Early Christianity In A Nutshell

The orthodox story of Christianity goes something like this:  Jesus Christ dies around the year 33.  Small groups of Christians continue his teachings in the following decades.  About 18 months after Jesus supposedly died, a real dirtbag named Saul sees a vision of Jesus while on his way to Damascus, goes blind because of said vision, regains his vision 3 days later, with the assistance of a obscure character named Ananias, changes his name to Paul, and then spends the rest of his life battling Roman persecution and internal church politics while starting churches all over the Roman empire.

Within a couple decades of Paul’s death, so the story goes, some guy named Mark (who just had to know Jesus some how or other), wrote a gospel.  10-15 years later, Matthew fixed a few of the technical details Mark omitted, such as a description of Jesus birth, resurrection, genealogy, and specifics about Judean culture…if you’re concerned that Mark doesn’t seem to know much about this Jesus guy’s background or post-resurrection details (such as zombies wandering around Judea), don’t worry – the Gospels are the divine and inspired works of God.

A few years later, Luke (who is Luke?) writes the gospel again in the form of a letter to some guy named Theophilus (but not the most famous Theophilus [of Antioch] who lived in the middle 2nd century because Luke just had to have been written prior to 160), only Luke’s version of the gospel is a bit less Jewish, and Jesus is even more super friendly.  There’s a few more details in Luke than in Matthew, but overall, Luke is similar to the former 2.

Then, there’s John.  Supposedly written by the beloved apostle, son of Zebedee, brother of James, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking fisherman, closet Greek-prose fan-boy.  John extends Jesus’ ministry by 2 years, recites extremely long-winded speeches decades after the fact, and becomes the swan song of an apostle who would have supposedly been nearly 100 years old by the time he wrote the gospel (in a time where the average adult could expect to live to be 40 or 45 years old)…but wait, it must have been a different John who wrote John’s gospel…yeah, a different John.  Of course, that throws a kink into the concocted narrative, because the early church fathers, specifically Polycarp and Ignatius, claimed to be students of John, and therefore, could subsequently claim apostolic authority when it came to matters of defining the orthodoxy…so yeah, we’ll go with the beloved apostle as the author…never mind the fact that people really didn’t live that long in 1st century Turkey…wait, why did the Judean John live in Western Turkey (Ephesus specifically)?

The web of lies these guys concocted is ubiquitous.  Almost everything about the official narrative is a lie – from the timeline to the fictional characters to the concocted persecution.  It’s all lies.

The real story follows a much less supernatural path.  It started with philosophers who were trying to figure out how to get their religion to make sense in light of a reality in stark contrast to the fairy tales told in the Old Testament.

There were various groups of disillusioned Jews throughout the Roman empire, but mostly in the Eastern part – primarily Alexandria, Syria, and Turkey (usually called Roman Asia, but I tend to refer to it in its modern name).  These groups had broken into various sects, including the Sethians, Ophites, Naassenes, and later the Valentinians, Marcionites, Mandeans, and Manicheans.

I don’t believe that these groups had declared any sort of ideological war against “mainstream” Judaism (Jews had enough problems with Roman persecution), but there were probably enough theological differences that necessitated a growth in a sort of “lodge” mentality.  These lodges were known as ekklesia.  A person who was translating this word to English might very well translate the word to “church”; this is indeed what happened in Paul’s epistles – Paul makes liberal use of the term.  One particular gripe of the Sethians that gave rise to a rift was a disinterest in animal sacrifice.

But the big running theme among these early Gnostic and Docetic* Jewish sects was a disillusionment with the literal reading of the Old Testament (or Septuagint, Pentateuch, or whatever you want to call it).  The specific epiphany within these early Docetic and Gnostic sects was that Genesis was a riddle.  The challenge to believers was to decode its cipher.

*Note:  Docetic can refer to 2 separate notions: either Jesus was a phantasm who was never human (which I think was the earlier view); it can also refer to the notion that the Spirit of Christ and Jesus were separable entities, a view that was held by Cerinthus, as well as the Ebionites

It’s an interesting irony that some of the details in Christianity and Judaism that modern atheists and secularists might be inclined to poke fun at were the same issues that gave rise to these Gnostic concerns 2000 years ago.  For example, why would God drown everyone in a flood?  Why does Genesis say “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”?  Why would God impose such a harsh punishment for such a harmless violation as eating fruit?

