USU 1320: History and Civilization
©Damen, 2013
A Guide To Writing in History and Classics
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SECTION 13
Early Christianity and the Church

For the historian, insurmountable difficulties surround Jesus himself. Too little information about the actual man in his day can be verified and too many people care about the interpretation of Christ's life and teaching, a situation which leaves historians with no real hope for achieving consensus. The gospels themselves only exacerbate the problem, since they entail numerous difficulties starting with the very language in which they were published. For all practical purposes, then, Christianity enters history with the appearance of Saint Paul whose writings are the earliest datable Christian documents. In the next three centuries, as the new religion slowly spread across the Roman world, it becomes easier and easier to track its development up to its consummate political triumph, Constantine's conversion in the early fourth century. Research on the evolution of early Christianity and the complex path it followed up to its eventual domination of the West has uncovered an unparalleled wealth of diverse perspectives on Christ, many of which were branded heresies and subsequently disappeared from the historical record. But now archaeology has brought to light several of the texts composed by authors later denounced as subversives. These so-called Gnostic Gospels demonstrate the immense creativity of early Christians and the rich abundance of possibilities inherent within the religion itself.


People, Places, Events and Terms To Know:

Jesus Christ
Gospels
Apostles
Tacitus
Josephus
Diaspora
New Testament
Greek
Aramaic
Paul (Saul of Tarsus)
Stoicism
Persecutions
Diocletian
Constantine
Constantinople
In Hoc Signo Vince
Edict of Milan
Pagans (Paganus)
Orthodox(y)
Heresy
Gnostics
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels
Nag Hammadi
Theodotus

Gospel of Mary
Arius
Arianism
Athanasius
Council of Nicaea
Nicene Creed
Sacraments
Bishop(s)
See
Papa
Apostolic Succession
Patriarch


I. Introduction: Jesus and History

Hard archaeology is quite marginal to the continuing power of the biblical tradition . . . Archaeology's most important role in the exploration of the emergence of Christianity is not as a fact-checker but as a context-giver—helping us understand what was happening all over ancient Judea during the lifetimes of Jesus and his followers. (Neil Asher Silberman, Archaeology, 2005)

At the very heart of Christianity lies the life of Jesus Christ, which from nearly every perspective imaginable involves complications of some sort. Believers can choose to focus on Christ's human suffering or divine transcendence, theologians are left to debate the specific details of his resurrection and, without any contemporary portraits to go by, artists have little or no guidance in depicting him. Most problematical of all, an array of accounts now known as the Gospels ascribed to various disciples connected with him, present different and sometimes incompatible recollections of his teachings. But of all those struggling to situate him in some kind of framework, historians perhaps face the most intimidating challenge of all, trying to figure out what-really-happened in the wake of Jesus' life.

Christ as the Alpha and Omega, from the catacombs (click to see larger image)Indeed, the first century CE presents an excellent example of the difficulties encountered in dealing with the various types of histories. As "remembered history," for instance, the four canonical gospels are said to be contemporaneous accounts of Jesus' life and ministry, the recollections of four of his apostles (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). But careful analysis of these texts suggests otherwise, since from a historian's perspective they seem to be responding to issues and events relating to life in the Holy Lands decades after Jesus' death. Moreover, given their different and sometimes conflicting accounts of his life, we have no choice but to conclude that some of them must contain some degree of "invented history." Worse yet, discoveries in the sands of Egypt have "recovered" evidence of diverse approaches to Christianity, especially in the very early stages of its evolution. These so-called Gnostic gospels paint a very different picture of Christ from the one which orthodox Christians in the day envisioned, and following in their wake, most Christians today do also.

With all this, savvy historians tend to steer a wide course around Jesus himself. Particularly given the yawning vacuum of external sources for primordial Christianity, scholars cannot speak—certainly not with any sense of comfort—about the original stimulus producing this religion. That is, no contemporary Jewish or Roman account constitutes primary, external evidence of the actual events of Jesus' life. The closest we come is a brief mention by the Roman historian Tacitus recounting Nero's cruelty to a sect called Christianos, in the eyes of most Romans at the time a pathetic mob of doom-speakers. To Tacitus, that is, the emperor's savage recrimination against this demented, benighted cult was unwarranted and only served to prove that Nero was a savage and deranged bully, not that Tacitus felt anyone should sympathize with Christians. His point seems to be that civilized people should be ashamed to stand by and watch a sadist butcher morons.

