Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
 Supplementary Articles - No. 5: Tracing the Christian Lineage in Alexandria

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.

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Supplementary Article No. 5


The Begetting of Christianity

When mythicists like Arthur Drews and J. M. Robertson were putting forth their views early in this century, of a Christianity without Jesus of Nazareth, one of the objections to their position was the following claim: “(These writers) must support their thesis by showing that there was a Jewish myth of a dying and rising God . . . the name Jesus must also be proved to be the name of a mythological figure, and evidence must be given of a pre-Christian Jesus cult.” This view was put forward by W. Foerster in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume III, p. 290 (published in the 1940s). Foerster went on to state: “There are no direct or unequivocal testimonies to any such cult.”

True enough. But such objections are misguided and unnecessary. It is often argued, for example, that the Jews did not possess the concept of a suffering Messiah. Well, they did. They possessed it in that line of thought, albeit a fringe one (and probably made up of a strong gentile element), which arose to become the dominant form of Christianity. The point is, there is no need to produce pre-Christian Christians. The Jewish sectarian movement which apostles like Paul joined and preached was itself the innovator. Paul, if not among the earliest founders, was one of its most creative and influential architects.

Unfortunately, we don’t know where or when the first Jewish (or Hellenistic-Jewish) thinker rose up from a perusal of the sacred writings and declared that here was the truth: the Messiah was not a future ruler and human agent of God, a priest or warrior, but his own divine Son, a spiritual figure who was pre-existent with the Father. Moreover, he had, within the spiritual realm, descended from the highest sphere of heaven, suffered, died and been exalted in order to bring about the believers’ own exaltation. We don’t know who first applied the name “Yeshua” (Jesus), meaning "deliverer, savior," to such a spiritual Son and Christ. Indeed, we don’t know if any one individual can be accredited with such innovations. In fact, that is highly unlikely.

What we do know is that such innovators were building on contemporary religious philosophy, both Jewish and Greek. They had antecedents. Only if the fundamental concept of a heavenly intermediary between God and humanity was already part of the philosophical fabric of the time can we understand the genesis of the Christian movement, or the success which apostles like Paul achieved. The creation of Christian ideas out of this fabric was a process which undoubtedly took place at more than one location around the eastern Mediterranean, with various communities and individuals interacting on each other over the course of an unknown number of years. A record of such seminal evolutionary processes has been lost to us, but we can see early manifestations of them in such things as the christological hymns of Philippians (2:6-11), Colossians (1:15-20) and 1 Timothy (3:16), in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in the Wisdom-Word-Son mysticism of the Odes of Solomon (see Supplementary Article No. 4). And we can glean something of Paul’s own application and rethinking of the fledgling ideas he embraced at various points in his letters.

That it was all the product of personal study and pondering over the sacred writings, envisioned as the action of the Spirit in revelation from God, is clear from many passages in the epistles. Paul knows of the Son because God has revealed such an entity directly to him (Galatians 1:16); the Son is the subject of God’s gospel found in the prophets (Romans 1:1-4); and that he died and rose from death is knowledge Paul has received by revelation through a reading of scripture (1 Corinthians 15:3-4: see Supplementary Article No. 6, “The Source of Paul’s Gospel"). At the hands of thinkers like Paul, the intermediary Son and his role in salvation was taking new shape.

Consciously or unconsciously, Paul and his contemporaries were fitting their spiritual Son into the thought patterns of the time. And these patterns can be discerned. Perhaps they are nowhere so clear as in Alexandria around the turn of the era, especially in the writings of Philo Judaeus. Philo might be styled a “grandfather” to Christianity, for some of his genes have been passed down to Paul and others, genes he himself had drawn from his own progenitors, the world of Platonic philosophy and Jewish Wisdom theology. Jesus’ genetic makeup was richly endowed.

Philo of Alexandria

The city of Alexandria was founded in the year 331 BCE by Alexander the Great in his march of conquest across the Persian empire. It was home to the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora. Here flourished the most prominent center of Jewish learning outside Palestine, the place where the Hebrew bible had been translated into Greek in the third century BCE. It was arguably the most important point of entry for Greek philosophy in its absorption by the Jews.

