Meet the first Christians
We have been told that there is a corpus of belief known as New Testament Christianity - that there was a primitive, and simple Christian church, from which men in time diverged, forming sects and dissenting groups until one church asserted itself and became dominant, at least in the West.
The picture is not quite this simple. Dissension was there at the very first, soon after the death of their leader, the Nazarene. For among those first Christians, there rapidly developed two distinctive doctrinal systems. Both groups were united in believing that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah but on most other matters they parted company. And the conflict that arose was to be but the first of innumerable eruptions, many stained with the blood of the faithful, in the two thousands year that were to follow.
It was Paul himself who, in one of his letters, used the image of a trumpet giving forth an uncertain sound to warn against false doctrine. That the message trumpeted to the world by those early believers was itself uncertain is clearly demonstrated by the subsequent history of the Church. The only occasions in Church history where there have been anything approaching a universally-held set of beliefs is when this state of affairs was imposed at the point of a sword! Which very often it was!
The most ancient body of people we may fairly describe as Christian was centred around the original 'Twelve' - Peter, James and John, with nine others less well-known, one of whom, the defector, Judas, had been replaced by Matthias. These men were all Jews and, if we are able to disentangle facts from the fabulous fiction of the first chapters of the book of Acts, they maintained the observance of Jewish practices. This is a vital point of interest, as we shall see.
The group described may be fairly described as Judaizers. There are distinct echoes of their particular outlook still found today in the legalistic doctrines of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
This nascent Church was made up of people who 'daily continued steadfastly, with one accord in the temple' (Acts 2:46), often gathering at Solomon's Porch (5:12), teaching, preaching and healing the sick. Two distinguishing features marked them off from the rest of the Jewish populace. The first was their communistic lifestyle. This was marked especially by the act of selling up all possessions and paying the proceeds into the common treasury.
The demands made by Peter and the leadership of the early Church upon new disciples were every bit as insatiable as those made by the modern gurus of religion upon their deluded followers. Converts were compelled to give up everything ! The great mass of Christians today seem totally ignorant of this part of the story of the early Church; Christians are highly selective when choosing which scriptures to follow, which to ignore.
But this was no light matter. Anyone who mistakenly thought the new faith was one of sweetness and joy would be gravely mistaken. To frighten potential followers into coughing up their cash a moralistic warning story was told of a husband and wife, Annas and Sapphira. They sold 'a possession' but when Annas went before Peter he kept back some of the money. For such a heinous crime the poor man was struck down dead, presumably by the Ghost, as it was said he had lied to the Ghost.
Peter forthwith embarked on a nasty little exercise in entrapment. Sapphira appeared before him, not knowing what had transpired, whereupon the Apostle neatly caught her out and she, too, poor woman, dropped dead. No light matter opposing holy Church, a fact to which much of its later history is testimony. Peter's successors ran the torture machines of the Holy Inquisition, remember.
The second distinguishing mark of these disciples was the preaching of the Resurrection. Now such a notion may seem rather outlandish to us (although an equally outlandish idea, that of Reincarnation, is readily accepted today by many otherwise more-or-less sane people) but it was not altogether strange to the people of that time. In fact, one great Jewish party, the Pharisees, believed in physical resurrection, although it was never a prominent doctrine among the Jews.
Clearly, and significantly, in the book of Acts, when the believers stirred up strife preaching their Resurrection message, it was the Sadducees, who denied such a doctrine, who always led the opposition to the message. The Pharisees would not have reacted negatively to such a message and many of the foreigners thronging Jerusalem would be quite familiar with such a concept.
GENTILES HEAR THE MESSAGE
This, then, was the first Christian Church. Sharing everything, attending the Jewish services, doing good and trying to convince people that their leader was now resurrected and was in fact the Messiah, the one long promised. But this harmonious situation did not last long. The first hint of dissension in the ranks comes in Acts 6:1 and subsequent verses. There was, we are told, a 'murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews.' Already there is a strong hint here that the Gospel had been preached to the Gentiles, an idea that would not have entered the heads of those first disciples gathering about Solomon's Porch.
