Sunday, July 26, 2015

In the footsteps of the early fathers

Early Christians faced not only challenges outside the community of believers, but also from within. Jesus had not spoken on every subject imaginable and had not set down anything in writing, giving rise to disputes as to what was in consonance with what he had taught.

Who, for example, was right concerning circumcision of baptized Gentiles: Peter, who said the males should be circumcised as prescribed by Jewish law (Leviticus 12:3), which Jesus said he came to fulfill, or Paul, who argued that there could be a circumcision of the spirit for Gentiles who follow the ethical norms of the law (Romans 2:25-29)? Jesus had not addressed the issue although he treated Gentiles and Abraham's Samaritan descendants with great gentleness.

The Council of Jerusalem decided in Paul's favor (read Acts 15 for an account). The apostles urged Gentiles only to "abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication," lifting the obligation to mark themselves with the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision. But even this ruling brings up questions: Why the dietary rules? What does "fornication" mean?

Into this and many other gaps stepped forward a group of people known collectively as the Church Fathers or "doctors" (from the Latin for teachers), the study of whose writings is called Patristics.

These were Christian men of learning—often but not always ordained as priests or bishops, and only some revered as saints. Some lived early enough to have met one of the apostles, others lived just a bit later and only knew those who knew the apostles. They each marked the faith in special ways.

St. Ignatius (35-110), third bishop of Antioch (the first was the evangelist Matthew), wrote a series of letters as he was being taken to his martyrdom in Rome. In one of them, he coined the term "ekklesia katholike" (Greek for catholic, or universal, church), referring to all the Christian communities collectively, or what Christians today call the Church with a capital C.

Better known for his martyrdom than for his life, is St. Polycarp  (69–155), bishop of Smyrna (today Izmir, Turkey), a disciple of the evangelist John. He was one of the first to spot differences in Christian ritual practices in the East (Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor) and the West (Rome and Western Europe) and seek, without success, to unify them. In 155 he was arrested but, according to Christian witnesses' account, flames from the fire built to burn him to death would not touch him. He was then stabbed but blood gushed in such volume that it quenched the fire. Finally, he was speared dead.

A Smyrnean disciple of Polycarp, St. Ireneaus (130-202), became bishop of Lyons, where he died in persecution. His Against Heresies is the first response against Gnosticism, of which we shall hear later.

My personal favorite is Origen Adamantius of Alexandria (185-254). Origen lived a tragic life and was a bold thinker.

His fiancée was killed when Roman soldiers ransacked a home where Christians were gathered and, in the depths of despair, he castrated himself. Later in life, he was ordained a priest, but deposed by a bishop who fancied himself an academic disputant. Origen was tortured during the Decian persecution, but lived past the death of the Emperor Decius in 251 and was released. He died three years later at the age of 69 from the effects of torture.

Origen was also a scholar and a theologian. He was a student and later teacher at the Didascalium, or Catechetical School of Alexandria, where the learned began to develop the first Christian variants of Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism. Ever wonder how come theology is so much like philosophy? Origen and his associates are where it all started.

Among Origen's great gifts to Christianity was his list of the books of the New Testament (which was not yet called that, as we shall see) and his insights as a biblical exegete, or interpreter, concerning symbolism, textual criticism and historical context of the various texts.

He was also an early advocate of universal salvation and, in a work that is lost, of reincarnation—later integrated into Christianity as apocatastasis, a restoration of our human bodies to their original or primordial condition, but in the heavenly afterlife. Many of his admittedly original views (pun intended) drew harsh criticism in the Church while he was alive and after.

I shall close this summary of early church fathers with Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (155–240), better known as Tertullian, from Carthage. Like Origen, he was polemical and controversial, which is why he is also not named a saint, although he is widely recognized as the "father of western theology."

Tertullian was the first to use the term "trinity" to describe the divine Father, Son and Holy Ghost mentioned in the gospel of Matthew by Jesus himself (Matthew 28:19). He also coined the term "New Testament" used specifically for the Christian biblical books.

My favorite of his sayings concerns war and peace. Writing as Roman soldiers, many influenced by the heroics of martyrs, themselves converted, Tertullian delivers a withering declaration that should make every pacifist proud: "Shall a Christian serve in war? Nay, how shall he serve even in peace?"

Like Origen, not all of Tertullian's views found their way into the mainstream of Christian beliefs. The last one mentioned, however, still enlivens the Quaker and Anabaptist traditions, about which we shall yet speak, much later.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Blood of martyrs nourished the faith

Some 30 years after the crucifixion, those who embraced the faith taking shape as Christian faced persecution, paradoxically the greatest boon to the new religion.

