Who Were the Early Church Fathers?

Christianity began as a cult in the Mediterranean region in c.30CE. Dr Richard Carrier (author of On the Historicity of Jesus) describes the movement as beginning as a breakaway Jewish sect that incorporated elements from the other cultures, namely, the Greeks. To most Christians, the founder of their religion was Jesus, a man from Nazareth, who preached to crowds and individuals. The evolution of Christian faith then continued via many others who shared Christianity with others. There were many people involved in this process, however, some key personalities who stand out. The following is a snapshot of some of the patriarchs who help mould the characteristics of the Christian Church.

Image by Karyna Mykytiuk, Licence – Creative Commons

Valentinus (c.100 – 160) was an Egyptian born philosopher who studied at Alexandria and is known for his gnostic approach to Christianity. He spent several years in Rome where he spread his ideas about Jesus and Mary being symbolic of spiritual forms, not literal people; his ideas were largely based upon Platonic thought. Valentinus was labeled a heretic, however, his gnostic teachings endured through his disciples who formed Christian groups.

Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) was born in Rome and raised by pagan parents; prior to converting to Christianity he received training in Stoicism, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophies. He rejected most Greek philosophy claiming them to be partial truths, whereas Christianity was the complete truth, which most closely aligned with some of Plato’s ideas. Dialogue with Trypho is Justin’s most renown work, in which he relies heavily upon Jewish scripture in an attempt to demonstrate Christianity is the truest philosophy. (More about Martyr’s explanations of Christianity can be found in: Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?)

Irenaeus (c.120/140 – 200/203) was born in Lyon, France. He went on to become the bishop of Lyon and his theological work focused on refuting gnosticism (i.e., that the story of Jesus was purely symbolic), notably in his work titled Adversus Haereses (Against heresies). His work went on to be highly influential at Nicene council discussions that rejected gnosticism.

Origen (c.184 – 253CE) was born into Christian family in Alexandria and his father was prosecuted for his faith which meant Origen was left to support his mother and younger siblings. He followed a Platonic view in which he perceived scripture to be founded upon a threefold nature of humans as body, soul, and spirit. In early Christianity Origen was a leading figure, however, his following the Platonic view of the pre-existence of souls later become a contributing factor to being labelled a heretic. Origen’s devotion to Christ was great, so much so he is believed to have self-castrated to avoid feelings of lust towards women. 

Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296/7/8 – 373CE) was an Egyptian priest who lived by ascetic values. He objected to Arianism, the belief that God existed before Jesus, which caused great tensions amongst other Christians. He attended the council of Niceane and played a prominent role in establishing what would become an orthodox attitude towards the trinity, the belief that God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus were one and always had been. Isaac Newton was highly of Athanasius and suspected he was responsible for forging scriptures to suit his personal beliefs (see: Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?))

Priscillian (c.335-385CE) was a Roman Christian with strong ascetic values. He became bishop of Ávila (Spain) in 380, however was accused of sorcery in 385 and was executed. Priscillian views were influenced by Gnosticism and Manicheans, and his support of Arianism was looked down upon. Jerome was a harsh critic of his followers, the Priscillianists.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430CE) was born in the Roman province of Thagaste, Africa. Prior to fully embracing Christianity, Augustine spent nine years in a cult known as the Manichees which was established by a (charismatic) leader called Mani who preached doctrines that were an amalgamation of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Manichees beliefs included the notion that if a fig-tree was plucked it would cry tears, but if a Manichee ate the fig then the true God’s essence that was bound within it would be free. Augustine mocks himself for believing such foolish things and his writings express a zealous devotion to Christianity once he converted, however, it is worthy to note that Manichaeism theology has strong views about the world being made up of good and evil; themes that were incorporated into mainstream Christianity.

Augustine was particularly influential in refining Christian theology, which is sometimes perceived as being due to adapting Greek thought to Christian teachings. Ironically, in Augustine’s writings titled The Confessions he reports not enjoying learning Greek writing, reading, arithmetic, and the stories of Homer, but he thoroughly embraced learning Latin. Hence, it may be a case that he harmonised Greek thought through the Latin version thereof.

Augustine is classified as Neoplatonic, being more impartial to Platonic thought, as reflected in his theological belief that men and women were created equal in the eyes of god, inclusive of rational soul qualities. Although, Augustine did not completely dismiss Aristotle, and his alliance with Aristotle on some matters was followed by medieval theologians like Aquinas.

Jerome (347 – 419/420) was born in a Roman province, which is now modern day Croatia. He is best known as the translator of the Bible into Latin. Additionally he translated 14 of Origen’s homilies, made pilgrimages through Palestine and Egypt, and he is credited, like Augustine, with transmuting Greek thought to the west.

Pelagius (c.354 – 418CE) was born in the Roman British Isles and died in Palestine. He was educated in Greek and Latin. He was a theologian who advocated free will and asceticism. Pelagius is also reported to have challenged the idea that a man was to be held responsible for Adam’s sin. His beliefs were at odds with his contemporaries, Augustine and Jerome, both of whom criticised Pelagis. Pelagis gained a substantial following, especially in Carthage, however, he was also accused of heresy.

Conclusion

Looking at the above mentioned individuals, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no “pure” or “true” Christian tradition. The cultures, lived experiences, and educational backgrounds of the Church founders were often at odds with each other. Hence, it was through debates and accusations of heresy that characteristics of the Christian faith emerged. Further, Christianity spread via the assimilation of beliefs, rituals, customs, and symbols from various cultures, existing religions, and philosophies.

References

Alberto Ferreiro. Simon Magus and Priscillian in the ‘Commonitorium’ of Vincent of Lérins. Vigiliae Christianae 1995; 49: 180–188.

Arianism. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Arianism (accessed 10 January 2021).

Augustine (354—430 C.E.). Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/augustin/#:~:text=St.,agnostic%20contributions%20to%20Western%20philosophy.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), https://earlychurch.org.uk/augustine.php (accessed 16 December 2020).

AUGNET : 3113 Augustine and Benedict, http://www.augnet.org/en/order-of-st-augustine/community/3113-augustine-and-benedict/ (accessed 16 December 2020).

Baber H. Origen, radical biblical scholar. The Guardian, 10 June 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/jun/10/origen-christianity-philosophy (10 June 2010, accessed 9 January 2021).

Bostock G. Allegory and the Interpretation of the Bible in Origen. Literature and Theology 1987; 1: 39–53.

Catholic Online. St. Athanasius, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=336 (accessed 10 January 2021).

Dunderberg I. Valentinus/Valentinians. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15256a.htm (2013).

Ferreiro A. Jerome’s polemic against Priscillian in his Letter to Ctesiphon (133, 4). Revue d’Etudes Augustiniennes et Patristiques 1993; 39: 309–332.

Justin Martyr. Christian History, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/evangelistsandapologists/justin-martyr.html (2008, accessed 16 December 2020).

Major literary works. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Jerome (accessed 16 December 2020).

Media F. Saint Irenaeus, https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-of-the-day/saint-irenaeus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Pelagius. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pelagius-Christian-theologian (accessed 16 December 2020).

Ryan JK, Others. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Image, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm (1960).

Saint Irenaeus. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Irenaeus (accessed 16 December 2020).

St. Athanasius. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Athanasius (accessed 10 January 2021).

St. Justin Martyr. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr (accessed 16 December 2020).

Tornau C. Saint Augustine. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/augustine/ (2020).

Valentinus. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Valentinus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Valentinus, https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/other-religious-beliefs-biographies/valentinus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Werline R. The Transformation of Pauline Arguments in Justin Martyr’s ‘Dialogue with Trypho’. Harv Theol Rev 1999; 92: 79–93.

Walusinski O, Poirier J, Déchy H. Augustine. Eur Neurol 2013; 69: 226–228.

What most Christians don’t know: Christian Faith is Based on Jewish Blood Magic (Extended version)

Christianity is the most popular religion around the world. It is practiced by approximately 30% of the population yet, surprisingly, many of its devotees are not aware of some of its most basic premises. Lack of knowledge about one’s religion means blind faith, which can lead one down the proverbial garden path. Potential problems include spiritually bypassing issues and being susceptible to manipulation from people who pervert Christianity to suit their own agendas. Knowledge of the historicity of Christianity can overcome naivety and ignorance, and help prevent adverse situations from developing. 

