Genesis Of A Church

October 15, 2020 Category: History, Religion


It would be an understatement to say that the 1st century A.D. was a precipitous time for religion in the Occident.  If we are to understand the circumstances in which Christianity emerged as a distinct Faith, it makes sense to begin with the incumbent power structures. Let’s look at the Roman Emperors who reigned at this pivotal juncture in world history.  We will then be better equipped to assay the geo-political context within which the relevant scriptures were composed.

Roman Emperor Nero (who reigned for 14 years, from 54 to 68 A.D.) was the final ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty: the lineage that had been initiated by Julius Caesar c. 50 B.C.  That dynasty was in power during the alleged life of JoN (when Tiberius was the anointed Caesar Augustus).  Nero ruled primarily as a merciless despot–obsessed with decadence.  It was during this period that Saul of Tarsus wrote his letters about the prophesied “Christ” of Abrahamic lore.  Those letters were inspired by what he had heard about an auspicious Galilean figure named “Yeshua” (a.k.a. Jesus of Nazareth; hereafter denoted “JoN”).

Nero’s reign was followed by a tumultuous transition of power to the inauguration of the 27-year Flavian dynasty.  From 69 A.D. to 96 A.D., the three Flavian rulers (renown military generals Vespasian and his son, Titus; followed by Domitian) accomplished many things–including the construction of the Colosseum (a monument to crowd-control and mass-distraction) and the quashing of a Jewish revolt in Palestine.  The suppression of the Jews involved the razing of the Second Temple by Titus.  This was the period in which the Synoptic Gospels were composed (“Mark”, followed by Q, then the derivative versions, “Luke” and “Matthew”.)

It is interesting that many of the earliest “saints” designated (ex post facto) in the Roman Catholic Church were FLAVIANS.  For example, Flavia Domitilla (Titus’ sister / niece) was eventually canonized.  As it so happened, her son, Clement, was the man who would be appointed the chief presbyter in Rome (i.e. the third apostolic successor to Simon-Peter) of the nascent “Christian” church in Rome.

During the 1st century Flavian Dynasty, there were also Titus Flavius Clemens and Clement of Alexandria–both later canonized as saints by the Church; and both of whom–peculiarly–identified the iconography of the early church (fish and olive branches) with that of the Imperium.  Note that Clement would be retroactively anointed “Pope” centuries later, when the Roman Catholic Church established the apostolic lineage under a Roman Emperor who, it turns out, considered himself to be a descendent of the Flavian line: Constantine.

Tellingly, it was during this Roman campaign against the Jewish revolt that Judaic icon Josephus Bar Mathias defected; and subsequently managed to curry favor with the Flavian leaders–putting himself in their good graces.  By being a turncoat, Josephus was able to position himself as an influential figure within the Flavian regime’s proxy in Palestine.

Starting in 37 B.C., the Herodian dynasty was inaugurated in Canaan (dubbed “Iudaea”; i.e. Judea) by Herod the Great.  Herod was charged by Emperor Augustus with ruling over the Levantine province.  This Judean dynasty remained in place until 92 A.D.  (Judea would be re-christened “Palaestina Prima” by the Roman Imperium during the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136.)

It was the final Herodian Emperor, Agrippa II, that befriended this Romanized Jew–who had been by then been anointed “Flavius Josephus”: the imperial court’s official historian.  Thus it was under the auspices of Agrippa II that Josephus (who had effectively become a Roman propagandist) composed his famed historical accounts.  The material that was used in Josephus’ magnum opus (“Antiquities of the Jews”) was compiled in this capacity.  (Josephus’ portrayal of the 66-73 war against the Jewish uprising was largely derived from Vespasian’s own chronicling of those events.)

So what was actually going on during this key period in history (sometimes referred to as the “Apostolic Age”)?  In a nutshell: Contentious religious conflicts, questions of illegitimate occupation (especially in Palestine), and–of course–vicious power struggles.  It was during this epoch of turmoil and tribulation that the Jews were eagerly awaiting their Messiah: the “savior” who would come to rescue and redeem them…and, presumably, inaugurate the new nation for Beth Israel.  (See my essay, “The Land Of Purple”.)  This longed-for Messianic warrior–dubbed “Kristos” in ancient Greek–would be able to defeat the Roman nemesis with the power of Yahweh behind him, just as David had overcome the Philistines a millennium earlier.

Unsurprisingly, the roiling Messianic fervor that suffused Palestine during the 1st century saw numerous self-proclaimed “Messiahs”, each anointing himself as THE ONE.  Inevitably, any successful preacher (i.e. charismatic leader) would have been cast by acolytes (and thus would have been inclined to cast himself) in the idiom of the era–a phenomenon that was best illustrated by Apollonius of Tyana.  Such a figure would have invariably expressed his ideas by couching them within this proxy-of-the-savior-god paradigm.

