How Modern Christianity Began
1. Pauline Christianity
1.1. An Easier Christianity for 'People in a Hurry'
Pauline Christianity represents a whole new type of Christianity: It dropped all the difficult Laws of the Old Testament. The early Ebionite Christians who may have been the very first Christians, correctly upheld them but this made it hard to obtain converts.
Pauline Christianity won many converts amongst Romans, which is why much of the Canon chosen by later Pauline Christians in the fourth century were in Greek rather than in the native tongue of anyone who had spoken to Jesus in person.
Gnostics in the second century complained of a growing form of Christianity that dispensed with the inner, gnostic, teachings of Christianity and only embraced the outer stories. They said this growing form of Christianity was "a 'worldly Christianity' suitable for 'people in a hurry'. Gnosticism, by contrast, was a truly 'spiritual Christianity'.
These particular quotations are not from some little known Gnostic heretic, but from the writings of two of the most eminent Christians of the early Church - Clement, the head of the first Christian philosophical school in Alexandria, and his successor Origen. But it was the easier, more simplistic and literalist form of Pauline Christianity that was to grow.
Pauline Christianity was therefore quite an extremely liberal (at the time), loose, and Gentile-orientated form of Christianity. It came to dominate Christianity from the 5th century so completely that it is hard, in modern days, to appreciate just how different Christianity in the past was, compared to Christianity today.
1.2. The Cappadocians and the Trinity
After Emperor Julian, another Arian emperor, Valens, ruled the East of the empire. After the tumultuous and warring church councils of the previous century, he chose to limit the power of what church councils could do. The Church was still heavily divided between the Arians and the Nicenes, many of the former of whom could not bear the thought of returning to pseudo-paganism where there were multiple god-like beings (Jesus and God), and the latter of which could not bear the thought of Jesus being less than divine. Under Valens, however, a new consensus became possible.
Under his relativity mild regime, a new theological school aimed at uniting these forces began to flourish in Asia Minor. Its greatest exponents were three boyhood friends from Cappadocia: Basil of Cappadocian Caesarea (Basil the Great), his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and their best friend, Gregory of Nazianzus.
Together the three Cappadocians developed the ideas that would make it possible for conservative Arians and Nicene Christians eventually to fuse. Oddly, what triggered this burst of creative thinking was the appearance of a new issue that threatened to make divisions within the Christian community even more contentious and complex: the nature of the Holy Spirit.
What was needed to clear up this confusion was something that the Nicene Creed alone could not supply: a doctrine explaining how God could be One and yet consist of two or three separate entities. The corrective was to distinguish clearly between "ousia and hypostasis," essence and being.
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three separate beings, each with his own individual characteristics - they are three hypostases. But they are one and the same in essence - they are homoousious. Adopting an idea of Origen's that easterners would appreciate, Basil described Jesus as a "sharer of [God's] nature, not created by fiat, but shining out continuously from his ousia." God is three individuals sharing one essence.”
The doctrine of the trinity was created as a wordplay in an attempt to get the strict monotheist Arians to accept the same creed as the more pagan Athanasius Christians. You could read such a contradictory theology as either polytheism (3 gods), henotheism (1 god with 3 faces, like Hinduism) or monotheism (actually one God, but with 2 subordinate 'appearances' to mankind).
Such subtle distinctions were fused in the doctrine of the trinity; you could if you wanted (like many did) to place God the Father a 'greater' place in the Trinity, and consider Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be subordinate, or you could consider them all to be equal emanations of the divine trinity, as was the orthodox position adopted as the next Nicene update of 381.
Nowadays the doctrine of the Trinity is assumed by nearly all Christians, even if they do not understand it. What has been lost is a sense of its innovative nature. This innovation resulted from the urgent debates over the nature of the Christian god, which took place in the first few centuries.
This debate itself resulted from Christianity being a fusion of different movements within Judaism and Paganism; the scriptures themselves sometimes reflect God as one thing, sometimes as another.
New Testament theology is very unclear, vague and indistinct when it comes to the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost. It took hundreds of years for the doctrine of a 3-person godhead to emerge, and over the millennium the idea that the Holy Spirit was a person in the trinity only slowly gained prominence.
Christian forefathers mostly ignored, but sometimes argued for, and sometimes argued against, the traits of the Holy Spirit. When definitions of the Holy Spirit are most in tune with Scriptures, it is very vague and certainly an abstract concept rather than a 'person'.
Many contemporary theologians are forced to admit that New Testament evidence for the personal nature of the Holy Ghost is, to say the least, indistinct. Some professors concede New Testament witness of the Holy Spirit is scanty and have concluded: 'Our traditional religious phraseology has fixed so firmly in the popular mind the threefold distinction of Persons within the Godhead that many readers often fail to note how much less definite is the language of Scriptures'.”