In this discussion I am exploring the Christian faith from the perspective of it being a religion based upon the principles of Jewish blood magic. Future topics will include how Jesus replaced Adam as God’s first born; biblical references to daughters, whores, and women rarely (if ever) represent real females; when Moses once had horns; Jesus created in the image of Apollo and Zeus; and the Romanisation of Christianity.

Before digging into details, we need to go over a few basics about Christianity.

The Basics of Christianity

Christianity is a religion that began approximately 2000 years ago based on the teachings of a character known as Jesus Christ, as described in a document called the New Testament. There are (and always have been) many variations on how to interpret Jesus’ teachings, although a generalisation can be made that all Christians are united in the belief that their saviour, Jesus Christ, came to earth (literally, spiritually, or symbolically) to forgive sins so as it was possible for people to enter heaven.

The New Testament consists of several chapters that give accounts of Jesus’ life and that of his early followers. It contains a lot of supernatural themes such as miracles being performed and visions of the future. The New Testament also contains a continuation of themes presented in the Hebrew Bible. The Christians call the Hebrew Bible the Old Testament and these text consist of stories that date back to the first or second millennium; Jews refer to these stories as the Torah. Both Jews and Christians alike believe in the one God who is all powerful, incorporeal, and eternal (this is the same God that Muslims believe in too, but that’s another story). Christian’s believe Jesus was the Son of this God, Jews do not. (Muslim’s believe Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God, again, that’s another story).

From a young age, Jesus was reported to have a comprehensive understanding of God; on one occasion he became separated from his family and was subsequently found explaining Hebrew scriptures to Jewish elders in the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:41-52). The above painting depicts the moment twelve-year-old Jesus was found by his anxious parents, Mary and Joseph. Painting by William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1860. Source: Wikipedia Commons

While Christianity has strong links to Judaism, it also has significant influence from Greek culture because a lot of the places where it originally developed were Hellenised areas of the Mediterranean, for example Alexandria, modern day Turkey, and cities such as Athens, Corinth, and Thessalonica. The English title of “Jesus Christ” comes from the Greek Iesous Christós, which is more common than the Hebrew, Yeshua The Messiah. In both cases the names mean the Son of God (Jesus/Iesous/Yeshua) the Anointed One (Christ/Christós/Messiah) but the fact that Christians call themselves Christians, not Messiahians, reflects a veneer of Greekness that dominates the religion. This presentation can sometimes disguise the underlying Jewish theology. Identifying that which has been hidden is vital to understanding aspects of the religion, such as the role that Jewish blood magic has on defining Christian faith …

Christian faith is based upon the principles of Jewish blood magic 

Magic is the power to influence events through the use of mysterious forces. To achieve magical outcomes, physical substances or actions are often carried out in a ritualistic manner that symbolically or supernaturally indicate magic is being performed. The use of blood to carry out magical spells is evident in many Jewish traditions, in fact, Judaism was established in reference to blood magic in the form of human sacrifice. 

The First Blood Magic Ritual of Judaism 

Abraham, the first Jewish prophet, had clairvoyant communication from a supreme God who told him to offer up his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham was loyal to this invisible God and prepared to carry out the act but at the last minute a new instruction came into his mind saying the sacrifice is not necessary. Abraham and Isaac, joyous that their obedience and loyalty was rewarded, killed a ram and gave thanks to God. Ergo, Judaism may be perceived as having began with the killing of a sheep. 

History channel, A scene from “The Bible”, 2012: Abraham (Gary Oliver) prepares Isaac (Hugo Rossi) for the sacrifice. Source: Read the Spirit

The notion of killing a child to get on the good side of the spiritually divine is the antithesis of Judaism; however, it is known to have been a common practice in some ancient and not so ancient cultures. For example, in recent years, a ten-year-old girl in India was allegedly sacrificed to heal a paralysed man, and in the Greek epic, The Iliad, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the Goddesses Artemis and, in turn, achieve victory in the battle of Troy. Other examples of human sacrifice can be found in Inca, Aztec, Ancient China, Nordic countries, and more. Likewise, child sacrifice was a cultural norm within Abraham’s homeland of Mesopotamia, where some (but not all) groups of the Phoenicians (also known as Caananities) routinely offered their children’s souls up to the Gods.

From Abraham onwards, Judaism rejected human sacrifices and denounced them as a practice that was necessary to achieve the favour of deities. Having said that, blood sacrifices were still believed to be important and Jews developed ritualistic animal killings to appease God and influence events.

The significance of blood as a magical substance is, presumably, connected to our ancestors’ understanding that blood carries life, as explained in the Old Testament:

… the life of every creature is its blood

Leviathans 17:14, New International Version

In regards to the specific significance of sheep’s blood, the symbolism is nuanced. One interpretation is that the ram symbolises the zodiac sign of Aries, therefore, they are an indicator of astrological significance. Another interpretation is that the birth of lambs each spring represent new life and hopes for prosperity after long winters. On a pragmatic level, Abraham was a shepherd, hence, a ram was easily accessible from his flock.

The Passover

Sheep sacrifices emerged as a prominent theme in the Old Testament story of Exodus. Jews, at this point in time, were reported to be living in Egypt and were under the Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. God communicated with a prophet called Moses and gave him instructions for a blood magic ritual. (Backstory to Moses is that he was born a Jew and was saved from infanticide by being placed in a basket that floated on the Nile till he was found and subsequently raised by the Pharaoh’s family. These circumstances were different to Isaac’s but may be seen as a continuation of the idea that when God saves a Jewish first born male from death it means they have an important life mission … in Christianity, God also saves Jesus from infantile death.)

Getting back to the sheep’s blood, Moses received a clairvoyant instruction that all Jewish households were to ceremonially slaughter a lamb and paint its blood on their doorposts and lintels. The lamb’s blood becomes a physical indication that a magical force field is protecting their families from an Angel of Death. Like in the story of Abraham, the sheep’s blood represents a life saving substance; all first born sons in houses with lamb’s blood painted above their door had their life spared while those without were killed. In recognition of this historical event that led to Jews being freed from Egyptian masters, an annual festival involving the sacrificing of a lamb was established; this festival became known as the Passover.

Unknown, The destroying angel passes through, 1880. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Coincidentally, it was at the time of year when Jews celebrate Passover, that Jesus was crucified and died. Thus, a correlation of sheep’s blood and a first born son being killed in a manner that was coordinated by God has an archetypal significance that flowed through to Christianity. Note, the archetype in this instance is not a Jungian archetype that suggests symbols are universal across time and cultures; rather, the archetypal connection between sheep’s blood, first born males, and God’s saving grace, is an archetype in the Ancient Greek sense that the original form is a prototype that evolved over time. Hence, the Christian significance of sheep’s blood, first born males, and God’s saving grace is different to the initial presentation in the story of Abraham in much the same way that an archetype (prototype) of a car has evolved from being a chariot driven by horses into a mechanical motor that is described in terms and in horsepower. 

The New Testament account of the Passover is described as Jesus’ Last Supper. This differs from traditional Jewish celebrations of Passover on account of the emphasis being on Jesus blessing bread and wine:

… [Jesus] took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” .

Luke 22:20, New International Version

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-98. Source: Wikipedia Commons

The Christian reasoning behind the foregoing of a Passover lamb is based on the belief that Jesus was the final sacrificial Passover lamb; a human sacrifice that ended the need for all future animal sacrifices. Dr Richard Carrier, renowned expert on the historicity of Jesus, explains that ancient logic perceived blood, with its life carrying properties, to be the most powerful substance available for magic purposes. Animal blood was good, but not strong enough to make spells last forever, so they need to be repeated, often yearly. Human blood was understood to have stronger magical properties, and Jesus was not just any human sacrifice, He was the son of God! Therefore, Jesus’ blood was the most almighty substance of them all! 

