Now is one of those rare times when people are interested in talking not just about religion, but about how religions arise in the first place. In particular people are talking about the Mormons, as represented by their largest denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Mormon men believe that they can become Gods, and so for Mitt Romney the White House is just a stepping stone to ruling, as a God, his own planet. At the same time Mitt and the Mormons want protective coloring, the acceptance that theirs is a legitimate religion within the broad Christian spectrum.
The Christians themselves went through that process within the Roman Empire. That empire was already in intellectual decline by the time Jesus is believed to have been born. The Greeks of three to four hundred years earlier, or at least their intellectual class, was cultivating science and philosophy, trying to distinguish those from religious mythology. Religion, however, is a useful tool for rulers. Julius Caesar, who died in 44 B.C., had been declared a living God, a sign of both his power and his need to prop up his power with superstition.
In Palestine in that (post-Caesar) era the Romans ruled over a fragmented, multi-ethnic, multi-religious culture. Although the Jews had been a leading tribe in the area for over a thousand years, even before the Romans came they still had large numbers of non-Jews residing in the area. Recall that the Romans took over Judea in 63 B.C., and that the Jewish state had rarely been independent, but had been previously part of the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Macedonian/Seleucid empires.
Given that Egyptians, Canaanites of various sorts, Jews (who had their own various sects), Greeks, and various Arab tribes all mingled in the area of Palestine around the time of Jesus and the formation of the original Christian movement, it should not be surprising that, whatever Jesus himself believed or taught, the early Christians had many possible sources of influence. The crucial differences between early Christianity and the Jewish beliefs of that era was the promise of personal resurrection, or immortality, based on the belief that Jesus was not just the Messiah, but was a god, or the Son of God.
This actually just brought the Christian religion into conformity with the dominant pagan religions of that era, all of which worshipped resurrected gods: the Egyptian Osiris, the Greek gods Hercules and Dionysus, and several resurrection cults closer to home, with god-names varying by ethnic group. Anthropologists generally agree that resurrected gods are associated with agricultural societies that made a ritual of the harvest of grain and its resurrection from seeds each spring.
Possibly the main historical event of the early Christian Church, other than the life and death of its founder, was the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D./C.E. If the earliest Christians were divided as to whether Jesus had been a Jewish Messiah or a Canaanite resurrected god, that destruction of the Jewish state, which would not be resurrected for 1900 years, settled the question. Whatever Jesus was, he was not the Messiah who would make Judah an independent state again.
The New Testament is self-disproving: it has one clear prophecy made by Jesus (Matthew 24:34): "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." The generation did pass, and nothing was fulfilled. To survive Christianity needed a belief system and a structure that could perpetuate itself without divine intervention. The Christians never took over the old Jewish kingdom, but they did eventually take over the Roman Empire.
Which brings us to fish. There is no plant or animal more closely associated with Jesus Christ and the early Christians than fish. Fish are everywhere in the New Testament. Jesus's favorite recruits as Apostles are fishermen. One of his most important miracles is the multiplication of fishes. Early Christians used the fish symbol more than they used the cross. Jesus also displayed the powers of a sea god by calming the seas and walking on water.
That points to Dagon (which has many spelling variations), who the Jews believed was a fish god. He was also a resurrected god, probably originally a grain god who became associated with fishing later. The Jews claimed they destroyed him with the Ark of the Covenant, but more likely that is just a symbol of a period of successful ethnic cleansing (I do not mean to pick on the Jews here. Back then ethnic cleansing was an almost universal human practice).
This raises an important question: was Jesus really Jewish, and it so, how so?
How many of the Twelve Apostles were fishermen? It is hard to say because the list of Apostle names differs somewhat in each of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) [See Apostles for tables]. Only Simon Peter and his brother Andrew are specifically identified as fishermen from Bethsaida in Galilee, and Philip is also from Bethsaida. James and John abandon their nets to follow Jesus, so that would be at least five out of twelve. The prior occupations of most of the other apostles are not mentioned. The apostles were supposed to have been Jews, but were just as likely to have Greek names.
Jesus himself is "of Nazareth." Nazareth was nowhere. It was, at best, a town so small that the Jews did not include it in maps or lists of town names during Jesus's era. Nazareth was about halfway between the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean coast. A thousand years before Jesus it had been occupied by the Jewish tribe of Zebulun, but that was one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Even if Jesus was a Jew, some his neighbors probably were not. They were Palestinians of some ancient tribe, and Dagon was one of their gods. Jesus grew up north of the areas controlled by Samaritans, who thought the Jews of Jerusalem were innovators who brought back a false version of the old religion when they returned from the Babylonian Exile. In Jesus's time the Samaritans and Jews hated each other, the Jews having destroyed the Samaritans temple in 110 B.C.
The Jewish rebellion against Rome that started in 66 A.D. was not the wholesale rising of a united people against a foreign oppressor. Only a few Jewish cities, notably Jerusalem, actually fought the Romans. Many Jews were expelled by the Romans, though many remained. Most of the inhabitants of the area would later convert to Islam, including the ancient Jewish villagers. Christianity arose in this chaotic context and fragmented deeply. The Apostle Paul was self-appointed. His version of Christianity conflicted, by his own admission, with version of the Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem. It also conflicted with the many other self-appointed preachers who brought the idea of communal living and tithing to support ministers to whoever would pitch in. By 100 A.D. the original Christians were probably all or mostly dead and the fight for the intellectual property, the magic formula for converting pagans to cash cows, was full on.
It's all very fishy. I like the Dagon Hypothesis. If Jesus was a non-Jewish or semi-Jewish Palestinian who tried to convert the Jews to Dagon's ways, it all almost makes some sense.