THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIANITY
A MATTER OF FAITH
Faith is not merely a question of belief as many may consider it to be. It is more a question of belief in contradiction to knowledge or beliefs held in other ways.
Before the Ruling Class
In the classless societies of the pre-slave days, where labour was carried out in common and the products of labour held in common, religion was equally the common property of all. Religion was formulated in common, but over a long series of generations, as an explanation for the human material existence and the existence of the material world that people lived in. It also offered a system of ideas by which the functioning of the material world might be influenced by human agency. Religion of this kind was built on the logical supposition that all of nature upon which human life depended was organised in a similar way to human society.
The spring came, the rain fell, the sun shone, and the corn grew because of the will of those beings that governed them. The earth, itself, even the rocks, had the same attributes and, therefore, for the same will and purpose as the human mother. In the absence of any scientific knowledge, these explanations were not only as good any other, but logical in terms of the social and economic organisation of those societies.
With the coming of class society, religion required another function other than logical and explanation and belief. It required the subversion of logical explanation to the needs of the ruling class. On the part of the slaves – it required a suspension of disbelief – that is to say, faith. A class society requires submission, achieved by force if necessary, by the producers to the dominating class who not only organise them economically and socially, but take from them, again by force if necessary, the products of their labour. To do this as a system requires the enforcement of faith on both sides. An act of robbery and exploitation is easy to see, and slaves could see the evidence of their own eyes that they were being deprived of the products of their own hands.
Against this clear knowledge faith has to be counterpoised, that oppression and exploitation is not what it clearly is, but a separate right deriving from supernatural sources. In other words, faith can generally help in the enforcement of beliefs that would not ordinarily be credible. Faith lies above actual knowledge, it is a set of contradictory rules justified only by the fact that it enables a ruling class to exploit and yet appear to have the right to do so.
N.I. Bukharin, in his excellent book “Historical Materialism’ makes the point about the absurdity of faith in this way. He puts forward a proposal for a new religion based upon the hypothesis that the world was created and is governed by a lot of little green demons whose writhings give rise to all the physical phenomena we see about us. These little devils are, of course, infallible, invisible, and inaudible, nor can they be detected in any other way. Thus, although no one can actually prove they exist there is no way that anyone else can disprove it either. Of course, he points out, most people, quite rightly, would regard this theory as a lot of nonsense, but only because this ‘religion’ has no role in any ruling class ideology, since it performs no economic and social function.
Any religious belief that is not bound up in the structure of one’s own society is generally regarded as ‘superstition’ – nonsense. So the Christian can say quite seriously that the ancient Greeks or a modern ‘primitive’ that their religion is ‘superstition’. The idea of gods for this thing and gods for that appears to the Christian to be absurd. But the Greek ruling class had good economic and political reasons for demanding faith in it.
Alternative versions of one’s own religion become ‘heresies’. Within Christianity therefore, Catholicism, Protestantism are heresies to each other. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all heresies of each other.
Christian mythology is no less “absurd” than any other and depends just as much on magical legendary events. We all know that women cannot conceive without some kind of sexual intercourse, even if it is done by artificial means. Yet at school we are all taught that this scientific impossibility happened as a matter of fact. This virgin woman, we are told, gave birth to a child who turned out to be none other than God, the self same God who had made her pregnant in the first place. This man/God, following a series of magical performances then was executed and after lying dead for a full two days came back to life. Following that a cloud came down and whisked him off to heaven. This man, we are told, is not only one God and his own father, but also The Holy Spirit making three as one, but still only one – all a mystery. We are told to believe that this event that defies any known laws of biology, physics, or any thing else, took place on the evidence of ‘eyewitness’ accounts written nearly a hundred years after the supposed events.
No one on earth could actually disprove this myth and no one can prove it either, in all respects it has the same veracity as Bukharin’s little demons. The important point is that no one is really expected to believe it as such (although many do), they are merely expected to suspend disbelief in it. Faith is not an acknowledgement of fact, it is an act of ideological submission.
Heresy as Political Opposition
When those who are exploited rebel against their masters, their faith in ruling class religion explodes at the same time. As Marx pointed out opposition to rulers is always there, open or covert.
Indeed, exploding the religious ideology of their rulers was the way people expressed their opposing political programme. The 16th century Anabaptists, the Hussites of Munster, for instance, of central Europe in propounding their belief of the producers’ right to hold their products in common, rejected the dogmas of the Catholic Church. Christianity, for them, was reduced to those things that Christianity could logically explain in the light of their own knowledge and experience. For them God continued as the Creator, since they had no other alternative theory, but for them God created the earth for all human kind and Christ came to earth as a poor man – how he was actually conceived was of little interest. From the point of view of the mediaeval peasant this form of Christianity had a logic while the magic incantations and the acts of submission of the kings, barons, popes, and bishops did not.
In our capitalist society, faith goes beyond the hocus-pocus of religion. Faith in capitalism is not excusively religious since religion no longer has a monopoly on ideology. Here submission required and the faith to actually submit is similar to the wine and bread.
