Original Christianity—Not ONE Religion, But Many

By Richard Hooper, M.DIV

Hellenistic (“orthodox”) Christianity

Ever since Hellenistic Christianity (“orthodox” Christianity) became the state religion of Rome during the fourth century C.E., Christians have been taught that original Christianity was a single, harmonious, faith that only later fell prey to all manner of heresies.  Quite the opposite was the case however:

Christianity began, not as one faith, but as many—and the various 
Christianities were anything but harmonious

From the very beginning, Christianity was an amalgamation of different beliefs about Jesus and what his message meant.  Most of these different interpretations of Jesus’ message survived for almost three hundred years.

The new state religion of the Roman Empire

Christianity only became a single religion when Hellenistic, or Pauline, Christianity became the favorite of the Roman emperor, Constantine, during the fourth century, C.E.  As the new state religion of the Roman Empire, “orthodox” Christianity—under the protection of the Roman legions, were able to eliminate the competition by appropriating the “heretics’” churches, exiling or killing their clergy and burning their sacred texts. 

Laying claim to “original” Christianity

Prior to Constantine, many who belonged to the various Christian sects saw themselves as orthodox Christians and Catholic Christianity as the true heresy.  At various times during the first three centuries heterodox Christians were so great in number—representing virtually half of all Christendom—that they threatened to overwhelm Catholic Christianity altogether. 

 


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No one doubts that there was a proliferation of early Christian movements.

But did any of them have the right to claim that they represented original Christianity?

Did any of them exist at the same time the apostle, Paul, was spreading his Christian gospel throughout the Mediterranean world?

In other words, did any of these other Christians have a right to speak for the historical Jesus?  And if so, what evidence is there for such a claim?

The Canonical Gospels: Four Christianities

Four different early Christian movements

Whether it is evident to Christians or not, the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament, actually represent four different early Christian movements, which helps to explain their differing views about who Jesus was.

Mark, Matthew, Luke and John

In Mark’s Gospel (the earliest narrative Gospel) Jesus is a wisdom teacher bordering on becoming the Jewish Messiah.  By the time The Gospel of John was written many decades later, Christology has evolved to the point where many Christians saw Jesus as a divine being.

Most Christians have always believed that the canonical Gospels of the New Testament were written shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion; and that the history of the early Church is recorded in the New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles.  None of this is historically true.

Mark’s Gospel was written around 70 C.E., forty years after Jesus was crucified.  Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels were written around 80-90 C.E., and John’s around the turn of the century.

As it turns out, the anonymous author of Luke, also wrote the first half of Acts of the Apostles—and Luke/Acts was at one time a single work.

 There are scholars now, however, who are making a strong case for Acts being written as late as 120 C.E.  If they are correct, that would mean that Luke was written that late as well.

The Gospel of Q and The Gospel of Thomas

Two of the source gospels which I have mentioned before—The Gospel of Q, and The Gospel of Thomas—were written around 50 C.E., twenty years after the death of Jesus.  The only first person report of early Christian beginnings was written by the apostle, Paul, who wrote his letters during the 50s and 60s, making them the earliest “Christian” documents.  Not all of Paul’s letters are authentic, however.

It is important, then, to remember that the canonical Gospels were all written after, and in light of, Paul’s Christian theology.

 

 
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The Evidence of Other Christianities in the Letters of the Apostle, Paul

Paul’s letters, the earliest known (orthodox) Christian documents

Of all of the books in the New Testament, only Paul’s letters represent a first person, eyewitness account of events that that took place during the early years after Jesus was crucified.  Paul’s letters, written between 50 and 65 C.E., are the earliest known (orthodox) Christian documents.  And it was Paul’s gospel—his theological spin on the meaning of Jesus as the Christ—that eventually became orthodox Christianity.

Virtually half of all Christian doctrines come directly from Paul’s letters.

Paul’s competition – “false apostles”

But Paul was not the first Christian, nor was he the only early Christian.  Paul, in fact, had lots of competition.  In several of his letters to churches he founded (I and II Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians) Paul mentions “false apostles” who are teaching “another gospel.”  Apparently whenever Paul was absent from these churches, other Christian evangelists moved in on his territory and tried to convert his congregations to their own Christian gospel. 

In the four letters mentioned above, Paul is writing mainly to chastise his flocks for listening to these “false” apostles.  But his congregations weren’t just listening, some of them were rejecting Paul’s gospel in favor of these other gospels.

From both clues and clear statements in Paul’s letters, scholars can identify at least two of the Christian movements that were giving Paul grief:  Gnostic-Christians, and the original Jesus movement—based in Jerusalem, and led by Jesus’ brother, James, Simon Peter and the disciple John.

