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The Word of Man: The invention of Christian Doctrine
The Tale Begins
The New Testament makes is unequivocally clear that early Christian followers had eagerly anticipated the return of Jesus during their lifetime, and awaited his promise to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. In all of the synoptic gospels Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” (Mark 9: 1) (Matthew 16: 27-28) (Luke 9: 27). And as history has demonstrated, that did not happen. The kingdom of God did not come with power and glory. Anyone who claims that Jesus was speaking of the inauguration of a spiritual kingdom has no historical footholds to stand on. In the synoptic gospels (The Gospel of John is a fiction to be addressed at another time) Jesus specifically tailored his ministry to promote the kingdom of God on earth; a kingdom that would come with power. As we will discover next, the Jesus story developed over centuries and in no way, shape, or form, burst onto the scene of human history with "power."
Not long after Jesus was executed, his relatively small band of followers began to unpack their bags, as it was apparent that Jesus was not coming back. As the years passed and Jesus failed to return, his followers were left to create a structure of worship that could be sustained even though Jesus would never be seen again. This need resulted in the long, volatile, and the all too human creation of Christian doctrine. Contrary to what young, impressionable children have pressed upon them in Sunday school, every last syllable of Christian doctrine and dogma was not communicated by the Almighty; rather, the tenants of Christianity are entirely man-made constructs imposed on the faithful.
Almost immediately after the death of Jesus, discord and division reigned supreme among Jesus’ followers. In the early years of the Jesus movement, during the mid and second half of the first century, many of Jesus’ followers were spread throughout the outskirts of Palestine, while others remained in and around Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Christians continued to follow Jewish laws and customs and saw their new faith as the fulfillment of Judaism. Those Jews were viewed as a sect of Judaism. Other Jews were dispersed throughout the Greek speaking east of the Roman Empire. The dispersed Jews were viewed as more of a cult, commanding a relatively small following compared to the other religions of the Roman Empire.
There were significant differences between the Jerusalem Jews and the Greek speaking Jews regarding what the life and teachings of Jesus had symbolized. Both sects agreed that Jesus’ death was not merely an execution, but the sects could not agree on how to relate Jesus’ ministry to Judaism. While the Jerusalem Jews continued to observe Jewish law and customs, the Greek speaking Jews insisted that Jesus had displaced the temple and the Law of Moses altogether – tensions ran high. *(1)
The original cast of disciples were somewhat able to stabilize the diversified Jesus movement and establish the Jerusalem Church under the leadership of Peter, and later under James, the brother of Jesus. In the meantime, the converted apostle Paul was busy spreading his version of the Christ theology deeper into the Roman Empire. It was not long before one of the first man-made stumbling blocks surfaced: should gentile converts be required to submit to the Law of Moses and be circumcised? Paul vehemently rejected the notion, while Jerusalem Jews were equally outraged by the refusal of converts to have the foreskin of their penis’ cut off.
To Jerusalem Jews, particularly Peter and James, an uncircumcised gentile was ritually unclean; therefore, a Jerusalem Jew was forbidden to eat with any uncircumcised gentile convert. Paul and the gentiles countered by questioning the relevance of the Law for Christians all together. Gentile Christians had already been baptized, had their sins forgiven and been promised salvation simply by believing the Christ story. They saw no need to follow an irrelevant, questionably barbaric law. Yet the battle for circumcision was far from over. Peter and one of the ministers from Antioch, Barnabas, initially chose reasonable compromise and continued to eat with the uncircumcised gentiles for a time. However, James persisted and finally persuaded Peter and Barnabas not to eat with the unclean gentiles. This immediately infuriated Paul. Paul was so enraged that he publicly warned, “beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” *(2) Eventually the circumcision fiasco led to the first of many councils that would become the hallmark for creating Christian doctrine.
The first Christian council, the Council of Jerusalem, is believed to have taken place around the year 50 CE. The council decided that gentiles were not required to follow Mosaic Laws, including the need for circumcision. However, the council did uphold the prohibition against consuming blood, consuming meat containing blood, animals that were not properly slain, and engaging in fornication and idolatry. *(3) From the very beginning, we see that Christian doctrine was not decreed by God, but decided upon by men.
Following the circumcision debacle, harmony continued to elude early Christians as various power struggles arose. Author, Charles Freeman noted, “This history of Christianity is full of those who claim a correct interpretation of Christian texts or a special relationship with God or Christ which others have been denied.” *(4) But before "correct" interpretation could be claimed, it first had to be decided which texts were going to be used. The canonical gospels found in the New Testament today were only four of many texts being used by Christian communities toward the end of the first century and into the second century CE. In fact, many early Christian communities used their own gospel or gospels, until it was, again, decided upon by men, which gospels and other writings would be considered orthodox or “correct doctrine." As Professor Bart Ehrman noted, “Ancient Christians knew of far more Gospels than the four that eventually came to be included in the New Testament.” *(5)
This is a significant observation, as it provides concrete evidence that an all-powerful God who held dominion over everything Christian simply did not exist; or at a minimum, was completely and utterly unconcerned with which “sacred” texts were being used by various communities.
By the end of the first century, Jesus’ original disciples and earliest church leaders had all died or been martyred, leaving a Christian power vacuum. A hierarchy of clergymen soon took on the role of overseer’s or episkopos, which led to the term bishop; elders or presbyters which led to the term priest; and servants also known as deacons. *(6) It was the bishops, also known as the apostolic fathers, who struggled to create and maintain orthodoxy. We again see that the subjectivity of various bishops led to decisions regarding what doctrine would be considered orthodox.
