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Heresy Was Not Always Heresy

When you become a Christian, you are told that “God has a plan for your life” and “Jesus died on the cross for your sins” and “You will go to heaven when you die.”  But you aren’t told where all that doctrine came from.  Well, other than the pat phrase, “Yes, it’s all there.  Right there.  In the Bible.  You should start reading it.”

But where did our Bible come from?  How did this “religion” get started?  Are the tenets of the religion obvious for anyone reading or learning or studying?  And how do we know it’s all true?

Enter: Bart Ehrman’s book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.

Let’s start at the very beginning (I feel like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music)…

Is it possible to make your mind “go blank,” just for a brief moment while reading this post?  Meaning, I want you to imagine your mind as a clean slate, washed clean of preconceived notions.  It’s harder than it sounds.

Imagine, if you will, that a baby is born, and this baby grows into a man named Jesus, and this man named Jesus does some unusual, remarkable things.  He causes friction in the Jewish religious community and sets tongues wagging when he performs miracles.  How could anyone explain him?  He acts far superior to any of the powers that be, and this is just wrong, wrong, wrong.  But somehow he gains a following, and people begin to believe that he’s the answer…to something…they’re not sure.  Is he a king who will save them from the Romans?  Is he another prophet, preaching their damnation if they don’t turn back to God?  What is he?

Then.  He gets into one-too-many scuffles with the Jewish authorities, and they want Him dead.  Pilate and Herod wash their hands of him, but they don’t stop his crucifixion from coming down the pike, either.

Jesus dies.  End of story, right?

Well, it’s not so clear.  If we’re looking at ancient manuscripts (and just so you know, none of the New Testament comes from original manuscripts), they differ widely.  [For those of you who did not grow up with the Bible, you’re probably wondering why on earth this discussion is important.  But it is.  If you want to know why, right now, scroll to the end of this post.]

Look around you.  See all the denominations and factions that claim their solid and true Christianity?  And yet, anyone can see that they disagree strongly on doctrine and in practice.  Why is this, if all of them came from this one person Jesus…supposedly?

Well, back in Jesus’s day, the situation was similar.  There was a lot of mud-flinging between what Ehrman calls “proto-orthodox” people (this just means the people who are ultimately going to “win” the arguments) and the heretics (this just means the people who are being beat up because they differ in opinion).  So our orthodoxy today is simply a compilation and culling of what the people in charge decided we would believe, 400 years after Jesus died.  [And anyone who says that strength lies in numbers, meaning that “it must be right because that many people believed it” is standing on some pretty thin ice.  Keep in mind that history (and texts) are written by the winners in history, not the losers.  It doesn’t mean they’re right.]

“What does one need to believe about Jesus?  That he was a man?  An angel?  A divine being?  Was he a god?  We he God?  If Jesus is God and God is God, how can we be monotheists who believe in one God?  And if the Spirit is God, too, then don’t we have three Gods?  Or is Jesus God the Father himself come to earth for the salvation of the world?  If so, then when Jesus prayed to God, was he speaking to himself?

“And what was it about Jesus that brought salvation?  His public teachings, which if followed provide the way to eternal life?  His secret teachings, meant only for the spiritually elite, whose proper understanding is the key to unity with God?  His way of life, which is to be modeled by followers who like him just give up all they have for the sake of the kingdom?  His death on the cross?  Did he die on the cross?  Why would he die on the cross?

“The questions may have seemed endless, but their importance was eternal.  For once it began to matter just what a person believed–so important that eternal life depended on it–the debates began.  And different points of view emerged.  All of the viewpoints claimed support, of course, in the teachings of Jesus–even the views that claimed there were 365 gods, that Jesus was not really a human being, that his death was simply a ruse meant to deceive the cosmic powers.  Today we might think it nonsense to say that Jesus and his earthly followers taught such things, since, after all, we can see in the New Testament Gospels that it simply is not true.  But we should always ask the historical questions: Where did we get our New Testament Gospels in the first place, and how do we know that they, rather than the dozens of Gospels that did not become part of the New Testament, reveal the truth about what Jesus taught?  What if the canon had ended up containing the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Mary rather than Matthew, Mark, and Luke?