The epiphany in Gnostic circles was that these were clues left by a higher being that, properly deciphered, would reveal the real truth, which is to say that there were a host of archons (demon-types) who intended to make humans ignorant, and that the challenge for humans was to gain better insight into this paradigm in the effort to better understand the mysterious God who exists above all the evil archons.  The timeline challenge, as I see it, is determining which came first – the Docetic Christianity that was characteristic of the Cerinthus, Marcion, and Ebionite movements, or the Gnostic myth, which can be found in Sethian and Valentinian mysteries.  My suspicion is that the Hermetic cults in Egypt found symbiosis with an evolving messiah-desperate religion which had originated in Turkey (Roman Asia) with Cerinthus at the tail end of the 1st century, and subsequently worked its way South into Syria and then Palestine.

Philo of Alexandria gives us insight into the cognitive conflict that was becoming apparent in the first couple decades of the 1st century.  Writings remain where Philo grapples with the didactic nature of Genesis (and Exodus), and how they can be metaphorically interpreted.  The point here is that educated Jews were clearly beginning to shy away from literal interpretations of Genesis, particularly those educated in Greek traditions.  Coupled with an increasing Helenization among the educated elites, we eventually see a merging of a Jewish messiah figure and the Platonic Logos (word of God); it would seem that the earliest Synoptic Gospel, Mark, used a mid-1st century Jewish eccentric as his model for the Jesus character.

Tradition holds that, around the same time as this Greek-inspired, eclectic religious mix (mostly Judaism) was springing up in the Eastern parts of the empire, the Apostle Paul was bouncing around Turkey, Italy, and Greece telling members of these Gnostic ekklesia that they don’t have the right theology, and that his interpretation of Jesus, and Jewish law, was superior to the more Jewish sensibilities that his competitors were espousing.  I seriously doubt Paul ever existed, or that anyone was writing with much authority about Christ in the mid-1st century.

The curiosity here (and I think it’s because the Pauline letters have been altered – at least half of them are completely inauthentic) is how these Gnostics, who had such a particular view of these archons and Demiurge, and who clearly had disdain or indifference to the God described in the Old Testament, could have found any sort of common thread with the Pauline Christology as we understand it today.  According to 3rd century writer and Bishop, Tertullian, Marcion doctored the Pauline texts to fit his theology.  To me, it’s just as likely that Polycarp and Irenaeus doctored Paul’s letters to attract Docetics (both Jewish and anti-Jewish) and Gnostics into Christianity.

Between 130 and 140, Irenaeus tells us Valentinus, Marcion, and other Docetics and Gnostics were traveling to Rome, which corresponds to the time another prominent and remembered Christian was active, Justin Martyr.  This is the same period that other Christian sects were springing up around the empire – Saturninus, Basilides, and 2nd wave Marcionites and Valentinians were gaining clout in the young religion; yet Gnosticism did not seem to be completely separate from Christianity.  It was a well-understood detial that Valentinians attended orthodox churches – on the lookout for congregants who were ready to learn about their secret Gnostic theology.  Most congregants probably were not.

I think this is around the time the Gospel of Mark was written.  Though many scholars would like to date Mark around 70 CE, it makes a lot more sense in this 120-140 time frame.  Consider the Mark 9:38 passage:

John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me..

Is Mark talking about Paul here?  If so, then what we’re seeing (and this is well understood by reasonable students of early Christianity) that Mark espouses a Pauline theology. This would fit perfectly if these Docetic and pre-Gnostic pro-Paul influence was spreading in the west at this time…and indeed it was.  The above blurb seems like a nod to the Marcionites.

The other compelling, perhaps pro-Sethian undercurrent in the Gospel of Mark is the seeming ignorance and uselessness of the disciples.  For instance, in Mark 6:37, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the people.  In response, they stand around like a bunch of jerks saying that it would cost too much money.  This is quite in-line with Sethian and Marcionite sentiments, in particular, it harkens back to the Gospel of Judas: the only disciple in the Gospel of Judas who knew who Jesus was, was Judas, a demon who was working with the evil archons.  The other apostles are depicted as ignoramuses who lack knowledge about Jesus’ true nature; the paradigm here is that the anti-apostolic side, which lumps together the Gnostics and Docetics, were  becoming increasingly distrustful of the disciples; is this any wonder, considering that Polycarp and the supposed apostle John called various high-profile Gnostics “sons of satan”? (Marcion and Cerinthus)*.