"Jesus Versus Christianity" by Alfred Reynolds (1993)3
2. Roman Christianity Dominates from 380CE
2.1. The Rise of Modern Literalist Christianity
At the beginning of the fourth century, Christians may have comprised something like 5 to 7 percent of the population; but with the conversion of Constantine the church grew by leaps and bounds. By the end of the century it appears to have been the religion of choice of fully half the empire. After Constantine, every emperor except one was Christian.
"Theodosius I (emperor 379-95CE) made Christianity (specifically Roman Christianity, with the Bishop of Rome having ultimate religious authority) the official religion of the state. Christianity became the religion to be handed down to Middle Ages and onwards."
"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)
Another historian says that "place, profit and power" were what drew large numbers to Christianity: "these were in view of whoever now joined the conquering sect. Crowds of worldly persons, who cared nothing about its religious ideas, became its warmest supporters" and this included many who continued with pagan beliefs (Draper, 1881)
Christianity started amidst much diversity, but the savage edicts of emperor Theodosius I (378-395) heralded the creation of Catholic (meaning universal) Christianity, and created the definition of the 'heretics' as all those who did not accept his modified Nicene Creed of 381CE, (no longer referred to as the Creed of Nicene of 325CE). Here we see the origin of Roman papal power, religious intolerance, and sixteen centuries of trinitarian dogmatism in one imperial document.
"From that time on there was only one religion and one creed in the whole Empire. Any form which denied the one divine essence in three hypostases, or in Western terms, the one substance in three Persons, was subject to savage persecution. Theodosius also forbade 'heathen' worship, under severe penalties, such as were metered out only for the most heinous crimes."
"Jesus Versus Christianity" by Alfred Reynolds (1993)
While orthodox Christianity originally represented but one of many sets of early Christian beliefs, it was these Christians who came to wield political power. By adapting their Christianity to appeal to the Roman government, they won unprecedented authority and privilege. Their church became known as THE church.
This newly acquired power enabled them to enforce conformity to their practices. Theodosian laws made it illegal to disagree with the Church. And a 388 prohibition forbade any public discussions of religious topics.
The ancient, multidimensional Pagan worship was prohibited in 392 and considered a criminal activity. In 410 the emperor Honorius decreed: "Let all who act contrary to the sacred laws know that their creeping in their heretical superstition to worship at the most remote oracle is punishable by exile and blood, should they again be tempted to assemble at such places ..."
"By 435 a law threatened any heretic in the Roman Empire with death. Judaism remained the only other legally recognized religion. Yet, Hebrews were isolated as much as possible, with intermarriage between Hebrew and Christian carrying the same penalty as adultery - the woman would be executed."
"The Dark Side of Christian History" by Helen Ellerbe (1995)
Protestors mourned the fact that these new Christians would spot a place with "something worth raping away" and would then declare that pagan worship takes place there, and descend on the place and rob it, calling themselves "guardians of good order."
Christianity had changed from a Pagan sect of Judaism, into a new Pagan Roman Mystery religion, and then into a literal Christianity. At that point the literalists turned themselves into the oppressors, dominators and intolerant legalists that the Christian religion had itself fought against from its inception.
A form of circle was now complete. The power-centric approach of Roman Christianity then prevailed over diversity for over a thousand years - Ellerbe, quoted above, devotes several chapters to this dark era of Christian history. Its infamous Inquisition and Crusades were the modern apparatus to replace what it lost when the Roman Empire fell.
2.2. Power Struggles
Christianity grew amongst the illiterate and the poor. These people were in no position to present well-conceived arguments nor to write good defenses of their beliefs. For the most part, beliefs were passed on orally in a most inadequate manner.
The confusion and barbarity of this new confused belief system disturbed the established and stable pagan communities that, like patchwork, just managed to hold the Roman Empire's civil society together. Accusations against the Christians were extreme to the point of being foolish.
Tertullian himself complained of the scapegoating of Christianity, writing "they think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is a famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is: Away with the Christians to the lion!"
This over-reaction led to a counter-reaction, and from the second half of the second century, some conscientious pagans converted to Christianity. These became the most literate and intelligent members of Christian communities, and began writing the first apologetics of Christianity (apologia is the Greek term for a "rational defence" of something).
One of the main points that these literate pagan converts to Christianity had to do is reform the attitude of Christians towards the Roman Empire itself. Christians, while they remained troublesome and anarchic, could never expect to succeed against the Empire. Many similar movements had tried such an approach and found themselves repressed horribly.
