Lateral thinking, lateral questions — occasioned by a book I chanced upon during a Mediterranean holiday.
Since Dan Brown has kickstarted the conspiracy theory and ancient secrets season with The Lost Symbol, let me add my two paise to it. Some months ago, I found a 100-year-old volume in the library of a hotel on a Mediterranean island. Originally published in German in 1910, The Christ Myth, written by philosophy professor Arthur Drews, makes a compelling case that Jesus Christ did not exist. Yes, you read that right. Jesus is fiction.
Drews’ thesis begins with Alexander’s conquest of Persia and the increasing contact of the Jews in Alexander’s empire with Zoroastrianism. According to Persian belief, when the present epoch was to end, Ahuramazda, the God of Light, ‘was then to raise up from the seed of Zarathustra, the founder of this religion, the ‘virgin’s son’, Sashoyant, or the Messiah’. The original Jewish concept of the Messiah was a human being, but under Persian influence, he became a half-human, half-divine creature. Around 150 years before the birth of Christ, the Apocalypse of Daniel first mentioned one ‘who as Son of Man will descend upon the clouds of heaven and be brought before the ‘Ancient of Days’. The whole tone of the passage leaves no doubt that the Son of Man is a superhuman being representing the Deity’. Even the concepts of Resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgement appeared in Jewish thought only around this time, under Persian influence, recorded again by Daniel.
Jesus has always been referred to as Jesus Nazarene, which we have come to understand as Jesus of Nazareth. But there existed a Jewish sect called Nazarenes, the word apparently meaning ‘healer’. In fact, the first followers of Jesus were called Nazarenes. ‘Whether there was a place called Nazareth in pre-Christian days must be considered as at least very doubtful,’ writes Drews. ‘Such a place is not mentioned either in the Old Testament or in the Talmud, which, however, mentions over 60 Galilean towns… It is only in the later phases of the tradition that the name appears in the New Testament.’ Nazareth is mentioned in documents beyond dispute only from the fourth century on. Even in the Gospels, it is not Nazareth but Capernaum that is Jesus’ city.
The idea of the Messiah who rose from the dead existed all across Western Asia—among Persians and Phoenicians, in Babylon and Assyria—long before Jesus of the Gospels. Indeed, Drews speculates that that can be one reason why Christianity spread so early and with such unusual rapidity in that part of the world. He also points out the similarities between the story of Krishna’s early life and that of Jesus. Krishna was born in the dead of night in a prison cell, Jesus in a manger. Krishna grew up unknown with herdsmen, Jesus similarly in an unknown village.
But how would Jews know about the Krishna myth? Because as early as 400 BC, mention is found of Buddhist monasteries in Bactria. Two hundred years later, in Persia. The faith reached Syria and Egypt and Eastern Mediterranean countries with the trade caravans. Indian thought made advances in Alexandria, a headquarters of Jewish syncretism, which favoured the exchange of ideas.
Drews’ conclusions are the most astonishing on Virgin Mary. In Hinduism, Maya is the mother of Agni, the mediator between humans and divine beings, the deliverer of souls, the symbol of purity. She appears under the same name as mother of the Buddha and Greek god Hermes. For Persians, she is the ‘virgin’ mother of Mithras. As Myrrha, she is mother of the Syrian Adonis; in Arabic legend, she is Mirzam, mother of the mythical saviour Joshua, while the Old Testament gives this name to the virgin sister of Joshua, Moses’ lieutenant. And Merris was the name of the Egyptian princess who was Moses’ foster-mother. Is there a pattern here?
So if Jesus did not exist, how did the story come about, believed in by billions of people across history and geography? This is the boldest part of Drews’ hypothesis. It involves one brilliant apostle, who created (or re-created) Christianity and preferred to take a back seat to the myth he spun. More, next week.
Sandipan Deb is an IIT-IIM graduate who wandered into journalism after reading a quote from filmmaker George Lucas — “Everyone cage door is open” — and has stayed there (in journalism, not a cage) for the past 19 years. He has written a book on the IITs.