Reasons to invent Jesus
It is not clear whether Jesus—a then-common name meaning “saviour”—was a real person who lived in the first century CE. If he did not exist, contemporary cult leaders had reasons to invent him. Here’s a summary of those reasons, informed by my own reading of The Bible.
As a bit of background, it is evident that contemporary trends shaped the development of Judaism and the writing of the Old Testament. For example, 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 any religion over time seems to be guided by the memetic properties of each such mytheme and its effects on competing societies, including the effects of enforcing social order. It was good for the spread of Yahwism that it incorporated the idea of law from outside.
Hot trends in the New Testament
In the same way that gods other than Yahweh had laws, there were several pre-Christian personal saviour gods dying and rising from the dead to live again. In a blog post, historian Richard Carrier lists Osiris, Dionysus (Bacchus), 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, the critics noticed that Jesus had a lot in common with older gods.
This has a natural explanation. The adherents of older personal saviours lived on the borders of Judea or travelled and traded through the province, spreading their beliefs. Early Christians were surely influenced by their ideas about dying-and-rising personal saviours, and not only that. It is the same with the virgin birth, another old and popular motif reused by Christians for the later gospels of the New Testament as the cult grew. It is the same again with their organization. Cult membership gave you a simulated kin group with “brothers” and “sisters” in the faith. That was not a Christian invention, and did not require Jesus to have lived.
A critical version of the myth of Zalmoxis rising from the dead is given in The Histories (440 BCE), several centuries before the myth of Jesus incorporated that motif. This is why the Athenians laugh at a Christian sermon in Acts 17:32. Educated people throughout the region 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, linear apocalypticism, scripturalism, untestability, and prudish abhorrence of body and sexuality. The social criticism is also recycled: Like Ezekiel and other prophets in earlier Judaism, Jesus claims to protect the poor and rails against the temple priests. Basically, some clever people picked up on the hot trends of their day and spun off a version targeted at Jews.
Escalating blood sacrifice
Dying and rising has something to do with the annual cycle of death and rebirth in nature. It’s also linked to sacrifice. The basic idea of sacrifice is simple: You give something up to demonstrate your commitment. This can be spending thousands of dollars on a wedding ring, getting a tattoo, or cutting off your foreskin to convert to Judaism. You’re paying for psychological impact.
Yahweh rejects vegetables in Genesis.2 Smashing a potato is too cheap; you have to kill for him. Killing brings the additional psychological impact of sadism. The emotional rush of taking another life is easily misunderstood as magical empowerment. Therefore, killing for Yahweh remains routine throughout the Old Testament.
By the logic of this construct, the most powerful sacrifices you could think of are difficult, expensive and socially disruptive. Deuteronomy 12 forbids human sacrifice, presumably to stop an ongoing practice. For instance, Jephthah kills his daughter as payment for Yahweh’s blessing in Judges 11. She’s an only child, because it’s especially dramatic that way. It’s all about human emotion, misunderstood as supernatural power.
Avoiding contradiction by killing the innocent
The Israelites kill Achan in Joshua 7 and the 450 prophets of another god in 1 Kings 18. Killing your enemies for their sins like this is sometimes framed as making a gift of the victim to the gods, but that approach works poorely in Judaism, where the main god might have no need. Officially, he just likes the smell of burning flesh.3
Most of the Old Testament was written at a time when the subjugation of the kingdom of Judah under Babylon was being attributed to Yahweh himself, on the pretext that Jews had misbehaved and angered Yahweh. In this explanatory model, everyone was a sinner and killing all sinners was therefore not an option. Viewing punishment as a form of sacrifice is also self-contradictory: If you want to get rid of an offender, you aren’t giving up something you value. On one level, you are offering garbage to your gods.
This problem was solved through substitutionary sacrifice. That’s when you transfer your guilt to someone and then kill them in your place. This is what happens to the literal scapegoat at Yom Kippur, the Passover lamb, and more explicitly, to the animals killed to avert responsibility for murder in Deuteronomy 21.
