Jesus Christ’s disciples who wrote down his stories; however, this Mark/Matthew paradox makes that explanation exceedingly unlikely.
So was the Gospel development simply a process which relied on increasingly robust oral traditions and tall tales, until some Greek-speaking (and writing) person outside of Judea decided to write it all down?
That could be, and it is fairly economical when you begin with the assumption that Jesus Christ existed. However, when one makes no such a priori assumption, the Jesus Christ of the Gospels seems increasingly fictional. But again, that does not disprove a root historical character; rather, it simply means if there was a real Jesus, he probably did not much resemble the Jesus of the Gospels. If that is the case, then timeline, geography, and underlying motivation all become increasingly suspect.
Consider an implication of the virgin birth not being original to the story. What specifically does that imply?
If one reads the Gospel of Mark, what it implies is that Jesus, prior to his baptism by John, was an ordinary man. Perhaps he was a decent, God-fearing, law-abiding model Judean citizen, but still, the end of Jesus’ pure humanity, and his conversion into a demigod driven by the Spirit seems to be the centerpiece of the text and the corresponding theologies; his humanity prior to his baptism seems not to have even been interesting enough to be recorded in the earliest Synoptic narrative, which would have resembled the Gospel of Mark.
In Mark, Jesus’ ministry, and inheritance of the Spirit, was catalyzed by his baptism from John.
If we approach that detail with some skepticism (or cynicism if the reader prefers), this implies that baptism was a prerequisite for receiving “the Spirit”, which came down in the form of a dove. In a sense, it seems more metaphorical than literal, and would have been a useful device for sect leaders, because it gave adherents reason for theological compliance: baptism offered the recipient the ability to be like Jesus and to receive the Spirit.
After his baptism, Jesus was transported to “the wilderness”, where he was tasked to resist Satan for forty days. He had help from angels, and was surrounded by wild animals. Mark does not make it clear how much time passed between the wilderness fiasco and John the Baptist’s arrest, but a speculation is that John’s arrest compelled Jesus to go to Galilee to begin his ministry.
Jesus’ ministry began with entry into a synagogue (synagogues became much more common following the destruction of the holy temple in Jerusalem in 70CE). He amazed the masses, but he was also recognized by a man in the synagogue who was infested by a demon. At that point, Jesus told the man to be quiet, and forced the impure spirit out of him. The point of this exchange is clear: Jesus, despite growing evidence of his divinity, wanted his power to be kept a secret; a secondary aspect of this exchange is that the impure spirits quickly identified Jesus as being different than other people who taught the law. These themes repeat throughout the story. Of course, the most likely reason for this was to create a stark contrast between the author’s sect and other Jewish sects at the time, notably the Pharisees, whose real political power was only gained after the temple destruction in 70CE, when the Sadducees were dissolved (of course, the Pharisees had existed for a couple hundred years prior). This “be quiet” theme also seems to be an allusion to Christianity’s mystery-religion origins.
The detail which contributes striking confirmation to the notion that Mark’s author was neither concerned about Jesus’ birth, nor his history prior to baptism, is that Jesus’ family thought he had gone crazy in Mark 3:21:
When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
Consider the subtext of what Mark’s author was implicitly saying: Jesus was not born of a virgin, nor was he particularly special prior to his baptism. What he was doing was altogether new behavior that his family had not before seen. This means that Jesus’s real power and contribution was only possible after baptism. In fact, the catalyst for the whole story was Jesus’ baptism, and this occurred very soon prior to John’s arrest and death.
In other words, if we presume John the Baptist had the Spirit before Jesus, then we can conclude the Spirit leaves the body prior to the death of its current host, and finds a new host who undergoes the proper ritual and is deemed worthy.
In this light, it is interesting that an early Christian named Basilides, who seems to have used the Gospel of Mark, held the view that the Christ left Jesus prior to his crucifixion; church father Irenaeus of Lyons goes so far as to say that those Christians who believed Jesus and the Christ were separate, and that the Christ left Jesus before he suffered on the cross, preferred the Gospel of Mark in Against Heresies iii.11.7. And according to Basilides, it was Simon of Cyrene who inherited the Spirit from Jesus; I associated Simon of Cyrene with the Apostle Paul in an earlier post.
