Imagine for a moment that you have never heard of Christianity. Seriously. Try this. A little thought experiment.
A missionary comes to you and says, “Here’s the deal. There’s this all-powerful guy in the sky, and he created everything, including the first humans, Adam and Eve. These two were immortal and never had to work. Everything they needed, the guy in the sky provided because he has magic powers. He can make stuff just appear–poof, stars; poof, Earth; poof, a garden.”
The missionary continues: “Unfortunately, Adam and Eve committed a terrible sin, one so horrific that when I tell you about it, you won’t believe how horrible it was. On learning about the sin, the guy in the sky said, ‘Somebody’s gotta pay for this!’ So, he condemned the two of them to death and told them that henceforth, they would have to work all their lives to sustain themselves. But this sin was so horrible that it wasn’t enough that Adam and Eve pay for it. No. ALL their descendants were also condemned to labor and death. And then, most of their descendants, when they died, would roast in flames, not for a day or a week or a month or a year to sixty years, but for all eternity.”
And you thought $150 speeding tickets were severe!
The missionary pauses before delivering the punch line: “What was the sin so terrible that it demanded lifelong labor and capital punishment for everyone who would ever live, not to mention all the roasting in fire? Well, you won’t believe how bad this was: Adam and Eve ate a fruit they weren’t supposed to.”
I know, right? Terrible. Just terrible.
But it doesn’t end there. He continues: “After a while, the guy in the sky started thinking that maybe he had been too harsh. But ALL people still needed to be punished for this horrendous crime. So, he decided to send his own son to die in a breathtakingly excruciating way, and if people believed in him and followed his teaching, then they could escape the eternal roasting part of the punishment. So, just hard labor and capital punishment. A good father, he was. I bet you wish you had a Dad like that! ‘What? I gave you one rule, to pick up your socks, and you disobeyed me. Death to you! Remember, though: it could be worse!’ This is why we refer to the guy in the sky as ‘Our Father, who art in heaven.’ Because he’s so good to us.”
Of course, if you had never heard this story before, you would think it absolutely bonkers. The story clearly reflects the extreme patriarchal moral system (and prescientific magical thinking about how things work and where they come from) of a people running around in the desert 3,000 years ago. It would surprise and shock you that that anyone, today, in the 21st century, would believe it. You would be aghast that 2.382 billion people, today, think, yup, that’s the way it was.
So, how did this kooky story come to be? Well, here’s a greatly abbreviated story of the story:
As the immensely learned Yale Biblical scholar Christine Hayes puts it, the Bible is not a book; it’s a library. The earliest parts of it were written sometime around 1500 BCE. However, the oldest surviving manuscript of any of it dates to about the 2nd century BCE. So, the books that make up the Bible were copied and passed down for many centuries. And they underwent a lot of change and editing over those centuries. According to Jewish and Christian tradition, the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch, were written by Moses. So, a single author. However, based on linguistic and other evidence, scholars have figured out that there were at least four different editor/author groups who pieced together these books from previous sources—the so-called Yahwist, Eliohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly editors.
The books in the Old Testament are religious writings from a pastoral people living in the desert—the Hebrews. The oldest of these, by date of composition, is NOT Genesis, the book that tells the Hebrew origin myth. The oldest parts of the Bible, by date of composition, are parts of the books of Amos and Isaiah. Now, the most interesting contribution of the Hebrews to world mythologies is monotheism— belief in a single, all-powerful God. Everyone else, worldwide, believed in multiple Gods (with the exception of one brief flirtation with monotheism during the reign of the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten). So, that’s quite a spectacular innovation (though toward the end, Hindu and Greek religion were tending in that direction, too–see the Chandoga Upanishad and Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion). If you look at the oldest parts of the Bible, however–at the parts produced at the earliest times–it is clear that the early Hebrews also believed in multiple gods. They just thought that their god was the best and most powerful among a bunch of gods belonging to other peoples. The book of Kings, for example, tells the story of a competition held between the priests of the Canaanite god Baal and Elijah, a prophet of the god whom the Hebrews variously referred to as YHWH, El, Adonai (meaning “Lord”), and Ani Hu (meaning, in Hebrew, “I He,” or figuratively, “I am”). The Name of this god was considered so holy that it could only be spoken once a year by the Hebrew high priest. At any rate, in the competition between Elijah and the Baal priests, the god Baal is able to perform quite a lot of magic, but Elijah’s god performs more powerful magic. There are many other examples of this in the older texts in the Old Testament. The early Hebrews were not monotheists, though they did, most of them, usually, think that their god was the greatest, most powerful god. (A lot of the stories and invectives in the Old Testament are about backsliders worshipping other gods.) Monotheism developed among them.
