How Jesus Became God November 22, 2010Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
Around 7 to 6 BCE, a baby boy was born to an “alma,” or young woman, probably in a village in Galilee called Nazareth.
The Hebrew for “virgin” is “bethullah.” The book of Isaiah, written between 800 and 500 BCE , says in 7:14: “Therefore, the Holy One will give you a sign: This young woman will become pregnant and will give birth. You will name the child ‘God is with / among / against us, Immanu-El.’ ” A growing number of scholars believe that the “this alma” of 7:14 is also the prophet referred to a few verses later, in 8:3: “Then I [Isaiah] had sex with the prophet, and she gave birth to a child. Then God said to me, ‘Name the child Maher-shalal-hash-baz’ [‘Speeds the spoil, hastens the prey’].” In Isaiah’s time, mothers had the privilege of naming their children; so Isaiah might have named the baby “[Bill] Maher-etc.,” while the baby’s mother named him or her “Immanu-El.” The bits about the prey and spoils of war in the baby’s symbolic name referred to the conquest of Israel by Assyria around 800 BCE.
(Until recently, few male scholars could believe that the patriarchy of 800 BCE was not identical to the patriarchy of 1500 CE, and thus they have consistently mistranslated Isaiah 8:3 and similar verses. As any Tea Puppet could tell you, theology always trumps facts!)
The Septuagint, which translated the Hebrew Scriptures into ancient Greek around 200 BCE or so, translated alma as parthenos, virgin, and changed Hebrew “this” to Greek “the, a”: “A virgin will become pregnant and give birth.” The author of the Gospel of Matthew, a rabbi writing in Syria around 85-100 CE and mining the Hebrew Scriptures for prophesied miracles he could say that Yeshua fulfilled, is therefore believed to have been unable to read the original Hebrew for himself. (By the way, Matthew’s first two chapters — Jesus’s genealogy and birth — were added decades after the earliest version of the gospel appeared.)
The boy who was born around 7 BCE, and who had his bar mitzvah around 6-8 CE, at the same time Quirinus was running his first census (Luke 2:2), answered to the (Aramaic) name Yeshua bar Maryam, or in English, “Jesus, son of Mary.” In first-century Palestine the convention was “Malename son of Malename” (e.g, “Simon bar Jonah,” Matt. 16:17) unless the father’s name were unknown — in other words, in the eyes of the first century, Maryam was either raped or a prostitute. (An early skeptic named Celsus even identified Mary’s rapist: a Roman soldier named Panthera or Pandarus.)
Very little more is known for certain about the historical figure Yeshua bar Maryam, upon whom the mythic figure “Jesus Christ, Son of God” is loosely based. Let me be clear: the Christian Testament is NOT a history book, and it was never intended to be a history book. Even if every single event recorded in the Christian Testament were absolutely factual historically (a physical impossibility), the Christian Testament would STILL be a collection of myths. Myths are NOT fiction! — myths are sacred stories intended to convey theological ideas in a form that even children, fools, and dopes can understand.
Yeshua bar Maryam probably spent several years teaching and preaching. The oldest gospels — the Gospel of Thomas, the Q source, proto-Mark, proto-Matthew, and proto-Luke — make no reference to the alleged virgin birth, to miraculous healings, or to demigod-level deeds of power. (The first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke were both added to the Christian Testament some time in the second or third century.) The man later known as Jesus may indeed have performed these impressive deeds — but the oldest gospels make it clear that miracles were not what drew followers to Yeshua during his lifetime.
If the work of the Jesus Seminar is to be taken seriously, Yeshua’s teachings seem to have been centered largely on Deuteronomy 6:5 (the first “Great Commandment,” to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind and strength); Leviticus 19:18 (the second “Great Commandment,” to love God’s creation as much as one loves oneself); and Micah 6:8 (“God has told you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the Holy One require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”).
It is quite possible that Yeshua believed that the End of Everything was near — but then again, every generation since at least 300 BCE has had people who believe the End of Everything is near. Bart Ehrman argues lucidly on behalf of Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. I am not as sure as the brilliant Dr. Ehrman is; but he’s a fine theologian, and, like me, has evolved from a lifetime of Christianity to questioning Christianity’s most bedrock dogma.
(I myself believe that Yeshua — more so than Jesus — was enraptured and empowered by Love. “Shalom” means not merely peace but the wholeness that comes with something to do, something to love, and something to hope for; and shalom includes good health, for how can one find Peace with a raging toothache or a migraine? I believe that Yeshua found shalom through the power of love and forgiveness, and taught his followers to do the same.)
