Imperial Christianity: A Brief History - II
by N S Rajaram on 02 Dec 2017 6 Comments

Many Christianities: from Paul to Constantine

From this brief outline of Christian origins - actually of the first phase of Christianity - it is clear that the historical picture is radically different from what is given in the New Testament of the Bible, especially the Gospels. Here is what Eisenman had to say about the new picture of the birth of Christianity revealed by the Dead Sea Scrolls:

“So what do we have in these manuscripts? Probably nothing less than a picture from which Christianity sprang in Palestine. But there is more… what we have is a picture of what Christianity actually was like in Palestine. The reader, however, probably will not be able to recognize it because it will seem to be virtually the opposite of the Christianity with which he or she is familiar. (Emphasis added.)


All this was destroyed by the Romans in the First Jewish War. James had died a few years earlier, in or around 64 AD. Jamesian Christianity represented the Jewish orthodoxy overlaid with messianic expectations that were common among the Jews of Palestine at that time. It was essentially a revivalist movement that looked back to the Jewish state of the Maccabean priest-kings and the Old Testament prophecies that promised the return of a Jewish ‘Redeemer’ (Christ or Messiah) driving out the hated Roman rulers. The Gospels are essentially a recreation of these as a ‘history’ built around Old Testament prophecies.


Opposing James and his conservative movement was a group of liberal Jews that advocated reform and accommodation with the Romans, led by Saul of Tarsus, later known as St Paul. Paul was born into a wealthy family and was a privileged Roman citizen. Like the Romans, he believed that James and his Jerusalem Church were holding back progress and leading the Jews to disaster by going against the might of Rome. Paul, accompanied by some followers, seems to have taken his message of reform to James and his followers in Jerusalem. They did not take kindly to Paul’s message, which led to heated exchanges ending in violence. James himself was stoned to death in the fracas.


Eisenman summed up the difference between the two visions in the following words:

“Both movements used the same texts, the same scriptural passages as proof texts, similar conceptual contexts; but the one can be characterized as the mirror reversal of the other. While the Palestinian one [of James] was zealot, nationalistic, engage, xenophobic, and apocalyptic; the overseas one was cosmopolitan, antinomian… in a word ‘Paulinized’. Equally, we may refer to the first as Jamesian…”


A point to note is that if Jesus did exist he would have been part of the orthodox group led by James and not the one created by Paul who was hostile to Jamesian orthodoxy to the point of destroying it. Nonetheless, while Jamesian Christianity (and his church) died in the Jewish War, the Pauline version, or a least a mutation of it, became an imperial movement gaining Rome itself as its first conquest. While the inward looking Jamesian orthodoxy failed to survive, Paul’s heresy went from strength to strength.


Who was this Paul, the founder of arguably the greatest imperial movement in history? Paul was born about 4 AD in Tarsus in Anatolia (eastern Turkey), a city that rivaled Athens and Alexandria for its wealth and culture. He was Jewish, known originally as Saul, but born into a wealthy and privileged family and enjoyed Roman citizenship from birth. By education and upbringing he was more Greek than Jewish. While the Jews of Jerusalem spoke Aramaic, the vernacular language, Paul always used Greek, the language of the elite. We do not know if he was proficient in Aramaic or the sacred language Hebrew.


Paul visited James and his followers in Jerusalem at least twice but found them backward looking and tried to drag them out of their insular world (which brought him into conflict and the death of James). Some scholars claim that Paul, a loyal and privileged Roman citizen, was acting as an agent of Rome in an attempt to break up the chronically rebellious Jews of Palestine. In any event, it is doubtful that St. Paul believed in a historical Jesus, which is why he preached a Christ of faith rather than a Jesus of history. This made James and his followers furious. They believed in Christ (Messiah) as a physical being.


Paul was born a Jew but his religious views were far removed from those of the Jerusalem sect headed by James. Rome was pagan, and like India today was home to several religious groups. Among the most influential were mystery religions and Gnosticism. The Gnostics held that some sages possessed gnosis, the Greek equivalent of the Sanskrit gnana (or jnana) meaning secret knowledge, which they imparted to some chosen disciples. This can be compared to the sages of the Upanishads and their method of teaching. Some scholars detect Indian influence on Gnostic teachings.


As noted, the idea of a redeemer (Messiah or Christ) as savior was in the air for more than a century before Christianity. Unlike the Jews, Gnostics were open to outside influences and readily accepted the idea. But while the Jews saw the savior as a human figure who would release them from bondage to Rome, the Gnostics saw him as a spiritual symbol who would save their souls. Paul was strongly influenced by Gnostic ideas and interpreted Jesus as a spiritual symbol. It was this Gnosticized version of Christianity that Paul carried with him and preached during his extensive travels, presenting Jesus as a Gnostic teacher.


Originally, Pauline Christianity was a Gnostic hybrid overlaid with the Messiah as a spiritual symbol. This is far removed from the religious vision of James and far removed also from the version found in the Bible. This is because Church propaganda turned Paul the Gnostic into Paul the Apostle of the Jerusalem Church, just as it turned Jesus the Orthodox Jew (if historical) into Jesus the crucified Jewish rebel. Just as the Gospels were used to create this fictional Jesus, the book known as Acts of the Apostles rewrote the life and teachings of Paul to suit Church propaganda, erasing his Gnostic leanings.


The two centuries after the Jewish War saw the growth of an enormous number of Gnostic gospels reflecting the great diversity of religious thought then prevailing in the Roman Empire. These are collectively known as Gnostic gospels and its creators as Gnostic Christians. It is impossible in a single article to do justice to this extraordinary subject, but the fate of a single text known as the Gospel of Judas will give some idea of the scene in the first three centuries of Christianity.


