A Concise History of Christianity
By K. L. Bruenn
Copyright 2017 K. L. Bruenn
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Chapter 1 The Rise of the Iron Age
Chapter 2 The Book of Enoch
Chapter 3 The Jesus Family Tomb
Chapter 4 Jerusalem vs Rome
Chapter 5 Creating the Bible
Chapter 6 The End of the Roman Empire
Chapter 7 The Middle Ages
Chapter 8 Protestantism and Capitalism
Chapter 9 The Future: Jubilee or Dark Age
Appendix: Recommended Reading
Where to begin? Perhaps in the vastness of outer space, focussing on a particular galaxy, then moving towards the edge of that galaxy (our own Milky Way), towards a small yellow star. Then zipping past the gas giant planets (improbably aligned) to the third rocky planet from the yellow star, our Sun. We are “here”.
We can take a similar journey through time with the human species. 700,000 years before now there was an eruption from the Yellowstone super volcano, which meant several years of winter, and it is probably not a coincidence that at that time humans diverged into “Neanderthal” and “Modern” species. Over the next six Ice Ages the Neanderthal evolved into big game hunters, living in small bands and using stone tools that changed slowly over time. It is quite possible that the Neanderthal became true carnivores, like the cats. Modern humans, on the other hand, were omnivores.
At 70,000 years before now there was another super volcano eruption in Indonesia, and modern humans almost went extinct. We are all descended from a small population in South Africa that ate seafood during the climate crisis. Significantly, this population learned to talk, and thus to innovate technology much faster than their Neanderthal cousins. Technology and speech are what separates us from our more distant cousins, the Great Apes, in the following way: the apes live in hierarchies established and maintained by brute force, and in such societies it is unlikely for pair bonding to last. In the small bands of the Neanderthal, there is not much opportunity for hierarchy, and so relationships would have been life long. But in modern humans, speech and technology combine to completely negate the advantages of brute force, and so pair bonding, and egalitarianism, were natural to our ancestors.
The Neanderthal became extinct 20,000 years ago, perhaps in a delayed reaction to the super volcano eruption of 70,000 years ago. At 20,000 years BP, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere dropped below 200 ppm, and plants stopped growing and producing oxygen. Since oxygen is very reactive, this meant atmospheric oxygen began to decline, and many species of large animals began to disappear. Modern humans survived because they were living on the coasts, harvesting plants for food and clothing and living off of seafood. At that time sea level was 400 feet below today’s, so unfortunately most of the archeological evidence of that time is now under water.
The last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, with a series of global rises in seal level that effectively wiped out what civilizations modern humans had developed. We know that modern humans were making pottery and dyed linen 35,000 years ago, and subsequently they went back to neolithic “pre-pottery” technology. The Ice Age cave paintings suggest a culture that lasted 25,000 years and was well aware of astronomy.If we lay down the Greek myth of the Golden Age upon this time, then the Golden Age corresponds to the previous Ice Age, the Silver Age to the time of global sea level rises, and the Bronze Age is our own Bronze Age, the Iron Age our own Iron Age.
Chapter 1 The Rise of the Iron Age
There have been other catastrophes that have changed our history. It is the case that our first line of defense against Bubonic Plague is the immune systems of rodents, and these immune systems get compromised when temperatures drop and the rodents have to divert biological resources to staying warm. Thus a volcanic eruption in Iceland around 1100 BCE led to global cooling, which led to an outbreak of plague in the Mediterranean that hit the Phoenecian maritime industry very hard, and since the location of the tin mines in Britain was their trade secret, that effectively ended the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean (bronze is made from mostly copper and 10% tin). Millions of people were killed, cities were depopulated, civilizations collapsed. As it says in the Book of Judges:” In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
Which brings up the point that Bible history is mythical up to the House of David, and corroborated by external evidence since then. For example, the Hebrews were never slaves in Bronze Age Egypt, since Bronze Age Egypt did not have slavery. Ancient Egypt was a socialist economy; everyone worked for pharaoh, who provided for everyone. There was no debt, thus no slavery. What there was, was task masters, and it was that which led Jeroboam to rebel from Rehoboam, because Rehoboam was “an Egyptian taskmaster”. Another example: if you count the years enumerated in the Hebrew Scriptures, it appears that Noah’s Flood took place around 2100 BCE. In fact, at that time there was a 100 year drought that caused many governments to collapse. Some rabbis have explained these discrepancies by saying the chronology has been messed with so that no one knows when the Messiah will come (more on this later).
Mesopotamia, on the other hand, was a collection of competing, capitalist city-states. There were two different financial regimes in Mesopotamia: one funded by merchants, for trade, and one funded by the governments, for food production. A crop failure meant the farmer couldn’t pay his debt back to the government, and so he and his family would be sold into slavery by the government. Or a farmer could leave before being sold into slavery and go to a competing city state, providing intelligence that would be useful in attacking his former home. Thus the governments of Mesopotamia developed the custom of Jubilee; periodically, all debts owed to the government were forgiven, and all slaves were returned to their communities as free people. Another example comes from the Code of Hammurabi, which persisted for 1500 years: anyone renting a house to another family, who evicted said family for non-payment of rent, would lose his head.
