History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
-Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813.
In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814
If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [England] and in New England.
When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.
As best as we can tell, the earliest Christian churches were mostly self-governing bodies that exhibited some form of Presbyterian polity or perhaps Congregationalist polity. We know this from examining the authentic letters of Paul (as opposed to later letters forged in his name, especially the Pastorals, which were apparently intended to, among other things, legitimize the Episcopal polity favored by proto-orthodox Literalists). As previously noted, the decentralized structure of the early church was repugnant to the proto-orthodox who sought to impose uniformity and hierarchical governance on Christendom.
We have also previously noted how the decentralized governance during the second and third centuries contributed to a great diversity of belief among the earliest Christians. In truth, the vast majority of these early followers of Jesus held beliefs that most of us today would not even recognize as Christian or at least would consider heretical.
But early in the fourth century, things began to change. As Walter Bauer (1877-1960) noted in his much praised book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934), the orthodox, Literalist Christians of Rome began to dominate other churches. The reasons for this are too many to chronicle, and some are merely accidents of history, but I shall note a few of the more important ones.
Reasons for the Ascendance of the Roman Church
First, Christianity was uniquely appealing to the disenfranchised in Roman culture. Most religions of the time were, in one form or another, either arms of the state or were at least officially endorsed by it and, as such, they implicitly endorsed the Roman caste system and were an integral part of Roman culture. Not surprisingly, such religions were typically run by, and for the benefit of, the Roman aristocracy and Roman citizens in each city, which represented a minority almost everywhere. Consequently, while these religions had their fair share of followers among the lowly masses, they had no unique appeal to them.
Christianity in its earliest years, however, was very different. Because it was not officially recognized by Rome until much later, it stood outside the official, accepted social order. This fact, combined with its message of forgiveness, its acceptance of converts regardless of class, and its promise of a better life in the world to come, made Christianity particularly appealing to the lowly masses, especially those who resented the Roman social order. Celsus, an early pagan critic of Christianity, makes this fact clear:
[The Christians’] injunctions are like this. “Let no one educated, no one wise, no one sensible draw near. For these abilities are thought by us to be evils. But as for any ignorant, anyone stupid, anyone uneducated, anyone who is a child, let him come boldly.” (Against Celsus 3.44)
Moreover, we see that those who display their secret lore in the market-places and go about begging would never enter a gathering of intelligent men, nor would they dare to reveal their noble beliefs in their presence; but whenever they see adolescent boys and a crowd of slaves and a company of fools, they push themselves in a show off. (Against Celsus 3.50)
In private houses also we see wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters. But whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some astonishing statements, as, for example, that they must not pay any attention to their father and school teachers…; they say that these talk nonsense and have no understanding…. But, if they like, they should leave father and their schoolmaster, and go along with the women and little children who are their playfellows to the wooldresser’s shop, or to the cobbler’s or the washwoman’s shop, that they may learn perfection. And by saying this they persuade them. (Against Celsus 3.56)
As Celsus was a pagan opponent of Christianity, we must take his criticism on this subject with a very large grain of salt. But importantly, his testimony in this respect is confirmed by many early Church Fathers! That Celus' rhetorical attacks against Christians were effective is evidenced by the fact that the Christian apologist Origen, who lived some seventy years later, nonetheless felt compelled to respond to such criticisms by authoring a work titled Against Celsus. Tellingly though, when it comes time to refute Celsus' claims about the ignorance and lowliness of most Christians, Origen does not deny these claims. Rather, in his writings Origen simply responds that a few Christians are indeed educated, and that the rest are at least wise in Godly things, even if they are ignorant as to everything else.
Thus, unlike most every other religion of the time Christianity was uniquely positioned to grow among the Roman underclass, and grow it did!
Second, being based in the most populous city in the western world, the Christians of Rome had access to far more people than most rival Christian churches of the time. This numerical advantage in proselytizing eventually translated into a comparative wealth advantage, and the Roman church employed this relative wealth to expand its influence. It did so by aiding the poor and purchasing the freedom of untold numbers of slaves and prisoners, many of whom became grateful converts, further increasing its wealth advantage over rival churches. In time it employed this comparative wealth advantage to gain direct influence over other Christian churches throughout the empire, many of whom simply couldn't sustain themselves financially without support from Rome. In time, the vast majority of Christian churches in the empire were beholden to Rome, their sponsor.
Not surprisingly, Rome didn't give financial aid to just any church calling itself "Christian", but only to those who submitted to its authority. Eventually, this authority included the right to appoint Bishops to "oversee" (the term "Bishop" means "overseer") satellite churches throughout the Roman empire. Thus, Rome pioneered the episcopalian form of church governance that would dominate Christianity until the Protestant Reformation. Episcopalian government, where Bishops are appointed by higher ups rather than "elected" by their followers, ran directly counter to the Presbyterian and Congregationalist forms of church governance so clearly favored by Paul in his authentic writings.