Likewise, the Jewish historian and general Josephus also notes the existence of early Christians, but he was active several decades after Jesus' life and thus cannot serve as an eyewitness to the central events lying at the heart of Christianity. Also, he writes in the aftermath of the Roman holocaust which destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE and inaugurated the infamous diaspora, the Romans' general eviction of the Jews from the Holy Lands. Like Tacitus, then, Josephus' primary attention seems to rest not on Christianity itself but the plight and political crises facing his own people in his day.

The language of the New Testament only further complicates the situation, since it's all but certain that the gospels and epistles and other works which make up its canon of twenty-seven books are, at best, translations of what Jesus actually said. Instead of Greek, the language of the New Testament, Jesus most likely spoke Aramaic, a Semitic tongue used commonly throughout the Holy Lands in his day. And because he was born a Jew and most Jewish boys at the time were trained in Hebrew, he almost certainly could speak that language, too, or at least read it. But Greek? It's a fair question to ask if Jesus even knew Greek, and yet that is the language in which his words are recorded.

Whether or not he did, one thing is clear, the reason the authors of the Gospels chose to write their accounts of Jesus' life in Greek. As the international language of science, philosophy and commerce, both intellectual and economic, the Greek tongue would in those days have reached a much wider audience than Aramaic or Hebrew. The result is that the gospels seem unlikely to represent the actual words spoken by Christ—surely, however, they're close to what he actually said—still, as anyone who communicates in a second language can attest, translations are never exact.

So if the New Testament does not transmit Christ's words literally—which is not the same thing as saying it's not the "Word of God"—the situation encompasses a hopeless conundrum for those intent on deciphering what-really-happened-in-the-past. On the other hand, believers and theologians who have freedom to traffic in mysteries or miracles may find easy and ready solutions to this problem—or difficult ones, but solutions all the same—by calling on resources historians do not find on their menu of executable options. So, without external sources to contradict, corroborate or give dimension to the testimony of its authors, the gospels of the New Testament do not admit history as such, which exempts the life of Christ itself from the direct scrutiny of historical investigation. And perhaps, in the end, that's not a bad thing for historians. It's always good not to attract the attention of anyone's Inquisition.

Little makes the desperation of this situation more apparent than the thorny issue of the year in which Jesus was born. The year we call "1 CE (or AD)" is almost certainly not the date of his birth—ironically then, Jesus was most likely born several years "before Christ," by perhaps as much as a decade—moreover, his birth story as related in the gospels is highly problematical, at least from a historian's perspective. For one thing, Romans in the day wouldn't have ordered a census so that they could tax "all the world," as the Gospel of Luke claims, because with the resources they had at the time it would have been utterly infeasible.

Neither would they have made those they were assessing return to their ancestral cities—that was a Jewish custom, not a Roman one—nor does the historical record support the proposition that, out of fear of Herod's wrath and subsequent proclamation to kill all male infants in his realm, Jesus' family fled from Judea to Egypt, a story related in the second chapter of Matthew. To top it all off, Herod died in 4 BCE which means his notorious Slaughter of the Innocents can't have affected the infant Jesus if he were born in 1 CE. All in all, the life of Jesus, especially his early days, is a narrative so fraught with bias and so frail in corroborating data that it's best left for specialists in religion to explore.


II. Early Christianity and History

"If you have all this evidence and proof positive that God exists, you don't need faith. I think he kind of designed it so that we'd never be able to prove his existence. And I think that's really cool." (Mary Schweitzer, paleontologist and self-described "complete and total Christian," 2006)

A. Saint Paul

St. Paul (click to see larger image)This means that the historical study of Christianity begins not with Christ but with his most important early follower, Paul. Originally Saul of Tarsus—Tarsus is a city on the southern coast of Asia Minor—Saint Paul (ca. 3-67 CE) was the greatest of Christ's interpreters in the wake of his crucifixion. Often called the "second founder of the Christian church," he was a Jew who had Roman citizenship and initially oppressed Christians until he experienced an intense vision of Christ and converted to Christianity. Though never having met Jesus in person, at least not in a conventional sense, Paul became the most visible of the apostles after Christ's execution since he was the best educated and uniquely positioned to bridge the Jewish and Roman worlds, opening the new religion up to a much larger audience.

