by Cody Pogue
Jesus was crucified somewhere around the year 30 CE. His followers began preaching his message immediately after, but they often found that they had different interpretations of who Jesus was and what his message was. He often spoke in parables and everything wasn’t always completely clear to them. Besides that, they came from different backgrounds, cultures, and levels of education, which meant that they often interpreted his message through different personal biases. Because of this, the early church was filled with conflicting theologies, philosophies, and ideologies.
The first known Gospel to have been written was that of Mark. It was probably written around 70 CE, about 40 years after the crucifixion. Mark was probably not a disciple who knew Jesus personally, but his Gospel was probably written based upon first-hand accounts of people who did. Shortly after Mark’s Gospel was complete, another gospel that has been lost to history was written, which we now know as the Q source. Around 85 CE, a devout Jew possibly named Matthew used the Gospel of Mark, the Q source, and other first-hand accounts to craft his own Gospel, which presented Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy.
By this time, the message of Jesus was being preached far and wide. Peter, James, and John were preaching the message of Jesus in Jerusalem and they saw the Jesus movement as a branch of Judaism that preached forgiveness, love, rejection of wealth, rejection of everything Roman, and the importance of helping others. An educated Roman citizen named Paul heard the message of Jesus and combined it with Hebrew doctrine and Greek philosophy to turn Christianity into a form of Neoplatonism that appealed strongly to wealthy Roman citizens, and he preached it throughout the Roman Empire, and even in Rome itself. Other versions of the Jesus movement were preached in different cities throughout the known world at the time.
A doctor named Luke traveled with Paul and wrote the Gospel of Luke loosely based upon the prior sources he found as well as upon the teachings he heard from Paul. Finally, sometime between 90 and 100 CE, a man named John took all of the stories he had heard and combined them with popular philosophy and theology of the time and created the Book of John.
There were so many different versions of Christianity in the early church, and that led to a lot of confusion about everything associated with it. That all began to change in 312 CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine began to accept a version of Christianity. In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed tolerance for Christians throughout Rome and in 380, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
If Christianity was going to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was going to have to be organized better than it was, so the Roman government joined together with the church to plan a series of conferences to figure out exactly what Christians would believe. As the majority of Christian and secular leaders in the Roman Empire created a Christian theology, other devout Christian leaders who had differing beliefs were pushed aside. Eventually, Rome set out on a mission to eradicate versions of Christianity the government didn’t like. Voices were silenced and books were burned.
In Egypt, a group of devout monks worried that they would be persecuted by the church and their beliefs destroyed because they rejected the official church teachings, which were based upon the writings of Paul. In an attempt to save their Christian writings, they buried them in a cave at Nag Hammadi, not to be found until 1945. Because of this discovery, we now have access to many other Gospels and early writings of Christianity that were rejected by the Roman Empire such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Secret Book of James, the Treatise of the Resurrection, the Exegesis of the Soul, the Dialogue of the Savior, and many other sources.
All of these sources were rejected, but it was debatable for the longest time which books would be in the Bible. Some Roman leaders wanted to add books that are currently not in the canon while others wanted to reject books that are. While each individual had different criteria, they wanted to find books written before 120 CE that fit in with the dominant religious theology of the Roman Empire. The Book of Hebrews was always in question because nobody was sure of who the author was. Even today, while many Christians say Paul wrote it, most scholars disagree. The Revelation of John was also rejected by many leaders at the time but still managed to make it into the canon. In 367 CE, the Bishop of Rome created the first official list of books that are now the scripture of the New Testament, but it wasn’t formalized into church doctrine until 692 CE.
Shortly after the rise of Christianity, the Western Roman Empire fell and the church became the dominant power in Western Europe soon after (I am grossly oversimplifying a lot of history here). Over the next century, church leaders manipulated the culture of Christianity in order to gain power and wealth, often at the expense of the uneducated masses they led. This created a very strict religion that had lots of rules, a strict hierarchy that people could face death for challenging, and a strong belief in magic and superstition.
