Ramblings of An Eternal Student of Life        

Has the time come for a new view of
Jesus to evolve from the Western world's
predominant spiritual system, i.e. Christianity?

In a nutshell, the practical answer is NO .... for now. But in the long run, as the 21st Century progresses, the way that some of us approach Jesus ... if not Christianity overall ... may be in for a change.

(Or, perhaps a return to a religious outlook held by our nation's Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Franklin and Madison. That outlook is called "Deism", which is a thought movement that still exists today and which has much common ground with my own "Jesusian" beliefs.)

Let's review about 2000 years of Christian history and see where we wind up.



JESUS of NAZARETH: Jesus was a Jewish carpenter from Galilee. He probably had no formal schooling, but possessed a quick mind and learned a lot on his own. He grew up in the "hinterlands" outside of Sephoris, but saw a bit of Jerusalem on holy days. As a man, he probably traveled a bit; as a wood worker, he likely spent time at the major construction projects in Jerusalem and Sephoris. He saw what life in the city was about. Saw what Greco-Roman culture had to offer. Saw the decadence, saw the cruelties, saw the intellectual brilliance. Jesus had a deep spiritual longing, and took Judaism very seriously. He developed a deep relationship with God. He was perplexed by the Jewish Problem of the First Century ... i.e., what to do about the invaders from Rome. Once more, the sacred soil of Israel, the land promised by Yahweh, was under the reign of foreigners (i.e., the Roman Empire). Just what were the people of Israel supposed to do about that? Or more relevant to Jesus, just what would God do about it? The Jews took comfort in their story of the Exodus, and thus found it easy to believe that God would intervene once more against these New Egyptians.

What Jesus did was to join an apocalyptic group led by John the Baptist. The Baptist cult responded to the foreign invasion crisis with the theory that it all was a sign of some big metaphysical transformation, the end of the evil world and the start of a new millennium right there in Israel. John's cult was conspicuous by its lack of violence. It was not a David-like call to arms against the Romans, as the Zealots were preparing for (and would perish under some 40 years later in the Great War -- and then again in another 50 years under Bar Kochba). It was a warning to get ready, because God was going to directly intervene. John and his cult were members of a larger movement in the Jewish world of 100 BC - 100 AD, a movement that firmly believed that God was going to directly intervene on the soils of Judah and Galilee. God was going to throw out the Romans and the Jewish sinners, and establish a permanent kingdom of righteousness. Not in hundreds or thousands of years, but in months or even days.

Jesus was a Jew. He was not a universalist, although his words and actions had a very universalistic quality. He criticized Judaism, but not directly. He did not call for disregard of the Mosaic Law or the Temple or the other layers of tradition. What he did was to criticize those who interpreted and enforced those laws, institutions and traditions in a way that ran counter to basic human notions like the Golden Rule. So Jesus was a reform-minded First Century Jewish apocalypticist. He addressed the Jewish Question of the day, i.e. what to do about those Gentile aliens from Rome and Greece who had invaded the Promised Land. The post-Apocalypse Israel that Jesus envisioned wouldn't need a Jewish King; it was to be a Kingdom of God. Instead of a complex and imperfect Law, it would depend on the greater Law, on basic common sense notions of decent behavior toward others and a close, personal relationship between every man or woman and Yahweh. This was still Judaism, however, with the bedrock of its Law and its traditions solidly in place.

APOCALYPSE NOW: There were quite a few little apocalyptic groups like John's led by ad hoc preachers and would-be prophets, roaming the Palestinian deserts in the early First Century. Obviously, Jesus decided to start his own such movement with his own followers. John's example showed him how to do it. But Jesus wasn't just another Baptiser. John's message was wrapped up in stern warnings and calls for immediate repentance, under the threat of eternal pain and suffering once God showed up and decided who could stay in The Kingdom and who would be cast out. While Jesus shared John's belief that there would be a day of judgment and that it was coming very soon, he also emphasized the benefits that such a big change would have for the poor and the underdogs (e.g., prostitutes, tax collectors, etc.). Jesus in effect tweeked the apocalyptic message with a social justice angle. {FOOTNOTE: But What About Sex In The New Kingdom?} He tried to get the underprivileged ready for the impending day of judgment by convincing them to be on their best behavior. For example, with regard to divorce, a man could no longer throw his wife out of the house anymore (and thus condemn her to poverty) just because she nagged him. Anything short of infidelity wouldn't cut it anymore (Matthew 19:8).

Jesus got the attention of the crowds with positive messages and healings, not unvarnished warnings of punishment. He went back into the villages and threw out demons, ate with the banished, enjoyed the presence of children (who, unlike today, were not highly regarded; as in most agrarian cultures, children were valued mainly as field hands in ancient Israel), showed concern for the underdogs, and made it clear that the new Kingdom would be all about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you in the course of daily life. To make the cut, though, you had to start living this way RIGHT NOW.