At this time another group came together, the 'Seven', headed by Stephen. Eventually this same Stephen was to be stoned to death by the Jews (who, like the Islamics, didn't mess about in matters of discipline) because of his preaching. And the men involved in his execution 'laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.'
Upon the departure of Stephen from the scene and the subsequent 'conversion' of Saul/Paul, the latter assumed leadership of this second group, those opposed to the Judaizers of Jerusalem. He, the outsider who came into the fold, was to respond to the challenge thus presented, with vigour and boldness, taking the emerging faith into new uncharted waters. For it was this Paul who turned to the Gentiles, and from that point onwards the Church's Jewish foundations were submerged beneath Hellenistic and other foreign elements.
The truth is that a new faith was being born into the world, a religion that was to sweep over the empire of Rome and eventually far beyond the bounds of that empire. And it was not the same faith as that of the first Christians. They had preached a simple message concerning Jesus and had maintained their links with the Temple. It cannot be denied that they were simply another Jewish sect. But the new faith left behind these simple Galileans and began erecting a vast edifice of dogma in the name of the Church, no longer simply of Jesus the Nazarene but of Jesus Christ, the god.
Yet even while Paul was turning with his message to the Gentiles, the Judaizers pursued their way in the mother-church at Jerusalem. One of their number, John the Apostle, penned an early book, the Apocalypse (or book of Revelation), written between 64 CE and 70 CE.
In this vast prophetic work, which I examine in greater detail elsewhere, John in effect expounded the faith of the Jerusalem Church. It is as if at this point in time we already have two rival denominations and John is denouncing his opponents. Thus, for example, John speaks heatedly of his mortal foes, the 'Nicolaitanes,' followers of a Hellenist, Nicholas, one of the party which was in time to come under Paul's influence.
That we are justified in considering this church of John as nothing more than a Jewish sect is never more clearly seen that when the church penned a letter to converts at Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. Non-Jewish converts were enjoined to 'abstain from the pollutions (i.e., food offerings) of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood.' This was a fourfold exhortation which formed the normal requirements replacing the law of Moses for converts to Judaism. While Orthodox Jewry believed itself to be 'priests of mankind' and ipso-facto subject to the whole law, converts had only this limited obligation. Thus clearly the Church as represented by John was an offshoot of Judaism, and quite distinctively so.
But the ferment of ideas was at work and that master inventor of religion, Paul, pursued with zeal his construction. And it is at this point we find a few most interesting words, buried in Paul's letter to the Galatians (chapter 1:11 to chapter 2:14). These verses are thought by some scholars to form the one historic document of the whole New Testament ('and which is not even quite that,' remarked Dr Paul Couchoud, a cynic among them), a sort of window into what Paul actually wrote. It certainly bears the stamp of originality as its account of Paul's conversion is brief and devoid of the dramatic affectations of those other accounts we have already studied.
Paul says that Titus, a Greek convert, had been compelled to accept circumcision at the hands of the Judaizers and that Peter was preaching 'the Gospel of the circumcision,' as well as maintaining Jewish exclusiveness towards Gentile converts. Clearly the Gospel preached at Jerusalem was a very different Gospel to that being preached by Paul.
The Church was thus already divided within a short space of time. This was but the beginning. The list of 'heresies' grew longer with each passing century. Gnosticism raised its head in the Church, a strange polyglot belief system that crossed many boundaries. But greatest debate surrounded the person of Christ himself, a debate that was to continue on and off even into our own times.
As the various writings, with their uncertain doctrines, began to emerge and to be circulated, the expanding Christological view, the teaching that was predominantly that of Paul, came to the forefront, embroidered and developed by those who followed Paul, the bishops and learned doctors of the Church. It was not until the fourth century that things were put in order, at least for the time being, and for a part of the Church, albeit a very big and important part.
MORE CONFLICTS APPEAR
These considerations throw light upon many confusing and conflicting passages of the New Testament. No amount of editing can eliminate entirely such conflicts. For example, in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9, Jesus is made to say to John: 'I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan....' Nobody who is familiar with the writings of Paul and his Church could possibly imagine the Apostle to the Gentiles penning such words as these!