The first civilization we know about in Mesopotamia is the Sumerian. It appears the Sumerians first moved north into Mesopotamia around 4,000 BCE, when what is now the Persian Gulf became flooded. Prior to that flooding,the area was a fertile plain watered by a river which was the combination of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, flowing to the ocean at what is now the Strait of Hormuz. The Sumerians were succeeded by several Semitic civilizations during the Bronze Age, ending finally with the Assyrians. The collapse of the Bronze Age caused the Assyrians to pull back into their hinterland, and so the historical part of the Bible is the story of how the Assyrians came back in the Iron Age, first attacking Egypt to gain control of Israel and Judah, then in turn being attacked by the Medes and Babylonians on their way to creating the Persian Empire. Thus the Jewish prophet Jeremiah thought the Babylonian Captivity was a good thing, because the Medes were monotheists.
Meanwhile, in Lydia, currency was invented. This was silver coins of guaranteed weight and purity that could be used as a medium of exchange, as well as a store of value. This made markets more efficient, so that larger militaries could be supplied, so that economies could expand through “primitive accumulation,” that is, armed theft. Once the Persian Empire got rolling along its path to global conquest, the first stop for its army was Lydia, which was known as the financial hub of the Mediterranean (see “rich as Croesus”). The Persian army then moved on to take Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Besides money, the Persians also promoted the seven day week, which they probably got from the Medes, and they created the Biblical Hebrew alphabet, which was used to compose many of the books we now regard as the Jewish scriptures. The Persians established Judaeism in Jerusalem when they built the Second Temple, and then they were conquered by Alexander the Great, who was leading an army of 100,000 men on their way to India. Of course India had a 300,000 man army and elephants, so India stopped Alexander, who then died (unexpectedly) of disease, leaving his family to fight it out over who would get what part of his empire. Then the Greeks proceeded to cash in the wealth of the various kingdoms.
At the time Lydia was inventing currency, the Republic of Rome was established, and gradually it expanded in military might until it was ready to conquer the known world. By that point the Persians had recovered from their defeat by Alexander, and were now calling themselves the Parthians. The Greeks, through economic mismanagement, had so weakened their empire that the Kingdom of Judah had managed to gain independence, so Rome was able to acquire these soft targets without undue force. Pompeii established Herod the Great as governor of Palestine, and Caesar conquered Gaul. This led Crassus, the third Roman Triumvir, feeling sore, since his only claim to fame was putting down the Spartacist slave rebellion. So Crassus decided to mount a campaign against Parthia. On his way to Parthia he stopped his troops in Jerusalem and looted the Second Temple, and then went on to total defeat by the Parthians.
After this Pompeii and Caesar had differences, which led to Pompeii fleeing to Egypt, where he was beheaded. Finally, Caesar was assassinated, and one of his assassins fled to Parthia, to return at the head of an army which occupied Mesopotamia for a year. Once the Romans got their act together, the Parthian army left Mesopotamia without incident, and Herod the Great set about repairing the damage Crassus had done to Jerusalem, including restoring the Second Temple. It is likely Herod hoped that Roman citizens like himself would then be allowed to worship in the Temple, so that this god would also support the Romans against the Parthians.
Chapter 2 The Book of Enoch
One of the ideas the Persians put into the Jewish Scriptures was that this creation of heavens and earth would only last 7,000 years (the seven days of creation representing each millenium). The last 1,000 years, representing the Sabbath, would be The Millenium, when the Anointed (Messiah, Christ) would rule the world with an iron rod. At the end of the Millenium would come Judgement Day, when all humanity, living and dead would be judged; the righteous would be granted eternal life in the new heaven and earth. Thus, if you knew when Adam was created, you would know when the Messiah will come. The Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have ignored the wisdom of the Jewish rabbis (see chapter 1), and concluded that World War I was Armageddon, and The Millenium is now (ironically, both sects worship on Saturday, the Sabbath).
Two thousand years ago, there were three sects in Judaism, and two different ways of counting a year. If you use a year of 364 days, it is evenly divisible by 7, which means holidays don’t move relative to the days of the week, and so the Sabbath is not interfered with. This is what the Essenes used, and they considered the Sadducees and Pharisees, who used a calendar that corrected itself to match the solar year, to be apostates. That means 7,000 Essene years is a bit shorter than 7,000 solar years.
This difference over calendars indicated a severe political difference. The Sadducees were the people interested in running the Temple, which was rebuilt by the Roman citizen Herod the Great, and so the Sadducees were fairly sympathetic to the Roman position. They didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, since that led people to ask why they needed to make sacrifices today, rather than at the end of life. The Pharisees were even more sympathetic to the Romans, since it was Pharisee political disruption back in the days of Queen Alexandria that made it possible for Pompey to install Herod the Great as the Roman governor. The Essenes were the anti-Roman party.
In the Gospels there are a number of stories about the Pharisees and the Sadducees, which probably came from the Essenes. There are no stories about the Essenes, which suggests that there are no stories from the Pharisees or Sadducees.
The Book of Enoch was widely read back then. The Christan scriptures contain over 100 references from Enoch, including the phrase “son of man.” A key feature of Enoch is a timeline for this creation, whose 7,000 years is divided into 10 weeks of 700 years. Enoch claims to have been born at the end of the first week. The second week includes Noah’s Flood. The third week includes Abraham. The fourth week includes Moses and the Law. The fifth week includes the First Temple and the House of David. The sixth week includes the Babylonian Captivity. The seventh week would see an apostate generation, and at the end of that week the “son of man” would appear to restore righteousness. In the eighth week the “son of man” would bring judgement to the oppressors with a sword. In the ninth week everyone would be converted. At the end of the tenth week would come Judgement Day, etc.