Constantine's Role: Religion as a Political Tool
These wealth and organizational advantages gave the Literalist Roman Church an edge over its Gnostic rivals, who by comparison shunned hierarchy and institutionalism. By 300 AD, Roman Literalist Christianity was poised to dominate Christianity.
Shortly thereafter, in 312 CE to be precise, the Roman Emperor Constantine is said to have “converted” to Christianity. The mythological accounts of his conversion are well-known and won’t be recounted here. Instead, I will demonstrate why Literalist Christianity appealed to Constantine, and vice versa.
For centuries despots of all types have struggled with the problem of religion and its subversive effect on the populace. Monotheistic religions have proven particularly challenging for tyrants to control—people who are loyal to the "one true God" do not always defer to the authority of the dictator.
Different dictators have responded in these challenges in different ways. During the last century, communist dictators simply labeled all religion an “opiate of the people”, a phrase coined by Karl Marx himself, and they sought to suppress it entirely. Though they went to great lengths to deny the proletariat this powerful drug, offering them instead the unsatisfying methadone of secular communist orthodoxy, the masses would not be denied the real thing, and history shows the communists’ attempt to suppress the religious impulse of their people to be a failure. In fact, Christianity, particularly in satellite countries like Poland, played a significant role in communism’s demise.
By contrast, Germany's National Socialists (Nazis) took a different and ultimately more successful approach. Rather than prohibiting religion, the Nazis embraced it, intentionally blurring the lines between church and state and corrupting the Christian faith for political purposes. Rather than treating it as a threat and suppressing it, the Nazis saw religion, particularly Christianity, as a means of unifying their followers and legitimizing their power. For instance, with regard to Christianity, Hitler said:
What can we do? Just what the Catholic Church did when it forced its beliefs on the heathen: preserve what can be preserved, and change its meaning. We shall take the road back: Easter is no longer resurrection but the eternal renewal of our people. Christmas is the birth of our savior…Do you think these liberal priests, who have no longer a belief, only an office, will refuse to preach our God in their churches? [emphasis in original] (Quoted in The Messianic Legacy at 157)
And just who was this savior of the German people whose birth was to be celebrated at Christmas? Hitler, of course. To quote Baldur von Schirach, the head of the Hitler Youth:
…the service of Germany appears to us to be genuine and sincere service of God; the banner of the Third Reich appears to us to be his banner; and the Fuhrer of the people is the savior whom he sent to rescue us. (Quoted in The Messianic Legacy at 156)
In short, the cultivation and exploitation of religion was essential to the success of Nazism. As Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln have noted:
[T]he most crucial element in any understanding of Nazism is the extent to which it deliberately activated the religious impulse in the German people. It elicited an emotional as well as a cerebral response, uniting in its own depraved fashion, both hearts and minds.
The notorious Nuremberg rallies were not political rallies of the kind that occur in the West today but cummingly stage-managed theatre of the kind, for example, that formed an integral component of Greek religious festivals. Everything—the colours of the uniform and flags, the placement of the spectators, the nocturnal hour, the use of spotlights and floodlights, the sense of timing—was precisely calculated. The film-clips depict people intoxicating themselves, chanting themselves into a state of rapture and ecstasy…. (The Messianic Legacy at 152-153)
Like the Communist and Nazis centuries later, Constantine the Great, who was Emperor in one form or another from 306 to 337 CE, also struggled with the problem of religion. Like the communists, he understood feared its subversive and divisive potential, but like the Nazis, he also understood its potential to unite.
Early in Constantine’s reign religion--namely, disputes among Christians--divided what Constantine hoped to join, the Eastern Empire and the Western Empire. However, by the end of his reign, and thanks to his ingenious corruption of Christianity, religion was a largely unifying influence rather than a divisive one in the empire.
How did Constantine successfully turn religion into something that united rather than divided? He did so by artfully combining suppression (like the Communists) and corruption (like the Nazis) to achieve his desired result—-an amalgamated, unifying religion under the emperor’s absolute control.
Constantine’s first step on the path toward religious unification was his issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313. This edict banned persecution of any monotheistic religion. Although it didn’t mention Christianity explicitly, it indirectly made Christianity an officially approved, or at least officially tolerated, religion in the empire for the first time. Contrary to legend, Constantine never made Christianity the official religion of the empire, though as we shall see he did make the Roman, Literalist form of Christianity the official form of Christianity in the empire. After Constantine, Roman Literalist Christianity would be subsidized by the state, while all other forms would be brutally suppressed.