All evidence for Christianity points to Jewish origin. Yet the introduction of these Gospels, which came to serve as holy texts, is not exactly Orthodox in Judaism; rather, there would have been people who would have called such text blasphemous, especially in light of the texts’ attempt to elevate this human Jesus to the level of Moses and Elijah (this pushback is certainly evident in the Toldoth Yeshu).
This raises the question: were there other Jewish groups around this time that were doing similar things as Christians?
The answer, of course, is yes.
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide evidence of an emerging exegesis genre, which included various interpretations of holy scripture. But these exegetical works were not limited to zealous Jews in Judea. It was happening in the Diaspora, too. For example, Philo of Alexandria wrote many exegetical treatises.
One group in particular seems to be an exceedingly likely candidate for immediate Christian predecessors: the Nasaraeans.
According to Epiphanius of Salamis, the Nasaraeans came from a Jewish worldview, practiced Jewish customs, observed Jewish holidays, lived among Jews, but explicitly rejected the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament. They believed that Moses’ true teachings had not been recorded in the scriptures; rather, they possessed Moses’ true, unaltered teachings, which they evidently kept secret.
This motif of secrecy, in particular, secret religious literature, begins to resemble a very common institution before and during this time: the mystery religion. The fact that the Nasaraeans seem to have been a Jewish mystery religion is made even more interesting, because mystery religions are often thought about in terms of Greek or Egyptian worldviews. Kabbalah is another example of a Jewish mystery religion which is starkly contrasted with Rabbinical Judaism.
Some mystery religions were so secretive, that the punishment for revealing details about them was death. This is why so much information about them has been lost over the centuries – it really is quite lucky that historians and archaeologists have been able to recover anything about them at all.
One of the things we know about these mystery religions is that they commonly featured dramatic depictions, particularly of their hero overcoming death. For example, in the Eleusinian mysteries, there were yearly performances called the “Lesser Mysteries” which included a depiction of Persephone returning from the underworld to her long-dismayed mother, Demeter, thus ending a long drought.
Interestingly, the Gospel of Mark follows the pattern of a Greek tragedy, which makes it fodder for dramatic depictions – this includes sparse dialogue, frequent scene changes, and narration.
In terms of the religious environment out of which Christianity emerged, the Gospel of Mark makes it clear that John the Baptizer preceded Jesus; in other words, there was value placed on baptism. This narrows the possibilities of what sort of group that was producing this theology, namely to the Essenes and Hemerobaptists.
It is noteworthy that Epiphanius and Hippolytus described a particular historical character named Elxai who, for some time, was the figurehead of the Essenes, Nasoreans, Nazarenes, and Ebionites (those people who seemed to be Jesus Christ’s original followers).
The striking detail here is not that they provides the name of a potential inventor of Christianity; rather, it is that Elxai was the figurehead for both Christian and explicitly non-Christian groups.
In other words, these Spirit/Christ notions that were important to Mark’s consumers preceded Christians and emerged out of a Jewish atmosphere; even after the advent of Christianity, there still were Jews who revered the Spirit who were not explicitly Christian. The specific thread that may indeed connect these groups together is a reverence for knowledge and theology lost after the 1st temple’s destruction over 600 years earlier; this would explain why Christians were so opposed to the mainstream Judaism of the day – perhaps they believed Judaism had lost a crucial element which they wished to restore, particularly its concern for the Queen of Heaven, who was featured prominently during the first temple era and who shows up in Revelation 12:1 as a woman clothed in the sun and who has a crown of stars – see Margaret Barker. Someone familiar with Gnosticism might recognize parallels between the Queen of Heaven and Sophia, the divine wisdom aeon who gave rise to the material realm.
The origins of the transformation of Judaism was when the King Josiah commissioned renovation on Solomon’s temple around 622BCE. Josiah’s high priest (who probably also functioned as a mason and a carpenter) located a supposed lost secret “book of law”, which has long been presumed to have been some portion of extant Deuteronomy. The details in this book caused Josiah to purge all echoes of polytheism within the temple, including the Queen of Heaven. My speculation is that the Elxai, the Nasaraeans, and other so-called “keepers” were those people who remained reverent to the “old way” prior to Josiah’s reconfiguration.