It wasn’t until around 1517 that the culture of Christianity really began to take a new direction, but by that time, protestant leaders were limited by their own cultural understandings, their distaste for all things Catholic, and their constant beat of war with both Catholics and Muslims that their interpretations of scripture were easily as influenced by 16th century European culture much more than 1st century Hebrew culture. In some instances, Protestantism had as much to do with the personal ambitions and desires of kings as it did with theology.
When Protestantism came to the American colonies, it was shaped by 2 new forces: slavery and the frontier. American ministers wrestled with the question of slavery. At first, they argued that slaves were part of an earlier creation and had no soul, which meant they could be enslaved and it was fine because they would never have to stand before the judgment of God. Eventually, they changed their theology to say that slaves were descendants of Noah’s son Ham, and were therefore cursed, which made slavery morally correct. After much handwringing, American theologians finally decided that slaves were human beings with souls who needed salvation like everyone else but comforted themselves by saying that black people were childlike and not smart enough to understand Christianity, therefore, slavery was a good thing in the eyes of God because it helped bring them to salvation.
The other factor that influenced American Christianity was the frontier. The American frontier had harsh conditions and it was often every man for himself. Nobody got a handout and a gun was necessary to make it. Christianity combined with this culture to create a new, uniquely American Jesus who no longer said “Turn the other cheek”, but instead said, “God helps those who help themselves.”
American Christianity changed even more in the 1950s. Soldiers came home from World War 2 and needed hope, so they went to church, and church attendance reached all-time highs. This happened at the same time America was getting into a cold war against communism, consumerism was on the rise, and desegregation was a fear for white people. Because this was a time of such high church attendance, all of these cultural factors of the 1950s got thrown into the melting pot of American Christianity.
The 1980s saw another major change in Christianity. Republican politicians of the Reagan administration felt that defining Democrats as “godless communists” and portraying Republicans as Christian warriors was a good way to win elections. They began their strategy, appealing to the old frontier spirit that valued masculinity and demonizing gay people as an enemy that spread diseases. They redefined abortion as a moral issue and pretended that anyone who didn’t want to make abortion illegal couldn’t be a Christian. They pretended that union organizers and college professors were tools of Satan and that poor people simply didn’t have God’s blessing. They taught that the planet was not sacred, but simply something God gave us to exploit in the pursuit of wealth. By framing this agenda and repeating it over and over again, the Reagan administration not only overturned the New Deal and ended 50 years of American progress, but they also changed Christianity once again and made it into a harsh political arm of the Republican party that believed the ends always justified the means and that it is okay to lie, cheat, support thins you don’t believe in, and even go against the Bible as long as you are doing your Christian duty of helping Republicans get elected. This rebranding of Christian culture eventually led to war with Iraq, cuts to social safety net programs, having Donald Trump as president, cuts to education and healthcare, and numerous other initiatives that go completely against the Bible, yet are still supported by Christians today.
It’s at the end of this 2,000 years of baggage that I sit here on Easter as an American Christian who rejects much of what American Christianity stands for, hoping that it will take a new direction back to the message of love, acceptance, and hope Jesus originally spoke so long ago. I guess in a way, I am looking back to that controversial book of Revelations that so many early Christians were torn on and like it says in ch. 2, I am hoping the church will return to its first love.
I am hopeful, but also realistic. I don’t think returning to anything is possible. Like the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus famously said, we can’t step into the same river twice. I don’t think we can go back, but I do think we can create something new. We can create a new culture of love, a new culture of hope, and a new culture of helping each other. We can reject the baggage of the past, ignore those things which are behind, and press on to the mark of the prize of a new calling. It’s possible, and I believe we are the people to change everything.
Michael McClanahan says
Thank you for posting this. Well researched and well stated. Could not agree with you more. Your column adds historical perspective that, in my view, adds depth and richness to the story, whereas, the evangelicals that desperately need to see it won’t read it or will attack it as they feel threatened.