Also, contrary to the myth perpetuated by the church and blindly adopted by some history books, Constantine was not a Christian in any modernly understandable sense of the word. Not only did he continue to tolerate pagan religions throughout his reign, but he personally continued to serve as the chief priest of a prominent pagan religion, the sun cult of Sol Invictus (i.e.., the “invincible sun”), until his death in 337. Constantine’s continuing dedication to the sun god is evident: The imperial standards and money printed under Constantine bore the symbols of Sol Invictus, not Jesus or Jehovah. The famous Arch of Constantine, which was built by the Roman Senate to memorialize Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge (making Constantine sole emperor), and which still stands in Rome today, attributes his victory not to intervention by the Christian God (as Christian history holds), but to the divine favor of the sun god, Sol Invictus. The famous Chi Rho emblem that marked Constantine’s reign, traditionally held to be a symbol for Christ (consisting of the first two letters in “Christ”), is now known to have been a pagan symbol in use for hundreds of years before Constantine.
Furthermore, shortly after hosting the council of Nicaea, which as we shall see was designed to end the bitter disputes within Christianity and unify it under Constantine’s leadership, Constantine had both his wife and son murdered. In a rather cynical attempt to "cover all bases", Constantine was not baptized until the last possible moment, when he lay helpless on his deathbed.
In short, Constantine was no Christian emperor, whether measured by today’s or the fourth century’s standards. Whatever charity he showed Christianity was motivated by self-interest and practical considerations and almost certainly not authentic faith. That's not to say that Constantine didn't "believe", only that whatever belief he had was a rationalization designed to forward very practical earthly (as opposed to heavenly) objectives.
After issuing the edict of Milan, Constantine (and certain emperors who succeeded him) next began to execute a brilliant strategy designed to unify all the important religions of the time, especially Christianity which had never before been officially recognized, under the emperor’s control. This strategy consisted of three parts: (1) squelching divisions within the important religions of the empire through suppression; (2) intentionally blurring the lines between various important religions of the empire by emphasizing their similarities and obfuscating their differences; and (3) corrupting all of them through a combination of persecution for those who resisted imperial control, and state subsidies to those who acquiesced. Let’s consider each of these three techniques individually.
Internal religious disputes among members of a given sect are often more vitriolic and divisive than those among the various religions themselves. “Heresy” from within is always more frightening than a failure to convert those who are without, as anyone who has experienced intra-church conflict can attest. And, during Constantine’s time, intra-sect squabbles, primarily among Eastern and Western Christians, threatened the very survival of his empire. Constantine's reign was preoccupied with settling these disputes once and for all, while establishing his ultimate authority in doing so.
His first step, at least with respect to Christianity, was to "invite" all Christian bishops from across the empire, many but not all of who were under the Roman churches control by this point, to attend Christianity’s first world-wide (i.e., “ecumenical”) council to be held in Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) in 325 CE. In May of that year, between 250 and 320 (the numbers vary depending upon whose account one accepts) bishops from around the world received an all-expense-paid trip to Nicaea, complete with an imperial military “escort” to insure their “safety”, all compliments of Constantine. Constantine personally presided over the assembly, the purpose of which was to settle once and for all, by vote, many of the most disputed issues of Christianity. The meeting, or council, lasted more than two months.
Interestingly Constantine does not appear to have been particularly interested in most of the issues debated by the council, but he did make it perfectly clear that he expected any divisive issues to be resolved by the bishops one way or the other, and unanimously. Once the council voted on a matter, all present were expected to abide by it from that point forward.
Perhaps for this reason the debates at Nicaea were intense and, as previously stated, continued for two months. Debated matters ranged from mundane issues--such as when members of the church should sit or stand during the church services and whether men who had castrated themselves should be permitted to become priests (the Council decided against it)--to far more important ones, such as the proper date of Easter and whether Jesus was human or divine and, if divine, how so. All matters were settled by vote and, in accordance with Constantine’s command, the votes were ultimately almost unanimous (Secundus of Ptolemais and Teonas of Marmarica, two bishops who refused to join the majority in condemning the so-called Aryan heresy, were banished from the empire along with Arius, the priest after whom the heresy was named). By vote, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was created, and by vote the Creed of Nicaea, which eventually became the Nicene Creed, was promulgated.
Despite the finality of these decisions, the passionate debate that preceded them makes clear that the voting did not reflect the actual beliefs of many of the voters. In short, the votes often represented a compromise, and a coerced one at that. Thus, unless we are willing to believe that, despite all that we have covered so far, the bishops at Nicaea were guided in their voting by God, and that their votes perfectly expressed God’s will (if not their own conscience), then we can only conclude that, at Nicaea, the quest for truth was sacrificed upon alter of political expediency.