We are required to have faith in the ruling class’s assertion that they have built weapons capable of destroying the whole human race in order to prevent the human race from being destroyed by those very weapons. Or one may have faith in the Government’s belief, and many people did, that unemployment is the solution to the problem of unemployment. Or one may have faith in the capitalist’s assertion that Trident is here to protect the ordinary person from the ordinary Russian.
We have to faith in system that clearly causes, poverty, starvation, pollution, war and widespread misery actually is for the benefit of all.
One could also believe in the media bogeys, that Corbyn is a revolutionary socialist, or that the Labour Party is made up of revolutionary socialists, or the Soviet Union was constructed according to the ideas of Karl Marx. This is not so difficult as we are expected to believe that Christianity as it exists has much to do with Jesus Christ as that figure appears in the Bible. These and many other absurdities are a matter of faith.
Early Christianity contained political objectives, cloaked in religious expression. Beginning in the Jewish area, the objective was the removal of the Roman yoke. This was initially expressed in terms of a fundamentalist Jewish religion. The orthodox religion did not serve the purpose as the Jewish ruling class shared in the oppression by collaborating closely with the Romans.
The concept of a ‘messianic’ religion, the coming of a great leader who would lead the Jewish people into battle against their oppressor was the logical result of this aspiration. The Scriptures would inevitably be searched for ‘proof’ of the validity of this objective. The failure of the Jewish rising in 66 AD laid the basis for the conversion of the ‘Jewish’ messiah into a broader messiah who would lead all oppressed people against their rulers.
Thus, the roots of Christianity lie partly in the fundamentalist version of Judaism and therefore acknowledged the Jewish Scriptures – but in different ways.
Jewish religion, itself, unacknowledged or not, found its roots in the religions of the Semites of the middle east, most of which were still current at the time. Semite religion itself was a combination of the Semite warrior/pastoral religion and the old matriarchal Sumerian religion. The monotheist patriarchal Jewish religion was of fairly recent origin, stemming from the period of the Jewish kingdoms and even then was not universal in Israel and Judea. Therefore, to anyone at the time, the old religion – still flourishing in the productive base of society – represented the old freedoms before the period of Roman rule.
It was inevitable therefore that Christianity should also take on the essential features of the old matriarchal religion. Christianity as it came to be – as the official religion of a patriarchal society – still matriarchal at its base – diminished the component, derived from matriarchal origins and emphasised the patriarchal content. When we once examine the trends in early Christianity it will be seen that the old matriarchy – representing as it did – a primitive communism and equality – was at that early stage its most powerful component.
Even Christianity as we know it historically and today has much of matriarchy in it. Orthodox Judaism did not allow for female deities or the death of the god as did matriarchal religions. Yet the death of the god, the holiness of his mother and his resurrection at her hands, are the fundamentals of matriarchal religion. The male component in Christianity eventually was given superiority but only in its final version.
Christ as well as appearing to be the Messiah – from Judiasm – is the Adonis derived from the middle east. Astarte or Aphrodite become the Virgin Mary and although later demoted in importance had nonetheless an important position and is still, in fact, Catholicism’s goddess in all but name.
As Christianity was taken up in other parts of the Empire, the matriarchal component was strengthened. Christ/Dionysus, Mary/Demeter in the Greek world. But Egypt was an easy convert to Christianity and the slaves upon whose productivity depended much of the Roman economy made an easy transition from Isis to Mary, from Osiris to Christ. Egypt became a stronghold of Christianity and resisted, until the invasion of Islam, the patriarchal versions of Christianity and never accepted the authority of Roman or feudal ruling classes over their ideology – just as previously they had never accepted the imposition of Amon/Ra over their own Isis and Osiris.
Early Development and Tendencies
We must see Christianity in its early phase as a political opposition movement based upon the oppressed classes of the Roman Empire. In terms of political movements of today it cannot be called progressive in any modern sense for there was no progress from a slave economy which could possibly be introduced without a ruling class. There was no way to progress to a new form of society but only to restore ancient freedom – that is to say the removal of ruling the Roman ruling class. I am in no way condemning the movement. Had the it succeeded it would have been a reversion to the old freedom of the matriarchal economy. Its failure was inevitable and so was its conception into the ideology of feudalism.
As in all popular movements there was no exact identity of interest, especially since the Empire was diverse and slaves a difficult or impossible class to unite. The oppression and exploitation felt by the Jews – exploited by tribute through its own ruling class was different to that in Egypt, different to that in urban centres – felt by the plebeians and manufacturing slaves, different to those dragooned into auxiliary service with the army and so.
Therefore, there were diverse tendencies within Christianity. Roughly one may make a right reformist and left revolutionary division. This is to impose present day terminology on to the ancient world obviously falsifies it to certain extent, nevertheless, the difference between the factions and tendencies were real and so was their internal political struggle.
St. Paul and the Scripture
It may come as some surprise to many that early Christianity had no scripture of its own, nor any recognised sacred writing. It may also be a surprise to know that the first books of the “New Testament” to be written were not the gospels at all, but the letters of St. Paul. These letters were never meant to be taken as sacred writing in any form, nor were they written as general principles of Christianity. Most of Paul’s letters were polemical aimed specifically at the opposition within the Christian organisation and part of a struggle for control. Paul felt himself and his followers to be leaders of the movement but he was not universally acknowledged as such. He was the leader of the reformist faction, wishing to convert Romans of good standing to Christianity.
