Well, I'm constantly perplexed by those who seek to bolster their religious faith by appeals to "reason." After all, how can resorting to "divine intervention" ever be the "most likely" explanation for anything? Isn't a miracle, by definition, something that is unusual and unlikely? Impossible, actually? If people should be able to agree on anything, it should be on the fact that the impossible is never the most likely.
Anyway, such contentions caused me some time ago to write my own explanation of the development of Christianity and our Bibles. My explanation, which may or may not be correct, at least demonstrates that that Christianity's development, like the development of most any other religion or political philosophy, can be explained rationally.
Is my hypothesized explanation the "right" one? It's impossible to say. I'm undoubtedly wrong on some of the details and possibly even some key points. But, having said that, I think any fair reader will conclude that the explanation I offer below is a reasonable one--one of many possible reasonable ones, in fact.
With that said, I'll let the reader judge for himself:
(As very little that follows represents original thinking on my part, I will attempt to give credit where credit is due, largely to Robert Eisenman. Where I fail to do so, I beg forgiveness.)
The Jesus Movement
My explanation starts with understanding that the original "Jesus movement" was likely more anti-roman than “faithful” tradition suggests. Messianic fever was positively rampant during the century before and after Jesus' supposed date of birth, with Jews pining for a "savior" to deliver them, not from Satan, but from Rome. As Josephus tells us, multiple "Messiah" candidates appeared during this time to briefly fill the role, only to fail to gain support or to be martyred by Rome.
Among the most vehement of these messianic sects were the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls. Unlike our Bibles, these scrolls, which were hidden away in caves around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (only to be found again during last century), never fell under the influence of the Roman/Paulian propaganda machine. Thus, unlike our Bible's, they describe an uncensored version of the messianic causes of the time.
Importantly, this uncensored version never advocates Jewish submission to foreign powers. Quite the contrary, the Dead Sea Scrolls are fanatically nationalistic. They heap condemnation upon the occupiers ("Kittim," as they call them) and their Jewish collaborators, emphasizing especially how the foreigners and their collaborators had defiled or polluted the Temple, how they "fornicated" (i.e., divorced), how they were uncircumcised, how they consumed blood, and how, in general, they were not "keepers of the law". In short, the foreigners and collaborating Jews were unrighteous, or "wicked" as we might say today.
However, not all Jewish sects of the time were messianic and anti-Roman. For instance, the establishment sects of Sadducees and Pharisees, who collaborated with Rome or at least took great pains not to offend it, were largely content with the status quo. They benefited from Roman rule and were not anxious for it to change. Rather, it was the anti-establishment sects that were messianic, and per Josephus, these sects represented a significant portion of the Jewish population of the time, possibly even majority.
Among these anti-establishment groups were the Zealots, the Sicarii, the Essenes, the Nasoreans, the Ebionites, etc. These groups, especially the Zealots and Sicarii, led numerous revolts against Rome prior to, during, and even after Jesus' time. The second-to-last of these revolts led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The last one, led by one of Jesus' relatives, Simon bar Kokhba (in 132 CE), led to the permanent banishment of all Jews from the city of Jerusalem on penalty of death and their dispersal throughout the empire. They wouldn't return to the Holy Land in any meaningful numbers until the last couple of centuries.
Strangely, these Messianic expectations and the repeated revolts that resulted from them are very well chronicled in non-biblical sources such as the works of Josephus and other historians, and (properly understood) even in original source documents of the time, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But, oddly, the Bible almost completely ignores the contentious political environment into which Jesus was born. For instance, the Bible never mentions any revolts against Rome (before or after Jesus' time), nor does it directly discuss the fall of Jerusalem (except only indirectly by way of supposed prophecy, where the emphasis is on the destruction of the Temple), and it certainly never mentions that the "subversives" who led these various anti-establishment sects against the Romans and their Jewish collaborators were usually identified in some way with Jesus' family--e.g., John the Baptist (Jesus's cousin), James the Just (Jesus's brother), Simon bar Kokhba, etc.) .
Instead, the Bible presents Jesus and all of his followers (other than his family, which is mostly ignored) as politically disinterested pacifists who seemingly had no problem with Roman rule over the "promised land". As to Jesus' family, the Bible tells us as little as it seemingly must. For instance, despite that his brother James was known to succeed Jesus as leader of what has come to be called the "Jerusalem Church", the “official” account of the events that transpired after Jesus's assumption into heaven, the Book of Acts, tells us very little of James, focusing instead primarily on Paul and to a lessor degree Peter. Thirteen of the Bible’s epistles are attributed to Paul, who never met the pre-risen Jesus, but curiously only one is attributable to James (likely genuine), the one disciple who must have known the earthly Jesus best.
How to explain the curious absence of information about and from Jesus's family during Jesus's life and after his death in biblical sources? The traditional explanation is that so much information about them, including perhaps many additional writings by James, must have been lost during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Perhaps. But, as we shall see, there are additional explanations that seem more likely once we read the Bible critically and consider what Josephus and pagan historians of the time had to say.
Collaborators and Resistance
It is apparent from the history left to us by non-biblical sources that the Jewish sects of the time could be divided into two main groups--those who actively collaborated with Rome (the Herodian Sadducees and most of the Pharisees, for instance) and those who actively resisted Rome (the Zealots, Sicarii, the Nasoreans, the Ebionites, and the Essenes, to name a few). As we shall see, Jesus was a "Nasorean" or "Nazarite" (meaning "holy from birth"), and therefore part of the resistance, but his brother, James, is most closely associated by historical sources with the law-obsessed Pharisees, as was Paul. It is likely that "Nazarite" was a name for a group of “purist” Pharisees who opposed the establishment Jews and Roman occupation. Paul, by contrast, was clearly of the other and more common variety of Pharisee, the collaborationist type, those who were willing to interpret Jewish law in a way that was accommodating to Rome.
During decades preceding and immediately following Jesus' birth, the Jewish Temple cult was firmly under the control of the Sadducees who comprised the priestly caste. These Sadducee Priests were appointed by the despised Roman-appointed Jewish Herodian rulers, and later directly by Roman governors, and did not come into their positions via priestly succession as proscribed in Old Testament times, nor in any other manner acceptable to the resistance groups as ordained by God. The resistance movement therefore considered them to be totally illegitimate and corrupt.
Not surprisingly, the Bible, which was ultimately edited by the Roman establishment many years after the events it supposedly chronicles, tells us plenty about the Herodian Sadducees and other collaborators who accepted Roman authority, labeling them (and even sometimes the Pharisees) as simply "the Jews." That the Bible fails to make much note of the much more populist and larger Messianic sects previously mentioned, and that it rather ignorantly lumps all these semitic peoples and sects under the title of "Jews" (a term reserved by Israelites of the time for those of the tribe of Judah only and not all Israelites or Hebrews in general), is additional evidence of it being largely a product of Greco-Roman editing rather than an authentic Jewish one.
Where the Bible does mention the rebel groups, it does so only cryptically. For instance, the Bible alludes to "the poor" (which is what "Ebionite" means) and the Zealots (e.g., by describing a couple of Jesus' disciples as such but presenting them nonetheless in a not-so-zealot fashion), but tells us little about them. The Bible tells us that the Zealots were "zealous for the law" rather than zealously anti-Roman. It says that Jesus was "from Nazareth" rather than placing him among the "Nasorean" or "Nazarite" resistance groups. It is only when we turn to non-biblical sources that we learn who/what these resistance groups were. For instance, Josephus tells us that messianic groups were great in number and "spread throughout Judaea" and that their unceasing Messianic fervor, based primarily upon their interpretation of the “Star Prophecy”, was a cause of unending problems for Rome.
Read together, what these non-biblical sources suggest (if they don't outright say) is that that the somewhat disjointed Jewish opposition had formed a "government in exile" out in the "wilderness", likely based in the Qumran area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We know, thanks to the scholarly work of Robert Eisenman, one of the foremost experts on the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the largest and most respected part of the resistance movement was headed by Jesus' brother, James, after Jesus' death, and that James was followed in succession (after he was likewise murdered, like Jesus, by Roman collaborators) by a number of other of Jesus' relatives, the last of which was Jesus' cousin previously mentioned, Simon bar Kokhba, who led the final revolt after 130 AD. Scholars refer to this group of Jesus' relatives who lead the "authentic" assembly of sects that comprised the Jesus movement (or the "Jerusalem Church" as it would later be called) in the years following his death, as the "desposyni".
Eisenman's interpretation of the Dead Seas scrolls suggests that James (or "James the Just" as he is most often called due to his strict adherence to Jewish law) was the opposition movement's "High Priest", one who received his authority not from the despised Herodians or even from Old Testament Levite succession (which due to the diaspora was no longer possible even in Jesus' time), but rather by
virtue of his great righteousness, in the manner of the Old Testament Melchizedek (which means "righteous King"). Thus, the priests practicing from the opposition headquarters in Qumran were known in the Dead Sea Scrolls as "priests of the order of Melchizedek" to distingusih themselves both from the Levite priests who descended from Aaron, and the illegitimate ones appointed by the Herodians. One can see how the fact that Melchizedek was considered in the Old Testament to be a legitimate representative of the Most High God, despite not being a descendant of Aaron, would be important to the resistance movement which needed a scriptural way of distinguishing its "legitimate" priesthood from the corrupt and illegitimate one of the Sadducee's.
These now little known opposition sects were anti-Roman to be sure, but they were primarily ANTI-COLLABORATOR, and most especially ANTI-HERODIAN. Yes, they despised the Roman occupiers, but they despised their fellow Jews who collaborated with Rome even more, since they believed it was their unfaithfulness to God's law that allowed the occupation to persist. The Dead Sea scrolls are literally filled with not-so-subtle condemnations of the Jewish collaborating establishment, calling them out especially for lack of circumcision, consuming blood, countenancing the Roman occupation, polluting the Temple, and fornication (i.e., accepting divorce and "niece marriage"), all of which (except for opposing Rome) both biblical and non-biblical sources suggest were constantly condemned by James, even in his Epistle in our Bibles. You will recall that John the Baptist was put to death for opposing the divorce (fornication) of one of Herod's relatives. This fact alone, plus his identification with "the wilderness" and dietary piety, place him firmly in the resistance movement, likely its leader prior to Jesus.
As previously noted, the resistance movement rejected the authority of the Herodian Saddacees who served as temple priests. For the resistance movement, it was more important that the prescribed Temple rites be performed by "righteous" or "just" people than that they be performed in the Temple proper. Because of the Herodian appointment of unqualified priests, the Temple had been defiled (or "polluted" as the Dead Sea scrolls say) and had largely lost its religious significance and usefulness in the eyes of the resistance. God was no longer to be found there.
Thus, because temple sacrifice was no longer efficacious in their mind--that is, it no longer worked to set Israel right with God--the resistance movement developed alternate methods of purification and justification, including primarily different varieties of ritual baptism and severe dietary restrictions. Qumran, for example, has several baptismal pools. It should come as no surprise that John the Baptist and James the Just are both, in early first century sources, referred to as "daily bathers", teetotalers, and vegetarians, characteristics common to many purist resistance sects.
Wilderness and Wealth
Because the cities were controlled by the establishment, the resistance had largely abandoned them in favor of the "wilderness" or countryside. They favored a lifestyle of devotion and simplicity. Consequently, they were considered poor in comparison to the cosmopolitan collaborators. Over time the resistance therefore came to associate "riches" with corruption and collaboration, and frequently condemned the rich. To distinguish themselves from the rich collaborators, they referred to themselves as the poor (or Ebionites, as Josephus and others confirm). "Poorness" was for them an important symbol of the complete rejection of the dominant Greco-Roman culture in favor of a traditionally Jewish one. Josephus, in fact, accuses the resistance of constantly "trying to turn the poor against the rich", which makes perfect sense.
Therefore the Dead Sea scrolls, for instance, are filled with condemnations of the wealthy and commendation of the poor. This theme is found in gospels as well, though it is less emphasized there for obvious reasons (the Bible having been edited in latter centuries by wealthy, cosmopolitan Romans).
Tellingly, when we turn to the letters of Paul, our earliest Christian writings (except for POSSIBLY the letter of James), we almost never see condemnations of the wealthy since, as we shall see, Paul was part of the wealthy Jewish collaborating establishment and an advocate of making significant compromises with Greco-Roman culture. For Paul, Christ was available to both "rich and poor", "Jew and Greek", a teaching that, as we shall see, the resistance could never accept.