Thus we have the transforming of a Jewish tradition into a Christian one. The writings of second century christian, Justin Martyr, further explains that when the Jews anointed their houses with lamb’s blood they were giving an external display of their faith, whereas when Christians anointed themselves with the wine (symbolic blood) of their sacrificial lamb (Jesus) they were displaying their faith internally. By recognising the transformation of physical acts from a real lamb with real blood, through to the symbolic lamb and symbolic blood, it can be understood that Gospel accounts of Jesus saying that his disciples must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:51-58) were spiritual concepts. Arguably, anyone of Jesus era who understood Jewish theology would have also understood the Christian adaptation, however, concerns from outsiders that christians were practicing cannibalism were not completely unfounded given some religions literally practiced human sacrifices.

Whether one believes that Jesus was a real human who walked upon the earth or a spiritual character within a mythological tale, the simple fact remains that Jesus’ death is a continuation of faith in Jewish blood magic principles. Christian texts refer to Jesus as being the Lamb of God (John 1:29/36). And the disciple Paul says:

“For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed”

Corinthians 5:7, English Standard Version

Jesus being God’s Son, moreover, his first and only son, made Jesus’ blood very powerful. How powerful? Powerful enough to take away the sins of the world for an eternity.

The Yom Kippur 

Christians claim Jesus’ death represents a magical event that facilitated the forgiveness of sins that could allow faithful followers access to the eternal bliss of heaven when they die. This idea can seem confusing to outsiders. Actually, it can be confusing to insiders too. As a child raised in Catholicism it never made sense to me that someone’s death meant anything I did wrong, from lying to my parents about not eating the chocolate in the cardboard through to maliciously harming another person, could be forgiven if I simply had faith in Jesus. Nor did it make sense that if Jesus didn’t die then I would be spending my afterlife burning in the depths of hell because of my sins, and being born was a sin, so there was no escape. I was told these sorts of things so many times that I accepted that I was supposed to be grateful for Jesus dying for my sins as a truism irrespective of comprehending why. My father once made the flippant remark that Christianity was based on Jewish blood magic, but it was not until relatively recently when I learned of the Yom Kippur that everything really made sense.

The Yom Kippur, is the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar; it translates into English as being “Day of Atonement”. The focus of this festival is to cleanse oneself and one’s community of sins and transgressions. Traditionally, two goats were used to perform the ritual. One goat would be ceremonially prepared to represent the sins of all the community before being set free and driven out of the village (often by being pushed off a cliff). This goat, (the scapegoat) represents the relinquishing of sin and transgressions. Conversely, the second goat would be ceremonially slaughtered and the sprinkling of its blood signified the magical act of God forgiveness; this goat was referred to as the Holy of Holies or the Goat of God.

Illustration of the Holy of Holies from the 1890 Holman Bible. Source: Learn Religions

By referring to New Testament accounts, Jesus’ death can be seen as an enactment of the Yom Kippur in many ways. For instance, Jesus did not try to escape his fate of being turned over to Rabbis and Roman soldiers who charged him with crimes he had not committed. Once in custody, Jesus Christ was trialled in contrast to a person called Jesus Barabbas, a criminal (not all Bible’s state this other man’s name as being another Jesus, but older versions do and it’s an important detail). Jesus Barabbas is set free, thus symbolically representing the scapegoat, while Jesus Christ is condemned to death, thus symbolically representing the Holy of Holies; an innocent man dying to redeem the sins of the world. 

As previously mentioned, human blood was more powerful than animal’s, and the blood of God’s Son was the mightiest of them all, therefore, Jesus’ death, as a blood sacrifice, was powerful enough to cleanse the entire world of sin for an eternity … And as an added bonus, it was even powerful enough to retrospectively save all humans who died before Christ’s era (1 Peter 4:6).

Given that Judaism condemned ritualised human sacrifice, it is not that surprising to note that the New Testament deflects the blame of Jesus’ death by placing most of the accountability onto a group of people that most Jews despised the most, the Romans. Further, the Rabbis who were affiliated with the story of Jesus’ death are depicted as being corrupt. These details allowed early Christians to not completely ostracise themselves from Judaism, conversely, the storyline has all the hallmarks and appeal of a classic Greek tragedy.

How could Jesus be a Passover lamb and Holy of Holies goat?

According to Christian theology, the Passover and Yom Kippur are sacraments that Jesus brought to fulfilment. Having said that, Jesus being symbolised as a lamb is more prominent than Jesus being symbolised as a goat. Patricia Kasten suggests a reason for this could be that goats had a tarnished reputation due to their affiliation with pagan deities from rival religions, like the Greek Dionysus and the Egyptian Khum. Kasten adds that while goats and lambs shared equal respect among Jews of antiquity, lambs had more of a broader positive appeal that may have been advantageous to converting Gentiles. Goats could also be seen in more of negative light due to the role of the scapegoat being more prominent within the community context of Yom Kippur celebrations; it was community members who chased the scapegoat to its death, whereas the ritual slaughtering, burning, and splattering of blood from the Goat of God was done in the privacy of the temple by the high priest.

The synthesis of the Passover lamb and the Yom Kippur goats being blood rituals associated with Jesus’ was explained by Justin Martyr as follows:

“The mystery, then, of the lamb which God enjoined to be sacrificed as the passover, was a type of Christ; with whose blood, in proportion to their faith in Him, they anoint their houses, i.e., themselves, who believe on Him. For that the creation which God created—to wit, Adam—was a house for the spirit which proceeded from God, you all can understand. And that this injunction was temporary, I prove thus. God does not permit the lamb of the passover to be sacrificed in any other place than where His name was named; knowing that the days will come, after the suffering of Christ, when even the place in Jerusalem shall be given over to your enemies, and all the offerings, in short, shall cease; and that lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo. For the lamb,(1) which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb. And the two goats which were ordered to be offered during the fast, of which one was sent away as the scape [goat], and the other sacrificed, were similarly declarative of the two appearances of Christ: the first, in which the elders of your people, and the priests, having laid hands on Him and put Him to death, sent Him away as the scope [goat]; and His second appearance, because in the same place in Jerusalem you shall recognise Him whom you have dishonoured, and who was an offering for all sinners willing to repent, and keeping the fast which Isaiah speaks of, loosening the terms(2) of the violent contracts, and keeping the other precepts, likewise enumerated by him, and which I have quoted,(3) which those believing in Jesus do. And further, you are aware that the offering of the two goats, which were enjoined to be sacrificed at the fast, was not permitted to take place similarly anywhere else, but only in Jerusalem.

~ Dialogue with Typhon, Justin Martyr, c.150CE, pg. 34

(Side note, the above passage brings to light several additional points not specifically covered in this article, such as a lamb being “type” of “Christ” and that “Adam” was “a house for the spirit”; these themes shall be picked up in a subsequent articles.)

In our modern era of technology, mass production of goods, fast food outlets, etc., it is easy to be removed from the significance of symbolic gestures that our ancestors more readily interpreted. For instance, Justin’s depiction of a lamb being roasted and roasted, on a skewer that goes through its body from head to toe and across its limbs, as being like Jesus’ body nailed to a cross, does not necessary come to a contemporary person’s mind like it might if a person who was living 2000 odd years ago.

The Significance of Human Sacrifices in Depth

To the modern mind, human sacrifices are an unethical, criminal act; moreover, it is unfathomable that parents would contemplate sacrificing their newborn, only child, first son, or any offspring at all, for the betterment of others (for example, in a magic spell designed to ensure next year’s crops grow well, or to cure a paralysed man, or to facilitate victory in an upcoming battle with a rival village). Nonetheless, to fully appreciate the Christian faith in relation to Jesus Christ being a human sacrifice, one needs to examine how our ancestors’ thought differently.

Nowadays we use scientific methods to explain phenomena, like tracking weather patterns and analysing war strategies with sophisticated technologies, however, up until relatively recently, it was usual for people to believe in the supernatural. To our ancestors, especially those who lived a few thousand years ago, every event was attributed to magical forces and/or spiritual deities, therefore, if one believed they could affect outcomes by manipulating unseen forces, then they may do so. In some cases, sacrificing one’s life to alter these unseen forces was deemed necessary.