Enoch was most likely written after the Babylonian Captivity and the establishment of Judaism by the Persians. At that time the Samaritans had been moved to create their version of the Law using the paleo-Hebrew/Phoenecian script that predated Biblical Hebrew, and it was likely that another group displaced ideologically by the Persians were also moved to create Enoch. Certainly the timeline sequence goes off the rails after week seven.
So, the early Church included Enoch as one of the books read to (illiterate) congregations on Sundays, but by the end of the Fourth Century CE the Church fathers agreed to drop Enoch from the canon, and later added the book of Revelation (despite the fact that the people who had maintained the book of Revelation up to that time were heretics). The reason for dropping Enoch was probably Enoch’s timeline. People were waiting for Jesus to return with a sword and a host of angels to start smiting the oppressors, and by that time the Church was on the government payroll, thanks to the Emperor Constantine.
Chapter 3 The Jesus Family Tomb
In the first decade of the 21st Century some tombs were uncovered in an area south of the city of Jerusalem. The discoveries are detailed in The Jesus Discovery (see Recommended Readings). The significance of these discoveries is the light they shed on early Christianity, since one of the Jewish ossuaries found was inscribed with the Sign of Jonah, referenced in the Christian Gospels. The sign of Jonah is a drawing of a human figure being spit out of a large fish. It represents the resurrection of the dead. Since figures of humans and animals were prohibited in Judaism, the conclusion is that the Sign of Jonah indicates a Christian burial.
In those days, some names were very common, names like Jacob (James) and Joshua (Jesus). If you ran into a man in Jerusalem back then, the odds that he would be named Joshua would be similar to the odds of losing the first round of Russian roulette. But the odds of finding multiple names in one location merely by chance is very small. For simplicity, let’s say the odds of being named Jacob, Joshua or Joseph are each 20% (the actual odds are less). Finding all three together purely by chance is less than 1% likely. Finding them in the proper relationship, namely, Joseph the father of Jacob and of Joshua, is even less likely to occur by chance.
But there’s more. The bone box of the “Lady Mariamene” was included in the Jesus family tomb, and there is only one person known to history by that name, namely, Mary Magdalen. Furthermore, a DNA analysis of the bone fragments of Joshua and Mariamene shows they are not related. And there is a bone box of Judah, son of Joshua. A reasonable conclusion is that Joshua married Mariamene and they had a son.
Missing from the Jesus Family tomb is the bone box of Joseph. This suggests that when Joseph died, his family was poor, and Joseph ended up in a common grave. And that suggests the family ended up living with The Poor, the welfare program run by the Essenes. In order to join The Poor, you needed to pass a three year probation, during which you could not express anger and you would live and eat with other members; at the end, if you passed probation, you would give up all your wealth to The Poor and be supported by them for life.
Of course The Poor also took donations from rich people. Josephus Flavius comments that the Essenes did not have their own cities, which is to say that the Essenes depended upon the generosity of others in order to run their affairs. The Gospel of Luke mentions that Mary Magdalen, along with some other wealthy women, supported Jesus and his disciples. So it is quite likely that the Jesus Family tomb was originally owned by Mary Magdalen, along with the other tombs found nearby.
One thing the Essenes did produce was zealots. The zealots were the people who were willing to take up arms and attack the Romans. The Romans liked to crucify such people as “thieves” (the Romans wouldn’t go to the trouble of crucifying people who had only stolen a loaf of bread, not when they had so many lesser punishments). So, the Joshua (Jesus) the Romans crucified with the “thieves” was probably also considered by the Romans to be a zealot troublemaker.
And now a word about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who crucified Jesus. He was not a nice man. He ended up getting fired because he arranged, with the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, to massacre about 60 unarmed Samaritan pilgrims marching to their holy mountain (Caiaphas was also fired over this incident). So, why does the Gospel of John record a story that shows Pilate as reluctant to crucify Jesus? It is my speculation that, when Pilate became governor of Palestine, he sought to buy a house in Jerusalem, but no one would sell to him for fear of being harassed as a Roman collaborator, until Mary Magdalen sold him a house and donated the proceeds to The Poor. Now Pilate was faced with one of the rabble rousers of The Poor, and he knew he had funded said rabble rouser. Given the possibility that Caligula was the Roman Emperor at this time, you can understand why Pilate would see this as a no win situation.
And finally, just because the man Pilate crucified was named Joshua does not mean he was the same Joshua whom Mary Magdalen married. There were a lot of Joshuas in those days. The one she married was likely a rabbi who said “Love your enemy” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The one crucified was likely a rabble rouser calling himself the “son of man” and declaring that he came to bring a sword, not peace. Stories about both men made it into the Gospels, which were written and edited over a hundred years later.
Chapter 4 Jerusalem vs Rome
Although the Persians established Judaeism (see Chapter 1), the Greeks had a significant influence on the religion after Alexander’s conquest. For example, Ziony Zevit points out (in his book What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden, see Recommended Readings) that the Hebrew version of the story of the Garden of Eden does not support the concept of original sin. When people ate of the Tree of Knowledge, their punishment was to see themselves as naked. They were cast out of the Garden because they were having children, and would soon over-populate the place. The concept of original sin is a Greek idea, represented in myths like Pandora. Thus Paul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, explains the concept of original sin not because it was part of the old Jewish religion, but because it was part of the new Jewish religion developing in the light of Greek wisdom.
In 79 CE the Roman city of Pompeii was buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In one of the buildings subsequently excavated is a wall with the word “christianos” written on it. This word is the male form of the Greek name “Christian”, and it may indicate that the early religion had spread to Rome by this time. Certainly the Emperor Nero is famous for persecuting Christians in Rome 15 years earlier. But what actually happened in the second half of the first century CE?
