Like any other story, what you believe of the story below is up to you. If it were a film it would probably be described as "based on a true story". Enjoy.
Once upon a time there was a young man named Saul. Saul lived in Tarsus, in the Greek part of the Roman Empire, in modern day Turkey. It was a harbour city which saw a variety of beliefs and religions arriving with its ships and sailors. Mixing with the beliefs of his native homeland he saw Mithraism from Persia, Judaism from Palestine, the official and unofficial Roman gods and many others. Saul however chose the beliefs of the Jews, converting to Judaism as a young adult. He was a very ambitious and single-minded person and once in, he devoted himself to learning all he could.
The Jewish community in Tarsus was small however, and concerned itself more with daily life than religious scholarship. Saul soon absorbed all that he could learn from this small group of Jews, and decided to take the next step – go to Jerusalem, the centre of the world as far as Judaism is concerned.
Saul arrived in Jerusalem having already become the most knowledgeable person in religious matters in his hometown, and fully expecting to be welcomed as a scholar in Jerusalem. His disappointment must have been traumatic. He soon discovered that being the top scholar among a small community of not-particularly-religious Jews did not quite match up to people who had dedicated their entire lives to the topic in Jerusalem. Far from being a top scholar, he found himself at the bottom of the ladder of religious scholarship. The children were more advanced than he was.
Not only that, but he discovered that in Jerusalem, Judaism was divided. There were the Pharisees, who opposed Roman rule and believed in a coming messiah who would defeat them, take the throne and bring Judea back under Jewish rule. There were the Sadducees, fewer in number than the Pharisees but who had aligned themselves with Rome and supported their presence. In return, the Romans had given them the high priesthood and other positions of authority. There were other sects, like the Essenes, but the power struggle in Jerusalem was between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
Saul found himself in Jerusalem, and not only was he not welcomed as a scholar, he found he did not even qualify to join in either of the two main schools of Judaism – those of Hillel and Shammai, both Pharisee. Saul turned from them to the other side. The Sadducees had control of the high priesthood and the Temple. They walked hand in hand with the Roman authorities. And they needed men for their army. One of the tasks of the high priest was to assist the Romans in apprehending troublemakers, and in Roman eyes, anybody trying to oust them and establish a monarchy in their stead was clearly a troublemaker. The Sadducees, who rejected the concept of a messiah and supported Roman governorship, agreed – especially since the Romans were the source of all their power. The high priest therefore maintained a small force of soldiers to round up any such troublemakers, arrest them and bring them before him. If he was satisfied that these people were indeed troublemakers, he’d send them off to the Romans for sentencing. This was not the Grand Sanhedrin, in which the Pharisees outnumbered the Sadducees, which met in the temple and which had the power to execute people it found guilty. This was a sanhedrin (court) composed only of Sadducees, which met in the high priest’s private quarters and could only hand over suspects to the Romans.
It was this small army that Saul joined. It was the only entity with religious connotations he was accepted in. He probably told himself that the people he was acting against were religious heretics, not political dissidents. Still, it was the best he could do, and it was linked to the high priest. They acted as his personal army, bodyguards and occasional assassins where the need arose.
It was probably while working within this army that he came into contact with the Nazirites. This was one of many messianic movements, each with their own ideas and their own messiah. Being Pharisees at least by viewpoint, they believed in the resurrection of the dead – another thing the Sadducees denied – and that the messiah would have to be a Nazirite, having performed the Nazirite vow.
The Nazirites, or Nazarenes, looked to a Biblical figure as the model for their messiah. They followed a story about a woman who did not believe she could be pregnant, who was visited by an angel who told her that she was pregnant and would bear a son, who would be consecrated to God from before birth, who would become a leader of the people and who would be their saviour. The angel later appeared to her husband to confirm this story. This saviour was indeed born and became a leader, before he was betrayed by one whom he loved, yet with his death he saved his people.
The man’s name was Samson. The new Nazarene movement was expecting a similar miracle of some kind. They firmly believed in a messiah, and some years back one particular member seemed to be the one. Many of them still believed he was the one, despite the fact that he had been captured and executed by the Romans. After all hadn’t Samson saved his people with his own death? That, together with the Pharisee belief in resurrection, meant they would not yet lose hope that Jesus might have been the promised saviour.
Saul would some familiarise himself with their beliefs as he tried to uncover their identities and bring them to the high priest’s court. Yet here were a few things that struck a chord. This man was the son of God. This was a title derived from Psalms 2, in which David metaphorically becomes God’s son, and God becomes to him as a father. The title “son of God” had been used in reference to kings of David’s lineage ever since. But Saul was familiar with another kind of son of god. The kind that was produced when the old Greek deities mated with human girls and women. Real, physical sons of the gods like Hercules.
