by Barbara G. Walker
Man Made God
Thanks to centuries of the most insistent and aggressive indoctrination campaign the world has ever seen, the biography of Jesus is more familiar to more people than any other. Socrates, Charlemagne, Shakespeare, Napoleon: there are many who never heard of them, or who only vaguely recognize their names. But all of Western civilization and most of the rest of the world “knows” Jesus’s life story.
Everybody “knows” that Jesus was begotten by a god and born of a virgin, even though the gospel writers unaccountably trace his ancestry through the virgin’s mortal husband. His birth was attended by angels, shepherds and gift-giving wise men. His infancy was threatened by an evil king who had babies slaughtered in a futile effort to kill him. When grown, he gathered a group of 12 disciples and went about teaching that his adherents would gain eternal life. He walked on water, healed the sick, exorcised devils, made the blind see and the lame walk. He was anointed with chrism and thus made into a Christ (which means “anointed one”) by a mysterious woman who may or may not have been his lover, depending on which gospel you read, and who was the sole official enunciator of his later resurrection. After a triumphal procession accompanied by waving palms and the traditional obsequies of a sacred king, he attended a meal at which he was symbolically cannibalized, the eating of his flesh and blood deemed necessary for his followers’ absolution. Then he was scourged, crucified, died and descended into the underworld. Later he returned to earth, apparently alive again, and then ascended bodily into the sky, where he somehow still lives and pays attention to all the doings of humanity. These things are “known” and commemorated every year, over and over.
But during the past century or so, scholars have shown that all these “known” details of Jesus’s life story are mythic: That is, they were told for many centuries before his time about many previous savior-gods and legendary heroes in pre-Christian lore. Not a single detail of Jesus’s life story can be considered authentic. Some investigators have tried to peel away the layers of myth in search of a historical core, but this task is like peeling the layers of an onion. It seems that there is no core. The layers of myth go all the way to the center.
Fact or Fiction?
One of the problems faced by Christian scholars is that there is no record of Jesus’s existence in any contemporary source. The earliest literature concerning him was written by Paul, who never knew him or anyone else who might have known him and who never heard anything about his life story. Paul mentioned none of these now-so-familiar details, which were added much later by unknown writers who pretended to bear the names of various disciples and who sprinkled their writings with mythic data gathered from sacred-king traditions of contemporary Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Persian and Levantine salvation cults.
“Undeniably, Christian leaders have a vested interest in maintaining the myth.”
Educated theologians know this fact perfectly well; yet, they maintain the pretense of apostolic authorship and keep the truth hidden from lay congregants. Undeniably, Christian leaders have a vested interest in maintaining the myth.
The synoptic gospels now accepted into the canon are only a small remnant of perhaps hundreds of proto-Christian gospels extant during the first few centuries BCE and AD/CE. Also, they bear the marks of extensive interpolation, revision and reinterpretation added by Church authorities centuries later. As reference works, the New Testament writings are hardly more reliable than fairy tales.
The Silence of Historians
For a possible hint of Jesus’s historicity, Christian authorities relied heavily on a single brief paragraph in the works of the respected Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was born in 37 AD/CE, served as governor of Galilee and traveled extensively in the very same area where Jesus allegedly lived and taught. If anyone was in a position to report the wonder-workings of a local holy man in his own parents’ generation, it was Josephus, a dedicated reporter of minute details. Yet in all his voluminous works, the single paragraph (Ant. 18.3.3)-called the “Testimonium Flavianum” or “TF”-says only that Jesus was “a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
The problems with this famous passage are many. First of all, it is noticeably out of context with the surrounding material. Second, it evidently did not appear in the early copies of Josephus’s works, nor in the second-century version quoted by Church father Origen, who would certainly have mentioned it if it had been there. The TF does not appear in any known works until the beginning of the fourth century and is first quoted by Bishop Eusebius, the enthusiastic advocate of what he apparently called “holy lying” for the greater glory of the Church, known to have been responsible for many interpolations, revisions and blatant forgeries.
Moreover, Josephus was a Jew and would hardly have referred to Jesus’s ministry as “the truth” or “wonderful things”; nor would he have called Jesus “the Christ.” Neither could he have mentioned “the tribe of Christians,” for there were no Christians in his day. Christianity did not get off the ground until the second century.
Philo Judaeus (20 BCE-50 AD/CE) was born before the beginning of the Christian era and lived until long after Jesus’s time. Philo knew Jerusalem well, and would have known of Herod’s massacre of children, plus Jesus’s miracles, well-attended preachings, triumphal entry parade and crucifixion, with its attendant earthquake, reanimated corpses and many other wonders. He would have heard about the resurrection before many witnesses.
Another historian, Justus of Tiberius (1st cent.), a native of Galilee, wrote a history covering the period of Jesus’s lifetime. His work is lost, but the Christian scholar Photius read it in the ninth century and expressed amazement (“Biblioteca,” 33) that it contained “not the least mention of the appearance of the Christ.”
“Mythical mentions of the Christ figure are numerous throughout the ancient world.”
However, mythical mentions of the Christ figure are numerous throughout the ancient world. In addition to the title of Christos they had names like Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Orpheus, Mithra, Tammuz, Heracles, Hermes, Aleyin and Iasus, Iasion, Jason, Jesu, Yeshua or Jeud. These latter epithets applied to the “only-begotten son” of the god-king Isra-El, who was “dressed in royal robes” and sacrificed by his heavenly father.
