Element 4: (a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults, (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity. 
This element is often denied, or its basis not well understood, so I will pause to establish it before moving on. 'Messiah'. 'Son of Man', 'the Righteous One', and 'the Elect [or Chosen] One' were all popular titles for the expected messiah used by several groups in early-first-century Judaism, as attested, for instance, in the Book of the Parables of Enoch, a Jewish text composed before 70 ce. The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to one or several such cults around that same time. Indeed, messianic apocalypticism was intense at Qumran, where the keepers of the scrolls were already expecting the imminent end of the world, and attempting different calculations from the timetable provided in the book of Daniel (see Element 7) to predict when the first messiah would come—and many of their calculations came up 'soon'. The early first century ce was in their prediction window. And many of their texts were used by other cults of the time. A copy of the so-called Damascus Document, for instance, turns up a thousand years later in a stash of Jewish texts at Cairo Geniza.
Even the early-first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria wrote an apocalyptic text sharing and adapting the messianic expectations of his generation. The Gospels likewise assume (or, depending on how much you trust them, report) that 'messiah fever' was so rampant in Judea then that countless people were expecting Elijah to be walking among them, some even believed that Jesus, or John the Baptist, was that very man, risen from the dead, which many Jews believed presaged the imminent coming of a messiah and the ensuing end of the present world order (which many believed had become corrupted beyond human repair), because this had been predicted in Mai. 4.5-6, the very last passage of the traditional OT.
The only surviving historian of early-first-century Palestine confirms this picture. Josephus records the rise and popularity of several false messi-ahs in the same general period as Christianity was getting started. He does not explicitly call them messiahs—he probably wanted to avoid reminding his Gentile audience that this was the product of Jewish ideology, and instead claimed it was the product of fringe criminals and ruffians (he likewise catalogues various other rebel bandits and demagogues as well). But the descriptions he provides belie the truth of the matter. As David Rhoads put it, 'Josephus tends to avoid messianism when he relates the history of the first century'; in fact he deliberately 'suppressed the religious motivations of the revolutionaries by ascribing [to them] evil and dishonorable intentions' instead. But their messianic basis remains unmistakable. Scholarly analysis confirms this. Josephus recounts at least four messianic figures of the early first century, and documents how enormously popular they were, compelling the Romans to mass military action to suppress them.
'The Samaritan' gathered followers and said he would reveal the lost relics of the true Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim—an act with obvious messianic meaning (the Samaritans believing themselves to be the true Jews; this is alluded to even in Jn 4.20-26, which attests the Samaritans also expected an imminent messiah). The original Jewish congregation led by Joshua had stood at God's command 'upon Mount Gerizim to bless the people' after crossing the Jordan (Deut. 27.12), which is to say, when Joshua (the original Jesus—the names are identical: see Chapter 6, §3) crossed the Jordan on the day the nation of Israel was conceptually begun. Thus, the original Joshua inaugurated the nation of Israel by crossing the Jordan and congregating at Gerizim; and since the last messiah (the new Joshua) was to reconstitute Israel, he, too, could expect to begin the task by a blessing on Mount Gerizim.
"Theudas' gathered followers and said he would part the Jordan— another act with obvious messianic meaning: Joshua (the original Jesus) had also miraculously parted the Jordan upon beginning his conquest of Israel (Joshua 3), so this was another obvious symbolic starting point for the re-conquest of Israel. Similarly, the Christian Jesus (again, 'Joshua') is depicted as beginning his messianic career by symbolically parting (or passing through) the Jordan, in the form of his baptism.
'The Egyptian' (possibly a Jewish cult leader from Alexandria) also gathered followers and preached from the Mount of Olives (just as Jesus Christ does in the Gospels), claiming he would topple the walls of Jerusalem—an obvious allusion to the miraculous felling of the walls of Jericho, another deed of the first Jesus (the biblical Joshua), in fact in the first battle that followed his crossing of the Jordan, making this another symbol of beginning the conquest of Israel. Preaching from the Mount of Olives could also imply messianic pretensions—as it was commonly believed a messiah would stand there in the last days (Zech. 14.1-9). Thus, the Egyptian was preaching another metaphor for the re-conquest of Israel, again the very task only the Christ was expected to accomplish. Indeed, as Craig Evans argues, even the very name 'Egyptian' evokes the out-of-Egypt path of the original Joshua (hence 'Jesus').
Another (unnamed) 'impostor' mentioned by Josephus ('impostor' being obvious code for 'false messiah'—who else would he be pretending to be?) gathered followers and promised them salvation if they followed him into the wilderness—an obvious reference to Moses, and, as Craig Evans shows, this 'impostor' created symbolic allusions to the temptation narrative in Exodus, promising rest in the wilderness and deliverance from evil. So just as those who tempted God in the wilderness lost their God-promised rest, those who ritually reversed this behavior could expect to see the restoration of God's promise. The messianic intentions are evident here.
