Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule



When, at the close of the eighteenth century, Gibbon wrote his history of the Roman empire, he was constrained by popular prejudice in favor of the faith to take Christianity as a going affair, without attempting any inquiry into its origins. It was as radical a task as he could undertake to endeavor to show that the spread of the creed throughout the empire in the first four centuries of its history had been a consequence of natural rather than supernatural forces. In no small measure because of his labors the historians who followed him were under less restraint, but until the middle of the nineteenth century it was still generally held by Christians that the Testaments were 'inspired' and literally true to the letter of the word. But as a result of the accumulated force of a hundred years of textual and archaeological studies, by the last half of the century faith in the miraculous element was generally abandoned, so that of the gospel stories there remained with the appearance of historical certitude only the belief that about the beginning of the Christian Era a Jewish teacher by the name of Jesus was baptized by John and, when the latter was imprisoned, took up preaching, his message being that the Kingdom of God was near at hand and that the Jews -- not the gentiles, for that was Paul's distinctive contribution -- could be saved by repentance and baptism. He came into conflict with Jewish or Roman law and was crucified, and was possibly mocked by the Roman soldiers. Through certain of his apostles his message was conveyed to the visionary Paul, who discovered in the crucifixion a piacular sacrifice for the redemption of all mankind.

However, in the nineteenth century, it became increasingly clear that none of the teachings could with absolute certainty be ascribed to a real Jesus, and fewer still of the biographical details. The deletion of unacceptable supernatural features from the gospels had reduced the core of acceptable tradition concerning Jesus's life to almost negligible proportions. The first systematic analysis in English of the gospels as historical documents was C. C. Hennell's An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity (1838). It was, however, the scholarly work of David Strauss (1808-1874), notably his Leben Jesu (1835), which dealt the literal interpretation of the gospels its severest blow. These documents, in Strauss's view, should not be looked upon as historic accounts but as expressing ideas by means of images and symbols, or, as Strauss said, by myths. In emphasizing the purely ideological character of the Gospel of John and the literary nature of the Jesus therein described, he cast suspicion on the other three gospels. Strauss was an acknowledged biblical scholar and exegete, and his work marks on the one hand the definitive beginning of modern criticism of the New Testament, while on the other it portends, without itself initiating, the attack upon the historicity of the Jesus of Mark, Matthew and Luke.

Strauss paved the way for Bruno Bauer, a German theologian and historian, who in a number of volumes published between 1840 and 1874 and dealing with the synoptic gospels and Pauline epistles arrived at the conviction that Jesus was a literary invention of the author of Mark, who had in his gospel epitomized, as it were, the newly born Christianity. By the end of the century the ferment of skepticism had penetrated further into the liberal interpretation, and in the first three decades of the present century numerous writers abandoned historicity entirely in favor of one or another legendary interpretation, or had retreated to what has been called the 'minimalist position' because they accept that an authentic character (who was possibly named Jesus) played a role in the initiation of the Christian movement, though little or nothing reliable can be asserted about his life or death. Renan's highly popular Vie de JÚsus (1863) was an intuitional romance, written after this biblical scholar had come to realize that any historical approach to the man Jesus was impossible, and after Renan it was recognized that all efforts to reconstruct a 'life' must belong strictly to the romantic field.

The conjecture that Jesus may have been the victim of a ritual murder at an annual celebration of the rite of the mock king was considered by Frazer, and the modern historian Toynbee notes that the suggestion is not impugned, but is rather fortified, by the fact that Jesus was condemned to death on religious and political grounds and therefore may have been given to the mob by Pilate as a substitute. The name of Barabbas, whom Pilate offered as an alternative to Jesus, is particularly significant in this connection. Frazer believed that Barabbas (son of the father) was not a personal name but a title applied to the condemned criminal selected to play the role of the 'Son of the Father' in the mock king sacrifice. According to Philo, Carabas, which is neither a Greek nor Hebrew nor Aramaic word and which Frazer believed to be a corruption of Barabbas, was the name of a harmless lunatic who was paraded in contempt of Agrippa, as mock king in Alexandria in the year 38. Reinach pointed out that in the Armenian, Syriac and some of the cursive Greek versions of the scene before Pilate 'Jesus Barabbas' appears instead of 'Barabbas', which reading, if not a corruption, implies that Jesus was condemned to be put to death as 'the Barabbas' without any question of substitution for another prisoner. Critics have been strongly adverse to the theory of an authentic mock king sacrifice on the grounds of the improbability that such a sacrifice among Jews or others would be permitted by the Roman government at this late date. It seems to be historically certain, however, that Dasius was beheaded for refusing to play the fatal role of the mock king in a Roman garrison on a remote frontier of Empire at the much later date of 303. Alternatively, Toynbee leans to the view that the mock king ritual may have been superimposed upon Jesus's death by the Roman soldiers as a burlesque; but as between this possibility and the possibilities that, at one extreme, Jesus was literally the victim of a ritual murder or, at the other extreme, that the ritual attached itself as myth to some ordinary Roman crucifixion, he states, 'the problem is not a simple one; and in the present state of our knowledge it would be rash to attempt to decide between the several alternative possible solutions of it ... we may be content with a general conclusion ... [that] ritual, as well as myth, is in all probability one of the common sources from which identical elements have flowed, along separate channels of "folk-memory," into the story of Jesus on the one hand and the stories of our pagan historical heroes on the other.'

