The city is Rome. It is the first century after Christ, at midnight, the first moment of December 25th. The temples are lit up. Priests in white robes stand at the altar. Boys burn incense. The congregation is here to celebrate the birth of their Lord God. But Jesus Christ is not the name on their lips. When he was born this was already an ancient ceremony. It commemorates the sun god Mithras.
“[Mithras] worshippers believed he had come from heaven to be born as a man in order to redeem men from their sins, and he was born of a virgin on December 25th. Shepherds were the first to learn of his birth ….”
R.J. Condon, Our Pagan Christmas.
Contrast this picture with an account of early Christians during the same period gathered in the home of one of their members to study the sayings and teachings of Jesus, a teacher in the Jewish monotheistic tradition:
“They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn, to sing antiphonally a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not to some wickedness, but not to commit acts of fraud, theft or adultery, not to falsify their word, not to refuse to return a deposit if called upon to do so. When they had done these things they used to depart and then come together again to take food – but food of an ordinary and harmless kind.”
Pliny the Younger (Roman governor in 112 CE), Letters, 10.96.7
To understand the contrast between the earliest Christian gatherings and contemporary Christian ritual, we have to understand the historical context of the early church.
The Roman Empire was a melting pot of cultures, each with its own stories, myths, legends and beliefs. As we see throughout the human journey, stories are shared across cultures, and many of the ideas they contain are assimilated cross-culturally. Without doubt a story and how it is understood changes over time and place to fit contemporaneous circumstances.
All religious practices were tolerated by the Roman Empire and freely observed. The empire’s reach, influence, and soldiers spread from modern Sudan in the south, to the Scottish border in the north, from Morocco in the west to the Caspian Sea and Arabian Gulf in the east. It was a melting pot of cultures. Greek and Roman civilizations with their pantheon of gods mixed with others, the great civilizations of Egypt, for example, where the splendors of the Pharaonic tradition stretched back thousands of years, or Persia where Zoroaster was worshipped and absorbed into Greek and Roman society three or four hundred years before Christ. Numerous cults such as those of Attis, Adonis, Dionysis, and Venus were practiced. Each had its own stories, myths and legends and, as we have seen elsewhere in our human journey through the ancient world, elements from each were absorbed between traditions.
Also, since the time of Augustus, Romans were accustomed to Divine Emperors and their offspring, Sons of God, so it is not surprising that Jesus is presented as the Son of God who performed mighty works, which were the sign of the presence of God’s power and kingdom.
In ancient societies conception and birth were still somewhat magical events because people had no real biological knowledge, thus many stories are associated with miraculous births. In the Jewish tradition, for example, Isaac, a child of importance, was conceived of Sarah and Abraham when they were 90 years old. Divine conception was also well known in the Greco-Roman tradition.
Son of God
“Son of God” had a number of meanings in the Hebrew Bible, but as the scholar Geza Vermes says: “It is universally agreed among experts that in Judaism the phrase is always used metaphorically; it never designates a person who is believed to be simultaneously man and God.”
Romans distinguished between a god, or deus, who was immortal and always has been a god, and a divus, or diva, a human being who had been elevated to divinity. At the death of Caesar, Octavian was divi filius, the “son of the divine one.” The Greeks, however, didn’t distinguish between immortal gods and human gods. Both were called theos, and the Greek equivalent for the Latin for a “son of god,” like Apollo, was the term theou huios.
John Dominic Crossan says “These titles of Son of God and savior, etc, meant that the human being you were talking about brought such transcendental gifts to the world that he had to be considered divine. … A person was never elevated into divinity, however, until, like Augustus, they had done something major for the human race. And once they had done something extraordinary, their divinity was then retro-projected back into stories about their conception and birth, as well as into their genealogies and stories about their coming of age. But they are always writing backwards, after the fact. … They absolutely did that with Jesus. … I think people were able to walk carefully between what you and I want to know is literal or metaphorical, parabolic or historical.”
Thus the Gospels’ miraculous and unusual stories were in a sense the expected biography that must accompany any unusual man who had done extraordinary acts.
As the historian and scholar Dr. Hugh Schonfield points out: “… among Gentile believers in Jesus as the true emperor it was not possible to hold him to be inferior in dignity to Caesar. So we find in the Gospels the term Son of God [the Imperial Divi Filius] conjoined with the Jewish royal title of Messiah. The late Gospel of John, composed not long after the reign of Domitian, who insisted that his governors address him in letters as ‘Our Lord and our God’ … makes Thomas address Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God.’”