This means all four of these messiahs, as reported by Josephus, were equating themselves with Jesus (Joshua) and making veiled claims to be the Christ (messiah). In other words, here we have in Josephus four Jesus Christs. Ours simply makes five. The Gospel character of Jesus thus fits right into the trend documented by Josephus.
Even 'John the Baptist' (at least as depicted in the Gospels) was a messianic figure (e.g. Jn 1.20; Lk. 3.15), or otherwise telling everyone the messiah would arrive in his lifetime (Mt. 3.1-12; Mk 1.1-8; Lk. 3.1-20; Jn 1.15-28). And he was enormously popular (the Gospels and Acts claim so, and Josephus confirms it), thus further exemplifying the trend of the time. This messianic Baptist cult may even have influenced or spawned Christianity itself (see Element 33). The cult of Simon Magus might likewise have been promoting its own messiah. Acts certainly depicts Simon Magus as a messianic pretender (Acts 8.9-11), again with enormous popularity, just like the others in Josephus. The historicity of this Simon has been questioned, but the historicity of his worship as a divine being has not. If the biblical account of him reflects the truth (of the historical man or the celestial demigod he once was) he would be another example confirming the same trend.
Even skeptical scholars agree there were many pretenders who:
[D]o not simply announce the will of God but (a) lead actions of deliverance (b) involving "revolutionary changes' (c) in accord with God's "design' and (d) corresponding to one of the great historical formative acts of deliverance led by Moses or Joshua.
There were other messianic pretenders after the first Jewish War as well. But already across the whole generation before that war numerous self-proclaimed "messiahs" were gathering followers and making claims of miraculous powers and the coming end of the world-order at this very time, and we have no reason to assume Josephus has given us accounts of them all, only the most famous or a representative sample. Notably, again, all whom he recorded accounts of were pretending to be a new Jesus ('Joshua'). Jesus would thus be symbolically recognized as a messianic name (see Chapter 6, §3; and Element 6). And all of them reenact Exodus-like events. Even John the Baptist is exploiting Exodus symbolism by baptizing in the Jordan: the waterway crossed from death to life (from the slavery of Egypt to the paradise of the Holy Land—by way of'the wilderness' in between), using in his own case a baptismal re-birthing ceremony. In everyone's view the messiah was to free the Jews from slavery. The Exodus narrative was an obvious and popular model for that. Hence the fact that the Exodus is often a key motif in the NT suggests similar thinking.
It is reasonable to infer that once the literal, militaristic versions of this idea had been seen to fail (or indeed to be impossible, given the unstoppable might of the legions), it would not be unthinkable to adapt the same idea to being freed from the slavery not of the Romans or the corrupt Jewish elite, but the slavery of invisible demons (and death itself) instead. Anyone who took that step would essentially end up with a movement like Christianity (see Elements 23-28). For the 'gospel' of Jesus was already seen as the symbolic Exodus ritual and narrative for every Christian's escape from exactly that kind of spiritual slavery (e.g. Romans 7-8; 1 Corinthians 10). The only question is whether this Jesus was a real messianic pretender just like all these others, part of an established widespread trend (into which he would fit very well), who also failed just as they did, being killed by the authorities just as they were, but whose surviving followers merely came up with a successful way to repackage and sell his ideas, turning him into a spiritually victorious messiah, after his superficially material defeat—or whether Jesus was a spiritually conceived messiah right from the beginning.
Regardless, all the evidence is clear enough on the general fact of the matter: the first century had exploded with messianic fervor, to the point that it's not at all surprising one of these countless new messianic cults would become more successful than the rest (the others being wiped out or not adopting the right mix of popular attributes), even standing a fair chance of becoming a world religion (as any successful cult has a shot at doing). And Christianity is exactly such a messianic cult (as later elements establish), arising exactly when such cults were popular, and in the very same place.
16. On this being the case see Richard Carrier. "Christianity's Success Was Not Incredible", in The End of Christianity (ed. John Loftus: Amherst. NY: Prometheus Books. 2011), pp. 53-74. 372-75. along with Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith.
17. See M. Black. "The Messianism of the Parables of Enoch: Their Date and Contribution to Christological Origins', in The Messiah (ed. Charlesworth), pp. 145-68; J.C. VanderKam. "Righteous One. Messiah. Chosen One. and Son of Man in 1 Enoch 37—71', in The Messiah (ed. Charlesworth), pp. 169-91; and in Neusner et al., Judaisms and their Messiahs. In the NT Jesus is of course "the Messiah' (Christ), but is also called "the Chosen One' (Mt. 12.18; Lk. 9.35: 23.35). "the Righteous One' (Lk. 23.47; Acts 3.14; 7.52: 22.14: 1 Jn 2.1; Rev. 16.5) and "The Son of Man" (countless instances, e.g., Mt. 12.30; Mk 14.41; Lk. 22.48: Acts 7.56: Jn 1.51; etc.), among a great many other epithets, both familiar and strange.
18. See John Collins, 'The Expectation of the End in the Dead Sea Scrolls', in Eschatology (ed. Evans and Flint), pp. 74-90 (esp. 76-79. 83).