The foremost philosopher-theologian of Hellenistic Judaism was born around 25 BCE and lived until some time after the year 41 CE. Philo believed that the Platonic philosophy of his day (now called Middle Platonism) represented a true picture of God and the universe, supplemented by elements of the Stoic and Pythagorean systems. But Philo was first and foremost a Jew, and so he maintained that Judaism lay at the center of this picture, that the Jewish scriptures, as well as Jewish religious observance, embodied the very reality all this Greek philosophy pointed to. His extensive writings set out to illustrate this.

Such an outlook had been developing in Jewish apologetics even before Philo. One of the principal ways of interpreting scripture to make it reflect Greek philosophy was through the use of allegory and symbolism. The text itself could on the surface seem primitive and uninspiring and even be seen to contain unacceptable ideas, but by applying allegory, the literal meaning of the words could be swept aside, or at least supplemented, by deeper meaning. Thus the text could be made to say almost anything the interpreter wanted it to say. Moreover, once the Pentateuch was seen to embody the principles of Platonism, Moses as their author could then be trumpeted as the original promulgator of the truths of the universe—under God’s inspiration. Plato and his fellow Greek thinkers were declared to have gotten their ideas from Moses, through the Jewish scriptures, which they must have read (in Greek translation prior to the Septuagint!) before forming their own philosophies. The first prominent exponent of this audacious piece of chutzpah was Aristobolus of Alexandria, who seems to have flourished around the middle of the first century BCE.

Philo’s relationship to Christianity has over the centuries posed a problem for Christian apologists. On the one hand, he shows not the slightest knowledge of Jesus or the Christian movement, even though he would have survived the crucifixion by more than a decade. And yet his ideas (which would have predated Jesus’ career) have an undeniable affinity with Christian doctrine. The solution, of course, is that Philo represents an expression of the current philosophy of his day, a syncretism between Jewish and Greek, while Christianity was formed from a similar amalgamation of contemporary concepts. Whether any of the ideas in the early Christian catalogue were directly derived from Philo is unknown, but both lines of thought can be reduced to the concept of the Son, the spiritual intermediary between God and the world.

Views of God and the Universe

In Part Two of the Main Articles, I described how ancient thinking had arrived at the concept that an ultimate high God created and governed the universe. But as this God in the minds of philosophers became more and more transcendent, the problem arose as to how he could have any contact with the inferior world of matter. The solution was to postulate an intermediary divine force or entity, an emanation of the ultimate God, an “hypostasis” which took on its own character and identity.

Stoicism, incidentally, did not face such a problem, since it conceived of God as immanent in the world, virtually equivalent to Nature itself or the total universe. The reasoning or governing principle within it was thought of as the mind of God, and this the Stoics called the Logos. Humans possessed a spark of this divine reason within themselves—the Stoic “soul”—so that they shared in God’s nature; they were an integral part of the cosmic world, in continuity with God.

For Platonism, on the other hand, the governing force of the universe (God) lay outside matter, with the visible world only a distant imperfect reflection of the true spiritual reality above, creating a “dualistic” (in two parts) universe. The Platonists, too, adopted the term Logos, but they used it of the intermediate force which served as the link between God and the lower world. The first task of this force had been creation, a process in which the mind of God produced Ideas, and the intermediary agency, a creative aspect of God which Plato called the “Demiurge,” fashioned these Ideas into the material world (as well as into the stars and lower gods). The Logos was also defined as the image of God according to which humans were created, and it was regarded as the ongoing channel of spiritual communication between Deity and humanity.

Platonists generally did not regard the Logos as a personal being, but more an abstract force or principle. As Platonism progressed, the Logos was conceived of as approaching ever closer to the world of matter, to “flesh.” Plutarch, in the later first century, associated the Logos with the savior god Osiris, and regarded one aspect of God/Osiris as operating within matter (Isis and Osiris, 53f . See John Dillon, The Middle Platonists, p.200.)