His programme/ideology, although anti-Roman was a reformist programme of change from within. A very rough parallel would be the Labour Party today who are quite happy to convert capitalists to socialists without demanding that they cease to be capitalists. Thus Paul’s Christianity is a mixture of reform without offending any of the essential values of Roman patriarchy.
Paul and his followers based their ideology on two platforms
- a) An oral tradition of Christ whose ‘life’ was not complete in Paul’s own day but was made up of a rough skeleton of sayings and statements. At this time – around 70 A.D. Christ must have been a shadowy figure, a mythical ‘founder’ of the movement to whom was attributed a number of sayings and prophesies. Most of the prophesies were current at the time of the Jewish rebellion. From the old religion (matriarchal) prevalent in all the Mediterranean area was derived the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. This would sound immediately convincing to anyone at that time as it was the basis of all religion in any case. On this point Paul and the opposition were agreed although they differed very strongly in the meaning of the resurrection. The “left” (Ophites, Canites, and Sethites) held a very different interpretation.
- The Jewish Scripture. Christianity began as a Jewish movement and developed out of the defeat of the Jewish rebellion in 66 AD. A military movement against the Romans was now out of the question. However, the Jewish scripture was made was now reformed on the basis of the broader movement. The only scripture any Christian was prepared to acknowledge was the Hebrew scripture up until the 2nd century A.D. No letters of Paul or any gospel was acknowledged as the holy script until Christianity became an official state religion. However, the interpretation of Jewish scripture differed once again from left to right. Paul’s wing accepted the scripture and found in it the main principles of their own movement. The left wing -the Ophites and Cainites – particularly saw the Jewish scripture as a lesson while not disbelieving it held it to be a catalogue of contrary examples and therefore contrasted their version of Christ against the Jewish scripture.
The Pauline Letters
Many copies of letters written at the same time as Paul’s epistles, through similarity in formal style have established the epistles of St. Paul as genuine. They are, in fact, messages, written to various branches of the Church, designed to be read out at meetings. They often refer to some event that came to Paul’s attention. What is clear, is that Paul was not writing ‘scripture’ since the concept of a ‘Christian bible’ did not exist until the 3rd century A.D.
Many branches of the Church accepted his authority as a leader and accepted his claim to be the mouthpiece of God. He styled himself ‘Paul by the will of God to be an apostle, to the Church of God at Corinth …called to be Saints Grace to you and peace from God our father, Lord Jesus Christ.’
None of his letters constitute ‘preaching’ as such for they were designed for internal use. There is a vague parallel here with the role of Trotsky in the 4th International in the 1930’s. Like Trotsky, arguments, factions, disputes were referred to him. His letters, like Trotsky’s were aimed at settling ideological disputes, giving encouragement and solving knotty ideological problems and slamming the opposition. Such letters were later given generalised canonical status, some of the followers of Trotsky equally canonise his letters as containing eternal truths and are equally as far from the intention of the writer.
The letters were probably kept by the individual branches who received them and like the letters of Lenin, Trotsky, etc were brought out later in disputes, bits of them quoted against the opposition. Later right wing polemicists began to call them in order to help their case against the other tendencies.
Clement, a leader of the Rome branch, wrote a good deal polemic himself against the left, says in a letter around 96 A.D. ,that he had Paul’s letter to the Romans and he knows of the letter to the Corinthians, although he has not got it himself, he has heard about its contents.
Marion, in 140 A.D. says that he has 10 of St. Paul’s letters whilst 60 years later the Roman church has 13 of Paul’s letters in their possession.
Not all the letters are genuine. Later polemicists used Paul’s name to add strength to their own arguments. The letters, moreover in the New Testament, by no means constitute a complete collection of Paul’s letters. Many are probably lost altogether and many in the New Testament are fragments of different letters put together. For example 2 Corinthians is an amalgam of several letters, Philippines is considered to be a similar amalgamation. ‘Hebrews’ is generally regarded as a fake, it appears nowhere in early collections and its style is different to the accepted Pauline letters.
The letters of the New Testament therefore do not comprise of all of the letters that Paul wrote and have in them many letters that Paul did not write.
Another important fact to be taken into consideration is that the New Testament letters are a one way traffic. The letters sent to St. Paul outlining the problems that they asked him to comment on have been lost. Their contents can only be inferred from Paul’s own letters.
Many of Paul’s letters are in fact replies to letters sent to him and many of them concern the opposition tendencies within the Church. These tendencies took up most of Paul’s attention – as they did later polemicists. Paul regarded the gnostic tendency as an ever present danger and many of the letters are wholly concerned with pouring contempt on the opposition in order to keep his own followers loyal.