Notable among the proponents of a purely legendary origin are Robertson and Couchoud, who have dealt, respectively, with the mythological elements in the 'Life' and the history of the development of the gospel texts themselves. In Robertson's view, the gospel story of the Last Supper, Passion, Betrayal, Trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection was originally a transcript of a mystery drama of a kind that had long been familiar to the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Greek-speaking peoples of Asia Minor, a drama symbolizing the primitive rite of human sacrifice and resembling the mock king sacrifice of Attis and other Mediterranean gods. In its oldest and least sophisticated form, as discoverable in Mark, there is simply a presentation of certain events which are huddled one upon another as must be the case in any sequence intended to be enacted: the scene shifts rapidly from the Last Supper to the Mount of Olives, thence to Gethsemane; Jesus prays while all his disciples sleep and no one (except, of course, the audience) is present to hear his words; Judas enters and identifies him to the soldiers, and Jesus is taken to the house of the high priest where he is examined in the middle of the night. False witnesses are procured, Jesus is questioned, buffeted and presumably led away; and Peter, remaining on the scene, denies his lord and is convicted of treason by the crowing of the cock. Morning comes, and Jesus is led before Pilate, condemned and crucified. Perhaps in an epilogue the women came and discovered the empty sepulcher, and Jesus reappeared and addressed them briefly. Apart from the resurrection, the entire drama transpires in the twenty-four hours classically prescribed for dramatic action, with only such dialogue as is absolutely necessary; there is no description, no analysis, no finespun interpretation as would be expected in a narrative. Constructed for dramatic presentation only, the original script, as indeed the ultimate presentation in the gospels, contained little beyond the lines which actors must read or speak upon the stage.

Complementing Robertson's view of the unhistorical character of Jesus are the studies of Couchoud who has attempted to reconstruct the development of the messianic doctrine from its inception in Daniel and Enoch to its final product in the Gospel of Luke. The Book of Enoch and its doctrine of the advent of the Heavenly Man, whom it erroneously identified with Isaiah's 'anointed one,' or christos, must have been well known, Couchoud argues, in the early part of the first century, and it is presumed that John the Baptist was one of those who esteemed its prophetic verity. John, fearlessly facing the prohibition against prophecy, declared 'Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand .... And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees,' and in the living waters which flowed down Jordan he baptized repentant believers by completely immersing them, thus permitting them to await without apprehension the coming Judgment. Those who were baptized were set aside from all mankind, fasting and praying while waiting for the Day; holding themselves elect in divine grace, they kept aloof from Pharisee and Sadducee and disdained the fiddling rites prescribed by the ancient Law.

The doctrine of a universal cataclysm and the expectation of the coming of the Heavenly Man continued to spread. In the Book of Enoch the Son of Man had been given a secret name by God when the deity had called him from his eternal dwelling place to send him on his mission; pseudo-Enoch had not revealed this secret name, but a careful scrutiny of the scriptures succeeded in bringing it to light: it was Joshua, which means 'Yahweh saves.' Hence Joshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Jesus in Latin, became the personal name of the Heavenly Man, the christos, who was to be the supernatural judge and princely vicegerent in the coming Kingdom of God. In this name the Christiani could drive away demons, trample on serpents and scorpions and heal the sick, and even unbelievers were known to use it for purposes of exorcism with success.