As to those who died but had lived this way, they would come back to life and come out of their graves; however, they would "be like the angels in heaven and would not marry" (Mark12:25). Interestingly, the concept of bodily resurrection originated with the Zoroastrians in Persia, and found its way into Judaism after the Exile, as evidenced in the prophetic writings -- most notably in Daniel (Daniel 12:2), where the "Son of Man" concept is also brought forth. The writings of the prophet Zoroaster, who many scholars date to between 1000 and 1200 BCE, provide a blueprint for Jesus' great plans and eschatological visions. Zoroaster called for an “end of time” to come in the future, when a human-like savior would mediate the purification of the world (possibly through rivers of molten metals running down from the mountains, heated by celestial fires). Those who were good would be raised from the dead, while the evil ones would be swept away by the fiery metallic flood. The Zoroastrian god (Ahura Mazda) would now be in control, after defeating his evil counter-god. After this great battle, humans (the good humans, anyway) would live according to the ways of god, without hunger, thirst or weapons. This is quite close to Jesus' envisioned Kingdom of God (minus the heavy metal).

I'd personally like to think that Jesus didn't really preach or believe that "the end is near". But the evidence is very strong that he did (as did John the Baptist and many other Jews in First Century Palestine). He also thought he was God's special agent for the whole thing, the "Son of Man" who was going to stand in the clouds on the fateful day (Mark 13:26, going back to Daniel 7:13-14). By modern standards, Jesus was a "nutcase", the kind of scruffy homeless person you might see in a public park screaming "the end is near, you must follow me to be saved". The kind of guy that you and I would stay away from. But Jesus honestly believed that the world of Judaism had gotten so messed up under Roman domination that God would step in and re-do the whole situation in some meta-physical way. (And why not in those pre-scientific days, when magic or divine intervention was just as good an explanation for rain and lightening and earthquakes as any other).

This was a common thought at the time, reflected in many apocalyptic Jewish writings of the "intertestamental" period. In chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel, which was written about 170 years before Jesus, God (the "Ancient of Days") sends a Son of Man to judge the wicked and establish God's righteous kingdom on earth. The pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch, written at about the same time, also speaks of the Son of Man coming in judgment and redemption. Another example is the Psalms of Solomon, which were written in response to the Roman invasion of Palestine and Jerusalem led by Pompey in 63 BCE. These psalms looked forward to a Son of David who would herald a new Godly kingdom where the poor and the oppressed would finally get their due. {FOOTNOTE: The Pharisees Wrote The Script For Jesus and His Followers} This sounds a lot like Jesus's message, doesn't it -- partly progressive, but partly "whacko" by 21st Century standards. Let's face it: Jesus was 100% wrong about God intervening directly to cleanse Israel from the scourge of Roman domination. If so, then why was he remembered? Mostly because of the "Resurrection Interpretation" of his followers -- more on that below. But why should he be remembered? Because of the methodology that he proposed to trigger God's righteous intervention -- i.e., faith and loving kindness. If Jesus were here today, he could honestly say "my formula has still not been tested". {FOOTNOTE: Jesus and Modern Judaism}
Back to top

THE APOSTOLIC ERA: Jesus and his cult were not all that extraordinary. There were other groups like his and John's at the time. Most didn't have too much of an impact on history. But Jesus did. Just why was he remembered so strongly? In my opinion, the thing that separated Jesus from the other Jewish revivalists of the time was the Resurrection Interpretation that Jesus's followers developed after his death. For what ever reason, Peter and his cohorts managed to convince the public that Jesus had survived an attempt by the alien Roman invaders to torture and execute him with their crucifixion methods. (The apostles' success indicates that they themselves sincerely believed that Jesus survived his day on the cross; more on this below). This was a powerful sign to Jews that Jesus's approach to the crisis of the aliens was the right one. It was also interpreted as a sign that the end-of-the-world ideas that Jesus espoused (and which the Pharisees were preaching for the past 100 years) were really going to happen, and happen soon.

