I was considering today what the world would be like if the literalist Christians, who so missed the message of personal transformation and awakened consciousness, hadn’t become the the dominant religion in our world today. Would we still be a pagan society? Would an eclectic spiritual practice be the norm? Would some other type of monotheistic religion have risen up to fill the void? How would that have shaped our political, social and technological landscape?
In his book, Caeser’s Messiah, Joseph Atwill makes the argument that Christianity in it’s literal interpretation, was invented by the Romans with the help of the Jewish scholar turned Roman citizen, Josephus. In Atwill’s argument, the Romans, under the auspices of the Flavian emperors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, did this as a means to control the Jewish population so that they would be more easily ruled. Jewish zealots were a major pain in the ass to the Roman Empire, so a religion that tells them to love each other, turn the other cheek, there is a better life waiting for them after they die, and so on, makes some amount of sense. Josephus, according to the theory, is there to make sure that they can encode the beliefs and morals of the new religion with Jewish culture and tradition. Atwill makes an interesting case and I do think that his theory is worth thinking about, even if I question some of his scholarship and conclusions.
For instance, early Christian-Jews did a really shitty job of converting Jews over to it. The main Jewish community wanted little to do with them. I imagine they were pretty over messiahs by then. They were super successful at converting the very people they really didn’t want to convert; gentiles. They were so successful at converting gentiles, that pretty soon there were more gentile Christians than Christian-Jews and eventually the Christian-Jews were kicked out of Christianity.
If this was a Roman plot, it had a lot of problems. Though that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. All sorts of bad ideas backfire in spectacular ways.
It’s been a few years since I read the book, but I’ve been reading more on the Gnostics and it occurred to me while doing my research that Atwill may still be on to something. It’s long been held that the Gnostic Christians were a branch of Christianity that came after the emergence of Christianity. While Gnosticism as a Pagan branch existed before either of them, the Christian version arose in response and criticism of mainstream Christianity. But I’m starting to think, based on more research, that isn’t true. It doesn’t even make sense to me. I think it’s quite possible that Christian Gnosticism came before Christian literalism as perhaps just a local Jewish version of Gnosticism (Timothy Freke and John Lamb Lush make this point in their books). The Romans may have then used some of the Gnostic stories to create the life and death of Jesus Christ into a single coherent narrative. In doing so, they systematically cut out a lot of the bits that empowered people like women, the poor and slaves. They wove a theology that treated the story as a literal truth rather than a more powerful symbolic truth that taught people how to tap into their own consciousness and divine power.
Why would the Romans do that? The same reason public education is pretty shitty today. They want drones to build empires, they don’t want free-thinkers. A few here and there is okay, they are needed to invent things and move technology forward. But masses of them? No way! There’s a reason psychedelic drugs are outlawed today and it’s not to protect us. The Romans were trying to control a vast empire and Gnosticism in it’s various forms was all over Alexandria and spreading out.
Late antiquity scholar, Candida Moss, did a good job in her book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, showing how systematic persecution of the early Christians just never happened. There are records of Roman procurators and centurions sending would-be martyrs home, confused by the offer they made to die for their god. Though I guess it was nice to know that should there be a war, some people were ready to just give up and die. By the time Flavius Valerius Constantinus came around, Christianity spread so far and wide that he had the one thing that would surely unite the Roman Empire for him – a single religion that didn’t rely on one’s ethnicity. Anyone could be a Christian regardless of where they were born. This was new in the world, and he used it to breath new live into the empire that had grown too big for it’s own good. He became Constantine, legalized the practice of Christianity in 313, and within the same century it became the state religion of Rome. By 325 the Council of Nicaea codified Christianity and soon any Christian branch outside of that pack is labelled heretical and systematically eradicated.
So, I have been wondering of late if Rome may have actually played a stronger hand than we’ve been aware of in the shape of the world today. It makes me think of the words of Phillip K. Dick, “THE EMPIRE NEVER ENDED.”