ITEM 2 FOR 2003: Summary/Introduction
SO, WHAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE FOR ME
ON VERY EARLY CHRISTIANITY?
If you have had enough of this Summary of Item 2 and are done here:
1. CLICK HERE to go to the Second Early Christianity page (critical comments on the book by Freke and Gandy called Jesus and the Lost Goddess).
2. CLICK HERE to go to the Third Early Christianity page (Complimentary comments on the book by Freke and Gandy called Jesus and the Lost Goddess).
3. CLICK HERE to go to the Last (4th) Early Christianity page (with 38 book reviews in PDF format).
4. CLICK HERE to return to the Journey in 2003 page.
5. CLICK HERE to Go Home.
In Item 2 for 2003, I show I have read a whole bunch of stuff
and have written a whole bunch of stuff. And it appears that:
(1) I like some aspects of what can best be called Gnostic spirituality, especially as it has been described by Freke and Gandy.
(2) I feel well-supported in contradicting Freke and Gandy's assertion that Christ never existed, that his life-story was made up by Gnostics to illustrate an initiation-mystery.
(3) I feel well-supported in contradicting Freke and Gandy's assertion, made necessary by (2) above, that the first Christians were Gnostics.
HERE IS THE BOTTOM LINE, FOR ME:
In the 38 items referenced and reviewed on the Second, Third, and Fourth Early Christianity pages I make the case piecemeal for each of the three points above. But it is very piecemeal and I have been asked what the bottom line is for me. I hope no one gets the idea that I can come to a bottom-line for anyone but me. I cannot come to a conclusion for you, not regarding the nature of Christ and the first Christians. I think that is a matter of faith, not of history.
(1) So, for me, what is the bottom line on Christianity, on the belief in Jesus' life as the Christ, the Savior of the world?
I don't know, I am genuinely a-gnostic. The evidence hints at his life actually having been lived, and having made a huge impression on some. There were close associates of this man who believed that his particular life and death and its aftermath had a Cosmic meaning that was unique in all of human history.
There were those who saw this life as the culmination of all previous history. There were those who saw this life as the fulfillment of the law of a prior age and a prior revelation delivered through prior prophets. He ushered in the start of a 'new age' (to coin a phrase?).
He failed to achieve the political aims associated with the Messiah in the accepted view of what the prior prophets had foretold. But the conquest of the evil oppressors was made Cosmic, instead of Rome being overthrown it was the Devil that was overthrown.
The Messiah was expected to change the powers of the world to free believers to again live under the prophetically proclaimed Law of God in their own land. Instead, especially according to somewhat later believers, this Messiah changed the powers of heaven to allow believers to be free of that Law and obey a higher law instead.
The higher law was a bit esoteric for some: it required belief. Not just mouthing words saying "I believe," but true, deeply held belief accompanied by a lively hope in the truth of the message of this new Messiah. This is "faith," and it is the only requirement of this new law. However, faith is the kind of belief that can be detected within oneself or others by the positive fruits it bears in ones own or another's life.
One cannot persist in living a self-destructive or other-abusive life if one has faith, true belief. The Deity takes up residence in a true believer and directs such a believing life into doing what is good. According to some of the somewhat later believers, that Deity is none other than the one who was scourged and hung on a tree until dead. He was God become man, according to some.
According to other believers, this Deity in you is the very same Deity that entered into Christ and made him from a man into the Son of God. Whether this Deity took up residence in or already was Jesus Christ is a detail over which Christianity would later suffer some serious splits. Either way, though, Jesus did the will of his Father, God, and lived the life laid out for him. The Father is a figurative idea of course, except that some believed it literally then as well as now.
But regardless of the details, Jesus did what it took for a fundamental Cosmic change to be accomplished. As a result, eternal life is now available to all. All, that is, who will but believe in this gift, and in the name whereby the promise of this gift is assured.
(2) For me, who and what were the first Christians? Which of the views of Christ, above, was the first, the original?
Where I leave off above is my admittedly approximate view of the historical edifice belonging to the first Christians, an edifice on which belief was developed and Christianity is built.
Later believers fleshed out the belief system that became the Christianity of history. Some among them were of the generation that knew Jesus, and then others came along who knew and associated with those left over from that generation. These two groups wrote the separate pieces that would later be pulled together into the New Testament. That "later" isn't all that much later, but what do a few decades, in turbulent times and various locations under various influences mean in terms of Christian development?
It means there are discrepancies in the records from a historical perspective. There are believers today who feel these writings were inspired in the content that is important to defining belief and faith. If there are some errors in the historical setting of that faith-defining content, so be it.