One of the first bishops to assert a claim of authority was Ignatius of Antioch (35 CE – 108 CE). Ignatius, more so than his contemporaries, made strong statements calling for the authority of one man – the bishop – to reign over the church. Ignatius may have been a disciple of the Apostle John and claimed supreme authority on the grounds that he was a bishop and a claim that he had lived a life in imitation of Christ. Ignatius called himself Theophorus, (God bearer) and offered the extraordinary statement, “We must regard the bishop as the Lord himself.” *(7)(8)
Ignatius was one of the forerunners to thrust his idea of church power onto the individual. As we will see, one of the top priorities of the church was to gain and maintain power over every aspect of human life. In fact, the word heresy, used by church officials to signify something false and derogatory, originates from the Greek word hairesis, meaning choice, as in those who chose not to agree with the bishops. *(9) And as church hierarchy would repeatedly demonstrate, choice would be stomped out at every opportunity.
Ignatius soon found his hands full. One of the first beliefs to be labeled heresy was known as Docetism. Docetism was the belief that Jesus had not been a real flesh and blood human being, and hence did not truly suffer and die a physical death. Partially due to the influence of Greek philosophy, Docetism viewed physical matter as evil or unreal. The idea of God becoming flesh and saving souls through physical suffering ran contrary to the Docetist worldview. Regardless of Ignatius’ efforts, Docetism persisted for two centuries before being condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.
Another heresy the early church confronted was that of Gnosticism. Gnosticism comes from the word gnosis, meaning knowledge, usually relating to hidden spiritual knowledge and oneness with God. Early Christianity contained sects of so called gnostic Christians. As author Stephen Tomkins wrote, “Gnostics drew from Greek philosophy, pagan myths, Judaism and eastern religions as well as Christianity. By no means were all Gnostics Christian, but Christians were becoming increasingly gnostic.” *(10)
The increasingly gnostic views of some Christians was very alarming to the orthodox Christian Church. Similar to Docetism, Gnostics believed that matter was evil and the body was a prison to be escaped. Gnostics refused to believe that a Supreme Being could be responsible for creating evil. To remedy the situation, Gnostics invented a large hierarchy of lesser gods (with whom they associated the God of Judaism) which emanated from a Supreme Being. Again, Stephen Tomkins explains the situation well. Gnostics viewed the God of Judaism as a lesser, “delinquent creator-God of the Jewish scriptures; a superior god smuggled spirits into some of the humans he had created, but because they were still imprisoned in the physical realm, the spirit Christ came to give them a secret divine knowledge (gnosis) of spiritual things, liberating their spirits and saving them for heaven.” *(11)
Gnostics claimed to have a secret oral history which derived from Jesus himself. Orthodox Christians, particularly Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, (130 CE – 202 CE) struggled mightily to suppress the gnostics and wrote a harsh rebuke in his book, Adversus Haereses. Gnostics believed that an individual could come to understand God and achieve enlightenment on their own. Gnostics believed that the first step to knowing God was to look inward and know thyself. Clearly, if individuals sought God on their own, the church would be in danger of becoming irrelevant – a serious dilemma for Christian bishops who believed they possessed the true Word of God, and that they alone must serve as the sole administers of the Word. Even if unanswerable religious questions arose, Irenaeus urged a default to scripture, as the orthodox presented it, rather than accept any gnostic views. Irenaeus wrote, “If…we cannot discover explanations of all those things in scripture…we should leave things of that nature to God who created us, being most properly assured that the scriptures are indeed pertfect.” *(12)
Gnosticism proved to be exceptionally difficult to suppress. Later in history, Gnosticism reemerged into mainstream circles with the discovery of the so called Gospel of Thomas along with 52 other ancient writings near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. The gospel opens with, “These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote them down.” *(13) Legend ascribes Didymos Judas Thomas as being Jesus’ twin brother; however, there is no evidence to support the historicity of the legend. Dating for the composition of the Gospel of Thomas is hotly debated and ranges from 40 CE to 140 CE. Regardless, even though the Gospel of Thomas was almost certainly utilized by some early Christian communities, it has little in common with the chosen synoptic gospels and was ultimately excluded from the orthodox cannon.
Another early Christian movement to be labeled heresy was the brainchild of a wealthy ship-owner named, Marcion (85 CE to 160 CE). Marcion’s father may have been a bishop in Sinope, which likely led to Marcion’s understanding of both Judaism and Christianity. Marcion later moved to Rome, where he made a generous donation to the Christian church and was initially well-received. However, after several years of preaching, Marcion’s theology set him on a collision course with the champions of orthodoxy. As Professor Ehrman noted, Marcion believed, “The gospel is the good news of deliverance, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, and life. The Law, however, is bad news that makes the gospel necessary in the first place; it involves harsh commandments, guilt judgment, enmity, punishment, and death. The Law is given to the Jews. The gospel is given by Christ.” *(14)
Marcion could not believe that the vengeful, blood-thirsty Yahweh of the OT was the same God that was supposedly one in being with Jesus. To that end, Marcion has enjoyed the same consensus among thoughtful, reasonable minds throughout history. Marcion was keen to realize that nothing “Christ-like” emanated from Yahweh. According to Professor Ehrman, Marcion was particularly fond of Jesus’ sayings that a tree can be known by its fruit. A good tree does not produce rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree produce good fruit. Marcion believed that Yahweh’s rotten character could be seen by the condition of a world filled with evil, pain, misery, natural disaster and death, whereas Jesus’ good character could be seen by the healing and forgiving nature of his ministry.
