A History of Christianity

As Christianity emerged from and is based on the earlier Hebrew/Jewish religion, this account starts with the history of the Israelites. The history of the two religions as described by their adherents includes significant divine intervention and this is commonly used as evidence for the existence of the Israelite/Christian god. This account gives a feasible alternative explanation that does not rely on divine intervention but which is in keeping with historical and archaeological evidence.

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Israel

Canaan

About 1250 BCE, the land of Palestine from the Mediterranean to the desert beyond the Jordan was home predominantly to Semitic people who spoke variations on the same language – Canaanite – and who followed the same pantheon of gods, headed by El and including Asherah, Baal and many others. Different ‘nations’ also tended to have different national gods which looked out particularly for their nation. For example, the Edomites had Qaus, the Moabites had Chemosh, the Amorites had Amurru, the Ammonites had Milcom.

Canaan

The peoples on the coastal lowlands and the Jordan Valley lived a settled life mostly in towns with surrounding agricultural land. Far fewer lived in the highlands between the sea and the Jordan and beyond the Jordan, as these had no permanent water. The Merneptah Stele of 1205 BCE names Israel as a people living in Canaan at the time (and destroyed by the Egyptians – clearly an exaggeration). The name ‘Israel’ comes from ‘El’, Isra-el, meaning ‘struggles with El’.

Nomads

The less habitable areas contained a few small villages, but many of the inhabitants were cattle nomads known as Shasu. Also present were Habiru. Some of these were itinerant labourers, while others made a living out of raiding the more settled peoples. Many groups might have been categorised as both Shasu and Habiru. [The term ‘Hebrew’ possibly derives from ‘Habiru’.]

Bronze Age Collapse

Around 1200, the Bronze Age Collapse began. This coincided with a major drought that lasted from 1200 to about 1050 and the arrival of Sea Peoples, quite likely fleeing their own drought-stricken lands. Between 1200 and 1100 the hill country between the coast and the Jordan experienced a sudden increase in population with the number of villages increasing from about 50 to about 300. This may have been the result of people fleeing the poor conditions in the lowlands. Some of these villages differed from earlier settlements culturally, in particular by the absence of pig bones, a change to simpler pottery and the introduction of circumcision.

The New Settlers - the Hebrews

Significant numbers of Canaanites had lived in Egypt (in the eastern delta) since the Hyksos time (15th Century BCE) and more may have arrived with the early part of the Bronze Age Collapse. Late in the Collapse, some of these may have left Egypt and returned to Canaan. Canaanite emigrants from Egypt may have teamed up with some Shasu and Habiru (particularly those of Canaanite origin) in the desert regions to form a significant band of people. These probably constituted some of the new settlers in the hill country as well as settling in places like Jericho in the lowlands. They may have arrived in significant numbers around 1150. They would have seen the existing locals as an impediment to their ambitions and so may have killed (or otherwise forcibly displaced) some of them.

As mentioned, the Canaanites, Shasu and Habiru mostly worshipped the same Canaanite gods as the settled people they displaced. But one group of Shasu were mentioned by the Egyptians in the 14th Century as being the Shasu of Yhw (Yahweh). The Shasu of Yahweh were described as nomads from Midian and the name Yahweh is thought to be related to the Sumerian god Ea, which is synonymous with Marduk and Baal Hadad. Possibly Yahweh was their god of nomadic pastoralists, distinct from the more widely worshipped gods of the settled agriculturalists. The bible says that Moses (originally from Egypt though likely of Canaanite descent) spent several years living with Jethro, a ‘priest of Midian’, and married his daughter, and he probably adopted the Yahwist religion there. It is quite possible that this same Moses subsequently returned to Egypt and led a band of Canaanites back to Canaan (again as reported in the bible) as a major part of the influx into the hill country. However, whereas the bible reports that about 2 million people left Egypt with Moses (a figure which would have represented about half the population of Egypt at the time), the actual number was probably a few hundred or a few thousand at most. Subsequent elaboration of the story would have led to the larger numbers as well as other aspects of the story like the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the pillar of fire.

These Shasu of Yahweh would thus have been part of (and likely leaders of) the conquest force and this would have given rise to the conquest being carried out at least in part in the name of Yahweh. These leaders would also have been influential in promoting Yahwism in the occupied land.