When Barnabas brought to Antioch the little but fiery and proud Paul who had but recently been 'converted,' there came into the movement a new driving force. It was Paul who added the cross to the messianic doctrine, getting the idea from a passage in Psalms which describes the sufferings of a sick man who thought himself a prey to demon tortures: 'They pierced my hands and my feet,' and 'They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.' These expressions conjured up in Paul's mind the Roman method of execution by 'hanging a man to a tree,' and the disposal of the garments of the victim; they gave new meaning to the hitherto vague description of Isaiah's 'man of sorrows.' So Paul preached that the 'Messiah' had already suffered death in the familiar Roman manner. Here he met with vigorous opposition: crucifixion was not a form of sacrifice, for which purpose it would be ineffective since no blood was spilled; on the contrary it was the most humiliating death penalty, and it was condemned by the Deuteronomist who had said that he 'that is hanged [upon a tree] is accursed of God.' Paul replied in effect that not only the words of the Deuteronomist but all the Mosaic Law had been blotted out by the sacrificial crucifixion of the anointed one: he forged from the accursed crucifixion a new and powerful weapon against the orthodox Hebrews who scoffed at his messianic belief and who would preserve the Law at all costs. And to the gentiles who scorned a god who had died in this humiliating manner, he replied that he himself was a 'crucified,' he had a 'thorn in the flesh,' he died daily to bring them the divine message; how much greater then was the crucifixion of the Heavenly Man himself? Projecting his tortured life onto the divine plane, Paul gloried in the death not as a mortal but as a supernal agony; as the mystic rite of baptism united the believer with the Christos, so the crucifixion of the Christos, who was identical with God, was a mystic source of salvation compared with which the sacrifice of an individual was nothing.

Then, in the Apocalypse of John (ca. A.D. 65), Paul's atoning sacrifice was developed into a pageant of glory patterned after the Attisian Mysteries wherein the god dies to ascend from death as a piacular sacrifice. John rudely drops Paul's crucifixion out of the picture as a clumsy device; to him the Heavenly Man is a god-hero of a divine epic; he is yet to come and he has as yet nothing to do with the earth or with its history. When he appears he will last a thousand years and will leap down from heaven on a snowy horse and draped in a cloak red with dripping blood. As with Paul, so with John, God and Jesus are one person, grammatically and otherwise, but apart from this point the beliefs of the two writers are incompatible.

As the ekklesia continued to exchange letters communicating the latest revelations, or a new liturgic prayer, an ambitious author could gain attention merely by prefacing an epistle with a few suggestive lines giving it the pretense of having been written by one of the early apostles. Thus according to the needs of the moment there appeared an 'epistle of James,' three of 'John,' two of 'Peter,' one of 'Jude,' and several of 'Paul,' to mention only those which are generally accepted. Ultimately the question of which of these numerous documents were to be accepted and which rejected became a trying issue, and it was in such a crisis that the faith encountered its first major division of belief over the teachings of Marcion, a shipmaster of Pontus, who held firmly to Paul's mystical crucifixion. It was Marcion, obversely through the resistance aroused by his beliefs, who was destined to forge the major elements of the Christian creed.

Marcion had sought out all that remained of the Pauline epistles, edited them with such interpolations and emendations as he thought needful, and presented them in a compact work, the Apostolikon, which was distributed to all the churches. He probably also wrote a life of Paul, and he certainly prepared a gospel which is now lost, but which has been almost completely reconstructed from quotations in Tertullian, Epiphanius, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement, Origen and other early writers. Strongly anti-Jewish, he differed from the Roman churchmen in holding that Christianity was a new religion which had been revealed all at once to Paul; the crucified Christ had nothing in common with the Jewish messiah, and the Father of Christ was a good God, a God of love, who had nought to do with the sanguinary, wrathful and jealous Yahweh of the Jews. Marcion cast aside the Old Testament as an uninspired and superstitious Jewish document and would have relegated Yahweh to the subordinate position of a demiurge.

The most novel feature of Marcion's teaching was contained in the opening sentence of his gospel: 'Now, in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, Jesus, the Son of God, came down from heaven and appeared at Capernaum, a town in Galilee.' Here, for the first time, is recorded a specific date for Jesus's appearance on earth, but Marcion's Jesus was not truly of the flesh, but a spiritual apparition who appeared suddenly as an adult and had only the semblance of a man.

The belief that Jesus had actually (or seemingly) appeared on earth, at a relatively recent time, and had actually (or seemingly) been crucified, was possibly one which was prevalent in the Asiatic provinces where Marcion lived. The Roman Christians, to judge from the writings of Hermas, apparently never entertained such a notion. However Marcion had come upon the idea, the reference to the erection of Paul's Cross on earth in the historic time of Pilate strongly fortified the whole Christian argument. All the churches were prepared to accept without debate Marcion's introductory assertion concerning the historicity of Jesus's crucifixion and its date; otherwise, they rejected his beliefs and revised his gospel according to their local preferences, the product which received favor in Rome appearing about 135 under the name of Mark. Mark still has the adult Jesus appear suddenly on earth at the beginning of his ministry, but he no longer functions in a purely mystical manner as does Marcion's Jesus: he uses his spittle to cure a blind man, puts his fingers into ear holes, touches tongues, lays on hands, looks up to heaven, heaves, sighs and utters abracadabra in the manner of all professional exorcists.

