A comparison of three presentations of Jesus: Orthodox, Early and Gnostic.
Becoming The Orthodox Jesus
Christianity essentially comes from the New Testament that is garnished with symbolic mythology and dramatic legend. As a realist, let me dive straight in by saying that the gospels were anonymous until the second century, we don't know who wrote them! The gospel of John is attribute to an unnamed witness and dates for its origin are set around 80-100 CE. Mark is believed to be the oldest at 65-75 CE with Matthew and Luke respectively compiled around 80-110 CE. These documents were not novel-like historical memoirs as we might expect. E. P Sanders explained that first century preachers of the Jesus movement had numerous snippets or pericopes of scripture which increased in number over time. He writes that post crucifixion, the apostles went underground and did not produce a fine body of literature at all. If they did, he is saying that the world would have an in-depth Jesus themed biography; numerous scholars believe insufficient literacy prevented such publications. Academic weight does not make an idea correct, does it? We can see differing facts within the New Testament inspired new and diverse denominations: Calvanist's, for example, believe that followers are chosen for savour in a predetermined divine plan. Catholics on the other hand, believe that people need faith and baptism to be saved, and Unitarians do not all recognise Jesus as the actual son of God. Our various representations of Christ manifest in historical, cultural and political forms too; the British imperial Jesus emerged, as well as the Anglo Saxon and Nordic warrior Jesus popped up, and there's evan a radical white American Bible belt Jesus, not forgetting black Jesus, and so on. The Jesus verse is a huge topic but it shows the differences in interpretation and story telling over time.
Did interpretation of Ante-Nicene Christian scripture shape religious practice and belief across the world?
The Bible on Seeing God:
"...I have seen God face to face, and, my life is preserved." Genesis 32:30
"No man hath seen God at any time..." John 1:18
This may well be why there is a synoptic problem showings the gospels to be historically inaccurate. We cannot determine who was influencing who! John's gospel has somewhat antisemitic tones despite the apostles and their Lord likely having Jewish ancestry. If these writings were originally written by Jewish Christians to help with their oral renditions of their revered leader, they become less important as their recitements. Like scripts or notes later found and then embellished, shaping a very different kind of Christianity. With beliefs in Christian scribeocracies the emergence of the mysterious Q source (which I don't like). This theoretical pre-existing gospel combined with Mark is thought to have possibly made up portions of the remaining gospels. I don't know if this is trying to force the wrong pieces into the puzzle or if it's not seeing the forest for the trees.
Another biblical reservation I used to have is the scientific errors: when day and night existed before we even had a sun! These ancient writers were not modern physicists. Undeniable evidence argues it as fact that humans evolved over millions of years, but, the certain denominations say seven days is the correct time span of creation because it is ancient and completely unaware of science. If we could time travel, we may well be regarded as angels or god's by ancient civilisations. In defence of ancient Christian scripture, Samuel Noah Kramer's work on Sumerian-Babylonian civilisation also shows Jewish-Babylonian culture. Babylonian mythologies played a part in Jewish identity and we can see the common ground in both of their versions of Genesis, The Flood and The Tower Of Babel. This does not mean either cultures are wrong.
That being said, Trey the Explainer the YouTuber did a very well revised video about how the Bible changed over time. He explained that Jesus's prayer about forgiving his enemies during his crucifixion in Luke 23:24 is missing in older versions. That is to say, Papyrus 75, written in 200 AD did not feature this dialogue. In fact, It appears in a 300 AD work called the Codex Sinaiticus. At the same time, we should never forget other scientific and copying errors, the contradictions and the alterations. In Papyrus 66 or 75 circa 200 AD, the "Cast the First Stone" narrative concerning the adulterous woman is not found, Jesus, Paul of Tarsus, James the Just, Cephas and the apostles died years before it was even written. The story doesn't appear in Codices Vaticanus or Sanaiticus but it manifests in the Codex Bezae compiled 400 AD (we don't know how original oral lore differed to later scripture). The ending of Mark could also have been added centuries after Jesus's crucifixion. The ending in the earliest dated Mark only has dialogue between three women in Christs tomb and a white robed man who seems to be a messenger. The popular conclusion of Mark 9:20 also textually emerged in 400 AD.
