The story of Simon Magus, a Samaritan (Turkish) magician in the time of Claudius (41-54) who became popular in Rome, is strikingly similar to Jesus’: he too was originally a disciple of John (in fact, he may have succeeded him at the head of his movement), he too performed miracles, he too traveled with a former prostitute, he too started a religious sect. Early Christian writers like Justin, Irenaeus, Eusebius and Epiphanius mention Simon Magus as a demon who proclaims to be god and his followers as performing sexual rites and living “immorally”. They seem to imply that some people believed him a saint (or Jesus himself). At least, early Christian writers deemed it worth to mention Simon Magus as an evil man.
Simon Magus is mentioned in the Acts and in early Christian legends as competing with Peter for divine legitimacy.
Simon Magus wrote books but they were all destroyed. All the information we have on Simon Magus comes from his enemies.
The disposyni/desposini and Islam
Islam is much closer to James’ ideology than to Judaism or Christianity. It could be that James’ ideology of faith and goodness (“believe and perform good actions”) spread south to the Arabs and survived centuries later in Mohammed’s Quran. The Romans, after all, persecuted the (real) Christians, the “disposyni/desposini”, and forced them to disband and flee. They could have moved south to escape the Romans. Muslims believe in the prophets and in Jesus, but claim that the “books” were changed by evil people. Isn’t this what a disposyni/desposini would claim today? Those books were indeed changed, forcing the whole Christian world to believe that Christianity started in Rome and that Paul’s doctrine was Jesus’. The original books were banned. Christians who knew about those books were forced in exile. What Muslims tell us is exactly what a surviving Jamesian Christian would tell us.
After the Jews’ Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, the Jews, led by Bar Kochba, recaptured Jerusalem, but eventually the legions of emperor Hadrian won the war. Hadrian changed the name of the city of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina, ordered the building of a temple of Jupiter on the site of the Jewish Temple, and expelled Jews from the city. Most Judeans (Jews) fled to Arabia, that already has a sizeable Jewish community (Medina itself was originally a Jewish settlement)
Jewish rebellions and early Christians
The legend of Jesus may also have a political aspect. The Jews of Palestine never accepted the rule of Rome. Their prophets were telling them that a “fifth kingdom” was coming (the previous ones being the occupations by Assyrians, Medes, Persians and Greeks), and it would be a Jewish kingdom, created by a messiah imbued with divine powers. For some or most of Jesus’ followers, Jesus may have been identified with that messiah. The Jews then fought three bloody wars against the Romans, each one with “messianic” fervor. They lost all three and the third one ended with the Romans banning Jews from Jerusalem. Then it became impossible to deny that the Romans, not the Jews, were the fifth kingdom. Jesus was obviously not the messiah that prophets had predicted would free the Jews from external domination. No wonder most Jews made fun of Christians and even today do not recognize Jesus as the messiah.
The historian Josephus chronicles the events of the first century. The Jews believed in the prophecy that one of them (the messiah) was destined by god to rule over the entire world. Therefore they kept revolting against the Romans. As the Romans kept winning, that belief moved further and further in time. But the Jews who fought the Romans in 66 and then again in 132 probably did so because 1. they were opposed to accepting Roman rule (i.e., Herod and the Herodians) over Palestine (that had been ruled by the Maccabeans) and 2. they were convinced that one of them (the messiah) was meant to rule over the world (not the Roman emperor). Jesus’ blood relatives (the “disposyny/desposini”) were probably among the leaders of the rebellions. In 136 emperor Hadrian definitely crushed the Jewis resistance and forbad Jews from ever entering Jerusalem again. That is the time when the “gnostic” attitude is born: instead of interpreting Jesus as the messiah, some Jews started interpreting his message as a message of knowledge (of love, fraternity, piety, etc). And the kingdom moved to the heavens.
The people who did not participate in the various uprisings were the Pharisees (who, like Paul, favored coexistence with the Romans), the Herodians (members of the royal family) and the high priests (who had been appointed by Herod and the Romans). These must have been viewed as enemies by James and the early “Christians” of Palestine. These may well be the same “Zealots” that killed the high priests and led the crusade against Rome.