It only makes sense that deeply devout Jewish country dwellers who rejected the authority of the corrupt establishment Temple priests would seek to anchor their religious and political views as much as possible in the Jewish scriptures. They needed a scriptural and religious basis for rejecting the Temple and the establishment that controlled it. Further, they needed to rationalize how and why they could be religiously right (i.e, more pleasing to God than the collaborators), and yet still suffer in the wilderness as poor outcasts.
This explains the fondness of the resistance movement for prophecy, especially prophecies that described, for instance, a "voice crying out in the wilderness" or that emphasized that the righteous shall suffer. Being very devout Israelites, they couldn't just reject the Temple and the authority of its priests without some basis, so they spend inordinate amounts of time scouring the ancient scriptures to find "prophecies" or precedent that justified rejection of the cosmopolitan Temple cult in favor of their wilderness lifestyle and alternate priesthood. They then documented their conclusions in writing. This is, to a large degree, what what the Dead Sea Scrolls are--scriptural exegesis designed to rationalize why the suffering messianic country dwellers were "right" with God while the rich, comfortable, establishment Jews were not.
For example, as previously noted, messianic groups latched onto the example of Melchizedek as the archetype of a priest qualified as such by "righteousness" rather than birth. And they emphasized prophesies suggesting that the righteous, even the Messiah (which at the time was not a divine title but was a term approximately the French concept of the dauphin), would be "rejected" by the establishment and would suffer before finally gaining the throne of David. This idea, that the righteous would be despised by the mainstream and must suffer before they are vindicated, is the original source of the idea that the coming Messiah would, at least for a while, be a "suffering servant".
Another important characteristic of these anti-establishment groups is
that, as previously noted, they generally perceived the Roman occupation of Judea as God's punishment upon Israel for the sins (unrighteousness) of the collaborators--i.e., for allowing the Temple to be defiled, for recognizing priests appointed
by the Herodians rather than in a biblically prescribed way (i.e., by
Levite succession or due to great "righteousness", such as with Melchizedek), and for other corruptions and compromises of Jewish law and tradition--especially
consuming blood (a huge issue for the writers of the Dead Sea scrolls and for James), failure to be circumcised, and fornication (divorce).
The solution to the occupation, they believed, was to "purify" Judaism of these abominations and, once they had done so, Israel would once again enjoy the favor of God and Jewish rule of the promised land would at last be restored. It cannot be emphasized enough that the Messianic redemption expected by these groups was a collective redemption--banishment of the Romans from Israel and restoration of righteous rule over God's people, all of Israel, by God's son in the manner of King David (who was likewise called God's son in the Old Testament). Importantly, the main thing that stood in the way of the collective redemption of Israel was the unfaithfulness and sinfulness of the Jewish establishment collaborators.
Rise of Jesus
Though the exact process is unclear, it seems that Jesus the NASOREAN or NAZARITE (not Jesus of NAZARETH as the gospels have corrupted it) became the de facto head of an "assembly" (church) of sects with anti-establishment tendencies, likely succeeding his relative, John the Baptist, who was murdered by the collaborators (as Jesus himself later would be, and as James would be, and as Jesus's cousin Simon bar Kokhba would be). Jesus's importance to the anti-collaborators likely had something to do with his alleged family tree and the astrological significance of his time of birth. The Dead Sea scrolls, and even our Bibles to a somewhat lessor degree, are positively filled with astrological allusions and calculations and signs in the heavens. Jewish sects in general revered the stars and the planets, considering them to be the “heavenly host” that worshipped the one God. The stars were believed by them to be LIVING BEINGS.
What this "earthly" Jesus (as opposed to Paul's visionary one) really taught is difficult to say for certain, but given that Jesus' earthly "reign" was preceded by that of John the Baptist and followed by that of James the Just, both strict adherents to "the Law", it's likely that Jesus's ideas were closely aligned with theirs. And, from what we know of John and James from both biblical and non-biblical sources--both were EXTREME devotees of the law of Moses, with James said to have kept it in every detail (hence his title "the Just", meaning "the Righteous"). Both James and John were "daily bathers", neither consumed meat or blood or wine, both were very outspoken against "fornication" (or divorce), both advocated circumcision, etc. These are the teachings for which both of them are, in fact, best known.
Whether Jesus was actually a true revolutionary leader or not is unclear, but he was obviously associated with the resistance movement,counting Zealots, Nasoreans, Essenes and Ebionites (the latter of which are cryptically mentioned in the Bible as simply "the poor") and a host of country dwellers among his followers. Even the
highly-edited gospels make it crystal clear that Jesus was not an establishment leader and that the Roman establishment and its Jewish collaborators perceived him as a threat and as part of the resistance. Hence his crucifixion for treason.
Young Paul as Collaborator
Just like the original Jesus movement was likely more anti-Roman than is traditionally assumed, young Paul was almost certainly far more Roman than tradition emphasizes. Yes, he was of Jewish ancestry, and this ancestry was a tremendously important part of his identity, but he was firmly entrenched in Greco-Roman culture. He hailed from Tarsus, the cosmopolitan CAPITAL of the Roman province of Cilicia. He was a Roman citizen (unusual for a Jew), and this would make anti-establishment types immediately suspicious of him. He spoke Greek, wrote in Greek, and always quotes GREEK translations of the ancient Jewish scriptures, including sometimes MISTRANSLATIONS of them. This suggests that he had little schooling in Hebrew, or at
least little knowledge of the original Hebrew wording of the Jewish scriptures that we know were available to Jews of the time (thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which cite them almost exclusively).
In contrast to his challenges with Hebrew, Paul is widely recognized by faithful and critical scholars alike as not only highly proficient with the Greek language in general, but highly skilled at the Greek discipline of rhetoric in particular. His stereotypically Greek method of arguing is very different than what we find in more authentically "Jewish" texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls. As one scholar notes, "Paul...shows a familiarity with Greek arguing styles, epistolary, didactic, and celebratory ('epideictic'). He is especially good at the competitive didactics of the Stoic 'diatribe' (literally, 'a wearing down')." Thus, Paul’s Greek education was undoubtedly superior to his Hebrew one.
One reason that this might be so is that Paul himself indicates that he was a kinsman of Herod. This likely explains why he was a Roman citizen since Herod's entire family had long before been granted citizenship. In fact, Paul was such a facet of the Roman establishment culture that he, if he is to be believed, had contacts within the Roman Emperor's very household. (Phil 4:22). Impressive!
So, while Paul may have been of Jewish descent, and while he was undoubtedly knowledgeable of the Jewish scriptures (or rather, of Greek translations of them), the young Paul was clearly a thoroughly Hellenized Jew of the establishment/collaborator variety. As a young man, he accepted the authority and legitimacy of the Herodian appointed Temple priests (from whom he accepted a commission to terrorize the resistance movement) and the importance and validity of the Temple cult they maintained. He believed the Temple establishment to be the authentic heirs of the Jewish tradition in accordance with God's will, whereas the resistance deemed them to be complete frauds.
Thus, though a Jew, Paul was not quite the Jew that the propagandistic (and mostly fake) book of Acts, not to mention church tradition, presents him to be. For instance, Paul almost certainly was NOT a student of Gamaliel, else Paul's knowledge of Hebrew (and Hebrew versions of the Old Testament) would be more apparent. Also, Paul, who never hesitated to "boast" of his credentials (since unlike other Apostles he never received any "authentic" ones from James, as he admits) would certainly not have failed to mention training with Gamaliel when emphasizing his Pharisaical credentials (see, for instance Gal 1:14 and Phil 3:5). Finally, if Paul had been a student of Gamaliel, he could not have claimed, as he does at Gal 1:22, that "his face was not known in Judea"?
Animosity Between Paul and the Early Church
The hatred between the establishment Jews like the young Paul and the various anti-establishment sects ran deep, and it existed even prior to Jesus' birth. This hatred is well documented in both biblical and non-biblical sources, though it is never presented in biblical sources in an establishment (Roman/Herodian) verses anti-establishment (Jewish Zealot) context. Only non-biblical sources, such as the writings of Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, emphasize the political, xenophobic, nationalistic and messianic nature of these disputes.
That the Bible avoids politics makes perfect sense once we realize that subsequent Roman editors of the Bible, then Christian themselves, sought to downplay the anti-Roman nature of the original Jesus movement. Rome was by then Christian, so Jesus could never been against Rome!
The early disputes between the establishment and anti-establishment were too well know to be completely ignored even by our Bibles. However, with sufficient editing, our Bibles could downplay and alter the emphasis of the dispute, making it appear as it revolved around those who accepted Jesus (a few Jews and lots of Gentiles) and those who rejected him (most of "the Jews" as a whole) rather than, as was actually the case, between those who accepted Rome (the collaborators like Paul, likely a minority of Jews) and those who rejected it (i.e., the resistance led by the desposyni, likely a majority). Biblical sources emphasize the former while non-biblical sources emphasize the latter.
This hatred between the collaborators and anti-collaborators continued through Jesus' life and for several decades thereafter, actually up until the final bar Kokhba revolt. Thus, in persecuting the early "assembly" of messianic resistance groups, or the early "church" as we now call the anti-establishment movement of the time (which was really a loose knit group of Messiah-expecting, Sadduccee-hating,
Star-Prophecy-following, collaborator-despising, wilderness-loving, anti-establishment types), Paul would have been acting as a representative the Hellenized Jewish political establishment. In hounding "the poor" country-dwellers, he was acting as much on behalf of Herod and Rome as "the Jews." Paul's early animosity toward the anti-establishment sects was thus religious, cultural,
Contrary to the gospels' suggestion, "the Jews" in general were not the proximate cause of Jesus’ death, but rather a small number of them (collaborators) aided by Rome. After all, crucifixion is a well-known and commonly employed Roman form of punishment for treason, not a Jewish one. In fact, hanging a person from a tree was forbidden of Jews as "cursed".
Even the highly-edited and pro-Roman gospels can’t hide the fact that Rome considered the Jesus movement to be a potential threat. For instance, in our Bibles Pilate asks Jesus a series of questions at his trial designed to determine whether he was a subversive, including whether or not he considered himself to be "King of the Jews." And Jesus was condemned to death only after a ROMAN trial, not simply a Jewish one. Thus, to the extent that any Jews were responsible for his death, it was small group of ruling establishment Jewish collaborators with Rome (represented primarily by the Sanhedrin) and some Zealots who betrayed him, and not the Jewish people as a whole. And, such collaborators can be seen as acting in Rome's (and their own) interests, not that of the Jewish people (or at least the anti-collaborators would have seen things that way).
The gospels, which were severely redacted and edited long after the fall of Jerusalem and once Rome had become Christianity's sponsor, can thus be seen as largely Roman propaganda. Once Constantine converted to Christianity (and really much before that), the idea that Rome was responsible for Jesus' death, and that the Jesus movement was originally anti-Roman, couldn't be countenanced. Those Christian groups who would avoid persecution sufficiently to survive till Constantine had to find a way of "spinning" things to reconcile known facts of history (such as Jesus' trial and execution by the ROMAN official, Pilate) with Imperial propaganda that would present Christianity as supportive of Rome.
Thus, one primary purpose of the gospels, or at least our present versions of them, is (not surprisingly) to transfer ultimate blame for Jesus' death from Rome to "the Jews." In fact, the more recent the gospel is, the more explicitly it attempts to do this. For instance, Mark, the earliest gospel, is comparatively subtle in its attempt to divert blame from Rome to the Jews--Mark mentions the trial but doesn't make much of it. By contrast Mathew, writing latter, has the Jewish masses
screaming (rather unbelievably) "his blood be upon us and our children!" And, by the time we get the gospel of John, the transfer is complete. John's gospel is widely recognized as the most vehemently anti-Semetic, and it portrays Pilate as a very reluctant executioner of Jesus who acts only to appease the bloodthirsty Jewish
masses and thus preserve the peace.
That such propaganda succeeded in its purpose is evidenced even in modern day presentations of the passion narrative, such as in the recent movie "The Passion of the Christ", where Jewish culpability for Jesus' death is emphasized and Rome is exculpated. But, in fact, though, Jesus was just one of several "Messiahs" who Rome, not "the Jews", ended up crucifying, Simon bar Kokhba being the last.
