UNITY OF VANCOUVER
3814 FRANKLIN ST. VANCOUVER, WASHINGTON 98660 360-696-0996
Factions in the Early Church
Reverend Bernadette Voorhees
May 2, 2021
All Rights Reserved
There is a sacred place at the center of your being. A place of beauty, peace, love, and wholeness. It is the garden in the center of your heart. Focus your attention at the point in the center of your forehead, the seat of faith and imagination. Now see yourself standing before a beautiful gate. This gate is called the gate of Jesus and it is the entry point into this very special garden. As you stand in front it, you feel warmth and beauty radiating from it. As the gate swings open, you slowly pass through and a gentle warmth and compassionate love touches every part of you, melting away all of your burdens and cares. The moment you pass completely through the gate of Jesus, you feel lighter and freer.
All around you, you see beautiful spring flowers of red, yellow, and pink. All around you there are also roses just beginning to unfold. In the very center of the garden is a chair and you hear a soft voice saying to you: “Come and sit with me for a while. In this sacred place, come - sit and be one with Me. My beloved, my child, I have so many things to share with you, so many things to give to you and so much love to shower on you. Be still, listen, and receive. Be still and know my love.”
In your mind’s eye, see yourself walking to the chair and sitting down. As you do a brilliant white light showers down upon you and a fragrant rose is placed in your right hand. Sit now for a moment in the light which restores you mind and body as you smell the rose and enjoy its color and the beauty of the garden of prayer in the silence.
As you prepare to leave the garden, tell yourself that you will return to the Gate of Jesus and pass through into the garden of prayer to be at one with the light, life, and love of God.
Before you leave the chair thank God for your many blessings. When you have finished giving thanks, rise from the chair, and return to the gate. As you pass through it in order to return to the here and now, stop in it for a moment and as you do, feel a warmth, and hear a voice saying to you, “You are My beloved child in whom I am well pleased. As you go forth this day, share that which I have shared with you. Be at peace with yourself and be the peace that you are now experiencing. Express only the love and goodness, which is now part of you. And know that at any time and from any place you can return to this sacred gate and garden. . .to be with me.”
When you pass completely through the gate, you find yourself back in your meditation place with God’s words still ringing in your ears, “You are My beloved, my child, I love you.”
You are ready to express love, light, peace, and life. And now let us give thanks for this experience in the sacred place by speaking together the prayer for protection. The light of God surrounds me; the love of God enfolds me; the power of God protects me; wherever I am God Is and all is well. Amen.
EARLY FACTIONS IN THE CHURCH
We’ve been studying the origins of Christianity in search of the historical Jesus and the teachings of Jesus before they became institutionalized as “the one true apostolic church.” In this part of our journey, we are considering the question, “Who were the real ‘heretics’ in the early church?”
I’d like to read to you from the book “The Lost Religion of Jesus” by Keith Akers. “Having fought on the losing side of so many struggles, I became suspicious of the growth of the Christian church as it swept into the Gentile world. Three decades ago, I began to discover “Jewish Christianity.” It is not that brand of Jewish Christianity which we find in the world today, which simply means Jews being converted to Pauline Christianity, but that Christianity of the first few centuries that remained Jewish and rejected Paul outright.”
The earliest Christians avoided alcohol, rejected virgin birth and bodily resurrection. They identified with the poor and practiced nonviolence, vegetarianism, and meditative prayer. Their non-violence extended to include condemnation of animal sacrifice by the temple priests in Jerusalem. As Jews they held fast to the Law of Moses and explained Judaism’s practice of sacrifice and warfare by arguing that Moses had never said these things. They were added by ‘the lying pen of the scribes.’ Let me summarize some of our previous lessons and expand your knowledge about this topic.
In Karen Armstrong’s book, “A History of Jerusalem,” she writes, "The first millennium of Jewish history as presented in the Bible has absolutely no factual foundation whatsoever. The kingdom of Israel as described in the Bible isn’t mentioned in any other contemporary text nor is the idea that the Jews spent 400 years in slavery in Egypt.” In his book “The Moses Legacy” on pages 5 and 6, Graham Phillips writes, "Archaeology has excavated nothing in Jerusalem from the supposed time of Solomon to reveal anything but a relatively low level of culture. As for the surrounding empires, if their records are any indication, they do not seem to have even noticed that Jerusalem was there."
