The Gospel of Mark Antony – 1 – The Jesus Question
Is Caesar’s Ghost Haunting Christianity?
Who was Jesus Christ?
There’s less agreement on that then you’d expect.
There are three basic camps on the subject. The largest are those who assume, without giving the matter a great deal of thought, that two thousand years ago there was some Jewish rabbi, first name Jesus, surname Christ, who wandered around the Middle East preaching peace and love, thereby irritating the local religious and political authorities until they solved the problem with some judicious flesh carpentry. This camp figures all the stuff about water turning into wine and walking on water is embellishment made up after the fact, tall tales that grew in the telling from one credulous illiterate peasant to the next, until eventually being written down and formalized by more literate but no less superstitious priests. However, they figure the basic outlines of the story are more or less accurate, and anyhow the moral lessons it encodes are generally pretty good, so who cares? This camp embraces most atheists and agnostics, as well as a surprising number of nominal Christians, typically of the Easter-Christmas-weddings-and-funerals variety.
If you’re in that camp you probably don’t think you’re going to care about the rest of this essay. I urge you to keep reading.
The next camp, also quite large, are the scriptural literalists. They insist that everything in the Bible is true, being the divinely inspired Word of God, and this most certainly includes everything in the New Testament’s gospels. For them, Jesus Christ was an actual historical figure1, whose life was exactly as presented by the apostles: he was literally born of a virgin mother impregnated by God himself, he really cast out demons and healed with a touch, he actually danced on water, caused storms to calm themselves with a wave of his hand, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again.
If you’re in that camp, you’re probably going to get very annoyed by this essay. I especially urge you to keep reading.
The smallest camp are those who ask what, if anything, in the gospels (or the rest of the Bible, for that matter) is even true. That the miracles are mythological they take as a basic assumption, but that raises the question of whether there is any historical basis to Jesus Christ himself, or if his character is an entirely literary creation. This camp will note that, outside of the gospels themselves – which can’t really be taken as historical documents, given the incredible events narrated within – there is no credible historical evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ. There are a couple of paragraphs in Josephus and Tacitus, sure, but these are obvious fabrications given that they’re inserted without rhyme or reason in the middle of otherwise coherent narratives, and are written in entirely different styles from those of the putative authors. Essentially, at some point in the past some monk or other was reading through old historical records and said, ah shit, there’s nothing in here about Jesus, people might take that as a reason to doubt! And then proceeded to get out his quill pen and make up the data to fit the model.
The third camp has been conducting a very careful literary and textual analysis of the New Testament for a couple of centuries now, comparing it against available archaeological data and independent historical documents, and they haven’t really come to any firm conclusions aside from that the New Testament is not reliable. Some more or less end up falling into first camp above. Others project their own personal ideologies into the void opened by the question, positing that Jesus was some kind of iron age hippie guru, or maybe a revolutionary guerrilla leader of the Zealots2. Others still come to the conclusion that Jesus was entirely mythical, an outgrowth of the messianic literature that prospered in Judea in the century or two preceding his supposed birth.
The third camp are by and large atheists. A lot of the scholarship that went into probing the question of the historical Jesus Christ was done by people who wanted to dismantle the basis for faith in the teachings of the Church. Others started as faithful Christians, and in the course of ‘just asking questions’ ultimately concluded that it was all hokum.
My position is a bit different. I think that Jesus was almost certainly fake. I am not, however, an atheist. Christ, I believe, is quite real. If you’re wondering how that works, read on.
First, though, if Jesus didn’t actually exist, we have another problem: where the heck did Christianity come from in the first place? Or more to the point, how did it rise to become the dominant religion, first in the Mediterranean basin ruled by the Roman Empire, and later in Europe? It wouldn’t be the first time that a cult was founded around a mythological figure, but such cults don’t tend to spread with such alacrity. Now, sure, you can point to Constantine’s conversion, which essentially made Christianity the official imperial faith; but that was a politically opportunistic move, really more of a pragmatic recognition that Christianity was already dominant. You could also point to proselytism, but other religions do that, too – in modern times, for instance, we have Mormons knocking on people’s doors, Hare Krishnas getting underfoot on the street with their infernal dancing, Scientologists setting up recruiting centres, and all manner of Christian sects spreading their particular take on the Good News, but while this gains a few converts none of them are able to dominate society for the simple reason that most people find them irksome. By all accounts their contemporaries in the 1st and 2nd centuries had a similar attitude towards the early Christians.