Roman Road (click to see larger image)More important from a historian's standpoint, Paul is an individual with clear connections to things attested in non-biblical sources outside of the Holy Lands. Addressed to budding communities of Christians in cities around the Roman world, Paul's letters are, as far as we know, the earliest Christian documents extant, predating by a decade or more the gospels themselves, at least in the form we have them. In Paul's writings are also found for the first time several features of Christian life central in later worship, for instance, the rituals of communion and mass, the doctrine of redemption through Christ's suffering and a growing sense of separation between Christians and Jews. Over time, the last developed into a schism, then open contempt and finally outright insurgency, forging a long-standing tradition of animosity between these religious sects.

In leaning toward the wider pagan world, Paul set a precedent for incorporating aspects of Roman and Greek culture into the burgeoning cult, "christianizing" several useful and admirable aspects of ancient life. In particular, from the Greek philosophical system called Stoicism he adopted notions such as the assumption that all people are fundamentally equal, that slavery is an abomination and that war does less good in the world than peace. Greek literature also clearly informed his upbringing, as is visible in the high quality of lyric expression he produces at times:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we look through a mirror darkly, but later we will see him face to face. Now I understand only partly; then I will understand fully, just as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope and love live on, three things; but the greatest of them is love.

While there's no external corroboration of the tradition that Paul died a martyr in the Roman arena, this apostle stands out from the others as a visionary, organizer and motivator who gave the religion he adopted a definite form, molding inspired teaching into a working belief system. Among his many titles, Saint Paul should also be proclaimed Christianity's "Darius," its shopkeeper.

As it grew and prospered, Christianity came more and more into the public eye, and that ultimately brought its membership into conflict with Roman authority. In particular, the predilection of early believers in Christ to proclaim that the end of the world was imminent smacked to the Romans of insurrection, the sort of cabal that promoted general despair and hysteria and late payment of taxes. From the early Empire's perspective, doom-cults like Christianos did not contribute to Roman life the way good religions were expected to.

B. Rome and the Early Christians

Certificate of Sacrifice (click to see larger image)Moreover, the Romans saw the Christians as a subset of Jews who had already been granted special privileges because of their unusual religion and, in return, delivered little more than a ragged promise of peaceful cooperation. Because of their non-conformist monotheistic notions, they had also received a general exemption from emperor-worship (see Chapter 12), which in the minds of many Romans amounted to tax-dodging. Worse still, this mercy imported the potential for setting other sects off which might decide to petition for the same sort of licence. Thus, into an already noxious environment, Christianity was pumping only more poison.

Anti-Christian Graffito (click to see larger image)But persecution was not the way Romans as a rule preferred to handle their civic and social responsibilities. To the contrary, open acceptance of new ideas was their default position, whenever feasible. From any polytheist's perspective, after all, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with having a few more gods—the more the holier, in fact—ironically, then, the Christians' insistence on exclusivity branded them atheists in the eyes of many Romans, because not letting people worship freely seemed selfish and pointless, by the standards of the day. A Pantheon, a space consecrated to "all gods," is the type of temple the Romans and their coalition partners encouraged everyone to embrace.

So, because the Christians riled the already irritable Jewish element in Roman society and furthermore claimed their god was returning at any moment to end all time—which implied that serving the state or doing any work at all was pointless—the Romans felt they had to come down hard on these gloomy rebels who were so inexplicably ungrateful for the government's largesse. And so they did, several times in history, though never harder, it should be noted, than they did on the Jews themselves or, for that matter, other barbarian groups whom they slaughtered mercilessly and displaced in droves, always in the name of protecting Rome and the greater good. But that's mostly because there were much larger numbers of barbarians and even Jews compared to Christians, at least in the first few centuries of the modern age.

DiocletianLater pro-Christian historians played up these random persecutions as some sort of organized devilry on the Romans' part. The fact is, decades often passed between assaults on Christian groups and, while it's true that several emperors did, in fact, go after Christians per se, most weren't persecuting them for their religion but their wealth. Especially in the great economic depression of the third century CE when it was becoming harder and harder for the Roman government to pay its armies and keep at bay the hordes of foreigners pounding on the gates of the frontier, emperors sought reasons to confiscate wealth anywhere they could and, because Christians lived in a tax-shelter of sorts, exempted from having to participate in certain forms of revenue collection, some of them had become quite well-off.

Many more used their religious convictions to beg off serving in the army. If the emperors of Rome were wrong to attack Christians as such—and there's no question they were wrong!—it's not hard to see why they did. They feared for the Roman state's survival and, as history ultimately proved, they were right about that, at least.

