Reflections on the Christ Myth, part 6: An Alternative
by Revilo P. Oliver
MR. CARTER PRESENTS a radically different theory about the origins of Christianity sometime in the First Century.
He takes his departure from the Stephen who appears in Acts, 6, 5 -7, 60, and is mentioned occasionally in subsequent chapters. The man’s Greek name does not prove that he was a Hellenistic Jew, and we are told that he “did great wonders and miracles among the people,” which sounds as though he were just another of the goëtae who swarmed through Asia Minor at that time. (36)
In Acts, Stephen delivers a summary of the Jewish tradition about Abraham and his successors, and then upbraids the orthodox for their rejection of Jesus. His speech receives divine approval, for, looking up through a rift in the atmosphere, he sees God with Jesus at his right hand. The Sanhedrin, however, condemn him and the mob stones him, a particularly brutal form of killing, which they enjoyed on the pretense that it did not involve bloodshed.
Mr. Carter dismisses the story in Acts as a Christian concoction. He believes that Stephen and his companions (all of whom bear Greek names) were members of the “New Letzim,” who had assimilated the Stoic doctrine with its emphasis on all humanity and wished to bring Judaism into accord with it, insisting that “the One God of the Universe is everybody’s God.” And he composes (p. 79) the speech that Stephen would have uttered, if he could, before he finally died. It is worthy of Epictetus.
Saul-Paul was a man who first approved the murder of Stephen, but reconsidered and joined the “New Letzim,” whose doctrines, a fusion of Judaism with Stoicism, Mr. Carter adumbrates with the proviso that “the Mystic Gospel of Jewish Hellenists” cannot be reconstructed in detail. “We cannot measure the complexity of the involvement of the protagonists — the degree, that is, to which the Hellenic Jews may have tried to fuse Greek and Jewish speculations. For the purpose of this study it is enough to conclude that Gentile ethics were the driving force behind the activities of the Letzim.”
These Letzim may have come to regard Stephen as a messianic figure, thus resulting in “the transformation of the martyred Stephen into both a JESUS (37) and a CHRIST in the minds of his worshipers, by at least the turn of the second century.”
There was really no reason why the Letzim should not have sponsored such a novel cult. For one thing, the real centre of Jewish power was not in Judaea, but in Babylon, which, except for a very brief time, was outside the borders of the Graeco-Roman world, which was increasingly centered in Rome. The greater part of the wealthy Jewish colony in Babylon in 538 B.C. had never thought of migrating to Judaea, and their opulent descendants continued to flourish in the city. (38) For another, despite what the Jews want us to believe today, Judaism in the First Century was not a unified set of doctrines, but included many groups of Jews who were heretics according to the standards of the Pharisees, but whom the rabbinate dared not suppress. (39) And finally, archaeological excavations have shown that opulent synagogues in Asia outside Judaea took their orthodoxy lightly, ignoring even the famous injunction about not worshiping other deities in the presence of Yahweh. If Greek gods were not worshiped in those synagogues, and there is at least one example of a prayer to Helios, composed in Greek but written in the Hebrew alphabet, they were at least sufficiently venerated to be given iconic representation.
Everyone was astonished when the excavations at Dura-Europos reached the remains of a monumental Third-Century synagogue in which at least two Greek deities were portrayed on the walls. More recently and more astonishingly, a synagogue built, regardless of cost, in the Fourth Century at Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and hence in Judaea itself, had a finely-wrought central mosaic, in which Helios is encircled by the zodiac, with its constellations represented by the customary figures. (40) Three of the four corners of the mosaic are preserved. In one corner is the head of a woman wearing a radiant crown (hence a goddess), holding a sickle; in the opposite corner a maiden with the white headdress of a virgin is pouring water from an ewer; in the third corner, a woman, perhaps garlanded, seems to be holding up a bowl of some fruit. (41)
Finally, we may note that some scholars believe that “Hellenistic Jews” were the creators of Gnosticism as a Jewish heresy from which the Christian Gnosticism was derived. (42)
We have therefore no reason to doubt the possibility that a group of “New Letzim” — necessarily a tiny minority, as Mr. Carter points out — did exist and flourish with impunity in Graeco-Roman territory so long as they kept themselves out of the power of the Jewish priesthood.
I cannot here do justice to the argument that occupies a large part of this book, and I must limit myself to noticing his conclusion that “Beginning around eighteen hundred years ago, a cabal of power-hungry Gentile churchmen labored to bring forth upon the land of western Asia a mystical system destined to crucify the whole of the Western world for centuries to come.”
This cabal saw an opportunity in the fact that “there was no place in the significant Gentile religions, or in Judaism, for the common people, or for the lowest of the low, the Am-ha-aretz, as the Judaeans characterized those who worked with their hands… or for slaves… or for the diseased, the crippled, the feeble and the old… or for the blind and dumb.” There was therefore a huge market for “a salvation religion that might appeal to the masses.”
“The scheme they [the cabal] decided upon was both shrewd and unique. They would fuse Gentile and Jewish religious speculations by assimilating a Jewish messianic figure [Stephen] to the savior gods of Asia; they would validate his existence with ‘prophecies’ culled from the ancient and sacred writings of the Israelites; and they would promise to open the temples of holiness to everyone, including the unholy — thereby providing the masses with a broader-based creed than any existing in western Asia.”
He discusses the way in which the conspirators selected from various mythologies the elements of the religion they were concocting, and the points on which they had to decide and about which they quarreled, thus precipitating the wild squabbles of the ninety Christian sects that were in existence in the Fourth Century. And he reviews summarily the Christians’ unparalleled achievement as habitual Liars for the Lord and incorrigible forgers. (43)
Mr. Carter therefore vindicates the Jews from any imputation of guilt, and indicts the presumably non-Jewish Christians: “The Catholic Christians are guilty of committing the moral crime of appropriating the sacred writings of another people in order to validate the existence of their divine hero; they forged and otherwise fabricated the entire literature of their church in order to provide an historical foundation for their faith; and along with their fellow Christians (Protestants, Episcopalians, et al.) they have corrupted the minds of countless millions over the centuries.”
You may not accept Mr. Carter’s thesis, but you must accept his demonstration that the authors or redactors of the tales about Jesus in the “New Testament” had only a superficial knowledge of conditions in Judaea at the long past time at which the fictitious events were supposed to take place.
To be continued.
36. On these, see Professor Morton Smith’s Jesus the Magician (New York, Harper & Row, 1978), especially Chapters 6 and 7. He concentrates on their psychological tricks; the mechanical tricks can be explained by any competent magician.
37. He regards ‘Jesus’ as being, in this connection, not the name of a man, but a descriptive term, meaning ‘savior.’
38. See especially Jacob Neusner, “The Jews East of the Euphrates and the Roman Empire: I, lst-3rd Centuries A.D.,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Band IX, Halbband 1, pp.46-69.
39. For a very quick summary, adequate for our purposes here, see Michael E. Stone, “Judaism at the Time of Christ,” Scientific American, CCXXVIII (1973) #1, pp. 80-87.
40. See the photograph in the Biblical Archaeology Review, July-August 1993, pp. 28-29.
41. Each figure is identified by a word in an alphabet that is evolving toward the Hebrew letters with which we are all familiar. The characters are too small and, in the photograph, not sufficiently distinct for my aged eyes to read them.
42. See R.E. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 1959); R.M. Wilson, The Gnostic Problem (London, Mowbrey, 1958). Both authors sedulously avoid offending Christian theologians.
43. For a fuller conspectus of this flagitious record, see Joseph Wheless, Forgery in Christianity (New York, Knopf, 1930).
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