Paul’s letters, therefore, clearly show that no less than three different forms of Christianity were present from the very beginning.  But Paul’s letters do not represent the only evidence of multiple Christianities. 

They are represented in another New Testament text as well: Acts of the Apostles.

 

 
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Multiple Christianities: The Evidence from Acts of the Apostles

Acts of the Apostles as Christian propaganda

Writing at least a half century later, the author of Acts of the Apostles tried to smooth over all these early Christian bumps.  He failed to mention any “false” Gospels, and he intended his audience to believe that Paul and the leaders of the Jesus movement were bosom buddies.  By Paul’s own account, this was not the case. 

Many scholars now argue that Acts of the Apostles was, essentially, Christian propaganda, not a reliable historical report about what actually took place during the formative years of Christianity.

Clues to the existence of other Christian movements

But the author of Acts also left clues pointing to the existence of yet other Christian movements.  That he deals with them at all suggests that they posed a threat to Pauline, or “orthodox”, Christianity at the close of the first century. 

In Acts 8:9-24, the author of Luke-Acts invents a story that pits Simon Peter against Simon Magus (“the magician”.)  Although Simon Peter gives the other Simon a dressing down, what’s significant about the story is that the author actually states that Simon Magus was converted to Christianity.  And nowhere in his story does the author suggest that Simon was not a Christian.

In telling this story, it may have been the author’s intent to discredit the Gnostic-Christian movement begun by Simon Magus (the Simonists,) but nowhere does he suggest that Simon, or the Simonists, were not Christians.

Jewish Christianity vs. Hellenistic Christianity

Early struggles for Christian supremacy

One of the earliest struggles for Christian supremacy existed between Jewish Christianity (led by Jesus’ brother, James,) and Paul’s “Christ Cult,” a Hellenistic version of Christianity which ultimately became the Roman Catholic Church. 

Numerous early sources, which include:

               Acts of the Apostles
               The letters of Paul
               The Gospel of Thomas
                the works of the Jewish historian, Josephus

                the early Church fathers
                         
                             Clement of Alexandria
                         
                             Origen
                         
                             Hegesippus
                         
                             Jerome, and
                         
                             the fourth century Church  historian, Eusebius

all state that James had been the elected leader of the original Jesus movement in Jerusalem. 

Clement and Eusebius went so far as to call James the first “bishop” of Christianity, even the first “pope.” It was James, not Peter, upon whom Jesus founded his Church.

The form of Christianity represented by James, Simon Peter and John, was historically, the first Christian “orthodoxy.”  Jewish-Christianity and Pauline Christianity ultimately went their own ways when Paul rejected the religion and authority of James.

James was later eclipsed in Christian history when the Church of Rome  (based on the theology of Paul) invented the twin doctrines of Jesus’ divinity and the perpetual virginity of his mother, Mary.

 


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The Eclipse of Jewish-Christianity

The murder of James and the decline of Jewish Christianity

Jewish Christianity began to decline after James was murdered by the high priest of the Temple, Ananus, in 64 C.E.  Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the first Jewish—Roman War.

Then, six years later, fleeing in the first great Jewish Diaspora, Jewish Christians fled Jerusalem and resettled in Pella in the trans-Jordan.  Jewish Christianity survived and evolved into such Jewish-Christian sects as the Nazarenes and Ebionites.

But the fourth century Church of Rome ultimately declared Jewish Christianity—the religion of Jesus’ own disciples—to be heresy since, among other things, it did not believe that Jesus was divine.

Jewish-Christians produced such works as The Gospel of the Hebrews, The Gospel of the Nazoreans and The Gospel of the Ebionites.  Yet only traces of these Gospels remain today—mere sentences quoted in the works of the “orthodox” Church fathers who considered them heretical. 

Revising the history of early Christianity

The existence of hundreds of other gospels (most of which are now lost to us) strongly suggest that we need to revise the history of early Christianity.  It was never a single harmonious faith, only later infected by heresy.  It was a diverse religion right from the beginning.

There was never just one interpretation of what the life and teachings of Jesus meant, but many.

There was not just one gospel (“good news”) about Jesus, but a host of them.  The Christianity that has come down to us today is but one of these early forms, and it survived only because it became politically dominant during the fourth century under  the protection of the first “Christian” Roman emperor, Constantine.