This shift of blame from Rome to Jews in our gospels is as as much an act of omission as commission. All the Roman editors needed to do to accomplish this shift was to make the establishment Pharisees and Sadducees, who the real Jesus almost certainly despised, representative of "Jews" in general. Thus, by writing the anti-establishment Jews out of our gospels, by ignoring their existence, the only Jews that remained were the establishment types (i.e., the Sadducees and Pharisees). And, as our gospels make clear (and as was likely true), Jesus did oppose them! And, they indeed were responsible for Jesus' death. Thus, to the extent that the term "Jew" became synonymous only the collaborating Sadducees and Pharisees (thanks to Roman editing), Jews, rather than Romans, could be blamed for Jesus's death. Mission accomplished.
In my summary above, I undoubtedly am "selective" in how I read the historical sources, including the Bible, accepting some parts as likely true and dismissing others as likely false. But, my selectivity is not arbitrary, and it is not designed to achieve some pre-determined conclusion. Rather, it is based on principles of textual criticism.
Although the rules of textual criticism can be confusing, the most useful is quite simple and intuitive: Facts that go against the interest of the author of a document are almost certainly true, while those that advance the author's interest must be questioned. For instance, we can be almost certain that those elements of the gospels that hint at or suggest that Rome was responsible for Jesus' death are true since we know for a fact that non-Jewish, Roman editors during the time of Constantine/Eusebius compiled and revised our present day gospels, putting them in their current and “final” form. Thus, "unhelpful facts" (such as the fact that Jesus was tried and sentenced by the Roman official, Pilate) constitute an admission that goes against the Roman editors' interests, and it is almost certainly true. It remains in our gospels only because it was so well known that it could not be denied.
Why is this rule of textual criticism so useful in making sense of accounts of historical events? Well, when compiling a history, it goes without saying that unhelpful facts are only mentioned when they are so well known that they can't credibly be denied or ignored. By contrast, helpful "facts" can often be invented
and secretly added to an account so as to change the reader's impression of the unhelpful ones without drawing too much suspicion. Thus, it is much easier to add a "clarifying fact" to an historical account than it is to deny or ignore the original well-known historical fact altogether.
Propagandists do this all the time. In modern times we call the process of acknowledging unhelpful facts while supplementing them with falsehoods so as to
change the overall impression "spin". But, spin is not a new invention. Thus, when reading a history, any history, admissions against interest are almost always true, while those little "helpful" facts--those that advance the interests of the writer of the history by attempting to soften the impact of the unhelpful ones--must be taken with a large grain of salt. It does not mean for certain that they are untrue, but we should at least seek independent corroboration before buying into them lock, stock, and barrel.
Thus, because (as we shall see) our Bibles were compiled and edited primarily by Gentiles in churches founded primarily by Paul, and because Rome redacted and edited our Bibles further during the time of Constantine, any remaining admissions against Paul's or Rome's interests are very likely true (and are included only because the were so well-known that they couldn't be credibly denied), while anything that makes Paul or Rome look "good" or "less culpable" is potentially false and must at least be second-guessed.
For example, non-biblical sources present Pilate as a cruel, hot-headed and blood-thirsty dictator who was ultimately recalled to Rome to explain his harsh policies, but the Bible presents him as a reasonable and very reluctant executioner of Jesus who went so far as to "wash his hands" of responsibility. Thus, the fact that Pilate (a Roman) sentenced Jesus to death is an unfavorable fact as to Rome and is therefore almost certainly true, while the "spin" that Pilate did so very reluctantly is, given all we know about him, likely false. That Jesus counted zealots among his family and followers can't be denied (even by the Bible), so this fact is almost certainly true, but the Bible's suggestion that Jesus was a pacifist who opposed their cause is very likely untrue. That Jesus criticized the establishment Pharisees and Sadducees is almost certainly true, but not the Bible's suggestion that he did so because they were so stubbornly JEWISH and LOYAL to the law of Moses. The real reason that Jesus criticized them is almost certainly the opposite--because they were COLLABORATORS who had softened the requirements of God's law (in matters such a circumcision, diet, divorce, etc.) in order to make accommodations with Roman culture.
Anyone who raises children can immediately understand why this technique of textual criticism—accepting “unhelpful” facts as true while questioning “helpful” ones--is
such useful means of getting at the truth of a situation. Consider this parenting example:
A child "borrows" his parent's car without permission and then in gets into an auto accident. The parents are angry and begin questioning the child. What does the child then (rather predictably) say? Something like this: "Yeah, Dad, it's true I snuck out with the car, and I'm really sorry for that, but I was never going to do anything bad with the car, and I tried to call you to ask permission first but I couldn’t get a hold of you. And, besides, the accident wasn't my fault!"
Well, the first assertion (that the kid snuck out with the car) is almost certainly true and can be taken at face value since the child admitted what simply couldn't credibly be denied. But the second one (that he didn't intend to do anything "bad" with it) and the third one (that he tried to call to get permission first), and the fourth one (that the accident wasn’t his fault), simply can’t be accepted at face value by any self-respecting parent. If parents expect to get to the truth, they will have to delve a little deeper.
This is one of the major problems with "faithful" interpretations of the Bible, those that insist that the Bible is "infallible". They never “delve a little deeper.” They never question the motives or biases of the author of the text. Rather, they simply accept every word at face value, assuming it not only to be “true”, but also “infallibly” so. Is that really a reasonable way of getting to the truth of any matter? By accepting the words of one side to the story without question?
The "Original" Gospel as the Work of the Zealots
Reading the gospels critically via textual criticism allows us to draw some likely conclusions. For instance, after Jesus's death at the hands of ROME, some of his more zealous followers likely seized the opportunity of his martyrdom to try and inspire the rebellion that they had been planning for years. In fact, based on the gospels, it is very likely that a small number of these zealots went so far as to facilitate Jesus' martyrdom for this very purpose.
Just like Jesus of Nazareth is likely a perversion of "Jesus the Nazorean" or "Nazarite"), Judas's last name, "Iscariot", is very likely a perversion of two works meaning "the Sicarii", or "dagger man". Thus, Judas Iscariot is really "Judas the Sicarii". The Sicarii were among the most militant of the Jewish Zealots, essentially compromising their corps of "assassins". History remembers them as the final holdouts at Masada who chose to murder their entire families (women and children included) and commit suicide rather than surrender Masada to Rome after Judea was crushed in 70AD. Thus, to say that the Sicarii were fanatically nationalistic and anti-Roman would be a colossal understatement.
But, long before Rome's crushing of Jerusalem, during the time of Jesus,it's likely that certain Sicarii became frustrated with Jesus' failure to unite the various anti-collaborator sects in acts of overt rebellion against Rome, or at least in attacking the collaborating Jews. After eventually concluding that Jesus never would lead such a rebellion, a few Sicarii probably decided to do away with Jesus in hopes of replacing him with someone more militant. But, they couldn't just openly murder him as doing that would fracture the fragile alliance of various anti-establishment groups, of which the Zealots and Sicarii were only minority members, and might even cause civil war among the resistance sects.
No, the Sicarii needed a way to get rid of Jesus while at the same time strengthening the alliance against Rome and helping to inflame revolt. What better way to do that than to arrange to have ROME (AND THE COLLABORATING SADDUCEES)KILL JESUS FOR THEM. And, if Jesus's death could be a public spectacle, and it could be made to have religious significance too--that is, if it could be anchored in the Old Testament Messianic prophecies which were the peculiar fascination of the anti-establishment types as evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Josephus, and even
our gospels--then all the better. And, if it could happen during a religious holiday, preferably the most important religious holiday, while Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims sympathetic to the messianic cause, then...WOWSA! They just might have a chance at sparking revolution!
With these ideas in mind, a small group of the Sicarii zealots (Judas was likely their "patsy" who had hoped to simply force Jesus' hand rather than to actually kill him) betrayed Jesus to Rome, telling Pilate and the Temple Priests that Jesus had declared himself "King of the Jews" (so as to infuriate Romans) and equated himself with God (so as to infuriate the Sadducees). This may, in fact, have been the first time that Jesus was equated with God. That there was likely at least a grain of truth in the idea that Jesus was leader of the resistance is evidenced by the fact that Rome had no problem believing the charges against him. There was clearly something about the Jesus movement that made these allegations against Jesus plausible (namely, contrary to its depiction in our gospels, it was patently anti-Roman).
Thus, working behind the scenes, the Sicarii arranged for the establishment to execute Jesus in the manner that all enemies of the Rome were executed at that time for treason--by crucifixion. Conveniently for the Sicarii, nothing could be more offensive to the anti-establishment Jews than to have their popular leader executed in a horrid, public and cursed way (by "hanging on a tree") by Rome and its collaborators on a holy day. For a brief time, things were looking up for the Sicarii. Everything was proceeding according to plan.
Arranging for Jesus' betrayal and execution in this manner took planning that likely lasted many weeks or months. During this time, and for some time after his death, influential religious leaders among the small group of betrayers likely sought to prepare the anti-collaborator masses to accept the religious significance of Jesus' death. They did this by emphasizing cryptic "prophecies" from the Old Testament, and perhaps from Jesus' own teachings, prophecies that made no sense prior to Jesus' death but which could be pointed to afterwards as "proof" that Jesus' death was all part of God's plan of salvation to redeem Israel from Rome. Thus, these religious leaders emphasized the "suffering servant" proof texts and other texts that could be artfully interpreted as suggesting that the Messiah must suffer and die for Israel's "sins" (i.e., collaborating with Rome), but that this would ultimately lead to "redemption."
If the gospels contain any authentic history at all, then it is likely that Jesus became aware of the plot against him in the days or weeks before his death (though not likely the identity of his betrayer until the very end). Perhaps in hopes buying time and foiling the plans of the Zealots who sought to betray him, Jesus, at the last minute, sought to demonstrate that he was prepared to act against the collaborators by "cleansing" the Temple (overturning the tables and publicly calling out the collaborators as corrupt). But, by this time, it was likely too late, and his actions in the Temple played right into his betrayer's hands--angering both the collaborating Jews and the Romans. Eventually, recognizing that the jig was up, Jesus was able to "prophecy" his betrayal and execution before his death.
The Sicarii's betrayers' grand plan almost certainly included stealing Jesus's body from the tomb and hiding it away, with Jesus's supposed resurrection (something with precedent in the Old Testament) serving as a great sign of Israel's impending redemption and God's coming kingdom. In fact, as the Dead Sea Scrolls make clear, the messianic groups of the time were, even before Jesus' death and likely before his birth, expecting a "Joshua redivivus" (or Joshua brought back to life) to lead them against Rome. And, Jesus is simply the Greek name for Joshua.
If the Sicarii betrayers could just convince the "loyal" anti-collaborator Jews to "launch the war" against the collaborators, purging Israel and the Temple of its pollution, God would take up the resistance's cause, and Jesus/Joshua would return to lead the battle against Rome, vanquishing Israel's enemies and returning
righteous rule to the land. This militant message was likely the original "gospel" of the Zealots. Whether the betrayers themselves believed this message, or were just cynically promoting it to foment rebellion, is uncertain.
In interpreting this original gospel message, it's important to understand that Jesus's/Joshua's return was assumed by "believers" of the time to be IMMINENT, though imminent came to latter be understood as within the generation. And, it wasn't necessarily a "second coming" the way that we think of that today. Rather, the Jews of the time likely believed that Jesus would return in the guise of another person, not necessarily as his former self risen from the grave. In fact, it was common among messianic groups to believe such things. For instance, our gospels indicate that many believed that John the Baptist was in fact Elijah come back to life. So the idea of a dead person returning to earth in the guise of another person to lead a cause wasn't foreign to Jews at all. It was expected.
And, this expectation of Jesus's/Joshua's return was highly successful in fomenting rebellion since we know from history that there were a series of squabbles and revolts in the decades after Jesus's death (witness, for instance, the attack on "Stephen" noted in the Bible, an attack on James and riots thereafter chronicled in extra-biblical sources, the revolt in 70 AD, the final "bar Kokhba" revolt, etc.). And yet, none of these revolts were particularly successful. Time and again the "Messiah" leading them was vanquished by the Romans, resulting only in additional hardship for the anti-collaborators. After decades failing to deliver on their gospel message, many had to begin to wonder the Zealots had the message right.
The Role of James
The zealots were ultimately unsuccessful in getting a more militant leader appointed immediately after Jesus' demise. Instead, Jesus' brother, James, took over as leader. Unfortunately for the zealots, James was apparently of the same temperament as Jesus--despising the establishment but not yet up for a fight with it. He was apparently able to calm people's nerves after Jesus's death such that cooler heads prevailed among the resistance, at least for a while.
