III. The Reversed Timeline
The vast majority of believers and free thinkers alike accept the existence of an “historical Jesus”, a real person whose actions and words were the seed of the Christian religion. They see the discrepancies, confusion and gaps in the story as the result of a centuries-long game of ‘telephone’; nevertheless, an unbroken flow of information exists from the man’s original followers and contemporary witnesses, into a fluid oral tradition, then a written proto-gospel(s), the canonical gospels and — passing through generations of copyists and suffering countless transcription errors — to the present day.
Rather, entertain for a moment another explanation, an alternate timeline where, instead of the man becoming more like a god with each telling of the story, the god becomes more like a man over time.
The earliest writings on The Christ seem to be Paul’s so-called “undisputed” epistles, yet they contain none of Jesus’ sayings, no details his life. In I Corinthians, Paul (or whoever wrote Corinthians) provides what has to be the first description of the Last Supper. What was his source? A vision. “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” Paul never met Jesus, nor was he converted by Jesus’ followers — he heard a voice in his head while on the road to Damascus. However detailed Paul’s vision may be, it holds the same historical merit as Sister Emmerich’s fantasies. Is Corinthians the true origin of the Last Supper?
Although Paul is shoe-horned into the timeline just following Jesus’ crucifixion (based solely the mention of a ‘Saul’ present at the stoning of the mythical Stephen), the Pauline Epistles are undated. They first appear around AD 145, in the canon of Marcion, which also contained the first gospel, Marcion’s own. Around this same time we find the first indirect references to the existence of the canonical gospels, as well as a slew of Gnostic and other apocryphal gospels. (The earliest surviving manuscripts of the canonical gospels date to the mid 4th Century; the earliest fragments of Gnostic gospels to the mid 3rd Century.) All attempts at an earlier dating of the gospel pericopes are self-referential.
A gaping, 110 year-long hole now opens in the timeline, from the assumed date of Jesus’ Passion until the first written accounts of it. Eleven decades during which the new church has established itself not only in Jerusalem and the Levant, but in Alexandria, “great numbers spreading” across Asia Minor, in Greece, and in Rome where “vast multitudes” of Chrestians supposedly existed as early as the 60’s. Did none of these innumerable converts know how to write?
Word War One
It’s no coincidence that gospels larded with pseudo-factual details about an earthly Jesus first started appearing in the middle of the 2nd Century. A vicious turf war was raging among the several sects of the new religion, and the trinitarian sect in Rome was losing the war to the Gnostics. An highly plastic, almost casual worship of a timeless, ephemeral deity was open to infinite permutation and synthesis with other cults. It was eminently typical of that era, but also uncontrollable. By fixing a concrete, mortal entity into a definite point in time, a succession of authority could be established: the risen Jesus designates Peter who founds the church in Rome and designates Clement … all the way down to … me! (Note that Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels, omits Jesus’ post-resurrection tour.)
The bare-bones of a biography had likely already been assimilated into a long-standing cult of the dying-and-rising god: rebel leader and messianic claimant named “Jesus” (every messianic claimant acquired the honorific ‘Yahweh Saves’) who gave his life for the cause, or fled but promised to return. The list of candidates is impressive, but one need not choose; they were all stitched together. Frankenjesus is born.
The story-line was barren, but Mark remedied that by riffing on Isaiah, Joshua, and Daniel. Luke contributed a veneer of historicity by plagiarizing Josephus like there was no tomorrow. Matthew tidied up the many Egyptian connections of the merged messiahs by shipping baby Frankenjesus off to the Land of the Pharaohs. Gods don’t issue proverbs; men do. Frankenjesus was provided not only with OT sayings and prayers (both the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ Gethsemane lament come straight out of Psalms), but also paraphrases of Seneca and other popular stoic philosophers.
By ingratiating itself with the Imperial powers, the sect in Rome acquired the strength to obliterate its more popular (and egalitarian) opponents. Under the aegis of the emperor Constantine, in AD 325 the Roman church convened the council of Nicaea, where it declared heretical all competing interpretations of the Christ. It trimmed the multiverse of scriptures down to a manageable — and hierarchy-friendly — canon.
Why retain four, barely-compatible versions of the same story? Why not combine the various elements into one, amalgamated gospel, as several communities had done (and as Luke claims to do)? The gospels were now set to a new task. What had formerly been free exegesis’s on eternal themes were now conscripted as corroborating (sic) eyewitness accounts.
Or So The Story Goes
The Nicene Council then appointed Eusebius to compile all material and write an ‘history of the victors.’ What Eusebius couldn’t remedy via interpolation or forgery, he burned — the entirety of the Gnostic corpus within his reach, the pagan criticisms, plus numerous works of antiquity that undermined the official story. And then Eusebius set the scribes to tydying up sanitized versions of the gospels, the very same works we today delve in search of traces of the historical Jesus.
We search there in vain. The ‘evidence’ seems to match the story only because, like Kaiser Söje’s tale, the story was created around the ‘evidence.’ However seemingly authentic their details, the gospels are fictional, and do not portray the “historical Jesus”, whoever that may have been. That person almost certainly wasn’t crucified c. AD 33, is probably a composite, and possibly never even existed. Our real story begins a century later.
© 2013 by Matt Cavanaugh. All rights reserved.