Excerpts from "Pagan Christ" Book
by Laurence and Shirley Dalton (March 14, 2004)
The following are excerpts from the second (revised) edition of the book, Jesus: Pagan Christ or Jewish Messiah? by Laurence E. and Shirley S. Dalton. For more information, visit the web site, Who was Jesus? at http://www.jesusquest.com/.
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a copy of this book, please go to http://www.jesusquest.com/. If you have any questions for the Daltons
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Pagan Christ or
A Skeptic’s Search for the
Laurence E. Dalton
Shirley Strutton Dalton
Seeking to kill the future emperor Augustus, the Roman Senate issued an order to have all Roman male infants killed.
King Herod ordered all the children in and around Bethlehem, under two years of age, to be killed, in order that the King of the Jews may not survive.
— Matthew 2.16
Liberals and even skeptics often accept as valid certain assumptions about Jesus and his Jewishness. Part I, a skeptical commentary on the earliest gospel, Mark, will challenge these assumptions.
Part II of this book will search for answers to questions like these:
• Did Paul have any knowledge of Jesus or Peter?
• Did Paul know about Jesus’ Last Supper or about his resurrection appearances?
• Was Paul a Jew, a pagan, or a Christian?
• Did he create Jesus, and if not, who did?
• Who founded Christianity?
In this book, what Christians call the Old Testament (OT), we will call the Jewish Scriptures (hereafter JS); the New Testament will be called the Christian Scriptures (hereafter CS). No one knows who wrote the four gospels, but we will for convenience accept Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John as the authors of the gospels. The author’s name will also stand for the gospel itself. For example, Mark will mean the gospel of Mark. Mk, Mt, Lk, and Jn, will represent the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, respectively. Mk 1.2 will signify Mark Chapter 1, verse 2. We will use BCE (Before the Common Era) instead of BC and CE (the Common Era) instead of AD.
“Gentile” (Greek ethnos or nation) is used in the Christian Scriptures to refer to a non-Jew. In Hebrew, gentile means, “A non-Jew, that is someone not born of a Jewish mother, or who has not been converted to Judaism.”[i] We will replace the word gentile with the word pagan, meaning only a person who is neither a Jew nor a Christian.
Most modern commentators on the Christian Scriptures use the phrase Jewish Christian, though it appears nowhere in the CS. It is as if Jews are still considered a biological race, a concept long ago discredited. Is a Christian who converts to Judaism called a Christian Jew? A Jew who has converted to Christianity, we will designate a Christian of Jewish background.
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The Purpose of Parables
Before Jesus relates the parables, the twelve “and others” had asked Jesus why he teaches the crowd only in parables. Jesus replies, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables...” (Mk 4.11). Why? So the crowds of Jewish people will not understand and be saved. In view of the Holocaust, many modern Christians are shocked by this anti-Jewish teaching, and many apologists have tried to interpret it away, but Jesus’ meaning is quite clear. He says they are taught in parables, in “order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again [to God] and be forgiven’” (Mk 4.12). Jesus is concealing the kingdom; Jews are predestined to hell!
The disciples are cautioned not to tell anyone. The messianic secret involves Jesus hiding his mission, as well as his identity. The secret is revealed through three activities of Jesus:
· He commands the unclean spirits not to reveal who he is, and orders the people whom he has cured or exorcized not to reveal who aided them. He teaches the crowds only in parables so they will not understand and be saved.
· Jesus (or God) hardens their hearts (minds), so they are spiritually blind (sometimes “the Jews” themselves harden their own hearts).
Excursus: Blindness of Jews
Besides the gospels, “the Jews” are spiritually blinded in Paul’s letters and Acts of the Apostles. Often these passages depend on Isa 6.9-10:
The Lord orders the prophet Isaiah to tell
“this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed [saved].”
The authors of the Christian Scriptures tear this passage from its historical context. Isaiah is labeling the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as faithless. He is not rejecting all Jews for all time.
In the Jewish Scriptures, God at times spiritually blinds people in order to accomplish his purpose. In Exodus, for example, God hardens the Pharaoh’s heart or that of the Egyptians. Sometimes the king himself does it (Ex 8.32; Ex 4.21,10.20). God’s purpose is accomplished, e.g., the king’s army pursues the Israelites into the Red Sea and drowns (Ex 14.17), thus freeing the Jews from slavery.
The following passages illustrate how the early church explained why Jews rejected Jesus and the kingdom of God, i.e., the church.
· Paul argues that the gospel is “veiled to those who are perishing” (2 Cor 4.3). Unbelievers have been blinded “by the god of this world [Satan]... to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel” (2 Cor 4.4).
· What of the disciples’ spiritual blindness? Mark relates that the disciples do not understand who Jesus is; their “hearts were hardened” (Mk 6.52). Whether the blinding is done by themselves or by God is not clear.
· At Matthew 13.12, the Jewish people seem to have blinded themselves. They have shut their eyes and will not believe and understand and be healed.
· At Acts 28.25-28, Paul describes the Jewish heart as having grown dull; their ears do not hear, eyes do not see, etc. They have shut their eyes.
Below are three passages which clearly indicate that it is God who spiritually blinds the Jewish people.
· At Rom 9.16,18-20, Paul asserts that whether one is saved or not depends on the mercy of God. He writes that it is God who “hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” ( vs. 18). Paul discounts human will or exertion. He writes that people say that if God blinds people, why does Paul find fault with unbelievers? Paul answers that human beings are not to argue with God. God has made us the way we are and we have no right to complain; it is like the pot criticizing the potter.
· At Rom 11.7-8, Paul argues that the elect have received salvation. The apostle then paraphrases Isa. 6.9-10, “God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”
· John says though the Jewish crowd has seen many of Jesus’ miracles, still they do not believe in him (Jn 12.37). John quotes Isaiah 6.10, “He [God] has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart...” so they could not understand, otherwise they would turn “and I [God] would heal them” (Jn 12.37-40). According to John, the Jews “could not believe” (Jn 12.39).
Why does the early church depict Jesus as teaching that Jews are spiritually blinded by God? Paul in Acts spells it out, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts 28.28). The mission to the Jews had failed. The church needed to explain why not many Jews converted to Christianity. Note that no mission to Jews is related in Paul’s letters, but only in the late fantasy, Acts, where the mission to “the Jews” fails.
Ancient pagans, too, believed in secrecy. “Myths have been used by inspired poets, by the best of philosophers, by those who established the mysteries, and by the gods themselves in oracles.”[ii] The Pythagoreans taught their disciples to keep secret the “divine mysteries and methods of instruction...”[iii] After communicating a magical formula, a pagan magician says, “Share this great mystery with no one [else], but conceal it, by Helios, since you have been deemed worthy by the lord”[iv] (cf. Mk 1.44).
Many pagans thought that the wise person interprets myths allegorically, i.e., symbolically, ignoring the literal sense, thus concealing the truth from the masses. Sallustius writes that only “the ignorant Egyptians” and others would believe that earth is Isis, moisture is Osiris, water Kronos, and so on. He asserts that various myths are suitable for philosophers and poets. Some are suitable for “. . . religious initiations, since every initiation aims at uniting us with the world and the gods.”[v] For Sallustius the revered myths and literature must be symbolically interpreted in order to reconcile them with sophisticated values and thought. Similarly, using symbolic interpretation, writers of the Christian Scriptures sought to harmonize the Jewish Scriptures with Christian beliefs.
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Excursus: Jewish Literary Evidence of the Existence of Jesus
What Jewish literary witnesses are there to the existence of Jesus? The first Jewish author who is said to provide independent evidence for the first-century existence of early Christianity is Flavius Josephus (ca 37 - ca 95 CE), a Jewish historian. As a general, he took part in the first war of Judea with Rome (66-70 CE) and after his capture by the Romans, became a favorite of the Roman general and later emperor, Vespasian. Four books by the Jewish historian are extant, his Vita (a brief autobiography), The Jewish War, The Antiquities of the Jews, and Against Apion (a defense of Jews). There are three passages in Josephus’s Antiquities which refer either to Jesus, his brother James, or to John the Baptist. We will discuss only the first two here as we have discussed the passage on John the Baptist above.
James, the Brother of Jesus
After the death of the Roman procurator of Judea, and before the arrival of the new one, the high priest Ananus tried and executed some of his enemies. One of the victims, according to Josephus, was a man called James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ...” Ant 20.200). If the phrase “who was called Christ” is removed, no one would imagine that the James referred to was the brother of Jesus. Rather, one would have thought he was the brother of the high priest “Jesus, son of Damneus” (Ant 20.203) who is mentioned in the text only three sentences after the “Christ” phrase. We regard this reference to Christ as a Christian interpolation. The use of the word Christ by Josephus also occurs in the Jesus passage at (Ant 18.63-64). The only use of the word Christians appears there, too. Origen, more than 120 years later, is the first to refer to the passage about James Celsus, I.47). Origen states that Josephus, “although not believing in Jesus as the Christ,” attributes the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple to the fact that “James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ)...” was killed. The problem is that the extant manuscripts of Josephus do not say that the destruction of the temple was a consequence of the death of James (cf. Ant 20.200-203).
Jesus, the Christ
The most famous passage used to demonstrate that Josephus had independent knowledge of the existence of Jesus appears in Ant 18.63-64:
“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
Some scholars feel this entire passage about Jesus the Christ is a late Christian insertion. It breaks the flow of the narrative, not relating to what comes before or what follows it. Origen (ca 230 CE), who knew of Josephus’s references to the stories of John the Baptist and James, was not aware of this passage about Jesus. This passage from Antiquities is unknown to any ancient writer until the dishonest Eusebius[vi] who wrote more than two hundred years after Josephus.
Would a Jewish historian, a defender of monotheism, write of the man Jesus, “if it be lawful to call him a man?” And besides, why wasn’t Josephus a convert if he believed Jesus was (the) Christ and more than a man, etc.? The answer is that some ancient Christians believed that Josephus was a (secret) Christian, indeed some thought he was Bishop of Jerusalem. The Christian who interpolated this passage thought that Josephus was a convert, and thus he did not see the glowing description of Jesus ascribed to Josephus as odd at all. Christian writings of the imperial period were often forged, a good deal of it surviving to this day, for example, the Protevangelium of James, the Acts of Pilate, etc. Some, like the Shepherd of Hermas and 1 Clement, nearly made it into the canon of the Christian Scriptures.
Often a forged reference to Jesus was a glowing tribute, especially if the person was thought to be a secret Christian like Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, Pontius Pilate, Mrs. Pilate, Josephus of Arimathea, or Nicodemus. Ancient Christian forgers lived in their own world. As late as the 19th century CE, Christians like William Whiston, Josephus’s translator, thought that Josephus was a Christian!
We conclude that these passages in Josephus’s Antiquities are Christian interpolations. None of the other passages in Josephus contain any allusions to Christians. Shaye J. D. Cohen writes that Josephus “. . . can invent, exaggerate, over-emphasize, distort, suppress, simplify, or, occasionally, tell the truth. Often we cannot determine where one practice ends and another begins.”[vii] Perhaps, but these remarks apply equally to certain ancient Christian editors.
Other Jewish documents of the first century CE will not detain us long in our search for independent witnesses to early Christians. Philo, the Alexandrian (ca 20 BCE-ca 50 CE), was a Jewish philosopher and biblical exegete. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and traveled to Rome to present the grievances of Jews to the emperor Caligula (39-40 CE). Philo thus had the opportunity to meet and comment on early Christians, but he knows nothing of Christ or his followers.
Another first-century Jewish source is the Dead Sea Scrolls. More than 500 scrolls were found in caves near Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea only about twenty miles from Jerusalem. The Qumranites lived at Qumran from ca 150 BCE to ca 68 CE. Married members of the sect apparently lived in Jerusalem and other cities.[viii] There is no mention in the Scrolls of Jesus, John the Baptist, his disciples, or early Christians.
Many apocryphal books survive which were written by Jews between ca 200 BCE and 200 CE, like Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, etc., and none of these mention Jesus or Christians. Sixty-five pseudepigrapha have been collected and published by James H. Charlesworth in his two volume work, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Many of these books were written in the same time period as the apocryphal books but except for a few Christian interpolations, these works contain no allusions to Christians either.
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And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,... these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
— Isaiah 56.6-7
My house... you have made it a den of robbers...
— Mark 11.17
Mark relates that Jesus left “that place,” heading for “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (Mk 10.1; Mt 19.1-2). Luke dramatically announces that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9.51), again emphasizing Jesus’ deliberate intent to carry out the plan of God in Jerusalem.
Royal Reception: Mk 11.1-10
Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd travel from Jericho, about ten miles east of Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, which are near the Mount of Olives, a stone’s throw from the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem in Judea. Actually Bethany would have come first, since Jesus was traveling from east to west (Matthew drops Bethany, 21.1). Jesus orders two (unnamed) disciples to go ahead to (an unnamed) village near the Mount of Olives, and says that they “...will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it...” (Mk 11.2). Jesus says that if the owner asks why the two disciples need the donkey, they are to say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately” (Mk 11.3). Note that Jesus refers to himself as Lord (kyrios), a title commonly used as a reference to God in the Jewish Scriptures, and also used in the pagan mysteries. The two disciples bring the donkey to Jesus.
Jesus mounts the colt and rides toward the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem. Many people spread their cloaks, as well as leafy branches, on the road in front of the colt Jesus is riding (Mk 11.8). Matthew again says explicitly that Jesus is fulfilling ancient prophecies from the Jewish Scriptures. “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt 21.4-5; Zch 9.9). Matthew has misunderstood Hebrew parallelism and thinks the prophet is referring to two animals and so has Jesus sit on both (Mt 21.7)! Scholars identify the prophet as Zechariah, even though 9.9 was not applied to the messiah until long after the time of Jesus.
