As their homeland came increasingly under Roman domination, starting with the reigns of the puppet Herods, many Jews looked for the promised Messiah to come and open up a can of whupass on their oppressors. Several Messiahs duly appeared, gathered a following, and got themselves executed as soon as they created enough trouble to be noticed by the big boys. After Vespasian (famed for taxing public urinals) and Titus (famed for his Coliseum) crushed the revolt of 66-70 CE, destroyed the Temple and sacked Jerusalem, they may have thought the Judaeans would recognize that resistance was futile. Eventually, though, they regrouped under the guerrilla leader Simon bar Kochba, who was pronounced Messiah by the great Rabbi Akiva. Bar Kochba’s forces managed to inflict terrible losses on the legions before suffering even more terrible and vindictive reprisals at the hands of the emperor Hadrian, whose impeccably Hellenistic anti-Semitism was perhaps enhanced by a personal worship of the uncut phallus.
Anyway, somewhere in the middle of the pack of Messiahs was a certain Joshua (or Yehoshua) who had no military chops at all but did have a subversive message and assembled enough passionate admirers to bring down the wrath of the Jerusalem authorities. After his death, his brother Jacob took over the movement, earning the title Jacob the Just and attracting not only Jews but some Gentile fellow-travelers, but when the war of 66-70 hit, the group was dispersed. Some splinter groups carried on, notably the Evionites or Poor Ones, so called because Joshua had championed the poor, but after a century or two there was no more left of Joshua than of bar Kochba.
Except for Saul, a Jewish guy who lived at the time of Joshua but never met him and didn’t like his followers. Some years after Joshua’s execution, Saul started to have visions of him, which Joshua told him all sorts of interesting stuff. This stuff was sometimes at odds with what Joshua had said during his lifetime, but that wasn’t Saul’s problem; he knew his private Joshua was the real authority. Jacob the Just and his assistant Sephas (‘Rocky’) at first thought Saul was harmless and let him wander around Turkey spreading his strange news, but as they learned more about his teaching, they grew alarmed. Some of it was just weird: instead of bringing about a godly kingdom on earth like a normal Messiah, this ‘Joshua’ was going to come back and take everybody to live with him in the sky.And since Saul thought this was going to happen any day now, he discouraged believers from getting married, a rather odd teaching for a Jew.
And some of Saul’s ideas went beyond weird to horrifying: the real-life Joshua had conducted meals of thanksgiving where he asked for a blessing on the bread and wine, but ‘Joshua’ said that the bread was his body and the wine his blood. Apart from the cannibalism thing, consuming blood is as verboten for a Jew as it gets—you might as well say “Eat these Jimmy Dean pork sausage patties in memory of me.” Oh, and the people who had known Joshua were surprised to learn that he was now a god. They had thought that the whole “one God” concept was non-negotiable, but Saul knew better.
Understandably, the followers of the flesh-and-blood Joshua and those of Saul’s personal spirit-Joshua went their separate ways.
Well, you know the rest of the story. Saul changed his name to Paul, and his Joshua became a hit, first under his Greek name Iesos and then the Latin version, Jesus. It was a time of many religious fads and Paul’s new religion was probably not the flakiest of them. The elements that must have been most alienating to Paul’s fellow Jews, such as theophagy (eating a god’s flesh) were already present in Greco-Roman religious and magical practice. For whatever reason, Paul’s transformation of Joshua of Nazareth into Jesus Christ was surely the most successful rebranding project in human history.
The essential substance of the foregoing (though not its form, which I hope was not too contrived and annoying) is the argument of James Tabor’s Paul and Jesus. Two key observations underpin the book: that Paul never met Jesus, and that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospels. Indeed, Tabor claims that Paul heavily influenced Mark, who in turn of course influenced Matthew and Luke. Thus, for example, he treats the cannibalistic account of the Last Supper in the gospels as simply an adoption of Paul’s story, which Paul got (by his own account) directly from his personal ‘Jesus,’ not from any testimony of those who were present. There are other traditions of the Last Supper that do not include blood-drinking. You see how it goes; Paul is at once completely useless as a source on the life and work of Jesus and, nonetheless, the founder and guiding spirit of the religion that became Christianity.
PS: Sephas, or Rocky, is better known as Peter (Greek petros=rock), and Jacob the Just, to the extent that he is remembered at all, is known by the Greek-derived name James.