A Jesus? or a multitude of disguises?


A Jesus? or a multitude of disguises?


Small dictionary of versions and counterfeits of a kidnapped myth

“The believer does not allow himself to be stripped of his faith, neither with arguments nor with prohibitions. And if that were to be achieved, it would be cruel. A person accustomed to taking narcotics will not be able to sleep if we deprive him of them” (Sigmund Freud, The future of an illusion).


Current Christianity – Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Adventist… from Bola de Neve Temple (whose altar is a surfboard) or from Aparecida (unbeatable) – may seem multifaceted, but it has much, much less denominations, schisms and disputes than primitive Christianity, or “paleochristianism” had (2nd, 3rd and early 4th centuries, until Emperor Constantine made one of its aspects official as the religion of the Empire). The alleged unity and unanimity of the early Church is the most bizarre and insidious fiction.

As a fact, it is demonstrably false: there were, at least, 53 gospels each spreading its good news, based on an oral tradition that took on different contours and editions depending on the geography of the followers of a certain eccentric prophet, who preached humility (something unheard of) and 'turning the other cheek' (not so much).

And even as a dogma, such unanimity of Christianity is debatable, since the three great premises on which its Catholic executors are based – the canon of scripture, the creed and the institutional structure – were only established after a bishop of Alexandria ordered the burning of all gospels other than the four that appear today, and Constantine decided that Catholicism would be a more suitable option than Arianism or Mithraism, the latter very popular among the legions of Roman soldiers.[I]

Two thousand years later, even some reluctant theologians became convinced of the inconsistency of the theory of the original unity of the Church, which resulted in a new batch of interpretations about its presumed founder, that is, the historical Jesus – whether he existed in the flesh and soul, or not, would be a secondary issue, according to theologian Rudolph Bultmann, because what prospered was the message of the teacher of wisdom. The only direct reference to the name Jesus was made by the Jewish historian Flavio Josephus, born in 37 in Palestine, and who mentions it in Jewish antiquities, written in the 90s.

This detail alone (was Jesus an inspired anonymous person or God incarnate, or the son of God, or...) would require a torrential pile of pages, as at the time it instigated much persecution, and over the centuries bloodbaths. But let's return to the theme of the Jesus myth. After the discovery, in papyri and codices, of apocryphal gospels (one of them, that of Thomas, whose copy, subjected to carbon 14 and other tests, proved to be older than the surviving copies of the canonical ones), two new consensuses emerged.

The first: Jesus, whoever he was, never assumed the role of God (let alone the second person of the Trinity or something like that). The second: whoever he was, he never intended to found a separate bureaucratized Church – much less appoint successors or apostles.

There were two significant leaps forward, from the 70s onwards, in the last century: Jesus did not think he was God, nor had he appointed heirs. And a clear blow to the doctrine of “apostolic succession”, according to which legitimate are only those bishops who learned personally from others who learned from others who, in turn, learned from… those apostles appointed by Jesus himself. Two steps forward and one back, however. Instead of taking these conclusions to their predictable exasperation (if He did not want to found a new Church, how legitimate are those that are said about Him?), the debate turned on itself and stopped at a detail. The usual. The question that has been asked since the first council, in 325, in Nicaea: what is the nature of Jesus?


The first Council, under the aegis of the new convert Constantine, had shown much more rivalry than fraternity. The main division was between the Arians and the Trinitarians (future Catholics). The pretext was the nature of Jesus. The Arians, the most frequent followers of logic, maintained that the Father was above the Son, even though both shared the same nature, and adopted the term homoiousia (similar substances) to explain the subtleties of this dissimilar identity. Trinitarians disagreed: Christianity with a Catholic bias had arrived with a triple vengeance, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – in a sudden promotion of the latter, previously a supporting role. They preferred to adopt the term homoousia (same substance), which made the three figures immediately consubstantial, identical.

The mutual animosity of the Nicene convention, wrote the brilliant (and old-fashioned) Edward Gibbon, was tempered by poignant affectations of modesty, a virtue that is generally praised by those who feel weak. Most of the bishops of Egypt and Asia, including the learned Eusebius of Caesarea, author of Ecclesiastical history, was with Arius (250-336) — in addition to seven presbyters, 12 deacons and, according to the Arians themselves, 700 virgins.

Athanasius' Catholics, less excitable with far-fetched concepts and not inclined to philosophize, interpreted the term substance more simply. For them, it was the same thing to talk about substance or essence: if a baker, a blacksmith and a carpenter belong to the same human species (or have the same essence), it follows that they have the same substance and the same properties. Thus, the baker is the same as the blacksmith who is the same as the carpenter. Ditto for expressions of the divine, then.

