Jesus OriginsDiscovering the original Christianity
Crucified in heaven, resurrected on earth, becoming a man in the gospels.
The story of Christianity does not start in the first century AD but much earlier. We must go back to the earliest evidence for the emergence of the Jews from the local Canaanite populations. The origins of Christianity relate to the most traumatic event in ancient Jewish history, the exile.
1. The mythical crucifixion in heaven
Israel and Judah
When the Jews first emerge in the archaeological record, they are divided into two separate nations; Israel to the north and Judah, with its capital of Jerusalem, to the south. The two kingdoms were great rivals but essentially one people with the same culture, religion and language. Israel was larger and more powerful than Judah. But there was a legend that both had once been united under King David and his son Solomon who had ruled from Jerusalem. The Judeans believed Solomon had built the Jerusalem temple, which its priests promoted as the only legitimate place of worship for Yahweh. The Israelites disagreed: they worshipped Yahweh in their own cultic centres, the “high places”, and there were “high places” in Judah also.
The Jews occupied a beautiful land in the hill country near the Mediterranean coast. But they were situated between two superpowers; Egypt to the southwest and the neo-Assyrian empire (later the Babylonian empire) to the northeast. Tragically, but inevitably, the Jews were caught up in the conflict between these two powers as each empire sought to expand into the intermediate buffer area. First, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. Then, a century later, Judah fell to the Babylonians culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 BC.
Israel was wiped out, its people exiled, and new populations brought in, as was the Assyrian practice. However, many Israelites did survive in Judah. Some had lived in territory incorporated into Judah, and others had entered Judah as refugees from the Assyrian invasion. When the Babylonians defeated Judah, they took the elite population and artisan class to Babylon. However, the peasants and poor people, including the Israelites, remained in place.
After approximately seventy years, Persia defeated Babylon, and some of the elite were allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. There was opposition in Judah to these returnees, but eventually, they formed a new ruling class. However, the land of Judah would remain under foreign occupation except for a relatively brief interlude under the Hasmonaean dynasty.
The seventy sons of God
The Jews were a Canaanite people who had adopted the foreign cult of Yahweh who they equated to the Canaanite father God, El. Most likely, the cult of Yahweh originated among the Arabs of the Sinai desert. The story of Moses may preserve a genuine memory of the cult’s chief prophet as an Egyptian aristocrat exiled for committing a murder. The priests of Yahweh took the cult along trade routes into Israel and Judah, giving rise to the Exodus legion.
In Canaanite mythology, there were seventy lesser gods, the sons of El. Originally Yahweh/El was worshipped alongside these other gods. But as the Jews became more monotheist, the seventy gods were demoted to seventy angels, the heavenly rulers of the seventy non-Jewish nations. The angels formed a council under Yahweh that had evolved from the Canaanite council of seventy gods under El. The Jewish Sanhedrin of seventy elders under the high priest was modelled on this heavenly council.
The Assyrians and Babylonians’ defeat of the Jewish people precipitated a religious crisis. The Jews were supposedly the chosen people of Yahweh, the supreme and only real God. So why had they been defeated by the lesser nations under their false gods? The Judean mainstream and the dissident Israelite remnant had two very different answers; one led to Judaism, the other to Christianity.
An ancient betrayal by “Judas Iscariot”
The Judeans blamed the Israelites, who had supposedly fallen away from the pure worship of Yahweh by committing fornication with other gods in their vile “high places”. Judah was also corrupted and shared Israel’s downfall, although its exile would be only temporary. It is no surprise that the exile gave great impetuous to the emergence of Judaism as an entirely monotheistic religion.
The Israelites had a very different explanation. They blamed the Judeans of the Jerusalem court and temple for a shameful betrayal. King Ahaz of Judah had paid an enormous tribute to the king of Assyria to persuade him to intervene in a regional conflict and invade Israel. As a result of Ahaz’s bribe, Israel was destroyed, and Judah eventually suffered the same fate. In their prophetical literature, the Israelites represented the Judean elite responsible for the betrayal by the satirical name “Judas Iscariot”. It means “Judah, man of the city (Jerusalem)” and represents the court and priests of Judah.