*Note:  Irenaeus says this in Against Heresies

Gnosticism and Docetism probably continued to enjoy majority status in the empire…probably for at least a couple hundred years.  The beginning of the end was Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, and the subsequent purge of Gnostic literature, along with an increased rigidity about even the slightest disagreement with the orthodoxy, notably with the Libyan Arius, who presumed Christ was slightly inferior to God.

The true history – the one that’s not obscured by redactions, interpolations, libel, and other ad hominem, is recoverable in bits and pieces, namely in the letters of Paul and James, but also evident in the Gospel of Matthew and Shepherd of Hermas.  The challenges in proving a later orthodoxy (post 140) is that the source material is gone, the early church fathers blatantly lied, Christian scholars have presumed that the church fathers did not lie, and because it is difficult to date the remaining evidence to within a few years.

How Christian scholars manage to concoct a timeline that puts the synoptic gospels in the 1st century is the height of wishful thinking.  It also picks the very earliest date it possibly can.  For instance, scholars date Mark to 70 because it makes reference to the temple destruction in 70 (yet Mark borrows word-for-word passages from Josephus’ 75 work, Wars of the Jews).  Scholars put Luke at 94, because it (and Acts) cites specific text from a Josephus book written in 94.  Matthew is dated between 70 and 94 because Luke seems to draw from Matthew.

So these texts get assigned dates that are unlikely and probably too early.  What’s more likely is that these texts were written as a way to hijack Christianity from Gnostics who had already developed a Christianity that was much less literal and Earth-based, and operating more in a spiritual realm, and that they borrowed from the main historical toolbox of the day, specifically the works of the state-sanctioned historian, Josephus.

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

4 thoughts on “Early Christianity In A Nutshell”

  1. I didn’t hear anything out of line here. The only thing missing is what happened to the jesus cult lead by James after James was killed and the Temple was leveled. All accounts see it moving east and surviving for a very long time. So, if there were real teachings of Jesus that weren’t bowdlerized by the nascent Church they would be found there.

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    1. James is a mystery to me. And the question is: which James? James the Just? James, brother of John and son of Zebedee? Are they different people?
      I used to run with the idea that after Jews were pushed out of Israel post 70, a new bunch of Ebionites emerged. It might very well be, but it seems a bit too simple given how complex it all is. Robert Eisenman is very focused on this area and this time, but I think he’s got the dates wrong. I suspect James, John the Baptist, and Paul were all running their own gangs (or were revered after their deaths), and were swallowed up by later theologies (specifically, John and Peter’s gang) – the gospel of Mark attempts to swallow up the baptists; Acts tries to swallow up the Paulines, etc. James the Just’s theology seems to be well-represented by the Gospel of Matthew (ascetic, Jewish, rigid adherance to Mosaic law), which might very well be why it was included in the earliest orthodox canons – just trying to put butts in the seats. It’s hard to say if these guys even existed. I’m operating under the assumption that Paul did, but it’s not completely out of the question that Paul was just a concoction of Marcion. James and John (boanerges) seem a bit too much like a Zeus reference for me to take them seriously.

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  2. Mark (before the editing) also never contained a resurrection narrative, which is a pretty large omission by any standards.

    Excellent, excellent piece. I really enjoy reading this story laid out in this manner.

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    1. Excellent point about the resurrection – most gnostics didn’t believe in a resurrection (although Valentinus appeared to have some notion of it). Marcion did not believe in it. 1 Corinthians 15 references the resurrection, but in my mind, there’s a pretty serious case to be made that that reference is a later addition (interpolation) – Herman Detering and Robert Price have both made that case.

      The more I look at the Pauline letters, the more obvious later additions are…they seemed to have simply injected a sentence here or there, and in the process, interrupt a more natural flow that, frankly, looks like a lot of the earliest gnostic texts – it’s this, along with a few other details, that keep the idea in my head that Paul might not have existed at all, but was an invention in Gnostic circles…for now though, it’s more economical to believe Paul existed, and seemed to have been a traveling salesman, peddling a Platonic messiah.

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