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Do You Reckon Jesus Could Have Been A Cult Leader?

Every Religion Starts Out Small. . . right? 

What is a Cult?

A cult is a sect perceived as different from everyday life because it is considered radical or simply wrong. In contrast, religion is integrated into society. Cult members don't lead normal lives compared to free civilians; their group identity centers around their communal lifestyle often based on theological arguments. Often, a charismatic autocratic leader may facilitate undesirable outcomes, such as dictating financial measures or imposing sexual and/or work-related demands. In extreme cases, there have been instances of mass suicide. Unsettling indeed! 

There have been cult-like comparisons made with Jesus before. These seem reasonable. Why not? For instance, Jesus's followers voluntarily devoted their lives to him and willingly faced death for their beliefs. Manson's family surrendered their lives, but they committed murder for Manson. Osho's 'Red People' took up arms for Osho, and then there's the messianic aura surrounding David Koresh and the Waco disaster. Clearly, none of these cults evolved into a global religion; media scrutiny tends to reveal unhealthy sects. Hence, figures like David Koresh, Charles Manson, or Warren Jeffs are unlikely to achieve the historical renown of The Buddha or Moses in the modern era.


Some Key factors that made Christianity grow:

1. The promise of heaven, the allure of divine power, would have tempted ancient superstitious communities.

2. The ease of communication across language barriers, with merchants along trade routes, converting influential individuals.

3. The written accounts of Jesus Christ came from devotees who revered him and sought to inspire others to do the same.

4. Christian writings defended Christianity against opposing theological views and were disseminated globally.

5. Christianity has influenced religion, politics, and culture.

6. The execution of Jesus became a symbol of martyrdom, offering hope to potential converts: God sacrificed his only son for humanity's salvation.

Culty Types These Days! 

The cult leader Warren Jeffs (featured in the Netflix show: Keep Sweet, Pray and Obey) and the historical figure Eoshu Msheekha (known today as Jesus Christ) are separated by over two millennia. Despite the differences in myth, culture, and geographical distance, it is intriguing to see how theological concepts transcend boundaries.

Charges against Jesus according to the bible:

  • Blasphemy: He claimed to be the Messiah and the son of God. Crucifixion was an incorrect punishment for blasphemy within the context of Jewish law. E.P. Sanders noted that two specific actions led to Jesus's arrest: his symbolic entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling a messianic prophecy, and his expulsion of traders from the temple. The chief priests (usually the Sanhedrin) were responsible for reporting troublemakers to the Roman governor. Under Octavian's rule, Rome maintained justice and order in its territories, not leaving such matters to the locals.

  • Sedition against Rome (Likely): This was a crime in Roman territories and could have been the rationale for Jesus's crucifixion. However, religious crimes often fell under the purview of local religious authorities. Jesus, aware of his cousin John the Baptist's fate, would have understood the potential consequences of his actions. The Gospel of Mark portrays Pharisees as malevolently seeking Jesus's death for their own reasons. Professor Sanders suggests that the Gospels do not fully represent the historical and cultural context.

Non-biblical sources:

Talmud, Sanhedrin, Tosefta:

Jesus as a magician

These texts are considered late and not strictly historical, but none of it really is! Nevertheless, they present severe allegations, offering alternative portrayals of a posdible real or pseudo-Jesus and Mary, his mother. The identification of Yeshua Ben Pandera with Jesus Christ is not widely accepted in academia. The Gospel and the Apostle Paul's writings do not mention Pandera. The Pandera tradition is likely a polemical reaction to Christianity by certain Jewish authors after Jesus's time, with the earliest account by the 2nd-century philosopher Celsus, an adversary of Christianity.

Neither the Gospel nor the writings of the Apostle Paul, mention Pandera. In all fairness, no one called Yeshua Ben Pandera appears in any historical records for years in the Talmud. The Pandera tradition is considered to be a polemical response to Christianity by certain Jewish writers in the centuries following the life of Jesus. The earliest being the writings of the 2nd-century Greek philosopher Celsus, who was a critic of Christianity.

Top scholars Professor Sanders and Professor Crossan say that the Romans crucified Jesus much quicker than the Gospels portray. High Priest Caiaphas is seen by Sanders as being pro-active in his duty by having Jesus taken-up to justice. In doing so, he ended a potential uprising which would save many Jewish lives from Roman swords. One life for all the Jews. Rome permitted it's provinces religious freedom and so, first century Palestinian Pharisees punished their religious criminals by stoning them, not the Roman cross. Sanhedrin 43a claims that Yeshua and his five disciples were stoned to death and then hanged (crucified) on the eve of the Passover, Schäfer (2009). 

Mara Bar-Serapion (Syrian Philosopher) sometime after 70AD in a letter to his son.

“What benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as judgement for their crime. Or, the people of Samos for burning Pythagoras? In one moment their country was covered with sand. Or the Jews by murdering their wise king?…After that their kingdom was abolished. God rightly avenged these men…The wise king…Lived on in the teachings he enacted.”

Professor Tabor (2016) is among the scholars who consider the possibility that Jesus was the son of a Roman named Pandera. Other non-biblical sources, such as Tacitus, note Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians—some of these accounts are quite terse. The Talmud and Midrash do not support Jesus being oppressive to his followers, engaging in sexual misconduct, or being involved in terrorism. These later sources emphasize that both Jewish and Roman authorities collaborated in Jesus's execution as a joint punishment, aligning with the accounts of stoning and crucifixion—methods used by Rome to set an example for others. However, the reliability of these sources remains questionable at best.


Jesus's disciples were Jewish individuals familiar with the Torah but receptive to his eschatological teachings. Jesus believed himself to be a Messiah, descended from King David, and urged his followers to abandon everything to join him, promising a hundredfold reward in the kingdom. This narrative sounds familiar.


Verdict:

There is no compelling evidence to suggest that Jesus Christ was anything other than a leader of his own movement or sect influenced by Judaic traditions. Cults typically do not stem from established religions, unlike cases such as Warren Jeffs and the FLDS. Accounts depict Jesus challenging the religious authorities of his native faith and preaching about imminent divine judgment, attracting followers seeking salvation through him. In contrast to sects, cults often demand total devotion from members. Like a charismatic leader, Jesus expected his followers to bear their burdens alongside him, forsaking their families to join his cause. He sent them into perilous situations as "lambs among wolves," a practice more akin to a cult than a sect:


"If anyone comes to me but loves his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, or sisters more than me, he cannot be my follower. Whoever will not carry the cross that is given to him when he follows me cannot be my follower." - Luke 14:25-27


"Peter began to speak to Jesus: Look, we have left everything and followed you. Jesus replied: Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life." - Mark 10:28-30


References:

Crossan, J. D. (1996). Who Killed Jesus? HarperCollins, pp. 31–38.

Sanders, E. P. (1996). The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin Putnam, pp. 215-238.

Schäfer, Peter. (2009). Jesus in the Talmud. Princeton University Press.

Tabor, James. (2016). TABORBLOG: The "Jesus Son of Pantera" Traditions. [Online] Available at: https://jamestabor.com/the-jesus-son-of-panthera-traditions/

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