The trial of Christ in heaven
The Israelites believed that Israel and Judah had their own ruler in heaven, the Christ, who was not one of the seventy angels. The entity that the Judeans thought was Yahweh was actually a great angel, the “Angel of the Name”, who bore the divine name of Yahweh. The real Yahweh was beyond all human experience or understanding. But Christ was his son. The seventy angels hated Christ and conspired to have him killed. The betrayal by Judas Iscariot enabled them to bring Christ before the heavenly council, where the Angel of the Name reluctantly condemned him on account of the sin of his people. Two angels, the divine kings of Babylon (also known as the devil) and Egypt, carried out the sentence. Christ suffered the accursed death of crucifixion by being hung by ropes from a tree and was buried in an empty tomb.
To the ancient mind, what happened on earth was the echo of what happened in heaven. On earth, Israel and Judah had been destroyed in the conflict between Babylon and Egypt. If a nation had died, its divine ruler must have been killed in heaven.
The Almanac and the third day
Christianity emerged from a sect of Israelites living in Judah after the Judean exile and return. They accepted the legitimacy of the first temple and the legend of King David and Solomon, appropriating it to themselves to the extent of even claiming to be David’s descendants. But they rejected the second temple entirely and denied the legitimacy of the Judean priests. Instead of this false Jerusalem temple, a new temple “not built by hands” would come into existence in the end times. For the Israelite sect believed the world would shortly come to an end in the apocalypse.
The sect had an apocalyptic calendar which I have named “the Almanac”. It envisaged the whole of human history as seventy periods corresponding to the seventy angels. These periods were not measured in years but by the ancient method of generations. The world would last for seventy generations grouped into ten “weeks” of seven generations each. The crucifixion of Christ and destruction of the first temple happened at a very special time in the Almanac; the seventh day of the seventh week, the sabbath of sabbaths.
Having killed Christ, the seventy angels believed they would rule the world forever. But they had been tricked. Christ’s perfect sacrifice would bring their dominion to an end. Christ would return to save both Jews and Gentiles. He would be dead for two days and resurrected on the third. The two days (generations) originally related to the seventy years of the Judean exile, with the return on the third day (generation). But the Israelites believed that the Jews remained in a state of exile. So they performed a standard move of reinterpreting a “day” as a “week”. The two days of exile became two “great days” or weeks, a period of fourteen generations.
On the “third day”, Christ would be resurrected to defeat the angels in heaven and the nations on earth. He would bring into existence the new temple and establish his kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven”, which would encompass all Jews and gentiles.
2. The spiritual resurrection on earth
Mary’s experience of Jesus
In the first century, apocalyptic expectations reached a peak. The Jews were now under occupation by the Romans, regarded as the evil successors of Babylon. When the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, brought the Roman legionary banners, idols to the Jews, into the holy city, many believed that the apocalypse had started.
At this time, a demon-possessed woman from the Israelite sect claimed that Christ had been resurrected and had come to her spiritually as Jesus. Her name was Mary, the daughter of Joseph. She must have belonged to a leading family within the group, for she claimed to be the “seed of David” with a genealogy showing descent from the semi-mythical king. As no one could see Jesus, Mary was disbelieved and even regarded as mentally ill. However, she managed to induce the same spiritual experience in a few others. She left the sect with this small group of followers, retreating into the wilderness.
Mary as the tower, the temple
Mary took the title the Magdalene, which came directly from “migdal”, tower, rather than meaning that she came from Magdala in Galilee. The “tower” was the name the Israelite group gave to the first temple. So “Mary, the tower” meant the new temple, the one “not built by hands”. The Magdalene title unambiguously identifies Mary as the leader and founder of the Jesus movement and attests to her extraordinary role.
Jesus dwelt within Mary, the new temple, and through her, in all the Christians. In the future, God would not live in temples of wood and stone but within women and men. It was a decisive break from Judaism and marked the birth of an entirely spiritual religion.
Mary was not just the temple but also the Virgin mother. For the Jews, the worse fate that could befall a woman was to be childless like Mary. But she turned this around; the spirit of God had entered into her, and she had given birth to the reborn and resurrected Jesus. Through Jesus, Mary was the spiritual mother to the whole Jesus movement. In the earliest sources, the birth itself, rather than just the conception, is spiritual and not physical. This idea became known as the first “heresy”, Docetism.