So far as their writer is concerned there is no such entity as the 'Christian Church'; the writer is a member of a Jewish sect and his outlook is almost wholly Jewish.
No wonder many in the early Church were reluctant to accept John's Apocalypse into the canon of the Scriptures. But more, reading John's book, it is almost impossible to believe that this writer, although he probably knew of Paul, was aware of Paul's letters. It is as if these letters did not exist. These two men were, in fact, promoting two different religious bodies. But let us remember that this book comes before the major accounts of the Gospels and thus more nearly reflects the ideas of the Church immediately after the death of Jesus. John was preaching Jesus, Paul was preaching Christ.
To take but one more example of this amazing conflict, so often glossed over by the Christian preachers: In Revelation 2:20-24, John denounces a certain woman of Thyatira, who calls herself a prophetess. She is, proclaims John, a Jezebel (a term of opprobrium), who seduces the faithful to commit fornication and eat flesh consecrated to idols. She proclaims the Nicolaitane doctrine (i.e., the doctrine of Paul's party) and she and her followers will receive atrocious punishment.
This is a blatant attack upon a certain woman in Thyatira, a Gentile convert of Paul's, a seller of purple, with whom he and his travelling companions once lodged. In a word, a backdoor attack on Paul himself and his message, and as such one of the most amazing passages in the whole New Testament.
ROME DEMANDS OBEDIENCE
It was not long after the departure from Paul and his converts from the scene that dissension spread even farther afield. Each small circle of Christians, gathering such crumbs of doctrine as they could from the various preachers and teachers, formed their own view of the events in far-off Jerusalem and of the true nature of the person they were supposedly following.
Let nobody think that in these early times the Christians were a homogenous body of people, all believing that Jesus the Christ was the Son of GOD, perfect GOD and perfect man. This was far from being the case. Every imagineable opinion ran riot through the developing church. It was a situation that demanded an assertion of authority on somebody's part. And here and there were men who did not shrink from trying to exert that authority, prominent among them the bishops of Rome.
How reasonable it would seem for the prelate of the church at the very centre of the Roman empire should assert such authority. But not all agreed. A long struggle was to follow before Rome was in the ascendant.
Soon the Roman bishops were describing themselves by the exalted term of Pope and claiming they were the successors of Peter, for he was the first Pope and the divinely appointed head of the Church on earth. It was all in the Book, after all, wasn't it? 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it' (Matthew 16:18).
This was indeed a pivotal statement from the lips of Jesus the Christ. A cardinal article of the faith. Surely we must take heed? But before we do so let us look at what the other Gospels have to say on this topic. What did Mark have to say about it? And Luke? And John? Search and seek for you will find - nothing! Nothing whatever of this pivotal doctrinal statement in the other three Gospels.
Worse is to come, for the writers of Mark and Luke not only omit any reference to Jesus' proclamation but they report the preceding part of the conversation between Jesus and Peter. Quite amazing! Surely, having reported the conversation itself the two writers would not have left out the most vital words of that conversation, those words upon which the specious claims of the Popes of Rome have ever been based.
It is plainly obvious that this is one of those 'proof texts' written into the account by later editors. But perhaps we should more rightly describe them as counterfeiters, for that is the only epithet one can apply to those who moulded (as they assuredly did) the New Testament documents to suit the doctrinal system now holding sway. Let us never forget, the Church came first, the New Testament later. The words began to be brought together after the institution sprang into being.
There is here, too, what can only be described as a clumsy play on words, the name Peter (Petros) being contrasted with the word for 'rock' (petra). Further, had Jesus actually spoken such words to a simple Jewish fisherman (for Simon Peter was just that) they would have been quite meaningless. Why? Because no such institution as the church was then in existence! Not only this but the Aramaic language used by Jesus and his disciples did not even have such a word in it!
Even the title Pope (literally 'Father') was not a name specially designated for the bishops of Rome. This title was commonly used of bishops in the East and the West from the third to the fifth centuries. It is still used by heads of the Greek and Coptic Churches today.