Again, from Armstrong’s book, “In the 8th century BC, the Assyrians expanded into northern Palestine, putting an end to any kingdom of Israel. This was followed in the 7th
Century by the rise of a new imperial power – Babylon. Under its king, Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom of Judah in southern Palestine was conquered, effectively ending the existence of any separate Jewish State The tribal leadership of Judah was resettled in Babylon, under the watchful eye of their Babylonian conquerors. Such forced migrations were not untypical of the period. Removing the elite was a way to head off organized resistance in a new colony. But unlike earlier displacements, the Hebrews were resettled as a single group and remained free to meet, trade and own land. The exiles were settled in some of the most attractive and important districts in and around Babylon."
The so called, Exile lasted barely half a century. While in captivity, the Jews learned of meditative prayer, dream interpretation, astrology, almanacs, and omens. For the first time, they encountered the notion of a personal ‘immortality’ and the idea of ‘resurrecting’ the dead. In Babylonian, the Jews met in ‘gatherings’ (‘synagogues’ in Greek) for the first time. Leadership of these assemblies was assumed a ‘priestly’ character. The chief god of Babylon was called Marduk not Yahweh, but for Jews from the bleak land of Judea the experience of his worship was a revelation. They were impressed by the lifestyle enjoyed by the professional temple priesthood. In Babylon, full-time priests monopolized interaction with the supernatural and as a result they enjoyed immense wealth, prestige, and power. In contrast with pagan Rome, priests were part-time, co-opted to an honorary role and had other civic or military duties.
The Hebrew language (written and spoken) is believed to have developed in exile (in contrast to their native Aramaic). It became the official religious language of the Jewish Holy Scriptures as certain Priests (so-called ‘prophets’) wrote texts, which explained the history of the tribal misfortune of the Jews in terms of neglect of a particular deity and of the desirability of priestly rule. Many stories like the Book of Job were borrowed in their entirety with only a change of name.
With the rise of King Cyrus and the Persian conquest of Babylonia, an undreamt-of opportunity was presented to the pious elders of the exiled Jews. Cyrus was a self-styled ‘Great King’. He was eager to have all gods on his side and so he endorsed a Yahweh cult to be established in the city of Jerusalem in Judea. To accomplish his goal many of the Jews (mostly descendants of the original exiles) were returned to the old homeland under Prince Sheshbazzar to set up a temple and help the war effort. A figure of 42,360 ‘together with their servants and two hundred singers’ is quoted, several times the reported number taken into exile. Under the patronage of Cyrus and despite opposition of the locals, (the Jews who had never left), these returning Jews who called themselves the true ‘children of Judah’, established a theocratic colony under an appointed Persian governor. Persian rule of Judah lasted two centuries until the arrival of the Greeks and Alexander the Great.
Pre-Babylon, only the ‘tribe’ of Levi could be priests and perform the role of shamans. Post-Babylon, the Levite priests were downgraded to menial temple workers and the Sadducee clan took over the high priesthood and changed Jewish theology to reflect their new organization and power. Yahweh was elevated to a sole God who required endless sacrifices to placate his wrath or receive his blessings. And being the only ones who knew how to placate and honor God, the earthly power and wealth of the new priesthood was assured. Henceforth all Jews acquired a duty to bring offerings to the temple priests in Jerusalem who were thereby freed of more mundane tasks. So, not only did this give the priesthood their daily provisions and a major slice of the butchery business but it also gave them control over the lucrative leather trade. In time, tribute to this priesthood was extended to include tithes, dispensation fees and commission on money changing since only the ‘clean’ shekel could be offered at the temple.
The ‘returnees’ also brought with them from Zoroastrianism the notion of an evil god Satan in contrast to the good God, Yahweh and for the Judaism acquired angels and demons. At this point there also appears the curious tale of Adam and Eve in an idyllic garden, a satanic snake and a disobedient female which nicely explained why life was full of wickedness, why women should be subjugated and why there was death itself. The Persians made no images or idols of their dual gods. Fire represented purity and was an incarnation of the light god, Mazda. On the other hand, ‘matter’, including the human body was created by the dark god, Angra Mainyu and thus the male Priestly dominated Yahweh cult became at heart hostile to the physical body. In upcoming May and June lessons, we will see how this dualistic thinking became a part of Gnosticism and a belief in a Stranger God. This also sets the stage for the opposition of the later Prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus to these changes to the oral traditions and the ‘lying pen of the Scribes.’
Both Nehemiah, ‘cup-bearer’ to the Persian King and Ezra, his ‘minister of Jewish affairs’ introduced interpretations and refinements of ‘the Law’ which kept Jewish piety compatible with the interests and security of the Persian empire. With brutal ruthlessness, Ezra commanded Jews to ‘send away’ their foreign wives and children; over 10,000 were turned out of Jerusalem to starve and die of thirst. There was a lot of bloodshed, as the colonizers, called the ‘Golan’ drove out and de-Judaized the original inhabitants called the Am Ha-Aretz or ‘people of the land’, whom they were forbidden to marry. “Membership of Israel was now confined to the descendants of those who had been exiled in Babylon.” (Armstrong, p102).