So, do you want to know what they were arguing about, in the years following Jesus’s death?

In the ancient world, people who claimed to be Christians believed all sorts of things.

“In the second the third centuries there were Christians who believed that God had created the world.  But others believed that this world had been created by a subordinate, ignorant divinity (Why else would the world be filled with such misery and hardship?).  Yet other Christians thought it was worse than that, that this world was a cosmic mistake created by a malevolent divinity as a place of imprisonment, to trap humans and subject them to pain and suffering….

“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus was both divine and human.  God and man.  There were other Christians who argued that he was completely divine and not human at all.  (For them, divinity and humanity were incommensurate entities: God can no more be a man than a man can be a rock.)  There were others who insisted that Jesus was a full flesh-and-blood human, adopted by God to be his son but not himself divine.  There were yet other Christians who claimed that Jesus Christ was two things: a full flesh-and-blood human, Jesus, and a fully divine being, Christ, who had temporarily inhabited Jesus’ body during his ministry and left him prior to his death, inspiring his teachings and miracles but avoiding the suffering in its aftermath.

“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world.  There were other Christians who thought that Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world.  There were yet other Christians who said that Jesus never died.

“How could some of these views even be considered Christian?  Or to put the question differently, how could people who considered themselves Christian hold such views?  Why did they not consult their Scriptures to see that there were not 365 gods, or that the true God had created the world, or that Jesus had died?  Why didn’t they just read the New Testament?

“It is because there was no New Testament.  To be sure, the books that were eventually collected into the New Testament had been written by the second century.  But they had not yet been gathered into a widely recognized the authoritative canon of Scripture.  And there were other books written as well, with equally impressive pedigrees–other Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses claiming to be written by the earthly apostles of Jesus.”

Let’s look at some of these beliefs…

People argued about whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead.

We’ll start with an example.  Mark is thought to be the oldest manuscript (between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and strangely, the earliest manuscripts of Mark are missing the last 12 verses that we have in our Bible today.  “Some textual changes can be important for interpretation.  For example, the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at 16:8 with the report that the women fled Jesus’ empty tomb in fear and told no one what they had seen or heard.  But later manuscripts append an additional twelve verses in which the resurrected Jesus appears before his disciples and delivers a remarkable speech in which he ways, among other things, that those who believe in him will be able to handle venomous snakes and drink deadly poison without suffering harm.  Are these verses original, or did scribes add them to a text that otherwise seemed to end too abruptly?  It is important to remember that this is not a question of whether scribes changed the text.  Some of them must have changed it, because the manuscripts differ from one another.  The only question is whether a scribe omitted the twelve verses or whether a different scribe added them.  Most scholars think the twelve verses originally ended at 16:8.”

Some people said that Jesus’s resurrection was only a spiritual one, not a bodily one.

So, again, you have texts being changed to prove that it was a bodily one.  “…Two chapters later, when Jesus has been raised from the dead…the women who go to the tomb learn the wonderful news.  When they report it to the disciples, however, they are ridiculed for telling silly tales.  But their report is confirmed by the head apostle Peter, who runs to the tomb and sees for himself that it is empty of all but the linen burial cloths (Luke 24:12).  Jesus then appears to the two people on the road to Emmaus and soon to all the disciples.  But what about this business of Peter himself finding the empty tomb?

