The Rise and Rescue of the Jesus Sect (50 BC-AD 250)
Some time about the middle of the first century AD, and very likely in the year 49, Paul of Tarsus travelled south from Antioch to Jerusalem and there met the surviving followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified about sixteen years before. This Apostolic Conference, or Council of Jerusalem, is the first political act in the history of Christianity and the starting-point from which we can seek to reconstruct the nature of Jesus's teaching and the origins of the religion and church he brought into being.
We have two near-contemporary accounts of this Council. One, dating from the next decade, was dictated by Paul himself in his letter to the Christian congregations of Galatia in Asia Minor. The second is later and comes from a number of sources or eye-witness accounts assembled in Luke's Acts of the Apostles. It is a bland, quasi-official report of a dispute in the Church and its satisfactory resolution. Let us take this second version first. It relates that 'fierce dissension and controversy' had arisen in Antioch because 'certain persons', from Jerusalem and Judea, in flat contradiction to the teaching of Paul, had been telling converts to Christianity that they could not be saved unless they underwent the Jewish ritual of circumcision. As a result, Paul, his colleague Barnabas, and others from the mission to the gentiles in Antioch, travelled to Jerusalem to consult with 'the apostles and elders'.
There they had a mixed reception. They were welcomed by 'the church and the apostles and the elders'; but 'some of the Pharisaic party who had become believers' insisted that Paul was wrong and that all converts must not only be circumcized but taught to keep the Jewish law of Moses. There was 'a long debate', followed by speeches by Peter, who supported Paul, by Paul himself and Barnabas, and a summing up by James, the younger brother of Jesus. He put forward a compromise which was apparently adopted 'with the agreement of the whole Church'. Under this, Paul and his colleagues were to be sent back to Antioch accompanied by a Jerusalem delegation bearing a letter. The letter set out the terms of the compromise: converts need not submit to circumcision but they must observe Certain precepts in the Jewish law in matters of diet and sexual conduct. Luke's record in Acts states that this half-way position was arrived at 'unanimously', and that when the decision was conveyed to the Antioch congregation, 'all rejoiced'. The Jerusalem delegates were thus able to return to Jerusalem, having solved the problem, and Paul carried on with his mission.
This, then, is the account of the first council of the Church as presented by a consensus document, what one might call an eirenic and ecumenical version, designed to present the new religion as a mystical body with a co-ordinated and unified life of its own, moving to inevitable and predestined conclusions. Acts, indeed, says specifically that the ruling of the Council was 'the decision of the Holy Spirit'. No wonder it was accepted unanimously ! No wonder that 'all' in Antioch 'rejoiced at the encouragement it brought'.
Paul's version, however, presents quite a different picture. And his is not merely an eye-witness account, but an account by the chief and central participant, perhaps the only one who grasped the magnitude of the issues at slake. Paul is not interested in smoothing the ragged edges of controversy. He is presenting a case to men and women whose spiritual lives are dominated by the issues confronting the elders in that room in Jerusalem. His purpose is not eirenic or ecumenical, still less diplomatic. He is a man burning to tell the truth and to imprint it like fire in the minds of his readers. In the apochryphal Acts of Paul, written perhaps a hundred years after his death, the tradition of his physical appearance is vividly preserved: '...a little man with a big, bold head. His legs were crooked, but his bearing was noble. His eyebrows grew close together and he had a big nose. A man who breathed friendliness.' He himself says that his appearance was unimpressive. He was, he admits, no orator; not, in externals, a charismatic leader. But the authentic letters which survive him radiate the inner charisma: they have the ineffaceable imprint of a massive personality, eager, adventurous, tireless, voluble, a man who struggles heroically for the truth and then delivers it in uncontrollable excitement, hurrying ahead of his powers of articulation. Not a man easy to work with, or confute in argument, or rebuke into silence, or to advance a compromise: a dangerous, angular, unforgettable man, breathing friendliness, indeed, but creating monstrous difficulties and declining to resolve them by any sacrifice of the truth.
Moreover, Paul was quite sure he had got the truth. He has no reference to the Holy Spirit endorsing, or even advancing, the compromise solution as presented by Luke. In his Galatians letter, a few sentences before his version of the Jerusalem Council, he dismisses, as it were, any idea of a conciliar system directing the affairs of the Church, any appeal to the judgment of mortal men sitting in council. 'I must make it clear to you, my friends,' he writes, 'that the gospel you heard me preach is no human invention. I did not take it over from any man; no man taught it me; I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.' Hence, when he comes to describe the council and its consequences he writes exactly as he feels, in harsh, concrete and unambiguous terms. His Council is not a gathering of inspired pneumatics, operating in accordance with infallible guidance from the spirit, but a human conference of weak and vulnerable men, of whom he alone had a divine mandate. How, as Paul saw it, could it be otherwise? Jewish elements were wrecking his mission in Antioch, which he was conducting on the express instructions of God, 'who had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace, chose to reveal his Son to me and through me, in order that I might proclaim him among the gentiles'. To defeat them, therefore, he went to Jerusalem 'because it had been revealed by God that I should do so'. He saw the leaders of the Jerusalem Christians, 'the men of repute', as he terms them, 'at a private interview'. These men, James, Christ's brother, the Apostles Peter and John, 'those reputed pillars of our society', were inclined to accept the gospel as Paul taught it and to acknowledge his credentials as an apostle and teacher of Christ's doctrine. They divided up the missionary territory, 'agreeing that we should go to the gentiles while they went to the Jews'. All they asked was that Paul should ensure that his gentile congregations should provide financial support for the Jerusalem Church, 'which was the very thing I made it my business to do.' Having reached this bargain, Paul and the pillars 'shook hands on it'. There is no mention that Paul made concessions on doctrine. On the contrary, he complains that enforcing circumcision on converts had hitherto been 'urged' as a sop to 'certain sham-Christians, interlopers who had stolen in to spy upon the liberty we enjoy in the fellowship of Jesus Christ'. But 'not for a moment did I yield to their dictation.' He was 'determined on the full truth of the gospel'. Unfortunately, continues Paul, his apparent victory at Jerusalem did not end the matter. The 'pillars', who had contracted to stand firm against the Jewish 'sham-Christians', in return for financial support, did not do so. When Peter later came to Antioch, he was prepared at first to treat gentile Christians as religious and racial equals and eat his meals with them; but then, when emissaries from James arrived in the city, he 'drew back and began to hold aloof, because he was afraid of the advocates of circumcision'. Peter was 'clearly in the wrong'. Paul told him so 'to his face'. Alas, others showed the 'same lack of principle', even Barnabas, who 'played false like the rest'. Paul writes in a context in which the battle, far from being won, is continuing and becoming more intense; and he gives the distinct impression that he fears it could be lost.
Paul writes with passion, urgency and fear. He disagrees with the account in Acts not merely because he sees the facts differently but because he has an altogether more radical idea of their importance. For Luke, the Jerusalem Council is an ecclesiastical incident. For Paul, it is part of the greatest struggle ever waged. What lies behind it are two unresolved questions. Had Jesus Christ founded a new religion, the true one at last? Or, to put it another way, was he God or man? If Paul is vindicated, Christianity is born. If he is overruled, the teachings of Jesus become nothing more than the hallmarks of a Jewish sect, doomed to be submerged in the mainstream of an ancient creed.
To demonstrate why Paul's analysis was substantially correct, and the dispute the first great turning point in the history of Christianity, we must first examine the relationship between Judaism and the world of the first century AD. By the time of Christ, the Roman republic, which had been doubling in size with every generation, had expanded to encompass the whole of the Mediterranean theatre. It was in some respects a liberal empire, bearing the marks of its origins. This was a new, indeed unique, conjunction in world history: an empire which imposed stability and so made possible freedom of trade and communications throughout a vast area, yet did not seek to regiment ideas or inhibit their exchange and propagation. The Roman law could be brutal and was always relentless, but it still operated over a comparatively limited area of human conduct. Many fields of economic and cultural activity lay outside its scope. Moreover, even where the law prescribed, it was not always assiduous. Roman law tended to sleep unless infractions were brought to its attention by the external signs of disorder: vociferous complaints, breaches of the peace, riots. Then it warned, and if its warnings went unheeded, acted with ferocity until silence was reimposed; afterwards, it would sleep again. Within Roman rule, a sensible and circumspect man, however antinomian his views, could survive and flourish, and even propagate them; it was one very important reason why Rome was able to extend and perpetuate itself.
In particular, Rome was tolerant towards the two great philosophical and religious cultures which confronted it in the central and eastern Mediterranean: Hellenism and Judaism. Rome's own republican religion was ancient but primitive and jejune. It was a religion of State, concerned with civil virtues and outward observance. It was administered by paid government functionaries and its purposes and style were indistinguishable from those of the State. It did not touch the heart or impose burdens on a man's credulity. Cicero and other intellectuals defended it on no higher grounds than that it was an aid to public decorum. Of course, being a state religion, it modified itself as the forms of government changed. When the republic failed, the new emperor became, ex officio, the pontifex maximus. Imperialism was an eastern idea; and it carried with it the notion of quasi-divine powers invested in the ruler. Accordingly, after the death of Caesar, the Roman senate usually voted the deification of an emperor, provided he had been successul and admired; a witness would swear he had seen the dead man's soul wing to heaven from the funeral pyre. But the system which linked divinity to government was observed more in the letter than the spirit; sometimes not even in the letter. Emperors who claimed divinity in their lifetimes - Caligula, Nero, Domitian -were not so honoured once they were safely dead; and the compulsory veneration of a living emperor was more likely to be enforced in the provinces than in Rome. Even in the provinces the public sacrifices were simply a routine genuflection to government; on the vast majority of Rome's citizens and subjects they imposed no burden of conscience.
The State's compulsory but marginal civic creed thus left ample freedom for the psyche within the empire. Every man could have and practise a second religion if he chose. Or, to put it another way, the mandatory civic cult made possible freedom of worship. The choice was enormous. There were some cults of specific Roman origin and taste. Then, all the subject peoples who had been absorbed into the empire had their own gods and goddesses; they often won adherents because they were not identified with the State and their native ceremonies and priests had exotic glamour. The religious scene was constantly shifting. All, and especially the well-to-do, were encouraged to participate in it by the very nature of the educational system, which was identified with no cult but was in a sense the domicile of all. The empirical quest for religious truth was inseparable from any other form of knowledge. Theology was part of philosophy, or vice versa; and rhetoric, the art of proof and disproof, was the handmaiden of both. The common language of the empire was Greek and it was especially the tongue of business, education, and truth-seeking. And Greek, as a language and as a culture, was transforming the Roman worldview of religious experience. Greek religion, like Roman, had been in origin a series of city-cults, public demonstrations of fear, respect and gratitude towards the home-gods of the city-state. Alexander's creation of a Hellenic empire had transformed the city-states into a vast territorial unit, in which the free citizen was no longer, as a rule, directly involved in government. He thus had time, opportunity, and above all motive to develop his private sphere and explore his own individual and personal responsibilities. Philosophy began to direct itself increasingly to intimate conduct. Thus, under the impulse of the Greek genius, an age of personal religion opened. What had hitherto been purely a matter of tribal, racial, city, state or -- in the loosest sense -- social conformity now became a matter of individual concern. Who am I? Where am I going? What do I believe? What, then, must I do? These questions were being asked-increasingly, and not only by Greeks. The Romans were undergoing a similar process of emancipation from all-demanding civic duty. Indeed, one could say that the world-empire itself freed multitudes from the burdens of public concern and gave them leisure to study their navels. In the schools, the stress was increasingly on moral teaching, chiefly Stoic in origin. Lists of vices and virtues, and the duties of fathers to children, husbands to wives, masters to slaves -- and vice versa -- were compiled.
But this, of course, was mere ethics, not essentially different from municipal codes of behaviour. The schools did not, or could not, answer many questions now regarded as fundamental and urgent, questions which revolved around the nature of the soul and its future, and its relationship to the universe and eternity. And once such questions were asked, and recorded as having been asked, they would not go away: civilization was maturing. In the Middle Ages, Christian metaphysicians were to portray the Greeks in the decades before Christ as struggling manfully but blindly towards a knowledge of God, trying, as it were, to conjure up Jesus out of the thin Athenian air, to invent Christianity out of their poor pagan heads. In a sense, this supposition is right: the world was intellectually ready for Christianity. It was waiting for God. But it is unlikely the Hellenic world could have produced such a system from its own resources. Its intellectual weapons were various and powerful. It had a theory of nature and a cosmology of sorts. It had logic and mathematics, the rudiments of an empirical science. It could develop methodologies. But it lacked the imagination to relate history to speculation, to produce that startling blend of the real and the ideal which is the religious dynamic. The Greek culture was an intellectual machine for the elucidation and transformation of religious ideas. You put in a theological concept and it emerged in a highly sophisticated form, communicable to the entire civilized world. But Greece could not, or at any rate did not, produce the ideas themselves. These came from the east, from Babylon, Persia, Egypt, mostly tribal or national cults in origin, later liberated from time and place by transformation into cults attached to individual deities. These gods and goddesses lost their localities, changed their names, amalgamated themselves with other, once-national or tribal gods, and then, in turn, moved westwards and were syncretized with the gods of Greece and Rome: thus the Baal of Dolichenus was identified with Zeus and Jupiter, Isis with Ishtar and Aphrodite. By the time of Christ there were hundreds of such cults, perhaps thousands of sub-cults. There were cults for all races, classes and tastes, cults for every trade and situation in life. A new form of religious community appeared for the first time in history: not a nation celebrating its patriotic cult, but a voluntary group, in which social, racial and national distinctions were transcended: men and women coming together just as individuals, before their god.
Thus the religious climate, though infinitely various, was no longer wholly bewildering: it was beginning to clear. Indeed, these new forms of voluntary religious association had a tendency to develop in certain particular and significant directions. The new gods were increasingly seen as 'Lords' and their worshippers as servants; there was a growth of the ruler-cult, with the king-god as saviour and his enthronement as the dawn of civilization. Above all, there was a marked tendency towards monotheism. More and more men were looking not just for a god, but God, the God. In the strongly syncretist Hellenic world, where the effort to reconcile religions was most persistent and successful, the gnostic cults which were now emerging, and which offered new keys to the universe, were based on the necessity of monotheism, even though they assumed a dualistic universe operated by rival forces of good and evil. So the religious scene was moving, progressing all the time. What it lacked was any kind of stability. It became increasingly less likely that an educated man would support the cult of his parents, let alone his grandparents; or even that he would fail to change his cult once, perhaps twice, in his life. And, perhaps less noticeably, the cults themselves were in constant osmosis. We do not know enough about the time to provide complete explanations for this constant and ubiquitous religious flux. But it is obvious enough that the old city and national creeds were now hopelessly obsolete except as aids to public decorum, and the oriental mystery cults, though syncretized and rendered sophisticated by the Hellenic philosophical machine, still could not provide a satisfactory account of man and his future. There were huge gaps and anomalies in all the systems. And the frantic efforts to plug them produced disintegration, and so yet more change.
It is at this point in the argument that we see the crucial relevance of the Jewish impingement on the Roman world. For the Jews not merely had a god; they had God. They had been monotheists for at least two millennia. They had resisted with infinite fortitude and sometimes with grievous suffering, the temptations and ravages of eastern polytheistic systems. It is true that their god was originally tribal, and more recently national; in fact he was still national, and since he was closely and intimately associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, he was in some way municipal too. But Judaism was also, and very much so, an interior religion, pressing closely and heavily on the individual, who was burdened with a multitude of injunctions and prohibitions which posed acute problems of interpretation and scruple. The practising Jew was essentially homo religiosus as well as a functionary of a patriotic cult. The two aspects might even conflict, for Pompey was able to breach the walls of Jerusalem in 65 BC primarily because the stricter elements among the Jewish defenders refused to bear arms on the sabbath.
It could be said, in fact, that the power and dynamism of the Jewish faith transcended the military capacity of the Jewish people. The Jewish state might, and did, succumb to empires, but its religious expression survived, flourished and violently resisted cultural assimilation or change. Judaism was greater than the sum of its parts. Its angular will to survive was the key to recent Jewish history. Like other Middle-eastern states, Jewish Palestine had fallen to Alexander of Macedon and then had become a prize in the dynastic struggles which followed his death in 323 BC. It had eventually fallen to the Graeco-oriental monarchy of the Seleucids, but had successfully resisted Hellenization. The attempt by the Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes, in 168 BC, to impose Hellenic norms on Jerusalem, and especially on the Temple, had provoked armed revolt. There was then, and there remained throughout this period, a Hellenizing party among the Jews, anxious to submit to the cultural processing-machine. But it never formed the majority, and it was to the majority that the Maccabean brothers appealed against the Seleucids, seizing Jerusalem, and cleansing the Temple of Greek impurities in 165 BC. This bitter religious war inevitably strengthened the connection in the Jewish mind between history, religion, and the future aspirations of the people and the individual, no real distinction being drawn between national destiny and a personal eternity of happiness. But the connection was variously interpreted and rival predictions and theories jostled each other in the sacred books. The oldest of the Maccabean writings in the Old Testament, opposing the revolt led by the brothers, is the Book of Daniel, which foretells the fall of empires through the agency of God, not man: 'one like a son of man' will come on the clouds of heaven, embodying the apocalyptic hope of the Jews, and accompanied by a general resurrection of the dead. By contrast, the first book of Maccabees insists that God helps those who help themselves. Its successor, by Jason of Cyrene, emphasizes the transcendent power of God and reverts to the idea of a bodily resurrection and the potency of miracles.
The Jews, then, were unanimous in seeing history as a reflection of God's activity. The past was not a series of haphazard events but unrolled remorselessly according to a divine plan which was also a blueprint and code of instructions for the future. But the blueprint was cloudy; the code uncracked; or, rather, there were rival and constantly changing systems for cracking it. And, since the Jews could not agree on how to interpret their past or how to prepare for the future, they tended to be equally divided on what they should do at present. Jewish opinion was a powerful force, but an exceptionally volatile and fragmented one. Jewish politics were the politics of division and faction. After the Maccabean revolt, the Jews had kings who were also high priests, accorded recognition by an expanding Roman empire, but rivalries of scriptural interpretation led to irreconcilable disputes over policies, successions, claims, descents. There was a strong element in the Jewish priesthood and society which regarded Rome as the least of various evils, and it was this faction which invited Pompey's intervention in 65 BC.