The early "Jesus movement" was in the hands of Jesus's brother James, and Peter. Headquarters was in Jerusalem, as any good Jew would expect. The two of them seemed quite convinced that it all was a Jewish thing. Since Jews were by then scattered around the Mediterranean and not just confined to Palestine, there was a dire need for missions, which Peter seemed in charge of. But the heart of it all remained close to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Back to top

PAUL OF TARSUS: Institutional Christianity, as we know it today, had three founders -- Jesus, Paul and Constantine. Jesus and the belief that his followers had in his Resurrection caused the spark; but the man who acted as the near-by bundle of rags soaked in gasoline was Paul. (As to Constantine, we will get to him a bit later.) The historical process that converted the "Jesus movement" into the "Church of Christ" was largely driven by Paul, for better and for worse. Paul was much like Churchill's "enigma wrapped in a paradox". He claimed to be a loyal Jew, but his Christic experience set him free from strict fealty to the Mosaic Law. Recall that Jesus criticized the men enforcing the Levitical - Mosaic Law, but not the Law itself; Paul went quite far beyond Jesus in that regard. Paul persecuted the disciples for their insult to Judaism, then became one of their leaders. He believed in the imminent coming of God's Kingdom, an event that would sweep aside the rule of the Romans; and yet he saw no reason why the Jesus movement shouldn't interact with the Romans (in fact, he felt that its mission was to embrace the Roman world). Jesus dispatched his disciples throughout greater Israel, but Paul led his followers well beyond the holy lands, throughout the Roman Empire.

We need to remember that Paul and Jesus were very different men. Jesus was more of what we today might call a "hick" or a "hillbilly"; he was a small-town person. By comparision, Paul was a man of the world, a man injected into the Roman Empire's mainstream of commerce. It wasn't a big deal for Paul to travel to Antioch, Athens and Rome. He even envisioned getting as far as Spain. Jesus could never have imagined that; he was stuck in Galilee and Judah. Thus, Jesus had Israel in mind geographically when he preached and warned of the Kingdom of God; he didn't envision that the upcoming apocalyptic revolution would extend to Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Carthage and Gaul.

By contrast, Paul had a bigger theory and a bigger vision regarding the Coming of the Kingdom, one that encompassed the whole of the Roman Empire. Paul obviously saw the Jews as having a world mission, i.e. to ready everyone includling all the Gentiles for the impending judgment day. There is language in the Hebrew Scriptures to support that, e.g. Israel being the "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6) . Paul saw Jesus and his resurrection as the final warning, the sure sign that it was about to happen. (SIDENOTE: Paul and Jesus had somewhat different views on what the upcoming Apocalypse would entail. Jesus probably envisioned an "on the ground" Kingdom of God which he would look down upon from the clouds, with the righteous dead coming back to life to participate in it and the unrighteous living somehow swept out of it. Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, envisioned something more etherial, with both dead and living believers rising up into the clouds to meet Christ in the air, i.e. 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Arguably they would stay up in those clouds, consistent with the later notion of 'heaven up in the skies'.)

Given such a worldly (and yet mystical) expansion of the apocalyptic dream of Jesus, Paul felt that his outreach to the Gentiles was correct in not requiring them to have circumcision and otherwise fulfill the Levitical laws. Because of the apocalyptic presumptions underlying both Jesus and Paul, Paul could believe that his radical views were completely in keeping with Jesus' message and with the essential traditions of Judaism. Paul doesn't talk a lot about the upcoming apocalypse, yet he clearly enunciates his belief that the day of judgement is close. As such, there wasn't enough time to convert the Gentiles to full-fledged Jews. So, Paul wants to bring in Gentiles because they will be subject to the upcoming judgment day; they too are part of the mission of Judaism, even though there is not enough time for them to fulfill its ancient rituals.

Thus, Paul was a very expansive and innovative Jewish apocalyptic visionary, and not a global franchise developer as Robert Wright tries to paint him. When the years went by and the apocalypse didn't happen, the Jesus-Paul movement could no longer go home back to Judaism because of all the Gentiles they had taken on. As a JEWISH vision, it all depended on Jesus and Paul being right about the imminent coming of the Kingdom (whether the Israel-only coming, per Jesus, or the greater Roman Empire coming, per Paul). Given all the mythic furor at the time regarding Jesus having actually survived a Roman execution, it all seemed like a good bet to Paul and his Jewish followers. But by the second century, when Paul's successors realized that the end times were not at hand, it was too late to get right with the Torah. It was too late to tell all the Gentiles (who were fast outnumbering the Jews within the movement) that the men had to be circumcised and the women otherwise put on the path to full Levitical purity. The Jesus-Paul movement could no longer claim to be a Jewish project; thus was born "The Church of Christ".

