When I refer to early Christians, I am referring to Christians before the year 250CE.
In this post, I refer to those Christianities, later called heresies by an evolving Orthodoxy in collaboration with the Roman government and its hegemonic military.
Jesus Christ did exist. He did not exist in the way we intuitively think about the term “exist”, which is to say, as a unique, autonomous individual, but nevertheless he existed…lots of times. There were many Jesus Christs! I leave it to the reader to decide whether this condition is equivalent to non-existence.
To the earliest Christians, Jesus Christ was the member of the generation who possessed the Spirit – not the Spirit originating on Earth by the ruler of this world, but rather, the Spirit which was created in a realm above and sent to lead the way out of this material hellhole. This Spirit was transient, and would leave a person before their death. It was called the Paraclete. This early Christian framework is clearly attested by Irenaeus and other heresy hunters who were hell-bent on purging the Christianity which (IMHO) they first hijacked for their own political purposes. It is also detectable in the Synoptic Gospels, when Jesus asks God why he abandoned him (Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46). This passage is perfectly compatible with this Spirit adoption idea which was so common among early Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, Cerinthians, and Carpocratians.
We glean the point of the earliest Gospels from Paul in Galatians 3:1, when he said “It was in front of your own eyes Christ was portrayed as being crucified”.
Paul’s lament in Galatians 3 was a clear allusion to a dramatic depiction, common in mystery religions of the 1st and 2nd centuries. Given Paul’s regular references to his own Gospel, I think this is what the earliest proto-Gospel was – a dramatic depiction performed for the benefit of new proselytes, perhaps children and those who could not read, but no doubt enjoyed by the community.
For the earliest Mark consumers, notably the Basilideans, the Spirit which Jesus inherited after baptism was given up prior to his crucifixion. The Spirit migrated to the one who bore Jesus Christ’s cross, which in the Gospel of Mark was Simon of Cyrene. Consider that same Paul letter, Galatians, 6:14: “May I never boast except in the cross of our lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me.” Paul was claiming to be in the same role as Simon of Cyrene!
One of the earliest writers against these early Christianities, Irenaeus, gives 3 early Christian sects which all hold similar views about Jesus Christ: the Ebionites, the Cerinthians, and the Carpocratians. The Ebionites and Cerinthians used different versions of the Gospel of Matthew, where the Carpocratians used either Matthew or Luke (perhaps a harmonization of both). However, one distinction Irenaeus makes is that the Carpocratians used Paul’s letters (at least Romans).
Irenaeus gives an interesting description of Carpocrates that cracks the “mystery” wide open. Irenaeus writes “[Jesus] perfectly remembered those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God…”
Could this be why Paul often complained about the pains of child birth (Galatians 4:19), and why he was born from a miscarriage (1 Corinthians 15:7-8)? And why he was set apart from his mother’s womb by God (Gal 1:15), and “…crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
The point of the mystery, at least that which is most evident to this observer, was that the Gospel of Mark occurred in the heavenly Judea, and one of the final acts before the story’s 2nd hero, Simon of Cyrene, descended to the material realm, was that he had to carry Jesus Christ’s cross, which would cause the proper eruptions in the heavens (Revelation 8:5), which would create a path for the spiritual believers to traverse so that they could escape the material realm and the malevolent rulers who controlled it.
The Gospel story was simply the first instance of the Spirit taking this path to get to Earth. Once on earth, the Spirit could inhabit those practitioners of white magic who experienced enough material phenomena (Against Heresies i.25) and had “rendered unto Caesar” (code for the ruler of this Earth) those material possessions which were most prized by humans. This is why, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus said that practitioners were not getting out of this prison until they’ve paid the very last penny (Matthew 5:26, Luke 12:59).
There were probably many of these Paracletes who claimed to be Jesus Christ: Paul, Simon Magus, Simon of Cyrene, James, Theudas, John the Baptist, Mani, The Egyptian. At least some of these people must have existed, although we may have duplicates in the mix.
It is indeed interesting that one of the earliest infancy Gospels which had Jesus being born of a virgin was the Infancy Gospel of James. The reason for this is predictable: competition. This competition is captured in various early Christian literature, including Paul’s epistles, the Epistle of James, the Shepherd of Hermas, and others. My speculation is that the James community was trying to “one up” the Paul community, whose leader claimed to be born from an ektroma (miscarriage). Not to be outdone by that leader who “was not born of a woman” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 15), the James community gave Jesus an even more amazing woman-less inception.