It is likely that Mary Magdalen had a vision of the spiritual resurrection of Jesus as a spiritual Messiah, and thus she was the first Christian. Prior to this, Jews generally believed that that righteous behavior meant Torah observance, and people who followed the Torah would be resurrected on Judgement Day and live forever in the new creation. With her vision of the crucified Joshua (Jesus) as the resurrected spiritual Messiah, Mary identified her time as the End Days, with an imminent return of said Messiah to start the last millenium. Notice that the Church in Jerusalem continued to observe Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) for another century. The first Christians did not believe that Jesus died for their sins, even though they believed he was the spiritual Messiah.
Her movement was first in her family, then spreading out into Jerusalem. Very likely it included The Poor, and was led by Jacob the Just, also known as Jacob the brother of Joshua. There was that tent maker named Paul, or Saul of Tarsus, who also had a vision of Joshua, or Jesus, as a resurrected spiritual Messiah, or Christ. Paul’s innovation was to see that Jesus’ loyalty to God made it possible for even the Gentiles to be resurrected into the new creation (although he never clearly explained how this worked in his various letters). Thus Paul took on the task of traveling around the Mediterranean collecting money from said Gentiles for The Poor (he even complains about this in his letters that are now part of the Christian Scriptures). In those days, if you were a tent maker, your biggest customer would be the Roman Army, and it is no wonder that Paul was a Roman citizen by birth. In fact, in his letter to the Phillipians, Paul reveals that he is on Nero’s payroll (the connection being Epaphroditus, who paid Paul his service).
What we know for certain is that the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews (including the Christian ones) from Rome in the 40’s CE because of their rioting amongst themselves, apparently over the question of whether the Messiah had come. Claudius was replaced by Nero, who apparently had a more open policy towards Roman Christians, and thus knew what he was doing when he blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. Paul appears to have had a falling out with Jacob, and he left for Rome, under the protection of a Roman Centurion, some years before the Great Fire. Jacob is killed by a mob in 62 CE; the Great Fire of Rome breaks out in 64 CE; Jerusalem rebels against Rome in 66 CE and is sacked by Rome in 70CE. (And the book of Revelation is written between 66 and 70 CE).
Robert Eisenman (see the Recommended Readings) is of the firm belief that Jacob was the center of the Christian Church in Jerusalem, and that the Roman Christian Church subsequently de-emphasized Jacob and built up Jesus and Mary his mother, as well as Peter. One example of how Rome replaced Jacobite religion is the Letter to the Hebrews, written in polished Greek (and thus mistakenly attributed to Paul, who was incapable of writing so well). The Letter to the Hebrews argues that loyalty (fidelity, faithfulness) is the same as righteous behavior. Why was this such a Roman value? At this time the Roman Empire was ruled by dictators for life, and these men understood that the most valuable characteristic of your underlings was loyalty, not ability. A competent underling might very well shorten the time in office of the dictator.
Compare this argument from the Letter to the Hebrews with the “son of man’s” definition of who is righteous: those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, give clothes to the naked, who welcome the stranger and who visit people who are confined are righteous. And those who don’t do these things are not righteous. Loyalty isn’t on this list. A dictator, upon reading this list, might think subversion is behind it.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells of the deaths of Ananias and Saphira, right before the martyrdom of ‘Stephanos’. The question is, how many people named Ananias are in the Book of Acts? The answer runs from 1 to 4; I prefer 2: Anaias the high priest, and Ananias who helped Paul after his conversion, who was married to Saphira, and who eventually joined The Poor, much to their misfortune. The Acts was written by the Roman priests, and they have Peter (Rocky) present at the deaths of Ananias and Saphira, but blame God’s Spirit for the actual killings. The reason they were killed: they didn’t give all of their wealth to The Poor when they joined. If Paul was involved with them, and had already left for Rome, Peter (Rocky) likely went after Paul, leaving Jacob undefended. Paul probably had already warned Nero about Rocky.
Of course, the priests in Rome couldn’t tell this story, so the book of Acts was rewritten to end with an abridged account of the travels of Paul, in place of the martyrdom of Jacob. The travels were abridged because Paul had a major disagreement with Jacob about the proper role of Gentiles in the Church. Paul wanted the Gentiles to have full rights without keeping Torah; Jacob compromised by saying Gentiles could associate with Jews so long as they abstained from “food sacrificed to idols, blood, carrion and sexual immorality.” Paul left Jerusalem for Rome under the protection of a Centurion, probably because he wouldn’t accept Jacob’s compromise, and remaining in Jerusalem became hazardous to his health. Because of the required rewrite, the Acts of the Apostles was likely the latest of the Christian scriptures to be completed, about 200 CE.
So, we see in this early period that Jews were redefining their religion, and Romans were getting involved in this process. Righteousness was equated with loyalty (faithfulness). As Christians became increasingly Roman, loyalty replaced righteousness.
Chapter 5 Creating the Bible
The guy who came up with the idea to create the Bible was excommunicated as a heretic. His name was Marcion, and he believed that Jesus was God pretending to be human, and that the only true apostle was Paul. Furthermore, since the Romans had completely disestablished Judah by 135 CE, Marcion was convinced that the Jews and their God were losers. Since the Church by this time (145 CE) had built its reputation upon Peter (Rocky) and had already written the Gospel of Luke, complete with the nativity story of Jesus and his virgin mother, they were not amused when Marcion showed up with a collection of Paul’s letters and an edited version of Luke (Marcion removed the nativity story). Not even 200,000 cisterces would change their mind, and had Paul been a good writer, we may never have had the Bible.
