Early Christianity III
December 17, 2008 3 Comments
The destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 led to a major break between Judaism and Christianity because there were many Jews who wouldn’t side with the Jewish rebels in fighting the Romans. For these followers of Jesus, salvation doesn’t come by overthrowing the Romans; it comes by believing in Jesus.
By the end of the first century, Christianity was adrift. The followers of Jesus were persecuted by the imperial powers in Rome and estranged from the Jewish religion from which they had come. Their founding leaders were dead and the great temple of Jerusalem and Israel lay in ruins. Christian leaders decided they needed a new holy scripture. They started writing down what Jesus had said and done. Christianity would take a new direction, a religion based on the written gospels.
Jesus had promised he would return to save his loyal followers, but he did not. The delay in the Second Coming caught everybody by surprise. None of the earliest Christians thought they would be around for a 100 or 200 years. This was a crisis, but it didn’t break them down. Christian leaders decided they needed something permanent to preserve the faith in Jesus. So they proceeded to compile a history of sacred books and a clergy to stand in for Jesus.
The very core of Christian belief is the story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, as told in the four gospels. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are named after the evangelists thought to have written them. Matthew and John were two disciples of Jesus, Matthew was a tax collector and John was the beloved disciple. Mark was a companion of the apostle Peter and Luke was a companion of the apostle Paul.
Most people probably believe that after Jesus died, the Church emerged suddenly and that you had people reading the canon of the 27 books of the New Testament, and that it was all in place right after Jesus’ death. But, it took centuries for these things to happen.
Scholars say that Mark is the earliest gospel, written around 65 AD. Matthew and Luke were written some 15 to 20 years after that. And finally the gospel of John was written about 90 or 95 AD. While each of the four gospels recounts the death and resurrection of Jesus, they are very different. The question of where they got their information is very interesting. Most scholars today think that after the death of Jesus, his followers carried forth oral stories about him, and what he did during his time on earth. These stories circulated year after year until authors of later generations wrote them down.
If we read these gospels as straightforward narratives, we miss their point. Scholars say they were not written as history, but a divine gospel of truth. They should be called an apocalypse, a disclosure of a truth, which the gospel writer themselves believed was beyond human comprehension.
We hear talk of those who respected Jesus being thrown out of the synagogue, and how the enemies in John’s gospel are the Jews. If you read your gospel carefully you’re probably perplexed by this, because Jesus is a Jew, his disciples are Jews. Most all the characters are Jews.
It is thought that the final split came early in the second century. The Jews of Israel launched another rebellion against Roman rule, led by a man they thought was the messiah, Simon Bar Kokhba. They thought that Simon Bar Kokhba was their messiah, which means that they had already rejected the Christian notion of messiah. This second rebellion ended with the slaughter of many thousands of Jews, including Simon Bar Kokhba.
As Christianity’s second century began, its leaders were battling heretics, the monks and mystics who wrote their own Jesus stories, gospels that would threaten this young religion. In the the south, in the desert of Egypt, a group of Christian monks and mystics were writing their very own gospels with a very different version of the life of Jesus.
The Nag Hammadi texts found in the Egyptian desert near the village by that name consisted of over 50 texts, which we did not know about before. They would help us to understand the beginnings of Christianity and the development of religion in remarkable new ways. The surviving books, called the Gnostic Gospels, gave the world a compelling and competing story of what happened after Jesus. The texts of the Nag Hammadi library make it very clear that there were many gospels composed in the early days of the church. Four were finally selected for the New Testament canon, but there were plenty of other gospels. What, more than one version of the faith?
As is usual in Christianity the Gnostics said that they were following the teachings of Jesus, and that they were the true Christians, and that the other groups are wrong. The Gnostic message was seductive, being a mix of Greek philosophy, Egyptian religion, and Eastern mysticism. The New Testament Gospels are gospels of the cross and salvation from sin. The New Testament Gospels look to stimulate faith. The Gnostic gospels are gospels of wisdom and salvation from ignorance.
Gnosticism held a fascination for many Christians and its gospels seemed to offer a more female-friendly faith. The Gnostics thought that the role of the female as an image and the role of women within the church should be advanced. God is not only male; God is also female. There are not only male leaders; there are female leaders. There are not only male priests; there are female priests.
The Gnostic gospels seem to attack the very foundation of Orthodox Christianity, telling a different version of the life of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, who was for centuries mistakenly (thanks to Pope Gregory) depicted as a prostitute, is the chief apostle in her own Gnostic gospel, and much more than that to Jesus in the Gnostic gospel of Philip.
In the gospel of Philip, it is said that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than all the other disciples and he used to kiss her often on her — and then there is a hole in the text. This says something about the perception in that particular text of the closeness of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mary was a very beloved disciple of Jesus, which isn’t really explored in the common Scriptures.
The biggest problem with the Gnostic gospels is that they were written many, many years after the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For many historians, that much passage of time raises serious questions about authenticity. The Gnostic gospels are documents that came into existence many decades after the actual Gospels were written. Gnosticism, to church leaders of the time was heresy. To survive in these dangerous times, the church had to be united. Over the next two centuries, the sacred Gnostic texts would be suppressed, hidden or destroyed and Orthodox Christianity claimed exclusive authority over the Bible.