Being a library, the Old Testament contains a lot of peculiar material. It includes (in Genesis) a couple different and contradictory origin stories and a myth of a universal flood borrowed from prior Sumerian myths, a lot of laws (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus), a collection of praise songs (Psalms), a collection of wise sayings (Proverbs), a Persian erotic love poem (The Song of Solomon), what appears to be a translation into the Hebrew idiom and belief system of a Greek play (Job), screeds against wickedness (Jeremiah), apocalypses (Daniel), and lots and lots of histories and genealogies and biographies. A few interesting tidbits:
In one of the two contradictory origin stories in Genesis that were patched together to create the beginning of the narrative, God separates a primordial water into those of the heavens and those of the Earth. The ancient Hebrews believed that the Earth was flat and that the sky was a firmament held up by pillars at the ends of the Earth. This firmament held back the waters that made up the heavens. This cosmology was common to most, if not all, of the peoples of the ancient Near East. The Hebrew word used to describe these waters that god separated into the ones above and the ones below is Tehom—a variation of the name Tiamat. In the Sumerian epic the Enuma Elis, which is far older than anything in the Bible, Tiamat is the primordial serpentine sea goddess who existed at the beginning of time. So, this is a borrowing from Sumerian belief. This is a clue, btw. The texts of the Bible were written at differing times by differing peoples and reflect the views of and influences upon the peoples of those times. When Christians today read some unlikely notion in a text written by ancient pagans, they say, “Well, that’s how people back then thought. They thought that the sun was a fiery chariot that rose into and traversed the sky because they didn’t know about stars and nuclear reactions within them.” But when they read about separating the waters of the heavens from the waters of the Earth, they say, “Well, that’s metaphorical or symbolic.” No, it’s what people in the ancient Near East believed. They thought that the sky was a dome, a firmament, with water behind it. Ancient texts, whether they be Egyptian or Hebrew or Chinese or Mayan or anything else, have to be read in their historical context. They were produced by people using the concepts and beliefs available to them in particular times and places, and many parts of them (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) are ancient superstitions and morally repugnant (or should be) to a modern mind.
After their expulsion from the garden, Adam and Eve have a couple sons, Cain and Abel. They find wives among the people of the world and marry. But alas, the text contains no explanation of where these other people came from. Mark Twain suggested that maybe some other god pulled off a different Creation “over in the next county.”
Genesis 6:2-4 contains the wild story of the Nephilim—ancient giants. The story goes like this: “The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they choose. . . There were giants (Nephilim) in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” God’s sons: Wow. Those Earth girls are hot. This story is much elaborated in the trippy and fascinating Book of Enoch, also known as The Book of the Watchers and the Book of Parables, which is not part of Western Catholic and Protestant Bibles but is considered part of sacred scripture by Ethiopian Jews and Orthodox Christians. There are many such apocryphal texts, or apocrypha—ancient Hebrew sacred books that didn’t make it into Western Bibles. There are also a few differences in what books are included in the standard (canonical) Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments.
The flood narrative—the one about Noah—was picked up from other Mesopotamian cultures as well, the Sumerian Epic of Ziusudra and the Babylonian epics of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh. There are many precise parallels among these stories.
The Book of Exodus contains the Hebrew myth of the origins of the Jewish people, including a long narrative about a Hebrew captivity in Egypt, plagues visited upon the Egyptians, an Exodus from Egypt by the Hebrews, led by Moses, wanderings in the desert, and the eventual capture by the Hebrews of the city state of Canaan. But there’s a problem with the story of the captivity of the whole of the Hebrew people in Egypt. It didn’t happen. The Egyptians kept records of everything that was of such a scale. Outside the Hebrew Bible, there are absolutely no written or archaeological records of a Hebrew captivity in Egypt, though there were Hebrew slaves who lived there. But the story provided an exciting origin tale in a time before history, as we know it, had struggled out of the murk and fancy of myth and legend.
The Song of Solomon is a Persian erotic love poem that weirdly got incorporated into Hebrew scriptures. It contains the only mention of fellatio in the Bible: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat beneath his shadow with much delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.”
