The Early Christians
Rome was obviously not the place where Christianity had been born and was not the cultural center of the world. Christianity first spread in Palestine and Syria, then east to Armenia (the first country to convert) and to Greece, that was the cultural center of the empire. When the apostles spread, Peter went to Rome, but others went elsewhere. Notably, Taddeus went to Armenia.
Later, Paul went to Greece. The first community to call themselves Christians was in Syria. The man whom most (including Paul) considered the head of Christianity was James the Just, who remained in Palestine. These were all equal centers of Christianity. It was only after the Roman conversion that the Roman branch of Christianity became the official one, and the lineage back to Peter (the popes) was recognized as the only lineage worth knowing. It was then that only four gospels (probably written in Greece between 66 and the end of the second century) were accepted as true, even if for centuries several others had circulated. It was then that competing branches of Christianity were persecuted and annihilated.
What accounts for the rapid spread of Christianity around the Roman empire? It is not clear how many Christians there really were before Constantine forced the entire Roman empire to convert to Christianity, but it is reasonable to assume that at least a good number of them lived in Rome and in various provinces of the middle East. In the year 70, following a Jewish rebellion, Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem and expelled the Jews. That act may be responsible for the spread of Christianity: Jews of the Christian faith certainly ended up (as slaves) in Rome and probably (as refugees) in several middle-eastern provinces. While it is a mystery how they could make so many proselytes so quickly, it is quite normal that they could be found all around the eastern Roman empire. The number of proselytes (if it was indeed as high as the Church wants us to believe) could be explained in a simple way by assuming that there were already many Christians in Palestine itself, which, of course, would be possible only if Christianity was widely more popular than the official gospels admit and if Christianity predated Jesus.
Pre-existing legends and the gospels
The Roman dogma is a mixture of historical and pre-existing themes. Mithraism, a religion derived from Zoroastrism, was very popular in Rome at the same time that Christianity was spreading. Mithras was believed to be the son of the sun, sent to the earth to rescue humankind. Two centuries before the appearance of Jesus, the myth of Mithras held that Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25 in a cave, and his birth was attended by shepherds. Mithras sacrificed himself and the last day had a supper with twelve of his followers. At that supper Mithras invited his followes to eat his body and drink his blood. He was buried in a tomb and after three days rose again. Mithras’ festival coincided with the Christian Easter. This legend dates from at least one century before Jesus. It was absorbed in the Roman dogma. Jesus’ attitude often resembles the legendary greek philospher Socrates (eg, the way he refuses to respond to Pilate).
The Egyptian god Osiris was also born on the 25th of December, died on a friday and resurrected after spending three days in the underworld.
The Roman god Dionysus was hailed as `The Saviour of Mankind’ and `The Son of God’. Dionysus was born (on December 25) when Zeus visited Persephone. Therefore, his father is God and his mother is a mortal virgin. Announced by a star, he is born in a cowshed and visited by three Magis. He turns water into wine and raises people from the dead. He is followed by twelve apostles. Dionysus’ resurrection was a popular myth throughout the Roman empire, although his name was different in each country. The rituals in honor of Dionysus included a meal of bread and wine, symbolizing his body and blood. An amulet of the 3rd century has been found that depicts a crucified man (unmistakably Jesus) but bears the inscription “Orpheus Bacchus”, which was yet another name for Dionysus. The 5th century Egyptian poet Nonnus wrote two long epic poems in Greek, one on the conquest of the world by Dionysus, and the other a verse paraphrase of one of the Christian gospels. Unfortunately, we know little of the Dionysus’ faith because in 396 a mob of fanatical Christians destroyed the sanctuary of Eleusis, likely to have been the largest religious center in the world. We only know that the rituals were very popular and lasted several days.
The early Christians revered Dionysus’s birthday as Jesus’s birthday (Christmas) and the three-day Spring festival of Dionysus roughly coincides with Easter. Jews had their own version of this festival (the “therapeutae”) since at least the year 10 (it is reported by Philo of Alexandria), which is 23 years before the crucifixion of Jesus (Armenians still celebrate the birthday of Jesus on january 6).
(The most credible theory of why the Christians of the third century chose the 25th of december as Jesus’ birthday instead of the first of january is that the 25th of december was already a major holiday, a festival called “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” instituted before 220 AD).
Jesus lived right at the beginning of the Roman empire. The first emperor, “Augustus”, had the title of “saviour of the human race”. The legend was that Augustus had been born nine months after his mother was “visited” by the god Apollo. The greatest Roman poet of all time, Virgil, had foretold in 40BC that a king would be born of a virgin. It was false, but it was widely believed by ordinary Romans that, in the year of Augustus’ birth, the Roman senate had ordered the murder of all other children. Incidentally, Augustus had launched a puritanical campaign to restore traditional moral values in a Roman empire that had been devastated by 20 years of civil war.
Pre-existing legends and current events influenced the way the official gospels were selected and doctored. Some scholars have even suggested the entire history of Jesus is a myth, based on pre-existing myths that were assembled by “gnostic” jews.
The official gospels were carefully chosen and edited to reflect a view acceptable to the Roman authorities and audience. For example, the official gospels blamed the Jews for killing Jesus, even if, of course, it was the Romans who killed him (for sedition). The earliest account of the life of Jesus, St Mark’s gospel, was written during the Jewish rebellion of 66. It was not a time to claim that Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary. Jesus, in fact, is presented as a victim of the Jews.