In the first three century all the new Christians were not following the same doctrine, they did not use the same rituals, and they had little in common. The Church, as we know it today, and whose members we will call Literalist Christians, was not probably representing the majority of the members. Their main opponents were the Gnostics who were numerous but dispersed in many different groups, each with their doctrine and rituals. The literalist Christians (a best name would be Orthodox Catholics, but this would cause some confusion with the Eastern Orthodox Church), already at that time, believed in a rigidly organised church -even if it was not yet the case- with one doctrine and one common set of rituals. They also believed that the only way to salvation was through the Church and the clergy whose members, in addition, were the only ones to be able to interpret correctly the Holy Scriptures, and explain their right meaning to the lay members of the Catholic Church. The Gnostics, on the opposite, thought that salvation could only happen through Gnosis (Knowledge), and that the clergy had no special power or competence to provide salvation, and this made the clergy useless. Gnosis was reached through personal study of the religious scriptures and through self-analysis.
The Literalist Christians organised their part of the Catholic Church on a line hierarchy. At the top was the Pope who, as the Bishop of Rome, was the religious leader of their Church. He was also the declared successor of Saint Peter who, according to the tradition, was the first Bishop of Rome, although some scholars believe that he died before a bishop could be installed in Rome. However this tradition allowed all the popes –it is still the case today- to claim that they are the spiritual heirs to Saint Peter who, himself, was chosen by Jesus Christ as the first head of the Church after His death. The Literalist Christians also proclaimed that salvation could be obtained by faith only, faith in the Catholic doctrine and in the Church represented by the clergy. This was a very easy way to salvation and this concept attracted many followers to this branch of the Catholic Church. On the other hand the Gnostics insisted that salvation could only be obtained by Gnosis and this implied hard work and required the necessary intellectual capability to do it. Moreover, trying did not guarantee success. In other words the Gnostic way was restricted to a limited number of people. The Gnostic doctrine fascinated many people because of its intrinsic beauty, but most left to join the Literalist Christians who offered an easier way to salvation.
A question often asked is the following: “Who came first, the Gnostics or the Literalists”? There is no easy answer to it. However, if we take into consideration:
- That the first Christians were members of a Jewish sect who believed he was the Messiah they had been expecting for a long time
- That it was believed, and foreseen by the prophets in the Old Testament, that the Messiah would be a princely descendant of King David, a warrior who would free the land of the Chosen People, the Jews, by militarily defeating and expelling its invaders
- But Jesus Christ, as described in the Gospels, was not a military person but a spiritualist leader
- That many of the sayings and actions attributed to Him in the Gospels and other books of the first centuries AD, have an obvious meaning but they also have a hidden possible interpretation that only the “initiates” could understand
- That Jesus Christ admitted that He was talking simply, revealing only the outer truth to ordinary people, but was revealing the inner truth to his closer disciples.
For all these reasons, we believe that the first Christians, the members of Jesus’ Jewish sect and the immediate followers until Saint Paul’s time were divided in two groups:
- The leaders, that we also call the clergy, were Gnostics
- The ordinary members, mostly uneducated, were Literalists.
After Saint Paul, and until the 4th century, some, if not most, leaders were still Gnostics but some were Literalists. The ordinary followers, whose number was increasing a lot, were mainly Literalists.
Again most of the new members of the Church were uneducated persons who had not the mental ability to understand the hidden meaning of the Christian doctrine. Among those who could understand, some did not want to engage in the learning work required and time required to understand the full meaning of the doctrine. All these people were happy to limit themselves to listen to what is being known as the “historical Aspect of the Christian Religion”, the outer meaning of the Christian doctrine. In any case, according to the clerics, they still would reach salvation as they had faith. It was an easy way to reach salvation. The Gospels were written to satisfy their needs, but also to ascertain that all of them would be told the same “story”. It is known that they were written between AD 64 and 95 (or 195 according to some experts) that is quite a long time after the historical date of Jesus’ death (AD 30 or 33).
