The Gospel of Mark Antony – 4 – Anastasis Caesaris
It’s a couple days after the Ides of March, which would really have been the logical day to put this out, but I’ve been a bit tied up this week with family matters. I considered releasing it on a Sunday but felt that would be overly cheeky.
I wrote the first three chapters of this series several months ago, and I suspect that many of you won’t have read them yet. Without them you’ll probably be a bit lost with this essay.
The first chapter is a quick introduction to the question of whether there was a historical Jesus, to the theory recently advanced by the Italian linguist Francesco Carotta that Caesar was the template for the Jesus story, finishing with an overview of the remarkable character of Caesar himself:
The second chapter presents, as best as I’m able to do, an overview of the evidence assembled by Carotta for his hypothesis, via a comparison of the biographies and characters of Jesus of Narazareth and Julius of Rome, together with some salient details regarding Caesar’s assassination, funeral, and subsequent apotheosis as Divus Julius:
The third chapter is the most speculative. In it, I try to grope my way towards an explanation for how and why the Roman imperial cult, founded to honour Divus Julius, could have mutated into the early Christian church, with the real figure of Caesar being obscured by the literary creation of Jesus.
What follows concerns my personal reflections on the state of modern Christianity, our complicated cultural relationship to the dying faith of our fathers, and where this weird revisionist theory involving Gaius Julius Caesar fits into that context.
My parents dragged me to church every Sunday pretty much throughout my upbringing.
I hated every moment of it.
It wasn’t just that church was boring, although it was. Painfully.
It wasn’t just that I wanted to sleep in on Sundays, although frankly that was a factor, especially when I was a teenager.
No, what I couldn’t stand about it was ... everything.
It left me utterly unmoved. I felt absolutely no personal connection with any of it. All of these old stories about Jews wandering around in the desert left me completely cold. It wasn’t that I was uninterested in old stories – I read a biography of Alexander the Great when I was ten, and was riveted by it to the point that for a year after that I walked around with me head cocked the way Alexander was said to have done. Greek mythology fascinated me. I was transfixed by the Vikings. I thrilled to King Arthur. But when it came to the biblical narratives, I just didn’t feel any connection at all to these Jewish people in the Bible. They weren’t my people. They had nothing to do with my people. I wasn’t descended from them. I wasn’t even descended from their cousins. They weren’t in any meaningful way a part of my cultural or ethnic inheritance. They were something other. Yet, here I was, expected to give this alien literature a sacred status raised far and above the numinous place occupied by the most ancient spiritual, mythopoetic, and literary traditions of my own people. Even as a child, something about that just didn’t connect for me.
It’s worth emphasizing that this wasn’t a reasoned position I came to as a kid. I was a child; children don’t have reasoned positions. This was a pure emotional reaction.
It doesn’t help that the Bible is simply horribly written. Honestly. Anyone who goes on about the sublime poetry of the Bible is talking nonsense. And, yes, I read it – I got all the way to Kings, reading straight through from Genesis. It’s not like the ancients couldn’t write, either. Homer positively crackles. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh is pretty good, and that was written on clay tablets for Christ’s sake. By contrast, the Bible reads like it was written by a committee of humourless bureaucrats with the aesthetic sense of day-old porridge. It’s just ... awful. The prose is repetitive, the metaphors uninspired, the characters flat, the descriptions non-existent, the dialogue dull. It’s just page after derivative page of dry literary sedative.
Then there was the message. Our priest was always going on about meekness and humility and how we were all sheep. The usual stuff. When you’re a teenage boy, you don’t want to be told that the highest thing you can aspire to is being a sheep – a nearly brainless herd animal without any natural defences. You want to be told to aspire to be a lion, a wolf, or a bear. You don’t want to hear about being meek and humble. You want to hear about war, and strength, and adventure, and overcoming obstacles. You want tales of bravery and power, stories of blood and sweat and terror and awe.
It’s not even like the theology or philosophy in the Old Testament has anything to set the mind on fire. There are no psychedelic descriptions of the nature of reality, no attempt to grapple with the meaning of consciousness – compare anything in the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita. There’s no real effort at establishing some sort of cosmology. The afterlife isn’t even described. People just die, and that’s it.
The entirety of the message is just ‘do what you’re told, or God will hit you’. That’s it. That’s the message: obedience. The stories generally involve Israelites straying from the law, being berated by some self-appointed lunatic claiming to be a prophet with a direct line to Yahweh, whom the people sensibly ignore, only to be punished by Yahweh, after which they do what they’re told for a while, until they begin acting like normal people again and the cycle repeats. The underlying message is always the same: do what the priests tell you to do.
