Pre-Christian Jesus Cult

Belief in a soon-to-come messiah was deep-seated among the Jews after the time of the Maccabean revolt (144 BCE), and the fervor of that belief virtually elevated that expected savior into a secondary god. The book of 1 Enoch,* for example, reveals that entrenched veneration saying, “Before the sun and the signs (constellations) were created, before the stars of heaven were made, his name was called before the Lord of Spirits.”** In this glorification of the expected messiah there is found the influence of Babylonian myth. And in this veneration there is also found the seed from which Christianity would evolve. (*If you are unfamiliar with the book 1 Enoch it is because it was one of many quasi-religious Jewish writings that was not included as part of the Old Testament because it did not contribute to the idea of church authority. Consider the reference to astronomy/zodiacal influence. **It is from this passage in 1 Enoch also which inspired the claim that Jesus of the New Testament Gospels is the “Word” in the fourth Gospel According to John.)

The Jews yearned-for messiah was fashioned upon the legendary Israelite deliverer Joshua (Jeschu, from which the name Jesus was derived), and Jewish literature such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastics and Enoch reflect a background of centuries of polytheistic ideas among the Hebrews. Hellenism became an influencing factor upon tribal Jewish faith, causing mounting dissatisfaction with Judaism among the Jews of the Dispersion (Diaspora) before the destruction of the temple in the sixth century BCE. Ceremonial “law” and endless taboos, sacrifices and superstitions provided individuals little inspiration to act virtuously. Almost in defiance of these prohibitive characteristics there developed an association of Joshua with the Greek Logos, and that association as son or god or messiah is present in the Pentateuch. Thus the name Jesus, derived from Jeschu/Joshua, became revered among some factions of Judaism long before Christianity developed in the Roman Empire. This claim is strengthened in the fact that about a century before the death of Herod (4 BCE, there is recorded the stoning and the hanging upon a tree of a man named Jesus. The name given for this ritually executed man was Jesus ben Pandira, and it occurred in the reign of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus.

There are ancient documents which show that the early Jewish cult of Jesus, in rivalry with Judaism, was attracting converts among the Jews of the Dispersion. In the oldest document of this cult the central feature was the Eucharist–the sacrament in which bread and wine (or water) are consecrated, then consumed in memory of the revered deity (a deity who was customarily sacrificed). This rite was common in many faith practices of the region in this timeframe, but was practiced in secret among the Jews who were becoming discontented with the futility of tribal ceremonial law. The point is that this places familiarity with the name Jesus as messiah nearly a century before the Roman authors of Mark and Matthew introduced the character of Jesus to the Roman public. On the whole, therefore, those texts were written and designed originally to attract those discontented Jews who wanted a more moralizing and unifying form of faith. To satisfy the messianic yearnings of the discontented the character of quasi-rebel Jesus was declared in the evolving Gospels to have descended through the royal line of David. Elsewhere in Gospel, however, an insertion has Jesus repudiating that assertion, but both versions remain in Gospel and continue to contribute to confusion.

The original character of Jeschu/Joshua in Hebrew scripture had several attributes which were always associated with Pagan sun gods–the alleged power of halting the course of the sun, for example. But in the Yahweh priests’ version the starring character was reduced to human status who happened to have god-blessed powers. This sun god relationship became echoed in Christian scriptures with Joshua’s namesake, Jesus, allegedly declaring of himself, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:23). It is thus from this sun god association that most Christian sects proclaim their faith on Sunday, the day of the sun. (The day for holy observance among the Jews is Saturday, the day of Saturn.)

In the year 60 BCE Jerusalem was captured by Rome; in 06 of present calendar notation (CE) Judea was annexed by Rome; by 55 CE the proportion of Jews in the Roman Empire was over twenty percent. In 66 CE the constant antagonism of the Jews flamed into a rebellion under the leadership of the zealot named Menahem. Briefly put, there was continuous hostility from the Jewish portion of the Empire.

The Jewish Jesus cult had not gone unobserved by the Roman aristocrats and literati. By the time that Emperor Augustus died in 39 BCE the Roman populace had become fascinated by the exotic character of cults and rituals such as Mithras (Persian), Isis (Egyptian), and Cybele (Phrygian). Their acceptance within Rome made for easier transitions with these conquered regions. When Octavian became sole master of the Roman world in 29 BCE, his empire spread from Africa, Asia, Gaul, Spain and Dalmatia, so preserving order within the Empire was vital for its continuance. But the Empire still continued to be constantly troubled with Jewish haughtiness. Thus around 50-55 CE, as the more hard-line Jews kept being fanned into periodic insurrections, a few Roman aristocrats began to toy with the idea that it could be politically advantageous to nurture that digression regarding Jesus within Jewish culture. So is it simply coincidence that it was in this general timeframe that the first version of Mark and then Matthew happened to make their appearance in the Roman Empire?

And isn’t it strange that later New Testament books appeared either during or shortly after other periods of conflict with the Jews? There was war in Judea in 69 CE, and Jerusalem fell in 70 The revisions of Mark and Matthew occurred between 70 and 80, or during the troubles that led to the destruction of the last three outposts of the Jewish resistance at Machaerus, Herodian, and Masada. After another long siege in 79 Jerusalem was captured. The book of Acts of the Apostles dates from c. 84-90 CE.

Continuing acts of civil disobedience throughout Jewish centers of the Empire necessitated constant monitoring, and in this general timeframe, 94-100 CE, the books of 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians were composed. Also in this timeframe the Pharisees declared that Italy, and especially Rome was “unclean.” The composition of the book of Romans just happened to occur c. 100; then 2 Corinthians, the re-editing of Ephesians came about c. 103-105: the books Timothy and Titus c. 103-105: Colossians, and 2 Timothy, 105-107. The second great revolt by the Jews began c. 115, and one million Jews took over Alexandria, Egypt and held it for nearly a year. By 116 there were also Jewish uprisings in Parthia and other places. Coincidently, the books 2 Peter, John and Jude all date c. 110-115.

Another great Jewish revolt began in 131 CE under the leadership of Bar Cocheba, and Roman troops were sent then to restore order but suffered a surprising defeat. Roman patience was running thin. The violence of the rebellion in Jerusalem lasted for four years and was climaxed by Emperor Hadrian having Jerusalem destroyed and forbidding any Jew, God’s alleged “chosen people,” from setting foot on the site. It is not exactly coincidence that the book of Revelation was written c. 135-138. But the book of Hebrews was actually the last NT book to be written, c. 135-140. In that book, 8:6-13, there is professed a new “covenant” for the Jewish people. Even at that late date the Roman rule was not out to destroy Jewish culture; Rome sought only to soften the Jewish obsessive pretense of godly favoritism.

The world would not again see a nation called Israel until 1948–one thousand eight hundred and seventy-eight years later. In that time and up to the present not much in the way of “faith” has evolved, unfortunately.

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