In 2012 Rabbi Shmuley Boteach published Kosher Jesus, in which he argued that Jesus was a Pharisee while Paul was not. The rabbi’s mistake is that he conflated being a Pharisee with being a rabbi, but he did make a good point that Jesus was educated as a rabbi while Paul was not. Paul was, in fact, a Pharisee but not a rabbi. Paul converted over to the Essene point of view, namely, that the resurrection is spiritual as opposed to physical. According to Paul, Jesus was the first human to be be spiritually resurrected by God because Jesus was loyal to God even unto death. Thus Paul calls Jesus “our lord Jesus Christ”, using the word kyrie which we translate as lord. Unfortunately, we also translate “adonai” as Lord in the Hebrew Scriptures, leading casual readers to conclude that “our lord Jesus Christ” is similar to “The Lord God of Israel”. That is not what Paul meant. “Kyrie” means legitimate authority. If you visit a homeowner you would address him as kyrie; if you go into a shop to buy something, you would address the clerk as kyrie. Jesus is called kyrie by Paul because he is the head of the family of resurrected people. Paul did not believe Jesus was God, and would have considered that idea to be blasphemy.
Had Marcion understood what Paul meant, he would never have proposed his heresy with Paul’s letters. On the other hand, the Roman Christians could find nothing heretical in Paul’s writings, probably because they were confused by his bad Greek. So Paul became a Christian convert in their eyes. 1500 years later, Martin Luther would misread Paul and conclude that only faith in Jesus saved you (Paul actually wrote Jesus’ loyalty to God saved us). Bad writing and bad reading; that pretty much sums up Christianity.
There was an early Christian writer named Pappias who had the virtue of repeating everything he had heard without practicing any censorship. Pappias wrote a lot of nonsense, but his comments about the Gospels of Matthew and Mark are interesting. According to Pappias, the Gospel of Mark was the collection of the sayings of Peter while he was in Rome and was very large, while the Gospel of Matthew was a similar collection of the sayings of Jesus. Now, we know that the earliest Gospel of Matthew was in fact a collection of the sayings of Jesus, in Hebrew, and used by the Ebionites, whose name is derived from the Hebrew for The Poor. The Ebionites are famous for not believing that Jesus is God. Being rejected by both Jewish (that is, Pharisee) and Christian congregations, they eventually died out, and their Gospel of Matthew with them. But no such Gospel of Mark is known, and if such a gospel were to be found, it is most likely in a Vatican library and inaccessible.
The Gospel of John begins “In the beginning…”. This was also how the Greeks interpreted the beginning of the Hebrew Genesis. But there was another idiom used to start a book by the Greeks in those days, and it was “In those days…”. The synoptic Gospels all contain the phrase “In those days…” near, but not at, their beginnings, because the priests in Rome had to make sure problems were fixed. Thus, the Gospel of Mark borrows a few verses from the Gospel of Matthew in order to explain who John the Baptist was, before starting with the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. The Gospel of Matthew gets a geneaology of Jesus and a nativity story tacked on to its original beginning of the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. Which brings up the point that perhaps the early Gospel writers believed that Jesus didn’t become the Messiah until he was anointed (or baptised) by John. The Gospel of Luke originally started with the nativity story of Jesus. After Marcion got excommunicated for suggesting this nativity story was nonsense, the nativity story of John the Baptist was added (John and Jesus being cousins), and the revised version was given an introduction by the Bishop of Rome (that is, the Pope) – “Theophilos” means “Friend of God”, similar to our idiom of “Gentle Reader”.
The two oldest copies of the Gospel of Mark end with the discovery of the empty tomb. Subsequent copies add material about Mary Magdalen, who is introduced by Mark in the crucifixion story, before the empty tomb. The first piece of information that is added is that Mary Magdalen had been posessed by demons. Now, one of the themes of the Gospel of Mark is Jesus casting out demons from people, and so you would expect that if Mary Magdalen had been healed in that way by Jesus, then Mark would have mentioned it when he introduced her in his Gospel. It is clear that this material was added later, by the priests in Rome, because they wanted to de-emphasize Mary Magdalen and play up the Virgin Mary.
The Gospel of John does not show signs of being altered by the priests of Rome, but then the Gospel of John takes pains to avoid mentioning that Jesus was baptized by John, since “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Clearly, the Gospel of John came from a different community than the original Jewish Christians. They did not see Jesus as a man who became God’s Anointed; they saw Jesus as a man who was God.
Besides the four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, there are several letters written by Paul, and a few other books. Of Paul’s letters, experts believe that some were written in Paul’s name but not by Paul (the Greek is too good, and while a good writer can imitate a bad writer, the reverse is unlikely). The books by James and Jude were finally allowed into the canon after much debate, since they reflect the old ideas of righteous behavior as opposed to loyalty. Some books were subsequently labeled Apocrypha, and appear in Catholic versions of the Bible, but not Protestant.
It was after the Christians came up with their canon that the Jews decided to come up with their own canon besides the Torah. Christians call this canon the Old Testament.
Chapter 6 The End of the Roman Empire
The Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and ended formal persecution of Christians by Rome. Although he was a pagan, he participated in Christian synods where matters of theology were hammered out, including the Nicene Creed. It was under Constantine’s leadership that Jesus was declared to be God, that his mother Mary was declared to be a Virgin, and the celebration of Easter was separated from the Jewish festival of Passover.