Comparison with the other successful world religions is instructive here. Islam spread through straight-up conquest: convert, or die. Their founder was a warlord and there’s no real mystery in how Islam got so large, so quickly3. Buddhism spread simply because its nihilistic doctrine is able to adapt itself to pretty much any culture, and also because it’s really better thought of as a set of fairly effective meditation techniques than a faith doctrine along Abrahamic lines. Buddhists don’t really demand that anyone believe anything, or follow certain practices; Buddhist monks are perfectly happy to hang out in their monasteries and do their thing, leaving everyone else to get on with their lives4. Hence, Buddhists exist alongside Hindus, Taoists, Shinto, etc., without anyone really much caring. The other large religions – Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism – don’t really try and spread themselves; they’re basically collections of ethnically specific, organically developed traditional spiritual practices, and they have no real interest in converting people5. European paganism shared that utter disinterest in recruitment, since it was also fundamentally an organic, ancestral religion.
So did Jesus exist, and if not where did he, and Christianity, come from?
Enter the Italian linguist Francesco Carotta, and his very weird and weirdly compelling hypothesis that Julius Caesar was the template for Jesus Christ.
This sounds crazy at first. Everyone I’ve run this by has looked at me like I’ve got two heads, so you’re not the first to arch a skeptical eyebrow the way you’re doing right now. Bear with me though. If nothing else, I promise this will be entertaining.
Gaius Julius Caesar is not exactly most people’s idea of a Prince of Peace, it’s true. The popular conception of Caesar is that he was a self-aggrandizing, vicious tyrant, who single-handedly destroyed the Roman Republic so that he could stand astride Rome and her dominions as Emperor. Most people will grant that he was a capable general, having subdued Gaul and then won the Roman civil war (for a grand total of about 15 years of continuous campaigning), but his untimely death at the hands of conspirators wasn’t anything like a tragedy – quite the opposite, sic semper tyrannus, as Brutus is believed to have said.
That isn’t how the average Roman saw things.
You see, that image you have of Caesar as the nemesis of democracy was handed to you by people who despised him, most prominently that vile worm Cicero – a cowardly, opportunistic weasel of a slum-lord, whose entire career consisted of influence peddling, wetting his beak, and writing turgid missives attempting to paint himself as some sort of sophisticated intellectual as opposed to the self-important blowhard he actually was. Cicero was representative of the ruling patrician class in a number of ways. These were men who pretended to be paragons of republican virtue, but had absolutely no problem dispossessing the average Roman of their lands in order to add to their already vast latifundia – huge plantations worked by slaves. They’d send men off to war to fight for years in the legions, so that they could loot the conquered cities and bring home more slaves for the latifundia, only for the veterans to return and find their wives and children had been forced off of land that had been in their families for generations, in debt up to their eyeballs thanks to compound interest and surviving in crowded, filthy tenements in the city.
If that’s starting to sound familiar, it should. Cicero and his ilk were antiquity’s equivalent of our Nancy Pelosis, John McCains, Jerry Nadlers, George W. Bushes, Dick Cheneys, and Joe Bidens: politicians who talked a good game in public but privately cared for nothing more than their own miserable hides. They presided over a social order that was relentlessly driving its common members into poverty. That was becoming a serious problem, not just due to the inherent injustice of such a system and the resulting instability, but because of the inherent contradiction between a military organization that required large numbers of healthy, strong, fit men, and an economy that made such men harder to come by every year.
Cicero et al. didn’t hate Caesar because he was an enemy of democracy.
They didn’t hate him because he was a self-aggrandizing tyrant.
They hated him because he stood for and represented everything they were not. His very existence made them look mean and petty in contrast.
You see, the people loved Caesar, because Caesar was their tireless advocate. From the very beginning of his career he was a class traitor: despite being of noble birth, he aligned himself with the populares against the patrician optimates, first by arguing legal challenges against corrupt governors, later, after being elected consul, by pushing hard for land reforms that would benefit the prole at the expense of the patrician.