Marcion went further, however, by adopting a view of Jesus that was in agreement with the theology of Docetism. Marcion believed that Yahweh was the creator of the physical universe, but Jesus had not been part of Yahweh's physical creation. Marcion maintained that Jesus only appeared to be human, but was in fact, pure spirit who, “paid the penalty for other people’s sins, to save them from the just wrath of the Old Testament God.” *(15)
Marcion went on to completely reject the OT and became the first to create his own New Testament which consisted of eleven books, largely centered on the writings of Paul. Marcion expectantly convened a council of elders in Rome to hear his views. However, rather than embrace Marcion’s ideas, the elders chose to excommunicate him from the church, refund a large portion of his donation, and send him away as a heretic. *(16)
The orthodox steamroller found one additional group of Christians to confront: the Ebionites. The Ebionites were fundamentally opposed to the views of Marcion, yet still at odds with orthodox belief. Contrary to Marcion’s complete rejection of Judaism, the Jewish faith was the fundamental cornerstone of the Ebionites' flavor of Christianity. Like the orthodox, the Ebionites insisted that there was only one true God – the God of Judaism. The Ebionites maintained the belief that the Laws of Moses were a revelation from God. Also contrary to Marcion, the Ebionites viewed Paul, not as an inspiration, but heretic who rejected the notion that pleasing God was accomplished by following the Law. The Ebionites only accepted an altered version of the Gospel of Matthew as their scripture, excluding the first two chapters, which dealt with Jesus’ virgin birth. What set the Ebionites on a collision course with the orthodox was the belief that Jesus was entirely human, not divine. The Ebionites believed that Yahwey had only “adopted” the human Jesus. Orthodox Christians clearly disagreed with the Ebionites regarding the nature of Jesus; a disagreement that led to the Ebionites' condemnation. *(17)
The bottom line for all early Christians was that for the first three to four hundred years CE, Christians used and revered a plethora of sacred texts within many diverse communities. Stephen Tomkins noted, “With no central authority or forum for debate and decision, churches decided for themselves, [which texts to use] and so for the foreseeable future, different churches would have different Bibles…It was a gradual process over centuries by which the churches reached a final agreement.” *(18)
Today, many of the diverse texts have been lost to history, remain only as scraps, or are known only because of being mentioned in another work. The true diversity of the early Christian movement was remarkable. Charles Freeman noted, “A hundred years after Origen, Eusebius, writing his History of the Church in the 330’s, is in touch with discussions still going on in his day, three hundred years after the crucifixion, over which texts can be counted as authoritative.” *(19) At the beginning of his book, Lost Christianities, Professor Ehrman provided a list of the most popular of these forgotten writings, many of which were used for a time before being labeled heresy and shun into obscurity. These works included:
Epistle of the Apostles, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of the Nazareans, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, the (infancy) Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Papyus Egerton 2, Proto-Gospel of James, and the Secret Gospel of Mark. In addition to these little known gospels, Dr. Ehrman also provides a list of 28 additional writings which included acts, epistles and related literature, and apocalypses and related material.
Historians have determined most of these books to have been falsely attributed forgeries; however, in early Christian history, many of the texts were used by various communities for years. The Gospel of Peter, for example, rivaled the canonical Gospel of Mark in popularity and was used as sacred text by the Christians of Rhossus, until the bishop Serapion banned its use. *(20) Another popular book was the Apocalypse of Peter, in which the author condemned to hell anyone who disagreed with how to behave properly, including women who braid their hair in order to look attractive, anyone who disobeyed their parents, and bankers who lent money out at interest. *(21)
One more book of significance to early Christians was known as the Shepard of Hermas. The Shepard of Hermas was a long book, including five visions, twelve different sets of commandments, and ten long parables. In fact, according to Professor Ehrman, the book was, “Quoted by several church fathers as Scripture, the book, like the Epistle of Barnabas, was included as one of the books of the New Testament in the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus.” (22) The Shepard was eventually excluded because it was not written by a disciple. This smacks of irony, since there is no evidence that any of the canonical gospels were written by a disciple. In actuality, it was the Bishop, Irenaeus, who ascribed the names Mark, Matthew, and Luke to the previously anonymous gospels in the late second century.
Believing Correct Doctrine
In early Christianity belief was everything. “In fact, probably nothing was more important in the early centuries of proto-orthodox [the earliest orthodox beliefs] Christianity than affirming the proper belief about God and Christ.” *(23)
The Orthodox Church’s battle against heresy would come to define its existence for centuries, and lead to a series of Christian councils established to affirm the correct story line one must believe in order to be saved. Take a moment to think about this. The fact that the early church was constantly attempting to stamp out heresy (choice) reveals that many of the first Christians disagreed with the “official” storyline regarding God and Jesus that had been thrust upon them. The further the Orthodox Church got from the actual life of Jesus, the less historical memory remained, and the more dictated theology came to represent the “truth,” regardless of whether the truth corresponded in any way to the actual life and death of Jesus. This is how modern Christian doctrine came to be; those who disagreed with the mainstream powers were systematically label heretics and condemned.
And there was colossal disagreement. Ranging from the role that Jesus’ humanity played in his identity, deciding if Jesus was created or eternal, to the relationship between God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, there was scant agreement for centuries. If there really was only one true God, consider the implication of these facts. How could there be such roaring disagreement about the nature of the one true God? The disagreement implies that this God did a horrendous job of educating his human creations about his identity. How then could mere human beings, misinformed at that, come to a consensus about their supernatural creator? And if human beings did arrive at a consensus regarding their God, how could anyone reasonably believe that the prevailing view was correct when the only evidence to support that assertion was the human vote which declared the prevailing view to be correct!? How could anyone claim that “God” had anything to do with the shaping of Christian doctrine?
