The second century: from the spiritual Jesus to the canonization of the New Testament

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 4

Orthodoxy developed gradually

While it is easy to show that many pre-200 CE Christian works (Shepherd of Hermas, Ad Autolycum, Didache, etc.) make no mention of the virgin birth, walking on water, etc., Christian literature reveals a clear increase in the ‘superman’ traits that will eventually coalesce into Jesus of Nazareth. The Savior (‘Jesus’) of the World—an entirely spiritual entity in the first century CE—slowly takes on flesh as the second century progresses—the flesh of an increasingly exalted being. The canonical gospels appearing towards mid-century were not anomalies. They did not suddenly emerge out of nowhere but belong to a stream of orthodox anti-gnostic literature that was gathering impetus for some time. The exalted canonical Jesus does not exist in isolation but rests on an organic, growing, and evolving story (and theology) of Jesus that took generations—if not centuries—to develop.

An example of an early Christian text that is midway between the spiritual Jesus and Jesus of Nazareth (what I have termed Stage II and Stage III Christianities) is the Epistle of Barnabas. It is dated by scholars c. 100 CE—too early, according to the theories developed here—to have mentioned Jesus of Nazareth or John the Baptist, who were creations of the canonical evangelists at mid-century. But the epistle indeed knows a generic Jesus in the flesh: “For if He had not come in the flesh, how could men have been saved by beholding Him?” (EpBar 4:10-15; cf. 5:6,9; 11:12). Here Jesus is no mobile divine spirit that grants salvation (through gnosis). He is now a unique individual who grants salvation (through belief).

The Epistle of Barnabas calls Jesus “Christ the son of David” (EpBar 11:13). Of course, the messiah son of David was well known from Jewish scripture (Ps 110:1 etc)—he was the conquering messiah who would one day liberate the Jews. There was also another messiah, however, the slain messiah son of Ephraim. The canonical Jesus seems to be a merging of the two messiahs.

Here the reader will have to (at least temporarily) indulge my theories regarding Yeshu ha-Notsri. For me, only the knowledge of that earlier prophet makes subsequent Christian developments understandable and possible. I consider it no coincidence that the canonical Jesus died on the cross (so did Yeshu, c. 67 BCE), that he was a Jewish prophet who spent time in Egypt, that he had an adversarial relationship with the Pharisees, and so on. These core elements of the fictional New Testament Jesus story are in fact historical elements of the Yeshu ha-Notsri story.

The Epistle of Barnabas does not yet know Jesus of Nazareth or his dramatic ministry as embellished later in the 4G. But it knows a prophet Jesus ‘son of David,’ i.e., a prophet who is of royal lineage. To me, this is very interesting, for (astoundingly) Yeshu ha-Notsri was himself a member of the royal family of Israel.

My interpretation of this epistle, then, is twofold: it harks back to a real prophet of history, and it has already begun the separation from the prevailing ‘spiritual Jesus’ theology of the first century. For the author of EpBar (as for other contemporary Christian writers) ‘Jesus’ is becoming more and more exclusive. By the time we come to mid-II CE and the appearance of the canonical gospels, ‘Jesus’ is part of the Godhead indwelling a unique individual. He is finally the Only-begotten Son of God.

And that Jesus conquered all else. The old notion of a mobile spiritual Jesus who indwells any worthy person is henceforth in the rear-view mirror and quickly disappears. While that spiritual Jesus is still around for another half century or so, after about 200 CE the writing is on the wall: the canonical Jesus of Nazareth has won out, and all other views of Jesus are henceforth heresy.

The appearance of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ in mid-II CE

The evidence I gave in the last few posts relates mostly to the content of ancient Christian literature: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and the canonical storyline do not appear before the 140s CE, with the appearance of the canonical gospels. Here I would like to point out that internal evidence from those texts also supports a mid-II CE dating. It has long been noted that Pharisees were not in the Galilee before the Bar Cochba Revolt in the 130s CE. Until the First Jewish Revolt, the center of Pharisaic power was Jerusalem, but after the destruction of the city in 70 CE, Pharisaic power removed to Jamnia, on the coast. As I wrote in The Myth of Nazareth, “Jamnia maintained a preeminent position [among the Pharisees] in the years between the two Jewish revolts, after which Sepphoris (Diocaesarea) and Tiberias in the Galilee assumed dominance” (p. 266, with references).

It is also granted by all except conservative scholars that synagogues were not yet in the Galilee at the turn of the era. The indefatigable Israeli archaeologist Mordechai Aviam has latterly claimed to have found remains of as many as ten synagogues in the Galilee dating to the late first century CE. That is still about a century too late to support the Jesus story as reported in the gospels (cf. Lk 4). In short, the worldview of the evangelists is an anachronism.

After the appearance of the canonical gospels in mid-II CE, I proposed in the previous post that a ‘watch and wait’ period took place for about a half century, a period during which the Christian world slowly digested this thoroughly new paradigm of ‘God made flesh.’ In that period, however, the Church struggled with the new information. A forgotten aspect of that struggle was the abortive attempts to reconcile the four gospels into one account. Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165 CE) seems to have been the first to attempt such a ‘harmony.’ Justin knows the synoptic gospels but, evidently, not the Gospel of John. Justin’s student, Tatian, followed this up and completed a thoroughgoing harmony known as the Diatessaron, c. 160–175 CE. These attempts were rejected by the Church, however, and Tatian (an encratite) was eventually denominated a heretic.