Once all the world’s Christian bishops voted en masse on key doctrinal issues at Nicaea, the hardest part of Constantine’s battle was over. Under his direction, the world’s Christian leaders had assembled at one location and, by voting on the record, determined precisely what would be Christian doctrine and what would be heresy throughout the empire going forward. Prior to Nicaea:
heresy had been an accusation readily but imprecisely thrown by one Christian group against another, but after Constantine took control, its meaning became crystal clear. In essence, the truth became what the Emperor said it was; the rest was heresy, the work of the devil. Many scriptures were outlawed, and application of the label “Gnostic” to them effectively removed them from the now narrowly defined creed of Christianity. (The Hiram Key at 65)
Having voted on the record at Nicaea in the presence of Constantine, any bishops who may have been so inclined would have found it very difficult, and risky, to recant upon returning home. It should come as no surprise that almost none of them did. As a result, from Constantine’s time forward, Literalist Christianity controlled all important Christian Churches of the empire, and the development of official Christian doctrine. Those who resisted or dissented were branded heretics and were actively and brutally suppressed. Unlike some emperors before him, Constantine would tolerate Christianity, even support it, but he would not countenance division within it. Elaine Pagels notes:
[W]hen Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, [Literalist] Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed. (Elaine Pagels quoted in Secrets of the Code at 92)
And, as Freke and Gandy have noted:
Constantine … gave Literalist Christianity the power it needed to begin the final eradication of Paganism and Gnosticism. Constantine wanted “one God, one religion” to consolidate his claim of “one Empire, one Emperor.” He oversaw the creation of the Nicene creed, the article of faith repeated in churches to this day, and Christians who refused to assent to this creed were banished from the Empire or otherwise silenced.
Blurring Lines Among Religions
While squashing intra-religious squabbles using techniques like those above, Constantine and certain emperors who succeeded him also sought to eliminate inter-religious arguments by blurring the lines between them. With rare exception, they employed the power of the state to emphasize the similarities among the approved religions of the empire and obfuscate their differences. These emperors took particular care to blend the traditions and themes of the monotheistic religions—-those that had historically proven the most dogmatic and least cooperative with imperial rule. For example, Constantine declared that the law courts would be closed on the sun’s day (i.e., Sunday), which had obvious importance to sun-based cults like those of Sol Invictus and Mithras (a Persian god closely associated with the sun). However Sunday was also meaningful to Christians as the day of Jesus’ resurrection and many Christians had previously adopted it as their holy day to distinguish themselves from more orthodox Jews. Thus, to the extent that Christianity was still seen at the time as a sect of Judaism, and the largest one at that, Constantine’s proclamation set in motion a process designed to eventually harmonize the holy days of four important religions in the empire—Christianity, Judaism, Mithraism and the cult of Sol Invictus, not to mention numerous other sun-worshiping pagan cults. Among these, only more orthodox varieties of Judaism appear to have resisted the assimilation.
In a similar manner, Jesus’ birthday, traditionally celebrated by many Christians on January 6th before Constantine, was changed to December 25th . This date was not chosen by accident, for it was the date of the annual pagan celebration of Natalis Invictus, or rebirth of the invincible sun, favored by sun cults of most every variety for centuries. It was also the date on which the birth of the pagan godman Mithras was celebrated. Once again, the Christian holiday was synchronized with the pagan one and the practical distinction between Jesus, Mithras, and Sol Invictus was further blurred.
Constantine also consolidated his position as leader of the various religions, and further blurred the lines between them, by assuming their chief offices. For example, as evidenced by none other than Eusebius, the Father of Church History, Constantine was venerated as the new Christian/Jewish Messiah, or the Logos incarnate. It was Constantine, rather than any bishop in Christendom, who presided over the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. And yet, at the same time he held this Christian office, he also served as the chief priest of the sun-worshiping cult of Sol Invictus! Thus, in some sense, the various important religions of his empire were united in the very person of Constantine.
After centuries, barriers between the various religions weren’t just blurred, they began to crumble completely. It proved remarkably easy for the pagan gods, who unlike the Jewish and Christian one had never been particularly jealous and who frequently changed or shared identities, to be absorbed into the Christian one, taking their symbols with them. The sacred sun disk of the various sun-god cults eventually became the halo surrounding Jesus and the saints in Christian iconography. Christian Cathedrals, many of which survive to this day, were built on traditional pagan holy sites using the pagan principles of sacred geometry and overtly pagan symbolism (with a heavy emphasis on astrology in some cases). The bishop of Rome, who would later come to be known as the Pope, would assume almost all the titles and trappings of the pagan hierophant—such as the title Pontificus Maximus, and the use of the pagan mitre.