History reveals an all too human power struggle for what Christians should believe. There was no thundering voice from the heavens to guide the architects of the power struggle. There was no divine revelation burned into stone tablets for all to view. There were no university, BBC, History Channel, Discovery, or National Geographic documentaries featuring first hand interviews with Jesus and the disciples. There were no video or audio files to look back on to ensure that one’s history was correct. There was no sign in the Sun that proclaimed the truth of Orthodoxy over that of any rival. There was no indication whatsoever to believe that the one true God of Christian oration existed at all. If the one true God did exist, he did absolutely nothing to ensure the clarity and accuracy of his message, opting instead to watch the silly humans invent their own circus of competing theologies. Rather than clear divine instruction or intervention, there were a series of human conflicts in which more powerful Christians stamped out less powerful Christians; and again, it was the victors who wrote the Christian history books.
To make matters worse, the best Christian doctrine that orthodoxy could muster stands on shaky historical grounds. Bishops claimed authority by declaring an unbroken line of succession going back to the original disciples. Ironically, however, bishops routinely developed unique theologies centered on their imaginations and their own beliefs about how life should be lived. This begs the question: what was the point of claiming authority through succession to the disciples if each bishop created his own agenda and delivered his own message?
Bishops attempted to address several issues that were not part of Jesus’ ministry, such as rules surrounding human sexuality and the concept of the Holy Trinity. Although addressing contemporary issues as they arose was necessary, we have no reason to believe that any of the bishops’ ramblings were endorsed by the creator of the universe. On the contrary, history clearly shows that it was humankind that invented the orthodox message and doctrine of the Christian God, not the other way around. But how did the orthodox message gain acceptance and ultimately become labeled “history?” How did we really end up with the many concepts now associated with Christianity?
The Gods of Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece
Perhaps few Christians would imagine that the conversation regarding concepts today associated with Christianity would begin in ancient Egypt. However, that is precisely where the conversation must begin. Eons ago, many of today’s “Christian” tenants originated with ancient Egyptian religion and were carried over into the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods, before finally being adopted by Christianity. Though most of the specific parallels between various ancient gods and Jesus require extensive interpretation, the parallels between major concepts are undeniable.
Christianity, like all religions, developed its own specific, detailed rituals and rites that are unique to itself. In this regard, comparative mythology is the one area where details are not critically important when critiquing a religion. Why not? Details regarding the myths surrounding any ancient Egyptian or Greco-Roman god will always differ from the Jesus story simply because the storylines were the product of different cultures. Here, major components are much more important because they illustrate the basic human yearning for a divine connection, while simultaneously demonstrating that there is no one true god to which the stories rightfully belong.
In the ancient world it was natural for humans to associate their supreme gods with the most powerful, radiant, life giving force known – the sun. It was the sun that shone above all, warming the earth and giving life to crops. The sun “died” and was “resurrected” every day. Crop cycles of death and resurrection paralleled the change in seasons, so the cycles often became associated with sun gods. The most prominent gods, creator gods, were associated with the sun in ancient Egyptian religion, Greco-Roman religion and as we will see, even early Christianity.
As author Tom Harpur noted, “Like the Christians many millennia later, the ancient Egyptians believed in one God who was self-created, self-existent, immortal, invisible, eternal, omniscient, almighty, and inscrutable; he was the maker of the heavens and the earth, sky and sea, men and women, animals, birds, fish and creeping things, trees and plants, and the incorporeal beings who were the messengers (angels) that fulfilled his wish and word.” *(24)
In ancient Egypt, the supreme creator was the God, Ra (or Re). Ra was to the ancient Egyptians what God the Father is to Christians. Ra was the sun god, and he later came to became associated with another Egyptian deity, Horus. “Horus was among the most important gods of Egypt, particularly because the Pharaoh was supposed to be his earthly embodiment. Kings would eventually take the name of Horus as one of their own. At the same time, the Pharaohs were the followers of Re and so Horus became associated with the sun as well.” *(25) Here, with the relationship between the Pharaoh and Horus, we see one of the original manifestations of a god inheriting the flesh, long before the Christian God was said to have come to earth in the form of Jesus.
Horus, like other Egyptian gods, underwent many transitions, appeared in various forms and held many different relationships to other gods throughout Egyptian history. Although many of the forms and myths surrounding Horus bear little to no resemblance to the Jesus story, some of the myths do bear a resemblance, and most significantly, they all predate Christianity. Interestingly, the Egyptian word “her” (hor, har) from which the name Horus was derived, means, “the one on high.” *(26) It does not take a scholar to recognize the similarity between the meaning of the name Horus and the personification of the Judeo-Christian God. In the Book of Hosea we find, “Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them. (Hosea 11: 7)(Emphasis added) In the Gospel of Luke we find, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will over-shadow you.” (Luke 1: 35)(Emphasis added)
Horus was considered the son of the Egyptian female deity Isis and male deity Osiris. One variant of Horus, Harsiesis, known as “Horus, the son of Isis” was said to have been conceived magically. Although the birth legends of Horus involved sexual union between Isis and a magically resurrected Osiris (he had been murdered), it is easy to see the concept of special or magical circumstances surrounding the birth of Horus, just like the special circumstances surrounding the “virgin birth” of Jesus. Interestingly, the original idea of special circumstances surrounding the birth of an important god-man was already pre-existent in ancient Egypt.
