I’m fascinated by the beginnings of what would later be called Christianity… and how it became something entirely different. Partly, I’m just curious to peer behind the facade of apologetic historicizing which was created through centuries of social oppression, fear-mongering, and occasional genocide. Still today, New Testament scholarship is strongly influenced by Christian belief. Even a mainstream project such as the Jesus Seminar started off with the assumption that Jesus historically existed. Few Christians (or atheists for that matter) realize how complex and inconclusive most of the evidence is.
A good place to begin with my thoughts is the time period when civilization was first forming. The earliest city-states developed the basic elements of mythology and theology, ritual and symbolism that would make the groundwork for all later religions. As any educated person knows, the culture eventually known as Jedaism started off pagan and borrowed much from other pagan cultures. Monotheism first arose in Egypt and most of the Old Testament stories can be found in cultures such as the Babylonians. The Jews likely wouldn’t have been much of a culture if they hadn’t been influenced to such an extent. Their kingdoms wer pretty small which would probably equate to the size of what we now call a village. The Jewish tribes were constantly fighting and slaughtering eachother They weren’t a unified nation and wouldn’t have been different than all of the other warring tribal cultures.
The Jews were an oral culture for most of their history. Their oral traditions weren’t fully written down and collected as canonical scripture until around 450 BCE. At one point, they had destroyed all of their copies of their scriptures during their constant tribal warfare. They had to go to the Alexandrian Library because the only copy left in the world was kept there. That must’ve been embarassing. As a side note, Alexandria as the center of learning also eventually became a major center of Judaism with the Jews consisting of around half of the population. These Alexandrian Jews were Hellenized to the extreme and helped to create many of the foundational ideas of Christianity.
Anyways, this period of Jewish history in the centuries prior to Christianity includes several important factors. This was after the Babylonian Exile and Jewish culture was coming into its own. The Jewish Reformation had just happened. It was a time of great change. There were many competing Jewish sects and many claims of Messiahs. The earliest origins of Gnosticism and Christianity can be detected in the centuries prior to the common era: Jewish philosophers, the Qumran community, Neo-Platonism, Mystery religions such as Orphism, Cynics, etc.
To give some context, the era of Jewish Reformation coincided with the Axial Age. Cultures across the world were experiencing major religious change. All of the great world religions arose to prominence within the following few centuries. The later blooming of the Axial Age followed after Rome’s annexation of the land of Israel. Oddly (or not), Judaism gained great stability by being under Roman rule. They benefitted greatly from the economic wealth and intellectual diversity of Roman culture. Despite its imperialism, Rome was much more open to the religions of other cultures than the Jews were themselves. So, Jewish culture was forced into contact with other religions… in particular the solar mythologies of the Middle East and the savior god-men of the Graeco-Roman culture. Even Far Eastern religions (such as Hinduism and Buddhism) had found their way into the Roman Empire which might explain why some Gnostic scriptures seem somewhat Buddhist in flavor.
This brings us to the first century of the Common Era, the aftermath of the Alexandrian Age. Religious cults were forming and mixing. There was such a confusing mess of ideas that none of them could be fully disentangled. For instance, commentators of the time couldn’t tell the difference between Cynics and Christians. In fact, many Cynics became Christians and brought their teachings along with them… or was the Cynic tradition one of the various early forms of Christianity. The hypothetical Q document that is common to Matthew and Luke has strong similarities to the sayings of the Cynics. The so-called Christians likewise inherited ideas from Orphism. Actually, there was no clearly distinguishable religion called Christianity in the first century. There were many groups with many scriptures. Part of the confusion is that these groups all used similar terminology. Certain words (such as Jesus, Christ, Son of Man, and the Word) were all commonly used prior to and during the early formation of Christianity. Many Jews were using foreign myths and ideas in their midrashic interpretations of the Torah.
Let me get down to specifics. The earliest known Christian writings are those of Paul and/or the scribes writing in Paul’s name. The earliest layer of Paul’s writings show elements of both Proto-Gnosticism and Proto-Christianity. More significantly, Paul never mentions an historical Christ. This makes sense for the idea of a spiritual savior was a common motif, and many Jews had at this point been initiated in various Mystery religions. The Jews were oppressed and they’d been waiting a long time for the Messiah-King to arrive. Some Jews gave up on such worldly hopes and turned to the saving grace of gnosis.
It’s important to note that the earliest commentators on the “Christian” scriptures were all later deemed to be Gnostics. Of course, not all supposed Gnostics identified themselves this way as many of them were followers of Christ. To be honest, Gnosticism and Christianity as later determined by Catholic heresiologists didn’t yet exist. There were no heretics in early Christianity. There was no way even to split everyone into two simple categories.
I’ve never come across information on how the Catholic Church formed. I’d guess that it started as a loose coalition of diverse churches. This makes sense when one considers the definition of the term ‘catholic’. There was no official canon at this point and there was disagreement about the degree to which the Bishop of Rome (not yet titled Pope) had authority over the other Bishops. It’s hard to know precisely what the common beliefs were, but it’s safe to assume that they involved Paul’s teachings. Paul was revered by both Christians and Gnostics.