Nevertheless, late third-century Rome finally found the savior it so desperately needed, not a divine one but a hard-nosed, working-class emperor named Diocletian. This no-nonsense general who had risen to pre-eminence out of the lowest caste of Roman society looked with suspicion upon those who appealed to ideology as a means of escaping any form of public service. When he fell seriously ill toward the end of his life in 304 CE, Diocletian commanded everyone in the Empire, including Christian authorities, to sacrifice to the emperor's health.

Some Christians obeyed even though the Church was against it, others didn't, some died and that was the last systematic Roman assault on Christians in the West. In the East, on the other hand, it took a few more years, until 311 CE and the death of the Emperor Galerius who was a fierce opponent of Christianity. Then, general persecutions ended once and for all. Within the century, Rome would not only learn to tolerate this new belief-system but come to embrace it exclusively.


III. Constantine and the Triumph of Christianity

Constantine and Constantinople (click to see larger image)In the generation after Diocletian, Constantine (ca. 285-337 CE) came to power. He was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity—that much at least is clear, even if little else about Constantine is—but as a man he's a historical enigma, and a great deal of conflicting information surrounds this imperial paradox, the primordial "Christian general."

Constantine was born the illegitimate son of a Roman ruler but was later made his father's heir. As a child he grew up in the Roman West, yet he later preferred the Hellenized East and, in fact, moved the center of Roman government there, where he built a grand new capital named after himself, Constantinople ("Constantine's city"). Furthermore, during his tumultuous rise to power he fomented civil war on the pretext of re-uniting Rome and, even after he'd embraced Christianity, he continued to worship the sun the way many pagans did. Without doubt, one of history's most important transitional figures, this conundrum of a man seems to have been constantly in the process of transformation himself.

Constantine: In Hoc Signo Vince (click to see larger image)What matters to the issue at hand here is that he converted to some sort of Christianity at some point during his life. The story goes that he'd had a vision of the cross before one of the crucial battles in the civil wars that brought him to power, and on that cross was written in hoc signo vince, "With this ensign, conquer!" So, according to later legend, he'd appended it to his royal insignia and thus Christianity had at last won itself a winning emperor. But close examination of the historical evidence from the day muddies the waters considerably, suggesting this is an invented history since it's confirmed only long after the fact and then by sources with a direct interest in promoting the emperor's allegiance to Christian belief. The truth is, Constantine was only finally baptized on his deathbed, and his biography hardly constitutes a model of the good Christian life.

Whatever the what-really-happened, this emperor's adoption of Christianity stopped once and for all the persecution of Christians in the West. If, in issuing the Edict of Milan in 313, Constantine did not go so far as to declare Rome a Christian state, he did enforce a policy of official neutrality in Christian affairs. Under his regime, Christians were free at last to speak as themselves in public without fear of reprisal or torture and, more important, to worship as they wished. It was surely his hope that the Edict of Milan and a general posture of tolerance would help restore order within the government and the state. Just the opposite happened.

By sanctioning Christianity, Constantine quickly learned that he had made himself an important figure in the Church and, like any influential "board member," he was now obliged to give his advice on matters of consequence which, as it turned out, were all there seemed to be in this religion. The Christian Church in his day was, in fact, boiling over with controversy, and Constantine—much to his surprise and, no doubt, dismay—found himself having to render judgment about complex theological issues. If anyone ever in history was poorly prepared or ill-equipped to debate the nature of the Trinity, it was this lucky bastard.


IV. Early Christian Controversies

The evidence is unclear about Constantine's motivations for adopting the Christian religion. Part of him must have believed in it, part of him must have believed it would help bind together a fractured society, and part of him surely hoped that from it would rise a new brand of soldier pledged to follow the Emperor's cross-encrusted signum into victory. If so, his conversion turned out to offer the mere mirage of peace and order, for not only did his investment in Christianity embroil Roman government in doctoral-dissertation-level religious disputes, but it seriously alienated the many who refused to join the Church, those traditional pagans who still constituted the majority of Romans, the conservatives of their day.

What's particularly compelling in all this is that, while the city of Rome and its urban counterparts across the late classical world were splintering into gangs and cults and various interest groups, life and religion in the countryside, where the vast majority of people under Roman sway lived throughout antiquity, changed remarkably little as far as we can tell. There, the worship of local gods and spirits persisted, even as countless armies marched by and revolutions revolved. Well past Roman times and into the Middle Ages, these so-called pagan beliefs carried on. Indeed, Charlemagne's Christ as late as the eighth century met more than one Thor on the battlefield of gods. It's important, then, to note that most of the phenomena we think of as Roman, including Christianity, were features of life in municipal Rome, the life which urban, not rural Romans knew.

