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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2344

Letter from America: From Christ to Christmas – a historical analysis – Part 1

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

For many Christians around the globe, Christmas is linked with the birthday of their lord Jesus Christ. They believe that he was born on or around December 25 of 1 C.E. (Common Era). It is inconsequential to them that the story in the Gospels is often utterly divorced from all historical contexts.

There is often no awareness of the geographical and political relation between the places Jesus visits, e.g., Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem, how far they might be from each other, how long a journey from one place to another might take place. As Michael Baigent et al. (authors of the book - The Messianic Legacy) puts it, “For the lay [Christian] congregation, scriptural accounts are regarded as literal history, a self-contained story no less true for being divorced from an historical context. Never having been taught otherwise by his spiritual mentors, many a devout believer has had no need to question the problems posed by such a context.”

In the Gospel accounts of the so-called New Testament, Jesus is depicted as a messiah, which in a strictly literal sense means the ‘anointed one.’ While the term was customarily referred to David (Dawood) and Solomon (Sulayman), every king of Israel since the days of king (and Prophet) David was regarded as a Messiah. Not only that. Around the time of Jesus’s birth, a series of militant, armed oppositions to Rome was organized and led by rebellious Jews - Simon son of Joseph of Peraea (ca. 4 BCE), Athronges (ca. 4-2 BCE) and Judas of Galilee (6 CE) - who all claimed the title of Messiah. They were recognized as such not only by their immediate followers, but also by a segment of the Jewish people. Needless to say that there was nothing intrinsically divine about such Christ figures. Indeed, to assert that any man was God, or even son of God, in a literal sense and/or the idea of a divine Messiah would have been, for Jesus and his contemporaries, extremely blasphemous and absolutely unthinkable.

How did then this myth of divinity of Jesus evolve? To find the answer we have to look at the 3 Ps – the place he lived, the period in which he lived and the people of his period. While much is known about the world in which Jesus the Nazareen lived, sadly, very little is known about him and the events surrounding his life. The Gospels, including the whole of the Bible, are sketchy documents, which no respectable scholar would for a moment consider absolutely reliable as historical testimony. They portray a world, almost fairy-tale story! But Palestine at the time of advent of Christianity was a not a fairy-tale kingdom; it was a real place where people of different religions, sects and cults lived. There were the Palestinian Jews and pagans, and the Greco-Roman pagans and others imported from abroad as a result of Roman occupation of the holy land. And thanks to Saul (or Paul) of Tarsus, an overwhelming majority of the latter-day followers of Jesus came not from the monotheist Jews but from the uncircumcised pagans who had hitherto worshipped a multitude of gods to whom Sunday, and not the day of Sabbath, was the big day.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, that none of the canonical gospels was written in the very language in which Jesus had spoken. They were written in Greek. Even his own name - ‘Isa (pronounced Eesa), the son of Maryam - was corrupted to Greek. He even got transformed from Jesus the Nazarean to Jesus of Nazareth. Corruption in the process of translation has obscured more than names. Whether by accident or design, it has also served to conceal historical information of immense importance. For example, we don’t know the term that Jesus had actually used in his own vernacular to describe the purported Greek term - Paraclete or Paracletos. A single word may convey a wealth of historical background; and if the sense of such a word is altered, the revelation it offers is bound to be lost.

As much as the worship of mother goddess – Ishtar, Isis, Astarte, Aphrodite, Cybele – commanded large following amongst the pagans living then in Palestine, the Jews were not immune from such corrosive influences. There were residues of polytheistic goddess worship within the framework of Judaism itself, cults dedicated to the ancient Canaanite goddess Miriam or Rabath. There were also the Samaritan Jews who insisted that their brand was the only true form. There were also a number of Jewish sects, and even sects within sects. The most prominent Jewish groups were the Pharisees, Sadduceees (Sadooqis), Essenes, Zealots and Zadokites. Some of the Jews did not believe in the hereafter. Too many were involved in usury and immoral acts near the Jewish Temple.

Before the time of Jesus’s appearance, the messianic expectations were high. The Jews were looking for a deliverer from their misery. They asked: if God were indeed All-powerful, how one makes sense of Israel’s misfortune? If God were indeed All-powerful, how could one expect His permitting His Temple to be defiled by the heathen Romans? How could one explain His letting His own authority be challenged by a secular, heathen ruler in Rome who presumed to arrogate divinity to himself?

It was under such dismal circumstances that Jesus was born. His mother was Maryam (Mary), a pious Jewish woman who was raised in the Temple. She was probably 12 to 14 years old when she delivered Jesus. According to Gospel accounts, she was betrothed to Joseph the carpenter. According to Catholic Encyclopedia, the latter was 90 years old then and was the father of six children, two daughters and four sons from a previous marriage. The youngest of his children was James who is mentioned in the gospels as "the Lord's brother". According to Christian apocryphal writings, Joseph died around 18 or 19 C.E. at the age of 111.