Despite his importance, the Bible tells us little of James. And, curiously, James left us almost nothing that describes his beliefs about his brother save a single Epistle, and that Epistle doesn't mention anything about Jesus either before or after the resurrection, other than to acknowledge him as "Lord" (not a divine title to Romans or Jews of the time). For instance, James never (in our Bibles or elsewhere) says that Jesus is God's son, much less his only one. He never says that Jesus was
conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. He never says that Jesus ascended into heaven, or that he sits on the right hand of God the Father, or that he shall judge the dead. And he certainly never says that "faith" in Jesus provides an alternate or additional or “new” means of salvation. When James discusses faith in his Epistle, he refers to faith in God, not Jesus, and he makes it clearly secondary to works. For James, faith is only useful to the extent that is results in righteous conduct. "Faith without works is dead."
In fact, the Epistle of James is so devoid of anything uniquely Christian that, were it our only surviving writing from the time, there is nothing in it from which we could decipher even the most basic tenants of the Christian faith!
Although his view of Jesus is uncertain, what both biblical and non-biblical sources make clear is that James was a VERY righteous man, hence he was called "James the Just", the term "just" meaning "righteous". And for James, being righteous meant not only keeping the Torah, but doing so in a way that would, to the greatest extent possible, highlight the hypocrisy and corruptness of the illegitimate colloborators. Thus, all sources, biblical and otherwise, emphasize James’ fixation with those points of law in which the collaborators were notoriously lax--circumcision, fornication (divorce), consuming food sacrificed to idols, and avoiding the consumption of blood. For instance, when Acts has James issue his ruling at the so-called "Jerusalem Council", James is said to have conceded that god-fearing Gentiles wouldn't have to be circumcised, but that they must still avoid sexual immorality (fornication/divorce), avoid consumption of blood and food sacrificed to idols, and remember "the poor" (i.e., the Ebionites), presumably by giving alms to them. These rules propounded by James were obviously intended to exclude Paul's kinsmen, the Herodians (who comprised some of Paul's followers in Jerusalem), from the “assembly” or “church” since, as previously noted, these were the very "sins" for which the Herodians and other collaborators were famous and constantly criticized.
Is it any wonder then that James is barely mentioned in our Bibles, or that most apocryphal writings ascribed to James, writings mentioned by the Early Church fathers, didn't survive to our time?! Our bibles are filled with Paul's preaching, but we have no authentic, non-hearsay accounts of the Christian preaching of any of those who knew Jesus during life. Why is that?
As we shall see, that James succeeded Jesus is an "unfavorable fact" (if you’re a follower of Paul or a Roman like the people who edited our Bibles), one confirmed in non-biblical sources (and alluded to even in biblical ones). It is unfavorable because we have absolutely no evidence of James ever giving any Christian teachings, because James can fairly be interpreted as contradicting the teachings of Paul with regard to salvation by faith (as even Martin Luther famously agreed), because Paul and James are know to have frequently been at odds, and because of the Catholic church's insistence that Peter (not James) was Jesus' appointed successor. Therefore, applying the rules of textual criticism, that James succeeded Jesus is almost certainly true.
James' role was too well known to be completely ignored by the Roman/Paulian editors of our Bibles. But, by the time the Bible was compiled, the details of his teaching could largely omitted, emphasizing instead Paul's and Peter's role in the early church. This could be done, for example, by compiling an “official” history, such as Acts, wherein James is mentioned as the undeniable leader, but only just long enough to endorse Paul's mission.
Had James, the brother and successor of Jesus, believed anything remotely approaching the basic tenants of Christianity, and had he been on the "same page" with Paul theologically,it is inconceivable that some authentic book in the Bible would not
chronicle this fact ad naseum. While Paul reluctantly admits that James is the leader of the early church in several places, calling him a "so-called Pillar", Paul never cite James' authority as supportive of his own positions or theology, and Paul emphasizes that, unlike others, his preaching credentials come not from James but directly from Jesus.
Other Anti-establishment Groups Spread the "Good News"
Although James clearly succeeded Jesus, and James left us nothing that would permit us to consider him "Christian" in the modern sense, certain other anti-collaborator groups apparently came to believe, at least for a few decades, what the Zealots were preaching --i.e., that Jesus was the Messiah, that he died according to prophecy, that he rose from the dead on the third day in accordance with prophecy, and most importantly that he would "soon" (whatever they may mean) come back to vanquish the "Kittim" and restore the Kingdom of Israel to righteous rule, thereby achieving the collective redemption of God's people. James himself may have even believed all of this, though there is nothing in the Bible or elsewhere that permits us to say so with confidence and, regardless, James certainly wouldn't have viewed these facts as providing an alternate means of salvation outside the Torah.
In Jesus' coming kingdom, those in the establishment ("those who are first") would be last, and the outcasts, the anti-establishment types who remained loyal to God and his laws--i.e., those who are currently "last"--would be made first, or so the Zealots taught. Emphasizing these points and others, a small group of zealots spread the basic passion and resurrection stories around Judaea, anchoring them in Old Testament prophecies as best they could (as was common and would be expected among the messianic sects), and insisting that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” and “surely this generation shall not pass before” Jesus returned to vanquish Rome.
Many who heard this story must have found it incredibly appealing. The promised redemption of Israel, and the "last to first" theology that accompanied it, would have been emotionally satisfying to outcast resistance groups. It offered them hope in what was otherwise a completely hopeless situation.
And, some of these believers in the Sicarii "gospel" would no doubt eventually develop a whole new theology around it, what I will call a Collective Atonement Theology. They probably recruited people to this new theology by explaining to them something like this:
Since the Temple is polluted and staffed by corrupt and ineligible priests, animal sacrifice in the Temple is no longer useful in setting man right with God. Consequently, alternates--namely regular baptismal cleansing ("daily bathing") and strict dietary rules--must be observed until the Temple can be cleansed and rededicated (as it was in the old days after the Jews returned from captivity in Babyon). In the meantime, God resides not in the Temple, but among the "assembly" (or community or Church) of the righteous. [This latter teaching is found not only in the writings of Paul (i.e., "you are the body of Christ") but also in the Dead Sea Scrolls.]
Israel's goal must thus be to cleanse and rededicate the Temple. That can happen only by removing the ineligible and corrupt priests from it. And, since Rome requires that only its sanctioned priests can serve in the Temple, cleansing the Temple can only happen by overthrowing Rome. But, overthrowing Rome will require the help of God, help that He will not provide as long as so many of His people are unrighteous collaborators who are unfaithful to his law.
Only when His people rise up in sufficient numbers against the unrighteous collaborators will God join the cause by sending his promised son/delegate/savior. Once we do our part, Jesus will return to lead us to victory. Do not be disheartened by his death on the cross. Didn't Isaiah teach that the Messiah would be "wounded for our [Israel's] transgressions, bruised for our iniquities". And, just as Jonah emerged from the belly of the whale after three days, wasn't Jesus's tomb found empty after three days? He lives! He will return. Just as scripture says, "one like the son of man" will return in the sky with power to vanquish Israel's enemies. But, not until we've done our part to rid Israel of the unrighteous collaborators.
In this manner, or a similar one, the Zealots had already planted the idea in the anti-establishment groups' collective consciousness that Jesus's death was somehow sacrificial and meaningful.
Soon enough, some groups began to view Jesus' death not just as sacrificial and meaningful, but, occurring as it did on Passover, also as atoning and redemptive. Jesus's death would eventually be equated with the sacrifice of the passover lamb. And, some would come to view it as the "final sacrifice" that made all other sacrifices on behalf of the nation of Israel unnecessary. This "final sacrifice" doctrine would have had great appeal to these rebel sects since, among other things, it would have undermined the authority and responsibilities of the Establishment Sadducees who maintained the Temple sacrifices of atonement.
In this manner, or a similar one that involved extended exegesis on Old Testament "prophecies", a Jesus-based Collective Atonement Theology was born.
Early adherents to the Collective Atonement theology wrote down their recollections of certain "sayings of the Lord" (things Jesus said during life), supplementing them with their Old Testament exegesis of certain scriptures that seemed to give meaning to his death, resurrection, and pending return. These documents, which are now lost to us, were our original "gospels". That such original "sayings gospels" (i.e., gospels devoid of historical information and containing primarily the teachings of Jesus and exegesis on them) existed is not in doubt. The early Church Fathers all make reference to them. For instance, you will recall that Papias (our earliest source attributing the gospel of Matthew to Matthew and Mark to Mark) asserts that his version of Matthew and Mark contained the "sayings of the Lord, though not in order", and that Matthew was originally written "in the Hebrew tongue" (which is just what we would expect if these documents were compiled by the resistance) . Clearly, whatever "gospels" Papias was referencing are lost to us today as our surviving versions of both Mark and Matthew go to great lengths to put Jesus' ministry in order from start to finish (so much so that we are able to establish that his ministry spanned three years, according to them), and we have no ancient surviving manuscripts whatsoever of Matthew in the "Hebrew tongue." That these originals no longer exist is evidence that they were deemed "heretical"--that is, they taught something other than Paulian/Roman Christianity. It is inconceivable that they would have not been preserved otherwise. Much more on this point in a moment.
Shortly after this Jesus-based Collective Atonement Theology became popular among the resistance groups, Paul became exposed to the concept (likely due to his active persecution of these groups). As we will see, Paul eventually created an alternative (individualized) version of this theology, and as discussed below, spread his version across the empire.
Destruction of the Temple
A few decades after these original gospels were produced, the Temple was destroyed and Jews were dispersed throughout the empire. Thus, restoration of righteous Temple
service by qualified, righteous priests (the goal of the original resistance movement before some developed Collective Atonement Theology) was no longer possible. Any resistance groups that had not yet adopted Collective Atonement Theology therefore needed another way to set Israel right with God--i.e., of "justification". And, as luck would have it, devotees of Jesus, the original "converts" to the zealots' "gospel", had by this time developed Collective Atonement Theology for this very purpose. Thus, after the fall in 70AD, some form of Collective Atonement Theology would have been the majority view of any remaining resistance.
In coming to accept this idea, they became "Christian" in the sense of believing in Jesus’ atoning death for ISRAEL’S sins. Collective Atonement Theology neatly filled the vacuum left in the resistance's religion after destruction of the Temple like nothing else could. Nonetheless, each of these groups had a slightly different interpretation of Collective Atonement Theology based on their own histories, biases, goals, etc., thus explaining why the Early Church Fathers (who had inherited the Paulian point of view, as we will discuss) had to devote volume after volume to weeding out "heretical" varieties of Christianity in the centuries after the fall of Jerusalem.
Most Jewish Groups that didn't voluntarily accept Collective Atonement Theology were eventually forced to accept Paul's individualized version under Constantine. Those few who didn't were primarily the descendants of the establishment collaborators (i.e., the Sadducees and main-line Pharisees), and it is these latter groups that founded the Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today.
Thus, in an odd twist of fate, the first (the collaborators) did indeed become the last after the time of Constantine, and the last (the once anti-establishment Atonement theorists) became first (in that their views ultimately
became orthodox catholicism).
One of the great unanswered questions is whether James ever became a
believer in Collective Atonement Theology. He apparently believed that
Jesus "resurrected" in some form (as Paul mentions that the risen
Christ appeared to James in one of his authentic letters--1 Corinth.). This suggests to me that he did.
But, not necessarily. Both biblical and non-biblical sources make it crystal clear that James was, for his entire life, a strict and uncompromising adherent to the law. Nothing in either biblical or non-biblical sources permits us to assume that he
ever came to view Jesus' death and resurrection as providing an alternate
means of individual salvation outside of the law. After all, James could have been a believer in Jesus' resurrection, and he could believe that Jesus would come again soon to vanquish Israel's enemies, all without accepting that his death provided atonement (collective or otherwise), or a "new covenant".
Interestingly, the Dead Sea Scrolls are filled with allusions to "the New Covenant in the Land of Damascus". Exactly what this new covenant was conceived to be is unclear, but the idea of a "new covenant" by which the wilderness dwelling resistance sects could once again be set right with God (given that the Temple no longer served this purpose) was paramount. Importantly, this idea of a "new covenant" or "new testament" wasn't unique to Christianity at all but was a common idea among messianic jewish sects even before Jesus.
It is clear that Paul's first exposure to the ideas of the Jesus devotees wasn't his vision on the road to Damascus (which means "cup of blood"). As he admits, he had been persecuting Jesus devotees (i.e, Zealots and their converts) on behalf of the establishment for some time prior, so he had to have prior knowledge of their "faith", including the newly emerged "Collective Atonement Theology" based upon Jesus' death and resurrection.