In secret, Saul started learning more about this group – from the members themselves. He saw in them a devotion and fanaticism that isn’t found in your regular churchgoer. They had new ideas, fantastic ideas and were open to new ones. In such a group, he could get the kind of acceptance that the proud and snobbish scholars would never give him. Little by little, Saul realised that this group was the kind of group he wanted to join.
There was one problem. They were the enemy, and he was a member of a group aligned to the Roman empire. One does not hand one’s resignation to Rome and join the enemy ranks. There was one hope – leave Rome.
There was one advantage to being where he was – Damascus was at the time not under Roman rule, and indeed many political enemies of Rome had taken the road to Damascus rather than face Roman justice.
His Nazarene contacts would have been cautious about admitting a member of their arch-enemy’s thugs among their ranks, but he seemed genuine, so arrangements were made. They would not give him names or addresses, but if he could get himself outside the gates of Damascus, there he would be met by people who would explain the rest of the plan.
The idea was well thought out. Saul told his superiors that he was had found out about some anti-Roman agitators in Damascus and he wanted to carry out an assassination. They agreed – they couldn’t just march in with their soldiers but if one Jew assassinates another Jew, their hands would be clean.
Saul rode to Damascus with one or two companions, and there – as agreed – he met his guides. They advised him to change his name and adopt a disguise, and gave him his address. Thus, it was Saul, soldier of the high priest and servant of Rome, who arrived before the gates of Damascus, but it was Paul, a blind beggar, who knocked on the door of his host.
Paul’s host, Ananias, let his house be used as an interim headquarters for the group. Members who were on the run from the high priest or the Romans could stay there for a few days until they found accommodation, and the group could have meetings there. This was to be Paul’s undoing. His work in the high priest’s army was what had sent some of them into exile in the first place, and it was only a matter of time before one of them recognised him and Paul’s sojourn in Damascus was over. Making a hasty exit, he headed back to Jerusalem under cover of darkness and hid with the Nazarenes while they debated what to do with him. He could not stay in Damascus and in Jerusalem he’d be arrested as a deserter. Frankly, Paul was more of a liability than an asset to their cause. It was Paul himself who came up with a solution. He could take their message to the Jews living outside Judea as well as gentiles who were sympathetic to them. They could thus gather more support, collect more money and Paul would be too far away to embarrass them if caught – or so they thought. They happily agreed to this, and Paul set off on his personal mission – he had achieved his ambition to become an important personality within his chosen faith. He was, as he described himself, an apostle to the gentiles.
And so off he went. His knowledge of many different belief systems stood him in good stead. He could speak a language that they understood – of gods who mate with humans and produce offspring, of gods who die to bring salvation and rebirth, of sacrifices of blood. He knew that some topics were unpopular – very few adult men would look fondly on the idea of circumcision, so that went out the window. Pork and other foods forbidden to Jews were very popular, so Paul started to take decisions about these and other matters. The rules, he decided, had been changed. No longer were people bound by these rules in the new movement. Jesus had put an end to that – his death had brought about a new covenant.
It would have taken time for this news to reach the group in Jerusalem. On the one hand, communication was slow. Even for an emperor it took weeks to get a message to the far flung corners of the empire. Other people would have to wait for someone who was travelling in the right direction, ensure that it is someone that you can trust with potentially compromising letters, and who were prepared to take the risk of being found carrying them, and then they would take a week or more to get there. The reply would take a similarly difficult route back. The other reason was simple: the messianic movements were concerned primarily with the political rule of Judea, and Jerusalem in particular. The Greek and Roman regions simply did not concern them much, except maybe for fund-raising. It was only when they started receiving letters of complaint that they realised that Paul was running amok in their name. Twice they recalled him to Jerusalem. The first time, Paul managed to convince them that he was only preaching to gentiles that they did not have to be circumcised or give up their favourite foods. Following some debate, they allowed this to continue, unaware that Paul was not too careful about distinguishing Jews and non-Jews when preaching. The second time round things were more serious. Paul was on his way back to Jerusalem and must have felt that things were not so good this time. In his hand was a bag of money collected from the various synagogues and communities as contributions to the Nazarenes. This was a good time to purchase an insurance policy, in the form of a Roman citizenship. In those days, a Roman citizenship provided many practical advantages, and the Romans knew a good business opportunity when they saw it – so they created a system whereby the richest people in their empire could buy those advantages, thus making a good income while protecting the most valuable people within their empire.
