7.2.1 The controversy over Jesus’ resurrection
With the proclamation that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, the Orthodox Christian church began. Even to-day most Christians repeat that creed without thinking what it means, and without even believing it. The early church too insisted that the man Jesus had come back to life. The claim that some disciples had seen Jesus after his death is not extraordinary. After all, ghost stories, hallucinations, and visions were even more common then that now. What is strange is that they pretended to have seen a real bodily human being. At first, even his disciples thought they had seen a ghost, but Jesus himself made them believe that he was human, showing that he was still made of flesh and bones, and even eating ordinary food. It would have been more acceptable if his disciples had said that Jesus’ spirit lived on, surviving bodily decay. But according to those who saw him, it was his body that had come back on earth against all previous experience. Obviously, if Jesus’ resurrection is accepted, then all believers will also be bodily resurrected on judgement day. The immortality of the soul is generally well accepted but here we have something else. Some Christians, described as heretics, refused to believe in the resurrection of the body pretending that, after his death, it was only possible to meet Jesus Christ on a spiritual level. The Orthodox Christians of the second century AD, on the other hand, went on saying that those who deny the resurrection of the flesh are heretics. This position is rather strange since, even the “New Testament” is not very clear on this subject, at first insisting on a literal view of the resurrection while, later on, giving way to other interpretations. This interpretation is very useful to validate the apostolic succession of bishops, and to legitimise the authority of the leaders of the Church as the successors of the Apostle Peter; the papal authority is justified this way.
In the early years of Christianity the church was divided in many fractions, each of them claiming that they were teaching the true doctrine of Jesus Christ, the only authority they all accepted. Already during His life no one challenged His leadership. After His death His disciples thought that their movement was finished, until they heard about his resurrection when he nominated Peter his successor as leader of the Christian movement. The claim that Jesus came back to life was the cement that linked together the world-wide church governed by the bishops, priests, and deacons that developed at the end of the second century AD. It has been said that Peter was chosen as the new leader because he was the first one to see Jesus after he had risen. However, the Gospels of Mark and John maintain that He appeared first to Mary Magdalene while other sources claim that it was James, Jesus’ brother, who saw him first. He appeared afterwards to many people, but tradition says that only the eleven remaining Apostles (after Judas’ death) received delegated authority from His appearance becoming, in this way, the leaders of the whole community. Forty days after his death, having completed the transfer of power, the Lord left his disciples for ever, and ascended into heaven. Nobody afterwards would experience His presence, as his disciples had during his lifetime and up to forty days after his death.
The Orthodox view that all authority derives from the Apostles’ personal experience of the Resurrection has important consequences. First of all, the leaders have to come from a small group of persons who have a large authority. Secondly, only the Apostles could designate their successors and, as a result, all authority in the church derives from them, although the successors cannot claim to have the same authority as they did not witness the resurrection. They must believe, protect, and transmit the Apostles’ testimony to the future generations. This Orthodox theory has held firm for two thousand years as even to-day the legitimate heirs of the Apostles are the Pope, the bishops, and the priests.
The Gnostic Christians, on the other hand, refused to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. For them the resurrection of Jesus was only spiritual and symbolised how His presence could still be experienced at any time. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus must not to be understood as an actual event, but rather as a spiritual vision that all of us can have since he is always present among us. Even the Gospels tell us that it was Mary Magdalene who was the first to have seen the risen Christ and not the Apostles, and that she said that it was a “vision”. From this we deduce that those who have a vision of the resurrected Christ receive the same authority as the Apostles and their heirs. In other words the Orthodox rely only on the public teaching given by Christ and his Apostles to the “many”, whereas the Gnostic Christians offer also their secret teaching known to the “few”. Jesus too, during his lifetime, and later the Apostles, told some mysteries to their disciples that they refrained to mention to the outsiders. Even after his death Jesus appeared in vision to some of his disciples, and revealed some more truths and mysteries to each of them as he did to Paul. The Gnostics were more interested in the spiritual risen Christ than in the historically obscure human being called Jesus of Nazareth. As a result the Gnostic writings very often start with stories of the spiritual Christ appearing in vision to his disciples and ignore the biography of his life on earth.
