It is not clear whether Jesus—a then-common name meaning “saviour”—was an ordinary person or pure fiction. Contemporary cult leaders had reasons to invent him. Here’s a summary of explanations offered by historian Richard Carrier, informed by my own reading of the bible.
Carrier lists some pre-Christian personal saviour gods dying and rising from the dead to live again: Osiris, Dionysus, Zalmoxis, Inanna, Adonis (mentioned as Tammuz in Ezekiel), Romulus, Asclepius, Baal (“probably” identical to Hadad-Rimmon as mentioned in “Zechariah”), Hercules, and some less clear-cut cases cited by ancient critics of early Christianity.1 Even while the cult was young, these critics noticed that Jesus had a lot in common with older, popular gods, whose adherents lived on the borders of Judea or travelled and traded through the province.
It was the same with the virgin birth, another old and popular motif reused by Christians. It was the same again with their organization: Membership gave you a simulated kin group (“brothers” and “sisters” in the faith; calling your priest “father”; cf. the water of baptism as a symbol of new amniotic fluid), eternal life after death, etc. This would be why the Athenians laugh at a Christian sermon in Acts 17:32. They had heard the story from older cults.
In Carrier’s analysis, Christianity was created by fusing then-popular dying-and-rising gods and their cults with the cultural traits of Judaism as they appear in the pre-Persian Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE): messianism/soteriology, social criticism (like Ezekiel, Jesus claims to protect the poor and rails against the temple priests), linear apocalypticism, scripturalism, untestability, and prudish abhorrence of body and sexuality. Basically, some clever people picked up on the hot trends and spun off a version for Jews. I wrote this derivative article as I was mentally checking Carrier’s proposal against the bible.
As an aside, in the same way that contemporary trends shaped the New Testament, they also shaped the Old Testament. Yahweh was not the first god who had a law. Around 2800 BCE, Egyptian texts started to describe Nile Valley gods as enforcing order (ma’at). This motif became increasingly common leading into the period around 1000 BCE when Yahweh made the leap from tribal warrior to legal authority. The development of religion seems to be guided by the memetic properties of each “mytheme”—in Daniel Dennett’s sense of the word—and its effects on competing societies, including the effects of social order.
Another trait of Judaism carried into Christianity is blood atonement. The Jews liked to sacrifice their foreskins and were big on the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, as in the goat at the binding of Isaac, the scapegoat at Yom Kippur, the Passover lamb, and the animals killed to avert responsibility for murder in Deuteronomy 21. Indeed, the basic idea is that you do not have to take responsibility for your own actions. You can magically transfer responsibility to someone or something else and then punish that thing to process your guilt.
The true currency of sacrifice is human emotion. The general rule is that the more you care about something, the more significant will be the act of giving it up, or intending to give it up. More powerful living things are also considered more significant unto themselves; a false intuition. As a corollary, the most powerful sacrifices are disruptive and typically taboo. This is why Deuteronomy 12 bans human sacrifice, presumably to stop an ongoing practice.
Following the typical logic, vegetables make a poor sacrifice, which is why Yahweh rejects vegetables in Genesis and why it is weak faith that has people eating vegetables in Romans (14:2, a metaphor). Humans prefer humans over other animals, humans tend to have more power, and humans can more easily imagine other humans as guilty, which is why Yahweh demands that Abraham kill Isaac and why the Israelites kill Achan in Joshua 7 and the 450 prophets in 1 Kings 18 and “your children in the fire”2 more generally.
Firstborn are emotionally precious to their parents and stand to inherit their power. This is why Yahweh claims all the firstborn as sacrifices in Exodus 22:29f, and why Jephthah kills his daughter—an only child—in Judges 11. It’s especially dramatic that way.
Extrapolating from the same logic, the ultimate sacrifice would be one’s beloved firstborn child, a human who is also oneself and an omnipotent god. That’s Jesus. In the story of the crucifixion, Yahweh stages a blood sacrifice of itself as its only human child at Passover because nothing could make juicier magic. Here’s how the bible spells out the analogy:
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.3
The premise is not more fully explicated in the bible, partly for the same reason that the authors never bother to explain how the kingdom of Judah became the province of Judea in between testaments. They took the knowledge for granted and had more pressing reasons to write.
The premise of killing Jesus to help others would make sense to some hunter-gatherers 50,000 years ago, even if the scenario is complicated to match old dogma. Carrier proposes that Jesus did not have to exist for this idea to spread. The motif was familiar enough that the apostles never had to produce a body.
There’s a twist to the narrative. Rather than merely sprinkling the blood of Jesus over themselves, Christians drink it and eat the flesh. Drinking the blood violates Mosaic law, which says the blood of an animal must be drained, never consumed. So why drink it? Like cannibalism itself, transgression against Mosaic law gave the early convert a feeling of superiority. It completes the ritual with a feast: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival”.4
Aside from the simple glee of transgression, there is a second reason for cannibalism: Absorption of power. This premise is spelled out in the gospels: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, [...]. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”5
You never hear modern Christians talking about the Eucharist in this manner. A lot of them prefer to think of the ritual as a re-enactment of Jesus’s last supper: A chance to feel closer to the god, with wine and wafers as proxies for a shared meal of wine and bread, not human flesh. The original meaning was too vulgar for the mature organization that survived the darkness of the Middle Ages. Nowadays, spelling it out brings unwanted attention.
Partly because so many Christians nowadays would disavow it, I am somewhat suspicious of the cannibal angle. It’s a curiously dramatic claim and Carrier does not dwell on it. Open acknowledgement of symbolic cannibalism among Christians would naturally become controversial quite early, to whatever extent the notion existed among the earliest Christian congregations. Still, when you read about the ancient Mediterranean cultures, you find a lot of these contrasts between apparent enlightenment (aqueducts, philosophy) and primitive customs (velites in wolf pelts, phallic good-luck charms).
Like Carrier himself, I have no evidence that Jesus was made up from scratch. It remains a strong possibility that he was a marginal cult leader whose legend was quickly appropriated and optimized. That being said, in my opinion, Carrier’s composite hypothesis explains both what happens in the New Testament and the memetic success of the cult.
Without blood atonement, the logical link from Judaism to Christianity would have been weak. Without hand-picked features familiar to the Gentile audience, Constantine the Great’s eventual choice of Christianity would have been all the more mysterious, even with the organizational advantages of the Church over competing religions.
The list is from Richard Carrier, “Dying-and-Rising Gods”, 2018-03-29. That’s a blog post. Carrier also has peer-reviewed literature on the subject. ↩
John 6:54f. Like sacrifice, the idea of absorbing someone’s power by eating them is apparently intuitive to us as human beings. It’s how kuru got started. It doesn’t work, but it’s only a short conceptual leap away from the true statement that we can grow stronger by eating meat, using protein to build muscle, brain tissue etc. ↩