Above — Paul of Tarsus, The Apostle Paul
This is the second of three Essays on Christianity.
Our first Essay, Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching, discussed the religion that was actually taught by Jesus, (we call it “The Religion of Jesus,”) as demonstrated by his Earthly deeds and words. It might be called “the original version of Christianity.”
This second Essay, Early Christianity: From Jesus Death to 312 C.E., considers the religion that other people created about Jesus.” It looks at the tremendous changes made in the 312 years after Jesus’ death, as Christianity was popularized and sensationalized by his followers, and tirelessly promoted by the Apostle Paul. We’ll discuss Early Christianity, including the Apostles, Gospels, and the Gnostics. Finally, we end with Christianity’s adoption and codification under the Holy Roman Empire, starting in the year 312.
Our third Essay, Medieval Catholicism to Protestant Reformation, covers Christianity from 312 to 1660 as it becomes the most widely practiced religion in today’s world and then transformed reformed by Protestantism starting around 1517. (Note: Islam is second largest religions in the world, and it is growing rapidly.)
We have also written a separate Essay — Modern Cults & Unusual Spiritual Paths — covering the cults and sects, Christian and non-Christian, that are mostly concentrated in the United States.
Note: Our “Timeline of Christianity,” lists the dates of key events across the 2,200 years since Jesus’ Crucifixion. You can find it in APPENDIX A at the end of this Essay.
The most important development in this Second Essay is the transformation of Jesus from a gifted, charismatic, human preacher to Jesus-as-God, co-equal with God-the-Father and God-the-Holy Spirit, and the transformation of “God the Severe Father” into “God the Forgiving Father.” This transformation was accomplished by Christian gospel-writers and preachers over seven to fifteen or more decades after Jesus’ death.
The religion about Jesus – Christianity After Jesus — consists of a supernatural theology erected around Jesus’ life story by the gospel writers. The most important thing about the new religion is that it promised people a way out of Earthly suffering by an ascent to heaven — if they would repent and believe in Jesus’ divine ability to “save” them, i.e., to admit them into heaven.
Many religions go through three stages or versions. All three versions rise in opposition to the social conditions of the time, and/or to some unsatisfying characteristics of the version of the religion(s) that came before. Here are the three stages or versions within Christianity:
- First comes the philosophical version, which we described in our prior Essay, “Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching.”
- Second comes a popularized and hyperbolized (sensationalized, inflated, dramatized) version,’ which we are discussing in the Essay you are now reading.
- Third, there is a usually parallel mystical version of the religion that emphasizes retreat, contemplation, and symbolism. In Christianity, the third version is the practice done by monks and nuns.
As we have done in our evaluations of other religions, in this Essay we will point out the Strengths and Shortcomings of the Christianity that was written about Jesus after Jesus’ death.
Some Strengths that Christianity Gets Right, from the Viewpoint of Continuing Creation:
- While the Old Testament depicts God as a battle champion and law-giver, the New Testament depicts Him as a God of Love (except for the grotesque Book of Revelation — likely a Jewish apocalyptic story that doesn’t even mention Jesus and is chock full of horrible punishments for sinners).
- The Gospel of John introduces the concept of “Logos,” providing an intellectual footing for Christianity that is similar to our Book of Continuing Creation’s combination of Nature, Reason, and Science. (More about Logos later in this Essay.)
- The hierarchical structure and strict doctrine of the Roman Catholic Priesthood enables morality to weather the storms of war and plague.
- The new religion about Jesus Is not ethnocentric (of the three Desert Religions, only Christianity is not).
Some Shortcomings that modern Christianity Gets Wrong, from the Viewpoint of Continuing Creation:
- Today’s Christianity Is not consistent with the science of evolution.
- It Sees God as a person, not as a Set of Interlocking Processes.
- Places faith in a sacred book, not in the scientific method or historical scholarship.
- Still largely advocates the unregulated spread of human beings across the face of the Earth.
- Today’s Christianity has no female priests.
Social Conditions Leading to Sensationalized Christianity After Jesus’ Death
Most religions arise as an opposition to a society’s state-of-affairs. In our last Essay, Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching, we saw that Christianity was a reaction to the detailed over-regulation of daily life in Judaism; to the division of society into strata; and to domination by Roman rulers and Jewish Pharisees.
Many followers believed that Jesus would militarily defeat the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God here on Earth. For them, Jesus’ death was unexpected. He would not lead a revolt, the Jewish people were not liberated, and Roman rule would continue. Jewish fighters would attempt a revolution in the year 65 CE, but they failed. At the end of that uprising, the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple (known as the “Second Temple”) in Jerusalem.
For the new Christians, Jesus’ spiritual Kingdom of God on Earth had not materialized. Who would lead the followers of Jesus? Could Jesus’ leadership be somehow preserved?
It is not surprising that Jesus’ followers changed Christianity into something new. Christianity, like all religions, is one of the Complex Adaptive Systems we described in our Essay, Complexity and Continuing Creation. All living creatures, and all societies formed by living creatures, are Complex Adaptive Systems, and the primary goal for each of them has been to survive. It is a process of challenge and response. As Max Weber, one of the fathers of Sociology, wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (1905), the goals of every bureaucracy (each one also a type of complex adaptive system) are first to survive, and then to grow.
