Genesis Of A Church

October 15, 2020 Category: History, Religion

BEFORE CONSTANTINE:

We might begin here by noting that “Christianity” is a very broad term–a term that neither Simon-Peter nor Saul of Tarsus ever used.  They did not NEED to use such a term, because they were Jews operating within the context of a revamped Abrahamic Faith.  Historically, the term “Christianity” has since come to encompass a myriad of things.  The umbrella-term “Christian” subsumes the kernel movement that started the couple years leading up to and following JoN’s death (in the late 20’s)…from which there emerged various movements of neo-Judaism (the most notable of which was called, “The Way”).  That would be followed by a potpourri of Pauline-based proto-Christianities…many of which which endured up through the 4th–and even into the 5th–century.  As we’ll see, it was not until then that the Roman Catholic Church would take form.

What came to be Roman Catholicism was loosely based on one of the many strains of proto-Christianity…which was, in turn, loosely based on one particular version of “The Way” (Paul’s) with which Simon-Peter had some key disagreements.  This garish irony is lost on those who exalt the throne of Saint Peter.

People misconstruing “church” as institution rather than congregation stems from the Greek term, “ekklesia”–which conflates Semitic terms like “moed”, “edah”, and “kahal” (gathering of believers) with the more modern notion of a church as an authoritarian, hierarchical power structure.  The most infamous contortion of this hermeneutic is based upon the Gospel of Matthew, where JoN purportedly said that “on this rock, I will build my church” (16:18)…which simply meant: “On this theological foundation, I will grow my flock of followers (promulgate my message).”  Taking this to mean a clarion call for (what is now known as) the Vatican is risible.  Invoking the aforementioned passage from Matthew–to rationalize (what came to be) the Catholic Church–is based on a semiotic swindle.

Much of the 2nd century was a time of prosperity for the Roman Empire.  From the ascension of of Trajan in 98–through Hadrian and Antoninus Pius–to the great Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (who was followed by his adept son, Commodus), the Empire flourished.  This “Pax Romana” endured until the last decade of the century, when–after the death of Commodus–it experienced a short bout of political turmoil (after which Lucius Septimius Severus inaugurated the Severan Dynasty).

The emperors of this halcyon period had a sense of civic responsibility, and actively promoted Greek philosophy.  (Also embraced were Mithra-ism and the Cybelene cults.)  It was to the open-minded Emperor, Antoninus Pius that the Christian apologist from Judea, Justin Martyr, issued his pleas.  (Antoninus Pius also maintained a friendship with the famed Judean rabbi, Judah ha-Nasi.)  So it is no surprise that the rulers of the Empire did not find any appeal in the (still-embryonic) Christianity.

It was the prelate, Ignatius who–from Antioch–first promoted the notion that the bishop of Rome was to be “protos amongst the patriarchs”–that is: he was to be in relation to all other bishops analogous to how Simon-Peter had been to the original apostles.  The 7 letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c. 107 AD) reveal the institutional / doctrinal metamorphosis the early church underwent during the generation following Saul of Tarsus.

Ignatius is purported to have had second-hand acquaintance with his subject.  (He allegedly knew the apostle, Yohanan ben Zebedee of Beth Saida, who knew JoN first-hand.)  Ignatius’ career illustrated some already accepted practices of clergy (i.e. bishops, presbyters, and deacons) in the late first and early 2nd century.  Thus, as early as 107, the concept of liturgy and eucharist was accepted and understood.  (On this matter, also reference the dialogue between Justin Martyr and the Jewish figure named “Trypho” from the 2nd century.)  By this point, the establishment of the Roman bishop as supreme potentate had become codified in ecclesiastical precedent.

Over the course of the 2nd century, men who influenced the selection of “approved” Christian texts included Marcion of Sinope in Paphlagonia, Ignatius of Antioch in Syria, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lugdunum in Gaul (purported student of Polycarp of Smyrna), and Clement of Alexandria in Egypt.  Not coincidentally, these figures were the first to posit an apostolic lineage going back to Simon Peter–presumably as way of legitimizing their claims.

The late 2nd century was a pivotal time for the designation of the accepted canon.  Starting with the Roman episcopate of Anicetus in 155 (and on through Soter, Eleuterus, and Victor), the presbyter of Rome came to increasingly resemble a cynosure.  In other words, the seat became more a monarchical episcopate than the leader of a local congregation.  This is in spite of the fact that Antioch had been the first epicenter of the gestating institution (which accounts for the integral role of Ignatius in formulating the ecclesiastical protocols).

In the late 2nd / early 3rd century, the Alog[o]i (alt. “Alogians”) of Anatolia held that the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation were fabrications, and so should not be included in the canon as legitimate scripture.  It was known early on that such scripture was composed long after the earliest material; and so involved extensive confabulation.

