As a Mythicist I ask: Did Christianity actually begin in 33AD, or does its history go much further back?
One of the intriguing debates within Mythicism is when did Christianity begin. As we believe that it is highly unlikely that an earthly Jesus Christ existed, but probably began as a belief in a celestial being whose death and resurrection occurred in the heavens, Christianity as we know it need not have begun when and how it is recorded in church history. (See Why I am a Mythicist.)
According to the official story, Christianity began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ around 33CE. Under the leadership of the apostle Peter, Jesus’ disciples spread his teachings throughout Palestine. While he was only converted to Christianity after Jesus’ death, one of its most enthusiastic missionaries was Paul of Tarsus who took Christianity to the gentiles and established many Christian congregations in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Greece. Although they disagreed on some issues, Peter and Paul were eventually reconciled and, in the 60sCE, together established the Christian church in Rome where they were both martyred.
However, very little of this is true. The truth is far more complex, but we will never know the whole truth, as much of early church history has been forged, fictionalised, obfuscated and suppressed, precisely so that later generations would only know and believe the official story. We can only gather fragments of the truth from a few rediscovered documents and in-depth analysis of surviving sources.
At the time that Christianity was developing, Judaism was in flux, largely as a result of Hellenization, which pitted traditional Judaism against the new ideas brought in from Greek religion and philosophy. Besides the Temple cult, there were many other and diverse sects and schools of thought. We know of a few of these, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, but there were many more. The earliest Christians were just another of those sects. They were Torah-observant Jews who followed the Jewish law, kept its holidays and studied the Jewish scriptures as well as believing in Jesus. In fact, there may have been several Jewish sects with different concepts of Jesus. There is little evidence left of them and their beliefs except for what their opponents said of them. (See Who Invented Jesus? The Origins of Mark’s Gospel.) [LINK]
Eventually Christian teachings spread out of Palestine through the Jewish diaspora and among Jewish converts (at the time Judaism was also a proselytising religion) and began gathering converts among the gentiles. This led to a debate among Christians about whether gentile converts had to become Jews and follow Jewish law (including getting circumcised) before they could become Christians. This debate is played out in the epistles of Paul, who was actively promoting Christianity to the gentiles, the Synoptic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. It was eventually resolved that converts did not need to follow Jewish law, which allowed the faith to flourish outside the Jewish community, and left Torah-observant sects behind. However, while these sects may have merged with the gentile Christian community in the Roman Empire, they survived in the East for several centuries where, it seems, their beliefs were assimilated by Islam.
Most historians believe that the actual break between Judaism and Christianity came after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. The trauma and upheaval of this event would have caused a radical re-evaluation of Jewish beliefs. On the one hand there would have been Jews who saw the destruction as a clear sign that they had offended God by not accepting Jesus as their Messiah, while others would embrace their beliefs even more strongly, holding onto their hope in a future Messiah who would destroy their enemies once and for all.
When was the Jesus story set?
According to the historical consensus, as the gospels show Jesus predicting the destruction of the Second Temple, they must have been written after 70CE, beginning with the gospel of Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, the last being John dated to around 115CE. The epistles are dated earlier, those of Paul being dated to the 50sCE. However, as we shall see, these dates are up for debate.
Many Biblical scholars believe that the gospels are based on oral traditions and earlier written sources. Others, including Dr Richard Carrier, dispute whether there are earlier sources and believe that the gospel of Mark was an entirely original story which re-imagined the celestial Jesus, found in the Pauline epistles, as an earthly Jesus. His gospel was then copied and altered by Matthew and Luke. (See Why I am a Mythicist.)
According to the canonical gospels, Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus (27BCE – 14CE) and was executed under Pontius Pilot (26–36CE) in the reign of Tiberius (14–37CE). However, some Christians thought differently. Some believed he was crucified under Emperor Claudius (41–54CE), while, according to the Babylonian Talmud, Torah-observant Christians, known as the Nazoreans (or Nazarenes), believed he lived during the reign of King Alexander Jannaeus (103–76BCE), the last independent king of the Jews.
Alexander Jannaeus was a violent and controversial ruler who spent much of his reign at war with surrounding powers and even waged war against his own people. After his death his sons fell into civil war requiring intervention from the Romans, and leading inevitably to annexation into the Roman Empire. The Romans installed their own client rulers over the province, the most notorious of whom was Herod the Great who ruled from 47–4BCE.
This Nazorean belief is also attested by the 4th century heresy hunter, Epiphanius of Salamis who wrote:
For with the advent of the Christ, the succession of the princes from Judah, who reigned until the Christ Himself, ceased …The order failed and stopped at the time when He was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Alexander, who was of high-priestly and royal race … And this Alexander, one of the anointed and ruling princes placed the crown on his own head … After this a foreign king, Herod, and those who were no longer of the family of David, assumed the crown. (Panarion 29)
Seen from the Mythicist point-of-view, these inconsistencies are easy to explain. With no other records to go on, the historical consensus for the dating of the beginning of Christianity is based on the canonical gospels. However, while an academic like Dr Carrier accepts this dating, he also claims that the canonical gospels and Acts are entirely fictitious, so it is feasible that their dating is also fictitious. If an earthly Jesus never existed, his adherents were free to place his birth in whatever historical period best suited their narrative. At the same time, the birth of a founder was usually placed at the beginning of the cult. This would suggest that the Christians who believed Jesus was born no later than 76BCE would also have believed that their sect dated back that far.
