If we could go back nineteen hundred years, to the year 122 CE, we would find no Christians at all—no one whom we would today call a ‘Christian.’ Yet Jesus followers were around, lots of them. But not one of them believed in Jesus of Nazareth—for that figure had not yet been invented. The first century religion of Jesus was much different from the religion that we would recognize today.
The many Jesus followers who existed before the mid-second century CE were what we would call ‘gnostics’ and ‘heretics.’ They believed in a savior (in semitic savior is ‘Jesus,’ yeshua), but their savior was an invisible and completely ineffable entity—a clarity of vision that rests on an understanding of life, of one’s purpose in life, and of the world. That clarity of vision, that certainty of the goal attained, grants peace, an end to struggling, joy and perfect repose.
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” (Jn 4:13–14)
In later Greek parlance the ‘ineffable understanding’ was called gnosis, and those who believed such understanding exists and is even within the reach of man were called gnostics. In the conventional vocabulary of the turn of the era, this ineffable gnosis was the ‘Spirit of God.’ The spirit was divine, and thus the gnostic was transformed.
This locates the early, pre-Catholic religion in the category of Levantine ‘mystery religions.’ A mystery religion is/was a religion of secret, inner transformation from the human state into the divine state. Mystery religions were not exceptional in late antiquity—they were the norm. Mithraism, the Oracle at Delphi, the cult of Dionysus, Orphism, etc., contained elements such as the spiritual descent (into the underworld), ascent (to the divine), trance, struggle (Gk. krisis), and rebirth. The goal was insight. Hence oracles, wisdom, and secret knowledge are at the core of mystery religions. Once attained, that insight cannot be forgotten. It is permanent and stands forever, like a rock.
The early, pre-Catholic Jesus movement fit right in—it also involved an ascent to the divine, and it was also a religion of saving wisdom, with initiates, transformation, and rebirth. Taking a step back, I view Christianity as the meeting of Buddhist ‘enlightenment’ and Mediterranean ‘mystery.’ For me, that is a good way to understand the pre-Catholic religion of (the spiritual) Jesus.
This began to change, however, towards the middle of the second century CE. Something new came into the mix, something powerful enough to eventually derail early Jesuine gnosis and to close the lid on all mystery religions for good. That ‘something’ was the invention of Jesus of Nazareth.
The literary birth of a religion
The birth of Christianity is literary.
Let me repeat that: The birth of Christianity is literary. The Christian religion, as known for almost two millennia, is belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God and Savior of the world. But ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is a literary figure birthed in someone’s imagination in the second century—and then set to paper.
With the background of transformation already current in the mystery religions, as noted above, it was only a small step for someone, somewhere, to conceive that a ‘Jesus’-imbued man would become divine here on earth, would strut about dispensing inscrutable wisdom to all, and would perform miracles of breathtaking majesty. In fact, looking through the apocryphal Christian literature, it appears there were many people who arrogated to themselves special powers, inscrutable wisdom, and privileged status. The ancient world was full of magicians and charlatans.
So, it is hardly unreasonable to imagine someone in the first half of II CE proposing (to himself or to someone else) that the creator God took the form of a man, worked all sorts of miracles on earth, was full of superhuman wisdom (so profound that it often was not understood), and instead of dying returned to the Godhead. The exercise may appear perfectly pointless and somewhat bizarre, except for one additional, crucial element: the doctrine that belief in that god-made-man (or man-made-god) is the only way to heaven!
Right there, someone realized, is a mechanism to subdue others. If people can be made to believe that their salvation depends on following this doctrine, then all that is required to conquer is to become the exclusive representative of this saving doctrine. If as if somebody, in a desert, owned the only well. “If you want to drink,” he could say, “then you will have to come to me!”
Who that religious ‘somebody’ was in the second century I do not know. A leading candidate is Polycarp of Smyrna (d. ca. 165 CE?). He, and contemporaries such as Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130–ca. 200 CE), quickly understood the power of the written word. After all, if Jesus of Nazareth is a literary figure, then his story must be widely disseminated in order to convert others. That story is enshrined in the canonical gospels. It was buttressed by a host of further literary creations from the ‘Church Fathers,’ namely: the epistles of Paul, Polycarp, Clement, John, Titus, Peter, Ignatius…
It should not be supposed that these epistles were actually ordinary letters, such as I might send to you in order to communicate between the two of us. Propaganda is useless if it is hidden. The epistles of the New Testament and in Patristic literature were designed from the start to be public, not private. Thus, the letters are generally addressed to congregations: to the Philippians, to the Corinthians, to the Thessalonians—even to the entire race of the “Hebrews”!
After all, if you have something to sell—by all means, get the word out!
The state of play in the mid-second century
I have described a scenario in which the birth of Catholicism is from a single point outwards. The ‘single point’ was the invention of the literary figure ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ But literature needs readers. Who, then, were the intended first readers of the newly-minted gospels conveying the wondrous story of the Galilean Son of God? Where, in other words, was a fertile field of converts to be found?
The answer is clear: the converts had to come from already established church members. Unlike hard-nosed pagans, at least gnostic Jesus followers were already ‘in the club,’ as it were. Admittedly, they followed a different Jesus—a mystical and spiritual Jesus. So, the challenge for the first Church Fathers was to change their concept of Jesus. As it turned out, that task was not so simple—but, after about two hundred years, it eventually succeeded.
It is also certain that the gnostic Jesus followers were, in a worldly sense, naive. Consider: these were sincere, self-sacrificing individuals who were ready to give up everything, including home, family, money… in order to achieve their personal gnostic salvation. And naive, trusting people are easily duped.
We can imagine the scene, say, in the gnostic Jesus congregation of Philippi, ca. 150 CE. The Reader or First Servant stands before the congregation and says solemnly:
“My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus: there is great news! Even as some of us suspected, the full power of God entered into a man about one hundred years ago. I have his story here, and it has just arrived. Let us say a communal prayer of blessing, and then I will read to you The Good News According to Markus.”
Stunned, wide-eyed silence. The communal prayer was intoned. And then the First Servant proceeded to read The Gospel of Mark.