Many Christologies were on offer during this time, each a ham-fisted attempt to rationalize the newfangled 3-in-1 theology:

  • Arianism: Which states that Jesus was created by the Abrahamic deity, yet was not equal to him (as with the Anomoeans / Eunomians).
  • Marcionism: Which states that Jesus was not human, and the Christian god was not the same as the god of the Hebrew Bible.
  • Eutychianism: Which states that Jesus’ human nature was trumped by his divine nature.
  • Monothelitism: Which states that Jesus had two natures but only one will: the divine will.  Therefore his humanity was incomplete.
  • Docetism: Which posits that Jesus qua historical figure was apparitional.
  • Sabellianism: Which posits one persona with different aspects / modes (a patripassian / modalist conception of co-substantiality)
  • Gnosticism: Which posits Jesus as an emanation (as articulated by Basilides of Alexandria)

There was theological hair-splitting over even the most semantic quandaries–as with the nit-picking between “mono-physitism” (as with the Chalcedonians) vs. “dyo-physitism” (as with the Nestorians) vs. “mia-physitism” (as with the Jacobites / Assyrians and Copts).  All this boiled down to a rather frivolous debate about whether there were three personae that were of one nature / essence / substance (as with conventional Trinitarianism, based on homo-ousios)…or there was one persona with three natures / essences / substances (as with Monarchianism, based on hetero-ousios).

On which of these competing Christologies was the official theology to be based?  Until the 4th century, this was an open question.  Which was most reconcilable with accepted scripture?  In reality, NONE were actually supported by anything in the Gospels because the Gospels–whether Gnostic or Canonical–never explicitly mentioned a trinity.  (I explore this point at length in part II of my essay on “Mythemes”.)  At the end of the day, it’s like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. {7}

The disparate results reveal to us the extent to which the story was being rigged according to the sensibilities of each promulgator.  As one might expect, all this quibbling between theological camps precipitated major conflicts; and power-brokers were obliged to be savvy in their alliances.  At every juncture, the issue was: Who would wind up well-positioned within the emerging power structures?  And how was RELIGION to be used  to leverage that power?  In 189, Irenaeus promoted the primacy of the Church of Rome in his “Against Heresies”.  In this vain, he vociferously advocated for the inclusion of the Gospel of John (which was conducive to institutionalized dogmatism) while decrying all Gnostic Gospels (which were not conducive to institutionalized dogmatism).

The so-called “Muratorian canon” demonstrates that, by around 200, most establishment figures had coalesced around a definitive set of writings…give or take a few anti-legomena (disputed texts).  By the time Zephyrinus was bishop of Rome, most of what is now considered the “New Testament” had been chosen–barring “The Book of Revelation”–which, at that time, was recognized for what it actually was: a zany, propagandistic screed by a mad-man from Patmos, Greece (named “John”). {4}

Until c. 235, the Roman Empire enjoyed a period of relative stability–that is: during the Severan Dynasty.  During that time, the great scholar, Lucius Cassius Dio of Nicaea flourished; while the great pedagogue, Alexander of Aphrodisias taught at the Peripatetic school in Athens.  The mid-3rd century proved to be a rather tumultuous time for the empire–characterized by chronic invasion and political instability.  Yet intellectual activity persisted–as exemplified by Alexandrian figures like Diophantus, Pappus, Ammonius Saccas, Origen “the Pagan”, and Plotinus.

Beginning in 270 (with the ascension of Emperor Aurelian), the Roman Empire experienced another stretch of prosperity.  This continued on through the reign of Diocletian, who governed adeptly via a tetrarchic system until c. 305.  Diocletian ruled with a strong hand, and is remembered for being especially harsh against Christians; as he saw them as somewhat of a nuisance.  Though–for what it’s worth–according to the Talmud, he once stated: “You must show respect even to the smallest and lowest of the Romans, because you can never know which one of us will rise to greatness.”

But what sort of “Christianity” existed during those first centuries?  The church as it eventually came to exist was not yet established (until the Council of Nicaea, almost three centuries after the death of JoN).  So what happened during that intervening period?  A discerning reader should be reminded that histories of the so-called “early church” (such as those by Roman historian Eusebius of Caesarea Maritima, or of Christian apologists like Tertullian and Irenaeus) need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Here’s what we know: After Simon-Peter, there was a sequence of 28 figureheads (i.e. presbyters) who–unlike Peter–were actually in Rome.  Each of these figures served as the de facto leader of the gestating proto-Christian movement until Melchiades / Miltiades (the first figure who could arguably be labeled “pope”).

This sequence of figureheads started with Linus (67-79), who was allegedly a companion of not only Simon-Peter, but of Timothy, Titus, and Paul as well.  (His position existed barely a decade after Saul of Tarsus had written most of his letters.)  This was around the time that the original Gospel (Mark) was composed.

Linus was contemporaneous with [Ana]Cletus (who served from 79-92) and Clement (who served from 92-99).  All three of these men were considered to be the heirs to Simon-Peter’s ministry.  Such designations transpired during a time when the following of JoN was still known as “The Way”…and before either the most embellished Gospel (John) OR the “Book of Revelation” were composed (c. 100).