Likewise, pagan goddess worship was systematically transferred from the great goddesses to Mary the Mother who eventually took on many of the traditional goddess’ titles including Mother of God, Stella Maris, and even Queen of Heaven. Statues of the goddess Isis with her son Horus came to be understood as depicting instead Mary and Jesus and the two are often indistinguishable to modern scholars. As we shall see in much more detail later, the Christian Eucharist and the pagan God-eating rituals were ingeniously fused, and Jesus’ nativity stories were amalgamated with those of the pagan godmen Mithras, Osiris, Adonis and Dionysus, among others. The fixed signs of the pagan zodiac--Bull or Ox (Taurus), Lion (Leo), Human (Aquarius, the water bearer), and Eagle (Scorpio)--came instead to symbolize the four evangelists of Christianity. And, the sacred roles of the various gods were transferred instead to the various Christian patron saints--for example, the protection of the vine was transferred from the pagan god Dionysus (aka, Bacchus) to the likes of the Christian Saint Vincent, patron of winegrowers.)
Corruption of Religion to Serve State Purposes
As the traditions of the various religions of the empire were blending under Constantine and his successors, there remained the task of allying the amalgamated religions permanently with the state. This was accomplished primarily through a corrupting carrot-and-stick approach, blending money and privilege with punishment and banishment. In other words, those religious leaders who collaborated with the emperor received a salary and political office through which they could expand their religious influence. Those who did not found themselves ostracized, banished, tortured or even murdered, making it difficult to compete with collaborators for converts. For example, Constantine gave the Lateran Palace, which served as the Popes residence for nearly a thousand years, to the cooperative orthodox Bishop of Rome, providing the Roman Church with a great psychological and practical advantage over rival Christian churches of historical importance like Alexandria and Antioch. At the same time, Constantine banished the uncooperative (such as Arian "heretics") from the empire altogether.
After centuries of repression and persecution, the leaders of the orthodox Roman church during Constantine’s time appear to have been all too willing to accept the benefits and privileges that came with official Roman sanction. The Literalist Roman Church deluded itself into believing that God was finally delivering on his promise of establishing his earthly kingdom on the throne of St. Peter in Rome, with the orthodox in charge of it no less! How convenient, as Church Lady might say.
Constantine Play Favorites
While Constantine was deferential to other religions that cooperated with his plans, including pagan ones, Roman Christianity undoubtedly received a heaping share of imperial favors. There is no single reason why this was the case. Rather, there were multiple factors at play.
First, the Literalist Christians of Rome were clearly willing to cooperate with Constantine and defer to his leadership, going so far as to revere him as the new Messiah. Constantine’s most valuable and helpful Literalist ally in this respect was a man named Eusebius, known today as the Father of Church History. Eusebius functioned as Constantine’s chief propagandist, and was the first to write a complete history of the church, in ten volumes, from the time of Jesus to the time of Constantine. Not surprisingly, though it is often short on sources, it proffers a history that supported Constantine and Rome and bolstered the orthodox claim to authority. Eusebius even went so far as to claim that Constantine was the logos incarnate, a position that modern Christians would reserve for Christ.
Given Eusebius' fawning over Constantine, critical scholars have grown increasingly skeptical of his historical accuracy:
It is striking that, for centuries, virtually everyone who studied the history of early Christianity simply accepted the version of the early conflicts written by the orthodox victors. This all began to change in a significant way in the nineteenth century as some scholars began to question the “objectivity” of such early Christian writers as the fourth-century orthodox author Eusebius, the so-called Father of Church History, who reproduced for us the earliest account of the conflict. This initial query into Eusebius’s accuracy eventually became, in some circles, a virtual onslaught on his character, as twentieth-century scholars began to subject his work to an ideological critique that exposed his biases and their role in his presentation. The reevaluation of Eusebius was prompted, in part, by the discovery of additional ancient books, uncovered both by trained archaeologists looking for them and by bedouin who came across them by chance, other Gospels, for example, that also claimed to be written in the names of apostles. (Lost Christianities at 5)
In other words, the findings of the last century or two have demonstrated that in many cases Eusebius’ accounts of church history were fabricated to advance the interest of Rome and the orthodox Christian collaborators centered there. In many important respects, his account does not agree with other historical evidence and records, some of which only came to light in the last century. There can no longer be any doubt that important leaders of the Roman Church, such as Eusebius, were willing collaborators in Constantine’s and his successors schemes (no doubt convinced in their own mind that they were right), making them the natural objects of each emperors' bounty. This ultimately insured the Literalists success over their less organized and less subsidized rivals.