And yet, Paul cannot be completely explained by his words, his thoughts and his circumstances. He was one of those fiery men of enormous energy who just had to change the world, one way or another. If doctrine, even his own doctrine, got in the way of a practical goal, it could easily be cast aside. Paul's pro-Roman pragmatism and de facto-Greek intellect, combined with his sweeping vision of Judaic destiny and his boundless self-confidence, put the Jesus movement on a trajectory that would play out over the following centuries as the Church separated itself from Israel and then conquered the Empire that had previously conquered the Jews. (Again, more on the conquering of the Empire when we get to Constantine.) Quite a turn of events, when you think about it. But that was what Paul was all about.
Back to top

AND THEN CAME WAR: You would have hoped that the core of the early Jesus movement, i.e. the faction based in Jerusalem led by Jesus's brother James, would have inspired a Gandi - like civil resistance movement amidst the Jews in the 40's, 50's and 60's. You would have thought that "passive activism" was what Jesus was hinting at in his references to the Romans. But, for better or worse, the Jesus movement continued to focus on end-of-the-world expectations, which remained popular in Palestine, while the Zealots continued to gain strength by promoting armed resistance. In the 50s, James was killed by agents from the Temple establishment. The Jerusalem base of the Jesus movement thus continued to weaken; ironically, Christianity was not catching on in Palestine, but was instead gaining ground in Diaspora communities in Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.

In 66 CE, the war between the Jews and the Romans finally came. By 70, Jerusalem was sacked, and up to a million Jews throughout the Empire had been killed. Judaism regrouped around an academy of rabbis in Jamnia, but no longer had room or patience for the many factions that it once included, including the Jesus movement. By 100, Christianity had pretty much divorced itself from its Jewish roots, and had relatively little presence in the land where it all began. By that time, the heart and soul of an evolving Christianity had migrated to Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage, and of course the "Big Apple" of antiquity: Rome.
Back to top

AND THEN CAME THE GENTILES: Actually, by the end of the First Roman-Jewish War, the Gentiles were already present in the movement. Paul had laid the groundwork in the 40s for Gentile communities in Asia Minor and Greece, and encouraged the Jewish-Christian community in Rome to open up to the Gentiles (by de-emphasizing Mosaic Law rituals and regulations, recall the incident in Letter to the Galatians where Paul criticizes Peter for not eating with Gentile followers when men from James' "headquarters" in Jerusalem were visiting). But by century's end, the Jewish-Christians had waned to but a small faction within the growing "Church of Christ". By that time, something quite different from what Jesus had in mind was gelling.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the Church scandalized Jesus by using his name for ideas and ideals that were totally opposite to his. Jesus obviously did say and teach many things that had universal application. And if you separate the concept of "Christ" from the historical Jesus, i.e. separate the spiritual "shock wave" that resulted from Jesus's life and death from the life of Jesus in itself, you can clearly argue that the Great Church was (and still is, in many ways) a CHRIST-ian church.

But just remember: the Church is Christian. Not Jesusian.
Back to top

THEN CAME A NEW RELIGION, TO DIE FOR: By 45 CE, the Jesus community in Antioch was known to outsiders as "men of Christ" or Christians. Before this, in most places they were called "Nazareans", after Jesus's home town. Obviously, the identity of the Jesus movement was beginning to shift from a Jewish faction (as "Nazarean" would imply) to a more Greek-influenced religion ("Christ" is derived from the Greek word for "anointed one"). The "bridge" between the early Jesus movement (which, as Jesus would have it, was tied to the Old Testament, the Holy Land, and the nation of Israel) and the evolution of 'the Christian way' (based on the New Testament, sited throughout the Roman Empire, no longer tied to Levitical laws), were the Hellenized Jews living outside of Israel/Palestine (in the "diaspora"). We know something about them through the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who lived during Jesus' time. Philo and other educated Jews were quite conversant with the Greco-Roman philosophical school of Stoicism. Stoicism provided many of the bedrock principles which distinguish Christianity from Judiasm. These Jews were natural targets for Paul and his disciples, who wanted to "spread the good news of Christ" throughout the Empire. In turn, however, they introducted ideas that converted the Jesus movement into something that appeled to the Gentiles, but could no longer be accepted by most Jews.

By 100, it was clear in most places that the Christian no longer had any obligation to Levitical Law or most other Hebrew tradition. Still, Christianity had not yet gained the institutional status of Judaism. The coming Apocalypse was still the main focus, and the primary mission of the Church was to prepare its followers for the impending day of judgment. As such, the early Church was still more of a cult than a social institution. Marriage, family life, education, work, and civic responsibility were not the main focus of Church leaders. However, these concerns were not completely ignored; a person still had to live honorably in preparation for the Parousia.
Back to top

AND THUS CAME THE MARTYRS: Local persecution of Christian communities began early, and by 65 CE, Nero was burning Christians in Rome. Over the next two centuries, Roman Emperors shifted back and forth from quiet toleration to outright persecution of the expanding Christian communities. The persecutors probably best understood the long-term implications of Christianity for the Empire as they knew it. Emperors understood that the stability and growth of the Empire depended upon the loyalty and material betterment of its many and varied subjects. The Christ-followers of the First & Second Centuries introduced an otherworldly expectation and stringent morality that was "not good for business". So, the Empire tried at various times to dishearten the growing Christian movement by requiring sacrifices to the Emperor (the sacrifice was often nothing more than going to a pagan temple and putting a bit of incense in a fire). Many Christians capitulated, but many others went to their deaths refusing.