Mary as the rock (Cephas/Peter)
Mary had one other identity. Women were marginalised in Jewish religion at this time, and the mainstream excluded them from any religious participation except as passive worshippers. There is some evidence of women exercising leadership functions over other women in fringe groups. But there is no single example of a woman leading males in a religious context. Indeed, a woman who associated with men would have been called a prostitute. The idea of a religious movement led by a woman would have excited ridicule and severe persecution. But the Jesus movement was different. A saying records that Jesus made Mary “male” so she would not have to leave her male followers. This does not mean that she had a sex change but that she would become an honorary man to exercise her leadership role.
Mary adopted a title, “the rock”, that became a masculine name, Cephas, translated in Greek as Peter. The Jesus movement experienced intense persecution from the Jewish mainstream in Judea, so using a pseudonym for the leader was essential. Cephas, the rock, was the perfect complement to the Magdalene, the tower. It represented the high places and Mount Sinai in particular. We find both the rock and the tower in a crucial work, the Animal Apocalypse, produced hundreds of years before the Jesus movement. In this Apocalypse, God appears to humans in two ways; on a rock, which stands for Mount Sinai, and on a tower, standing for the temple. The titles “the rock” and “the tower” are those of a shaman, the means by which God communicates with humanity.
From the Twelve to the apostles
In the wilderness, Mary’s new movement came into contact with John the Baptist and his ever-growing band of supporters. The two groups were rivals, with Mary offering a spiritual baptism in competition with the water baptism of John. Mary appointed Twelve disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, to lead the movement under herself. This first phase of the Jesus movement lasted about a decade, during which Mary recruited 500 followers.
John, though, had been far more successful in growing his movement. Mary went through a complex, personal, spiritual shamanic practice with new recruits in which they experienced the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for themselves. But John’s recruits just had to be dipped in water, dozens at a time. When Herod executed John for opposing his marriage to Herodias, Mary saw the opportunity to recruit from John’s vast following. She moved to two stages of initiation; a water baptism for the “poor in spirit” to join the movement, followed in time by a spiritual baptism to become one of the “chosen”. This enabled a much greater rate of expansion but had the disadvantage that the non-spiritual soon predominated.
Around this time, Mary appointed a new leadership structure of apostles who replaced the Twelve. The most successful apostle among the Jews, Simon, was granted one of Mary’s titles “the Rock”. Paul called him Peter to distinguish him from the founder, the mysterious Cephas, but the two became hopelessly confused. The apostle Paul was a former Pharisee who had persecuted the Jesus movement before his spontaneous conversion. Mary made Paul an apostle to concentrate on establishing new gentile churches. His background was very different from that of his fellow apostles; he was always an outlier and loose cannon within the movement. Paul’s letters are the earliest surviving records from the movement, but as they reflect his pharisee training, they give us a distorted perspective.
James and John
Although Mary was childless, she adopted several “sons”, most likely her nephews or other relatives. Most prominent among them were James and John Mark, the sons of Zebedee, who were given special positions on the “right and left” sides. If Zebedee were Mary’s brother, as seems probable, then both James and John would have been regarded as descendants of King David on the male line, making them very eligible to lead the movement.
By the 50s AD, Mary was over fifty and old by the standards of the time. She had ruled the movement under the handicap of being a woman, and now she decided it was time to appoint James as her successor. He would lead the Jesus movement from Jerusalem while Mary would retire to Rome with her favourite “son”, John Mark. It was a decisive move; it gave Mary freedom for a few years but led to tragedy for James.
In Jerusalem, James had to confront religious persecution by the Jewish leaders who particularly objected to the Jesus movement’s recruitment of gentiles. James was naturally conservative and attempted to appease the priests by imposing circumcision on gentile recruits, which caused conflict with Paul and the fast-growing gentile churches. More widely the movement never accepted James as the true leader because Mary was still alive and regarded as the supreme spiritual authority. In any case, James’ attempts at reproachment were doomed to failure. The Jewish establishment would never accept the heretical Jesus movement. Taking advantage of a gap between Roman procurators, they had James executed.