Granted a stable political framework, the Jewish potential was enormous. The Jews could not provide stability for themselves and the Romans did not find it easy either, chiefly because they could not decide on the constitutional status of their acquisition, a recurrent problem in their empire. Confronted with a stiff-necked subordinate people, with a strong cultural tradition of its own, they always hesitated to impose direct rule, except in extremis, preferring, instead, to work with a local 'strong man', personally attached to Rome, who could deal with his subjects in their own vernacular of law and custom; such a man could be rewarded (and contained) if successful, dropped and replaced if he failed. Thus Judea was placed under the new province of Syria, ruled by a governor in Antioch and local authority was entrusted to ethnarchs, recognized as 'kings' if they proved themselves sufficiently durable and ruthless. Under the Syrian province, Herod, who seized the Judean throne in 43 BC, was confirmed as 'King of the Jews' four years later, and granted Roman approval and protection. Herod was the type of man with whom Rome preferred to deal, to the point where they accepted and endorsed his arrangement for dividing his kingdom after his death among three sons, Archelaus, who got Judea, Herod Philip, and Herod Antipas. The division was not entirely successful, for in AD 6 Judea had to be placed in direct Roman custody under a succession of procurators; and in the 60s, the system as a whole blew up, in a disastrous revolt and bloody reprisal, the cycle repeating itself in the next century, until Rome, in exasperation, razed Jerusalem to the ground and rebuilt it as a pagan city. The Romans never solved the Palestine problem.
Nevertheless, especially in its early decades under Herod the Great, Rome's relationship with the Jews was fruitful. There was already a huge Jewish diaspora, especially in the great cities of the eastern Mediterranean -- Alexandria, Antioch, Tarsus, Ephesus, and so forth. Rome itself had a large and rich Jewish colony. During the Herodian years, the diaspora expanded and flourished. The empire gave the Jews equality of economic opportunity and freedom of movement for goods and persons. They formed wealthy communities wherever the Romans had imposed stability. And in Herod they had a munificent and powerful patron. To many Jews he was suspect and some refused to recognize him as a Jew at all -- not on account of his voluptuous and exceptionally violent private life, but because of his Hellenic attachments. But Herod was unquestionably generous to the Jews. In Jerusalem, he rebuilt the Temple on twice the scale of Solomon. This huge and magnificent enterprise was still uncompleted at Herod's death in 4 BC, and was finished in Jesus's lifetime. It was large and expensive even by the standards of Graeco-Roman architecture, and one of the great tourist sights of the empire: an impressive symbol of a fierce, living, expanding religion. Herod was equally generous to the diaspora Jews. In all the big cities he provided them with community centres and he endowed and built scores of synagogues, the new type of ecclesiastical institution, prototype of the Christian basilica, where services were held for the dispersed. In the great Roman cities, the Jewish communities gave an impression of wealth, increasing power, self-confidence and success. Within the Roman system, they were exceptionally privileged. Many of the diaspora Jews were already Roman citizens, and all Jews, since the days of Julius Caesar, who greatly admired them, enjoyed rights of association. This meant they could meet to hold religious services, community dinners and feasts, and for every kind of social and charitable purpose. The Romans recognized the strength of Jewish religious feelings by, in effect, exempting them from observance of the state religion. In place of emperor-worship, the Jews were allowed to show their respect for the state by offering sacrifices on the emperor's behalf. This was a unique concession. The wonder is that it was not more resented. But the diaspora Jews were, on the whole, admired and imitated, rather than envied. They were not in the least self-effacing. They could, when they chose, play a leading role in municipal politics, especially in Egypt, where they were perhaps over a million strong. Some had notable careers in the imperial service. Among these there were passionate admirers of the Roman system, like the historian Josephus, or the philosopher Philo. While the Jews of Judea, and still more so of semi-Jewish areas like Galilee, tended to be poor, backward, obscurantist, narrow-minded, fundamentalist, uncultured and xenophobic, the diaspora Jews were expansive, rich, cosmopolitan, well-adjusted to Roman norms and to Hellenic culture, Greek-speaking, literate and open to ideas.
They were also, in notable contrast to the Palestine Jews, anxious to spread their religion. In general, diaspora Jews were proselytizers, often passionately so. Throughout this period some Jews at least had universalist aims, and hoped that Israel would be 'the light of the gentiles'. The Greek adaptation of the Old Testament, or Septuagint, which was composed in Alexandria and was widely used in diaspora communities, has an expansionist and missionary flavour quite alien to the original. And there were in all probability catechisms and manuals for aspiring converts, reflecting the liberal-mindedness and large-heartedness of the diaspora Jew to the gentile. Philo, too, projected in his philosophy the concept of a gentile mission and wrote joyfully: 'There is not a single Greek or barbarian city, not a single people, to which the custom of Sabbath observance has not spread, or in which the feast days, the kindling of the lights, and many of our prohibitions about food are not heeded.' This claim was generally true. Though it is impossible to present accurate figures, it is clear that by the time of Christ the diaspora Jews greatly outnumbered the settled Jews of Palestine: perhaps by as many as 4.5 million to 1 million. Those attached in some way to the Jewish faith formed a significant proportion of the total population of the empire and in Egypt, where they were most strongly entrenched, one in every seven or eight inhabitants was a Jew. A large proportion of these people were not Jewish by race. Nor were they full Jews in the religious sense: that is, few of them were circumcized or expected to obey the law in all its rigour. Most of them were noachides, or God-fearers. They recognized and worshipped the Jewish God and they were permitted to mingle with synagogue worshippers to learn Jewish law and customs -- exactly like the future Christian catechumens. But, unlike the catechumens, they were not generally expected to become full Jews; they had intermediate status of various kinds. On the other hand, they seemed to have played a full role in Jewish social arrangements. Indeed, this was a great part of the appeal of diaspora Judaism. The Jews, with their long and assured tradition of monotheism, had much to offer to a world looking for a sure, single god, but their ethics were in some ways even more attractive than their theology. The Jews were admired for their stable family life, for their attachment to chastity while avoiding the excesses of celibacy, for the impressive relationships they sustained between children and parents, for the peculiar value they attached to human life, for their abhorrence of theft and their scrupulosity in business. But even more striking was their system of communal charity. They had always been accustomed to remit funds to Jerusalem for the upkeep of the Temple and the relief of the poor. During the Herodian period they also developed, in the big diaspora cities, elaborate welfare services for the indigent, the poor, the sick, widows and orphans, prisoners and incurables. These arrangements were much talked about and even imitated; and, of course, they became a leading feature of the earliest Christian communities and a principal reason for the spread of Christianity in the cities. On the eve of the Christian mission they produced converts to Judaism from all classes, including the highest: Nero's empress, Poppaea, and her court circle, were almost certainly God-fearers, and King Izates II of Adiabene on the Upper Tigris embraced a form of Judaism with all his house. There were probably other exalted converts. Certainly many authors, including Seneca, Tacitus, Suetonius, Horace and Juvenal, testify to successful Jewish missionary activity in the period before the fall of Jerusalem.
Was there a real possibility that Judaism might become the world religion in an age which longed for one? Or, to put it another way, if Christianity had not intervened, capitalized on many of the advantages of Judaism, and taken over its proselytizing role, might Judaism have continued to spread until it captured the empire? That was the way some Jews in the diaspora certainly wished to go; the same Jews, of course, who embraced Christianity when the opportunity arose. But plainly Judaism could not become a world religion without agonizing changes in its teaching and organization. It bore the marks of its tribal origins in more than a notional sense. The priests were supposed to be descendants of the tribe of Aaron, temple-attendants of Levi, kings and rulers of David, and so forth. These rules were not always observed and exact heredity was a matter of guesswork, imagination or downright fraud, but manifest breaches were always resented and frequently led to violence and schism over generations. Then, too, there was the obstacle of circumcision, on which no compromise seemed possible within the Judaic framework; and the monstrous ramifications of a legal system which had elaborated itself over many generations. The Jewish scriptures, formidable in bulk and often of impenetrable obscurity, gave employment in Palestine to a vast cottage industry of scribes and lawyers, both amateur and professional, filling whole libraries with their commentaries, enmeshing the Jewish world in a web of canon law, luxuriant with its internal conflicts and its mutual exclusions, too complex for any one mind to comprehend, bread and butter for a proliferating clergy and an infinite series of traps for the righteous. The ultimate success of a Gentile mission would depend on the scale and hardihood of the demolition work carried out on this labyrinth of Mosaic jurisprudence.
And where would the demolition stop? Must it not be extended to the Temple itself, whose very existence as the geographical pivot of the faith anchored it firmly in place and history, and thus denied its universality? The Temple, now, in Herod's version, rising triumphantly over Jerusalem, was an ocular reminder that Judaism was about Jews and their history -- not about anyone else. Other gods flew in across the deserts from the East without much difficulty, jettisoning the inconvenient and embarassing accretions from their past, changing, as it were, their accents and manners as well as their names. But the God of the Jews was still alive and roaring in his Temple, demanding blood, making no attempt to conceal his racial and primitive origins. Herod's fabric was elegant, modern, sophisticated -- he had, indeed, added some Hellenic decorative effects much resented by fundamentalist Jews who constantly sought to destroy them -- but nothing could hide the essential business of the Temple, which was the ritual slaughter, consumption and combustion of sacrificial cattle on a gigantic scale. The place was as vast as a small city. There were literally thousands of priests, attendants, temple-soldiers and minions. To the unprepared visitor, the dignity and charity of Jewish diaspora life, the thoughtful comments and homilies of the Alexandrian synagogue, was quite lost amid the smoke of the pyres, the bellows of terrified beasts, the sluices of blood, the abattoir stench, the unconcealed and unconcealable machinery of tribal religion inflated by modern wealth to an industrial scale. Sophisticated Romans who knew the Judaism of the diaspora found it hard to understand the hostility towards the Jews shown by colonial officials who, behind a heavily-armed escort, had witnessed Jerusalem at festival time. Diaspora Judaism, liberal and outward-minded, contained the matrix of a universal religion, but only if it could be cut off from its barbarous origins; and how could so thick and sinewy an umbilical cord be severed?
In a sense, the same problem and tension could be felt within Palestine Judaism. Jews were aware of the huge dynamic within their faith and of the almost intolerable restraints from the past which bound and emasculated it. Able, industrious, God-fearing, they felt bitter and frustrated by their manifest inability to solve their political problems. There was a yawning gap between their religious pretensions, their historical claims, their elect status, on the one hand, and the ugly reality of poverty and subservience to the kittim. Was there not something monstrously wrong with a nation which complained bitterly of Roman taxation and misrule, yet insisted that the empire was at least preferable to the mess the Jews would make of it themselves? To what extent was the disjunction between Jewish aspiration and performance the responsibility of a fallacious religious analysis and prognosis? These questions and others, constantly asked, never satisfactorily answered, kept the Jewish world on the brink of a perpetual reformation. In some ways Judaism was highly unstable, and it was certainly fissiparous. It had gaps. The Jews took their theory of nature from the Greeks. There is no proper cosmology in the Old Testament; it was not entirely clear to the Jews where exactly God was in relation to man, in either space or time. Satan rarely made his appearance so could not be regarded as the causal agent of sin, and only a few Jews accepted the oriental explanation of twin worlds of good and evil, forever battling. All Jews acknowledged angels, intermediate beings in strict hierarchical order. But they did not really have a theory of God. God did things: created the world, guided it, chose Israel, laid down the law; but it was not clear why he existed or what his ultimate purpose and ambition was. He appeared eccentric, sometimes motiveless. Nor was he all-powerful since, as judge, he was bound by his own law. In a sense, then, the law was God; there was thus no room for grace and a man could save himself only by his good works. His relationship with God, therefore, was a purely legalistic one. This might have been tolerable had the law been clear. But most of it was not statute but case-law. It did not lay down instructions for daily life but was a comprehensive collection of possible instances, with extensive discussion. A great deal of it was concerned with the Temple itself. Some of it was archaic, irrelevant; much of the rest was open to violent disagreement.
Quarrels over varied approaches to the law were compounded by rival interpretations of the post-Maccabean situation. Palestine Judaism was not a unitary religion but a collection of sects: it is possible, even from the fragmentary sources, to ennumerate as many as twenty-four. All the sects were monotheistic, of course, and all accepted the law in some form. But agreement went no further. The Samaritans had broken the connection with the Temple and had their own sanctuary on Mount Gerizim; many would not allow them to be Jews at all. On the other hand, the Essenes did not recognize the Temple either and they were agreed to be one of the purest and strictest sects. There was no ruling orthodoxy: that is, hieratic power was not identified with the prevailing tendency. The high priesthood, under the procuratorship, was in the hands of Sadducee aristocrats, who supported and upheld the Roman occupation. They were rich, conservative, linked among themselves by complex family alliances, had large estates and saw Roman rule underpinning all these things more securely than a national kingship. We do not know much about their teaching, since Judaism achieved a high degree of Pharisaic unity after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and Sadducee traditions were not preserved. But they do not seem to have believed in life after death or the intervention of providence. Their religion was defective and in some respects quite impracticable, since they interpreted the law literally without any allowance for historical change, so they could have no popular following. They were, in fact, a class of collaborators, ruling the colony through the High Council of Jerusalem, which sat on the Temple Mount, and was referred to as the Sanhedrin. The Romans upheld the powers of the Council and when necessary enforced Jewish cult rules, such as the exclusion of Gentiles from the Temple. They addressed their official letters to the 'rulers, senate and people of the Jerusalemites', thus giving the Sanhedrin the status of an elective municipality in a major city. In fact, throughout this period it was little more than the family circle of Annas, the high priest, who was appointed by the procurator and removable at will.
True, its seventy members, priests, elders and scribes, included a good many Pharisees, who can be described as the middle-class popular party. They were there for convenience, and of necessity, for the overwhelming majority of lawyers were Pharisees. But the two factions disagreed on virtually every issue; in fact the prosecution of Christ is one of the few occasions on which Sadducees and Pharisees are recorded as having worked together. There were many schools among the Pharisees, but most held no brief for the Romans; they were, in varying degrees, nationalists, and some were Zealots, prepared to rise with violence when the scriptures seemed to command it. Josephus describes them as 'a party of Jews who seem to be more religious than the others, and explain the laws with more minute care'. He adds that they used tradition to interpret scripture and the laws in a sensible manner. They were in fact working canon lawyers and casuists. They rejected the strict and defeatist immobility of the Sadducees and beavered away with great learning and ingenuity to make observance of the law possible in a rapidly changing society. Without them the Judaic system could not be made to work at all. Of course the casuistic effort often placed them in an unfavourable light, but they could also be presented as empiricists, serious but friendly and human. When Jesus said that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, he was quoting a Pharisaic formula; and when he announced his 'great commandment' he was giving a heightened version of a saying taught by one of the liberal Pharisee rabbis, Hillel. The Pharisees were many and ubiquitous (not least in the diaspora); their activities were almost coextensive with the Jewish nation as a whole. Anyone operating among the Jews had to take up a posture towards them. And in some ways their teaching was satisfactory. They were quite clear there was life after death. The righteous would rise again. The wicked would be eternally punished. But wickedness, of course, was determined by infractions of the law, a burden the Pharisees could (up to a point) ease, explain and justify but never remove. Even God, it seemed, could not remove the law. Thus life was a series of daily court-cases, settled on technicalities, whose ethical quality was not improved by the fact that anything not specifically forbidden by the law was licit.
Even so, there were sects in Jewish society who regarded the ruling priestly groups in Jerusalem as hopelessly corrupt and compromised, and who sought by direct action to restore the theocratic state in all its purity. One such had formed itself, from among descendants of the high-priest Zadoc, and from the priestly tribe of Aaron, around the middle of the second century BC. Their leader was an unidentified Temple official referred to as the Teacher of Righteousness, and their chief grievance was the appointment of a high priest from outside the priestly tribes. Having failed to win their point they left the Temple and set up an alternative and purified focus of worship in the desert near the Dead Sea. The Essene sect, as it was called, had existed for about 150 years by the time of Jesus's birth and was an important and respected movement in Judaism. Josephus says that there were about 4,000 Essenes (as opposed to 6,000 Pharisees); there were groups of them in all Jewish towns, and various desert settlements or camps in Syria and Egypt, as well as in Palestine. But their chief centre, where about 200 of them lived, was at Qumran.
It is one of the ironies of history that the Essenes, in their concern for the purity of the Temple, stumbled on a theological concept which made the Temple no longer significant as a physical and geographic fact, and thus opened the way to the universalist principle. The founders of the Essenes, as priests, were a closed hereditary group, born not made: their holiness was directly derived from the Temple, since Yahweh himself dwelt there, with his presence, or shekinah, in the Holy of Holies, from whence holiness spread in concentric circles with diminishing intensity. When they moved to Qumran, they took enormous pains to preserve the purity of their status and devotions. Indeed they seemed to have hoped that, by presenting themselves as a superpure elect within an elect, they could eventually strike a new covenant with God. In the meantime they observed the Temple laws with extra care. We know their rules from the scrolls which have been recovered from caves near the Dead Sea; and their efforts to achieve the maximum of ritual purity by endless lustrations are reflected in the elaborate plumbing arrangements which have been identified at the Qumran site. Like the Temple priests, only more so, the Essene functionaries had to wear special garments, which were constantly changed and washed; they had to be careful not to touch anything polluted, and to take ceremonial baths. They had to be without physical blemish, following Leviticus: 'For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long....' Those described as weak or blemished occupied inferior roles. The Qumran priests performed blessings and cursings, and read out proclamations, in exactly the same way as the Temple priests.
The Qumran monastery, in fact, was an alternative Temple, set up to carry on its essential function until the real one should be purified and restored. But what began as a temporary arrangement acquired in course of time a new institutional significance. The mere act of dislocation to the desert implied that the presence of God was no longer bound to the physical Temple in Jerusalem. What 'attracted' God was, rather, the existence and worship of the pure Israel represented by the undefiled community of Essenes. Indeed, there could be 'Temples' wherever Essenes were gathered together, provided they were scrupulous in their purification ceremonies. Thus what constituted the Temple was no longer geography and stone, but the very existence of the community: the Temple had become spiritualized, a symbol, a 'human Temple' of men. The Temple is not the building, but the worshippers, that is, the Church. Once this concept is married to the quite different, but contemporary, concept of the Pharisee synagogue, that is, a building which may be sited anywhere in the world where the faithful gather to worship and hear scripture explained, then we are very close to the primitive idea of the Christian community. Indeed, the new Qumran concept is strongly reflected in Paul: 'For we are the Temple of the living God...Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God' (2 Cor. 6:16ff). Or again, to the congregation at Corinth: 'Do you not know that you are God's Temple, and that God's spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's Temple, God will destroy him. For God's Temple is holy, and that [temple] you are.' In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes of the heavenly edifice built on the foundations of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus being the chief corner-stone, and later Christian writers complete the image, first found in Qumran texts; thus, 1 Pet. 2:3-6: 'Come to him, to that living stone, rejected of men but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built up into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.'