While the American Colonies were establishing their independence from Great Britain, Edward Gibbon published his volumes on the decline of the Roman Empire. He blamed the decline on the Christianization of the Roman people, who lost their martial spirit and came to rely upon barbarians to protect themselves. What followed was a Dark Age of superstition dominated by the Catholic Church, and only rationalism could create a new (British) Empire. Ironically, Gibbon was not completely wrong when he said that faith had destroyed the Roman Empire, since the replacement of merit by loyalty did increase the incompetence of the Roman government; but Gibbon, being a Protestant, understood “faith” to mean “belief”.
What actually caused the Roman Empire to fall was the money lenders. There were no limits on the rates of interest on loaned money, and money lenders often charged 48% interest. Julius Caesar was a famous borrower, believing that his indebtedness would lead his lenders to support him politically, so they could get repaid. More generally, however, usury is the reason Rome developed into two classes, the rich and the unproductive poor, and the only hope the rich had of becoming richer was to expand the Empire and collect taxes from the colonies.
The local pagan religions changed in order to survive in this financial reality; they became “pay to play” institutions. This meant the poor were shut out from religious institutions, just as their lives were getting increasingly difficult. Which is why the early Christian Church was so popular. The Church provided food, water, clothes, were open to strangers, and cared for the sick. When Constantine legalized Christianity, he was bowing to inevitability. In essence, the Church became the welfare program of the Roman Empire. Eventually, the Church became the Roman Empire.
Having seen first hand the suffering caused by money lenders, it is no surprise that the Church made usury illegal. What is also interesting is that the Moslems, the other heirs of the Roman Empire, also made usury illegal. The Moslems, in fact, established the only international free market that was not established by any government, and the prohibition on usury was a key factor in the success of that system of trade. But centuries before the Moslems, the first Han Chinese Empire opened the Silk Road to the West, and this was to prove fateful to the Roman elite. For, what were they going to do with their gold and silver, but buy silks and ceramics and other luxury goods made by the Chinese? Thus began a centuries long process in which gold and silver moved east, while less durable luxury goods moved west. Eventually the accumulation of gold and silver in the east was sufficient that Genghis Khan could create China, and the loss of currency in the west had surprising impacts on medieval Europe.
But first, there was another outbreak of the Black Death (see Justinian’s Flea in Recommended Readings).
Chapter 7 The Middle Ages
The really big change in the Middle Ages, in what we call Europe, is the lack of currency. Without currency there is little opportunity for markets; without markets, it is difficult to supply armies (see Graeber’s Debt in Recommended Readings). Without armies the supply of slaves disappears. Thus, in the wake of the collapse of Roman taxation, Europe Christianizes and slavery disappears. Armies downsize. Alexander the Great tried to conquer the world with 100,000 troops; the Roman Empire at its height had a standing army of 300,000 troops. The Crusader army that conquered Jerusalem in 1099 CE had 20,000 troops, and it defeated a Moslem army of 30,000.
What evolved during the Middle Ages is that the Church became a significant part of the economy. When at the start of the Reformation King Henry VIII seized the assets of the monasteries in England, he was grabbing 25% of the wealth of that country. Of course, Church property was available to all Christians, so in essence the king was privatizing public property (he sold the monasteries and their properties to rich people in order to raise cash to fund his military adventures).
After the Crusades the Church began to build huge cathedrals for the prestige and status of its bishops and archbishops. The Church owned the raw materials that went into these buildings, and collected tithes from the wealthy in order to pay the artisans who built them. Naturally, artists were hired to deal with the problem of illiteracy by creating statues and paintings.
The Church also dominated the ideological heights of societies. The Bible was translated from Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic to Latin, and the Church sought to keep all literature in Latin so that the majority of people could not read, even if they learned the alphabet. There is reason to believe that the Church had Chaucer killed around 1400 CE because he was publishing literature in the vernacular.
Which brings up another point: the Church established the practice of confessing sins to a priest, who would relay useful intelligence to the Church hierarchy, so that the Church would know who could be blackmailed and for what. For example, the Church may well have blackmailed Henry of Bolingbroke (for his practice of sodomy with other men) into usurping King Richard II (and then having Chaucer killed).
But Chaucer and King Henry VIII are not part of the Middle Ages, which began in the Fifth Century and ended in 1346 with another outbreak of the Black Death. The ancient Roman jackboot was a hob nailed sandal, because Europe was warmer in those days. European temperatures peaked between 950 CE and 1100 CE, the time when the Vikings were making their mark on Europe because they were enjoying good harvests back home in Scandinavia. Colonies were set up in Greenland and Iceland. Governments were set up in Moscow and Kiev.
One group of Vikings settled on the northern coast of France in what we now call “Normandy” because it was colonized by “North men”. In 1066 CE their descendents conquered the English at Hastings, and England became less Germanic. The reason the Normans wanted to conquer England was the Anglo-Saxon women. Although the pun that “Angles are angels” goes back to ancient Rome, it wasn’t the beauty of Anglo-Saxon women the Normans sought. In Anglo-Saxon society, women wove wool into textiles and sold those textiles for silver, which they kept, because of the paucity of markets in those days. So there were a lot of women with hoards of silver, just waiting to become the property of their new Norman husbands.
After 1100 CE temperatures started dropping, and by 1300 CE Europe experienced a “Little Ice Age”. This time the Black Death came from China, which had been established by Genghis Khan in the previous century, traveling along the reopened Silk Road.