As more and more time passed after Jesus’ death, it became increasing difficult to see him as a near-term Earthly messiah who would overthrow the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. Thus, the writers of the Books of the New Testament deemphasized Jesus’ apocalyptic vision that God would soon establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. 1
Maybe a way could be found for Jesus’ leadership to be preserved. If he were to live on after death, and also be blessed with God-like supernatural powers, then Jesus could return to Earth and lead a political-social-spiritual overthrow at some time in the future. In the meantime, Jesus could act as a spiritual entity who could inspire people to change their sinful ways. Future human rejection of sin, if widespread enough, could usher in a Kingdom of God here on Earth.
Or, perhaps if people were to simply believe in Jesus’ divinity, they could gain the Kingdom of God inside themselves now, and in heaven after the Second Coming, as an unearned gift from of God, i.e., as a gift of God’s grace. The writer Matthew Hartke says that this is exactly how Christians dealt with the fact that Jesus had not immediately began his reign as Leader of The Kingdom of God on Earth. It’s an example of cognitive dissonance reduction, one that has repeated over and over as cults such as the Millerites in the United States have failed to realize their predicted outcomes. 2
But meanwhile, how could Jesus’ leadership be preserved? The answer was to give Jesus life and power after death. This could best be done by doing it most completely – by making Jesus part of God Himself, living in Heaven. (“In for a penny, in for a pound.”)
And so, after the death of Jesus, Christianity was changed in a sequence of overlapping developments discussed in the Sections below. (See Appendix A for a timeline of the events covered in this Essay.)
The Apostles Spread Jesus’ Teaching Among Neighboring Jewish Communities (33-43 CE)
Even before the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John were being written (70 to 99 CE), Christianity does not remain a small collection of disciples and followers. Oral preaching and story-sharing “very rapidly” turns it into something different. “What began as a kind of rag-tag assembly of followers of a holy man turns into what we might call a Jewish sect, a group of Jews which now has interpreted the life, teachings and death of its holy man somehow as having cosmic significance, as having meaning for all time…” 3
Adding Myths and Fantastic Stories to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John (33-110 CE)
After the death of Jesus, the writers of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John wrote Gospels that recounted the sayings of Jesus and also told narrative stories about Jesus’ life. Some of these stories were true, including the major milestones of Jesus’ Baptism and Crucifixion. The crucifixion is confirmed by both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus. Also, in the same decades after Jesus’ death, writers such as Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul the Apostle, or Saint Paul, wrote Epistles (letters) to nascent Christian groups about Christ’s teaching.
However, the gospel writers embroidered the true life of Jesus with fantastical supernatural tales about the virgin birth, walking on water, healing, exorcisms, magically multiplying loaves and fishes, raising of the dead, and the major milestones of Jesus’ Resurrection from the Dead, His Transfiguration into radiant glory, and His Ascension into Heaven. The writers may have created these myths themselves, or they may have picked them up from the oral stories being preached at the time. None of the miracle stories were confirmed by the historians Josephus or Tacitus.
We know, from our childhood days in school, that a “secret story” whispered by the teacher to the first student in the class emerges as something quite different after passing through a chain of 20 or 30 silent retellings to emerge out loud at from the mind and mouth of the last student in the chain. The stories about Jesus were told and retold, orally, between Christian communities for 20 to 40 years before they were first written down. 4
Religious scriptures have been mythologized all over the world and throughout history. Christianity is no exception. Why do religious documents contain myths? Because people seek an easy way to meet their needs. Their real-life talents, energies, and resources are limited, so they are open to believing in magical ways offered by masterful, charismatic promoters. Myths are Shortcomings of Religion and of Spiritual Paths, because they are untrue.
Mythical Events Attributed to Jesus’ Life:
— Immaculate conception
— Virgin Birth of Jesus
— Fictionally born in Bethlehem, to fulfill an Old Testament promise about the Messiah
— Guiding Star appears and guides the Three Kings to Bethlehem
— Three Kings (the Magi, or Wise Men) visit Jesus’ birth.
— During Baptism, Heavens open; God says, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased”
— Struggle with Satan in the desert
— Healing the sick and the lame
— Exorcisms of demons
— Walking on water
— Transfiguration – Jesus appears radiant in glory upon a mountain
— Magically producing loaves and fishes
— Resurrection – Jesus rises from the dead
— Ascension into heaven – Jesus ascends into Heaven
— Reappearing (to the disciples)
The Way of Continuing Creation says: What’s wrong with the Mythical Events attributed to Jesus Life? Well, they are… mythical events. Jesus was a human being, not divine. Human beings are not born of virgins. Human beings do not manage to walk on water. If you are a reader who understands this, then nothing else needs to be said.
Christian mythology is inconsistent with science – the entire cosmos is “above,” not a heaven full of angels; and Earth’s molten core is below, not a hell full of demons. Jesus’ followers sought an escape to a fictional paradise; today we are working toward creating a “heaven” here on Earth through progress in housing, solar energy, medicine, and democratic government. Which path would you rather be on? Inconsistency with Science is a Shortcoming of Christianity.
On the other hand, modern Catholic priests, especially the Jesuits, are well-versed in science. Today’s Jesuits believe in modern medicine, mental illness, and environmentalism. They are highly educated, and they run universities. They can eloquently argue that evolution is proof of God’s design. This stems from the theologies of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who welded Christian theology to Greek philosophy. (For more, see the website, Aquinas.Design.) We will talk more about Augustine and Aquinas later in this Essay.
