The historical rise of Christianity as the dominant western religion is well understood after
made it the sole imperial Roman religion beholden to the Roman state. In fact this single step was possibly the most important innovation in global history. The idea of a corporate church was originated in a form that was meant to be immortal and in the process survived the Constantine Roman Empire and continues to this day as well as its derivative sects. It subsumed the Roman civilization and carried its embers forward as it reconstituted itself through the barbarian lands. Its history is that of Western civilization for the past fifteen hundred years beginning with . Their natural children are the legal entities of the joint stock companies that have produced the modern global economy. Constantine
He then had all the source works destroyed as well as any other scriptures about in order to eliminate any form of competition. He was not totally successful, but over the centuries simple negligence did most of the work as non canonical works were merely not copied. The result is that our primary source for the rise of Christianity in the first four centuries is a carefully edited package that strips the human aspect of the history out in exchange for a divine history that is much more useful as a basis for religious enthusiasm.
Therefore the human history can only be reassembled in conjecture and snippets of actual data. In fact the field is crowded with extravagant speculation including the recent popularization of the Da Vinci Code. At worst, they make great stories that help folks explore their own religious feelings even when they know it is rubbish.
My own readings have led to a minimalist conjectural history that is worth reciting. Again we are reading between the lines and the facts to discover an extraordinary human being who took his time and place and redirected religious history. There is more to it than that of course, but we can recognize the least of it perhaps.
First we need to understand the local context. It is reported that Jesus was born in the last years of Herod the Great’s reign. This is important because Herod originally inherited and ruled an impoverished kingdom no better of than its equally uninviting neighbors and no threat to anyone. Their revenues were scant. They did have a religious sect however and a fairly famous temple dating from the Bronze Age. Someone got the brainstorm of empowering priests to travel to other cities on the Mediterranean littoral to create new converts who would pay a handsome fee. Somehow it all worked and the result was a steady income coming back to Herod and the temple in
. Yes this actually happened and it was the foundation of Herod’s wealth and continuing success. Jerusalem
The result was new Jewish communities in the major cities throughout the Roman Empire rather loosely controlled and managed if at all by the temple in
. We can be sure that they were enthusiastic and evangelical. Jerusalem
During this era, the Roman Empire extended its protection around the Eastern end of the
Mediterranean to everyone’s chagrin. Herod held them at bay but his successors had less skill. Strong tribal and religious feelings were sustained and eventually blew up in a total revolt after three generations. We know this history but those living in Judaea did not and got on with their lives in what had become under Herod a prosperous well populated province.
Into this world Jesus was born. His father was an established tradesman, carpenter or woodworker, but obviously skilled in a world were joinery was important. He or his wife was perhaps of important family lines connected to the heroic tribal past. Yet that heroic past was likely a millennium old which meant that all members in the tribe had now similar pedigrees. More likely it was added in as an argument to support claims of kingship long after the fact. That was not important.
What was important was that the child was a natural genius. Somehow he got an education and with this he accessed the supply of local scriptures and became expert. He likely had an eidetic memory. When he was presented to the local cadre of scholars, he astounded them and this memory is passed down to us. This recognition naturally led to his been recruited into the ranks as a student and leaving his family.
Before we go forward I will address the embedded mythology surrounding his birth for which there are several aspects. The easiest is the three wise men. We have the present day tradition of the recognition of the Dalai Lama to inform us as well as others who are part of the same culture. It is completely believable that three Buddhist monks could journey to discover a great soul. It would certainly have an impact on the recipient and his family. Whether it happened in the case of Jesus can never be known, but that it happened at all is certainly possible and more surely the story itself got around. This is a real world explanation for the legend itself.
The aspect of been born in the midst of a local census is not too exceptional and serves mostly to fix the approximate date of his birth. The further tale of Herod’s reaction is a simple lift from the tale of Moses and was hardly likely there either. The appearance of the three monks would have been remarked upon and remembered and certainly explains the direction of his later career. The rest appears to be simply embedded after the fact.
That leaves us with the legend of the virgin birth. Again this is an embedded idea that was possibly expected and acceptable in the time and place and which gives modern sensibilities some difficulties. There is actually no reason to think that this birth was anything more than it seems. An established tradesman acquired a bride and began a family. End of story.
However, fifty miles to the north we have the city of
and the cult of Baal. Within this cult there was a ritual whereby young pubescent women presented themselves to the temple to be randomly assaulted by whoever was allowed as a rite of passage. Naturally children would be produced who would be viewed as children of the god. It also explains the evidence of child sacrifice associated with Phoenician practice. Jarring as this practice is to modern sensibilities, it explains the source of the idea of the virgin birth to start with and why it was accepted in the culture at all. Tyre
The star of the monks may or may not have been real. More likely it was a signal visible only to the monks themselves and was plausibly stronger than usual. I suspect that this fits well into these traditions.
Thus we have a young student who has possibly been sponsored by these monks to be properly educated so far as was possible in the time and place. This is not a negligible proposition. Greek scholarship was available in Aramaic as was studies in Hebrew Scriptures. Because he was special and because money was available it seems likely that he got access to an excellent education and been a prodigy, he was able to absorb everything available before he turned twelve. Thus we have his extraordinary performance before the scholars of the temple when he was tested by his peers.
He was now in the eyes of his culture, a young man in need of additional training in distant centers of learning. That provided two options. The obvious one was
. It is plausible that he first went there to perhaps polish what we would describe as his classical education. This need not have taken a great deal of time as he had already been so schooled and likely needed only to review a few obscure texts and to debate a number of issues. Alexandria
Tradition now finds him in
at the age of fourteen studying Buddhism. This tradition is not minor and it makes perfect sense that such a scholar would travel to the major source of Holy Scriptures and religious doctrines. We have no good reason to not accept this tradition because he clearly made an impact and mastered the languages and the available written material. This must have taken the full fifteen years that it appears he was there. It was no small challenge. India
It is also reasonable that during his stay that he translated core documents into Aramaic in preparation for his return to his homeland. They would be necessary as a basis for the opening of a new center of Buddhist instruction. He returned as a fully trained Buddhist monk with all the necessary tools for establishing Buddhist monasteries.
My key point here is that such a career was possible even without the recognition of lama hood by the monks, but rather unlikely. Money and initial acknowledgement actually made it inevitable. The ultimate confirmation is his very existence and the content of his teachings which we will address in part 2.