In Asia Minor about 140, a Christian scribe, who was a converted rabbi, and wrote under the name of a legendary 'Matthew,' noted how much of Marcion's gospel had been omitted from Mark's account, and disliking Marcion's anti-Yahwism, rearranged the material in such a manner as to controvert Marcion and yet make Jesus a Jew. He set out to show that Jesus was the Messiah, the Prince of Yahweh who had been promised by the prophets of Israel, and to accomplish this he pieced together a pseudobiographical story in which every syllable of prophecy in the Old Testament was fulfilled in Jesus's life, inventing to this end Jesus's miracles, his intentional obscurity, the obtuseness of his hearers, his employment of parables, his entry into Jerusalem, his betrayal, desertion and arrest, even the use made of the price of his betrayal. One obstacle only presented difficulty: the Messiah must, in accordance with the Old Testament, be a son of David, but he must also be divine in order to conform with the Pauline doctrine. In no way daunted, Matthew began his gospel with a human genealogy which ended: 'And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ ... Now the birth of Jesus was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.' Thus, by genealogy and immaculate conception was the messianic identity of Jesus proved.

At Ephesus in Grecian Asia, a second recension of the Markian document appeared under the name of John, being completed before 145. In this, the confused notions of the prophet of that name who had written the incomprehensible apocalypse called Revelation were preserved by making Jesus the embodiment in the flesh of the Word of God, thus satisfying the oriental adoration of the mystic Word.

When, in the reign of the Emperor Antonius Pius, the Roman church cut away from Judaism completely and set out for itself, it was prepared to take the Old Testament with it, contrary to Marcion whom it had condemned chiefly because he denied the flesh-and-blood nature of Jesus. The new literature was reconciled with the old scriptures by maintaining that God had first made a covenant with one people, the Jews, and now he would make a covenant with another people, the Christians; there were then to be two Covenants, an Old and a New, or as the Latin had it, two Testaments. An official selection of literature, however, was now imperative in order both to codify belief and to bring to the notice of the rulers, the literati and sympathizers generally the story of the new faith. The most convincing approach and the only one which would refute Marcion's apparitional Jesus would be to treat him, as Matthew had done, as a historic person fulfilling the messianic prophecies, instead of as a spirit who had put on the semblance of flesh; while the best political maneuver would be to endow the messianic man with all the magic powers attributed to him by Mark, the speaker for the powerful Roman church. Indeed, it appears to have been a Roman in the person of Clement, who was then a sort of general church secretary, who compiled a biography for distribution to all the churches which included a new and 'orderly' gospel of his own. This was concluded about the year 142 and either at this time or later was attributed pseudepigraphically to the Luke who in tradition had been Paul's comrade. Thus by virtue of Luke's name and Clement's finely spun detail, the Roman gospel acquired authoritative force.

In brief, in Couchoud's view, sectarian Jews took the messianic Heavenly Man from Enoch and endowed him with the attributes both of an uncreated god and of a man of flesh who suffered a piacular death. It was Paul who first conceived the death to be as a crucifixion; it was Marcion who first treated the crucifixion as a historic event and, possibly following a popular pagan notion, set the date as under Pontius Pilate; it was the Syrian author of Matthew, anxious to combat the 'apparitional' Jesus and the anti-Jewish prejudices espoused by Marcion, who gave Jesus a Jewish human mother and identified him with the Messiah of Israel; while it was the Ephesian author of John who made him the embodiment in the flesh of the Word of God. It remained only for Clement, the Roman author of Luke, to write a pseudo biography of a human Jesus divinely born in Nazareth as a subject of Augustus and numbered in the census of Quirinus.

When Plutarch, the pagan apologist, was called upon to consider the theory that Osiris had been a general or other famous personage around whom there had grown a great mass of legends, he replied that to accept this explanation 'would be to shake and loosen a worship and faith which have been firmly settled in nearly all mankind from their infancy. It would be to open a wide door to atheism to enter in at, and to encourage the attempts of those who would humanize the divine nature.' It is in a similar vein that a recent critic of those who would question the historicity of Jesus has replied, 'The strongest and most irrefragable evidence of all is provided by the existence and history of the Christian Church. If the "Christ-Myth" theory is true, and if Jesus never lived, the whole civilized world has for close upon two thousand years lain under the spell of a lie, and the greatest power for good that the world has ever known originated in a delusion.'

The historicity of Osiris is no longer for anyone a vital question. In proportion as critical examination of the evidence for the historicity of Jesus reduces this evidence to a smaller and less certain residue, so in the nature of the problem and in the progress of world thought does the importance of the question itself recede toward the dimensions of academic interest. A proponent of historicity has remarked of the radical critics that it is the most difficult task in the world to prove to nonsense that it is nonsense. But that is a dangerous rapier since it is pointed at both ends and Christian theology now stands revealed as having been excessively vulnerable for nineteen centuries. The ultimate answer to the question of historicity will be found not in sentiment or prejudice, or on the apologetic grounds which Plutarch states, but through the careful and dispassionate evaluation of the social and ideological forces of the first century, as opposed to the obscurely complex biblical texts. The answer will continue to be sought by all historians, Christian and otherwise, who are anxious to guard against an error that would be contrary to the first principles of their task.