The first followers of Jesus had a very rough time. As we have seen, their rabbinical Jewish brethren disapproved of Jesus and proselytism by apostles and their associates.

Then the full weight of the Roman state was thrust against the Christians. To Roman officials, the Christian refusal to publicly worship the deified Imperator and the approved gods of Greece and Rome was an affront to the social order.

A similar confrontation had arisen in the Jewish War of 66-73, which was a replay of the Maccabean Revolt of 167 to 160 BCE against a branch of Alexander the Great's empire. (An episode in the latter revolt is still recalled in the Jewish feast of Hannukkah.)

There was a Judaic obduracy in the Christians' refusal to bow to the Greco-Roman syncretism, which was capable of absorbing almost any belief or god. Indeed, in Rome there still stands the ancient Pantheon, the temple where Romans worshiped all foreign or unknown gods.

To Romans, after all, worship was a cultus, a propitiatory set of rituals to seek benefit from superhuman powers ruling the world. The word "agriculture" comes from the Roman cult to gods of fertility, to make crops abundant and cattle plentiful. In contrast, both to Jews and Christians, worship was and remains a grateful acknowledgment of the one God under whom all exists, with whom one dares not make trades.

The first Roman persecution was that of Nero in the year 64. A list of major campaigns of roving arrests, trials and executions of Christians would include the following persecutions, named by the reigning emperor:
  • Domitian, 89-96, believed to inspire the book of Revelation;
  • Trajan, 109-111, mostly near the Caucasus region;
  • Marcus Aurelius, notably in 117 in Lyons, with crowds joining in vicious attacks; notable victim, Polycarp in 167.
  • Septimius Severus (emperor 193-211), who issued a decree against Christians, notable victims were Sts. Perpetua and Felicity;
  • Decius, starting decree in 250 requiring all but Jews to worship the gods;
  • Valerian, ordered all Christian priests to worship the gods in 247;
  • Diocletian, the last and one of the fiercest persecutions, 303-311.
Roman persecution was not uniform nor enshrined in Roman law, which was mostly about property. On the whole, it depended on the disposition of the emperor or lower officials.

Persecution molded the Early Church in keeping its rituals, such as the Eucharist, secret and confined to private homes, inspiring the popular notion that Christians were atheists, as they worshipped no god that anyone could see.

Another effect was to prompt Christian communities to keep lists of those killed in persecution—becoming martyrs (witnesses, per ancient Greek) of the faith—that were read in Eucharistic prayers, commending them to God's care. This is the original source of the veneration of saints.

Persecution was also viewed as a sign of the "last days" foretold by Jesus Christ and inspired apocalyptic thought. Revelation is one of several texts from the second century that dwell on the turmoil thought to precede the return of the Lord in glory.

Christians' secrecy led to suspicion of casual converts, especially those thought likely to give Christian communities away, and also inspired non-Christians to accuse Christians of rumored evil practices, such as drinking the blood of children they had killed.

Moreover, as Rome's military fortunes reversed and the Barbarian onslaught was felt in Rome and throughout the empire, Romans blamed the Christians and their talk of love and peace for corrupting society and causing its decline.

In response, there arose Christian writers who launched apologetics, or discourses to defend the faith against slurs or misunderstandings. These were mostly written for Christians—by then literate and including members of the nobility—to aid them in their self-defense, only later becoming a form of Christian advocacy.

To my mind the persecutions remain the strongest evidence that the Christian faith is not merely a matter of feel-good spirituality but of principles that require strength and perseverance. The martyrs stand as people from another time and another place who thought their faith was something for which it was worth dying.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How the New Testament came about

There was no sense among the early Christians that anything about Jesus, his discourses and their meaning needed to be set down in writing until the apostles began to die off. The first apostle to die was James the Greater, martyred in the year 44 of our era (Acts 12:1-2); the last was John, in Ephesus in 98.

Sometime in between the chief eyewitnesses of Jesus earthly ministry passed on the basis of the writings we know as the New Testament.

Almost certainly, the texts began with preaching that was only recorded or recounted to scribes as it became clear that the eyewitnesses would pass away before all of Jesus' prophecies became true. Except for Paul, the apostles were not intellectuals and writing probably would not come easy for them; in any case, most of the first Christians were illiterate or only semi-literate.

Paul was the earliest author of writings in the collection. As many as 14 letters were attributed to him, loosely or expressly; today seven pass muster as unquestionably the actual work of Paul, the remainder penned by close associates and deemed representative of Paul's teaching.

The four accounts we know as gospels were written 20 to 90 years after the crucifixion. Mark was at least drafted in Rome while Peter, from whom it draws partial inspiration, was still alive. Luke, drawing from Paul, and Matthew, associated with the apostle of that name who resided with the Antioch community, may not have reached final form until as late as 110 or 120.

