History remembers Christianity’s earliest squabble as a fight about who should have clout within the young Christian cult: the Jews or the Gentiles. Glimpses into this dispute can be found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and James’ epistle. Paul’s curious tenacity in Galatians, where he openly disputed Jesus’ inner circle about what it meant to be a Christian was synthetically resolved in the Council of Jerusalem, depicted in Acts of the Apostles 15. This resolution purported to give legitimacy to Paul, despite his earlier persecution, as well as never having met Jesus. Along with sanitizing his existing letters, and inventing three more, Paul was integrated into Christianity, and the Jew-Gentile conflict was marked resolved.
Though the traditional narrative approximates what actually happened, the Jew-Gentile dichotomy is a gross mischaracterization of what the real fight was about.
Christianity’s growing pains centered around the Godhead, and whether or not the Earth’s creation was due to the highest God Yahweh, or if a higher, unknowable God preceded Yahweh. Irenaeus gave precise insight into this fight when he contrasted Cerinthus and the Ebionites in AH i.26:
Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him…
Those who are called Ebionites agree [my note: with Irenaeus] that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul
The earliest heresy hunters admittedly placed heretics who held notions of God and a craftsman Demiurge as early as the Apostolic era (30CE-100CE). Cerinthus and his (somewhat) fictional counterpart, Simon Magus, were both antagonists to John and Peter. Therefore, this proposition that Cerinthus and Simon Magus were the earliest Christians is entirely plausible.
Irenaeus placed the paragraph about the Ebionites directly after the one about Cerinthus; the contrast between Cerinthus and the Ebionites, along with chronological placement, makes it clear Irenaeus intended to demonstrate a contrast. An interesting link between Cerinthus and Paul comes with the explicit point Irenaeus made about the Ebionites’ opposition to Paul (see 2 Corinthians 12:2 and my Cerinthus article for another compelling link); the Ebionites were implicitly contrasted with Cerinthus, and explicitly opposed to Paul. The implication of course is that the Ebionites were also opposed to Paul’s most zealous consumer, Marcion.
The Ebionite opposition to Cerinthus, Paul, and by extension, Marcion, was based on a theology that believed the God of the Old Testament was good. The most important implication within the Ebionite worldview was that Yahweh interacted with the material world. Their Jewish roots and adherence to Mosaic law probably prevented such a blasphemous Greek worldview as Cerinthus and Marcion would have had.
Like Cerinthus, the first version Ebionites were Docetic-Adoptionist. Irenaeus made this detail clear when he wrote “their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus”. The three primary components of Cerinthus’ theology were:
- There was a fall from the Godhead
- The God who sent Jesus was not the God who created the Earth (the Demiurge)
- The spirit entered Jesus at the time of his baptism, like a Dove.
Since Irenaeus made it clear the Ebionites did not agree with Cerinthus that a lower God made the earth, the only meaningful similarity between the Ebionites and Cerinthus must have been their Adoptionism, that Jesus and the Christ were separate, but were coupled just prior to Jesus’ ministry, and decoupled prior to his death.
The Ebionites used the Gospel of Matthew, which was written in part to refute the earlier Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark, according to Irenaeus, was the core document used by (Cerinthus and his like-minded) Adoptionist Docetists (AH iii.11).
The birth story in the Gospel of Matthew was not original to the document. The Ebionites did not believe in the virgin birth, and the Nazarenes did. In other words, a sect which came to be known as the Nazarenes edited the Gospel of Matthew inserted Jesus’ birth and family history.
The question becomes: why did the Nazarenes add this historical detail to Jesus’ story?
The connection between the Nazarenes and the Ebionites makes the answer obvious. The Nazarenes shared a worldview with the Ebionites which proposed that Yahweh had the following characteristics:
- He was Good
- He created the Earth
- He sent Jesus
- (By implication) He Manifests from time-to-time on Earth
- He gave the Jewish law to Moses
What better way to refute an evolving Adoptionist philosophy than to assert that Yahweh impregnated Mary? The implication to such a claim meant that Jesus was simultaneously divine and on Earth his entire life. At the same time the Ebionites underwent evolution to become pro-birth Nazarenes, the Docetics evolved into what became Marcionism, which presumed that Jesus was simply a phantom on Earth; he occupied no flesh at all.
Though the virgin birth contains elements of Paganism, it might have been a fair trade to Jews who were hesitant to demote Yahweh to the role of material craftsman. One of the earliest external references to the virgin birth is in Justin Martyr’s First Apology in the mid-2nd century; interestingly, Justin creates an analogy between Jesus and Perseus; Perseus, like Jesus, was the son of God and a mortal woman, Danae. In the myth, Zeus came to Danae in the form of golden rain which streamed in through the roof of her underground chamber and down into her womb. Like the Christian story, Perseus’ myth included hiding the savior child from evil kings, calming raging waters, and decapitations.
A simpler solution to why a seemingly Jewish theology would have incorporated such a Pagan element as the virgin birth is because it was required to satisfy the Septuagint’s (Greek translated) prophesy in Isaiah 7, which said that the savior would be born of a virgin.
One reason why the Docetics might have made Jesus into a phantom was because of the fall from the Godhead. The high God had nothing to do with the creation of the Cosmos or Earth. Material, in the Docetic (and later Gnostic) view, was an inferior implementation to the alien God’s superior reality. In this sense, the Docetics were Platonistic. To Marcionite Docetics, Jesus did not manifest as flesh because he came from a superior, immaterial realm.
The interplay between these early sects raises the question: which theology came first? Cerinthus or Matthew?
Mark has priority. Matthew was written in response to Mark. This chronology, along with insight into who most adamantly consumed these Gospels (and probably wrote them), supports the notion that Christianity’s origins were not nearly as Jewish as history remembers; if anything, Christianity’s advent came in response to Judaism’s shortcomings, specifically after the destruction of Jerusalem in the 60s and 70s.
In this sense, the earliest fight, although a dispute about how to integrate Judaism into Christianity, was much more complex than tradition holds. The original Christianity was Docetic.
The authentic Pauline letters, which some presume to be the earliest Christian texts, give no unambiguous assertions of Jesus’ humanity. This is because the original authors of the Pauline epistles likewise had a Docetic theology – this makes Cerinthus and Marcion candidates for Pauline authorship. One can interpret from Paul’s corpus that Jesus was not made on earth or composed of material (1 Corinthians 15:35-53, Philippians 2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 10:4); he was either a phantom made to look like a human, or his spirit was encapsulated within a deprecated human.
The original view was that the spirit sent from the higher heaven did not suffer on the cross – such suffering would have been impossible given Christ’s immaterial origins. Cerinthus’ view was that the human Jesus did suffer, but the spirit did not; Marcion’s later theology did not even allow for Christ’s human suffering, because of his immaterial nature.
When the Gnostics, particularly the Valentinians, invented a more robust creation myth, borrowing the original Docetic dichotomy between the high God and the lower Demiurge, they reverted to the original Cerinthian Docetism, which presumed that Jesus and the Christ were separate; Christ had a robust origin prior to his arrival on Earth, but given the Valentinian incorporation of the Gospel of Matthew, one speculation is that they saw Christ’s integration with Jesus as preceding John the Baptist’s baptism. This Docetic underpinning is indicated in the Apocalypse of Peter, as well as the Gospel of Philip.