Christianity Before Jesus

Two important background sources for this page are:

The Birth of Christianity, by John Dominic Crossan

The Jesus Puzzle, by Earl Doherty

The 'Christ Cult'

Some recent scholars have come to the conclusion that first centruy Jews developed complete strains of 'Christianity' derived entirely from the Old Testament enhanced perhaps by Greco/Roman religious terminology and thought.

These 'Christ Cults' had no connection with or knowledge of any historical Jesus in Palestine.

By the time Jesus of Nazareth came along, 'Christianity' may have already been a wide spread religion.

A Modern Example

Today many Christians have worked out detailed scenarios of the Second Coming of Christ.

The Anti-Christ, the beast and his mark, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the thousand year reign of peace; these future figures and events derived from the Bible are very real to many Christians today even though they have not occurred yet.

In the same way, it is argued, the first century Jews developed detailed scenarios about the future Chirst.

And belief in these scenarios was just as intense.

Arguements for this Theory

We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that Jews in Palestine developed similar beliefs about a religio-political Messiah who was to come.

John the Baptist's followers also believed in a future messiah.

"...[John the Baptist] said, 'After me is coming someone who is more powerful than me, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.'" Mark 1:7-8

So why wouldn't Jews living out in the Roman world develop similiar beliefs about a coming Christ?

New Testament Problems Solved by this Theory

Outside of the four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, there are almost no references to the historical Jesus or to details of his life on earth

There is a great deal in the Epistles and Revelation about the spiritual Christ and what he accomplishes on the spiritual plane but almost nothing about the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

It explains why Paul, who knew Christ only through revelation, could have been originally opposed to Jesus and still be such an important person in early Chirstianity. (I assume Galatians was written much later and only attributed to Paul yet reflects the earlier conflict between the Christ Cult and the Jesus Cult).

"Now I [Paul] want to make it quite clear to you, brothers, about the gospel that was preached by me, that it was no human message. It was not from any human being that I received it, and I was not taught it, but it came to me through a revelation of ... Christ. You have surely heard how I lived in the past, within Judaism, and how there was simply no limit to the way I persecuted the Church of God in my attempts to destroy it; and how, in Judaism, I outstripped most of my Jewish contemporaries in my limitless enthusiasm for the traditions of my ancestors." Galatians 1:11-15

Arguements against this Theory

No doubt people will note the wide spread use of the name "Jesus" outside of the Gospels and Acts.

In his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart D. Ehrman tells us that to counter second centruy heresies trying to separate the "physical" Jesus from the "spiritual" Christ, many passages were altered from just "Jesus" or just "Christ" to "Jesus Christ".

As an experiment, try reading "Christ" instead of "Jesus" in the Epistles and Revelation and see that it usually works just as well.

The Epistle to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews is perhaps the best surviving relic from the "Chirst cult" period.

It tells us a great deal about the Christ, all of it from the Old Testament, but virtually nothing about the historical Jesus.

Return to "Origins of Christianity"

(c) 2006 Thomas F. Swezey All rights reserved.