One of the oddest and most interesting books of the Bible is The Book of Job. It appears to have been a Greek play (it has the exact same structure as a standard Greek play, a structure otherwise foreign to ancient Jewish literature), translated into a Hebrew idiom and with Hebrew mythological characters (God, Satan) substituted for the Greek ones.
The early church fought a lot about what books from the Hebrew and Christian traditions were worthy of being made canonical (part of the official scriptures). More about that below. But eventually, in the 3rd century BC, a standard Greek translation of all the books considered canonical by the officially sanctioned church was made by seventy scholars working under the direction of the Christian King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt. This first complete Bible was called the Septuagint, or work of the seventy. In the next century, St. Jerome produced the first complete Latin Bible, a translation of the Septuagint known as the Vulgate. So, what we’ve ended up with is the result of rewritings and combinations and compilations and copies of copies of copies of copies translated into various languages over many centuries in days before printing and science and history proper existed. No possibility of error there! LOL.
I’ll leave out the rest of the tour of the Old Testament. The point is that the parts of it were written and rewritten and pieced together from older writings and oral traditions and borrowings from various cultures by different people over some 1,500 hundred years, and there are many different versions of these books, most lost or surviving only in fragments, and there are major differences between various texts of the same book. In addition, there are literally thousands of contradictions between and within the books, as one might expect.
Yeshua of Nazareth was a radical, revolutionary Jewish rabbi, or teacher, from a provincial village, not an official teacher connected to a particular priestly organization. The texts that tell his story have many issues, which I’ll discuss below, but it’s possible by careful thought about these to piece together what might have actually happened, as many actual scholars of this ancient literature (as opposed to apologists for it) have done. This fellow, Yeshua, taught that all people were sons and daughters of god, that people would be judged by how they treated the least among them, that a Messiah (not himself) was coming very soon, that this Messiah would overthrow the existing order, that in the new order, the rich and powerful would become the lowest of people, the lowest of people would become the highest, that the Messiah would establish a paradise on Earth called the New Jerusalem, and that the disciples that Yeshua had gathered around him would rule in this paradise. It’s little wonder that the Romans, who ruled over the Hebrews at that time, with help from the Jewish authorities, put the radical Yeshua to death three days after he entered Jerusalem and, while doing so, mocked him as “king of the Jews.”
In the hundred years or so around the time of the life of Yeshua of Nazareth, there was an explosion of religious cults. These included cults of the deified emperors, Roman household cults, the various so-called mystery cults (of Demeter and Dionysus and Cybele and Isis), the cult of Sol Invictus, various versions of traditional Greek and Roman and Egyptian paganism, Mithraism, Manicheism, and many vastly differing versions of what would become known as Christianity, with their differing scriptures not found in modern Bibles.
The earliest texts that are found in the New Testament are letters written by St. Paul. The earliest gospel in the Western Bible dates to about 70 years after Christ died and is based on a lost gospel and on oral traditions. None of the four currently accepted, or so-called “canonical” gospels were written near the time of his death or by the people to whom they are ascribed. So, there was plenty of time, in this era when news came by word of mouth, for mythological accretions to attach themselves to the executed rabbi’s story.
Many Christians would be surprised to learn that in addition to the gospels (narratives of the life of Jesus), acts (stories about the lives of Jesus’s disciples, the apostles), and epistles (letters) in the New Testament, we have over two hundred other gospels, acts, epistles, collections of sayings, and other Christian writings from the first two centuries CE. These include works like The Infancy Gospel of Jesus Christ, The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Marcion, The Apocalpyse of Peter, The Acts of Pilate, the Epistles of Barnabas, and many others. In the first couple centuries after Christ, there were literally hundreds of vastly differing “Christianities,” with vastly differing scriptures and differing belief systems. Among these early Christian sects were a great many Gnostic sects that differed in the particulars of their beliefs, but all agreed that there was not one god but two, a bad god and a good god. The bad one, according to the Gnostics, created the sinful, fallen world and is the guy spoken of in the Old Testament writings. They taught that Jesus preached the gospel of the good god and that believers could be saved by rejecting the bad God (the Rex Mundi) and the sinful world he created and by gaining knowledge (Gnosis) a) of the good god and b) of how to live properly (typically through abstention from pleasures of the world). Two excellent sources of history and explication of these many early Christianities are Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities and Hans Jonas’s The Gnostics. You can find a great many of the sacred texts of these lost Chrisitanities under “Christianity,” on Sacred-texts.com. You will also find there a few modern forgeries that pretend to be ancient texts, like The Essene Gospel of Peace, which was cooked up by a Hungarian who ran a free love and vegetarianism cult in Baja, California in the 1940s. Scholars can spot one of these modern forgeries quite easily from the anachronisms and linguistic errors in them.