What was the tremendous motivation that made so many people give up relatively comfortable lives to die in a fire or from the attack of a wild animal? On one hand, there was the continuing belief that these were end-times, and martyrdom would insure salvation on the rapidly approaching Judgment Day. On the other was a humanistic idealism that contrasted with the cynicism and cruelties which were often accepted in the Empire (e.g., extensive slavery, the killing of the sick and the weak, uncared-for children, and bloody entertainments). If you weren't well-off, life was very cheap in the Empire. (The Empire became an empire, though, by allowing many people to become well off). Early Christianity certainly had a cause to rally against, and causes generally do better when they are against something rather than when they are for something.
Back to top

BUT THE APOCALYPSE NEVER SHOWED: By the end of the Second Century, Christian preachers had toned down their Judgment Day rhetoric. More than a century had passed since Jesus's death. The Empire under the Antonine and Severan Emperors was experiencing a high point of wealth and stability. So, the apocalyptic card that the earliest disciples had played so well had played itself out. But as mentioned above, Christianity assumed a new mission, as arbiter of values and human dignity in a rich and intelligent but very cruel Empire.

By this point, it was clear that the Church was tied inextricably to the life of the Roman Empire. What had started as an intended reformation of Israel had been transmuted (thanks to Paul's mix of vision and pragmatism) into an attempted reformation of Gentile antiquity. The Church would succeed in many ways, but was not immune to infection by the more negative aspects of Greco-Roman values, as the Crusades and Inquisition would later show.
Back to top

AND THUS CAME AN INSTITUTION: Despite periodic persecutions, the Church in the 3rd Century was now in the real estate game, owning land and buildings used for worship, care of the sick, and residency for presbyters and bishops. It was developing a corporate structure and a hierarchy where the Bishop of Rome was first among equals (where else would a Romanophilic institution place its leader?). Since the Apocalypse was no longer seen as imminent, the Church focused more of its energies on regulating the everyday lives of its followers. It could no longer inspire upright behavior by the threat of imminent judgment. It now had to get involved with the messy details of domestic life in order to encourage the eventual salvation of its flock. Thus, it increasingly set rules and procedures and rituals for marriage, children's education, work ethics, care of the weak, and other aspects of secular life. It tapped its Jewish heritage and the Ten Commandments to promulgate laws of commerce and restrictions against anti-social behavior, and sat in judgment of the accused. It was building a structure that served very well once the Dark Ages began. Unfortunately, it wouldn't peacefully relinquish this institutional role once the Dark Ages finally ended.
Back to top

AND THUS WENT THE HERETICS: With a central nervous system in place, the Church could respond to challenges from within. Of course, calls for clarification and reform from the faithful are necessary to the life and development of any institution. But too much factional or personal motivation behind such a call for change can be harmful. Thus the Church developed an ear for heresy.

The earliest "heretics" were called the Gnostics. The Gnostics were quite other-worldly; they were sure that this world was a big cosmic accident. They combined various ideas that were floating around in Persia and Palestine at the time, and interpreted Jesus as a pure spirit that would rescue us from an evil "other God" who made our imperfect world. They were especially attracted to the Johnine communities, i.e. the communities who originated and used the Gospel of John. John's Gospel of course is a highly spiritual interpretation of Jesus. In fact, the 1st and 2nd Letters of John talk of community disintegration caused by Gnostic-like factions. So, the Church saw an early example of the harm caused by too much intellectual innovation combined with demagoguery.

Many people today feel sorry for the heretics, given the rough treatment they received from the Church. But heresy wasn't (and isn't) always the matter of a selfless, well-intentioned thinker seeking only to promote a greater truth. The Church's classic battles with Arianism, Docetism, Montanism, Nestorianism, Donatism, etc. were often political battles between factions seeking secular power. The ideas in question were often little more than the herald of an invading army.

Most of the early battles with heresy regarded the interpretation of Jesus's life. The basic tension was between Jesus as man and Christ as spirit. The Council of Nicaea's resolution, as spelled out in the Athenasian Creed, tries to strike a balance -- Jesus as true God and true man.