By this last stage, of course, the community has replaced not only the Temple but the priesthood and their sacrifices. The Essenes travelled only a very limited way down this decisive road to universalism. In many ways they were still dominated by the idea of the real, physical Temple and its actual sacrifices of animal flesh. But they threw out another concept which was later used to provide an escape from the old sacrificial idea. From Temple practice, the Essenes at Qumran and elsewhere developed the regular practice of a sacral meal of bread and wine, which at Qumran took place in the main meeting-hall, or Hall of the Covenant, of the monastery. It was preceded by purification rites, special robes were worn, and the meal was presided over by a priest who blessed the elements and was the first to eat and drink them. The meal was an anticipation, it seems, of the perfect ritual in the heavenly Temple. Thus we have here the concept of a symbolic sacrifice, later applied by and to Jesus, which eventually allowed the Christians to break away completely from the Temple cult and its daily sacrifices and so free themselves from Jewish history and Palestine geography.
Nevertheless, it is quite wrong to present the Essene cult as Christianity without Jesus. Among other Jewish sects, the Temple was being spiritualized, if much more slowly. Between the Maccabean period and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the law was gradually displacing the Temple as the central focus of religion; the influence of the priests was diminishing and the scribes, chiefly Pharisees, were emerging as popular leaders, preparing the way for the age of the rabbis. The earliest Christians had greater difficulty than the Essenes in freeing themselves from the Temple, as we shall see. Moreover, though it is possible to isolate certain Essene ideas which were later Christianized, many of their other concepts were very different. In some ways they were a backward and obscurantist group, rigid, bigoted, and liable to express their convictions in bloodshed and hatred. They had a communal life and shared their goods, at any rate in their monastic camps, but like many other poor, humble and convinced believers, they were grotesquely and theoretically intolerant. Their literature includes some striking and edifying hymns, but it centres round far more menacing documents, which are in effect disciplinary and training manuals, culminating in an actual war-plan, based on Roman military methods, in which Essene priests are to lead a purified and reinvigorated Israel to a final victory. The Essenes were, in fact, members of an extremist apocalyptic-eschatological sect, who expected their triumph to come soon. Their interpretation of the events which created their Qumran mission, of the whole of Jewish history, and their very careful and selective exegesis of the scriptures, is essentially violent, militaristic and racial. Their ideas are marked by the narrowest kind of exclusiveness. The individual is nothing; the pure community (and a community by birth and race) is all. Jerusalem and its wicked priests are the enemies; but then, so are all the Gentiles. In due course the Son of Light, led by the Essenes, will fight a war against the Sons of Darkness, who have compromised with the non-elect world; after the battle has been won, following the war-plan, a king will be restored to the throne and the purified Israel will live in the manner of Zadok. All the lucky ones, who will live for ever, will be Israelite by birth. The bad Jews and the Gentiles will all be dead. That is the plan for human history, devised by God, and shortly to be enacted.
The Essenes had no matrix for a world-religion; far from it. Rather their monastery and their other cells, were incubators for extremists, Zealots, men of violence and enragés. The excavations at Qumran show that the monastery became a centre of resistance during the war of AD 66-70, and was stormed and burned by the Roman army. This annihilation marked the end of the Essenes as a separate sect -- inevitably so, since they were exploring a stream of Jewish religious and political thought which led nowhere but to destruction. But the Essene monasteries, cells and city-groups were schools of more than Zealots. Their importance in the history of Christianity lies in the fact that they provided experimental centres -- religious universities, indeed -- which lay outside the mainstream of Jewish teaching as practised in Jerusalem. In their ultra-conformity, they were essentially nonconformist and antinomial. A man might enter an Essene community a pious, conformist Jew and emerge a Zealot; or he might go there for Zealous reasons and become a hermit. Or he might produce entirely novel ideas, or seize upon some aspect of Essene teaching and practice and develop it in a radically new direction. Thus the Essene movement was a powerful contribution to the fundamental instability of Judaism during this period. And the sense of crisis was deepening. It entered an acute phase after Judea was directly annexed by the Roman state and thus made liable to Roman fiscal procedures. These proved to be much less popular than the pro-Roman party had anticipated; it has been calculated that in first century Palestine, Roman and Jewish taxes together may have reached as much as 25 per cent (non-progressive) of incomes, in an economy which in some respects and in some areas was not far above the subsistence level.
Palestine was thus soaked in politico-religious apocalypticism. Irredentist politics and religious extremism were inextricably mixed. All Palestinian Jews to some extent believed in a Messianic solution. There were, it is true, many different doctrines of the Messiah but the variations were matters of detail and all rested on the unitary belief that foreign oppressors would be driven out and God alone would rule Israel. Thus a man who criticized the Romans was making a religious statement and a man who insisted on the highest degree of ritual purity was playing politics. In the opening decades of the first century AD the example of the Essenes led to the appearance of a number of baptist movements in the Jordan Valley. The whole area, from the Lake of Genasseret down to the Dead Sea itself was alive with holy eccentrics. Many had been to Qumran, and there imbibed the prevailing obsession with ritual purity and the use of holy water as a therapy and cleansing process. It is, in fact, significant that Philo calls the Essene theraputae: to ordinary observers it was the most obvious and striking aspect of their teaching. We can be almost certain that John the Baptist was, or had been, an Essene monk. He was recruiting not so much for the monastery but for the broader movement of the élite within the élite, carrying the cleansing and purifying process into the world outside, and thus hastening the apocalyptic moment when the war against the Sons of Darkness would begin.
The Baptist is thus the link between the general reformist and nonconformist movement in Judaism and Jesus himself. Unfortunately, in terms of actual historical knowledge, he is a very weak link. In some ways he is a completely mysterious figure. His function, in the history of Christianity, was to attach elements of the Essene teaching to a consistent view of Jewish eschatology. John was an impatient man, as well as a wild-looking one: the Messiah was not merely coming -- he was here! The apocalypse was rolling fast towards the people, so now was the time to repent and prepare. And then, in due course, Jesus appeared and was identified. This is the first glimpse, admittedly a vivid one, we get of John. There is one other glimpse, equally vivid, some years later, when he fell foul of Herod Antipas and lost his head. The rest is darkness. The second most important person in the history of Christianity remains enigmatic. Yet the synoptic gospels, and still more the Gospel according to John, emphasize the importance of the Baptist in the mission of Jesus, He is the operative agent who sets the whole thing in motion. The three synoptic writers, and the editor of John's gospel, working within a different stream of knowledge, are clearly using very powerful oral traditions, or even written documents, dealing specifically with the Baptist's work. Somewhere, behind our sources, or behind the sources of our sources, there was once the whole story of the Baptist as related by a follower or lieutenant. But the earliest Christian historians selected only what they regarded as strictly relevant to their purpose, and now the rest is irrecoverably lost. Our only non-Christian source, Josephus, shows that John was at one time an Essene. His account of John's teaching, such as it is, accords closely with the Qumran Manual of Discipline; and of course his actual appearance is directly related to Essene prophecies, which it resembles in important details, as did his prophecies and sayings. But John was also moving away from Essene concepts, in the direction of what became Christianity. His baptism ceremony, unlike the repeated bathing-rites of the Essenes, is a once and for all affair (but he was not unique in this). Secondly, John thought God would intervene, admittedly in wrathful mood, without the assistance of the Essene army and its war-plan. John was not militaristic. Most important of all, he had broken away from the absolute exclusiveness of the Essenes, teaching that God's special favours were to be offered to the entire Jewish people, not just to the sect. John was not yet a universalist, but he was moving in that direction. He was, in short, a carrier, bringing certain key Essene doctrines out of their narrow, bellicose, racist and sectarian framework, and proclaiming them in a wider world.
The logic of this analysis, then, is that the Baptist was in a sense Jesus's teacher, and that the pupil improved on, expanded and transformed his master's ideas. But it is at this point that our evidence breaks down. If anything, it points in another direction. John did not claim to teach the Messiah, merely to identify him; indeed, he specifically rejected any master-pupil relationship. The fact that Jesus was baptized by John does not imply any inferiority, submission or acknowledgement of higher wisdom. The trouble is that we do not know precisely what John taught. We do not know his history or education. We do not even know whether he had a complete theology or cosmology of his own, whether his eschatology was limited to the crude Messianism reflected in the gospels, or, as seems more likely, was elaborate and sophisticated. We do not even know his concept of Jesus's status: it was obviously high, but how high -- the key question? And anyway, how close were their contacts? How well did they know each other? How much, if anything, did either teach each other? Why did the Baptist make secret inquiries about Jesus's mission and receive mysterious replies? The exotic story of the Baptist's end, shorn of its romantic details, places him in a highly political posture and it is interesting that Herod Antipas did not like Jesus either. Was there, then, a political connection between these two religious innovators?
Our ignorance of the Baptist inevitably clouds our view of the uniqueness of Jesus. Indeed, the historical problem of the Baptist, baffling as it is, serves merely as an introduction to the much greater problem of Jesus. There can, at least, be absolutely no doubt about his historical existence. Unfortunately, the Antiquities of Josephus (published about AD 93), so useful about other related topics, is virtually silent on the point. Josephus was a Hellenized Jew, a Romanophile, indeed a Roman general and historian whose work received imperial subsidies. The manuscript chain coming down to us inevitably passed through Christian control. Since Josephus was strongly opposed to Jewish irredentism, or any other sectarian movement which gave trouble to the authorities, he clearly adopted an anti-Christian posture. But this has been tampered with. Thus, he mentions the judicial murder of James by the high priest Ananias in AD 62, and calls James the brother 'of Jesus, the so-called Christ', in a way to suggest that he has already given an account of Jesus and his mission. But what has actually come down to us is a passage which describes Jesus as a wise man, a lover of truth, much beloved by his followers; it accepts his miracles and resurrection and hints strongly at his divinity. The passage is plainly a non-too-ingenious Christian invention and what Josephus actually wrote has gone. Attempts to reconstruct it have not so far won general acceptance. The inference from Josephus is that Jesus was a Jewish sectarian with messianic claims and a substantial following which had survived his extinction: a nuisance to the empire, in fact. This view is reflected in other non-Christian references, which are few but clearly confirm Jesus's historicity. Tacitus, in his Annals, writing of the fire of Rome in 64, refers to 'the detestable superstition' of Christianity, to 'Christus, the founder of this sect', and to his crucifixion 'in the reign of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate' -- though it is not clear whether he got this last from Christian or official sources. Pliny the Younger, writing in 112, says the sect 'sang a hymn to Christ as a God', and refused to curse Christ; only renegades were willing to do so. The earliest reference, by Suetonius, which implies that Christians were known at Rome even in the reign of Claudius, AD 41-54, is unfortunately garbled: he writes of Jews being expelled from Rome because 'they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus'. Did he think 'Chrestus' was still alive at the time? Anyway, he, and every other source referring to earliest Christianity, treat Jesus Christ as an actual, historical person.r
When we turn to the earliest Christian sources, we enter a terrifying jungle of scholarly contradictions. All were writing evangelism or theology rather than history, even when, like Luke in his gospel, they assume the literary manners of a historian and seek to anchor the events of Jesus's life in secular chronology. Moreover, all the documents have a long pre-history before they reached written form. Their evaluation was a source of acute puzzlement to thoughtful Christians even in the earliest decades of the second century and probably before. Indeed, the puzzles began as soon as any Christian had access to more than one account or source, written or oral. This was happening increasingly by the closing decades of the first century, for oral accounts continued to circulate long after the earliest written gospels appeared in the two decades 60-80, and were attaining written form well into the second century. The canonical documents (let alone those later judged apochryphal) thus overlap with the earliest writings of the Church Fathers. They are products of the early Church and they are tainted in the sense that they reflect ecclesiastical controversy as well as evangelistic motivation, the difficulties of reducing oral descriptions of mysterious concepts to writing, and a variety of linguistic traps. The four gospels declared canonical, for instance, were circulated, but not necessarily first written, in colloquial Greek; but Matthew was almost certainly translated from Hebrew, and all four were either thought in Aramaic, or transcriptions from tales which were Aramaic in original circulation, yet which drew on Hebrew quotations and, to a lesser extent, on Hellenic or Hellenized concepts. The possibilities for misunderstanding are infinite. Moreover, we cannot assume that the gospels we have reflect the earliest oral traditions. The prologue to Luke makes it clear that they are based on earlier written accounts, themselves derived from the words of eye-witnesses: Luke is thus the third or possibly even fourth link along a chain stretching back two generations. The first Christian to comment on the problem was Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, who flourished in the first decades of the second century. The fourth-century historian Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, through whose compilations Papias survives at all, remarks irritably: 'Clearly he was very weak of intellect.' Yet on this subject, at least, he makes sense: '...if ever any man came who had been a follower of the elders, I would inquire about the sayings of the elders; what Andrew said, or Peter, or Philip, or Thomas or James, or John or Matthew, or any other of the Lord's disciples; and what Aristion says and John the Elder, who are disciples of the Lord. For I did not consider I got so much profit from the contents of books as from the utterances of a living and abiding voice.' By Papias's day, indeed, knowledge of the authorship of the canonical gospels, and the manner in which they were composed, is already confused; what he has to say about Mark and Matthew is shaky tradition. But he gives us a useful hint that at that stage the oral chain, less full of pitfalls, was still preferable to the written one. By the time Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote at the end of the second century, the oral tradition has gone for good. He has to put his trust in the canonical writing and does so in full confidence; but what he says about their authorship and emergence is, in part at least, manifest nonsense. In short, by the end of the second century, a well-informed ecclesiastic like Irenaeus, professionally engaged in putting down heresy and establishing the truth, knew no more about the origins of the gospels than we do; rather less, in fact.
This is a depressing qualification we must bear constantly in mind: the sheer ignorance of even those figures quite close in time to Jesus. The earliest Christian document is Paul's first Epistle to the Thessalonians, which can plausibly be dated to about AD 51. Paul was writing in the fifties and early sixties; his authentic epistles (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon) are in an evidential sense straightforward written documents; there is no oral tradition behind them and the editing process is minimal -- indeed some of them may have been circulated or 'published' in edited form even during Paul's lifetime. Paul is the first witness to Jesus, the start of any historical inquiry. He is the writer who gets closest to the actual Messiah. But there is nevertheless an unbridgeable gap of several years between Jesus's death (circa AD 30-33) and Paul's first contacts with the Christian circle, for though Paul was in Jerusalem at the time of Stephen's death in 36, he did not return, as a Christian, until two years later. This chronological gap was quite adequate to cloud everything connected with the historical Jesus, as men, dazzled by the fact of the Resurrection, thought back from this to the Jesus they had known and reconstructed him in their minds. Paul got there too late in the day; the well of truth had already been muddied. We probably know more about the Jesus of history than he did, despite the intervals of nearly 2,000 years. This is one chief reason why Paul, who was obsessed by truth, tells us so little about Jesus the man. He says only that he was a Jew, born under the law, of Davidic descent, was betrayed, crucified, buried and rose again. He rationalizes his silence and, as it were, defends his ignorance (or uncertainty about the true facts) by remarking (2 Cor. 5:16): 'With us, therefore, worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of any man; even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so now no longer.' He cannot present himself as a disciple of the historical Jesus. On the contrary, he was commissioned apostle by the risen Lord. His Jesus is the son of God, pre-existent and supernatural, who accepted the form of a 'servant' so that he could identify himself as man and be available for his sacrificial role. The only details of Jesus's life which matter, for Paul's strictly theological purposes, are the proof of manhood and the crucifixion. He also has to show, and he does so in impressive detail, that Christ rose again and appeared to many people, including himself. Here Paul becomes a historian and an eyewitness: he is our prime documentary proof that the very earliest Christians believed Christ rose from the dead and walked the earth.
Paul's authentic epistles, therefore, are thus strict primary sources. Of course they do not go very far. He probably had no Christian documents, though primitive Christian writings were circulating towards the end of his life. Where he does deal with events, however, we get the picture direct, as he saw it, heard it or believed it; there is no distorting editorial lens and no generational interval, erosive of truth, between oral and written composition. It is a different matter with the canonical gospels. Though presented as historical narratives, their origins are complex and their reliability variable. Their starting-point, in all probability, were Jesus's efforts to train his followers as teachers by ordering them to learn by heart key passages in his sermons. This process, interrupted by his death, was resumed with intensity after his resurrection and now centred round the narrative of his passion, which was learnt in various polished forms and used not only as a continuous evangelical story but as the centrepiece of the earliest liturgical services. The second major element was what we call the Sermon on the Mount, or 'great sermon', which also seems to have achieved a definite form at a very early stage, and was probably memorized by disciples while Jesus was still engaged in his ministry. At some stage individual sayings of Jesus were written down, and later gathered into groups, or into a whole book. Papias refers to a 'book of oracles' which was probably such a collection of Jesus's words, and forms (after Paul's epistles) the earliest Christian manuscript. Then, in the decade of the sixties, the progressive elimination of the first generation of Christians, the actual eye-witnesses, followed by persecution and war, which caused the dispersal of the Jerusalem circle, provided an urgent incentive to record Jesus's teaching in imperishable shape. Mark, from the circle of Peter, first created the gospel as a literary form. From a remark by Papias we deduce that he accompanied Peter on mission, towards the end of his life, giving simultaneous translation of Peter's Aramaic sermons in colloquial Greek. His gospel, written soon after Peter's death, is a major effort to order and rationalize a number of difficult elements into a chronological narrative which marries event and theology and harmonizes the two with scriptural prophecy. The reflections in it of oral traditions -- deliberate repetitions and symmetrical arrangements -- and of the patterns of popular story-telling are very strong. In presenting his material in written form he had, it is true, some Greek models, and he must have been influenced by the literary doctrines of Aristotle's Poetics. All the same, he was trying to do something which had never been done before and his problems were not only those of an unpractised writer but also those of an amateur theologian trying to transmit a complex message which he himself had received from the far from lucid Peter. Hence he often does not attempt to solve the problems of comprehensibility and falls back on a constant use of a 'secrecy motive'. He stresses that the apostles and disciples did not always understand what Jesus was trying to do; he implies that the full meaning of his person and message was not understood during his ministry, though some followers grasped more than others, and indeed that not all of Jesus's teaching was intended for the public. Mark's gospel has thus been called a book of secret epiphanies, mysterious glimpses of a manifestation of divinity, rather than a coherent explanation of the phenomenon of Jesus Christ. The text was much altered and interpolated during the earliest period, for both good and bad reasons, and was a favourite source-book for primitive heresiarchs to justify their divergencies.
Matthew and Luke, quite independently, produced their own narratives. They evidently found Mark unsatisfactory, both in general and from the point of view of their own particular interests -- Luke belonged to the school of Paul's gentile mission, and Matthew represented the rump of the Jewish Jerusalem Church after the murder of James and the departure of Peter. Each had Mark to work from, though probably in a carelessly copied form; and they also had another source, called by modern scholars 'Q', which may be the 'oracles' which Papias mentioned, but is really nothing more than an academic device to designate non-Marcan materials common to both Luke and Matthew. All these synoptic gospels, moreover, emerged from a miasma of oral tradition and counter-tradition; and it is possible that Mark's Greek gospel was itself derived from an earlier version of Matthew written in Hebrew -- this would accord with the traditional view in the early Church that Matthew was the first of the synoptics, a view still held by some Roman Catholic scholars. The gospel attributed to John, on the other hand, has no demonstrable connection with the synoptics, though it also derives, naturally, from the same oral miasma. It is, however, more of a theological treatise than a historical narrative and shows strong connections both with the Pauline epistles and with the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. It has been edited, as its closing words make clear; and there is evidence of heavy tampering in the earliest manuscripts -- obvious glosses, and so forth -- as well as sheer muddle. Thus chapter 5 should follow chapter 6, and the final chapter, 21, is clearly an addition.