In so far as Christianity originated as a movement to temper Judaic legalism, it proved ineffective against the immutability of the parent faith. He who was 'unto Jews a stumblingblock and unto the Greeks foolishness,' had come and gone, and Israel, far from having profited by his advent, was wholly destroyed (or so it seemed after the Romans had demolished Jerusalem). The new religion had quietly borrowed from Judaism the history and morality of the Old Testament and many of the precepts of the Mishna; it had appropriated Yahweh, altering him from a god of righteousness and of the Jews to a god of goodness who was equally a god of gentiles; and it had seen the messianic hope fulfilled. The Jews, however, were not disposed, either by the vicissitudes of their national history or by their immediate circumstances, to permit Yahweh to indulge in sentimental goodness or to love the gentiles, and because he failed to make of them 'a great nation,' they rejected Jesus as the true Messiah. The orthodox looked upon the cult as another 'backsliding,' another 'whoring after new gods,' and the Judaism which had engendered it denied it utterly.

Because they were scoffed at by the Jews, the Christians made it appear that it had been the Jews and Herod Antipas, the Jewish tetrarch, who had tried Jesus and condemned him, and who had urged Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, to crucify him, Pilate carefully washing his hands of the whole affair. From the Gospel of Mark, through Matthew, John and Luke, into that called of Peter, a veritable crescendo of animus is spun against Herod and the Jewish mob. In the so-called Gospel of Peter, written about A.D. 150, it is related, 'But of the Jews not one washed his hands, neither Herod nor any one of his judges. And as they would not wash themselves, Pilate stood up. And then Herod the king bade the Lord to be brought along, and said to them: "Whatsoever I have ordered you to do, that do unto him."' The Christians dared not lay the blame for Jesus's death on a powerful Roman official and they cleared the Roman governor completely. But they ran no risk in heaping contumely on the scattered and powerless people who had disowned them.


Between its inception and its final establishment the syncretic growth of Christianity was so much in evidence that its sponsors were frequently hard pressed to explain the parallels between its doctrines and rituals and those of the pagans, especially the Mithraists. The Mithraic priests baptized that god's devotees with holy water, signed them on their foreheads, transferred the holy spirit to them by the 'laying on of hands' and exorcised devils by holding two or more fingers directed towards the suppliant. The apocalyptic phrase about garments 'washed in the blood of the Lamb' conjoins the Mithraic taurobolium and the Passover sacrifice, while the abstinence of Lent was paralleled by periods of forbearance in all the purificatory cults. The candle, the smoke of incense, the amulet and the chanted incantation served to purify and protect the Christians as effectively as they served the Mithraists, or indeed, as they served the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and most of the peoples of the Mediterranean world. These similarities, according to Justin Martyr and Tertullian, were due to the wicked devil anticipating and imitating Christianity, and the same argument was used by Fermicus to explain the parallel between the crucified Jesus and the Attisian image of a young man fastened to a tree.

The cross, the pine tree of Adonis and the crux ansata of the Egyptians were carved upon the grave to ward off evil demons and the manual sign was freely used to protect the living against misfortune and disease. Tertullian reports that, 'At every step, at ever movement, at every coming in and going out, in putting on our clothes and our shoes, in the bath, at table in the evening, lying down or sitting, whatever attitude we assume, we mark our foreheads with a little sign of the cross.' Shortly images of the cross were working miracles and in later centuries people went to the length of marking cattle with it to protect them from disease.

The Egyptian belief in the magic power of a god's secret name, so well exemplified in the legend of Ra and Isis, had probably inspired the Israelites with that people's excessive reverence for the name of Yahweh, an epithet which was never to be pronounced except by a holy priest. The force of this tradition on the Judaic side, combined with the reverence still accorded sacred names in Alexandria and in all the Roman temples of Isis and Serapis, enabled the Pauline doctrine to propound that when Jesus was risen from the dead and made to sit on the right hand of God, God exalted him highly, and gave unto him 'a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven and things in earth, and things under the earth.' This meant angels and devils and demons of every sort, and the 'name' in question was Christ, which exalted its owner to the summit and sovereignty of all the angelic and demonic creations. 'In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.' When Peter made a lame man walk, it was by faith in this powerful 'name'; and it was the 'name,' qua name, which was later used to exorcise evil spirits from the altar, shrine or any building, from holy oil, water, salt, candles and even hassocks, or from humans sick in consequence of being possessed by devils. The formula 'in the name of Jesus,' or 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost' became a supernatural implement equaling in potency any Egyptian incantation.