Heresy isn't dead, of course. What I'm doing here is heresy. Once in a very blue moon, today's heresy becomes tomorrow's truth. I'm hoping against hope that what I'm saying here will someday fall into that category. I'm not seeking fame for my ideas; as you see, I'm not even telling you who I am. I'm throwing my ideas out, to let them sink or swim on their own.
Back to top

AND THAT INSTITUTION MERGED WITH THE EMPIRE: Major persecutions continued into the Third Century under Valerian, Decian and Diocletian. But by 300, any thought of rooting Christianity out of the Empire was in vain. First, there were too many Christians by then. Second, they were distributed throughout the Empire, from Spain and Britain to North Africa to the Euphrates Rives. Third, by then Christians were well represented amidst the middle class, including tradeworkers, merchants, civil servants, and the military. To strike at them was to strike at the sinews of the Empire itself, as they were the type of people who made things run.

By this time, the Church owned a fair amount of property and was gaining social prominence. Interestingly, the early Church never fostered an anti-Empire political movement despite the persecutions. Christian bishops were quite willing to pray for the good of the Empire and the health of the Emperor, and generally did not proscribe service in the Legion or in government. They seemed to be waiting for the right emperor to come along, someone who would banish the errors of paganism and adopt Christianity as the faith of the Empire. Their man finally came along in 312, as a former emperor's son named Constantine began a process of reuniting the Empire through intrigue with various Eastern and Western emperors and sub-emperors. The crucial incident was the defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, where Constantine's army adopted the chi-rho (the XP of Christ's name in Greek) as their motif, following a dream where he saw the symbol and heard the words "by this sign, conquer".

Despite a final persecution by Julian after Constantine's death, the marriage between Empire and Church was finally consummated (in 380, Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire). Legion banners now displayed the cross, and pagan temples were sacked. The former persecutors became the persecuted. The arm of the government could now be used against heretics, and much blood would flow in the name of Christ. Another big change stemming from Constantine: the Church now got involved in real estate. Up to the time of Constantine, there were no "churches", i.e. no buildings with crosses on their roofs (although there may have been structures in smaller towns used primarily by local Christian groups -- given the ongoing persecutions, however, those buildings would certainly not be advertised as Christian centers of worship). Christian congregations met for worship in people's homes, for the most part. In 324, Constantine authorized contruction of the first substantial buildings designed for and dedicated to Christian assembly; and his followers later seized many of the pagan temples and conveyed them to the Christian priests and bishops. Thus, the pattern of worship and church life that we now know (complete with leaky roofs and failing heating systems) was born. Things had come a long way from the days of parables and healings along the lake in Capernaum.
Back to top

BUT THE EMPIRE FELL: A popular notion is that the Roman Empire fell because of its lack of "family values", i.e. because of the loose sexual morals that were generally accepted amidst the wealthy and educated classes. If that were true, then one would think that the Empire would have strengthened after Constantine. However, it was just the opposite that happened. Within 150 years, Rome would be sacked by the Visgoths, one of the many northern tribes that sought to migrate south and gain wealth by force. The Goths, Franks, Vandals and other tribes continually raided the urban centers, and the Empire's legions were not terribly effective as a defensive force (the Roman military was by this time largely made up of mercenaries hired from the tribes who were otherwise attacking it). The economic success of the Empire made it a target worth raiding, and by the same token degraded the willingness of its citizens to sacrifice their lives or even their tax money for it. The fall of Rome owed more to economic decadence than to sexual decadence. That lesson may well be relevant to America today.

A close mix of Christianity and imperial government was not the answer to Rome's woes (a lesson that was perhaps remembered by America's Founding Fathers in the First Amendment). In many ways, the Christian Empire was like the modern Soviet Union, having a bloated bureaucracy, a planned economy, a large and expensive military force, extensive control over citizen's lives, and non-stop infighting amidst government leaders. Christianity, like Communism some 15 centuries later, failed as a political ideology. Would Jesus have been surprised?
Back to top

AND YET THAT INSTITUTION SURVIVED: By the middle of the fifth century, the Western Empire had generally ceased to function. The once protected network of commercial waterways, ports, roads and inns were now subject to banditry and decay. Trade and wealth dropped severely. Over time, some of the invaders gained interest in preserving the heritage of Roman civilization, and some even allied themselves with mainstream Christianity, e.g. Clovis and the Franks. But continued infighting amidst the invaders prevented the restoration of stability and progress. Despite attempts over the next few centuries at a reunited Roman-Germanic empire, e.g. under Charlemagne, the cities of ancient Europe became poor and could no longer support the accouterments of civilization such as libraries, schools, theaters, monuments, courts of law, sewers and fresh water supplies. Food distribution and public hygiene suffered, setting the stage for plagues. Europe had entered the Dark Ages.

