Yesterday an intriguing archaeological report appeared on my facebook wall. My initial reaction was both interest and a bit of disgust. The report does, after all, refer to the native Norweigan religion as a "cult" and Norweigan religous iconography as "idols," judgemental terms at best. The report describes a recent discovery of an intentionally preserved Norweigan temple used in the 5th through 11th centuries which is well worth reading, for all its bias.
Among the details was a discussion of the idea of "chrestus" in Roman society. The most popular interpretation of the latinized Greek word is to make it "christus" and therefore use it as evidence of a historical Jesus.
Fortunately, there is a link with more information on the subject. http://www.truthbeknown.com/suetoniuschresto.html. This article gets into the detailed and often very important issue of translation and use of the words "christos" (the Latinized Greek word meaning "annointed" or "messiah") and "chrestus" (the Latinized Greek word meaning "good, righteous, useful") in religious and secular Greco-Roman literature.
Put together, the two articles reflect on the matter of Christianization of Europe and on the dating system we all use.
In particular, I found this paragraph from the archaeological report very revealing,
"A close inspection of the historical record reveals that, other than various parts of some Pauline epistles perhaps, there exists no credible, scientific evidence for anyone having ever heard of a "Jesus the Christ" before the end of the first century or early second. In addition, the earliest references seem to be to a "Chrestos," not a "Christos." In actuality, we possess no extant physical artifacts from the first century at all that are unambiguously Christian. Hence, the "Christian era" essentially did not even appear in the earliest places until the second century." (emphasis mine)
This second century date is very important to me as an amateur historian and medievalist because by that time, the Romans had conquered most of Celtic Europe and large sections of Germanic Europe at that time, leaving few western European lands free of their conquest and influence (Ireland being one of those largely untouched areas, a reason why Celtic culture and religions persisted so long there).
Ancient Germanic peoples included not just the residents of the Rhineland that we think of as Germans today, but most of the non-Celtic peoples of western Europe as well, including what we think of as French ("Gaul" was Celtic until the 1st century BCE when groups like the Franks conquered it), Norweigans, Swedes, and so forth. Germans, unlike the Celts, also tended to have more in common with one another. A "Celt" was a speaker of a certain type of language whereas a German tended to also share more cultural traits -- including religion -- in common.
Central to ancient Germanic religion was Odin, the father god who sacrificed himself on a tree pierced with a spear in his side.
As the archaeological report puts it,
"Much like the Christian father-god incarnated in Christ, in the Norse mythology Father Odin is depicted as hanging on the "world-tree" in an act of sacrifice, while wounded by a spear. The old Norse text the Havamal, one of the Norse (prose) Eddas, contains a poem called the Runatal, stanza 138, in which Odin says: "I know that I hung, on a windy tree, for all of nine nights, wounded with a spear, and given to Óðinn, myself to myself, on that tree, which no man knows, from what roots it runs." (Thorgeirsson, emph. added.)
Furthermore, the "All-Father" god Odin's invincible and beloved son, Balder, is pierced with a spear of mistletoe. Although Balder dies, in the time of the Ragnarok or Norse "apocalypse," he will be reborn or resurrected. This latter motif is similar to Christ's "Second Coming" depicted in Revelation.
Moreover, as Jesus is the "Light of the World," so Balder is the "god of light." In this way, Balder is the savior of the world who brings peace."
The report concludes that this Germanic belief is parallel to Christian doctrine. I would like to offer up an alternative hypothesis.
What if, given the large numbers of Germans in the Roman Empire, Germans practicing their religion as allowed by imperial law, the borrowing into what became Christianity was not FROM Christianity TO European cultures -- but the reverse?
With the earliest Church records using the word "chrestos" and not "christos" as so many prefer to interprete it, is it possible that the mythology associated with Jesus and the Christian religion is an assimiliation of GERMAN beliefs INTO what became the church in its earliest days?
What if the core beliefs upheld by Christians are not of a historical or even Jewish-influenced nature at all? What if the core theology is actually ancient German and all the cathedrials and Christian services are really honoring Odin and Balder who have taken on the Latin name of "Jesus?"
With so many Germans across the Roman Empire at the time, is there perhaps greater scientific historical weight to this theory?
Of course people who are true believers will believe what they believe. I am not interested in upholding or dismissing a particular belief. Science is not religion and vice versa. The point of theology is completely different than science and social science.
Instead, as a scientist and social scientist, I am interested in evidence.
The reality of course is that we may never truly know what really happened. History often reveals veiled to us. But perhaps it is useful to consider possibilities different from those we have been taught and consider physical evidence in our assessments of what happened a very long time ago.
Laurel A. Rockefeller, author
The Peers of Beinan series
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