Harpokrates, was a form of Horus known as “the infant Horus.” The infant Horus was portrayed in statue form as nursing from his mother Isis. This ancient icon is nearly identical to later portrayals of Mary cradling the infant Jesus. Tom Harpur noted, “He [Horus] and his mother, Isis, were the forerunners of the Christian Madonna and Child, and together they constituted a leading image in Egyptian religion for millennia prior to the Gospels.” *(27)
Other aspects of the relationship between Isis and Horus bear a resemblance to concepts now associated with Jesus. As mentioned above, the Egyptian pharaoh was considered the human embodiment of Horus, meaning that, “The pharaoh was her [Isis’] son, as the living Horus.” (Emphasis added) In the gospels, Jesus was transformed into the son of the living God. Additionally, the Gospel of Matthew recalls the tale of Herod’s infanticide in Bethlehem and Joseph’s prophetic dream warning him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt (how ironic). Similarly, “Isis protected Horus during his childhood from his uncle Seth who wished to murder him.” *(28) Again, we see that the specific parallels between Jesus and Horus differ, but the central ideas are nearly identical.
Another form of Horus, known as “Horus in the Horizon” was a personification of the rising sun and symbolized resurrection or eternal life. *(29) Again, while resurrection or eternal life was typically associated with cycles of nature in ancient Egyptian religion, the concepts of resurrection and eternal life were already associated with gods long before the advent of Christianity. It would not require a large stretch of imagination for a series of first century Jewish writers, seeking to polish a god-man story, to incorporate timeless mythological truths into a literal narrative.
Perhaps one of the most well-known concepts now associated with Jesus had very clear roots in paganism: the assignment of December 25th as Jesus’ birthday. December 25th had long been considered the birth of many sun gods including: the Persian/Roman god Mithras, the Greco-Roman sun god Helios, and the aforementioned Egyptian god, Horus, to name a few. December 25th was chosen due to its proximity to the winter solstice. “The winter solstice is the time of year when the night is the longest, after which the days start to lengthen again. The word "solstice" comes from the Latin solstitium and means 'sun stands still.' The ancients perceived the sun as battling for its life for six months, until it reached the solstice, at which point the newborn, reborn or resurrected solar deity was seen as ‘victorious’ over the engulfing darkness.” *(30)
In fact, the primary model for adopting December 25th as Jesus’ birthday in the Roman Empire was the already established birth celebration of the sun god Mithras, on the same date. *(31) It was primarily in an attempt to make Christianity “more palpable” to existing pagan worshipers, that December 25th was chosen as the birth date for Jesus. In fact, “The early Christian church did not celebrate Jesus' birth. It wasn't until A.D. 440 that the church officially proclaimed December 25 as the birth of Christ. This was not based on any religious evidence but on a pagan feast…Therefore, some scholars think the church chose the date of this pagan celebration to interest them in Christianity. The pagans were already used to celebrating on this date.” *(32)
In addition to the assignment of December 25th as Jesus' birthday, there have been accusations that Christianity “inherited” additional concepts from the religion known as Mithraism. In his book, Religions of the Word, author Gerald Berry writes, "Both Mithras and Christ were described variously as 'the Way,' 'the Truth,' 'the Light,' 'the Life,' 'the Word,' 'the Son of God,' 'the Good Shepherd.' The Christian litany to Jesus could easily be an allegorical litany to the sun-god. Mithras is often represented as carrying a lamb on his shoulders, just as Jesus is. Midnight services were found in both religions. The virgin mother...was easily merged with the virgin mother Mary. Petra, the sacred rock of Mithraism, became Peter, the foundation of the Christian Church." *(33)
There has been controversy regarding the true influence that Mithraism may have had on early Christianity. The Iranian god Mithra began in the east as a transformed version or offshoot from Zoroastrianism. Later, a different form of Mithraism, featuring a possibly imported version of Mithra, or perhaps a re-invented Mithra, called Mithras, emerged in the west as one of the so-called Roman mystery religions around the same time that Christianity began spreading throughout the Roman Empire. In Greco-Roman culture, a mystery was not necessarily something hidden or secret, but rather, “something into which one is initiated.” *(34) Mithraism continued from the second century through the fourth century CE before dying out with the rest of the Greco-Roman gods.
One of the earliest mentions of Mithras in Rome occurred during a state visit to Tiridates by the king of Armenia, in 66 CE. The king addressed the Roman Emperor Nero by saying he had come, “in order to revere you [Nero] as Mithras.” *(35)(36) While the King of Armenia was likely referring to the Iranian version, Mithra, this may indicate the beginnings of a Roman re-invention, Mithras. If this was the case, we see that Mithras was being mentioned in Rome before any of the gospels had been written. (The earliest gospel, Mark, is generally thought to have been written in the 70's CE)
Christian apologists maintain that any similarities between Roman Mithraism and Christianity were the result of the newly formed Greco-Roman version of Mithraism borrowing tenants from early Christianity. The alternate argument (which I find more likely since the god Mithra already existed in the east) is that Christianity borrowed tenants from the new western version of Mithraism. Yet, in reality, it is impossible to tell what actually occurred and who may have borrowed from whom.
Whatever the true historical circumstances, it is clear that Mithraism was a doctrinal rival to early Christianity; one that the church took extensive measures to suppress. Excavations under the Christian Basilica of San Clemente, for example, uncovered lower level remains of a Christian meeting place and a Mithraic temple. This finding indicates that the Mithraic temple was present at the site before the Basilica of San Clemente was built, perhaps offering testament to the zeal with which early Christians sought to cover up any traces of Mithraism. *(37)
Today Christian apologists go out of their way to deny, downplay or entirely ignore any connection between earlier paganism and Christianity. Fortunately, there is a reliable method to see past the double talk and find evidence of the truth by simply discarding any disputed history and looking at the undisputed history. The truth is easy; the truth always speaks for itself. And while modern Christian apologists simply dismiss any pagan connection and redirect attention elsewhere, early Christian apologists were forced to face the truth directly.
