The Jewish Jesus before Christianity: A discussion inspired by Dr Richard Carrier

I have recently discovered the fabulous work of Dr Richard Carrier, an academic who specialises in Christian history. His work excites me because it confirms my own research plus fills a few gaps. Dr Carrier clearly explains how Christianity developed out of Judaism whilst simultaneously synergising with other religious and cultural influences. On one hand the process is relatively straightforward to understand if one follows a timeline of major political developments around the Mesopotamian and Mediterranean region from about 2000 BCE through to 2000 CE. On the other hand, the process is decidedly difficult to understand if one’s knowledge about historical events is skewed by fallible sources of information, e.g., Hollywood movies, computer games, or the Bible itself.

There are many points of value that Dr Carrier brings up but today I’m going to focus on the Jewish concept of Jesus, that is, the Jewish Son of God who was symbolised by the bright star of the East. In this video, Dr Carrier draws attention to a particular Jewish scholar called Philo of Alexandria who is of interest because he discusses the concept of an allegorical “Jesus” in the Torah around the same time that the real Jesus was supposedly crucified. But before looking a little closer at Philo, let’s go over a bit of background information.

Historical Landscape of Judaism

Judaism began in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago when God revealed himself to a man called Abraham.

Map of Mesopotamian and Mediterranean region, c.2000BCE; Abraham came from a town called Ur (located on above map near the Persian Gulf)

How did God reveal himself? By telling Abraham he was not to murder his son Isaac, thus defining cultural norms of worshipping the then dominant head-God, Baal. Judaism was radical both because it opposed child sacrifices and because it claimed there was only one God, albeit Judaism does recognise an assortment of angels, demons, and other spiritual beings that are apparently different to higher and lower gods and demi-gods of other religions. But anyway, semantics aside, there is a lack of clarity as to whether Judaism was the first so-called monotheistic religion or if that claim can be given to the Zoroastrians who, coincidentally, also lived in ancient Mesopotamia. 

Judaism and Zoroastrianism initially had different ideological features, however, when Persian rulers, politics, and customs dominated Jewish populations, c.600BCE to c.400BCE, the Jews finished up adopting some Zoroastrian beliefs. For example, the idea that after death, good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell was a Zoroastrian belief first and Jewish belief second. (To be a “good” person in Judaism includes needing to manage sex slaves according to God’s law but that’s a story for another time.) The formal term of this process in which a religion adapts the beliefs of another is called syncretism.

Map of Mesopotamian and Mediterranean region that was conquered by the Persian Empire, c.500

Following the syncretism of Zoroastrianism and Judaism comes the synergy of Judaism with Greek philosophies. Notably, this occurred through Alexander the Great’s expeditions and conquests. This is also known as the Hellenistic Period. The term Hellenistic is a reference to Greeks following the ideologies presented in Homer’s writings that include the story of Hellen of Troy.

Map illustrating Alexander the Great’s campaign pathways and scope of land that was Hellenised

Hellenised regions of Mesopotamia in c.240BCE

A pinnacle of Hellenistic achievement is the establishment of a great library in Alexandria, Egypt. Scholars from all over the Mediterranean were enticed by the Alexandrian book collection. It was a location that marks the first significant collaboration between intellectuals from around the then known world. Much science, technology, and philosophy was shared and gave rise to new discoveries and inventions, for example Euclid, the father of geometry, studied at the library.

Artist impression of the Great Library of Alexandria; source: History of Yesterday https://historyofyesterday.com/library-of-alexandria-13c1e5c98a18

By the time of Philo of Alexandria (c.20BCE – c.50CE), the province was Roman. The Romans were synergizers extraordinaires! Whatever lands the Romans conquered, they assimilated the ideas of those people into their own. The appropriation of Greek Gods into Roman deities is a classic example of this. 

Roman Empire at the height of its dominance in the Mediterranean region, 117CE

Who was Philo and why was he special?

Philo was a contemporary of Jesus, however, he never specifically mentioned him by name as being a human who walked upon the earth. Although, a later historian, Eusebius, does claim Philo wrote about Christians, Dr Carrier aptly argues Eusebius’ account is fake history.

