The First Church
Christianity emerged at a time when people were seeking a new and more fulfilling religion than that which we now regard as classical mythology. That had become debased as perverted Roman emperors assumed divinity and perhaps was seen to lack the appealing philosophical aspects of some more mysterious eastern religions. Various contenders were competing on the stage for the public's attention, including Mithraism from Persia and the Isis/Osiris mystery cults from Egypt. The religions of this day are all strangely parallel to each other.
The Jews were divided, both politically and religiously, something which Jesus played on, causing them to argue among themselves. The Sadducees were essentially the priestly group, they served in the temple and even sacrificed to Caesar to appease him and retain their status quo. The Pharisees normally worshiped in synagogues rather than the temple and were more interested in upholding the Law of Moses. With the destruction of the temple the in 70 CE the Sadducees faded out of existence but the Pharisees evolved into the synagogue movement, upholding the law, Jewish family life and observance.
A detail of one of the Dead Scrolls
A third group existed and is well documented by Josephus: the Essenes. Some have claimed that the Essenes wrote the 'Dead Sea Scrolls', however their authorship is disputed. There is no mention in the new testament of the Essenes. Much investigation into the 'Dead Sea Scrolls' had been carried out linking the early church and there are theories that characters mentioned refer to Jesus, Paul and James. I personally feel there is not enough evidence to support these connections and do not wish to comment further on them, however I will mention linking of the groups a little later.
What is apparent however is the earlier scrolls were written before Christianity and the latter ones during the life of the early Church. They therefore give a fascinating insight into Jewish philosophy at that time.
Perhaps the earliest independent reference to Christianity is in 'the twelve Caesars', by Seutonius. He mentions the Jews during the reign of Claudius being expelled as they caused constant disturbances because of 'Chrestus' (surely Christ). Many assume this was due to the Jews having internal disagreements over Jesus. It also indicates that Christianity at that time may have been, or was at least seen as, purely a Jewish sect in Rome.
Later he mentions Nero persecuting the Christians and seems to have had a negative view of them, describing them as new and mischievous religion.
Contemporary independent references to Jesus are unfortunately non-existent. Josephus wrote 'Antiquities of the Jews' some time after the destruction of the temple and the expulsion of the Jews in 70 CE. A reference to Jesus in this work cannot reasonably be accepted as genuine, having being written in such a different style that it is apparent even in translation and runs against the general tone of Josephus' other writings. It was first quoted by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, friend and advisor of Constantine
Why is this the case, did Jesus make less impact on his day than we generally imagine, or were independent references destroyed along with what the church saw as heretical gospels ? We can be certain that Constantine purged gospels that were considered heretical and the people that accepted they were eradicated too.
The New Testament cannon is considered in a separate portion of this site, however here it is referred to a part of the evolution of the first church.
On the death of Jesus, the Church passed to James the brother of Jesus, Galatians 1:19 (I saw none of the apostles - only James the Lord's brother.) who ruled in Jerusalem until his death around 66 CE, the time of the commencement of the Jewish war against the Romans.
Paul came onto the stage after the death of Jesus and changed the scene completely, he disagreed with James with regard to his whole philosophy - compare James 2:14-24 (What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds. Can such a faith save him ?...(James 2:14). Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. You see faith and actions were working together.... you see a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24))
with Romans 3:28, 4,1-3 (For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Rom 3:28). What shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter ? If in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about - but not before God. what does the Scripture say ? Abraham believed in God and it was credited to his as righteousness. (Rom 4:1-3))
The two groups seemed diametrically opposed.
The Church of St Peter in Hatay - ancient Antioch, said to be the cave where Peter preached to the local Jewish community.
Paul claimed that he was granted permission to preach to the gentiles while Peter preached to the Jews. At this time there were large Jewish communities spread is most of the major cities around the Mediterranean. The reality may have been quite different from what we may often imagine; Paul may have been the leader of a Greco Roman Church while James was head of essentially a Jewish sect. This sect maintained Jewish dietary law, practised circumcision and was to all appearances a normal Jewish group Galatians 2. (... even Timothy who was with me was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek ... I have been given the task of preaching the gospel to the gentiles just as Peter was given the task of preaching the gospel to the Jews. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars ... When Peter can to Antioch I opposed him to his face because he was wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the gentiles. But when they arrived he began to draw back and separate himself from the gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined in his hypocrisy.)
Eusebius gives an interesting description of James, his life and death. He refers to his 'throne' of Jerusalem, while other bishops only had seats, indicating Jerusalem was then still held somehow special. James' description seems similar to that of a Nazerite, or John the Baptist, or an Essene. He didn't shave or cut his hair, abstained from meat and alcohol. Whilst there is frequent mention to the Sadducees and Pharisees in the New Testament, the Essenes are conspicuous by their absence. There are theological differences with respect to the resurrection for example which different Jewish groups including the Pharisees and Sadducees disputed. Yet, there are also parallels. Did the early Christians evolve from the Essenes ?
Was James the head of the Church as Eusebius claims or was he simply a Zadokite priest as may be implied from the Nag Hammadi scrolls ? Certainly, his description recorded by Eusebius would support his priestly role.
The traditional tomb of James is shown above with the two pillars. It faces the Temple mount.
At this point, I feel it is impossible to say for certain, as there are distinct differences in some of their writings, but there are also distinct similarities between the two communities, for example, the sharing of property (Acts 4:32). (All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.)
The essentially Jewish community of James may well have perished fighting the Romans in 66-73 CE, leaving only Paul's distinctly different gentile sect to prosper. The section on the new testament explores just what type of person may have followed Jesus and what may have really led to his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Let it suffice to say now that the early Christians may have been an anti Roman group.
I consider that two distinctly different and indeed opposed Christian philosophies emerged soon after the death of Jesus. One expounded by Paul, who never met Jesus throughout his earthly life and the other by James, the brother of Jesus, these were aimed at the Gentiles and Jews respectively and conflicted with each other. The former prospered while the latter disappeared. In the next section on Constantine and the church I explore how the Emperor may have further adulterated Christianity for his Greco Roman citizens.
Constantine and the Church
The Bible and the Early Church
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