It is obvious from his writings that Paul was also quite familiar with the
teaching of some of the Greco-Roman pagan mystery religions. For instance, he constantly uses the characteristic language of the mysteries in his letters (though this is often disguised by translation)--phrases like "fully initiated into Christ" (most often translated as "mature in Christ"), "Gnosis", "Third Heaven", "Aeons", "Archons", "Pleroma", "Logos", etc.
Intriguingly, the last stage of the initiation ritual in most Greek Mysteries (e.g., the most famous at Eleusius) was called "the revelation". It was the point at which something was revealed to the initiate in very dramatic fashion (at Elesius it was a shaft of wheat held up amidst great lights and fabulous noises), and this revelation somehow made all the initiate's preparations and previous trials come together in some way that was, by most all ancient accounts, incredibly meaningful.
What the mysteries purported to offer their initiates was an experience of "oneness" with the Supreme God, and this was said by them to result in a much improved life and AFTER-LIFE. The Eleusinian Mysteries [based on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter which explains the seasonal travels of Persephone (Kore), the goddess of grain, into the underworld for part of the year (winter) and back to this world latter in the year (spring)] are widely understood as teaching a Greek form of resurrection theology, using specifically the SHAFT OF WHEAT (which is "reborn" each year from seed) as a symbol for resurrection. Thus, the seed falls on the ground, dies, and it is reborn into something new and different.
With this in mind, it's important to note that Paul discusses his vision of Jesus
on the road to Damascus as a "revelation", and not just any "revelation", but specifically the "revelation of the mystery". And, he does this on several occasions, such as at Romans 16:25-26 and in the first chapter of Colossians (a book
attributed to Paul but which may not actually be authentic) where he
"I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word [Logos] of God in its fullness [Pleroma]— the mystery that has been kept hidden in ages and generations past, [the Greek mysteries were always "secret"], but is now disclosed [by me] to the saints [those set apart by God]. To them God has chosen to make known from the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."
Thus, Paul tells us explicitly that, via his preaching, his sharing of the "revelation", he is disclosing for the first time the ancient mysteries. This is, in fact, exactly what pagan devotees of the mysteries accused Paul (and Christianity in general) of doing at the time--i.e., illegally and irresponsibly revealing the teachings of the mysteries! (more on this below)
Importantly, the cult of Mithras, the largest and most popular mystery religion of Romans at the time, was based in Tarsus, Paul's hometown. (what are the odds of that!). Mithraism was so popular and widespread in the Roman empire, thanks to its widespread adoption by Roman troops, that one noted scholar has commented that if Rome had not become Christian, it almost certainly would have become Mithraic.
And, many aspects and rituals within Mithraism and other mystery religions, which predate Christianity by centuries, are so similar to Christianity (e.g., baptism, a sacred meal called "mass", virgin birth of the savior, the savior being called "savior" and "light of the world") that early Church Fathers could explain these similarities only by developing the ludicrous theory of "anticipatory plagiarism"--that is, that Satan's demons anticipated the coming of Christ centuries beforehand and created diabolic religions (Mithraism and certain other "mystery" religions among them) which would mimic Christian teaching and rituals in ADVANCE so that it would appear once Christ came that Christians were copying pagans rather than vice
versa. Smart demons, they were, if this theory is to be believed.
My personal theory of Paul is a follows: Young Paul was a torn man--torn between the Greco-Roman culture in which he was raised and from which he and his family [Herodians] benefited, and his Jewish heritage. For a long time he was able to reconcile these two things, to have his cake and eat it too, by being a Jewish collaborator with Rome and supporting the collaborating Temple cult. In doing so he could continue to validate his Jewishness while benefiting from and participating in the pagan culture in which he was immersed.
As a Herodian, Paul would have been viewed as a "sell out" by more conservative/militant/anti-establishment Jews, and this likely caused
him to hate them with a passion. Paul considered himself a "devout" Jew, someone who was "zealous for the law", but there is no way that the more conservative,
anti-establishment Jews would have viewed him as such. Rather, they
would have seen him as a corrupt supporter of everything they despised
--e.g., the Sadducees, the corruption of the Temple, the Roman occupation of the holy land, etc.
Thus, just as the Bible tells us, young Paul likely used his power and influence to persecute, and to attempt to silence, his anti-establishment critics, followers of the Jesus Movement. Nothing pisses of an American more than to have another American question his patriotism, and nothing would have pissed off a person like Paul more than to have another Jew, especially a “poor” country-dwelling one, question his authentic Jewishness.
Paul clearly was angered by those who challenged his Jewish credentials. This is one reason why he constantly "boasts" in the Bible of his Jewishness and his Pharisaic training. The other reason is that, as he admits repeatedly, he had no formal, written credentials from James (like all other "apostles" apparently did). Paul says that, unlike people like James who "write their own credentials" (as Paul said it), Paul's commission came directly "from the Lord" and not from "any flesh."
Paul Falls Out With the Establishment
At some point, and while still a young man, Paul fell out with the establishment. Maybe he refused to compromise his Jewishness enough to please his establishment superiors, causing him to lose his job. Or, maybe his establishment superiors wanted him to do things to the anti-establishment Jews that even he couldn't bear. Or, maybe he eventually developed a guilty conscience as a result of the ferocity with which he had previously pursued what we now call the Jesus movement. Or, most likely, he became privy to the full extent of the corruption of his Jewish superiors and was repulsed. Regardless, something happened that caused Paul to become disillusioned with (though not exactly hostile toward) the establishment Jews, including his Herodian kinfolk.
And, this disillusionment must have caused much cognitive dissonance for someone like Paul. Since he no longer identified with the collaborators, he was no longer able to reconcile the internal conflict between his Jewish heritage and the Roman culture in which he was immersed. Thus, Paul either had to choose a side once and for all (Jews or Romans), or else had to find another way of reconciling these competing callings. Paul could have, for instance, joined headlong with the anti-establishment
types (the majority of which at that time were led by James) and become a Messiah-expecting, Sadducee-hating, wilderness-dwelling,law-keeping, anti-establishment type like the rest of the followers of James. Or, he could have turned his back on his Jewish heritage and become a full-blown Roman pagan, like the Jewish historian Josephus eventually did. Or, he could do something in between--but...what would that even look like?
Individualized Atonement Theology
Atonement Theology, or rather Paul's INDIVIDUALIZED variation of it, offered
Paul a way out of this dilemma. It gave Paul something "in between." It permitted him to honor his Jewish heritage without requiring that he reject everything that appealed to him about the Greco-Roman pagan culture in which he was raised (and which was all he knew).
While traveling one day on "the way to Damascus" (Damascus meaning
"cup of blood", which will prove significant below), likely in great
angst, everything must have come together for Paul. On the "way to the cup of blood" (which may very well be code for some type of mystery initiation ritual, or more likely is code for "Qumran") he saw a bright light and heard a noise from the heavens (both known components of the “revelation stage” of mystery initiations), and he had a great insight. Specifically, he came to believe that the
basic tenants of Collective Atonement Theology were true--that Jesus was the
Anointed, that he died to atone for sins, that he resurrected in a different form, and that he would VERY SOON return. However, for Paul, it was our INDIVIDUAL sins that Christ died for, not the collective sins of Israel. And, Jesus resurrected not in a single human form, as those who believe in Collective Atonement expected, but "in us." And, he would soon return to take believers to live in heaven among the stars, not to vanquish the Romans.
Thus, Paul's great insight was to rework Collective Atonement theory into the individual atonement theory that we know today simply as "Christianity".
What exactly happened to cause Paul to believe these things is unclear, but from the surviving descriptions in our Bible, it was possibly some sort of extremely
satisfying and meaningful intellectual insight (a "revelation") combined perhaps with some event of astrological significance that appeared in the sky on the way before him. Or, more likely, it happened as a result of Paul's initiation into one of the various "mystery religions" so prominent in the region. Or possibly, it happened while Paul was preparing to be initiated into the RESISTANCE MOVEMENT which, as you will recall from the Dead Sea Scrolls, preached of a "new covenant in the land of DAMASCUS"!
In short, Paul realized that, understood in a certain way, his
"revealed" way, a Jesus-based Atonement Theology resolved his internal conflict and ended his angst. It permitted him to remain both Jewish and Roman. In fact, it served as a means of uniting Roman and pagan cultures and religion in his very person. He no longer had to choose one over the other. Believing that Jesus' death and resurrection was both the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures and ALSO the fulfillment of the Greek mysteries, Paul found a way to reconcile his Jewish ancestry with his Roman culture, paganism with Judaism.
It took time, but Paul could never have imagined in his wildest dreams just how successful his amalgamated religion would become.
The Origins of Paul's Theology
It is clear from reading the authentic letters of Paul that his understanding of atonement theology is different than what most anti-establishment sects of the time, including the group led by James, believed. In fact, as discussed above, it's possible that James never accepted Atonement Theology at all as we have no biblical
or extra-biblical source from the time that describes him as teaching it. Even biblical sources make it clear that certain aspects of Paul's theology were perceived by numerous Jewish and Christian groups of the time, especially those led by James, as novel and troublesome. So, where did Paul get these ideas that would come to comprise his gospel?
Tradition teaches that he must have gotten it from other Christians, but there are many reasons to think that his is not the case at all. First, as I have shown on many, many occasions, Paul knows almost nothing of "traditions" of the earthly Jesus' life, traditions about which Jesus’s brother, James, and other early Christians would have no doubt been aware. Paul never cites any teachings of the earthly Jesus (even when doing so would cinch his
argument), never mentions any miracles, never discusses his travels, never retells any of his parables, never alludes to his virgin birth (even when calling him a second Adam), never mentions Pilate, etc.
Second, Paul makes it abundantly clear that he received his version of the gospel not from ANY FLESH AND BLOOD person (Gal 1.16), but directly FROM THE LORD. This means not only that Paul didn't receive his information about Jesus from James or any other flesh and blood person (in other words, the traditions wasn't handed down to him by
other Christians), but also that the Jesus who appeared "inside" Paul (see
Gal 1:16 and compare to the experience of "oneness" with the Godhead offered by the ancient mysteries) at his conversion wasn't "flesh and blood" at all. Regarding the source of his gospel, Paul says explicitly: "I would have you know, Brothers, that the revelation I revealed to you came not in any ordinary human way, for I did not receive it from a man by way of teaching. Rather, it was directly revealed to me by Jesus the Anointed" (Gal 1:11-12).
This gospel that Paul obtained by revelation is the source of many of the original sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels, gospels that were written long after Paul's letters and therefore benefited greatly from them. For instance, Paul's teaching that "I know, RELYING ON LORD JESUS, that nothing is unclean of itself" and "only if a man supposes it unclean does it become unclean" (Rom 14:14) is latter
parroted in the gospels as Jesus' teaching that "what a man takes into
his mouth does not make him unclean" rather "what comes out of his
mouth makes him unclean" (Matt 15:10-11).
Paul's revelation can also be seen as the ORIGINAL source of the ritual of Lord's Supper ritual, the details of which were LATTER incorporated into the quasi-historical gospels. For instance, Paul teaches that:
"What I received FROM THE LORD I passed on to you--that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread [bread is made from wheat, the traditional symbol of "resurrection" in the mysteries] and, after blessing it, broke it and said, 'This is my body, which is for you. Do the same to keep the memory of me.' Just so with a cup, after finishing dinner: 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood [the cup of blood/Damascus reference again!]. Do the same, as you drink it, to keep my memory.'
For as many times as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you announce the death of the Lord, before his return." (1 Corinth 11:23-26)
Paul thus claims that he received this tradition of the ritual of the Lord's supper FROM THE LORD, not from any person, and by way of revelation. Had this tradition existed in in the Jesus Movement before Paul (i.e., had it been instituted by an earthly Jesus years before), Paul certainly would have known about it, either as a result of his dealings with others in the Jesus movement after his conversion or from his prior persecution of them. And, had Paul known of this tradition, he certainly would have referenced it as corroborating his own vision of the same. Why would Paul claim that he learned these things only and directly "from the Lord" if he in fact knew these things were already widely practiced among Jesus' followers even prior to Paul's conversion? He would only be setting himself up for ridicule by doing so.
Had these practices already been in wide practice among the Jesus movement before Paul's revelation, Paul could have simply noted this fact as sufficient reason for continuing to observe them in the churches to which he was writing. But they weren't, so he couldn't, and he didn't. Instead, Paul anchors the authority for
the ritual of the Last Supper (to name just one example) not in
established tradition of those Christians who preceded him, but in HIS NEW REVELATION OF CHRIST.