The Orthodox Christians, first among them Irenaeus, always maintained that what made the four Gospels so important was due to the fact that the authors witnessed personally the events they describe. In fact nobody knows the name of the authors of the Gospels. All we know is that they are attributed to Apostles (Matthew and John) or their followers (Mark and Luke). In the same way, the authors of the Gnostic Gospels are attributed to various disciples who may have taken their information from early tradition, even if some Gnostics admitted that they wrote about their own experience. The Gnostics believe that they communicate directly with the Divine when they receive the spirit. At first, they say, people believe the teaching of the others, but the true believers must receive personally the truth. This is in direct contradiction with the Orthodox Christians who believe in “the one and only truth from the Apostles, which is handed down by the Church”, as written in the four Gospels of the “New Testament”. Gnosis authors often attribute their own traditions to persons outside the Twelve like Paul, Mary, Magdalene and James who, they say, had received “Gnosis” when most Apostles had not.
The controversy about resurrection was critical in shaping the Christian Church. All Christians agree that Christ -or God- is the ultimate source of spiritual authority. The real question is “Who administer this authority to-day”? According to the Orthodox Christians the Pope, the bishops, and the priests hold this authority as heirs of Jesus Christ. The Christian Gnostics would rather say that this kind of authority is best managed by those who are in direct contact with God.
“I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” is the beginning of the Christian creed. Some scholars think that it was invented to exclude the heretic Marcion followers from the Christian Orthodox church. Marcion noticed the contrast between the Creator-God of the “Old Testament” who demand Justice and punish those who do not follow the Law, and the God from the “New Testament” who preaches forgiveness and love. He could not believe that an all-powerful God would create a world that includes suffering, pain, disease, … He concluded that there must be two Gods becoming a Dualist as a result.
When the Gnostics appeared, the Christian Orthodox attacked them as “Marcionites” and “Dualists” since they believed in another God beside the Creator. Some of the Nag Hammadi documents show that this was true. To-day some scholars consider that Gnosticism and metaphysical dualism, or pluralism, are the same thing; but there was more that one Gnostic sect. The “monadic gnosis” and the followers of Valentinus, the most sophisticated and the more influential gnosis as well as the more feared by the Christian Orthodox church, were not dualistic but monotheist, as the documents found at Nag Hammadi show. According to Irenaeus even if they preached the one-God doctrine in public, they had private reservations in this regard. It was in fact difficult to understand why the Valentinians were expelled from the Christian church as heretics. At the most, they believed that there was a difference between the popular image of God (a master, King, Lord, Creator and judge), that it was not clear what that image represented (God as the ultimate source of all being or “depth”), and that most Christians mistook the image of God for the reality. This attitude towards the Valentinians is difficult to understand in term of religion, but the political and social implications are more important. When the Orthodox, in the second century AD, insist on the “one God” doctrine, they are also trying to assert the authority of the “One bishop” that rules the Church. The Gnostics are supposed to be against this rule of spiritual authority, of the church being ruled by designated bishops, priests, and deacons who draw their authority directly from Jesus and his Apostles. This rule also divides, for the first time, the Christian community between “the Clergy” and “the laity”, the former having priority on the later. It must be remembered that at that time religious and political power went together.
The Orthodox doctrine of God legitimises the structure, and put Him at the top of the divine hierarchy. When a brilliant man like Valentinus, the probable author of the “Gospel of Truth” found at Nag Hammadi, challenges their doctrine, then the church must do something. Valentinus said that he has received some secret knowledge from Theudas, Paul ‘s disciple. Paul was only teaching it to the select few that he judged “mature” to receive it. In the same way Valentinus offered to initiate those that he thought would understand it. According to this secret, the God and Father that the Christians worship would only be the image of the true God, a lesser God called also “Demiurge”. The Demiurge reigns as King and Lord, acts as a military commander, gives the Law and judges; he is the God of Israel. Gnosis, according Valentinus, allows the initiates to the true source of divine power, “the depth” of all being, to really know themselves and to discover the true God. At this stage the initiate can receive the secret and higher sacrament called “redemption” since he has been released from the Demiurge’s power. The practical implication of this doctrine is that the initiate considers that the bishops, priests, and deacons are only servants of the Demiurge, and not of the true God. The initiate is above them, and is not anymore bound by their authority. Gnosis offers the justification for refusing to obey the bishops and the priests who only rule the earth, not in God’s name, but in the Demiurge’s name. In other words they, as the Demiurge’ servants, only rule over those Christians who are not “mature”, or initiated, but not over the “redeemed” who have a special and direct relation with the True God. This explains why Valentinus refused to submit himself to the authority of the Bishop of Rome since, according to his doctrine, he, Valentinus, served a higher spiritual authority, the True God. The Orthodox Christians saw a big danger in this doctrine and expelled the Valentinians from the Church despite their claims that they were true Christians, even if they refused to submit to clerical authority.