In Alexandria, Philo was a respected Jewish scholar who was well versed in Greek philosophy, in particular he was a fan of Plato. Philo wrote all his treaties in Greek because that was the scholarly language of the time. (The Romans were still in the process of working out how to deconstruct the Greek language and reform it into a Latin prose.)

With the absence of concrete evidence that Philo was familiar with Jesus or any Christians, some claim the situation provides circumstantial proof that Jesus was not a real man. It is considered especially curious that Philo never mentioned Jesus because Philo was a diplomat for Roman politicians and, as part of this role, he made expeditions to Judea. Therefore, a premise of this argument is that, if Jesus had lived in the flesh and made all the commotion that Christians say he did (according to Gospel accounts), then Philo would have known about him and made some record of the events. But no, Philo did not say a word about any corporeal Jesus. Likewise, the historicity of the first Christians includes reports that St Mark established the first Church in Philo’s home town of Alexandria, during Philo’s lifetime. It is curiosity as to why Philo, as well established Jewish scholar, had no interest in the development of a new group of worshipers who claimed the Jewish God’s son had incarnated?

Of the writings Philo produced, he is most well known for his commentaries of the first two chapters of the Jewish Bible (Genesis and Exodus) that harmonise Jewish traditions with Greek philosophies. It is Philo’s interpretation of the Torah/Old Testament that Early Christians predominately followed.

A couple of odd side notes: 
1. Philo was not a fan of Egyptian religion.
2. A big difference between Judaism and Early Christianity was that converting to Christianity did not involve the ritualised cutting of genitals (circumcision) like Judaism did.

So what about Philo’s Jesus?

While Philo never mentions a real life human being called Jesus, he did write about the son of God, but whether or not one can spot that may depend upon educational background and/or if one has beliefs that they want to defend.

The following passage is taken from a text by Philo called On The Confusion of Tongues, also known as, A Treatise on the Confusion of Languages (61-63). Phrases of interest have been bolded and will be discussed shortly.

“And God planted a paradise in Eden, toward the East,” {#ge 2:8^} not of terrestrial but of celestial plants, which the planter caused to spring up from the incorporeal light which exists around him, in such a way as to be for ever inextinguishable. I have also heard of one of the companions of Moses having uttered such a speech as this: “Behold, a man whose name is the East!” {#zec 6:12^^} A very novel appellation indeed, if you consider it as spoken of a man who is compounded of body and soul; but if you look upon it as applied to that incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image, you will then agree that the name of the east has been given to him with great felicity. For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.

^ In Aramaic the passage reads: “And LORD JEHOVAH God planted Paradise in Eden from the first and he put there Adam whom he formed” (Bible Hub). In Hebrew, Adam means “son of the red earth”, thus, this depiction has a connection to the symbolism of the first human being formed from the sun, which is a symbol for God and, in turn, can be extrapolated as being a “red earth”. The link between Adam of Genesis being God's firstborn son and Jesus being God’s only son is sometimes overlooked, however, that was not necessarily the case for Early Christians who not only debated the consequences of Jesus being the new Adam but of Mary being the new Eve … that topic warrants a blog of itself. Suffice to say, while Jewish religious leaders openly discussed Adam as being an incorporeal “man” or “son of God”, Early Christian theologians were not so transparent in discussing Jesus as being an incorporeal being. There is some evidence to suggest they did, for example, Justin Martyr’s writings but, ultimately, literalist Christians have dominated history and they conveniently labelled all those who viewed Christian gospels as being symbolic, like the Gnostics, as heretics. And when belittling the beliefs of others didn’t work, excommunication, inquisitions, and witch trials ensured the literalists maintained their power. 
^^ According to Bible Hub most contemporary interpretations of Zechariah 6:12 say the man’s name is “Branch” or “Shoot” … is this a mistranslation? … an example of further syncretism within Christianity that occurred centuries later? … deliberate misquoting to confuse people? Who knows? In Aramaic, the passage reads: “And say to him: ”Thus says LORD JEHOVAH of Hosts, ‘behold the Man and his name Denkha (The Sunrise), and from below he shall rise up”.

The first sentence of the above passage tells us that the “east” is symbolic of God’s paradise, moreover, this Eden is filled with celestial plants. This terminology gives us a direct link to the Greek’s theology of the four elements, i.e., the plant realm is symbolic of a spiritual substance that is referred to in contemporary speech as the ether (for background information read the Four Elements in Ancient Theology).