It bears noting here that, although ritualistically consuming the body and blood of the Godman was novel to Judaism and the Jesus movement, such rituals were quite common in pagan circles, as Paul almost certainly knew. Consider, for instance, that an ancient inscription to Mithras reads: “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same
shall not know salvation.” Compare this to Jesus' teachings on this subject in the gospel of John. Also, recall from above, the Mithras cult was centered in Tarsus, Paul's hometown, and has numerous parallels with Christianity. This cannot be simply coincidence.
Modern Christians attempt to write off such parallels between Paul's version of Christianity and the mystery religions as pagans parroting the young Christian religion, but that's silly. The mystery religions in question all predate Christianity by centuries. They rituals were old and established and well known to prior initiates. Why would ancient and established religions with thousands of prior converts start suddenly imicking the rituals of new, upstart religion like Christianity? They wouldn't have. And, they didn't.
Even our first Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, was forced to admit this fact. In his First Apology, he acknowledges that the pagan rites and myths that are so similar to Christian ones precede Christ by centuries. But, nonetheless, they still represent copies of Christianity, he assures us, by the process of anticipatory
plagiarism. Justin Martyr contends:
"For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter [God], under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvelous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.”
In another place in the same apology, Justin Martyr explicitly recognizes that devotees of Mithras had their own god-eating ritual that follows the Christian one almost word for word. He nonetheless once again explains it away as anticipatory plagiarism:
“Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with such incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.”
In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Martyr admits that the Christian ideas of the godman's virgin birth, his death and resurrection, his miracles of healing, and his ascension into heaven were all prefigured in paganism (through the process of anticipatory plagiarism, he assures us):
Be well assured, then, Trypho, that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures, by those counterfeits which he who is called the devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah's days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter's] intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? And when they tell that Hercules was strong, and traveled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scriptures which speaks of Christ, "strong as a giant to run his race," has been in like manner imitated? And when he [the devil] brings forward Aesculapius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ?...And when I hear, Trypho, that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this.
Note that Justin doesn't claim that the pagans based their various godman stories on Christianity or the gospels, for the gospels were too new, and the pagan myths too old, for these myths to have formed in so short a time. Even Justin concedes that. No, Justin explains that the devil, knowing via the scriptures that Christ was to come, introduced these themes into the world (via paganism), in advance of Christ's coming, so as to lead people astray.
Why Many Pagans and Jews Despised Paul
In making public and popularizing certain aspects of the secret mysteries of Mithras (and possibly other mystery religions) and associating them with Jesus, as Paul was clearly doing, he earned the ire many pagans as well as the Jewish authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls who advocated nationalistic Collective Atonement Theory as opposed to Paul's universal, individual one. It is no surprise then that Paul is constantly whining of being harassed by "those of James" and "those of Peter" and other advocates of Collective Atonement. Acts even presents some Zealot "Jews" as swearing a Nazarite-style oath not to eat or drink again until they had killed Paul! And it's no surprise that, as Christianity became somewhat popular, pagans like Celsus would lambaste Christianity as being a knock-off of the pagan mysteries, leading early Church Fathers to write extended (and often pretty weak) apologies in defense of their religion.
The Significance of Paul's "Revelation"
Once we accept the idea that that everything Paul knows of Christ he
received via direct revelation or "inspiration" rather than learning it from other "Christians" who preceded him in the faith, things make much more sense. For instance, this explains why Paul seemingly knows so little about Jesus's earthly existence--never mentioning, for example, John the Baptist, Jesus's baptism, Jesus' travels, Jesus' parables, his virgin birth, his miracles, etc. Had Paul gotten his information about Jesus from those who had been with Jesus during life (e.g.,
Jesus' disciples or his brother James) rather than by revelation, he certainly would have been familiar with these stories, and he could have and would have used them to his advantage during some of his more contentious diatribes.
To give an example, when arguing that Christians were no longer under the law (a teaching that contradicts the views of James explicitly), why didn't Paul mention Jesus' teaching that "the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath"? Or, when debating the applicability of Kosher rules to Gentile converts (discussed in Acts), why didn’t Paul or James or anyone else quote "the Lord's" teaching that "it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out." After all, Paul was an expert at debate and at exegesis from scripture, and he certainly would have made use of this "saying of the Lord" had it been known to him. But it wasn't known to him for the simple fact that, as we shall see, Jesus' teachings in our surviving gospels are based largely on the teachings of Paul as contained in his letters rather than the letters of Paul being based upon the teachings of the earthly Jesus, as we shall see.
Thus, we can see that whenever Paul says that he "received" information about Jesus, he means that he did so via revelation and not from "any flesh and blood." This puts 1 Corinthians 15 in a whole new context:
"For WHAT I RECEIVED I passed on to you at the first: that the Anointed died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve."
Interesting, most every aspect of this teaching has parallels in Mithras mystery cult. Like Osiris, Mithras was associated with resurrection (as evidenced by numerous things, including in iconography the SHAFT OF WHEAT--the symbol of resurrection most associated with the Greco-Roman mysteries--growing from the bull's tail as Mithras slays the beast) . Also, Church Father Tertullian famously admitted that the Mithras cult taught resurrection. Mithras, like Jesus in our gospels, had twelve disciples. Mithras was also said to have been born from or "appeared from" a "rock" (Peter). Mithras was called "the savior", which is what "Jesus" means in Hebrew.
Paul can therefore be understood as claiming in 1 Corinthians 15 that he received the basic outline of the Jesus story (death, burial, and resurrection) by revelation, not from the testimony of anyone else. In fact, prior to Paul's writing down this outline of Jesus' story in his letters (universally recognized as the earliest documents in our New Testament save possibly the Epistle of James), there IS NO OTHER TESTIMONY to these ideas in Judaism, ONLY in the Pagan Mysteries.
To drive home the point, when explaining in 1 Corinthians 15 what the resurrected body will be like, Paul does not make any references to Old Testament teachings. Rather, he just so happens to use the VERY ANALOGY OF RESURRECTION FOR WHICH THE PAGAN MYSTERIES WERE MOST FAMOUS, a shaft of grain:
"35But someone will say, How can the dead be raised? With what [kind of] body will they come forth?
36You foolish man! Every time you plant seed, you sow something that does not come to life [germinating, springing up, and growing] unless it dies first.
37Nor is the seed you sow then the body which it is going to have [later], but it is a naked kernel, perhaps of wheat or some of the rest of the grains."
Hence, the risen body is to the earthly one like a wheat plant is to its seed. Again, this is the very analogy of resurrection for which the pagan mysteries, especially those at Eleusius, are best known. And, we know that it was also incorporated into Mithraism the shaft of wheat growing from the slain bull's tail is an important part of the mithraic taurontony.
This is important because many characteristically Christian ideas, ideas that would LATER come to be associated with Jesus when the gospels were compiled, can been as originating with Paul's revelation. And that revelation, once again, has direct parallels in paganism.
I'm not suggesting that Paul lifted his religion in total from paganism. He didn't.
Paul's ideas were plainly an attempt to synthesize three streams of thought with which he was undoubtedly familiar: (1) Ancient Judaism and its laws, (2) the "gospel" of atonement through Jesus's resurrection (as promoted originally by the zealots who betrayed him and modified latter by various resistance sects), and (3) the pagan mystery religions (which emphasized INDIVIDUAL SALVATION via a mystical union with the resurrected Godman). In fact, Paul's theology, or modern Christianity, can best be understood as an amalgamation of these three streams of thought.
And, it's not hard to see how these three things would have organized themselves in Paul's mind. After Paul's falling out with the establishment, he was full of angst. He was no longer at home among the collaborating Jews, and he was literally despised by the resistance movement (having persecuted them for years). In a relatively short period of time he had gone from insider to outcast. He was now a man without a (figurative) home--incredibly lonely, disillusioned, and with no purpose or mission. He was not prepared to abandon his Jewish heritage, but neither was he in a position to turn his back completely on Rome. In first century Judea, that was a very lonely and tenuous position to be in.
As previously noted, Paul was already familiar with Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures. Further, as persecutor of the anti-establishment groups, he would have been exposed to the resurrection story (first put forth by the zealots in hopes of inspiring rebellion, though he likely didn't know the source of the story). He would have heard how these outcast Jewish groups had begun rationalizing Jesus' meager life and humiliating death by reference to certain Old Testament passages that emphasized how the faithful would suffer. Passages like Isaiah's "suffering servant" passage. And as a thoroughly Hellenized Jew from Tarsus (the center of the Mithras cult in the empire), Paul would have immediately drawn parallels between Jesus' resurrection story offered by these rebel Jews and those told by devotees of Mithras.
Even after his falling out with the establishment, Paul was not prepared to abandon his Romanness. He was not prepared take up arms against Rome or even to advocate its overthrow. Rather, as his epistles make clear, he believed Roman rule to be ordained by God. Paul rarely expresses animosity toward Rome in his writings, but even after his "conversion" he is never reluctant to heap scorn upon Jewish rebel groups and their leaders ("so-called pillars", he calls them). There was still a soft spot in his heart for Rome even after his falling out, and a hatred of resistance Jews even after his "conversion".
So, how could the young Paul find his way out of this cultural and religious "no man's land." A religious man at heart, he could no longer respect the corrupt establishment Sadducee priests. He had now concluded, like the messianic sects that he previously oppressed, that the Temple was polluted and that Sadducee Temple service was ineffective at reconciling Israel to God. But, neither could he accept the alternative Collective Atonement Theology offered by the messianic sects--a nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-Roman theology the main tenant of which was that Israel would be restored to God only by rising up against Rome, and that the risen Christ would join the battle only once Jews had sufficiently launched it.
So, what to do?
Paul's "revelation" was a way of resolving his dilemma. Yes, Jesus had died and resurrected (just like the stories of the Pagan godman with whom Paul was familiar), Paul realized. And yes, this served as a new means of reconciling with God (atonement) just as the resistance sects taught, but that reconciliation wasn't simply between Israel or Jews and God (as the resistance claimed), but rather, like most Greek mysteries, was between individuals of all genders, stations and nationalities (man or woman, Jew or Greek, slave for free) and God. Yes, Jesus resurrected corporally, but in OUR BODIES, in us, and not in the form of some individual human who would vanquish Rome. Believers, those who rely on Christ, are collectively Christ's body and individually members of it. Like devotees of the Greek mysteries, believers in Christ could experience a mystical union with the godman.
Convinced of the authenticity of this new insight, Paul, a devoted Jew, sought naturally to validate it by reference to Jewish scripture. He scoured the Old Testament for proof texts that would support this theology for confirmation and, not surprisingly, found what he was looking for. Fortunately, the Zealots and other resistance groups who developed the original Collective Atonement Theology around the idea of Jesus' death and resurrection, had already done much of the work for Paul. Paul needed to only introduce a slight twist on their theology, an individual focus rather than a racist, nationalistic focus. This was easily enough done by, for instance, development of Paul's Old Adam/New Adam teaching (Adam being the ancestor of all humankind, not just Jews).
Not surprisingly, prior to the crushing of Jerusalem in 70 AD, this theology would have had little appeal to Jews in the promised land, the majority of whom, once again, were vehemently anti-Roman and steeped by this time in a nationalistic Collective Atonement Theology. And, not surprisingly, Paul therefore spent very little time preaching in his homeland, instead taking his message to "the Gentiles." But, Paul's target audience during his missionary journeys to the Gentiles wasn't really pure Jews or pure Gentiles, but those who, like him, were in between. Specifically, as the Bible tells us, he targeted so-called "god-fearers", the Jewish term for Gentiles who had "converted" to Judaism, who attended worship in Jewish the synagogues scattered throughout the diaspora, but who were not bound to follow all Jewish customs (e.g., such as circumcision). They, like him, were "in between".
Thus, Paul would have had a natural affinity for these godfearers, and his synthesis of Judaism with the Greek mysteries would have made since to them. Paul would have sought to teach them using concepts that they could understand--that is, Greek mystery concepts such as the Logos, Archons, Pleroma, Sophia, etc. When among Greeks, he would speak and teach as a Greek, and when among the Jews, as a Jew, or so Paul himself tells us.
And, since Paul was a natural born and educated Jew from the area of the Jewish homeland, many of these godfearers would have held him and his teachings in high esteem.