The invaders under Joshua managed to take some of the land from the locals, but not all of it. In some of the places that they did take, many of the Canaanites continued to live amongst the newcomers. These would have continued with their Canaanite religion. Also, as is evidenced by the golden calf incident and others,

Golden Calf

it seems that most of the invading mass were still more enamoured with the Canaanite gods than they were with Yahweh and that it was just their leaders that were trying to impose Yahwism onto them. This would explain why the Israelites were so prone to backsliding into worship of the Canaanite gods. For this reason, the combined people would still have been referred to as Israel (especially to outsider who knew of the people before the invasion.

Judges

Up until around 1000 BCE, the Israelites (original inhabitants and newcomers) lived in small villages with little sign of advanced civilisation, social classes or fortifications. They would have had tribal allegiances with a loose affiliation between the tribes. During this time, other peoples harassed them occasionally and the tribes would try to fight them off, maybe with the help of other tribes. This was the period recorded in the book of Judges.

Kings

Around 1000 BCE, some people in the Jerusalem-Bethel area aspired to dominate their neighbours as kings. Their influence would have been fairly limited, though by the time of Solomon, was probably felt and known throughout Israel. David and Solomon were probably Yahwists and built a temple to Yahweh (and maybe other gods) and a royal residence in Jerusalem.

Divided Kingdom

After Solomon’s death, most of Israel rejected the David-Solomon dynasty and established their own, starting with Jeroboam.

Under Jeroboam and his successors, the kingdom of Israel prospered and reached a peak under the Omri dynasty between 886 and 843 BCE. Quite a few large cities were built during this time. Although there were still Yahwists in Israel, the majority of the people and all the kings seemed to have worshipped the Canaanite gods. Meanwhile, David’s dynasty managed to keep control of the southern extremity of Israel, Judah. A few of the kings of Judah gave pre-eminence to Yahweh.

Israel Deported

By 722, the Assyrian Empire had control over the Levant and Israel and Judah were vassals. In 722, Israel rebelled and was destroyed, their elite being deported, and foreigners put in to take their place. Some of those who stayed continued the Yahwist tradition and became the Samaritans. Others, along with a lot of non-Yahwists, fled into Judah as refugees. In the following few years, Jerusalem grew from a small town to a major city.

Judah pre-Exile

Hezekiah was king at this time and decided to unite the people under the banner of Yahweh. Manasseh and Amon went back to old ways, but then Josiah renewed allegiance to Yahweh, possibly because he had aspirations of controlling all of Israel again after Assyrian domination waned. He ‘found’ the book of the law in the temple, most likely the core of Deuteronomy, to provide a common code for the people.

Babylon

Egypt, and later Babylon, however, thwarted Josiah’s ambitions. A few bad decisions on the part of his successors about allegiance led to the Babylonian captivity in the early 6th Century. The elite were deported to Babylon.

Persian Empire

Zoroastrian Influence

A few years after the deportation, the Persian Achaemenid Empire overthrew the Babylonian dysnasty and they rules much of Asia, including palestine and Babylon, for the next 200 years. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia. King Cyrus was more humane to the Hebrews than the Babylonians had been. He allowed the exiles to return to Palestine and many of them did. The Hebrews assimilated quite a few ideas from the Zoroastrian religion. These ideas included:

  • Monotheism [Much of the Torah, Psalms etc. had been written with an assumption that there were many gods, but that Israel was expected to worship just one - Yahweh. This was replaced by the idea that Yahweh was the only god.]
  • The devil as an adversary to God, explaining evil.
  • Angels and demons. (These could also be seen as a representation of the lesser gods of earlier henotheism.)
  • A resurrection to an afterlife with rewards and punishment according to how one had lived this life. [Previously, it had been thought that everyone goes to Sheol after death – a shadowy place under the ground where one lives a disembodied semi-life with no pleasure (see Proverbs).]
  • A messiah (Saoshyant) who would come and make things perfect at some time in the future.

Overall, the subsequent Judaic theology was more like the Zoroastrian theology that it was like the earlier Israelite theology.

Zoroastrian

Back in Judah

On returning to Judah, the elite who were exiled came into conflict with those who had been left behind and now occupied the land. The elite, with the backing of the Persians, largely prevailed in the conflict. They also took steps to keep themselves separate from the locals whose religion was still primitive and based on Abraham rather than on Moses and the Torah. Inter-marriage was forbidden.

