History of the Early Church

I owe my friend Teri Fosbinder a discussion of the differences between the teachings of Jesus and Paul. If she will indulge me, I would like to expand that into a discussion of the development of the Early Church, through its official adaption by the Roman Empire. It will be a long one, so Pam Bingham, please feel free to skim. smile emoticon This is the work of hundreds of scholars, theologians, and historians who often devoted their lives to one aspect of the whole. Their tireless efforts have given us a rich tapestry of knowledge from which to draw. I am simply the distiller.

The Early Christians would hardly recognize their church today. The beliefs and institutions, as well as its worldwide appeal and offshoots, would amaze them. The fact that 21 centuries later we are still waiting for the Second Coming would dishearten them.

The Christan Church owes everything to the Roman Empire. Everything. From the death of Jesus, the spread of the religion on its fine roads and protected ocean routes, the development of leisure time with which to read and be taught, rituals and institutions, to final protection as the One True Faith, Christians should thank the Romans every Sunday for what would have only been a small Jewish cult.

With the death of Jesus, we learn that his followers were thrown into a panic. Holy men, would be Messiahs, and revolutionaries were everywhere in unstable Judea. The one who had taught them about peace and love, kindness, forgiveness, and tolerance was gone. Not even called Christians yet, the followers of Joshua bar Joseph were persecuted by their Jewish brethren, and ignored by Rome. Most of the characters faded into history, and we only have legends (often adopted from earlier religions) to tell us their fate.

The world did not end, and the Messiah did not return. As any Jew can tell you, the Messiah would not, could not be the Messiah if he was killed, especially before fulfilling any of the major prophesies in Jewish lore. Had they been wrong to follow this man? The survivors reread their ancient texts, hoping for some signs to explain this disaster.

The group was held together by two men, James the brother of Jesus, and Simon Peter. Contrary to the Catholic teachings, most scholars believe that Jesus did have brothers and sisters. (The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas has Jesus entrusting his followers to his brother James). These two men did not agree about how to proceed, and Jamesism and Peterism versions of Christendom developed.

Into this mix would appear the great Destroyer and Liberator, the one who changed the teachings of Jesus, and saved His religion; Saul of Tarsus.

We know nothing of St. Paul outside the bible, and like all biblical characters there are schools of thought that say he was not real, or perhaps a combination of others. It can never be proved either way.

Saul was a self appointed prosecutor of Jesus’ followers. On the road to Damascus he experienced a revelation, and depending on which part of the Book of Acts you read, the others with him may or may not have seen something as well. Some scholars think that he had an epileptic seizure, which is commonly described in many religions when one meets the gods.

Paul rejected his Jewish past, and became a leader in the Christian church, an apostle who never met Jesus in life. There was resistance to both his ideas and whether he had a real experience or not. At the Council of Jerusalem around 50 AD, he was able to convince the others of his faith and the validity of his ideas. The fact that all Christian churches are Pauline today shows his success.

It must be understood how radical his ideas were, even to those who had met Jesus. His letters are the earliest Christian texts that exist today. In fact, it is generally believed that the gospels were composed in order to combat the spread of Pauline ideals, and retain something of Jesus’ teachings.

Paul shifted the emphasis from an earthly kingdom to a heavenly one. To explain the death of Jesus, he composed the idea of original sin, the belief that all are guilty of Adam’s sin (an idea totally alien to Judaism), and that Jesus was the divine scapegoat to atone for this sin. He developed the idea of Transubstantiation, that the wine and bread actually become the blood and flesh of Jesus. (Again, eating anything with blood or the flesh of humans was abhorrent to Jews). The Jews became the villains in Jesus’ death, and only belief in Jesus, not the Laws of Moses, got one into heaven.

The idea that saved Christendom was this last one, and non-Jews, called Gentiles, could freely join, without fulfilling any Jewish traditions. Judaism was relatively small, but now anyone could join. There was heavy resistance to this idea, with even Peter treating Gentiles as second class citizens. Paul lost a major debate on this point, turned his back on the leaders of Jerusalem, and concentrated on the Roman/Greek world.

Christian communities had grown in the major cities, each with its own ideas and traditions. They met in the mornings to sign songs at sunrise, and had meetings in each others homes, often around the dining table. They lived a communal existence, similar to hippies in the 1960s, minus the drugs and sex. They feared no magic or demons, firm in the idea that faith in Jesus was defense against all supernatural powers.

Paul did not like this arrangement, establishing a formal church hierarchy, moving all women to an inferior role. He preached obedience to the Roman law, and all those of superior social station.

Paul’s letters emerged around 50 AD. It is interesting to note their lack of major supernatural occurrences, especially in relation to the Gospels. Jesus healed the sick, performed a few miracles, but was still divine.

Judea revolted against Rome in 66 AD, a conflict only justified by religious zealotry. Messiah figures arose, and fighting broke out all over the province, even between different rebel groups. Roman response was delayed by civil war, but when it came, it was swift and effective. The Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem in AD 70 and burned the Second Temple of these ungrateful provincials to the ground.

Again, the world did not end, and all Judea had suffered. Would be prophets and liberators died on the battlefield and in horrible execution.

After this conflict, the first gospel, the Gospel of Mark, emerged. For 40 years his followers had waited, and it was felt that now something of the words of Jesus needed to be written down for the future. The writing of Mark can be seen to be heavily influenced by the events that just occurred. Jesus discusses the future destruction of the Temple, something that audiences would understand as recent history. The original ending of Mark is a sad one; the women go to the tomb, and meet a young man who says that Jesus has risen. He asks them to tell the others. The ending stated “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Mark 16:8

Authors in later centuries would add verses 9-20. (So, if snake handlers die and wonder why, it is because it was an addition.) Later authors also added the Son of God references.

15 years later, in 85 AD, we have the Gospel of Matthew. The author copied almost all of Mark, “correcting” the ending, and added more from what is called the Q Source, a lost gospel containing nothing but says of Jesus, similar to the Gospel of Thomas. Matthew is clearly written for a Jewish audience, and the writer tries to show Jesus as the New Moses. The Pharisees, a minor group at the time of Jesus, appear as his opponents now. At the time of the writing, the Pharisees, who would become the later rabbis, were gaining dominance of the Jewish people, and the followers of Jesus tried in vain to defeat them, but the future of Christianity lay elsewhere.

Around 90-100 AD, we get the Gospel of Luke-Acts. Scholars believe that the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles have the same author, and should be read together as one whole. Luke is for a Roman/Greek audience, and reads like an adventure novel from the period. Fantastic adventures, escapes, and shipwrecks fill its pages. It starts with John the Baptist, to Jesus, to the Apostles, to Paul. In the end, Paul is seen going off to Rome to be tried by the emperor, something that in real life would never happen. A Roman court would have been his highest achievement. His fate is unrecorded, and it was centuries before his tomb was declared official.

After this, sometime around the end of the 1st century, we get the Gospel of John. This gospel is the most supernatural, and contradicts or rearranges the other Gospels to a great extent. The Passion is moved to another day of the week, making Jesus the Passover lamb. Even in this Gospel, additions were added centuries later, such as the story of the Adulterous Woman, not found in the earliest bibles, nor the famous John 3:16.

It must be understood that there were perhaps 40 major, and many more minor gospels floating around the Empire. None of them were ever conceived by their authors to be combined into one narrative; each had a target audience. It was not until Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons in 185 AD declared that, “as there are four corners of the earth, as there are only four winds, there are only four Pillars of the Church.” (Irenaeus was definitively a Flat Earth supporter.) He was opposing Marcion of Sinope, who said that only one Gospel. Luke, was true. (Since the world is round, maybe Marcion had a point).

As an experiment, temporarily forget all you know about Christianity, and just read one gospel, or just the letters, and pretend that is all you have. You can see the huge difference in views the early followers had.

An additional digression into the Roman culture is necessary. The Romans were a highly superstitious people, and integrated the gods of other lands into their worship. They were so fearful, they even had a Temple to the Unnamed God in Rome to cover any they missed! Only three cults were ever crushed, and these were a public safety issue. If events of possible religious significance occurred anywhere, knowledge of them was forwarded to Rome. If any of the events of the Passion had happened, earthquakes, darkened skies, ghosts or zombies, they would have been passed on by many scribes. None are recorded outside the bible.

While there were minor public persecutions of Christians, these were for civil or political reasons. There are even writings of Roman judges, amazed that Christians were begging them for martyrdom, having done nothing wrong, and finally doing so to get rid of these crazy people.

There was no concept of the separation of church and state in Rome, and sacrifices were required to be made to the State, in thanks of all it did. Some groups were given exceptions, such as Jews.

More Jewish revolts followed starting in 115 AD, and this time the rebels asked the Christians to join, and follow their new leader, who was obviously the Messiah this time (unlike the hundreds before who claimed it). Christians turned their backs, and sided with the Romans. This was the final break between Jews and Christians; a new, independent religion had formed.

All this time, the Christian communities were growing. As the promised Second Coming seemed more remote, the Christians turned their eyes away from heaven and back to the earth. Public charity works became the standard, in the way that the Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas operate today. Christianity became poplar among the educated middle class, who could read and write and whose homes were big enough for meetings. They held most of the civil service jobs in the empire. Christianity also took root among the millions of slaves. Their yearning for a better afterlife and sense of divine equality is mirrored in the hymns sung in the cotton fields of the Old South.

By 250 AD, the power of the Christians did lead to true attempts to stamp them out, but it was too late.

In 312 AD, a Roman general named Constantine, whose mother Helena was a Christian and later claimed to discover the True Cross in Jerusalem, was fighting a civil war for domination of the empire. He was an Apollo worshiper, and in a vision he was instructed to add the Chi Rho symbol to that of his sun standard. A Chi Rho looks like a “X P” and stands for the first two Greek letters in the word Christ. He won the war and united the empire.

It is debatable whether Constantine ever truly became Christian. More than likely, he combined his two faiths, as it is from him that we get Sunday as the day of worship and other sun references. He liked order, and picked the most orderly, and one of the smallest, of the Christian churches; its branch in Rome.

From this time we get the first ecumenical councils, the first bibles, and the attempt to make Christianity one whole. Pagan and other Christian sects were suppressed.

Constantine’s son tried to revert to paganism but failed. In 380 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. 350 years after the death of Christ, his followers took this to mean the fulfillment of his “kingdom on earth.”

The Rome Empire died on Tuesday May 29, 1453 as the last roman emperor Constantine XI died fighting at the gates of Constantinople against Turkish armies, followers themselves of an off shot of Christianity.

But by then, Christianity was safe. It had its Schisms and Reformations, but at its essence it survived. Over half of the human race are followers of Christianity or one of its branch religions.

As the frightened and tearful followers of Jesus fled Calvary, they could never have foreseen what their devotion would one day grow into.

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