Researchers of human sacrifices suggest that because bygone eras had a high child mortality rate, parents may have had reduced emotional attachment that allowed them to give up their children. While complacency towards death may have played a role, personally, I’m not convinced of this theory. If children were perceived as a commodity in which reaching adulthood was a prize, surely parents would have had some hesitancy? Besides, there are reports of Phoenician parents screaming in objection to their children being sacrificed against their will. I wonder if, in at least some cases, mentally ill individuals with no empathy (like psychopaths and narcissists) rose to the rank of religious guru within ancient tribes. Then, once in a leadership position, these cruel-hearted people dictated the murder of children and humans to satisfy their perverted desires? Then in doing so, murder and abuse were made culturally acceptable.

In the beginnings of Judaism, which inadvertently is also the beginning of Christianity (and Islam), Abraham does not call out the atrocity of killing children directly (like later generations of Jews did). Nonetheless, his promotion of animal sacrifice instead of humans may be viewed as an important component towards developing a human consciousness in which socially permitted murders were forbidden. (All of this is assuming the story of Abraham is true, if not then Jewish elders who created the narrative can be credited with successfully promoting the end of child sacrifices.)

Generally speaking, human sacrifices, of adults or children, were not culturally supported in Roman provinces during the era that Christianity was established in (one of the reasons the Romans are reported to have attacked the Phoenicians in Carthage was because they detested their practice of child sacrifices; and, generally, Romans did not view deaths in gladiator sports to be sacrifices to the Gods). Sacrificing animals was another matter. Like in Judaism, it was very culturally acceptable to sacrifice animals to spiritual deities. Other religious groups that are renowned for their ritualised killings are the Dionysus cult (Greek), Mithras cult (Roman), Zoroastrianism (Persian), and numerous others. In the Christian story of Jesus we have a synthesis of these two considerations; Jesus’ death was tragic, therefore, was not a deliberate human sacrifice, nonetheless, it’s effect was consistent with beliefs surrounding sacrificial deaths of animals, namely the Passover and Yom Kippur.

Another aspect of in the history of human sacrifices that is worthwhile to consider is the notion of a soul living after death. In the past, less so than now, many cultures perceived the incorporeal world to be as real as the corporeal world. Physical death was part of life and honouring the soul as a separate entity that could live on in an afterlife was a common. Further, like on earth, it was believed possible for souls to have spiritual missions after death, or they could reincarnate, or something else; for example, in Ancient Egypt servants may have been killed so they could continue working for their Pharaoh in the realm of the dead. In Christianity, Jesus had the spiritual mission of defeating Satan and opening the doors of Heaven to all believers; these were act not deemed possible to achieve while living on earth in a physical body.

Regardless of ethical backgrounds, our shared human ancestry contains many examples of violent acts in which people and animals were ritualistically killed to fulfil spiritual rites and beliefs. Christianity is not the only religion to forgo ongoing flesh and blood offerings, however, the dominance of the religion has contributed to the abolishing of animal sacrifices in many circumstances. The transformation of magical processes that were initially conducted with real flesh and blood, through to magical processes being conducted through the symbolic bread and wine, could be likened to horsepower being used to describe the power of a car even though there are no horses literally pulling the vehicle like in previous models.

Matthias Grünewald, The Small Crucifixion, c. 1511/1520. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

Summing Things Up

The reasoning behind Jesus’ sacrificial death (as opposed to, say, dying of old age) being a symbol of forgiveness and life-saving act for the faithful only makes sense if viewed through the understanding of Jewish traditions, namely the Passover and Yom Kippur. Christian believers typically add to these theologies that in dying, Jesus was able to spiritually descend to lower parts of the world (Hell) and capture an oppressor (Satan) before ascending up to heaven. (These concepts can be viewed as having an alignment with Ancient Greek mystery school doctrines, i.e., Hell was originally called Hades by Hellenistic Christians, but that’s a story for another time.)

Jesus’ death would have been morally condoned by his contemporaries if it occurred as an outright human sacrifice, however, because the circumstances had tragic elements, it was perceived as being a fateful series of events that were ordained by God. Christianity’s approach to Jesus’ death transformed the significance of flesh and blood sacrifices, hence, many Christian denominations symbolically represent Jesus’ through bread and red wine (referred to as the Holy Communion or Eucharist). Instead of animal sacrifices conducted to maintain God’s favour, reverence continues less violently thanks to the power of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice and magical life sustaining blood.

Essentially, in early Christianity we see the theology of Judaism synthesised through the magical acts of Jesus in such a way that difficult rituals that involve real flesh and blood were transformed into symbolic references; supernatural acts became spiritualised: 

They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 

1 Corinthians 10:3-4, New International Version

In turn, this spiritualisation of Jewish theology provided a basis for an intellectualisation of God. Connecting to deities through the mind has strong links to Greek values, for instance, according to philosophers like Plato, the intellect, nous, or universal mind, is the highest of all spiritual components. (Again, the finer details of this connection are best left for another time.)

The relevance of Jesus Christ being a sacrificial lamb that fulfils of Jewish in blood magic purposes is a matter for each individual to decide. For some, the significance adds to their pious faith that Jesus is the true global redeemer of sins whose gift of self sacrifice is wanton of praise and gratitude. For others, understanding the continuum of Judaism to Christianity can insight cynicism that both religions are bogus, built upon fraudulent accounts of clairvoyance. Either way, to believe or disbelieve, full knowledge of the theology that supports faith enables one to live with truth and integrity.

To summarise, Christianity is a religion based upon the premise that a 2000 year old Jewish ritual, that involved a human sacrifice, was effective. Christians today still believe that the blood magic performed by someone called Yeshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, and Jesus in modern English, will ensure they have an afterlife of bliss, and those who don’t will burn in hell until Yeshua/Iesous/Jesus reincarnates. This event is called the second coming … which is a little confusing because modern Christians generally don’t believe in reincarnation … and yet if Jesus is God’s only son and Christians (in particular fundamentalists) also believe that the Jewish creation myth is true, then Adam is also God’s first son … how can God have a first son called Adam and an only son called Jesus? This conundrum brings us to the second topic of discussion: Jesus as Adam, which shall be discussed in my next article.

Reference list

Agatan Foundation 2018, The Crazy Facts You Didn’t Know About The History of Christianity by Richard Carrier, YouTube.

Evans, L 2021, An Expert Explains Mythicism with Dr Richard Carrier, http://www.youtube.com.

Holloway, S 2019, The origins of the ‘scapegoat’ | Jewish History & Culture, Sydney Jewish Museum, viewed 21 September 2021, <https://sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au/jewish-culture/the-origins-of-the-scapegoat/&gt;.

Jarus, O 2017, 25 Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice, livescience.com, Live Science.

Kasten, P 2017, The final judgment gets the goats, The Compass, viewed 23 September 2021, <https://www.thecompassnews.org/2017/11/final-judgment-gets-goats/&gt;.

Kohler, K & Jacobs, J n.d., BARABBAS – JewishEncyclopedia.com, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com, viewed 21 September 2021, <https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2477-barabbas&gt;.

Martyr, J 150AD, Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. Public domain. Formatting by http://www.basilica.org. Copyright free.

Parsons, J n.d., Behold the Goat of God!, http://www.hebrew4christians.com, viewed 21 September 2021, <https://www.hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Fall_Holidays/Yom_Kippur/Goat_of_God/goat_of_god.html&gt;.

University of Oxford 2014, Ancient Carthaginians really did sacrifice their children | University of Oxford, http://www.ox.ac.uk.

Call No Man Father: Figurative Speech in Early Christianity

A common objective of destructive cults is to get complete control over devotees by convincing them to break all ties with family and friends. The indoctrination process is often subtle, with victims not realising they’ve been manipulated till it’s too late. From the perspective of a twisted mind, establishing absolute control over others by eliminating opposing opinions is a logical requirement of initiation. Goodbye logic, hello darkness.

In the case of Christian cults, leaders often achieve isolation by quoting scriptures like Matthew 23:9. The phrasing as expressed in the New International Version is a typical translation of the original Hebrew:

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.

On face value, it appears cult leaders may have grounds for encouraging the breaking family ties, at least those between children and fathers. However, if the passage is read in the context of the previous verse, it’s not so simple: But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.

