Jesus Never Existed

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Jesus Never Existed

Journeys with an Apostle – First Mission Paul in Cyprus and Galatia

Real or Imagined?

Did Saint Paul, native of Tarsus and Roman citizen as he claimed, really make the journeys ascribed to him – or are they just a frame upon which to hang his seminal epistles? Did this erstwhile Rabbi Saul, student of Gamaliel and Pharisaic Jew, really sally forth over sea and mountain – or could the story of his travels have been concocted precisely to framework missives of orthodoxy aimed at recalcitrant synagogues of the Jewish diaspora? A century of archaeology appears to confirm a few circumstantial details mentioned in his letters and yet the biblical account gives one cause to wonder.


On the Island of Love

What better way to begin the mythology of Christian triumph in the Gentile world than a spectacular conversion? For Paul’s first adventure on the missionary path the chosen venue was Cyprus, a strategically placed island ruled by the Ptolemies of Egypt until annexed by Rome in 58 BC. Many of the vast number of rock-cut tombs on the island follow the peristyle fashion of Egypt. Mark Antony gave the island to Cleopatra as a wedding gift but it was restored as a Roman province after the Battle of Actium (31 BC).
Economically prized for its copper mines (half of which were awarded to Herod the Great by Augustus), in 22 BC the island became a senatorial province, under the rule of a propraetor (although granted the honorary rank of proconsul). Aside from a severe earthquake in 77 AD and a violent Jewish insurrection in 115/6, the peaceful, prosperous island barely figured in Roman histories.
But it seems that Paul’s co-worker, Barnabas, was a Jew from Cyprus, so what better place to start the grand missionary tour than Barney’s homeland? (Well, actually, a more obvious choice would have been the cities of the Decapolis – thoroughly Gentile and far more accessible). Paul’s first journey, so it is said, began about the year 46 AD, after the apostle had passed more than 10 years in retirement at Tarsus, performing no evident work for the Lord or even maintaining contact with the brethren. Yet Paul is chosen by the church in Antioch (or rather, by the Holy Spirit) to carry the good news to Cyprus and Asia Minor. (Not that he was really the first – Acts 11.19 tells of unnamed “scattered” brethren already there, preaching to the “Jews alone”. The aside is very important, as we will see).

After a stopover at Salamis the apostles “go through” the island (the cities of Citium, Amathus and Curium don’t get a mention) and make straight for the Governor in Paphos, who conveniently has sent word that he wants to hear them. (Why, one wonders? Did they cause such a commotion at the other end of the island? And if so why do we not know of it?) All it takes is the spiteful blinding of a rival magician (curiously named “Bar Jesus”) and Sergius Paulus, Roman aristocrat and doubtless the richest, as well as the most powerful, man on the island, is enrolled among the ranks of the Christians. “By tradition” Cyprus becomes the first country governed by a Christian, though oddly we never hear of Sergius again, and nor is there any evidence of early Christianity on the island. Hereafter, Rabbi Saul is known by his latin name Paulus (which just happens to be the name of the Governor).


One good yarn deserves another

Not only was Paul a soar away success with proconsul Sergius – he also got given a thrashing by him! Sounds a little contradictory? Well, it is another “Church tradition” so all things are possible. But for this yarn, remarkably, there is physical evidence – a remnant of the very column about which Paul was whipped! Apparently, the faithful can reconcile the two ideas by insisting Paul first was thrashed by and then converted the governor to Christianity (it will only take you a moment to dream up the movie script – speak to Mel Gibson).
The miraculous upshot of all this is that a stump of marble selected at random in modern times provides “proof” for the missionary activity of Paul and, ipso facto, “evidence for Jesus.” If you can believe this, you probably believed there were WMDs in Iraq and your government would not lie to you.
If it makes you happier, you can believe that St Paul was “scourged 39 times” against this innocuous stump of a pillar before converting his tormentor Sergius Paulus.
Rather more acceptable evidence (of Sergius Paulus, that is, not St Paul) is an engraved stone found at the site of ancient Soli (Kyrenia) in northern Cyprus, at the end of the 19th century.
About the same time, a boundary stone was found in Rome from the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54) recording the name of a Sergius Paulus appointed a curator “of the banks and the channel of the River Tiber.” Was it the same man? Paul’s “epistle to the Romans” fails to greet him, which suggests it was not.

