It occurred to me today that if Jesus were born in America, the world as we know it would look very different. In the first place, assuming he was born around 1 AD (as in history), and assuming he was born under the dominion of one of the largest civilizations of his day (as Rome was), he likely would have lived among the Mayas. He wouldn’t have been Mayan himself (the historical Jesus wasn’t Roman), but rather from a formerly independent kingdom that now was under their rule, like the Olmecs. Instead of the Hebrew Scriptures, he probably would have grown up learning the Popol Vuh.* Also, his parents probably would have named him something like Uaxaclajuun, but we’ll call him ‘Jesus’ for convenience.
Instead of using bread and wine for the Communion/Eucharist ritual, I bet he would have used chocolate.
Wait, wait! Hear me out!
Historically, one of the interpretations of the Eucharist is that the grinding of the wheat to make bread is symbolically significant, representing things like (e.g.) the transformation of individuals Christians into a single Church; the wine represents the blood that flowed from his heart at death. The symbolism of Jesus’s body and blood would have carried over quite well into a culture like the Mayans that ritualized human bloodletting and sacrifice. Presumably Jesus would have died this way instead of by crucifixion.
Cacao beans are roasted and ground up before being made into chocolate. This functions just as well symbolically as the grinding of wheat. Chocolate can be made as a solid or a liquid, so it could represent both the body and the blood of Jesus. Guess what? The Mayans drank chocolate ritually! Q.E.D.
But wait! There’s more!
The Mesoamerican civilizations all played a ritual ball game (mentioned in the Popol Vuh, among other things). So going to church on Sunday would basically be like going to a soccer game and eating chocolate. The clergy would be the teams playing against each other—all men, at least at first. (Note the image at top.)
However, given the irrefutable fact that women love chocolate, I suspect the new religion would attract a significantly high number of women from the outset, thus leading to heavier feminine presence early on.
Christianity (Uaxaclajuunity?) would spread south and north, such that those designations would be used when speaking about it rather than “east” and “west” as they are today. There would probably be Great Schism, not between the eastern Greek and western Roman churches, but between the North and (Central-)South American ones. The South American church, historically more imperial in its tendencies, would develop to be more hierarchical like the Catholic Church, while the North American tribes would evolve a more decentralized structure like the Orthodox or Protestant churches. My guess is that the more nomadic tribes would be less hierarchical and more “Protestant”, since they would be less inclined to build the sacred structures and spaces that symbolically reinforce a hierarchy. All would be well—until the coming of Columbus.
The Old World
Back in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, the Roman Empire would rise and fall, overrun by the barbarian tribes. Without Christianity, the Germanic peoples would maintain their traditional polytheism, possibly merging it with Greco-Roman polytheism. Islam would arise in the 6th century, and sweep through northern Africa and Asia as the first major monotheistic religion in the Old World. The Germanic and Roman peoples, lacking a common cultural basis to unite them, do not at first form a single civilization (like the Holy Roman Empire or Christendom); instead they would remain a fractured and continually squabbling, boundary-swapping group: Think 19th century Europe.
There are two possible scenarios next: In the first, Islam sweeps across a divided Europe and unites the three continents in a single theocracy. In the second, the Indo-European pagans, drawing on their I-E heritage as invaders and conquerors, take the battle to the Muslims and, through friction and resistance to a common enemy, unite into a more cohesive entity. I’ll assume the second situation, since I think it’s more interesting.**
Thus, around 1500, Diopher*** Columbus leads an armada of Neo-Viking Spaniards across the Atlantic for the glory of Spain and Odin. He lands on the shores of America, sacks and loots the east coast, and sets up a beachhead as a base for further invasions. The warrior Indo-Europeans roll easily over the Americans, first in the north and soon after in the south. The colonies are not subservient to their home countries, but rather are treated as new, related tribes to their European founders. They continue to sack and loot their neighbors.
The Church of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons, never arise. Since Jesus was born in America, there’s no room for a religion based on him visiting America.
At this point, I’d like to think that the invaders discover chocolate, and convert en masse to the new religion so that they can enjoy it to the full. They become much more peaceful as a result—until the 19th- and 20th-century industry wars for control of the chocolate market.
Chocolate saves American civilization!****
* Yes, I know the Popol Vuh was Mayan, not Olmec. However, Mesoamerican civilizations were much more alike than the Romans and Jews were, and there’s evidence that the Olmecs had the same myths and rituals. So we’ll pretend that religiously they were more or less the same. Way to generalize about thousands of years of civilization, no?
** It’s a well-kept academic secret that all scholarship runs on this principle.
*** He wouldn’t be “Christopher” since they would not have known of any Christ. “Di-” works as the Greek root of “Zeus” (actually, the odds of him using a Greek name are probably lessened, but we’ll just roll with it). Of course, the entire St. Christopher myth would not have come to be anyway, in this case, but let’s assume a similar name just because.
**** By a similar line of reasoning, if Jesus had been born in Ethiopia, the Eucharist would probably include coffee…