In the period between AD 30 and AD 95, many other books were written, most of them not included in the New Testament. Some of them, if not most, described a “spiritual or mythical” Jesus Christ. They were Gnostic books. Other books described the “historical” Jesus; Literalist Christians wrote them. The main difference between the two groups of books is linked to the interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
- The literalists believe that Jesus died physically on the cross and resuscitated in “the flesh” before going back to Heaven
- The Gnostics, on the other hand, saw the dead and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a mystical event. Their main objection to the Literalists’ view concerned the resurrection. They did not believe that a dead body could come back to life in “the flesh”. For them, only the spirit could come back
The direct consequence, of course, is that the Gnostics, in opposition to the Literalists, do not believe that the body of the people who have gained “salvation” will come back on earth after the day of “the Last judgement”. Only their spirit, or soul, will come back to finally join God in heaven.
From the end of the 4th century to these days both leaders and ordinary members are Literalists. Only quite recently, some people expressed their problems accepting the Literalist view and we now assist to an increasing renewal of the Gnostic ideal even if there is not yet any kind of organisation linking them together.
By the 3rd century Gnosticism began to succumb to the Literalist Christians. The Literalist church centralised authority in the office of the bishops. Christian theologians attacked the Gnostic view that the material world is essentially evil while other early Christian leaders, as Saint Irenaeus, attacked the movement for heresy. These attacks stressed the pagan elements in Gnosticism and the Gnostics’ unorthodox views about the nature of Jesus. By the end of the 3rd century Gnosticism seems to have largely disappeared.
The Gnostics did not deny the influence of Paganism on their version of Christianity. On the contrary, they were stressing it all the time, recognising the many similarities between Christianity, Paganism and old Mystery Schools. Saint Paul too believed it. For instance:
- Letter to the Romans
- First Letter to the Corinthians
- Letter to the Galatians
The Literalists insist that Christianity is a totally new religion founded by Jesus Christ with no link with the old religions of the past. To convince people they had to destroy all the books dealing with these old religions.
Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome convened the first ecumenical council -held at Nicaea in 325 AD- to settle the Arian dispute concerning the nature of Jesus Christ. Arius believed that Christ is not of the same essence as God. Of the 1800 bishops in the Roman Empire, 318 attended the council. The Nicene Creed, which defined the Son as con-substantial with the Father, was adopted as the official position of the church regarding the divinity of Christ. The Nicene Creed, also called Niceno-constantinopolitan Creed, is the only true ecumenical Christian statement of faith because it is accepted as authoritative by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and major Protestant churches. Until the early 20th century, it was assumed that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed promulgated at the Council of Nicaea (325) and updated at the Council of Constantinople (381), in regard to heresies about the Incarnation and the Holy Spirit was the final version of the Christian doctrine. New discoveries shows that the final doctrine was first explicitly stated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 in an independent document that was not an enlargement of the Creed of Nicaea.
These councils described the Gnostics as heretics and they were expulsed from the Catholic Church that was, from that time on, officially totally Literalist. The Gnostics were persecuted and their books burned and banned.
Let us have a closer look at Jesus and early Christianity as described in the Gospels. All Gospels agree that Jesus Christ was a historical person, born in a Jewish family, that he behaved as a Jew all his life, and that he died a Jew. In addition, all the Apostles that he personally chose were Jewish too, and all of them followed the Jewish rules (circumcision, participation in the Jewish festivities, prayers in the Jerusalem Temple, dietary laws, etc). From this it is clear that the religion that Jesus Christ is said to have preached was not totally new or original. His religion, the early Christian religion, was his own interpretation of the Jewish faith, and what he wanted to create was a new Jewish sect of which there were quite a few at that time (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, Therapeutae, and … the Jewish Christians). If there is a need for another proof of this it is only necessary to remember that the same Gospels also say that the early Christian Church, after Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross, was led by his brother, James the Just, and that it was only open to the Jews. Non-Jews wishing to join this new church had first to convert to the Jewish religion, and to follow the Jewish rules. For men this implied circumcision.