“In fact, the verse that reports it is not found in some of our important textual witnesses.  And when one looks at the verse carefully, it contains a disproportionate number of words and grammatical characteristics not otherwise found in Luke’s Gospel (or in Acts).  Moreover, it looks very similar to an account found in John 20:3-10, almost like a summary or synopsis of that story. How does one account for all this?  Probably the easiest explanation is that the verse was an addition to Luke’s original account.  In considering reasons for a scribe to have added it, we should not overlook how the verse could serve the proto-orthodox cause.  Here Jesus is raised bodily from the dead; this is not some kind of spiritualized resurrection as some docetists would have it.  The proof is in the linen cloths, hard evidence of the tangible nature of the resurrection.  And who sees them?  Not just women telling a silly tale, but Peter, the chief of the apostles, eventually the bishop of Rome, the head of the proto-orthodox church.  This appears, then, to be a proto-orthodox change of the text, made to counter a docetic understanding of Jesus.”  [Docetists believed that Jesus’s sufferings were not really real, and that His resurrection was spiritual.]

Some people said that Jesus didn’t really suffer.  He was a spirit in a man’s body.

Again, the manuscripts were changed to make this clear.  “One of the most famous passages of the Gospel of Luke comes in the scene immediately before Jesus’ arrest, where he is praying and begins to ‘sweat blood’ (this is where the phrase come from): ‘And an angel appeared to him from heaven, giving him strength; being in great agony, he began to pray more fervently, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground’ (Luke 22:43-44).  Here is a gripping scene of Jesus in agony, very human, terrified of his coming death.  The problem, however, is that these verses are not found in our oldest and best witnesses to the Gospel of Luke (and they occur in no other Gospel).  Did scribes take the verses out of the text because they found them strange, or did they add them because they found them necessary?  There are good reasons for thinking that scribes added them, including the one I mentioned, that they are not found in our oldest and best manuscripts.  It is particularly worth noting in this case how the verses were used in the earliest authors who cite them.  In every instance, they occur in proto-orthodox heresiologists (Justin, Ireneaus, and Hippolytus) who quote the verses to show that contrary to some heretical teachers, Jesus really was a flesh-and-blood human being, who suffered very real human emotions, sweating blood in agony while waiting for his arrest.  It appears then that Luke’s betrayal-and-arrest scene was altered by proto-orthodox scribes wanting to stress Jesus’ humanity in the face of docetic Christians who denied it.”

Some people felt that understanding Jesus’s words was their salvation.

It is thought that Mark is the earliest Gospel.  Then comes Matthew and Luke.  Then John.  Curiously, Matthew and Luke contain similar passages that are quotes from another source (not Mark), and scholars have developed a theory that “Matthew and Luke took these passages, principally saying, from another source that has since been lost.  The German scholars who devised this theory decided to call this other source Quelle, the German word, conveniently enough, for ‘source.’  It is frequently called Q for short.”

One of the objections to this theory is that scholars couldn’t fathom a text solely made up of Jesus’s sayings.  “Most striking was the circumstance that in none of the Q materials (that is, in none of the passages found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark) is there an account of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  How, asked skeptical scholars, could any early Christian write a Gospel that focused on Jesus’ sayings without emphasizing his death and resurrection?  Sure that is what Gospels are all about: the death of Jesus for the sins of the world and his resurrection as God’s vindication of him and his mission.

“This was a common argument against the existence of Q, until the Gospel of Thomas was discovered. For here was a Gospel consisting of 114 sayings of Jesus, with no account of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Even more than that, this was a Gospel that was concerned about salvation but that did not consider Jesus’ death and resurrection to be significant for it, a Gospel that understood salvation to come through some other means.

“Salvation through some other means?  What other means?  Through correctly interpreting the secret sayings of Jesus.

“The very beginning of the Gospel of Thomas is quite striking, in that it reveals the author’s purpose and his understanding of the importance of his collection of sayings and, relatedly, of how one can acquire eternal life:

These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.  And he said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.’  (Saying 1)

“The sayings recorded here are said to be secret; they are not obvious, self-explanatory, or commonsensical.  They are hidden, mysterious, puzzling, secret.  Jesus spoke them, and Didymus Judas Thomas, his twin brother–wrote them down.  And the way to have eternal life is to discover their true interpretation.  Rarely has an author applied so much pressure on his readers.  If you want to live forever, you need to figure out what he means.”