In 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine was headed into a major battle and, before it, had a vision. One of the two surviving stories of that vision says that he saw a cross in the sky and the words, “In hoc signo, vinces”—“In this sign you will conquer.” Constantine legalized Christianity and (eventually) himself converted, and so Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. And he called a council of bishops to Nicaea (in what is now Turkey) to come up with an official doctrine for the Church. Constantine was sick of the various factions fighting in the street, established one as the official religion, and gave the Church leave to exterminate, ruthlessly, competing “heresies.” But Constantine hedged his bets. He built temples to the Christian god AND to Sol Invictus. LOL. And he was baptized only on his deathbed.
So, by that accident, one of these 1st century religious cults became the dominant one, and it happened to be one of the many extremely different versions of Christianity that then existed. If not for this ONE GUY, Constantine, we might well all today be warning people that sex was the work of the Rex Mundi or attending ceremonies to consecrate our Senators into the priesthood of the sun god Sol Invictus or leaving offerings at little shrines to Poseidon down by the sea.
An early Christian father, Ireneus, made the list of the official gospels, leaving competing gospels from other Christian sects out, and with them all those “heretical” ideas. Poof! A lot of vastly differing Christianities disappeared.
The life of Jesus as it ended up being told in the four gospels that became part of the canonical Bible made Jesus not a teacher or prophet but the Christ, or anointed one, the promised Messiah of the Jews. And those gospels picked up and repurposed lots and lots of ancient religious motifs from the ambient and varied religious cultures of the first couple of centuries CE–for example,
that he was crucified on a cross (a story told in myths of such gods as the Egyptian god Horus; the Phrygian, the Indian Krishna, The Chaldean Crite, the Phyrgian Atys, the Mesopotamian Dumuzi/Tammuz, the Celtic Hesus, the Orissan Bali, the Tibetan Indra, the Nepalese Iao, the Indian Buddha Sakia, the Persian Mithra, the Greek Dionysus, the Caucasian Prometheus, the Norse Odin, and even the Mexican Quezalcoatl);
that he was a god who took the form of a man and then ascended into heaven (a story told of many gods and men become gods, far too many to list here);
that he died and was resurrected (a central concept of many ancient fertility and solar religions but also found in later polytheistic religions; examples of the latter include the Mesopotamian Inanna and Dumuzi, the Egyptian Osiris and Horus, the Canaanite Baal, the Phrygian Attis, the Greek Dionysus and Adonis and Persephone, and the Roman Mithra);
that he was born of a virgin and at the winter solstice (Tammuz, Osiris, Horus, Attis, Mithra, Heracles, Dionysus, Adonis, Sol Invictus);
and so on.
Of course, the miracles (raising the dead, the multiplication of food, healing the blind and lame and deaf, and so on) and the driving out of demons are found in folktales and myths worldwide from very ancient times, far predating Christianity.
What god was born of a virgin, was attended by shepherds, walked on water, had twelve followers, performed miracles, was referred to as The Way and The Truth and the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God and The Word, was executed along with two thieves, was resurrected and ascended to heaven? Well, the first of these we know about would have been the Egyptian Horus, who had been worshipped for thousands of years before Jesus was born.
So, in short, the Christians borrowed heavily from the many, many religions around them at the time to come up with the accretions they added to the legend of the executed revolutionary rabbi.
Diocletian, a Roman emperor who ruled 19 years before Constantine became sole emperor, waged the most intense of many wars of the Roman state against Christianity. He famously had Christians thrown to lions in the Colosseum. Legal documents from Diocletian’s time show the Romans charging Christians with such crimes as holding orgies, eating babies, practicing sorcery, flying through the air, and using the evil eye. When the Church gained power because of Constantine, it adopted these charges verbatim to go after the pagans. That story is interestingly told in Norman Cohn’s fascinating history of European witchcraft scares, Europe’s Inner Demons.
