By: William Jackson
When we view the beginning of Christianity we are left with images of followers living in a loving communal euphoria. It seems like a paradise, where everyone’s getting along and believing in the same thing. Yet; much of this is owed to the writings of the New Testament and our assumptions. However, history paints a much different story. In the first century Christianity bred many sects and sub-sects which differed in theology. Sure, there were some common points like Jesus being a deity; but even that was in contention, for example: was he equal to God or below God in the hierarchy, was he god or just the son of God? This explains why there was tension amongst groups with end fighting and debates that would impact the New Testament, which in turn would take over three hundred years to be formed (Council of Carthage in 397 CE).
Ironically many of these theologies started before Christianity. Their inspiration can be traced to Hellenism which was introduced to Israel around the 3rd Century BCE. Simply stated, Hellenism was a Greek mindset that united most of the known world. It embraced philosophical concepts from Plato and Socrates1 while abandoning principles of the Torah. This would become the seedling for Gnosticism in the Christian faith.
- The spirit world is good; but our material world is bad. Thus the material world belongs to evil forces, i.e. satan.
- A divine spark is in humans; but not all humans.
- Through a secret knowledge, salvation is known.
- Dualism in God; a righteous God of the Tanakh (Old Testament) verses an accepting God of love in the New Testament.
As there are many sects within both Judaism and Christianity today, there were numerous sects of Gnostic. It appears that during this timeframe (the first two centuries CE) that most heretical Christian sects were labeled Gnostic. One of the strongest of these groups was started by Marcion.
Around 144 AD Marcion of Sinope, the son of a bishop, inspired a new Christian movement called Marcionism. This wealthy ship owner, with a new charismatic movement the resources, was able to organize and establish a separate church from the Orthodox Church. Which the Orthodox Church in those days were the fundamental Christian religion. So what was Marcionism and why was it a threat?
Marcion did the unthinkable by embracing the concept of dualism when it came God. This self-appointed leader of Marcionism established two versions of God, a Tanakh (Old Testament) version vs the God of Jesus! Marcion pushed a message of love and grace, tied Jesus into the who equation and reason and he rejected the harsh teachings of the law and wrath. In short, he created a false contrast within God and he and his congregants followed this “new” God of acceptance. In order to support his teachings, Marcion only accepted into his New Testament an edited corpus of ten of Paul’s letters and an altered version of the gospel of Luke. Although; Marcion was labeled a heretic, he was galvanizing authorized books, something that Christianity had not done up to this point. The problem for Christianity in those days, was that there was no canon (criterion by which something is judged) for the New Testament. So, without a standard, everything was “fair game” or capable of being taught, and because of this, Christianity had hundreds of books that perpetuated numerous teachings.
After Marcionism and Gnosticism were alimented through debate or just dwindled out, the next religious sect would challenge the theology of the Orthodox church was started by a priest named Arius. The movement was named Arianism. He, and his followers, believed that the Christian messiah was not equal to God, and that he was a lesser deity. Thus; Arians did not believe in the trinity. The difference here was that Christianity was now the religion of Rome, so the Orthodox Church could bring in the imperial government and just eliminate their competition. At the council of Nicaea a ruling against Arianism was decided by Emperor Constantine and the Emperor exiled the excommunicated Arius2.
If we re-examine the principles of these Christian splinter groups we see that much of their doctrine is supported by today’s canonized New Testament:
- Evil World: “Satan god of this world” (John 12:31, 1 John 5:19, 2 Corinthians 4:4)
- Only certain ones have a divine spark: “Unconditional election” (John 1:12, 13, 15:16, Romans 9:15-16)
- Dualism in God: “Laws been done away with” (Hebrews 8:7-8, 13, 9:15, Romans 7:6)
- No Trinity: Jesus separates himself from God (Mark 10:18, John 14:28, Luke 18:19)
So why did Orthodoxy have issues with these other forms of Christianity being labeled as heretical? Maybe the answer boils down to competition or just wanting their point of view to be the only vision. Some of the fear from these heretical religions was that if Jesus was relegated to just a prophet status or demigod. This being the case, this would not allow Christianity to be a religion unto itself; but just another sect of Judaism. In any case, the problem stems from the New Testament having many open concepts that are subject to personal interpretation. Currently there are 46,4963 denominations of Christianity. Even though many of these religions have additional books beyond the bible; usually they can anchor their theology in some key verses found in the New Testament; but the problem with this is that it has to be taken out of context and either way, it can’t align up with God’s written word to us in Torah. The truth is we should never add or subtract from God’s word (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, 13:1-10, Proverbs 30:5-6), in doing this we create other faiths that take us from His original and only word. One just needs to consult the story about the Tower of Babel to know the results (Genesis 11:1-9).
Genesis 11:7-9 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
- Garth Kemerling, Hellenistic Philosophy, Philosophy Pages, November 12, 2011
- N.S. Gill, The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea, About Religion