Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Birth of Christianity 1: Background

Over the course of a few posts during lent, I want to present one possible scenario for how the death of Jesus led to the birth of Christianity, hopefully explaining all the evidence we have today. It assumes the authors of the various texts had good reason to write what they did (and certainly none of them were lying!), but not that the texts were necessarily true. I will try to support each claim as I go along.

I will start by looking at what the Jews believed; the culture in which Jesus lived.

The Messiah

Judea was conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BC, who were conquered by the Persians under Cyrus in 539 BC, who in turn was conquered by Alexander the Great in 322 BC. After a brief  of self-rule from 167 BCE to 63 BCE, they became part of the Roman Empire (see here).

In this milieu, the idea of a messiah was established - a saviour and liberator of the Jewish people. The Messiah would be a direct male descendant of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16), a new king who would usher in the new Messianic age, bring the scattered Jewish people back to the homeland, etc.
To be clear, there was a king of the Jews at the time of Jesus, but he was no messiah. He was a puppet of the Romans, and not of the line of David.

This Messianic age was the kingdom of God on earth, and it is what Jesus was praying for when he said; "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven".

The Spirits of the Dead

The Jews believed that at death the spirit departed the body - specifically with the last breath, as breath and spirit were deeply connected - to reside in Sheol:
Psalm 16:10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
It may be argued that this Psalm is specifically about the messiah, but the messiah was a man too; his spirit was not of a different nature to anyone else.

See also here:
Isaiah 14:9 “Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come;
It arouses for you the [e]spirits of the dead, all the [f]leaders of the earth;
It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones.
And also:
1 Samuel 28:11 Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel.
14 And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself.
15 And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.
It is also worth pointing out that in the later gospels, Jesus was at pains to point out that he was not a ghost after his resurrection, indicating a cultural belief in dead spirits.

Resurrection Event and Judgement Day

The resurrection was an answer to "Why does God let bad things happen to good people?", also known as the "Problem of Evil". The Jews were God's chosen people, so why was God allowing them to be ruled over by a succession of other nations? There was no single answer, but one that became popular was that when the Messianic age came, everything would be put right - those who subjugated the Jews would be punished, and anyone who had died - and was righteous - would be resurrected to live forever.

The "resurrection" was an event that was anticipated with the start of the Messianic Age. This is when the dead would be judged, and the righteous resurrected in new, heavenly bodies, whilst the sinful go to eternal suffering.

The impact of this is seen in 2 Maccabees 7, when a mother and her seven sons were happy to die for their faith. For example:
2 Maccabees 7:9 but with his dying breath he cried out to the king, You butcher! You may kill us, but the King of the universe will raise us from the dead and give us eternal life, because we have obeyed his laws.
The nature of the resurrection is described in Daniel:
Daniel 2:2 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. 3 [b]Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

Daniel 7:9-10 “As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
Daniel was one of the last books of the Old Testament to be written, and the idea of the resurrection may have been comparatively late, but was well established by Jesus' time. 2 Maccabees is dated even later (though is not considered canonical by protestants).

Jesus too subscribed to this belief:
Mark 12:25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.
All the above was the standard Jewish belief (though not held by the Saducees, who rejected the resurrection), and is still held by Jews even today.

The Pharisees

In common with most Jews, the Pharisees believed in the coming resurrection, but they also believed that God would send the Messiah only when Jews were sufficiently observant of the law, and so they saw a strict obedience to the letter of the law to be vital.

Josephus notes about the Pharisees:
14. But then as to the two other orders at first mentioned, the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws, and introduce the first sect. These ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, - but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.
- Jewish War 2.8.14
The Pharisees were "most skillful in the exact explication of their laws" because they understood that that was the way to facilitate the arrival of the messiah. They believed God would judge the spirits, with the good "removed into other bodies", i.e., resurrected and the bad "subject to eternal punishment".

The modern rabbinic Judaism of today has its roots in the Pharisees.


Most of the Jews of that time were hoping for the arrival of the new king, the messiah, who would overthrow the Romans and start God's kingdom on Earth. At that time, the dead, who were merely spirits in Sheol, would be judged, and the righteous resurrected in new bodies that shine like the stars, whilst the sinful go for eternal suffering.

Addendum (10/Apr/18)

There is a thing called "Semitic Totality Concept", which claims that the Ancient Jews understood a person to be the sum of both body and spirit, and indeed the the soul to be the combination of the two. I am not sure how universal this idea is - at least under that name - but Google suggests it is pretty limited, and it may well have been made up by Tektonics. The best discussion I have found for it is here.

It is dubious that this was uniquely Semitic, the idea that love comes from the heart comes from Egypt, and modern neuroscience indicates consciousness supervenes on the brain. Indeed, according to Tektonics, a disembodied spirit is nevertheless a possibility, which it is not according to neuroscience!
Thus, Paul regards being an un-bodied spirit as a form of nakedness (2 Cor. 5). Man is not whole without a body. A man is a totality which embraces "all that a man is and ever shall be."
So while the Jews may well have seen the soul as the totality of body and spirit, that does not preclude any of the above discussion.

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