Luke, against Mark and Matthew, says the crowd is composed of “the whole multitude” of Jesus’ disciples (Lk 19.37-38), apparently thousands from Galilee (Lk 12.1). Many people welcome Jesus, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mk 11.9-10; cf. 2 Sam 14.4; 2 Kgs 6.26). This is a variant quote of the royal Psalm (118.25-29; cf. 2 Sam 7.16) used in blessing the king at his coronation.
Only Luke has some Pharisees in the crowd warn Jesus to order his disciples to stop this royal welcome (Lk 19.39). Luke realized that a powerful Roman official like the prefect Pilate, would recognize that the acceptance of royal honors was a treasonous act under Roman law, one punishable by death. Needing to fulfill the divine plan, Jesus rejects the advice of the Pharisees, saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (Lk 19.40).
J. Fitzmyer asserts that Luke is telling us that “the Jews” have misunderstood Jesus’ ministry.[ix] Misunderstood? Jesus has preached about the kingdom of God during his ministry. He is perceived by his own disciples as a royal claimant. At Jericho Jesus accepts the royal title Son of David from the blind man and here, approaching the capital of Judea, Jesus purposefully rides a colt in fulfillment of a royal Psalm (118.26), and accepts the shouts of the crowd acknowledging his kingship. All of this makes it clear that Jesus intends to convey the idea that he is a king, one who is about to come into his power.
R. Brown, like Fitzmyer, argues that the Jewish crowd misunderstands Jesus’ mission and expects a nationalist hero.[x] According to Brown, the crowd should have understood Jesus as what? A peaceful, humble, and non-treasonous messiah since Zch 9.9 talks of a peaceful and humble king! We would agree, if the crowds were composed of scholarly Christian exegetes like Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer.
R. Brown concedes that a “triumph” was “the normal Greek expression used to describe joyful reception of Hellenistic sovereigns into the city.”[xi] Titus was greeted this way at Antioch. When Cato retired from the military, his soldiers threw “their mantles down for him to walk upon.”[xii] But Brown still sticks to his guns — the crowds were expecting what, a spiritual messiah?
Brown and Fitzmyer simply do not want to accept the fact that Jesus has deceived the Jewish crowds who thus perceive him as a king.
Riot in the Temple: Mk 11.11,15‑19
At Mark 11.11, Jesus enters Jerusalem and immediately goes to the temple. He looks around but since it is late in the day he leaves, traveling with the twelve to Bethany.
The next day on the way back to Jerusalem, Jesus is hungry but finds no figs on a tree by the roadside, since it is not the right season. He curses it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mk 11.14). The following day, after the temple riot, Jesus and the disciples again travel to Jerusalem and the disciples see that the tree is withered (Mk 11.21-22). The fig tree is Judaism. Jesus is teaching that a truly divine religion would never be out of season; it would always provide spiritual sustenance for its believers.
Between the cursing of the fig tree and its withering, Jesus returns to the temple and violently drives out those who buy and sell the animals intended for sacrifice; he overturns the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of those who sell doves. No Jewish messiah would riot against people for performing tasks necessary for worship in the temple. Animals are needed for sacrifice and, if all those pagan coins describing the emperor as “Son of God” and “Savior of the World” are to be kept out of the temple, money changers are needed to exchange the pagan coins for Jewish ones.
Jesus preaches, “My house... you have made it a den of robbers” (Mk 11.17; cf. Jer 7.11; Isa 56.7). The Synoptic Jesus thinks that selling animals for sacrifice is thievery. John omits the reference to robbers, but still sees business in the temple as wrong. At least John has changed Jesus’ phrase “my house” to “my father’s house,” recognizing that it would be blasphemous for Jesus to refer to God’s temple as “my house.”
For Luke the story of the temple riot involves much too much violence on the part of the Prince of Peace. Fitzmyer[xiii] notes that Luke has removed all details of violence from the story. Well, most of it — Jesus still “drives out” those who were selling things (Lk 19.45). Luke adds that “the chief priests, the scribes and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him” (Lk 19.47).
Origen (ca 240 CE), the best Christian exegete of the ancient world, pointed out that Jesus would have been arrested immediately, which is why he rejects the scene as unhistorical. Fitzmyer agrees that Jesus’ attack on the temple “would have provoked an immediate reaction from the priests and officials in the Temple,”[xiv] as rioting was a death penalty offense under Roman law and also a criminal act under Jewish law. Fitzmyer counters that Jesus was put on trial “quickly.” But the temple police and Roman authorities would hardly have waited several days to arrest the law breaker. In John, rather than arresting Jesus immediately, “the Jews” blandly inquire, “What sign can you show us, authorizing you to do these things?” (Jn 2.18).
Let us examine some additional problems connected with the temple riot. Jesus prophesies, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mk 11.17; Isa 56.7). Matthew and Luke, thinking that the temple was destroyed before Jesus’ prophecy could be fulfilled, omit the prophecy. But non-Jews were already praying at the temple in the time of Jesus (see Josephus and Philo). Mark relates that the riot occurred on the day after Jesus entered Jerusalem. Conversely, Matthew and Luke depict the riot as occurring on the day that Jesus enters Jerusalem. And John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, some years earlier (Jn 2.13-17).
Jesus invalidates the temple but no Jewish prophet or messiah would dream of abolishing a fundamental institution of Judaism. Many modern Christian apologists argue that there was a strong Jewish anti-temple movement in first-century Judaism. Yet in Mark, Jesus praises the widow’s contribution to the temple treasury (Mk 12.42-44), and at Mt 17.24ff Jesus pays the temple tax for Peter and himself, granted without great enthusiasm. There is no mention of an anti-temple faction in the works of either Philo of Alexandria or Josephus. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumranites opposed the priestly administration of the temple in Jerusalem, but not the sacred temple itself.
“They” send some Pharisees and Herodians to the temple to trap Jesus by asking him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, knowing that to withhold taxes was treason under Roman law. Jesus replies that one should render to God the things that are God’s and to the emperor what is his (Mk 12.13-14; cf. Acts 5.37). Josephus condemned Judas the Galilean in 6 CE because the rebel refused to pay Roman taxes (Mk 12.13-17; cf. Acts 5.37).[xv]
At Mk 12.31-33 Jesus is asked by a scribe what is the most important commandment. Jesus quotes part of the Shema, a most important Jewish prayer. In part it states that one should love God and love one’s neighbor (Mk 12.28-29). The scribe responds, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk 12.33; cf. Amos 5.21-24 which relates that the Lord says he hates festivals and sacrifice, preferring justice and righteousness; Ps 40.6-8; 1 Sam 15.22). But Amos is referring to a balance between ethical and ritual law, not to a rejection of sacrifice, etc. Mark tells us, “After that, no one dared to ask [Jesus] a question” (vs. 34)! Another non-dialogue.
We will not dwell on the convoluted argument at Mk 12.35-37 which says that Jesus can’t be David’s son, because in the Jewish Scriptures he is called David’s Lord (cf. Ps 110.1). We would merely note that Mark, or his editor, does not always want to associate Jesus with the Jewish messiah.
In the temple, a large crowd listens to Jesus “with delight” (Mk 12.37b). Jesus says to beware of the scribes; they wear long robes and like to be respected in the market places, and have “the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” (Mk 12.38-39). Jesus preaches that the scribes “devour widows’ houses, and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (Mk 12.40). He says, “They will receive the greater condemnation.” A Jewish audience would hardly be happy with a Jewish teacher who slanders and condemns wholesale their religious leaders.
Matthew and Luke greatly expand the anti-Jewish material of Mk 12.38-40. In Matthew Jesus lacerates the religious leaders while in the temple. He says the scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites and “are as graves” and whitewashed tombs (Mt 23.27). Jesus preaches that the scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites, “For you lock people out of the kingdom of Heaven...” S. Lachs states that rabbinic tradition held that hypocrites, liars, etc., could not “...receive the face of the Shekinah,”[xvi] i.e., God would not receive them. Jesus adds that they “make the new convert twice as much a child of hell [Gehenna] as [themselves]” (Mt 23.13,15), but the Pharisees had no authority outside of Judea.
Matthew and Luke provide scriptural support for the widely-held but erroneous Christian belief that Jews consider the law to be a burden which they groaned under. The scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, load people with heavy burdens hard to bear, and do not “lift a finger” to ease them (Mt 23.4; Lk 11.46). It is true that obeying all the 613 commandments is more demanding than keeping the few ethical commandments required of non-Jews. However, for Jews, observing God’s law is a privilege. The Psalmist writes, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.... the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart...” (Ps 19.7). “I delight in the way of your decrees... I will delight in your statutes;...” (Ps 119.14,16). There are many more such passages throughout the Jewish Scriptures (cf. Ps 40.8; Prv 29.18, etc.), as well as in the rabbinical writings.
The Lukan Jesus is heading for Jerusalem but, while still in Galilee, he and others are invited by a Pharisee to dine in his home (Lk 11.37). The host is amazed that Jesus has not ritually washed his hands before dinner (Lk 11.38). One has to marvel at the audacity of the Lukan Jesus; reading his host’s mind, Jesus launches into a long, ill‑tempered diatribe against his host and the other guests. What has happened to the traditional hospitality of the Near East, the courtesy paid to the host by the guest?
Jesus says they (the Pharisees) are “full of greed and wickedness,” and condemns them for giving alms rather than giving of themselves, for tithing “everything” and neglecting “justice and mercy and faith” (Lk 11.39-42; Mt 23.23). No Jewish teacher would think of tithing as a trivial commandment, as compared to faith, justice, and the love of God, for all are considered sacred, as they come from God.[xvii]
The Lukan Jesus states that “their” Jewish ancestors killed the prophets (cf. Mt 23.30-31). He continues to denounce the lawyers, “You build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed” (Lk 11.47; Mt 23.29). Jesus charges that Jews have killed all the prophets “since the foundation of the world,” from Abel to Zechariah (Lk 11.50-51). Of course, the Jewish Scriptures do not indicate that the Jewish people have “killed all the prophets” from Genesis to 2 Chronicles. Luke and Matthew simply want to condemn Jewish leaders and the Jewish people as faithless murderers.
Jesus adds “I will send [to Jews] prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute” (Lk 11.49). Matthew’s Jesus says, “some... you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town” (Mt 23.34-35; cf. Mk 13.9). As in the later Acts, a fantasy of the early church.
There is still more — the lawyers take away “the key of knowledge;...” (Lk 11.52), i.e., Jews misunderstand the Jewish Scriptures, that is, they don’t have Jesus’ understanding. Finally, the Lukan diatribe ends, and Jesus leaves the Pharisee’s home. The scribes and the Pharisees lie “in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say” (Lk 11.54). (Haven’t they heard enough already?)
Compare the list of slanders aimed at the Pharisees in Mk 12.37-40 and Mt 23.1-31 with this pagan list of insults.[xviii] Dio Cocceianus (1st cent. CE) gives this list of his opponents’ vices: he calls them sophists, ignorant, boastful, unlearned, evil-spirited, impious, liars. He also says that his opponents teach for money, and that they are mindless and shameless and deceive others and themselves.[xix]
Many writers view Jesus as a Jewish reformer. This is surely not based on the rage of these passages. Could Jewish soil have produced such fundamental anti-Jewishness?
Jesus praises a widow who gives her food money to the temple treasury (Mk 12.41-44). Euripides (485-406 BCE) writes that those who are poor and give small gifts to the gods have more piety than “those that bring oxen to sacrifice.”[xx]
Apocalypse: Mark 13
Jesus and his disciples marvel at the largeness of the temple stones and buildings. Was this their first visit? One assumes that Jesus and his disciples had in the past traveled to Jerusalem for the annual festival. Luke states that “some” spoke of the temple as “adorned with noble stones and offerings” (Lk 21.5). Luke cannot imply that Jesus has never seen the temple complex before, since in Luke’s birth narrative he maintains that Jesus’ parents came to the temple every year for Passover (Lk 2.41). John omits the whole incident.
In Mark, on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, Jesus speaks privately to four of his disciples, coldly predicting the destruction of the temple. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk 13.2). The temple is a central institution of Judaism, yet Jesus’ disciples respond only by blandly inquiring as to when this destruction will occur and what are the signs of the end (Mk 13.4).[xxi] Jesus teaches that wars and rumors of war, earthquakes and famines, will proceed the destruction (Mk 13.8), but in what time period do these not occur?
The prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the world is judgmental in Mark. This passage (Mk 13.9-13) has been interpreted by some writers as pointing to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, and by others as predicting a distant cosmic apocalypse. Many argue that Jesus predicted an imminent end of the world.
In Mark, Jesus preaches that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mk 9.1), indicating that Jesus is expecting that the end of the world will be soon. Luke emphasizes that salvation is accomplished now in the present (realized eschatology), and John nearly obliterates the idea of future salvation in favor of the latter idea.
Josephus[xxii] relates how the leading Jewish citizens and the Roman procurator, Albinus, reacted to predictions of doom. A farmer named Jesus predicts the coming destruction of the temple, Jerusalem, and its inhabitants. After several years of these prophecies, the farmer is chastised by the leading citizens and turned over to Albinus who then scourges him and, thinking him crazy, releases the farmer who later dies in the first war with Rome. This Jesus is not crucified.
Greco-Romans, too, knew about the apocalypse. Compare Revelation 8 & 9 with the Stoic Seneca’s (ca 3 CE-ca 65 CE) description of the end of the world in his letter to Marcia. In Revelation, the angels of destruction destroy one-third of all trees and all green grass, and a third of the sea becomes blood. The bottomless pit is opened (Rev 9.1ff). “They were allowed to torture [those without seals] for five months but not to kill them” (Rev 9.5). An army of 200,000 destroys people, one-third are killed by fire, smoke, and brimstone, “...if they did not repent, worshiping devils and idols of gold and silver and stone and wood....” (9.20). In the end, all of the heavens and the earth are destroyed (Rev 21.1).