Caesar was also an inveterate troll. As consul he so humiliated his co-consular counterpart, the optimate Bibulus6, that the latter hid in shame for the remainder (and bulk) of his term, issuing powerless proclamations that were simply ignored. Bibulus had tried to block Caesar’s land reforms with some religious bafflegab, to which Caesar responded by having Bibulus’ men beaten up and a bucket of shit thrown on his head. During the Cataline conspiracy, Cato accused Caesar of having received communications from the conspirators; since the latter had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death, this would have meant that Caesar (who had advocated passionately for mercy) was implicated in their conspiracy; Cato forced Caesar to read the letter in front of the Senate, and it turned out to be a rather explicit love letter written by Cato’s half-sister. Cato’s whole shtick, by the way, was that he was the Stoic’s Stoic: he walked around in a black toga, traditionally mourning garb, to emphasize how little interest he took in worldly things, and how severe and hard he was. None of which stopped him from participating in usurious feeding frenzy of the late Republic’s patrician class. At any rate, given Cato’s public image as Mr. Virtue and Discipline, you can see how Caesar saying I fucked your sister bro and she’s begging me for more in front of everyone would have popped a vein in his head.
We’ve all seen how much these kinds of people enjoy getting trolled over the last few years. There’s nothing they hate more. Plus ça change.
While Caesar, political radical that he was, may well have been in on the Cataline conspiracy, Caesar’s advocacy for mercy for the conspirators was not a one-off. Caesar was known for his mercy: the clementia Caesaris, Caesar’s clemency, was a byword. Caesar’s constant policy was to forgive his enemies. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t fight them: if war was necessary, he’d bring the pain. But after the dust was settled, he would hold out his hand in friendship, offering total and unconditional forgiveness to the defeated foe. He would, as it were, turn the other cheek. To say that this was out of character for Roman generals, or indeed for any martial leaders of that age or previous, would be an understatement. The accepted practice upon defeating an enemy was to raze his city to the ground, kill the men, take the women and children for slaves, and if the enemy leaders survived, to have them killed in an excruciating, humiliating, and public fashion. One did not show mercy to one’s enemies: one annihilated them.
Only Caesar didn’t. He made friends with them.
His clemency only went so far. In general, he would give his enemies precisely one chance to redeem themselves. Should they renege on their friendship and renew their enmity, Caesar would simply revert to time-honoured Roman custom and ruin them utterly. “Welp, we tried this the easy way.”
By and large, however, this policy served Caesar pretty well. Many of his closest allies had started as bitter enemies; by showing clemency, Caesar was able to recruit them into a coalition that only grew over time. Everyone knows that Caesar spent ten long years subduing Gaul; few know that during the civil war, Caesar’s legions were backed up by substantial numbers of Gaulish cavalry, who seem to have absolutely loved the guy.
Caesar was also a polymath – a genius in multiple domains. Cicero himself was forced to admit that Caesar was the most exalted rhetorician of his day. Reading his Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars demonstrates this mastery of language. Caesar communicated in precise, clear, compelling speech, using no more words than were necessary to get his message across to his primary audience – that being the largely illiterate proles back in Rome, to whom he addressed his Commentaries as a means of telling his story directly to them (some of them could read, and they’d read them aloud to their friends), rather than letting his enemies in the Senate dominate the narrative with their poison7. This is not the language of a narcissistic, grandiose megalomaniac, but rather the simple, direct words of a man who wants only to make the truth as clear as he can. Explaining complex matters in simple language that all can grasp is actually a very difficult thing to do.
The content of the Commentaries likewise speaks to his genius. His battlefield victories were nothing short of miraculous, involving displays of tactical and engineering prowess that enabled him to consistently defeat armies that outnumbered his legions by many times.
Then there’s the book. You know, that sheaf of bound sheets with writing on them, that enables information to be much more rapidly retrieved than can be done by unrolling a scroll. Caesar invented them, or more precisely the codex. Yes, really8.
Then there are the reforms Caesar instituted following his ultimate victory in the civil war and elevation to dictator perpetuo. The most famous of these was his calendrical reform, which established the Julian calendar, in use more or less up to the present day9. Caesar didn’t design the calendar himself – he relied on the best mathematicians and astronomers of the age – but a concern with mathematics and astronomy, even recognition that the problem was one that needed to be solved and was worth spending political capital on, is not the mark of a brutish warlord.
Those weren’t Caesar’s only reforms. He also leaned heavily into laws that prohibited adultery and encouraged monogamous marriage, recognizing that societal stability was best achieved with stable families. Further, he seems to have understood the fractal nature of society, that the familial structure would affect the political structure; wishing for a more harmonious existence, he encouraged fathers to use reason to discipline their children, rather than brute force. Seeing that usury was being used by the upper classes to appropriate the wealth of the poor, he instituted a debt jubilee: a quarter of debts were summarily cancelled, interest was eliminated, and tenants were given a year without paying rent to get their heads above water10. He also embarked on a large series of public works aimed at modernizing and improving Rome, such that the wealth generated by the Empire would benefit all, not only the patricians. Finally, he started opening citizenship to non-Romans, even raising Gauls to the Senate: if Rome was to be an Empire embracing the known world, then it would be an ecumen that worked for all, rather than a machine for wealth extraction condemning its inhabitants to penury.