Be that as it may, the bishops at Rome quite early ran into difficulties when they tried to assert a greater degree of authority over the Church than their fellows. They were not going to get away with their outrageous assertions easily. According to Eusebius, when Bishop Victor of Rome around 190 CE commanded the Church of Asia Minor to celebrate Easter at the same time as Rome, the bishops there told him to mind his own business! When Victor threatened excommunication, even his fellow Western prelates rebuked him for his arrogance and told him they would ignore any such excommunication.
Thirty or so years later Pope (Bishop) Callistus tried again. He was treated with disdain by that notable Father of the Church, Tertullian. In 252 CE another Roman bishop had a go at bullying the rest but Bishop Cyprian of Carthage soon put him in his place.
THE CHURCH SQUABBLES; ISLAM GROWS
And while, during the next two centuries, the Church was consolidating its position in the world, something interesting was stirring in that vast and religious land, Arabia. A new Prophet had arisen, one destined to rival Paul in his influence upon the history of ideas.
While in the sixth and seventh centuries the Islamic revolution was being hatched in far-off Makkah and al-Madinah, back in 'civilized' Europe and attached regions the struggle for supremacy continued in the Church. This unrelenting, oftentimes bloody, battle raged through several centuries.
Rome by this time had asserted its authority in no uncertain manner and although it never fully succeeded in the East, from this time onwards it was dominant in the West.
A happy accident of history served well the Roman prelates. The religious power-seekers of the city may have eventually abandoned their takeover efforts had it not been for the coming of Constantine. His firm rule paved the way for a re-assertion of Papal claims. But not without a whole series of unseemly feuds.
The Church's leaders were by now growing stronger and bolder even in the face of persecution or, sometimes, because of it. There now arrived on the scene the Emperor Constantine. By 313 he had cemented his position not only as sole Emperor of the West but effectually controlled the situation in the East, where Licinius ruled, having as wife Constantine's sister, Constantina. It was in this year that the Emperor issued the Edict of Toleration which marked a new era for the Church. It is doubtful if the Emperor was ever converted in any meaningful sense of that word but, to be fair to him, he did submit to baptism shortly before he died in 337.
The year prior to the edict's proclamation saw the occurrence of that amazing visitation reported before the battle for Milvan Bridge. According to Eusebius, a somewhat unreliable biographer (how could he think straight weighed down as he was by all that iron?), Constantine saw the vision of a cross in the sky, bearing the inscription, 'Hoc signo vinces' ('By this sign conquer').
In 323 Constantine renewed his war against Licinius, whom he defeated and eventually put to death. He now ruled supreme and was managing to keep at bay the barbarians who threatened the empire's frontiers. He chose Byzantium as his capital and in 330 inaugurated it as the seat of government, under the name Constantinople. The following year saw Constantine committing a dark deed in putting to death his own son, a gallant and accomplished man, Crispus, and his sister, Constantina, along with others, on treason charges.
THE NEW ERA
With the ascendancy of Constantine, in a close alliance with the Church, a new era had indeed begun. The consequences were to be far-reaching and not foreseen at that time. Hitherto the Church had been persecuted by the secular authorities. Now it was being supported by them. It soon made us of this support to impose its own 'orthodoxy' on all and sundry. But more was to come, for in time the secular arm itself was to be dominated by the Church, an altogether unexpected turn of events.
Throughout this period the debate continued as to the exact nature of the Christian revelation. From one end of Christendom to the other now one view, now another, was preached, taught, received, denounced, discarded, forgotten. 'See how these Christians love one another,' had once been said of the followers of the Nazarene. One would be hard pressed to speak thus of the fourth century Christians.
The newly acquired power of the reigning party was soon being directed against those with whom it differed. One such group were the Arians. Theirs was a very influential doctrinal system and could well have become 'standard' Christianity had it not been that the Emperor backed its critics. According to Arius, Christ, though highest of creatures, was still not in essence GOD. Logically, a father must exist before a son, thus there must have been a time when the Son did not exist. He was, therefore, made or created. The Emperor banished the dissident bishops, along with Arius. (Poor Arius may have been, like all religious people, deluded but was, in fact, closer to the real truth than those who banished him.) For the first time in Church history the civil arm had aided in the imposition of ecclesiastical order. This was certainly not the last time.