"These authors insisted to anyone who would listen that Christians were not opposed to the state, but were in fact fully supportive of the state. The stated survived because of prayers made to the living God, who had power and sovereignty over all. The worship of a crucified man was not a statement of opposition to the state; quite the contrary, the state representatives - Pontius Pilate, for example - had emphatically declared Jesus not guilty. Jesus's death was a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the uncooperative attitudes of the Hebrews, who had rejected their own messiah and therefore their own God."
"Forged" by Bart Ehrman (2011)
Many anti-Hebrew texts were written on this basis, for example, including many texts defending Pontius Pilate, in order to ingratiate Christianity with the Empire. The numbers of forged documents with this theme were great.
The author of 1 Peter tells all Christians "Be submissive to every human institution for the Lord's sake, whether to the emperor as the one who is supreme or to overseers who have been sent by him for the punishment of those who do wrong and praise of those who do right. For this is the will of God: that by doing good you silence the ignorance of foolish people" (1 Peter 2:13-15)
Roman converts to Christianity, such as Paul were especially useful as symbols that could be used for 2 purposes: (1) to tell other Christians to be subservient to the state, and (2) to show that State that Christians were not rebellious.
“[That] the victors in religious disputes might now use the power of the Roman state against their enemies [was] a lesson that all parties to the conflict, including the Arians, were quick to learn.”
"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome" by Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)
The Roman Christian Church became very powerful, with influential converts, lots of wealth, and more importantly than both of these: access to the publishing press and scribes of the Roman Empire.
As a result of the literary strength of the Roman Church, the books of the New Testament were chosen solely from Pauline Christian texts, especially from the letters (epistles) written by St Paul, and those written in his name.
It made continual proclamations that all other, including older forms of Christianity that were closer to Christian ideals, forms of Christianity were 'heresies', to be suppressed and excluded from civility.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that the Christians who courted the emperor, and who were popular in Rome, would no doubt win any prolonged disputes between themselves and others. It was Roman power that broke the Arians and made Nicene Christianity victorious.
"As should be clear, for Bauer, the internal Christian conflicts were struggles over power, not just theology. And the side that knew how to utilize power was the side that won. More specifically, Bauer pointed out that the Christian community in Rome was comparatively large and affluent. Moreover, located in the capital of the empire, it had inherited a tradition of administrative prowess.
Using the administrative skills of its leaders and its vast material resources, the church in Rome managed to exert influence over other Christian communities. Among other things, the Roman Christians promoted a hierarchical structure, insisting that each church should have a single bishop.
By paying for the release of slaves and purchasing the freedom of prisoners, the Roman church brought large numbers of grateful converts into the fold, while the judicious use of gifts and alms offered to other churches naturally effected a sympathetic hearing of their views. By the end of the third century, the Roman form of Christianity had established dominance."
"Lost Christianities" by Bart Ehrman (2003)
2.3. Erasing the Heretics: Christian History was Written by the Victors
Bishop Melito of Sardis in 160CE sought out the oldest group of Christians known to exist in order to verify the truth of Christianity. To his dismay, they did not resemble his own form of Christianity. The Ebionites did not recognize most of what Bishop Melito expected them to believe, and literalist Christians wiped them out as a result.
In the fourth century Eusebius, one of the Church Founders and Historians, also searched for Christian origins. He found a group of ancient Hebrew Pagans who predated Christianity, the Therapeutae, but because their religion looked like Christianity he wrote them into history.
Likewise the Arians and Marcionites were ignored and their books burnt because they did not reflect the new form of Christianity that sought to make itself orthodox. They forged a new Christian world.
"A world of schism and power struggles, of forged documents and false identities, of letters that had been edited and added to, and of the wholesale destruction of historical evidence.
One of the major players in this cover-up operation was a character called Eusebius who, at the beginning of the fourth century, compiled from legends, fabrications and his own imagination the only early history of Christianity that still exists today.
All subsequent histories have been forced to base themselves on Eusebius' dubious claims, because there has been little other information to draw on. All those with a different perspective on Christianity were branded as heretics and eradicated. In this way falsehoods compiled in the fourth century have come down to us as established facts.
Eusebius was employed by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion of the Empire and gave Literalist Christianity the power it needed to begin the final eradication of Paganism and Gnosticism."
"The Jesus Mysteries" by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999)
Outright forgery was strife. For example, the pagan world suffered a great loss in 83 BCE when the great Temple of Jupiter burnt down, taking with it the books of the oracles which had been collected over hundreds of years. Many replacement oracles were discovered over time, but they were in fact Christian forgeries designed to give Christianity credence by having it seen as a fulfilment of pagan prophecies.
