Posts Tagged ‘early history of Christianity’

Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief

August 13, 2022

     Elaine Pagels explores some aspects of the early history of Christianity in similar vein to various works by Karen Armstrong and Geza Vermes. Here she is focusing on the time between the death of Christ and the formal codification of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire by Constantine in the early fourth century CE. It’s a fascinating period, and clearly there is a lot of information from those early centuries for researchers who know where to look.

What I find particularly interesting is how what seems to have been a revolutionary but fairly simple message, preached and developed by a man who was executed by the authorities as a dangerous character, evolved and developed into something rather different, ultimately one of the great world faiths with all kinds of doctrines and creeds, and penalties for the unorthodox and heretical. It’s evident that all sorts of things were going on, including battles between different interpretations of Jesus’ original message, and varying accounts of his life and work, written by people who didn’t actually know the man.

Pagels’ particular interest is the Nag Hammadi/Dead Sea Scrolls, and the various challenges and contradictions they bring to the long-accepted canon of scriptural writings. She makes clear that there was never one single, ‘pure’ early version of Christianity but a great diversity of beliefs and practices right from the start, which seems to have been inevitable in those days of slow and difficult communication. She focuses on the differences between John’s gospel – part of the canon of accepted texts – and the Gospel of Thomas, not accepted as canonical by the church. They espouse rival viewpoints, with John proposing a more church-based practice and advocating the divinisation of Jesus, while Thomas offered a more individualist approach to faith and practice; clearly, for whatever reasons, John became the preferred option and Thomas was quietly erased from history: finding God on your own was not what a church organisation wanted.

It was not a surprise to read about widespread division and controversy within a century or so of the death of Jesus. The framing of the four gospels into an accepted canon was largely the work of Irenaeus of Lyons; the focus was on John’s gospel particularly as it allowed the promotion of Jesus as divine and this shaped the development of the early church. Creation of an organisation necessitated orthodoxy for its survival in an era of persecution; by the time Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, its basic structures and beliefs had been codified, and were rather easier to enforce: the earlier and wider variety of beliefs and practices was no more.

Karen Armstrong: The Case for God

May 25, 2022

     I do find Karen Armstrong’s writings on religion fascinating and thought-provoking, as you can see; there’s a lifetime of research and exploration there, by someone seeking to understand and explain, as far as this can be done, and I can identify with this in a number of ways.

This book is much more approachable than the previous one. Her starting-point is our changing understanding of what God is, and the problems this presents in our modern and would-be rational age, leading to responses such as fundamentalism and atheism. She outlines how in the ancient world there was no belief in a single supreme being, along with an acceptance of God as something inexpressible and incomprehensible, which we now want to rationalise and tie down and explain…

The ancient Greeks launched the Western pursuit of Reason: there was a rational explanation for everything if it could be found or worked out… and the philosophers’ quest for understanding of the world and the cosmos seems to have been focused on the right way to live. Humans were rational creatures, carrying within them a spark of the divine.

The section on language, and the changing meaning of the word ‘belief’ was fascinating; the Greek and Latin words translated now as ‘belief’ were in earlier times more about a sense of trust and commitment in God, than about unquestioning acceptance and assimilation of a set of dogmas defined by other humans. From about the 4th century onwards, Christianity began its shift towards insistence on doctrinal correctness. And once the idea of creation ex nihilo gained acceptance, then God and the universe were separated… Belief in literal truth of scripture rather than scripture as allegory to help us see, led to the ongoing separation between spirituality and theology. Armstrong explains that we participate in a mystery, whereas we solve a problem: nowadays we try to turn the mystery into a problem which we can then solve.

I decided that, in the end, this book and others by Armstrong are of course yet another 21st century rationalist approach to the exploration of spirituality and religion. Inevitably: this is what we do in our present world and time; there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just our version of the aeons-long human quest. We are necessarily creatures of our own age. So much of the book is about clever people wrestling with the (still!) ungraspable in the attempt to explain and understand, when this seems by definition impossible. Armstrong earns my respect for being engaged for so long, and bringing forth so much enlightenment. For her, religion is a practical discipline, is not easy, and is about living intensely in the her and now. Amen to that.

Paul William Roberts: Journey of the Magi

July 4, 2017

41TF4DFJVCL._AC_US218_A recent read that I found very interesting and thought-provoking explored some of the early history of Christianity: Paul William Roberts’ book also does, although from a very different perspective and in a very different way. He sets out on a physical journey, beginning in modern-day Iran, to retrace the journey made by the Magi at the time of Jesus’ birth; they were Zoroastrians, a faith that predates Christianity by at least five centuries and which the author demonstrates to have had major influences on early Christianity as well as Judaism as it exists today, and on Islam too. He contrasts Roman Christianity as basically established by St Paul and dependent on faith, with early, gnostic forms of Christianity based on personal experience of God and the individual search for truth: the early church clearly soon divided and it was the Pauline version that won the day, aided in the fourth century by the power of the Roman Empire itself.

Roberts’ travels through Iran, the places he visits and the various people he encounters, are very interesting and thought-provoking; he moves from Iraq into Syria and then to Jordan and Israel, as you might expect given the nature of his journey, but his accounts grow thinner the further he gets until they become quite cursory: it’s clear that the major interest was Persia and the Zoroastrians, and this part of the journey provides the bulk of the book.

The material he presents can be seen as quite controversial in many places, and he is clearly well-educated in his field and very widely-read. So I did find it pretty inexcusable, whether it was his decision or his editor’s, that there are no notes, and even worse, no bibliography: I did not want to take everything just on his say-so. Add to this a somewhat cavalier tone and attitude to details, irreverence at times, and the rather broad-brush approach generally, and you can see why I was often rather irritated. Certainly, it does not have to be like this – Carrère’s book which I read recently and refer to above, is referenced and supported without any of the apparatus getting in the way of the general reader. At times the book reminded me of various odd-ball texts of the past, like Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, or Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos.

Clearly the book adds further evidence to the picture of the origins of Christianity being very complex indeed, much more than I knew, even though I’ve already read quite a lot: much is still mysterious and unclear, and much has evidently been deliberately obscured or even eradicated in the intervening two millennia… there are links between Zoroastrianism, early Christianity, Manichaeans, the Essenes, and even the Cathars, who came along much later, find their place in the jigsaw. I also found the evidence Roberts presents for the ultimate interconnectedness of all faiths quite comforting somehow.

He travelled and wrote in the mid-1990s, so I found his rapturous descriptions of the glories of Palmyra in Syria very saddening, given what has happened in that benighted land so recently. I think you will have gathered that I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. And I will moan again about any publisher who thinks it’s acceptable to publish travel writing without providing maps…

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