But second, and perhaps most importantly, Constantine favored Literalist Christianity because it offered him something that other religions didn’t—-namely, a religion based on history, fixed dogma, and intolerance of diversity. While other religions of the time had myths that were framed in an historical context, their initiated followers, contrary to the derogatory claims of the Literalists orthodox Christians, almost never understood their myths as actual history but rather as spiritual, mystical allegory—an attempt to communicate the incommunicable via analogy. By way of contrast, as we have already discussed, Literalist Christianity’s claims to authority rested upon a closed historical record that, if accepted, cut off all rival claims of authority. Thus, to the extent one accepted its view of history, the authority of its leaders (i.e., the “New Messiah” Constantine and his delegates) was theologically unchallengeable.
For instance, the other religions of the time, including Gnosticism, required no creeds. In the pagan religions,
worship almost never involved accepting or making doctrinally acceptable claims about a god. There were no creeds devised to proclaim the nature of the gods and their interaction with the worlds, no doctrinally precise professions of faith to be recited during services of worship, no such thing as “orthodoxy” (right beliefs) or “heresy” (false beliefs). What mattered were traditionally sanctioned acts of worship, not beliefs. (Lost Christianities at 92)
On the other hand, Literalist Christianity insisted that maintaining the proper beliefs was the only way to be saved from an eternity in hell and that the orthodox church, now controlled by Constantine, was the sole determiner of the necessary beliefs. By controlling its members’ beliefs about heaven and hell, the church also influenced their worldly behavior, such as loyalty to the empire and it’s Messiah (Constantine), which was seen as God’s Kingdom on Earth.
Also, Literalist Christianity’s insistence on proper beliefs caused it, like Constantine, to abhor diversity and dissent:
The proto-orthodox strategy involved stressing the notion of “unity” on all levels. The proto-orthodox stressed the unity of God with his creation: There is one God, and he created the world. They stressed the unity of God and Jesus: Jesus is the one son of the one God. They stressed the unity of Jesus and Christ: He is “one and the same.” They stressed the unity of the church: Divisions are caused by heretics. And they stressed the unity of truth: Truth is not contradictory or at odds with itself. (Lost Christianities at 189)
Thus, all of these characteristics, unique to Literalist Christianity, would have had great appeal to a dictator like Constantine, for whom reuniting the empire was his chief obsession. The Literalist cry for unity--“one God, one religion”, meshed enormously well with Constantine’s own cry for unity--“one Empire, one Emperor.”
Third, because the primary pagan religions of the day were not based upon historical events, but rather spiritual insight, they were more malleable than Literalist Christianity. So long as their symbolic rituals were largely preserved, their gods could be absorbed into the Christian god and pantheon of saints without much resistance. However, the reverse was not true--followers of the "one true God" generally resisted the blending of that god with any other. Thus, to use an analogy, Literalist Christianity became the Christmas tree upon which the emperors were able to hang the ornaments of the other religions. It was the vine upon which the other religions, and their symbols, could be grafted. Orthodox Christianity proved remarkably willing to accept the accoutrements, symbols and rites of the pagan religions so long as all deferred to the authority of its leaders. More than symbols, more than perhaps even doctrine, the most important thing to orthodox Christians was preservation of the Roman Church’s hierarchical organizational structure, for it was by this means that it retained its power.
A Summary of Constantine's Method
Thus, through a well-orchestrated combination of religious suppression and corruption, Constantine and his successors formed a confederation of religions united under imperial rule. Over time these religions eventually became one, a universal one, a catholic one, with emperor and then eventually the bishop of Rome at its head—one God, one religion, one empire and one emperor/Pope. Constantine was ultimately successful beyond his wildest imagination, though not completely during his lifetime.
Theodosius Makes it Official
Nearly sixty years after Constantine’s death, the amalgamated religion we call Literalist Christianity became the official, and only tolerated, religion of the empire:
As a result of the favors Constantine poured out upon the church, conversion to the Christian faith soon became “popular.” At the beginning of the fourth century, Christians may have comprised something like 5 to 7 percent of the population; but with the conversion of Constantine the church grew in leaps and bounds. By the end of the century it appears to have been the religion of choice of fully half the empire. After Constantine, every emperor except one was Christian. Theodosius I (emperor 379-95 CE) made Christianity (specifically Roman Christianity, with the bishop of Rome having ultimate religious authority) the official religion of the state. He opposed the surviving pagan religions and eventually banned pagan sacrificial practices. More conversions naturally flowed, until Christianity became the religion to be handed down to the Middle Ages and onwards. (Lost Christianities at 250-251).