Acts, the first history of Christianity, is also the work of Luke.

Then there are a series of letters by followers of other apostles. The NT concludes with the very strange, mythical and visionary book of Revelation or Apocalypse, attributed to the apostle John but almost certainly not his work.

As I warned with Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, one should not conclude that the uncertain authorship makes these writings fake. Authorship in the ancient world was a far cry from what we, in the copyright era, deem it to be.

Authorship could mean that someone had dictated something to a scribe and that some editor had taken it in hand and given it literary shape. It could also mean that someone in a school of thought had attributed a summary of its ideas to one of its principal proponents. Notably, not one word attributed to Socrates was written by Socrates.

Importantly also, just as the OT did not drop out of the sky translated into 17th century English and leather bound by Thomas Nelson, the NT was not instantly approved for reading from lecterns by the Church. Indeed, although there are nearly identical listings of NT books, notably that of third century Christian writer Origen, in various documents, none of these lists was an official statement.

As we shall see in the next few centuries of intense debates, such declarations have usually been made to exclude what plainly was seen not to mesh with the received doctrine or teaching about the faith. No one thought to challenge the canon—or list of books in authoritative scripture—until an Augustinian monk who suffered from bad digestion, one Martin Luther, came along.

Thus, although by all accounts the Bible effectively closed around the year 120, there was no official statement naming and numbering the books of the New Testament until the 16th century. These include the Council of Trent's decree in 1546 (Catholicism), the Gallic Confession of Faith of 1559 (Calvinism), the 1563 Thirty-Nine Articles (Church of England) and the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem (Greek Orthodox).

However, through the centuries from the point at which the ink first dried on the scroll containing the Apocalypse, there came to be established translations that were widely used. Notably, the 4th century translation to Latin by St. Jerome, known as the Vulgate, was by the early Middle Ages found in every church in Europe.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Paul of Tarsus vs. Jesus of Nazareth

Confession time: as a late adolescent and young adult I couldn't stand Paul. He was obsessed with sex, couldn't pass an opportunity to put down women and was a bit of a braggart. On the other hand, I loved the egalitarian author of Galatians:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)
In these days in which the news reminds us of humanity's many divides, Paul's words to the Christians at Galatia remain a balm. In his new faith, there were meant to be no distinguishing nations, no statuses, no genders: all should be seen as one within the embrace of Messiah Jesus. Today we should include even those who don't want the embrace.

The 14 New Testament letters attributed to Paul and addressed to various Christian communities introduce many issues that—then and now—seem to be of near-obsessive interest to some Christians, but simply do not appear in the gospels. For example, Jesus never spoke about homosexuality nor abortion nor birth control, even although all three were practiced in the ancient world.

Other differences with Paul are significant.

Jesus leaves little or no room for divorce (Mark 10:2-12, Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-12 and Luke 16:18), Paul slips in a whopper of an exception—if your spouse is an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:10-15).

Except in the gospel of John, Jesus is ambiguous and almost reticent about who he is and whether he is divine; Paul is all over Jesus as the Son of God.

Tiptoeing around Jewish observances, Jesus technically breaks the Sabbath only to be charitable and the last supper suggests Jesus observed and knew Jewish dietary and ritual blessings. Paul scratches out circumcision and the whole of dietary law for Gentiles who convert to the Christian faith.

Of course, Paul was writing to mostly Greek Gentiles. To his intended readers Jewish law was entirely foreign and at odds with their customs. For example, anyone who has read Plato's Symposium knows perfectly well that the learned of Athens regarded pederasty and adult same-sex activity with benign eyes (even if Plato himself, along with Paul, did not). Hence the fulminations in Paul's letters against a variety of sexual activities.

Jesus was vague as to how he thought his followers should organize. The one exception is the saying about Peter (Matthew 18:16), which can be read a variety of ways in addition to the traditional view that the passage institutes the papacy. My own non-scholarly view is that the passage is a retrojection of the state of Christian communities at the time the gospel was written, in particular the city of Antioch, where Peter was bishop for a time.

Paul challenged Peter on the Gentiles question (which hid a dual "political" issue within the movement)  and seems eager to direct the new communities. However, the three letters attributed to him that touch extensively on church order—I and II Timothy and Titus—are by scholarly consensus the work of Pauline followers rather than penned by the man from Tarsus himself.

In sum, Paul, a pivotal figure in transforming the Jewish Yeshua movement into what we know as Christianity, introduced some ideas later deemed foundational to the faith that cannot be directly traced to recognized teaching of Jesus.