At first, still or stagnant water was not used for baptism and exorcism, it being held that it was inefficacious unless it could run off the body and carry with it the physical contamination; but by an edict of the Emperor Gratian in the fourth century, holy water was prepared from still water by having the priest bless it, exorcise it, sprinkle it with exorcised salt and endow it with the holy name. Tertullian said that such holy water when properly consecrated by a Christian priest could wash away the stains of transgression, which he believed to be like material dirt, whereas the so-called 'holy waters' of the rival pagan cults, and those taken from 'darkling springs and lonely rivers,' being tenanted by the devil who had set out to imitate God, were worse than inefficacious.

In the worship of Osiris grain or cakes made from grain had been identified with the body of the god and when eaten ritually the meal was considered to possess mystic virtues. That such an identification was widely recognized in Roman times is certain from Cicero's rhetorical question about the corn of Ceres and the wine of Bacchus; a eucharistic meal of sorts may reasonably be attributed to the worshipers of Demeter and Dionysus, and there can be no doubt about such a meal in the cults of Attis and Mithra. The substance of the sacramental meal, known to the pagans as the hostia (victim), was taken over by the Pauline Christians in the vegetarian form: 'Take, eat, this is my body ... this is my blood.' 'Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.' The nature of the Eucharist was clearly indicated in the gospels, since Jesus at the Last Supper gave his companions bread to eat and wine to drink as symbols of his own flesh and blood. A later writer, speaking of the Mithraic sacrament, which by Mithra's worshipers was believed to impart eternal life, said, 'thou hast eaten poison and drunk the cup of death; only the Christian Eucharist confers immortality.' Ignatius, who called the Eucharist the 'medicine of immortality,' complained of those 'who abstain from the Eucharist and the prayers, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour, Jesus Christ'; while Justin Martyr asserted, 'We do not hold these as common bread and drink, but, just as our Saviour Christ was incarnate by the action of the divine Logos, from flesh and blood of salvation, so we maintain that the [consecrated] food ... is the flesh and blood of Jesus incarnate.' In the ninth century Hincmar of Reims affirmed that God permitted the sacramental bread to continue to look like bread, knowing how dreadful it would be for a communicant if the red and bloody flesh were to become visible. The question whether the Eucharist was Jesus's flesh and blood in fact, or only after a manner, remained to be bitterly debated long after the Reformation.

Where the pagans celebrated their animal sacrifices at frequent intervals, the Christians dramatized the crucifixion in the form of the 'mass,' which word in the Latin missa was possibly derived from the Mithraic sacred cake, or mizd. The slaughter of an ox or ram or pig was more or less a matter of daily experience, whereas symbolic human sacrifice, when coupled with the sacramental meal, the 'drug of immortality,' served to evoke that emotional state which seemed more appropriate to the approaching Day of Judgment.

As with most deities in the Northern Hemisphere, the death and resurrection of Jesus was placed as near as possible to the spring equinox, while in accordance with Babylonian-Mithraic custom it was put after the full moon. (The name Easter comes from Eostre (OstÔra) an Anglo-Saxon goddess of the spring, and was not used until the Middle Ages.) The Christians at first observed the Jewish Sabbath as a holy day, but they later changed their weekly meeting to Sunday to spite the Jews and to please the Mithraists, the first day of the week having been the sun god's day in both Egyptian and Mithraic lore. About the year 354, the birthday of Jesus was set at the winter solstice, the time at which all the sun gods from Osiris to Jupiter and Mithra had celebrated theirs, the celebration being adorned with the pine tree of Adonis, the holly of Saturn, and the mistletoe, the yellow leaves of which gave the name to Frazer's classic, The Golden Bough, which describes the cult of Diana-Artemis at Aricia. Gifts of lighted tapers and of human dolls had long been exchanged at the winter revel of the Saturnalia. The tapers represented the kindling of the newborn sun god's fire. That the first doll was a device of malignant magic is a priori scarcely to be denied, but Varro, a Roman historian of the first century B.C., attests that the dolls of the Saturnalia were symbols of commuted human sacrifices.