In short, when Paul synthesized the pagan idea of individual redemption with the Jewish Collective Atonement Theology in a sudden insight or "revelation"--one anchored in the Jewish scriptures (as Paul was) but also incorporating aspects of Greco-Roman culture (as Paul did)--Paul found a way to resolve the conflicts that haunted him. And, he found a natural audience, the god-fearers, who would likely be receptive to this message. Thus, Paul now had a purpose, one which, like every other in his life, he pursued with unusual zeal.
Paul's Novel Ideas Conflict With Those of James
That Paul's "received" gospel conflicted with that taught by James and other anti-establishment groups cannot be doubted. Even the highly edited Bible, which is designed to minimize these conflicts (since they are an admission against interest), notes this fact.
For instance, looking at the authentic letters of Paul, we can see that Paul's relationship with James and his followers (e.g., Peter), was stressed and tenuous. Paul insists that, after his revelation and conversion to Christ, he did not go to Judaea for 3 years, and when he did he only remained there for two weeks. Per Galatians 2:1, he then stayed away for another 14 years! No one there would have even recognized his face, he says (Gal 1:22).
Faithful Christians suggest that this is because he was simply too dedicated to his Gentile missions to check in with headquarters, but there is reason to believe that his avoidance of the Jerusalem Church was caused by more than simply a full calendar. Paul regularly disagrees and even criticizes the original Twelve, and Peter, and even James. He calls Peter a "hypocrite", one "who maintained only a pretense" and
"did not hew to the clearly marked meaning of the revelation" (Gal 2:13-14), HIS revelation no doubt. He suggests that advocates of circumcision, such as followers of James, should "themselves be cut off!" (an allusion to their genitals). Remembering that it would be in Paul's interest to MINIMIZE these conflicts with James, the recognized successor to Jesus, these disagreement were likely even stronger that Paul suggests. In short, there is nothing in our Bible or otherwise that permits us to believe that Paul and James ever agreed on the nature of "the revelation" or the requirements for salvation.
And Paul's relationship with Peter, a James loyalist, wasn't much better. Paul has to defend himself against a "party of Peter.' (1 Corinth 1:12). He indicates that Peter had been led astray by James (Gal 2:12) and calls them both "so-called pillars" of the church. He calls Peter a hypocrite, and says that he "withstood him to his face" after which, according to Paul, Peter backed down (a self-serving statement that may well not be true).
That this conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem Church was real and substantial cannot be seriously doubted if one accepts at all the reasonableness of interpreting documents through the aid of textual criticism. Looking to the letters of Paul, it is clear that, with the exception of some basic compromises (such as POSSIBLY on the issue of circumcision), his issues with the "Jerusalem Assembly" of resistance groups remained mostly unresolved throughout Paul's ministry. Acts (rather unbelievably) goes to great lengths to present Paul as deferential to James and Peter, having him travel to Jerusalem on six different occasions to consult with them, and even presenting him as being ordered by James to do penance in the Temple to prove that he was "under the law", and complying!!! (Acts 21:24-26). But the writings of the real Paul make is clear that Paul never would have agreed to such a thing, or if he did agree, only for purposes of subterfuge. Paul never admits to being "under the law" in his own letters, though he does admit to PRETENDING TO BE! He says explicitly that he acts as a law-keeper among the Jews and a law-breaker among the Gentiles:
"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law -- though not being myself under the law -- that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law -- not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ -- that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."
The discrepancies between Paul's account of his relations with the "home office" and the one presented in Acts is telling. Paul emphasizes in his letters that he only visited Judaea on three occasions while Acts has him visiting six times. Whereas Acts
has him "summoned" to visit Jerusalem to resolve the issue of circumcision, Paul says that his visit was motivated by a vision. Once there, Acts has him submitting his case to a "formal" session, but Paul suggests that he had only an "informal" meeting with "so-called" leaders. In Acts' account of the meeting, Peter's "heavenly table-cloth" vision dealing with the issue of dietary restrictions is raised (with God taking Paul's side, interestingly enough), but in Paul's account Peter's vision is never mentioned and kosher rules are never even discussed. Why did Peter require a heavenly vision to solve this issue in Paul's favor of Jesus himself had already resolved the issue during his life (both by saying "it's not what goes into a mans mouth that defiles" and by his example).
Here's how Paul describes the "Jerusalem Council" (compare this to the fraudulent version in Acts):
"Fourteen years passed before I went again to Jerusalem, this time with
Barnabas, and taking along Titus as well. I went in response to a
vision [not a summons]. I explained to them the revelation I reveal to the nations [suggesting that those in Jerusalem were't already familiar with Paul's teachings],
but in private [not in formal session], with the so-called leaders, lest the course I was pursuing, or had pursued, should be discounted [i.e., in case they rejected him!]. But far from that: Titus, the Greek I brought with me, was not circumcised under compulsion, despite some interloping pseudo-Brothers, who slyly entered to spy on the freedom we were exercising in Anointed Jesus [i.e., to spy on whether Titus was circumcised], to return us to
slavery--but to their dictates we gave no instant's submission; rather, the real meaning [i.e., Paul's understanding] of the revelation was maintained for you [Galatian Gentiles to whom Paul was writing]. As for the so-called leaders, how important they were I care not (God does not play favorites), but they were the so-called ones [leaders], and they had no suggestion for me [compare to Acts where James issues a written proclamation as to what Gentiles must do], but rather recognized that the revelation for the
uncircumcised was entrusted to me, and that for the circumcised [this does not mean "Jews" since many Jews of the time were not circumcised, especially collaborators] to
Peter, since the same one who inspired [inspired?] Peter as an emissary to the
circumcised had inspired me to go to the nations. Recognizing the divine favor in me, James and Peter and John, the so-called pillars there, sealed things with a handshake...." (Gal 2:1-10)
Comparing this account to the one in Acts, the tone could not be more
different. Reading between the lines of Paul's account, and remember that Paul would be tempted to present his dealing with James as LESS adversarial than they likely were, what really seems to have happened here is that James and Peter, who were still
hyper-focused on keeping the law and cared primarily about the collective salvation
of the Jews and redemption of the holy land from Rome (like most anti-establishment types of their time) said to Paul, "Look man, you can preach anything you want to those heathen Greeks and collaborators (uncircumcised Jews), but leave the preaching to the important people, the devoted Jews of the resistance who evidence their dedication to the Torah by circumcision, to Peter. We could care less whether the Greeks follow all of our laws, but any righteous Jew certainly will!"
The Popularity of Paul and the Need for the Gospels and Acts
Paul's gospel proved very popular among the Gentile god-fearers, and it was ultimately Paul's version of Christianity that spread throughout the empire. This may be explained by several factors, including Paul's emphasis on individual rather than collective salvation, Paul's explicit willingness to reveal the secret mysteries to almost anyone, the ease with which his version of Christianity would accept converts in comparison to other mystery religions or even to the Jerusalem Church, and the fact that the competing tradition of Collectivist Atonement Theology was eventually eliminated with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Most proponents of the original Collective Atonement idea were almost certainly slaughtered (since they were known as nationalistic anti-roman types), and those that weren't were undoubtedly closely watched. Their evangelistic efforts, to the extent that they ever intended to evangelize beyond Israel, would have therefore been significantly compromised for decades.
Thus, whatever James' (and therefore the earthly Jesus's) version of Christianity was, it was silenced with the fall of the Temple in 70AD, and almost completely died out with the crushing of the bar Kokhba uprising 60 years later, not resurfacing again until several hundred years down the road when it appeared out of ARABIA as ISLAM, or particularly, Shia Islam. Islam, like James, offers a "works based" religion.
As a side note, it's worth noting here that that this original, nationalistic, anti-Roman form of "Christianity", the one promoted by the Zealots, was, like Paul's latter variation, known for its martyrs. For instance, Josephus chronicles how these Jewish "zealots" would endure the most horrible tortures, even unto death, rather than betray their beliefs. And nobody will ever forget how the Sicarri murdered their wives and children before committing suicide at Masada. Thus, if martyrdom is to be taken as proof of the validity of one's faith, devout Jews have equal claim to Christians.
As previously noted, Paul's version of the "revelation", or what we now call Christianity, was spread independently of the Jerusalem Church's. Very early, long before the fall of Jerusalem, it took root in several places throughout the empire, not the least of which was IN ROME, where it would have had particular appeal to the downtrodden living on the fringe of Roman culture. Whereas, being nationalistic, the Jerusalem Church's theology was localized primarily in Judaea and concerned the
collective redemption of ISRAEL, Paul's was geographically dispersed across the empire and, like the Mystery Religions, emphasized INDIVIDUAL redemption. Thus, having overtones of the pagan mystery religions with much lower entry standards (e.g., accepting all comers--Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, slave or fee person, sick or healthy--with nothing required but a simple
profession of faith and baptism ritual), it proved reasonably popular,
managing to survive a few rounds of persecution (and at times even prospered) until it hit jack-pot with Constantine several hundred years later.
A quote by Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity, gives some idea of why Christianity was so popular as compared to the other mystery religions:
"The following are the rules laid down by them [the Christians]. Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent (for such qualifications are deemed evil by us); but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence. By which words, acknowledging that such individuals are worthy of their God, they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with
women and children."...
Rules of textual criticism would suggest that we take Celsus' attacks with a VERY large grain of salt (since they advanced his agenda of attacking Christians and are therefore self-serving), but importantly, early church fathers who attempted to respond to these aspersions (such as Justin Martyr, who preserved much of Celsus' writings for us via his responses to them) NEVER DENIED THEM, but rather simply said that there were indeed SOME educated people among the Christians but that the preponderance of outcasts can be explained by the fact that what is foolishness to the pagans is virtue in God's eyes, and vice versa. Thus, the idea that early Christianity appealed mainly to those on the fringes of Roman culture (the poor, slaves, women and children, etc.) is almost certainly true, as Celsus suggested, and as early Church Fathers admitted (an admission that goes against their interests).
How Can the Church "Prove" That Paul Didn't Make it All Up?
Given that Paul was clearly on the outs with both key groups of Jews (collaborators and resistance groups), his message was easily attached by critics. For instance, after Paul's death (and even during his life, as his writings make clear), it's clear that the collaborating Jewish establishment (Pharisees and Sadducees), many pagans (such as eventually Celsus), and some groups teaching the Collective Atonement theory, were accusing Paul of having made up his "revelation", his idea of individual atonement anchored in the Jewish scriptures, or of having stolen and adapted it from the pagan mysteries. Paulian Christianity, which was the primary surviving form by a hundred years after Paul's death, was thus being attacked on all sides--e.g., by the pagans, by the collaborating Jews, and by a few surviving groups preaching some variation of Collective Atonement theology (most of whom would have been "secretive" for obvious reasons and all of whom the Church Fathers not surprisingly dismissed as "heretical").
Given the undeniable similarities between Christianity and the pagan mystery cults, and given these attacks on Paul's vision of Christ, early Church Fathers (all of whom by this time were GENTILE) found it necessary to defend against these attacks by "proving" that Paul hadn't simply invented or "stolen" his revelation. To do this, they needed to show that Paul's understanding of the "good news" was anchored in actual, historical events and not JUST (as Paul had originally emphasized), in his revelation. In other words, they needed to prove that Christianity, as THEY understood it, EXISTED BEFORE PAUL. What they needed was...a biography for Jesus.
Hence, these early Church Fathers (we're now well into the second century AD) were obsessed with documenting the history and origin of their beliefs, tracking down and making note of most any group or writing with ties to the church's "founding" in the Holy Land by Jesus. However, running down and proving the origins of their religion meant that they must ultimately get their information FROM JEWS (most all Church Fathers by this time were Gentile) who were descendants of the original anti-Roman resistance groups. In searching for groups with ties to these Jews, they found many who "believed in" Jesus, but not in the manner that the Church Fathers expected. Rather, everywhere they looked among Jews with ties to the Holy Land, they stumbled upon the original Jewish, nationalist form of "the gospel", or rather a few different variations of it, now much-neutered and reworked thanks to the final destruction of Jerusalem after the bar Kokhba revolt in 132 AD and the resulting banishment of all Jews from their homeland on penalty of death.
To the utter amazement of these early Church Fathers, these Jewish gospels contained almost no history of Jesus' life. Rather, they chronicled "sayings of the Lord" and perhaps offered exegesis on them, predicting the eventual fall of Rome and restoration of God’s Kingdom in Israel with a reincarnated Jesus at its head. Not surprisingly (given the precarious state of Jews in Roman culture by this time), the messianic exegesis on these gospels was written cryptically to protect the Jews against additional allegations of fomenting rebellion. The Book of Revelation is a perfect example of such a cryptically written book predicting the Fall of Rome.