Even though the Theodosius I made the bishop of Rome head of the state religion late in the 4th Century, this title was largely an honorary one. Until the ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire about 100 years later, the emperor more or less retained control of all apparatuses of the state, including its official religion. After the fall of Rome, when the emperor was no more, the bishop of Rome, later to be called the Pope, became the de facto leader of Roman Christianity in both title and practice.
Thus, after Constantine, Gnostic Christianity was all but annihilated, along with its various pagan versions. Its books were burned, and its proponents were prosecuted, banished or murdered:
In the fifth and sixth centuries bands of black-robed Christian monks roamed unchecked throughout the disintegrating empire, laying waste to the wonders of Pagan civilization. A pagan wrier of the time described them as “monks who resemble men but live like pigs” and laments that ”anyone who had a black robe had despotic power.”
Like the Taliban, who dynamited ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan, Christian monks destroyed ancient Pagan temples that had stood for thousands of years. Their priests and priestesses were exiled, murdered or simply chained in their sanctuaries and left to starve. The wealth of the temples was shared out between the emperor and the bishops. Philosophers and heretics were murdered or exiled. Great libraries were torched.
[L]iteralist Christians believed that by revering the Bible as the infallible Word of God they would usher in a new age of Christian enlightenment. But they were completely wrong. In fact the lights went out over Europe and the West reverted to a brutish life of ignorance and superstition. Literalist Christians hoped to bring about the Kingdom of God, but they actually created the thousand years of misery that we call the “Dark Ages.” (Laughing Jesus at 79)
Even so, Gnosticism never died. Despite suppression, its basic tenants continued to resurface in various secretive, heretical movements throughout the Dark Ages and even into the present century. Each time it has appeared, the Roman Church in particular has gone to extraordinary lengths to destroy it (and any other “heresies” for that matter). With brutal efficiency, the Roman Church eventually forced Gnosticism and other heresies completely underground. It teachings were preserved in various esoteric traditions like alchemy, tarot, cabala, the grail romances and freemasonry, all of which, not surprisingly, were shunned by the Roman Church as the “work of the devil.”
To provide the unfamiliar reader with some sense of the extensiveness and brutality of the centuries-long suppression of Gnosticism that eventually drove it underground, some examples are necessary. One of the more famous examples was the Albigensian Crusade, which lasted nearly fifty years. It was launched in 1209 CE, when an army of knights invaded the Languedoc region of France at the behest of Pope Innocent III. The purpose of the crusade was to exterminate the Cathars, a Christian group with unabashedly Gnostic beliefs that was responsible for a growing heresy. In fact, the Cathars were so popular in the Languedoc region of France that their beliefs threatened to replace Roman Literalism as the dominant religion of the region.
Like the original Gnostics of nearly a thousand years before, the Cathars were dualists, included females among their preachers and teachers, taught that God could be experienced personally and directly through gnosis, and had little use for institutionalized religion or the authority of bishops, priests or popes. Naturally, it was the last of these characteristics that proved most offensive to Rome and ultimately ended them.
In contrast to their notoriously corrupt counterparts in the Roman Literalist Church, the Cathar leaders were among the most highly respected members of a culture that was at the time among most sophisticated in all of Christendom. The Languedoc region of the Cathars was one of the few bright lights in Western Europe during the Dark Ages. Nearly 50 years before the crusade was launched, St. Bernard commented of the Cathars that, “No sermons are more Christian than theirs,” and “their morals are pure.”(quoted in Holy Blood, Holy Grail at 54).
The Albigensian Crusade was named after the Cathar stronghold of Albi, which ultimately fell to the invading crusaders. The devastations these crusaders wrought on the Cathars and the entire Languedoc region cannot be overstated:
[T]he whole territory was ravaged, crops were destroyed, town and cities were razed, a whole population was put the sword. This extermination occurred on so vast, so terrible a scale that it may well constitute the first case of “genocide” in modern European history. In the town of Beziers alone, for example, at least fifteen thousand men, women, and children were slaughtered wholesale—many of them in the sanctuary of the church itself. When an officer inquired of the Pope’s representative how he might distinguish heretics from true believers, the reply was, “Kill them all. God will recognize His own.” This quotation, though widely reported, may well be apocryphal. Nevertheless, it typifies the fanatical zeal and bloodlust with which the atrocities were perpetuated. The same papal representative, writing to [Pope] Innocent III in Rome, announced proudly that “neither age nor sex nor status was spared.” (Holy Blood, Holy Grail at _____)
The length of the crusade is a testament to the strength of faith of the Cathars. The Cathars repeatedly refused to compromise their beliefs or submit to the authority of the Pope, fighting to the death in some instances, and accepting martyrdom without resistance in others. In one instance, at the town of Montsegur, nearly two hundred Cathar leaders chose to be burned alive en masse in an open field rather than recant their beliefs. In all, over one hundred thousand people were massacred in southern France during this one crusade alone.