These imperfections add to the ordinary difficulties of evaluation. All four gospels, being literary documents some 1,900 years old, suffer from the problems created by handwritten transmissions. For most of the history of Christianity, scholars and theologians have had to work from corrupt late manuscripts (most of them without realizing the dangers). Few medieval writers made any effort, when copying, to find ancient models; this was primarily a Renaissance concern. Even so, Erasmus's Greek New Testament (1516) and Robert Etienne's (1551) came from Greek medieval manuscripts which contained innumerable accumulated errors. Earlier manuscripts emerged only gradually. In 1581 Theodore Beza found the sixth-century Graeco-Latin text known as the Codex Bezae; in 1628, a fifth-century codex, the Alexandrinus, containing the whole Bible, was transferred to western Europe; this was followed by an incomplete fifth-century codex, the Ephraemi Rescriptus, and, more important, by the nineteenth-century discoveries of two fourth-century codices, the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus. This does not take us further back than the days of Jerome and Augustine, still leaving a huge 300-year gap. Unfortunately, most of the earliest manuscripts were not in codex form, that is, parchment bound in leather volumes, but were in highly perishable papyrus. Fragments survive only in the dry climate of Egypt: there, in recent years, ancient rubbish dumps have yielded portions from the third, and even a few from the second century. The earliest of all, only two inches square, but containing verses from the eighteenth chapter of John on both sides, has been dated to the early second century. No first-century fragment has yet been found. These early versions of New Testament texts can be supplemented by biblical quotations from the earliest manuscripts of the patristic writings, some dating from the second century, and from church lectionaries which, though late themselves, reflect very early texts. Altogether there are about 4,700 relevant manuscripts, and at least 100,000 quotations or allusions in the early fathers.
Analysing this mass of evidence in the search for the perfect text is probably self-defeating. Beyond a certain point, scholarship tends to raise as many problems as it solves; thus, even if substantial first-century fragments were discovered, it is feared they would enlarge, rather than reduce, the areas of uncertainty. Modern aids, such as computers, are of only limited assistance. Some alterations can be identified with reasonable certitude. Thus the end of Mark (16:9-20) is not authentic. Again, the very impressive story of the woman taken in adultery, which seems to float without anchor in the gospel of John, does not occur in any manuscript before the end of the fourth century. Scholars have discovered one or two flagrant examples of the early Church 'back-dating' theological concepts by tampering with New Testament passages. Thus, the Trinitarian texts in the first Epistle of John, which make explicit what other texts merely hint at, originally read simply: 'There are three which bear witness, the spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are one.' This was altered in the fourth century to read: 'There are three which bear witness on earth, the spirit and the water and the blood, and these three are one in Christ Jesus; and there are three who bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Spirit, and these three are one.'
Such manifest fabrications should not be regarded as deliberate fraud, done with intent to deceive, and to obfuscate the truth. They occur throughout the history of Christianity, up to the Renaissance and even beyond, and they spring from a concept of the nature of documentary proof which is alien to us. Thus, an earnest scribe, believing wholeheartedly that the doctrine of the Trinity was true, thought it merely an accident or oversight that it was not made explicit in 1 John, and therefore saw it as his duty to remedy the matter. He was merely doing constructive work in the cause of truth! Where these accretions occur late enough, they are easily identified and removed by modern scholars. The earlier they were inserted, the more difficult it is to detect them. And, of course, beyond a certain point, which occurs early in the second century, there is no longer any possibility of cleaning up the text. Moreover, even if we were to have the perfect and original texts of the gospels, they would not protect us from the efforts to create 'constructive truth' made by the evangelists themselves, and their oral sources. These are particularly obvious when the evangelists are engaged in aligning or shaping events in Jesus's life to fit Old Testament prophecies: there, the temptation to create, and so to falsify, is obvious, and we are on our guard. We are also fortunate to have, even within the canon, four gospel narratives drawn from a variety of sources, whose blatant conflicts again indicate dubious areas of truth. The most obvious concern Jesus's background: thus his Davidian descent, necessary for his role, is traced through Joseph, though this is incompatible with the theory or fact of the virgin birth. Again, there are important conflicts about Jesus's movements during his mission, especially over his visit or visits to Jerusalem, and the various accounts of the Last Supper cannot easily be reconciled.
None of this would matter very much if the central doctrine and teaching of Jesus emerged strongly, consistently and coherently from all the canonical sources. This, indeed, is what we should expect to happen, since the core of the gospel -- the fact of his death and resurrection, and what he said in reference to them -- was the first to assume the form of regular oral narrative. Yet even in these central areas there are major obscurities and apparent contradictions. And if we reduce our knowledge of Jesus to points where there is unanimity, plausibility and an absence of objections, we are left with a phenomenon almost devoid of significance. This 'residual' Jesus told stories, uttered various wise sayings, was executed in circumstances which are not clear, and was then commemorated in a ceremony by his followers. Such a version is incredible because it does not explain the rise of Christianity. And in order to explain Christianity we have to postulate an extraordinary Christ who did extraordinary things. We have to think back from a collective phenomenon to its agent. Men and women began frantically and frenetically to preach Jesus's gospel because they believed he had come back to them from the dead and given them the authority and the power to do so. Naturally, their evangelical efforts were imperfect, for, despite Jesus's instructions, they could not always remember his teachings accurately or coherently and they were not trained divines, or orators, or indeed educated people. But, even more important, the teaching he had given them was itself intrinsically difficult both to understand and convey. Both these factors left their mark on the gospels and explain their imperfections, for the gospels were a transcribed version of what the first and second generation of Christians believed and taught.
In short, we must dismiss any idea of Jesus being a simple figure. His actions and motives were complex and he taught something which was hard to grasp. The religious background from which he sprang was itself unusually complicated. The Hellenist world was moving towards monotheism but on a dualistic basis which postulated rival forces of good and evil. The Judaic world was also going through a religious crisis provoked by the political situation. All kinds of solutions were being proposed, but each was fatally anchored in some particularism of time or place or race. How could the intentions of God be conveyed so as to be understood by all men, and for all time? Equally, how could any solution contain elements meaningful for all types and temperaments of men, as well as all races and generations: the activist, the militant, the doctrinaire, the ascetic, the obedient, the passive, the angular, the scholar, and the simple-hearted? How could it impart both a sense of urgency and immediacy, and at the same time be valid for all eternity? How could it bring about, in men's minds, a confrontation with God which was both public and collective, and individual and intimate? How could it combine a code of ethics within a framework of strict justice and a promise of unprecedented generosity? These were only a few of the evangelical problems confronting Jesus. Moreover, he had to resolve them within a preordained series of historical events which could be adumbrated but not forecast and whose necessary enactment would terminate his mission.
The teaching of Jesus is therefore more a series of glimpses, or matrices, a collection of insights, rather than a code of doctrine. It invites comment, interpretation, elaboration and constructive argument, and is the starting point for rival, though compatible, lines of inquiry. It is not a summa theologica, or indeed ethica, but the basis from which an endless series of summae can be assembled. It inaugurates a religion of dialogue, exploration and experiment. Its radical elements are balanced by conservative qualifications, there is a constant mixture of legalism and antinomianism, and the emphasis repeatedly switches from rigour and militancy to acquiescence and the acceptance of suffering. Some of this variety reflects the genuine bewilderment of the disciples, and the confusion of the evangelical editors to whom their memories descended. But a great deal is essentially part of Jesus's universalist posture: the wonder is that the personality behind the mission is in no way fragmented but is always integrated and true to character. Jesus contrives to be all things to all men while remaining faithful to himself.
This complex and delicate operation was conducted against a politico-religious background full of perils and traps. Jesus had a new doctrine to deliver -- salvation through love, sacrifice and faith -- but to some extent he had to present it in the guise of a reformation of the old. He was preaching to Jews, introducing new concepts through traditional Jewish forms. He was anxious to carry the orthodox with him, without compromising his universalism. He confronted the establishment on their own territory, while including all the outcast elements in his mission; thus he had to carry on the process of disassociation from the Temple and the law while trying to avoid accusations of blasphemy. Then, too, there was the revelation of his own position. This had to be a gradual process. It was always to some extent ambiguous. He radiated authority -- it was, from the very start, the most conspicuous thing about him. But of what kind? He was anxious to show that he was not a priest-general, performing a military role against a foreign oppressor. He was not the Messiah in that sense. On the other hand, he was not just the articulator of suffering and sacrifice: he had come to found a new kind of kingdom and to bring a message of joy and hope. How to convey that his triumph had to be achieved through his death? It was not an idea which appealed to the ancient world; or any world.
Then, too, there was the central paradox that the mission had to be vindicated by its failure. A great many people found Jesus impossible to accept or follow. He was repudiated by his family, at least for a time. His native district did not accept him. There were certain towns where his teaching made no impact. In some places he could not work miracles. In others they caused little stir or were soon forgotten. He made many enemies and at all times there were a large number of people who ridiculed his claims and simply brushed aside his religious ideas. He could assemble a crowd of supporters, but it was always just as easy to collect a mob against him. Once he began to operate openly in the Temple area he became a marked man for both Roman and Jewish authorities, and an object of suspicion. His refusal to make his claims explicit and unambiguous was resented, and not only by his enemies. His followers were never wholly in his confidence and some of them had mixed feelings from time to time about the whole enterprise. What had they involved themselves in? There is a hint that Judas's betrayal may have been motivated less by greed -- an easy and unconvincing apostolic smear -- than by shock at the sudden fear he might be serving an enemy of religion.
By the time of his trial and passion Jesus had succeeded in uniting an improbable, indeed unprecedented, coalition against him: the Roman authorities, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, even Herod Antipas. And in destroying him; this unnatural combination appears to have acted with a great measure of popular approval. What conclusions can we draw from this? The actual execution was carried out by Romans under Roman law. Crucifixion was the most degrading form of capital punishment, reserved for rebels, mutinous slaves and other unspeakable enemies of society; and it was also the most prolonged and painful, though Jesus escaped its full horrors by his unusually rapid death. Pilate, the Judean procurator, is presented in the canonical gospels as a reluctant executioner, the beginnings of an imaginative early Christian tradition which later transformed him into a believer and even into a saint. This charitable emphasis, it can be argued, was introduced after the final break between the early Christian community and the Jewish establishment, to impose the whole moral responsibility for Jesus's death on the Jews. Following up this line of argument, Jewish scholars and others have urged that the trial before the Sanhedrin never took place; that the passages which refer to it do not compare with what we know from other sources of the procedure and competence of this court; that Jesus had done nothing to break Jewish law, let alone invoke capital punishment; and that the episode is a fiction -- Jesus had simply fallen foul of the Romans who regarded him as a political agitator.
Certainly, what we know of Pilate's career does not suggest he would be merciful, or hesitate to kill a Jewish troublemaker. Although the attitude of the imperial government towards Jews oscillated from time to time, in accordance with a number of political and economic factors, in general it was becoming steadily more oppressive. The honeymoon of Herod the Great's day was over. Immediately after Herod's death in 4 BC, perhaps in the very year of Jesus's birth, there had been disturbances in Galilee, and some 2,000 Jews had been crucified by Varus. Galilee was an area of mixed religious cults, where Judaism was active and becoming predominant by vigorous and aggressive proselytizing. In Jerusalem it was associated with violence and militancy, so to describe Jesus as 'the Nazarene' or 'the Galilean', as his critics did, was to mark him as a troublemaker. Pilate did not like troublemakers, particularly Jewish ones. He may have thought Jesus was a Zealot. Zealotry, initially a religious anti-tax movement, was on the increase. There had been a Zealot revolt in Judea as long ago as AD 6, and since then individual Zealot outrages had become common. Pilate had been sent to Judea in 26 with what might be termed a repressive mandate. He had been appointed-by Tiberius on the recommendation of his anti-Jewish praefectorian prefect, Sejanus. It had been traditional policy to keep procurators in office only a bare three years, and then switch them to another post; Tiberius, an old soldier, introduced longer spells, on the cynical grounds, as he put it, that after a fly had sucked its fill at a wound it was better to let it stay there and keep other flies away. In fact, no procurator could make a-success of Judea, and none did. Pilate soon made himself unpopular by bringing troops into Jerusalem to keep order during religious feasts and by omitting the customary precaution of masking the images of animals and deities on their standards and equipment. The Jews found this grossly offensive, and they were outraged by Pilate's seizure of Temple funds to finance improvements in the Jerusalem water-supply. He took a harsh line with awkward Jews, and surely executed Jesus without hesitation or scruple.
On the other hand, we know that Pilate's career in Judea finally came to an end in AD 36, following his violent suppression of another exotic religious movement. On this occasion, by contrast, the entire Jewish establishment in Palestine and the diaspora protested to the imperial legate in Syria, and Pilate was recalled in disgrace. Why, then, the silence in Jesus's case? The acquiescence of the Jewish authorities, taken in conjunction with the quite explicit accusations of the gospel narratives, make it hard to reject the explanation that Jesus had effectively, and quite dramatically, broken with the Jewish faith, as least as conceived by the prevailing opinion in Jerusalem. That the Sadducees should regard Jesus as a nuisance, disturbing their relations with the Roman authorities (as well as a teacher of heterodoxy), was to be expected. What is much more significant is that the Pharisees should accept, and indeed promote, his extinction, and carry public opinion with them in so doing. Evidently what Jesus had claimed or preached was regarded as so outrageous by a predominant section of the Jewish community, and by thousands of ordinary pious Jews, that they were prepared to invoke the Roman power -- normally abhorrent to them, especially in a religious matter -- to rid Israel of his mission.
Such a breach with the Jewish consensus was perhaps inevitable. Jesus was a practising Jew from a conformist background, learned in his faith, and with a deep respect for the Jewish tradition. Many of his ideas had Jewish origins. If he sometimes brushed aside the law, he sometimes -- on marriage, for instance -- interpreted it strictly. He showed a higher respect for the Temple than its own custodians. Yet the core of his message could not be contained within a Jewish framework. He was, in effect, giving the Jews a completely new interpretation of God and, in delivering his message, claiming not merely divine authority, but divine status. It was not a conflict on ethics. There were many ethical tendencies within the Jewish spectrum, and on this aspect accommodation could have been reached. But Jesus linked his new ethics, and the link was causal and compulsory, with a new description of the mechanism of salvation. He was telling the Jews that their theory of how God made the universe work was wrong, and that he had a better. He was asking them to embark with him on a religious revolution. They had either to follow or repudiate him. For the Sadducees to follow was out of the question. They and Jesus had nothing in common; they did not even believe in life after death and there is no evidence he expected to draw them into his movement. Equally, though he shared some concepts with the Essenes, and only with the Essenes, their logic led away from universalism, and his towards it. With the Pharisees he could have a dialogue, but he was in effect asking them to abandon their profession as canon lawyers, accept a theory which enabled men to justify themselves without the law, and a doctrine of grace and faith which made legalism impossible. In the end, then, his real appeal was to ordinary, uninstructed Jewish lay opinion, the Am Ha-Aretz, the 'people of the land' or lost sheep, especially to the outcasts and the sinners for whom the law was too much. This was Jesus's constituency; but as events showed, it could be manipulated against him. The entry in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was the high-water mark of his democratic appeal; after that, the unholy coalition formed against him, and the establishment prevailed.
One possibility, ended by the crucifixion, was that Jesus' movement would capture the Jewish religion; another, and perhaps a more real one, was that after his departure Judaism would capture Christianity. Judaism was a collection of tendencies, as well as embodying a great historical tradition. It was not over-centralized. It produced fanatics and outsiders, but then accommodated them within a framework of tolerance. Jesus's dynamism was too great, and his divergence too wide, to remain within this system of nonconformity. But it might have been a different matter for his movement, shorn of his leadership. Many such groupings in the past had been recuperated, and so fitted into the pattern of Judaic variety. Much of the strength of Judaism lay in its capacity to digest the heterodox; it had a strong stomach.
The Jesus movement was worth recapturing. After Jesus's arrest it had instantly disintegrated -- a climax to the period of strain it was clearly undergoing in the last phase of the public ministry, and which had produced the defection of Judas. It virtually ceased to exist. Then came the rapid spread of the resurrection news, the appearance of Jesus, and the pentecostal event. The movement was in being again, but it was not exactly the same movement. Unfortunately, our knowledge of it is limited and distorted by the ineptitude of the early portion of the Acts of the Apostles. Luke, assuming he wrote this document, was not in Jerusalem at the time. He was not an eye-witness. He was a member of the mission to the Gentiles and a product of the diaspora movement. He was not in cultural or indeed doctrinal sympathy with the pentecostal apostles; in this situation he was an outsider and an ill-informed one. The evangelical speeches he produces are to some extent reconstructions, inspired by appropriate passages in the Septuagint, a diaspora document not in use among Jerusalem Jews. Even granted all this, however, Luke's account of the religion preached immediately after Pentecost does not bear much resemblance to Jesus's teaching. Its starting-point is the resurrection, but otherwise it is Christianity without Christ. Indeed, the word Christ had not yet come into use -- that was a product of the later diaspora and gentile mission. What the apostles were preaching was a form of Jewish revivalism. It had strong apocalyptic overtones -- very much part of the Jewish tradition -- and it used the resurrection event to prove and heighten the urgency of the message. But what was the message? In all essentials it was: repent and be baptized -- the revivalist doctrine preached by John the Baptist before Jesus's mission even began! Only disjointed fragments of Jesus's mechanism of salvation, his redefinition of the deity, and his own central role in the process survived. The Jerusalem apostles were in danger of slipping into the theological posture of Jewish baptists. Their Judaic instincts were still powerful and conservative. They were orientated wholly to Temple-worship. Luke's gospel tells us that after the apostles parted with Jesus at Bethany, 'they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and spent all their time in the Temple praising God.' Again, after the first Pentecost campaign, we learn from Acts that 'With one mind, they kept up their daily attendance at the Temple.'
