Saturday, January 4

Early Christianity remains shrouded in Pauline mystery

What I think is that the letters of St Paul ultimately provided the certainties at the time of Nicea to finally unite Christianity. But in the intervening period the detailed practices of the first early Christian communities remain sketchy, except for what can be gleaned from the history of the Bible and other less fulsome historical references from Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, The Babylonian Talmud and Lucian. I have provided a link which has a comprehensive individual history for each at the end of this post.

Within the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew & Luke ) Jesus’s brief ministry of possibly 3 years, was no doubt revolutionary, aimed at reforming the rigidity of Judaism in favour of the golden rule, to choose his12 disciple’s to further that objective and to make references to the messianic kingdom yet to come. But in the aftermath of his crucifixion, in the immediate vacuum same scholars have suggested Judaism continued on with a small sect accepting Jesus as the messiah, known as Judaic Christians whilst others would begin without any link to Jewish customs and rituals. The fact that Paul devoted so much of his letters to the freedom from the law and ritualistic practice leads one to conclude such groups continued during his ministry. Some scholars contend the two existed as equal part of the whole for the first 300 years.

But today most of our theology has its roots in St Paul whose writings came from his revelation and not from any interaction with the apostles in Jerusalem. Paul is described in Acts as a Pharisee teacher, and is acknowledged as having a role in the martyrdom of Stephen. (Acts 7:58-60; 22:20).Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, from persecutor to apostle for Christ relied exclusively on this revelation to subsequently establish his authority and a following. Paul was not successful initially in Jewish conversions to Christianity if we are to rely on biblical references.
But it was his genius to spread the word to the gentiles that one could say it was Paul, more than anyone else, who was responsible for the spreading the Christian message. But we do have some inkling over the underlying tensions in the early Christian communities as gentiles joined the Jewish church. Paul provided extensive explanations about circumcision and that ritualistic observances were no longer necessities under the Law of Moses (Acts 10:10-16.). The conflict with Peter was resolved with Paul gaining the ascendancy without which the church today no doubt would barely be recognizable. Paul’s only talks about the resurrected Jesus and not the Jesus of the gospels with references to the miracles or parables or sayings, but his letters still make up over fifty percent of the New Testament.
What is also clearly evident is that St Paul’s teaching to champion the growth of the early church was based on eschatology, to prepare the way for the followers to soon enter into the messianic kingdom.
But one could well imagine over time the doubts that arose, but Paul’s explanation for the delay was evident in his 2 letters to the Thessalonians. In these apocalyptic and Hellenistic texts he depicts the angels, trumpeting the resurrection of “the Christ” for all creation, for both the living and those dead to be raised from the dead. The delay was to ensure sufficient time for all inhabitants to be saved, by being “In Christ” so that they may be raised up with him on the last Day of Judgment.
In the letter to the Corinthians it is evident such doubts were already evident in the early community. This is because Greek rationality would have rallied against such a proposition, so that over time between Paul's writing and 320 ad (Nicea) Paul’s view would have lost creditability.
In a stroke of genius however at Nicea, through consensus and careful orchestrated theological underpinnings in selected books the power of the church was regained by the adoption of faith rules to the immense relief of Constantine, who only wanted consistency.

I think that neither St Paul nor the original disciples would have ever imagined such a complex theology would have developed to day.
PAUL'S SECOND LETTER TO THE THESSALONIANSWith people, places, definitions, map  click below


susan said...

There's no doubt that early Christianity was irrevocably tied to the political power of the Roman State in the centuries just following the death of Christ. By then the upper strata of Roman society had accumulated great wealth while the peasants were cruelly taxed and mistreated, never mind the sheer barbarity acted upon slaves.

Wheras Rome had always tolerated multiple religions it happened that by the year 300 many people were turning toward the teachings of the early Christians, many of them being ascetic Gnostics. At that point, as you describe, the tide turned and Constantine made the decision that Christianity would be the sole religion practiced in the Holy Roman Empire. I always thought it was interesting that he didn't actually become a Christian convert himself until he was on his death bed.

I'm sure you're correct that Paul and Peter would never have imagined how things would continue over the centuries, but the original setup of the Church was an extraordinary achievement. Nevertheless, ever since I first learned about Gnostic teachings (and their repression) I've leaned toward their interpretation of Christ's message.

Best wishes

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Thanks Susan for your insightful comment.

I agree that there's certainly no doubt that early Christianity was irrevocably tied to the political power of the Roman State in the centuries just following the death of Christ.

Interestingly enough I understand Rome was a city of over a million around 300AD as captured slaves were eventually given their freedom to add to the growing diverse population.

I am sure many people turned towards the teachings of the early Christians but no doubt there was a diversity of views including those described as ascetic Gnostics. Given the brevity of Christ’s teaching and the unfulfilled messianic kingdom yet to come I think there would be quite a mixture.

Personally I find Christ's original message has parallels to Buddhism as he rallied against attachment or desires for material things and misplaced arrogant judgemental stances directed to labelled groups or individuals shunned by society, as for him they were part of the one creation and sacred.

Best wishes

susan said...

I've been re-reading a book you might also find very interesting, called 'Jung and the Lost Gospels' by Stephan Hoeller. This insightful text is an elegantly written introduction to Gnosticism and a simple though comprehensive appraisal of the Dead Sea Scrolls, found by a goat herder in 1947, and the Nag Hammadi Library that was discovered by two peasants in 1945 in Upper Egypt. These writings are contemporary with the canonical biblical texts, which illustrate a different perspective of what constitutes the spiritual life, and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Middle East (Alexandria, in particular) of the pre and early Christian era was definitely a crossroad of religion and philosophy where it's extremely likely Buddhists visited. There are some (not S. Hoeller) who have suggested Jesus spent his formative years much further east studying Buddhism. I don't have an opinion about this view, but it's an interesting thought.

The other person who has written extensively about Gnosticism is the noted theologian Elaine Pagels. I must have given away my copies of 'The Gnostic Gospels' and 'Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas' as I can find neither book on my shelves. I definitely need to replace them and check out what else she's published more recently.

There's an interesting quote by William James in the Stephan Hoeller book where he stated 'that some people aren't able to have faith in other people's faith; they need a more direct connection to the divine'. Those were the Gnostics.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

thanks Susan - will follow up !!
Best wishes