The Faction at Corinth
The best example which shows the real purpose of Paul’s letters is found in his ‘two’ letters to the Corinthians – in fact several letters. The first letter is a reply to an ideological question raised over a number of issues. Paul’s answer advocates the taking of a strong line against opposition elements and expelling them for example “do not associate with immoral men”. It appears that the situation in the Corinth branch worsened whether due to his letter or whether the opposition was making ground is not clear. Paul paid a visit himself to Corinth which seems to have been a disaster. It appears that the opposition, who were strong in Palestine and Antioch, had sent people of their own to Corinth and the branch was on the point of defecting to them. A member of the Corinth Church had affronted Paul so vigorously that Paul demanded formal submission to his leadership or his expulsion. It appears from Corinthians 2 that the branch rejected Paul’s ultimatum and in the next fragment he adopts a more conciliatory tone. It would seem that the whole Corinth branch was on the point of defecting – probably to the Ophites or Cainites, as Paul mentions the ‘false prophets’ from Palestine who were stirring up trouble in the Corinth branch.
The fight against the opposition’s growing strength in the Corinth branch got pretty dirty. They must have accused him of being a liar, unscrupulous in his attempts to control them and were suspicious of his appeals for money. Paul regarded this as an attack on God and it appears from 4 Corinthians that he was seriously considering the expulsion of the whole branch. How the struggle was eventually resolved is not known, although it would be reasonable to suggest that had his own tendency been victorious in Corinth, the fact would have been noted.
A similar problem seems to have arisen in Galatia – the area around Antioch where the Ophites were strong – there is a strong connection between Christianity and the old matriarchal religion centred on Aphrodite and Adonis in Antioch. It would appear from later accounts that the slaves of Antioch regarded Adonis and Christ, Mary and Aphrodite as interchangeable. The letters to the Galatians seem to be dealing with a possible defection there.
Paul’s letter to the Romans, on the other hand, was much more friendly. Rome was his stronghold and this letter offered encouragement for them as he was about to set out to Spain to found a new branch of the church there.
Both Philippians and Colossians are letters written from prison, although not at the same time. Although we can regard Paul as the leader of the right wing of the Christian movement, it is also important to keep in the background that the whole movement was in political opposition to the Roman ruling class despite the difference in methods and programme between left and right. It was inevitable therefore, as one of the leaders of the movement, Paul would fall foul of the authorities. The letter to the Philippians seems to indicate that this branch was one of his strongholds and that they sent him assistance when they heard of his imprisonment. The Colossians on the other hand is a letter written to a new branch that he does not know personally. In it, he backs up a local leader called Epaphras to whom he delegates the authority formally bound to the Church of Laodicia.
On the whole, Paul’s letters are concerned with the struggle between the tendencies in the Christian movement and principally Paul’s struggle against the gnostic sects and their revolutionary outlook. Not much of the argument refers to Christ himself and none to the gospels – they had yet to be written – and their function was political too. Paul never quotes Christ or refers to any incident in his life except for his death and resurrection and the Second Coming – the basic ideas of which he derived from matriarchal religion.
The Non-Pauline Letters
These are the letters that were attributed to Paul when Christianity’s right wing had finally defeated the opposition. They are quite different to the genuine Pauline letters. The letter to the Ephesians refers to nothing that would indicate the reason for the letter being written, neither does it mention the Church of Ephesus at all. The letter was in fact written at a much later date by a Paulinite and is a summary of Paulinite principles. It was not written to the Church at Ephesus but as a general circular. It was ascribed to Ephesus probably arbitrarily because as no other letter was found addressed to Ephesus. To the later church this seemed strange as Ephesus was one of the largest churches and strongly Paulinite. It is quite likely that the letter came from Ephesus, however, no polemical letters to Ephesus were ever necessary as they were never in dispute. This particular letter is not a polemic it is a straight and rather florid statement of Paulinite principles. E.J. Goodspeed who helped translate the letters for the Revised Version noted that the style is turgid and it has a “monstrous conglomeration” of sentences. Some have considered that the Ephesians has a strong gnostic flavour.
Timothy and Titus
The two letters, supposedly from Paul to Timothy and Titus – two of his lieutenants are fakes, written not earlier than the 2nd century. The church organisation described in them did not exist in Paul’s own day. The two letters purport to be from Paul instructing Timothy and Titus how to organise the church, how to carry out a service, a great deal is said on women, duties of deacons, archdeacons, bishops and so on. The two letters were not part of any early collection and when they were written the strictly hierarchical organisation of the Church was well established and ideologically Christianity was ready to collaborate with the Roman ruling class.
The letters were faked in order to show that Paul had ordained the authoritarian structure of the church. The organisation receiving retrospective sanctification reflected the hierarchy of the Roman government at this time. There is no reason why Paul should write a letter to his ‘lifelong’ companion and lieutenant at their headquarters in Ephesus explaining to him how to organise the church in a way that it was not to be organised for another 200 years at least. Whatever the drawbacks of Paul’s own position, he was in opposition to the Roman ruling class, not supporting or justifying or forming an ideological and material parallel to them, as the later church did. ‘Titus’ and ‘Timothy’ are inventions of the later church inserted to justify the authoritarian and hierarchical structure of a church about to become ‘official’.