The inference is that the leaders of the movement in Jerusalem were much closer to Judaism than Jesus, and indeed had been all along. Alas, we know very little about them. The gospel of John says that the earliest disciples came from the circle of the Baptist, and this at a time when Jesus's early, simple teaching was strongly reflective of the Baptist's, at least according to Mark's account of it. Our authorities give a very confusing picture of Jesus's following, both during his ministry and afterwards, when the personnel seem to have changed radically. The synoptics agree that twelve men were constituted, in Mark's words, 'to be with him, and to send them to preach and to have authority to cast out demons'. Both John and Paul refer to the figure twelve. But were the twelve the same as the apostles? The synoptics and Acts provide lists, but only agree on the first eight. John gives only half. Most of them are just names, if we leave aside later traditions. 'The Twelve' seem to relate to the 'true people' of the twelve tribes; but apostle in Greek implies an expedition across the sea and must refer primarily to the gentile or diaspora mission. Luke, in the Acts, does not tell us what rights or duties or privileges were enjoyed by 'the twelve' or by 'the apostles'. Indeed, when he gets to Paul's work he forgets all about them, and thenceforth refers to him as 'the apostle'. Only with Peter can we trace any activity; with John it is barely possible, though we can assume it since he was martyred. And it is quite impossible with the rest. James, Jesus's brother, is an identifiable personality, indeed an important one. But he is not an 'apostle', nor one of 'the twelve'.
It is thus misleading to speak of an 'apostolic age', and equally misleading to speak of a primitive pentecostal Church and faith. The last point is important, because it implies Jesus left a norm, in terms of doctrine, message, and organization, from which the Church subsequently departed. There was never a norm. Jesus held his following together because he was, in effect, its only spokesman. After Pentecost, there were many; a Babel of voices. If the famous Petrine text in Matthew is genuine and means what it is alleged to mean, Peter was a very unsteady rock on which to found a Church. He did not exercise powers of leadership and seems to have allowed himself to be dispossessed by James and other members of Jesus's family, who had played no part in the original mission. Finally, Peter went on foreign mission and left the Jerusalem circle altogether.
The impression we get is that the Jerusalem Church was unstable, and had a tendency to drift back into Judaism completely. Indeed, it was not really a separate Church at all, but part of the Jewish cult. It had no sacrifices of its own, no holy places and times, no priests. It met for meals, like the Essene groups, and had readings, preaching, prayers and hymns; its ecclesiastical personality was expressed solely in verbal terms. Thus, we are told, it attracted a good many people. Many of them must have regarded it as little more than a pious and humble Jewish sect, keen on charity, sharing goods, revering an unjustly treated leader, and with an apocalyptic message. This view was also shared by some in authority. A number of priests became members. So did some of the Pharisees. How did this participation square with the execution of Jesus? That, it was now admitted in some quarters, had been a mistake; just as, later, the execution of James in 62 would be denounced subsequently as a blunder by one man acting ultra vires. Of course, there were Jewish establishment elements who were opposed to the Jesus movement all along, and attacked it whenever opportunity offered, as they attacked other religious 'troublemakers'. But with the penetration of the Jerusalem circle by priests and scribes, there were always influential people to speak on its behalf when the authorities tried to act. Thus, on at least two occasions, members were hauled before the religious courts but reprieved, or at most escaped with a scourging; they were unruly yet still Jews. But of course this protection and forbearance was bought at a price. It imposed limits both on doctrinal divergence and on missionary activism among the ordinary Jewish people. Thus the whole movement was in danger of being first contained, then reabsorbed.
It is at this point that the idea of a gentile mission became crucial. It had always been inherent in Jesus's work. His chosen district, as well as his native place, had been Galilee, not the obvious Judea: Galilee was only partly Jewish and it was very poor. His mission was to the poor and deprived, without distinction. And universalism was logically implied in his theology. Of course, the road to the Gentiles lay through the diaspora. Jesus met many diaspora Jews when they came on pilgrimage to attend great feasts at which he was active. But there is no evidence of his movement in the diaspora until after the Pentecostal drive. Then it followed naturally: the diaspora, among other things, was a proselytizing agency. But the very existence of a gentile mission, run by a movement which was already itself heterodox, and careless of many Jewish regulations, was incompatible with its accommodation with mainstream Judaism. Most Jerusalem Jews of substance disapproved of the gentile mission even when conducted by learned and respectable Pharisees. And, equally, there were diaspora Jews, especially Pharisees, who disapproved of the whole enterprise, were fiercely conformist and strongly opposed to any bending of the law for the benefit of converts and 'God fearers'. What they ultimately feared, of course, was the grave risk of Hellenization implicit in any gentile mission, a risk much increased when the mission was carried out by members of an unstable and nonconformist Jewish sect.
Indeed, it is impossible completely to separate the cultural and doctrinal points at issue. The teaching of Jesus had a much stronger appeal to Greek-speakers than the Judaism of the diaspora mission. It seems to have attracted converts almost from the start, especially in Antioch. Thus, if one wing of the Jesus movement was being penetrated by Pharisees, another was being penetrated by Greek-speaking Gentiles and diaspora liberals. There was soon, says Acts, 'disagreement between those of them who spoke Greek and those who spoke the language of the Jews'. The issue was money: the distribution of charity. Most of it came from the diaspora and Gentiles and went to the more orthodox Jews of the Jerusalem community. The Greek party set up a committee of seven to look into the matter. One of its members was Stephen; another was Nicolas of Antioch, described as 'a former convert to Judaism'. Almost immediately afterwards, a group of orthodox Pharisees from the diaspora synagogue in Jerusalem, denounced Stephen to the Sanhedrin, and he was stoned to death. There followed 'a time of violent persecution for the church in Jerusalem' which soon spread elsewhere. From the account of Stephen's teaching, it is evident that he and his Greek-speaking party were putting forth a much more radical doctrine as regards the Temple and the law and one much closer to Jesus in his final phase, than the group referred to as 'the apostles'. Indeed, 'the apostles' were not persecuted at this stage; they alone were not forced to scatter into the country districts. The object of the persecution was to purge the movement of its radical wing, end the Gentile mission, exclude the Greek element, or force it into conformity, and so complete the reabsorption of Jesus's followers. This process continued so long as there was a Jerusalem Church, that is, up to AD 70. Sometimes it was aimed at radicals, like Stephen. Sometimes it got out of hand and struck at men of the centre, like James. Its object was not to destroy the movement but to keep it within the broad circle of Judaism. And it came very near to success.
Into this struggle for the soul and personality of the new sect came the apostle Paul, 'the Jew of Tarsus' as he called himself. He was the first and greatest Christian personality; he has always been the most argued about, and the most often misunderstood. He has sometimes been accused of 'inventing' Christianity; and in addition, or alternatively, of perverting Christ's teaching and forcing them back into Jewish channels. This was the complaint of Nietzsche, to whom Paul was 'the eternal Jew par excellence' --
'Paul embodies the very opposite type to that of Jesus, the bringer of good news: he is a genius in hatred, in the vision of hate, in the ruthless logic of hate. What has not their nefarious evangelist sacrificed to his hatred! He sacrificed first and foremost his saviour, he crucified him on his cross....A god who died for our sins: redemption by faith: resurrection after death -- all these things are falsifications of true Christianity, for which that morbid crank must be made responsible.'
This is a favourite line of attack. Indeed, a frontal attack on Christianity itself is usually an attack on what is regarded as the Pauline element. Thus Alfred Rosenberg and the Nazi anti-Christian propagandists concentrated primarily on 'the evil rabbi Paul'. But the truth is that Paul did not invent Christianity, or pervert it: he rescued it from extinction.
Paul was the first pure Christian: the first fully to comprehend Jesus's system of theology, to grasp the magnitude of the changes it embodied, and the completeness of the break with the Judaic law. Herein lies the paradox. For by birth Paul was a pure Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin. 'Circumcized on the eighth day,' he intones, 'of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.' From a tradition passed on by Jerome, we learn that his family came from northern Galilee, near the Lake of Genasseret, and was ultra-conservative. The Pharisaic background went back to his great-grandparents. The family had moved to Tarsus at the time of the Roman occupation, had become wealthy Roman citizens, but remained pillars of the conformist diaspora. Thus Paul's sister was taken to Jerusalem to be married, and his father sent Paul to the rabbinical high school there. He spoke Greek and Aramaic, and read the scriptures in Hebrew as well as in the Septuagint. As a young man Paul had assisted at the martyrdom of Stephen and had subsequently taken a leading part in the Pharisee drive in the diaspora against the Hellenizing Christian element. It is important to realize that Paul did not simply become a Christian. Many Jews might do this without any great change in ideas. Paul moved right across the religious conspectus, from narrow sectarianism to militant universalism, and from strict legalism to a complete repudiation of the law -- the first Christian to do so: not even Jesus had gone so far Paul insists, repeatedly, that his change of view was instant and complete; it was in fact miraculous; he did not argue himself around but had the truth in all its plenitude revealed to him instantaneously by Jesus himself. Unless we accept Paul's view of how he became a follower of Christ, it is impossible to understand him. He believed in it as passionately and completely as did the disciples who had seen the risen Christ: in fact he drew no distinction between the two types of vision. It was his title to the rank of apostle and his claim to preach the authentic Christian message.
But Paul had more than a divine mandate for the gentile mission. He came from Tarsus, which has been termed 'the Athens of Asia Minor'. It was a trading emporium, a centre of cults of every kind, gnostic, exotic, oriental and Stoic. It was a focal-point of syncretism, a cultural and religious crossroads, a city familiar with weird religious processions outdoors and Hellenic debate within. Paul was a product of this diversity, and thus he can be presented as a Hellenist or a rabbi, a mystic or a chiliast, even as a gnostic. He was well-equipped to be the apostle of universalism, but behind the Janus-face and the varying tactics of the professional evangelist there was a terrific consistency of inner doctrine and purpose.
Indeed, when he arrived at the Jerusalem Council in AD 49 to present his case for complete freedom of action for his gentile mission, his teaching was assuming its mature form. It was based not merely on direct communication from God but illuminating experience in the field. And Paul and his companion could and did point vociferously to the success of their presentation. He had found a Church which believed in baptism, had a Last Supper rite, and a belief that Jesus's death and resurrection was a fulfilment of prophecy; but it was also inclined to hold that circumcision was linked to salvation and that a great deal of the Mosaic law was still valid -- perhaps all of it. This was not a programme for gentile converts, even though it raised no difficulties for diaspora Jews. Gentiles regarded circumcision as distasteful; it was associated in their minds with the objectionable features of a nation Tacitus called 'enemies of the human race'. More important, however, was that Paul found he could not explain the nature of Jesus's doctrine without using concepts and terms comprehensible to those nurtured in the Graeco-Roman world. Jesus foresaw his passion but had not explained it. Paul had to explain it, to a Greek-speaking, Greek-thinking audience. The act of salvatior had to be wider than the mere messianism of the Jews, which sounded to Greeks like local politics, and bounded in time as well as geography. What was Judea to them? Paul found it hard to explain why Jesus was a Jew, let alone why he had to be a Jew. Thus the circumstances which led up to his crucifixion were irrelevant, and he omits them. The historical Jesus he simply identified with the pre-existent son of God, and he interprets the crucifixion as a divine action with salvationist intent, and of cosmic significance. And of course, the more Paul preached along these lines, the more clear it became to him that his Hellenized gospel was closer to the truth as he understood it than the restriction imposed by the narrowing vision of Jewish Christianity -- if, indeed, it could be called Christianity at all. The Hellenic world could accept Jesus as a deity but Judaism placed a gulf of absolute difference between God and man. And there was nothing in Jewish literature which suggested the idea of an incarnated saviour of mankind who redeemed by virtue of his own sacrificial death.
Paul's gospel, as it evolved, could be seen to be alien to traditional Jewish thinking of any tendency, even though it contained Jewish elements. It can be summarized as follows. Jesus of Nazareth came from the line of David. He was born of a woman, but was established as Son of God, with full power, through his resurrection from the dead. He lived a short life in Palestine, embracing earthly poverty, and for our sins humbled himself in his death on the cross. God raised the crucified and buried one and exalted him to the highest throne at his own right hand: 'For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.' The atoning death of Jesus the Messiah, sacrificed for our sins, served as our expiation and ransomed humanity. His dying affects the redemption of the cosmos and humanity as a whole, for in his death the world has been crucified and has begun to pass away; Christ will shortly come again from heaven as the Son of Man. Here we have, in all essentials, the central doctrines of Christianity: the view of history, the salvation mechanism, the role and status of Christ Jesus. Everything in it had been implicit in the teachings of Christ. Paul made it explicit, clear and complete. It is a theological system, capable of infinite elaboration, no doubt, but complete in all essentials. It is cosmic and universalist; it is, in fact, Hellenized -- Paul, the Jew, whose natural tongue was Aramaic and whose Greek was singular, had supplied the part of the Hellenized processing machine, and thus made Judaic monotheism accessible to the entire Roman world.
But there was one key aspect of the saving mechanism which caused Paul problems, and his attempt to solve them drew him and his successors into an endless series of new difficulties. Christ's coming on earth set in motion the mechanism: that was clear. But when did it culminate? What was the time-scheme of Christianity? The whole of Jesus's work implied that the apocalypse was imminent; some of his sayings were quite explicit on the point. It is true that his teaching also contains the concept of an individual, interior relationship with God and of a personal salvation which makes the apocalypse superfluous and irrelevant: the soul has its individual drama with God in addition to the vast collective performance on the eschatological stage, with its terrifying scenery and sound effects, its deus ex machina descending for the Second Coming, the parousia. But this remained to be discovered and interpreted: one of the hidden matrices of Jesus's gospel. The prima facie view of the Jesus mission was that it was an immediate prelude to a Last Judgment. Hence the urgency of the pentecostal task, an urgency which Paul shared throughout his life, so that his final hope was to carry the good news, while there was still time, to Spain -- for him, 'the ends of the earth'.
It was this sense of urgency which gave a twist to Paul's theology. To him it made the accumulated apparatus of Jewish legalism particularly intolerable. Before his conversion he had been, he thought, a righteous man, keeping the law. The blinding insight of truth showed him this was a complete illusion. He realized he had not begun to live until he saw God through Jesus Christ. And the relationship was absolutely direct. As he put it: 'I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present or future, nor powers, nor any created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.' Or again: 'If God is for us, who is against us?' So for him the coming of Christ automatically ended the old Jewish law. For him the law became a curse, for no man could fulfill its 613 commands and prohibitions completely; thus it made sinners of everyone. In some ways it was a direct incentive to sin. Paul did not preach license. On the contrary, he constantly urged that the commandments must be kept. He advocated activism, especially in charity. And he told his converts to work. As a budding rabbi he had been taught a trade: he was a tent-maker. This was a practical as well as symbolic sign of the great, central therapy of work: one Jewish concept he triumphantly transmitted to Christianity. But Paul knew it was madness to suppose that salvation lay through the law and such externals as circumcision. The law was formal; its observation was perforce based on a degree of hypocrisy; indeed, all the systems of its interpretation were necessarily an attempt to refashion something originally inspired by God in man's distorting image. Good works were important, indeed: 'God will repay each in accordance with his works.' But salvation came primarily through faith (which was a rebirth and an identification with the true righteousness of God), so perfect that it can only be bestowed by God, who in doing so makes man righteous. The Jews had taken the false direction by believing that their works would establish their righteousness. They believed themselves chosen so long as they kept the law. However, the mark of election is not birth, but God's promise as enacted through the grace of faith. It applied to all, without respect of race, sex or status. Of course if all Israel became zealous for the conversion of the Gentiles, it would fulfil its role as the elect nation. But the prime object of the gentile mission was to set the machinery of God's election in motion. Paul noted that the scriptures adumbrated a system of predestination, and he quoted the case from Ezra: 'And thou didst set apart Jacob for thyself, but Esau thou didst hate.' The concept was made far more terrifying in the Qumran texts. But there is no mandate in Paul for the Calvinist insistence on the eternal predestination of the individual to salvation or damnation. Paul saw damnation as the shadow that was cast by election from grace; it ensures the purity of the gospel message; he did not put forward a theory about God's system of selection, but an explanation of what happens to a man when he hears the gospel -- he chooses, and so he is chosen.
This tremendous attack on the whole Judaic concept of man's relationship with God, and its replacement by a new salvationist system, was summarized in Paul's great essay in determinist theology, the epistle to the Romans. What an extraordinary document to be received by a young congregation who had never met the apostle! No one has ever fully understood Romans. No one can remain undisturbed by it, either. It is the most thought-provoking of all the Christian documents. It has a habit of forcing men to reconsider their whole understanding of religion even when they have spent many years in theological inquiry. Thus Romans profoundly changed Augustine's thinking in the last years of his life. It was the detonator to Luther's explosion. It has been used again and again to demolish and reconstruct systems of theology, most recently by Schweitzer, Bultmann and Barth. Most theological revolutions begin with Romans, as indeed did Paul's own. Romans is an imperfect document, the work of a man not wholly satisfied with his case: that is its merit as a key. The circular form of the argument, its return again and again to the same starting points and conclusions, betray the anxiety of a man who still saw, and knew he saw, through a glass darkly. The imperfection of his vision was, indeed, implicit in the majesty of his conception of God, the distancing he achieves between God and man, and time and eternity. Paul was the beneficiary of a vision. We must accept his sincerity on this: it was clearly the most important event in his whole life. But, as a man who demanded the whole truth, he recognized that his vision had been incomplete. The difference between the theology of Jesus and Paul is not merely that one is implicit, the other explicit; it is that Jesus saw as a God, Paul thought as a man. But the process of trying to think through the theological problem made Paul into a very formidable figure. On the one hand he presents an insuperable obstacle to any humanist rescue-operation on Jesus -- any presentation of him as the greatest and noblest of all human beings, stripped of his divine attributes. Paul insisted he was God: it is the only thing about him which really matters, otherwise the Pauline theology collapses, and with it Christianity. But equally, Paul is an obstacle to those who wish to turn Christianity into a closed system. He believed in freedom. For him, Christianity was the only kind of freedom that matters, the liberation from the law, and the donation of life. He associated freedom with truth, for which he had an unlimited reverence. And in pursuing truth he established the right to think, and to think through to the ultimate conclusion. The process of inquiry, in fact, mirrored his salvationist theology: he accepted the bonds and obligations of love, but not the authority of scholarship and tradition. He established the right to think in the full Hellenistic sense and thus showed that the Christian faith has nothing to fear from the power of thought. Schweitzer called Paul 'the patron saint of thought in Christianity', and added: 'All those who think to serve the gospel of Christ by destroying the liberty of thinking must hide their faces from him.'