While their original form is lost to us today, portions of these original gospels likely persist in our current ones. These original gospels would have contained very little by way of biography. They would have emphasized keeping the law, though not in a way (advocated by the collaborators) that would cause hardship to "the poor". These gospels would have lambasted the rich, lambasted corruption, criticized the establishment (Pharisees and Sadducees), taught a "first to last" ideology, and promised that Jesus (not surprisingly) will return VERY SOON such that "this generation shall not pass until these things have been fulfilled." These original gospels would have been set in the countryside or even the "wilderness", since that's where the resistance movements that created them existed.
As readers of the Bible know, our modern gospels contain all the above themes, supplemented with much additional material (spin) added. The supplemental material (Jesus biography, his comings and goings, etc.) would not have existed in the originals. As even Papias tells us, HIS version of Mark, for example, contained only sayings of the Lord, and then not in order.
These original gospels would have been exceedingly troubling and confusing to the spiritual descendants of Paul who stumbled across them in the second century. First, they provide almost no "history" or biography for Jesus favoring instead his teachings, none of which had much to do with Paulian Christianity. Thus, they were mostly useless in proving that Paul hadn't invented or lifted his gospel.
And, these gospels (and perhaps epistles too) emphasized Collective Atonement, "keeping the Torah", and various other "heretical" ideas. In short, these texts were written from a Jewish exclusionary, nationalistic perspective that the Gentile converts of Paul would have found most off-putting.
So, what to make of them? What to do now? Well the second-century Gentiles did what any self-respecting person in their shoes would do: They assumed that the traditions handed down by these groups with ties to Judaea were "true" but had become "corrupted" over time by Jewish nationalists. Every "Christian" knew that Jews were religiously misguided and arrogant, after all, constantly misunderstanding and corrupting God's message over the centuries. How unreliable they are! The "real" Jesus theology, as these Gentiles understood it (i.e., the Paulian version of individualized rather than collective salvation, and of accommodation with Greco-Roman culture rather than abhorrence of it) was in there somewhere, but now it had to be ferreted out, pieced together, and reworked, thanks to those dang JEWS. Therefore, the Jewish, nationalistic "corruptions" had to be removed and Paulian ideas, and Jesus' biography, which had undoubtedly been their originally (they assured themselves), had to be "added back". This rewriting of the original gospels was not likely some grand collective conspiracy on the part of numerous Church Fathers, but simply a predictable human tendency that would be repeated over and over for decades in different places at different times by different individuals.
Thus, churches associated with Paulian, gentile "Christianity", starting in the middle of the second century CE and continuing through the time of Constantine, began compiling and writing "official" accounts of Jesus's life based at least on part of the original Jewish gospels which were widely circulated and probably well known and therefore couldn't be avoided. Not surprisingly, these official accounts (which became our modern day gospels) reflect the biases of their compilers.
The accounts that we today view as holy canon present the earthly Jesus as teaching Paulian theology (often putting Paul's words in Jesus's mouth), and they are accommodating toward Rome (with almost all Jewish nationalism and Collective Atonement ideas being expunged as Jewish corruptions). Whether as a result of ignorance or for the purpose of intentional deception (probably the former), the gentile compilers misrepresented anti-Roman Jewish sects from the time as place names or proper names. Thus, Jesus the Nazarite became Jesus of Nazareth. Judas the Sicarii became Judas Iscariott. The Ebionites became simply "the poor." These ignorant Gentiles living in other nations would have been unfamiliar with the distinctions between the various sects of Jesus' time, and they would come to lump the collaborating Pharisees and Sadducees under a single title ("the Jews"), overlooking completely the separate resistance groups (the evidence of which had been largely wiped off the map at this time by Rome). Consequently, they mistakingly assumed that it was the Pharisees and Sadducees ("the Jews") who resisted Rome, while Jesus had in fact taught ambivalence towards it (i.e., "give to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's"), thereby getting things exactly backwards.
This is why our "gospels" were written anonymously. They were never intended to be held out as eyewitness accounts of the resurrection, but rather compilations of the events in question based upon interviews with descendants of witnesses and scrutiny of original Collective Atonement gospels. The author of "Luke", which is addressed to a Roman official named Theophilus who lived long after Jesus' death, tells us explicitly that his account of Jesus' life is just such a compilation:
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Could Luke have been any more clear in supporting my thesis? He acknowledges explicitly that other gospels existed before his ("many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things"). And he states implicitly that that these prior gospels were somehow deficient (not "orderly" perhaps?--i.e., not "in order" just as Papias had said of his versions?). Otherwise, if existing accounts were sufficient, why would Luke bother compiling another one for Theophilus? Luke tells us explicitly that these original gospels (and his own) are second or third hand (i.e., hearsay) accounts, his being compiled after "careful investigation" and presented "orderly", all so that Theophilus may know that what he had been previously taught (i.e., Paulian Christianity) is true with "certainty."
Thank you, Luke, for your honesty.
Inventing the Book of Acts
Not only were the original gospels deficient for the purposes of Paulian Christians like Luke, but non-gospel accounts of the lives of people like James the Just, the brother of Jesus, were a real challenge for Paulians as well. In these accounts, James was widely remembered (even by Josephus) as being a devout "keeper of the Law", with no evidence that he ever taught Paul's individualized Atonement Theology. Not able to understand how that could be the case (given that even Paul says that James was an Apostle at 2 Corinthians 15), but unable to deny James' role in the early church, the official accounts compiled by various Church Fathers (each acting somewhat independently as there was no centralized church structure at the time) simply ignore James where they can. So, whereas many letters of Paul were prized and retained by these compilers, only a single letter of James (and probably a redacted version of it) was retained, and it is so devoid of Paulian Individual Atonement Theology that Martin Luther, centuries later, would reject it completely. And where James appears in other books, it is only fleeting. For instance, the character of James appears suddenly in the Book of Acts (without explanation), and disappears just as suddenly (likewise without explanation) after, conveniently enough, sanctioning Paul's mission to the Gentiles, a sanction that Paul himself tell us he never obtained ("they had no suggestion for me", he says in Galatians 2).
And then there remained the issue of Paul's open hostility toward James and the resistance sects. How could the early Church Fathers explain or "spin" this hostility in such a way as to preserve Paul's view of things (i.e., individual salvation by faith rather than by collective salvation by "keeping the Torah" and resisting Rome) while still showing Paul and James as believing the same gospel. Remember, the great challenge was to prove that Paul hadn't "made things up" and, to do that, it was necessary to show that Paul had received the tradition from, and had the blessing of, those closest to the earthly Jesus (i.e, James, Jesus's brother and known successor, etc.) and that they all shared the same idea of salvation, and that they endorsed Paul's mission. But again, Paul's surviving letters don't speak very highly of James and suggest the opposite. So...what to do?
The Book of Acts was "compiled" in part to solve this problem, especially the first part of it before we get to "We Document" that begins at chapter 16. Just like the original drafts of the gospels sought to anchor Paul's understanding of history in the Jesus tradition handed down (in "corrupted" form we are assured) by the Jews, the original draft of the book of Acts sought to reconcile the conflict between Paul and James that is so apparent in Paul's letters. For this reason, Acts may be one of the most important books in our New Testament. Do away with Acts, and NOBODY would doubt that James and Paul were enemies and not allies! Acts, especially the first part before the "We Document" starts, is pure (and effective) propaganda. We can take it with a very large grain of salt since it's take on things is so self-serving to its compilers.
These "accounts" (the gospels and Acts), compiled long, long after Jesus death by Paulian Christians far from Jerusalem, were likely not intended originally to be passed off as forgeries, but probably represented the official investigatory report of whoever the local bishop was that had initiated the inquiry. These reports were likely constructed by taking the original zealot gospels stories that taught Collective Atonement, editing out the Jewish nationalism they contained (which the Church Fathers perceived as a corruption), and adding back in numerous "Paulian" and Greco-Roman "facts" about Jesus' life, facts that the compilers obtained from verbal histories handed down from person to person for a century or more, or perhaps just made up. These supplemental facts ("spin") were a part of the original gospel, these early Christians assured themselves, before the Jews had "corrupted" them with nationalistic and collective ideas.
Eventually, other Christians in other places would stumble across these "official" but anonymous accounts and would come to perceive them to be "memoirs of the Apostles". Relying on multiple layers of hearsay and speculation, people like Papias would come to attribute Mark to a supposed companion of Peter so-named. And Matthew to the apostle Matthew. And Luke to a supposed companion of Paul. And John to the Apostle John. None of these attributions are well supported and virtually all critical scholars, even faithful ones, believe them to be false.
After another couple of centuries, all "orthodox" gospels, those that accurately conveyed the Paulian understanding (remember that many other gospels--such as the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter--never made it into our Bibles), came to be collected together as a group, at which time many inconsistencies between them had to be reconciled through further editing, likely during the time of Constantine. Thus, it’s not until Constantine that our present day gospels (and Acts) approached their "final" form. Not surprisingly, no complete versions of any of these texts predates Constantine.
Evidence that our canonical gospels were edited and redacted from a uniquely Paulian and Greco-Roman point of view is everywhere in them. For example, they minimize Jesus' relationship with his family (whose understanding of Jesus' role different from Paul's and who were known members of the Roman resistance), even having him speak critically or at least dismissively of them. The gospel have Jesus approving of paying Roman taxes, which the real Jesus movement almost certainly despised. They never present Jesus as "zealous" for the Torah, or as nationalistic, or as anti-Roman
or as rebellious in any way. In fact, if we had to pick a single biblical personality that the Jesus of our gospels most resembles, it would undoubtedly be...PAUL!!!!
Thus, rather than Jesus's Jewish enemies being the collaborating Sadducees and Pharisees, the gospels present Jesus as criticizing these groups for emphasizing the law as "the way" (the Jamesian view of salvation). Just as Paul teaches that the law served man by teaching him what sin was, Jesus teaches that "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath." The gospels even have a scene where the EARTHLY Jesus (as opposed to the heavenly "revealed" one) institutes the "last supper",
using Paul's words from his letters almost verbatim. This scene was very useful to early Paulian Christians in refuting the pagan and collaborating Jews claims that Paul has simply made things up. However, as the pagans knew, Paul was not the first to recite them, as even Justin Martyr and Turtullian admit that they were "demonically mimicked" in the mysteries long prior.
And, everwhere in our gospels, Roman, pagan ideas can be found blended with Jewish ideas. Virgin births, resurrection, attendance by wise men,
consumption of the savior, the Last Supper, etc. all have pagan precedents. As previously mentioned, the exculpation of Pilate and blaming of "the Jews" (en masse) for Jesus' death is additional evidence of Roman-centric editing.
But, tellingly, not all aspects of the original story could be glossed over in
this editing process, for some parts were too well known. In many cases it was only possible for the Roman/Paulian editors to "spin" things to change the understanding rather than to rewrite things totally. So, yes, Jesus preached "salvation", our new gospels concede, but it is now Paul's individual salvation rather than Israel's collective salvation. And yes, Jesus critisized the rich, but he never actually took any action against them, and in fact he specifically associated with certain rich
people who supported his ministry (we are assured). Yes, Jesus was "righteous", and
yet he violated the Law of Moses as it was understood at the time (such as by harvesting on the Sabbath), a very Paulian, but not Jamesian, thing to do. Yes, Jesus was critical of the collaborators, but only for Paulian reasons--i.e., because they were legal formalists, and not because they supported Rome. Yes, some Jews "rejected" Jesus, but only for religious reasons and not for political ones.
On and on our gospels proceed with these "yes...buts". Fortunately, with the aid of textual criticism, it's pretty easy to tell that the "yes" part is almost always right, while the "but" part is almost certainly Roman/Paulian spin. Just like when that teenager who took the car without permission says, "Yes, Dad, I took the car, but...." Everything after the "but" can't be accepted at face value but must rather be scrutinized with a critical eye. "Faithful" interpretations of our gospels fail to do them, taking them at face value without considering their evolution and the "spin" that they most certainly contain.
We don't need divine intervention, or even divine inspiration, to explain Christianity or the Bible. Whether the particulars of the above theory are correct in every detail or not (likely not), it does at least articulate one way, one of many possible ways, that Christianity and our Bibles came to exist in their present form. And none of these ways are particularly miraculous. In fact, they are quite human and mundane.