In the years ahead, in the name of doctrinal purity and order, priests, nuns and even bishops were degraded, flogged and imprisoned if they stepped out of line. In 384 CE the first blood of an alleged 'heretic' was shed when Priscillian, Bishop of Avila, and a teacher of Gnostic and Manicheist views, was beheaded by the secular power at the insistent demand of the bishops. What a thing of joy this Christian religion was proving to be!
Corruption had by now taken firm hold of the ranks of the clergy. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria (412-444) paid over huge bribes (of the order of several hundred thousands dollars in today's terms) to gain preferment. Bishop George of Cappodocia entered into his see with an armed escort (a common enough event, incidentally) as his rule was imposed by the State on a reluctant and ungrateful people. George, however, proved to be so perverse and cruel in his actions that he was eventually lynched by a pagan mob. A predecessor in the same see, Gregory, had also arrived with an armed retinue and instituted a persecution of incumbent bishops, priests and 'consecrated virgins' who suffered the usual floggings and imprisonment at the hands of their fellow-churchmen.
Another group of fanatics, the Donatists, contended that anyone baptized by an 'unworthy' cleric (by which they generally meant one who had given in to persecutors) had to be re-baptized because their first baptism was invalid. (Re-baptism still occurs today when, for example, Anglicans become Baptists.) These zealots seized the churches of opponents by force and attacked physically bishops and priests opposed to them. One group in Africa, known as the Circumcellions, roamed around the countryside armed with clubs, curiously called Israels, belabouring all and sundry in the name of their god. They were the forerunners of today's radical Roman Catholic priests, entering into disputations on social issues. They turned tenant against landlord, debtor against creditor. It was with great delight that they would force a rich man to run before his own chariot while his servant took his place in the conveyance.
Now I have but touched upon the vast subject of the manifold views tossed hither and yon in the Church of those early centuries. To cover this topic fully would require nothing less than a full volume. But sufficient has been indicated to set before my readers a picture of the early history of that faith proclaimed in the name of the one who supposedly taught: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit....the meek....the merciful....the pure in heart....the peacemakers' (Matthew 5:3-9). He was also reported as telling his disciples that 'all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword' (Matthew 26:52). And didn't he also (reportedly) say: 'By their fruits ye shall know them' (Matthew 7:16)? Poor in spirit? Meek? Merciful? Peacemakers? The fruits of that faith built upon the life of Jesus of Nazareth did little to commend such a way to thoughtful people. Although don't blame him!
Pope Liberius was exiled for 'heresy' and replaced by Pope Felix, who embraced 'orthodoxy' (but which was which who can tell?). When these two passed to their supposed reward, two more rivals put in an appearance on the scene, Damasus and Ursinicus. Damasus, described by the Church as a 'saint', was a well-known womanizer, actually having been sued in a civil court for adultery. By now supporters of rival factions were taking to sword, axe and stave to enforce their favourites' claims. At one church building a seige took place in which 160 good Christians perished at the hands of a mob of (presumably) equally good Christians.
The year 366 was a propitious one for the struggle. The conflict raged through Rome in that year and it is said that more people died then than had perished in all the persecutions! But in spite of these scandalous goings-on Rome persisted in claiming supremacy.
So concerned were the Greek bishops that in 381 CE they met at Constantinople and expressly laid down the view that the Bishop of 'new Rome' (Constantinople) was equal in rank to the Bishop of 'old Rome'. A few years later African bishops, in a letter still preserved to us, rejected the Papal claims. And again in the fifth century the Greek Church clearly re-stated its previous position. Not content with this, Rome forged a copy of the Greek document to make it appear the Greeks described Pope Leo 1 as 'head of the universal Church.'