Furthermore, to many Christians in the day, especially Church administrators, there were "heathens" inside their ranks, too. Because much acrimonious debate surrounded the formation of the hierarchy which ultimately came to govern the early Church, this antagonism tended to center around what constituted being a "good upstanding Christian." That gave rise to terms like orthodoxy (literally in Greek, "straight opinion," meaning those views sanctioned by the officials of the Church) as opposed to heresy (literally, "choice," implying the freedom to follow a doctrine of one's own desire). Fascinating, isn't it, that even back then "choice" was a word around which the winds of controversy swirled?

A. The Gnostics

One of the earliest and most prominent of the heretical groups denounced by Church officials was a class of believers called the Gnostics. In evidence as early as the second century CE, they represented not so much an organized sect as a motley collection of alternative Christians whose views on the nature of Jesus and the lessons of his ministry differed broadly, sometimes directly contradicting each other as much as the Church. To many of the bishops and saints who held the reins of the burgeoning Christian community at that time, these factions represented a real—if not the real—enemy.

Elaine Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels (click to see larger image)Because of the diversity it embraced, it's impossible to sum up Gnostic theology quickly or simply. Nor does it help that the Church's condemnation did not allow a single Gnostic scripture to survive intact from antiquity. But in 1945, a fortuitous find of ancient texts later called the Nag Hammadi library—Nag Hammadi (or Naj ‘Hammadi) is the site in southern Egypt where these texts were discovered—increased enormously our awareness of the wide range of religious views early Christians embraced. This cache of fifty-two scriptures included several works by Gnostic authors whose "gospels" were later censured and censored by the Church. Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi trove, most of these writings had survived only in tattered fragments, several completely lost.

But with their resurrection came a whole new insight into the complexity of Christianity's early years and growth as a religion. As Elaine Pagels says (p. xxxv) in her eye-opening boo k, The Gnostic Gospels, a work which has made the world of nascent Christianity accessible to many non-historians today:

Yet even the fifty-two writings discovered at Nag Hammadi offer only a glimpse of the complexity of the early Christian movement. We now begin to see that what we call Christianity—and what we identify as Christian tradition—actually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others. . . . Now, for the first time, we have the opportunity to find out about the earliest Christian heresy; for the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves.

To give just a brief glimpse of the scope of this "heresy," most Gnostics write about Jesus in less literal terms than orthodox scriptures. To them, the real world was evil, incapable of either containing or deriving from a true divinity. Thus, Jesus wasn't really among us, but just seemed to be. Gnostics subscribed to the notion that those who met this god in real life saw him only with the crude instruments of sensation humans possess—eyes and ears—and these crude tools of perception had misled them grossly. What they had really encountered was merely a specter of Jesus' actual presence, a shadow of his true luminous godhead.

This meant Jesus' suffering on the cross was not the point of his life and ministry. To many Gnostics, he was far too removed from the material world to feel human pain. In this context, wearing a crucifix makes little sense; waving it around in battle even less. Nor does baptism. One Gnostic author remarks on how people "go down into the water and come up without having received anything"—that is, they just get wet—and with this, martyrdom cannot carry special meaning, either. "Anyone can do these things," sighs another Gnostic author.

But the heart of the controversy between the Gnostics and the Church centered around the value of bishops and priests, and whether there was any need for clergy at all. To many non-orthodox Christians, such things were "waterless canals," without any definitive basis in what Jesus was verified to have said. Instead, wholesome Christians must find their own way to heaven by exploring their personal feelings, not participating in empty rituals bearing no clear sanction from Christ. Or, in the words of the Gnostic teacher Theodotus, "each person recognizes the Lord in his own way, not all alike." Again, Pagels explicates (p. xxxvi):

[I]nvestigation of the newly discovered gnostic sources . . . suggests that these religious debates—questions of the nature of God, or of Christ—simultaneously bear social and political implications that are crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional religion. In simplest terms, ideas which bear implications contrary to that development come to be labeled as "heresy"; ideas which implicitly support it become "orthodox."