And so it went with the cult that formed around JoN.  The followers of “The Way” were essentially an apocalyptic Jewish sect (an eschatological Faith), the Pauline strain of which embraced super-sessionism: a New Covenant–inclusive of Gentiles–that superseded the original (Mosaic) Covenant of the Hebrew Bible.  (The Judaic strain of Abrahamic lore would itself undergo a transition during Late Antiquity, ramifying into the Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees…eventually yielding the prevailing Mishnaic tradition.)

Because the Roman Emperors had the Jewish scriptures (and “alternative” histories) destroyed, the manuscripts that had fortuitously been hidden in the Qumran caves–on the western bank of the Dead Sea–are the only surviving (contemporaneous) records now available FROM WITHIN this 1st-century Messianic movement.  These “Dead Sea Scrolls” were likely written by the Jewish sect known as the Essenes.  Unsurprisingly, their contents do not comport with the “official” histories (i.e. those approved by the Roman authorities)–most notably the highly-biased writings of Josephus.

Josephus’ account names the Flavian Dynasty as the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews.  After all, the Roman Emperors were, by definition, divine (in Judaic terms, “sent by God” to offer salvation to the empires wayward subjects).  Naturally, Josephus sought to cast the legitimation of the Roman imperium in the idiom of the day (that is: couch the course of events in terms that Judea’s disaffected Jews would understand).

In this context, the letters written by Saul of Tarsus in the late 50’s and 60’s make perfect sense.  As with the Roman Imperium, an entire mythology had to be created as a means of legitimizing the claims emanating from the (Roman) “powers that be”.  It is no wonder that the authorities incorporated key elements the savior-god motif into the explanation for their own existence…and then, eventually, appropriated the “Christ” mythology (as we’ll see shortly).

The “son of god” motif had been employed since Julius Caesar anointed himself a deity; and it would continue to be used when Emperor Aurelian invoked “Sol Invictus” in 274 A.D. (thereby rendering himself the representative of the one true god).  It would take until Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century before the Roman Imperium opted to entirely co-opt the burgeoning Christian mythos into its own propaganda.

The basis for this cooptation is illustrated by the Christ-like figure depicted in the Tomb of the Julii, located on the (pre-Catholic) Vatican Necropolis–a structure that was erected just prior to Constantine’s reign.  Sure enough, the figure was associated with Sol Invictus; and even employed Dionysian iconography as well as the “Good Shepherd” leitmotif (an even scenes from the Book of Jonah).

Predictably, the Roman Catholic church ended up being almost entirely comprised of rituals and iconography found in antecedent modes of imperial deification.  (The notable emendation was that the crucifix was rendered the primary talisman.)  This even went for nomenclature.  After all, the title of the pagan high priest of Rome, the Pontifex Maximus [“greatest pontiff”] was used for the presbyter (i.e. bishop) of Rome.

Does the current iconography of “Christianity” go back to this early period?  Hardly.  The symbol of “The Way” was an “ikhthys” (fish); which later served as a Greek acronym for Iesou (Aramaic “Yeshua”; a.k.a. “Jesus”), Kristos (Christ), Theos, Yios (son), and Soter (savior).  Even after Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity in 313, he used not a crucifix as his insignia, but the “labarum”: a vexillum (military standard) that used the two superimposed Roman letters (chi and rho): an insignia that had a long Hellenic (Ptolemaic / Greco-Roman) legacy.

It should also be noted that the standard shape of the device used for crucifixion was a cross, which happened to roughly correspond with the ankh of ancient Egypt (pre-dating 1500 B.C.)–a symbol that represented eternal life.  Revealingly, the Codex Glazier (a manuscript of the New Testament from the late 4th century, written in Coptic) uses the ankh instead of the “conventional” cross used today.

Couple this with the extant savior-god myths (son of a god, born of a virgin, twelve apostles, executed and resurrected three days later, etc.), and it becomes apparent that the folklore which formed around Jesus of Nazareth was simply a hybridization of antecedent myths.  (I explore this at length in my essays on “Mythemes”.)

Pursuant to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church, the Emperor could simply delegate (outsource?) the role of “representative of God on Earth” to the new-fangled pontiff…AS NEEDED.  He could thereby placate Christians without needing to compromise his own power.  Of course, upon the demise of the “old” Roman Empire in the 5th century, this arrangement would back-fire.  By the time the Holy Roman Empire emerged c. 800, western Europe was simply a conglomerate of feuding kingdoms, the monarchs of which were–to varying degrees and in varying ways–beholden to the bishop of Rome, but persisted in their geo-political maneuvering for the next thousand years.

