Image of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty or Lord of Hosts), Hagia Sopia, Istanbul, Turkey
When a movement is centered on one person who is no longer present in a corporeal (bodily) form that the members of that movement can continue to speak to and learn from eventually there will come an identity crisis where people begin to ask, “Are we following the right Jesus?” “Are we being faithful to his vision?” “Are we still following the God he pointed to?” As the church entered the second century it was dealing with heavy pressures from the empire around it and at the same time this early church had to figure out who it was from pressures from within.
It was still early in the church’s young life; the canon (the selections of works that would come to make up the bible) was not fixed. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were in wide circulation as well as many of the letters associated with Paul, but depending where you went the Shepherd of Hermas or the Letters of Clement or the Didache may also be present (which would later be viewed a positive works but not held at the same level as scripture). The challenge to how to tell the story of being the people of Jesus arose from within and to react to this challenge the church adapted and changed.
One of Christianity’s greatest gifts was that it was not tied to one language or culture. As it spread across the known world at that time it would be quickly translated into Greek (the language of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire) and eventually into more and more languages and cultures. The reason that the books that are a part of the New Testament are in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic, is that by the time the stories of Jesus are written down and as Paul and others wrote letters they were going to churches that primarily spoke Greek (at least as a second language). With this encounter with the Greek world and language also came an encounter with Greek thought which was much different from the Jewish or Hebrew worldview that Jesus and all the original apostles came out of. As Greek speaking and thinking individuals encountered Christianity and they translated the message they would both be changed by it and in their own way they would transform the message as well. The question has to emerge what is a valid transformation and what is not? Two long lasting assumptions that many Christians include as central to their thought: the immortality of the soul or the absoluteness of God are Greek ideas not Biblical ones and yet with the introduction of Greek culture they become a part of the thought of the early church.
One of the early challenges came from a wealthy Christian named Marcion. While Hebrew thought has no problem with contradictions and gaps, a Greek thinker like Marcion could not abide contradictions. Among other things, Marcion felt that the God of the Old Testament was not reconcilable with the God of Jesus. Marcion read how in the Old Testament that God called for wars which wiped out entire populations, called down judgments in a harsh and unforgiving manner and came to the conclusion that in combination with these things he read and the reality of suffering in the world that the creator must be evil and different from the God of Jesus. In contrast to almost every other church leader at the time, Marcion read Old Testament literally rather than allegorically. Marcion felt that the Old Testament should not be a part of the Christian scriptures and therefore it should be thrown out. In addition to this, in a Greek way of thinking that viewed sex, childbirth and the body in general as bad, Marcion could not accept that Christ was born of a woman-even if it was a virginal birth God could not be born of a woman. For the first time we begin to see in a very powerful way the emergence of theology more than narrative as formational for a way of thinking about God and Jesus. Marcion quickly identified the contradictions and the differences in the New Testament gospels that were being held in most churches, so he eliminated Matthew, Mark and John and seriously redacted Luke to try to remove anything “impure” to be put alongside of Paul’s letters (also purified of Jewish “interpolations”). These modifications were viewed to be unorthodox by the leaders of the church in Rome and in 144 CE he was expelled from the early church. Marcion became one of the earliest to try to put together a canon, a list of texts that would form the basis for the church’s authority and the church would continue to deal with his followers for decades.
Another threat to the view of who Christ was came from those often referred to as Gnostic Christians. Gnostics are so named because they believed that they had secret knowledge that others, including other Christians, did not have. I am not convinced that there is one direction among the groups and the scriptures that we might label Gnostic, in fact they seem to represent a wide range of things. We are the beneficiaries of the rediscovery of several of the Gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945 which give us a window into what Gnosticism may have looked like. Some of these, like the Gospel of Thomas, are very similar to many of the sayings in Matthew and Luke and portray Jesus as a wisdom teacher. Others like the Gospel of Truth associated with the Gnosticism of the Valentinians develop a whole cosmology that put Jesus among many heavenly beings and looks very little like anything we would recognize as Christian. Like Marcion they held the body as bad and the soul as good (or divine spark would be a term you might see in Gnostic gospels) and the purpose of having the proper Gnostic knowledge is for that soul or divine spark to be liberated from the body. Again the early church made the decision that this was not an accurate representation of the faith and the Gnostic gospels would not become a part of the canon.
Each time a crisis presented itself between a Greek way of thinking and a Jewish way of thinking the church attempted to remain with the Jewish way. At the same time, even while trying to remain close to the Jewish origins of the story, the questions that were being asked were no longer the questions of the Hebrew mind, they were the questions of the Greek world. The Bible began to be viewed in terms that were familiar to the Greek way of thinking, so God had to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent (all powerful, all knowing and present everywhere) and this rather than the narrative became decisive for decisions. The biblical hope of a bodily resurrection at the return of Jesus, the participation in the new creation and all the images that populate the gospels and Paul’s letters began to be read in terms of the soul joining God in heaven. The story when it was read was often interpreted allegorically (there are gifts and challenges that come with this) and theology and a few common practices became the points where identity was formed for the early church. It is to these practices we will turn next.