The year of Jesus’s birth was determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, abbot of a Roman monastery. His calculation in ca. 533 C.E. was based on the following information:

a. In the pre-Christian Roman era years were counted from ab urbe condita (“the founding of the City” [Rome]). Thus 1 AUC signified the year Rome was founded.

b. Dionysius received a tradition that the Roman emperor Augustus reigned 43 years, and was followed by the emperor Tiberius.

c. Luke 3:1 and 3:23 indicate that when Jesus turned 30 years old, it was the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign.

d. If Jesus was 30 years old in Tiberius’s reign, then he lived 15 years under Augustus (placing Jesus’s birth in Augustus’s 28th year of reign).

e. Augustus took power in 727 AUC. Therefore, Dionysius put Jesus’s birth in 754 AUC, which is commonly now equated as 1 C.E.

Unfortunately, for Dionysius, the gospel according to Luke 1:5 places Jesus’s birth in the days of Herod, and Herod died in 750 AUC (4 B.C.E.) – four yearsbefore the year in which Dionysius places Jesus birth. Such contradictions within the Gospel accounts about Jesus’s birth year made Joseph A. Fitzmyer – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and former president of the Catholic Biblical Association – writing in the Catholic Church’s official commentary on the New Testament, to comment about the date of Jesus’ birth, “Though the year [of Jesus birth] is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1.” According to Fitzmyer, Dionysius was wrong; he had miscalculated. Fitzmyer guesses that Jesus was probably born in 3 BCE. Even the Vatican now accepts that Jesus was not born in 1 CE.

Still, the birth-year remains unsettled when we consider the Biblical tradition that Jesus was supposed to be no more than two years old when Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under (Matthew 2:16). Herod died before April 12, 4 BCE. So, if the Biblical story is to be believed, Jesus must have been born before 4 BCE. This has led some Christians to revise the birth year to 6 - 4 BCE. Even then, the problem is not settled when we notice that Jesus was supposed to have been born during the census of (Syrian Governor) Quirinius (Luke 2:2). This census took place after Herod’s son Archelaus was deposed in 6 CE, ten years after Herod's death. So, one way to accommodate competing versions of Jesus’s birth will be to place the year somewhere between 6 BCE and 6 CE or shortly thereafter.

As can be seen, the gospels are unreliable as historical documents. The first of them, the Gospel according to Mark, was composed no earlier than the revolt of 66 CE. They pay scant attention to the historical backdrop, addressing themselves essentially to the figure of Jesus and his teachings. Luke’s account in the Acts is essentially an account of Paul who had converted after Jesus’s ascension to heaven. Acts offers a more or less reliable historical account of Paul’s activities.

Around 39 CE, Paul returns to Jerusalem and is officially admitted to the Nazarean party, comprising of the original, true disciples of Jesus that is led by James (Jesus’s brother from Joseph the carpenter). His reception was rather less enthusiastic. Because of his years of persecution of the Nazareans, most of them did not trust Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus). They put Barnabas, one of the most trusted disciples of Jesus, as his mentor. However, serious differences arise and they part company. James and the Nazarean party send their own missionaries to undo Paul’s teachings. The proof of this can be found in 2 Cor. 11:3-4 where Paul claims that they were promulgating ‘another Jesus.’ Paul replaces the worship of God with that of Jesus. According to Baigent et al., “In Paul’s hands, Jesus himself becomes an object of religious veneration – which Jesus himself, like his brother James and the other Nazareans in Jerusalem, would have regarded as blasphemous.”

It is from Paul, and Paul alone, that a new religion begins to emerge – not a form of Judaism, but a rival and ultimately an adversary to Judaism. This new religion is fused with Greco-Roman thought, with pagan traditions, with elements from a number of mystical schools. Once Paul’s cult began to crystallize as a religion in itself, it dictated certain priorities which had not obtained in Jesus’s lifetime and which Jesus himself would unquestionably have deplored. In the first place it had to compete with all the other established religions. In order to get a strong footing, thus, Jesus had inescapably to assume a degree of godhood comparable to that of the deities, he was intended to displace. Like many such deities, Tammuz, e.g., the god of the ancient Sumerian and Phoenician mystery teachings, had been born of a virgin, died with a wound in his side and, after three days, rose from his tomb, leaving it vacant with the rock at the entrance rolled aside. If Paul were to challenge successfully the adherents of Tammuz, Jesus would have to be able to match the older god, miracle for miracle. In consequence, certain aspects of Tammuz story were grafted on to Jesus’s biography. It is significant that Bethlehem was not only David’s city, but also the ancient center of a Tammuz cult, with a shrine that remained active well into biblical times.

Anyone interested can find numerous specific elements in the gospels to their origin not in history, but in the traditions surrounding Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Dionysus and Mithra. There is a passage in the Mithraic communion that is similar to the sacrament: ‘He who shall not eat of my body nor drink my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.”