What Gnostics saw as the model for a better way to heaven were Jesus' miracles which to them hinted at his supernatural essence. They preached also that the knowledge of self was the knowledge of God, saying "When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the sons of the living Father." And, because gender is clearly not relevant to matters of spirit like these, some Gnostics spoke of men and women having equal footing before God and, thus, of sharing fully in the responsibilities of a Christian life. Referring to Mary Magdalene as one of Christ's disciples, the Gnostic Gospel of Mary envisions her as the foremost of the apostles and calls her the "woman who knew the All." Others went so far as to speak of "God the Mother."

All in all, it was a very different take on Christian thinking than that endorsed by the Church politic. Indeed, to more than one theological expert in the last century, the discovery of the Gnostic scriptures has proven nothing less than shocking, especially in how profoundly at odds the Gnostics were with what later evolved into the standard view. More confusing yet was that so complex and radically diverse a system of thought existed so early in the Christian tradition, and that was nowhere near the end of radical thinking in the first few centuries of the religion's evolution.

B. Arianism

In the later stages of the Roman Empire, neither pagans nor Gnostics proved the fiercest foe the early Church would face. Because in principle Gnostics refused to act collectively, they made an easy target for the clergy's growing intolerance toward internal diversity. This type of factionalism could be rooted out and isolated, silenced or eradicated with relative ease because its adherents had no overarching bureaucracy sheltering them from general onslaught. Even if the process took centuries, it was not all that difficult, certainly compared to the other challenges that lay ahead. Little did Christian officials suspect a far more dangerous foe was lurking within their very own ranks, a well-organized body of questioners who were prepared to attack the orthodox vision of Christ.

The basic issue underlying this festering controversy stemmed from Jesus himself, who in the day represented a new type of divinity, both man and god at the same time. While in Greek religion Dionysus was also depicted as having a two-fold nature—likewise, both mortal and divine—once Dionysus had assumed immortal status, he no longer suffered in human ways. Jesus, of course, was quite different. As recorded in the four gospels accepted by the orthodox Church, his story gave rise to serious questions about the exact nature of his divinity, issues which kept cropping up because they were inherent in the narratives of his life, in particular, how a being could be both a deity and a non-deity at once.

That, in turn, led directly to another complication built into Christianity, the relationship between God and Jesus. If Jesus is God's Son, to many that means he should be taken as subordinate to his father—good sons obey their fathers, don't they?—the logical response is, then, to worship the Father principally, the Son secondarily, which is in effect to return Christianity to its Jewish roots. If, instead, you make the choice to see Jesus as God incarnate, then you're left with the enigma that God is his own Son.

Early Pagan Image of Christ (click to see larger image)This perplexing conundrum fueled many a lively debate among the first few centuries of Christians, especially after their religion had assumed world prominence in the days following Constantine. Much as earnest deliberation can be a helpful and healthy exercise for a growing and evolving system like early Christianity, it can also make some aspects of organizing a working religion hard to manage, such as spreading the good word. That is, when priests have a hard time explaining easily the nature and function of a deity—even something as simple as where he came from or who his parents are, or parent is—it can impede the process of recruiting converts, especially among the hordes of unschooled barbarians filtering through and around late Rome.

The result was a faction of churchmen led by a dynamic and well-educated priest named Arius (ca. 250-336 CE), who championed a more remedial version of Christ than the mystical, enigmatic vision offered by the orthodox Church. Seeing Jesus as a divine being and the offspring of God but not a god exactly like God—in other words, a very high-level, celestial messenger sent to earth—this heresy later called Arianism endorsed the position that, if Jesus is the Son of God, then he cannot be allowed to assume precedence over his Father in heaven or on earth. In essence, Arius' conclusion was that the orthodox interpretation of the Trinity made no sense, at least not in terms of power-sharing; rather, logic dictated the Father had to be primary and central, and thus should be respected as such.

It was a difficult position to counter in the arena of argument and reason. Common sense dictates that sons should submit to their fathers, and common decency demands respect for elders. But Church officials could not admit such a proposition without conceding Jesus' inferiority to God, so they had little choice but to step into the fray and attempt to squelch this controversy. Leading the opponents of Arianism was none other than Arius' own superior Athanasius—his boss, so to speak—the patriarch of Alexandria and a formidable power-broker in the Church. Also a savvy administrator, Athanasius made no real attempt to counter the arguments of his trouble-making underling but, instead, insisted that Jesus was ultimately unknowable and the Trinity a mystical union. In simple terms, he told Arius to shut up.