The simplicity of the Athanasians (forerunners of the Catholics) won over Constantine, who was not well versed in philosophy. He gave them the victory trophy, and toasted them with the term “Catholics”, that is, universal. Eusebius of Nicomedia, defeated but wise, hesitated and found a way to ambiguously agree, thereby postponing exile for a few months. Arius, more untimely, insisted that the homoousia it was a usurpation of meaning, and was banned and branded Porphyrian, that is, an ignoble Neoplatonist.

Three years later, however, he was recalled by the emperor, treated as an injustice, and his theses were accepted at another synod in Jerusalem. It was then that Constantine demanded, in an act of reparation, that he be solemnly admitted to communion in the cathedral of Constantinople. Interestingly, on the same day as the repair… Arius died. The strange circumstances surrounding his death, as Edward Gibson writes, “might arouse the suspicion that the orthodox saints had contributed more effectively than by their prayers to rid the Church of the most fearsome of its enemies.”

Despite being carried out by a mere diphthong (homoousia x homoiousia), the dispute was not at all fatuous. The Trinitarian controversy reignited an old discussion, that of the Gnostics. How can we admit that Jesus was human, fragile and vulnerable and, simultaneously, the omnipotent and inviolable God? It wasn't just the candid Christian nature that got in the way. Even the hardened dialectic would find itself in trouble to arrange the terms of this controversy into a passable syllogism.


Nicaea, even in the 21st century, can and should be revisited. Note that contemporary Catholics turn to the Father (with capital letters), while evangelicals prefer the Son. Only Jesus Saves.

A survey carried out by Marcus Borg highlights the current state of this ancient dispute. Marcus Borg consulted his colleagues, ironed out differences and drew up agreements, and concluded that it was possible to speak, without fear, at the turn of the millennium, about six current (and plausible) portraits of Jesus. Everyone, just for memorization purposes, could start, for example, with the letter E:

(i) Eschatological. Jesus could have been a prophet of Israel, with the mission to announce the end of times (eschatology) and the establishment of a messianic era – this is EP Sanders' thesis. That is why the apostles are usually counted as twelve – an echo of the twelve tribes of Israel, finally reunited. This is also why Jesus' anger when turning the tables in the Temple, a warning about the need to rebuild a third, unpolluted sanctuary. He, of course, did not think he was God, but the future king of Israel.

(ii) Eccentric. The second portrait is that of someone displaced from his culture and roots, a foreigner in his own homeland, a Jew closer to Athens than Jerusalem. Jesus would have been a Hellenistic cynic-sage, a philosopher who spoke Aramaic but thought in Greek. This is how Burton Mack sees him in The lost gospel e A myth of innocence. Burton Mack is an expert on the Q source, the lost text that served as the basis for the passages common to Luke and Matthew that do not appear in Mark (in Q there are only wisdom sayings and parables, no narrative). For Mack, first-century Galilee was deeply steeped in Hellenistic tradition, and very likely to have its Jewish Socrates. This portrait is what best suits the oldest texts, which are Jesus' wisdom sayings, aphorisms that attack Jewish conventions.

(iii) Ecumenical. Especially with women, at the time considered leagues away from sapiens. This is the profile outlined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a feminist theologian who published, in 1983, In memory of her. Jesus would be a feminist avant-la-letter, an enthusiast of sexual egalitarianism. This explains why, on so many occasions, especially those in the apocryphal gospels, he shows a clear predilection for Mary Magdalene, to the detriment of Peter. Ditto, when he presents himself as a spokesperson for Sophia, the wisdom of God, a female figure. His anti-patriarchalism would be visible in the fact of welcoming disciples without distinction of sex, or rather, exposing the spiritual (intellectual?) superiority of women, such as Mary of Magdala, considered in many of these (apocryphal) texts to be the favorite disciple.

(iv) Engaged. The fourth description, proposed by Richard Horsley, politicizes the figure of Jesus: he would have been a radical reformer with strong social concerns. In favor of this characterization are its emphasis on the humble and unassisted and the great frequency, in the parables, of themes such as “giving without expecting a return”, or the “mutual forgiveness of debts”, or the advice to “lend without looking to whom”, for Richard Horsley, phrases that were not metaphorical, but rather slogans to be practiced in a program for the benefit of the exploited Galileans.