Do you see how this set the climate for revolt and launched numerous resistance and religious reformation movements like that of John the Baptist and Jesus? Jesus took on the Temple Priesthood Sacrificial Cult and paid for it with his life.
In the beginning Jesus and all, of his followers were Jews; in the end the church condemned the Jewish Christians as heretics. Until we resolve this paradox, we can’t hope to understand Jesus or Christianity because this shift shaped everything that was to follow. The first and greatest division in the evolution of Christianity addressed the question: “What is the relationship between the followers of Jesus as Christians and Judaism?” There were three major factions of early Christianity. Each faction answered this question differently.
1. Jewish Christians were the disciples, the family of Jesus, and those who had followed Jesus in his lifetime. Jesus never intended to found a new religion. He saw himself leading a Jewish Reformation Movement called ‘the Way’- which failed and evolved into Jewish Christianity. Jewish Christians remained loyal to the Jewish Law of Moses as they understood it and as it had been passed down ‘orally’ for hundreds of years. They believed that Jesus was the Prophet predicted by Moses, that his death was preordained and that he would soon return as ‘the Son of Man’, to usher in the Age of Yahweh, save the faithful and lead Israel into its greatness. They did not believe in physical resurrection. They believed that Jesus had been saved by God from ‘spiritual death’ because anyone crucified as a criminal lost all spiritual connection with God. But God had saved Jesus from this fate and had taken him to be with him.
Jewish Christianity is the blind spot of virtually all accounts of Jesus. Everyone agrees that Jesus was a Jew and that his first followers were all Jewish. Yet in the thousands of books that have been written about Jesus, almost none acknowledge the importance of Jewish Christianity and the issues I’ve just gone over with you that caused the Jesus Movement in the first place. When we talk about the ‘Jewishness of Jesus’, we aren’t referring to an ethnic group or nationality; we are referring to their religious beliefs. James, the brother of Jesus assumed leadership after his death and leadership of Jewish Christianity was passed down through Jesus’ family and lasted almost 400 years. This is historically documented.
2. Gnostics: Gnostics wanted a complete break between the followers of Jesus and Judaism. Many Gnostics thought that the God of Jesus and the Jewish God who created the world were two different Gods altogether. This led Gnostics to reject the physical world as a botched creation of a lesser God. They believed that knowledge (Gnosis) of the highest God, the father of Jesus, led to salvation after death in a spiritual realm independent of this physical world of suffering and death. They didn’t believe in a physical resurrection. The physical body was laid down and raised up a spiritual body.
3. Orthodox Christians: Led by Paul: This group also wanted a complete break with Judaism and the law of Moses including food laws, vegetarianism, and circumcision. The basis of Orthodox Christianity was the revelation of God himself through Jesus rather than the revelation of God’s law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Orthodox Christians worshipped the same God as the Jews and Jewish Christians. They too expected the immanent end of the world but in their vision, Jesus as the Son of God would return to judge the living and the dead and take only the faithful into heaven. They believed in a physical resurrection.
These three very distinct viewpoints represent three very different ways of trying to come to grips with a fundamental problem that faced the early church. Jesus was a Jew, and he died a Jew for the crime of insurrection to Rome. In the years after Jesus’ death, the number of Gentile Christians far surpassed the number of Jewish Christians primarily, as a result of Paul’s missionary work. Paul portrays the Jewish Christians as narrow minded.
The writings of early church leaders, historical accounts, Paul’s letters, and the New Testament itself all reveal a deep hostility and bitterness toward the disciples and Jewish followers of Jesus who he thinks are ‘misrepresenting Christianity.’ On the other hand, Jewish Christians led by James, challenged Paul’s right to call himself an apostle. There was no New Testament so both the early Orthodox Christians and Gnostics were forced to improvise working from ‘word of mouth’ and worship without the benefit of books, established rituals, or a personal experience of Jesus.
Paul is introduced in Acts as Saul, named for the ancient Israelite King. He watches the coats of the crowd who are stoning Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Afterwards, Saul asks the temple priests for letters to the synagogues at Damascus so that if he found any that belonged to ‘the Way’, men, women, or children, he might bring these renegade Jews bound to Jerusalem for punishment. On the way to Damascus, he either saw or was struck by a light and heard a voice that said, “Saul why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:1-4).