No one thinks the Gospel of Thomas is Q, but…

“The author of Q, too, may have thought that it was the sayings of Jesus that were the key to a right relationship with God.  If so, in losing Q we have lost a significant alternative voice in the very earliest period of early Christianity.  Most scholars date Q to the 50s of the Common Era, prior to the writing of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark was some ten or fifteen years later; Matthew and Luke some ten or fifteen years after that) and contemporary with Paul.  Paul, of course, stressed the death and resurrection of Jesus as the way of salvation.”

Some people felt that you needed to become a Jew in order to be a Christian (or at least observe the Jewish law, including dietary laws and circumcision).

Well, if you’ve sat through church sermons (or read the New Testament), you’ll know that this was the topic of disagreement between Peter and Paul.  Paul was a “Gentile Christian” advocate, saying that the law had been done away with.  Peter started out firmly in the camp of saying that all Christians had to observe Jewish law, and then altered his dietary restrictions when he had a vision from God.

It’s interesting that Matthew (and Jesus ) disagrees with Paul here.  “In one of the most trenchant statements of the Gospel, found only in this Gospel in the New Testament, Jesus is recorded as saying:

Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law and the prophets; I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest stroke of a letter will pass away from the Law until all has taken place.  Whoever lets loose one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say to you that if your righteousness does no exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5: 17-20)

Some people did not subscribe to the notion that Jesus existed before His birth, nor that He came from a virgin birth.

“The Ebionites did not subscribe to the notion of Jesus’ preexistence or his virgin birth.  These ideas were originally distinct from each other.  The two New Testament Gospels that speak of Jesus being conceived of a virgin (Matthew and Luke) do not indicate that he existed prior to his birth, just as the New Testament books that appear to presuppose his preexistence (cf. John 1:1-3, 18; Phil. 2:5-11) never mention his virgin birth.  But when all these books came to be included in the New Testament, both notions came to be affirmed simultaneously, so that Jesus was widely thought of as having been with God in eternity past (John, Paul) who became flesh (John) by being born of the Virgin Mary (Matthew and Luke).”

Some people believed that God and Jesus were two separate deities.  Or that Jesus was human, God was divine.  Or that God “adopted” Jesus the man because he was so righteous.  Or that Jesus was divine and human.

“As time progressed, theologians became more entranced with the mystery of the Trinity and developed a more highly refined vocabulary for dealing with it. But that was long after the major issues had been resolved, of whether Christ was man but not God (Ebionites; Theodotians), God but not man (Marcionites, some Gnostics), or two beings, one man and one God (most Gnostics).  The proto-orthodox opted for none of the above.  Christ was God and man, yet he was one being, not two.”

So why did some beliefs make it and others not?

Many reasons.  Some of the hallmarks of an emerging religion seem to be:

  1. A willingness to die for the faith.
  2. “An emphasis on church order guaranteed by a rigid church structure, with one person at the top making the key decisions.
  3. A creed that was supported by writings deemed true.

And in the end, we knew what we were supposed to believe…

“Virtually all forms of modern Christianity, whether they acknowledge it or not, go back to one form of Christianity that emerged as victorious from the conflicts of the second and third centuries.  This one form of Christianity decided what was the ‘correct’ Christian perspective; it decided who could exercise authority over Christian belief and practice; and it determined what forms of Christianity would be marginalized, set aside, destroyed.  It also decided which books to canonize into Scripture and which books to set aside as ‘heretical,’ teaching false ideas.