The Virgin Birth
In order to authenticate Jesus as the fulfillment of the expected Messiah, the evangelists refer often to the Hebrew Bible. As scholars such as Geza 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 Messiah, 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.” “Since the Davidic descent [through the paternal line] is an indisputable factor, the claim that Jesus was the ‘son of the house of David’ acquires outstanding importance. However, establishing a justifiable claim to the Messianic title is one thing and the notion of the virginal conception of Jesus quite another. By endeavouring to combine the two, Matthew and Luke unwittingly confused the aim of the genealogies. 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,” says Geza Vermes in The Nativity – Passion – Resurrection.
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.
Rising from the Dead
The idea of the Resurrection is also to be found in the legends of antiquity. 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.” (Tarsus in modern day south-central Turkey.)
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.”
Says F.C. Conybeare (Prof. Theology, Oxford University) in Myth, Magic and Morals, “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.”
According to The Marketing of Christianity: The Evolution of Early Christian Doctrine, Institute for Cultural Research, “… 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.”
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.
Why did Christianity grow so rapidly during its early centuries, and why has it become the world’s most successful religion today?
In his book Religious Evolution and the Axial Age: From Shamans to Priests to Prophets, (Scientific Studies of Relgion: Inquiry and Explanation) Stephen K. Sanderson says that the reason was simple and backed by the findings of many scholars: Christianity provided people with a “better offer” than any of the other religions. To summarize:
“1. Its message was simple and easily grasped. It was an inviting religion that was easy to follow.
2. The simplest and most appealing idea was its focus on a personal savior, a figure already familiar in the Mediterranean world.
3. Christianity’s God was like the God of Judaism, but it had Jesus, the Son of God, who was personal and very approachable. Christ died for our sins, and acceptance of Christ provides everlasting life.
4. Judaism was a very demanding religion, but Paul said that it was no longer necessary to observe the strict requirements of the Jewish Law (e.g., circumcision, kosher dietary practices, reading and comprehending the Torah). Christianity was demanding, but not as demanding as the religion from which it arose.
5. Its scriptures (the Bible) consisted of narratives about people and events that were clearly expressed.
6. It welcomed converts on a very egalitarian basis; anyone could become a Christian and enter the Kingdom of God.
7. A Christian church functioned much like a family in offering personal support. Other religions at the time did not create the kinds of networks providing support for their members.
8. Christianity not only offered a compensatory afterlife, but also rewards in this world. It made a miserable life less miserable.
9. Christianity emphasized “unreciprocated altruism” and “unconditional benevolence” toward outsiders to a degree not found in any other religion. It stressed nursing the sick, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. It set up orphanages, hospitals, almshouses, and so on, on a greater scale than any other religion.
10. Because Christians nursed the sick, especially during major epidemics, the sick were more likely to survive than non-Christians, and so their relative numbers within the population grew regardless of new converts. Pagans would have noticed that Christians were more likely to survive, and this would have motivated a significant number to convert.
“Most of these same characteristics are still fundamental to Christianity and thus have the same appeal to people today. The fact that Christianity is a highly proselytizing religion that has directly sought converts has also played an important role.”
In the pre-Christian Roman world, the gods were actively involved in all aspects of both social and political life. It was the gods who had made Rome the great empire that it was, so while Christian beliefs could have joined the many that circulated around the empire, Christian monotheism and its intolerance of other religions was perceived as a threat to the Roman State and society at all levels.
Because of this, as writings in the Acts and Letters of the New Testament show, Christians were always vulnerable. The Emperor Nero (54–56 CE) blamed the conflagration of the city of Rome on Christians. Christians were at the mercy of local Roman officials who could handle things in whatever way they wished. The correspondence between Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan, early in the second century, reveals that Christians under his jurisdiction were being tortured – at that time believed to be the best method of extracting the truth. Suspected Christians were required to disprove their affiliations “by worshipping our gods;” if they did so they were acquitted.
Early Christians were meeting together in private homes, usually in the evenings since most had to work in the daytime. Because of this, rumors spread that they were engaged in all sorts of scandalous behavior. But even when faced with death, many Christians entirely refused to perform even minor cultic acts that might help to placate the gods and so maintain sociopolitical stability in the empire.
In the mid-third century, the Emperor Decius, when faced with upheaval from multiple sources including barbarians invading, economic instability and threats of assassination, realized that the gods needed to be worshipped with greater force. He issued an edict that required everyone in the empire to participate in the cultic act of sacrifice.