“Okay, okay,” I can hear you saying, “So Caesar was a pretty remarkable guy, he had the people’s best interests at heart, and I’ll grant you that the mercy thing is vaguely Christ-like, but honestly that’s pretty thin beer, bro.”
And yes, yes it would be. If that were all.
It’s when we look at the events in Caesar’s biography that it really pops out at you. We’ll look at that in the next chapter.
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Rolo has been writing up his thoughts on the deficits of the contemporary Christian churches, and their historical roots in the doctrinal and scriptural monkey business that transpired during the early days of the Church fathers. The first three parts of his series are here , here, and here, and they’re worth reading as they provide a quick introduction to some esoteric but fascinating subject matter, and also because those posts were the inspiration for this ridiculously long essay.
Never mind that ‘Christ’ is a title, not a surname, from the Greek ‘Christos’, or ‘anointed’. For that matter, ‘Jesus’ also looks a lot like a title, meaning as it does ‘saviour’ in Hebrew. So the character’s name is basically ‘Saviour Anointed’, which is an odd thing for a mother to call her baby unless she’s got a really big ego. While we’re at it, what is an ostensibly Jewish messiah doing with a Greek title?
The Zealots, by the way, were some nasty customers. They were basically the Taliban of the 1st century AD: fanatical religious fundamentalists who would happily stone their own people to death for violating any one of the gazillion pernsickity and arbitrary regulations in the Levitical Law. Their eschatology wasn’t particularly cheery either: they expected the Messiah to return at the head of an angelic expeditionary force and set about genociding the gentiles with flaming sword, fire, and brimstone, with the shell-shocked survivors being ground under a divine boot heal so that Yahweh’s Chosen could, in the memorable words of one contemporary rabbi, “sit like an effendi and eat”. Needless to say that didn’t happen. Instead, the Romans lost their patience and genocided them, scattered the survivors to the winds, and dismantled their Temple. In any case it’s always struck me as weird that people would suggest that the leader of such a group could get retconned as the Prince of Peace.
I say that, but I’m really not sure I believe it. I know that Muhammad’s historicity has also been questioned, and if he wasn’t real either that opens the question of what the true origin of Islam was. Some have suggested it’s actually a highly mutated Christian heresy. I don’t personally know enough to say, for the simple reason that I’ve never cared enough to look into it. But it wouldn’t surprise me.
Not always. There were Buddhist monks in feudal Japan that went bandit and terrorized the countryside. Which is kind of badass.
Admittedly, there are Hindu gurus that do try and convert, but this is more an expression of the will to power of the individual guru than it is a deep imperative in the faith itself.
Consuls were elected in pairs.
Which is pretty similar to a certain contemporary political leader and his propensity to just do an end-run around the gatekeepers in the media and speak directly to the people on his own terms.
As recorded by Suetonius, “Some letters of his to the senate are also preserved, and he seems to have been the first to reduce such documents to pages and the form of a note-book, whereas previously consuls and generals sent their reports written right across the sheet.” If it’s true that Caesar pioneered the codex as an improvement on the scroll, it’s interesting that the popularization of this format was largely driven by the early Church, the “people of the book”.
The Gregorian calendar is really just a slight modification of the 365-day plus quadrennial leap-year Julian calendar. The only difference is that the Gregorian calendar drops leap years on years divisible by 100, except for years divisible by 400 on which the extra day is retained. These days we also add leap seconds, because our measurements of the Earth’s rotation and orbital period, neither of which are actually constant, have become much more precise. But the overall structure is basically the one introduced by Caesar ... and actually, the original Julian calendar is still in use by our Orthodox friends.
I can hear the libertarians reeeing about market distortions already. Look, this was over 2000 years ago, Adam Smith hadn’t even been born let alone Hayek or Mises. It’s the thought that counts, man. It isn’t so much whether these reforms were necessarily a good idea – although I think they were, money-changers are fit only for being removed from temples with whips – it’s that the guy was even thinking about this stuff.