“And then, as a coup de grâce, this victorious party rewrote the history of the controversy, making it appear that there had not been much of a conflict at all, claiming that its own views had always been those of the majority of Christians at all times, back to the time of Jesus and his apostles, that its perspective, in effect, had always been ‘orthodox’ (i.e., the ‘right belief’) and that its opponents in the conflict, with their other scriptural texts, had always represented small splinter groups invested in deceiving people into ‘heresy’ (literally meaning ‘choice’; a heretic is someone who willfully chooses not to believe the right things).

“What Christianity gained at the end of these early conflicts was a sense of confidence that it was and always had been ‘right.’  It also gained a creed, which is still recited by Christians today, that affirmed the right beliefs, as opposed to the heretical wrong ones.  Relatedly, it gained a theology, including a view that Christ is both fully divine and fully human, and a doctrine of the Trinity which maintained that the Godhead consists of three persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–distinct in number but equal in substance.  Moreover, it gained a hierarchy of church leaders who could run the church and guarantee its adherence to proper belief and practice.  And it gained a canon 0f Scripture–the New Testament–comprising twenty-seven books that supported these leaders’ vision of the church and their understanding of doctrine, ethics, and worship.”

In conclusion, “as a result of this ongoing scholarship, it is widely thought today that proto-orthodoxy was simply one of many competing interpretations of Christianity in the early church.  It was neither a self-evident interpretation nor an original apostolic view.  The apostles, for example, did not teach the Nicene Creed or anything like it.  Indeed, as far back as we can trace it, Christianity was remarkably varied in its theological expressions.”

What’s scary about this…

If you’ve ever been in a sermon, and the pastor (minister, rabbi, priest) is parsing individual words of the text, you’ll wonder how they know that that is the correct word?  The intended word?  Because sometimes a word makes all the difference.

I’m sure you’re heard the joke about the priest who, after years of service, goes back to a manuscript, to read it, and not soon after, he emerges from the vault, pale-faced and horror-stricken.  “It says ‘celebrate,’” he murmurs.

“If ‘heretically altered’ texts of Scripture do not survive, what about texts altered by the proto-orthodox?  Did scribes standing in the tradition that eventually claimed victory every falsify their texts in order to make them more serviceable for the proto-orthodox cause, making them say what they were already thought to mean?  In fact, this did happen, as is abundantly evident throughout our manuscript tradition of the New Testament….”

What did Jesus believe in?

Well, He taught the Hebrew Scriptures, that’s for sure.  Where He differs from the Pharisees is in the interpretation of the laws.  “Even when he appears to abrogate the Law of Moses in some of the so-called Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, he does so in order to bring out what is, in his judgment, their true meaning and intent: The Law says not to murder, Jesus says not to be angry; the Law says not to commit adultery, Jesus says not to lust; the Law says take an eye for an eye, Jesus says turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:21-48).  The deep intentions of these laws, for Jesus, are to be followed, not simply their surface meaning.  Jesus saw the Law as a direction from God about how to live and worship.”

Why do these questions affect everyone, not just believers?

“The New Testament has been and continues to be the most widely read and revered book in the history of the West.  It continues to inspire belief, to stimulate reflection, and to provide hope to millions.  It is preached from the pulpit; it is studied in the university; it is attacked by skeptics; it is revered by believers.  In the United States it is widely considered to have been a foundational document for the founders; it is quoted on the floor of the Senate to justify acts of war and at peace rallies to oppose the use of military force; its authority is cited by both opponents and proponents of the right of a women to have an abortion, by both opponents and proponents of the death penalty, by both opponents and proponents of gay rights.  It was used to justify slavery and to abolish slavery.  It has been used to justify capitalism and socialism.  It has been used for good and for evil.”

I think it is good to ask these questions, because you either accept what’s been offered up to you as Gospel truth (no pun intended), or you wonder if you’ve had it wrong all along.

And here’s the kicker of a question for today: If you are a believer in Jesus, and you found out that he was simply a good and wise man, how would your life change, or would it?  How would it alter your view of why you’re here and what you’re doing?

[Post image: Partial of Lost Christianities cover]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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