In a substitutionary sacrifice, you pretend to combine sacrifice and punishment, but you’re actually killing the innocent. Therefore you are no longer getting rid of something you don’t want to keep. This is an especially attractive solution when the guilt is your own, because then you are also spared from having to punish yourself, and you still get the sadism. It all amounts to a transactional form of therapy for your own bad conscience.
The Christian solution
Yahweh demands that Abraham kill Isaac and “your children in the fire”4 more generally. He claims all the firstborn as sacrifices in Exodus 22:29f, but even this was not enough. Christianity kept the concept of blood atonement from Judaism and escalated further.
In the central Christian story—the story of the crucifixion—Yahweh stages the juiciest magic. Jesus is innocent, he’s powerful, he’s human, he’s a god, and he dies at Passover; he’s almost got it all. The gospels mention that he had brothers and sisters, but there is long-standing debate about those apparent siblings, because a lot of Christians want Jesus to be either an only child like Jephthah’s daughter, or at least a firstborn. That would make Jesus the hydrogen bomb of sacrifices. 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.5
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. Carrier proposes that Jesus did not have to exist for this idea to spread, precisely every part of the motif was already familiar to the audience. The apostles never had to produce a body.
Making the most of it
When you read about ancient Mediterranean cultures, including the Romans at the height of their wealth, you find stark contrasts between apparent enlightenment (aqueducts, philosophy) and primitive customs (velites in wolf pelts, phallic good-luck charms). Accordingly, there’s a twist to the narrative of sacrificing Jesus. Rather than merely sprinkling his blood over themselves, Christians drink it and eat the flesh. This is why Oscar Wilde once wrote of the Eucharist, in its Roman Catholic form, that it is “more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world”.
Drinking the blood violates Mosaic law, which says the blood of an animal must be drained, never consumed. So why drink it? Three reasons are commonly offered:
- Drinking makes a personal “blood bond”. This replaces the bond to one’s family that was made through the water of the womb, hence the saying “blood is thicker than water”. In other words, the transgressive ritual was needed to replace the convert’s biological family with the church.
- Transgression against Mosaic law gave the early convert a giddy feeling of freedom and superiority. This is why it’s framed as a feast: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival”.6
- Magical absorption of the corpse’s divine 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.”7
These functions of symbolic cannibalism require a victim, but they work best with a symbolic victim who never lived. That way there is less disgust and criminal liability. The whole thing becomes more of a game. I doubt that there was ever a time when all of the faithful saw themselves as cannibals, even in private, and you never hear modern Christians talking about the Eucharist in this manner. A lot of them, including Catholics, now prefer to think of the ritual as a re-enactment of Jesus’s last supper, or a vigil, and there is some textual support for that dimension as well.8
Deciding that Jesus had been a real person made the original meaning of the Eucharist too vulgar for the mature organization that survived the darkness of the Middle Ages. Nowadays, spelling it out brings unwanted attention. Christians who read The Bible and take the ritual seriously are made to dissemble and hide their shame, like racists.
I wrote this derivative article as I was mentally checking Carrier’s model against The Bible. Carrier passes over the cannibal element quickly and emphasizes instead that Paul of Tarsus, the main primary source on early Christian beliefs, never talks about Jesus as a person who lived, but only as a spirit.
It’s a good model, but it’s not evidence. Like Carrier himself, I readily admit that I have no evidence that Jesus was a mythological construct first. It remains a strong possibility that he was a marginal cult leader whose legend was optimized. That being said, in my opinion, Carrier’s composite hypothesis explains both what happens in the New Testament and some of the popularity 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.
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. ↩
1 Corinthians 11 is an example of what enables this ambiguity. In it, Jesus orders the eating of bread as his body, in a sacrifice, with consequences for people’s health tied to their interpretation of this magical ritual. The scene takes place on the night of Jesus being “betrayed”, which became the last supper in later art, and Paul writes of the Eucharist here as an act of remembrance until the apocalypse: Something social that the congregation should do together. He does not spell out his own implication that the ritual is good for your health because it consists of eating a god’s human corpse. ↩