For some, the Logos became an agency of salvation and took on decided personal characteristics. A very revealing little document (Discourse to the Greeks) which ended up being ascribed to Justin Martyr is probably a product of Hellenistic Judaism, perhaps written by a Greek who joined some sect among Diaspora Jews. Here are some of the things the writer says about the Logos and his faith in it. In this writer’s mind, it seems to have taken on the nature of a personal being:

As Goodenough has pointed out, this document contains no hint of Christ or any suggestion of Christianity, and yet it is undeniably cut from the same intellectual cloth. What we have here is an expression of faith in a saving power associated with God, a figure who serves as his intermediary with the world. The concept of “the Son” as a form of Savior is alive within Hellenism, albeit, if this is the case here, on the fringes of Judaism.

Philo adopted the Platonic Logos for his own picture of the universe, calling it “the Son” and “the first-begotten of God” (as in De Confusione Linguarum, 146). He also drew on the figure of Wisdom from Judaism’s own intermediary theology (see below). In some biblical and extra-biblical writings, Wisdom, a personified aspect of God, was an agent of creation and salvation, pre-existent with God in heaven. Philo occasionally makes her mother to the Logos. But such language seems to be symbolic only. Certainly, Philo envisioned no incarnation of this “Son” to earth.

Philo could not personalize his first-begotten of God, nor make him even as distinct a figure as the spiritual Christ who inhabited Paul’s mind, for his Jewish monotheistic instinct was too strong. Nor had he any apocalyptic leanings, with consequently little if any interest in the Messiah idea. Besides, Philo was a mystic, one who had achieved, so he believed, an ascent to God; he hints at intense religious experiences which make Paul sound earthbound. His focus on the Platonized God of Abraham could well have shut out the possibility of developing any allegiance or emotional investment in a subordinate deity. And so his “first-born Son” remained a largely abstract principle, the power by which God worked on the universe.

But he also saw the Logos as an intercessor, bringing it closer to Christianity’s Christ. "To his Word (Logos), His chief messenger, highest in age and honor, the Father of all has given the special prerogative, to stand on the border [between the two worlds] and separate the creature from the Creator. This same Word both pleads with the immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject." (From the Loeb edition, p.385-7.)

The power of the Logos could, however, be embodied in humans, and thus Philo portrayed Moses as having been the most perfect receptacle of God’s Logos in human history. Moses is the closest Philo came to ‘incarnating’ his Logos, and this gave him his own brand of ‘divine’ hero. Philo made Moses the prime human mediator between God and the world, the one who had received God’s wisdom and revealed it to humanity through the Jewish scriptures. (Not surprisingly, Moses in Philo’s hands comes across as a committed Middle Platonist.)

A divine-by-proxy Moses satisfied Philo’s need for an accessible personal deity. But certain other Jews did not feel the same rigid restrictions toward God, and could envision their own hero as a separate divine being beside him in heaven. From the Logos of Greek philosophy and Philo’s Platonized Judaism to Paul’s Christ Jesus is scarcely a stone’s throw.

The Logos and Christ

It would be impossible here to give a summary of Philo’s philosophy which in any case he never laid out in orderly fashion. (Nor is it free from the occasional contradiction.) But we can look at some of the things he says about the Logos and note the obvious points of contact with Christian ideas.

As E. R. Goodenough describes it in By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism (1935)—a profoundly original if imperfect feat of scholarship, ahead of its time and viewed with mistrust by lesser minds—the Logos was likened by Philo (and other strands of Hellenistic philosophy) to a stream of Light-Radiation issuing from God, with stages of decreasing brilliance, forming a hierarchy of God’s powers and activities. Such spilling out of the Godhead into subsidiary essences was a part of the ancient development of philosophy about Deity; it eventually led to the fantastical inventions of Gnosticism, the teeming “pleroma” (fullness of God) populating heaven and even breaking out into the lower world. Philo is not consistent in how he applies the term Logos within his picture of the various emanations of God, for he was not a precise, systematic thinker. How he handled his concepts in any given piece of writing may have been dependent on his latest mystical experience. But the shape of his depictions can generally be seen as determined by features of the Jewish cult, even Jewish history and geography, since Philo was anxious to show that the workings of God and the universe were reflected in Judaism and Jewish experience.