The first few centuries of the Church’s existence were dominated by pursuit of heretics—stamping out competing Christian belief systems and the scriptures that taught them. But fortunately, many of those competing early Christian scriptures survive. As I mentioned above, even in the recensions in the official Bible, traces of what were probably the actual teachings of Yeshua of Nazareth survive. These include a) that a Messiah (or Son of Man) was coming very soon (within the lifetimes of those then living), b) that this person would establish a New Jerusalem right here on earth, c) that Yeshua’s disciples would be leaders in that new order, d) that the poor would be exalted and the rich struck low. He was a revolutionary and radical. See Bart Ehrman’s textbook The New Testament for more details. No wonder the Romans, with help from a faction of Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, killed him and mocked him as “King of the Jews.” They were making fun of the revolutionary idea that in the New Jerusalem to come, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” that beggars would be emperors and emperors would be beggars.
When the church first got around to creating a standard, canonical Bible, they left out of the text a lot of Jewish and early Christian writings in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. A lot more than they put in. In other words, Christianity could have been VASTLY different from any of the versions of the religion that we are familiar with today, different in its scriptures, its practices, its dogmas and doctrines.
My favorite of the noncanonical books–the early Christian writings that didn’t make it into the Bible–is The Gospel of Thomas, which is a collection of Yeshua’s sayings, supposedly compiled by his brother, Didymos Judas Thomas (Thomas is the Greek version of the Aramaic word for “twin”). Aramaic was the language spoken by Yeshua. In the book of John, in the canonical New Testament, a group of Jewish religious leaders known as the Pharisees want to trick Yeshua into uttering blasphemy so that they can condemn him to death. So, they go to him and ask why he dares to call himself the son of God. Here’s Yeshua’s reply:
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? (John 10:32)
He is referencing one of the Psalms from the Old Testament, ascribed to King David:
I have said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ (Psalm 82:6)
In the Gospel of Thomas, Yeshua says, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky are above you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish are above you. But the kingdom is not above or below. The kingdom is within you and all around you.”
The bishops whom Constantine called together in 313 CE to create a creed for the newly established official Christian Church couldn’t have any of that! How could they control a people who were themselves divine? How do you wrangle gods? submit them to an authority? And Constantine and those bishops were all about creating a Church that would be an instrument of command and control. They wanted to make of it an instrument of power and of themselves, the holders of that power. And that’s exactly what they did.
St. Augustine and the Official Doctrine of the Church
So, for the first couple of centuries, things were still a little vague among Christians, and there were many upstart heresies. Then, however, along came St. Augustine. He wrote two important books: The highly readable Confessions (an autobiography) and the interminable doorstop called The City of God (a discussion of the fall of Rome that also lays out Augustine’s theology). Here’s the deal with Augustine: He was a sex addict. He loved to go to the brothels and did so frequently, but this made him feel ashamed and guilty. So, he decided that this compulsion he had must be due to Original Sin, inherited from Adam and Eve, that could only be washed away by faith in the Savior, Jesus, who died to wash away that sin. This notion, that all babies are born in sin and deserve hellfire for all eternity because Adam and Eve ate a fruit they weren’t supposed to, became the official doctrine of the Church. “In Adam’s Fall, we sinn’d All,” reads the first textbook published in the New World, The New England Primer.
Augustine was one sick fellow. But he loved and pleased his mother, Monica, a Christian who hated the fact that her son went to brothels. The city Santa Monica, btw, is named after her. And it is because her son figured, if I’m this bad, then everyone must be, that we have the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. (A dogma is an infallible, divinely revealed truth; a doctrine is a Church teaching; all dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmas.)
But the sickest thing of all was not Original Sin business, that stuff about all babies, before they have done anything, being born with sin. It was that the Church taught that the world as a whole, babies included, was evil and you couldn’t make it better, however much you tried, but should wait, instead, for pie in the sky when you die–the doctrine of Contemptus Mundi. So much for the establishment of the New Jerusalem, the Earthly Paradise! This insidious notion, in all its forms, has poisoned possibilities for human flourishing, in the West and elsewhere, for millennia.
OK, I’ll pause there. But you pretty much know the rest of the story. The Church, under the banner of the Prince of Peace (what a tragic irony is there!), raped and pillaged and murdered its way across the globe over many centuries, murdering millions and millions of indigenous people; degenerated into major factions that fought interminable, bloody wars against one another out of which the modern nation states were born; and pretty much made a mess of everything until modern secularists struggled out of the darkness of ancient superstition into the light. Now, in the United States, in 2021, an Extreme Court is attempting to give states leave to foist fundamentalist Christian theocracy on all of us all over again.
Answer to the original question, why is Christianity so weird: It’s a particular historical amalgam of a lot of really ancient superstitions and of a central theology cooked up from a troubled guy ashamed of his sex addition.