It is Saint Paul who accepted non-Jews as full members of the Christian Church. With this decision he made Christianity the Universal Church, as we know it today, whereas before it was a Jewish sect only. This opening to non-Jews was made despite the strong opposition of the Jerusalem early Christian Church that fought to keep it Jewish. Unfortunately for these early Jerusalem Christians, the opening to all people made the new Christian Church very popular. Thousand and thousand of people soon converted to the Christian faith, congregations were created in every angle of the Roman world, and the Jerusalem Christian Church soon after disappeared.
But, is this story true? The answer, uneasy as it is since against what most people think, is NO! There is no proof that the man called Jesus ever existed. However the Literalist concept of Christianity won and the Gnostics disappeared. This is a fact and there are no ways to ignore it.
The Canon of the Literalist Catholic Church is to be found in the New Testament that consists of 27 books, chosen among many writings of the first and second century AD that Christian groups considered sacred. In these various writings the early church transmitted its traditions, experience, understanding, and interpretation of Jesus as the Christ and the self-understanding of the church. The church selected these 27 writings as normative for its life and teachings that is, as its canon. Other accounts, letters, and revelations -such as the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), Gospel of Peter, First Letter of Clement, Letter of Barnabas, Apocalypse (Revelation) of Peter, Shepherd of Hermas— exist, but were rejected in the 4th century for various reasons. The canon contained four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Acts, 21 letters, and one book of a strictly revelatory character, Revelation.
The Old Testament in its Greek translation, the Septuagint, was the Bible of the earliest Christians. The New Covenant, or New Testament, was viewed as the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises of salvation. The Spirit, which in the Old Testament had been viewed as resting only on special charismatic figures, in the New Testament became “democratised” —it was given to the whole people of the New Covenant. In post biblical Judaism of the first Christian centuries, it was believed that the Spirit had ceased after the writing of the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament canon, and that no longer could anyone say “Thus saith the Lord,” as had the prophets, nor could any further holy writing be produced. The descent of the Spirit on the community of the Messiah (the Christ) was perceived by Christians as a sign of the beginning of the age to come, and the church understood itself as having access to that inspiration through the Spirit. On this base, the church created the New Testament as a continuation and fulfilment of the Old Testament. These 27 books, therefore, were not merely appended to the traditional Jewish threefold division of the Old Testament —the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Ketuvim)— but they became the New Testament, the second part of the Christian Bible, the Old Testament being the first. As far as the New Testament is concerned, there could be no Bible without a church that created it and the church selected the canon. The concept of inspiration was not decisive in the choice because the church understood itself as having access to inspiration through the guidance of the Spirit. Apart from letters in which the person of the writer was clearly attested —as in those of Paul but with some reserves for six of them on a total of 13 (including the Pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus) — the other writings emphasised the message or revelation conveyed, the author being only an instrument or witness to the Holy Spirit or the Lord. When the message was committed to writing, the instrument was considered irrelevant, because the true author was believed to be the Spirit.
The process of canonisation was relatively long, flexible and detached; various books in use were recognized as inspired, but the Church Fathers noted, without embarrassment or criticism, how some held certain books to be canonical and others did not. Emerging Christianity assumed that through the Spirit the selection of canonical books was “certain” enough for the needs of the church. Inspiration, it is to be stressed, was neither a divisive nor a decisive criterion. Only when the canon had become self-evident was it argued that inspiration and canonicity coincided.
From the 4th century until today the Roman Catholic Church did not go through any fundamental changes. The canon remained the same, the rituals too as well as the attitude of the clergy. Of course many things that the church did during that time would be totally unacceptable today:
- Promoting the crusades against the Holy Land as well as against the Cathars in the south of France
- Owning huge amount of land and having it cultivated by serfs
- Getting deeply involved in the choice of kings and queens and many governments’ business
- Pretending that the Pope was not only the religious head of the Roman Catholic Church but also a secular leader ways above any kings