For Seneca and some other pagan Stoics, there is going to be a fiery conflagration in which the cosmos is destroyed. Seneca describes this end time, “I am behold the rise and fall of future kingdoms, the downfall of great cities, and new invasions of the sea... know that nothing will abide where it is now placed, that time will lay all things low and take all things with it.”[xxiii] This includes “...places, countries, and the great parts of the universe. It will level whole mountains... it will drink up seas....”[xxiv] There will be plagues, earthquakes and floods, which will kill all creatures. The fire will destroy all. The world will be blotted out in order to begin life anew. “... when it shall seem best to God to create the universe anew — we, too, amid the falling universe, shall be added as a tiny fraction to this mighty destruction and shall be changed again into our former elements.”[xxv] For many Stoics, the cycles of destruction and reconstruction are infinite in number.
* * * * * * *
Jesus says the owner, “will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
— Mark 12.9
My God, my God, why did you abandon me?
— Mark 15.34; The Scholars Bible
The death story of Jesus dramatizes the central message of the Gospel of Mark, namely that Judaism is invalid and is to be replaced by Christianity, but the theme is most clearly spelled out in the tenant story of Mark 12 which we will now discuss before turning to the passion (death) of Jesus.
Tenant Story: Mark 12.1-12
Jesus relates that a man planted a vineyard, leased it to his tenants and moved away. When the harvest season arrived, the owner sent a slave to collect the owner’s share of the produce, but the tenants beat the slave and kicked him out. The owner sent many others who were also beaten, ejected or killed. Finally, the owner sent his “beloved Son” whom the tenants killed, thinking that he had come for their inheritance. Jesus asks, what will the “owner of the vineyard do?” The owner, Jesus says, “will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Mk 12.9). “They” realize the story was told “against them” (vs. 12) and so want to arrest Jesus but are afraid of the crowd. (“They” apparently refers to the priests, scribes and elders at Mk 11.27.) The tenant story is based on Isa 5.1-7, but Isaiah knows nothing of slaves or a son being murdered.
In Mark, the tenants are the Jewish people, those sent to collect the owner’s share of the produce are the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures, and the son is Jesus. The meaning of the allegory is that the Jewish covenant is only temporary. It will be nullified by “the Jews” when they reject and kill God’s Son. They will then no longer be the people of God; the non-Jews will replace them and be given the vineyard, that is, the kingdom of God.
The tenant story is clearly a product of the early church.
The Passion: Mark 15
Most scholars concede that the accounts of the death story of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark, but argue that John’s account of the passion is independent of Mark. But even an admirer of the fourth gospel like Raymond E. Brown writes, “It seems plausible to us that the final writer of Jn knew at least part of the Synoptic tradition, and, in particular, some written form of Mark.”[xxvi] Burton L. Mack in his influential A Myth of Innocence, argues that John’s passion is dependent on Mark and is fiction.[xxvii] Thus, we will rarely refer to John’s late account of Jesus’ passion.
In Bethany just outside of the holy city, at the home of Simon the leper, an unnamed woman anoints the head of Jesus, thus preparing him for his burial (Mk 14.3,8,32,33; Mt 26.12). In Luke the anointing occurs much earlier (Lk 7.36-50) and is not a funeral rite.
In the Synoptics the Pharisees play no role in the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus. John is in error when he depicts the Pharisees as playing a powerful role as there is no evidence that in 30 CE they had any such power. They are stand-ins for the Jewish rabbinical leaders of John’s day (circa 100 CE).
The chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest and kill Jesus (Mk 14.1). Judas goes to them and says that he wishes to betray Jesus; they are “greatly pleased, and promise to give him money” (Mk 14.10-11). Where did Judas and the priests meet? How did Judas know that these powerful priests needed help in arresting Jesus?[xxviii]
Matthew begins the process of satanizing Judas by having him ask the priests for money, rather than the priests volunteering it as in Mark. In Matthew’s gospel, Judas receives 30 pieces of silver. This is based on Zch 11.12-13, though Matthew wrongly attributes it to Jeremiah.[xxix]
Only in Matthew does Judas repent, return the money to the temple, and hang himself (Mt 27.1-10). This is derived from 2 Sam 12.23 and 17.23, where Ahithophel betrays David, and then hangs himself.[xxx] Acts contradicts Matthew by relating that Judas died when he fell and his body burst open (1.18) but oddly, in the Gospel of Luke, the supposed author of Acts is not aware of Judas’s death by hanging, bursting, or any other method.
What reason is given for the betrayal of Jesus by Judas? In Mark none is given; in Matthew it is money. To Luke, it was not appropriate that the Son of God be betrayed for mere lucre, so Satan enters into Judas before the Last Supper (Lk 22.3) and during the Last Supper in John (Jn 13.26-27).
The Last Supper: Mk 14.17-25
In Judaism a festival is a time set aside to commemorate some historical event or religious concept. Passover celebrates the escape of the Hebrew people under Moses’ leadership from Egyptian slavery. Neither the meaning of Passover nor any other Jewish festival is mentioned in the four gospels.
For John the Last Supper is characterized as a “supper,” not a Passover meal (Jn 13.2,4). Jesus is executed the day before Passover in John and on the first day of the Passover in the Synoptics. John Chrysostom (fl 400 CE) was so anti-Jewish that he thought the Jews postponed Passover for a day so that they could kill Jesus on that holy day!
In Mark, Jesus orders the disciples to prepare for the Passover meal. They do so on Thursday a little while before sunset (Mk 14.16), but Jesus would not have waited until it was this late, since in Jewish tradition, 15-30 days is recommended.[xxxi]
Various kinds of food and drink are regarded as sacred and used in religious rituals. In the Jewish Scriptures, unleavened bread and wine are so used, but in Jewish tradition such rituals do not produce mystical effects. In some pagan magical papyri “the food is identified with the body and/or blood of a god with whom the magician is identified; thus the food becomes also the body and the blood of the magician; whoever eats it is united with him and filled with love for him.”[xxxii] Jesus, referring to the consumption of the bread and wine, says, “this is my body... this is my blood of the covenant...” (Mk 14. 22,24). Eating the blood of an animal is explicitly forbidden in the Jewish Scriptures and eating human blood and flesh, even symbolically, occurs nowhere in all of Jewish tradition.
The Jewish Scriptures are again handy for Mark, as he creates the Jesus story. At the supper, Jesus says that his blood is poured out for many (Mk 14.14). “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities... he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa 53.11-12) (vicarious atonement). Jesus removes the punishment for sin. This is not Jewish; in Judaism each person must atone for his or her own sins.
Jesus predicts that one of the twelve will betray him, the one who is dipping the bread into the bowl with him (Mk 14.20). The name of the betrayer is not given. Matthew identifies Judas, and adds that the Son of Man is fulfilling Scripture (Mt 26.24). It is, of course, unthinkable that the disciples would not have condemned the betrayer.
After the meal, Jesus and his disciples head for Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (Mk 14.32) which is within sight of the temple in Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus miraculously predicts that his disciples will desert him, that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows twice, and that Jesus will meet them in Galilee (after his resurrection).
Mark again utilizes the Jewish Scriptures, in this case to prove that Jesus’ disciples’ desertion has been prophesied and is thus in accordance with the divine plan. Alluding to Zechariah Jesus says, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Mk 14.27; Mt 26.31; cf. Zech. 13.7).[xxxiii] Luke softens this harsh image of the disciples as faithless deserters, omitting the prophecy of their desertion (22.31).
In the garden, while the disciples sleep, Jesus experiences great mental agony though he assents to God’s will, i.e., God’s plan (Mk 14.34,36). L. Feder rightly points out that Hercules’ most impressive trait “is his power to endure the burden of great toil and danger and agonizing personal sorrow”[xxxiv] and his gruesome death by fire.
The Arrest of Jesus: Mk 14.43-52
In the earliest gospel, Jesus and the twelve leave for the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper. At Gethsemane Judas pops up with the crowd which has come to arrest Jesus even though Mark has not related that Judas had ever left the group. John knows this is a problem, and so his Judas leaves during the supper at Jesus’ command.
In Mark, the chief priest, scribes and elders send the crowd to arrest Jesus, but Luke has the aristocratic chief priests and elders personally appear to arrest Jesus! It is incredible that such powerful and aristocratic men would join the Temple police at night to make an arrest, and on Passover at that!
John’s gospel fixes this. The dignitaries are not present. Rather, they have sent some officers to arrest Jesus. Yet, unbelievably, John has added a Roman captain with a cohort of 600 soldiers! This seems a bit much. At least the fourth gospel writer knew that only Roman authority could arrest a man for treason, that is, claiming to be a king.
Judas identifies Jesus with a kiss (cf. 2 Sam 20.9ff where Joab kisses Amasa just before killing him with a sword).
In Mark, a man near Jesus draws a sword and cuts off the ear of a slave of the high priest. Over time the gospel writers developed some of their fictional characters more fully. The name of the disciple (Simon Peter) and the name of the slave (Malchus) are finally revealed in John’s gospel (18.10). Consider how much of Judas’s story is lacking in the earliest gospel. Mark knows nothing about the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas nor that he is a thief; he is not named at the Last Supper and Mark omits Judas’s repentance and his death. After the arrest of Jesus, Judas disappears.[xxxv] In Matthew, Jesus says he could call on twelve legions of angels to protect himself if he desired (26.53), again demonstrating that Jesus is not forced against his will to accept the divine plan. He is fulfilling Scripture (Mk 14.49; Mt 26.56).
Mark says that at Jesus’ arrest, “All of [the disciples] deserted him and fled,” Mk 14.49-50 (cf. Isa 53.2,12), fulfilling Jesus’ own prophecy. (Luke omits this.)
Regarding the lack of historicity of the passion narratives, the reader should recall the number of miracles attributed to Jesus. He miraculously predicts his arrest, the desertion of his disciples, Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial of Jesus, and his own trial, suffering, death, and resurrection. In addition, in John the arresting crowd is miraculously knocked to the ground. Also, the Johannine Jesus commands the authorities to let his disciples go, which fulfills Jesus’ prophecy that he would not lose any of his disciples. (Presumably John means other than Judas!)
Did Judas Exist?
R.E. Brown in The Death of the Messiah, writes, “Judas is mentioned 22 times in the NT: Mark 3, Matt 5, Luke-Acts 6, John 8.”[xxxvi] Judas is chosen as one of the twelve (Mk 3.19) and is not heard of again until 14.10-11 where he conspires to betray Jesus, and is not identified by name at the Last Supper in Mark.
Judas is derived from the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel, Judah, but R. Brown thinks the name is not suspect, though he grants that, Judas “is etymologically related to ‘Jew’....”[xxxvii] (Greek Judah) and he concedes that Judas could be seen as the hostile “quintessential Jew,” as Augustine does when he holds that Peter represents the church and Judas represents the Jews.[xxxviii]
W.B. Smith, G. Volkmar, and Hyam Maccoby, among others, have argued that Judas never existed. R. Brown[xxxix] disputes this, but lists some of the arguments advanced for this thesis:
· “John (the brother of James) is named more frequently than is Judas (30 times)... compared to 22” mentions of Judas;
· “the staged nature of the scenes” as at the Last Supper where each disciple asks if he is the one who will betray Jesus, Judas speaking last (Mt 26.21-25);
· Judas appears in a setting in which an earlier gospel does not have him, e.g., the anointing at Bethany (Jn 12.4-5);
· the conflicting accounts of Judas’s death in Matthew and Acts.
We would add that Paul, writing before Mark, knows nothing of Judas.
R. Brown concedes that nearly all of the gospel evidence about Judas is unreliable, but wrongly insists on the historical existence of Judas.[xl]
We have to wait more than a hundred years after Mark’s gospel (written about 70 CE or later) to find a mention of Judas outside the Christian Scriptures. Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons writing about 180 CE, uses neither Matthew nor Acts in discussing Judas’s fate, and the Bishop knows only that Judas was kicked out of office, not that he died.[xli] It is only with Origen in the early third century that we find a writer who refers to Judas’s death by hanging (Matthew), though he does not know of the alternative death by bursting (Acts). We do not find a reference to both of the accounts of Judas’s death in Matthew and Acts until the late fourth century CE.
Trial of Jesus by Jewish Authorities: Mk 14.53-65
Jesus is led to the (unnamed) high priest late on Thursday evening where “all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes [are] assembled” (Mk 14.53-54). (The Sanhedrin never met at night; thus, Luke places the trial in the morning.)
In Mark, the “whole” Sanhedrin (all 71 members apparently) is “looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death” (Mk 14.55). Matthew has the trial take place at the high priest’s house, but the Sanhedrin was not convened there,[xlii] nor did the high priest preside over the Sanhedrin at this time.[xliii] Against Luke and John, Mark and Matthew relate that some witnesses falsely charge that Jesus had said he would destroy the Temple, but their testimony is not in agreement and so is apparently dismissed (Mk 14.56-59; Mt 24.60-61). According to the Scriptures, at least two witnesses are required for a verdict in a criminal trial (Num 35.30; Dt 17.6, 19.15). Mark has no valid witnesses. Matthew adds the two witnesses.
The council finds no evidence against Jesus (Mk 14.55). Again, the Jewish Scriptures provide material for Mark’s fictional portrait of Jesus, “the governors and satraps sought... to find... occasion against Daniel; but they found against him... no occasion” (cf. Dan 6.4 LXX).[xliv]
In Mark and Matthew at the end of the trial Jesus is convicted of blasphemy, but claiming to be Messiah was not a crime. Could other charges have been leveled against Jesus? Some have suggested that Jesus’ death could have been brought about because of his conflict with the Pharisees and scribes over ritual law, i.e., healing on the Sabbath, ritual washing of hands, etc. But in Mark and Matthew, no such charges are raised, even though Jesus was tried in Jerusalem, the seat of what power the Pharisees had.
