How Christianity Was Created

by James Wallace Harris, 2/26/20

I am a lifelong atheist, but I’m not the kind of atheist who goes around trying to convince folks that God does not exist. Religion serves an important function for many people, giving them belief, community, morality, and solace. For some strange reason, I’m an atheist that enjoys reading about the history of Christianity, The Bible, and Jesus. Countless books have been written on these subjects, but most have been theological. I have no interest in those books. What I like to read are books by historians trying to figure out what actually happened two thousand years ago. It’s a magnificent cold case, a tremendous scholarly puzzle.

One of my favorite authors writing about this history is Bart D. Ehrman. I’m currently listening to Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, one of his older books from 1999, but it recently came out on audio. Next month I’m looking forward to reading Ehrman’s new book Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife when it comes out (3/31/20). But as of now, I’ve read:

For a historical figure that we know practically nothing about, Ehrman has found a great deal to write about. The fun of all this historical sleuthing is putting the clues together in various ways hoping for new insights. Most believers assume we know a whole lot about Jesus but from a scholar’s point of view, most of the common beliefs about Jesus are made up.

What Ehrman and other historical scholars are trying to do is figure out who Jesus was before he died. What we have are writings that began appearing decades after his death. The goal of all the research is to examine various written memories of Jesus to determine if anything remembered might be true of the actual person. People have been making up stuff about Jesus for two thousand years. The assumption is the oldest documents might have the best clues. That’s what Ehrman’s books are about, going over the old documents, again and again, comparing them against each other. Reading Ehrman also teaches us about the methodologies of historians and the limitations of memory and writing.

Ehrman mostly focuses on first-century documents, the writings of Paul, the Gospels, a few other documents, and their possible ur-texts we don’t have. For a period of about 20-30 years after Jesus died his followers collected his sayings. We assume they were only passed down orally at first. Eventually, they were written down, but we don’t have copies of those sayings. Later on, the gospel writers used those collections of sayings to create the four Gospels. However, the information in each varies. And the newest Gospel, John, reports a great deal of information not reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I tend to agree with many historians that ideas about Jesus first appearing in the Gospel of John were made up.

In the second and third centuries, many more gospels were written and scholars tend to discredit them for various reasons, but they do offer interesting clues. The assemblers of the New Testament also favored the oldest gospels as authentic and considered the newer gospels as heretical. But if we examine all the gospels, there are reasons to doubt all of them because we see that various followers had different agendas in composing their gospels, and none of their reasons seem related to the historical Jesus. Every gospel was written claiming who Jesus was and what he taught. They are all interpretations with a purpose that fit the times in which they were written.

Thus historians are left trying to figure out what Jesus actually said from things he didn’t write down himself, but was written down by many different people decades later. This is why we have so many different conceptions about Jesus. It’s like saying there are 1,000 different biographies of Jesus and one of them could be right. But there’s also a good chance they might all be wrong.

Ehrman and other historians assume it’s possible to deduce the truth. I’m not sure it is.

The Jesus Seminar took a different approach. It asked theologians and scholars to vote on every saying by Jesus hoping some kind of consensus might reveal the truth. But after 2,000 years, can we really expect to find the truth? If you want to know more of their results read The Five Gospels.

What is revealed from all this study is how Christianity began. Jesus’ followers made him divine and determined the scope of his divinity. Ideas about the afterlife, God, and Heaven were all invented long after Jesus died. There is no evidence that Jesus believed any of it. Christ and Christianity are what his followers invented.

What I wish Ehrman (or some other historian) would write is a chronology of how various Christian dogmas emerged, when, and if possible who created the idea first.

I tend to accept Ehrman’s theories about who the historical Jesus was and what he preached, but I think there’s still room to doubt we can even know that much. And I don’t know if it matters. I think we might be giving Jesus too much credit. Both believers and atheists like me want Jesus to be someone wonderful. And believers want Jesus to be someone who validates the truths they want to prove true. I guess I just want to know what the guy really said and how it got distorted.

There’s a good chance that almost everything we call Christianity was invented between 50-350 CE. We don’t really know when Jesus actually died, probably 30-36 CE. Paul started preaching in the 50s. He got to meet some of the disciples that knew Jesus, but we’re not sure how much he learned from them. Paul’s writings actually say very little about Jesus the man. They are about forming Christian communities.

We know the followers from about 33 CE to 60 CE collected the sayings of Jesus. Paul probably saw some of these collection of says, but maybe not, because he rarely quoted them. We have to assume some of these sayings might have accurately recorded Jesus’ speeches, but we can’t be sure. Probably for many years, they were only passed around via word-of-mouth, and we know how poorly that works. And we know how people love to embellish a good story.