However, the only incident we can be certain happened in “the real world” was Yeshua’s death by crucifixion. The Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for its worst criminals — rapists, murderers, slaves, seditionists. Even the Christian Testament, which had its own theological axe to grind, is compelled to admit that Romans killed Yeshua for an alleged crime against the Roman Empire through a Roman method of execution.
This led to something of a problem for Yeshua’s followers. How do you persuade potential new followers that your guru had the correct “take” on the Truth, when your prospective convert knew only that your guru was a bastard (social criminal; not allowed to own property, take part in court cases, or marry nice girls) who had been executed by the Roman Empire for sedition, and executed with the worst form of capital punishment any human society has ever come up with? I imagine that a typical response might have been something similar to, “Oh, sure, I’ll bet Jeffrey Dahmer had all sorts of great spiritual insights for me to live MY life by!”
It took about 20 years after Yeshua’s death for Paul of Tarsus to come up with the answer to the first of these awkward questions: Jesus was not the son of a rapist or a prostitute — no matter what Celsus and other early skeptics said — but rather the Son of God. In first-century Palestine, an especially pious person was called a son or daughter of God, in much the same way that Sarah Palin might be called a daughter of politics. It took St. Paul, however, to morph “A son of God” into “THE Son of God.” In later decades, followers in the faith communities of Matthew and Luke added mythic birth narratives designed to convince pagans that Jesus was much the same sort of god/demigod as Dionysus, Osiris, Romulus, Mithras, Herakles, or Tammuz.
At some point during the first 50 years after the Crucifixion, people began saying — whispering, at first — that being executed for sedition against the Roman Empire was not the whole of Jesus’s story, because he didn’t really die. Through a miracle, God raised Jesus from the dead. “But don’t worry, huge, powerful Roman Empire, Christianity is no threat to your dominion, no threat at all. Nobody here but us chickens, and we mean ‘chickens’ literally. It wasn’t really Pontius Pilate, a brutal, Saddam-like dictator, who killed Jesus; it was those evil, evil Jews. You know, the ones just like Jesus, not a bit like Pilate.”
The first century also saw the birth of gnosticism, which I will loosely describe as a theology of dualism: all things spiritual are good and holy; all things of the flesh are evil and of the devil. Women in particular, with their hard-wired intimacy with the blood and pain of reproduction, are cesspools of evil from the waist down. (This is, of course, a caricature of gnostic thought; but it’s good enough for the present discussion.)
Within 25 years of Yeshua’s execution, the first seedlings of the myth of Jesus began to appear. One of the myth’s earliest proponents was Paul of Tarsus, who single-handedly invented Christianity. Followers of St. Paul wrote the four canonical gospels, mining the Hebrew Scriptures for “prophesies” that Jesus could be said to have fulfilled. (Again: It is perfectly possible that Jesus DID perform the miracles attributed to him by the Christian Testament. But unless you have a time machine AND ironclad proof that you’re not a hoaxer, I’m not interested.) Followers of Paul collected his epistles and wrote epistles under his name — allegedly an acceptable practice in the first century — and followers of Paul ruthlessly stamped out any gospels or other writings that did not adhere faithfully to the Party Line, much as Sarah Palin’s staff ruthlessly deletes any posting on Facebook that does not reflect slavish adulation.
Scholars noticed long ago that the older a gospel is, the more human is its central character. Mark, written around 70 CE, portrays a very human Jesus who bellowed (εβóησεν) in pain on the cross, allegedly quoting Mark’s favorite psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” By the time we get to the very, very gnostic Fourth Gospel, attributed to John and written around 120-40 CE, Jesus is “God in a man-suit,” and on the Cross says magisterically (and without apparent suffering), “It is accomplished / completed.”
Over the decades, portrayals of Jesus became more and more divine, and many of the apocryphal gospels are gnostic in the extreme. The dualism may have reached its peak with the teachings of Mani, whose followers are called Manichees. Living and teaching in the middle of the third century, Mani combined Christianity, Zoroastrianism (the precursor to Islam), and Buddhism, portraying the Universe as a colossal cosmic struggled between Good (God, spirituality, masculinity) and Evil (the devil, the physical world, femininity). Heaven is possible, but only through self-denial, celibacy, and fasting.
Manicheism was a highly influential variation on Christianity for more than a hundred years. St. Augustine, arguably the second most influential Christian after St. Paul, was a Manichee before converting to Christianity, and many Manichean beliefs morphed into Christian beliefs when he did, especially the dualism and the misogyny.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. In the earliest decades of the Jesus Movement, it was just another of the crazy cults in the Roman Empire, one among dozens. The Romans generally tolerated the religions of their subject peoples, provided they didn’t cause trouble. This began to change around 64 CE, however, the year of the Great Fire of Rome, which damaged or destroyed 10 out of 14 districts and gave Nero the perfect excuse for a little urban renewal. The story that Nero played his lyre while Rome burned is almost certainly legend; the historian Tacitus tells us Nero wasn’t even in the city. Many Romans blamed Nero for the fire, however — so Nero blamed the Christians.