Criminal charges could have been brought by the Sanhedrin against Jesus since he attributed to himself divine characteristics by allowing himself to be called Lord and claiming the authority to forgive sins and regulate the Sabbath, etc. And, if Jesus claimed to be the “only” Son of God in a literal, not metaphorical sense, this would be un-Jewish, and perhaps a criminal offense.
At the trial, the high priest asks Jesus if he will defend himself, but he is “silent and [does] not answer,” fulfilling Isa 53.7. The high priest then asks, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” But how does the high priest know that any of the titles, Messiah (Christ), Son of the Blessed, Son of Man, Son of God, apply to Jesus? Jesus is called the “Son of God” by demons, but they are silenced at his command, and none of the people even suspect that these titles apply to him; at most the people think Jesus is a prophet (Mk 8.28) or maybe one who cures illnesses or exorcizes demons.
Asked if he is the Messiah, Jesus answers, “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14.61-62), a union of Dan 7.13 and probably Ps 110.1.[xlv] Hearing Jesus’ admission, the high priest tears his garments and judges that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy. The priest asks the Sanhedrin for its decision and “All of them [condemn] him as deserving death” (Mk 14.64). S. Lachs points out that the high priest “was not allowed to tear his clothes in mourning for the dead”[xlvi] and so probably he would not do so here either. He also points out that the rabbinic writers held that blasphemy could not be punished by a court, but only by God.[xlvii] Some members of the Sanhedrin and some of the guards spit on Jesus and beat him (Mk 14.65), behavior hardly likely to occur during a meeting of this distinguished court.
The historical inconsistencies and implausibilities contained in the accounts of the arrest of Jesus and his trial before the council force us to agree with Burton L. Mack, John Dominic Crossan, and others that these events are fiction, a good deal of which has been constructed from passages in the Jewish Scriptures.
Trial by Pilate: Mk 15.1-20
Mark relates that the whole council again meets, and then in broad daylight parades Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem bringing him to Pilate, the Roman prefect (Mk 15.2-20). It is still the Passover, a holy day on which work is forbidden. And what happened to the idea of dealing with Jesus secretly?
Mark does not tell us why Pilate is in Jerusalem. The elders, scribes and the whole council who brought Jesus to Pilate apparently stay, and yet Mark does not relate that anyone other than Pilate witnesses Jesus’ trial (Mk 15.2-5). How did Mark know what occurred? The prefect asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answers ambiguously, “You have said so.” Mark says that the chief priests accuse Jesus of many things, but Jesus makes no response. Pilate is amazed at Jesus’ silence, but he needn’t have been astonished. Mark is again borrowing from the Jewish Scriptures. Isaiah 53.7 says, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like the lamb that is led to the slaughter....”
Suddenly a crowd pops up and asks Pilate to release a prisoner on the festival day as was his custom (Mk 15.8). (There was no such pagan or Jewish custom.) Pilate, based on Jesus’ ambiguous answer and silence, has concluded that Jesus is innocent and offers to release Jesus, “the King of the Jews.” But stirred up by the chief priests, the crowd demands that Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer, be freed and yells, “Crucify him!” Why is a murdering rebel freed? To keep the peace one assumes!
In Matthew, Mrs. Pilate needs even less evidence of Jesus’ innocence than her husband. She has had a dream that Jesus is innocent, and sends word to her husband that he should have nothing to do with the death of this “innocent man” (Mt 27.19). Pilate washes his hands saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood...” (Mt 27.24). This is based on Deuteronomy 21.6-8, where the elders of the town wash their hands saying, “Our hands did not shed this blood.” This practice is also found among the Greeks and Romans (cf. Virgil, Aeneid 2.719). The powerful prefect, Pilate, is portrayed as a strong and cruel official in the works of both Philo and Josephus. They know nothing of the weak and vacillating Pilate offered in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
In a passage that has caused much bloodshed, Matthew intensifies the guilt of all Jews throughout all time when he has the Jewish crowd cry out, “his blood be on us and on our children” (Mt 27.25). Compare this with Sam 1.16 where an Amalekite killed Saul at his own request and David says to the killer, “Your blood be on your head; for your own mouth has testified against you, saying ‘I have killed the LORD’s anointed [messiah].’”
Did the Sanhedrin have the power to try Jesus for a capital offense? The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus (Ant 20.202-203), relates that a high priest convened the Sanhedrin and tried and executed some of his enemies. This was done between procurators. When the new one arrived in Jerusalem, the high priest was removed from office. Luke and John know that the council could not try capital cases, which is why the third and fourth gospels omit the formal trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin. In John, “the Jews” tell Pilate that Jesus is a criminal, and the prefect tells the chief priests to “judge him by your own law” (Jn 18.29-32). “The Jews said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put any man to death’” (Jn 18.31). Did not the powerful Roman official know that under Roman law, only he could try and execute someone for a capital crime?
According to Mark after the murderer, Barabbas, is released, the Roman soldiers take Jesus away, mock and spit on him and strike him on the head (Mk 15.19,20; cf. Isa 50.6).[xlviii] But a prefect would never have executed a man after publicly announcing his innocence. After the scourging by the Roman soldiers, Jesus is led away to be crucified (Mk 15.20). A stranger, Simon of Cyrene, carries Jesus’ cross part of the way to the place of execution.
It is unlikely that it was a Roman custom for the victim to carry his cross. The condemned, especially one who had been flogged, would not have been physically able to carry a large and heavy cross, the vertical beam alone being about nine feet long. The upright beam of the cross was probably permanently embedded at the place of crucifixion, the cross beam being supplied at the time of execution. Why does John contradict the Synoptics by flatly saying that Jesus carries the cross by himself? Perhaps R. Helms is correct when he says that John may be attempting to counter the Gnostic claim that Jesus was not crucified, Simon having taken his place on the cross.[xlix]
Mark uses cross in a metaphorical sense when he has Jesus say, “whoever wishes to follow me, let him deny himself, let him bear his cross and let him follow me” (Mk 8.34). Luke takes this saying of the early church too literally, and has Simon actually follow behind Jesus while carrying the cross(Lk 23.26).
To “bear your cross” is an ancient metaphor. The idea that a divinely inspired man or a demigod could be unjustly convicted and die on the cross was not alien to the Greco-Roman world. Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion, concedes that in Stoic thought “... an ethical and symbolic interpretation of the crucifixion was still possible.” A staple of the ancient novel was the hero who barely escapes crucifixion.[l] (For more on this see Chapter 9.)
The issue of who was present during the crucifixion again illustrates the confusion of the passion accounts in Mark and the other gospels. In addition to the centurion’s presence at the crucifixion, Mark includes women, among whom Mark names Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome (Mk 15.39-40). (These are the women who had ministered to Jesus out of their own funds in Galilee, though Mark up to 15.41 has not mentioned any such women.)
Luke, against Mark and Matthew, says that the disciples did not desert Jesus at his arrest and claims that “all his acquaintances” are present at the cross (23.49). Luke is again rehabilitating the disciples. Only the late gospel of John relates that at the cross Jesus entrusts his mother to the care of the “disciple whom he loved” (Jn 19.26). But why is Jesus’ mother not given into the care of her surviving sons?
Crucifixion: Mk 15.22-29
R. Helms’ Gospel Fictions is useful in examining Mark’s use of the Jewish Scriptures in creating his fictional narrative.[li]
On the cross, Jesus is offered drink, “they gave him wine mixed with gall, but having tasted it he refused to drink” (Mk 15.23; Mt 27.34). Compare this with Psalms 69 (17), “they gave me also gall for my food, and made me drink vinegar...” (Ps 69 :21). John fuses Ps 69 with Ps 51.7, and adds that Jesus is offered the wine on a branch of hyssop (Jn 19.21-30). John is heavily into the lamb of God imagery and hyssop was used for sprinkling the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of Jewish homes (Ex 12.21).[lii]
The soldiers cast lots to see who gets Jesus’ clothing (Mk 15.24). “‘they parted my garments... among themselves, and cast lots for my raiment’ (Ps 21 : 18 LXX).”[liii] The seamless tunic in John (19.23) comes from Ex 28.32.[liv] The gospels indicate Jesus’ clothing was removed before the crucifixion (Mk 15.24). The Mishnah concludes that the inclusion of nudity in an execution would violate Jewish religious laws.[lv] As Brown points out, nudity would cause conflict in the community which Rome was anxious to stabilize.[lvi]
According to Mark, a sign reading, “The King of the Jews,” was affixed to the cross indicating the charge for which Jesus was executed (Mk 15.26; cf. Isa 53.12). R. Brown concedes that, “we have no evidence of the custom of affixing [a sign] to the cross.”[lvii] And where is the sign located? Mark does not say; Matthew indicates that it is over Jesus’ head; Luke has it over Jesus, and John, trying to smooth things out, says that the sign was “on the cross.” Those passing by the cross deride Jesus; they shake their heads and mock him, saying that he should save himself (Mk 15.29-30; cf. Ps 22.7). They say, “let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down” (Mk 15.36). Isaiah writes, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering...” (Isa 53.3; cf. Mk 9.12; 15.29-32).
Jesus is crucified along with two (unnamed) bandits, one on each side of him (Mk 15.27). The Psalmist writes, “For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me” (Ps 22.16). Isaiah writes, “he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53.12; cf. Mk 15.27). Mark and Matthew describe those crucified with Jesus as bandits, a word which has strong political connotations. Luke, wishing to de-politicize Jesus’ death, changes the word to criminals (Lk 23.32).
In Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ despairing last words on the cross are, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” (Scholars Bible, Mk 15.34; cf. Mt 27.46; Ps 22.1). In Luke and John this is too much for their divine messiah so the last words are changed, removing Jesus’ deficient faith. Luke’s Jesus calmly commends his spirit to God (23.46). The Johannine Jesus triumphantly proclaims, “It is finished” (19.30). Epictetus wrote that since one’s true ancestors are the gods, we should cheerfully be willing to die for God.[lviii] The pagan centurion at the foot of the cross after Jesus’ death exclaims that Jesus was truly “God’s Son” (Mk 15.41). Luke thinks it is too much that the pagan soldier would miraculously draw this conclusion and so Luke has, “Surely this man was innocent” (Lk 23.47). Isaiah says that, “... he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole...” (Isa 53.5; cf. Rom 4.25; 1 Cor 15.3). What Isaiah means about the “suffering servant” is the subject of much debate, but he certainly was not referring to Jesus or to a Jewish messiah.
The evangelists were children of their time. They believed as did pagans that miraculous events accompany the death of a great or divine man. Mark, at 15.33, records that the whole Earth was in darkness between noon and three on Friday afternoon. Some apologists say that this refers to an eclipse of the sun, but modern astronomy shows that no solar eclipse was visible from Judea at the time Jesus died in the early 30's CE. All of the Synoptics state that the curtain which closed off the inner Holy of Holies in the temple was torn in two. The divine presence has deserted the temple. The evangelists are supersessionalists. They claim that Christianity replaces Judaism.
Some conservative exegetes have tried to explain why Jews in the gospels are depicted as embracing the crucifixion, a Roman method of execution which was much hated in Jewish tradition. The apologists claim that Jews accepted crucifixion. But Paul Winter is surely correct when he says that we do not know of a “single instance [during the war, 66-70 CE] in which the Jewish guerrillas... resorted to the method of crucifixion in disposing of those who had fallen into their hands. Crucifixion was not a punitive measure used by Jews or adopted by Jewish judicial institutions at any time in history.”[lix] The Jews accepted this cruel form of punishment because Mark wishes them to do so. He cannot make the representative of the pagans the murderer of Jesus.
Burial of Jesus: Mk 15.42-47
Mark relates that Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council who was looking for the “Kingdom of God,” “boldly” went to Pilate and asked him for Jesus’ body (Mk 15.43). The problem is that Joseph, as a member of the Sanhedrin, must have voted to condemn Jesus, since Mark and Matthew relate that the vote of the council was unanimous. Luke can only weakly argue that Joseph had “not agreed to their plan and action” (Lk 23.51). As a known follower of Jesus, Joseph should have been arrested. Why wasn’t he? And the disciples, too?
In Matthew, Jewish authorities request guards to watch over Jesus’ tomb because Jesus said that he would be raised on the third day (Mt 27.64), but Jesus had predicted his resurrection but only in private to his disciples. After Jesus is raised from the dead, the soldiers are bribed by the priests to say that Jesus’ body was stolen while they slept. If Roman soldiers admitted they were asleep on duty, there would have been more crucifixions, and soon!
R. Helms correctly asserts that “... the [passion] accounts are... fiction, composed for theological purposes.”[lx]
The women “fled the [empty] tomb...and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
— Mark 16.8
The hero, thinking his wife is dead, comes to mourn, and finds the tomb empty.
Ancient pagan novel.
The Empty Tomb: Mk 16.1-8
According to Mark, after the Sabbath on Sunday morning Mary Magdalene and two other women travel to the tomb of Jesus in order to anoint his body with spices (Mk 16.1-2). They discover that the large stone that had blocked the entrance has been moved. They enter the tomb and are alarmed when they see an angel (“a young man”) who informs them that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth has been raised. The angel orders them to tell Peter and the other disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Mark relates that the women fled the tomb in terror, “and... said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mk 16.8).
Nearly all serious scholars agree that the variant resurrection accounts of the gospels cannot be reconciled. A few examples of the inconsistencies involved will suffice to show why. In Mark, Luke, and John, when the women (or a woman in John) arrive at the tomb the stone has already been rolled away from the entrance. But in Matthew’s account, when the women arrive, the stone is still in place and is rolled away by an angel of the Lord in their presence and that of the guards.