Matthew 23:9-10
And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.
But you are But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 

Contextually, the two sentences are indicating that no one person should be considered spiritually superior to another, that is, there should be no “Father Rabbis” because everyone is a “brother”. Matthew’s application of figurative speech is relatively easy to recognise; it does not literally mean you cannot call your male parent “father”. I imagine ancient political correctness was the last thing on the scribes’ mind. (There is a trend being explored in contemporary midwifery which stipulates it is more politically correct to refer to a “mother” as “the lactating parent”.)

In ancient Jewish and Roman cultures it was normal to call Rabbis, or any older man, in particular one with a higher status, “Father”. It was both a title and a means of showing respect.

In 2 BCE Emperor Augustus was dubbed “Pater Patriae”, which means the “father of his country” (Pater = Father in Latin). Rome was not without adversaries, hence, it’s probable not everyone felt warm fuzzies towards Augustus as a father figure. For example, the Jews, in accordance with the prophecies outlined in the Torah, wanted and expected ruling rights over much of the land that their Roman father had won claim to. In turn, it seems plausible that some Jewish citizens (Early Christians were Jews) could relate to the sentiment no man should be called father. To take that figurative expression and apply it literally to biological parents defies logic, hence, I suspect that is the reason why the caveat is not mentioned in Matthew’s text. (Perhaps Augustus should have been called the “non-lactating parent of Rome”?)

Imagine if every time someone used figurative speech there was an expectation that they explained their symbolic referencing!? For example, a novel that describes a character as being a night owl (not a real night owl, just someone who stays up late at night, like an owl), or a newspaper article that reports of items falling off the back of the truck (the items didn’t literally fall of the back of a truck, they were stolen like they could have fallen off the back of a truck), or historical accounts of Euclid as the father of geometry (there was no mother geometry that Euclid impregnated, he just fathered ideas that were like babies, not real babies but things that grew into bigger things, like babies grow into bigger people). If all writers had to explain their similes, metaphors, or colloquial expressions there would be no point using expressive language in the first place; furthermore, communication would be pretty boring.

Humans have a flair for being creative with words and our cognitive abilities have developed in a manner that enables us to quickly and efficiently identify homophones and their meanings within given contexts. At least that is the case when interpreting contemporary language in cultural contexts that we are familiar with. But perhaps understanding figurative speech from 2000 years ago is different? Afterall, as an Australian I would never imagine calling our prime minister, Scott Morrison, the father of our country! I can’t envision Americans calling Joe Biden their Father either. Hence, perhaps it is due to the differing cultural standards of how and when the term “father” is used impacts Biblical interpretations? 

To add a bit of a different spin to the issue, when looking up Matthew’s verses, I was intrigued by the Aramaic Bible in Plain English version to Matthew’s sentences which hat reads:

But you shall not be called “Rabbi”, for One is your Rabbi, but you are all brothers.

And you should not call yourselves “Father”, in the earth, for one is your Father who is in Heaven.

The semantics of this phrasing changes the interpretation previously explored that was based on the New International Version (Bible semantics is thing and a half, as I discovered while researching the bow” of the white horseman). Instead of the directive being not to call others “father” (presumably with the caveat of there being an exception if you’re referring to your biological father), the instructions are now not to call oneself a “father” as opposed to calling anyone on earth a “father”. In other words, there are to be no Christian “Rabbis” which can be transferred to meaning Christianity initially condemned all leadership positions within the church. I think I could dig (figurative expression, I don’t literally mean I’d dig a hole in the earth) a Christian theology that genuinely supported no leaders and was based upon every individual having spiritual autonomy and a direct relationship with God, aka, the heavenly Father, the One who is the ultimate Rabbi. Alas, whilst that may have been the impulse of Early Christian communities (and there is evidence to suggest in some instances this was the case), Christianity on the whole did not develop in that direction. Ever since at least the second century there are reports of Christian deacons, priests, and bishops, or in other words, “Fathers” and “Rabbis”. Perhaps cult leaders who want to high-jack religions have always been around?

With Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity came orders to impose structure upon the religion. The structure that was imposed just happened to be consistent with the standards of Roman culture. From the patriarchal hierarchy of bishops through to labelling priests as “father”, Christianity took on a very Roman military-like structure; i.e., it was normal for Roman soldiers to call the leader of their legion “father”.

The Aramaic version emphases the figurative concept of everyone being “brothers”. (I’m deliberately not entering into the whole patriarchal structure of the language and for the sake of simply I’m going with the flow of “brothers” in this context being a gender neutral term; according to Jewish symbology it is acceptable to do so.) The significance of unifying everyone as a brotherhood is as nuanced as the term “father”. 

When using figurative speech, a thing is not identical to the original thing in all contexts. For example, the “father” in Augustus’ Pater Patriae infers control and responsibility, whereas Euclid’s title of “father” implies he metaphorically birthed geometric offsprings, and priestly “fathers” can suggest a nurturing role. Not all associations of the term “father” can aptly be applied to all situations. Likewise, not all associations of “brothers” can be applied to all situations, e.g., loyalty, strong bond, sense of duty, kinsmanship, support, equality, etc., may not all be applicable to Matthew’s usage. (Some could argue that “brothers” implies rivalry, fighting for attention, and other negative traits; hence, the assumption that Matthew meant only positive associations is a cultural bias in itself.) The interpretation of a thing when used in figurative speech is dependent upon both the speakers/writers intentions and the audience’s comprehension; in turn, both are dependent upon cultural understandings of the symbolic significance of the thing. (Humans are a symbolic species, for a background discussion see: The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics).

What then did Matthew mean when he said “you are all brothers”? In the context of the statement being prefaced by “you shall not be called Rabbi”, I suggest the emphasis of “brothers” relates to status, in particular not having a hierarchy in which individuals are judged to be closer or further away from the “One”. (The number One as a reference to God has a long standing tradition within Greek philosophy).

Many Christians over the years have claimed that orthodox and Catholic traditions are flawed interpretations of Jesus’ readings, and the examples of the establishment of priesthood and fathers figures can legitimately be used as proof of this. Ironically, however, cult leaders who skew this scripture to isolate and control others, have a tendency to make themselves father figures, albeit they don’t call themselves by that title. Which is worse, to disobey a literal interpretation of the Bible and have church leaders called father, or to dispense with the title and fulfil the essence of the meaning of the terms. While cult leaders, claim to be “brothers” with their followers, their actions speak louder than words; they call themselves “Rabbi” in the sense that they are self proclaimed leaders, like father figures, to individuals whom they manipulate to break ties with their true families. 

Judaism has an abundance of figurative speech that relates to family terms that, in addition to the ones mentioned here, include husband, wife, daughter, son, etc. Likewise, Christianity, as an Abrahamic religion, continued to use many of these Jewish symbols, plus some were harmonised with Greek symbols (Jesus was for the Jews and Gentiles!), and slowly but surely, uniquely Christian symbols were developed.

Identifying authentic meanings of much of the symbolism used in the Bible is not difficult if one knows where to look for it. The problem is that too many well-intended and open hearted people fall for wolves in sheep’s clothing (figure of speech, not a real wolf in sheep’s clothing, but a person with wolf-like qualities who, on the inside wants to devour others, but on the outside appears like a sheep who is placid and willing to follow the crowd) who leads them to dangerous pastures due to their self serving interpretations of Bible verses. On that note, it is also worthwhile to consider that perhaps Matthew’s Gospel was intended to be a document that could be used to establish a cult that deconstructed families … 

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;.

Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context

The Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible is a controversial and influential book. It’s basic storyline, that of an apocalyptic end of the world, has persuaded men, women, children, and others into fearing God and believing unprecedented doom will occur if Christian beliefs aren’t followed. Ever since the first century, there have been individuals who proclaim the apocalypse is just around the corner; see below for a brief list. In today’s environment of Covid-19, natural disasters, nuclear weapon technology, and financial hardships, there is no shortage of doomsday leaders who believe the real time of the tribulation is now. But what if they are all wrong? What if the symbology used by John the Elder (the credited author of Revelations) has been taken literally when it should be metaphorical? In this blog I explore a possible interpretation that takes into account how the symbolism can be read in a historical context.