The Jewish Christians detested Paul and considered him a false prophet. According to the newly discovered Gospel of the Ebonites, Paul was not born a Jew at all! He reportedly converted to Judaism after he fell in love with a priest’s daughter. The Ebonite Gospel says that Paul converted to Judaism and changed his name from Saul to Paul when he was circumcised, in order to win the High Priest’s favor.
Unfortunately for everyone, he was still forbidden to marry the priest’s daughter. She said that she didn’t like the fact that his eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead and that he had a rather large nose. He was also bald and bow-legged and totally unattractive to her. With that description, no wonder her father refused to allow Paul to marry her!
There are many differences between the message of Jesus and the message of Paul. Most conspicuously, the themes of Jesus’ Sermon of the Mount, including, non-retaliation, rejection of property and riches and the obliteration of social, class and sexual distinctions in the Kingdom of Heaven are either sharply muted or completely absent in the teachings of Paul who said that “Women may not speak in church, must wear head coverings and are not allowed to become Bishops.”
Paul’s major themes are salvation through faith in Jesus as the Messiah and only son of God, the misery of this physical world, that humanity is inherently flawed and suppression of Mosaic law. Such differences split the Jewish Christians led by James from the Orthodox Christians led by Paul. Orthodox Christians regarded Paul as the church’s greatest missionary. They believed that he was greater than James, Peter, and John.
In 1st Corinthians 15:3, Paul says, “Christ died for our sins.” The doctrine of ‘original sin’, that Christ died for our sins, is a topic that plagues the church to this day, and it evolved from Paul’s teachings and not from the teachings of Jesus. Jewish Christianity completely rejected the idea of ‘original sin’ and the idea that the body or matter was bad. They accepted and believed the Mosaic framework in which humans are “created in the image and likeness of God and therefore inherently good”, not depraved or sinful.
‘Original sin’ had no place in the teachings of Jesus, Judaism, paganism, and Jewish Christianity. The idea began in the teachings of Paul and reached its full form with Augustine. Now it is possible that Paul and the Gentile Christians had a better understanding of Jesus and his teachings than the Jewish followers and family of Jesus, like his brother James, but it is very unlikely.
For a variety of reasons Gentile Christians became antagonistic toward all Jews and Jewish Christianity including the disciples and family of Jesus. From the standpoint of Gentile Christianity, Jesus was the Divine Redeemer. The Jews had rejected and killed him. His family and disciples had deserted him in his hour of need. The destruction of the temple, the holy city of Jerusalem and of Israel was God’s judgment and punishment on them for their actions.
The literature of Christianity then evolved to reflect this antagonism with the construction of the myth of Judas, the only disciple who was not a Galilean and the Jewish mob crying, “Crucify him, his blood be on us and on our children” crept into the New Testament. Thus, these later Christians backdated and exaggerated the Jewish rejection of Jesus to the time of Jesus himself. Gentile Christianity became as anti-Jewish as possible while still conceding that Jesus was a Jew. This anti-Jewish sentiment evolved into the anti-Semitism that has had such tragic consequences down through history.
Thus, history was rewritten by both Judaism and Gentile Christianity, with both ignoring the religion of Jesus. There truly was ‘no room at the inn’ for the message of a Jewish Jesus in either Judaism or Christianity. By the 4th century, for political reasons, the Nicene Creed had stripped simple living, nonviolence, and no alcohol from the message of Jesus altogether and had also lost the core of his teachings about the Kingdom of God. Instead of a call to change our lives and our personal relationship to God and the world through prayer, meditation, and compassionate action we now have a Jesus who is the only Son of God and not a human like us. A Jesus who must be believed in or else and a complex theology of virgin birth, rising from the dead on the 3rd day and ascending, the Holy trinity and the final judgment.
St. Jerome’s celebrated fourth century comment summarizes the rejection of Jewish Christianity. “As long they seek to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor Christians.”
THOUGHTS TO PONDER
1. Based on the historical evidence presented in this lesson, “Who do you now think were the real ‘heretics’ in the early church?”
2. Did this lesson alter your perception of Jesus, Paul, and the evolution of the church?
3. What historical events set the climate for Jewish revolt and launched the numerous resistance and religious reformation movements like that of John the Baptist and Jesus?
4. What is the relationship between the followers of Jesus as Christians and Judaism?
5. What were the three major factions of early Christianity? What question were they trying to answer?
6. Discuss the differences between the teachings of Jesus and Paul including Jesus’ teaching of Original Blessing or it is all God and therefore all good and Paul and Augustine’s teaching of Original Sin.
What do you think?
© Unity of Vancouver, 2004 All Rights Reserved.