But then forgery would not bother those who wrote into the records the amazing history of Christ! It was common throughout the period of early Church history to produce convenient documents to prove this or that doctrine or support this or that view. Among the most notable are The Acts of St Silvester (forged about 430 CE) and The Constitution of St Silvester (dating from about 500 CE), which purported to show that the Bishop of Rome had received his office as head of the universal Church direct from Constantine. This demonstrates how desperate were the Romans to prove their case.
No doubt they realized that the one reference in Matthew's Gospel was insufficient to achieve this task. It was now far too late to write into the other Gospels the necessary texts.
In a much later era forgery continued. In the ninth century the notorious Decretals of Isidore were circulating. These documents, some genuine but many spurious, purported to support Papal claims. They were later used, together with other forged documents, at the behest of Gregory 7 (1073-1085) to wrest the investiture of the Pope from the Emperor's hands and to establish the supremacy of the Church over the State.
THE COMING OF THE BARBARIANS
n 410 CE Rome fell to the barbarians. But rather than make things worse for the Church this event, taken on the whole, aided Papal pretensions. The chaos and destruction in outlying areas of empire led to a weakening of the bishoprics in those parts, whereas the Bishop of Rome enjoyed comparative peace. His hand was strengthened by edicts of Theodosius and Valentian, who both decreed that the bishops of the Church were to be guided by the 'Pope of the Holy City.' In a much later era Papal power grew even stronger as a result of a mutually beneficial relationship forged between the Popes and the French and German kings.
But while from the pulpits of the Church there may have issued (at least on suitable occasions) messages of peace, love and forgiveness, not all was quite so harmonious behind the scenes. Rival popes were elected, two by two, and at times even three. And blood at times literally flowed as one faction fought another for supremacy.
Take the year 418 CE, when two rivals vied for the Throne of Peter. The Church went through its usual ritual of imploring the Ghost for wisdom, as a result of which Eulalius and Boniface 1 were both duly elected to office! There followed an enormous outbreak of fighting as each Pope claimed the right to conduct the Easter celebrations. Not for the first time the blood of the Christians flowed in Rome's streets; at least it was appropriate, being Easter and all. Again, in 498, two rival Popes were elected. For three years a deadly feud ensued between the two, Symmachus and Laurence. And this was not the end of such rivalry. Pope came and went in lots of one, two or three, according as the prevailing winds dictated.
It is more than puzzling to behold the activities of the Church as it called upon the Ghost each time it sought a new head. In 1045, for example, three rivals again reigned. While Silvester 2 occupied St Peter's Church and the Vatican Palace, Benedict 9 took charge of the Lateran Palace, leaving poor Victor 3 with only an ordinary church building, that of Santa Maria Maggiore, for his seat. Each man claimed to be the Vicar of Christ and to be occupying his seat as the choice of the Ghost! The pious and newly-installed Emperor of Germany, Henry 3, acted; he cleared all three out and installed a single ruler in their place, Clement 2. Presumably he too was there by direction of the Ghost.
The Circus Maximus of the Papacy continued apace with the passing centuries. Popes were installed at the whim of this or that ruler or as a result of rigged elections. And even when the elections weren't rigged they were quite often disputed. All the while bloodshed, nepotism, bribery and immorality rent the fabric of the Church of the humble Nazarene.
MAYHEM AND MADNESS
Let's look in on the year 768, for a snapshot of the Church going about its sacred business. A secular-clerical group, meeting in Rome, elected 'Pope' Constantine as a rival to the incumbent, Pope Stephen. There was just one small problem. Constantine was a layman at the start of the proceedings. As only an ordained person could become Pope, something had to be done. No trouble! In short order, with the help of some obliging bishops, Constantine progressed through the ranks to instant consecration. But no sooner had the poor man received this great blessing than a reaction set in. Two Papal officials, Sergius and Christopher, sought help from the Lombard army to depose the upstart. Constantine was placed upon a horse, with heavy weights on his feet and led through Rome to the jeers of the crowd (ever ready for a little sport), to be thrown into a monastery prison to await trial.