Compiling of the Scriptures

Quite possibly, the Torah and much of the history of Israel from Genesis to Kings were compiled (and/or edited and added to) by the returnees at this time. They attempted to unify the people by claiming that the various tribes were all descended from 12 sons of Israel (Jacob) and to justify possession of the land by the story of Abraham and to show that the story of Abraham then led on to the story of Moses. Numerous mythical/historical accounts from their past (the exodus, the conquest etc.) would have been available as well as literature from earlier Mesopotamian sources (e.g. the creation story, flood etc.) and the writings of various prophets and poetic/philosophical works like Job, Psalms, Proverbs. Clearly some of the material was considered too sacred to fiddle with and not all of the earlier ideas (like the polytheism) were removed.

Greeks, Maccabees and Romans

Alexander the Great invaded the Perian Empire in 334 BCE and Palestine came under Greek Rule. After Antiochus desecrated the Jewiah temple, the Jews revolted against Greek rule and gained indendence (the Maccabbean period) until 63 BCE when Israel became part of the Roman Empire.

The Time of Jesus and Apocalypticism

By the time of Jesus, there were three main Jewish sects. The Sadducees, the wealthy, powerful descendants of the priests, were the most traditional and didn’t believe in the resurrection. The Pharisees incorporated many of the Zoroastrian ideas. The Essenes were even more Zoroastrian. The Essenes repented and baptised for the forgiveness of sins rather than using sacrifice.

Because the Jews had been ruled by various foreign powers – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, an expectation of a messiah (a Son of Man) had grown from its Zoroastrian roots to become a major hope and expectation of the people. The messiah was a man who would lead the Jews to freedom from foreign powers and bring in the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God). The people would then live in peace and prosperity and Israel would be a light unto the world, leading to universal worship of Yahweh.

After this time, there would also be a final day of judgment to condemn the evil people of the world and reward the good people. This apocalypticism became particularly widespread after the rule of Antiochus, who desecrated the temple, and the annexation of Israel to the Roman Empire in 63 BCE.

Christianity

John the Baptist

John the Baptist preached ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ (Matt 3:2). Jesus was baptised by John indicating that he shared John’s beliefs.

John baptising Jesus

After John was imprisoned, Jesus took up from John, preaching ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ (Matt 4:17). John and Jesus likely saw the kingdom of heaven as an earthly kingdom along the lines of that which the apocalypticists expected the messiah to usher in.

Jesus' Message

Much of Jesus’ message was in line with Essene thinking. While seemingly not being part of an Essene desert community, it is very likely that John and Jesus were both influenced by Essene culture and beliefs.

Jesus told people how they should live their repented lives. His morality included the Jewish law but was more focused on love and forgiveness than on strict and correct observance. He is reported as performing miracles and healings – he possibly did these to draw crowds. There were other performers of miracles and healings in Judea around that time, so the idea wasn’t terribly unusual. In fact, when Jesus was questioned by the authorities, the questions weren’t aimed at establishing whether he had done these things, but rather by whose power he had done them – God’s or Beelzebub’s. Gradually, some of his followers (and maybe Jesus himself) began to think that he was the messiah.

Jesus' Death

Jesus was probably expecting God to intervene and bring in the kingdom in his lifetime. He and the apostles seemed to believe that they would have a major role in the kingdom, but that they wouldn’t need to fight because God would do the fighting. When he was on the cross and about to die, Jesus said ‘My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?’ suggesting that up until that point, he had expected God to intervene and rescue him.

The disciples seemed to have been expecting something similar and so were downcast when Jesus died. (Luke 24:17); they certainly weren’t expecting him to be resurrected. In the passage about the road to Emmaus the disciples said of Jesus: ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death and they crucified him, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24:19).

As a lot of people seemed to be in awe of Jesus, it’s quite possible that someone took his body from where it was placed. This was likely an explanation given at the time for his disappearance. To counter this, Matthew’s gospel tells of guards being placed at the tomb to make sure the body wasn’t taken. A few things make this story unlikely, though. Firstly, the gospel says that they did this because the word had passed around that he would rise on the third day; but as the disciples didn’t seem to know about this, it’s unlikely anyone else would have. Secondly, if the body had been taken while the guards were on duty, under Roman military procedure, they would have been executed. The gospel says that they accepted a bribe to say they were asleep when it happened. Not very likely. Thirdly, no guard is mentioned in Mark, the main source for Matthew, or in Luke or John and their accounts aren’t compatible with there being guards there.

The report of the empty tomb may have started a rumour that Jesus had been raised from the dead. [This had been taken as evidence of resurrection in the case of others in history.] Because of this, the disciples may have thought that he might return and so might have stayed together hoping, discussing and planning.