Like most Hellenistic philosophers, Philo believed that the ultimate God was unknowable and indefinable. Humanity could reach and understand him only through his emanations. The Logos was God’s mediator, his thought expressed in a comprehensible form. This was the fundamental religious need of the age, and Paul’s Christ, as well as the later Gospel Jesus, filled this basic role as the Son revealing the Father. For Philo, this emanation, this Logos, was not a separate divine being. Rather, it was the point of contact with God, just as the Sun’s radiated light and heat is the part of the Sun we experience, the Sun itself being unreachable.

Philo described the Logos as the “image” of God. It was God’s “first-begotten,” the primary of his emanations. Through this “eldest son” God produced everything else. The Logos was the instrument of God’s creation. In an idea derived from Stoicism, the Logos became the binding power which made everything in the universe cohere and function. Again like Stoicism, the Logos was the divine seed within humans; as the Logos was God’s Son, all human beings were God’s “sons.” Occasionally, Philo merged this pervading Logos-force with the Jewish Law in its ideal, spiritual form.

In Christian expression, one can find common ground with Philo at almost every turn. Paul calls Christ the “image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4); through him we become “God’s sons” (Galatians 4:5-7). The Law—for Paul a new one, superseding the old—is embodied in Christ. Christ is the instrument of creation (“through whom all things came to be and we through him”: 1 Corinthians 8:6). The writer of Colossians (1:15-20) also calls the Son “the image of the invisible God . . . in him everything in heaven and earth was created . . . and all things are held together in him.” The Epistle to the Hebrews, in a profusion of Platonic imagery (1:2-3), declares the Son to be "the heir to the whole universe, and through whom he [God] created all orders of existence: the Son who is the effulgence of God’s splendor and the stamp of God’s very being, and sustains the universe by his word of power" (NEB). And so on. None of it, of course, is identified with any Jesus of Nazareth or human preacher of the Kingdom.

Even the later Trinity has its predecessor in Philo’s occasional grouping of the powers of God into three, and his other hierarches of the divine emanations. Philo stresses that these are aspects within a single unity. In more than one of his works (e.g., On Dreams, ii.28) Philo styles the Logos as “high priest,” prefiguring Hebrews’ central view of the heavenly Christ. Neither Paul nor Hebrews uses the actual term “Logos,” but their Christ bears all the characteristics of this divine entity who is one step removed from the Father.

Some claim that Christianity is distinct from Philo and other Hellenistic philosophies in having its Son incarnated to earth, turning him into a personal Savior. But Philo created his own Savior figure in Moses, in whom the Logos had been instilled. Although Moses was not presented as strictly divine himself (though some commentators suggest that Philo virtually does this), it was through the Logos within him that Moses provided humanity with knowledge and accessibility to God, and thus salvation. For Philo, salvation came through the attainment of mystic communion with God, to be achieved in ultimate form upon death. Compare Paul in Philippians 1:23: “I would like to depart (the flesh) and be with Christ.”

Philo even penned a prayer to Moses, one that bears a close resemblance to prayers addressed by Christian mystics to Christ:

Moses had experienced, so Philo says (Questions and Answers on Genesis, ii.46), a second birth which had no mother, but only “the Father of all.” And at his death, Moses underwent a transfiguration and passed, pure light, into the presence of God. The parallels to all this in the Christian portrayal of Christ scarcely need spelling out.