Timeline of Early Christianity (click to see larger image)But an issue that divisive does not die down so easily, and like so many other theological questions circulating in the day, Arianism, too, ultimately landed in Constantine's lap. Like any powerful, under-educated politician confronted with a real brain-teaser of this sort, the emperor called together his advisors, in this case, Christian clergy from all across the Empire to a synod, the famous Council of Nicaea (near Constantinople) in 325 CE. After some vigorous debate, the bishops ended up backing Athanasius and forged the famous Nicene Creed in which adherents and converts to Christianity were sworn to uphold the orthodox perception of Christ as "begotten not made" by God and "(who) was made flesh, was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day . . ."

The credo did not stop there either. It continued on to an outright denial of the major tenets underlying Arianism and Gnosticism, in fact, any version of Christianity which challenged the Church's authority, forcing its membership to denounce these heresies publicly:

But those who say that there was once when he was not and before he was begotten he was not and he was made of things that were not or maintain that the Son of God is of a different essence or substance or created or subject to moral change or alteration—the Catholic and Apostolic Church condemn them to damnation.

This constitutes the wholesale deprecation of all heresies which were at that time raising their voices in opposition to the policies and existence of not only the orthodox vision of Christ but also an organized Church government.

But even such extreme measures did not forestall the growth of Arianism. Later synods reversed the decision of the Council of Nicaea and confirmed Arian views, which only exacerbated divisions within the Christian world. More important, Arian proponents played well the advantages inherent in their vision of Christ, especially outside the Empire in areas where Church bureaucrats who lived for the most part in Roman metropolises had as yet little influence. The Arian Christians' simpler conception of Jesus as subordinate to and discrete from God allowed them to win many converts, especially among those unfamiliar with the complex theological history underlying Christian orthodox doctrine. In particular, the Arian monk Ulfilas was able to attract many Germanic barbarian groups to his side, the Goths especially who became avid non-orthodox Christians.

The result was that Church officials hardened their position on not only dissension within their ranks but also the interpretation of scripture and what to them constituted acceptable texts. The Gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary and Philip, along with many other accounts of Jesus' life in wide circulation by that time, were branded heretical and stricken from the canon of the New Testament. Soon thereafter, clerical officials ordered the destruction of all copies of these texts, and it was probably amidst this censorship that some unknown Gnostic supporter buried those scriptures which were discovered many centuries later at Nag Hammadi. If so, just as with Akhetaten, a systematic attempt to erase history has provided us with our best access to what-really-happened-in-the-past.

C. The Growth of Church Government

Among the administrators of the Church, the internal unrest precipitated by these heresies only intensified interest in formalizing holy services and offices of all sorts. Doctrine and ritual came to center around what is now known as the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, marriage, ordination and final unction. Church leadership fell into the hands of bishops, each of whom oversaw a see, a religious "province" of sorts, in which, as it turned out, not all bishops were equal. Those situated in the great urban centers of the Empire became archbishops ("head-bishops") whose opinion carried more weight because of the large populations they represented. In particular, the Bishop of Rome stood out among his peers and hence came to be called the papa ("Father"). From this evolved the papacy and the office of Pope.

The justification advanced to lend credence to this bureaucracy sheds light on the psychological machinery of the early Church, all the more because the reasoning used is likely to rest on invented history. The bishoprics and sees of the Roman West grew up in places unassociated with Jesus himself, places it could not even be imagined he ever went in person. Thus, in order to ground their communities in Christ himself somehow, the bishops had no choice but to build bridges to the apostles of Jesus, but that was difficult, too. There was no clear or credible testimony about the lives of Jesus' apostles after his crucifixion—where did they go? what do they do? how did they die?—so amidst this yawning vacuum of data, the story arose that they had spread out across the Empire, seeding Christian cells and founding the sees which evolved later. In origin, this unconfirmed history probably served truth less than the western bishops' need to tie their authority directly to Jesus himself.

Map of the Spread of Early Christianity (click to see larger image)Through this elaborate reconstruction of the past—the transference of power from Jesus to the apostles and then to the bishops came to be called the apostolic succession—Church bureaucrats linked their authority to the seminal voices and events of the New Testament. But this path to empowerment, be it revisionist or not, also proved no smooth or easy road. Besides the continuing resistance of heretics who sought to undercut and discredit leaders like the Pope, the bishops themselves vied for real control of an increasingly wealthy and influential institution. In particular, the patriarch of Constantinople, who led a large and well-organized community of Christians in the great capital city of the eastern half of the Empire, was reluctant to take his marching orders from an occidental bishop inhabiting faraway Rome.