Disciples

Rethinking the Meaning

The disciples had thought that Jesus was the messiah who would free Israel from foreign oppression. The fact that he had died before doing so, and the fact that he was humiliatingly put to death by those very foreign oppressors, meant that their ideas were clearly not completely correct. They would have tried to work out a coherent and plausible meaning for what had happened. They would have searched their scriptures and realised that there were passages that could be interpreted as the messiah suffering and dying to save the people. From this, they would have put together the idea of salvation: our sins required a sacrifice for forgiveness; Jesus’ death was that sacrifice, which they could appropriate if they had faith in him, repented and were baptised into the faith. Along with this was the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven may be spiritual rather than earthly.

They still thought that he had been resurrected, was in heaven and would soon come back as the Son of Man to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. Some eventually considered that he was now a god or even that he had always been God.

Once they had a story that made sense and that seemed right, the disciples felt confident enough to go out and start preaching the message of Jesus and the resurrection and they got quite a few Jewish converts in Jerusalem and elsewhere (e.g. Damascus). The disciples would have worried the Jewish authorities and so began to be persecuted. Paul was one of the persecutors.

Paul

Possibly Paul learnt about the ideas of the disciples and decided that there was something in them. He might then have done more research on what happened, searched the Hebrew scriptures for passages that could be taken as predictions, then filled in a few gaps to come up with a fairly consistent theology – one that would appeal to Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s message would have been particularly appealing to the gentiles because:

  1. It promised a bodily resurrection after death [Until then, most Greeks believed that life after death was a shadowy semi-existence without a body and with no pleasure. They believed that the very few people to have a body and a proper existence after death were those who had been resurrected as evidenced by the disappearance of their body after death. Jesus’ reported resurrection was the proof that such resurrection was possible through him.]
  2. It didn’t require adherence to the rules of the Jewish Torah, in particular circumcision which the Greeks saw as disgusting. Instead all one had to do for salvation was to believe.
  3. The faith emphasised loving one’s fellow believers and this led to social support in a manner similar to a welfare system, meaning that widows, orphans, the poor and the sick were cared for – something that didn’t generally happen in normal Greek society.

Paul spent the rest of his life spreading this message to the Gentiles and Gentile Christianity spread widely.

[Because Paul had never met Jesus or been instructed by him and because he wasn’t one of the twelve, to give himself some credibility, he came up with a dramatic story of a supernatural encounter with the risen Jesus, conversion and revelation of the gospel (which he called ‘his gospel’). This allowed him to claim apostleship of equal standing to the twelve.]

Paul's Conversion

Embellishment

Between the death of Jesus and the writing of the new testament scriptures, the resurrection rumour would have been gradually embellished until, according to the story, Jesus spent time with the disciples and gave them further instructions along the lines of what they were thinking themselves. [The accounts of the post-resurrection experiences of the disciples in the four gospels are completely incompatible with each other and therefore at least in part untrue.]

Paul seems to have stayed in touch with the original apostles (the Jerusalem Church). Of course, his theology differed from theirs. He might have convinced some of them of some things (e.g. that Gentiles could be Christians without following all of the Torah), but they continued to differ on other things, like the necessity of good works. Eventually, the two groups went different ways and largely ignored each other.

The Jewish Christians (who followed the beliefs of the apostles) developed into sects like the Nazarenes and the Ebionites. These eventually died out while gentile Christianity became widespread.

Paul's Theology

The main differences between Paul’s theology and that of the apostles are:

• Jesus is God and always was

• Salvation is by faith rather than obeying the law and good works

• We will be resurrected with a new spiritual body (as proved by Jesus’ resurrection)

• Followers should sell their possessions and give to the church rather than to the poor.

Paul’s letters were the first written record of Christian theology. Accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus were passed down (probably initially in oral form). Several gospels were written from these accounts quite a while after the events. The four gospels of the canon were put together by Christians who accepted Paul’s theology. They used stories passed down (some of them likely quite accurately, though filtered and elaborated so as to support and not contradict Pauline theology). Gospels purportedly written by other disciples, e.g. Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Judas, etc. which told a story somewhat at odds with Pauline theology were excluded from the canon.

Theological Divergence

After the time of the apostles, there was a wide range of Christian theologies, even among Gentile Christians. The church saw it as important to get all Christians to believe the same thing, particularly in regard to:

• the relation between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit

• the relation between the human and divine aspects of Jesus.