Reality Check

“Paul’s first missionary journey under the auspices of Antioch is narrated only by Luke … A close analysis of this account brings to light so many improbabilities that it becomes impossible to accord it any real confidence.”
– Murphy O’Connor, Paul, His Story, p44.
In reality, the Cyprian story falls apart for a number of reasons, not least because the Governor’s palace, even today, is a visible celebration of a vibrant paganism, spanning centuries of Roman occupation. The huge palace complex, measuring 120 x 90 metres, includes the normal panoply of public and state rooms, gardens and bath houses. Exquisite mosaic floors feature the major Roman-Hellenic gods – and all without a Christian icon in sight! Ancient Paphos had its theatre, agora and even Asklepion, the shrine-cum-hospital of the ever-popular healing god Asclepius, until his overthrow by Jesus. We might also reasonably suspect a fraudster’s work because of a curious similarity (yet again) between the work of “Luke” (the purported author of Acts) and the history of Josephus written in the 90s.

Aerial view of the proconsul’s residence, Paphos.

Did Paul make it past the front door?

Where did they get their ideas from?

Josephus (Antiquities 20.7.2)
‘Jewish Cypriot magician, pal of Roman governor, works a dirty deed.’
“While Felix was procurator of Judea, he saw this Drusilla, and fell in love with her; … He sent to her a person whose name was Simon*, one of his friends; a Jew he was, and by birth a Cypriot, and one who pretended to be a magician, and endeavoured to persuade her to forsake her present husband, and marry him.”
Acts 13, 4-8
‘Jewish Cypriot magician, pal of Roman governor, attempts to work a dirty deed.’
“… They sailed to Cyprus … And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-Jesus: Which was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas* the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.”
* But according to some manuscripts the name given by Josephus is “Atomos”, itself possibly a corruption of Hetoimos (Elymas?) or a Greek word for small (as indeed is Paulus in Latin). In no way is Elymas a translation or even an equivalent of Bar-Jesus.
Not to waste a useful bit of story, Felix and his “adulterous” bride Drusilla show up later in Acts – when Paul, it seems, gave them a dressing down!
“And after certain days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, which was a Jewess, he sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.” (Acts 24.24,25)
Acts 13, 9-12
By a malicious act of cruelty, St Paul blinds his rival – and so impresses the governor that he immediately becomes a Christian.
Our noble St Paul sets the tone for two thousand years of vicious curses. The author of Acts continues his demonising of “the Jews”.
The colourful spell is composed of words and phrases drawn from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish scripture).
“Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, and said,
O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season.
And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.”

Where did they get their ideas from?

“Persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me.”
– Timothy 3.11
Rather than capitalise on the conversion of a rich and powerful acolyte in Cyprus, Saul-now-Paul sails off to Pisidia for far tougher challenges. Reaching the city of Pisidian Antioch (modern Yalvac) high in the Taurus Mountains, Paul delivers in the local synagogue “part two” of Stephen’s address of Acts 7 (together, the two sermons neatly summarize Jewish history from Abraham through to John the Baptist). Like Stephen, Paul finishes his lecture by insulting his Jewish audience (“Behold, you despisers, and wonder, and perish!”– Acts 13.41) . On the next Sabbath “almost the whole city” come to hear the charismatic provocateur and “the Jews envied” Paul’s pulling power.
We thus reach a crucial point in the whole Christian saga: “We turn to the Gentiles”, says Paul.
“It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord commanded us, I have set thee for a light to the Gentiles, to be a means of salvation to the very ends of the earth.”
– Acts 13, 46,47.
The Jews of Antioch, after all, had had a whole week (Acts 13.44) to abandon their ancestral faith and join Paul’s new sect, even if they were not treated to the spectacle of an instant blinding like our dear friend Sergius Paulus!
Pisidian Antioch. Settled with Roman veterans by Augustus in 25 BC, the city covered 14 sq. km. and had a population of perhaps a 100,000 in the 1st century AD.
Could Paul really have competed with the theatre, stadium, taverns and baths? The distortion lens of Christian belief encourages the silly notion that the apostle passed through the city like a whirlwind, overturning pagan cults and Jewish synagogue alike.
Not unexpectedly, “the Jews” had Paul and Barnabas expelled from the city. None abashed, our intrepid heroes dust themselves off and journey a hundred miles further east to the city of Iconium (modern Konya). Here the drama repeats itself (although the apostles supposedly “abode a long time” in the city). They speak “boldly” in the synagogue, divide the whole city into “believers” versus “the Jews”, and precipitate threats of a stoning. Paul and Barnabas now flee south and east to Lystra (Hatunsaray) and Derbe (Kerti Hüyük).
In Lystra, a pronouncement from Paul allows a lame man to walk (the trick closely parallels Peter’s healing in Acts 3). The miracle causes the locals to declare Paul to be the god Hermes, and Barnabas, oddly, to be the king of the gods, Zeus.
As it happens, the visit of Zeus and Hermes to Phrygia is to be found in Ovid’s 1st century anthology of myths “Metamorphoses” but surely “Luke” didn’t copy the idea?
The adulation of the apostles is short-lived, however, because Paul launches a diatribe against an imminent sacrifice to the very god Barnabas is thought to be.
The people, now stirred up “by Jews” from far off Antioch and Iconium (do they just happen to be there or have they followed the apostles for 150 miles?) stone Paul and dump his “dead” body outside the city (Acts 14.19). However, miraculously he “rose up” and returns to Lystra. By the standards of Paphos, this wondrous working of the Holy Spirit should have converted the entire city, if not the whole of Lycaonia. Yet instead of dazzling the multitude with his recovery (or is it a resurrection?), the very next day the dynamic duo make off to Derbe, a further 50 miles southeast. (They are now less than 200 miles from Paul’s home town of Tarsus).
A real life stoning. What would you say were the chances of survival?
In Derbe the apostles “preached, taught and exhorted” many. They then retrace their steps through the hostile towns of Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, evangelise Perge (ignored first time round), and ordain elders “in every church” (Acts 14.23). Evidently all the earlier enmity had abated (or the story teller has run out of story) and churches had sprung up like mushrooms emerging from horse manure. An uneventful voyage home allows the heroes to regale the brethren of Antioch “how they had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.” Jolly well done. We now have Christian communities all over Asia Minor.
But is it fact or fiction?

Theological Agenda

Viewed without the rose-tinted spectacles of Christian faith, the first voyage of Paul is as fanciful as the first voyage of Sinbad. Improbable, unlikely incidents are juxtaposed with the miraculous and the ridiculous. Faith can offer special pleas for every incongruity but logical thinking cannot.
The first missionary journey of Paul has a clear theological agenda: to portray “the Jews” as obdurate and villainous and to record the supposed successful establishment of a network of Pauline churches among the Gentiles. In each little drama – the contest of magicians in Paphos, the “envy” encountered at Pisidian Antioch, the “threats” of Iconium, the attempted murder in Lystra – the Jews are demonised, “just won’t listen” and try to stop the “good news” of Jesus Christ reaching the ears of the Gentiles. Clearly, the Jews are the children of the Devil.
In contrast, the Gentiles everywhere, from the Governor at Paphos to the crowds of Derbe and Perge, are instantly, wildly enthusiastic – abandoning their traditional religions with alacrity. Even Jesus did not establish churches with such panache. And what does Paul have to offer them? He has no Gospels (they have not yet been written); he has no first hand reminiscences of his Lord and Saviour (he never met the guy). What can he say of the Disciples he never met ? (“But I saw no one else of the apostles, only James the brother of the Lord” – Galatians 1.19). For the story to work, Paul has indeed to be “filled with the Holy Spirit” – has to be a veritable brigade of Billy Grahams or Ted Haggards on speed. To regard it as “history” requires a suspension of all critical thought, a huge leap of faith and a large measure of self-deception.
The yarn works, but only if we view the story through Christian eyes. From the very first, everywhere they tread, the servants of the Lord carouse with kings, governors, grand dames and the leading men of their day. The Holy Spirit which accompanies them ensures their entry into all the best parties and rescues them from all the worst scrapes. But if there is no Holy Spirit then we are dealing with sacred myth not history.