Paul arrived in Jerusalem and there faced the council of the Nazarenes. They knew now that he was teaching Jews and non-Jews alike, that the laws of the Jewish scriptures no longer applied. The Torah was obsolete, replaced by Paul’s own teachings. Paul had written that he himself was no longer bound by the laws. This went completely contrary to the Nazarenes’ views – they were Jews through and through, and considered the laws as still binding. Nobody – not the messiah nor the priests nor anyone else could declare them void.
They decided that Paul would be made to go to the temple. There, in full view of the public, he had to participate in a particular ritual that would show all the witnesses that he was an observing Jew as well as supporting the Nazirite vows, as he accompanied members who were completing their own vows. If he had been teaching against this, this would embarrass him and show contriteness. If he hadn’t, it might serve to set at rest the minds of those who were angered by what they saw as the Nazarenes’ representative undermining Judaism.
Paul set off with his companions towards the Temple. Luckily, enough years had passed that he did not have to worry about the high priest. He was followed by those whom he had angered with his teachings, eager to see him humiliated. As the crowd gathered and started to get rowdy, the local Roman guards turned up to keep the situation under control. Recognising an opportunity and possible fearing for his safety, Paul finally took out his secret weapon.
Paul was a Roman citizen! The Nazarenes would have been horrified. They were an organisation dedicated to bringing down the Roman empire – or at least expelling it from their homeland – and they had among them an actual Roman citizen! It was like a modern-day synagogue discovering that their cantor was a secret Nazi. The breach was now beyond irreparable.
Paul took advantage of his Roman citizenship to make his getaway. He didn’t want to hang about in Jerusalem until someone remembered Saul the soldier. Besides, his frequent travels and letter writing had built up a large if widespread community who now looked to him as their teacher and leader. He didn’t need the Nazarenes any more. He was the top dog now.
Paul would continue his travels, establishing the new beliefs and gathering more followers. The Nazarenes continued to ignore everything that was happening outside Judea. The followers of Paul – even after Paul’s own death – started gathering the stories that surrounded Jesus’ life, compiling them into chronological accounts and frequently filling in the blanks, especially wherever they found what they considered to be a messianic prophecy. Not only that but any hint that Jesus was against Rome was expunged. For the new faith to spread within the Roman empire, the Romans had to be the good guys. The Jews on the other hand had already dismissed Jesus as a candidate for messiah and were positively appalled at the idea that he was God himself. So, let them take the blame. Thus Jesus was transformed from a devoted Jew who saw himself as the means for Judea to gain its independence from Rome, to a Greco-Roman style god whose death would save the world, and in whose death the Romans were only unwitting patsies. In time, Jerusalem would face numerous revolts, organised by other would-be messiahs, ending in the destruction of Jerusalem. The Nazarenes themselves fled into Egypt and disappeared. Paul’s new movement, now known as Christianity, kept its head low and flourished, until finally the emperor Constantine declared it the official religion of Rome, and his successor Theodosius made it mandatory. Why wouldn’t they? It preached to slaves that they should obey their masters, and wives to be submissive to their husbands. That suited the Romans just fine.
Of course, you can’t just order someone to believe in a new god and they all happily obey. They can’t openly refuse – not if they want to retain all their anatomy anyway. So, if they were worshipping a goddess, they simply said she was Mary, mother of god. If they were participating in the joyful festivities of Saturnalia in December, they change that to Christ-mas instead, retaining everything but the name. And if they were participating in the blood-and-flesh celebrations of Mithras, they switched that to a Christian setting. Over generations, the lines became blurred even for the participants even as the assimilation of traditions continued over centuries and millennia. The god of love became Saint Valentine. The winter spirits that rewarded and punished were merged into one Santa Claus, who gives presents or turns them into coal. The evil deities found in Zoroastrianism and many other religions were linked with the angel Satan, who had an unpleasant task in Judaism but still was acting for God. Now he was his arch-nemesis.
Years after the Nazarenes disappeared into Egypt, a group reappeared saying they were their descendants and accusing Paul of manipulation and corrupting the message of Jesus. By this time however the Christians reigned supreme, and did not take kindly at all to similar accusations. The dominant group of Christianity had already suppressed all the others they had branded as heretics, and the newly emerged Nazarenes, or Ebionites as they were derisively called, were wiped out, leaving only Saul’s Christians, who lived happily ever after.