Lost Gospels Found

As many as 400 gospels once existed

All of these various Christianities used and revered gospels other than those in the New Testament.  Some scholars today think that as many as four hundred gospels once existed, not to mention hundreds of “acts of the apostles,” epistles, apocryphons (“hidden books”) and apocalypses.  Unfortunately, most of these sacred scriptures did not survive history.  They were either lost, fell into disuse or were destroyed by the Church of Rome. 

Church historians have long known that certain of these texts once existed because they were referenced in the writings of the early Church fathers who were attacking their heretical teachings.  The Church’s heresiologists quoted sentences, and sometimes entire passages, from these texts as examples of what heretics believed.  So, while most of these works are lost to us, bits and pieces of them have survived history in this manner. 

But the names and contents of many other Gospels and sacred texts which have been discovered over the past three centuries were completely unknown to Christian scholars prior to their discovery. 

Other very important Gospels that have been recently discovered or recently released to the public include The Gospel According to Mary (Magdalene) and The Gospel According to Judas.

More information about these Gospels can be found in The Crucifixion of Mary Magdalene, and on line, in the archives of Richard Hooper’s columns (under the byline of “A Heretic in Babylon”) at www.religionandspirituality.com

 


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The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas and The Nag Hammadi Library

Several Greek fragments from Thomas were discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, during the 19th century, when scholars learned of it for the first time.  Then, in 1945, the entire text, in Coptic, was found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt—part of a vast collection of “Gnostic” Christians works, now known as The Nag Hammadi Library.  More than fifty different manuscripts had been hastily hidden in an urn during the fourth century, and buried in the hot Egyptian soil for almost sixteen hundred years. 

Implications of The Gospel of Thomas’ title

The Gospel of Thomas begins, “These are the secret words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.  “Didymus” means “twin” in ‘Greek, and Thomas means “twin” in Aramaic.  The implication of the Gospel’s title is that the author is the “twin” of Jesus—probably in a spiritual sense.

The final line also identifies the Gospel as The Gospel According to Thomas.  That in itself is quite unusual because most ancient Christian texts were written anonymously.  That holds true with the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  The names of these men became attached to these Gospels only through later Church tradition. 

The importance of The Gospel of Thomas’ discovery

What made the discovery of Thomas so important to the study of early Christianity is the fact that scholars—after many decades of research and study—have concluded

that Thomas contains formerly unknown sayings that can be traced to the historical Jesus—sayings that do not appear in the canonical Gospels,  or anywhere else.

Further, there are sayings of Jesus in Thomas that do have parallels in the canonical Gospels, but the Thomasian versions have, in many cases, been shown to be the more original versions of these sayings.  This means,

first: that much of Thomas was written before any of the canonical Gospels.

Secondly:  such a conclusion suggests the possibility that the authors of the canonical Gospels may have altered these sayings of Jesus.

 


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Thomas, “Q” and the Teachings of Jesus

Thomas – a collection of 114 logia, or sayings

So important is The Gospel of Thomas to the study of early Christian history, that many scholars now refer to it as the “fifth” Gospel.

But Thomas is not a narrative Gospel like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  There is no story line in Thomas, no life and doings of Jesus.  Instead, Thomas is a collection of one hundred and fourteen logia, or sayings, attributed to Jesus.  Each saying is prefaced by a question from one of the disciples, or simply begins, “Jesus said.”

Since The Gospel of Thomas, like the Gospel scholars call “Q,” contains no narrative about the life and works of Jesus, scholars are led to the conclusion that many of Jesus’ earliest followers considered that the most important thing about Jesus were his teachings.

Another significant thing about these source Gospels is that they never mention the crucifixion, leading scholars to believe that original Christians gave no theological meaning to Jesus’ death.  That was the work of Paul and Hellenistic Christianity.

Neither do Thomas nor “Q,” contain any resurrection theology.

Indeed, many early Christians did not believe that Jesus rose from the dead—at least not in the flesh.  Such beliefs only start to appear with the first narrative Gospel, Mark—written twenty years after Thomas and Q, and in light of Paul’s theology.

This is not to say that Thomas Christians, or those Christians who compiled “Q” did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead in a spiritual body—which agrees with all the earliest resurrection accounts  (which were visions and “recognitions” of Jesus).

The opening line of Thomas—

“These are the words of the living Jesus, presupposes the resurrection.  Likewise, whenever Jesus appears in the Gnostic Gospels—whether he is called “Jesus,” “Lord” or “Savior”—it is always the risen Jesus who dialogues with his disciples.

And “resurrection” meant something quite different to Thomas Christians than it did for those Christians in the Pauline tradition—although not even Paul ever implied that Jesus rose from the dead in a physical body.  Those beliefs did not develop among the Pauline school until late in the first century.

 


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