As is often the case, politics and theology were intertwined. Even when it came to doctrinal points, we find that events were about different factions jockeying for power.  At each step, whatever rulers did was a function of their vested interests.  During the Flavian Dynasty of the late 1st century, the synoptic Gospels were composed by those who’d been tutored in the folklore surrounding JoN…and who were likely influenced by the Christology propounded in the letters (purportedly) written by Saul of Tarsus.  Earnest proponents were swept up in (read: taken in by) the fashionable savior-god narratives that percolated throughout the empire at the time…especially in the Middle East (from Anatolia, through the Levant, into Egypt).

In the end, the Pauline version prevailed for reasons that were due more to utility than credibility.  It is important to recognize that ALL circumstances are–by their very nature–simply accidents of history; and that–as with ANY contingency–context is everything.  Even alleged REPORTS OF history are themselves PRODUCED BY history…and, more specifically, by mortal (fallible) men, each with his own dispositions, biases, and interests.  Subsequently, the prevailing reports end up SHAPING history, thereby providing the warped lens through which we see events.

With this in mind, it is NOT with the deified Galilean Jew that we’ll begin.  For, while JoN is the primary figure in Christian lore, it is “Saint Peter” who is the point of departure for the Vatican qua Roman Catholic magisterium…that is, according to the Roman Catholic Church.  The papacy is synonymous with the so-called “throne of Saint Peter”, named after the Galilean fisherman, S[h]imon ben Jonah of Capernaum; who was born “Kepha” (rendered “Cephas” in Latin).  He was eventually assigned the appellation, “Petros” (Anglicized to “Peter”), meaning “rock” (i.e. solid foundation). {12}

The original proselytes of the “The Way” included Cephas (Simon-Peter), Timothy of Lystra, Saul of Tarsus (“Paul”), John of Salamis (“Barnabas”), and James of Nazareth (JoN’s brother)…along with minor figures like Titus of Antioch.  These men argued about what, exactly, “The Way” WAS (how it was to be defined; and what its mission should be).  Such disputation led to a major falling-out between Paul and Barnabas, and to the marginalization of JoN’s brother (see Appendix 2).  To simplify:

  • There was the Antioch- / Corinth- / Ephesus-based (quasi-Hellenist) camp, promoting Gentile-inclusiveness and a slight departure from Judaic lore (Timothy and Paul; as well as the authors of “Luke”).  
  • There was the Jerusalem-based camp, seeking to maintain Mosaic law as originally conceived; and promoting Hebrew exclusivity (Barnabas and James; as well as the authors of “Matthew”).

Initially, Simon-Peter was in the latter camp; yet he eventually became associated with the (prevailing) Pauline version of the new Faith.  Paul was, after all, much more adept at evangelism: orchestrating missionary campaigns and–yes–writing persuasive letters to local congregations (see A.N. Wilson’s “Paul: The Mind Of An Apostle”).  Here’s the thing: At that early point in time, if THESE men could not agree on what the Truth was…that puts those of use living two millennia later in quite a pickle.

To reiterate: EVEN THEN, key figures disagreed with one another on key points.  Each yielded a different verdict about what the correct view of “The Way” might be.  Predictably, the more inclusive (Pauline) version triumphed, as THAT was the version that was able to bring more people (Gentiles) into the fold.  The fact that Paul said nutty things did not detract from his proposal’s formidable allure…as the nuttiness of many of his statements would not be fully grasped until mankind (finally) emerged from the Dark Ages.

Different followings recognized different texts and honored the decrees from the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” (c. 50) in different ways.  (The primary issue at that council was the degree to which followers of this NEW testament should honor the rules of the Hebrew Bible.)

Recall that after the deaths of the original impresarios, further control over the liturgical evolution of the burgeoning creed was largely up for grabs.  Unsurprisingly, during the second century, the prevailing story was the one that was most amenable to the maintenance of incumbent power structures.  (History is told by the victors.)  So it is no wonder that THAT was the version that “won”.

We should note that Simon-Peter operated almost entirely out of Antioch.  In fact, he never set foot in Rome.  How can we be so sure?  Years later, in his letters to his friends in Rome, Saul of Tarsus is careful to list all the key people relating to “The Way” who were in the capital city.  Never once does he mention Cephas / Simon-Peter.  To contend that Saint Peter sought to found a “Church of Rome” is, therefore, utterly groundless. {1}  And to contend that Simon-Peter was a presbyter of Rome is historically inaccurate.