The Church, however, was able to survive. Its structure of regional bishops overseeing groups of local congregations proved to be flexible. As to the invading bands from the north, the Church saw the opportunity for mission and conversion. Once again, the Church would wait out and slowly co-opt an opponent (as it did with the Empire). As the Dark Ages became the Middle Ages, the secular power of the Church reached its zenith. Bishops were responsible for large tracts of land and acted as police, legislator, tax collector and court of law for many villages. In a time of feudalism, the Church was the one institution that retained access to books, art, education and technology. In order to protect its secular assets, the Church could and did resort to force; but in an age of little learning and much superstition, the threat of excommunication and eternal damnation in hell was by itself quite effective. There were many kings and feudal barons, but they generally respected the authority of the local bishop (or the lead bishop in Rome, later to be known as "the Pope"). They feared the bishop's ability to condemn them to the fires of hell after death. Which of course Jesus never did to anyone during his life.
Back to top

AND THEN CAME THE QUIET MEN (THE MONKS): In the centuries that followed the collapse of the Western Empire, the population of Europe declined as a result of war and plagues. Because trade and commerce had greatly contracted, there were fewer and fewer job opportunities in the cities, and common people had little choice but to move back into the hinterlands and seek a plot of arable land or forest where they could survive by growing crops and hunting or husbanding animals (or fishing, in coastal or lake regions). There were not many other opportunities for the common person, other than being a village tradesman. Given the general poverty of their surroundings, tradesmen hardly lived a better life than their countrymen. Some people found a better life for a while as a soldier or sheriff or through some other form of attachment to a local baron or king. But given the ongoing wars and rapidly shifting fortunes of most attempts at government in the Middle Ages, the fortunate person in the king's court or baron's manor could soon be growing turnips or milking cows in a run down village once more.

Despite the economic downturn, the Church continued to offer "career opportunities" during the Middle Ages. There was still need for parish priests and for bishop's assistants, given the landholdings and local power that many bishops held. But from the 6th to 11th Centuries, a growing number of laymen and women left the world of marriage, childrearing and hunting or farming, and gave their vows of chastity and obedience to a local monastery or convent. These people gave themselves over to a life of work, prayer and solitude within the confines of a small complex of land and buildings, under the strict guidance of an abbot or abbess. They vowed themselves to poverty, and generally could not own or accumulate personal property.

Today, such a life would be unthinkable for most people in America and Europe. But from about 550 to 1150 CE, the number of monks and monasteries in Europe grew from a small handful into the thousands. The monastic movement of the early Middle Ages is heralded by modern scholars for maintaining the Church's integrity and for preserving the heritage of Empire civilization. This served to jumpstart the resumption of art, science and philosophy once the Renaissance came in the 14th Century. It also allowed the Church to reclaim the sophisticated learning and theology of Empire-era Christian philosophers such as Origen and Augustine. But where did this monastic movement come from? Why was it so popular? Whose idea was it?

Certainly not Jesus's. Many scholars agree that John the Baptist was either attached to or influenced by the Jewish Essene community at Qumran, in the desert about 30 miles south of Jerusalem. The Essenes lived a separate and somewhat monk-like existence during Jesus's time. Some Essenes, though not all, abstained from sexuality and child rearing, and the Qumran community lived under the direction of a dictator-like leader, as Christian monasteries later did. Perhaps Jesus was mimicking John and the Essenes when he spent 40 days alone in the desert. But the notable thing about Jesus is that he eventually left John's desert community and his own temporary solitude to spend the balance of his life in an active, people-oriented ministry. Jesus's presence at wedding feasts would be unthinkable for most medieval monks or nuns. Someone else was responsible for bringing the idea of monasticism to the Church.

That someone is generally acclaimed to be St. Anthony of Egypt. In the early Fourth Century, as Christians inserted themselves further and further into the affairs of the Empire, some Christian men and women moved to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, to live alone on survival diets and devote themselves to prayer and contemplation. St. Anthony was one of these "desert fathers and mothers", although he maintained contact with Alexandrian Christians and occasionally came back to the city for short periods. Scholars are not sure whether Anthony and his like were protesting the growing materialism of Christianity or were fleeing the last of the great persecutions.

Regardless, when the persecutions were over, the desert hermits did not come back. Instead they were joined by more and more people. Some scholars believe that living a chaste life of contemplation in the wilderness was an accepted ideal amidst certain schools of Hellenistic philosophy, e.g. the Therapeutae. Given the growing Greek influence and declining Jewish influence in the early Church, it is not surprising that certain ideas which were unfamiliar to Jesus were gradually accepted by the Church. As the number of desert hermits increased, some of them formed communities of close-by huts, where they could be "alone together" and thus offer support in case of illness or other emergency. Another Egyptian, Pachomius, took this idea a step further, developing an isolated community that lived and prayed under one roof and worked a patch of land as a communal farm.