Note: As we have said at other places in The Book of Continuing Creation, there is no way to prove the non-existence of God. But if God does exist (and that’s a big “IF”) then He/She/It accomplished Creation by using the Big Bang to create space-time, the four fundamental forces, and the first matter. Subsequently, the Processes of Continuing Creation went on to produce geologic and chemical systems. Those in turn created the patterns and systems we call Life by flowing energy through open geo-chemical systems. Subsequent changes, including the Creation of new species, happen through the natural Processes of Evolution, and further through the Processes of Human Invention.
Not All the Christian Myths Are Mentioned in All the Gospels
There’s another way we know that the Christian myths and miracles in the gospels are not credible: not all same myths appear in all the gospels. Of the four gospels, only Luke and Matthew give an account of Jesus’ birth. Only Luke talks about the inn and the manger, the shepherds and angels. Only Matthew has Herod and the Wise Men, the slaughter of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt. The Transfiguration, where Jesus is bathed in heavenly light, is not present in the Gospel of John. As Professor J. D. Crossan has written, if any of those events had actually taken place, they would have been mentioned more consistently in the Gospels. 5
Thomas Jefferson studied the New Testament and in 1804 published a work known as The Jefferson Bible, in which Jefferson separated Jesus’ actual sayings from the mythical encrustations of later Christian doctrine. Basically, Jefferson set aside nearly all the miracles and supernatural events, and he combines the gospels into one single narrative.
Today, all serious scholars agree with Jefferson: the miracle stories about virgin birth, walking on water, multiplying loaves and fishes, and rising from the dead were all fictional embellishments added to the core of what Jesus really said. Those falsehoods were added by believers who were intent on creating the Religion about Jesus as Savior to attract converts to the faith by the use of magical showmanship.
The Weaving of Continuing Creation shows us — All the old sacred scriptures, including the Torah, New Testament, and Quran, should be published in new versions wherein all the fictional “tall tales” are preserved in place, but lined through with a fine line. Passages advocating or tolerating outdated morality – such as slavery and subjugation of women – should also be lined through. This approach preserves all the old original language of the texts and keeps it readable, while simultaneously marking the texts’ magical fictions and outdated moral shortcomings.
The Psychological Appeal of Myths
People like stories. All the great religions have stories. They are memorable and exciting.
People also like to exaggerate for effect. They try to “wow” other people, to make themselves or their experiences look bigger and better. Also, we all know that as stories are passed from person to person, they become distorted. If the story is about something the speaker is trying to promote, the distortions are usually positive exaggerations. Those exaggerations can become ever more grandiose with each re-telling of the tale.
Many of the stories in religions are about people – Moses, Muhammad, the Buddha. Other stories are about Gods and Goddesses who are like people – Zeus, Thor, Osiris. This happens because nothing fascinates people more than other people – witness the obsession we have today with social media and cellphone communications.
After the death of Jesus, Christianity made its own story – the story of Jesus – the center of the religion. In this story, Jesus is both human and God.
In religions, sensationalized myth making usually comes after the religion’s philosophical stage of development. The founding prophet knows he would seem a braggart or a fool if he made supernatural claims for himself.
Why is the story’s hero given supernatural powers? Because people like superheroes. We wish we could be like them. (Witness today’s comic books and block-buster movies.)
If we can’t gain superpowers for ourselves, we want a superhero who will come to our aid. A leader with superpower can make things easier for normal mortals – such as getting into heaven.
For example, the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) have tales of exorcism conducted by Jesus. The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan cites studies showing that even today, 75% of the world’s population believes in demons and demonic possession. He goes on to assert that demonic possession and exorcism are especially prominent in societies that have significant social oppression (such as master versus slave), strong domination of men over women, or the Roman imperial oppression of the first century Mediterranean world. 6
Note: “Synoptic” means “scynchronous,” and refers to the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The gospel of John is left out because it is quite different than the other three, as we discuss later in this Essay.
Promotional and Political Reasons for Adding Myths to Christianity
In addition to the psychological reasons for sensationalizing the Gospels, there were promotional, “business” reasons as well.
First, church leaders working between 33 and 100 CE wanted to attract followers. Even if a disciple such as Saint Paul did not himself believe in the myths he was passing on, as a professional organizer and promoter he would still have given Jesus magical powers to impress and awe potential new followers. (The cynical among us might say that St. Paul was “the P.T. Barnum of Christianity.”)
Second, by concentrating on an elaborated story of Jesus’ life the Gospel writers gave the religion a single, powerful focus.
Third, by giving Jesus Godly power, the writers could describe an easier path to heaven – one’s simple belief in Jesus plus sincere repentance would assure admission to heaven.
Fourth, to reinforce the certainty of a magical journey up to heaven, and to prove Jesus’ supernatural power, believers are told that of a number of miraculous events that happened during Jesus’ life. These include Jesus’ immaculate conception, his feats of healing, rising from the dead, and his appearance after death.
For all these reasons, the gospel writers added super-powers because they were intent on creating a Religion not of what Jesus taught, but about Jesus as the Holy Redeemer. They worked to create a religion centered on the divine power of Jesus as Christ, in order to attract converts to the faith, and to make it easy for people to stay within the faith once they had joined.