Even supposing that Simon-Peter intended to found a “church” (in the modern sense) is erroneous.  Regarding the alleged statement–which would have been originally articulated in Aramaic–by JoN to Simon-Peter that “you are my rock and on you I will build my church”, it should be noted that the word for a social group (as in a club or other association) and church (qua congregation) in ancient Greek were the same: “ecclesia”.  Thus the statement was referring to a foundation in the liturgical sense.

In other words: The “church” JoN referred to when speaking with Simon-Peter was THE PEOPLE, not a monolithic institution controlled by a cabal of high priests–dressed in fancy regalia–housed within a gigantic fortress on Vatican Hill in Rome.

Another key factor worth noting: The early (Pauline) Christian movement was convinced that the end of history was immanent; so its followers clearly did not have in mind “the church” as we now know it: as a hierarchal leviathan characterized by institutionalized dogmatism, highly-concentrated power, and top-down control.  The authors of the Gospel accounts would not have imagined that their composition may have been heard by anyone beyond their community AS IT THEN EXISTED; as the specific audience for which the “Good News” was written was for peasants in the 1st century.  Simon-Peter HIMSELF thought that the world would probably end in his lifetime…or, at most, within the next generation.  He was quite convinced that the Messiah would return very soon, thereby precluding the need for founding any kind of new institution.

After all, Jesus HIMSELF clearly believed the End Days were immanent.  To recognize that members of “The Way” expected the End Of Days (i.e. return of the Christ) to happen by the end of their generation, we need only read the letters penned by Saul of Tarsus himself.  Prime examples are the first letter to the Thessalonians 4:13-18, the first letter to the Corinthians 7:29-31, the letter to the Romans 13:11-12, and the letter to the Philippians 1:6.  (I discuss this matter at length in my essay: “Brink Porn”.)

Saul of Tarsus died in the 60’s.  He certainly was not expecting his message to apply to a world two millennia later.  Are we to believe that what leaders of The Way had in mind was the establishment of a monolithic institution to be operated by a cadre of popinjays for the next 2,000 years?  (“The day is at hand!” does not mean “The day won’t happen for at least 2,000 more years; in the interregnum there will be endless misery, ignorance, violence, and pointless suffering.”)

As it turned out, those who actually knew JoN (who were personally acquainted with him, his ministry, and his final days) played almost no role in defining the movement JoN left behind.  The only exceptions (James and Simon-Peter) ended up not playing a decisive role in the formation of proto-Christianity; as their version of the movement (which was based in Jerusalem) was not the prevailing one.  The Hellenic figure from Asia Minor, Saul of Tarsus (a man who’d never met JoN) is the one who dictated the terms of the newfangled creed.  To wit: It was “Paul” who made JoN into the hoped-for Messiah / Kristos. {6}

To reiterate: EVEN AT ITS GENESIS, “The Way” had major disagreements about what the legacy of the Jewish preacher from Galilee.  We can only imagine the myriad tangents that emerged subsequent to the originators of the movement (those who’d been in the best position to, as it were, “get it right”) in the years and decades following JoN’s death.  The first expositors could not even concur on even the most elementary points–a striking fact that indicates a profound dubiousness in ANY of their accounts.  Unsurprisingly, each author wanted to do his own thing with this captivating narrative.  So each DID do his own thing.

In the end, Saul of Tarsus’ version “won”.  That, in turn, informed the revamping of the original Gospel (“Mark”) performed by the authors of “Luke” and “Matthew”.  The Synoptic Gospels were cobbled together (from fragments known as “pericopes”) in ways that met the needs of their immediate audience.  These tracts would later be interpreted to suit the purposes of the emerging ecclesiastical institution, based in Rome.  This process involved different people choosing between a large number of competing texts (there were more than twenty Gospels), each of which was selected on the basis of its conduciveness to the formation of an INSTITUTION.

Hence attempts were made to exclude (eliminate?) alternate versions.  The key was to curtail any avenue for the formulation of doctrine that fell outside the approved institution.  “You need X for redemption / atonement / absolution / salvation…but you can only get X by using THIS INSTITUTION as the intermediary.”

Again, the Pauline letters offer indications of the true nature of the initial movement.  Over the subsequent generations of writing and copying selected texts (as the years came and went without the hoped-for RETURN coming to pass), the institution we now call “the church” emerged…by default…replete with a hierarchy of ecclesiastic authority.

To reiterate: Members of The Way were entirely concerned with the world of the 1st-century Roman Empire.  Their scope of concern did not go beyond the 1st century because Saul of Tarsus, Simon-Peter, and the rest were convinced that the End of Days was immanent.  They therefore would have found it bizarre–nay, outlandish–that an institution two millennia later was invoking Simon-Peter’s name in the manner that the Vatican does.  Both Simon-Peter and Saul of Tarsus would have surely been dumfounded by what we now call “Christianity”.

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