The academic consensus is challenged by non-academic researcher, Michael Lawrence, who proposes the Seventy-Year Reverse Construction Thesis. He contends that Christianity is much older than the historical consensus allows, and that Mark carefully constructed his gospel to place the birth of Jesus seventy years before the destruction of the Second Temple, thus bringing it in line with the seventy-year prophecy found in the Book of Daniel. The destruction of the Temple could then be attributed to the fact that the Messiah had come, but the Jews had ignored him and as punishment God allowed the Temple to be destroyed 70 years later.
Did Christianity begin before the Christian Era?
In support of his thesis, Lawrence cites an incident in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
When I was in Damascus, the governor under King Aretas kept guards at the city gates to catch me. I had to be lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall to escape from him. (11:32–33)
This incident comes after a long list of the dangers, punishments and suffering Paul endured for Christ. But while the rest are non-specific, for example –
Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. (11:24–25)
– the incident in Damascus is quite specific and is in fact the only reference to a verifiable historical character in Paul’s epistles and thus the only date-stamp.
There are two kings of the Nabateans called Aretas that these verses could be referring to: Aretas III and Aretas IV. Aretas III reigned from 87–62BCE and had sovereignty over Damascus from 87–72BCE after which he was expelled from the city by the Armenians. Damascus came under direct Roman rule in 64BCE. Aretas IV reigned from 9BCE–40CE, making him the preferred candidate if we follow the historical consensus that Paul was preaching between the 30s and 60s CE.
However, there is no evidence that Damascus was ever part of the Nabatean kingdom during the reign of Aretas IV, apart from this reference. In order to make the reference fit the biblical timeline, historians have had to propose unsubstantiated scenarios such as Caligula ‘must have’ transferred Damascus to Aretas for a short time, or that the governor in question ‘must have’ been representing the Roman government or was only in charge of the Nabatean quarter. However, as Dr Carrier himself would agree, according to the logic of historical probability (i.e. Bayes’ theorem), the more unsupported assumptions that are placed on the data in order to come to a conclusion, the lower the probability that the conclusion is correct. Therefore, it is much more likely that Paul was preaching in Damascus before 62BCE during the reign of Aretas III, rather than during the reign of Aretas IV.
One might wonder why the polytheistic king of a vast, multi-cultural kingdom would be concerned about the teachings of one itinerant preacher, unless, that is, his teachings were stirring up violent passions in the city’s Jewish community. It is telling to note that the story of Paul’s escape from Damascus is taken up in the Acts of the Apostles (9:20–25), but given an entirely different context. According to Acts, soon after his conversion, Paul preaches about Jesus in the synagogue which angers the Jews who plot to kill him.
It so happens that Aretas III was a contemporary of Alexander Jannaeus.
Paul versus the Nazoreans
However, we must not infer that a coincidence in time between Paul’s mission (and, we might assume, his epistles) and the lifetime of the Nazorean Jesus, also means a coincidence in the beliefs of Paul and the Nazoreans.
Little is recorded about the Nazoreans. According to Epiphanius:
They were Jewish, were attached to the Law, and had circumcision… They have (sic) no different views but confess everything in full accord with the doctrine of the Law and like the Jews, except that they are supposedly believers in Christ. For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and that all things have been created by God, and they declare that God is one, and that his Son is Jesus Christ… As to Christ, I cannot say whether they … regard him as a mere man, or whether, as the truth is, they affirm that he was born of Mary by the Holy Spirit… They have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. (Panarion 29)
Another Torah-observant Christian sect described by Epiphanius were the Ebionites. They also adhered to a Hebrew or Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew, but, according to Epiphanius, they differed from the Nazoreans, in that they believed that Jesus ‘was conceived by sexual intercourse and the seed of a man, Joseph’. (Panarion 30) Therefore they did not believe that Jesus was God, but was adopted by God as his son as a reward for his obedience to God’s will.
In contrast, Paul not only taught that it was not necessary that Christians follow Jewish law, he actively forbade it. This was anathema to Torah-observant Christians who saw Paul as an ‘enemy of the faith’. In fact, this may even provide a context for Paul’s daring escape from Damascus in a basket. If Paul had preached his version of the gospel to a congregation of Nazoreans or Ebionites, they may well have gone up in arms and chased him out of town. His opposition to Torah-observance may also be where the idea originated that Paul persecuted Christians before becoming one himself.
This scenario also implies that even as early as the 60sBCE, belief in Jesus had been around long enough to have developed in different directions. Alternatively, it may have arisen independently within several different sects, thus springing from different roots, and possibly at different times. Paul attests to this himself when, in his letters, he often warns his readers against listening to other preachers and their other Christs.
The proposal that Christianity began as early as the 70sBCE, and perhaps even earlier, is not accepted by the academic consensus. Dr Carrier counters the possibility with the assertion that, ‘…had Christianity actually begun in the 70s BC, we should have a lot more writings from the 1st century BC and early 1st AD, simply on standard sociological growth models.’
However, just as we have no records of Christianity from the mid-first century because the Catholic Church either suppressed or destroyed them as they did not tally with their version of events, the same could apply for the previous century. Nor would we expect sources outside of the Christian community to confirm their existence, as, to the outside world, those early Christians would have been just another Judaic sect indistinguishable from the rest of Judaism.
Unfortunately, due to this lack of evidence, we will never be able to definitively resolve this debate one way or the other.
© Pauline Montagna 2022
Dr Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, Sheffield Phoenix Press (2014)
Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The battles for scriptures and the faiths we never knew, Oxford University Press (2003)
Michael Lawrence, The Seventy-Year Reverse Construction Thesis and Christianity Before Jesus, NOTORIUK (2020)