During antiquity civilisation was predominantly superstitious and, in Israel, talk of the resurrected dead and faith healing was common. Consider how medieval minds well over a thousand years later spoke of goblins and fairies! Europe is still harbouring superstitious beliefs today! Mental illness was not understood either, did that help shape superstition or fears? The British Time For Change mental health campaign 2007—2021 stated that 1 in 4 Brits will experience mental illness. This statistic refereed to a well developed successful peace-time country with profoundly better life chances and life expectancy than first century Palestine. The oppressed first century people lacked free mental and physical health care and policing. Going on the Bible, the happiness index rating wouldn't have been fantastic, leading me to suppose that per capita, Israel had more mental illness than today's U.K. I don't know how many New Testament characters of interest were symptomatic of an actual mental condition, how could we tell? Bipolar highs can be a very spiritual and subjective experience, it's easy to picture the magical thinking of a schizotypal personality and the ritual behaviours of a highly religious OCD sufferer in that period. Julius Caesar's epileptic seizures were taken with a pinch of divinity. If we took a team of psychiatrists back through time would they diagnose Jesus with a mental condition? In Mark 3:31-5 (if this is accurate) Jesus disowned his mother and brothers calling his religious followers his family instead; was Jesus merely cultivating what scholars have portrayed as his religio-political community of non-violent resistance to Rome and Herod Antipas? None of this is straight forward, but it should be. What happened?What warrants our ongoing daily Christendom? These dominant world religious orders are based on unsound scripture, and for me, there is human hypocrisy, considering historical Christian persecution of others. Recall Jesus's teaching about giving everything to the poor: a National Post article in 2013 claimed the Catholic Church was incalculably wealthy—a camel finally got through the eye of someone's needle!
This doesn't help me build any faith in the main religious organisations. The daily news informs us of new crimes and great threats scarier than what any apostle ever saw. From my perspective, evaluating the very literal view of the New Testament Jesus, we might be looking at a failed messiah. Matthew 15:21-28 shows that Christs personal mission was specifically for the "lost sheep of Israel". The twelve apostles were supposedly symbolic representations of the lost tribes of Israel, but, it seems, the names of the apostles aren't consistent in the New Testament. Out of Jesus' flock of sympathisers, followers, patrons and supporters, rigidly sticking to the rule of a symbolic dozen seems like a questionable endeavour. His crucifixion as an act of martyrdom became legendary and sadly, most of Israels people still suffered tragedy regardless. Christ's Kingdom of God spanned across his loved holy land, the poor and disenfranchised had messianic expectations of him which many felt were not met, there was no Davidic kingdom. The Romans remained and Emperor Vespasian slaughtered countless zealots (some of whom may have have been Christian) in the first Jewish-Roman war decades after the crucifixion. This is why I feel this type of biblical mission from Jesus failed. It's unfair to blame a nation for "not being saved," realistically; there's immorality to be had if any nations faith faces persecution for abstaining from religious conversion. The pre-orthodox church Jesus gave his life, a diaspora followed. Jewish Christianity became increasingly gentile and anti-Semitic.
The pursuit for the historical Jesus
When the supernatural and religious aspects of Christ are put aside and people stare through the lens of academia we see a blurry, out of focus figure emerge. Greatly silhouetted and inaudibly speaking to his congregation of followers who sit huddled in the dark—very little is agreed upon. Though, on a positive note, Scholars and experts from various backgrounds do continue to strive.
Historical Jesus seminars often agree that:
1) Jesus was a real man
2) Jesus was baptised
3) Jesus preached
4) Jesus was crucified
After the crucifixion, Jesus's brother, James the just became head of the Church of Jerusalem—the Ebionites adored him. The earliest Ebionites were a sect of Christians centred in Jerusalem and originally part of Jesus' wide circle. This was before the written Bible or the Christian Church. In the second century, educated hellenised writers, known as Church or Founding Fathers branded the Ebionites as heretics. This was mostly because their belief in Christ as a human being, as well as their adoptionist Christology centred around Jesus's legendary baptism given by John the Baptist. J. D Crossan and E. P Sanders have both said that titles such as "Son of God" were not necessarily blasphemous within context. You see, Israel and Rome had their own title son of God. Augustus Caesar was known as such because Julius Caesar (the man he saw as a father) was seen as a god. However, any resistance leader called the "Son of God" showed defiance to Roman authority, just as use of the name the "King of the Jews" challenged Herod Antipas. This shows rebellion in Jesus. It is hard to know if any of these reconstructed Historical Jesus's are successful enough to be Christ, given the poor scholarly agreement!
The Gnostic JesusThe significance of ancient baptism is insightful. There seems to be more going on than what, laymen like me, might fully understand. For starters, John the Baptist belonged to a Gnostic religion called Mandaeism which differed slightly to the common Judaism of the time, many internet sources claim it has roots in old Mesopotamia! Like later sects deemed Gnostic, it has a dualist theology (a spirit world and an inferior physical domain). Those who teach use parable and metaphor (which Jesus famously did). Mandaeism holds that the creation of our cosmos was undertaken by an archetype spiritual man, which I find reminiscent of a heavenly father, sky god worship existed in older Middle Eastern belief system across Mesopotamia, along with older stories about Adam and Eve and the great flood/deluge.
