View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

Your own personal Jesus

In the beginning there were many different sons of God – Western Christianity triumphed not by destiny but accident.

By John Gray

In 1950, while travelling in the southern marshlands of Iraq, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger came upon followers of a forgotten religion. They believed in Adam, Noah and John the Baptist and their sacred texts mentioned Jesus, so it had been assumed they were “some kind of Christian”. But in one of their scriptures Jesus was dismissed as a fraudulent sorcerer – “the wizard Messiah, son of the spirit of Lie who has given himself out to be God”. In another, John the Baptist denounces Jesus: “Thou hast lied to the Jews,” he tells him, “and hast deceived man and priests.”

The religion was that of the Mandaeans. Though forbidden to proselytise or carry arms, they endured in what is now Iraq for around 2,000 years. Today their faith has almost disappeared in its homeland, a casualty of the neo-conservative ideology that inspired the American-led invasion in 2003. Most of the 60,000 to 70,000 Mandeans in the country have since been killed, forced to convert to Islam or fled abroad. Only around 3,000 remain, though the religion continues to be practised in the global diaspora.

Living relics of an ancient creed, the Mandaeans testify to the religious melting pot in which Christianity was formed. As Catherine Nixey notes in this arrestingly vivid book, scholars now talk not of “early Christianity” but “early Christianities”. In some, Pontius Pilate – later seen by Christians as a shifty Roman relativist who washed his hands of Jesus and sent him to his death – was canonised as a saint; he still is venerated as such in the Ethiopian Coptic Church. In others, women were ordained as bishops and God was represented as being female. In a variant practised by the Ophites, a Gnostic Christian sect, Jesus was incarnated as a holy snake. These and many other Christianities were repressed when, in AD 380, a single version became the Roman state religion under Emperor Theodosius I.

There was nothing inevitable in the rise of the Christianity with which we are familiar. As Nixey writes:

“The form of Christianity that survived in the West argued, for centuries, that its victory over its rivals was natural and preordained. It was nothing of the kind. Other forms of Christianity, and other ancient religions that closely resembled it, survived for centuries elsewhere. Had history tilted slightly differently, they might have survived in Europe too. They did not. One kind of Christianity won in the West, then crushed its rivals out of existence. One single form of Christianity enjoyed serendipity, and called it destiny. It was not. It could all, so very easily, have been different.”

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

There were “many Jesuses, many Christs – many of them unimaginably strange to us today” – alongside other magi who resembled some of these Christs. Sometimes Jesus had a physical body; at others he was an apparition that left no footprints. There was a Jesus who warned his disciples against “filthy intercourse” and instructed them never to have children. In one account, an angry young Jesus curses a small boy, who becomes withered and deformed; later Jesus curses another boy, who falls down dead. There were Jesuses that hung in agony on the cross, and others who suffered no pain. In addition to diverse Jesuses, there was Apollonius, a first-century Greek philosopher and miracle-worker, sometimes called “the pagan Christ”.

Much of Nixey’s case rests on the revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Bible contains only four gospels, which gave us the received image of Jesus. But there were many others, with titles such as the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Truth”, discovered between 1946 and 1956 in the Qumran Caves on the north-western shore of the Dead Sea. Using these sources, it becomes clear that the established view of Jesus, and the Christian religion as it exists, is a historical accident derived from miscellaneous sources.

Nixey made her name as an avowedly heretical historian. In The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017), her first book and an international bestseller, she argued that Christians wilfully demolished Roman civilisation. Demonising pagan religions, defacing their statues and burning their libraries, Christian authorities transformed a pluralistic regime acknowledging many gods into a repressive monolith that persecuted dissenters from the one true faith.

This story disrupts a long-held Christian narrative, but it has not been particularly heretical for centuries. Famously, towards the end of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (1737-94) described Christianity as “the triumph of barbarism and religion”. Serving as a member of parliament from 1781 to 1784, Gibbon was an exponent of what was later called the Whig interpretation of history, in which humanity moved from an ignorant, superstitious past to an enlightened future. In this view, which in the 19th century became an English orthodoxy, Christianity was a cataclysmic relapse in human progress. Curiously, in a time when Christians are a dwindling minority in the West and actively persecuted in many countries, it is still being peddled by rationalists.

