Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus (Part Four)

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…there was never a single “Christianity.”

Early Roman critics were well aware of the internecine skirmishing between the Jewish majority and the Jewish followers of Christ and early Christian documents reflect that fact. When the Jews accused Paul of fomenting a form of worship “against the law,” the proconsul Gallio refused to involve himself in the controversy, “a dispute about semantics and names,” and dismissed the case with an abrupt, “See to it yourselves.”(1) “Gallio treated the problem as an internal affair of the Jews (which it was then)…”(2)

In a stinging characterization, Celsus dismissed the quarrels between Christians and Jews as a proverbial “fight about the shadow of an ass.”(3) Celsus correctly noted that as Christians increased in number “they are divided and form factions (scizontai) and each wants his own sect” and concluded, “they still have one thing in common, so to speak, if indeed they have that in common—the name [Christian].”(4) Celsus employs the verb scizw (schizō), from whence our schism as in the Great Schism of 1054, the separation of Eastern and Western orthodox churches over the ‘procession of the Holy Spirit.’ The schism of 1054 reached its culmination when the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other—Pope and Patriarch eventually patched up their differences in 1965. A second ‘Great Schism,’ resulting from an argument about papal succession, resulted in two competing popes ruling in the West from 1378 to 1417, one from Rome and the other from Avignon.

By the 4th century, Epiphanius, the bishop of Salamis, “was able to list no less than eighty heresies extending back over history (he was assured his total was correct when he discovered exactly the same number of concubines in the Song of Songs!), and Augustine in his old age came up with eighty-three.”(5) In the centuries that followed, Jesus’ followers would split into warring factions over every issue from slavery to gay rights—the largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, split from their northern brethren in 1845 when the northern Baptists refused to appoint slave owners as missionaries.

      The many-headed hydra of Gnosticism.

By the time Celsus wrote The True Doctrine (approximately 175 C.E.) Chris-tianity still retained a fading Jewish contingent, the Ebionites, but the Jew versus Gentile controversy had taken on a new and ominous twist. Some Christian sects, “broadly and problematically characterized”(6) by recent scholars as Gnostics, had utterly rejected Judaism and Jewish scripture. That ‘gnosticism’ was a grab bag of diversity, currently labeled hybridity—“mixing, combining, and grafting of disparate cultural elements”(7) was recognized by Hans Jonas over half a century ago: “…the salient feature [of Gnosticism] seems to be the absence of a unifying character.”(8) The fundamental incoherence of the gnostic movement epitomized the interpretive chaos of primitive Christianity. Following the false lead of ancient Christian apologists, his-torians of religion once considered Gnosticism as a heretical offshoot of orthodoxy, but as Brakke points out in a recent work, Gnosticism “as traditionally conceived, does not serve a useful purpose and does not accurately identify an actual ancient religion…‘Gnosticism’ is an outstanding example of a scholarly category that, thanks to the confusion about what it is supposed to do, has lost its utility and must be either abandoned or reformed.”(9)

Celsus, “a remarkably well-informed opponent”(10) of Christianity, learned many details of the beliefs of various Christian factions: their members formed “secret companies with each other”(11) that violated legal norms, some sects rejected the Jewish God and the Jewish scriptures,(12) and offered widely differing interpretations of the gospels—Origen conceded the existence of Marcion, Valentinus, Lucian, the Ophites, Cainites, Simonians, Marcellians, Harpocratians, Sibyllists, Ebionites and Encratites(13) —some even rejecting “the doctrine of the resurrection according to scripture” (to peri anastasewj kata taj grafaj dogma)(14) and worshipping “a god above heaven who transcends the heaven of the Jews,” (ton uperouranion qeon uperanabainontaj tou Ioudaiwn ouranon)(15) —the facts adduced by Celsus forced Origen to admit “there are some among us who do not say that God is the same as the God of the Jews.”(16) The “god above heaven” had magical significance; Kotansky has published a spell that begins, “I invoke you, the One above heaven…” (ton epanw tou ouranou).(17) Accusations of sorcery and Satanism would become standard charges directed by Christians against their opponents, Jews as well as fellow Christians, a practice that goes back to the New Testament—“for some have already turned aside to follow Satan.”(18)

“Celsus obviously knew Christianity at first hand, and as a skilled polemicist his portrait of the Christian movement is detailed and complete.”(19) “Because in the eyes of pagans Christianity had become not one thing but a many-headed monster with rival claims, Origen must constantly bear in mind that the heretics also have their interpretations of scripture…Origen needed to keep adjusting his position while standing on shifting sands.”(20)

Although some gnosticizing sects rejected the Hebrew bible, Pearson is almost certainly correct when he states, “it becomes abundantly clear that the essential building blocks of Gnostic mythology are reinterpretations of Jewish scriptures, Jewish scriptural interpretation and Jewish traditions.”(21) Another expert has suggested that “[Gnosticism] begins roughly in a movement in the fringes of Judaism mainly among a disenfranchised priestly component.”(22) During a period when Judeo-Christian sects were multiplying like rabbits, in a rather bizarre twist some factions co-opted the quintessentially Jewish Jesus who criticized the Pharisees for not observing the Mosaic Law closely enough(23) while writing both the Jewish law and the Jewish God out of their version of Christianity. However, as we have seen, these gnostic sects would not be the last to try to isolate Jesus from his Jewish past, a project repeatedly carried to extremes by various Christians and Christian groups.