In Mark three women go to anoint Jesus’ body, though earlier an unnamed woman has already anointed Jesus. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene and some other women. In Luke, Jesus appears only to men. In John, Mary Magdalene is alone when Jesus first appears to her. Matthew says that the women had come to “see” the sepulcher (Mt 28.1), and John gives no reason why Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. It is widely accepted by scholars that the original version of Mark ends at 16.8 with the empty tomb, vss. 9-20 appear only in very late manuscripts.
Some have argued that the faith of the female disciples was superior to that of the male disciples, but this is not found in the gospels. Women are not depicted as disciples which is why they have no fear of being arrested, and so can serve as witnesses to the empty tomb. The faith of the women is at least as defective as that of the men. In Mark, out of fear the women disobey the angel of God, refusing to tell the disciples what they have seen. Matthew and Luke attempt to rehabilitate the faithless women of Mark. Matthew says the women “ran with great fear and joy and told the disciples” what they had seen (28.8), and Luke says the women told the eleven and “all the rest” (Lk 24.9,11).
Paul, in the list of Jesus’ resurrection appearances at 1 Cor 15.3-8, agrees with Luke in omitting the women witnesses. (One cannot argue that the appearance before the 500 in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians includes women, since the Greek says brothers.)
Ancient Romance Novels
The best place we know of to examine the basic issues concerning the historical Jesus is the scholarly Journal of Higher Criticism edited by Robert M. Price.[lxi] For the following, we have depended on Robert M. Price’s book, Deconstructing Jesus.[lxii]
The plot line for certain ancient pagan novels, mostly of the Hellenistic period (ca 300-30 BCE), is primitive. In these novels, the wife or fiancé of the hero is in a coma and is prematurely buried. The hero, thinking she is dead, comes to mourn, and finds the tomb empty. He concludes that a god has taken his fiancé or wife to heaven because of her beauty. In searching for her, the hero runs across a ruler who wants the heroine for himself and orders that the hero and those who stole the woman’s corpse from the tomb be crucified. This being a romance novel, the hero survives. When the couple finally is reunited they think at first that they are seeing ghosts.
The similarities between Mark and, for example Chaereas and Callirhoe, are obvious: condemning the hero to be crucified; the entombment of the victim who is (apparently) dead; the removal of the stone; the empty tomb; the temporary inability of the lovers to recognize each other (in Mark, the women think that the angel is a ghost and in John, Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize Jesus at first).
There are parallels in other novels as well. Note that sometimes mistaken identity is involved as in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon. This novel echoes the Gnostic accusation that Jesus did not die, another man taking his place on the cross. Also, in this novel a woman discovers on the third day that the tomb is empty. In the Latin novel, The Golden Ass by Apuleius (ca 123 C.E.), there are two scenes involving crucifixions, one of which involves the actual, if temporary, raising of a dead person.
In a fragment of Petronius’s Satyricon, a woman decides to starve herself to death in her dead husband’s tomb. Nearby, thieves are crucified. Guards are placed to keep other thieves from breaking into the tomb and removing the corpse. The woman is encouraged to eat to prove that she is alive. Matthew, Luke and John provide witnesses to prove that Jesus has risen. In these pagan novels many people witness the empty tomb.
Translation or Resurrection?
In The New Testament and Hellenistic Judaism, an anthology edited by P. Borgen & S. Giversen, “Apotheosis and Resurrection,” an article by Adela Yarbro Collins argues persuasively that the empty tomb in Mark “is shaped by Greek and Roman traditions of the translation and apotheosis of human beings.”[lxiii] According to Ovid, Hercules’ body was destroyed and he received a divine form, and Plutarch relates that Hercules’ body disappeared. The Jewish Scriptures record that some people like Elijah, Enoch, Moses, and Melchizedek were translated, i.e., transformed after death, though they are not depicted as becoming divine.[lxiv]
Although Paul wrote in the 50's, only 10-20 years after the supposed death of Jesus in about 30 CE, his letters show no awareness of the empty tomb or anything else that would indicate a physical resurrection. For Paul, Jesus was not resurrected, but translated.
A.Y. Collins believes that the gospel of Mark ended at the death of Jesus on the cross;[lxv] there was no empty tomb and no resurrection of Jesus. Virtually all serious scholars think that the resurrection appearances at Mk 16.9-20 were created late from material extracted from the other gospels. For the earliest version of Mark, Jesus was transformed after death; he was translated, not resurrected. But what happened to his body? According to A. Y. Collins, when a person is translated, the body may remain behind or can disappear as in the case of Enoch, Elijah and Hercules.[lxvi]
Gradually the Christian texts move toward physical resurrection. Matthew indicates that Jesus was physically resurrected; the women take hold of Jesus’ feet and worship him (Mt 28.9). Luke supplies more evidence of physical resurrection; Jesus shows the wounds on his hands and feet to the disciples, and points out that ghosts don’t have flesh and bones; he then asks for food and eats a piece of fish (Lk 24.38-43). In John’s gospel Jesus eats food, appears in a closed room, and Thomas physically examines the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side (Jn 20.26-27). For the earliest Mark, Jesus is translated. Physical resurrection was developed afterwards by Matthew and Luke. Early Mark, in other words, was quite compatible with the Greco-Roman rejection of physical resurrection.
In the Roman world, it was required that witnesses testify to seeing the emperor’s shade or soul ascending toward the heavens before the emperor could be deified. Not satisfied with witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances, the author of Acts supplies witnesses to Jesus’ actual ascension to heaven, “When he [Jesus] had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1.9; cf. Mk 16.19; Lk 24.50-53). Lucian (120-185 CE) says that Hercules “was burned and deified on Mount Oetna: he threw off the mortal part of him that came from his mother and flew up to heaven, taking the pure and unpolluted divine part with him....”[lxvii] (In Greco-Roman tradition the mother supplies the body; reason and virtue, etc., come from the father!)
Christian apologists, assuming that Christianity was a Jewish sect, suggest that we look to the Jewish Scriptures for the origin of the idea of physical resurrection. Yet the term resurrection appears rarely in the Jewish Scriptures. As the Anchor Bible Dictionary states, the term resurrection “...does not appear except in texts that are rare, obscure with regard to their precise meaning, and late.”[lxviii] Resurrection is not clearly mentioned until Daniel (ca 165 BCE). The usual biblical view is that the soul goes to Sheol after death.
Perhaps, then, we should look at the later Jewish writings of the Second Temple period (ca 200 BCE to ca 100 CE). The problem is, that in pseudepigraphic literature such as 1 Enoch, Jubilees, 2 and 4 Maccabees, we find the concept of a general resurrection, not an individual resurrection, much less one where the messiah is resurrected.
Eastern religions had for a long time influenced the Roman world. Zoroastrianism was widespread, especially in the eastern empire where Christianity originated. The idea of apocalyptism in Persian Zoroastrianism was taken over by ancient Judaism in the exilic period. By the sixth century BCE, Zoroastrianism had worked out its basic eschatology.
Some of the following items found in Zoroastrianism are also found in Christianity: the evil god, Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman (cf. Satan), rules a demonic world. Zoroaster teaches that after death the soul hovers around the body for three days before going to its judgment. After the judgment, the soul goes to either heaven or hell, or an intermediate state, which we may call purgatory.
In Zoroastrianism, the cosmos lasts for twelve thousand years. There are three saviors who will follow Zoroaster, all born to virgins. Each savior’s work lasts a thousand years, which reminds one of the thousand-year rule of Christ in Revelation. The third savior, Soshyant, overcomes evil and at the final judgment raises the dead (as Christ does in Revelation). Each individual is judged. The body and soul are purified and all (some in Christianity) are reunited with God. At this time the earth is returned to its original perfection. Christianity is close to this latter idea in Revelation when, after people are judged, the cosmos is destroyed, a new heaven and new earth are created, and the heavenly Jerusalem descends to the new earth.
We conclude that:
· The idea of translation is more compatible with the pagan culture than with Jewish tradition. For Paul and Mark, Jesus was translated, but by the early second century CE, the idea of a physical or bodily resurrection became dogma.
· Physical resurrection was derived from Zoroastrianism.
Conclusion to Part 1 Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
· The Marcan Jesus is a radically anti-Jewish Christian; he is a supersessionalist, believing that Judaism had been replaced by Christianity.
· Jesus’ biography was created by the early church.
· His death story was written for theological reasons and is largely based on the Jewish Scriptures.
· Jesus fits better in a pagan, rather than a Jewish milieu. He is a pagan savior in Jewish dress. Mark’s gospel is a fiction. It is a myth, and one which is not based on an historical figure.
That Jesus was un-Jewish needs to be emphasized. Virtually all modern scholars accept the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as a first-century CE Palestinian Jew. J.H. Charlesworth writes, “To me as a scholar Jesus’ Jewishness seems redundant. Obviously Jesus was a Jew;...”[lxix] Cardinal Martini agrees, “In its origins Christianity is deeply rooted in Judaism... Jesus is fully Jewish, the apostles are Jewish, and one cannot doubt their attachment to the traditions of their forefathers.”[lxx] All this is wrong. As we have shown, one can have serious doubts about Jesus’ Jewishness, indeed about his very existence.
According to Jesus, the Jews were the chosen people of God but they will sever their covenant with God when they reject and kill God’s son. Thus, non-Jews will replace them as the people of God. Christians have so interpreted the gospels for nearly 2,000 years and today conservative Christians, still faithful to the gospels, preach this message of supersessionalism. Mark’s gospel is, on a fundamental level, far too anti-Jewish to have been created by Jews. Mark was created by the church, but who created the church? We will turn to this question in Chapter 10 of this book after briefly exploring Paul’s background.
* * * * * * *
Using the hope of heaven and the punishment of hell as the proper motives for virtue falls “...far below the best of the ancients [pagans]....”
—John Milton, On Liberty
Paul never knew the historical Jesus.
Adonis ... is raised on the third day.
— Hyam Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism
The Silence of Paul on the Historical Jesus
Traditional Christians hold that Paul’s Christ is Mark’s Jesus.
Some of the letters ascribed to Paul refer to the historical Jesus, but which letters are authentic?
Virtually all modern scholars believe that of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, only these seven are genuine: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, and Philemon, allegedly written between 50 and 62 CE. These letters were edited, that is material was added to or subtracted from them as the needs of the church changed. In The Journal of Higher Criticism,[lxxi] Hermann Detering briefly reviews some of the evidence offered by the Dutch school in the 19th-century as regard the integrity of the Pauline letters. There are a number of anachronisms in Paul’s epistles. The highly-developed theology and international organization of the church which is apparent in Paul’s letters assumes “a longer period of incubation and could not possibly have been arrived at within two decades” of Jesus’ death[lxxii] (Detering’s ital.). Paul writes that he fought at Ephesus with wild animals (1 Cor 15.32),[lxxiii] but there is no evidence that Christians were fed to the lions until about 117 CE in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.
There are other problems with Paul’s letters. Apologists argue that Paul wrote to individual churches, but 1 Corinthians is addressed to the church in Corinth at 1 Cor 1.2a, and to the churches “everywhere” at verse 2b. Apologists claim that Paul deals with the specific problems of individual churches, but the subjects of his letters are universal in nature. The Apostle deals with faith versus works, morality, the theological meaning of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection; he writes of false apostles, false gospels and false “Christs,” and of the end times, divorce, and ascetic practices, among other subjects. These topics are so general in scope, they could have been addressed to the church in general at any time.[lxxiv]
A major problem with the historicity of Paul’s correspondence is that the situation in which the letters were produced is confused. Often we do not know when or why Paul wrote a given letter, whether he is in prison or not, etc. Also, Paul claims to be Jewish, but his letters “have in many places a completely un-Jewish character.”[lxxv] Van Manen argued that Paul was a “Gentile Christian.”[lxxvi]
Nearly every subject that Paul writes about is treated in an ambiguous and often contradictory manner. For example, there have been two centuries of debate about who the opponents of Paul are in Galatians (54-55 CE). Some of the guesses are: 1) Jews, 2) Christians of Jewish background, 3) gentiles who observed the ritual laws of Judaism, 4) Gnostics of pagan background, 5) Gnostics of Jewish background, 6) spirit-filled enthusiasts. Another problem with Galatians is that the accounts of the Jerusalem meeting in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 have long been seen as inconsistent and even fiction.
Some scholars think 1 Corinthians (ca 56-57 CE) is a composite document that has been interpolated.[lxxvii] (Most think that this is also true of 2 Corinthians.) The fact that the letters of Paul have little integrity should be kept in mind when reading what follows.
We will focus primarily on Galatians and 1 Corinthians, as these two letters contain nearly all of Paul’s supposed references to the historical Jesus and his associates.
What does Paul know about the historical Jesus? He says that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4.4), but the Apostle supplies no historical detail. In his single reference to Jesus’ ancestry, Paul writes that Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh,” i.e., was of Jewish royal descent [Rom 1.3-4). But many scholars have questioned the integrity of these two passages from Galatians and Romans. Judging by Paul’s letters, Jesus could have lived and died a few years, or twenty years, or several centuries before Paul wrote his letters.
Paul describes the “Lord’s Supper” at 1 Cor 11.23-29, but the integrity of this passage has been much questioned. Jesus’ words, “this is my body and blood... Do this in remembrance of me,...” are closer to Luke’s account, but Paul died about 64 CE, 25 years before Luke wrote his gospel (ca 85-90 CE).
Paul’s most detailed depiction of Jesus occurs at Phil 2.6-11. This pre-Pauline hymn says that Jesus Christ “was in the form of God,... that he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness... he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” The hymn adds that after Jesus’ death, God “exalted him” above all others. The hymn may have been inserted by a later editor, since there is nothing in the rest of the genuine letters of Paul about a divine figure descending from heaven
Paul refers to Jesus’ crucifixion but gives no historical detail. At I Thess 2.14-15 Paul says that “the Jews” killed “the Lord Jesus.” R. Brown lists some arguments that scholars have given against the Pauline authorship of this passage (though Brown accepts it as genuine):[lxxviii] 1) The letter gives a second thanksgiving, indicating that the letter is a composite. 2) The passage says that Jews are “enemies of the human race,” a common pagan slander. 3) The letter says that divine wrath has overcome the Jews, a reference to the first war with Rome (66-70 CE) which occurred after Paul’s death.