In heaven itself, Philo sees the Logos as “a continual supplicant to the immortal God on behalf of mortal man” (Divine Matters, 205): this is one of Christ’s roles, one exactly paralleled in 1 John 2:1. The role Philo did not assign to his Logos, however, nor to Moses, was a sacrificial one. Paul and the branch of the Christ movement he represented needed an atoner, a sacrifice for sin—or perhaps, at an earlier stage than Paul (represented by the Philippians hymn), a paradigmatic suffering figure whose exaltation would guarantee the believers’ own. Ultimately, Christianity became the embodiment of the suffering Savior idea, and this was its greatest “advance” (if we may style it such) on Philo and Hellenistic philosophy generally. Philo, on the other hand, represents Jewish optimism and positive theology at its best, although part of this is due to a healthy dose of the Greek spirit.

Jewish Personified Wisdom

The quotation given above from the Epistle to the Hebrews is very close to a passage from the most important non-Philonic document to survive from Hellenistic Judaism, one which was almost certainly written in Alexandria during Philo’s lifetime, though it is not by him. This is the Wisdom of Solomon, included in the Apocrypha section of most Old Testaments. The unknown writer of this work came at the end of a long line of Jewish thinking about the figure of divine Wisdom.

Judaism had its own intermediary figure going back centuries, certainly as old as Plato. For the Jews, God never became quite so inaccessible, but among the scribes of the period following the Exile, God was presented as making himself known and working in the world through a part of himself they called “Wisdom”. This was no “Son” of God, however, for the figure of Wisdom was a female. (The grammatical gender of “wisdom” in Hebrew is feminine.) It is possible that one of her pre-Exilic antecedents was as female consort to Yahweh, under the influence of surrounding Semitic religions.

Wisdom took on a status and personality of her own. Some scholars claim that she was never anything more than a poetic personification of certain activities of God, but the language used of her speaks more than this. Helmer Ringgren, whose seminal book Word and Wisdom (1947) is widely cited in this field, says (p.104) that Wisdom was not an abstraction but “a concrete being, self-existent beside God.”

Personified Wisdom also represents part of a widespread tendency in Near Eastern religions to strip off certain aspects of a deity and turn them into separate divine figures. They began life simply as qualities of a higher god, but gradually, as more was said and thought about them, they took on a life of their own. This was not an expression of the “intermediary” phenomenon; the higher gods were not transcendent. They simply delegated authority too efficiently and lost parts of themselves in the process. (These separated aspects are called “hypostases” and the process “hypostatization”. We see an intermediate form of hypstatization in the "Word" and "Beloved" of the Odes of Solomon; a fully formed one in the Christ Jesus of Paul and early Christianity.)

Wisdom may also have been pushed into the spotlight by a scribal establishment which wanted to counter a fascination for the Phoenician goddess Ishtar. The latter’s sexual persona and licentious cult had long exerted an influence in Israel. One way to undercut the intruder’s appeal was to borrow her features and turn them into something that could be approved of and controlled. The figure of Wisdom probably owes something to an expurgated Ishtar.

Wisdom developed her own “myths” about coming to earth, although there was never any thought of her being physically incarnated. Here is what the Old Testament Book of Proverbs has to say about her:

Two important aspects of Wisdom are featured here. First, she is “pre-existent,” that is, she was with God in heaven before the creation of the world. And she is associated with God in that work. An earlier verse, 3:19, makes it clear that Wisdom serves as an instrument in the process of creation: These are two of the primary attributes given to the spiritual Christ in the thought of Paul, pre-existence and a role in creation, and they were current in other circles as well.

Baruch 3:37 gives us a line which, even though originally intended as a reference to the Torah (the “Law” contained in the five biblical books of Moses which mainstream rabbinic thought identified with Wisdom), may have had a profound influence on the future:

Was this one of the footsteps on the path to bringing a different “hypostasis” of God—the Son—down to earth? Perhaps the writer of the hymn to the Logos which was adapted as a Prologue to the final version of the Gospel of John turned it into a song of the incarnation: “So the Logos (Word) became flesh and dwelt among us.” (1:14)

On the other hand, the writer of one of the documents which went into the composite 1 Enoch, end product of some first century Jewish apocalyptic sect, took a more pessimistic view of Wisdom’s sojourn on earth (42:1-2):

