Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Getting Started

Happy New Year!  Each new year brings with it its share of beginnings and endings as the natural courses of progress and life continue on.  May your beginnings be enriching, and your endings be bitter-sweet at worst this year!

While I was meditating about beginnings, my mind wandered to wondering about the early beginnings of Christianity.  What was the character of the earliest evangelists?  How did it get to the point of snowballing into a major world religion?

It's often hard to partition cynicism from skepticism, so at least some of the Christians I've openly chatted with likely have the impression that I think there was some grand conspiracy behind all of this; that the "Apostles" all knew that it this was a false religion from the start, and that they kicked off the new faith for selfish reasons.  (That's a bit of a straw-man argument, but just for illustration.)  The truth is that I do not have a strong sense of what happened exactly, but I am less inclined to favor a purely cynical theory.

I suspect that there was a real person named Jesus who attracted a subgroup of truly loyal followers who followed him around.  Were there actually twelve of these loyalists?  Were there less?  Were there more?  Who knows?  But there is some certainty that there were loyal followers, because they had to be the ones to spread the word after their teacher was gone.

What exactly Jesus said and did is highly debatable, and worthy of a separate post itself, but he was at least impressive enough to captivate these followers.  Yet the fact that there were not more loyalists suggests that Jesus' alleged miracles are unlikely to be entirely true, because I suspect that the embodiment of that kind of power combined with alleged divine authority and wisdom, combined with a message that the world would soon end, would have been difficult to resist, as John 6:68 phrases that sentiment so well:
Simon Peter answered [Jesus], "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." NIV
There were believers.  What exactly they believed is also debatable, but we should not deny that these loyal followers, in part or in whole, believed some message that Jesus was preaching.  If not, if it was just for the angle of selfish gain of power, respect, and/or wealth, these non-devoted followers could have easily plagiarized the story and wisdom once they learned it, and broken off on their own long before Jesus died.

So, to me, it is quite likely that the early evangelism was done by sincere believers.  But the problem with many movements, especially those spread orally, is that they can morph and change easily over time.  And as belief spread, new regional faith leaders would have to emerge.  These leaders, being a factor removed from the original eyewitnesses, would naturally have less loyalty to the original message.  They could add on interpretations or hearsay into the story.  Some of them, with their faith weakened by time, could become corrupted by the respect and wealth which was so willingly offered by new believers, just as we see preachers today ensnared in the same situation.

I suspect that by the time the Gospel stories became fully similar to what we know them today, they had been shaped and altered by those who had never had direct access to Jesus.  The original intents and messages had been tweaked or, in some cases, overwritten.  The neat thing is that you can study some of this evolution within the Synoptic Gospels when you compare them side-by-side.

So my guess is that within a decade or so after the evangelism-sans-Jesus began, you had a rather diverse Christian faith.  Some regional leaders were genuinely pious, trying to get the word out, while others had begun to drift due to the trappings of their appointed positions.  Still other leaders who had more worldly knowledge of religions, or astrology, or numerology, or Gnosticism, would put their own spin on the meaning of the "messiah."

But whether or not the leaders had pure piety, they had motivation to be persuasive.  The pious were dealing with an impending, imminent return of their Savior.  The corrupt were figuring out how to better fill their pockets.  And the mystics with their own take on the message were working to bring people into enlightenment of this new revelation.

Those are my thoughts.  That and $5 may get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  :-)  What do you think happened?


  1. As soon as we have time machines, a heck of a lot of people will be going back then to find out for sure!

    You mentioned that you'd expect even more followers back then had the miracles been true. Considering that Jews were already waiting for someone like Jesus, it's interesting that so many with a vested interest to be validated STILL didn't believe. I'm as atheist as they get, but if I saw a guy heal a cripple or clone bread and seafood, I'd be on board.

  2. That, to me, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this history Grundy. The fact that where Jesus performed His alleged miracles and fulfillment of prophesies proved to provide relatively few converts is practically a palpable irony. I think it speaks a lot to just how true the Biblical "truth" is.

  3. Interesting thoughts. I think a real Jesus that you describe is a credible possibility. I also think it is possible that there were few different rabbis who were beloved and whose stories were merged over the years. Like you, I don't think it was anything conspiratorial, but just the kind of thing that can happen with oral tradition. Imagine for example, if they heard stories of 2 different beloved rabbis from different regions, both from about 100 years ago, I could imagine someone saying "What if they are the same guy?"

    Another thing your post made me think of is the origins of scientology. We know that L. Ron Hubbard said that you should start a religion to make money before he started scientology. Presumably he knew at the beginning it was all BS. I bet when he was old and senile and surrounded by people worshiping him he bought into his own nonsense.

  4. Thanks Hausdorff. I hadn't thought of multiple rabbis being merged, but you're right; that is a very plausible scenario. Even if it wasn't a direct blending of multiple rabbis, I am sure that some rabbinical wisdom got cross-pollinated into the Jesus story, with "the second greatest commandment" being one of the prime and most obvious examples (the "love thy neighbor as yourself").

    A good friend of mine had a history of revisionism in his memories and a zeal for "accentuating" his stories, such that it really seemed as though he believed wholeheartedly in his modified versions. So I can definitely see Hubbard caught up in the version of "reality" he created. :-)

  5. "A good friend of mine had a history of revisionism in his memories"

    I've done this too! A few times I've been telling a story and someone else that was there let's me know I've gotten details quite wrong. Sometimes we argue as we both think our version is right, but other times after they point it out I realize I had remembered wrong. It's actually quite disconcerting, it made me wonder what other memories I have that are wrong in important places.

  6. I think we all do this a bit, Hausdorff. :-) My friend just had a flair for it!

    But realizing just how fickle memories are makes you realize that it is extremely unlikely that the Gospels were written accurately if they were not written very soon after Jesus, which all evidence suggests is not the case.

  7. I recommend the movie "Jesus of Montreal". It is brilliant commentary on how a following gets started, perpetuated and controlled. Plus, its heart wrenching, funny and goes through the historical Easter story.
    - prairienymph

  8. I think I may have I heard of that movie once, but never remembered to check it out. Thanks for the reminder and/or suggestion, prairienymph! :-) I'll see if I can get my eyes on it.