But Sergius and Christopher couldn't be bothered waiting. They went to the monastery and calmly gouged out the ex-Pope's eyes. In this mutilated, blinded state he was dragged before the Papal court. His ultimate fate is unknown but his brother also had his eyes cut out and one of the offending bishops lost both eyes and tongue for his trouble. But men like Sergius and Christopher play dangerous games; in time a dispute arose between Pope Stephen and his faithful henchmen and they, too, lost their eyes, on the direct orders of the good Christian Pope.
Eye-gouging seemed to be a favourite activity among the faithful. Another Pope, Leo 3, suffered likewise in 799. His attackers were not content to gouge out just his eyes, though; his tongue went too! It all came about because Leo had promoted his nephews, Paschal (later to become a Pope) and Campalus to high office, although they were notorious miscreants. On April 25 of that year armed men fell upon a religious procession and seized the Pontiff, leaving him near-dead in a pool of blood. He lived, however, and was restored to his place with the help of Charlemagne. He returned the favour by crowning his saviour head of the so-called Holy Roman Empire.
Such were the upheavals within the Papacy throughout the Dark Ages that over forty Popes reigned for less than two years each! Nobody is sure just how many Popes were murdered; it should scarcely surprise us, then, that a recent Pope, Paul 1, died within a fortnight of being elected and some seriously suggest he too was murdered. And while all this tumult continued, a new force was making its presence felt in Spain and other parts of the former Roman empire.
The hordes of Islamic warriors streaming into Europe from the East had struck terror into the Catholic populace. No doubt the pious Christians earnestly prayed for help from heaven. On this occasion it failed to appear; it so often doesn't but we hear only of the successes. Islam was, however, proving to be a somewhat more civilizing influence than the Church. The contrast between the sordid activities in Christian Europe, especially Italy, and conditions under the Moors in Spain was the contrast between darkness and light.
THE NEW TESTAMENT FORMED
Now evangelical Christians in the 20th century make much play of their desire to return to 'the faith once delivered to the saints,' to the pure Gospel of Christ, as they describe it, set forth in the New Testament. Christians in many eras have done just this. Hundreds of years earlier such groups as the Albigenses and Waldenses did just that, and suffered fearfully at Rome's hand for doing so. As did Jan Huss, the Anabaptists, the English martyrs, the persecuted victims of the 'Holy' Inquisition and a host of others.
Throughout the 19th century the same the search went on, the quest for the simple faith of the primitive Christians. A hundred denominations were born, waxing and waning, upon this earnest desire for Gospel purity. And still it goes on today. As with earlier bodies, the Methodists, Baptists, Brethren, so with today's Pentecostalists: each group fragmenting and dintegrating upon the demand for Gospel purity. Each body thinking THEY have the truth, they have the real Gospel of Christ, they have the pure doctrine of the New testament.
I have already pointed out earlier that the Church came first, then the Bible. the so-called Word of GOD. No less an authority than the great Augustine himself said: 'I should not believe the Gospels if I had not the authority of the Church for so doing.'
Even two generations after the death of Jesus, the Church thought only of the Jewish scriptures (such as they were at that time) as Holy Writ. But, by the early part of the second century, there was circulating a large body of writings (some of which are still available for reading today) which were not included in the canon (i.e., the officially-received text). Such works as the Epistle to the Laodiceans, the Epistle of Paul to the Alexandrians, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas, along with several Gospels, were known to the Church and still being read late in this period.
There were also other books, lost forever to our ken. Thus one described by scholars as 'Q' (from the German quelle = source) which formed an important basis for the Gospels themselves. has long since vanished. And other quotations appear that indicate earlier texts that have since been lost. The Gospel of Luke actually confirms all this, by starting with the words: 'Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative....' (Luke 1:1). At least Luke managed to get something right!
It was not until about one hundred years after Jesus' death (note, a period as long as that from the Boer War to the present time) that some concept of 'Scripture' began to be attached to books such as Paul's letters (the Epistles) and the four present Gospels. And only towards the end of the second century did lists begin to appear naming some of the accepted books. The earliest known list included the four Gospels, the book of Acts, some Epistles and Revelation. This list did not, however, include Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter and 1 John. It also included a book later discarded, the Apocalypse of Peter.