Against Brown, most modern scholars have concluded that 1 Thess 2.14-15 was inserted by the early church. Earl Doherty in The Jesus Puzzle, lists some of the scholars who have found this to be so:[lxxix] Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? p 113; Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians, p 9, n 117; Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, vol. 2, p 113; Pheme Perkins, Harper’s Bible Commentary, p 1230,1231-2; S.G.F. Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, p 92-93; Paula Fredericksen, From Jesus to Christ, p 122. We would add J.D. Crossan who in, Who Killed Jesus?, asserts that the Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death is fiction.
Paul knows that Christ was “resurrected,” but he does not know where or when. In 1 Corinthians, Paul preaches that, “Jesus died, was buried, and raised on the third day according to the scriptures” (15.3-4), a passage which many scholars think is a creedal formula added by a later editor. Following this is a list of resurrection appearances: Jesus first appeared to Cephas and the twelve (1 Cor 15.5); then to the 500 disciples (vs. 6); then to James and all the apostles (vs. 7); and finally to Paul himself (vs. 8). Scholars have found many problems with this passage; it contradicts other passages dealing with Jesus’ resurrection appearances found in the four gospels and in Acts of the Apostles.
What is Paul’s image of the earthly Jesus? Paul writes, “We know him only as Christ crucified” (1 Cor 2.2). Jesus suffered and was crucified in weakness (2 Cor 1.5; 13.4). “We do not know Christ anymore in the flesh” (2 Cor 5.16). The apostle says Jesus died for our sins (Gal 1.1,4). In Paul’s mind, the earthly Jesus, no matter when or where he appeared on earth, was a suffering figure, who died a failure, as in Mark’s gospel. But Paul’s real savior is the Christ, not the earthly Jesus; a triumphant and divine figure of glory.
There is much evidence in Paul’s letters of general conflict within the early church. Paul warns his flock to watch out for those who would cause dissensions and offenses contrary to what they have learned (Rom 16.17). He says there are false apostles who preach a perverted gospel and “another Jesus” (2 Cor 11.4-8,13-14,22-33; Gal 1.6-9); he says they “will pay the penalty” (Gal 5.10,12).
What was Paul’s relationship to Peter?
The real Paul says that his gospel “is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1.11-12). He says, God “set me apart before I was born” and revealed “his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Gal 1.15-16; 1 Cor 1.1; 2 Cor 1.1, Phil 1.1, Rom 1.1). The apostle writes that after his conversion, he “did not confer with any human being, nor did [he] go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before [him], but... went away at once into Arabia....” (Gal 1.16-17). In about 40 CE, three years after his conversion, Paul says he visited Cephas for fifteen days in Jerusalem and also saw James, the Lord’s brother (Gal 1.19).
About 14 years after his first visit to Jerusalem, Paul writes that he received a revelation from God, and again went to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas and Titus (Gal 2.1-2). Paul meets privately in Jerusalem with the supposed “acknowledged leaders” (James, Cephas and John) but he flatly asserts that they “contributed nothing to me,” (Gal 2.2,6). Paul insists that his gospel is not from Jesus of Nazareth, nor Peter the other disciples or relatives of Jesus. Also, it would be anachronistic for Paul to refer to Peter as Cephas, since Peter was not called this until John 1.42, which was written decades later in circa 100 CE.
An editor of Galatians attempted to convince his readers that Paul knew Peter by having Paul explicitly say that Peter’s gospel, as well as his own, came from God (Gal 2.7-8). This is Paul’s only explicit mention of Peter. We do not find any reference to this passage until Irenaeus about 180 CE. Tertullian, writing about 207 CE, knows about the Jerusalem leaders shaking hands with Paul, i.e., approving of his mission to the non-Jews, but he knows nothing of the Peter passage.[lxxx]
Paul says he met with James, whom he describes as the brother of Jesus, but he so describes James only once, at Gal 1.19; a passage which many scholars are wary of. Also we last saw James in Mark’s gospel, where he is depicted as an unbeliever who thinks that Jesus is crazy and even possessed by Satan, and yet at the meeting in Jerusalem we find that James is apparently the head of the church of Jerusalem!
Paul knows nothing about the disciples as depicted in Mark and the other gospels. Peter is not referred to as the chief apostle, and Paul omits Peter’s denying Jesus three times, and James and John fighting for position in the kingdom of God. Some still insist that Peter is Cephas, but then why does Paul rebuke Cephas for refusing to eat with “gentiles” (Gal 2.11-14) when he could have pointed out that the faithless Peter deserted Jesus at his arrest and denied the Lord three times? Paul never even hints that Peter, James (excluding the brother passage), John, or anyone else ever knew Jesus, much less that they were his disciples or relatives.
Finally, how can it be argued that Paul’s glorious and triumphant Christ is the historical Jesus when the apostle is wholly ignorant of the Marcan traditions about the earthly Jesus? Here are some items found in Mark’s gospel but omitted in the apostle’s letters. Paul omits Bethlehem, Capernaum, Galilee, Nazareth, and Judea. Paul does not know of Judas, John the Baptist, Herod Antipas, the high priest, or Pontius Pilate. He doesn’t mention the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the scribes, or even that Jesus had disciples, and he applies the name Pharisee only once (to himself at Phil 3.5). The apostle refers to Cilicia but fails to mention the city of Tarsus, though Acts relates that he was born there. He mentions the twelve one time at 1 Cor 15.5, but does not associate the twelve with apostles. A major element of Judaism which he ignores is the temple in Jerusalem, having only a single reference to it at 1 Cor 9.13. Also Paul does not know about Jesus’ special teachings, his cures, exorcisms, or other miracles. For additional analysis of the silence of Paul about Jesus, see Earl Doherty The Jesus Puzzle and his web site, The Jesus Puzzle at www.magi.com/~oblio/jesus/home.htm. Paul knows only of Jesus’ ahistorical death. He does not know of an historical man who lived and died in Palestine about 30 CE.
Paul and Pagan Syncretism
If Paul was not a follower of Jesus, i.e., not a Christian, then what was the “apostle to the gentiles”? To answer this, one must fully appreciate the powerful and pervasive syncretism of the ancient pagan Roman world which produced him.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the verb syncretize as an “...attempt to unite and harmonize especially without critical examination or logical unity.”[lxxxi] The word has been applied to religion and philosophy. When the Christian Scriptures combine contradictory elements, this is syncretism. For example, consider the following contradictory ideas concerning Jesus’ nature: he is a god in Paul’s Philippian hymn, a man in Mark, a semi-divine being in Matthew and Luke, and the incarnation of the pagan divine Logos in John.
Religious syncretism was ancient, existing long before Paul. In Herodotus’ History of the Persian Wars, (5th cent. BCE), we find Greeks identifying the Egyptian Osiris with the Greek god Dionysus.[lxxxii] When Rome conquered Greece, the chief god, Zeus, was identified with the chief Roman god, Jupiter.
Was Paul Jewish? He claims to be Jewish but 90 percent of the evidence of his Jewishness is contained in Acts of the Apostles, a late fantasy which we need not consider here. Also, Paul does not know Hebrew. He writes in Greek (Koine), and quotes the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures (the Seventy), and when it differs from the Hebrew, he always prefers the Greek. Paul was neither a rabbi nor a Pharisee and probably was not even Jewish. (See H. Maccoby’s books The MythMaker and Paul and Hellenism.)
Apologist argue that Greco-Romans are anti-Jewish and Paul was pro-Jewish. Thus, the apologists argue that Paul is Jewish since his views on Jews were opposed to that of the pagans, but did the Apostle love Jews?
Both Paul and paganism wrongly claimed that Jews hated non-Jews. At 1 Thess 2.15-16, Paul claims that “the Jews” are against humanity, and have attempted to prevent him from saving non-Jews. Posidonius (fl 2nd and 1st cent. BCE) says that pagan writers believed that Jews disliked non-Jews. He says that Jews would neither eat with “gentiles” nor “...show any good will towards them.”[lxxxiii] Diodorus says that the Syrian king should “wipe out the Jews completely” on the ground that they look upon all non-Jews as their enemies. He says Moses “ordained their misanthropic ways.”[lxxxiv] Apollonius Molon (fl 1st cent. BCE) reproaches the Jews for hatred of non-Jews, intolerance, superstition, and the immorality of the law.[lxxxv] Tacitus claimed that Jews held as sacred all things which were impure to the (non-Jewish) Romans.[lxxxvi] According to Josephus, Apion insisted that by law Jews kidnapped a non-Jew each year and sacrificed and ate him and swore an oath of hostility to the Greeks.[lxxxvii] Later Christians adopted this slanderous myth and held it until the 19th century CE!
Paul was pro non-Jews, not pro-Jews. He writes that Israel has been blinded until the fullness of the gentiles is in (Rom 11.19,21). Jews are the enemies of God in order to save non-Jews (Rom 11.28-30). “I am an apostle to the gentiles in order to make my fellow Jews jealous and thus save some of them” (Rom 11.1-14). Loyalty to the ethnic or religious traditions of one’s ancestors was greatly valued by the Romans, so here and elsewhere Paul claims that he has strong feelings for his “kinsmen,” and indeed he does love “some” of the Jews — if they become non-Jews, i.e., Paulinists.
Pagans wrote that Jews were atheists because they rejected the pagan gods. Some pagan writers charged Jews with worshiping idols; Plutarch implies that Jews worship a donkey[lxxxviii] and Tacitus explicitly says so.[lxxxix] Some scholars say Paul argues that Jews were idolatrous (see Gal 4.9) and he accuses Jews of unbelief in that they reject the “true” God and the Christ.
Feldman writes, “Circumcision was regarded by the Greeks and Romans as a physical deformity and hence, like others who had various deformities, circumcised men were not permitted to participate in the Olympian Games.”[xc] Paul warns the Philippians to “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” (are circumcised, Phil 3.2).
Seneca, Tacitus and Suetonius all ridiculed the observance of the Jewish Sabbath, as did Horace, Ovid, the satirist Persius, Plutarch, etc.[xci] So does Paul. He rejects Jewish dietary laws, which were viewed derisively by a number of Greco-Roman writers. For instance Plutarch writes about the Jews “honoring the pig.”[xcii] Juvenal says that Jews feel “merciful” toward pigs.[xciii] Paul asserts that observing ritual law contributes nothing to salvation.
The Apostle to the “gentiles” insists that the law causes sin. He says the law was given to Jews because they were morally degenerate.[xciv] No Jewish thinkers disparaged the ritual or ethical law by characterizing it as non-efficacious, as Paul does.[xcv]
Paul and almost all pagan writers thought of Judaism as of great antiquity and the Romans thought that anything new was false. Thus, Paul anchored his mystery, his Paulinism, on the ancient and licit religion of Judaism.
From the preceding, one can see that the Paul shares anti-Jewish views very similar to many pagan writers. Paul is hardly pro-Jewish or anti-pagan. R. Ruether writes, “For Paul, there is, and has always been, only one true covenant of salvation.” And this covenant was “given apart from the Law, to Abraham and now [is] manifest in those who believe in Abraham’s spiritual son, Christ. The people of the Mosaic covenant do not now and never have had any way of salvation through the Torah itself.”[xcvi] Jews can only be saved by becoming non-Jews, a view with which many pagan writers would agree.
While some Greco-Romans like Tacitus were quite anti-Semitic, but Paul was even more so. Why? Paul must make sure that the Greco-Romans do not mistakenly believe that he is accepting Judaism as the true religion. Thus, while many pagans were certainly critical of Judaism, Paul invalidates it, replacing it with Paulinism, i.e., proto-Christianity.
But if Paul was a pagan, why did he reject polytheism? Many ancient Greeks and Romans rejected polytheistic pagan religions, including Plato and Aristotle and the Stoic-Cynic philosophers.
Diogenes the Cynic “...expressed contempt for the Eleusinian mysteries... his teacher Antisthenes, who attacked all religious conventions including the belief in a multitude of gods, maintained that there existed one God beyond all visible phenomena.”[xcvii] The Sophist and atheist, Protagoras, said, “I am unable to know whether [the gods] exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors obstructing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”[xcviii]
Paul shared many beliefs with Stoic-Cynics. Here are a few items held in common by Paul and the Stoic-Cynics.
For Epictetus, the Cynic is a mediator between god and humanity (cf. 2 Cor 2.17 to 3.9).[xcix] The Cynic is a representative of god who has been sent by Zeus to humans to teach them how to live (cf. Gal 1.1).[c]
Chrysippus, head of the Stoic school in 232 BCE, used allegory or symbolism in an attempt to prove that Homer and Hesiod were actually Stoics.[ci] The Stoics rearrange “the letters in the name of the goddess Hera (ERA) [giving] the word for air (AER).”[cii] Similarly, Paul (and Jesus) rejects the literary meaning of the Jewish Scriptures. Interpreting them symbolically enabled Paul to “prove” that the Jewish Scriptures predicted long ago that Jesus Christ would be crucified, etc.
Seneca says, “What is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile....”[ciii] Some parallels from Paul are: Gal 5.14 says love your neighbor; Rom 12.14, bless those who persecute you. Note that Paul is not as universal as some think, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6.14-17).
Seneca says that the slave “has the same good sky above him, breathes as you do, lives as you do, dies as you do....”[civ] He also says, “treat your inferiors in the way in which you would like to be treated by your own superiors.”[cv] Plutarch (45-125 CE) says we should give good for evil.[cvi] Paul says to “overcome evil with good” (Rom 12.17,19-21; cf. Prv 20.22 — do not repay evil with evil).