List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events

Predicted YearPerson/sDetails of Apocalypse
66–70Simon bar Giora, Jewish EssenesThe Jewish Essene sect of ascetics saw the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66–70 in Judea as the final end-time battle which would bring about the arrival of the Messiah.
365Hilary of PoitiersThis early French bishop announced the end of the world would happen during this year.
375–400Martin of ToursThis French bishop stated that the world would end before 400 AD, writing, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.”
847ThiotaThis Christian declared in 847 that the world would end that year, though later confessed the prediction was fraudulent and was publicly flogged.
1033Various ChristiansFollowing the failure of the prediction for 1 January 1000, some theorists proposed that the end would occur 1000 years after Jesus’ death, instead of his birth.
1346–1351Various EuropeansThe Black Death spreading across Europe was interpreted by many as the sign of the end of times.
1524London astrologersA group of astrologers in London predicted the world would end by a flood starting in London, based on calculations made the previous June. Twenty thousand Londoners left their homes and headed for higher ground in anticipation.
For more predictions see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events

The standard interpretation of the Four Horsemen is: 

“The first horseman, a conqueror with a bow and crown, rides a white horse, which scholars sometimes interpret to symbolize Christ or the Antichrist; the second horseman is given a great sword and rides a red horse, symbolizing war and bloodshed; the third carries a balance scale, rides a black horse, and symbolizes famine; and the fourth horseman rides a pale horse and is identified as Death.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica

To me, this explanation is too simple; the descriptions of white, red, black, and pale horses beacons more investigation than the literal presentation of a Christ/Antichrist, war, famine, and death. In Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, and bow? I demonstrate how interpretations of homophones can significantly alter the interpretation of Bible passages, further, I highlight that common, contemporary interpretations are not necessarily correct if translations issues, like punctuation, are not accounted for. As a continuation, a major flaw I perceive in many Bible interpretations is that the meaning of symbols are not viewed in relation to their historical significance and cultural context. But before delving into alternative ways of viewing the Four Horsemen, I’d like to do a little thought experiment.

Imagine: You are John the Elder, a citizen of Ephesus in approximately 96 CE. You have a spiritual experience in which prophetic visions are placed in your mind. Now imagine what language the Holy Spirit would use to communicate with you. Would you expect it to use a symbolic language that you understood? Or a symbolic language that you did not understand but people in the future might? To put it more crudely, if you spoke English, would you expect a spiritual being to communicate with you in English or a language you don’t know? Would you write down your vision using icons you did not understand? Or would you record the vision according to your own comprehension level?

Speaking in tongues aside, the chances are you’d receive a message from the Holy Spirit in a language you could comprehend, and you’d pass on your message in a manner that others could also comprehend. But also remember that you may be persecuted by Roman authorities for your beliefs, hence, you may want to disguise what you are saying so as it looks like it is not “Christian”. If only there were a symbolic code you could use …

Contrary to some theorists (like psychoanalysts) language and symbolic communication is not consistent over time or cultures. Pictures and symbols are a form of language, and just like any type of communication, these evolve over time. Human communication is in a constant flux that develops due to standard meanings being reused and blended with creative impulses that alter previous meanings. When changes to symbolic language is done deliberately, it can effectively make an “in” and an “out” group, that is those who understand the communication and those who do not … I can’t help but wonder if Early Christians who were afraid of persecution may have deliberately manipulated language and pre-existing symbols to avoid having their beliefs scrutinised?

When new words, phrases, or concepts get known and/or accepted by large groups of people they develop a cultural context. For example, if you were to tell someone in their eighties that you went to a party that was “totally sick”, they may give an empathetic response because they assumed that “totally sick” means the party was a disaster in which everyone became ill. In contrast, a younger person hearing about a “totally sick” party would understand that you had a great time (I touch upon the creativity of language more here.) Each generation alters or develops language usage in some way or another. Language has simple and complex interrelationships with the time, culture, and the audience in which it is spoken. 

Second thought experiment: If John the Elder had been given a literal vision of armageddon that was supposed to happen in our time then he would have had to describe cars, computers, electricity, and several other things that he would not have a point of reference to in his lifetime. Hence, it stands to reason that John’s recording of prophecies is embedded with symbolic communication appropriate to his language and his culture. Moreover, his vision is not literal, it is metaphorical; an allegory of concepts and feelings. I would even argue that it is not even about the end of the world, rather, it depicts a cosmic cycles; rebirths or some form of evolutionary stages. In comparison, consider real childbirth. If one were to metaphorically describe labour, especially a difficult labour, then it could be said to be a time of great pain and bloodshed in which the woman’s appetite is gone, her limbs and pelvis are torn in different directions, and there is a battle between internal forces and external forces. Birth is the death of life in the womb. So too the Book of Revelations may be describing great changes to humanity that are allegorical to war, famine, battle, and death. 

To decode the symbols of the Four Horseman further, we need to consider the Ephesus culture. Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey and it has a long history. In about the sixth century BCE it came under Greek influence and was a hub for cults that worshipped the Goddess Artemis. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great consolidated the Hellenisation of the region. By John the Elder’s time, Ephesus was a Roman province, however, Latin had not yet developed into a scholarly language, hence, Revelations was written in Greek (as was most of the New Testament). Pretty much all New Testament writers had an understanding of Greek and Jewish traditions, albeit, they may have favoured one over the other and their products were original to some degree. (See commentary on Justin Martyr.

Now to cut to the chase of the symbolism of the Four Horsemen; horses in Ancient times were a symbol of the intellect. To a contemporary mind this may not make sense; books, degrees, and computers may be considered better symbols of intelligence but in the eras we’re talking about, before the first century, books, formal qualifications, and computers weren’t invented yet. To a person of antiquity, horses were a valuable possession, they enabled travel and freedom, were needed on farms and to go into battle, they could be trained to do all sorts of tasks and tricks, and horses were loyal companions. Given all these considerations, it is understandable that horses became a symbol for intelligence. Homer’s depiction of the Trojan horse that enabled victory in the battle of Troy is a good example of how the concepts of intellect, strategy, resourcefulness, and success, were linked to horses in the pre-Christian era. 

Nowadays we think of the intellect in terms of cognitive brain functions that occur in the prefrontal cortex, in antiquity, the intellect was considered to be more of a spiritual principle. Spiritual forces were perceived to be everywhere and these could and would impact individuals. For instance, in Ancient Greece, it’s unlikely that a person would be described as a genius, rather, if a person displayed strong intellectual qualities then the external force of a “genii” may be given credit for working through them. A genii was like a guardian angel, higher self, or daimon that floated around trying to give people ideas; it was believed possible that if an idea from a genii was not accepted by one person, then the genii would move onto someone else. Basically, what we view as internalised higher order thinking, our Mediterranean ancestors perceived as external messages from spiritual realms.

Recognising the Four Horsemen as being aspects of an intelligent spiritual force is only the first step. The next is to understand that horses were also cosmological symbols. Hence, each horseman may be interpreted as representing a cosmic element. Helios riding his four-horsed chariot immediately comes to my mind.

Helios the Sun God riding is chariot with four horses. Image source: Theoi Project

In Ancient Greek theology, Helios’ four horses symbolise earth, water, air, and fire. Could it be that the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse are an appropriation or repurposing of the symbolism of Helios’ four horses? Maybe, however, the link may be broader. In Judaism Ezekiel’s chariot has four horses (Ezekiel 1:4-28), in the Greco-Roman era, Apollo had a four horse chariot, and some Early Christians depicted Saint Mark as the charioteer of four horses. The question, therefore, may be: Is there an ideological link between all these varied representations of horses with the classical elements?

The concepts of fire, air, water, and earth were definitely popular amongst philosophers, however, to say they all meant the same thing in every context is probably an overgeneralisation. Suffice to say, it is not farfetched to assume John the Elder knew this symbolic code; I’d be more surprised if he didn’t know about it. So how do the four elements link to the Four Horseman? Let’s first look at the colours. (Readers may want to review The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts to get some background information about the framework.)

In Empedocles era, there is evidence to suggest that he and others associated black, white, yellow and red to water, fire, earth, and air. Coincidentally, the four horsemen described in the Book of Revelations have the same colours, albeit, yellow may be referred to as pale or green, depending on which translation of the Bible you look at. (Side note: the colours associated with each element and the differing of terminology to describe the pale or yellow element is consistent with The surprising pattern behind color names around the world.)

