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The Crucial Context of Christian Conceptions

It is interesting how a small population from a limited area during a narrow period of history shaped the essential religious and social concepts of our entire western civilization.  In an area smaller than our western Oregon, the Jews, Romans, Greeks, and others mixed in a cauldron of clashes, generating ideas that would shape our basic view of history and set into us assumptions so familiar we don’t often notice them.  We also don’t notice is the context in which these ideas were adopted while many others were excluded.


Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Jews were just returning from exile in Babylonia.  The Persian King Cyrus had hoped they would be his allies, even giving them funds to reconstruct their ravaged temple.  They were not warmly welcomed home by those who had stayed.  The old practice of calling non-Jews (ha goyim) agents of Satan began to be used between Jewish sects.  At this time, Satan was not so much a monster or devil as an agent of God sent to frustrate and test the faithful.


When Antiochus destroyed the Temple again in 168 BCE the staunch Jews blamed those more cosmopolitan upper class Jews who had accommodated Greek customs.  The festival of Hanukkah commemorates the Jewish victory in resizing the Temple.  The Maccabees and the rigorous Pharisees, who despised the Hellenized Jews and their priests, would later be joined by such groups as the desert ascetics, the Essenes, who believed the sins of their fellow Jews had ruined the covenant with Abraham.  They called for a new covenant based on living strictly, confessing sins, giving up sex, and sharing their money communally.  The followers of a teacher named Jesus from the poor town of Nazareth may have been in the Essene community.


The Jewish historian Josephus recounts that shortly before the birth of Jesus some two thousand Jews in Galilee were crucified by the Romans for rebelling.  A virtual forest of rotting corpses showed the power and mercilessness of the Romans.  The Essenes, like other rural Jews, resented not just the Romans, but those Jews who accommodated them.  John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus and probably was an Essene, awakening him to his mission, was soon beheaded.  They felt the last days of the evil occupation were near and that the kingdom of God was at hand.   Some thirty years after the execution of Jesus, in 66, a rebellion of rural Jews broke out again.  Three years later, Vespasian and his son Titus entered Jerusalem with sixty thousand well-trained soldiers and re-took the city.


It was about at this time, a generation or two after the death of Jesus, that what we call the New Testament was written.  Paul hadn’t known Jesus but interpreted his life and death in personal spiritual and cosmic theological terms having to do with sin and redemption.   In about 70, the Apostle Peter’s younger co-worker, Mark, wrote a fairly plain account of the reports of Jesus, skewing it slightly to get Pontius Pilate off the hook and the Jewish scribes on it.  Ten years later, the Jew Matthew and the Gentile Luke magnify Mark’s account to further divide Christian Jews from the majority.  Ten years after that the Jew John of Alexandria further placed the Jesus event in the larger context of the Greek world.  This Jesus movement would come to be called Christian.  Over three hundred years, it moved from being a persecuted cult of obstinate martyrs to the official religion of the empire.


This much is familiar to us.  What are not familiar to us are the writings of other adjacent groups.  By the year 200 the canon of approved New Testament books was closed, locking out variations and competing ideas.  In 367, Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, ordered all heretical books to be purged.  The early bishops Irenaeus and Tertullian used the same technique the Jews had once used on the goyim and then on each other: They declared what writings and teachings were orthodox (meaning “straight thinking”) and which were heretical (meaning “choosing” to be different).  Increasingly, heretics were seen as not just different or out, but evil.  Tertullian taught to even ask a question was itself heresy.  He didn’t want differences discussed, for it just made people wonder who was right.  His blatant tautology became the essence of Christian dogma: “For since they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians.”


For two thousand years these orthodox books and ideas defined Christianity.  Then, in 1945, at the Jabal al-Tarif caves, near the town of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt, some fifty two texts written before, during, and after the New Testament gospels were discovered.  These show a far richer context than we had been shown.


I am especially appreciative of the scholar Elaine Pagels for reporting the interrelationships of these texts and ideas with the early Christian movement.  Her three books, “Adam, Eve, and the Serpent,” “The Gnostic Gospels,” and “The Origin of Satan,” detail the way Christianity became focused on an institutional form of a religion far different than that of the early adherents.


Some early adherents were very strict.  Using some of Jesus’ more radical teachings that believers will leave their families and eschew political obedience, money, and sex, they competed with each other in being very pure.  Paul was the next thing to a monastic.  He had believers give up on sex all together as an ideal.  Later writers using his name softened that somewhat to allow sex in marriage, but then only for procreation purposes.  Some wouldn’t touch money and expected a total giving up of money to the church.


But the Gnostic Gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi show totally other approaches.  The Gospel of Philip is the most interesting to me.  He describes how Jesus used to often kiss Mary Magdalene on the mouth.  The other disciples got jealous but Jesus made no apologies either to them or for being with a woman.  Mary Magdalene is the gem at the center of the story, hiding in the shadows of the New Testament.  Probably the prostitute saved by Jesus, she stays with him and is one of the few women to rescue Jesus in his tomb.  What did she know about how Jesus lived and died?


The Dialogue of the Savior claims Mary was the most revered of the three disciples chosen by Jesus to receive secret knowledge (above Thomas and Matthew).  It describes her as “…a woman who knew the All.”  Peter (on whom the Catholic tradition claims a lineage of authority up to the current pope) resented that Jesus was close to a woman, teaching her secret knowledge.  The author of The Gospel of Mary, Levi, intercedes: “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered… But the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed, to reject her?  Surely the Lord knew her very well.  That is why he loved her more than us.” (GG, 64)


In Faith Wisdom Peter resents Mary for displacing his authority and urges Jesus to rebuke her, but is himself rebuked.  Later, she admits to Jesus, “Peter makes me hesitate; I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race.”  Jesus assures her whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak.  (GG, 65)


Although the cult of Isis reigned in nearby Egypt and women regularly spoke and took priestly roles in the Gnostic churches, the Jewish and orthodox Christian stance kept women at bay in religious services.

In this cruel age of domination it was typical to treat women with disdain.  Instead of celebrating the equality of the sexes as both being created by God as in Genesis One, the orthodox pattern was to claim the logic of Genesis Two: Eve was created from Adam and for his fulfillment.  Clement of Alexandria, the lone quasi-liberal among the early bishops, said men and women share in perfection, and he remembers Paul’s saying in Christ there is neither male nor female.  But his educated and wealthy cosmopolitan congregation in Alexandria wasn’t like the majority of poorer and less educated Christians.  They preferred Tertullian:


It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer [the Eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function – least of all, in priestly office.


Holding women off and renouncing sexuality was so prevalent the young Origen later castrated himself prior to his becoming a bishop.  The line of authority in the church excluded women, instead basing itself on Peter.  (As recently as 1977, Pope Paul VI, in tautological thinking, declared women cannot become priests because, “…Jesus was a man.”)


The Gnostics had a spectrum of views on martyrdom.  In the Secret Book of James, the second century author states: “Truly, I say to you, none will be saved unless they believe in my cross…none of those who fear death will be saved; for the kingdom of death belongs to those who put themselves to death.”  Others attacked martyrdom.  The author of the Testimony of Truth claimed enthusiasts for martyrdom don’t know who Christ is and are merely destroying themselves in delusion.  Bishop Irenaeus accused the followers of Valentius, a prominent Gnostic Christian, of pouring contempt on the martyrs, “casting a slur on their martyrdom.”  To consider martyrdom as fanaticism is to divide the church, or, as Irenaeus put it, “[to] cut in pieces the great and glorious body of Christ.”  This is an age-old problem.  No one dare question the sensibleness of the death of martyrs or soldiers; if they die, it must have been noble and needed.  (GG, 90-96)  To consider otherwise is to entertain the thought that their deaths were senseless and wasted.


Even if wasted in terms of possibly not ending up in heaven, martyrdom served to create social awe and cohesion.  Bishop Tertullian, defying the Roman proconsul Scapula, boasted “Your cruelty is our glory.”  Foreshadowing as aspect of the Islamic suicide bomber phenomena, he taunted, “. . . the oftener we are mown down by you, the more we grow in numbers.”  (GG, 101)


The Gnostics tended to identify self with the spiritual essence of the person, whereas the Christians always held to the physical form.  Much like Hindus or Buddhists who developed their inner connection by renunciation and discipline, they sought spiritual practices and techniques that would awaken in them their connection to God.  Christians were assured they didn’t need such austere practices.  Just taking Baptism and Eucharist would suffice, even when it didn’t seem to be working.


The Gnostics believed, much as Emerson would two thousand years later, that faith is a living experience.  Neither Baptism, nor profession of a creed, nor even martyrdom made one a successful Christian.  The Gospel of Philip said many people, “go down into the water and come up without having received anything,” yet still claim to be Christian.  The author of the

Apocalypse of Peter complained some Christians, “who do not understand mystery speak of things which they do not understand, but they will boast that the mystery of the truth belongs to them alone.”  Indeed, the orthodox did exactly that.  Bishop Ignatius proclaimed, “…to separate oneself from the bishop is to separate oneself not only from the church, but from God himself,” and, “outside of this church there is no salvation.”  The Gnostics didn’t believe in ritual salvation.  Instead, they emphasized qualities of awakening and community, praising those who “neither attempt to dominate others nor do they subject themselves to the bishops and deacons,” (which are, “waterless canals”).  (GG, 102-106)  Faith in the authority of the bishops and the power of the sacraments showed naïve form of magical thinking, the Gnostics believed.


The spiritual elitism of the Gnostics, the tendency to let women speak and function in church, the reluctance to accept the authority of the bishops, and the practice of meeting in sub-groups to explore spiritual awakening all irked the orthodox bishops.  So did discussing things.  Tertullian complained some refused to accept the rules of faith, saying, “this is not so,” or “I take this in a different sense,” or even, “I do not admit that.”  Master of the tautology, he demanded submission, arguing, “…evidence of a stricter discipline existing among us is an additional proof of truth.”  “With our faith,” he concluded, “we desire no further belief.”  (GG, 108-118)


Indeed, he ruled it out.  In a move Karl Rove may have studied and would admire, he declared it is questions that make heretics and he resolved to not discuss them:


If you do not discuss with them, the effect on the spectators will be to make them uncertain which side is right . . . the person in doubt . . . will be confused by the fact that he sees you making no progress, while the other side is on an equal basis with you in discussion . . . and he will go away even more uncertain about which side to find heretical.” (OS, 165)


To guard against this and impose uniformity on the early Christian community, the bishop Irenaeus wrote a five volume treatise, Against Heresies, which defined the Gnostic views out of Christianity and led to an exclusive claim on the authority of the orthodox bishops, priests, and deacons.


Too bad, for some of these teachings would have prevented the horrid rise of punitive dogmatism that would become the way of the church for the next two millennia.  The Gospel of Philip offered an alternative to the split into good and evil, and the proscribing and prescribing, which formed the essence of the dogmatic mind.  Philip wanted to toss out the lists of good things and bad things and instead see good and evil, light and dark, and even life and death as interdependent terms, each implying the other, much as the eastern concept of yin and yang.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was really a parable of what happens when one takes the divisive approach to good and evil.  Like a wise yogi, he taught, “Do not fear the flesh, nor love it.  If you fear it, it will gain mastery over you; if you love it, it will devour and paralyze you.”  When one gains gnosis, one no longer has to eat this or not eat that, but lives in freedom.  In such a state, one lives in the garden hearing, “Eat this, or do not eat that, just as you wish.”  (OS, 171-173)


The Gospel of Thomas said it simply: “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate.”  (OS, 171)  This inner knowledge is utterly free and ultimately important.  The mature Gnostic remains continually aware of his or her potential for doing evil, but eschews it, tempering freedom always with love.  Philip acknowledged the root of evil within, and he admitted its power, but taught that power is uprooted when it is recognized.  Not recognizing or taking responsibility for one’s own evil leads to angry tirades, murders, and even aggressive wars.  The Gospel of Truth claimed, “… you are the understanding which is drawn forth.  If strength acts thus, it becomes even stronger.”  Those who mature in such love will care not to cause distress to others.  For such as these, being Christian wasn’t as complete as being one’s own incarnation of a Christ.  Philip said when one is so whole he or she is, “holy, down to the very body . . . this person is no longer a Christian, but a Christ.”  (OS, 176)


The model of declaring those with differing beliefs devils and the models from the Pagan world of killing dissenters plagued the church for the next many centuries.  So, gradually, did the universalizing practice of including all races and classes of people in the body of Christ.  But women were excluded, sex shamed, science repressed, earthlife exploited, and responsibility eluded with Catholic or Protestant schemes of redemption for some sins, elusion of ethics regarding other sins, and forgiveness in either case.  Confession and faith became the primary religious activities, not living kindly.  Obedience and belief were more important than respectful argumentation and rationality.  Conformity trumped any vibrant engagement of ideas.  It wasn’t until the Enlightenment and the founding of revolutionary humanistic governments in the United States and France that we collectively began to live up to being the citizen earthlings with inherent, inalienable rights that the Creation birthed, the Creator called “good,” Jesus modeled, and we incarnate when we each bring the All of holiness into our uniquely embodied wholeness.


Reverend Brad Carrier

For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass

C April 2, 2006

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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