Epictetus says we are “all children of god, and that god is the father of gods and men....”[cvii] Paul teaches that God is our father (cf. Rom 1.7; Rom 8.15-17; 1 Cor 8.6; Gal 4.6; Mk 11.25).
Seneca writes that one should love one’s country, father, and wife.[cviii] He writes that the wise man “remains self-content even when he marries, even when he brings up his children.”[cix] He would rather not live at all than to give up human companionship. Of Musonius Rufus (30-101 CE) it was said, “...he is the clearest of any ancient writer on the equality of man and woman (Frgs. Nos 3 and 4); he believed marriage to be a complete partnership” with sex being confined to marriage for the purpose of procreation.[cx]
Epictetus states that men get married and beget children because they wish to be happy.[cxi] Family feeling is good and natural.[cxii] He also says that the man who commits adultery destroys friendly feeling toward his neighbor, destroys friendship, and the country[cxiii] (cf. 1 Cor 6.9-12, adulterers will not inherit the kingdom). Seneca writes that many things encumber us in our pursuit of wisdom, the “body, property, brother, friend, child, and slave....”[cxiv] The fundamental purpose of philosophy is to learn how to live.[cxv]
Judaism celebrates life. Stoic-Cynics varied as to the value they put on marriage but most accepted it if it was not perceived as an obstacle to the pursuit of wisdom.
Paul’s view on marriage is similar to Stoic-Cynics in that at least he does not forbid it, yet he writes that the flock should be as he is (celibate, cf. 1 Cor 7.7-8), that a man should not touch a woman (1 Cor 7.1). He also says that women should be silent in church and subordinate to the husband, a view which most Greco-Romans would find acceptable.
Stoicism and Christianity share the same terminology, “Spirit, conscience, Logos, virtue, self-sufficiency, freedom of speech, reasonable service, etc.”[cxvi] Also, both believe in the human tendency toward evil (stronger in Paul), the need for self-examination, human kinship with the divine, denial of the world’s values, and emphasis on inner freedom from external circumstances.[cxvii]
Other parallels between Paul and the Stoic-Cynics are:[cxviii]
· Both the Stoic-Cynics and Paul believed in proselytizing, and posited founders whose teachings were passed down.
· Both saw externals as neutral or indifferent, playing no role in salvation. Examples of externals would be marriage, wealth, politics, as well as whether one was a Greek or barbarian, slave or free, male or female.
· Both argued that one must not fear death or suffering in the pursuit of truth.
· Both thought of conscience as the source of ethical truth although the Stoics appealed to reason and pagan authorities, while Paul distorts the Jewish Scriptures and claims a mystical union with Christ.
In general, Paul was influenced by the ideals of the pagan ethicists, “especially by the Cynic-Stoic synthesis of popular philosophy” (cf. Gal 5.19-23).[cxix] “Seneca’s sentiments have more nearly approximated Christian teaching than those of any other classical philosopher. [The Christian] Tertullian described him as ‘always our Seneca’ (On the Soul 20),”[cxx] though, of course, the letters supposedly written by Paul and Seneca to each other are bogus.
The fundamental difference between Paul and the Stoic-Cynics is that the latter sought virtue in this world, while Paul sought salvation in the next world. For Paul, life begins after death.
So Paul’s ethics were a syncretistic mix of Stoicism and Cynicism, but what of his views on salvation? Were they Jewish?
Gnosticism existed by the first century CE.[cxxi] J. M. Robinson dates it to this century or earlier.[cxxii] A number of scholars concede that incipient Gnosticism coexisted with Christianity’s beginnings.
In Gnosticism, souls (sparks) have been expelled from heaven (the pleroma) and are trapped in the flesh,[cxxiii] i.e., bodies.[cxxiv] The gnostic savior, a spiritual being, descends from the heavenly hierarchy and imparts gnosis (mystical knowledge) to the elect (pneumatics) which enables them to be reunited with God. Some souls can be saved by the elect; others are doomed. When enough sparks have returned to God, the material cosmos will collapse back into chaos.
Hyam Maccoby in Paul and Hellenism[cxxv] identifies some elements common to Paulinism and Gnosticism. The rulers of the cosmos are evil spiritual entities (archons) and the purpose of the savior’s mission is to break the power of these evil forces which are led by the demiurge (Satan), and save the elect. Both Gnostics and Paulinists believed that humans fell from grace, from innocence to irredeemable sin, and are cut off from the true God and can only be rescued by a divine redeemer.
In ancient Judaism there was no such radical alienation from God. The sin of Adam and Eve simply explains why God’s children lost Paradise, why men must labor to make a living, and women must give birth in pain. After Genesis, the Jewish Bible rarely refers to the Eden story. Judaism does not require a divine redeemer.
Additionally, Paulinism and Gnosticism admired figures in the Jewish Bible who are non-Jewish, for example, Abraham, Seth, Enoch, and Melchizedek. According to Paul, all of the Jewish prophets thought that Judaism was only temporarily valid.[cxxvi] Against Exodus, Paul asserts that the law was given to Moses not by God, but by angels who also authored it.[cxxvii] (The Greek word diatageis in Galatians 3.19 means ordained not transmitted.[cxxviii]) Similarly, for the Gnostics the law was composed and delivered by the evil demiurge, not by God.
Paul obliterates the literal text of the Jewish Bible by allegorizing it, turning the Bible into a Paulinist anti-Jewish book.[cxxix] Similarly, Gnostics turned “bad guys” into the good Gnostics, e.g., the snake in Eden is the cosmic savior. Plato (428-349 BCE) pointed out that pagans allegorized their sacred myths and writings. Plato’s Socrates says, “these fine poems are not human...,” “the poets are merely the interpreters of the gods,...”[cxxx] The editors of HCNT assert that Paul “totally agrees” with the pagan idea of inspiration (cf. Gal 1.1).[cxxxi] H. Maccoby concludes that Paul is “close to the Gnostics in his view of God, Satan and Torah.”[cxxxii]
As regard anti-Jewishness, the Gnostics on the whole did not view the Jews as evil incarnate but as simply spiritually ignorant.[cxxxiii] However, they opened the doors for diabolization of the Jews by Christians, e.g., Jews are the people of the devil (cf. Jn 8.44).[cxxxiv]
But is not Paul’s Christ the Jewish messiah of Mark’s gospel? Let us see.
In the mystery cults, a savior god or one close to him or her dies and is brought back to life. Members of the cult undergo sacred secret rites, e.g., baptism and sacred meals. Through these rites they receive benefits such as health, protection from drowning at sea, and bliss after death and some argue that they achieve immortality. Momigliano writes that the “Imperial cult and [the mysteries] are, in fact, two of the most important features of Roman religion in the imperial period.”[cxxxv]
From the 6th century BCE in the Greek world, there were local mystery cults which, like the Christians, included women, foreigners, and slaves, and which may have involved the concept of an afterlife.[cxxxvi] The mysteries “became truly universal after the conquests of Alexander, being expressly made available to citizens of the Roman Republic and then the empire.”[cxxxvii]
The mysteries each had their associated myths as did the Christians. Orpheus was initiated into the Samothracian Mysteries and descended into the land of the dead, attempting to rescue his wife Eurydice. He was killed by the women of Thrace.[cxxxviii] Some said that he instituted the mysteries; in one tradition, the soul of Orpheus was taken to the Elysian Fields (heaven) and brought out the secrets of how to reach the land of the blessed.[cxxxix]
In the myth of the Eleusinian mystery, Kore, the daughter of the grain goddess Demeter, is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld, the land of the dead. After Demeter negotiates with Zeus, Kore is allowed to spend part of the year on earth with her mother, thus benefiting humanity by preserving the agricultural seasons. Demeter assures her initiates of happiness after death. The cult of Dionysius was widespread during the Roman imperial period. In its myth Zeus inadvertently kills his human consort, Semele, with a lightning bolt which makes their unborn son, Dionysus, immortal. Later the son travels to the underworld, bringing his human mother’s shade back from Hades.[cxl]
By 38 CE the cult of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, had spread throughout the empire. (The following information on Isis is from E. Ferguson.)[cxli] She describes her powers in an inscription (1st cent. BCE to 1st cent. CE). In part she says that she is the oldest daughter of Cronus, and the wife and sister of Osiris who was dismembered by their brother, Set, his body being scattered throughout Egypt. Isis brings him back to life. She is called God by women. She divided earth from heaven, created the courses of the stars and the sun and moon, made justice strong, coupled woman and man, set the pregnancy of women at nine months, ordered that children will love their parents and that humans will love truth. She punishes those who act unjustly. Lucius in The Golden Ass says that Isis ruled the world, and was the savior of the human race. Devotees of Isis repented of their sins. Meals were commonly associated with mysteries, and in the cult of Isis, the elect are “saved,” i.e., given immortality or bliss after death.
E. Ferguson tells us that the Phoenician deity, Adonis, is killed by a wild boar and resurrected from the dead. In the late second century BCE the cult of the Phrygian gods, Cybele and Attis, was received in Rome by the Senate. Attis dies a violent death.[cxlii]
According to Ferguson, Plutarch says that, as a mystery, the Persian cult of Mithras existed by 67 BCE. A shrine to Mithras was built into Hadrian’s wall (d 135 CE) in what is now England. Like Jesus in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke, Mithras was not a product of sexual union. He slays the sacred bull from whose blood all life arises and is associated with the sun god, Sol, with whom he shares a sacred meal. As with the deified Roman emperors, Mithras ascends to heaven. E. Ferguson concedes that the Persian god offered a form of salvation to his adherents. An inscription in Rome says, “You saved us by shedding the eternal blood.”[cxliii] Many scholars assert that Mithrans believed that baptism of blood made them immortal. This cult like that of Isis had “a supernaturally sanctioned ethic” comparable to Christianity.[cxliv]
Like many pagan saviors, Paul’s Christ is an ahistorical being. The apostle gives no date or place for Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, or death. His Christ was crucified and translated in the mythic and vague past where, according to Greco-Roman tradition, Hercules, Asclepius, Kore, Dionysus, Osiris, Mithras, and many other demigods and gods died violent deaths.
The savior gods were associated with the translation of a person after his or her death. H. Maccoby writes,[cxlv] “Dionysius... is brought to life again by Rhea. Adonis... is raised on the third day. Baal... comes back to life. Attis, after dying of his wounds, comes back to life and dances. Osiris... is put together again and revived, after which he becomes a god. In Mithraism, the bull killed by Mithras was not itself resurrected, but it provided life, through its body and blood, for the whole created universe.” Paul makes many references to the raising up of Jesus. But as Maccoby points out, there is no reference to a dying messiah in Judaism until the Talmud of the fifth century [b. Sukkah 52a]. “[W]e find the antecedents of the death of Christ,...”[cxlvi] in the mystery religions.
Most scholars vigorously deny that Paul was a member of a mystery, arguing that the myth of dying and rising gods did not predate Paul. Against this, R. Price asserts that perhaps the strongest argument “that the resurrection of the Mystery Religion saviors preceded Christianity is the fact that ancient Christian apologists did not deny it! Only so would they have reached into left field for the desperate argument that Satan foreknew the resurrection of Jesus and counterfeited it in advance, so as to prejudice pagans against Christianity as a mere imitative also-ran, which is just what they thought of it”[cxlvii] (Price’s italics). That is, Satan supplied myths of the dying and rising gods so that pagans could later claim that Christians copied the Mithran and other pagan savior cults!
H. Maccoby concludes that, “In general, we must conclude that there is good evidence that the concept of salvific revival or resurrection of a violently-dying god existed in the mystery cults by the time of Paul.”[cxlviii]
The mysteries associated death and mysticism. Paul alludes more than 150 times to a mystical union of himself (or other believers) and Christ or the holy spirit. “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2.20). Many have put on Christ and been baptized in him (Gal 3.27). At the Lord’s Supper, many participate in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10.16). Paul says that believers will unite with Jesus Christ in the resurrection (Rom 6.5).[cxlix]
Paul believes that God caused Jesus’ death, “as a sacrifice of atonement by [Jesus’] blood” (Rom 3.24-25). In the religions of Cybele and Mithras, atonement was through the blood of sacrificed animals.[cl] The Mithran initiate is reborn for eternity (cf. Rom 6.1-10).[cli] According to Apuleius (ca 125 CE), a mystical union with the deity occurs during a religious meal (cf. Mk 14.22-25).[clii] He also says the cult of Isis involved an ecstatic state on the part of the initiate, visions of hell and heaven, and contact with the realm of the dead. Lucius says that he was “given new life [immortality]” by Isis (cf. Rom 5.1-11).[cliii]
Under Augustus, many private groups met under the auspices of a god; these voluntary associations (funeral societies, the mysteries, etc.) were regulated by the Roman senate.[cliv] Note the organizational features held in common by the mysteries and the early Pauline churches.
Compare the inscription from Philadelphia in Asia Minor (Lydia, late 2nd cent. or early 1st cent. BCE) with Gal 3.28; 5.13 to 6.10.[clv] Here are some of the traits shared by voluntary associations and the Paulinists: 1) the “equality of women and men, slaves and free is emphasized”; 2) hospitality and belonging to a community; 3) the group is morally elite, superior to the culture at large; 4) anti-magic, as in Acts Ch 8, also see 13.8-12, 19.18-19, Rev 9.21; 5) lists of activities that are considered immoral; 6) a strict code of sexual ethics; 7) an oath at time of initiation; 8) the presence of the god in the cult (cf. Mt 18.20).