Postscript: Fraudulent in tooth and claw

Later accretions to the story of the apostolic mission allow us to better appreciate just how the Christian fabrication factory works. In the real world, fierce rivalry between ambitious clerics was the surest spur to the miraculous.
In the 4th century, Salamis, on the eastern end of the island of Cyprus, gained a new sycophantic name, Constantia, in honour of the pious if stupid emperor Constantius II (337-361). The renamed city was the stomping ground of the patriarch Epiphanius, who spearheaded the destruction of pagan shrines which had existed for a thousand years.
For nearly forty years (until 403) Epiphanius exerted his authoritarian influence across the eastern Mediterranean, seeking to control the affairs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Strictly speaking his own see was actually subordinate to that of Antioch but Epiphanius’s answer was to promote the local hero St Barnabas (Agios Varnavas) as “founder of the Church” (his church) in Cyprus, often pushing Barnabas ahead of Paul in the apostolic pecking order. Naturally, Barnabas, the Cypriot Jew, was accorded a suitable “martyr’s death”. The 5th century “Acts of Barnabas” records that it was Jews led by Bar-Jesus of Paphos – enraged by the saint’s condemnation of “naked racing”, idol festivals in the theatre, and libations in the temples (boy are we talking sin) – who seized, throttled and “burned to dust” poor old Barnabas.
Antioch lost control of Cyprus at the Council of Ephesus in 431 but in 488 Peter the Fuller, the ruthlessly ambitious Patriarch of Antioch, revived the claim. The then Archbishop of Constantia, Anthemios, met the challenge with a dream, which it seems led him to an hitherto unknown tomb of Barnabas where he found nothing less than the original edition of Matthew’s Gospel! Presented to the credulous Emperor Zeno (474-491), the Cypriot Patriarchy gained in return imperial privileges, that is, total authority over its own bailiwick. Theocracy now reigned in the island of love. Ever after, the boss of bosses, His Beatitude the Archbishop, has flaunted the sceptre rather than a pastoral staff, worn a pretty purple mantle and used red ink in official decrees.

Holiness that has no limits

Another 5th century creation was “St Irakleidos”, son of a pagan priest, we are told, who guided the apostlesaround the island (new adventures unrecorded in Acts? or did they simply get lost?). In any event the son of a pagan converted and was made first bishop of Cyprus by Barnabas – thus setting in place the requisite “apostolic succession” which has justified the authority of every subsequent bishop. A tireless exorcist, Irakleidos was rewarded with the obligatory martyrdom (those dastardly pagans again). His skull – well someone’s skull – is the star attraction of the 18th century monastery at Tamassos, his purported birth place.
Not so far from Tamassos, a rival monastery, Kykkos, can make no claims of “apostolic foundation” but instead has a jaw-dropping icon – nothing less than an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary painted by St Luke himself! Despite the reputed “powers” of the icon (rain-making as well as healing) it could do nothing to stop the monastery burning down in 1365, 1542, 1751 and 1831.
But it must be genuine because the monastery is the richest on the island, with a collection of gold artifacts worth millions. Shame that the icon – “too sacred for human eyes to gaze upon” – has not been seen for centuries.
Ah well, that’s show business.