During the two centuries of proto-Christianity leading up to the Council of Nicaea in 325, there came to be other (lower) clerics: bishops, presbyters, and deaconships of various forms…scattered in locations outside of Rome.  This was done with an understanding that the bishop in Rome was the most prestigious ecclesiastical position–a sort of provisional “Apostolic Father” for the movement.

It is important to recall, though, that there were several other proto-Christian movements that had nothing to do with this predominant ecclesiastical order.  Again, history is written by the victors; so we tend to only remember what those in power want us to remember.

Thus Valentinus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria, Arius of Alexandria, and any other figure who deviated from the approved dogmas had to be summarily rejected: denounced as heretical.  Such men were demonized as a matter of course.  Their positions were discredited for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with anything that JoN actually said.

In his only surviving letter (to a congregation in Corinth), Clement asserted the authority of the presbyters as rulers of the church.  He did this on the grounds that Saul of Tarsus had intimated as much in HIS letters.  (Clement may have also based this dubious assertion on some of what “Luke” had claimed in “Acts”.)  In other words, the declaration of clerical supremacy was made based entirely on Apostolic claims (and perhaps on self-interest), not on anything that Jesus of Nazareth himself had said (more than two generations earlier).

The primary purpose of Clement’s letter was to ensure the maintenance of “order” and of obedience to anointed authorities (again: something that had nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus’ message to his followers).  Already, we can see the Jesus-oriented legacy veering away from anything that the actual Jesus had envisioned.  (Be that as it may, there is no evidence for a monarchical episcopacy in Rome at such an early date.  At that point, the latent authoritarian nature of the “church” was still gestating.)

Following Clement, there was a sequence of 25 Roman bishops: Evaristus (99-107), Alexander (107-116), Sixtus (116-125), Telesphorus (125-136), Hyginus (136-142), Pius (142-155), Anicetus (155-166), Soter (166-175), Eleuterus (175-189), Victor (189-199), Zephyrinus (199-217), Callixtus (217 – 222), Urban (222-230), Pontian (230-235), Anterus (235-236), Fabian (236-250), Cornelius (251-253), Lucius (253-254), Stephen (254-257), Sixtus II (257-258), Dionysus (259-268), Felix (269-274), Eutychian (275-283), Caius (283-296), and Marcellinus (296-304).

These episcopates were not pontificates in any but a loosely metaphorical way.  For the two centuries between the death of Clement and the bishopric of Marcellinus, there was no institution that could be called the Roman Catholic Church.

Were the above 28 figures (from Linus to Marcellinus) “popes”?  No (except, perhaps, in a post hoc manner).  These men can be said to have been leaders of the early Pauline “Christian” movement–as each served as the bishop of Rome (under the aegis of the “throne of Saint Peter”).  During that period, there was a church headquartered in the seat of the empire, with an ecclesiastical leader (constituting a preeminent “episcopate”). {2}

By the time Evaristus (a Hellenic Jew) had completed his tenure as presbyter of Rome, a formal clerical hierarchy had been put into place.  Thereafter, Alexander and then Sixtus created an official system of liturgical / administrative protocols–thereby augmenting the ecclesiastic nature of the embryonic “church”.  So by the time Telesphorus presided in Rome, the movement had little resemblance to anything that Simon-Peter had known (or intended).

Under the next presbyter of Rome, Hyginus, the movement established the “crime” of heresy and the practice of excommunication–indicating a further departure from the moral message of Jesus of Nazareth (and an augmenting emphasis on Pauline Christology).  After all, such contrivances were amenable to institutional designs of self-aggrandizement.  The question, then, is not “Why DID they do that?” but “Why WOULDN’T they have done that?”

That revealing development was followed by other tell-tale signs of metamorphosis.  Next were the Roman episcopates of the first Pius and then of Anicetus–each of whom systematically enforced exclusive adherence to the “approved” proto-canonical scripture (as well as conformity to the new-fangled church doctrines).  For example, the leadership began taking measures to marginalize / demean other proto-Christianities (e.g. Montanism, Valentinian-ism, and Gnosticism).

That takes us to one century after Simon-Peter’s death.  By this point, a comprehensive system of top-down control had been put firmly into place.  This was a significant departure from the spirit of the original movement, The Way.

After the above series of 28 Roman episcopates, matters became quite complicated.  For over seven years (between April of 304 and July of 311), there seems to have been a glitch in the ecclesiastical machinery.  Only two men were briefly “in office” during that period: a man named Marcellus (from July to late December 308) and a man named Eusebius (from mid-April to mid-August of either 309 or 310).  Even as he ostensibly occupied the throne of Saint Peter, neither man really had any power, as both were promptly banished by Roman Emperor Maxentius (who was in power from 306 to 312, in tandem with Constantine and others).

This 7+ year discontinuity occurred during a complex time of imperial transition (read: cynosures jockeying for power during a period of political upheaval).  Depending on how one defines “rule”, Constantine’s rule started in 306, 309, 310, or 312.  The bottom line is: The empire was fragmented until 312 when Constantine was finally declared senior Augustus of the entire empire.

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