Although it wasn't only the Christians that had the idea of abusing the esteemed oracles - their forgeries were themselves based on Hebrew forgeries. "The Christian portions of the oracles forged in the name of the Sibyl predict the coming of Christ and attack Hebrews for failing to believe."
For example, added to the end of one prophecy was a prediction of the coming of God's son, and this: "Israel, with abominable lips and poisonous spittings will give this man blows", plus an account of Jesus's death and resurrection and a final comment that the Hebrews will be destroyed."
Pauline-Cappadocian-Roman Christianity never managed to eradicate all other forms of Christianity. 'Heresies' continued to flourish in nation after nation and despite Europe-wide attempts to suppress them, some writings always survived to keep free thought alive a little longer.
2.4. From the 12th Century Onwards
"The first inquisition was created 1184 annihilate the Cathar 'heresy' following a Crusade to do the same thing, not as a means of fighting witchcraft. All of the Inquisitions - e.g. the Medieval, the Episcopal, the Papal, the Roman, the Spanish and the Portuguese - were created to eradicate differences in opinion among Christians; only the Roman way was permitted.”
"Sophia Bestiae" by Edward O'Toole (2006)
The historian A. McCall describes the ungodly methods of the Christian orthodox from the 12th century onwards. However where he, perhaps hastily states that 'growing numbers of heretics' were the problem, I believe that the number of 'heretics' has always been very high and that it was the Church's increasing strictness that produced heretics through active exclusion, rather than any increase in deviant belief.
"From the twelfth century onwards, more and more severe measures were introduced to deal with the growing numbers of heretics, the Church, for its part, neither forbad the use of torture to extract 'free concessions' from suspected heretics nor shrank any longer, once the heretic has made such a confession, from imposing the death penalty.
And so, here again, with the setting up in 1230 of the Holy Office, and as a result of the unholy zeal which some officers of the Inquisition subsequently displayed in their determination to eradicate any trace of wrong belief, both the organized Church, in general, and the Papacy under whose control the Inquisition was established, in particular, were to give their Christian flock cause rather to fear and even loathe than to love or respect them.
Indeed, to some Christians it seemed that by countenancing such ferocious measures, the religious authorities were embracing the ways of the Devil and hence forfeiting any claim to their spiritual allegiance: and so, gradually, as violence begat more violence, was the spiritual standing of the religious authorities still further eroded.”
"The Medieval Underworld" by Andrew McCall (1979)
The gnostic Mithraists and Jewish Ebionites formed the very first Christians of the first century, with practices and beliefs based respectively on Gnostic and Judaistic rituals, symbols and practices.
Pauline Christians dispensed with the difficult Hebrew laws and became popular amongst gentiles, soon out-numbering the Hebrew Christians, causing them to be secluded and eventually suppressed.
Increasing literalism amongst roman converts then led the Pauline Christians to become obsessed with enforcing their literal interpretation of Christianity's original stories, causing another huge rift with older gnostic-style Christians.
With Roman power behind their press and with the favour of Emperors, the Pauline-Nicene Christians wiped out the gnostics, annihilated the Arians after long bloody campaigns, and murdered and burnt the Marcionites and many other small sects, to leave themselves as the sole Christians within the Roman Empire, free to edit their own books to 'prove' how all their predecessors had been wrong.
The three Cappadocian scholars promoted the Holy Spirit to the godhead to create a Trinity, which was codified strictly in to the Nicene Creed of 381, which went to careful lengths to disclaim against 'heresy.' Emperor Theodosius published a series of forceful edicts intolerant of all non-Nicene sects. This state of affairs persisted in the West for over a thousand years from the 5th century, causing mainstream Christianity to become completely ignorant of their own past.
Despite the number of denominations that now exist, Christian diversity has never again regained the richness it had in the first few centuries. Christianity has remained, in the West, the Pauline, Cappadocian, Nicene victor that emerged from the ashes of Christian groups within the Roman Empire and Judea.
It is a shame that it appears the most worldly, least spiritual, most power-hungry, least tolerant, most violent and least honest form of Christianity is the one that survived those brutal battles of the first few centuries.
You would benefit greatly by studying and researching the highly inspirational and deep Wisdom of pre-Roman Christianity. The Essenes, Gnostics, Theraputae, even the original Egyptian Kabbalah (later converted the Hebrew Kabbalah). Always carry a shovel ... dig deep for the Truth. It's way below the surface.
Just a thought ...
~Justin Taylor, ORDM., OCP., DM.
My thanks to Vexen Crabtree