Mythical Stories About Jesus’ Life and Death
For convenience, we will talk about the major myths written about Jesus’ life by taking them in the order of his life.
Note: The scholarly, historically accepted date-ranges for the four Gospels are:
Gospel of: Written Between
Mark year 66 to 70
Matthew & Luke year 55 to 90
John year 90 to110
Nativity of Jesus — Jesus’ Birth Stories Vary Widely
If there had been one true account of Jesus’ birth, all four Gospels would have the same story. Yet each of the four (canonical) Gospels – Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, has a different birth story (or, in the case of Mark, no story at all) for Jesus. Therefore, the birth stories are, to a large extent, fictional. And if we look at them, we can see that they were made up and written into the Gospels for promotional and political purposes.
Of the four Gospels accepted into the New Testament (the canonical Gospels), only Luke and Matthew give an account of Jesus’ birth; the Gospel of Mark says nothing. Only Luke talks about the inn and the manger, the shepherds and the angels. Only Matthew has Herod and the Wise Men, the slaughter of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt. If any of those events had actually taken place, they would have been mentioned more consistently in the gospels. 7 These inconsistencies are Shortcomings of Christianity.
- The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four canonical gospels, says nothing about how or where Jesus was born. It picks up Jesus’ life story when an adult Jesus is being baptized by John the Baptist. Being the earliest of the four gospel writers, perhaps the author of Mark had simply not yet thought of the advantages of adding a birth story to his Gospel.
- The Gospel of Matthew has a story about Jesus’ birth, but the story has no census, no annunciation to the shepherds, no presentation in the Temple. It implies that Jesus’s parents’ home is Jerusalem (about 6 miles from Bethlehem), and it clearly says Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Only Matthew has the Magi (Wise Men), the Star of Bethlehem, the Flight into Egypt, and the Massacre of the Innocents.
- The Gospel of Luke also has a story of Jesus’ birth, but there are no Magi, no flight into Egypt, no Massacre of the Innocents. Joseph is a resident of Nazareth, and the birth appears to take place in an inn instead of the family home. 8
- The Gospel of John, the last of the Gospels to be written, says nothing about Jesus’ birth. John, the only non-synoptic Gospel, tells a much grander theological tale. It links Jesus’ existence to the eternal existence of God-the-Father, present even before the creation of the world itself. We will discuss this viewpoint in a separate section below.
Revising Jesus’ Birthplace
For early Christians, it was important for Jesus to be viewed as having been born in Bethlehem, Judea, where King David had been born a thousand years earlier. A birth in Bethlehem would fulfill a prophecy made by the Old Testament prophet Micah (737-606 BCE) saying that the Messiah would be of the House of David, and therefore born in Bethlehem. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (The Book of Micah 5:2). This passage from Micah is in fact cited by the author of the Gospel of Matthew: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ (Matthew 2:6)
The Gospel of Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem, and Jesus as being born there. No “prophesy problem” for this Gospel. However, there is a “history” problem for the Gospel of Matthew because historians say that Jesus was really born in Nazareth!
The Gospel of Luke accurately has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. So, the Gospel of Luke has the prophesy problem. To fulfill Micah’s prophesy, the Gospel of Luke tells the tale of Joseph and a very pregnant Mary making an arduous 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s parents live. Why? Supposedly For a Roman Census, a Census that historians say never took place. (See Luke 2:4) Besides, the Romans would have been interested in where the people lived and worked, not where they were born. (See www.infidels.org, the Secular Web.)
Giving Jesus a Virginal Birth
Why was Jesus portrayed as having been born of a virgin? Why was it important that Mary be a virgin at the time of Jesus conception and birth?
Generally, the birth stories serve to tie Jesus into Jewish tradition, and then to exalt him as a new and more glorious extension of that tradition. In the Old Testament, there are precedents for miraculous birth, stories about old and infertile couples giving birth to important Jewish leaders. (e.g., Sarah and Abraham, Genesis 18:10-11. Also, the birth of Samuel in Samuel 1-2.)
Like the Gospel of Mark, the even earlier Epistles (Letters) written by the Apostle Paul never mention the virgin birth, even though it would have strengthened Paul’s arguments in several places. Instead, where Paul’s Letters refer to Jesus’ birth, they say only that Jesus “was born of the seed of David.” (Romans 1:3) and was “born of a woman,” not specifically of a virgin. (Galatians 4:4).
Had something as miraculous as the virgin birth actually occurred, one would expect that Mark and John would have at least mentioned it in their efforts to convince the world that Jesus was who they were claiming him to be. (See the Secular Web, at www.infidels.org,)
Why would it be important for any of the Gospels writers to make up a virgin birth story for Jesus? Because, as usual, it would be taken (by potential converts to Christianity) as fulfilling a prophesy in the Old Testament: “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
However, when this verse was translated from original Hebrew into Greek, the original meaning of “young woman,” was incorrectly translated as “virgin.” (www.infidels.org, the SecularWeb). Apparently, the author of the Gospel of Matthew did not or could not read the original Hebrew, but only the Greek mistranslation. Seeing the word “virgin,” it made sense for him to create a mythical story that fulfilled what he thought was Isaiah’s prophecy.