The Gospel of Thomas
The only surviving text authorised by the movement’s founder was produced in Rome. It was the collection of sayings of Jesus we know as the Gospel of Thomas. The church declared the gospel heretical within a few centuries, and its use died out. A complete version was only discovered in 1945. The most likely author of the Gospel is John Mark, although most of the sayings derive from Mary or the pre-resurrection Christ movement. The author of the Gospel, however, has imposed a most unusual structure; a mathematical hierarchy based on the unique relationship between the first three prime numbers, 2,3 and 5. I have called this the Thomas Code, and it is the most sophisticated structure for any known text from the ancient world.
The author of Thomas also developed some stories of Jesus creating a miraculous multiplication of food or drink, which are mathematical plays on the Thomas Code.
Mary’s martyrdom in Rome
Mary died in Rome, most likely during the Neronian persecution after the fire of Rome. Nero blamed the Christians, and some confessed to the fire. It is not that they physically started it, but they boasted that Mary had summoned fire from heaven to destroy the capital of the new Babylon. Mary was caught up in the general persecution but was not identified as the leader. Paul died in the same persecution; most likely, John Mark did also. Because Nero had put Mary to death, Christians believed that he was the anti-Christ and the gematria of his name, 666, became the number of the beast, the devil.
3. A flesh-and-blood man in the gospels
The gospel Jesus
The familiar story of Jesus was first developed in the 70s AD by the author of the Gospel of Mark. The four New Testament gospels emerged in an age of chaos for the movement. Essentially all the Jesus movement’s leaders had been eliminated by the Jewish and Roman persecutions. The churches, widely distributed throughout the Roman Empire, were deprived of leadership and did not know what or who to believe. The genuine sayings and stories from the founders had been esoteric and almost impossible for the average believer to understand. So when someone came up with a simple, understandable account of Jesus and his teachings, it is no surprise that it quickly became popular and eventually crowded out the authentic early sources.
We do not know who wrote Mark, but they must have been on the movement’s periphery. The gospel is anonymous but traditionally attributed to John Mark, as is the Gospel of John, although the real John Mark wrote neither. The gospel writers inherited several sources, including a crucifixion account, a resurrection account, the Gospel of Thomas, some other sayings of Jesus, and stories of the miraculous productions of food and drink, which were a play on the Thomas Code. The author of Mark incorporated many of these sources into a rich, inventive narrative. But he made one crucial mistake which was to change human history; he thought that the “third day” meant the third literal day of twenty-four hours. As the resurrection had occurred while Pilate was Roman governor, the author of Mark thought the crucifixion also occurred under Pilate.
The author of Mark took the existing crucifixion account and made some relatively minor changes to fit it into a Roman context. He then wrote a backstory, wrongly situating Jesus in Galilee, the closest he could come to the old Israel.
In this way, Jesus became a flesh and blood man believed to have lived in the first century. Mary was split into multiple characters; the virgin mother of Jesus in a literal sense and the Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection. Her Cephas identity merged with Simon Peter to become Jesus’ chief disciple, the first witness of the resurrection under some accounts, and the first leader of the movement.
The triumph of the proto-orthodox church
The writers of Matthew, Luke and John attempted to improve upon Mark. They had access to different sources but followed the same essential story. Although the gospels became immensely popular within the Jesus movement, they did not immediately displace other forms of Christianity. The proto-orthodox church developed around the gospel version but competed with many diverse forms of Christianity in the second and third centuries. Most of these other Christianities were grouped misleadingly under a single label, “Gnosticism”, and condemned by the proto-orthodox church fathers such as Irenaeus. However, all of these Christianities, from the proto-orthodox to the most extreme forms of Gnosticism, can be traced back to Mary’s original religion and, in that sense, could be regarded as equally valid.
As the gospels became increasingly accepted as the one and only version of the truth, the proto-orthodox began to nudge out these alternative Christianities. This process gained momentum from the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity. The church achieved great power, although this did not happen overnight, and was able to get alternative forms of Christianity banned along with paganism. With the division of the Roman Empire and the decline of the west, the proto-orthodox church split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.