The canonization of scripture

The Muratorian Canon, written about 200 CE [Schneemelcher/NTA 1992:I.34], gives us the first known listing of ‘admissible’ Christian scriptures, as handed down from ‘Church Central’ in Rome, as it were. A major fragment of that document has survived. The Canon admits the following writings:

– the four canonical gospels [Luke and John are mentioned; Mark and Matthew implied]
– the Acts of the Apostles
– 13 epistles of Paul [excludes Hebrews]
– two letters of John and the letter of Jude
– the Revelation of John, Apocalypse of Peter, and Wisdom of Solomon

On the other hand, the Muratorian Canon writes: “But we accept nothing whatever from Arsinous or Valentinus and Miltiades, who have also composed a new psalm book for Marcion, together with Basilides of Asia Minor, the founder of the Cataphrygians” (ll. 81 f).

The Canon shows us that, already ca. 200 CE, the ‘Catholic [literally: Universal] Church’ was sufficiently organized and centralized that it could dictate to its far-flung branches throughout the Roman Empire. This is not mere hyperbole, for we read in the Canon itself (l. 56): “It is clearly recognizable that over the whole earth one Church is spread.”

For other Christian groups, the game was up. They could not compete with the superior organization of the Catholic Church, which was ‘top-down,’ essentially urban, and severely hierarchical—with bishops, presbyters, and deacons. The Church was (quite intentionally) organized almost like an army—an astute strategy that it had cultivated over many generations.

Gnostics, Jewish Christians, and other heterodox Christian groups (the first Christians) didn’t stand a chance. Gnosticism is individualistic, not corporate. Gnosis is strictly personal. Thus, gnostic ‘groups’—insofar as they existed— were generally ad-hoc, ‘bottom-up’ societies scattered here and there. They were mostly in rural areas, commensurate with a basic theme of gnosticism—namely, flight from the world, as once stated quite eloquently by Jesus (Yeshu): “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Mt 6:19). More pithily, we read at GTh 42: “Become passers-by.”

This played right into the hands of the Church, which—as the Muratorian Canon itself admits—was primarily interested in “the glory of the Catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline” (l. 61). And, indeed, about a century after the Canon was written the inevitable finally took place: Emperor Constantine declared for Christianity and the Roman Empire effectively became both Christian and Catholic.

It is no coincidence that the Pauline epistles are addressed to cities. Those epistles can be viewed as second-century directives from a single center outwards. The Pauline epistles betray an emerging center of Church control (Rome—not coincidentally, also the seat of imperial power). In fact, the second-century ‘Paul’ can be considered a cipher for ‘the Church.’ His authority is so great that, by it’s own admission, the Muratorian Canon admitted forging epistles in his name as propaganda against the Marcionites (namely, the epistles to the Laodiceans and to the Alexandrians, ll. 63 f). But, then, all the Pauline epistles were ‘forged,’ as H. Detering remarked: “all the Pauline epistles are pseudepigraphic writings from the first half of the second century” (The Falsified Paul, 2003:174. Detering also equated Paul with Simon Magus and noted some curious overlappings between Simon and Jesus—ibid. pp. 154, 165, 177).

After the appearance of the Muratorian Canon, the familiar account from manger to resurrection is championed by the Church, and profusely mirrored in subsequent Christian literature. One early example is the Didascalia Apostolorum (“Teaching of the Apostles”). This little known work dates ca. 230 CE. It is part of a later collection entitled the Apostolic Constitutions. The Didascalia knows the canonical gospels, for it cites them by name (generally Matthew, the other evangelists less often, John least of all). It also knows the Acts of the Apostles and nearly all the Epistles (though the Apocalypse is not cited).

Soon, the Church Fathers take up the pen and begin writing profusely about Jesus of Nazareth, commenting upon the gospels, and interpreting the new Jesus for the Church and for the masses. Origen, writing in the first half of III CE, knows Jesus of Nazareth and the 4G and himself plays an important role in codifying the new Christian canon.

By the beginning of the third century orthodox Christianity had decisively triumphed over gnosticism.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


The second century: from the spiritual Jesus to the canonization of the New Testament — 2 Comments

  1. Great thinking about the spiritual Jesus as original.
    Do you support the scholarly dating of EpBar around 100CE? Are there any strong reasons underlying a dating this early?

    • Dating EpBar is still wide open. As Robt. Price notes (Pre-Nicene NT:1107) “some have placed it about 70 CE, others 96–98 CE.” Price himself opts for a slightly later dating. He discerns an allusion to Hadrian’s building of a temple to Jupiter in Jerusalem (EpBar 16:4-5) which occurred in 130–31 CE. He may have a point. My point is that EpBar precedes the appearance of the canonical gospels. If both Price and myself are correct, then the text of EpBar dates around 130 CE, for the author states “This [i.e. the building of the Jupiter temple] is happening right now.”

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