Let us briefly consider Justin Martyr. Justin Martyr (100 – 165 CE) was a second century Christian apologist who was forced to deal first hand with the startling realization that many of his beloved “Christian” concepts were pre-existent in ancient mythology. Unlike his modern brethren, Martyr was not able to simply ignore the Greco-Roman connection to the Jesus story. In his First Apology, Martyr attempted to curtail the ongoing persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. One of his tactics was to parallel the belief system of infant Christianity with the already well-established pagan religions.
Martyr wrote, “When we say that Jesus Christ was produced without sexual union, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call the sons of Jupiter.” *(38)
Martyr further commented, “And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus. And in that we say that He made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Esculapius.” *(39)
Here we see an example of a Christian apologist who was unable to dodge the truth and was forced to face it. In the days of Justin Martyr, there was no denying or downplaying the similarities between Christian beliefs and pagan beliefs. While I respect Martyr’s courage in proclaiming what he believed to be truth in the face of voluminous adversaries, I am not surprised by the degeneration of his argument. After proclaiming that Christians were not so different after all, Martyr attempted to demonstrate the truth of Christianity the only way he could – by attributing pagan similarities with Christianity to the devil.
Martyr continued, “For when they say Dionysus arose again and ascended to heaven, is it not evident the Devil has imitated the prophecy?” *(40)
“But those who hand down the myths which the poets have made, adduce no proor to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the humane race.” *(41)
Regarding pagan similarities to the sacraments of bread and wine Martyr noted, “The wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mysticrites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.” *(42)
Regarding similarities in baptism Martyr wrote, “And the devils, indeed, having heard this washing published by the prophet, instigated those who enter their temples, and are about to approach them with libations and burnt-offerings, also to sprinkle themselves; and they cause them also to wash themselves entirely, as they depart [from the sacrifice], before they enter into the shrines in which their images are set.” *(43)
Martyr’s statements are unintentional, but irrefutable admissions that characteristics adopted by Christianity were not original to Christianity. In Martyr’s following statement, he complains of the Greek goddess Minerva being considered by some of Martyr's contemporaries as being the first embodiment of god in human form. Martyr’s statement also reflects ancient attitudes toward women.
“And in like manner also they craftily feigned that Minerva was the daughter of Jupiter, not by sexual union, but, knowing that God conceived and made the world by the Word, they say that Minerva is the first conception; which we consider to be very absurd, bringing forward the form of the conception in a female shape. And in like manner the actions of those others who are called sons of Jupiter sufficiently condemn them.” *(44)
Justin Martyr could not escape the realities which surrounded him. There was simply no answer to the reality of the various pagan gods’ relationship to the Jesus story. Yet, today the argument is far removed from the actual history, making it much easier to obscure the true relationship between paganism and Christianity. Regardless, I aim to emphasize a larger point. Whether the details surrounding ancient Egyptian Religion, the Greek gods, or the Roman mystery religions can be declared similar to the details of Christianity is irrelevant. The true significance of comparative mythology lies in demonstrating the very clear similarities between the underlying principles that provided the under-girding for nearly all ancient religions, including Christianity. Christianity was not immune from the mythology that humans used to communicate timeless truths from generation to generation. However, Christianity, unlike its contemporaries, was the only religion of the time that attempted to literalize metaphor, to create a pseudo history out of mythology. Christianity was unique in so far as it adopted a real man of history, attached to him mythology that was never intended to become literal events, and proclaimed it history. This is how Christian doctrine and dogma began. Next we will investigate how the tenants of Christianity matured.
Creating and Shaping the Trinity
The story has been mindlessly perpetuated throughout history. I, like billions of others, was raised not educated to believe that the Christian God was real. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were inexorably linked, one in being, all manifestations of the other. They, He, have always existed as part of the Godhead, the Holy Trinity. Right?
Since the earliest days of Christianity there have been 21 ecumenical councils recognized by the Catholic Church (many more that were not officially recognized). The purpose of the early councils was to decide which story to believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and a host of other declarations and regulations to which Christians must adhere and believe in order to avoid excommunication from the church and total social isolation, not to mention eternal damnation. The reality is harsh for Christians: the nature of the Christian God was entirely shaped by human vote, the "true" nature of Jesus was decided upon by men, and the Holy Spirit was simply along for the ride. As we shall see, this is not my opinion or interpretation of events; it is historical fact.
But why were so many councils necessary? Surely "God's" revelation could not have been so vague as to lead to unending bickering and disagreement among his followers? God, being all-powerful, all-knowing and eternal, surely must have done something to educate his creations about his true nature, right? Wrong again.
As we saw at the beginning of this article, disagreement was the defining characteristic for all early Christianity. Beginning with the four canonical gospels and other texts that may have been authored around the same time, a wealth of additional gospels and other works began to surface from the late first century onward. With so many texts in circulation and such an assortment being used in different communities, how could anyone expect to know the truth about the life and death of Jesus? Did such a truth exist? If so, which texts, if any, contained that truth? What about questions that were not addressed in any of the Christian writings? In the first, through fourth centuries, questions far outnumbered answers. As with everything religious, there was only one thing left to do - speculate. And speculate early Christians did. Next, we will take a brief journey through the incredible conjecture, storytelling, squabbling and utter chaos of the first four centuries that led to the invention of orthodox Christianity.
Earlier, we explored the beliefs of Docetism: the view that Jesus had not been a real flesh and blood human being, and hence did not truly suffer and die a physical death. The beliefs of Gnosticism: the claim of a secret oral history which derived from Jesus himself and the belief that an individual could come to understand God and achieve enlightenment on their own by reflecting inward. The beliefs of Marcion: Marcion believed that Yahweh, vengeful and bloodthirsty, was the creator god, but Jesus, full of mercy and forgiveness, had not been part of Yahweh's physical creation. Like the Docetist view, Marcion maintained that Jesus only appeared to be human, but was in fact, pure spirit. Finally, the beliefs of the Ebonites: the belief that Jesus was entirely human, not divine. The Ebionites believed that Yahwey had only “adopted” the human Jesus as his son.