Adoration of the Shepherds – Connecting Jesus to Jewish Tradition
Of the four canon Gospels, only the Gospel of Luke says that shepherds gathered around the manger to venerate Jesus (Luke 2). This “adoration” story was added to show that Jesus would be a champion of the Jewish common people, and by implication a leveler to social differences.
“The motif of the shepherd is found throughout the scripture. In the Old Testament God has words of strong rebuke and warning for bad shepherds, and prophecies of a good shepherd that is to come. In the New Testament, Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd and we find in the epistles the notion of good shepherding extended to those who would lead in the church.” 9 (See https://dwellcc.org/learning/essays/shepherd-motif-old-and-new-testament.)
The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel says, “For the Lord Yahweh says this: ‘Look, I myself shall take care of my flock and look after it. As a shepherd looks after his flock when he is with his scattered sheep, so shall I look after my sheep…. I shall raise up one shepherd, my servant David, and put him in charge of them to pasture them; he will pasture them and be their shepherd.’” (Ezekiel 34:11-12 & 23). Similar verses portraying God and/or the coming Messiah as a shepherd are found at Jeremiah 23:1-4a and Micah 2:12-13.
Adoration of the Magi – Giving Jesus International Appeal
The “Magi” – who many of us know as “The Three Wise Men” or “The Three Kings” – appear only in the Gospel of Matthew. Their number is not mentioned, but three types of gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh — are mentioned. The fictional story of the Magi’s veneration of newborn Jesus was added to the Gospel Matthew in order to show that Jesus was destined to have international (Gentile) appeal, and also appeal to the intellectual upper class.
Sebastian Brock, a British historian of Christianity, and the Swedish theologist Anders Hultgård have written that the Gospel story of the Magi is connected with Persian [likely Zoroastrian] beliefs in the rise of a star predicting the birth of a ruler, and with myths describing the manifestation of a divine figure in fire and light. 10
Having the poor shepherds and the rich Magi both visit Jesus, (albeit not at the same time) shows Jesus’ universality; shows how Jesus would come to unite people of all classes, all previous faiths, and all nations. The Adoration Story at Jesus’ cradle is a masterpiece of poetic metaphor.
The Mythical Story of “Transfiguration”
Now we move on to a principal myth of Jesus’ early ministry – the Transfiguration when he was being baptized by John the Baptist. Transfiguration is the name given to a fictional incident in which Jesus is illuminated by a brilliant white light – “radiant in glory” — from Heaven.
The word “Transfiguration,” like the words “Nativity,” Adoration,” “Crucifixion,” “Resurrection,” and “Ascension,” is a long and pretentious word derived from the Latin language of Imperial Rome. These words give weight and dignity to the events in Jesus’ life.
Here is how the Transfiguration is described in the Bible (New International Version):
“After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.…. While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:1-3 & 5).
The above passage from Matthew is virtually identical in Mark 9:2-8 and in Luke 9: 28-36. The transfiguration is not in John; but may be alluded to in John 14:2.
To paraphrase the theologian and writer Dorothy Lee, “The Transfiguration is a pivotal meeting between human nature and God, between the temporal and the eternal. Jesus himself is the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.” 11 The mountaintop setting is drawn to echo the meeting between God and Moses on Mount Sinai.
When Jesus is called “Son” by a voice in the sky, the reader assumes it to be God, as we do in a similar supernatural story about the Baptism of Jesus. Thus, the Transfiguration is a major step in the Gospel and Epistle writers’ deification of Jesus.
At this point, however, we are not sure what the authors of the Transfiguration meant by having God say, ““This is my Son…” The writers may have intended God to mean that Jesus is a “son” in terms of Jesus’ extensive knowledge, rather than in flesh and blood. It was common in this era for human rulers to sponsor a particularly able young man, educate and train him, and then name him as their heir.
Followers of Continuing Creation remark that we are all metaphorically “Sons and Daughters” in the processes, direction, and meaning of Continuing Creation.
Does Jesus Say and Believe He Is the Son of Man? The Messiah? The Son of God?
The Virgin Birth stories portray Jesus as the Son of God. In the Baptism and Transfiguration stories, the authors have God saying that Jesus is His Son. But did Jesus himself ever say he was the Son of God? This question is important because if he did not, it will show that Jesus’ teaching is more earth-bound and sensible than the fantastic theology of miracles later superimposed on him and the story of his life.
Deification has tended to happen around Buddha, around Mother Mary, and even around Muhammad and Lenin…, though not to the same complete extent as in the case of Christianity. Islam, of course, explicitly says that Muhammad is not God. In Islam, God is God – Allah is Allah. (See our Essays, Evaluating Buddhism and Evaluating Islam.)
Deification usually comes after a religion’s founder teaches his message. Why? If the founder deified himself, he would be regarded as a fool with grandiose delusions, or as self-aggrandizing non-man, especially if he is just starting out and has not accumulated any respect or fame. But after the founder is dead, other people can more easily say the founder was divine, because they don’t appear (at least at first) to be benefiting from the deification.
Did Jesus Say He was God? In Mark, Matthew, & Luke the answer is probably not:
First, when Jesus speaks at his trial before the priests, elders, and scribes, In Luke 22:67-71, Jesus’ answer is circumspect: “If I tell you, you will not believe me… But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied, “You say that I am.”