Peter and Jude
Like the previous two letters, these too are fakes, written halfway through the second century. If Peter, the chief apostle of Christ, was active and writing letters then no doubt Paul’s letters would have mentioned him. The fact is, none of the apostles are mentioned by Paul. This would certainly point to the apostles being a later invention.
Both of these tracts were written for wide circulation and were aimed specifically against the ‘gnostic’ Christians, i.e. Ophites, Cainites for it was during the 2nd Century A.D. that the struggle between the left and right of Christianity reached its peak. Condemnations of the gnostics coming from the pens of St. Peter and St. Jude (suitably retrospective) were salvos in the struggle. Later on, as they appeared to condemn ‘heresy’ in general – of which there was no concept at the time – they could easily be incorporated into the Canon. Condemnation of heresy was an important aspect of Christianity as an official ideology, when the struggle was against the state’s enemies rather than the struggles within a particular movement.
The Letter to the Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews gained admission to the Canon (i.e. the New Testament) on the assertion that it was the word of St. Paul. This is generally recognised, even in the church, that the letter is a forgery. Unlike the genuine letters of Paul which are polemical, the ‘Hebrews’ is a philosophical work concerning the nature of Christ, suffering, obedience, the relation of Christ and the angels, his enthronement etc. The author is of a much later period than Paul.
James is the odd one out of the New Testament as there is no clue to its authorship. The James of this letter is supposed to be Christ’s brother (half brother!) but nothing is said that would prove this. It was probably one of a whole number of ‘letters’ and gospels that were circulating during the 2nd century. It was one of the last books to be accepted officially into the Canon.
The Synoptic Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. John has a different origin and was the last of the Canonical gospels to be written.
All four books purport to be ‘witness’ accounts but the precise date of their authorship is not known for certain except that they were all written after the letters of St. Paul.
The New Testament, as it exists today and since the establishment of official Christianity was selected out of a very large body of material available at the time, i.e. the third century A.D., the rest were rejected as being non-canonical and heretical.
The order that the books appear in the New Testament was carefully thought out by the compilers. It appears from the New Testament that Matthew’s gospel was written first followed by the others. After Christ’s death came the Acts of the Apostles and then the activities of St. Paul.
As has already been pointed out, Paul predated all the others and therefore had no gospel to quote although an oral tradition of Christ’s sayings had probably built up. It was not felt necessary until the late 1st century or 2nd century to describe the life and death of Christ and during the 2nd century a vast number of ‘gospels’ were written.
The gospels served a similar purpose to the letters. Each branch of the church and each faction felt it necessary to produce their own version of the ‘historical’ truth to prove the validity of their own position and to satisfy the curiosity bound to be aroused concerning what really happened. Many of them reflect also, the problems faced by a particular sect or area. During the second century no gospel was accepted as scripture, in terms of truth, the gospels of the left, later destined for oblivion, were in seen in equality to those we now see in the New Testament.
The first synoptic gospel to be written, was not Matthew but Mark. It is by far the simplest of the four and describes the miracles and events in a very rough and ready way. It begins abruptly, not describing the birth and it ends abruptly without describing events after the ‘Resurrection’. It was written in poor Greek. What specific purpose it served cannot be said except to meet a demand for a description of Christ’s life. The Catholic Church accepted Mark, but as an ‘inferior’ gospel and relegated to a place behind Matthew.
Matthew’s gospel was written using Mark as the basis. It was Mark’s basic outline but embellishes the details and intersperses a lot of quotes from scripture – the Old Testament – which do not appear in the earlier version. It is probable that ‘Matthew’ was a product of the Christian group in Palestine – either Caesarea or Jerusalem. It lays heavy emphasis on the scripture and is very strongly against the orthodox Jewish hierarchy.
Christianity in Palestine saw itself as a breakaway Jewish sect. Its energies were spent in the struggle against official Judaism. This gospel was the favourite of the early Catholic Church and was written with the intention of proving to Jewish listeners and readers that Christ actually was the Jewish Messiah. This is the reason why that Matthew begins with Christ’s genealogy tracking him back to King David (so conforming to prophesies). The quotations from the Jewish scriptures are intended to reinforce the point the gospel is making to the Jews themselves, The messianic ‘leader’ message later appealed to the fledgling state ideology of the fourth century because they were wishing to make an ideological parallel between Christ and the Roman Emperor.
The emphasis on the messianic ‘leader’ initially served to try to convince Jews that the Christian messiah was the same messiah they hoped would lead them to liberation. However, later on in the fourth century, this ‘leader’ served another purpose – to be an ideological parallel to the Roman Emperor. I believe that it is for this reason that Matthew was the favourite gospel of the Catholic Church and of the Roman Emperors – who are often depicted in church mosaics standing between St. Peter and St. Matthew in heaven.
Luke and the Acts of the Apostles
These two books began circulating as one volume around 180 A.D. They were written not to convert any specific sect or for edification of Christians but for open sale to the educated – the ruling class ‘public’ that existed at the time. They are an indication of how class collaborationist the right wing of the Christian movement had become by that time. One finds a similar type of writing from the right wing of the Labour Party today. This gospel was published in the Greek style scrolls on which books for sale were written during that period. The author dedicates the work to His Excellency Theophilus – who was not a Christian.