If we go through the associated symbolism of each horseman one at a time we can see more clues:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

Revelation 6:1-2 (NIV)

Key symbolic words that I can identify in these lines are thunder, white, and crown. These conjure inferences of concepts that relate to fire. The association of the White Horseman with the element of fire is strengthened in Revelation 19:11-16 when the rider is described as having eyes like a flame of fire. In Ancient Greek theology, fire is the highest on the hierarchy of elements. (The White Horseman’s “bow” is still open to interpretation.)

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

Revelation 6:3-4 (NIV)

If the sequence of the hierarchy is to be followed, then the red horse symbolises air. Air in classical philosophies is the emotional and passionate part of the soul. It is given reverence, however, it is also sometimes described as being an element that causes strife. Amongst air’s good points, is that it is a life-supporting element on earth; if one does not have air in their body they will be dead. Thus, there is some correlation between the traditional qualities of air and the Red Horseman’s characteristics of taking away peace and producing death.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds a of wheat for day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

Revelation 6:5-6 (NIV)

The black horse may be interpreted as water. While the literal symbols of scales, wheat, barley, and wages, appear to to be a reference to earthly concerns of money and finances, if they are viewed in the context of being said by a voice among the four living creatures, it can be inferred that the symbols of earthly existence (i.e., food and money) are supported or balanced (i.e., the scales) by the element of water. The final line is a warning that support of the physical elements must not damage the oil or the wine; wine is a symbol for spirit, aka fire, and oil is a symbol for soul, aka air. Hence, water is an intermediate or transitional element. 

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.


Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)

The most significant indication that the fourth horseman represents the element of earth is the term “Hades”. As explicitly told by Empedocles, Hades represents the earth in Ancient Greek theology. In Bible’s such as the King James Version, the pagan term of Hades is replaced by “Hell”, hence, some of the alignment between the theology of the elements and the horsemen is obscured. Just like the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hades in Revelations is connected to death. The terms sword, famine, plague, and beasts, are not necessarily literal, but metaphorical of earthly experiences. The Early Christian concept of Hades is not identical to the Ancient Greek Hades, but it is a significant link that deserves acknowledgment.

The embedding of Ancient Greek theology into Christian doctrines has a long history. From Justin Martyr, to Augustine, and Aquinas, Christianity has always borrowed theology from other sources. In Is Aristotle Overrated? I hone in on the Greek influence, however, influence also came from Judaism, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and others.

Overall, there are many indicators that the Book of Revelations is a metaphorical story that appropriates or repurposes Ancient Greek theology. Read as an allegory, the Four Horsemen are not going to appear one after the other and signal the end of the world. According to my interpretation, John the Elder’s vision was as much a reflection on the development of human beings from a cosmological perspective as it is a prediction for the future.

Decoding the symbolism of the remaining three seals introduces some more complex theology that I’ll leave for another day. And to be honest, I have not perfected my interpretation of Revelations, but I hope that the insights I can provide promotes critical thinking that prevents people from falling for doomsday predictors who will one day join the Wikipedia list of false prophets.

Of all philosophies and theologies, I resonate with the concept of creativity being the most important. From imaginative applications of symbols and communication that involves creative language, to every moment of every day, human beings are creators, or as I’ve said before, creat[e]-ures made in the image of a Creative force that some call God. Ultimately, we all have the gift of Free Will to create a future of our choosing without fear that our destinies were pre-written in Ephesus, c.96CE.

References

Benson, J. L. (2000). Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements [full text, not including figures]. Scholarworks.umass.edu. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/art_jbgc/1

Biblical Ephesus. (2020). History of Ephesus – Biblical Ephesus. Biblical Ephesus. http://biblicalephesus.com/ephesus/history

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2019). Four horsemen of the Apocalypse | Christianity | Britannica. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/four-horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2012). Genius | Roman religion. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/genius-Roman-religion

History.com Editors. (2018, August 21). Ephesus. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/ephesus

New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Book of Revelation – New World Encyclopedia. http://Www.newworldencyclopedia.org. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Book_of_Revelation

Revelation 6 KJV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/kjv/revelation/6.htm

Revelation 6 NIV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/niv/revelation/6.htm

Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198

Theoi Project. (2017). Helius – Ancient Greek Vase Painting. http://Www.theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T17.1.htmlUniversity of Michigan. (n.d.). Horse. Umich.edu. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/H/horse.html

Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?

"Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? and do not questions continually arise to them about His unity and providence ? Is not this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?" 
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypo, P.5

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine, in about 100 CE. In his mid thirties he began wandering, preaching, and explaining Christianity to others. According to the encyclopaedia Britannica he was ‘one of the most important Greek philosophers-Apologists in the early Church’. 

Justin is described as being Greek (as opposed to Roman or Palestinian) because that is the language he used, moreover, he studied Plato and other Greek philosophers prior to converting from his old belief system to Christianity. Palestine, thanks to Alexander the Great, was Hellenised in 332 BCE, and despite the Roman takeover in 63 BCE, Greek was still a common language amongst academics.

Palestine was also home to many Jews and a variety of other religious groups. The interactions between these groups are suspected to have been a mixture of hostile and receptive occurrences. 

Justin’s evangelism took him to Rome where he was accused of being subversive and sentenced to death. He was killed by beheading in c.165, thus killed for his beliefs he was martyred by Christian followers. 

André Thévet – Saint Justin dans André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Justin wrote several treatises explaining Christian theology; he was instrumental in defining beliefs in the days prior to the bible being compiled. In the following centuries, followers of Christ would become divided into two broad categories of “true” Christians and “false” Christians, the latter usually referred to as Heretics (for example, the gnostics). During a process of establishing consistent guidelines for the faithful – which mostly came about by Emperor Constantine calling council meetings (the Nicene council) – Justin’s version of theology was accepted in the “true” category, as opposed to some others, like Valentina and Origen. 

Given that Justin had a strong Greek background, it’s not surprising he incorporated references to ancient Greek philosophy into his writings, however, what I find even more interesting is his detailed understanding of Jewish theology. In a publication titled Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Justin records an imaginative conversation between himself and a Jew called Trypho. The aim of the conversation is to explain to the Jew how Christianity fulfilled prophecies expressed in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. The fact that Justin wrote in a dialogue style (like Plato and other Philosophers), is a reflection of his scholarly Greek background. It is with this foundation that he describes Christian stories as being a continuation of Jewish symbology. Thus we have two streams of ideology merging into one river. 

Let’s have a look at some of what Justin says, first through a Jewish lens, then a Greek:

‘For, as I before said, certain dispensations of weighty mysteries were accomplished in each act of this sort. For in the marriages of Jacob I shall mention what dispensation and prophecy were accomplished, in order that you may thereby know that your teachers never looked at the divine motive which prompted each act, but only at the grovelling and corrupting passions. Attend therefore to what I say. The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish. For it was not lawful for Jacob to marry two sisters at once. And he serves Laban for [one of] the daughters; and being deceived in [the obtaining of] the younger, he again served seven years. Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Several themes can be taken from the above extract, some of which I’ve underlined or bolded:

  • mysteries – this implies that Justin is referring to things that happened [in the events of Jesus life] that are not obvious at a surface level.
  • marriages – term used in a symbolic sense; if you lived in the 2nd (or earlier) centuries you probably would have understood the term “marriages” differently to that of someone today. 
  • your teachers never looked at the divine motive – this is a dig (insult) to rabbis and other Jewish experts of the day 
  • The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish – this comment punctuates the notion that the term “marriages” is symbolic, not literal. 
  • Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church – “Leah” is symbolic of Judaism [i.e. Justin is talking to a Jew] and “Rachel” is symbolic of Christianity [Justin is referring to his church of Christianity] … 

The last point, that of “Leah” being symbolic of Jews and “Rachel” being symbolic of Christians is arguably the most important thing Justin says. He is clearly stating that the Torah, which became known as the Old Testament to Christians, was NOT literal. Moreover, concepts were personified. To understand the use of symbolism in this context, it is useful to consider Charles Peirce’s threefold definition of symbols:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.