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The other form of story involves the interactions between Israelites and the other nations, in which the Israelites are always the good guys (because they obey Yahweh), whereas the foreigners are pure evil (because they don’t obey Yahweh, assuming they even know about him). Since they’re evil, this then justifies being genocided by the Israelites, which Yahweh regularly commands them to do. Sometimes of course the foreign nation wins and subjugates Israel; in this case, of course, it’s because Yahweh is using them as his instrument to punish the Israelites. For disobedience. Naturally.
Compare that schizoid deontological substitute for morality – those are good, who do as they’re told without question, no matter how monstrous – with the nobility that runs through the book which, in the Greco-Roman world, essentially occupied the place now taken by the Bible: the Iliad. In Homer, both sides are favoured by some gods, disfavoured by others, but it is not the disposition of deities that renders one good or bad. Both the Greeks and the Trojans have their villains, and their heroes. Menelaus is not a virtuous man, for example. Achilles has his flaws, but is ultimately admirable; yet his counterpart and rival Hector is no less commendable, and his death at Achilles’ hands, and the dragging of his defiled corpse around his city’s walls behind Achilles’ chariot, is simultaneously triumph and tragedy. In the end, one side must triumph, and one must be shattered, but because both are heroic the outcome cannot help but be tragic. The Iliad demonstrates that the opposed belligerents in even the bitterest conflict can be worthy men, that it is possible to go to war with those you admire; and, by portraying the Trojans in such glowing light, implies that the victor can and should honour the noble memory of the vanquished. The lessons embedded in this tale are deep, with applicability far beyond the battlefield.
By the time I was sixteen I was so thoroughly disgusted by, bored with, and alienated from this ill-fitting faith I’d been born into that I was listening to Marilyn Manson and reading Nietzsche. Manson was a regrettable phase, but I got a lot out of Nietzsche, and I have absolutely no regrets on that score.
I mellowed a bit on the subject as I got older, the way you tend to with these things. A large part of that was the increasingly self-parodic nature of the fedora tipping Reddit atheist, who just became tiresome. The relentless attacks upon Christianity by people I passionately despise contributed, too – there’s nothing like those you hate the most taking a position to make you not want to occupy that same ideological ground. One rallies to the flag that one’s enemies threaten, instinctively.
Then there are the cathedrals. Nothing that can inspire people to spend centuries building such intricate, powerful, inspiring monuments to the transcendent grace and glory of God can be a bad thing at root. Atheism has inspired nothing of the kind. Beauty is its own argument. So is its absence.
Still, though, while the hostility to Christianity wore off, a bit, I never really warmed to it.
Coming across Carotta’s hypothesis that Julius Caesar was the underlying historical model for Christ changed my attitude completely.
Caesar was a Saviour I could actually respect.
Strong, brilliant, powerful, self-made, but also wise, noble, compassionate, and kind. A man to be emulated in every respect. Not some meek sacrificial lamb, but a flesh and blood human whose intrinsic divinity was earned, rather than bestowed by birthright.
Better, Caesar was part of my own cultural tradition. Not that I’m descended from Italians – I’m not – but the Romans, Greeks, Germans, Celts, Britons, Scandinavians, and Slavs are all grown from the same Proto-Indo-European root, cousin peoples with fundamentally similar outlooks on the world, with ancestral deities derived from the same pantheon, folk tales in the same mythological tradition, temperaments that are more similar than not when compared against the rest of humanity.
With Caesar as the Christos, Christianity took on a whole new meaning. No longer an alien faith, I could open to that within it which is familiar, which matches up with what I know deep down to be spiritually true. Very little of that is to be found in the Bible; much of it is in the traditions, the rituals, the theology, virtually all of which grows out of European paganism and the thought of pagan philosophers.
Of course, it goes without saying that if Carotta’s theory is correct, the entirety of the Old Testament can be jettisoned, along with much of the New. The former becomes simply irrelevant, the historical record (assuming any of it is true) of a minor Semitic tribe. The latter becomes mostly literary fabulism, although still quite valuable for its spiritual core. Paul’s letters certainly lose none of their worth.
The central elements of Christian teaching, however, can be retained more or less without alteration.
