I have been enjoying Tim Stepping Out’s posts on his theories regarding early Christian history. This lead me to the book “When Jesus Became God” by Richard E. Rubenstein. This book covers the tumultuous fourth century CE when Christianity made the transition from a back water religion, affecting just a few Roman citizens (including women and slaves, oh my!) to the state sanctioned religion which slowly morphed into the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church.
You remember the Romans, no? The people who so oppressed the Jews that they prayed to be delivered from them by a messiah, a warrior king who would overthrow the oppressing Romans and establish a kingdom that would be heaven on Earth? Yeah, those Romans. Christianity became Roman!
I am not finished with the book and I do recommend it to you if you find this topic interesting, but boy, oh boy, oh boy. Once the Roman emperor, Constantine, endorses Christianity, the rats came out of the woodwork. Every “bishop” (who was in effect just the head priest in any area big enough that the head priest would take on the title), every last one of them became an imperial politician. And the Ten Commandments? Apparently they no longer applied, especially when it came to bearing false witness.
To see what was really going on, you have to take into account what the Roman Emperor Constantine and his heirs wanted from Christianity; they wanted a force for cohesion in the empire, a religion that would help people stick together, and to be subservient to the demands of the emperor and his administration. To have Christianity play this role, though, there had to be cohesion within the ranks of the bishops and, well, getting there was to prove harder than Constantine thought.
Constantine started by gathering a large conclave of bishops together at one of his pleasure estates, housing and feeding them lavishly. The purpose of the conclave was to bring together dissenting theologians and bind them together on their common ground. This was largely to deal with what later became the Arian Heresy. Arias and his followers believed that Jesus was indeed God’s son, as scripture said, and that he wasn’t God Himself. Others thought differently, saying that Jesus was God. Even though Arias’ position is supported by scripture and is rational, it didn’t agree with the ideas of many of the others. Arias lost this debate, not based upon a contest of ideas. If that had been waged, Arias would have won and in fact Arias’ ideas did win out in the Eastern part of the Roman empire (making the Eastern Orthodox Church). Arias’ problem was that he was a mere priest and how could exalted Bishops follow his lead (Sniff, sniff!) and he quit the field early by, well, dying.
The other prelates spent enormous amounts of time and energy battling each other and this included forming bands of armed thugs to beat opponent’s parishioners, kidnapping important opposing players, murdering people, and lots and lots of bearing false witness.
Apparently Constantine offloaded all of the childrearing onto his spouses because he allowed endless end runs on processes he himself set up.
Constantine started the conclaves and called quite a number of them . He even attended the first in person and made a few “suggestions” that the bishops present fell all over themselves agreeing to, at least until the meeting was over. These conclaves were expressly to create structures and administration to make Christianity more orderly and supportive of the empire. If the Romans were good at anything, it was administration. But the Christians were not organized at all. Each Christian center was its own little fiefdom with its own standards, its own processes, its own rituals, and its own scripture. There was no administration that wasn’t local and this is what Constantine wanted to change. He thought a little attention and a little doled out authority and some basic administrative structure (he suggested having a pope!) would be all it took and, boy, was he wrong.
Every time a conclave condemned somebody or some theology, whoever’s ox was gored, sped off to Rome and got Constantine’s ear and got those decisions set aside. Heretics were recalled to the loving bosom of the church, murderers were absolved, and so forth.
And how was all of this managed? Well, in an era in which it took months for a letter to be delivered, it was normally done face-to-face and usually by massively bearing false witness.
Consider Athanasius, who was at one point Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, a major Christian community. He was aggressive, amoral, and ambitious and anti-Arian. At one point he was exiled for murder but eventually freed when Constantine died (banishments are like presidential executive orders, they only last the length of the presidency). But while he was away, the Arians took over in his absence, so he fomented up a great deal of violence and disorder and then hied off to Rome and circulated a letter blaming his opponents for the riots and mayhem. His letter described the violence against his supporters as unilateral, unmerited and dreadful beyond endurance. He charged his opponents for inciting pagans, Jews, and other disreputables to attack his faithful, set churches on fire, strip and rape holy virgins, murder monks, desecrate holy places, and plunder church treasures. Jews were claimed to be cavorting naked in the church’s baptismal waters. This was bearing false witness to new levels because Athanasius hadn’t been back to Alexandria to observe anything. These descriptions were quite easy for Athanasius to come up with because he had caused, at one time or another, all of these things to happen. (Well, maybe not the Jews bathing in the baptismal founts.)
The reason I mention all of this is most Christians have this Disneyfied version of Church history in which all Christians are displayed as being persecuted and suffering gladly for their religion and that the ideas of scripture were so powerful, that people were converted in droves when they heard those holy words.
Well, that is all stuff and nonsense. The fact that there were so many heresies is an indication that there were many, many disagreements as to how to interpret scripture (and as to what scripture was). The eventual winners of these religion wars wouldn’t bother claiming something to be heretical if it were not popular in the first place. So many “heresies” means many reasonable differences of opinion. But wasn’t there a war of ideas, with the true, Yahweh-inspired meanings triumphant? Uh, not even close. These disputes were bare-knuckled power contests that were won by the meanest, and most ruthless, masterful politicians involved. The ideas had almost nothing to do with the outcome. And the disputes involved lying, cheating, stealing, mayhem, murder, and much, much more in mass quantities.
The more Christian history one reads, the more one comes to the realization that what we have now, however it began, is the result of humans squabbling over power and authority and almost nothing to do with the truth, whatever that may be.
Addendum Most people have heard of the deathbed converstion of Constantine to Christianity and some even have speculated it was done when Constantine had not the strength to resist. The author, on the other hand, offers the opinion that Constantine himself held off of his baptism into the church because as Emperor he knew that he would have to “sin” as part of the job. So, the opt-into Heaven card being played on one’s deathbed, if this story is to be believed, by getting baptised and absolved of all sins while knocking on Heaven’s door got a very early start.