Later, as the western end of the Empire began to fall apart, it made even less sense to Rome's eastern denizens to continue obeying some purported papa. By the early Middle Ages (ca. 600 CE), the Roman popes had become corrupt and ineffectual—often they were also the uneducated and illiterate kin of corrupt barbarians, the progeny of those whose fathers had sacked and pillaged the holy seat—or so they seemed to Asian eyes. Eventually, the growing sense of estrangement between Church officials in Rome and Constantinople led to the division of Christianity into Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox factions. This, in turn, opened the door to military conflicts like the Crusades (see Chapter 15).

Thus, the early Church's efforts to promote unity within the Christian world by imposing standard doctrine and firm governance only ended up fracturing it incurably in the long run. The irony and futility of orthodoxy-through-force would, no doubt, not be lost on the Gnostics. Indeed, is that sound we hear from deep beneath the sands of Nag Hammadi the lamentation of an extinguished sect, or is it laughter and echoes of "I told you so"?


V. Conclusion: What Early Christianity Teaches

God the Mother, Mary Magdalene the Apostle, a Jesus who never actually suffered on the cross—it all seems unimaginably foreign to the modern view of Christianity. Even to suggest these sorts of things in most corners of the Christian world today would be to open the door for widespread recrimination and scorn or, worse yet, entice someone to author a best-seller like The Da Vinci Code. And yet ideas of this sort were not only advanced in Christianity's first centuries but also attracted many adherents and enjoyed considerable popularity, at least to judge from the vitriol with which their orthodox adversaries attacked the "heretics" who promulgated these notions.

To see such a wide range of beliefs attested so near the navitity of Christ's religion may seem odd to many today, not just on theological grounds but because, in general, we're taught to expect increasing differentiation as things expand over time. The widely used, so-called "Darwinian" model of evolution which is built around notions like survival-of-the-fittest and natural selection presumes that growth will be accompanied by rising variation—often presented as graphs that look like upside-down Christmas trees—in other words, we're trained to look for greater complexity over time as things evolve. While that may be the way things work in paleontology, it's not the pattern of change which the historical study of Christianity presents.

Indeed, the great open frontier of the Christian religion in its earliest phase has left behind a record of more creative and pioneering visions of Christ's message and divinity than all later ages combined. And as time passed, orthodox forces antagonistic to any ideology at odds with institutionized Christianity obliterated those conceptions of Jesus which ran against the growing mainstream. And once Christ came to be defined in certain ways, and on that perspective of his life and teaching depended a powerful and influential social institution like the Church, it was all but impossible to recast his image without changing what he stood for and, of more immediate consequence, what stood for him.

And that makes tracking down a historical Christ a very difficult endeavor, not so much because the what-really-happened of his life has been obscured in a void of verifiable data—it has been, but that's not the point!—but because it ended up mattering so much to so many people across such a long stretch of time. All in all, Jesus has proven an ideal target for invented history, which is not to say any particular narrative about him rests on lies, only that he is the sort of figure around which exaggeration and myth tend to accrue. In other words, as we see so often in history, when people care very much about something, the truth of history isn't likely to be what they serve first, or at all.

But it seems safe to say at least this much: out of so many possibilities, one perspective on Christ won out, the literal view of his life and resurrection. Yet we now know this was neither the only nor the most "historical" take on his life story. Rather, it met the needs of an institution in ascendancy and was the version of the truth most feasible for a world needing comfort and stability amidst turmoil and savage upheaval. And if this was the first time Christian orthodoxy was to go to war with heresy, it would certainly not be the last.

In later ages, others followed the trail mapped out by the Gnostics and their heretical brethren and re-ignited the debate over what constituted a Christ and a God. I don't mean Protestants at the time of the Reformation (the early 1500's CE)—though they certainly fit the mold—but nearly a millennium before them, another group began asking questions which challenged the central tenets of orthodoxy and through innovative insight and revelation structured a religion that was both revolutionary and at the same time rooted deeply in the theological traditions of the Near East. From this was created a new type of believer who would take the controversies of Christianity to different and unexpected heights. More important, their novel responses to classical Christian paradoxes like the nature of the Trinity and the role of an institutional Church would find expression in a different world, in a different language, in Arabic in fact. They were, of course, the Moslems.

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