The third level of symbolism is the most complex. The symbolic representation of something may or may not have an obvious connection to iconic or indexical references. I discuss this in my blog The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics.

Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:

‘Jacob served Laban for speckled and many-spotted sheep; and Christ served, even to the slavery of the cross, for the various and many-formed races of mankind, acquiring them by the blood and mystery of the cross. Leah was weakeyed; for the eyes of your souls are excessively weak. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, and has hid them to this day; and we have lost our paternal and material gods. Jacob was hated for all time by his brother; and we now, and our Lord Himself, are hated by you and by all men, though we are brothers by nature. Jacob was called Israel; and Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ, who is, and is called, Jesus.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Justin’s language is as colourful as a poet. Nearly every phrase is doused in pre-Shakespearean ambiguity: “Leah was weakeyed” and “Rachael stole the gods of Laban”. Moreover, Justin explicitly says: “Jacob was called Israel”, and “Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ”. To take these phrases literally is to believe that Leah was a real person who needed reading glasses, Rachel was a thief, and Jacob is a double agent who goes by the names of Israel and Christ. However, interpreted figuratively, neither Leah, Rachel, or Jacob are real characters. This symbolism becomes even more apparent in the following: 

Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians), is distinctly proclaimed in like manner in the following words, which teach us also to forget[our] old ancestral customs, when they speak thus: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline thine ear; forget thy people and the house of thy father, and the King shall desire thy beauty: because He is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.'” [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 53

The term daughter in the above quote is also by no means literal.

‘Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’

Justin, throughout his discussion with the Jewish Trypho is referring to male and female personifications in a hierarchical manner that follows a patriarchal pattern of father (Jacob) at the top, followed by the mother (Leah and Rachel), however, if one is to continue down the ladder, we have another female symbol, that of daughters (the synagogue and church) before sons (individual members of congregation) who are the lowest rung. 

To give a visual of what he’s saying, let’s look at it like a family tree:

Justin is candidly stating that characters from the Torah (Old Testament) were not literal people, rather they are symbolic of groups of people. The use of a familia constructs follows the cultural conventions of the era, albeit, daughter is above son. 

The symbolic use of “son” as a reference to “man” can easily be understood in the figurative concept of “mankind” being children of God. “Man/mankind” is traditional patriarchal language that refers to all of humankind. (In sexist ideologies women were literally believed to be less than human, but that’s another story.) 

The logic behind using the family structure described above to present metaphysical ideology may not be obvious to us today but, presumably, it did to whomever developed it in the second millennium BCE (or earlier). 

In regards to women/daughters being used as symbolic of groups of people, while the reasons may not be clear, there are multiple examples in the Torah (Old Testament). 

Isaiah 47:1 (ISV)
Come down and sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a chair, Daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you tender and attractive”

Psalm 137: 8-9 (KJV)
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Others
“The daughter of Zion” as a symbol of Israel, likewise, “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “daughter of Edom”. For more references of “daughter” as symbolising groups see Laminations 4:21; Zephaniah 3:14; Zachariah 9:9; Isaiah 3:16-17;  John 12:15; Matthew 21:5. (“Bible Hub” 2019; Schwartzmann 2000)

What I appreciate the most about Justin’s work is that it explicitly defines symbolism that, in my humble opinion, gets overlooked in modern Christianity. While growing up in a Catholic household, I have a clear recollection of my father once explaining to my older brother: “the daughter of Zion is metaphorical of the state of Israel”. So it is, I suspect the meaning of some symbolism has passed down through the ages, but it is not necessarily recognised by all laypeople. 

Many things come to my mind when I process the significance of Justin’s explanations of the Christian faith, as expressed by someone who converted in the second century. For instance, when in Luke 12:53 is says:

The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

King James Bible

Destructive cult leaders love to use this quote as a means of manipulating people into breaking all ties with their loved ones and, in turn, gaining more control over them. But what if Jesus is only speaking metaphorically of the “House of God”? Rather than referring to the divide of biological father and son, biological mother and daughter, and biological mother in law against daughter in law, I believe he’s talking about Synagogues, Churches, spiritual leaders, and followers being divided against one another. To me, it makes a lot more sense that the “man of peace” would be referring to the symbolic destruction of institutional “families” than real nuclear families. 

I also wonder about references to Jesus explaining scriptures to Rabbis and crowds … was he explaining symbolism, like that of Leah and Rachel? … were Jesus’ sermons all about explaining figurative expressions that had been forgotten by the masses? Additionally, to add a little complexity, Jesus was renown for speaking in riddles, and understanding the symbolism was virtually an initiation process:

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Matthew 13:10-17

Note: the word “sin” in Ancient times was an archery term that mean missing the mark; if you did not shoot your arrow straight and get the target then you had “sinned”. Hence, Jesus is not saying that people who do not understand the parables are evil, rather, he is just saying they have misinterpreted symbolic language.

To me, understanding the Jewish background and how Judaism used familia terms within the symbolism of scripture is very insightful, however, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, Justin had a Greek/pagan background and his understanding of Christianity involved harmonising Jewish traditions with ancient Greek philosophy, namely, those compatible with Plato.  

As it so happens, Ancient Greek philosophy also used a symbolic familia system to describe elements of their faith. As discussed in The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts,  they had a hierarchy in which Zeus was at the top, followed by Demeter, then Persephone, and then Hades. The Greek system of Father (Zeus), mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), and son (Hades) has a correlation to the Jewish system of Father (Jacob), mother (Leah and Rachel), daughter (synagogue and church), and son (man/humankind). However due to different inferences, the characters of respective belief systems are not the same. Nonetheless, one could argue there are enough similarities to warrant the potential harmonising. 

So why did both Jewish and Greek philosophers use the symbolism of a family to present theological ideas? A simple answer could be it is because the family structure is something relatable to just about everyone. 

The links between Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy and how they emerged in Christianity goes deeper than this blog can demonstrate. All the same, I hope I have illustrated that Justin Martyr is a prime example (there are others) of someone who explicitly spells out some of the symbolism of Christianity and how it is tied to both Jewish and Greek traditions. 

Also note, Justin references Plato at least twelve times in his dialogue with Typho. However, he never mentions Aristotle because his philosophies were not widely known in Palatine or the Roman Empire at this time. (Aristotle’s influence on Christianity came later as described Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy.)

I am not one to blindly follow conspiracy theories, and what I have presented here is not intended to nullify Christianity and the spiritual impulse that it inspires. Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that Christianity emerged as some conscious attempt to create a religion to control people (as some conspiracy theories suggest). Rather, my intention is to deepen the understanding of Abrahamic religions by examining the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. Moreover, I hope that by what I have written, individuals may be inspired to research for themselves the history of the Christian Church and question what some gurus (destructive cult leaders) have to say about how the scriptures are to be interpreted.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying all Hebrew and Christian Bible stories are symbolic; it may be a case of some are, some art. What I am saying is that some Bible stories are symbolic. Justin’s writings support this premise. 

Was Justin deliberately trying to harmonise Jewish and Greek belief systems? Maybe. Or maybe he was just exploring spirituality in accordance with his culture. I’d love to hear what readers think, please write let me know in a comment below. 

As a final consideration, I’d like to mention Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – 50 CE) whom it is known consciously tried to harmonise Jewish and Greek philosophy some hundred years prior to Justin Martyr. Philo was a Jewish philosopher that was fluent in Greek. Alexandria, his home town, was a Hellenisted province of Egypt (it was called “Alexandria” after Alexander the Great. It was also the location of the Great Library which housed scrolls gathered from all the Hellenised lands). 

Philo re-wrote Genesis, emphasising the allegorical significance of characters; it was Philos’ version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, that most early Christians followed. Speculatively, it may be assumed that Church fathers, like Justin, were acquainted with scholarly ideas that were not shared amongst broader society.

References

Lévy, C. (2018). Philo of Alexandria (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

Martyr, J. (150 C.E.). Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Justin%20Martyr-Dialogue%20with%20Trypho.pdf

Schwartzmann, J. (2000). Gender Concepts of Medieval Jewish Thinkers and The Book of Proverbs. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 7(3), 183–202. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753264

The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2020). Saint Justin Martyr | Biography, Writings, Legacy, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr

White, S. (2004). Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=classicsfacpub