This controversy occurred at the time when the church was becoming united under the leadership of the bishops who ruled over the priests, the deacons, and the laity. The opposition of the Valentinian Gnostics, as described in some Nag Hammadi documents, could not be tolerated. The Orthodox Christian Church was organising itself in a hierarchical structure of the professional clergy (with the laity at the bottom); at the same time the Valentinians preached the strict equality among the initiates, men and women, including the laic. This could not be tolerated and the Church attacked the heretical teaching of “another God besides the creator”. According to the Orthodox Christians God is One, then there can only be One Church and only One representative of God in the community, that is the bishop. Many members of the Church hierarchy were Valentinus’ followers, and the ordinary Christians had great difficulty to distinguish between the true Christian priests and the Valentinian Gnostics since their doctrine was so similar. The main difference resided in the Valentinian’s different vision of the nature of God; this vision was incompatible with the structure and rule of the clergy that was emerging in the Catholic church. The Valentinians resisted this change and the Orthodox Christians imposed it.
As the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection prevailed and created the bases for clerical authority, so the winning doctrine of “One God” confirmed the rule of “one Bishop” as the monarch, or sole ruler, of the Church; and the Valentinian movement slowly disappeared.
7.2.3 God as Father and Mother
Unlike many other religions of the time, the God of Israel was not sharing any of his power with a female divinity, nor was he the husband or lover of any female. This absence of female divinity is typical of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God, for these religions, is masculine and even the Virgin Mary, worshipped by the Catholic as the Mother of Jesus, is not divine in her own right, she is not God the Mother. Christianity added the Trinitarian terms to the Jewish God but two, the Father and the Son, are definitely masculine, and the Spirit is neutral. The men are the basis of the community and the women are only allowed to participate.
The documents found at Nag Hammadi, even if their language is Christian and related to a Jewish heritage, show that the Gnostics used sexual symbolism to describe God. One Gnostic group goes as far as saying that they received their secret tradition from James and Mary Magdalene, and the members of this group prayed to the divine Father and Mother. Several Gnostic groups describe the God Mother as part of a couple and prayed to her for protection. Sometime the divine Mother is described as the Holy Spirit, or Wisdom, and some go on to describe God as the Father, Mother and Son, another version of the Trinity.
All the documents that deal with this aspect have been excluded from the “New Testament”; they are classified as Heretical by the Orthodox Christian Church that reject any feminine image of God since the end of the second century. It is not easy to explain this rejection on a doctrinal basis. Most scholars maintain that it started with the God of Israel who said that he did everything alone, ignoring the teaching and the support he received from his mother. It is difficult to explain why these Gnostic writings have been suppressed as it is to understand how the selection of the books to be included in the canon was made, why some were declared to be Orthodox and other rejected as heretical. It is a fact that women are more attracted by heretical groups than men. Most heretic movements, such as the Valentinians, appointed women as priests and bishops on the same equal basis as men. Orthodox Christians did not appoint any woman priests or bishops since 200 AD, although before the early Christians were treating women on the same level as men. Jesus himself talked directly to women against all Jewish conventions and took them among his disciples. Already St Paul had his doubts on this early Christian custom. These contradictions are due to the diversity of cultural influences on churches now opening everywhere in the known world. The tendency was for a diminution of the participation of women in religious activities. This rule was applied by all the Christian churches from the beginning of the third century and is still applied to-day, at least in the Roman Catholic Church. From that time, women and men had to sit in different parts of the churches, and the participation of women in the ceremony was forbidden. There was then a clear correlation between religious theory and social practice.