That seems like a logical approach. After all, when an evangelist today tells the story of Jesus he may well flub up on some fact or assertion, but the core message is not invalid because of such human errors.
More importantly, however, in turbulent times with limited travel access, views regarding what is important to faith may diverge very rapidly from one region to another.
There was a faction in Jerusalem very much tied to the view that the Law was not done away in Christ, but was instead augmented and supplemented. Matthew and James seem to be New Testament books with that view, though even Matthew contains anti-Jewish sentiments (added after the excommunication of the Jewish-Christians by normative Judaism, in my view). This Jerusalem faction was, again in my view, the original Christianity, and it was not Gnostic.
There was a second faction under the leadership of a man who never knew Christ in the flesh but claimed revelation from the risen Christ. That revelation told him the Law was done away. Of course I am describing Paul. The two groups came together and compromised. But then a war basically obliterated the Jerusalem group in AD 70. The other group survived and thrived. It thrived in part because the compromise was forgotten: new converts, whether pagan or Jewish, were taught they had been freed from the burden of the Law, period!
The Jewish-Christians were no longer the leaders of the new religion. It is telling that it was they who were excommunicated in about 80 AD. Paul's Christians were so far removed from Judaistic belief and practice that excommunication would have been meaningless.
It was during and soon after these turns of events that the tracts written to explain the new religion, the Gospels, were written or rewritten. Mark (the first completed) became the basis for Matthew and Luke, written for two very different audiences. Matthew was written to Jews dispersed throughout the region to convince them their Messiah had come and had fulfilled the Law and expanded it. Luke was written to pagans and reflected the newer, beyond–the-Law perspective.
Later the book of John also seems to have used the Markan Gospel, but it was written from a thoroughly Hellenized and Platonized perspective. It also made reference to the excommunication (John 16:2) that barred Jewish Christians from entering a synagogue. Was John's Gospel Gnostic? To some extent yes, or so I thought after my review of the 38 books listed/linked on Early Christianity page 4. I thought so, but a new book I ran across after finishing my group of 38 changed my mind. Click on the link to read my review of that 39th book: "A Separate God, The origins and Teachings of Gnosticism" by Simone Pétrement.
The influence of the letters of Paul, the leader of the non-Jerusalem movement referred to above, can't be discounted. They were in circulation before the fall of Jerusalem and before the Gospels were written, and were thought to contain authoritative statements on faith and belief. So it is not likely that they would be contradicted in new materials being produced for the same community of believers. A Pauline viewpoint exists in every one of the Gospels.
This is how I see the evolution of Christianity from the time of the ministry of Christ to the formation of the New Testament. So, would Christ have been surprised at the writings of Paul, and John, or Luke and James?
This is where the writings of the Ebionites (Jewish-Christians, direct descendants of the Jerusalem church) gives me a signpost: in my opinion, the Ebionites were closest, among the groups that left writings, to what likely were the beliefs of the Jerusalem church under James, the brother of Jesus. I see it as a reasonable assumption that James and Jesus saw eye to eye, so to speak.
Much of what is found in Paul has echoes in the Ebionite writings as reflected in the Clementine Recognitions. But some of what is in Paul is directly contradicted in the same Ebionite writings.
In particular, the Ebionites would see Paul's teaching believers in Christ to walk away from the Law as a great offense against God, who dictated that Law through the greatest prophet until Christ. Of course Moses never put animal sacrifice into the Law, according to the Ebionites, so they had their own version of the Law. But Paul's extreme stance was a great offense to them.
Ebionites believed Jesus was a man, and a prophet. Joseph was his father, Mary was his mother. James was his brother, not his half-brother. He was not a miraculously conceived child, but he was an extraordinary prophet.
Prophets were possessed by the spirit of God. A person so possessed uttered the words of God. Christ was possessed to such a degree that he was, as it were, equal to God in the view of some. So deification was almost there among some. The risen Christ could be seen as being synonymous with the Spirit of God. That, in my view, is moving toward the Pauline view.
Christ went to hell and broke the power of the Devil, say the Ebionites. What power? The power the Devil exercised over those who would be believers but who died prior to the life of Christ. They were taught, and believed, and thus were saved. The Gospel of Peter shows Christ rising out of the tomb after this episode, followed by those saved from the world of the dead in the shape of a great, cosmically proportioned cross. This reflects Ebionite belief, therefore it is likely that among Jesus' cohorts these types of Cosmic-apocalyptic beliefs were extant. Meaning that James' group of believers likely believed this was part of Jesus' mission, and Jesus would also have believed that this would be his first calling upon his death.