What we do have are the four Gospels that were probably written around 66 CD to 110 CE. Mark is assumed to be the oldest (66-70 CD). Matthew and Luke next (85-90 CE) and finally John (90-110 CE). We don’t really know who their writers were. Scholars assume they were not any of the disciples. Each of the four claims to tell the story of Jesus, but they each tell a somewhat different story, sometimes with conflicting details and beliefs. Think of how many books or movies you’ve encountered about famous modern people. Even the most serious biographies, with mountains of hard evidence, are always challenged on some facts. We can’t create perfect biographies even when we have voice recordings and videotape.

Paul essentially created Christianity in the 50s CE. What he preached was often disputed by Peter and the other disciples, but because Paul was so good at spreading his version of the word explains how he got the Christianity snowball rolling. Whoever wrote the Gospel of John created many now cherished beliefs for the emerging religion. Starting in the second and third centuries new theology was added by other writers who we know their names and have some of their writings.

I feel I have read enough on Jesus. I’ve given up on ever knowing who he was and what he taught. There’s just too much speculation. My rough idea after reading all these books is Jesus was probably a very interesting guy who taught something, probably something very unorthodox, probably utopian, and he got himself killed for it. His followers, who passionately believed in him were thrown into despair because they didn’t want to give up on his wonderful vision of how things could be. They came up with the resurrection as a way to keep the dream alive. All the stories about the post-crucifixion were invented to put a positive spin on the inconvenient truth that Jesus was wrong about the Kingdom of Heaven appearing on Earth in his lifetime. They used his memory to preach what they wanted. To sell their ideas they promised potential believers they would gain everlasting life. To gain converts, they made Jesus into a divine being. Then people who had never known Jesus, the gospel writers, started making up even better stories. The stories became so good, so convincing, that it converted most of the Roman world in a few hundred years.

I expect Ehrman’s new book, Heaven and Hell will cover that development. I also assume all the core beliefs of the various forms of Christianity in the last two thousand years are really driven about hopes of an afterlife. Donald Trump has clearly proved that Christianity is not about specific moral beliefs or spiritual discipline. What Christians believe today is too diverse to define them by a specific list of creeds. Basically, what ties modern Christians together is a vague belief in vague God and a hope of an existence after death.

The real Jesus apparently didn’t think of himself as the Son of God, but the Son of Man. He advocated that followers share their belongings, to even live together communally until God created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, which would happen in his lifetime. He apparently preached about compassion and how people should treat each other. It appears Jesus had very liberal views. Modern Christians are mostly conservative, so it’s hard to reconcile their beliefs with anything Jesus actually taught. Modern Christians are really disciples of Paul and the writer of The Gospel of John, and second-century theologians.

What I learned from reading all these books on Jesus is whatever he taught can only be discerned from those collections of sayings that existed before the gospels were written, unfortunately we don’t have copies. Some of those sayings are mixed in with the gospels, but we don’t know which. Even then, there are plenty of reasons to doubt anything attributed to Jesus after his death. Can you prove anything anyone said to you twenty years ago was verbatim and what they did was exactly how you say it happened?

JWH

 

12 thoughts on “How Christianity Was Created”

  1. The fact that Christianity remains a social construct of beliefs to this day is a testament to our imagination. One downside of self-awareness is the notion of an alpha and omega. The most perplexing (unverifiable) aspect of this notion of beginning and ending is that it exists at all. The whole idea of infinity is beyond any sense we have evolved with. The brain deals with this uncertainty or any other unknown with placeholders or beliefs to head off any wasteful expenditure of scarce resources. After all the brain is more concerned with interpreting the information received from the environment and each other in the selfish pursuit of survival and reproduction. Infinity is of no consequence to our immediate needs.

    Than there is that darn imagination again. Based on our recall of past experience we interpret the future in our own best interests (hope) There were always those among us who took a particular interest in the larger question of infinity. When we die. Is that the end? Did the universe arise out of a singularity? or was that just one in many beginnings? Is there a ‘God’ who created all of what we can sense and all that is unknowable. Is God the source of our purpose?

    Jesus certainly had an effect on others like no other at the time. His example alone was venerated above all. This would not have been so if others did not see an advantage to themselves in keeping his memory alive in the imagination of others. The man was transformed into a legend as a means to an end. That is, their own best interests. Such is the legacy of the early fathers and christian church leaders everywhere to this day.