Similarly, in Matthew 26:64, Jesus reticently replies: “You have said so. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
In both the above passages, Jesus admits to being the “Son of Man;” But when asked if he is the “Son of God,” Jesus throws the question back at his inquisitors.
“Again, the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One [also translated as the Power] and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (Matthew 14:60-62)
Here, Jesus admits only to being the Messiah and the Son of Man. He does not admit to being the Son of God.
These milder versions in Luke and Matthew may mean that The Son of Man, i.e., Jesus, is a human being, a human who has been preaching the true message of God and asserting that the power of that message will pervade the Earth down through the ages.
Biblical authority Dr. Bart Ehrman tells us that The Son of Man is the same thing as The Messiah. Both titles refer to a male human being who will govern the Earthly Kingdom of God that will be in place, on Earth, after the Last Judgment. Jesus argued that this Kingdom was to be in place very soon. Therefore, people should confess their sins, reform their conduct, and prepare. 12
Second, when Jesus talks privately with his own disciples, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew does have Jesus admit, after a fashion, that he the “Son of God”: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:13-17)
However, the fifty biblical scholars of The Jesus Seminar, writing in their authoritative work, The Five Gospels, discount this as an actual saying of Jesus: “These confessional scenes are stylized: they are shaped by the author’s theological orientation. Since [the historical] Jesus rarely initiates dialogue or refers to himself in the first person, he would not have elicited confessions of faith of which he was the object.” 13
Bart Ehrman points out that 2nd Samuel indicates that God would choose a son of King David (it turns out to be Solomon) whom God would adopt as his own son. “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” (2 Samuel 7:12-14). It was common for rulers of that era to adopt a young man to be his heir, if the ruler’s natural sons were not measuring up. 14 So, even if Jesus were the “Son of God,” it need not necessarily mean Jesus was biologically conceived by God of a human woman. It depends on the individual writer of the Gospel in question.
Third, the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas uses only one title for Jesus: “He is the ‘Living Jesus’ who acts yesterday, today, and tomorrow as the Wisdom of God here on Earth.” 15 We remark, in passing, that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar strongly feel that The Gospel of Thomas ought to be included as a Book of the New Testament. 16
Fourth, Jesus is fully deified by the unknown author of the Gospel of John, and by Paul in his Letter to the Romans. These documents do have Jesus saying that he is the Son of God. They reconfigure Jesus from a charismatic human prophet to Jesus the divine Christ.
Your author, J.X. Mason, judges that Jesus most likely believed he was (a) a Son of Man and (b) the Messiah. But Jesus most likely did not believe that he was the direct, biological Son of God. I think Jesus most wants his followers to understand that he is a Son of God in that his mind is at one with God’s true message. He is vague only because he wants his listeners to think his teachings through for themselves. He is saying that his biological parentage doesn’t matter, it’s the content of his mind, heart, and message that matters.
The New Testament’s strained attempts to convince followers that Jesus was (and is) God are a Shortcoming of Christianity. Time would have better spent talking about Jesus messages about attitude and conduct.
Followers of Continuing Creation say: those who participate more fully in constructive processes on Earth are themselves metaphorical “Sons and Daughters” of Continuing Creation.
Rising from the Dead – The Resurrection Myth
The New Testament Scholar Professor Bart D. Ehrman believes that of all the New Testament myths, the mythical story of Jesus’ Resurrection was the one which led, step by step, to the assertion that Jesus is God.
After Jesus was put to death, his followers needed ways to explain how and why God allowed Jesus to die on the cross. They started a post-death myth-making process by saying he was resurrected, and then by having him appear to followers (Luke 23:36-49, John 20:19, Acts 1:3). In these ways, the faithful could continue to believe and participate in Jesus’ message even though he was dead.
Professor Ehrman argues that Jesus is best understood as an apocalyptic prophet – one of many Jewish apocalyptic prophets — who were prophesying God’s overthrow of Roman Rule. Then Dr. Ehrman asks, why did Jesus, alone among them all, end up as the founder of a great religion?
It was not Jesus’ message that made him special. In fact, his message “helped get him crucified – surely not a mark of spectacular success.” Nor did the idea that Jesus was the son of God bring him success. Other leaders — Lao Tzu, Buddha, and Mohammad also founded great religions without claiming to be the Son of God. 17
What made Jesus different from the others teaching a similar message was the claim (made by his followers) that he had been raised from the dead. With the belief in the resurrection, we have the beginnings of the movement to promote Jesus to a superhuman plane. “Belief in the resurrection is what eventually led his followers to claim that Jesus was God.” 18
In other words, Professor Ehrman argues that belief in the Resurrection was a tipping point. It triggered a cascade of change to a new phase, a new equilibrium, for Christianity. Belief in resurrection triggered the belief that Jesus was the Son of God, which led to the idea that Jesus is unified with God.
The concept of resurrection goes back to ancient religions in the Middle East. Egyptian and Canaanite writings allude to dying and rising gods such as Osiris and Baal. 19 Here are further examples:
- In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Elijah prays, and God raises a young boy from death (1 Kings 17:17-24).