Did Greek philosophy influence the early evolution of the Jewish Wisdom figure? It’s difficult to tell. But by the time we get to the Wisdom of Solomon we can see a clear and exotic blending of Wisdom with the Logos. Wisdom is now the divine power active in the world, the spirit that pervades and governs all things. She is the Logos, but without the name. She is God’s “throne-partner,” a step away from Christ sitting at the right hand of God. She, too, is pre-existent, an agent of creation. And consider this passage from 7:22-30: Such thinking is clearly reflected in those opening verses (see above) of the Epistle to the Hebrews, defining the nature of the Son as “the effulgence of God’s splendor,” the image of God and the sustainer of the universe. This document comes either from Alexandria or from some Palestinian circle with close connections to the Egyptian city and its philosophy. The christological hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 (also noted above) is stamped with the same kind of imagery as well: the Son as the pre-existent image of God, a force which created the universe and now holds it together.

Paul himself tells us that Christ “is the very image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and in 1 Corinthians 8:6 he has this to say:

Paul and other early writers are speaking of Christ in exactly the same language as we find in the broader philosophical world, both Greek and Jewish. Their idea of the spiritual Son has absorbed both the features and roles of the Logos and personified Wisdom. In reading scripture and imagining he is being inspired to a view of God’s Son, Paul is drawing on the prominent ideas of his day and the deeper heritage which lay behind them.

Scholars largely recognize this, of course, but claim that all these current ideas were applied to Jesus of Nazareth, that they were “interpretations” of him. Apart from wondering how such a process could have taken place in a Jewish milieu, the writings themselves give us no hint that such a process of interpretation of a human man is being undertaken. One also wonders how such an interpretation could be conducted, by so many writers in so many documents, without once identifying the object of the interpretation. (See "Postscript" in the Main Articles for a fuller discussion of this question.)

D. Moody Smith has noted (in Harper’s Bible Dictionary under “Logos”) that “it is not immediately obvious why a man sent from God, even the Messiah of Israel, should have played such a role,” referring to the Logos’ role as God’s agent in creating the world. He is so right. To consider that Jews, no less, could assign to a crucified preacher the creation of the universe is nothing short of ludicrous. But of course they did nothing of the sort. They assigned that role to the spiritual Son in heaven, just as thinkers before them had assigned it to God’s Wisdom and others to the intermediary Logos. The historical man entered the picture only when the heavenly Son was later thought to have come to earth and lived a life whose details could be found in scripture.

The Wisdom of Solomon also shows us that the time was ripe for the Logos and Wisdom to make a journey into the world. The earlier Lady Wisdom of Proverbs who “stood by the gate and called” is undoubtedly speaking metaphorically, in a spiritual sense, for the period immediately after the Exile would have been too early to envision even the concept of incarnation. But by the turn of the era, among both Jews and Greeks, the need for a transcendent God to send his representative, his revealer, was being acutely felt. So much of the world was unfathomable. Wars, strife and evil spirits seemed to be winning. Humanity desperately looked for aid, direction and outright salvation. The need is reflected in lines like these, although this writer’s hallmark is one of optimism (Wisdom of Solomon, 9:10):

In some Jewish circles, Wisdom was seen as doing just that. She was thought of as sending “envoys,” entrusting them with teachings which revealed God, his wishes and his workings. The extensive wisdom literature of the scriptures and other writings was seen as inspired by personified Wisdom. Sometimes these were presented as her direct words, as in parts of the Odes of Solomon. The group who produced the first layers of the document Q also worked as Wisdom’s envoys (see Part Three of the Main Articles), and they developed the idea in a new direction which fed into the creation of the historical Jesus.

Paul’s Christ had also been sent forth, the divine Son who was the medium of God’s revelation, whom Paul calls “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). In some dimension, this Son had performed a redeeming act. As yet, all this had happened in spiritual ways, in spiritual dimensions. Soon this would not be sufficient.