In fact, the Aramaic meaning of "Manda" is knowledge, but also, the same meaning sits with the Greek word "Gnosis". Mandaeism is classed as an official Gnostic religion. The priestly class are called Nasoraeans, also expressing another meaning for knowledge. Nasoraean is a crossover word with Nazarene, Notzri and Notzrim; anglicised Hebrew words for Christians. These correlations seem to hold some promise. Today Mandaeism still exists but it's dwindling and it certainly doesn't revere Jesus. John the Baptist, Adam, Seth and Noah are central figures. In the first century on grounds of persecution, they left Jerusalem according to Encyclopedia Iranica (2022)—other sources blame Christians. Accounts of Jesus giving his secret teachings to his chosen handful brings to mind the same practices of Nasoraeans within Mandaean gatherings, not to mention the same practices in Nag Hammadi Gnostic gospels. I imagine Jesus and many of his peers were involved in Mandaean life at some point, but now I'm starting to sound like a "heretic" myself! E. P Sanders wrote that Jesus possibly modified his Johannian eschatological approach after John was beheaded around 30 AD.
Mandaeans don't convert outsiders to their faith; this strongly indicates family connection to the faith. After Johns death some of his followers joined Jesus and moved on. Third and fourth century gentile Christians had a different religious outlook to those communities who saw life as having some form of cosmological dualism, sadly, this validated their persecution by the developing hellenistic church, it was mostly gentile or meaning non-Jewish. All the same, "Gnosticism" is a modern term and Early Christians of this kind didn't use it to describe themselves. It's a scholarly word which marked theologies if they met the criteria.
What are basic Gnostic beliefs?
Generally ancient Christians enjoyed the canonical scripture including various themes identified as Gnostic today. They were considered Christian. Typically we find ideas of an inferior material world, crafted by an imperfect Aeon (appears like God to humans). The creator Aeon emerged from an older Aeon (Sophia) who was one of countless other emanations of the God head. She fell from grace because she caused this artisan to form the lower material realms such as the earth or the cosmos. However, after repenting she was forgiven and stayed within the lower realms watching and comforting as the Holy Spirit or Wisdom. The creator-like Aeon that emanated from her was known as Saklas, Yaldabaoth or Samael, or Abraxas, it depended on the sect! He shaped this world like an artisan would. Unaware and ignorant of the origin of his materials as well as the heavenly pleroma/nirvana, and the source of all things. It sounds quite panentheist in nature but, the cosmology has a lot in common with Platonism, philosophically speaking. Agreed, these are alternative views, diversity in theological ideas existed in Early Christianity. Later however, the direction changed. Many wealthy gentiles took up Christianity over the years, it was mostly the educated, who ironically banned and burnt books they thought to be heretical. Be that as it is, cosmology within Nag Hammadi was at odds with the new standard model and it describes humanity as descending from an impossibly long spiritual ancestry to the very beginning. We are (according to most Gnostic sources) imprisoned in our material world by the demiurge, later held synonymous with the Biblical God Yahweh. Of course, Gnostic Christ is different. He is the son of the most high who bonded within the soul of a human, Jesus. Adoptionist, (who weren't only Gnostics) say this happened during Jesus's annointment with John the Baptiser: numerous theologial perspectives circulated that era! A majority of Early Christians, especially Ebionites, favoured adoptionism. Christs teachings were said to free people of bondage, showing them the inner spark of the true God within themselves.
My Church is better than your Church!
In general, the over-all consensus of Nag Hammadi scriptures describe Jesus with only two mission. One was to spend his time enjoying his people in order to awaken them to the truth. The other was more of an endurance than a mission. He makes references to having to be judged by the world. His parables about the Kingdom of God teachings are abundant in Gnostic writings and The New Testament. It seems this generalised Gnostic representation of Jesus succeeded in his mission, despite his horrific demise! Christianity is the worlds largest religion.
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Kramer, S N, (1971) The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. Phoenix Books
John Dominic Crossan, (1992) The Historical Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco
Fenwick, E, & Fenwick, E (2008) The Art of Dying. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Bain, B, (1999) Near Death Experiences and Gnostic Christianity: Parallels in Antiquity: Journal of near death studies.
Theissen, G & Merz, A. (1999) The Historical Jesus. SCM Press
E. P Sanders. (1996) The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin Putman.
Meyer, M, W. (2009) The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Harper Collins
Yamauchi, Edwin M. (2004)Gnostic Ethics and Mandaean Origins. Georgia Press
Morrison, K. (2013) Wealth of Roman Catholic Church impossible to calculate. The National Post.