In response to the previous outbreak of the Black Death that started the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory in 591 CE proposed that Mary Magdalen had been a prostitute. Remember that the Church had altered the Gospel of Mark to suggest that she was demon possessed (that is, crazy); now she was being tagged as suitable to be killed. Of course, once the Moslems started their conquests in the west, the Church had something else to worry about. But it took the Church about 400 years to figure out how to organize the First Crusade.
Chapter 8 Protestantism and Capitalism
During the Middle Ages the Republic of Venice had managed to be independent of kings and Church, and thus was able to trade with Constantinople. The Church’s prohibitions on usury did not have much influence on the Venetians. After the Black Death killed a large part of the European population, the Church lost a lot of prestige and status, and people began to think in terms of what needed to change. One of the changes was writing in the vernacular instead of Latin. Wycliff published his translation of the Bible into English around 1385 CE. Another change followed the availability of cheap paper in 1400 CE, namely, printing and the codex (book). Literacy became cheaper and no longer in the control of the Church. Ideas began to move much faster. Jakob Fugger, a wealthy Catholic, persuaded the Pope to sell indulgences and lobbied for ending the prohibition on usury. This led Martin Luther to kick off the Reformation.
One of the changes Luther made to the Christian religion was due to a misreading of Paul (see Paul Was Not A Christian in Recommended Readings). Paul had written that we were saved by “pistis christou”, meaning the “loyalty of Christ.” Luther reinterpreted this to mean “belief in Christ”, and concluded that we are saved by “faith only” (and not by works). Thus Luther completed the arc which started with salvation depending upon righteousness, which changed to salvation depending upon loyalty (which was the same as righteousness), to now salvation depending upon belief (and righteous works and loyalty be damned). Of course Protestants have become famous for elaborating an increasingly complicated (and contradictory) set of beliefs that one must believe in order to be saved.
The Puritans were a movement of Pietists who sought to escape the corruption that clearly plagued the Catholic Church, and with the Bible available in the vernacular, they began studying it seriously (never mind that it had been written by the Catholics, whose religion the Puritans wanted to purify). Lutheranism similarly produced Calvinism, which held that those who are saved were predestined for salvation from the beginning of this creation, and this predestination is revealed in their characters, in particular in their economic success. Thus Protestantism was the justification of the return of usury to the economy of Christendom. Jubilee was forgotten.
Bear in mind that there was a lot of intellectual innovation at that time. Protestantism is the set of ideas that were championed by political elites as they contended with other political elites. Thus we know about Martin Luther because he was protected by German princes. The innovations the elites did not back have been largely forgotten.
Meanwhile, the Osmanli Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 CE, prompting the creation of Spain in 1492 CE as a Catholic country, which promptly set out to look for gold in the New World in order to fund another military Crusade to take back the Middle East from the Moslems. The three ships involved in this expedition were the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. A “pinta” is a painted woman, one who uses makeup to make herself look young and beautiful. Thus, a “nina” is a woman who successfully appears to be a little girl. “Santa Maria” is St. Mary, who is “always a virgin.” Thus the three ships that sailed for the New World were named for prostitutes (so much for Pope Gregory the Great).
Once everyone in Spain was Catholic, the government had the problem of what to do about the slaves. Up to that time, co-religionists were freed from slavery, so the Spanish government adopted a racial definition of slavery, that it might continue. Previously, people only cared about religion. Now race could be used to divide people and make them more available for exploitation. As an example, the Irish in North America were considered to be non-whites up until the time that the US freed the slaves; the Irish were then recruited to the white race so that they would not make common cause with the newly freed Blacks.
From 1524 CE to 1648 CE Europe suffered a series of religious wars; by the end of that period King Charles I had lost his head and the British monarchy had been replaced by Puritan Cromwell’s Republic. The Pilgrims had scampered for the New World in 1620 CE.
The 17th and 18th Centuries saw a period of European colonization of the rest of the world. Sven Beckert (see Empire of Cotton in Recommended Readings) describes this initial period of colonization as “war capitalism”, where profits were pretty much based upon “primitive accumulation” - the theft of resources by force of arms. The beginning of the end of “war capitalism” came in 1780, when the first cotton mills in England launched “industrial capitalism,” and profits were based upon gains in productivity rather than direct theft. Cotton mills were so productive that the demand for raw cottton increased dramatically. In 1780 the US produced very little cotton; by 1860, US slaves were picking 75% of the world supply, yet the demand was increasing so much that the capitalists feared a slave shortage. Instead, the US Civil War took US cotton off the world market for 4 years, and ended with the abolition of slavery in the US. In its place, finance (usury) was used to enslave share croppers of all races, so that the supply of cotton pickers could double over night. Thus war capitalism was replaced by industrial capitalism, naked fear by dread of debts.
One consequence of the US Civil War was that the US became a nation-state, instead of a Federation of States. As part of the system of patronage to get the populace to go along with this political change, the new Federal Government paid out “veteran’s benefits” to virtually every male in the North. At the same time, of course, the slaves were freed, so a great deal of wealth was moved towards the lower parts of society to buy compliance. This led to a populist uprising against the encroachments of industrial capitalism, but World War I and a flu pandemic put an end to that.
Puritanism was not all bad. One Puritan extremist of the 17th Century was Roger Williams, who was expelled from the Massachusetts Colony for his radical ideas. He opposed any state establishment of religion, and called the Emperor Constantine (see chapter 6) a worse enemy of Christianity than the Emperor Nero. Roger Williams’ ideas informed those of the Founding Fathers of the United States, which is why the US has formal separation of Church and State (and ten times the church attendance as Europe).