Most of the savior gods were identified with the edible flesh and blood of the earth, meaning the bread and wine, harvested, consumed and resurrected with the next planting. Osiris, Adonis and Mithra were all eaten in the form of communion bread, declared to be the god’s flesh, which the worshiper thus made a part of his own flesh in order to share the god’s resurrection.
Adonis was miraculously born of a temple maiden in Bethlehem, which means “the House of Bread.” He appears to have been the “Bread of God,” which became the worshiper’s body also, as in John 6:56: “He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.”
The sacrificed god Dionysus, another son of the Heavenly Father, first performed Jesus’s miracle of turning water into wine at temples in Sidon and other places, representing the rain of heaven fructifying the vine. In Alexandria, the Dionysian/Christian miracle was demonstrated literally by means of an ingenious system of siphons invented by an engineer named Heron, to enhance the awe of the faithful….
According to the Roman writer Celsus (2nd cent.), the empire was teeming with miscellaneous vagabonds aspiring to such titles, claiming to be gods, sons of God, or saviors, prophesying the end of the world and their own glorious return from the dead at the End of Days. Celsus scoffed at the alleged Christian miracles as no more than “common works of enchanters” who perform for a few coins. “The magicians of Egypt,” he said, “cast out evil spirits, cure diseases by a breath, and so influence some uncultured men, that they produce in them whatever sights and sounds they please. But because they do such things shall we consider them the sons of God?”
Nevertheless, the Eastern provinces swarmed with self-styled Messiahs and Christs, so that the gospels’ version is most likely to have been a composite picture drawn from an era of widespread credulity and superstitious dread. As we might perceive in our own day, fundamentalist superstitions tend to flower in periods of cultural decline, when a formerly enlightened civilization begins to feel threatened by forces of decay both without and within….
These groups were greatly influenced by Persian worshippers of Mithra—the ancient Magi or “magicians” who attended the savior’s miraculous birth—and their prophecies of the oncoming Doomsday with its sharp division between the saved and the damned: those who would go to dwell forever in heaven with the solar deity, Light of the World; and those who would dwell forever in underground darkness with the evil Great Serpent and his armies of demons, rebellious angels who had defied the heavenly father and had been cast down to their punishment. Mithra’s cult was hugely popular in the later Roman empire and contributed much to the Jesus myth, including even the service of Mass, which was based on the Persian mizd, translated into Latin missa, featuring wafers marked with a cross.
According to Ezekiel 8:14, priestesses in Jerusalem continued to celebrate the cult of Tammuz, the Heavenly Shepherd or Only-Begotten Son, whose blood fertilized the whole earth when he was killed each year on the Day of Atonement. He was slain in the form of a lamb, but this incarnation was understood to be a substitute for earlier human sacrifice. He reappeared in the New Testament as Thomas, sometimes viewed as Jesus’s twin, who became known as Doubting Thomas for questioning Jesus’s miraculous return to life. The gospel writer declared that Thomas finally accepted Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (Jhn 20:28), indicating the older savior’s deference to the newer one. However, 1,000 years later Syrian farmers were still sacrificing to their grain god Ta-uz, who was considered essential to the welfare of the crops, and women were still bewailing his annual demise just as they did in the time of Ezekiel.
“The Jesus myth was really a concatenation of pagan ideas and practices.”
Realizing that the Jesus myth was really a concatenation of pagan ideas and practices, early Christian fathers decided to account for this fact by calling all the previous gods “demons,” and declaring that Satan in his omniscience had foreseen the coming of the true Christ and had invented all these earlier imitations just to confuse people. Even St. Augustine (Retractiones 1.13) had to admit that his religion existed “from the beginning of the human race,” and came to be called Christian only after the lifetime of Jesus.
Gospel teachings attributed to Jesus have been found in earlier texts, often word for word, some-like the famous Beatitudes-in Buddhist scriptures. The Golden Rule was not a Christian teaching but a Tantric Buddhist expression of karmic law, repeated in the proverbs of Egypt’s Goddess Maat, the Mother of Justice, as well as those of Greece’s Goddess Dike, ruler of fate, and of the Jewish sage Hillel. Nothing truly original has been found in any of the Jesus traditions, and the wonder-tales that used to compel belief because of their very incredibility are now dismissed as crude anachronisms persuasive only to the most naive and credulous minds….
And according to Acts 4:13, the apostles were all “unlearned and ignorant men” who could not have been responsible for writing the gospels or anything else. Therefore those who put apostles’ names to their gospel writings were forgers, and all the gospels are essentially fakes.
The truth is that the gospels are not reliable “historical” accounts to tell us what Jesus was—or even if he was. But it is fairly clear that he was connected with the myths of pagan saviors, who were mostly nature deities, representing the eternal cycles of life and death. In this respect their myths might point toward an updated religion more firmly founded on the realities of our world.
Once the Jesus myth is more widely understood as a composite relic of a credulous past, we may be able to go forward toward a more satisfying set of spiritual hopes and insights, and leave behind the simplistic magics of a less enlightened people. We have “modernized” nearly every other aspect of our Western culture. Perhaps it is time to modernize its religion into a form that enlightenment may embrace without insulting its own intelligence.
For more information, including citations, see Man Made God.