Those First Copy-Cat Christian Theologians

The imagined, invented Jesus of the New Testament 

The huge faith bureaucracy—aka the church—is guilty of many sins, but one of its major failings is deception. It specializes in diverting the attention of its faithful followers from what has been learned about Christian origins. Perhaps the greatest irony in this exercise in cheating is that major discoveries about Christian origins—including the unreliability of the gospel accounts of Jesus—have been made by devout scholars who had set out to prove that the gospels tell the true story of their lord and savior. 


But as professionally trained historians examined the gospels, it became clear that these documents fail to qualify as history. In 1835, David Friedrich Strauss published Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined), in which he argued that the miracle elements in Jesus stories were mythical. In 1933, Charles Guignebert published another major study, titled simply Jesus, in which he wrote: “It was not the essence of Jesus that interested in the authors of our gospels, it was the essence of Christ, as their faith pictured him. They are exclusively interested, not in reporting what they know, but in proving what they believe” (p. 53). He labeled the gospels “propaganda texts.”



In his 1988 classic, Gospel Fictions, Randel Helms stated: “The gospels are, indeed—to a much greater degree than those who read them with pious inattention even begin to realize—imaginative literature, fiction, and critics have been using such terms about them for a long time” (p. 11).


Those who read them with pious inattention. This is what the church and the clergy are counting on. Indeed, surveys have shown that most laypeople don’t spend a lot of time reading the gospels, let alone studying them. We can assume that the clergy do this kind of study, and know the problems presented—and they dearly hope the laity won’t notice. Again, Randel Helms:


“Perhaps the earliest revision of Mark is to be found in the Gospel of Matthew. Of the 661 verses in Mark, 606 appear in Matthew, many with deliberate stylistic and theological changes, others with fictional additions” (p. 35, Gospel Fictions). 


Thousands of Bible scholars in religious academia have examined the gospels thoroughly, and, as Helms notes, “have been using such terms [imaginative literature, fiction] for a long time.” But all of this has happened beyond the awareness of church folks, who might wonder, “What’s going on?” if they carefully considered what Matthew did with Mark’s text. And how shocking that the Jesus in John’s gospel is so very different from Mark’s Jesus. Comparison of the gospels is dangerous business, but studying the context in which Christianity arose even more so. 


The laity, however, treasure the “greatest story ever told,” without giving much—if any—thought to how the story was fashioned from so many different ideas that were circulating at the time. Nor do they want to think about it. Faith is commonly preserved by ignoring information that may jeopardize cherished beliefs—mainly, I suspect because doubts are not too far below the surface.  


Last March I published an article here in which I commented on some of the religious ideas in circulation in the first century, based on Richard Carrier’s massive documentation of these concepts when Christianity first emerged. In fact, he lists 48 elements that are crucial for an understanding of Christian origins.  See pp. 65-234 of On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for DoubtChances are close to zero that churchgoers would read this book, although Carrier has made a point of writing in an easily-accessible style—and he explains why in his Preface. 


In the March article, I focused on Elements 4, 15, 31 and 43. Let’s look at four more. 


Element 11, pages 96-107


“The earliest definitely known form of Christianity was a Judeo-Hellenistic mystery religion. This is also beyond any reasonable doubt, yet frequently denied in the field of Jesus research, often with a suspiciously intense passion” (p. 96, OHJ). Of course, Christian apologists want to resist any suggestion that their faith is derivative. 


“If we then expand that definition to include a set of specific features held in common by all other mystery religions of the early Roman era, then Christianity becomes even more demonstrably a mystery religion, so much so, in fact, that it’s impossible to deny it was deliberately constructed as such. Even the earliest discernible form of Christianity emulates numerous cultic features and concepts that were so unique to the Hellenistic mystery cults that it is statistically beyond any reasonable possibility that they all found their way into Christianity by mere coincidence” (p. 96-97 OHJ). 


“…all [mystery religions] involve a ritual meal that unites initiated members in communion with one another and their god (1 Cor. 11:23-28). All of these features are fundamental to Christianity, yet equally fundamental to all the mystery cults that were extremely popular in the very era that Christianity arose. The coincidence of all of these features together lining up this way is simply too improbable to propose as just an accident” (p. 99, OHJ).


