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The true origins of Christianity?

By Gary T. McDonald, author of  The Gospel of Thomas (the Younger) ~

Who invented Christianity?

Paul is the single most important figure in the spreading of the Christian cult throughout the Roman Empire and into Western culture. Paul's letters and, later, the Gospels of Mark, then Luke and Mathew, are some of the earliest Christian writings (and sources of history) we have. And they were all written decades after Jesus' death.

We know from Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles (the author of Luke's sequel to his gospel) that there were significant disagreements between himself and James on various issues. (James was Jesus' brother who had become the leader of the Jerusalem-based "Way Followers" of Jesus after his brother's death.)

Because we have no writings from the Jerusalem "Way Followers" at all, we only have a summation of these disagreements from the Pauline camp. And it would not serve their interests to bring up disagreements about basic Pauline positions like the divinity of Jesus and belief in Jesus' divinity as a requirement for salvation. Keeping the matter of these disagreements confined to issues like the need for Gentiles to obey circumcision and dietary requirements, etc., served the Pauline camp. It gave them a few areas of disagreement to point to for the historical record since it was well known there were disagreements. But if it were known there were disagreements with those who actually knew Jesus in life on Jesus' divinity, etc., it would undermine their cult dogma on the foundational points.

Using the Pauline camp's own history, we can guess that there may have been disagreement between the two groups on these points. How? When the Way Followers were arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin, the leader of the Pharisees speaks up for them and they are promptly freed (Acts, Chap.5).

But later, when the Hellenized Jew Stephen is arrested, he is convicted and stoned to death (Acts, Chap. 7). Despite possible Pauline obfuscation about these two incidents in Acts, this suggests to me that the Way Followers were preaching something different (and less provocative) than what the Hellenized Jews preached.

What is meant by "Hellenized" Jews? Hellas is the Greek name for continental Greece. Hellenized means Greek-speaking and Greek cultured. During Paul's time, the Romans ruled the Mediterranean World. But they ruled a world that had previously been conquered and cultured by the Greeks. So the Roman intelligencia spoke Greek and Roman writers wrote in Greek during this period. Paul and the gospel writers also wrote in Greek.

Imagine the whole world suddenly being ruled by the Chinese today. If that were to happen, it would take years before Chinese replaced English as the most universal language in the world and longer for Chinese culture to overtake the dominance of Western culture throughout the world. (In fact, China is so Westernized now, there could be no uniquely "Chinese" culture.) Similarly, Rome ruled a Greek world.

The Way Followers in Jerusalem may simply have believed Jesus was a possible Messiah (a prophet like Elijah or king like David) who they hoped would return soon to finish his mission of redeeming Israel. But that's very different from saying (like the Hellenized Jews) Jesus was divine which would have been regarded as blasphemy by Palestinian Jews. Again, we only have the Pauline camp's side of the story.

Paul (or more precisely, the newly converted Saul of Tarsus) himself learned the foundations of the Christian cult's dogma from what I believe were its inventers, the Hellenized Jews (mentioned in Chap. 6 of Acts) in Damascus where they fled after Stephen's execution.

Jews who had grown up in Greece, or Hellenized Egypt, Rome, or what we now call Turkey (like Paul who was from Tarsus) were very different in culture from Jews raised in Palestine where the Hebrew temple religion was the dominant cultural fact of life. These Hellenized Jews were accustomed to "mystery cults" that featured demigods (offspring of a mortal and a god) who live as mortal humans and sometimes perform resurrections or die in some sacrificial manner to aid the human plight (Dionysus, Isis, Attis, Baal-Tarraz).

It would not be surprising that they used Jesus' story as a basis for a mystery cult of their own since Jews were not welcome in the other cults. But this sort of thing would not have been popular in Palestine and may have been distasteful, if not roundly rejected, by the Jerusalem Way Followers. If so, we would not know it from the Pauline camp's perhaps obfuscated history in the New Testament.

So, as previously mentioned, Paul encountered these Hellenized Jews after his dramatic, life-changing experience on the road to Damascus. He learned their take on Jesus' life and death. And their stories about the Resurrection.

The earliest version of the earliest Gospel (Mark) ends with three women being upset by finding Jesus' tomb empty three days after his death. Later versions add material about his resurrection also contained in the later Gospels. We have two choices here. We can believe that a corpse came back to life after three days and either transported itself back to Galilee (Mark and Matthew) or stayed around the Jerusalem area and ate a meal with Way Followers and walked through the city and out to Bethany with them without causing a major incident for the Romans who had just crucified him (Luke).

Or we can believe something less supernatural and mythological, something that doesn't sound like the product of storytelling and legend-making around countless campfires during the decades before these accounts were written. Something like this: Mathew tells us of a man named Jesus Barabbas (some translations conveniently omit "Jesus" in the man's name) who according to Mark was a murderous insurrectionist against Roman rule. The Romans wanted badly to capture him. On the night of Jesus of Nazareth's arrest, they were informed by a "Judas" or someone else that Jesus was with his followers in the Garden of Gethsamane. They found a "Jesus" (the wrong one) there and arrested him. They proceeded to torture him ceaselessly trying to learn more about Jesus Barabbas' followers and weapons caches which Jesus of Nazareth could tell them nothing about. Then they crucified him and he dies very quickly (for a crucifixion victim) as a result of the relentless torture. Someone sympathetic to the Way Followers donates a tomb and the corpse is placed within. The real Jesus Barabbas knows that if the mistaken identity gaffe is investigated he will once again be a wanted man. So his followers break into the tomb, steal the corpse (so the Romans can't determine they got the wrong man) and their leader can escape later Roman pursuit and punishment.

But the missing corpse is the foundation for the Hellenized Jews' legend-making and deification of Jesus that Paul later develops into a full-blown theology. Like Churchill said, "History is written by the victors." History, or in this case, the mythology. If we were ever to find writings from the Jerusalem Way Followers we might have a very different picture of the origins of Christianity. My book, "The Gospel of Thomas (the Younger)" imagines what that written record might be.

"A convincing faux gospel that challenges orthodoxy. Thomas traverses his world encountering First Century figures from Jesus to Nero bringing his times and the origins of Christianity alive in a fresh, new way with wry humor and exciting storytelling."
―Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump and El Paso

"Gary T. McDonald is a born storyteller, and his research is impeccable. The book is fascinating from beginning to end, and his long-overdue, iconoclastic portrait of the Apostle Paul made me stand up and cheer."
―Lewis Shiner, author of Glimpses

"An inherently fascinating and deftly crafted work of truly memorable fiction, The Gospel Of Thomas The Younger is an extraordinary novel by an extraordinary writer and unreservedly recommended..."
―Midwest Book Review