19. See Lawrence Schiffman and James VanderKam (eds.). Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000). 1, pp. 166-70.
20. Philo. On Rewards and Punishments 79-172 (esp. § 95).
21. See Mk 9.9-13: 8.27-28: 6.14-16; Mt. 17.10-13: 16.13-14: Lk. 9.18-19; 9.7-9.
22.See D. Mendels. 'Pseudo-Philo"s Biblical Antiquities, the 'Fourth Philosophy', and the Political Messianism of the First Century ce'. in The Messiah (ed. Charlesworth), pp. 261-75 (quote from Rhoads: p. 261 n. 4); which is thoroughly supported by Craig Evans, "Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance', in The Historical Jesus in Context (ed. Amy-Jill Levine, Dale Allison, Jr and John Dominic Crossan; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2006), pp. 55-63, which contains all the relevant references in Josephus.
23. Which may have been a key to Christianity's success: by avoiding mass territorial action (and focusing instead on spiritual combat), they avoided armed conflict and thus survived, by gaining more converts over a wider area than were lost to sporadic persecutions. See Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 219-45, with pp. 147-60. 259-96. This may even have been a lesson learned from observing the fate of other movements. But natural selection alone would determine it: agitative cults would be wiped out. leaving more pacifist cults to dominate the market (then it became simply a competition among products for sale). A non-existent messiah (whose lordship and victory were known only spiritually and thus never a worldly militaristic threat) would thus have an enormous competitive advantage at these earliest stages (see Elements 23-28).
24. Evans, 'Josephus on John the Baptist', whose analysis is corroborated by Rebecca Gray, Prophetic Figures in Late Second Temple Jewish Palestine: The Evidence from Josephus (New York: Oxford University Press. 1993). See Exod, 17.1-7; Num. 20.1-13; and Ps. 95.7b-ll. a passage that Evans notes is cited and commented on in the NT as Well (in Heb. 3.7-4.13). The temptation narrative in the Gospels bears the same connection (see Chapter 10, §4).
25. We should at least consider the possibility that all these stories are fiction (the fact that all emulate Joshua but each, conveniently, in a different way could suggest literary or parabolic fabrication), but if so. this story-cluster can have only two origins: the Jewish public (i.e.. oral lore picked up by Josephus) or Josephus himself (or some other Jewish author he is using as a source, most likely in this case Justus of Tiberias, or some lost Jewish apocryphon). In the one case we still have confirmation of the same messianic fad (in this case creating popular tales and rumors of messiahs). and in the other case we have an improbability (that a single Jewish author invented a messianic fever with remarkable coincidence precisely when the messianic cult of Christianity arose and messianic cults were composing the texts stashed at Qumran, yet this same author doesn't position Christianity among them or mention the cults of Qumran. and is even too coy to identify the fad he thus invented as messianic). The most probable fabrication hypothesis is that Josephus (or Justus of Tiberias?) took actual rebel movements and mapped onto them this 'new Joshua* motif himself, yet that would mean the idea of inventing miracle-working, popular-movement-style "Jesus Christs" readily occurred to him. The improbability of this coinciding (in time and concept) with an 'actual' Jesus Christ (which the author completely fails to connect with them by the same motifs) would then argue in favor of our Jesus Christ being as fabricated as these. But note also how most of them also die at the hands of the Romans. If they were historical, then these figures might have even been trying to get themselves killed, so as to fulfill the prophecy of Dan. 9.26 and thereby usher in the end of the world as promised in Daniel 12. God had promised that the Jews would rule the universe (Zech. 14), but their sins kept forestalling his promise (Jer. 29: Dan. 9), which would also create a motive for would-be messiahs to perform atonement acts, which could include substitutionary self-sacrifice (see Element 43). out of increasing desperation (Elements 23-26). Christianity almost becomes predictable in this context.
26. See Stephen Haar, Simon Magus: The First Gnostic? (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), pp. 11-15; challenging this Simon's historicity is Gerd Ludemann, Untersuchungen zur simonianischen Gnosis (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 1975).
27. R.A. Horsley, '"Messianic" Figures and Movements in First-Century Palestine; in The Messiah (ed. Charlesworth), pp. 276-95 (282). Horsley still insists these are not messianic movements, but that assertion depends on an implausibly specific definition of "messiah' (or an excessively irrational denial of obvious inferences): see my discussion of definitions (§3). Similarly in Sean Freyne, 'The Herodian Period', in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 29-43: like Horsley. Freyne is only skeptical in respect to an over-restrictive definition of "messiah": whereas given my definition, his evidence completely confirms my conclusion. The same can be said of Martin Goodman, 'Messianism and Politics in the Land of Israel. 66-135 ce.'. in Redemption and Resistance (ed. Bockmuehl and Paget), pp. 149-57.
28. If Jesus did exist, his followers may have repackaged the dead Jesus into a spiritual one consciously or not—that is. by merely claiming to have been visited by his risen spirit or by their subconscious minds constructing that experience for them (see Element 15).
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