J.B. Rives notes in his article, “Decree of Decius and the Religion of the Empire,” The Journal of Roman Studies, that “It is thus not surprising that before Decius’ decree on universal sacrifice, there had been no centrally organized persecutions of Christians: it was only when a ‘religion of the Empire’ had been defined and its boundaries set that there could be a systematic persecution of people who transgressed those boundaries.”
Decius was killed in battle in 251 CE and Valerian, who took his place, was the first to sponsor an empire-wide persecution. But his reign and the edict were short-lived. His son Gallienus became Emperor and rescinded the edict. Christians enjoyed 43 years of peace in which their numbers grew exponentially.
Then in 303 CE the Emperor Diocletian, under pressure and fearing a threat to the Roman state, issued an edict that declared an empire-wide persecution that lasted for about a decade: those Christians who refused to worship or even tolerate the gods had to be destroyed. Their places of worship, scriptures, rank and lives were to be destroyed or the people enslaved. A further edict was issued that year that ordered the arrest and imprisonment of all bishops and priests. A short amnesty was declared later on in the same year but rescinded in 304 when collective and universal sacrifice was ordered under pain of torture and death.
Given that there was no authority to ensure that these decrees were carried out, enforcement was not universal. There is no way to know how many Christians were imprisoned or died, but modern historians feel that numbers like 100,000 were exaggerations. In his book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, Bart Ehrman says his research indicates it was “possibly hundreds of people, although almost certainly not many thousands. We do know that, in the end, the Christians came out on top. Constantine converted, and with one brief exception all the emperors to follow were Christian. There would never again be an official Roman persecution of the Christians.”
In 312, following a vision, the Emperor Constantine ordered a Christian symbol to be painted on his soldiers’ shields. Under this emblem he won a battle against Maxentius and his forces at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber River. Constantine converted to Christianity, and the following year as Western Roman Emperor, he and Licinius, the Eastern Roman Emperor, issued the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious toleration in the Empire and gave Christianity legal status, granting Christians restoration of all property seized during Diocletian’s persecution (303–311 CE).
Constantine’s eventual victory over Licinus influenced the rise of Christian- and Latin-speaking Rome and the decline of Pagan and Greek-speaking populations. He made Byzantium the capital of the East and renamed it Constantinople (Constantine’s City). It became the largest and wealthiest European city and was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity.
According to Stephen Sanderson, the converted Christian Constantine behaved in a traditional pre-Christian way: rather than destroy paganism as would happen later, he gave it equal standing with Christianity, and he himself continued to worship pagan gods.
In Religious Evolution and the Axial Age, Sanderson says, “As late as the middle of the fifth century much of the population of the Roman Empire was still pagan, and so paganism did not suddenly vanish (Brown, 1998; Stark, 2006). And because Christianity shared some pagan ideas and practices, it could incorporate them, and, indeed, did so. Some traditional pagan rituals for celebrating holidays were absorbed into Christianity, including candle lighting, bell ringing, festive dancing, and singing. However, these practices were not taken over unaltered, but were Christianized. The celebration of Easter also had deep roots in the mystery religions. Something like Easter had been widely practiced by pagans. The name itself may have been based on the Saxon goddess Eostre, but there were other goddesses with similar names. Pagan Easter was celebrated in the spring; indeed, the Old English word for spring was eastre.”
Ehrman sums up the situation: “Early Christians devised the notion of the separation of church and state. This was a view that made considerable sense to Christians of all types so far as we can tell—until the Roman emperor became Christian. Then suddenly the idea seemed to vanish. After Constantine began showering favors on the church, the political views of the apologists were taken off the table. Now it made obvious sense to Christians for the emperor and all his underlings to support, promote, and advance the cause of religion. … this imperial shift—not in policy but in allegiance—had a devastating effect on the pagan world. The tables had turned. Now it was Christians, with their exclusivist views about true religion, who were in charge. The persecutors became the persecuted.”
Council of Nicaea – Origins of the Trinity Doctrine
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.
We are back to persecution again, but this time the perpetrators are Christian and the victim, from the perspective of our human journey, was the Ancient Classical world. In 385 CE Theodosius the Great made Christianity the official state religion of Rome, he outlawed oracle sites and completely banned worship at pagan temples. Pagan sites great and small were plundered, repurposed, or simply buried and forgotten.
The Christian Church was now a powerful and far reaching institution. 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
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.”
Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi
The concepts of divine paternity and virgin-birth were familiar ones to people of the first century Roman Empire and throughout the ancient world.