One of Paul’s earliest commentators was Valentinus who had converted to Christianity and was claimed to be in the direct lineage of Paul’s teachings. In fact, he was a respected member of the Catholic Church who was highly praised by other prominent Christians. He held a position of authority in the Church and almost became what today would be equivalent to the Pope. It’s unclear what happened, but he didn’t become Bishop of Rome and left the Church around 154 CE. He was at some point designated Gnostic, but he originally desired to bridge the growing gap between the Gnostics and Christians. He saw them both as a part of the same religion: the Inner and Outer Mysteries. If there ever was a single original Christianity, Valentinus might’ve been one of the last representatives of it.
Sadly, Catholicism was not destined to live up to its own name. For reasons unknown, the heresiologists gained political power. Thus begins the tyranny that continued for way too many centuries. The heresiologists essentially invented the term Gnostic as we now use it. For them, it was a blanket term meaning that you weren’t a respectable Christian. Irenaeus was particularly influential and he condemned Valentinus as a heretic. The method in determining Gnosticism seemed to be any person or tradition, scripture or version of scripture that a Catholic politico happened to personally dislike or for some reason perceived as “threatening”. Lists of banned scriptures were announced and what quickly followed was the destruction of scriptures once considered holy even by Christians.
Some scriptures such as that of proto-Gnostic Paul and probably Gnostic John couldn’t be banned because they were so popular. In these cases, they were heavily redacted and harmonized with the more respectable scriptures. Scriptures now became official documents upholding official dogma. Once someone was accused of heresy, they couldn’t use scripture to defend themselves.
(By the way, it was sometime in the following century or so that the Nag Hammadi library was buried… probably by Coptic Christians… just to let you know that there were still some moral Christians left in the world. It’s because of the Nag Hammadi library that we are fortunate to be able to read for ourselves the teachings of such great Gnostic Christians as Valentinus and also to read the alternative versions of the canonical scriptures.)
Overall, the heresiologists helped to consolidate the power of the Catholic Church. For example, Irenaeus defended the Papacy as founded upon Peter. Of course, he wouldn’t have had to defend it if it had already been a concensus belief. As the Pauline tradition was the oldest, some early Christians had originally seen him as the founder of Christianity. Actually, there were many scriptures claiming many founders that were written in the first couple of centuries.
Let me make an important connection here. It was because of this oppressive trend that Catholicism was so easily assimilated into the oppressive Roman Empire’s scheme to save it’s declining power. Catholicism had become the perfect tool for imperialism of the likes the Roman people had never seen before. My main point here is that the heresiologists had set themselves up for this. If Catholicism had remained a loose coalition, then there wouldn’t have been a central power that could be easily taken over. Still, this leads to a more fundamental question: what caused the shift in the latter part of the second century? Catholicism was open and diverse, and then in a short period of time it was something entirely different. What undermined Valentinus’ attempt to lessen the conflict between the factions?
Everything about Jesus Christ was antithetical to what Catholicism became. Jesus said to give unto Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and so his followers gave the whole damned religion to Caesar… a Pagan Caesar at that. After the First Council of Nicaea, Constantine went home and murdered his family. Having taken control of Christianity, he didn’t convert until his deathbed. He did this so he could continue his bloody reign and then get divine “forgiveness” at the last possible moment. It just blows my mind. Couldn’t the Catholics see the irony of it all?
I guess it makes sense when you consider the heresiologists decided to make their claim on the Papacy through Peter. Let us recall what Peter did after Jesus died. Oh yeah, he denied him three times. Thusly, Catholicism was built upon the denial of Christ and the wisdom of Christ was bashed on the Rock of Peter.
Okay, that is enough of ridiculing traditional Christianity for the moment. I’m just genuinely bewildered about how the decisions of a few heresiologists sets the stage for the entire history of Christianity. How does Europe go from the intellectual and scientiific burgeoning of the Axial Age to the ignorance and backwardness of the Dark Ages?
Of course, it’s unfair to blame it all on the heresiologists. Something was shifting in the whole culture.
Take as an example Augustine. Like Valentinus who was one of the last great Christians of the early era, Augustine was one of the last great Pagan thinkers during the Decline of Rome. Why did an intellectual like him convert to a religion that lacked intellectual respectability (compared to his Pagan education)? Before Augustine, the Catholic Church had no clear theological claims to its own authority besides mentioning Peter. Augustine lived during a time that included the Roman Empire falling apart beneath the rule of the Roman Catholic Church and along with this Hypatia’s notorious murder by his fellow Christians. Hypatia was an even greater Pagan thinker than Augustine had been and with her died all that was good about Roman culture. How could he remain in such a corrupt religion 15 years after Hypatia’s murder? How could he continue to defend such religious corruption? Augustine thought the Roman Catholic Church was a bright light in the darkness. Why couldn’t he see that it was the rot at the core?
At any point, the Dark Ages might’ve been prevented. Valentinus could’ve become the Bishop of Rome. The heresiologists and politicos could’ve been run out of the Church. Paul’s teachings (in un-redacted form) could’ve created the foundation of a truly spiritual Christianity. The Church leaders during Constantine’s rule could’ve chosen moral righteousness (even if it meant persecution) rather than assenting to immoral imperialism. Constantine himself could’ve chosen to embrace Rome’s tradition of religious diversity and openness. Augustine could’ve devoted himself to trying to save what was remaining of Graeco-Roman culture. Christians could’ve chosen to not kill Hypatia and instead embrace or at least be tolerant of the Paganism that their own religion was built upon.
It was a slow accumulation of generations of choices made, and at the heart of it all was that moment in time in the middle of the second century. The future of the Christianity hung in the balance. We can only imagine what Christianity might’ve become.