As noted by Baigent et al., “In order to diffuse itself through the Romanised world, Christianity transmuted itself – and, in the process, rewrote the historical circumstances from which it arose… And Jesus himself had to be divorced from his historical context, turned into a non-political figure – an other-worldly, spiritual Messiah who posed no challenge whatever to Caesar. Thus, all trace of Jesus’s political activity was de-emphasized, diluted or excised. And so far as possible, all trace of his Jewishness was deliberately obscured, ignored or rendered irrelevant.”

Unlike Paul, however, Jesus had no intention of creating a new religion, and neither had James, Peter, Barnabas and the Nazarean party in Jerusalem. Like Jesus, they would have been horrified by the very idea of a different religion. Their distinction came in recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, which created problem for them from the authorities. In 36 CE, Stephen was martyred by stoning in Jerusalem, and many Nazareans had fled the city. Paul was then on the other side. He was a Sadducee, persecuting the Nazareans. By 44 CE, Peter, and then John, and many others were arrested, flogged, and ordered not to speak the name of Jesus. In the same year, disciple James – the brother of John - was beheaded. By the following year, guerilla activity on the part of the Zealots had intensified to the extent that Rome had to take countermeasures. By 48-49 CE, the Roman governor of Judea was seizing and crucifying both the Zealots and Nazareans indiscriminately. Still the insurrection intensified. The Sadducee High Priest, appointed by the Romans, was assassinated by the Zealots in the mid-50s, and a major terrorist campaign was launched against the Sadducees who had aligned themselves with Rome.

During 57-8 CE another Messiah appeared from Egypt. Having gained a substantial following in Judea, he undertook to occupy Jerusalem by force of arms and drive the Romans from the holy land. The movement was violently thwarted, but the disturbances continued. In around 62-65 CE, James, head of the Nazareans party in Jerusalem was seized and executed.

Under the weight of such persecution, it is not difficult to surmise that much of the true history and teachings of Jesus were lost, and what came to be passed on later as Christian doctrines and festivities, as we shall see later, owes little to Jesus himself, and more to Paul.

Many of the followers of the early Nazareans fled to territories where they felt secure from the tyranny of the Romans and hostile Jews who did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah. During Roman Emperor Constantine’s time, Nazareans teaching was still thriving and being disseminated in places like Africa and in territories outside the Roman control, e.g., eastern Syria, southern Arabia and Iraq (Mesopotamia). The proof can be seen from the writings of Epiphanius who interchangeably used the terms Ebionite and Nazareans in the late 4th century in his attack on them for rejecting godhood of Jesus and the Church. Ebionites (meaning the poor), considered Jesus to be a man, and not God. They adhered to Judaic teachings scrupulously and rejected Pauline letters. As such, they were declared heretics by church fathers.

In one Nazarean text, Paul is called the ‘enemy.’ The text maintains that Jesus’s rightful heir was his brother James, and that Simon Peter had never ‘defected’ to Pauline thought. Peter is quoted as issuing a warning against any authority other than Nazarean hierarchy.

Nazarean thoughts survived in Egypt. It was there that the Gospel of Thomas was found, with the wealth of other Nazarean thoughts left in Naag Hamadi scrolls. Arius, an ascetic Christian presbyter of Libyan birth, possibly of Berber extraction, and priest in Alexandria, Egypt, saw Jesus as a man, not God, coming, thus, as opposed to Pauline Christianity.

In the 5th century, the Pauline orthodoxy of Rome was still attempting to impose its hegemony over Egypt. The great library of Alexandria was burnt by ‘Christians’ in 411 CE. The last great Neo-Platonic philosopher, a woman, Hypatia, was stoned to death as she returned from a lecture at the library – again by ‘Christians’ – in 415 CE.

In the 1960s, Prof. Schlomo Pines, a medievalist scholar, found a collection of Arabic manuscripts, dating from the 10th century and held in a library in Istanbul, that includes a number of detailed verbatim quotes from an earlier 5th or 6th century text, which the Arab writer ascribes to ‘al-Nasara’ – the Nazareans. The earlier text is believed to have been written originally in Syriac and to have been found at a Christian monastery in Khuzistan, south-west Iran, near Iraqi border. Commenting on this manuscript, Baigent et al. says, “It appears to reflect a tradition dating, without a break, back to the original Nazarean hierarchy which fled Jerusalem immediately prior to the revolt of A.D. 66. Again, Jesus is stated to be a man, not a god, and any suggestion of his divinity is rejected. The importance of Judaic law is again stressed. Paul is castigated and his followers are said to ‘have abandoned the religion of Christ and turned towards the religious doctrines of the Romans’. The Gospels are dismissed as unreliable, second-hand accounts which contain only ‘something – but little – of the sayings, the precepts of Christ and information concerning him’.”

The Johannite sects continued to flourish in the Tigris-Euphrates basin well into the first few centuries. Even to this day, one of their sects exists. Most of them were absorbed into Islam when Prophet Muhammad (S) appeared in Arabia.

>>> To be continued.

- Asian Tribune

Letter from America: From Christ to Christmas – a historical analysis – Part 1
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