How Empire Eliminated the Historical Jesus for Good

(This is the twelfth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

According to the biblical scholarship we’ve been reviewing over the last dozen weeks or so, Jesus of Nazareth stood with the poor, and announced a future of justice for them. Jesus also resisted the empire which, as we’ll see presently, eventually dramatically diminished the importance of the Jesus of history. Examination of Jesus’ resistance to empire and empire’s co-opting of the Nazarene’s life and words is the point of this posting on the historical Jesus.

That Jesus stood with the poor and favored them is obvious. He was a simple worker, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and theologized as an immigrant in Egypt. He healed sick people, fed the hungry, and cast out evil spirits. He announced and embodied a new reality for the poor. In the “reign of God” justice would replace exploitation; the positions of rich and poor would be reversed, and a sharing ethic would take the place of competition and oppression. To put it in terms of faith: a poor person was the site God chose to reveal God’s Self to the rest of us. That in itself constitutes a stupendous revelation.

Being a poor person in Palestine, and especially coming from the revolutionary Galilee district, Jesus himself was understandably anti-empire. The best illustration of Jesus’ resistance is in the famous story of his temptations in the desert. We all know the story with its rich blend of historical fact, symbolism, and explicit and implied scriptural references. Jesus has just been baptized by John. A voice has told him that he is somehow the “Son of God.” He goes out to the desert to discover what that might mean. On this vision quest, he prays and fasts for 40 days. The visions come. He is tempted by Satan. In Matthew’s account, the culminating vision is imperial (4:8-9). Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth – an empire much vaster than Rome’s. Satan says, “All of this can be yours, if only you bow down and worship me. Jesus, of course, refuses. He says, “Be gone, Satan! It is written, the Lord God only shall you adore; him only shall you serve.” In other words, Jesus rejected empire in no uncertain terms.

Jesus’ opposition to empire is extremely important to understanding how Christianity lost contact with the historical Jesus over 1500 years ago, when it became pro-rich and pro-empire. That’s what happened to the faith of Jesus under Constantine when Christian “orthodoxy” emerged. Christianity lost its soul. Or to put it more starkly: it actually began worshipping Satan at that point.

Here’s what I mean. Jesus rejected the temptation to empire as we’ve just seen. But in the 4th century, circumstances made it necessary for the emperor Constantine and his successors to repeat unwittingly Satan’s temptation – this time to the leadership of the Christian church. They could allow Christianity to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. All they had to do was to accept empire, give it religious legitimacy – become the state religion. Jesus had said “No!” to a similar temptation back there in the desert. Fourth century church leadership said “Yes!” and in doing so, in effect said “yes” to Satan worship – the necessary precondition of accepting empire. They also abandoned the Jesus of history and his this-worldly message. In the process, they reduced Jesus to a mythological figure and Christianity to a Roman mystery cult. Let me explain.

Think about the historical circumstances that led Constantine to be concerned with Christianity at all. Like all oppressors, he realized that religion represented an incomparable tool for controlling people. If an emperor can convince people that in obeying him they are obeying God, the emperor has won the day. In fact it is the job of any state religion to make people believe that God’s interests and the state’s interests are the same.

What Constantine saw in the 4th century was that as Rome expanded and incorporated more and more Peoples with their own religions, Rome’s own state religion was losing power. At the same time, Christianity was spreading like wildfire. And it was politically dangerous.  The message of Jesus was particularly attractive to the lower classes. It affirmed their dignity in the clearest of terms. Often the message incited slaves and others to rebel rather than obey. Rome’s knee-jerk response was repression and persecution. But by Constantine’s day, Rome’s repression had proved ineffective. Despite Rome’s throwing Christians to the lions for decade after decade, the faith of Jesus was more popular than ever.

Constantine decided that if he couldn’t beat the Christians, he had to join them. And he evidently determined to do so by robbing Christianity of its revolutionary potential. That meant converting the faith of Jesus into a typical Roman “mystery cult.”

Now mystery cults had been extremely popular in Rome. They were “salvation religions” that worshipped gods with names like Isis, Osiris, and Mithra. Mithra was particularly popular. He was the Sun God, whose feast day and birth was celebrated on December 25th.  Typically the “story” celebrated in mystery cults was of a god who descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, died, rose from the dead, ascended back to heaven, and from there offered worshippers “eternal life,” if they joined in the cults where the god’s body was eaten under the form of bread, and the god’s blood was drunk under the form of wine.

To convert Christianity into a mystery cult, Constantine (who wasn’t even a Christian at the time) convoked a church council – the Council of Nicaea in 325. There the question of the day became who was Jesus of Nazareth. Was he just a human being? Was he a God and not human at all? Was he some combination of God and man? Did he have to eat? Did he have to defecate or urinate? Actually those were the questions. For Constantine’s purposes, the more divine and otherworldly Jesus was the better. That would make him less a threat to the emperor’s very this-worldly dominion.

The result of all the deliberations was codified in what became known as the Nicene Creed. Maybe you know it by heart. It runs like this:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.[

The Nicene Creed can be so familiar to us that we don’t notice what it does. In the part italicized above, it jumps from the conception and birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection. It leaves out entirely any reference to what Jesus said and did. For all practical purposes it ignores the historical Jesus and pays attention only to a God who comes down from heaven, dies, rises, ascends back to heaven and offers eternal life to those who believe. It’s a nearly perfect reflection of “mystery cult” belief. In effect Jesus becomes a harmless Mithra. The revolutionary potential of Jesus’ words and actions relative to justice, wealth and poverty are lost. Not only that, but subsequent to Nicaea, anyone connecting Jesus to a struggle for justice, sharing and communal life is classified as heretical. That is, mystery cult becomes “orthodoxy.” Eventually, the example and teaching of Jesus becomes heresy – especially later on when “communism” becomes a threat to Rome’s modern imperial successors.

Please think about that.

Next week: Series Conclusion

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

3 thoughts on “How Empire Eliminated the Historical Jesus for Good”

  1. Very interesting, Mike! I never knew much about the Nicene Creed and just repeated the words my whole life long. Only recently, with the bishops’ strange new version, have I begun to think about it.Thanks for these blog entries on the historical Jesus.

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  2. This is excellent, thank-you for taking the time to write it. I have long thought the creeds miss out on what is most exciting and meaningful about Jesus, namely his counter-cultural actions & teachings, and his preference for the poor.

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  3. Your own address is still bouncing..so I copy below to your blog address the message from Peter. My one a few minutes ago was also returned. Let me know if you get this. Jim

    Dear Jim and Mike,

    Please be assured that I have no problem whatsoever with any Former putting stuff on the site. Good stuff does not clutter, it stimulates. So go for it, Mike, and fear not. Best wishes to you both for a Joyous Christmas. Peter

    On Mon, Dec 17, 2012 at 10:37 PM, Mike Rivage-Seul’s Blog: . . .about things th

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