- Elisha raises the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:32-37). And a dead man’s body that was thrown into the dead Elisha’s tomb is resurrected when the body touches Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21)
- Other death and resurrection myths include the Egyptian god Osiris, the Ancient Greek god Dionysus (born of a virgin, died except for the heart, and was born again), the Syria’s Adonis, and Mesopotamia’s Tammuz. 20
If the Leaders in those religions and cults could raise people from the dead, Jesus needed to be portrayed with those powers as well, if he was going to gain “street cred” with potential followers. And so, Jesus is said to have raised several persons from death. These included the daughter of Jairus shortly after death, a young man amid his own funeral procession, and Lazarus, who had been buried for four days. Before his death, Jesus commissioned his Twelve Apostles to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)
Resurrections are in fact credited to The Twelve. Peter allegedly raised a woman named Dorcas (called Tabitha), and Paul the Apostle revived a man named Eutychus who had fallen asleep and fell from a window to his death, according to the book of Acts. (Acts 9:36-43.)
Most Christians agree that the raising of Lazarus and others from the dead did not mean that they would live on as immortals. The new life given to them is seen as temporary in nature. In contrast, the resurrection of Jesus (and the future resurrection of the dead after the Last Judgment) abolishes death once and for all. (See Isaiah 25:8, also 1 Corinthians 15:26, also 2 Timothy 1:10, and Revelation 21:4).
Christians have been less sure about the “solidity” of Jesus’ permanent resurrection. Was it resurrection “in-the-flesh” or resurrection “in spirit.” The Gospel of Luke included an insistence on the resurrection of the flesh. This doctrine was later rejected by gnostic teachings, and even by St. Paul, who insisted that flesh and bones had no place in heaven. However, the doctrine of “In-the-flesh in Heaven” eventually found its way into orthodox Roman Catholicism. Dr. Ehrman points out that “the Gospels disagree on nearly every detail in their resurrection narratives.” 21 This disagreement is itself persuasive evidence that the Resurrection of Jesus is a fictional myth, not an historical event.
Jesus’ Mythical Ascension into Heaven
Forty days after his Resurrection, Jesus appears to eleven of his apostles and speaks to them. “The eleven” then witness Jesus bodily rise up into heaven. This myth is known as the Ascension.
The canonical gospels include two brief descriptions of the Ascension of Jesus — in Luke 24:50-53 and Mark 16:19. A more detailed account of Jesus’ bodily Ascension into the clouds is then given in Acts of the Apostles (1:9-11).
Ascension is a motif seen in all three Abrahamic religious traditions. In Judaism, Enoch, an ancestor of Noah, ascends to heaven (Genesis 5:21-24). In Islam, Muhammad ascends in his “Night Journey” to Mi’raq (heaven) according to Hadith written by Anas ibn Malik, but this journey may well have been visionary. Islam certainly does not claim that Muhammad arises to permanently dwell in Heaven. He returns to lead armies to victory across Arabia.
Continuing Creation confirms that Islam (along with Nature, Reason, & Science) is surely correct: Humans are never transformed into God, parts of God, Sons or Daughters of God, or even into heaven-dwelling “Saints.” For starters, there is no such place as “Heaven.”
Saul (Paul) Leads the Effort to Take Christianity to the Gentiles (50-68 CE)
Paul of Tarsus – The Apostle Paul
After Christianity had become a sizeable Jewish sect concentrated in Jerusalem, traveling preachers (Evangelists) took Jesus’ teaching all over the Mediterranean world. This effort was led by a Jewish tax collector named Saul of Tarsus. After having a conversion experience on the road, for a lengthy time he becomes the foremost leader of Christianity. After his dramatic conversion, he is known as Paul the Apostle, although he was not one of the original Twelve Apostles. Between the mid-40’s and the mid-50’s, Paul founded several Christian communities in Asia Minor and Europe. Later, Paul was named “Saint Paul” by the Roman Catholic Church. We do not know how Paul died, but writers say he was killed by the Romans sometime between 64 and 68 CE.
Paul’s influence on Christian thinking arguably has been more significant than any other New Testament author. Paul declared that “Christ is the end of the law,” (Romans 10:4 King James version) and exalted the Christian church as the body of Christ (Ephesians 2:33 and 4:16) and depicted the world outside the Church as under judgment. Paul’s writings include the earliest reference to the “Lord’s Supper,” a rite traditionally identified as the Christian communion or Eucharist, in which believers eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:14-17 and 11:17-34). (For more information, see the Wikipedia article, Paul the Apostle.)
Salvation Through Faith: Believe Jesus Is Divine, Repent, and You Can Enter the Kingdom of God
Paul’s Letter to The Romans (55-57 CE)
The thirteen epistles (letters) of Paul, written to early Christian congregations between 50 CE and 70 CE, were among the first recorded Christian documents. However, since they do not tell the story of Jesus life, or attempt to recount Jesus’ sayings, they are not considered “Gospels.” In fact, Paul knows about Jesus only after the early Christian churches had cloaked Jesus in supernatural Son-of-God mythology.