While such beliefs thrived in the milieu which gave birth to Christianity, some aspects were much older. Carrier notes later in the book that “…the savior cult of the resurrected Zalmoxis (of Thracian origin) is clearly attested in Herodotus centuries before Christianity; the imperial cult of the resurrected Romulus is likewise attested in several pre-Christian authors…” (p. 171, OHJ).


I recommend a careful reading of Carrier’s Element 11, paying close attention to the detailed information that he provides in the footnotes. These pages do a splendid job of destroying any claim that Christianity is the one true faith. 


It’s obvious how much early Christian theologians imagined/invented their Jesus according to ideas popular in other cults at the time. 


Element 16, pages 137-141


“The earliest Christians claimed they knew at least some (if not all) facts and teachings of Jesus from revelation and scripture (rather than from witnesses), and they regarded these as more reliable sources than word-of-mouth (only many generations later did Christian views on this point noticeably change)” (p. 137, OHJ).


“…people often received communications from Jesus via revelation (even if indirectly: i.e., through intuited feelings attributed to the holy spirit, or visions or prophetic messages communicated through angels or subordinate spirits), and no one thought this was unusual or inferior to any other source. To the contrary, Paul’s argument in Galatians 1 entails Christians had the opposite view: that information derived by revelation was more authoritative and trustworthy than any human tradition” (pp. 138-139).


A startling example of this is the Christian ritual meal, known as communion or the eucharist: Just where did it come from? “Well, Jesus at the last supper, of course,” is the natural response. But where do we find this Jesus-script for the first time? In I Corinthians 11:23:26, written by the apostle Paul—well before the gospels existed—who didn’t know Jesus, was not at the last supper. Paul bragged (Galatians 1:11-12) that he learned nothing about Jesus from the people who had known him. Paul claims in the opening verse of this text that he received these words “from the lord.” Which means in his visions, i.e., his hallucinations of the heavenly Jesus. It seems likely that the author of Mark’s gospel based his last supper Jesus-script on what he found in I Corinthians 11. Oh the irony: Mark invented a scene, using Paul’s words of Jesus that he imagined in visions. 


Element 16 illustrates the primary reason why secular—and even many devout—historians distrust the stories we find in the gospels especially. They cannot be verified by contemporaneous documentation, e.g. letters, diaries, transcriptions, interviews of eyewitnesses. The early Christian authors were okay with what they saw/heard in visions. Other religions do exactly the same thing, resulting in vastly different concepts of the divine. 


Ever wonder how Christianity ended up in such a mess today? By which I mean thousands of different denominations, divisions, sects, cults. It’s such a scandal that Christians have never been able to agree on their god, Jesus, and the proper forms of worship. 


Well, it was that way from the very beginning….


Elements 20 and 21, pp. 146-148


“Element 20: (a) The earliest known Christians proselytized Gentiles but required them to convert to Judaism. (b) Paul is the first known Christian to discard that requirement (having received a special revelation instructing him to), and he had to fight the earliest known leaders of the cult for acceptance of that radical idea. (c) But some books in the NT are from the sect that did not adopt this innovation but remained thoroughly Jewish (most obviously Matthew, the letters of John and James, and Revelation)” (p. 146, OHJ).


“Element 21: Paul and other NT authors attest that there were many rival Christian sects and factions teaching different gospels throughout the first century. In fact, evidence of such divisions and disagreements date as far back as extant records go” (pp. 146-147, OHJ).


“The epistles written during the first generation of Christians (from the 30s to the 60s CE) reveal a highly fragmented church already from the earliest recorded time, rife with fabricated new gospels and teachings effectively beyond the control of any central authority” (p. 147, OHJ).


It never dawned on these ancient rivaling Christians that their visions/revelations did not deliver reliable, trustworthy information about their god and his holy hero. And the failure of critical thinking continues to this day, when the devout are confident that they know god and Jesus because they “feel him in their heart.” Yet they fight tooth and nail against other devout Christians whose heartfelt feelings are so very different. 

It’s no mystery at all that Christianity remains such a mess.  



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here