The existing scriptures didn’t give clear statements on these issues and, as a result, many different groups formulated many different theologies. Some examples are: Monophysitism, Miaphysitism, Diophysitism, Monarchianism, Docetism, Arianism, Nestorianism. Jesus said that, after he was gone, the Holy Spirit would guide his followers into all truth. Had this been the case, they wouldn’t have gone in so many different directions, all supposedly guided by the same Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t until the fourth and fifth centuries that the idea of the trinity was settled upon as the model which was least inconsistent with what the scriptures said. No one held the trinitarian view in its present form in the first three centuries. For instance, the church father Origen, in the third Century, considered the Father to be the one god and the Son and the Holy Spirit to be lesser beings.

Rome Adopts Christianity

Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity in 312 and Theodosius declared it the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. But Constantine wasn’t happy with the many types of Christianity on offer. Seeing Christianity as a means of unifying and controlling the people, he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 so that the bishops could decide on one version of the truth which everyone would then have to accept. This became Orthodox Christianity, and all other versions were declared heretical. After 380, with the combination of church and empire, the Roman church now had a means of imposing this theology by force and so it did. Over the next couple of hundred years, most other versions were forcefully stamped out, often by the torture and death of their adherents, thus allowing the Roman church to be catholic (universal) and to dictate terms to all of Christendom.

Torture

Orthodoxy

The orthodox church gradually put together a canon of scripture. This, like the theology, was largely settled in the fourth century by dictation from the orthodox bishops. Books which supported orthodox beliefs were in and those which didn’t were out. The church attempted to eradicate many of the excluded books, often successfully so. For instance, it was a capital offense to possess any of the writing of Arius.

With the orthodox catholic church in control, it was now in a position to add to theology, knowing that all Christians would be forced to accept the modifications. Over the centuries, ideas like transubstantiation, worship of Mary, praying to the saints, purgatory, prayers for the dead, papal infallibility, indulgences, confessions etc. were introduced.

Heresies

Even after the establishment of orthodoxy, however, because of ambiguities and silences on important issues in the canon of scripture, various disagreements and heresies continued to arise over succeeding centuries. The Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches split over the addition of the word ‘filioque’ to the creed. Some of the heretical groups, like the Bogomils and Cathars, the church managed to stamp out through coercion, torture and burnings; later ones, like Protestantism, Jehovah’s Witnessism etc., grew and became long-lasting religious factions. Even the factions divided into sub-factions over disagreements on more minor points.

Age of Enlightenment

With the age of enlightenment, starting in the seventeenth century, people, for the first time since the ancient Greeks, began to apply reason to the process of deciding what was true rather than just having faith in what they were told and avoiding exposure to any evidence to the contrary. With this came a growth in irreligiosity – both atheism and an indifferent belief that, though there may be a god, it’s not important to let the fact control one’s life. By the 21st Century, although some 2 billion people were nominally Christian, maybe 90% or more of these didn’t take the religion seriously enough to live their lives according to its precepts or even to find out what its precepts are.

The growth of humanistic ideas contributed to the decline in religiosity – ideas like: that people should be allowed to have different religions or no religion or to question the church’s teachings without being burnt at the stake; that women should be able to do the things men are allowed to do; that people unfortunate enough to be homosexual shouldn’t be persecuted for the fact or disallowed from living fulfilling lives; and so on.

The Future

It is possible that Christianity will continue to decline in importance. However, at the same time, it is possible that Islam, which developed from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism and is seen by adherents as a more final, complete and correct form of religion, will spread to replace it. Islam has the advantage that blasphemy (expressing ideas contrary to Islam) can incur the death penalty, as can apostacy (deciding you don’t believe if you were once a believer or were brought up in the faith). Such measures tend to inhibit the spread of alternative thinking.

Christianity carried similar punishments in the middle ages and these were very effective at preventing dissent. People did, however, start to get away from Christian thinking in the enlightenment. The difference between Christianity and Islam is that the bible does not prescribe death for dissenters – that was added by the church and later removed as not in the true spirit of the religion. However, Islamic holy scripture does prescribe death for dissenters (e.g. Quran 33:57–61; Hadith Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:52:260). Thus it would be difficult, in a fully Islamic society, to start any movement towards alternative thinking. The whole world eventually becoming Muslim is not beyond the realms of possibility. Indeed, that would be the hope of many Muslims. And that would be the end of Christianity – and of every other religious or philosophical viewpoint.

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Image Acknowledgements

Canaan map:Internet Archive Book Images (cropped) on Flickr
Divided kingdom map: Picryl
Persian Empire map: Fabienkhan / Wikipedia
Zoroastrian: old.saednews.com
Baptsm: Travis on Flickr
Disciples: Wikimedia Commons
Conversion of Paul: Wellcome Collection
Torture: The Walters Art Museum