Variants emerged from these four basic models, yet nobody could agree on much of anything. The orthodox church maintained that Jesus had been both human and divine. But how did Jesus the Son relate to God the Father, and where did the Holy Spirit come in?
One attempt at an answer was known as Modalism. Modalism stated that God was one being who manifested himself in different roles or models.*(45) Stephen Tomkins described Modalism as, "God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the same way that one person can be a doctor, a wife and a Christian." *(46) Modalism was eventually condemned by the church as it was thought to detract from the three distinct essences that supposedly made up the one true God. On the other extreme was the temptation to talk about three Gods with varying degrees of authority and power. However, this view was thought to undermine the oneness of God and was also condemned.
The early Christian author, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian (160 - 225 CE), was the first to use the term Trinity. Mr. Tomkins recounts Tertullian's view. "Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God, and yet there is one God. He denied the 'Modalist' idea that they were simply three roles played by the one God (that 'the Father himself was born and suffered and died'). He used the illustration of Christ being the rays of God's sun, coming from him yet inseparable from him, 'light from light'. He also invented the terminology of three 'persons' sharing one 'substance', the same 'godness.'" *(47) Yet Tertullian's declarations did little to end the confusion. What's more, it would be well over a century before the Holy Spirit would receive any substantial consideration, as it was constantly overshadowed by the debate regarding the relationship between Father and Son.
Then, in an attempt to further the issue, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt, named Arius, offered conjecture that set the Christian theological world ablaze. Arius surmised that God the Father was eternal, but Jesus was not. Charles Freeman noted, "Arius claimed that he was representing traditional teaching in his views that Christ must, at some point, have been a later, but distinct, creation of God the Father. God's majesty made it impossible for him to share his nature with anything in the material world while Christ, as an inferior if still divine creation, could do so." *(48)
Arius' views were associated with a growing movement called, subordinationism. Subordinationists believed that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit existed in hierarchy form in which the Holy Spirit was, "'but the minister of Christ...subordinate in all things to the Son and the Son [is] subordinate and obedient in all things to his God and Father.'" *(49) As we will see, Subordinationism would become one of the largest, most robust forms of Christianity for decades.
Nevertheless, the Arian/subordinationist views unleashed a firestorm of controversy. In response, one bishop, Alexander, immediately summoned a council of 100 Egyptian bishops and condemned Arius. Still, Arius persisted, and the situation threatened to get out of control. Roman Emperor Constantine's advisor, Bishop Ossius, lamented, "Confusion everywhere prevailed: for one saw not only the prelates of the churches engaged in disputing, but the people also divided, some siding with one party, and some with the other. To so disgraceful an extent was this affair carried, that Christianity became a subject of popular ridicule, even in the very theatres." *(50)
The "Arian controversy" as it came to be known, was one of the primary reasons why Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea, in 325 CE. Between 200 and 318 (the true number is unknown) bishops from around the known world converged on Nicaea, in modern day Turkey, in order to, among other things, decide who Jesus was. *(51)(52) Take a moment to think about this. A council of ancient men got together to invent the Jesus who closely resembles the Jesus that Christians worship today. Does this bother anyone else?
The council convened for days and swiftly became very heated. Raging disagreement was primarily centered around the differences between the words born, created and begotten. Followers of Arius saw the three words as essentially meaning the same thing: at some point, Jesus was formed out of nothing by the Father. Hence, there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Bishop Alexander's camp disagreed. The Alexandrian camp argued that God the Father and the Son were both eternal and related to one another in a manner that human beings could not fully comprehend. Among the obscurity conjured during the council was the term, homoousious, meaning, "of one substance." All parties involved were apprehensive of the term. The term was not found in scripture nor could it be clearly defined. *(53) Yet the council forged onward. At one point, the debate became so volatile that Arius was purportedly struck in the face by Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who would later be canonized. *(54)
In the end, craving consensus and order, and partly out of political expediency, Constantine pushed for a resolution amongst the emotional turmoil. Although the issue was far from resolved, it was decided that, "Any claim that there was a time when Christ had not been, that he was created, that he was of a different substance from God or that he could alter or change from the state in which he had been eternally, was condemned." *(55) One of the chief exploits of the council was the creation of an initial version of the Nicene Creed. The creed was a hastily compiled statement affirming what Christians were required to believe. Arius and two bishops were excommunicated from the church, and Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia had his status revoked because all refused to sign the anathemas, a statement of compliance with the creed which banished any opposing views, at the completion of the council.
Ironically, the primary goal the Council of Nicaea was commissioned to achieve, consensus, would continue to elude Christians. In fact, the decades following Nicaea developed into a wild theological circus, fully illustrating the subjectivity, silliness and utter futility of trying to establish the "truth" of an unknowable fiction. In the years following the Council of Nicaea, bishops continued to grapple with the frustratingly elusive term homoousious, while subordinationist views blossomed. One of the reasons why subordinationism prospered in the decades to come was because all three of Constantine's sons (who succeeded him) Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius were subordinationists.