The Orthodox Christians and the Gnostics, as we can see, had a completely different attitude towards women. Many Gnostics describe God in both masculine and feminine terms, treat them as equal to men in the social and political environment. The Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, only see God as masculine, and this led to the domination of women by men, not only in the social and family life, but also in the churches. There were some exceptions in both camps but they were very limited.
7.2.4 The Passion
The only fact on which all the historians and Jesus’ followers agree is that, by order of the Romans, Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, and that he was crucified around 30 AD. The Gospels try to make Jesus appear innocent, and state that the Chief Priests and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted him dead because he was preaching against them. In addition his popularity was such that the same leaders were jealous; they justified themselves by saying that this could lead to riot, since he was perceived as the “Anointed king” that would free Israel. They, on the other hand, wanted to keep their good relations with Rome. Together with the Sanhedrin, the priests had the responsibility to keep order in the city. They decided to eliminate Jesus as a lesser evil compared with Roman repression.
Gnostics disagree on the interpretation of Jesus’ death. Some Gnostic texts (The “Apocalypse of Peter”, “Second Treaty of the Great Seth”) found at Nag Hammadi go as far as saying that it was not the divine Christ who was crucified, but his mortal body, or even another person, probably a disciple. This would show that Jesus was not a human being after all, but a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception (the “Act of John”). If this assumption is accepted then Jesus could not have died on the cross. Another Gnostic book, “The Treaty of Resurrection”, on the opposite, says that Jesus being the “Son of Man” was human and as such died on the cross. As he was also “The Son of God”, the divine spirit within him could not die and transcend suffering and death.
The Orthodox Christians maintain that Jesus was human and that the crucifixion must be taken as a historical and literal event. This was confirmed by Pope Leo the Great in 447 AD and also at the second Nicene Council. This creed must be considered as a central element of the Christian faith, and those who deny it are heretical (for instance the “Acts of John” that was ordered to be burnt). This defence at all cost of the Passion and death of Christ was important to the Christians of the first and second centuries, including Jesus’ disciples, as they had to submit to persecution with the serious possibility of suffering and dying for the faith. After the arrest and execution of Peter and James, the danger to all Christians became very real. They were members of an illegal movement that was accused of evil acts, including the killing of people to eat their flesh and to drink their blood. The story of the atrocities to which they were submitted is endless and brutal. The fact of being a member of the Christian community was enough to be condemned to death. To survive many Christians refused to confess their faith. They believed that the sacrifice of life was contrary to God’s will since, they said. Jesus suffered death for us so that we can live.
This did not prevent the Orthodox Christians to attack the Christian Gnostics such as Simon, Marcion, and Valentinus as well as their followers. They proclaimed Christ’s passion, death, and martyrdom. They also accused the heretics of false teaching about Christ’ suffering and of “opposing martyrdom”. For them, the Gnostics who died for their faith were not to be called “Martyrs”, this word being reserved for the Orthodox. It is a fact that fewer Gnostics suffered martyrdom. Most Gnostics, but not all of them, were opposed to this kind of self-sacrifice. Some of the authors of the texts found in Nag Hammadi (the “Secret Book of James”, the “Second Apocalypse of James”, the “Apocalypse of Peter”) believed in and suffered martyrdom. Others stated that those seeking martyrdom as a way to salvation and resurrection do not understand Jesus’ teaching (the Testimony of Truth).
The Orthodox view of martyrdom, with Christ’s death as a model, prevailed in the end. This was probably due to the fact that persecution led to the stronger church structure that came into being at the end of the second century. The description of the suffering of some members of the community brought the others together, reinforcing the bond between them. At the same time the Roman Church published the list of the books being part of the canon. The institutional hierarchy became also accepted by all Christian Church. By rejecting the Gnostics’ view that Jesus was only a spiritual being, the Orthodox Christians showed that He, like the rest of the humanity, was born, lived in a family, was hungry and tired, ate and drank wine, suffered and died. They even went as far as saying that he was bodily resurrected from the dead. The Gnostics, on the other hand, were badly organised and scattered. They regarded the essential part of every person as “the inner spirit” and at the same time dismissed all known and pleasurable human experiences. It was then easier for the ordinary person to identify himself with the Orthodox that with the “the bodiless spirit” of Gnostic tradition that, finally, disappeared.