The scholarly consensus is that the Gospel of Mark was written Circa 70CE. Matthew and Luke were written in the following decades, appending Mark’s core, which we might call the proto-Gospel. It is likely the earliest Matthew and Luke Gospels lacked familial lineages, and those competing lineages were added in the subsequent decades as Christianity evolved, and as disagreements arose concerning Jesus’s background.
Let us borrow this framework for a speculative exercise.
Given Mark’s priority, along with the actual content of the Gospel and assertions made by early church fathers about who were using these Gospels, we can derive that the earliest Gospel theology was adoptionistic. In this theology, the Christ Spirit descends onto Jesus, and influences his behavior, which purportedly gets him crucified. Based on early consumers’ interpretations of the Synoptic Gospel, given by Irenaeus in Against Heresies (AH i.24, AH i.26), coupled with content within Mark’s Gospel, this crucifixion allows Jesus to trick the world’s rulers by causing them to kill a spiritually pure man. This error causes the temple veil to tear, and provides a pathway to heaven which had been blocked since the 2nd temple was erected, and access to the holy of holies was limited to the Aaronic high priest (and prohibited to others who ought to have rightful access to this room).
Adoptionism And The Transient Spirit
Early Ebionites and Nazarenes, often presumed to be the same group, used a Matthew-like Gospel which lacked the virgin birth. According to early adoptionists (AH i.25), Jesus’s soul was steadfast and pure; this allowed for the Christ’s trick: it descended onto Jesus and completely overtook him, which kept the man’s Spirit pure while the Christ Spirit acted on his behalf.
One variable in the Gospel centered around the matter of who received the Spirit after Jesus died. To Mark’s readers, it was Simon of Cyrene. Of course, there is a benefit to anyone who claims to be Simon of Cyrene (or the subsequent Spirit recipient); that subsequent Spirit holder gets to manage the religion’s direction. Given Mark’s pro-Paul sentiments, we might presume that Simon of Cyrene was a cipher for the Apostle Paul. Therefore, Paul was the recipient of the Christ Spirit – a detectable theme within Paul’s authentic writings (Gal 1:1, Gal 1:12, Gal 4:4, Gal 4:19, 1 Cor 15:8, Phillipians 2:17).
Enter the Ebionites
The Ebionites hated Paul. This is clearly attested by Irenaeus (AH i.26.2). We also see subsequent anti-Paul sentiments in later Ebionite texts, notably the pseudo-Clementines, which equated Paul with Simon the Magician from Acts 8.
The Ebionites, therefore, had a dilemma. Mark’s Gospel was written before they could construct their own Gospel. Mark must have become popular. For the Ebionites, Mark’s emphasis is on the wrong character. An implication of the Christ spirit bouncing to Simon of Cyrene was that Simon was the real star. The Gospel readers fall in love with Jesus, and then turn to the new Jesus, Simon of Cyrene, after Jesus the man is crucified.
According to the Ebionites, the first Gospel was based in the wrong time, drew attributes from the wrong historical figures, and gave spiritual inheritance to a charlatan. Rewriting the Gospel would have been time consuming, expensive, and would have required scribal skills not common in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
The earliest Ebionite and Nazarene responses to Mark would have been to make small edits. As the Gospel traveled to Nazarene communities, it underwent modifications to undercut Simon of Cyrene – removing details about Simon’s sons, and omitting that he was returning from the field, a cipher for the “New Jerusalem”, when he was grabbed by Roman soldiers.
Later Nazarenes were more overt in their responses to Mark. They injected a virgin birth and had Jesus give long diatribes which undercut magical underpinnings pertinent to Christians who were deeply initiated into the mystery. They also reintegrated Mosaic law into their Gospel.
The Nazarenes replaced the historical figures who were the basis for the Gospel Jesus. Instead of using attributes taken from Josephus in his descriptions of Jesus ben Ananias and the Egyptian, the Nazarenes remade their Jesus in the image of Jesus ben Pandera. The Nazarene Jesus was active a century earlier than Mark’s Jesus. Even in Mark, those characters were backdated 15-20 years prior to the root characters’ actual time, perhaps for numerological purposes – putting Jesus’s death 40 years prior to the temple’s destruction was a reuse of the number 40, which was in relation to the number of years Jesus came after the Genesis account of the creation of the earth – 4000 years.
The Nazarene Jesus is remembered in several places throughout the historical record. For instance, Epiphanius of Salamis gives the Nazarene Jesus as being active in the time of Alexander Jannaeus:
For the rulers in succession from Judah came to an end with Christ’s arrival. Until he came <the> rulers <were anointed priests >, but after his birth in Bethlehem of Judaea the order ended and was altered in the time of Alexander, a ruler of priestly and kingly stock.
There is similar attestation in a later Jewish source in the Toldoth Yeshu:
In the year 3671 in the days of King Jannaeus, a great misfortune befell Israel, when there arose a certain disreputable man of the tribe of Judah, whose name was Joseph Pandera. He lived at Bethlehem, in Judah…[Joseph tricks Miram and rapes her]…Miriam gave birth to a son and named him Yehoshua, after her brother.
The anti-Christian polemicist Celsus, by way of Origen, was aware of a similar tradition:
…when Mary was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera
It is difficult to know whether Jesus ben Pandera is the root character at the basis of the original Christianity. My own speculation is that he is not, given the fact that the Ebionites were so far behind on the construction of their own Gospel, coupled with a slavish reliance on Mark. What seems most likely, in my opinion, is that the Ebionites were later adopters of Christianity, and encountered it as they were forced to leave their holy land as the Jewish-Roman wars raged.