In the early part of the second century, Irenaus, Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, had his hands full. Christians were being tortured and fed to the lions. The faithful had been scattered to the four winds by the violent Roman reprisals to the Jewish revolt of 66 AD. Jerusalem had been sacked, Solomon’s Temple destroyed and the Jews, amongst them many early Christians, were being hunted down and exterminated, sometimes whole villages at a time. James had been stoned in Jerusalem, Paul had been beheaded and Peter had been crucified.
Prior to the Jewish revolt, James, Jesus’ brother, had built a sizable Christian community amongst the Jews of the Holy Land. Laying claim to “true faith,” and firmly entrenched in Judaism, the export of the faith to gentiles was difficult. After all, Jesus was a Jew and the Apostles were Jews, “The Last Supper” was a passover meal, etc. Their point was if you wanted to become a Christian, first become a Jew. They had called the “apostle” Paul to Jerusalem and humiliated him for his unsanctioned preaching and for spreading Christ’s teachings to gentiles.
There were others like a man called Montanus, who also had never met Jesus or studied with the Apostles, yet claimed religious truth through visions. These “later day apostles” created sects, laying claim to the true faith through their visions. Other groups had become followers of a particular Gospel’s teachings like Enoch or Thomas, leading to more schisms – sometimes even outright conflict. Most were sincere, but in Irenaus’ view, misguided. Others, like today’s televangelists, were only in it for the ego gratification and the money. It also helped that Irewnaus saw many of these competing views as corrupted by satan and therefore heretical.
At the foundation of much of this diversity was a fundamental disagreement in the Gospels themselves that has plagued the church even to the present day. The Apostle John saw the Christ as a manifestation of God. True faith, John maintained, could only be attained through Christ, or by implication, his appointed agents. On the other hand, Thomas, ridiculed in John’s Gospel as “doubting Thomas”, held that Christ was human and therefore faith was available to any sincere seeker without the need of a priest or other intercessor.
Irenaus, who had studied under Polycarp, a student of John’s who had been burned at the stake, saw Thomas’ Gospel as a real source of trouble. It didn’t matter where spiritual truth lay, individual interpretation would lead to interminable schisms and conflict. Irenaus’ felt that this would doom the early church to certain failure.
Irenaus’ wrote a five volume text, Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). It is a detailed attack on Gnostic beliefs. As one of the first great church theologians, Irenaus emphasized the traditional role of the Church, especially the episcopate, Scripture, and tradition. While the Gnostics claimed a secret oral tradition that came from Jesus himself, Irenaus maintained that the bishops, taught or at least blessed by the Apostles, provided a more reliable interpretation of Scripture, even though John’s Gospel had already been shown to contain material not supported by the other Gospels or the historical record, like virgin birth, the Jerusalem manger story, the Magi, etc.
Although none of the Gospels can be called authoritative (all had been set down many years even after the Apostle’s deaths) the word went out, John was to be the center of the new theology along with Matthew, Mark, Luke and the curious book of Revelations. All other (competing) texts were not only not to be followed, any copies in existence were to be destroyed. And by this time, several centuries after the crucifixion, there were quite a few of them! Never mind that many of them had more credible standing than the selected Gospels. Furthermore, to shut down the flow of competing ideas, an end was declared to the Age of Prophesy. Prophesies continued, but now they had to be sanctioned.
Simply put, if it didn’t agree with the doctrine of John, (the centerpiece of Irenau’s faith) it was out. Subsequent gatherings of the Bishops of the new faith were to endorse this approach, (although not without disagreement). It would take several more centuries, but interpretation of the Gospel became firmly ensconced in the bishops of the Roman Church and the Gospel of John, with its emphasis on centralized authority, would come to dominate Christianity.
To show how far this went, as late as the Middle Ages, possession of even a single page of scripture by a layman was a sin punishable by death. Competing ideas – heresy – would be deal with by burning at the stake.
There was dissent, and it came mainly from a group of Christian monasteries in Egypt who were firmly committed to Thomas’ doctrine of the individual, personal, connection to God. It was probably some of these monks, in defiance of the Church edict to destroy competing Apocryphical works, who sealed copies of them up in a 6′ earthenware jar and buried them in a cave near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These hidden manuscripts were discovered in 1947 by young Bedouin goatherds. (Similar texts were also found about the same time on the West Bank of the Jordan River at Qumran, known as The Dead Sea Scrolls).
The Nag Hammadi manuscripts confirm much of what is in the Gospels, but also bring to us a complimentary but in some ways significantly different interpretation of scripture. It was this different interpretation that Bishop Irenaus and the men who followed him wanted excluded because, in part, it threatened their centralized control of doctrine.
The one remaining barrier to “Westernization” of the emerging faith was to free it from its Jewish roots. It was a relatively simple matter for the bishops of Rome or Constantinople to blame the Jews for Jesus’ execution and claim therefore that all Jews had “blood on their hands.” Neat propaganda trick, eh? Thus the early Christian community was free to develop as a patriarchal, Western-dominated religion, freed from the truth, competing ideas and outside influence. Eventually that rigidity would corrupt it and lead to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and the current crises of pedophile priests, abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women.
copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2016