  • Hermann Detering, The Falsified Paul, Early Christianity in the Twilight (Journal of Higher Criticism, 2003)
  • A. N. Wilson, Paul, The Mind of the Apostle (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997)
  • John Ziesler, Pauline Christianity (Oxford, 1990)
  • Edward Stourton, In the Footsteps of Saint Paul (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004)
  • John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Lion, 1999)
  • J. Murphy-O’Connor, Paul, A Critical Life (Clarendon, 1996)
  • J. Murphy-O’Connor, Paul, His Story (Oxford, 2005)

St Paul – Real or Imagined?

The curious route of St Paul's first mission

In the 1st century, Cyprus was most noted for its copper and devotion to the goddess Aphrodite. Sacred marriage, orgiastic ritual and temple prostitution were aspects of her cult, but the goddess was also a protector of marriage, children and seafarers.
Perhaps the cult (rather than the copper) attracted Paul’s attention. The most obvious route from Antioch to the cities of Lycaonia and Pisidia was overland through the Cilician Gates, the route favoured for his 2nd and 3rd journeys.
Having already got as far as Derbe, Paul could easily have crossed the Cilician plain to reach his home town. Yet we are told he retraced his steps and took a voyage back from Attalia instead.

Aphrodite – the original beauty

Sanctuary of Aphrodite (Kouklia, Cyprus)
Before assuming the form of a classic beauty, the fertility goddess was worshipped as a black conical stone, under the name Great Goddess or Astarte.
In the 4th century BC local Cyprian gods took Greek names and Astarte became Aphrodite, Hylates Apollo, Eshmun Asclepius, etc.
“In Syria … is the temple of Aphrodite Urania – the most ancient, I am told, of all the temples of this goddess. The one in Cypress the Cyprians themselves admit was derived from it.”
– Herodotos (5th century BC)
Apollo’s worship started at least as early as the 8th century BC and continued until the 4th century AD prohibitions of Theodosius.
Temple of Apollo Hylates, Curium. Refuge from the wrath of Barnabas?
The baths at Curium.
At the end of the 4th century, the sacred Nymphaeum was converted into a church and the changing rooms re-purposed as a bakery. On the ruins of the forum and other official buildings arose the bishop’s church and residence. Kilns reduced marble statues and architectural pieces to lime.
From Iconium (“city of icons”).

Pagan tastes of the Proconsuls at Paphos

A gathering of Hellenic gods in the Governor’s residence.
Excavations at Paphos have brought to light numerous mosaics and statues of Greek gods and heroes.
A magnificent circular mosaic in the governor’s palace. In the centre, Theseus kills the Minotaur (hence aka “House of Theseus”).

Paul was here?

A modest 16th century church (Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa, Paphos) sits within the ruins of a much larger 4th century structure, itself built upon an even larger pagan sanctuary.
Downsizing piety?

Jew free?

After the violent Jewish rebellion of 115/6 – led by the messianic claimant Artemion – a law prohibited Jews from even stepping on Cyprian soil, even if shipwrecked.

Paul was here?

Perge (Perga) – in ancient times a coastal city. In Acts 13.13 John (aka “Mark”) leaves Paul here and returns to Jerusalem. Perhaps he knew those Jews were going to cut up rough.

"Death for Naked Racing"

– the 5th century Christian mind
“And we found that a certain abominable race was being performed in the road near the city, where a multitude of women and men naked were performing the race. And there was great deception and error in that place.
And Barnabas turning, rebuked it; and the western part fell, so that many were wounded, and many of them also died and the rest fled to the temple of Apollo, which was close at hand in the city, which was called sacred.”
– The Acts of Barnabas.

Ancient tomb given a Christian makeover

Agia Solomoni, Paphos – with “lucky” tree bedecked with scraps of rag and plastic bags. Inside, more Jesus trash.
Byzantine claims for the small catacomb included “final resting place for the seven Maccabee brothers”. As if.
All that glitters. Kykkos monastery in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus was bequeathed properties as far a field as Russia.
The holy complex includes its own liquor store for those who don’t get intoxicated on a sacred finger in a golden casket.
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