By 357 CE Constantius was the sole ruler of the empire and convened a small council of bishops at Sirmiun (the Balkans) to assert his subordinationist beliefs. The attending bishops agreed that, "It is clear that only the Father knows how he begot his Son, and the Son how he was begotten by the Father." The bishops further agreed, "It cannot be doubted by anyone that the Father is greater in honor, in dignity, in glory, in majesty, in the very name of the Father...that the Son is subjected in common with all the things which the Father subjected to him." *(56) (634) The council resulted in the Declaration of Sirmium, "which forbade any discussion of the Son being homoousious, 'of the same substance' as the Father." *(57) With a single decree, Constantius unraveled the "truth" that had been purchased with so much heated debate at the Council of Nicaea. In its place, the so-called hyper-Arianism took hold, which stated that the Son was "unlike the Father."
It seemed as though everyone had an opinion regarding the "true" nature of Jesus. The bishop, Gregory of Nyssa complained, "Clothes-traders, money-changers, food-sellers - everyone's at it...You ask the attendant, 'is my bath ready?' and he replies, 'The Son was made out of nothing.'" *(58)
Time marched on, emperors came and went, and the debate about the relationship between the Father and Son continued. One reflexive alternative to hyper-Arianism arose with talk of the Son being homoiousios, of similar substance, to the Father. Jesus being of "similar substance" to the Father seemed a clear middle ground to the homoousious claims of the Nicene Creed and being "un-like the Father" espoused in hyper-Arianism. *(59)
The debates widened. One theologian, Basil of Caesarea, believed that the Holy Spirit had been neglected and deserved to be elevated to a higher status, similar to that of the Father and Son. By contrast, one contemporary of Basil's, Eunomius, believed the Holy Spirit to be a creation of God the Father, and hence of a lower status. *(60)
There seemed to be no end in sight to the human bickering surrounding the nature of Jesus. Once again, we see that is was not the instructive hand of God that settled the debate, but another human emperor. In 380 CE, the new emperor Theodosius, a firm supporter of Nicene theology, set out the squelch the debate once and for all. Theodosius issued a new edict: "Directed specifically at the people of his capital it announced that henceforth they must believe in a single deity, 'of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity.' Any other belief was 'demented and insane' and would incur both the wrath of God and the secular punishment of the emperor." *(61)
Theodosius enforced his edict with tenacity. Theodosius declared that anyone who proclaimed, "the poison of the Arian sacrilege" or "the crime of the Eunomian heresy" would lose their churches, lose any tax exemptions, and not be allowed to rebuild any new churches within the city walls. In addition, "Theodosius insisted that only those who affirmed 'the faith of Nicaea' could now be appointed bishops." *(62)
To cement his edict, in 381 CE, Theodosius called a council of Nicene supporting bishops to the city of Constantinople. By the conclusion of the council, a revised version of the Nicene Creed had been developed. Aside from minor revisions into modern language, the creed has remained unchanged and is the same creed that is recited during church services all over the world.
Presto, human beings had created the "official" storyline of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet, how can any human being honestly claim to know these things? Does a declaration about the "true" nature of Santa Claus and his relationship with his elves make the declaration true? Does declaration turn a fantasy into reality? Delusional men speculated on the unknowable and declared a coerced majority vote to be the truth. If you do not believe what men have decided, you will be condemned as a heretic. If you do not accept the "true" nature of Jesus as invented in council, you will suffer eternal torment in hell. Free thought, spiritual diversity and self-determination are worthless. Only conformity and unquestioning submission to the authority of the policy makers matters. Does this sound like a religion based on the truth? Does this sound like a religion you want to be a part of?
(1) Tomkins, Stephen. A Short History of Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, MI. 2006. 14
(2) Tomkins, pg. 19
(4) Freeman, Charles. A New History of Early Christianity. Sheridan Books, United States. 2009. Pg 94.
(5) Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2003. 13.
(6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Christianity – Structure and the episcopacy
(7) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignatius_of_Antioch - Life.
(8) Tomkins, pg. 27.
(9) Ellerbe, Helen. The Dark Side of Christian History. Morningstar & Lark. Windermere, FL. 1995. 30
(10) Tomkins, pg. 28
(11) Tomkins, pg. 28
(12) Ellerbe, pg. 10
(13) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_thomas- The Gospel of Thomas, first section.
(14) Ehrman, Bart D. pg. 104
(15) Ehrman, Bart D. pg 105
(16) Ehrman, Bart D. pg 106-108
(17) Ehrman, Bart D. pg 109
(18) Tomkins, pg. 31
(19) Freeman, pg. 98
(20) Ehrman, Bart D. Pg 27
(21) Ehrman, Bart D. pg 17
(22) Ehrman, Bart D. pg 149
(23) Ehrman, Bart D. pg 151
(24) Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ: Recovering the lost light Walker & Company; First Edition edition (March 1, 2005) pg. 68
(26) Freeman, pg. 98
(27) Harpur, Tom. pg. 5
(31) MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Penguin Books. London, England. 2011. Pg. 169
(36) Strobel, Lee. The Case For The Real Jesus. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 2007. Pg 168-169
(37) broken link
(38) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm. Chapter 21.
(39) New Advent: Analogies to the sonship of Christ.
(40) Harpur, Tom. Pg. 68
(41) New Advent: Chapter 54.
(42) New Advent: Of the Eucharist.
(43) New Advent: Its imitation by demons.
(44) New Advent: Chapter 64.
(46) Tomkins, pg 47.
(47) Tomkins, pg 34-35
(48) Tomkins, pg 230.
(49) Freeman, pg 236.
(50) Freeman, pg 231.
(51) Freeman, pg 231.
(52) Tomkins, pg 49.
(53) Freeman, pg 232.
(55) Freeman, pg 233.
(56) Freeman, pg 240.
(57) Tomkins, pg 51
(58) Tomkins, pg 52
(59) Tomkins, pg 51.
(60) Freeman, pg 246.
(61) Freeman, pg 247.
(62) Freeman, pg 249