For nearly two thousand years, Judas Iscariot has been reviled as the archetypical betrayer for which the Jews have been made to pay a terrible price. But the Gospel of Judas gives a radically different picture: Judas, far from being a traitor was Jesus’s closest disciple to whom, and to whom alone, Jesus entrusted the most important task needed to fulfill his mission on earth - to die for the sins of mankind. In handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was doing exactly what his master ordered him to do. But for this act of Judas there would be no Christianity.


This is the dramatic, not to say shocking message of the Gospel of Judas, one of the forty-odd gospels that were in circulation during the first four centuries of Christianity. This is discussed in absorbing detail in Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen King, two of the world’s greatest biblical scholars. This is startlingly different from the story in the New Testament. Here is the reason for the disparity.


The standardization of the New Testament with its four canonical gospels that we know today - of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John - took place in the fourth century. This had the effect of lowering the message from a spiritual to a material plane with the story of Jesus’s body disappearing from the grave with a resurrected body. To a non-believer or a scientifically informed person, this supposed miracle seems absurd. But it remains the foundation of Christian belief. The Gnostics also rejected the notion of Christ as a physical being, interpreting him spiritually. Remarkably, even Paul saw Jesus in spiritual terms as befitting his Gnostic leanings.


The Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas are among the Gnostic gospels carrying such radically different ideas. (Thomas was Jesus’s twin brother, so who was the Only Son of God?) Gnostic derives from the Greek gnosis - cognate to the Sanskrit ‘gnana’ (or jnana) - meaning spiritual knowledge. According to Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman there were “Christians who… believed in one God. But there were others who insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others said there were 365.”


To give an idea of how diverse early Christianity was, some said that Jesus never died, while some claimed he was never born, meaning Jesus was a fictional character. This is the view also of modern scholars like John Allegro and Robert Eisenman who have studied the Dead Sea Scrolls. This was the view also of many Gnostics, including possibly Paul. In any event Paul had no use for any Historical Jesus.


Allegro was persecuted and hounded out by church authorities for expressing such views. It was no different nearly two thousand years ago. The key figure in suppressing texts which “encourage believers to seek God within themselves with no mention of churches, let alone clergy” was Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, a Syrian theologian. He is particularly harsh on Judas with his claim of having received secret knowledge (gnosis) as the favored disciple of Jesus. (It was the claim also of Mary Magdalene in her Gospel. She was also denounced as a sinner by the Catholic Church.)


Irenaeus’s program was to suppress diversity and impose total uniformity of belief and practice. According to Pagels, “the teachings Irenaeus labeled as ‘orthodox’ tend to be those that helped him and other bishops consolidate scattered groups of Jesus’s followers into what he and other bishops envisioned as a single, united organization they called the ‘catholic (universal) church.’ The diverse range… they denounced as ‘heresy’… could be antithetical to the consolidation of the church under the bishops’ authority.” (Heresy in Greek means ‘choice’. Christianity and Islam abhor choice.)


The overriding concern of the early church fathers was exercising political control over the followers. Irenaeus’s program was taken a major step forward in the fourth century by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. He fixed the New Testament substantially in the form we have it today by selecting four gospels out of more than forty then known, and assigning them to Mark, Luke, Matthew and John.


Athanasius’s theological consolidation of Christianity was followed by political consolidation. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, persuaded Emperor Constantine to extend protection to this version of Christianity. It became known as Nicene Christianity. Armed with this power, it was a relatively easy matter for Eusebius, Athanasius and others to suppress the Gnostics and other competing versions of Christianity. Church dominance became complete when Theodosius in 391 AD declared Nicene Christianity the only legitimate religion in the Roman Empire.


Why are these momentous findings little discussed in India when the media is willing to give space to discredited Jesus lived in India stories and proven fakes like the Shroud of Turin? Is it because the English language media is dominated by a convent educated elite that doesn’t want to report controversial findings about Christianity? Or do Indian churches and their leaders still see themselves as serving colonial masters and have no tradition of critical Biblical scholarship? Whatever the reasons, they have yielded the space to politico-religious entrepreneurs like John Dayal and Valson Thampu. Fortunately, Western scholars like Elaine Pagels, despite being Christians, have not allowed their beliefs to come in the way of truth.


Examined in the light of modern discoveries - the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic texts - Christianity during the first three centuries of its existence is seen to be startlingly different from the account given by Christian institutions like the Vatican. Jesus Christ was a collage of ideas and expectations that were in the air for over a century. This was transplanted on to the extremely diverse field of Gnostic beliefs and other mystery religions. Uniformity of belief and its control by a centralized church was achieved only because of the political skill of the advocates of one particular group who succeeded in gaining the support of Emperor Constantine. So the real founder of Christianity was neither Jesus nor Paul but Constantine.


This was encapsulated in a statement, probably apocryphal, attributed to Eusebius; “The religion of Abraham is at last fulfilled, not in Jesus but Constantine.” He spoke no more than the truth.


Early Christianity added many pagan elements to make the faith more attractive to the Romans. Most important of these was the figure of the Mother Goddess. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a minor figure even in the existent gospels and is nowhere lauded as any more than a saintly woman. Early Roman Christians added to this Jewish woman the attributes of the Mother Goddess and encouraged pagans to transfer their Goddess worship to Mary. Later Protestants rejected Mary and her worship as unfounded in the Bible. Yet even Roman Christianity officially regards Mary as only the mother of Jesus not the Divine Mother as Indian Christians like to honour her. Just as they used the pagan Mother Goddess as Mary to convert the Roman pagans, they are using the image of Mary to convert Hindus.


(To be concluded ...) 

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