This detailed analysis of Paul's theology and personality has been necessary to illuminate the significance of the Jerusalem Council and its aftermath in the whole history of Christianity. Behind the controversy over circumcision and the attitude to gentile converts a whole range of the deepest issues was at stake. Nor did the suggested compromise of James and Peter work. It was based upon a ruling from Leviticus which provided for the entertainment of strangers and allowed a certain relaxation of the law. This was precisely the kind of misplaced casuistry which Paul thought ruinous to Jesus's message. Paul made no attempt to put it into operation; later generations, puzzled by its significance, reinterpreted it as a general moral command -- thus it appears in the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Jerome. But equally, Paul's opponents did not abide by the apostolic ruling. Both the Acts and Paul's own epistles make it plain that the struggle continued, and became more bitter. For Paul, it was literally a matter of life or death, and his own writings make no attempt to hide its gravity and acrimony. The Jerusalem Council revealed the existence of a 'centre party', led in somewhat pusillanimous manner by Peter and James. Afterwards, the centre crumbled and surrendered to the Judaistic wing of the Christian-Pharisees: hence Peter's shamefaced refusal of table-fellowship to Gentiles at Antioch and Paul's stern rebuke. Peter eventually broke with, or at any rate left, the Jewish-Christian Church of Jerusalem. He accepted Paul's theology -- he may well have contributed to it with his own knowledge and insights -- and joined him in the mission to the Gentiles. In all probability they died together as martyrs at Rome. But the rest of the Jerusalem Church maintained its connection with Judaism and became increasingly hostile to Paul's efforts. The attempt to divide the missionary work was doomed to failure. The missions to the Jews of the diaspora and to the Gentiles in Syria, Asia Minor and Greece, were bound to overlap. The centres were the same: the major cities like Antioch, Ephesus, Tarsus, Corinth, Athens, Thessalonica. Moreover, the first Christian missionaries were, in effect, taking over the work of the old Jewish diaspora mission, using the same contacts, buildings, helpers. How could they be separated? And how could two sets of evangelists, claiming the same authority and working in the same area, preach two gospels which were increasingly divergent? Paul complained repeatedly of attempts to pervert and appropriate his congregations, so lovingly brought into existence by his own titanic efforts. He reacted vigorously: his incessant journeys, the immense burden of his life-task, which he sometimes portrays as beyond his resources, almost unbearable, reflected his need to fight on two fronts: against ignorance on the one hand, malicious obstruction on the other. Of course he counter-attacked: Romans itself was a preliminary move, a manifesto, to announce his arrival in Rome and a projected attempt to evangelize the Christian-Jewish community there. Money seems to have been used on both sides to provide the maximum number of evangelists and to sustain welfare-efforts and their administrators.
The evidence suggests that, after his initial great successes, Paul lost ground steadily. The Jewish Christians had the enormous advantage that they could draw on the resources, in men and money, of the diaspora communities. Moreover, they could rightly claim that they were led by men who had known Jesus personally and received the truth from the source. They included members of Jesus's own family, who took an active part in the Pauline campaign. Who, then, was Paul to claim a monopoly of truth? His reply was to draw attention, again and again, to his personal vision. It was his only credential. This inevitably exposed him to vicious personal attacks, stressing his vanity and pretensions; he was guilty of 'the cult of personality'. Paul lamented the difficulty of his position, which forced him into a posture of pride, and to claims which sounded like boasting. In the late fifties he returned to Jerusalem for the last time in a vain effort to reach a settlement. The Jewish wing deliberately forced him to make a reluctant gesture of Temple-worship which led to his arrest and imprisonment. Paul could plead Roman citizenship to get out of the clutches of the Judaic religious courts, but the legal tangle in which he became involved -- transportation to Rome under escort and then house arrest -- ended only in his death during the Neronic persecution. Thus the Jerusalem Church effectively terminated his missionary career.
What ensured the survival of Christianity was not the triumph of Paul in the field but the destruction of Jerusalem, and with it the Jewish-Christian faith. One of the many collateral reasons why Paul was anxious to disassociate Christ's teaching from Judaism was that he wished to rescue it from Jewish irredentist politics. The Jewish political and military messiah meant nothing to Greeks and Romans. And to Paul. Jesus had never been a messiah in this sense. That was not at all what Christianity was about. As a diaspora Jew, he had no quarrel with the Romans. On the contrary, he seems to have admired the Roman system and took advantage of it. His public claim to Roman citizenship was more than a physical escape from the justice of the law, now odious to him: it was a symbolic renunciation of Judaic status. Paul did not wish to see the Christian movement damaged and perhaps ruined by involvement with the (to him) irrelevant and hopeless quest for a Jewish state. Christ's kingdom was not of this world! In this respect Paul saw eye to eye with Josephus: would that the two might have met, for Paul could have found a convert. But Paul was defeated and the Jewish-Christian Church of Jerusalem moved closer to Judaism, and -- being a radical movement -- to Zealotry and nationalism. A Slavonic translation of an early, uncensored, version of Josephus's history suggests that the missing passages on Christianity emphasize the political aims of the Jewish-Christian resurrectionists in Judea. During the sixties the Jerusalem Church lost its Christian significance and the remains of its universalism as it became identified with the growing revolt against Rome. Zealots roamed the country districts. Religious terrorism increased in the towns. The crowded processions of the great feasts became the occasions for sudden murders which provoked riots and brutal retaliation. Law and order broke down and Rome was blamed for the economic distress which ensued. In Jerusalem a despairing proletariat turned against Rome, against a collaborationist sacerdotal aristocracy, and towards wonder-workers, patriotic brigands, and the sectaries. The final revolt and its repression lasted four years. It placed a great strain on the military and economic resources of the empire and Rome was correspondingly vengeful. The total of Jewish losses provided by Josephus add up to nearly one and a half million. The figure is unrealistic but it accurately mirrors the horrors of those years. There was a new, desperate diaspora. The Temple was destroyed and henceforth Judaism became the religion of the Talmud. The Jewish nation never recovered from the blow, though the final dispersion took place in the next century, when Jerusalem was razed and rebuilt as a Roman colonial city. The Jewish-Christian community was dispersed; most of its leaders were no doubt killed. Survivors fled to Asia Minor, the east, Egypt, especially to Alexandria.
Thus the centre of Christian gravity shifted to Rome; and the theological vacuum left by the extinction of the Jerusalem Church was filled by the Pauline system. A number of readjustments followed. Paul's Christ had not been anchored to the historical Jesus of the Jerusalem Church. This was remedied by Mark, who wrote the first biography of Jesus, presenting him as a deity. Luke, in his gospel and his Acts, completed the plastic surgery by giving the decapitated trunk of the Jerusalem Jesus a Pauline head. The change of balance and direction in the Church was eventually accepted by most Christian-Jewish communities in Africa and Asia. It is reflected in a number of documents, such as the gospel of Matthew, who neatly contrives to be both very Jewish and very Christian, and the gospel of John, which marks the triumph of Pauline theology. But other Christian-Jewish fragments declined to change and so became heretical. Such were the Ebionites, or poor ones, chiefly in Egypt. They saw themselves as the true, primitive Church; they had allowed themselves to be by-passed by events, lost their title to orthodoxy, and so came to be treated as false innovators -- a familiar paradox in the history of religion. It is interesting that their writings and those of other Jewish-Christians in the fifties who had first introduced the idea of heresy in the portray Paul as antichrist and the first heretic. It was in fact the Jewish Christians in the fifties, who had first introduced the idea of heresy in the campaign against Paul and Hellenization; thus the arrow flew swiftly back to the archer. In Judaism itself, heresy was already a mature and powerful concept. Hence, following the collapse of Jewish Christianity, the orthodox Judaic authorities did not wait long to anathematize Christianity as such. Around 85, the judgment was incorporated in the synagogue liturgy: 'May the Nazarenes and the heretics be suddenly destroyed and removed from the book of life.' Heresy was another Judaic gift to the Christian Church, where it soon began to flourish mightily.
Yet what was Christian heresy? And, for that matter, what was the Church? Most of our knowledge of early Christian history comes from the writings of Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. Eusebius was in many ways a conscientious historian, and he had access to multitudes of sources which have since disappeared. But he believed, and was therefore concerned to demonstrate by his presentation of the evidence, that a Christian Church, vested with the plenitude of Christ's teaching, and with divine authority to uphold it, had been ordained by Jesus right at the beginning, and had then been solidly established by the first generation of apostles. Moreover, it had triumphantly survived the attempts of various heretics to tamper with the truth it passed on intact from generation to generation.
This view is a reconstruction for ideological purposes. Eusebius represented the wing of the Church which had captured the main centres of power, had established a firm tradition of monarchical bishops, and had recently allied itself with the Roman state. He wanted to show that the Church he represented had always constituted the mainstream of Christianity, both in organization and faith. The truth is very different. We have already seen that the original legatee of Jesus's mission, the Jerusalem Church, did not hold steadfast to his teaching and was slipping back into Judaism before it was, in effect, extinguished, its remnants being eventually branded as heretics. The Christology of Paul, which later became the substance of the Christian universal faith, came from the diaspora, and was preached by an outsider whom many in the Jerusalem Church did not recognize as an apostle at all. Christianity began in confusion, controversy and schism and so it continued. A dominant orthodox Church, with a recognizable ecclesiastical structure, emerged only very gradually and represented a process of natural selection -- a spiritual survival of the fittest. And, as with such struggles, it was not particularly edifying.
The Darwinian image is appropriate: the central and eastern Mediterranean in the first and second centuries AD swarmed with an infinite multitude of religious ideas, struggling to propagate themselves. Every religious movement was unstable and fissiparous; and these cults were not only splitting up and modulating but reassembling in new forms. A cult had to struggle not only to survive but to retain its identity. Jesus had produced certain insights and matrices which were rapidly propagated over a large geographical area. The followers of Jesus were divided right from the start on elements of faith and practice. And the further the missionaries moved from the base, the more likely it was that their teachings would diverge. Controlling them implied an ecclesiastical organization. In Jerusalem there were 'leaders' and 'pillars', vaguely defined officials modelled on Jewish practice. But they were ineffective. The Jerusalem Council was a failure. It outlined a consensus but could not make it work in practice. Paul could not be controlled. Nor, presumably, could others. Nor could the 'pillars' of the centre party maintain their authority even in Jerusalem. They slipped back into Judaism. Then came the catastrophe of 66-70, and the central organization of the Church, such as it was, disappeared.
It is true that the Christians now had a homogenous and extremely virile body of doctrine: the Pauline gospel or kerygma. It stood a good chance of surviving and spreading. But it had no organization behind it. Paul did not believe in such a thing. He believed in the Spirit, working through him and others. Why should man regulate when the Spirit would do it for him? And of course he did not want a fixed system with rules and prohibitions: 'If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.' The Church was an inversion of normal society. Its leaders exercised their authority through gifts of the Spirit, not through office. The two noblest gifts were prophecy and teaching. The apostles set the process in motion, then the Spirit took over and worked through many people: 'And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, then prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.' Worship was still completely unorganized and subject to no special control. There was no specific organization to handle funds. And there was no distinction between a clerical class, and laity. There were, indeed, presbyters in the Judaic Christian Church, but not in Paul's new convert congregations. The atmosphere in short was that of a loosely organized revivalist movement. Many, from time to time, 'spoke with tongues'; all expected the parousia soon. Clerical control seemed needless and inappropriate. And the atmosphere in the Pauline churches was reproduced elsewhere, in a rapidly spreading movement.
Granted this, it was inevitable that the Church expanded not as a uniform movement but as a collection of heterodoxies. Or perhaps 'heterodoxies' is the wrong word, since it implies there was an orthodox version. The Pauline system did, indeed, become orthodox in time, but the other Christian versions which spread from Jerusalem were not deviations from it but evolved independently. From the start, then, there were numerous varieties of Christianity which had little in common, though they centred round belief in the resurrection. They were marked by two things: individual oral traditions, which eventually found written expression as 'gospels'; and, linked to this, claims to an apostolic succession. Each Church had its own 'Jesus story'; and each had been founded by one of the original band who had handed over the torch to a designated successor and so on. The most important element in all these early Churches was the genealogical tree of truth.
This was a Greek, rather than a Judaic, concept. Indeed, it was essentially a gnostic idea. No one has yet succeeded in defining 'gnosticism' adequately, or indeed demonstrating whether this movement preceded Christianity or grew from it. Certainly gnostic sects were spreading at the same time as Christian ones; both were part of the general religious osmosis. Gnostics had two central preoccupations: belief in a dual world of good and evil and belief in the existence of a secret code of truth, transmitted by word of mouth or by arcane writings. Gnosticism is a 'knowledge' religion -- that is what the word means -- which claims to have an inner explanation of life. Thus it was, and indeed still is, a spiritual parasite which used other religions as a 'carrier'. Christianity fitted into this role very well. It had a mysterious founder, Jesus, who had conveniently disappeared, leaving behind a collection of sayings and followers to transmit them; and of course in addition to the public sayings there were 'secret' ones, handed on from generation to generation by members of the sect. Thus gnostic groups seized on bits of Christianity, but tended to cut it off from its historical origins. They were Hellenizing it, as they Hellenized other oriental cults (often amalgamating the results). Their ethics varied to taste: sometimes they were ultra-puritan, sometimes orgiastic. Thus some groups seized on Paul's denunciation of the law to preach complete license. Paul fought hard against gnosticism, recognizing that it might cannibalize Christianity and destroy it. At Corinth he came across well-educated Christians who had reduced Jesus to myth. Among the Colossians he found Christians who worshipped intermediate spirits and angels. Gnosticism was hard to combat because it was hydra-headed and always changing. Of course all the sects had their own codes, and most hated each other. Some conflated the cosmogony of Plato with the story of Adam and Eve, and interpreted it in various ways: thus the Ophites worshipped serpents, arguing that the serpent had triumphed over God; so they cursed Jesus in their liturgy. Some accepted Christian redemption but ruled out Jesus as the redeemer: the Samaritans preferred Simon Magus, others Hercules.
The most dangerous gnostics were those who had, intellectually, thought their way quite inside Christianity, and then produced a variation which wrecked the system. The Basilides group in Egypt, and the Valentinians in Rome, though they differed on other things, both rejected the incarnation and denied Jesus had ever been man: his body was semblance or dokesis. The Docetists had wide appeal among the Greek cultures because they effectively cut off Christianity from its Judaic origins, something which responded to a popular demand, especially among the well-to-do. Indeed, those of Greek culture found it hard to understand why Christianity should wish or need to maintain the Jewish connection. They found the Septuagint a monstrous document: barbarous and obscure or, when comprehensible, repugnant. Why should Christians lumber themselves with it? This line was all the more insidious in that it merely carried Paul's logic a little further. There must have been times when Paul, for all his Jewishness, was tempted to drop the Septuagint himself. How much of it was authentic? Valentinus argued that a great deal had simply been inserted by Jewish elders and possessed no authority; and many other portions represented compromises with contemporary opinion, Moses being a prime culprit. As forms of Christianity spread and enveloped, or indeed produced, highly-educated men, the glaring blemishes of the scriptures were closely examined. By the early decades of the second century there were masses of Christian texts, too, which had no precise status and spoke with many tongues. Which were valid and which were not?
The problem attracted the attention of a brilliant and wealthy Greek convert from Pontus, Marcion, who had come to Rome in the 120s or 130s to take an active part in propagating the faith. He was from the school of Paul, indeed his greatest theological follower. He represents two important and permanent strains in Christianity: the cool, rationalist approach to the examination of the Church's documentary proofs, and a plain, unspectacular philosophy of love. He was, as it were, a preincarnation of a certain type of Renaissance scholar, an adumbration of Erasmus. Marcion had no doubt that Paul's essential teachings were sound and he knew they were closest to Jesus in date. His difficulty was how to square them either with the teachings of the Old Testament, or with post-Pauline Christian writings. Using historical and critical methods basically similar to those of modern scriptural scholars, he identified only seven Pauline epistles as authentic, rejecting all the later documents which were circulating in the apostle's name. Of the so-called evangelists he accepted only portions of Luke (in his gospel and Acts) as inspired, rejecting all the rest as later fabrications, rationalizations and muddle. This stripped the New Testament down to its bare Pauline bones: indeed, to Marcion, the teaching of Paul was, essentially, the gospel of Jesus. The Old Testament he rejected in toto since it seemed to him, as it has seemed to many Christians since, to be talking of a quite different God: monstrous, evil-creating, bloody, the patron of ruffians like David. His textual analysis and the process by which he arrived at the first 'canon', thus had a unity: the breach with Judaism, initiated by Paul, had to be complete, and Christian texts with Judaizing tendencies or compromises expurgated or scrapped.
No book of Marcion's has survived. He quarrelled with the Roman Christian authorities in AD 144 and went east. Later he was denounced as a heretic by Tertullian, earliest and noisiest of the Christian witch-hunters. This means his works have not survived, except in extracts quoted in books attacking him. Preservation of an ancient author required positive effort over a long period. Early Christian writings were produced in very small quantities on highly perishable papyrus. Unless they were constantly retranscribed they did not survive at all. There was no need of a censor, unless a heresiarch had followers over successive generations to keep his work alive. So we do not know the details of Marcion's system. His God was the Pauline God of love. He rejected fear as a force God would employ to compel obedience. This reliance on love alone as the mechanism underpinning ethics was the main burden of Tertullian's complaint against Marcion and his sympathizers. For them, he sneered, 'God is purely and simply good. He indeed forbids all sin, but only in word...for your fear he does not want...they have no fear of their God at all. They say it is only an evil being who will be feared, a good one will be loved. Foolish Man! Do you say that he whom you call Lord ought not to be feared, whilst the very title you give him indicates a power which must be feared?' Without fear, men would 'boil over into lust,' frequent games, circuses, theatres -- all forbidden to Christians -- and submit instantly to persecution.
pardMarcion's controversy with Tertullian gives us a glimpse, perhaps for the first time, of two basic types of Christian: the rational optimist who believes that the love-principle is sufficient, man having an essential desire to do good, and the pessimist, convinced of the essential corruptibility of human creatures and the need for the mechanism of damnation. Successful Christianity is essentially a coalition of views and spiritualities: it needs to contain both types even when they produce a certain conflict and friction. In this case it was unable to accommodate either, at any rate in Rome. Rome was universalist and Marcion's ruthless pruning of the Christian texts would have narrowed the limits of its appeal. And then, he did not believe in marriage, believing that procreation was an invention of the evil Old Testament God -- or so Tertullian reported. Marcion was a flawed character: his biblical exegesis reveals a superlative mind, his doctrine of Pauline charity an admirable character, but his views on sex set him down as an eccentric. They were compatible with belief in an imminent parousia but by the 140s the Church had settled down to the long haul, and procreation had to be carried on. Marcion's departure was a heavy financial blow to the Rome Church and his money enabled him to attract a huge following in the east. But belief in celibacy necessarily proves fatal to a heretical movement.
