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Religions all over the world have experienced a phenomenon which has been given the label "crisis cults." Although the religious and cultural circumstances vary, these movements nevertheless share important similarities. Early Christianity itself can easily be described as such a "crisis cult" - but interestingly, not one which arose without contemporary precedent.

Recent evidence suggests very strongly that similar apocalyptic movements had already existed in Roman-occupied Judea starting about 100 years before Jesus would have lived. Understanding early Christianity, therefore, would be benefited both by a better knowledge of those earlier movements (insofar as it is possible) and a deeper appreciation for the nature of crisis cults generally.

How do crisis cults get started? The first ingredient is to have enough people in society who start feeling that their culture and traditional way of life no longer "work" for them anymore. The problem is that major changes are occurring in society - perhaps they are occupied by foreign invaders, or new discoveries and technologies are transforming the culture too quickly.

Because of this, people seek to recapture what they perceive to be a purer, more righteous age by creating new systems and relationships within the larger society. From this nucleus, society as a whole is supposed to be improved and re-aligned.

People are drawn to these efforts by the second important ingredient, their own insecurities: they are frightened by the new ideas or alien influences. They are under a great deal of stress, attempting to function in a culture they no longer quite recognize as their own. With this, the stage is set for the coming of a charismatic figure who is seen as a prophet or messiah.

Max Weber defines such a prophet figure as "a purely individual bearer of charisma, who by virtue of his mission proclaims a religious doctrine or divine commandment. The prophet's claim is based on personal revelation and charisma. This qualification must be regarded as the decisive hallmark of prophecy."

The intermediary between humans and the divine is characterized first and foremost by his personal charisma, as Weber emphasizes. This is not so much a character trait as it is a form of relationship between the prophet and his followers. What happens is that, over time, the emotions and the personalities of the two begin to mingle.

What results is similar to a chemical reaction when people who are willing to be led meet up with a person who has the ability to identify himself with the followers and get them to identify themselves with the prophet. The prophet becomes a sort of "empathetic mirror," reflecting back to people not only their own sufferings and desires, but also their hopes for an ultimate resolution and victory.

When these two find each other during a period amenable to the development of a crisis cult, the power of the relationship is increased dramatically. People under stress and alienated from their culture suddenly are made to feel important and wonderful in a way they are no longer accustomed to.

All of this easily describes the situation experienced by the people in Judea under Roman rule. Their culture and religion were being heavily influenced by Roman and Hellenistic philosophy. In this situation, prophetic and messianic figures could find very fertile soil. It was here that Christianity developed during its earliest years, but other, similar movements preceded it and probably influenced it.

Two recent books discuss the nature of such crisis cults, focusing upon such movements which appeared in Roman-occupied Judea before the development of Christianity. Evidence for at least one alleged "Messiah" before Jesus can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and could have serious consequences for our understanding of how and why Christianity first appeared.

The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior before Jesus, by Michael O. Wise.

The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by Israel Knohl.

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