For the masses of the Roman Empire the miraculous was a commonplace, and the popular healing divinities -- Isis, Imhotep and Serapis of the Nile, Ishtar and Marduk of Babylonia, Astarte of Syria, the great Asklepios of Greece and others who were equated with him, healed as frequently by personal intervention as by the iatromagic of roots, herbs, diets, baths and unguents. Of Dionysus, Aristides said, "Nothing, it would seem, shall be so firmly bound, either by disease, or rage, or by any fortune, that Dionysus shall not be able to loose it." Had the new faith discouraged the miraculous it would have been incomprehensible to the people it sought to proselytize. Yet in respect to the nature of the miracles performed there was scant originality, for they imitated either the prophets or the pagan gods: Jesus turned water into wine, as did Dionysus on January sixth of every year; and multiplied loaves of bread, as did Elisha. He walked on water like Orion, Poseidon's son. He raised men from the dead, as did Elijah and Elisha -- this feat had once been so common that Aristophanes in The Frogs (ca. 405 B.C.) made Dionysus say of Hermes and of Hermes's father, that performing resurrections was a family profession. He gave sight to the blind by application of his spittle, the remedy which Thoth had used to restore the eye of Horus, and one which was used all around the Mediterranean by medicine men and had even been used successfully and to his great fame by the Emperor Vespasian -- only Jesus asserts that the man he treated had been born blind merely in order that his (Jesus's) own power could be exhibited, 'the works of God made manifest.' He healed the leper, the lunatic, the deaf and dumb, as did Asklepios. He exorcised demons, read men's minds and foretold the future as did all the wonder-working men of the time. The Pauline Epistles make no mention of Jesus's miraculous power, and had these miracles been known to Paul it is inconceivable that all mention of them would have been omitted. The miraculous element was interpolated partly to convince the pagans, partly in the effort to convince the Jews that Jesus was the true Messiah, and partly by the sheer credulity of the Christian mind. In the fourth century multiplication of miracles worked by martyrs was so rapid that it drew the emphatic disapproval of conservative churchmen, yet it bespoke the general ecclesiastic conviction that miracles need never end and could be multiplied as needed.

Among the factors contributing to the spread of Christianity not the least important was the social quality of the people to whom it offered its supernatural benefits. It numbered among its proselytes as many, if not more, women than men, and women were excluded from most of the privileges of Mithraism, its chief competitor. It openly appealed to the humble, the poor in spirit, slaves, paupers, freedmen, men of bad repute, all those whom other pagan sects with aristocratic tone engendered by age and experience were inclined to disdain. The pagans were quick to note this, and Celsus, about A.D. 180, jeered at the new cult for its extreme democracy: 'It is only the simpletons, the ignoble, the senseless, slaves and womenfolk and children whom they wish to persuade or can persuade.'

Celsus should not be quoted against the Christians without mention of the facts that the barbarians were making inroads on the northern frontier, the Parthians were pressing on the east and a great plague had ravaged Italy; in the face of possible invasion by ruthless hordes of white savages, the chronic resistance and disaffection of the Christians was threatening the unity of the empire, the sole hope of the civilized world. With the conservatism of a man of practical affairs, Celsus hoped to see the established order preserved and he believed that this could only be achieved by the subordination of particularism and personal salvation to the common weal. His judgment upon the Christians was further biased by the circumstance that his own thought was impregnated with the philosophy of Greece, his viewpoint akin to that of the Periclean Age; with the snobbishness of the Hellene he considered both the Jews and Christians to be half barbarous and lacking the true culture. But admitting the prejudice behind it, and granting that there were exceptions to which he did not admit, the picture which he drew of the early Christians was probably not greatly exaggerated.

'I speak bitterly about this,' he says, 'because I feel bitterly. When we are invited to the Mysteries the masters use another tone. They say, "Come to us ye who are of clean hands and pure speech, ye who are unstained by crime, who have a good conscience towards God, who have done justly and lived uprightly." But let us hear what sort these people [the Christians] invite; "whosoever is a sinner or unintelligent, or a fool, in a word, whosoever is god-forsaken, him the kingdom of God will receive." Now whom do you mean by the sinner but the wicked, thief, housebreaker, poisoner, temple robber, grave robber? Whom else would a brigand invite to join him? ... Jesus, they say, was sent to save sinners; was he not sent to help those who have kept themselves free from sin? They pretend that God will save the unjust man if he repents and humbles himself. The just man who has held steadily from the cradle in the ways of virtue he will not look upon.'

Celsus also had something to say on how the Christians set about getting converts: 'We see them in our houses, wool dressers, cobblers, and fullers, the most uneducated and vulgar persons, not daring to say a word in the presence of their masters who are older and wiser; but when they get hold of the children in private, and silly women with them, they are wonderfully eloquent -- to the effect that the children must not listen to their father, but believe them and be taught by them ... they must come with the women, and the little children that play with them, to the women's quarters, or the cobbler's shop, or the fuller's, to receive perfect knowledge.' The Christians will not argue about what they believe -- 'they always answer, "Do not examine, but believe," and "Thy faith shall save thee," -- "believe that he whom I set forth to you is the son of God, even though he was bound in the most dishonorable way, and punished in the most shameful, though yesterday or the day before he weltered in the most disgraceful fashion before the eyes of all men -- so much the more believe!"'