The following quote from Philo's writing On Dreams confirms that he knew the traditional Greek elements and incorporated their premises into his work:

IV. (1.21) All these things, then, we feel: but the heaven has a nature which is incomprehensible, and it has never conveyed to us any distinct indication by which we can understand its nature; for what can we say? that it is solid ice, as some persons have chosen to assert? or that it is the purest fire? or that it is a fifth body, moving in a circle having no participation in any of the four elements? 

Following, the term “incorporeal light” is a symbolic reference to the element of fire in its highest state (in brief, in Greek philosophies, like Aristotle’s, a distinction can be identified between a lower type of fire that represents warmth and a higher type of fire that represents light). Hence, essentially what this first sentence is saying is that from the ether, God created a divine spirit who was made of the same divine spiritual substance as himself. Philo then shares that he’s heard that this “son/sun” (a pun that depicts the deity as a child of God and a source of light) has been called by some Jewish philosophers as “a man whose name is the East!” There is a symbolic link between Judaism referring to the son of God as a spiritual being of the east, and the Christian depiction of Jesus’ being born under a star of the east (Matthew 2:9). Coincidentally, Matthew’s followers were the only ones who wrote in Hebrew, and he is the only evangelist who mentions the star of the east, thus suggesting his sect consciously incorporated more traditional Jewish symbols. According to Dr Carrier, Matthew’s gospel was written as a reaction to Marks because because some sects of early Christianity did not like Mark’s version; essentially, some early Christians thought Mark’s version was too Greek and they wanted to revise it with more Hebrew references; introducing the symbology of the east star may be seen as evidence of this.

The language of the Gospels:

Followers of Mark, Luke, and John all wrote in Greek. I’d like to assume everyone knows that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John didn’t write their own Gospels but I have meet Christians who have not known this, hence it may be worthwhile to mention that it was the followers of the Four Evangelists who recorded the events of Jesus life, years, sometimes decades after their leader had died. In other words, the Gospel stories are not eye witness accounts of Jesus' life, they are the written records of oral story telling. 

Timeline:
c.60-70 CE Mark's Gospel, Greek 
c.85 CE Matthew's Gospel, Hebrew
c.85-95 CE Luke's Gospel, Greek
c.90-100 CE John's Gospel, Greek 

When Christianity is viewed as a sect of Judaism, there is no surprise in recognising that both religions used the symbolic reference of a light coming from the east in correlation to God’s firstborn child.

Moving on, Philo describes the visualisation of God’s eldest son as having a real body and soul as being a novel thing to do. To present Philo’s attitude using contemporary colloquialism, he may have said “and the firstborn son of God was a real human of flesh and blood, lol 😂”. In other words, Philo is making it painstakingly clear that God’s firstborn is incorporeal, and that it is ridiculous to depict him else wise. According to Philo, God’s firstborn son is as incorporeal as his divine Father. Thus, we can mirror this theology in the Christian belief that Jesus, the son of God, is the same as God himself. Jesus and God are two separate divinities but they are one because they are joined by a spiritual force, nigh, they are joined by a Holy Spirit!

There were major debates amongst the Early Christians regarding the nature of the Trinity, the conglomerate of Jesus, God, and Holy Spirit. The arguments predominantly fell into two broad categories, the Arians -  who believed Jesus and God were not equal - and the non-Arians - who believed Jesus and God were equal. Eventually, the Arian supporters lost and from the fourth century onwards, refusing to accept that Jesus was made of the same celestial substance as God became a heresy. 

The Christian belief that Jesus and God are one and the same incorporeal substance is identical to the Jewish belief that God’s firstborn, known as Adam or a man called East, are made from the same incorporeal substance.

The final line “imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns” is a curious remark that I suspect it is a reference to the belief that God created heavenly species of angels, archangels, demons, etc., as well as human beings. Specifically “looking to his archetypal pattern” could be interpreted as these “species”. including people, are made in God’s image, which is a core belief in Judaism and Christianity. To continue along this line of thought, it also a Christian belief that whilst humans are made in Gods and his son’s image, people are not perfect like Jesus … but people are supposed to aim to be like Jesus … what prevents humans from being perfect like Jesus? Why, it’s the sin of Eve of course! But that riddle can only be seen if Jesus is identified as being Adam, which is exactly what the Early Christians did. And the riddle continues … How does one overcome the sin of Eve? Simple, replace Eve with Mary! Arguably, all the Early Christians knew that one, and of course they knew that it was ridiculous to think of any of these characters as being corporeal, because to do so would be “a very novel appellation indeed”!