EUSEBIUS DOUBTS INSPIRATION
That much uncertainty abounded is seen from the fact that about 300 years after the death of Jesus, Eusebius, historian of the Church, doubted the inspiration of the important book of Revelation and also rejected 2 Peter. This latter book was under a cloud for a long time. In fact, most fair-minded commentators would even today be compelled to reject the Petrine authorship, as the book is clearly written well after Peter's death. Yet this book begins by not only claiming Peter's authorship but also referring in the first person to his direct personal contact with Jesus. It is thus totally dishonest.
But there were many other doubts. In the fourth century Hebrews was generally rejected by the Western Church and Jude was still being disputed late in the century. James and 2 and 3 John were not accepted by everyone. On the other side of the coin we find that the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete manuscript of the Bible, from early in the fourth century, still included the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas!
The first complete lists of the books as we now have them came from Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (Eastern Church) in his Easter Letter of 367 CE, and in the West from Jerome, onetime secretary to Pope Damasus, and one of the 'Fathers' of the Church, in 391 CE. In 397 the Synod of Carthage, a gathering of Church leaders from East and West, confirmed these lists as comprising what was to become the New Testament.
It was now 360-odd years since the death of Jesus. To put all this in perspective, it was exactly the same period of time as has elapsed between the death of Shakespeare and our own day. And throughout these long years the Church's doctrines were being hammered out, a great part of the time without benefit of some or all of the documents forming this 'inspired' Word now paraded before us as the very law of Yahweh himself. And even after the year 397 doubts still remained as to what was and what was not inspired. In our own day some small sections of the canonical Scriptures are regarded by scholars as being later spurious additions.
In summary, then, we have in the New Testament a body of writings of questionable value. A major bloc of its books comprises the Pauline Epistles, fourteen being attributed to the Apostle, and thereby hangs yet another tale! It is considered doubtful if many of these letters were indeed written by Paul. Even conservatives agree that Hebrews is not from his pen. It seems fairly certain now that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are not his. Some scholars even go so far as to state that not one of the 'Pauline' letters came from the hand of Saul/Paul!
ORTHODOX OR HETERODOX?
It is surely highly significant that the first known collection of Pauline Epistles was made by Marcion, about 140 CE. Now this is very interesting indeed, for this same Marcion was, in the eyes of orthodoxy, a heretic, beyond the pale! But there is more. In 150 CE Justin Martyr, a pillar of the Church, ignored Paul altogether. And the notable Tertullian, in the early third century, while quoting Paul's writings, described him as 'the apostle of the heretics'! Yet Paul was the chief architect of Christianity as it has come down to us. Make of all this what you will. Certainly, though, it does not say much for Scriptural inspiration.
And turning to the much-lauded Gospels, what do we find? Not one of the four is the work of an eye-witness of the events portrayed. Each was compiled piece by piece as a secondhand work (and oftentimes third-hand and worse), over a long period of time, drawing on earlier sources. And do not forget, there were other Gospels, many in fact, a large literature, circulating throughout this period. Could it not be that some at least of these other books reflected more accurately any truth there was to be discerned in those first-century happenings?
What is of greatest interest to us today is that the Church as it evolved was formed on the basis of a mighty power struggle between many opposing forces. No divine inspiration guided these men in their quest for supremacy. The doctrines that evolved did so as a result of this struggle and these were codified in meetings of prelates, known as Councils. It was not the holy writings that were appealed to first, for nobody knew which were inspired and which not! The writings were moulded by the Church to reflect the emerging dominant viewpoint, that viewpoint backed by the secular power.
All those enthusiasts (who are with us even to this day) who fondly call for 'a return to the primitive faith of the Church' as enshrined in the New Testament appeal to the faith of the Church not of Jesus' time but of the Church as it stood three centuries after his death. The New Testament is, emphatically, not a first century book but a fourth century one.
The only primitive Church order anyone can ever possibly return to is the order of the Church as imposed by the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople and like places around the year 400 CE.
© Mark Owen, 1990 - http://www.piperpost.net