There’s a long-standing, perennial war in right-wing circles between christcucks and LARPagans. Many a forum thread has spilled past its hundredth page of angry discourse, effortpost flying at shitpost with no resolution to be seen. Pagans see Christianity as a foreign import; Christians see paganism as a retrograde throwback. Perhaps consideration of Caesar’s role in this story can resolve the dispute, by displacing the contentious Jewish messiah for a European figure, while demonstrating that Christianity itself is, properly understood, not a break with, but a continuation and elaboration of a spiritual tradition reaching back through the Bronze Age, and possibly much further into the deep past than that.
In the wider cultural context, our civilization is experiencing a crisis of faith. The old religion is dying. The pews are empty, the churches falling into disrepair. Partly this is due to the priests abandoning tradition and chasing the pot of clout at the end of the rainbow flag ... precisely the opposite of what any spiritual seeker in this fallen world is looking for. The trajectory taken by the Anglican parish wherein I was first introduced to Christianity is an illustration of this in microcosm. When I was a kid the parish had three churches, a rectory, a summer camp ground, and a meeting hall. The camp was the first to be closed. Then one of the churches was mothballed; then another one put up for sale. Then a liberal priestess was put in charge, and attendance collapsed; soon enough the rectory, the hall, and the final remaining church were all sold off, with the shrinking remnant of parishioners meeting in the Legion hall.
But partly, and maybe even primarily, it’s that the old myths are no longer tenable. As the past has come into focus thanks to the application of skeptical scholarship to ancient texts, as the expansion of the scientific worldview has developed into an increasingly detailed understanding of the cosmos, the demand to take things on faith just doesn’t convince the way it used to. “Just trust me, bro,” doesn’t cut it, when so much of what you insist must be true because it’s written in an old book simply doesn’t match what can be independently verified.
I know there will be some people who will argue that science can be wrong, and that it’s essential that the Bible be believed – the former is the work of fallible humans, the latter the inerrant work of God. They’re correct about science, but I just can’t take the argument about the Bible seriously. This is most vividly illustrated by the Young Earth creationists, who insist that the cosmos was created a few thousand years ago, and that a fossil and geological record that screams at us that the Earth is billions of years old, and astronomical observations that indicate a universe older still, were put there as a test of faith. The Troll God hypothesis falls completely flat for me. If God created the entire universe to trick humans into thinking that the universe is billions of years old, why would a book written by such an entity be trustworthy?
And yet, without religion, our society is falling apart. Birth rates plummet, antisocial behaviour proliferates; our elite have never been less virtuous or more venal; our population never more atomized and alone; people have never been more miserable. Science in and of itself cannot fill the religious void. It can tell us what is, within limits; but it cannot tell us what is beyond those limits; and it cannot tell us what should be, what we should aspire to. It is a moral vacuum into which the souls it denies the existence of are sucked into and flash-frozen.
Clearly, we need something. Whatever that something is, it needs to match what we can verify – such is the nature of our age. But as ever, we must make do with the tools we have lying around. That which is relatively familiar, which can be adopted with the least modification, is the most immediately useful.
We are living in apocalyptic times, and the original meaning of the apocalypse is the lifting of the veil. What could be more appropriate to our modern apocalypse than a funeral mask that has obscured the face of our lord and saviour for almost two thousand years being drawn aside, and his true identity being revealed? And so it is that I wonder what the effect might be, if the story of Gaius Julius Caesar, Christos Rex, were to establish itself within the mass consciousness. Perhaps it could serve as an anchor point with which we might once again tie down the frayed strands of our ailing faith, currently being whipped about in the cyclone winds of modernity.
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. His series is collected here, and it’s worth reading as it provides a quick introduction to some esoteric but fascinating subject matter.
L.P. Koch. has also been writing a bit on Christianity from a Pauline gnostic perspective, and his deeply thoughtful and insightful essays are strongly recommended, for example on Paul’s Journey Towards Communion With God, How To See the Unseen, and Is There An Afterlife?
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In between writing on Substack you can find me on Twitter @martianwyrdlord, and I’m also pretty active at Telegrams From Barsoom
With a glorious hiatus of a few brief years during which they were feuding with the priest and refused to go.
The Apocalypse of John is a notable exception, but that isn’t Old Testament.
I skipped the begats, ain’t no one got time for that.
Yes, derivative. As Russell Gmirkin has shown, I think convincingly, pretty much the entire text is ripped off from various elements of Hellenistic literature and philosophy.
Whom I first discovered thanks to an interview with Marilyn Manson.
My parents likely disagree. Listening to “Christianity is SLAVE MORALITY, Dad!” every Sunday morning as we drove to church got old fast, I’m sure.