If The Darkening Age rehearsed Gibbon’s account, Heresy can be read as attempting a more balanced reckoning. Paganism may have been more tolerant than Christianity, but it was mostly the tolerance of callous indifference. Pre-Christian Rome, Nixey writes, was “a rougher Rome, a poorer, harder, more brutal Rome” than that pictured in literary elegies for classical civilisation. Many of the inhumanities of Roman life persisted long after the empire was Christanised. Yet there had been a fundamental change in values, which Nixey overlooks. Heresy says nothing of the singularity of Jesus’s teachings, and the moral revolution they brought into the classical world.

In his seminal study Jesus the Jew: a Historian’s study of the Gospels (1973), Geza Vermes, one of the first scholars to examine the Qumran Scrolls, identified a historical Jesus as belonging in a tradition of charismatic Judaism and queried whether he could be regarded as the founder of Christianity. Yet Vermes recognised “the incomparable superiority” of this Jesus. Alone among the multifarious prophets of his day, Yeshua – Jesus’s original Hebrew name – overturned the hierarchies of his time, and “took his stand among the pariahs of his world, those despised by the respectable”.

With his conversion on the road to Damascus sometime around AD 40, Paul turned the Jewish prophet into the author of a global religion. From then on, some recognition of the equal dignity of every human being – no matter how inconsistently applied – was an integral part of what used to be called Western civilisation. Modern liberalism was a footnote to a Christian idea of universal salvation.

 Understood as an acceptance of many ways of living, liberality was a pagan virtue. But the wretched of the earth had no intrinsic value in the scheme of things, and were certainly not accorded the same worth as the cultured and powerful. There is no mention of human equality, even as an unattainable ideal, in Plato or Aristotle. Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius aimed for a life of self-restraint and public duty in order to play their part in a cosmos governed by reason, but they had little concern for the mass of humanity. Epicurus, who taught a passionless variety of hedonism, was perfectly content conversing with his friends in a secluded garden, regardless of the multitudes suffering beyond its walls.

In pre-Christian times, civilisation meant learning and philosophy, beauty and the arts. If the leisure required to enjoy these goods required a caste of slaves, so be it. But slavery, though long tolerated in Christendom, was inherently problematic in terms of Christian ethics, and it was Christians such as William Wilberforce (1759-1833) who were in the forefront of the campaign for its abolition. Nowadays we cannot conceive of a civilised society, however cultivated or intellectually advanced, that is founded on the institution. Our idea of civilisation is indelibly stamped with Jewish and Christian values.

Nixey writes that, as the child of parents who had been a monk and a nun before they married, “Catholicism had settled on me like dust, falling in places in places visible and invisible. Long after I stopped believing, I would come across corners of Catholicism in my mind that had lain unnoticed and undisturbed for years.” One of these layers of dust may be a belief in redemption – the faith that humans will be more humane and freethinking once the Christian myth is finally renounced.

The author of Heresy is presumably an atheist, as is this reviewer. Yet I cannot help finding incredible the rationalist faith that a better world will come from banishing theism and all its works. No true pagan could share this consoling faith. Beneath the play of Socratic dialectic, the pagan mind was steeped in the tragic fatalism of ancient Greek drama. There was no redemptive pattern in human events. What was done could not be undone, and no act of human will could shape the future. With the arrival of Christianity, this austere vision was suppressed. From then on, with only rare exceptions, alternatives to the Christian message were rival stories of redemption.

A search for salvation continues to animate secular thought. As Christianity has retreated, the most advanced minds have turned to secular superstitions – ersatz-scientific cults such as dialectical materialism, eugenics, transhumanism and the like. Or they deploy a hyper-liberal ideal of equality, originating in Christianity but lacking its insight into human imperfection, against the civilisation Christianity helped to create. The post-Christian world that is coming into being is one of ugly certainties imposed by a will to power. Evangelical rationalists may come to regret the passing of the myths they mock.

Heresy: Jesus Christ and the Other Sons of God
Catherine Nixey
Picador, 384pp, £25

John Gray’s most recent book is “The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism” (Allen Lane).

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: The new age of magical thinking]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU