Early Christian History

Beginnings of Christianity

In this essay, I'll examine the content of early Christians’ beliefs. By that, I mean the first century CE and the first two decades of the second century. For a number of reasons, this period in Christian history isn’t well known; nevertheless, I'll cover what has been discovered for certain, as well as some possibilities.

The Problem of Learning About Early Christianity

Historians examining early Christianity have a problem, that being, the subsequent development of an “orthodox” doctrine, and a Church based upon it. Records of other doctrines were either suppressed, or misrepresented, in intervening centuries. Thus, learning about the actual start of Christianity, from those who actually lived when it was born, is impossible — such records have not survived.

The only historical documentation we have, then, are the New Testament, and the writings of the various Church Fathers. Collectively, they paint a somewhat confusing picture of Christianity’s origins. This is unfortunate, for Christianity went on to become a major force in world history, and it remains one, even today. Knowing the process of its origin would be invaluable, if we had direct evidence of it.

But we don’t have direct evidence, only indirect, later evidence.

The New Testament

The New Testament represents only a small selection of the documents from the first few centuries of Christianity. They have been edited and revised since then, having arrived at more or less their final forms around 1,000 CE. (Of course, recent discoveries have provided corrections to these.)

One of the things which complicates study, are the many revisions. Some documents which appear to have been written rather early, contain portions which appear to have been written later. Scholars can only conclude that they were edited some time after they were originally composed; the later, edited portions (especially the portions which were added in) are known as “interpolations.” Far from being a uniquely Christian phenomenon, many classical works show interpolations, so this practice isn’t nearly as strange as it sounds.

The New Testament has three parts: the 4 gospels and Acts of the Apostles; a large number of letters or epistles; and Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse. There’s a generous amount of Church tradition concerning these documents. Most of them do not have a known author; the gospels, for example, are said to have been written by the apostles Matthew and John and the early Christian leaders Mark and Luke (who also wrote Acts); but this has turned out almost certainly not to be the case, as they were written between 70 and 150 CE.

Furthermore, they have features which belie their dating, such as the episode in Mark, where Jesus eulogizes the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem; the Romans razed it in 70 CE.

Also, while the Church Father Irenaeus claimed that Matthew was written first of all the gospels — hence it comes first in the New Testament — scholars have determined that Mark must have preceded Matthew and Luke, and in fact, Mark was used as a source by the authors of the latter two gospels. John was a much later gospel, and was written well after the other three.

No, the oldest documents in the New Testament are actually some of the epistles by Paul, specifically, the ones he wrote to the churches (Galatians, etc.) In fact, we have no reason to suspect they were written by anyone other than a “Paul” who lived originally in Asia Minor and traveled often to Syria.

Even so, some of the Pauline epistles — particularly the “pastoral” letters to Timothy and Titus — are written with different language, and are more accurately dated to the middle of the 2nd century. They were assigned to Paul, later on, for reasons we can only guess at. Furthermore, even Romans and the two Corinthians epistles have some apparent interpolations. These interpolations, as well as the later “forged” epistles, mention doctrinal issues which were not known to have been a problem, during the first century.

Revelation is an enigmatic document, over which a lot of ink has been spilled, through the years. There are as many ways to interpret it, as there are people who've read it. During the process by which the Church decided which documents to accept as “canon,” Revelation was the most controversial contender. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into the Latin “Vulgate” translated it along with the others but did not think that it should be included — and his view almost won out. But, it was included anyway, and scholars are left to wrestle with it.

The Synoptic Gospels

The first three gospels have many points in common, even if some of the events are rearranged or presented in a different way. Thus, they are known as the synoptic, or similar, gospels. This was known even in antiquity; during the canon process, each of the three was suggested as being “disposable,” due to the redundancy.

In the nineteenth century, linguistic scholars began examining the three gospels closely, to discover the reason why they matched each other. They finally concluded that there must be a common source of all three, which they called Q (as in Quelle, the German word for “source,” German being the native language of most of these scholars). They determined the properties of Q, and with those in hand, looked to the other writings of the Church Fathers to see if Q had inspired other documents, or if Q had been incorporated into one.

They came up dry. There was nothing like what they had determined Q should be: mostly a collection of Jesus’s sayings, with only just enough narrative to put them all together. Scholars began to wonder if they were right, and went back to the drawing board. Further study showed that Mark had to have been a source for both Matthew and Luke.

Stripping Matthew and Luke of their Mark material, made it very clear that these two had been composed from a common source, that being a collection of Jesus’s sayings. Furthermore, even Mark had made use of some of it. There had to have been a Q, even if it didn’t survive (which is not unlikely, given that documents from 2,000 years ago are hard to come by).

Scholars such as Kloppenborg and Mack “distilled” the Q material out of the synoptic gospels, and came up with speculative versions of Q. Their version of Q, which had to have existed in order for the synoptic gospels to have arrived in their final forms, was incredibly different from any other early Christian writing. It was written not by people looking for a messiah or a Christ, but by people who either lived, or who appreciated, a classical Cynical lifestyle.

Classical Cynics were generally itinerant philosophers who poked fun at social norms and cultural traditions. They were sometimes sought out as advisors, since they tended to be fairly well-educated, but they could be irascible and difficult. Apparently the people who wrote Q, liked this lifestyle. Perhaps some were itinerant Cynics themselves.

Dynamics of Christian Origins

The determination that a Cynical community of some kind (most likely in Galilee) had contributed to the origins of Christianity, threw a wrench in the works. There was little Cynical about Christianity, as far as anyone knew. So, how did these people fit in?

Scholars could only conclude that the creation of Christianity was far more complex than they had thought. Different movements, apparently, welded themselves together.

This is not the picture pained by the New Testament or by Christian tradition, however. Both insist that Christianity had been started by the followers of Jesus Christ, who after the Pentecost, dispersed throughout the world to preach the “good news.” The evidence, however, pointed away from Christianity starting at a single point and radiating outward.

Further investigation revealed a number of distinct movements, during the early first century, which may have contributed to the growth of Christianity. One, of course, was the Cynic-inspired “Q” community in Galilee. Another was the mystical “Christ movement” which was prominent in southeastern Anatolia, of which Paul was a member. Another was a movement based in Syria, which centered on tales of miracles and may also have been a more or less mystical movement. Yet another was a Messianic movement in Judea, which either underwent major changes, or was all but wiped out, by the Jewish revolt from 65 to 70 CE. Still another mystical Judaic movement may have originated in Alexandria and possibly expanded into western Palestine. Finally, there were the Essenes, an ascetic Judaic sect dating back to the early first century BCE, which may or may not have been part of Christianity.

Many Movements

I've already gone over the Galilean movement and its nature. More needs to be said of the others.

The “Christ movement” of Cilicia (southeastern Anatolia) appears to have had as members not only Greeks and Syriacs, but Hellenized Jews. It resembled a number of other mystical movements, which had been in place for centuries, with godmen at their core. These godmen were all usually half human, were outcasts, suffered in some way, and either died and were resurrected, or they ascended to heaven to be with their fathers.

These godmen had many names, according to the cultures in which they were worshiped. In mainland Greece, he was Dionysus of the Eleusinian mysteries. In Phrygia he was Attis, in other Greek lands Herakles, in Syria he was Adonis, in Egypt he was Osiris or Serapis. Another similar cult had sprung up in Cilicia, named Mithras, with an old Iranian sun-god as its godman.

Whatever the details, these were all mystical movements, collectively known as the “mystery religions.” While their doctrines were secret, hence the name “mystery,” we do know that they taught that their stories of the mystical godman were metaphors for the human condition, and represented a pathway for believers to attain spiritual excellence. These cults usually had varying degrees of initiation, denoting the degree to which the believer had been schooled in the faith, and a set of mystical rituals representative of certain spiritual truths. Among those rituals was a ritual bath and a ritual meal (corresponding to baptism and communion in Christian beliefs).

These cults were very old, even in the first century, and their origins dated back to the Isis/Osiris cult in Egypt, which became a distinct part of the priesthood by the New Kingdom, and that, in turn, was likely influenced by the “sacred marriage” myths of Ishtar and Tammuz in Babylon. The Babylonians themselves appropriated these tales from the Sumerians, who worshiped them as Inanna and Dumuzi.

So these mystery religions, of the godman variety, had a very old pedigree, indeed.

The “Christ movement” as revealed by Paul’s genuine letters, was a young one, but greatly influenced by other, similar cults. While it referred to certain Judaic principles and Judaic scripture, the movement itself is clearly Hellenistic in nature and in derivation.

The “miracle movement” in Syria, is not well understood, yet. Precisely what they believed, isn’t entirely clear. We do know, however, that they collected tales of miracles being performed — healings, exorcisms, raising of the dead, etc. They may have attributed these miracles to one or more mythical beings, perhaps mystical godmen, or they may have attributed them to some actual person. They did not actually think this miracle-worker was actually living, in their own time, but they seem to have believed that he (or they) might return at any time.

The Messianic movement in Judea was fairly straightforward. It was not uncommon for a number of Jews to band together under the standard of someone whom they presumed to be the Messiah. The one for which we have the best record is Judas of Galilee. These little movements generally did not last long, though, as they tended to make trouble for the authorities, and were suppressed; the would-be messiahs were all generally killed or imprisoned, and their followers disbanded.

It seems, though, that one such movement did not entirely disband. Perhaps they lost their messiah figure, but presumed that another would soon take his place. Over time, their focus moved away from a coming messiah, to a deeper examination of Judaic thought. Even so, they did keep, in the back of their minds, as it were, the idea that the messiah would soon come.

Alexandria had had a rather large Jewish enclave, ever since its founding, when Alexander specifically recruited Jewish scholars to come to the city he was building. Over the next few centuries, these Jews had become increasingly Hellenized — Alexandria, after all, had become the “seat” of Hellenistic culture — and they attempted to mix Judaic thought with Hellenistic mysticism. The writings of Philo, a Jew of Alexandria, show this effort.

Finally, there are the Essenes. While we now know a good deal about them, from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it’s still not clear what role they may have played, if any, in the growth of Christianity. They appear to have been Jews, deeply committed to Jewish Law and traditions, who were nonetheless inspired by Greek mysticism, specifically of the Orphean variety, to adopt a stern ascetic lifestyle. They lived in the hinterland of Judea, away from others, and kept to themselves as much as possible.

By the end of the first century, however, the Essenes had all but vanished. They seem to have suffered the same fate as other ascetic, celibate movements (e.g. the Shakers in the United States), which do not have children, and find it difficult to recruit new members to replace those who grow old — they simply cannot last. Some wonder, however, if the Essenes might have integrated themselves somehow into Christianity.

The Many Become One

Actually, they didn’t ever really become “one!” To say that Christianity ever became “unified,” is erroneous. There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere wasn’t teaching some variant doctrine.

What is likely, which is seen by the development of the synoptic gospels, is that three of these communities — those of Galilee, Cilicia, and Syria — rather rapidly welded themselves together. The mysticism of the Cilicians was de-emphasized, as was the Galilean Cynicism, while the miracle stories were kept, and integrated into the gospels. Why these three unified, is still unclear. They may have seen a great deal of mutual overlap, and simply mistook each other for variants of the same movement; or, more likely, one or two were either repressed, or put under some other sort of pressure, and forced to shelter with another.

The warring going on in Judea in the 60’s — while it probably didn’t affect the Galileans directly — may have had an indirect effect. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem certainly played a major part in the gospel of Mark, which was probably written by the Syriacs. It is possible that Jews fleeing the war came in large numbers to Galilee and Syria, creating problems of some kind.

At any rate, once these three started to blend, the messianic movement in Judea fell in line with them, soon after. Probably this, again, was due to the Jewish revolt. The Messianists may have suffered a setback, and saw in the merging Galilean/Syriac/Cilician movement, a kindred belief system.

These four movements account for the vast majority of the material in the New Testament. The gospel and epistles of John (not written by the apostle John, of course, as he'd have been a hundred years old when they were penned!), as well as the epistles of Jude and James, came from the Judean movement.

Despite the merger, things were not going easy. Tensions arose, especially where the Jews in the movement were concerned. In the Cilician movement, and in the Judean, there had already been an ongoing debate concerning the Judaic Law. Must believers still be circumcised and otherwise obey the Law? Or did the new movement free them from having to obey it?

Decades before the “mergers” began, Paul had thought the Law was obsolete, and it appears that his view won out. In all likelihood, this is due to the fact that the Christian movement, such as it was, was seen by its own members as primarily a Hellenistic one, not a Judaic one, even if it had elements of Judaic tradition.

The Merger Mechanism

So far, I've only explained which movements welded together, and when, and what may have been their motivation for doing so. Despite this, it’s rather hard to imagine how adherents of one school of thought, could simply abandon it in favor of another. Such a thing is highly unusual. Changes in beliefs take place at an individual level, not en masse, and therefore take some time.

The mechanism for the merging of these communities, probably lies in the mystical initiation system that the Cilician, and possibly the Syrian, movements already contained. It was not much of a problem to accept these other believers as potential initiates into their movement, and it was equally acceptable to the incoming people to learn the “secret” mystical doctrines, in addition to their own beliefs. Once they had united this way, their individual beliefs seeped into each other, in both directions, thus unifying them, theologically.

The Other Movements

This leaves the Alexandrian community and the Essenes. As noted already, we aren’t even sure that the Essenes ever integrated into Christianity — there isn’t enough evidence to show what happened to them. What we do know is, some ideas that the Essenes held, influenced Christianity in the second century. Whether this is because the Essenes became part of Christianity, or if they were simply both inspired by the same source, is a matter of speculation.

The mystical Jews of Alexandria, being (generally) highly educated and well-connected to events in the eastern Empire, were probably aware of the movements which had begun to merge by the end of the first century. They may have appropriated some of those ideas into their own mystical movement, and they may have done the same with Essene concepts. (Or, they may have actually taken in some Essenes.)

Whatever their inspiration, by the early second century, there was a well-defined, mystically-oriented version of Christianity, which seems to have been based in Alexandria. It became a rather open movement, non-exclusive (meaning, it accepted believers from other faiths), and quite esoteric in nature.

Two Christianities

This leaves us in the first couple of decades of the second century, with two distinct Christian movements. It’s not clear precisely when the two became aware of each other. The Alexandrian movement almost certainly knew of the Syrian movement, but probably considered it a novelty, or of limited appeal — in spite of the fact that they used some of its concepts and ideas!

The two began to overlap by, say, 120 CE. At first, there was little contention. The two sets of believers recognized each other as Christians, but apparently didn’t interact much, at least initially. Over time, though, as each learned more about the other, each became disappointed in the other. The Alexandrian movement considered the Syrian movement to be primitive, simplistic, and too much in thrall to old Hebrew notions; the Syrian movement saw the Alexandrians as whimsical, whose faith in God was weak, and who spoke in riddles, rather than believing in a real God who really lived on earth.

Ths consequences, of course, are well-known by now. The Alexandrian movement became known as Gnosticism, from the Greek γνωσις or gnosis, “to know, knowledge,” for their belief in a form of esoteric knowledge of the divine. The Syrian movement went on to become “orthodox” Christianity, which ruthlessly repressed Gnosticism, pronouncing it a “heresy” (from the Greek ερεσις or heresis, “to declare, to claim” meaning one who has declared a “contrary” doctrine).

Ironically, the orthodox Christians were as vehemently opposed to Gnosticism, as the “pagan” Romans had been opposed to Christianity as a whole. They employed many of the same methods as the Romans had, in persecuting their “enemies.” They went to great lengths to destroy anything and everything associated with Gnosticism, burning libraries, and altering early Christian documents so as to remove references to Gnostic ideas, or to make them appear anti-Gnostic.

They also tried to make it appear that the “seat” or center of the Church had moved to Rome, at an early date, even though there is little evidence that there were many Christians in Rome during the first century. If there were any, they were probably members of the initial Cilician “Christ movement” who had traveled there. There couldn’t have been very many of them.

No, the evidence is very clear that, during the first century and the first half of the second, the two main Christian centers were Antioch, in Syria (between the Syrian population centers around Damascus and the Cilician province), and Alexandria. Later claims that Rome or Jerusalem (the putative founding-place of Christianity) were important early centers of Christianity, are later interpolations.

The Name of Jesus

One issue which appears to refute this “multiple source” theory of Christian origins, is the name of Jesus. The initial Syrian “miracle movement,” the Galilean Q community, the Alexandrian mystics, and the Essenes, all looked to a man named Jesus as a teacher or messiah. The Judean messianic movement may also have done so. Lastly, the “Christ movement” of Paul seems to have seen this name as significant, although the name “Jesus” as seen in Paul’s epistles are probably later interpolations.

How could so many independent movements, all begun independent of each other, have somehow hit upon the same name? It seems beyond belief to say it’s just a coincidence.

Well, it’s not a coincidence. It’s a consequence of Judaic scripture (the Old Testament). The name of Jesus is the Hellenized version of Joshua, who had been the successor of Moses. For centuries, Jewish scholars had presumed the Messiah would be named Joshua/Jesus. The Joshua of the Old Testament was thought to presage the career of the Messiah: Just as Joshua succeeded Moses and led his people into the Promised Land, so the Messiah would come, and lead the Jews into a new phase of existence, into a post-Mosaic era.

Some of the would-be Messiahs who had caused so much political turmoil in Judea, had taken the name Joshua/Jesus. The most famous, Judas of Galilee, had a very similar name, for that reason.

In any event, it’s not hard to explain how all these movements could have wound up honoring a figure named “Jesus.” In fact, it would be hard to understand how this couldn’t be the case!

The Results: Christianity As We Know It

The Roman Church grew out of the orthodox Christian movement, once Gnosticism was demolished. A rigid hierarchy was built, with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, at the top, controlling doctrine. It grew into a vast juggernaut, however, and as is the nature of large bloated bureaucracies that outlast their usefulness, the Church grew corrupt. Attempts were made to eliminate the corruption, but these only had limited effect.

In the 11th century, the entire eastern Church broke away from Rome, and eventually drifted into a group of national Orthodox Churches. In the 16th century, of course, the Reformation got underway, and the Church was never the same again.

Today, Christianity is a bewildering array of Catholic and Orthodox Churches and Protestant denominations, each of which claims to be the “real” Christianity, and that all the rest are “in error.” Non-Christians often have a hard time figuring out the doctrinal differences between all these churches, or even the reason why they’re so divided in the first place.

In any event, while the Reformation utterly fragmented Christianity into many “splinters,” as I stated at the outset, there never was a time when the Church was unified under a single banner. Even in the heyday of the Roman Church, from about the 8th century to the 11th, the “unity” of the Church was only an illusion. Churches in the east were effectively on their own, anyway; the Great (or Eastern) Schism of the 11th century, merely formalized a situation that had long been in effect, already. Rome was never a party to purely eastern controversies such as monophysitism or iconoclasm; they were resolved entirely without the Pope’s assistance.

Furthermore, some Churches never fell in with the rest. For example, the Armenian Church never came under the jurisdiction of Rome, or even of eastern Orthodoxy. It remains an independent Church, with its own hierarchy and theology, headed by the Katholikos (rather than a Pope or Patriarch).

Finally, even within the “unified” Roman Church, there were dissenters. The Cluniac monks disagreed with Church policy, so they undertook to reform the Church as they saw fit. The monastic and mendicant movements were attempts to reform the Church. The list goes on and on.

It is appropriate, then, and entirely understandable, that we find that Christianity had a number of disparate sources. It explains the apparent inconsistencies in the historical record, and explains the doctrinal debates that rage even to this day (in which each side can find a scriptural basis for what it says).

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