    Of course it is impossible at this point to determine who Jesus was or what he actually said or what he even believed. The point is that it doesn’t matter. The imagination supersedes any need to ‘know’. Like the beginning or the end, infinity is assuaged by imagination

    Different brains have different ways to deal with uncertainty. All are perfectly valid. As a hard determinist my world view (imagination) see’s everything unfolding in the only way it can which tends to simplify the matter of what others believe in or not. God exists as long as he/she is part of the endless stream of causality.

      1. Well imagination is all we have and the beliefs that arise from our interpretation of those ideas for which we have no ‘answers’ is how the brain deals with resolving the unknown.

        To me delusion is just another way of describing a given state of mind including the beliefs inherent with it. Unless there are direct physical consequences (threat to survival etc…) individual brains are able to hold all manner of beliefs even though from another observer’s point of view they may seem bizarre and generally unuseful. The one who is deemed delusional by another won’t know the difference anyway. For example, members of a cult following are seen as delusional, however the members of a cult see the world perfectly well in their imagination (beliefs) A devote Christian holds beliefs inline with the tenants of a particular faith following. These beliefs are generally accepted as a strand in the cultural fabric of a given social order

        For those of us (including myself) who do not hold these particular beliefs, there is no issue for me as I still interact and socialize with friends, family, acquaintances who hold these believes, no worries. At the same time I must accept that my world view will always be somewhat different, and that’s o.k.

  2. Hi Jim, I’m Karen, the BASS-blogger you mentioned a few posts ago. As it happens, I’m also very interested in reading about religion. I wouldn’t classify myself as an atheist; I’m not sure I fit into a category. Sort of vaguely-but-uncreeded-Christian, I guess. I was a devout Southern Baptist when I was a young teen, and five years of that gave me some basic biblical literacy. Since then, I’ve wandered around a number of religions, but none of them stuck. I tend to wander into churches every few years, because, as I say, “that’s where the music is.” I love church music, both classical (Bach, Gregorian chants) and typical hymns, though contemporary Christian music irritates me. But I eventually wander out of all those churches. God is a fine idea – I mean, someone had to set off the Big Bang, and someone had to decide the parameters of the laws of physics, right? (I’m only half kidding). But when people get their hands on God, they make a mess.

    I’ve put the upcoming Ehrman book on hold at my local library; it sounds interesting. I vaguely remember someone along the way saying that Virgil invented the concept of eternal punishment in Hell in the Aeneid, but I don’t remember where I heard it, or if I am remembering that correctly. In any case, it certainly made Virgil the appropriate guide for Dante! The idea of justice after death has its appeal, particularly to those who feel they were shortchanged of justice in life. And the idea of going to a beautiful place of peace and joy is obviously appealing. Another vague recollection (your idea of blogging what you want to remember is a good one) is that people invented an afterlife because it’s so impossible to conceive of not-existing, so it’s more a cognitive fix than a spiritual one.

    I think I mentioned that I take a lot of moocs and ocw’s, and some of them might be of interest to you as they look at Christian history. One in particular is a series of video lectures by Yale professor Dale B. Martin, free and available at https://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-152 .
    (he’s also published a book that contains much the same info if you prefer – New Testament History and Literature, https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0300180853/ )
    He reviews what he calls “the Christianities” of the pre-Roman era, and how each gospel reflects those groups. Might be interesting to compare his view with Ehrman’s. There’s also an Old Testament course by a different instructor that shows how the concept of God changed over time for the Hebrews/Israelites, but I’m not sure if that’s of interest or not; both series are very good. Each is about 25 lectures of 50 minutes each; if you view them on Youtube you can speed them up to push it a little.

    There are other moocs; one covers Christian history, another looks at Christianity from the vantage point of Judaism (I didn’t finish either of these; the first seemed too reverential, the second was quite tedious). Another covers religion from a more anthropological and sociological point of view (which was fascinating to me but doesn’t sound like it’s your area of interest). If those sound of interest let me know, I’ll give you some info, or you can just browse around. And if you want to expand beyond Christianity there are some terrific courses on Chinese philosophy/religion, and on Islam.

    I also enjoy fiction that builds on religion; this past summer, one of my themes for my interim reading period (five months between Pushcart and BASS) was religion. One in particular might be of interest to you, given your appreciation of SF: Lent, by Jo Walton, published by Tor. It’s part historical novel (and quite accurate, as far as I can tell) and part… I don’t know, religious fantasy, speculative theology? I was surprised at how gripping it was, given that description, but it was a page-turner. It also hung with me for weeks. Granted, it’s not early Christianity – it’s set in the early Renaissance, the time of Savonarola, and deals heavily with Renaissance humanism. But it also deals with a lot of theology and presents some interesting questions. I keep recommending it hoping to discuss it in detail with someone – maybe you?