Tertullian and Marcion never met: they were of quite different generations and Tertullian was attacking an attitude of mind rather than a real personality. Both had powerful intellects. Tertullian, in addition, was a master of prose, the prose of the rhetorician and the controversialist. He was at home in both Latin and Greek but he usually employed Latin -- the first Christian theologian to do so. His influence, indeed, was enormous precisely because he created ecclesiastical latinity, hammered out its linguistic concepts and formulations and, thanks to his eloquence, endowed it with unforgettable and influential phrases: 'The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church'; 'The unity of the heretics is schism'; 'I believe because it is absurd.' The last indicates the distance which separates him from the rationalist Marcion. Tertullian came from Carthage where, even in the closing decades of the second century, a distinctive regional Church had emerged: enthusiastic, immensely courageous, utterly defiant of the secular authorities, much persecuted, narrow-minded, intolerant, venomous and indeed violent in controversy. There is some evidence that Carthage and other areas of the African littoral were evangelized by Christian Zealots and Essenes and had a very early tradition of militancy and resistance to authority and persecution. Tertullian embodied this tradition. To him the Church was a precious elite of believers, to be defended against contamination from whatever quarter; the Devil, he thought, roamed the earth seeking to corrupt. Christians should limit their contacts with the state to the minimum: they should refuse to serve in the army, or the civil service, or even in state schools; they might not earn their living in any trade connected, even indirectly, with pagan religion. He particularly deplored the attempts of rationalists, like Marcion, to reconcile Christian teaching to Greek philosophy: 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have heretics to do with Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic Christianity!'
In his contempt for intellectual inquiry, Tertullian appeared anti-Pauline. Yet in another sense he sprang from the Pauline tradition. He stressed the overwhelming power of faith, the precious gift of the elect. To him Christians were supermen because the spirit moved in them. This is Paul's conception of the Church: a community where the spirit worked through individuals, rather than an organized hierarchy where authority was exercised by office. Tertullian's burning faith made him a scourge of heretics and an avid propagandist for the Church -- one of the best it ever had. Yet his alignment with orthodoxy, at any rate orthodoxy as conceived by a clerical establishment, was fundamentally against his nature. He thought direct communication with the deity not only possible but essential. And so did many other people. It was among the earliest traditions of the Church, and it had the full stamp of Pauline authority. But the idea of a free-lance, self-appointed proclaimer of truth was, in the end, incompatible with a regular priesthood, charged with the duty of protecting the canon.
The crisis came to a head in the second half of the second century but it had been building up for a long time. The nature of Christianity, carried rapidly forward by wandering evangelists, attracted charlatans. Some of the earliest Christian documents (and the earliest pious forgeries) were attempts to establish the bona fides of missionaries and warnings against fraud. Sophisticated pagans sneered at Christians for their gullibility. That sparkling Greek satirist Lucian, who took a contemptuous view of human credulity, was particularly critical of Christians because 'they take their beliefs from tradition, and do not insist on definite evidence. Any professional fraud can impose himself on them and make a lot of money very quickly.' Lucian gave as one example the Cynic philosopher Peregrinus who picked up Christianity in Palestine, 'and in no time made them all look like children -- he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, everything. He interpreted their holy books, and composed some himself. They revered him as a god, treated him as a lawgiver, and made him their leader -- next, of course, after the man who introduced their cult into the world, and who was crucified in Palestine, whom they still worship.' Peregrinus may have been more sincere than Lucian gave him credit for: he eventually cremated himself on a funeral pyre at the close of the Olympic Games in 165. It was always difficult to distinguish between the truly inspired, the self-delude& and the plain criminal. And, inconvenient as individual ecstatics and 'speakers with tongues' might be, there was always the more serious danger that they might fall under the spell of an outstanding charismatic and prophet who would constitute a counter-Church. Just as the varieties of gnosticism risked capturing the Church's personality and absorbing it into a disintegrating mess of sub-Hellenic cults, so the charismatics might submerge the Church's unitary voice under a Babel of 'prophecies'. The moment was judged to have come about 170 when Montanus, a successful charismatic who described himself as the Paraclete, was declared an enemy of the Church. Many of his closest followers were women, and they clearly played an outstanding role in his movement -- as, indeed, they did in one or two of the Pauline congregations. Montanus was attacked by his enemies for breaking up marriages and then giving these inspired matrons who flocked to join him ecclesiastical offices. Montanism, or rather the efforts to combat it, played a conclusive role in persuading the orthodox to ban the ministry to women. Tertullian, while still an orthodox propagandist, snarled at this subversion of Church order: 'The impudence of the heretics' women! They dare to teach, to dispute, to carry out exorcisms, perform cures -- perhaps they even baptize....Of course, nowhere is promotion easier than in a camp of rebels: the mere fact of being there is meritorious!' In his tract On Baptism and the Veiling of Virgins, he emphatically denied that women could exercise any ministerial functions.
There were two lines of attack on the Montanists. On the one hand, they were accused of excessive austerity; thus Hippolytus, putting the orthodox case in his Refutatio omnium haeresium: 'They introduced novelties in the shape of special fasts and ceremonies, and diets of radishes which they adopted on the inspired advice of their womenfolk.' But Montanus was also attacked for handling large sums of money, for moving about in an ostentatious manner and for paying stipends to his chief followers. Some of the orthodox smears on him are manifest inventions. Eusebius repeats a tale that Montanus and his chief woman-prophet died as a result of a suicide pact, but he indicates that this is fiction. Many of the accusations levelled merely suggest that the Montanists were behaving like the Church, were in fact the Church in large areas -- thus they raised money, paid their clergy and so forth. The best indication of the moral worthiness of the movement is that Tertullian, the scourge of heretics, eventually joined it. He could not continue to endorse an orthodoxy which denied any independent role to the Spirit and insisted that all communication with the deity should be through the regular ecclesiastical channels. So profound was his conviction of the reality of direct spiritual intervention that he accepted aspects of it he had hitherto regarded as quite repugnant; especially after he had witnessed their efficacy. Thus, as a Montanist, he wrote in De Anima at the end of his life: 'We have now among us a sister who has been granted gifts of revelations, which she experiences in church during the Sunday services through ecstatic vision in the Spirit.'
Tertullian's case gives us a precious, in some ways unique, glimpse into the workings of the early Church. Here was a great Church statesman, a man of impeccable rectitude and burning faith, embracing heresy. His adherence thus completely undermines the orthodox attacks on the morals and public behaviour of the Montanists, sets a stamp of ethical approval, at any rate, on the movement. The Montanists were evidently sincere, holy and probably humble and abstemious people. But that we know this is due to accident, or rather to the conscious decision of orthodox authority to preserve Tertullian as a personality and a theological writer. Normally he would have been allowed to sink into oblivion, or have survived as a caricatured fragment. But he was not only the first, but one of the most outstanding Latin theologians; the bulk of his work constitutes a tremendous affirmation of the Christian faith. It was exciting to read then, as indeed it still is now. Tertullian was too precious to be sacrificed to orthodox uniformity. Though the first Protestant, he was saved by his art. The Church continued to reproduce and use his works, or the bulk of them, and thus, incidentally, confirms the good faith of the Montanists.
As a rule, however, those who disputed with what later became, or already was, the orthodox tradition, have been buried under a mountain of ecclesiastical Billingsgate. Odium theologicum was not a Christian innovation. It was part of the Judaic heritage, along with the concept of heresy and the anathema. As we have seen, the bland, eirenic tone of the Acts, picturing the early Church as a collegiate body of fair-minded senators, moving peaceably to collective decisions, belies the reality we find in Paul. Harsh words among the brothers in Christ made their appearance early and thereafter there was a steady inflation in the exchange of abuse. In the second century, discussion with heretics yielded to polemic and the magnitude of the orthodox accusations and the scurrility of the abuse, usually corresponded to the success of the movement. With the growth of polemic, it became necessary to attack the morals as well as the doctrine of the divergent. In fact the theory soon developed that doctrinal error inevitably induced moral decay. Thus orthodox polemicists could invent and believe accusations in good faith. Montanist officials were accused of gluttony and avarice simply because they received salaries. The orthodox Apollonius accused Alexander, whom he called a heretic, of highway robbery; he held disgusting feasts with the prophetess Priscella, and she was covetous. The indictment continues: 'Does a true prophet use make-up? Does he dye his eyebrows and eyelids? Does he love ornaments? Does he gamble? Play dice? Does he lend money at interest?' What was normal practice among all Christians -- the practice of calling widows virgins, the payment of priests, the use of money to get persecuted brethren out of state prisons, were in heretic sects described as evil. The sects which attracted the largest followings were, as a rule, the most austere and God-fearing; but, being the most successful, they had to be the most bitterly assailed on moral grounds.
There is thus a sinister Goebbels' Law about early Christian controversy: the louder the abuse, the bigger the lie. In a circular letter to bishops in c. 324, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria wrote of Arians:
'Impelled by avarice and ambition, these knaves are constantly plotting to gain possession of the richest dioceses...they are driven insane by the devil who works in them...skilled deceivers...hatched a conspiracy...vile purposes...equipped dens of robbers...organized a gang to fight Christ...excite disorders against us...persuade people to persecute us...their immoral womenfolk...their younger women followers run around the street in an indecent fashion and discredit Christianity....'
And so on. There was a constant and depressing inflation in the vocabulary of invective during the course of the first two centuries; thus the orthodox were told that among the Manichees 'no modesty, no sense of honour and no chastity whatever is to be found; their moral code is a mass of falsehoods, their religious beliefs are shaped by the devil, and their sacrifice is immorality itself.' Where their writings survive, we find that heretics, schismatics and critics of the orthodox used the same language. Thus the anti-Nestorian Bishop Cyril of Alexandria was described by Isidore of Pelusium as 'a man determined to pursue his private hatreds rather than seek the true faith of Jesus Christ'; and another critic, Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus, greeted Cyril's death with the words: 'The living are delighted. The dead, perhaps, are sorry, afraid they may be burdened with his company...May the guild of undertakers lay a huge, heavy stone on his grave, lest he should come back again and show his faithless mind again. Let him take his new doctrines to Hell, and preach to the damned all day and night.' The mind boggles at the lists of offences with which distinguished ecclesiastics accused each other. The historian Sozomen relates that at the Council of Tyre, 335, Athanasius, the orthodox Bishop of Alexandria, was charged with breaking a mystical chalice, smashing an episcopal chair, false imprisonment, deposing a bishop unlawfully, placing him under military guard and torturing him, striking other bishops physically, obtaining his bishoprics by perjury, breaking and cutting off the arm of one of his opponents, burning his house, tying him to a column and whipping him, and putting him in a cell illegally -- all this in addition to teaching false doctrine.
The venom employed in these endemic controversies reflects the fundamental instability of Christian belief during the early centuries, before a canon of New Testament writings had been established, credal formulations evolved to epitomize them, and a regular ecclesiastical structure built up to protect and propagate such agreed beliefs. Before the last half of the third century it is inaccurate to speak of a dominant strain of Christianity. So far as we can judge, by the end of the first century, and virtually throughout the second, the majority of Christians believed in varieties of Christian-gnosticism, or belonged to revivalist sects grouped round charismatics. Eusebius, seeking to push back the origins of uniformity and orthodoxy as close as possible to the generation of the apostles, constantly uses phrases -- 'countless', 'very many', 'all', -- when he deals with the orthodox Church, its size, its influence, its success, its champions and its heroic sacrifices, which is not borne out by evidence, even when he cites it. In particular, he exaggerates the volume of orthodox literature from the earliest times. His motive was to show that a massive quantity of books setting out the true faith was produced in the first two centuries, that they had wide circulation, were faithfully preserved and enjoyed a long life; they grew up and spread so vigorously that they smashed the heretics or drove them into tiny enclaves. But the books to which Eusebius refers have not survived and he does not seem to have read them, to judge by his references. Why should they survive up to the fourth century, then disappear? On the other side, the overwhelming bulk of heretic writings, including diatribes between rival heresies, have disappeared. But often their titles survive and these, in many cases, do not suggest polemics -- the works of sects struggling for survival against orthodoxy -- but the regular teaching of the established majority faith.
A very complex picture of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the early period is revealed if we study the 'succession lists' of individual bishoprics. By the third century, lists of bishops, each of whom had consecrated his successor, and which went back to the original founding of the see by one or other of the apostles, had been collected or manufactured by most of the great cities of the empire and were reproduced by Eusebius. The idea was first developed by the gnostics who listed teachers, and their teachers, going back to Jesus, and transmitting the sacred knowledge. Thus Basilides, one of the gnostic heretics, appealed to Glaucias, described as Peter's interpreter, and so back to Peter and Christ; another gnostic, Valentinus, claimed he had been instructed by Theodas, a disciple of Paul; both the Carpocratians and the Nassenians appealed to Mariamne, to whom James, Jesus's brother, handed on the secrets. During the second century this gnostic device was adopted by orthodox Christianity. Indeed to some extent it was systematized, about 180, by an orthodox writer from the east, Hegesippus. His writings are lost, but according to Eusebius he travelled round collecting evidence about the succession in various Churches and then wrote a huge tome in which 'he presented the undistorted tradition of the apostolic preaching in the simplest possible form.' He identified intellectual continuity, preserved on a personal basis, with juristic and sacramental continuity. He thus linked the 'correct' tradition and succession with order and unanimity. Early teachers were identified and then transformed into a series of monarchical bishops. There was no conscious falsification, since by the second half of the second century it was assumed there had always been such bishops; all that was necessary was to prod people's memories to get the details. Then the list could be tidied up. Hence the longer and more impressive the list, the later its date of compilation and the less its accuracy. Eusebius, however, presents the lists as evidence that orthodoxy had a continuous tradition from the earliest times in all the great episcopal sees and that all heretical movements were subsequent aberrations from the mainline of Christianity.
Looking behind the lists, however, a different picture emerges. In Edessa, on the edge of the Syrian desert, the proofs of the early establishment of Christianity were forgeries, almost certainly manufactured under Bishop Kune, the first orthodox bishop, and actually a contemporary of Eusebius. Christianity seems to have been brought to the area by Marcionites, about 150, and later flourished in various non-orthodox forms, including the Manichean. Different texts of the New Testament, varying in important essentials, were in use. Thus orthodoxy did not arrive until the last decades of the third century.
Equally, the first Christian groups in Egypt were heterodox by later standards. They came into existence about the beginning of the first century and were Christian-gnostics. Their teaching, put in writing about this time, was the 'Gospel of the Egyptians', in Coptic, later declared heretical. Very recent discoveries in the Upper Nile Valley suggest that gnosticism was also the dominant form of Christianity in Upper Egypt at this time. And in Alexandria in Lower Egypt there was a Jewish-Christian community, using the 'gospel of the Hebrews', also later declared heretical. Orthodoxy was not established until the time of Bishop Demetrius, 189-231, who set up a number of other sees and manufactured a genealogical tree for his own Bishopric of Alexandria, which traces the foundation through ten mythical predecessors back to Mark, and so to Peter and Jesus. Orthodoxy was merely one of several forms of Christianity during the third century, and may not have become dominant until Eusebius's time.
Even in Antioch, where both Peter and paul had been active, there seems to have been confusion until the end of the second century. Antioch harboured a multitude of esoteric religious cults. Gnosticism was powerful, and may have taken over Christianity after the departure of the apostles. Some early Christians there seem to have used a heretical text, called the gospel of Peter. The 'apostolic succession' may have been lost completely. When Eusebius's chief source for his episcopal lists, Julius Africanus, tried to compile one for Antioch he found only six names to cover the same spell of time as twelve in Rome and ten in Alexandria. Orthodoxy in Antioch really dates from the episcopate of Ignatius in the late second century who had to free himself as well as his diocese from the local gnostic tradition and who imported orthodox clergy from elsewhere to help the process. We have evidence that the same sort of process was repeated in western Asia Minor, in Thessalonica, and in Crete. Indeed, wherever evidence exists, it indicates that the process of achieving uniformity, thereby making orthodoxy meaningful, began only towards the end of the second century, and was far from complete by the end of the third.
A number of factors made this process possible. The first was the evolution of a canon of New Testament writings. Although oral tradition continued to be important right up till the end of the second century, most traditions had found written form by its early decades; they constituted an enormous mass of writing, only part of which has come down to us, covering a wide range of doctrine and assertion, much of it contradictory. The Church was bothered by this problem from an early date, as is evident from the work of Bishop Papias, and was originally inclined to adopt a rigorous policy, excluding anything which it did not believe to be demonstrably connected with one or other of the apostles. During this period, indeed, Christians were still aware of the way in which traditions were finding written form and were far more conscious of the element of fraud during the post-apostolic age than the later legislators of Church councils. But Marcion pushed this tendency too far: his exegetical methods, impressive though they were, would not merely have cut off Christianity from Judaism completely -- thus distorting the character and intellectual background of Jesus's work -- but would have reduced the New Testament virtually to the authentic Pauline corpus. The historical Jesus would have disappeared, Christianity would have been completely Hellenized and thus made far more vulnerable to gnostic penetration and disintegration. In the reaction from Marcion, the tendency was for the canon to become less exclusive. A fragment survives from the late second century (in an eighthcentury Latin translation, first printed in 1740 by L. A. Muratori) listing the 'received' works, and indicating a major expansion since Papias's day. The instinct was to give a multi-focal vision of Jesus and his ideas and thus to broaden the appeal of his teaching and its interpretation. This meant accepting a large number of theological and ethical, and indeed historicalfactual contradictions; on the other hand it preserved the universalist spirit of Christianity and was more. faithful to the tradition of Jesus himself as a provider of innumerable matrices and insights than a homogenous theology like Paul's.
Expanding the canon was also a weapon against heresy. All the evidence suggests that heresiarchs did not create heresies: they merely articulated popular moods which already existed or in some cases fought for traditions which were being trampled by the march of orthodoxy. An inclusive canon allowed the Church to make a wider appeal to heretical populations or, to put it another way, to include under its umbrella of faith the followers of old and divergent traditions. At the same time, the process of selection and canonization allowed the orthodox leaders to demolish dangerous documents once their adherents had been captured. Thus in the third, fourth and fifth centuries, many written 'gospels', particularly those penetrated by gnosticism, were excluded and so disappeared. At the same time, dangerous elements within the canon could be to some extent de-fused by attaching more orthodox documents to their authors. Thus Paul, damaged by the championship of Marcion, was credited with the so-called 'pastoral epistles', which have the tone of the emerging orthodox church; and the gospel of John, much used by the Montanists and other heretics- and certainly a candidate for exclusion at one time -- was saved by attributing to its supposed author three unobjectionable epistles. There was horse-trading between rival centres of Christianity and, increasingly, between East and West. Thus the West successfully insisted on the elimination of many Alexandrine documents, but it was unable to foist on the East a number of important Roman writings of the early second century. It almost failed with Revelation, about which most Greeks were sceptical even in the eighth century; some never accepted it. The epistle to the Hebrews, as most of the early fathers knew, was not by Paul. It was excluded from the Muratorian fragment and rejected by Tertullian and virtually everyone else in the West. The first notable Latin figure to accept it as canonical was the mid-fourth century Bishop of Poitiers, Hilary. But it was popular in the East and finally categorized as Pauline, as a result of a deal at the Council of Carthage in 419 -- though we know that the most influential ecclesiastic present, Augustine, was quite sure it was not written by Paul. In general, the determining figure in the evolution of the canon was Eusebius, whose object was to associate as closely as possible the actual teaching and structure of the Church with its documentary credentials; after his death, useful documents he had considered doubtful were accepted as canonical, the process being virtually completed by 367, when Athanasius gave a list in his Easter Letter. By this time, the New Testament, roughly as we know it, had largely superseded the old Hebrew scriptures as the principal teaching instrument of the church. It was an instrument which had been fashioned by the Church, rather than vice versa.
