The Greatest Story Ever Sold

On Easter Sunday, one of the most mystifying of all the Christian holidays, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ–a semi-legendary man who may or may not have lived in Judaea two thousand years ago. To what extent is the story of Jesus original and true? To what extent is the story embellished or contrived? 

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A lot of pre-Christian customs were adopted by Christianity, because eradicating them will only alienate the people whom they are trying to sermonize. It is not coincidence that one of the earliest writers of Christianity, St. Jerome was a pagan scholar and theologian. Jerome’s Vulgate Bible–amalgamation of truth and fiction, pagan and Christian is to this day the authoritative Bible of the Catholic Church. Jerome and other founders of the Church outlined one important part of Christian belief: that there is some good in everything, and that in general things can be redeemed instead of being destroyed.

So old customs remained. Easter Bunny–the pagan symbol of vernal fertility–being just one example. The Easter Bunny joins other esteemed figures like God himself in the pantheon of pagan symbols.

Six thousand years of Bibical narrative looks down upon the visitors in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The most striking figure is of God himself, lushly illustrated by Michelangelo, as the wizened, muscular old man. The Bible said nothing about God being an anthropomorphic being. Judaism and Islam both rejected this representation of God. Christianity drew its inspiration of God from the ancient Hebrew god which appears to have originally been a local, tribal storm god and some polytheistic tradition. Muscular, bearded Zeus, the pinnacle of Greek god hierarchy served as a model for Christian God. Like Zeus, Christian God attempted to remove humanity from the face of the Earth by sending a flood.

And Christianity’s most famous symbol, the Cross? It is not original either. One of the most enduring human symbol, the cross quadrants the world into four elements and four cardinal points. The union of vertical divinity and horizontal secularism is frequently the symbol of Egyptian deities (compare Ankh) and Norse gods alike. The cross represented (and represents) the tree of life, and its usual portrayal inside the sun in Prehistoric Europe suggests its comparability to the yin-yang symbol of the Orient.

The arrival of baby Jesus (as the King of the Jews) was announced to the King of Judea Herod the Great by the Magi. To prevent his throne being challenged, Herod ordered the execution of all young male children in the village of Bethlehem, creating an event now known as the Massacre of the Innocents. This episode, not recorded by any contemporary historian, is pure hagiography, which gave Christianity its first martyrs. The story drew its inspiration from the another earlier Biblical tale in the Exodus about the killing of the Hebrew firstborn by Pharaoh prior to the birth of Moses. This extremely suspicious description linking Christianity and Islam–the Moses stroy was recounted in the Quran too–was a trite literary trope. A similar story on Mordred’s birth appeared in the Arthurian legends but the source is thought to be the 7th century BC biography of Sargon of Akkad, who lived in the 24th century BC.

As predicted or annunciated (the birth of a religious leader of some importance, be it Buddha or Mohammed is usually uncannily foretold), Jesus did arrived through virgin birth. An oxymoron which laid the foundation for the Catholicism is by no means unique to Christianity. It is a long standing tradition burrowed from earlier polytheistic traditions where badly-behaving gods go about in assumed forms to impregnate women. Zeus was notorious for it; Hinduism is full of it and the practice is even observed with the Aztecs. The Zoroastrians furthered copied the concept from the Christians to elevate their prophet who lived in the 6th Century BC to divinity.

The New Testament doesn’t not give a date for the birth of Jesus. The first authority to date Jesus’s birth was the 3rd century scholar Sextus Julius Africanus, who conviniently placed the Annunciation on the spring equinox (March 25 on the Roman Calendar) and the birth on Sol Invintus, the feast-day of the unconquered Sun and of several gods associated with Winter Solstice in many pagan traditions. [Sol Invintus is a Syrian god later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian.]

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If there was one single person primarily responsible for the fundamental feast days of Christianity, it was Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, who in 321AD introduced Christmas as an immovable feast on 25 December. He introduced movable feasts (Easter) and also designated Sunday as a holy day in a new 7-day week. Sunday, the typical day for the sun worship, was chosen for obscure reasons but the Bible itself vacillated between Friday, Saturday and Sunday in its descriptions of the Holy Day. (Some contend that Sunday was chosen because it was on a Sunday that the Resurrection occurred; the crucifixion indeed occurred on a Friday and the Resurrection indeed is recorded on the third day, but it being a Sunday depends on how you count).

Christianity drew inspiration from other pagan religions and sometimes try to show its superiority over the earlier polytheistic beliefs by uniting their selling points. Christian notions of eating and drinking the “flesh” and “blood” of Jesus were influenced by the cult of Dionysus–a mystery religious cult very important in Asia Minor and Greece. Dionysus, the God of Wine and Bacchanalia, is also thought to be the inspiration behind Jesus’ Marriage at Cana, which was only once reported in the Gospels despite its apparent importance. At the festival of Dionysus, three water pots are placed in a sealed room and the following day be found to miraculously be filled with wine. Dionysus’ feast day is on January 6th, and the Marriage at Cana took place on the same day.

Ever story needs a villain and Judas provided color to Jesus’s hagiography. Judas is the 13th person to sit at the Last Supper–bringing misfortune to the number. Twelve-Thirteen Dilemma Effected many an early religion and still have its discernible impact today. Loki in the Norse mythology is also the 13th god–and in order to be 12th, he engineered the murder of Baldr, and was the 13th guest to arrive at the funeral. Twelve, the dozen, is universally regarded as a perfect number–there were twelve Olympians for instance. By outcasting Judas, the Christianity incorporates the magic of the numbers into its religious diktats.

The Greatest Story Ever Told ends with a cinematic climax–the Resurrection of Jesus. Human beings’ fascination with death and afterlife ensured that this too is neither original nor revolutionary. The resurrection is expected on the humanity–like one enormous zombie uprising–on the Judgement Day, by both Judaism and Christianity. However, the idea of gods leaving their bodies behind or resurrecting comes down from ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis (who receives this divinity through tyet–a comparable symbol to crucifixion cross). Isis also resurrected her husband Osiris (who has been killed in an episode mirroring Cane and Abel) who like Jesus died again soon afterwards. As late as 6th century AD, the believers equally venerated Osiris and Jesus in Egypt.

Jesus’ face itself is based on one of history’s most depraved. Since the Middle Ages, art was considered as religious expression, and the Borgia family was notorious for painting themselves into the Biblical milieux. Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI became a Cardinal at 17, a commander in the Papal Army, a patron of Leonardo da Vinci and many other artists. Many of his contemporaries have left varying descriptions on Cesare’s appearance, but the celebrated portrait by Altobello Melone which depicts pondering and placid man belies Cesare’s bloodthirsty and depraved nature inside. However, when Altobello Melone painted his Christ figure in 1520, he drew inspiration from his earlier Cesare Borgia portrait, inadvertently blurring the distinctions between the visages and the ethnicities of one of history’s one holiest figures and one of its most depraved.

Jesus is succeeded by Peter, and other shepherds of the Church. No matter whether Jesus himself existed or not, his successors embellished his story (and history) to an extent that if Jesus were to return today, he will be flabbergasted–for instance, pagan or not, Christmas is now belongs to another latecomer with dubious background, Santa Claus. The fact is that we have been sheep for more than two millennia. Like sheep, we are being herded and chased into following someone, going somewhere, and giving something. May be it is time to rebel against that dogma most famously outlined in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.” I alone should be my own shepherd.

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