In Hellenistic Synagogues

Before leaving Alexandria with its array of Christian progenitors, we can take a short look at a set of writings which seem to contain within themselves the marks of evolution, charting the growth of the Christian organism from womb to childhood. Here are telltale marks of the missing links in the fossil record. Fittingly, these writings are buried within later Christian ground, the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century.

Almost a hundred years ago it was recognized that many of the Christian prayers found in Books 7 and 8 of this compilation of church laws and liturgy are derived from much earlier Jewish synagogal prayers. In many cases, Christian phrases have been crudely spliced into originals which clearly lacked any Christian content. These interpolations can vary from a few basic words, such as “through Jesus your Son,” to several lines which offer material based on the Gospels. Some seem more primitive than others and the whole process undoubtedly took place over a long period of time, reflecting several stages in the evolution of Christ belief.

Goodenough (By Light, Light, p.306f) and others find similarities in the prayers to Philo’s environment of Hellenistic Judaism and place them in Alexandria. Others (such as D. A. Fiensy, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2, p.671f) offer the synagogues of Syria as an alternate home for this liturgy. What is particularly intriguing in these prayers is not the obvious, Gospel-derived additions made by full-blown Christianity at a later stage, but the more subtle features which point to earlier stages of development.

Alongside, for example, a type of insertion which names Christ and Jesus, there stand references to God’s “Word” or Logos, both types filling a similar role. Passages like “All creatures being made by thy Logos” and “Thou art the Father . . . the cause of the creation by a Mediator” (Apostolic Constitutions VII, 35, vv. 5 & 10) seem part of the original layer, the product of Jewish circles which saw, like Philo, creation taking place through a more abstract principle; whereas another passage in a different prayer (VII, 36, v.1) has brought this idea to the next, more specifically Christian stage: “O Lord . . . you created the cosmos through Christ.” (Christ, at this stage, may still be a non-historical figure.)

The original prayers (e.g., VIII, 12, v.7) praise God for begetting

(In the Apostolic Constitutions, this prayer is placed in the mouth of the Gospel James, son of Zebedee!)

By the absence of any specific insertion attaching such ideas to a Jesus (historical or otherwise), we can see this as a reflection of a very Philonic-type philosophy having nothing to do with Christianity, despite close parallels to some New Testament expression. From this early stage of Logos, Sophia and Mediator, we see the “Son” progressing to the names “Christ” and “Jesus” and later to the Gospel mythology as later developments were overlaid on the earlier liturgy. Thus, succeeding layers exist side by side in these prayers.

The prayers in their original Jewish form are commonly dated no earlier than the middle of the second century (as, for example, by Fiensy, op.cit., p.673), but this is inconclusive. Because some vocabulary suggests familiarity with the Aquila version of the Greek Old Testament, published around 135 CE, does not mean that some or all of the prayers do not have earlier versions or roots; nor would all of them have been written at the same time. The Philonic and Wisdom elements, in fact, seem very close to the Alexandria of the turn of the era. Nor is there anything to prevent the transmission (recopying) of texts having included alterations in wording, something common to all early Christian documentation. If interpolations can be made, so can an updating to new and familiar vocabulary. (If this was the case here, it was fortunately not done consistently.)

It follows from all this that there is something wrong with the standard view which sees these prayers as having been “taken over” from Jewish sources by later Christian groups and altered as was seen fit or necessary. The prayer from which the above quote is drawn (the one attributed to James) would hardly lend itself naturally to a Christian sect professing Jesus of Nazareth. If for some reason the members of such a sect had adopted an extraneous Jewish hymnal of this sort, they would likely have altered it more thoroughly to make it more relevantly Christian. No, if such material was in use by Christian groups, it can only be because it was felt to be natural as it was, which means that such modes of expression had to lie in their own background. To put it another way, such liturgy suggests that Christian groups grew out of the Hellenistic Jewish groups who had originally produced it; they were Jews who adopted “Christ belief,” that is, focusing the older Son-Logos-Wisdom philosophy onto a spiritual Messiah who was becoming more personalized, more sophisticated—eventually one who had been physically incarnated and suffered death. (This process of evolution within a particular group can be seen in my analysis of the evolution of thought about the Son in the epistle 1 John: see Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John.)