Moreover, the Very idea of a body of 'new scriptures', containing the essence of the Christian faith, assisted the forces which were creating an institutional Church. Paul had been writing in an age when the parousia was still thought to be imminent, though by the end of his life hope that it would come immediately was fading. During the next two generations, the Christians had to face the problem of a receding eschatology and accept that the period of waiting for the apocalypse was 'normalcy'. For a time, the idea of a general resurrection and of individual expectations of heaven at death were presented side by side, without reconciliation; then the first gradually fell into the background. Ethics once more became complicated and subtle. Paul's simple eschatological call for repentance, the summons to 'watch', yielded to the idea of the 'Christian life' as expressed in, the pastoral epistles and the epistle to the Hebrews, which were fathered on him. Thus the regulation of life once more tended to be portrayed as the condition of salvation and the great ethical commandment of the gospels assumed the status of a new law. But law implied obedience; and obedience implied authority. What was this authority? The Church. What constituted the Church? The men who ran it.
The same process of reasoning was at work in faith as well as ethics. Hebrews stressed the importance of faith and of its public confession by Christians. The first epistle of John introduced the idea of the confession as a defence against heresy and false knowledge. Hitherto, the confession produced a decision for or against faith; now it was a decision for or against particular groups in the Church. In short the confession had to be interpreted. The author of 1 John insisted that anyone who rejected his interpretation not only rejected part of the faith but the faith, because it was indivisible. We see here the rise of dogma. The sacred writings not only had to be classified as authorative or not, they had to be explained -- and the explanation itself was authoritative. Who was in charge of the process? The Church. What was the Church? The men who ran it.
The idea of a clergy seems to have been a marriage between Greek and Judaic ideas. The Jerusalem elders of the Jewish-Christian Church possessed an element of authority; they were 'pillars'. The bishops and deacons of the Gentile Church originally had purely spiritual functions. They were charismatics -- not organizers, fund-raisers or legislators. This was the situation portrayed in Paul's genuine epistles and also in Luke's Acts. But by the time the early Roman sources appear, early in the second century, the matrix of a clerical structure had been forged. The first epistle of Clement stressed the importance of 'decency and order' in the Church. And part of this order was a hierarchical structure. Women were to be subject to men, the young to the old, the 'multitude' to the presbyters, or alternatively to bishops and deacons selected for this purpose. A historical theory of episcopacy had already been evolved: 'Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be contention over the name of bishop. For this reason, being possessed of complete foreknowledge, they appointed the above-mentioned men, and then made a decree that, when these men died, other reliable men should take over their office.' By the time Ignatius of Antioch wrote his letter, perhaps twenty years later, the hierarchical order had developed further, and clergy were divided into grades: the bishop, the council of the presbyters, and the deacons. Ignatius, who may well have written hymns and introduced antiphonal singing to the Church, used a musical image: only if all performed their parts as allotted, would the essential unity of the Church be preserved. By this stage, as we see from the pastoral epistles, the primitive democracy of the eschatological period had gone: the congregation had lost its freedom, the bishops taught authorized truth and office was seen as the instrument by which the apostolic tradition was to be preserved. The authority of the bishop was then buttressed, as we have seen, by the compilation of episcopal lists going back to the apostolic foundations. All such Churches produced their list, and no one Church alone had to bear the burden of proving that its teaching was the one originally given. Thus the Churches established intercommunion and mutual defence against heresy, on the basis of the monarchical episcopate and its apostolic genealogy.
With the episcopate established as the unifying principle in the Church, the way was open for fresh developments. The idea of succession, originally stressed to safeguard belief in the tradition, was detached from its setting and used to create a doctrine of spiritual office. Tertullian saw this in legal terms: the bishops were 'heirs' to spiritual property. And part of their property was that their authority was valid everywhere because they became special people by virtue of their office. How did they become heirs? The answer was shortly supplied by Hippolytus of Rome, writing early in the third century, with the notion of a special sanctifying power in episcopal consecration. This service, he argued, was the means by which bishops, like the apostles before them, were endowed with the threefold authority of the high priesthood, the teaching, and the office of 'watchman'. They could be ordained only by other bishops -- thus for the first time a sacral differentiation was made in consecration rites.
The creation of an international Church, moving slowly from doctrinal diversity to the semblance of orthodoxy, based on an agreed canon and underpinned by the institution of the bishops, was essentially the work of the second century. This was pragmatical work, evolved in response to the collapse of the eschatological hope, and during a fierce and continuous battle against heresy; theory was made up to rationalize and justify change rather than to advance it. The character the Church -- or rather the increasingly victorious trend within the Church -- was acquiring was empirical and inclusive; it tended to reject one-sided ideological interpretations. Thus Marcion, the ultra-Pauline, and Tertullian, the defender of charismatics, found themselves outside. This policy paid, even at the sacrifice of splendid talents. It meant that the Church, operating on the principle of collective commonsense, was a haven for a very wide spectrum of opinion. In the West, diversity was disappearing fast; in the East, orthodoxy was becoming the largest single tradition by the early decades of the third century. The Church was now a great and numerous force in the empire, attracting men of wealth and high education. Inevitably, then, there occurred a change of emphasis from purely practical development in response to need, to the deliberate thinking out of policy.
This expressed itself in two ways: the attempt to turn Christianity into a philosophical and political system, and the development of controlling devices to prevent this intellectualization of the faith from destroying it. The twin process began to operate in the early and middle decades of the third century, with Origen epitomizing the first element and Cyprian the second. If Paul brought to the first generation of Christians the useful skills of a trained theologian, Origen was the first great philosopher to rethink the new religion from first principles. As his philosophical enemy, the anti-Christian Porphyry, summed it up, he 'introduced Greek ideas to foreign fables' -- that is, gave a barbarous eastern religion the intellectual respectability of a philosophical defence. Origen was also a phenomenon. As Eusebius put it admiringly, 'even the facts from his cradle are worth mentioning'. Origen came from Alexandria, the second city of the empire and then its intellectual centre; his father's martyrdom left him an orphan at seventeen with six younger brothers. He was a hard-working prodigy, at eighteen head of the Catechetical School, and already trained as a literary scholar and teacher. But at this point, probably in 203, he became a religious fanatic and remained one for the next fifty years. He gave up his job and sold his books to concentrate on religion. He slept on the floor, ate no meat, drank no wine, had only one coat and no shoes. He almost certainly castrated himself, in obedience to the notorious text, Matthew 19:12, 'there are some who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.' Origen's learning was massive and it was of a highly original kind: he always went back to the sources and thought through the whole process himself. Thus he learnt Hebrew and, according to Eusebius, 'got into his possession the original writings extant among the Jews in the actual Hebrew character'. These included the discovery of lost texts; in the case of the psalms, Origen collected not only the four known texts but three others he unearthed, including 'one he found at Jericho in a jar'. The result was an enormous tome, the Hexapla, which probably existed only in one manuscript, now lost, setting out the seven alternative texts in parallel columns. He applied the same principles of original research to every aspect of Christianity and sacred literature. He seems to have worked all day and through most of the night, and was a compulsive writer. Even the hardy Jerome later complained: 'Has anyone read everything that Origen wrote?' His scriptural commentaries were so vast that none has been transmitted in full. Some have been lost, others survive as drastic paraphrases.
The effect of Origen's work was to create a new science, biblical theology, whereby every sentence in the scriptures was systematically explored for hidden meanings, different layers of meanings, allegory and so forth. And from the elements of this vast scriptural erudition he constructed, in his book First Principles, a Christian philosophy from which it was possible to interpret every aspect of the world. Hitherto, Christians had either dismissed philosophy as irrelevant or pagan, or had simply appropriated Plato and other writers, categorized them as incipient Christians, and fitted the Pauline superstructure on to their foundation. Origen waved aside this tradition, dismissed the Greek philosophers as false and constructed a new synthesis out of profane and sacred knowledge. Thus he offered to the world the first theory of knowledge conceived entirely from within Christian assumptions, prefiguring both the encyclopedists like Isidore of Seville, and the systematic summae of the medieval schoolmen. With Origen, Christianity ceased to be an appendage of the classical world and became, intellectually, a universe of its own. It was also, if only as yet by implication, becoming a society of its own. Origen was the first theorist of clericalism, as well as other aspects of mature Christianity. His own relations with the Church were stormy. He could not get ordination from his own bishop of Alexandria; aroused clerical censure by preaching in Palestine as a layman; was ordained uncanonically, and thereafter was frequently attacked for propagating a false doctrine. He had no respect for the clergy as individuals, and in general gave a gloomy picture of their avarice and ambition. But this in no way undermines his exaltation of the dignity and power of ecclesiastical office. Indeed, one might say he can afford to castigate clergymen precisely because he believes their position as a caste is indestructible. Origen accepted an absolute distinction between clergy and laity. He gave it juridical flavour. He portrayed the Church, as part of his theory of universal knowledge, as a sacred sociological entity. The analogy was with a political state. Of course the Church had to have its own princes and kings. Of course they governed their congregations far better than corresponding state officials. Their position was infinitely higher and holier, since they administered spiritual things, but their status was similar to those of judges and secular rulers, and therefore the laity had to show them reverence and obedience even if they were inadequate or bad men.
Within the broad philosophical system elaborated by Origen there was room for an internal system of regulation and discipline. This was supplied by his younger contemporary, Cyprian of Carthage. If Origen adumbrated the concept of a Christian universe, Cyprian unveiled the machinery necessary to keep it together and make it work. These different interests reflect their backgrounds. Origen was an intellectual. Cyprian came from a wealthy family with a tradition of public service to the empire; within two years of his conversion he was made a bishop. He had to face the practical problems of persecution, survival and defence against attack. His solution was to gather together the developing threads of ecclesiastical order and authority and weave them into a tight system of absolute control. He reasoned as follows. The Church was a divine institution; the Bridè of Christ; Mother Church, the mediatrix of all salvation. It was one, undivided and catholic. Only in association with her could catholics have life. Outside her holy fellowship there was nothing but error and darkness. The sacraments, episcopal ordination, the confession of faith, even the Bible itself, lost their meaning if used outside the true Church. The Church was also a human, visible community, found only in an organized form. The individual could not be saved by direct contact with God. The carefully graded hierarchy, without which the organized Church could not exist, was established by Christ and the apostles. The laity was allowed to be present at the election of the bishop but the actual choice was made by all the presbyters, especially by other neighbouring bishops. And bishops, under the Metropolitan, had the right of removal. Through the bishop 'all ecclesiastical measures whatsoever must be carried out'. Without the office of bishop there could be no Church; and without the Church, no salvation. The man who determined who was, or was not, a member of the Church, and therefore eligible for salvation, was the bishop. He interpreted the scriptures in the light of the Church's needs in any given situation; the only unambiguous instruction they contained being to remain faithful to the Church and obey its rules. With Cyprian, then, the freedom preached by Paul and based on the power of Christian truth was removed from the ordinary members of the Church; it was retained only by the bishops, through whom the Holy Spirit still worked, who were collectively delegated to represent the totality of Church members. They were given wide powers of discretion, subject always to the traditional and attested truth of the Church and the scriptures. They were rulers, operating and interpreting a law. With Bishop Cyprian, the analogy with secular government came to seem very close.
But of course it lacked one element: the 'emperor figure' or supreme priest. Cyprian was still thinking in terms of a collectivity of bishops, as, it might be argued, were the elders or pillars of the Jerusalem Church, more than a century and a half before. Yet since the bishops themselves based their authority on the tradition derived from apostolic descent, it was evident that some Churches, and therefore some bishops, carried more weight than others. Jerusalem was the mother-Church, where all the apostles had operated; but the Jerusalem congregation had ceased to exist by AD 70, and it never recovered its pristine status. The only other apostolic foundation was Rome, since both Peter and Paul were believed to have been martyred there. Peter's martyrdom was alluded to in John's gospel, 13:36 and 21:18-19, and both Clement's epistle to the Corinthians and Ignatius's Letter to the Romans indicate it took place in Rome. The claim was made explicit by Eusebius, who quoted Gaius (c. 200) and Dionysius Bishop of Corinth as his authorities; and there is a further statement in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus (d. 420). Eusebius and Dionysius agree that Paul was beheaded, Peter crucified. This belief that the two apostles were executed and buried in Rome was evidently very ancient. Tertullian accepted it as fact; by his day there was already a monument on the Vatican Hill, built about 160. Recent excavations make it clear that it was set up in Peter's honour and that those who did so thought he was buried there. Gaius mentioned this monument and also one to St Paul on the Ostia road, the present site of St-Paul's-Without-the-Walls. There was also a third joint monument on the Appian Way, where services were held on 29 June as early as the second century. Thus Rome's connection with the two greatest apostles was never disputed and it was exploited from the earliest times. Rome had the most impressive genealogy of all the earliest churches. Indeed, it had an embarras de richesse -- not one apostle, but two. Peter, however, was the more valuable founder, as he was in some sense the chief apostle, Jesus's closest associate, and the beneficiary of the famous 'rock and keys' text in Matthew. There is no evidence that Rome exploited this text to assert its primacy before about 250 -- and then, interestingly enough, in conflict with the aggressive episcopalian Cyprian -- but what is clear is that in the second half of the second century, and no doubt in response to Marcion's Pauline heresy -- the first heresy Rome itself had experienced -- Paul was eliminated from any connection with the Rome episcopate and the office was firmly attached to Peter alone. In fact the first Roman bishop in any meaningful sense was probably Sorer, 166-74, but by that time the concept of an episcopal tradition going back to Jesus had already been established, and Rome may also have been behind the process which made 'her' apostle, Peter, the founder of the Church of Antioch, and his assistant, Mark, the founder in Alexandria, thus turning into Roman ecclesiastical colonies the second and third cities in the empire.
Even before this stage, however, there is evidence that Rome was using its position as the imperial capital to influence the Church in other centres, and thus to build up a case-history of successful intervention. The first such instance of which we have record is Clement's Letter to the Corinthians, where Clement weighs in on the side of established order. There were other second-century cases, usually on what seemed like marginal issues: cultic practices, the date of Easter, and so forth. Rome was appealed to as the best apostolic authority, and responded eagerly. It had an early reputation for robustness in the faith: it was the first Church to undergo a systematic state persecution and to survive it triumphantly. It was also orthodox: that is, it was felt to have preserved intact the teaching of Peter and Paul. The danger-zone of heresy, of gnosticism, of credal instability and osmosis was the east, especially Syria, Asia Minor and Egypt. Rome was far removed from the infection. It seems to have excluded gnostic tendencies right from the start. It set the pace in defining the canon, eliminating the spurious and producing authorized texts. It had no experience of heresy until Marcion, and then it quickly forced him to operate in Asia; equally, it defeated the Montanist challenge -- Montanism flourished in Asia long after it had been eliminated from Rome's Christian circles. The great antiheretical campaigners, Hegesippus, Justin Rhodo, Militiades, were Rome-oriented, most of them living and working there. Rome profited not only from its apostolic foundation but from its associations as the capital of the empire: it was the standard for faith, ritual, organization, textual accuracy and general Christian practice. It was the first Christian Church to eliminate minority tendencies, and present a homogenous front to the world. From there it was a natural development for Rome to probe into the affairs of other Churches, with a view to assisting the victory of the 'orthodox', that is Roman, element.
Moreover, Rome had an excellent excuse for such interference. From the earliest times, it had assisted small and struggling Churches with money. This was charity, but charity, increasingly, with a purpose. Money certainly accompanied Clement's letter to Corinth, where it helped to turn the minority into the majority party. Apollonius, writing against the Montanists, says that of course money played an important part in religious conflict -- as in any other kind of struggle. From the, admittedly later, description by Eusebius of Constantine's use of cash to promote Christianity, we can deduce the variety of ways in which financial power influenced religious development. Money was used to get prominent Christian teachers out of state prisons; to ransom valuable men who had been sent to the Sardinian mines; to build up congregations out of freed slaves and the poor; to support welfare services and provide bail sureties, or even judicial bribes. The Rome congregation was rich, and became much richer during the second century. Thus towards the end of it we find Dionysius of Corinth writing in gratitude: 'From the start it has been your custom to treat all Christians with unfailing kindness, and to send contributions to many churches in every city...thus you Romans have observed the ancestral Roman custom, which your revered Bishop Soter has not only maintained but enlarged, by generously providing the abundant supplies distributed among God's people.' A similar dispatch, from Dionysius of Alexandria, says that 'all of Syria' was in receipt of such aid, and adds that the donations were accompanied by letters -- of advice and instruction, no doubt. With Roman money there went a gentle but persistent pressure to conform to Roman standards.
It is easy to project backwards into these developments -- the extension of orthodoxy, the rise of the monarchical episcopate, the special role of Rome -- the operation of a deliberate policy, pursued relentlessly from generation to generation with the object of creating a system of ecclesiastical law, a privileged clerical class and an authoritarian faith. This, indeed, was what was beginning to emerge by the third century. But the element of planning for this purpose is not reflected in the documents. They suggest, rather, a series of ad hoc responses to actual situations and then a tendency to use such responses as precedents or platforms on which to erect more ambitious structures. Throughout this period the Church as a whole was fighting for its very survival. And, within it, there was a continuous and multi-faceted struggle among rival philosophies and systems. The first battle was made inevitable by Christianity's unwillingness to remain a mere cult, and its claim to be the universal religion. The second was a reflection of its founder's clear desire to establish a religion of diversity as well as universality, to be 'all things to all men'. Jesus's ministry was conducted in an atmosphere of dissension, angry argument and party spirit; it ended in death by violence. The spirit of the early Church was well conveyed by Paul's epistles, which suggest doctrinal bitterness and unresolved controversy. There was no calm period in the history of the Church. In its first generation it was very nearly reabsorbed by Judaism. Then, for at least a century, there was a risk it would become an other-worldly religion, inflexibly ordering life by superhuman standards, or a complicated mystery cult for intellectual connoisseurs. There was no long-term future in either direction. The Church survived, and steadily penetrated all ranks of society over a huge area, by avoiding or absorbing extremes, by compromise, by developing an urbane temperament and erecting secular-type structures to preserve its unity and conduct its business. There was in consequence a loss of spirituality or, as Paul would have put it, of freedom. There was a gain in stability and collective strength. By the end of the third century Christianity was able to confront and outface the most powerful corporation in ancient history -- the Roman empire.
Copyright © 1976 by Paul Johnson