The Acts in particular were a public statement aimed at the Roman ruling class to the effect that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman state. It seeks to show that Christianity was not a class or sectional religion. Both Luke and the Acts – which were in reality one book – aims at an appeal for Christianity that overcomes the differences in nationality class but unites all in the Roman state.
Although modelled on the same basic outlines as the other two gospels, it is a skilful piece of propaganda. Before inclusion in the ‘Canon’ it underwent some editing. The ‘Acts’ were split from Luke, so that they could serve as a link between the four gospels and St. Paul. This created the fiction that Paul based his ideas on the gospel rather than the reality of his time.
St. John’s Gospel
The author of St. John’s gospel is a mystery. Careful examination of this gospel reveals the language of the gnostic opposition seeping through. It is a far more abstract tract than the synoptic gospels and is specifically directed against the gnostics using their own language and concepts. The abstract ‘idealistic’ slogans of the Ophites are thrown back at them for example, ‘God is Love’, ‘God is Light’. It is thought that after the Council of Nicea this gospel was only just accepted into the New Testament as it appears to tread a very narrow line between Gnosticism and Paulinism.
This gospel diverges significantly from the others by including accounts of private discussions between Christ and the apostles and Christ and the Jews. These “private” conversations are typical of the gnostic gospels. The miracles and parables that appear in the other three are carefully selected to suit the author’s purpose – perhaps to steal the Gnostics ‘cleverness’ without conceding anything to them.
This is the only ‘directly inspired’ divine book that appears in the New Testament and was selected out of a number of similar apolyptic writings. It was written in Asia Minor and contains descriptions of the last days of the world, prophesies of the antichrist, and the Last Judgment.
Such writings only make sense in context of the society they are written in and this one has to be seen in the light of the serious crisis of the Empire during the third century.
The Roman slave economy was disintegrating under the weight of its own contradictions, devastating plagues, population shifts bringing in barbarian invaders. To an educated Roman citizen at this time there must have been a sense of impending doom – the world was indeed very old and on the verge of ruin and collapse, the end of the Empire would soon be followed by the end of the world.
To sum up on the ‘canon’, there is no evidence whatever, that the gospels that we know as the ‘New Testament’ have any superiority over the rejected Christian material. The ‘canonical’ books were not written first and many of the ‘gnostic’ gospels were written and were circulating before some of the canonical ones. The gospels were not differentiated along the lines of ‘canonical’ and ‘heretical’ at the time they were written.
It appears that many gospels were used by Christians for different purposes as well as those produced by the sects that they belonged to themselves. Canonisation emerged very much later when the Roman ruling class began to see the right wing version of Christianity as a suitable ideological vehicle for the changed economic/political structure of the Roman state. The rigidity required for survival of the ruling class and the Roman state itself a halfway house to the rigidity of feudalism found an excellent ideology in later Christianity.
Sources – The Didache
Although Mark’s gospel is shown to be the prototype of the others, that gospel itself is an embellishment of earlier writings. One of the earliest known written materials to be circulating around the Christian church was called the Didache. This may have been the work of a church leader in Rome, possibly Clement. It is the prototype for Mark’s gospel. It was written between 70 – 90 A.D. and consists of a series of ‘commandments of Christ’. These are sayings attributed to Christ and are similar in context to those that appear in the gospels. It is based upon an oral collection of sayings collected by the author. Many of the sayings are worded differently to the gospels and point to its oral origin e.g. ‘Love God and honour your neighbour’. ‘The poor will inherit the earth’.
By the Second Century A.D. the churches were established in many areas and the leaders were writing tracts arguing and debating ideological points. Papias of Heiropolis is one of the earliest known writers after Paul and in his writing he quotes from both Mark and Matthew and equally from the ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’ a gnostic gospel later rejected.
Eusebius writing in the 3rd century condemned Papias for accepting too easily ‘strange parables’ hence the disappearance of most of Papias’s work.
Hermas of Rome, in the second century, wrote his own acknowledged tract called ‘The Shepherd’. In the scriptures, Matthew and Mark, the Gospel of the Hebrews (not to be confused with ‘Paul’s Letter’ to the Hebrews) and other gnostic material are quoted with equality.
A good example of the left/right 2nd century debate is to be found in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. From his letters it appears that Ignatius was familiar with the Pauline letters as well as Matthew and St. John. However, he never quotes any gospel as the equal of the scripture – the Old Testament in a debate with the Jewish Christians – probably Ophites. The Ophites decided that Ignatius’s views were not in any way supported by the scripture, they had written to him saying ‘If I do not find it in the scripture – I do not believe it in the gospel’. Ignatius’s reply was ‘It is written in the scripture’, but their answer was ‘That is just the question!’.
The significance of this will be seen in the profoundly different interpretation of the Old Testament by the right and left tendencies of Christianity.
Another early Christian writer, Polycarp of Smyrna says in his letters that while the ‘sayings of Christ’ are authoritative they cannot be regarded as ‘scripture’. In other words, early Christianity was a political ideological movement, not a set of given beliefs, the actual ‘facts’ about Christ himself did not have the relevance that they had later on.