In the above context, the concept of all humans being “archetypes” of Jesus should not be confused with the Jungian concept of archetypes (i.e., that there are universal psychological symbols that define all humans), rather, the original usage of the Greek term “archetypes” means prototype or original model, hence, just as the prototype of an object like a bike has changed and developed over the years, so too the prototypical patterns of a spiritual being that imitates a creator being can be viewed as having malleable qualities, e.g., an “Eve” prototype can become a “Mary”, likewise, a penny farthing can become a solar powered motorised scooter. I have a working hypothesis that many Ancient philosophers viewed cosmology as being in an ongoing state of creative change but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. (I briefly touch upon the concept here.)

Why does all this matter?

Misunderstandings of the symbolic nature of language in the Bible have caused immense damage and conflict over the centuries. From Christians wars that have ended in bloodshed, through to manipulative cult leaders who control others through claim the Bible is literal so as they can justify abusive behaviour like sexual abuse and forcing followers to give up all their possessions, there are a multitude of reasons to engage in discussions about what the symbols in the Bible really mean.

Additionally, viewing Biblical characters as literal has contributed to the justification of patriarchal misogyny on a phenomenal scale. Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic approaches enter into this scenario with the manner in which they justify sexism via misinterpretations of Biblical symbolism, e.g., women are either whores or Madonnas, and all women want to be dominated by men. Further, this pseudo-scientific approach to psychology has confused sincere academic investigations into history and authentic studies of how the mind operates on a symbolic level.

Conclusion

Dr Carrier’s research proposes that, for the most part, Early Christians perceived Jesus to be a spiritual truth, not a literal one, which is not unlike Philo of Alexandria perceiving God’s first born to be incorporeal. These conclusions can be further backed up by other means, like the letters of apostle Paul to the Thessalonians (written c.50CE). In these writings, Paul repeatedly says to his followers that the Gospels come from prophecies, personal convictions, and the Holy Spirit. Other supporting evidence from Christian apologists like Justin Martyr, Origen, Valentino, and many others, also indicates that the Early Christians were, as Dr Carrier says, a Jewish sect.

In conclusion, the extent to which Philo’s writings and philosophies directly influenced the development of Christianity is a topic well worth pondering. As too is the fact that the first Gospel written, that of St Mark, was compiled in Alexandria in approximately c.50-60CE. 

There is no evidence to suggest Philo initiated Christianity but there is significant circumstantial evidence to imply whoever did write St Mark’s Gospel knew of Philo’s work. Moreover, irrespective of Philo’s influence, a syncretism of Jewish and Greek philosophies was well and truly underway throughout the Mesopotamian and Mediterranean regions during the first century of the common era.

Map of Christian expansion throughout the Mediterranean region, 300-600 CE

And so it is, the process of religious evolution continued when the Romans took Christianity over …

References

Agatan Foundation 2018, The Crazy Facts You Didn’t Know About The History of Christianity by Richard Carrier, YouTube, viewed 17 June 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q34SvWcurWk&gt;.

Agatucci, C 2011, Maps 2: History – Ancient Period, web.cocc.edu, Central Oregon Community College, viewed 7 September 2021, <https://web.cocc.edu/cagatucci/classes/hum213/Maps/Maps2HistoryAncient.htm&gt;.

Evans, L 2021, An Expert Explains Mythicism with Dr Richard Carrier, http://www.youtube.com, viewed 7 September 2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIv8gsCBo_g&gt;.

Hillar, M n.d., Philo of Alexandria | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Humphreys, K n.d., Witness to Jesus? – Philo of Alexandria, http://www.jesusneverexisted.com, viewed 7 September 2021, <https://www.jesusneverexisted.com/philo.html&gt;.

Philo c.40CEa, Philo: On Dreams, That They are God-Sent, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com, viewed 7 September 2021, <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book21.html&gt;.

Philo c.40CEb, Philo: On the Confusion of Tongues, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com, viewed 7 September 2021, <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book15.html&gt;.

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