These changes in theology came in over time, and corresponding changes to the liturgy were made only as was felt necessary. Earlier expressions would tend to be reinterpreted along the new lines and still be considered relevant, not always requiring a change of wording. If “Christ” grew out of the Logos and Sophia, such earlier terminology could often be allowed to stand.

One of the more extreme insertions (VII, 38, v.7) thanks God (“through Christ”) because “you have delivered us from the heresy of the Christ-murderers.” Such an interpolation is indication of the adaptation of these prayers over time. For if a Christian group felt such an animosity toward Jews at the outset, it would hardly be likely to adopt a set of Jewish prayers in the first place. Certainly it would not let stand all the pro-Jewish sentiments which permeate the vast portion of the liturgy. Only by postulating an evolving community which has integrated these prayers into its own identity and expression, finally to arrive at such an anti-Jewish attitude in a later stage, can we understand such a situation.

The Womb of Christianity?

Rather than the product of a proselytizing incursion from Jerusalem arising out of a single event and historical figure, Alexandrian Christ belief is revealed as a philosophical evolution within more adventuresome Jewish-Hellenistic circles in that city. In fact, Alexandrian Christianity in its first century and a half seems to have gone down its own path, one leading in a gnostic direction. As Walter Bauer has pointed out in Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (p.44), the first sign of an “orthodox” ecclesiastical presence in Egypt comes only toward the end of the second century. The tradition recorded by Eusebius that the apostle Mark preached in Egypt, establishing churches and a line of bishops, is highly suspect as a fabrication designed to fill the void, not much more dependable than Eusebius’ declaration that Philo had contacted St. Peter in Rome!

Instead, can we postulate a more cogent force working in the other direction? The Epistle to the Hebrews, though generally regarded as a Palestinian (or perhaps Syrian) product, is clearly cast in the Philonic-style mold of Middle Platonism. It surely owes some of its lofty sentiment to Alexandrian influence. And what Jewish-Hellenistic milieu gave rise to Paul’s view of the spiritual Christ? If Acts’ tradition that Paul came from Tarsus is correct, it might make northern Syria, centered on Antioch, the immediate melting pot for Paul’s ideas. Edessa, nearby, may have produced the Odes of Solomon, perhaps a little later than Paul. But traffic, in ideas and much else, between Alexandria and Antioch, passing through Palestine in the middle, was a natural state of affairs in the ancient world, and if the teeming ideas of Philo’s city, even of Philo himself or the circle he worked in, overflowed in well-worn northerly directions, Alexandria may in fact have been the womb of Christianity.

This traffic had been going on for well over a century, and the development of a divine intermediary concept within certain Jewish circles could have been simmering for some time all over the Levant, until Philo brought things to a boil, perhaps laying the ground for the birth of a new movement. That currents moved outward from Alexandria is evidenced by Paul and Acts, in their picture of the apostle Apollos. “Powerful in his use of the scriptures,” (says Acts 18:24), Apollos represents an intermediate stage, a step beyond Philo’s impersonal Logos, for he seems to have preached a “Wisdom” Messiah, a spiritual revealer of knowledge. His message was claimed to confer an immediate resurrection and salvation upon the Corinthian enthusiasts (see Supplementary Article No. 1: “Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate”).

But Apollos had little sympathy for a rival brand of preachers who had derived a very different Christ from their reading of scripture, especially that troublesome little fellow from points east who had gotten to the Corinthians a bit sooner and talked them into accepting a Messiah on a cross, a Son who had died and risen from the dead—a foolish bit of so-called wisdom. No doubt the proud Apollos, from the shining city of the Nile delta where learning was second to none and the great ideas of the age were generated, would have been greatly astonished to realize that he himself would end up as a footnote in history, while the dark novelties of the tenacious Paul of Tarsus would eventually go on to mold the faith of the Western world for the next two millennia.