The Human Journey
Post Axial Jerusalem

Post-Axial Thought

A Multicultural Story

Pages 123

Painting of the Annunciation, by Guido Reni
The Annunciation, by Guido Reni

In order to authenticate Jesus as the fulfillment of the expected Messiah, the evangelists refer often to the Hebrew Bible. As scholars such as Vermes point out, on occasion this leads to complications. The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are not the same, yet both, in order to establish Jesus as the Jewish Messaiah, have to establish that he was “of the house of David”. Matthew makes a point of describing Joseph as “the husband of Mary” and Luke states that he is the “supposed father.” “For if in order to proclaim the virgin birth, they had to deny the real paternity of Joseph, they were unavoidably bound to undermine the royal messianic claim of Jesus.” (The Nativity, Vermes).

Christians are familiar with this passage in Isaiah 7:14 (King James Bible): “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” But the Hebrew noun ha‘almah, a feminine noun with a definite article, translates as “the young woman,” not “a virgin.” Scholars agree that more likely it means “a young woman of marriageable age” (that is, old enough to bear a child) with no indication of whether or not she is a virgin.

To view some of the many Sons of God and Virgin Births in the Ancient World, Click here.

The idea of the Resurrection is also to be found in the legends of antiquity. To quote just two sources:
The scholar Homer William Smith in his book Man and His Gods, writes: “For centuries the people of the Mediterranean had annually observed the death and resurrection of their gods. The Osirian drama, so beloved by the Egyptians, dated back certainly 25 and perhaps 35 centuries. Tammuz too, had died a violent death, to be brought back to life with the sprouting of the grain. So had Adonis been buried in a rocky tomb, mourned and declared resurrected and ascended unto heaven. So had Hercules died and been resurrected at Paul’s home.” (i.e. Tarsus in modern day south-central Turkey.)

Painting of the Death of Adonis
Death of Adonis, by Luca Giordano

And, W. R. Halliday in his book The Pagan Background of Early Christianity tells us: “As in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox celebrations of the Passion and Easter, the dying god [Osiris] was often represented in effigy. The scene must indeed have been extraordinarily like that to be witnessed today in any church in Greece at Easter. The crowd of worshippers joined with passionate emotion in the lamentations over the death of their god, and burst into no less ecstatic joy, when the still small voice (lentu susurru) of the officiating priest announced the glad tidings of his resurrection: ‘Be ye of good cheer, ye initiates, for the god is saved. For he shall be to you a Salvation from ills.’ ‘We have found him! We rejoice together!’ was the jubilant cry which was raised at the culminating point of the ritual of the mysteries of Osiris.”

As F.C. Conybeare (Prof. Theology, Oxford University) remarked in Myth, Magic and Moral, “Such passages aid us to understand the rapid spread of the belief in the Virgin-Birth and Resurrection. Men’s minds were already full of similar beliefs, and the ground prepared for their reception. The Christians claimed acceptance of their myths because the pagan religion was already full of similar ones.”

“Likewise, it is easy to infer that early Christianity found itself facing stiff competition where miracles were concerned. In order to impress in the pagan world, a saviour had to contend with a host of gods and goddesses who made the miraculous ‘par for the course’. Healing was a particular attribute of divinity. Isis, Imhotep and Serapis of the Nile were all efficacious healers – as were Ishtar and Marduk of Babylonia and Astarte, the Phoenician moon-goddess. Thoth restored the eye of Horus with his spittle. Aesculapius the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo, healed the leper, the insane and the deaf and dumb. Horus performed great miracles, including raising the dead to life.” (The Marketing of Christianity: The Evolution of Early Christian Doctrine, Institute for Cultural Research, London, 2000).

Statue of Mithras

As Robert Doran (Prof. of Religion, Amherst College) notes in his book Birth of a Worldview: Early Christianity and its Jewish and Pagan Context: “Among the scores of religious sects that offered eternal hope or present ecstasy to the diverse peoples of the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century, Christianity was not conspicuous. An impartial observer, asked which of these cults might someday become the official religion of the Empire, even a world religion, would perhaps have chosen Mithraism. He certainly would not have named the inconspicuous followers of a crucified Jew.”

Paul is certainly pivotal to the spreading of early Christian faith among the Gentiles. He and others did this through relentless effort, skillful marketing and a willingness to adapt, compromise and absorb traditions and predispositions of potential converts. In addition, unlike Mithraism, which had become the official religion of Rome, Christianity was inclusive; it appealed to poor people who felt alienated by mainstream religions and to women who were excluded from Mithraism.

(Left) Mithras born from the rock (petra genetrix), Marble, 180 - 192 CE. From the area of S. Stefano Rotondo, Rome.
Sculpture of Constantine
Emperor Constantine. Head of
Constantine’s colossal statue
at the Capitoline Museums.
The Museums are located on top
of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Italy.

Despite the sporadic persecutions, Christians persevered. Between the beginning of Christianity’s presence in the Roman Empire to the end of the Great Persecution, some say the death toll reached as high as 100,000. In 321 Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it legal. As a result, the faith expanded rapidly, as many felt that it was socially or politically desirable to embrace Christianity. With a convert’s zeal, Constantine acted aggressively not only against non-Christians but also against “Heretic” Christians whose views differed from the larger established Church.

At the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, in which some 300 bishops from all over the Empire assembled to discuss the state of the church, important doctrines were developed to counter “heretic” ideas. The core dogma of the Christian faith was developed and the concept of the Holy Trinity as the supreme deity was officially adopted. Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official state religion of Rome, and completely banned worship at pagan temples in 391 CE.

The Christian Church was now a powerful and far reaching institution.

Mosaic of Constantine the Great
(Left) Constantine the Great. Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul), from approximately 1000 CE.

Thus Pauline Christianity survives today with its influences of ancient pre-Axial religious beliefs and rituals intact. It continues to offer emotional stimulus and release, automatic cleansing and redemption through quasi-magical ritual, and spectacles of a misrepresented sacrifice and passion.

Yet modern Christianity, to some extent, offers both Axial and Pre-Axial traditions. While Pauline Christianity survives at the expense of our individual responsibility, we can decline to accept it and become actively involved in our own ethical and spiritual development. It is exactly this kind of individual responsibility which comes through very clearly in the teachings of Jesus preserved, for example, in the Gospel of Thomas and elsewhere.

Parable of the People with a Higher Aim

Imam El-Ghazali relates to tradition from the life of Isa, ibn Maryam, Jesus, Son of Mary.
Isa one day saw some people sitting miserably on a wall, by the roadside. He asked: “What is your affliction?”
They said: “We have become like this through our fear of Hell.”
He went on his way, and saw a number of people grouped disconsolately in various postures by the wayside.
He said: “What is your affliction?”
They said: “Desire for Paradise has made us like this.”
He went on his way, until he came to a third group of people. They looked like people who had endured much, but their faces shone with joy.
Isa asked them: “What has made you like this?” and they answered: “The Spirit of Truth. We have seen Reality, and this has made us oblivious of lesser goals.”
Isa said: “These are the people who attain. On the Day of Accounting these are they who will be in the Presence of God.”

from The Way of the Sufi, by Idries Shah.