Thus began roughly 150 years of persecution of Christianity. All those stories you’ve heard about throwing Christian martyrs to the lions are the “fun,” stories-around-the-campfire version. It was safer to be a Jew in Germany in 1940 than it was to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, and a lot more fun.
All this began to change around the year 300 or so, after several decades of Roman emperors who saw that Christianity was like kudzu: it just couldn’t be stamped out. In 312, the emperor Constantine was facing the most important battle of his life. Previously a worshiper of Mars, Apollo, and Mithras, Constantine saw a flaming cross in the sky and the words “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” or “In this sign you shall conquer.” (That’s where the IHS that you’ve often seen comes from.) Constantine turned Christian, won the battle, and made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
(And no one stopped to ask Constantine why the Prince of Peace, who is alleged to have gone to his death rather than harm even a Roman soldier, should be interested in warfare or wish divinely to participate. No one asked Constantine to “sell what you own and give it to the poor.” No one told Constantine that “the last will be first and the first will be last,” or that it would be easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for the emperor of most of the civilized world to get into heaven. I imagine most Christians were so happy not to be persecuted they decided not to look a gift emperor in the mouth! — but the upshot was that Christianity changed its theology to accommodate the emperor, rather than vice-versa.)
For several decades before 313 CE, a battle had been brewing between two camps of Christians. On the one side were the followers of Arian, who believed that Jesus was LIKE God (homoiousis, “of similar substance”). On the other side were the followers of Athanasius, who believed that Jesus WAS God (homoousis, “of the same substance”).
This was no mere disagreement, moreover. This was major. Men actually rioted in the streets. Blood was shed. Lives were lost! In 325 CE, Constantine called for a council of Christian bishops to settle the matter. Thus came about the first Council of Nicea, the one that produced the Nicene Creed.
The two sides were evenly matched. Despite much passionate argumentation, and allegedly even some fighting — St. Nicholas of Myra, upon whom the myth of Santa Claus is based, is said to have punched out an Arian opponent — it ultimately fell to Constantine, newish Christian and non-theologian, to cast the deciding vote. Constantine saw that the Roman Empire would be easier to govern if the emperor were thought to be quasi-divine, and broke the tie on the side of Athanasius.
If the Arian side had won the fight, the first few lines of the Nicene Creed might go, “We believe in one God, / the Father, the Almighty, / maker of heaven and earth, / of all that is, seen and unseen. // We believe in our ‘older brother,’ Jesus of Nazareth, / one of the greatest of us sons and daughters of God: / true human from true God, / begotten by a human father / and carried, nurtured, reared, taught, and loved by a human mother. / Of a similar Being to the Father. / Through Wisdom all things were made [Proverbs 8].”
But the homoousis side won, rather than the homoiousis side. And so all of Christian history from 325 on hangs on a single iota.
Was Jesus Christ the Son of God, eternally “begotten” by the allegedly supragender Deity, true God from true God, of one substance with the “Father”? I have no idea. It is worth noticing that before converting to Christianity the warrior emperor Constantine almost certainly worshiped the warrior god Mithras. The god Mithras was born to a virgin on December 25, an event attended by three wise men who gave the baby gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mithras had twelve disciples, ate a Last Supper, died, and was resurrected three days later.
Not that I’m saying there’s any resemblance between the myth of Mithras, sun-god, and the myth of Jesus, Son of God. . . .
What I do know is that you have to believe that Jesus was “God in a man-suit” to be a fine, upstanding Jesusolater, worthy (if male) of elevation in Colorado Springs, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Willow Creek, Rome, or C Street in Washington, DC and when the End comes, to be Raptured up to heaven and sit at Jesus’s right hand in glory.
It is also worth noting that never once does any canonical gospel portray Jesus as saying, “Believe what I tell you not because it’s the Truth; not because it will make your life happier; but only because I am God in a man-suit.”
To follow Yeshua bar Maryam, the real-life person on whom the myth of Jesus is based, you only need to believe in Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, and Micah 6:8. These are the teachings that brought Yeshua “thousands” of followers long before the last week of his life. You don’t have to turn your brain off and believe six ridiculous pieces of dogma before breakfast, or get into violent arguments about the dreams dreamt by Pilate’s wife, or whether Abraham was actually a Muslim, 2,000 years before Muhammad was.
Simple, though not easy: Love God; love God’s creation; love justice; love kindness; walk humbly with your God. Or, as Aldous Huxley once remarked, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’ ”