So, am I a Christian? No. I admire and respect the life this man lived, and I like many of the things he purportedly did and said. I quote him regularly. But do I believe he brought salvation, an eternal life of bliss in exchange for belief in him? No. Neither the need for salvation nor the need for atonement lies within my basket of personal beliefs. My beliefs, after disagreeing with Freke and Gandy's history, really do closely follow their exposition on Gnostic belief.
Am I not compelled to return to my previous Christian belief, of the Mormon variety, by the astonishing similarities I see between Mormonism and earliest Christianity?
They are astonishing similarities, agreed. But I am also impressed with Joan of Arc's life, and the undeniable miracles she worked. Does that compel me to be a Catholic? I am also blown away and edified by the ecstatic utterances of several Catholic and Muslim mystical prophets. Does that compel me to become either?
No. No intellectual arguments, even ones that are hard to explain away, compel belief. One does not become a believer because one can't explain something away. One becomes a believer because of an experience in the heart and spirit. This is what caused the Christian church to flourish: people heard the message of Christ resurrected, and experienced his spirit as a presence within their deepest selves. The story and meaning of his life came as a secondary, confirming intellectual component to that primary spiritual experience. History, in other words, is a secondary consideration, faith based on spiritual experience is primary evidence, and should be given first rank. [See Footnote 1 below.]
OK, so what about my own experiences that brought me to have Christian faith at one time? They were real, they were undeniable, curious and bordering on the miraculous. But were they unique to my particular Christian religion, as I once thought? No, others have and have had these experiences. Were they unique to Christians? No, others have and have had these experiences.
How do I know? I saw and read, I listened and heard, and then after ceasing to believe as I once did, to my surprise I still experienced. What all of this compels me to do is look for the common denominator that makes all of these ineffable phenomena make sense.
I don't mean understanding them intellectually. I mean sensing them to be real and actual phenomena that I trust make sense in an ineffable way, a way I may never know. In other words, when I come to the end of absorbing historical and other factual information, I am left exactly where I was left in the days of my true-believership: having to trust, to live by faith.
I was at one point of the opinion I should tell people "the truth" about their beliefs. Now I know that I don't know "the truth." I suspect they don't either, "they" meaning those who in love and compassion, and with passion, testify of their belief.
But a first bottom line for me is that I believe that all of us are relying on our heart, mind, and experience to make sense of the universe and our place in it. I see now that a believer has as good a claim to having truth as I do. And all I ask is for them to respect me in my views as, over the years, I have come to respect them in their views. Even if I find myself vehemently disagreeing, internally or openly, with those views.
The second bottom line for me is this: It is a historical miracle that there are pluralistic societies wherein it is a point of law that citizens have the right to practice religion according to the dictates of their own consciences, within the law. It is truly a New Age. An age of intellectual- and spiritual-freedom. Almost, this miracle compels me to believe in God! Just not the God of the Old Testament's Law, and not the God requiring the blood sacrifice of a God in the New Testament either, even if it was the last sacrifice. Color me Gnostic in that respect. God is in us. In a very real sense God is us.
I found a recent article in the December 2002 issue of "O - The Oprah Magazine," that spoke directly to this issue.
The article is on pages 103-106 and is called "'They say that if you're looking for God, you've already found him,'" by Beverly Donofrio (author of the book Riding in cars with Boys").
Donofrio explains that she rejected the Catholicism of her youth with great anger. Decades later she took another look and was still in a state of vehement disagreement with both teachings, practices, and policies, yet she felt herself compelled to collect statues of Mary and when she went into a church always and inexplicably found herself in tears. Then came a conversion experience, and without giving up her objections, she found herself back in her childhood church.
Her description of her feeling herself being pulled back into her childhood church speaks directly to the point I was trying to make several times above. The point about spiritual experience being primary, facts and doctrines being secondary:
Before I came home to the church, there were periods when I would feel an abyss of longing opening up in me. I thought it was a longing for love. It was, only not the kind of love I was thinking. It was my soul longing for God. . . .
In spite of all my reservations, Catholicism touches something deep in me, and I refuse to abandon my place in the church because I so vehemently disagree with so many of its doctrines.
And that is exactly what I was trying to say. If it feels like home, spiritually speaking, it is 'true religion' for you. That is so even if history is far from clear and doctrines are far from perfect. It is how being in this church empowers and expands your soul that determines its truth. Truth is not determined by historically vague facts and 'man'-made doctrines and practices.