Pachomius' idea found its way to Europe just as the Western Empire was losing control of France, Spain, Britain and northern Africa. The Emperor could no longer keep the peace and defend the countryside from hostile gangs. Standards of living were declining, and life expectancies were shortening. The cities were no longer places to go for education and entertainment. But in a monastery, a group of 20 or 30 men could band together under military-like leadership. By working together, they could use their plots of land better than most small families could. Using the successful rules of organization written by St. Benedict of Nursia in the Sixth Century, monasteries became productive economic engines in a time of general poverty. By the 10th Century, a typical monastery had 200 or 300 men and worked thousands of acres of land. Within the monastery, certain monks became tradesmen or business specialists, and others had time to devote to education. Therefore, over time, more and more lay people moved to the boundaries of a monastery and formed villages at their gate (despite the original intent of monasticism to live far apart from civilization). Village dwellers found jobs and livelihoods performing services at monastery farms and shops, and sent their children to classes taught by educated monks (there were no other forms of schooling available). In sum, the monastery or nunnery offered a young man or woman in medieval times the chance at a bit of warmth, clean water, hygiene, sufficient food, education and access to medicine, all for the price of chastity. And given the corruptions that had set in as monastic wealth increased, sometimes that restriction was not well enforced.

How did the monasteries help to preserve the intellectual progress made during the Roman Empire? As monasteries became wealthy and no longer needed to devote full time to survival, monks gathered up old books from former Roman Empire libraries and re-copied them by hand. Their immediate motivation was spiritual; they wanted to preserve commentaries on the Bible and about the Church's early history as to guide the faithful. Otherwise, those writings left over from Empire days would eventually be used to kindle fires to keep villagers warm during the winter. While monks were claiming unused writings by Basil, Tertullian and Jerome from abandoned libraries, they also grabbed some of the older works from Plato, Homer, Aristotle, Herculius, etc. Since the early Christian apologists sometimes made reference to these "pagan" works, the monks decided to copy and preserve them too.

Thus, when the economy started to get better and people regained interest in physics, art, math, philosophy and history in the Fourteenth Century , the local monastery came in handy. Further, as newly-educated populations started asking the Church sophisticated questions, once again the monks had writings from a millennium past where many of the same questions were pondered. Perhaps unintentionally, the quiet men and women of the Church helped Western civilization to pick up where it left off, and thus saved a half-millennium or so of reinvention.
Back to top

BUT THEN WENT THE EAST: Although the Western Empire collapsed in the Fifth Century, the eastern portion of it held on for quite a while longer. In most of Greece, Asia Minor and some adjoining lands, life went on into the Sixth and Seventh Centuries without any great change. There was centralized government answering to an Emperor, long-distance trading, a powerful military, and viable cities. The leading city of this partial empire was Constantinople. We now call this the era of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantium started to contract after the Tenth Century due to the rise of Moslem forces, and finally fell to the Ottomans in the mid-Fifteenth Century.

Byzantium was a Christianized Empire that nominally owed its loyalty to the Pope in Rome. However, as things got worse in the West and travel became more difficult, the East became more and more independent. The bishop of Constantinople gained increased authority (citing canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon of 451). In earlier days, the Church would solve major issues by holding councils of bishops from throughout the original Roman Empire. By the Seventh Century, that was not practicable.

So, it was not surprising that the bishops in the Byzantine Empire started developing practices and interpretations of Church doctrine that were different from those accepted by the Pope in Rome. The Pope was now dealing with a very different political and social climate than the Bishop of Constantinople was. This trend reached a crisis point in the mid-Eleventh Century, over the wording of doctrine relative to the Holy Spirit. This was the "Filioque" controversy, involving the wording of the Apostles Creed regarding the Holy Spirit's relationship to the Father and the Son within the Holy Trinity. The actual words in question were very subtle and did not seem controversial; the severe reaction of the Eastern bishops was really the tip of an iceberg. By the end of the century, it was clear that the Eastern Church and Western Church were no longer one. Today we know the Eastern Church as the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The bottom line here is that the Christian Church was and very much still is an earthly institution, one that follows the changing tides of political, social and economic forces. The Eastern Schism was a reflection of what happened to the Roman Empire. Later schisms and controversies also centered on immediate political concerns. The bottom line is that religion does not necessarily give a better answer to the question of what Jesus means to a person's life than what the individual him or herself can come up with. I am not saying that religion is useless; Jesus did not advocate doing away with Judaism or the Temple or the Law. Church institutions serve necessary social functions, as they did in Jesus's time. But Jesus did say that the individual ultimately has to go where religion cannot follow: into the Kingdom of God.
Back to top

Next Page

. . . if you'd like to talk about this: eternalstudent404 AT gmail DOT com