The knights who participated in the crusades against the Cathars received the customary reward from the Pope for their service--forgiveness of sins, a guaranteed place in Heaven, all the loot they could plunder, and title to the conquered lands. To this day the Languedoc has not completely recovered from the devastation the church wrought upon it over eight hundred years ago. Though once wealthy and comparatively advanced, it is today one of the poorest and most backward regions of France.
A second historical example of suppression of Gnostic ideas by Literalist is the horrid treatment of women. The cause of the early Literalists hatred of women is unknown: New Testament Bible verses supporting female inferiority are relatively scarce, and some of those that do exist are now known to be forgeries or spurious additions passed off by Literalists. So why are Literalist so often misogynists?
Some suggest that the Literalists dislike of the female gender stems from a hatred of, and attempts to discredit, the Gnostics:
The Gnostics were famous, or infamous if you were a Literalists, for the equality they afforded women. Not only did Gnostic women preach, baptize, and celebrate the Eucharist, many Gnostic groups were even named after women, as were many Gnostic gospels. (Laughing Jesus at 74)
The Literalist Tertullian writes about Gnostic women:
The very women of these heretics, how wanton they are! For they are bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures—it may be even to baptize.
Perhaps then it was for this reason that hatred of women ran deep among Literalists. For instance, Turtullian writes of women in general, “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in the age” and “[t]he guilt must of necessity live too.” He continues, “You are the devil’s gateway” and calls women defectively formed deceivers who caused Jesus’ death (as a result of Eve’s failure). Many prominent Literalists considered women to be subhuman, having been formed only from Adams’ rib rather than fully in the image of God (as was Adam).
Centuries later, in 1486, this distrust and hatred toward women resulted in the publication of Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch’s Hammer) by two monks in Germany. This text lays out a procedure, which was subsequently adopted widely in the Church, for discovering and brutally punishing witchcraft or sorcery. This text is very possibly responsible for more death and human suffering than any other publication in human history, with the possible exceptions of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Conservative estimates place the number of women who died because of it and the related witch hunts and Inquisitions at forty thousand, while extreme estimates go as high as nine million. The sad truth probably lies somewhere in between, but even this doesn’t count the hundreds of thousands, or more likely millions more, who were brutally and hideously tortured or maimed but ultimately survived their "interrogation". It is a sad fact that the art and instruments of torture achieved a previously unknown degree of perfection at the hands of the Church who used it as a means of coercing confessions from suspected witches or other heretics.
Nearly all [victims of the witch hunts], scholars tell us, were women, old, young, midwives, Jews, poets, and gypsies—anyone who didn’t fit the contemporary view of what it took to be a pious Christian. (Secrets of the Code at 157)
Other famous examples of Church persecution of “heresy” include the destruction of the Knights Templar, the Spanish Inquisition, the burning alive of Joan of Arc, church sponsored Antisemitism, and the Crusades.
Century after century of suppression ultimately had its intended effect. As Elaine Pagels notes:
The efforts of the majority to destroy every trace of heretical “blasphemy” proved so successful that, until the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, nearly all our information concerning alternative forms of early Christianity came from the massive Orthodox attacks upon them. (quoted in Secrets of the Code at 96).
And as Bart Ehrman notes, Literalists were able to :
rewr[i]te the history of the controversy, making it appear that there had not been much of a conflict at all, claiming that its own views had always been those of the majority of Christians at all times, back to the time of Jesus and his apostles, that its perspective, in effect, had always been “orthodox” (i.e., the “right belief”) and that its opponents in the conflict, with their other scriptural texts, had always represented small splinter groups invested in deceiving people into “heresy” (literally meaning “choice”, a heretic is someone who willfully chooses not to believe the right things). (Lost Christianities at 4)
Despite that the diversity of early Christianity, and the subsequent suppression of all but Literalist ideas, are well-known to New Testament scholars of all persuasions, most ordinary Literalist Christians remain unaware that there was ever a competing form of Christianity, much less a commonly accepted one. Christian laypersons continue to view the early years of the church as a golden age of cooperation and agreement, free from troubling heresies and conflicts that arose much later. But the simple fact remains that, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote “[h]ad [the Gnostic capital of] Alexandria triumphed and not Rome, the extravagant and muddled stories [of the Gnostics] would be coherent, majestic, and perfectly ordinary [to us today]”.
With this in mind, what confidence can we have that our received version of Christianity is indeed the "true" one? In other words, given its coercive history, how can we be certain that the Literalist interpretation is the correct one, or that there even is a "correct" one?
(CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 7)