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November 15, 2007 | Religion

Was the Most Legitimate Form of Christianity Destroyed?

As a disclaimer to this entry, I have never read The Da Vinci Code. I did not read it because scholars consider it to be historically problematic and I did not want incorrect information to be lodged in my brain. I am not even sure how much resemblance, if any, this entry will bear to the theories of The Da Vinci Code.

Christianity today, as I said in my last blog entry, is a result of the victory of a particular interpretation of the life of Jesus, of which there were many. Ebionites ("adoptionists"), Marcionites, Gnostics, Aryans, and of course the proto-Christians. They believed a huge variety of things such as that Jesus was pure man, Jesus was pure God, salvation comes from believing Jesus died for your sins, salvation comes from understanding the secret teachings of Jesus, you have to follow the Jewish law, you don't have to follow Jewish law, Jesus was part of a 3-part God, Jesus was a good god that had come to replace the evil god of the Old Testament, there were 100 gods, etc. It was only after 300 years of the existence of these mutually exclusive interpretations of Christianity that one of them finally won out and exterminated the others.

How do we know that the most legitimate form of Christianity, the one that contained the actual teachings of Jesus, won? The answer is we don't.

Paul is considered by scholars to be just as important as Jesus in the founding of modern Christianity, as he is the originator of the interpretation of Jesus' life that eventually "won". About half of the books of the New Testament are either written by Paul or pseudonymously written by Paul (claimed to be written by Paul, but are probably forgeries). Paul supposedly converted to Christianity a few years after Jesus' death upon seeing a vision of Jesus. Paul's writings, which are in the form of letters ("epistles"), were written about 20 years after Paul's conversion. Paul's writings are the earliest Christian writings that we have, written down even before the gospels themselves.

So doesn't that make Paul's writings the most trustworthy? Well, not exactly. Paul is the originator of the proto-Christian interpretation of Jesus' life. The other groups that were prevalent at the time of Paul had their own writings; it's just that those writings were destroyed when proto-Christianity won centuries later. Paul even talks about these other groups in his letters as he tries to convince various churches to believe him and not them.

Why do so many of the books of the New Testament appear to be forgeries? The reason is due to the clashes of early brands of Christianity. Writings of the apostles or early church leaders were cherished by the different groups in privileging their interpretation over other groups' interpretations. Forgeries were created in order to attack the legitimacy of other groups.

Why would Paul be considered to be someone who could be an authority on Jesus? Paul never knew Jesus, he doesn't discuss Jesus' life in his letters, he insists that new converts not become Jewish and not follow the law (whereas Jesus and his disciples WERE Jewish and DID follow the law) and Paul himself even says that Peter (one of Jesus' brothers) took over the early church after Jesus was crucified. Well what happened to Peter? What did he think about the whole thing? There are two books of Peter in the New Testament, but unfortunately neither of them are widely considered by scholars to be actually written by Peter. Of the two books, 2 Peter is obviously a different author than the first, so virtually all scholars believe 2 Peter to be a forgery. 1 Peter is also highly suspicious, since it was thought to have been written after 100 AD, and is written in a very educated Greek, whereas Peter would have spoken Aramaic, been poor, relatively uneducated, and possibly illiterate.

Something doesn't smell right here. What did Jesus' disciples actually believe? Did they agree with Paul? Well it turns out that there was an early group of Christianity considered by many scholars to be probably the oldest. Paul refers to them in his letters and battled with them. They had their own texts, which were in Aramaic, not Greek, and which predated the gospels by far. They were also strict pacifists, as Jesus seemed to be. This group was Jewish, whereas most of Paul's converts were Gentiles. This group claimed that all of it's teachings about the interpretation of Jesus' life came directly from Peter, which would give them a trump card over Paul and the most defensible pedigree. This group was the Ebionites (a.k.a. the "adoptionists"). The Ebionites probably got their name from the Hebrew word for "poor", since they were known to literally give all their possessions away as Jesus encouraged and live in communes together.

Well what else did the Ebionites believe? The Ebionites thought that Paul was a heretic. The Ebionites believed that Jesus was just a man, a very righteous man, but just a man; the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets. They consequently also considered the virgin birth story to be an invention. The Ebionites are often called "adoptionists" because they believed that, for a time, God adopted Jesus to preach his word. In the end God leaves Jesus, however. This is why Jesus says as he is being crucified, "Lord, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) It seems the Ebionites also considered the story of Jesus' resurrection to be just that; a story. They also did not believe that Jesus died for our sins! The Ebionite scripture seems to have been similar to the Gospel of Matthew, but in Aramaic and "missing" the first 2 chapters of Matthew that talk about the virgin birth.

Since the Ebionites were Jewish, they insisted that to become one of them you must adhere to Jewish law, receive circumcision, etc., and so Gentiles did not convert to them in great numbers. Since Jews in general were cold on Christianity, the Ebionites had a small following indeed (just like Jesus!). Pauline proto-Christians were far more successful at converting Gentiles, and eventually this led to Pauline Christian converts in positions of Roman political power. Centuries later, Pauline proto-Christianity was embraced officially by the Roman Empire and the Ebionites, along with the other flavors of Christianity, were destroyed.

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