Outside of the US, churches are growing in Africa and Latin America, where interpretations tend to be more literal and socially conservative. At the same time, when governments lack the resources to care for people (for whatever reason), religious institutions step in to do the job.
Chapter 9 The Future: Jubilee or Dark Age
Thomas Piketty dramatically schematized human history since the Roman Empire (see Capital in the 21st Century in Recommended Readings). He pointed out that in the past, the top 10% of the population owned 90% of the wealth of society, up until the 20th Century. Furthermore, governments were no more than 10% of the economy, which basically meant that the governments were the military. The wealthy loaned money to governments with an expected return of 5%. Most importantly, political revolutions did not change this state of affairs (Piketty was especially interested in the French Revolution).
Per Piketty, the 20th Century was an anomaly. A great deal of capital was destroyed by the two world wars and the Great Depression, and a middle class segment of society was created to provide goods and services to most people. Developed governments grew to between 30% and 50% of the economy. But now that global population was peaking, we are about to see a return to the old days, where again 90% of the wealth will be held by 10% of the population, mostly gained by inheritance.
One weakness of Piketty’s analysis is that he did not look at the extra-legal stores of wealth that had accumulated during the 20th Century. In particular, he did not look at the derivatives market, which deserves to have the same dramatic connotation as the ”Spanish Inquisition”. By 2008, the derivatives market was $1,400,000,000,000 in size. As a result of the economic crash of 2008, half of the derivatives market disappeared into thin air, so now it is “only” $700,000,000,000 in size (about ten years of world economic output). The biggest 5 financial institutions in the world would be liquidated if this market were forced to clear in the near term. Neither is the world economy likely to “grow” its way out of trouble. A good indication that this is a truly serious problem is that no one is talking about it. It is quite likely that we will have another World War before anyone starts talking about this.
One consequence of the economic crash of 2008 is that the American model of free enterprise has been thoroughly discredited. It is now clear to everyone that the Chinese Communist Party is better at managing capitalism than the West. Unfortunately for Westerners, the Chinese Communist party is very authoritarian. The problem, of course, is usury (with the derivatives market standing in as usury’s Frankenstein Monster). It takes authoritarianism of one sort or another to control human greed. And, as we see when we look over history, authoritarianism doesn’t stand up to climate change (that is, the Black Death) forever. So we must chart a course between Scylla and Charybdis if we are to escape the coming Dark Age.
While empires rose and fell in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, there were no Dark Ages until the environmental catastrophe of the Black Death, because governments had learned the value of Jubilee, the periodic forgiveness of debts. As a result of the loss of cultures (coupled with the invention of money), Rome never learned about Jubilees, and as a result, the West collapsed into a Dark Age that dwarfed the epidemic of Black Death that occurred near the beginning of that Dark Age. Ironically, another epidemic of Black Death ended that Dark Age.
But you don’t need the Black Death to start another Dark Age. You just need people to be ignorant of history. One useful concept in creating new systems to deal with the coming catastrophes is Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile (see Recommmended Readings). A fragile system breaks when there is a shock, while an antifragile system gets stronger under the same conditions.
So, is Christianity antifragile? To the extant that it depends upon the idea of a human God, no. As an example, Professor Bart D. Ehrman, a Bible scholar who was raised as a Christian, no longer believes in the idea of a human God, because of the problem of pain (in human relationships, “all powerful” means “all responsible”, and so an “all powerful” human God is responsible for all of the human suffering in the world).
If the Protestants are right, and salvation depends upon the particular set of beliefs one holds, then most people are likely to be wrong in one particular or another, and thus damned. This is the very definition of “fragile.”
Also, Christianity started out as a communistic enterprise dependent upon the largess of the wealthy. As it grew it became organized and formalized, and finally susceptible to political control by the likes of Emperor Constantine. Today, the Roman Catholic Church is avowedly anti-Communist. Any large, hierarchical bureaucracy that depends upon collecting money is not going to be antifragile.
In general, any philosophy that strives for consistency is going to be unable to steer between the hazards of the real world. An antifragile philosophy will need to change course, repeatedly. Christianity is not alone in having problems. Flannery and Marcus (see Inequality in Recommended Readings) review many societies over thousands of years that made the transition from egalitarian to inegalitarian social organization. They point out that oral traditions are flexible and change over time, while written texts don’t change with the culture and so become increasingly difficult to understand and reconcile with contemporary realities. They also point out that inequality begins when men distinguish themselves from women.
A good example of an antifragile philosophy is Taoism, also known as the “Watercourse Way” (see Tao te Ching in Recommended Readings). “True words are contradictory.”
Deciding whether other religions are antifragile is left as an exercise for the reader.
Appendix: Recommended Reading
Beckert, Sven Empire of Cotton: A Global History Penguin Random House, 2015.
Eisenbaum, Pamela Paul Was Not A Christian:The Original Message of A Misunderstood Apostle Harper One, 2009.
Tzu, Lao Tao te Ching circa 550 BCE.
Zevit, Ziony What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? Yale University Press, 2013.
Where did Christianity come from? What single factor drove the development of Christianity? Why did Pontius Pilate wash his hands? What did the first Christians believe, and how did it change? Who wrote the Bible? What lies ahead for this religion? Big answers in a small book (less than 10,000 words, but it contains a recommended reading list).