As for Christian doctrines, they were utterly puerile and ridiculous, particularly in their conceit: why should the human race think itself so superior to bees, ants and elephants as to be put in a unique relation to its maker? And why should God choose to come to men as a Jew? The Christian idea of a special providence was nonsense, an insult to the deity.

Celsus quotes approvingly from the Timaeus of Plato: 'It is a hard thing to find out the Maker and Father of this universe, and after having found him it is impossible to make him known to all.' Such analytic skepticism was, however, the faith of the intellectually aristocratic, and what Celsus had to say had no weight except as the churchman Origen was moved to a lengthy rebuttal, without which even Celsus's opinions would have remained unknown to posterity. In so far as they were known to contemporary Christians, they were of a piece with the pagan knowledge, 'falsely so called,' which Paul had condemned as evil and to be abhorred. The fact that Celsus bothered to write a book refuting Christianity showed merely that it was making its way upward through society and gaining a hold among those of wealth and education. Admittedly many who joined the movement were social outcasts, and many others were but seeking the excitation of esoteric mysteries; while still others were attracted by its ascetic doctrines, either because they esteemed self-immolation, were possessed by a sense of sin or were, on more moderate grounds, opposed to idols and bloody sacrifices, theaters, the circus, indulgence and promiscuity in general. On a higher plane the new creed offered a future life which was posited on an attractive if spurious pretense to Hellenic rationalism: it described the human body as base, doomed to decay and death, the human soul as naturally simple, incorruptible and everlasting; it permitted willful freedom to replace the fatalism of the Orient, and an eternal democratic kingdom of heaven to replace the despotism of an empire which was so unstable as to be always on the verge of collapse.

For the first time since the ancient days of Egypt the hereafter awaiting the ordinary man was painted in bright colors. The Hebrew Sheol, 'the pit' or 'hollow place,' had been essentially the grave itself, or perhaps all the graves of all the peoples united into one, where the departed led a shadowy dreamlike existence scarcely deserving the name of life. The Sadducees refused to countenance an afterlife: 'For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.' 'They are dead: they shall not live! They are deceased: they shall not arise!' It was primarily through Persian influence that Hebrew thought began to credit the possibility of an afterlife; taking the lead from Isaiah's, 'Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise,' the writer of the Book of Daniel allotted to men a future existence in accordance with their deserts: 'many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.' Anticipation of a general resurrection had been the key theme of the later messianic doctrine, and now, utilizing the Greek idea of the incorruptible soul, the Christians were in a position to reconstruct their heaven along the lines of a Persian paradise.

The Egyptian Land of the Blest had been a fertile country like the delta of the Nile, teeming with wild fowl, perpetually in bloom and filled with fruit. Following the Egyptian model, when the messianic writers painted heaven they indulged in unrestrained if purified extravagance. Of each seed that was sown, each measure would bear ten thousand grains, each vine would have ten thousand branches, each branch ten thousand twigs, each twig ten thousand clusters, each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape twenty-five measures of wine. The righteous would rise with their bodies and eat of the Tree of Life, and each pair would beget a thousand children and all would lead a holy existence in a city the streets of which were paved with gold, but that was otherwise rather like Jerusalem. The inhabitants, clothed in white, would carry palms or play upon harps and construct new songs, while all with inward purity of heart and outward expressions of magnificent ritual would join in worshiping the highest deity, on whose right hand sat Jesus. There would be no working, no travail, and when he was not worshiping Yahweh, every man could return to his own garden and escape from the celestial radiance in the shade of his own fig tree.

But Christian asceticism stripped paradise of most of its carnal pleasures: there was to be no eating or drinking, and no giving in marriage -- even the highest angels would willingly forego the first prerogatives of the pagan gods. Heaven was, moreover, now completely democratic. It was still paved with gold, but by virtue of the resurrection it was no longer restricted to Jerusalem and could comprise the whole earth as well as the heavenly spheres. Its inhabitants, still clothed in white, had more diversity of occupation since they could find employment appropriate to their worthy faculties: there would be beautiful architecture and craftsmanship, beautiful poetry, beautiful music, both vocal and instrumental, and even philosophy and science would be cultivated. The supreme joy would be in the ecstatic experience of the beatific vision, the greatest pleasure in beholding the Divine Essence wherein contemplation would grasp instantly and for eternity all that had been or that was to be, would experience the Supreme Good, the One, the Absolute. In Paul's words: 'Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.' Knowing all and seeing all, the blessed would look down upon hell and behold the torments and tortures of the damned. They would enjoy this spectacle, a later churchman argued, first because these torments did not touch them; secondly because, now that the wicked were all damned, the blessed need no longer fear them; thirdly, because their own glory would appear greater by contrast; and fourthly, because that which is pleasing to God must also be pleasing to the righteous.

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