The earliest Christian theologies seem to be described in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies i.25 and i.26, notably the Carpocratians, Cerinthians, and Ebionites. In my mind, the most intriguing of these three groups is the Cerinthians, because I believe they are the epicenter of the Christ-on-Earth theology.
Irenaeus described Cerinthus and his followers in AH i.26.1. In AH iii.11.7, Irenaeus implied those who use the Gospel of Mark were an exact theological match to Cerinthus. Epiphanius claimed Cerinthus consumed the Gospel of Matthew, and according to Eusebius, a wide variety of fringe Christians assumed Cerinthus wrote John’s Gospel and/or Revelation. There is much to be unwrapped in this complicated matrix, but my speculation is that it was Cerinthus who wrote the proto-Synoptic Gospel which later diverged into Mark and Matthew.
Clearly, these early Christian groups relied on a story about Jesus on Earth. The question of whether these groups saw Jesus as truly human, or whether they saw him as an allegory designed to advance their own agenda, is an entirely different question that is difficult to answer. It could be the case that these groups had different humans who were influencing their personification of the Gospel Jesus. Or it might simply be that the Christ on Earth gave each splintered group leverage to elect a leader they claimed had inherited the Spirit from the fictional Jesus after his death. This motif is clearly evident with Mark’s invocation of Simon of Cyrene, whose carrying of Jesus’ cross granted him the Spirit prior to Jesus’ death.
In my mind, one of the most important details around the development of an earthly Jesus centers around a curious character described by Hippolytus and Epiphanius named Elxai. Elxai was the figurehead for an extremely diverse collection of Jewish Christians, notably a group of Essenes, Ebionites, Nasaraeans, and Nazarenes. As if this diverse conglomeration were not odd enough, he and his followers also believed that the Spirit and Christ were 96 mile tall figures in the sky, evidently positioned as beacons to send signals of themselves out to the elect, presumably to those baptized and initiated into the underlying mystery.
With that detail, it is easy enough to imagine why Cerinthus and the Ebionites believed the Christ descended onto the ordinary Jesus-man. It was because the Christ/Spirit was fluid, and went to those worthy to receive it. This notion is echoed throughout Acts of the Apostles, particularly in Acts 8, where Simon Magus went so far as attempting to purchase the Spirit without proper initiation or worthiness. For his deal-making offer, he was chastised by Christian writers for hundreds of years.
Though it is relatively easy to build a bridge between Elxai’s 96 mile tall Spirit/Christ and the earliest Christ-on-Earth theologies, it still raises the question: why did Elxai have such a diverse group of followers?
There are a few attributes that many of these groups had which I believe offers insight:
- They relied on special, apocalyptic texts
- They tended to have heterodoxical views of Jewish prophets, notably Moses, and even perhaps a distinction between Yahweh and the “Most High”, El Elyon
- They increasingly rejected the Pentateuch
- Despite 1-3, they came from a Jewish background
The key to these strange attributes can be found in Revelation 12, and the woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet. Though this woman is clearly an inspiration of the wisdom Aeon Sophia, her more obvious root is the Queen of Heaven, who was a centerpiece in the 1st temple period.
Though the Queen was purged from the temple in the 7th century BCE, and subsequently replaced by a Moses-centric, law-centric, Deuteronomic, monotheistic Jewish theology, Revelation 12 demonstrates that she remained a vital figure in various sects who were becoming increasingly disillusioned in a region in chaos, and whose concerns transcended socioeconomic and regional partitions.
There were probably many manifestations of Queen of Heaven cults, but if Revelation 12 is any indication, then Revelation’s consumers clearly believed the Christ was the child of the Queen, and therefore their heaven-sent brother. He was raised in heaven and would return to save the earth from the dragon, the beasts, and other villains and apocalyptic imagery.
Though the Queen and dragon originated in heaven, the war in heaven brought them both to Earth. Stories are indeed easier to explain and understand when they’re described on Earth.
An emerging feature, although arguably original, following the Cerinthus-Ebionite-Carpocratian generation was the Paraclete. The Paraclete would be the manifestation of the Spirit on Earth, sent by God to finish Jesus’ work. This is described in the Gospel of John, but the concept also seems to exist in the Gospel of Mark and Acts of the Apostles.
The matter of who the Paraclete would be must have been of some dispute, as any motivated would-be leader would have seen political leverage by claiming to be the Paraclete. The Gospel of Thomas (saying 15) seems aware of this issue, and has Jesus saying that the Paraclete would be one who was “not born of a woman”.
Two details are interesting in this area:
- The Ebionite pseudo-Clementines (the Ebionites did not believe in the virgin birth) said that Simon Magus claimed to be born of a virgin
- Paul makes several references to strange circumstances surrounding his birth, notably 1 Corin 15:8 – “and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
A group that became known as the Western Valentinians brought with them to Rome around the mid-2nd century a theology which relied on the Christ descending onto Jesus – the original theology, it would seem. Yet their Eastern Valentinian counterparts, who did not make the trek west, interjected the virgin birth into their theology.
My speculation from this detail is that the virgin birth was indeed an Eastern Valentinian invention brought on by the need to stamp out Paraclete claimants. Thus, antiquity had its extant formulation of Jesus Christ – an ordinary man who received the Spirit after baptism, but who was born of a virgin, but who also pre-existed the Earth’s creation as the “word of God” (the Logos), and who (in older versions of the story) freed the wisdom Aeon Sophia, who was trapped in a lower layer of heaven, prior to coming to Earth to be sacrificed to the God who would subsequently stop requiring all such sacrifice because Jesus’ death was finally enough. After this, the western world would experience roughly 1700 years of increasing zeal for Christ’s teachings, despite little benefit in terms of quality of life, infant mortality, or longevity.