However, it was the gnostic (i.e. left wing) of Christianity who produced the first great Christian writers. The first known of the gnostic writers was Marion. In Marion’s opinion the authentic teaching of Christ has been distorted by the Paulinite wing but he accept a ‘revised’ view of the Pauline letters and revised version of St. Luke as valid gospels,. Other gnostics – such as Valentian accepted the four (canonical) gospels and the Pauline letters but put such a different interpretation on them as to make them mean the opposite to the Pauline tendency’s understanding of them.
It was only right at the end of the Second century that some writers began to treat any of the gospels as equal to scripture. Clement of Alexandria, a Pauline follower, identified to his own satisfaction which gospels were ‘true’ and which were ‘false’. With a few minor exceptions his selection became the New Testament of the Catholic Church.
The greatest problem in understanding the struggle that went on lies in the fact that the right wing were victorious. Their writing and version of Christianity has been preserved. The defeated tendencies – the Gnostics had no successors, Their extensive writing has largely been lost – as no one had any particular interest in preserving it – unless there was some point that the official faction wished to adopt. Much of the material was probably deliberately suppressed, for the growth of ‘canonical’ belief produced its opposition – the concept of ‘heresy’.
Heresy became an official concept after Christianity became a state religion because to be a heretic was to be in political opposition to the ruling class. In the Second century, the gnostics claimed equal validity with the ‘catholic’ writng, nor was this disputed at the time. There are only four gnostic gospels remaining and some of these are only fragmentary. The Gospel according to the Hebrews’ is an Ophite gospel since the “Holy Spirit’ is depicted as Christ’s mother. There is also the ‘Gospel according to St. Peter’, the ‘Gospel according to St. Thomas’ and a gnostic version of ‘Acts of Apostles’.
No single decree or statute states which gospels were ‘true’ and which ones ‘false’. A third century list issued by the Roman church stipulates the ‘New Testament’ as being Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, thirteen Pauline letters (excluding Hebrews) Jude, St. John 1 x 2, the Wisdom of Solomon (removed much later from the Bible), Revelation of John, Revelation of St. Peter rejected after the Council of Nicea, epistle to the Laodicians, epistle to the Alexandrians. This list is obviously not the same as the New Testament of today but at this time even right wing Christianity was not an official state ideology so further revision was still possible.
One of the second century strongholds of the left was Egypt, particularly Alexandria. It is from Clement of Alexandria that we can derive some information concerning gnostic texts – now lost. Clement was not a gnostic himself but he did describe the texts that the gnostics in Egypt used. Clement states that as far as he knows there were three versions of Mark’s gospel circulating. The first one was the ‘orthodox’ version used by the Paulinites, the gnostics apparently had a version of Mark of their own and Clement states that there was yet a third version, one supposedly written in Mark’s own hand kept by the gnostics in Alexandria. Other texts used by the gnostics in the Alexandria Church were, according to Clement, the Gospel of St. Peter, Gospel of St. Thomas, the Acts of St. Andrew, the Gospel of St. John, the Gospel of St. Paul, Revelation of St. Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews, the epistle of Barnabas, the epistle of the Hebrews (later canonical), Revelation of St. John (now canonical)
The Christian “Left” (Gnostic)
‘Gnosticism’ is defined by the dictionary (Websters’ New Etymological) as Christians who maintained that knowledge and not faith was the way to salvation, claiming themselves to have a superior knowledge of spiritual things — from the Greek Gnostikos – good at knowing.
The early Christian movement was an opposition movement to the Roman ruling class. As we have seen, it was by no means united. The Second century was a period of sharp opposition and debate between what we may call the ‘right wing’ or ‘Paulinite’ or ‘reformist wing and left wing’ or ‘Gnostic wing’. The term ‘gnostic’ itself was used as a derogatory term when the struggle was all over. Those who wished to ‘know’ rather than have merely ‘faith’ were dangerous heretics when Christianity had won its position as the official ruling class ideology.
The right or Paulinite wing increasingly had a policy of converting the Romans to their ideology. In this they succeeded but at the cost of being converted themselves into instruments of power in the hands of that same ruling class. Not that the ruling class immediately saw the use of Christianity even the most right wing type.
Christianity originally was the religion of the oppressed – fundamental economic changes had to take place in the Roman Empire before the Paulinite version could be accepted. Even so, ‘conservative’ elements in the ruling class, wishing to retain the old slave holding society resisted the new ideology. For the classical economy of slavery the Roman religion was suitable ideology; for a feudalised, more military, economy a stricter hierarchical ideology was necessary.
Paulinite Christianity was easily adaptable to the purpose, for as the reformist wing, it had already a strong potential for elitism and hierarchical formation. Materially as it developed it copied the form of Roman administration and hierarchy so that when its time came it could offer material as well as ideological support to the degenerated Empire and its feudal successors.