(v) Dispossessed. The fifth drawing of Jesus is by John Dominic Crossan. A Jew, yes, a wise man influenced by the resigned doctrine of the Cynics, too, but above all a poor peasant – with the afflictions and hopes of every dispossessed peasant in the Mediterranean. John Dominic Crossan's book The historical Jesus, from 1991, was an immediate bestseller, with more than 50 thousand copies sold in a year and a half. John Dominic Crossan is a fan of the interdisciplinary approach, and mixes sociology, history, anthropology, theology, biblical criticism and the technique of stratification in texts. The Jesus who emerges from this interdisciplinary conclave is quite convincing, especially due to the realism of the expectations he would have had. He is not a prophet of the Apocalypse, nor of reborn Israel, nor of the Galilean minority, and much less of sexual equality. He is a practical man, a manager of everyday crises.

The knowledge he transmits is not that of Gnosis or that of the incarnate Logos of John, but that of metis, pragmatic wisdom, which solves everyday problems. His preaching worked thanks to two tactics: socializing with his followers – his diners at ritualistic meals – and magic. He was a magician because he healed outside the usual procedures. The border between magic and miracle is a nebulous zone, as John Dominic Crossan reminds us. “We practice religion, others practice magic.” Communal meals would be a symbolic preview of the anticipated paradise, without distinction of race, class, education, gender, power or money.

(vi) Spiritual. The sixth possible appearance is the one outlined by Marcus Borg himself. Jesus would have been a “spiritual person”, a mystic, a frequent visitor to God. Like a good mystic, of course, Marcus Borg's Jesus never wanted to become head of a new Church. He intended only to cleanse corrupted Judaism. We could add a seventh portrait of Jesus, an eighth and a ninth, all current:

(vii) Wandering. This is the description of the Gospel of Thomas. Jesus would have been a wanderer, an itinerant preacher, a homeless radical without possessions. Hence the famous phrase that a prophet is never recognized in his city. Or the insistence on not charging for the assistance provided, or the advice not to stay in one place for too long. A supporter of gnosis, this Jesus asks his followers to be solitary like him.

(viii) Existentialist. This is the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ, a book by Nikos Kazantzakis that became a film. He is a tragic figure full of doubts, fears and guilt, someone torn between a sense of duty and the human desire for the small pleasures of life. In a constant struggle with himself, as he is neither infallible nor dispassionate, he can only be the artists' favorite Jesus.

(ix) Charming. Illusionist, conjurer. This is how Morton Smith treats it, in Jesus the magician. Morton Smith compares him to Apollonius of Tyana, whose life was related by Flavius ​​Philostratus in the work Life of Apollonius, from the beginning of the 3rd century. Born in Anatolia, Apollonius was sent by his parents to study in the Greek city of Tarsus (Asia Minor), at the same time that Saul, or Paul, left Tarsus to study in Jerusalem. Saul, a Pharisee, became a Christian. Apollonius became a Pythagorean and began to attend mystery cults. Later he would have gone to Babylon to learn from the Zoroastrian magicians, then to India to learn about the teachings of the Brahmins. He returned to preach in Syria, Anatolia and Greece, interestingly the same places where Paul had spoken his word, years before.

He appeared in Rome during the reign of Nero, then traveled to Spain, Sicily, Greece and Alexandria, a city where he was consulted, in 69, by none other than Emperor Vespasian. Some adventures later, including his stay with the “naked wise men”, ascetics from upper Egypt, Apollonius fell into disgrace and was tried, in Rome, for conspiring to assassinate the emperor Domitian. But, like the wizard he was, he managed to evaporate in the middle of the courtroom at the time of the verdict. He reappeared in Asia Minor, where, legend has it, he continued to preach and perform miracles until his death, and, it is said, immediate ascension to heaven. Legend says he was resurrected and appeared to an unbelieving young man.

Of all the possible likenesses (drawn by scholars) of this enigmatic figure named Jesus, none really matches the current one. The current one, called out in motorcades, scribbled on offensive posters, invoked to beat the other cheek, retrograde, sycophantic, ignorant, impious and idolized by the extreme right, is the opposite of them all.

Oh Jesus! Who made you a militia?

*Marilia Pacheco Fiorillo is a retired professor at the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The exiled God: brief history of a heresy (Brazilian civilization).


[I] FIORILLO, M. The exiled god, brief history of a heresy. Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Civilization, 2008, afterword by Leonardo Boff. Several topics mentioned in this article are extensively and thoroughly covered in the book.

All authors cited here appear in the book's vast bibliography. It also contains an onomastic index, maps, photographic reproductions of codices and a timeline of the expansion of Christianity.

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