What’s more, both Epiphanius and Hippolytus relayed how Elxai saw the Christ: he saw the Christ as an invisible, man-like, 96-mile tall structure in the sky. And next to the Christ was a 96-mile tall woman-like Spirit. It would appear that Elxai’s Christ and Spirit were masculine and feminine polarities which served as beacons to send (perhaps part of) themselves to those worthy to receive…this includes those individuals who were baptized and who were ready to advance the group’s agenda, even in the face of death. Though the idea is probably not oft-considered, Elxai’s view of the masculine/feminine polarity closely resembles the later Valentinian view, where the aeons in the highest heaven had similar polarities. According to Hippolytus in Refutation of All Heresies, Elxai was said to have come from a Pythagorean philosophical atmosphere, and he believed the Christ had been transmigrating from body-to-body since the dawn of time. In this light, it is indeed interesting that the author of the Book of Ezekiel, an apocalyptic text which Revelation clearly relies on, was rumored to have been a teacher to Pythagoras.
It was out of this Elcasite umbrella, composed of the Nasaraeans, Nazarenes, Ebionites, Hemerobaptists, and Essenes that emerged the Gnostic Mandaean and Manichean messiah cults, which seems to suggest that the leaders under this umbrella placed a high value on prophetic leaders, and were concerned with who specifically had the Christ/Spirit.
With this detail, Jesus Christ continues to seem more like a metaphor than a man. The fact that he was placed in Judea 40 years prior to the temple’s destruction, coupled with the fact that Christianity did not start to resemble anything like its present Orthodoxy until at least the mid-2nd century, demonstrates that this ordinary man Jesus might have been, after John, one of the first people to receive the Spirit, and the inheritance of the Spirit was brought on by impending doom for the people and place where the story was based. In the Gospel story, both Jesus and John were schemed against, and eventually killed by people in the community they served, in Jesus’ case, by the Pharisees and the Roman procurator.
It is interesting then that in Josephus’ 75CE work, Wars of the Jews, he describes a Jesus ben Ananias, who undergoes parallel circumstances as Jesus Christ. He goes to Jerusalem,
gives prophesy about impending doom, is beaten by the Roman procurator, is deemed crazy, and is eventually killed by a siege machine that was knocking down the holy temple – a religious event that would have been no less serious than if the St. Peter’s Basilica were knocked down by some powerful Muslim country today.
Upon further investigation, many other characters in the Gospels not only resemble historical characters, but they resemble characters described in detail by Josephus. For instance, Jesus’ later parents, Joseph and Mary, quite resemble two people in Herod the Great’s inner circle, his uncle Joseph and second wife, Mariamne I. John the Baptist resembles a magician-messiah named Theudas. Judas Iscariot resembles the Judean insurgent, Judas of Galilee. Pontius Pilate performed the same role as Albinus, that procurator who punished Jesus ben Ananias. The list goes on.
Though there is large socio-economic diversity among the historical characters which seem to underlay the Gospel characters, the trend seems to be that those historical characters who advocated peace and moderation were treated well, where those who advocated zeal were treated poorly.
In this model, the Spirit/Christ concept probably predated Christianity by hundreds of years. Some underlying Jewish movement, which transcended a variety of social, political, religious, and economic standings, advanced their agenda, probably with increasing secrecy, perhaps as a response to some element of temple politics or overarching Jewish theology, and with increasing Greek influence. As a result of the broad inclusion of this Christ/Spirit group, there were various manifestations and implementations, which splintered, and sometimes reconnected. One specific practice, perhaps as a means to attract new initiates to the lower rungs of the group, was to employ the common mystery religion practice of dramatic depictions, which eventually rendered various versions of the Gospels. These Gospels were built around a fictitious man, based on several historical and biblical characters (notably Moses, Elijah, and Jesus ben Ananias), and were designed to show how the people on Earth would receive a Spirit that originated in the sky, perhaps from a God different than the God revered in Judaism.