The left wing, although comparable in strength to the Paulinites during the Second century were by no means comparable to a left wing movement among the modern working class. They tended to be regionally based, although the letter of ‘Jude’ and others seem to indicate that there was some contact across the Empire. The letters of Paul to Corinthians seem to indicate an intervention of gnostics in the Corinthian branch of the Church from elsewhere. These ‘visitors’ that were attacked by Paul seem to have had some success in winning the Corinthians power from the Paulinites to the left.
The major left grouping gave themselves the title ‘Ophite’. This title means ‘The Snake’ and it is one of the many features which connect Christianity, especially the gnostics, to the matriarchies of the Mediterranean and the middle east.
The old matriarchal religions survived in some form during the Roman Empire. They were the religions of slaves and oppressed peoples of the Empire – with the recent exception of the Jews. The ‘Ophite’ system successfully linked these old matriarchies into a unified whole and linked this to Jewish scripture. The link with Jewish scripture was an absolute necessity since the Jews were the focal point of resistance against Roman oppression.
From our vantage point in history, the Ophite use of scripture may seem ingenuous, if not a little contrived, but in the context of the 1st and 2nd centuries it is perfectly logical. Generally all gnostic sects held the Jewish scripture to be valid but a refutation of Jewish belief.
In other words, they accepted the scripture as true and therefore accepted the reality of the Jewish God but maintained that the purpose of Christ’s intervention on earth was to refute the laws of the Jewish God and overthrow the principles of patriarchy. Christ, therefore, was not God’s son but God’s superior come to supersede and overthrow him and reverse his laws. The ‘Ophite’ meant the ‘snake’, the snake of the Garden of Eden, evil for God but in fact good for mankind as the snake was none other than (for some sects) Christ in an earlier incarnation.
For the Ophites and allied sects, Christ was not a man, but a combined male/female entity. The Christ that came to earth was a combination of the Incorruptible Light of the Right Hand (male -Christ) and the Incorruptible Light of the Left Hand (female – Sophia). They had come to earth previously as the snake of the Garden of Eden (for the Cainites at least). Their first visit had been a failure, they attempted to give Adam and Eve knowledge but were thwarted by the Jewish God who was nothing more than a renegade angel.
There was no room in Ophite ideology for Lucifer and his cohorts. Hell was already here on earth created by the Jewish God, through the Jewish patriarchy and the Roman oppressors – not for them the crucifix of the Paulinites, but the snake of the old matriarchy.
In social terms their religious ideology meant the ‘Snake’ and not the crucifix of the Paulines. They opposed all Mosaic laws of oppression and practised the old matriarchy, abolishing marriage within their own membership and where women had total political and social equality. It was these factors (of which their religion was the political expression) that so scandalised and frightened the Paulinites. The attacks on women and ‘false prophets’ in Paul and other letters are not provoked through a desire to expand on the position of women in society but to attack the gnostic factions within their own movement.
By the end of the third century, the Ophites, Cainites, Sethites and other gnostic factions were defeated. Their writings fell to neglect and destruction for the Roman state was reestablishing itself on a new, lower economic basis with the support of the Paulinite church.
Gnosticism seems to have been centred n Syria and Samaria (the old Israel) originally, but spread to Alexandria and Greece. All gnostic sects rejected the Paulinite concept of ‘free will’ and none of them subscribed to the ‘Day of Judgment’ theory. They considered all human beings to consist of three parts
- a) The body, which in the Garden of Eden had been light and beautiful but was now dark, sluggish, and ugly.
- b) The soul given by the Jewish God
- c) The light given by Sophia. The struggle inside each human being was therefore for Sophia’s ‘light’ to liberate ‘God’s soul’.
There were various grades of liberation, but those who achieved the highest would rise up in spirit to enjoy sexual union with an angel (of whatever sex).
The function and purpose of Christ among gnostic sects had nothing to do with the ‘dying for our sins’ concept of the Paulinites. On the contrary, Christ’s purpose was more specific, to enlighten the human race of the errors of the Jewish God and the wisdom of Sophia. Some sects maintained that Christ was merely a prophet to whom Sophia had given the gift of knowledge, others doubted whether Christ had actually existed as a human being at all. Cenenthus, a gnostic writer – an Ophite maintained that Jesus was a pure man whose body had been entered by Nous (the snake) who was none other than Christ and Sophia. On leaving Jesus, the man had been unjustly crucified and he was resurrected to rectify this injustice.
It is difficult for us to imagine today that the gnostic version of Christianity was of equal standing with the (Paulinite) form of Christianity .
By the time that the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea – where hundreds of delegates, who travelled and were boarded at his own expense in 325, the Church was well established in terms of hierarchical organisation and Gnosticism had been long defeated.
However, to serve as an ideology for the newly reunified Roman Empire, now moving from Rome to Constantinople, Christianity itself had to be unified. Within the Church a new heresy had arisen, that of Arianism. The defeat of this heresy enabled the Roman state to establish religion of Christ the Pantocrator, the ruler of the world under God and of God – a reflection of how the Roman Emperor needed to be seen by the slave and semi feudal subjects of the Empire, an Empire not thriving and dominant as it had been in the 2nd century, but a military despotism under siege from without and in constant danger of collapse and opposition within.