    Another novel that might be of interest is Wilton Barnhardt’s Gospel. It’s more of an adventure story, an aging, bitter academic and an awkward, sincere young grad student (who, I’m very happy to report, do NOT get romantically involved) searching three continents for a newly-discovered gospel that was stolen, peppered with anecdotes (most of them cynical) about religious communities from all three Abrahamic faiths. The last few chapters always leave me in tears, feeling both heartbroken and consoled.

    You said, “Can you prove anything anyone said to you twenty years ago was verbatim and what they did was exactly how you say it happened?” Exactly! The Bible is a compilation of works, sometimes scraps, sometimes conveyed orally for centuries before being written down, then copied over and over. Some of it, particularly in the OT, directly contradicts itself; some of it contradicts recorded history. At best, it’s a Rorschach test. And once the Romans got hold of it and turned it into a means of maintaining power, well, it’s thousandth-hand now.

    But it sure provides endless opportunities for those of us who like to explore!

    1. Karen, is there a way to subscribe to your blog by email? You might turn on that feature in WordPress, and the RSS feed icon. Obviously, we have a lot of overlap. I’ve read some of Jo Walton’s books already and admire her. And that book by Dale Martin looks very interesting. I might also try some of those online courses too. Good comment.

      1. There’s an email option in the right-hand column; I just tried it out to make sure it works, seems fine. I put up a “test” post a few minutes ago to check, so you might get an email about that (I deleted the post).
        I sent an email to you a couple of days ago using the outlook address on your blog; did you receive it? I’ve also started following you on Twitter, and use Feedly to get your posts.
        Interesting that Jo Walton is well-known to SF/F people, as is Tor. I’d never heard of either. Have to check her out to see if anything else looks interesting.

      2. I just checked and found your first email in my junk mail folder. I’ll reply to it later tonight. I also got a message from your site saying I was subscribed to your site. I thought to click on that button just meant I was subscribed to your site on my WordPress feed.

        Jo Walton wrote a wonderful novel called Among Others about a lonely girl who finally found friends when she joins a book club. It won the Hugo award that year. She also wrote an informal history of the Hugos and a volume about great books. Jo Walton also publishes a column on Tor.com. Those columns made up those two books.

        https://www.tor.com/author/jo-walton/

  3. Belief in a religion or an almighty deity, like you’ve stated, can be beneficial to those that need it. To those that need to believe in something more than just their reality here on Earth. That need an escape from their worries about death and the unknown of what happens after.

    I have seen these benefits in the calm dying eyes of a religious friend who truly believed he was heading to heaven. But I’ve also seen in anguish my best friend choosing to fade away from me after being reborn. Because I couldn’t share his faith or beliefs and so was no-longer considered worthy. So a double edged sword at best?

    I know little about Jesus or religion simply because I cannot believe in a carrying God who befalls such horrors on our innocent children. Simple as that. But how the fallacy all started would make for a very interesting tale indeed. Thanks James!

    1. Corkywk, religion can defintely be a double-edge sword, even a very vicious one, especially when people try to force religion onto other people. I think of religion as a symbolic language for understanding people’s view on reality. Of course, since I’m an atheist, I believe those views are fantasies, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t good information there to help understanding someone. I try to understand religion intellectually, while most people understand it emotionally. You and I are observers, rather than participants.

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful essay on your readings and journey to understand who Jesus was.
    I’m polar opposite to you in many ways (Catholic convert), but appreciate your academic yet non-condescending attitude.

    I’m not writing to try to persuade you of anything, but I wonder what is your opinion on the reason (or perhaps the historical truth of) why 11 of 12 apostles died to preach the Gospel, if they did not truly believe it.

    1. I’m afraid true believers die all the time for their cause. It doesn’t matter if the cause is factual or not. Living under Roman rule inspired a lot of revolutionaries of various kinds. Supposedly, all the apostles ran away when Jesus was captured. I don’t think they really became committed until the belief of resurrection was evolved in their minds. That took a while. It became the dream they couldn’t give up, no matter what. And it wasn’t what Jesus preached when he was alive.

      Christian, if you are comfortable with your faith, don’t study history like I do. Don’t worry about figuring out the past.

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