It is well-known that Christianity – perhaps like all theological systems – began as a cult rather than as a full-blown religion. Indeed, it seems evident even from the very nature of Christianity, which grew out of and even today remains highly intertwined with Judaism, that it evolved as a kind of revolt against the strict tenets of the Jews of the time (a subject for another post). However, what is most interesting about Christianity’s cult status is that in reading The Bible, it becomes apparent that the cults of ancient times were operated in much the same way as those of today, and furthermore, that they were likewise perceived with as much derision and suspicion by the unfaithful.
First of all, it is important to realize that by New Testament times, the Jews had finally accepted the Lord as their God. This was a pretty big deal, because a large part of the Old Testament concerns the efforts of the God of the Hebrews to convince the Israelites to stop “whoring after other gods” and to follow His commandments, which, after many failings and rebellions, it appears that they finally do. And then along comes Jesus, who virtually attempts to make the Jews disbelieve everything they have spent centuries learning to believe. Now, of course, by this point, the Jews have not had a great deal of luck when disobeying God’s orders, and naturally they’re somewhat reluctant to listen to this one crazy cultist who says he’s bringing them a whole new – albeit gentler – set of rules at their heavenly God’s behest.
From the Christian point of view, it may seem appropriate to berate and criticize the Romans and the Jews for their treatment of Jesus and his followers, but we must remember that we’re seeing it this way, today, centuries later, long after Christianity had become widely accepted. To the people of the time, it must have sounded absurd. Imagine, if you will, that some dirty long-haired weirdo claiming to be the Son of God comes and knocks on your door, and then tells you to forget all that law and commandment garbage that was supposedly the Word of God, and listen to his Word of God instead. Even worse, he argues that according to this New Testament, that salvation cannot be achieved through following the laws of God and Moses, but only through faith. And more specifically, only through faith in this same wacked-out stranger, through belief that he is, in fact, the Son of God.
Well, of course it sounds nuts. If a guy like that showed up on your doorstep today you’d probably call the cops or the looney bin and have him taken away, just as the ancients debated his sanity as well:
“There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings.
And many of them said, he hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?
Others said, These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:19-21)
And remember, Jesus’s teachings were not harmless to the Israelis; they were a hazard to the very society he sought to convert. The Jews had spent many years being punished for worshipping other gods; how could they not but fear a man who set himself up as a god?
“The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not: but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.” (John 10:33)
The fact is, without direct divine intervention telling them what to believe, the Jews were kind of stuck here. If they accepted Jesus, they went against their own God, which, in general, was a pretty bad idea. Besides, why believe in Jesus? Crazy sect-leaders of the time were constantly setting themselves up as possessors of the true revelation:
“But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one:
To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.” (Acts 8:9-10)
“For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought.
After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished: and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.” (Acts 5:36-37)
In fact, it would hardly have been reasonable for the Jews or, for that matter, any of the other ancient peoples to merely accept Jesus at face value; unreasonable and possibly perilous, as the fate of the cult leaders and followers aforementioned so clearly demonstrates. And popular opinion, of course, was understandably no more receptive to these radical new ideas than it is today:
“For as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against.” (Acts 28:22)
At best, the Israeli leaders advised caution when dealing with the new cult:
“And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought:
But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” (Acts 5:38-39)
In other words, there was a great deal of uncertainty in how to handle a cult that had derived a large following, and that seemed to be able to provide some evidence for the validity of its hero’s claims, namely, Jesus’ healings and other miracles. But even Jesus himself could offer no more convincing proof of his holy standing, a marked contrast to the Old Testament God, who expends a great deal of effort in proving his existence.
“If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not.
But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.” (John 10:37-38)
The fact is, without the miracles and faith healings, Jesus would have been as long forgotten as the less-successful cult leaders Simon and Theudas and Judas and all of the nameless others who preceded and followed them. But it is this very power to perform that makes him so dangerous, for the cult threatens to subvert the existence of the nation itself, a fate against which the men in charge vigorously fought, in line with the accepted methods and thinking of the day:
“But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death;
Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus.” (John 12:10-11)
“Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.
If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)
Jesus’ execution is even proposed as a measure necessary to preserve the people:
“It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” (John 11:50)
A surprisingly logical conclusion, even if founded on irrational beliefs. Whatever one’s faith, it must seem wrong to us today for a kind, caring, devoted man to have been shamelessly and painfully executed for having committed no greater wrong than proffering a religion disastrously at odds with those of the day. But modern people view Christians as meek, humble, harmless; even beneficial to contemporary culture as a whole. In ancient times they were merely cult members and followers, outrageous proponents of dangerous, unheard-of beliefs, struggling along the fringes of civilization like the modern cults which, to those who exist outside of them, can only be perceived as strange and frightening by the mainstream bulk of society.