The Statutes of the Associates of the Worshipers of Diana and Antinous (2nd cent. CE)[clvi] are important for understanding the Christian Eucharist texts: 1) the common meal is religious; 2) the organization revolves around the meal; 3) there was conflict involved during the celebration of the meal; 4) the meal is institutionalized as in 1 Cor 11. In paganism, “The festive meals serve as memorials to important events in the lives of honored figures in the life and history of the group.”[clvii]
Conclusions: Chapter 9
R. Price is correct in writing that it is difficult for Christian apologists “to see extensive and basic similarities between [the mysteries] and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons. Those without such a Maginot Line mentality have less trouble.”[clviii]
Price writes that, “The Greco-Roman world was up to its hips in mystery gods.”[clix] We would add that it also was up to its hips in other gods who also were associated with violent death and helping humankind. Hercules was one of the most universally worshiped gods in the Greco-Roman world and was said to have been initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis. He was punished by Zeus for freeing Prometheus, who had saved humans by providing them with fire. Hercules, after much physical and psychological suffering, climbed onto his burning funeral pyre on Mount Oetna, and was raised to the heavens on a cloud, becoming one of the immortals. Asclepius, the god of healing, raised so many people from the dead that Zeus killed him, after which he was divinized.[clx]
Many Christian writers reject equating Paul’s religion with they mysteries and Gnosticism. R. Price rightly asks, “how close does a parallel have to be to count as a parallel? Does the divine mother have to be named Mary? Does the divine child have to be named Jesus?”[clxiii] Does the dying and rising god have to mirror Christ in every respect? Must members of every mystery cult believe that she or he will be physically resurrected in a manner identical to that of the early Christian church? We need not assert that Paulinism was a mirror image of a pagan mystery, as did F. Cumont, Richard Reitzenstein, and R. Bultmann in the early 20th century. Paul’s religion was a kaleidoscope, reflecting many syncretistic elements of the Greco-Roman world; it was not an identical copy of any particular pagan religious phenomenon. The Pauline church played a creative role in the development of its own myth.
R. Price asks whether when members of the mystery cults were mystically united with the god, was “it possible for them to participate in the god’s death and resurrection in some way and so gain an immortality like his? Sure it was. And the Mystery Religions were born.”[clxiv] And so was Paulinism.
Paul was a pagan. He was not a Jew and he was not a Christian in that he did not know of, or follow, the Marcan Jesus. His cult was not based on the life and teachings of an “historical” Jesus. As to who created Jesus and when and why, we will explore these questions in the next chapter.
[i]Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, A Dictionary of Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 55.
[ii]MacMullen, Ramsay and Eugene N. Lane, Eds., Paganism and Christianity 100‑425 CE: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 274, quoting Sallustius, On the Gods and Ordered Creation.
[iii]Boring, M., HCNT, 92, #98.
[iv]Boring, M., HCNT, 64, #50, PGM 1.130-32.
[v]MacMullen and Lane, 275.
[vi]See Bauer, Walter, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 2nd German ed., Trans. Paul J. Achtemeier, et al, Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel, Eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).
[vii]Shaye J. D. Cohen (1979: 181) as quoted in Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 91.
[viii]Most scholars today believe this sect to be the Essenes mentioned by Josephus and later Christian writers.
[ix]Fitzmyer, J., Luke, vol 2, 1241-1252.
[x]Brown, Raymond, The Gospel According to John, 2 vols., 1966 (The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986), vol 1, 462.
[xi]Brown, R., John, vol 1, 462.
[xii]Boring, M., HCNT, Plutarch, 123, #156.
[xiii]Fitzmyer, J., Luke, vol 2, 1261.
[xiv]Fitzmyer, J., Luke, vol 2, 1264.
[xv]Boring, M., HCNT, 126, #160.
[xvi]Lachs, S. Commentary, 368, n 32, B. Sot. 41b, B. Yom, 86b.
[xvii]For extensive information concerning first-century Judaism, see the works of E.P. Sanders, especially Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah and Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE-66 CE.
[xviii]Boring, M., HCNT, 132, #169.
[xix]Boring, M., HCNT, 132, #169.
[xx]Boring, M., HCNT, 178, #244.
[xxi]Boring, M., HCNT, 135, 136, 137, 142, 82.
[xxii]BJ VI.8.3, as quoted by S. Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 419-421.
[xxiii]Seneca, Moral Discourses, vol II, 95.
[xxiv]Seneca, Moral Discourses, vol II, 95.
[xxv] Seneca, Moral Discourses, vol II, 95,97.
[xxvi]Brown, Raymond E. New Testament Essays (New York/ Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1965), 149.
[xxvii]Mack, B., Myth, 225, fn 12.
[xxviii]Brown, Raymond E., The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols, 1994, New York: Doubleday, 1998, vol.1, 242.
[xxix]Crossan, John Dominic, Who Killed Jesus? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 111.
[xxx]as quoted by Helms, R., Gospel Fictions, 116.
[xxxi]Lachs, S., Commentary, 403-404.
[xxxii]Smith, M., Magician, 122.
[xxxiii]Helms, R., Gospel Fictions, 112.
[xxxiv]Feder, Lillian, Apollo Handbook of Classical Literature, 1964 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1970), 161.
[xxxv]Maccoby, H., Myth, 37.
[xxxvi]Brown, R., Death, vol 2, 1394.
[xxxvii]Ibid., vol 2, 1395.
[xxxviii]Ibid., vol 2, 1395.
[xxxix]Ibid., vol 2, 1397.
[xl]Ibid., vol 2, 1396-97.
[xli]ANF, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, vol 1, 388.
[xlii]Lachs, S., Commentary, 398.
[xliii]Lachs, S., Commentary, 419.
[xliv]Helms, R., Gospel Fictions, 118.
[xlv]Lachs, S., Commentary, 420.
[xlviii]Helms, R., Gospel Fictions, 120, describes a similarity between Isaiah and the beating of Jesus before the Sanhedrin.
[xlix]Wilde, Robert, The Treatment of the Jews in the Greek Christian Writers of the First Three Centuries (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1949), 153.
[l]Hengel, Martin, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, SCM Press Ltd., London, 1977, Trans. from German ed. of 1976), 89.
[li]Helms, R., Gospel Fictions, 121.
[lv]Brown, R., John, vol 2, 902.
[lvi]Brown, R., John, vol 2, 902.
[lviii]Reale, G., 77.
[lix]Winter, Paul, On the Trial of Jesus, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter and Son Co., 1961., 66.
[lx]For additional JS material used in the gospel passions see Helms, R., Gospel Fictions, 123ff.
[lxi] See his web site of the same name at www.depts.drew.edu/jhc/.
[lxii]Price, Robert M, Deconstructing Jesus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000)., Ch 7, 213-221.
[lxiii]Collins, A.Y., “Apotheosis and Resurrection,” Borgen, Peder and Soren Giversen, Eds., The New Testament and Hellenistic Judaism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1995), 88-100.
[lxiv]Maccoby, Hyam, Paul and Hellenism (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991. Vallentine, Mitchell & Co., Ltd., 1963.), 62.
[lxv]Collins, A.Y., 88.
[lxvii]Boring, M., HCNT, 177, #242, Lucian in Hermotimos, or Concerning the Sects 7.
[lxviii]Freedman, D., vol 5, 680.
[lxix]Charles, James H., Jesus’ Jewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus within Early Judaism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 13.
[lxx]Martini, Cardinal Carlo Maria, “Christianity and Judaism: A Historical and Theological Overview,” 19-34 in James H. Charlesworth, Ed., Jews and Christians: Exploring the Past, Present, and Future (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co. 1990), 19.
[lxxi]Detering, Hermann, “The Dutch Radical Approach to the Pauline Epistles,” The Journal of Higher Criticism 3 (Fall 1996),163-193.
[lxxii]Detering, H., JHC 3 (Fall 1996): 181.
[lxxiii]Detering, H., JHC 3 (Fall 1996): 190.
[lxxiv]Doughty, Darrell J., “Pauline Paradigms and Pauline Authenticity,” The Journal of Higher Criticism 1 (Fall 1994): 112-113.
[lxxv]Detering, H., JHC 3 (Fall 1996): 187, fn 66.
[lxxvi]Detering, H., JHC 3 (Fall 1996): 175.
[lxxvii]Brown, Raymond E., An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1997), 512.
[lxxviii]Brown, R., Introduction, 463.
[lxxix]Doherty, Earl, The Jesus Puzzle (Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999), 299.
[lxxxi]Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1998, 1873.
[lxxxii]Griffiths, J. Gwyn, “Hellenistic Religions,” 237-258 in Religions of Antiquity, Ed. Robert M. Seltzer, 250.
[lxxxiii] Wilde, R., 45.
[lxxxiv]Feldman, Louis H, Jew & Gentile in the Ancient World, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 10.141 Diodorus, Historical Library 34.1.1-4.
[lxxxv]Wilde, R., 46-47.
[lxxxvi]Feldman, Louis H., and Meyer Reinhold, Eds., Jewish Life and Thought Among Greeks and Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 385, 10.144, Histories 5.4.1.
[lxxxvii]Feldman, L., Jewish Life, 386, 10.148 Apion History of Egypt cited by Josephus, Against Apion 2.91-6.
[lxxxviii]Feldman, L., Jewish Life, 363, 10.81 Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 31.
[lxxxix]Feldman, L., Jewish Life, 363, 10.82 Tacitus Histories 5.4.2.
[xc]Feldman, L., Jewish Life, 377.
[xci]Feldman, L., Jewish Life, 366.
[xcii]Feldman, L., Jewish Life, 374, 10.109 Plutarch Festal Questions 4.4-5.3.
[xciii]Feldman, L., Jewish Life, 377, 10.114 Juvenal Satires 6.160.
[xciv]Downing, F. Gerald, Cynics, Paul and the Pauline Churches: Cynics and Christian Origins II (New York: Routledge, 1998), 69.
[xcv]Downing, F., 62.
[xcvi]Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti‑Semitism (1974). (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), 106.
[xcvii]Griffiths, J., 253.
[xcviii]Griffiths, J., 252-253.
[xcix]Boring, M., HCNT, 446, #721, Epictetus, Discourses 3.24.64-65.
[c]Boring, M., HCNT, 459, #753, Epictetus, Discourses 3.22.23.
[ci]Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 1987 (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2nd Edition 1993), 334.
[cii]Ferguson, E., Backgrounds, 336.
[ciii]Seneca, Letters, Letter 9, 50.
[civ]Seneca, Letters, Letter 47, 93.
[cvi]Boring, M., HCNT, 384, #609, Moralia, “Common Quote on Compliancy” 13.
[cvii]Epictetus, Discourses 1.3.1; 11.
[cviii]Seneca, Letters, Letter 88, 153.
[cix]Seneca, Letters, Letter 9, 52.
[cx]Ferguson, E., Backgrounds, 344.
[cxi]Epictetus, Discourses 1.11.3; 28.
[cxii]Epictetus, Discourses 1.11.17; 30.
[cxiii]Epictetus, Discourses 2.4.1-3; 82.
[cxiv]Epictetus, Discourses 1.1.14; 6.
[cxv]Seneca, Letters, Letter 55, 107.
[cxvi]Ferguson, E., Backgrounds, 346.
[cxix]Boring, M., HCNT, 474, #782.
[cxx]Ferguson, E., Backgrounds, 343.
[cxxi]Cohn-Sherbok, D., 56. In the description of Gnosticism that follows, we have relied on this book.
[cxxii]Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, The: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962) Supplemental Volume, 364.
[cxxiii]Maccoby, H,, Paul, 188.
[cxxiv]Maccoby, H., Paul, 187.
[cxxv]Maccoby, H., Paul, 186.
[cxxvi]Maccoby, H., Paul, 188.
[cxxvii]Maccoby, H., Paul, 41.
[cxxix]Maccoby, H., Paul, 51.
[cxxx]Boring, M., HCNT, 460, #754, Ion 534 E.
[cxxxii]Maccoby, H., Paul, 52-53.
[cxxxiii]Maccoby, H., Paul, 37.
[cxxxv]Momigliano, Arnaldo, “Roman Religion of the Imperial Period,” in Religions of Antiquity, Robert M. Seltzer, Ed., 222.
[cxxxvi]Ferguson, E., Backgrounds, 236-237.
[cxxxvii]Ferguson, E., Backgrounds, 238.
[cxxxviii]Grimal, Pierre, The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 315-316.
[cxl]Ferguson, E., Backgrounds, 238-241, 243.
[cxli]Ferguson, E., Backgrounds, 253, 255, 297-300.
[cxlii]Ferguson, Backgrounds, 260, 264.
[cxliii]Ferguson, Backgrounds, 271, 274, 275.
[cxliv]Ferguson, Backgrounds, 281.
[cxlv]Maccoby, H. Paul, 71.
[cxlvi]Maccoby, H. Paul, 63, 65.
[cxlvii]Price, R., DJ, 91.
[cxlviii]Maccoby, H., Paul 73.
[cxlix]Boring, M., HCNT, 361-362, #570.
[cl]Boring, M., HCNT, 353, #558.
[cli]Boring, M., HCNT, 364, #572.
[clii]Boring, M., HCNT, 149, #194, Apuleius, The Golden Ass, 11.
[cliii]Boring, M., HCNT, 361-362, #570, Apuleius’ Metamorphose (Golden Ass),11.6,21-25.
[cliv]Beard, Mary, John North and Simon Price, Eds., Religions of Rome Volume 2: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 292-294, 12.2.
[clv]Boring, M., HCNT, 416-418, #670.
[clvi]Boring, M., HCNT, 468-469, #771.
[clvii]Boring, M., HCNT, 427, #687.
[clviii]Price, R., DJ, 88.
[clix]Price, R., DJ, 88.
[clx]Price, R., DJ, 62-63, 189, 193-195.
[clxi]Maccoby, H., Paul, 196.
[clxii]Maccoby, H., Paul 67.
[clxiii]Price, R., DJ, 89.
[clxiv]Price, R., DJ, 87.