Fourteen of the 27 books in the New Testament have traditionally been attributed to Paul. Seven of the Pauline epistles are undisputed by scholars as being authentic, with varying degrees of argument about the remainder. 22
In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, his most important work, he sets forth a new theology based on faith, not on works. This means that following God’s commandments to the Jews (“the law”) and doing good works throughout one’s life – i.e., righteousness, or staying free from sin – is no longer the way to enter heaven, because no one has been free of sin or ever will be free of sin. Here is a typical verse: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)
Redemption, New Righteousness, and Justification
Each person must meet God’s requirements for entering heaven. Fulfilling the requirement is called being justified. Traditionally, a person would achieve justification by having his or her sins redeemed (i.e., atoned for and forgiven) and by thereafter being righteous. Here are definitions of those terms:
Redemption = Making right of past sins. Involves confession, making amends, asking forgiveness.
Righteousness = Having a history of moral conduct and character in the eyes of God.
Justification = God’s act of declaring or making a sinner righteous before God.
“Fortunately,” according to the myth-based Christian doctrine created after Jesus’ death, Christians no longer need to worry about doing good works or following Jewish law, because God had sacrificed His “one and only Son” as an eternally-present payment (redemption) for all the sins of mankind. This concept is clear in the Gospel of John, which provides the inspirational poetry to complement Paul’s legal clarity in his Epistle to the Romans: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Gospel of John 3:16)
This sacrifice provides humans with a new righteousness – a righteousness freely given by God to all who have belief in Jesus-The-Christ. This new God-given righteousness is called the “righteousness apart from the law” or “the righteousness of God.”
So, while Judaism requires lots of study, and obedience to 600-odd rules of behavior, Post-Jesus Christianity just requires a “leap of faith” (often achieved in modern evangelical Protestantism at the end of a rousing, rhythmic sermon by a charismatic preacher).
The Book of Continuing Creation remarks: What a relief for Christians! They no longer have to abandon their families or sell all their possessions and give to the poor. If they just believe in Jesus’ redemptive power and sincerely repent their sins, they will get into heaven. Like all the myths in all Religions, this myth is an irrational Shortcoming of Christianity.
In the passages from Romans below, “righteousness” is what one must have to enter heaven. If a person does have righteousness, then he or she is said to be “justified,” i.e., cleared of the guilt and penalty of sin, and therefore approved to enter heaven.
Romans 3:21-25: But now, apart from the [old Jewish] law, the righteousness of God has been made known… This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.
Later in Romans, Paul reiterates that through faith, (3:28), (4:3) the faithful have been joined with Jesus (5:1) and freed from sin. (6:1–2) and (6:18). Believers should celebrate in the assurance of salvation. (12:12)
The Break Between Christians and Jews
The break between Judaism and Christianity widens over the next two centuries and culminates with Christians blaming and then persecuting Jews for having killed Jesus; despite the fact that it was Pontius Pilate, a Roman and not a Jew, who condemned Jesus to death on the cross. 23 Scholars say that antisemitism likely originated in Alexandria, Egypt around 300 years before Jesus’ birth. 24
Some scholars, including Laura Emerson, note that bestowing immortality on Jesus was a particular appeal to recruit gentiles to Christianity, since Greek, Roman, Zoroastrian, and Egyptian religions tell stories of many humans who were promoted up to become gods or demi-gods.
(For examples of Hebrew laws about food and laws about ritual purity, see Judaism 101’s A List of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments).)
The New Law – The Law of Brotherly Love
The Gospel of John modifies Paul’s earlier writing about the “old Hebrew law.” The author of John explains that Faith does not replace the Law. The Law is still required, still upheld, because it is “through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (20). But the Law is now the new and simpler “Law of Brotherly Love,” as taught by Jesus. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
However, following Jesus’ law is still by no means an easy task, and Jesus never meant for it to be easy. It takes a great deal of commitment, prayer, and practice. Jesus himself never preached a “quicker, easier route to heaven;” certainly not in words judged to be authentic by the scholars of The Jesus Seminar, and as we discussed in our preceding Essay, Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching. The quicker, easier route is promoted by Christian writers and bishops only after Jesus’ death.
Sweeping Away the Old Law Opens Christianity to Gentiles
Sweeping away the old, super-detailed Jewish Law opens Christianity up to Gentiles, who had no knowledge of the Jewish Law anyway. The Jewish law requiring circumcision had been particularly troublesome for Gentiles thinking about becoming Christians. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul solves this problem as follows:
“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. (Romans 3:28-30)
Interestingly, Christians of today’s Protestant denominations tend to preach justification through faith alone, while the Catholic Church teaches that justification requires a combination of faith and good works.
The growing Process of Continuing Creation says: Much of Jesus’ teaching calls for impossibly impractical actions. Give away all your possessions and who will feed your children (Matthew 19:21)? No wonder that supernatural tales of heavenly reward had to be wrapped around such a crazy idea, tales intended to bolster the faith and keep people from leaving Christianity.
We hold that there is no easy way to Peace, Goodness, Honor, Kindness, Love, Creativity or any other virtue or any true reward in Life. We agree with Christopher Hitchens when he wrote: “The idea of vicarious redemption, the idea that one can throw one’s sins onto somebody else – [is] a phenomenon known as scapegoating. Nonsense! We are responsible for our own wrongs. There is no vicarious redemption.” 25
Followers of Continuing Creation say — Real redemption takes place when a person does the work of the “Five-R’s:” Recognize the wrong, Regret the wrong, Restore the damage as best one can, and then Rely on the Restorative processes of Continuing Creation.
The Social Psychology Behind Making Religious Leaders Divine
Essentially, the Leaders of the early Catholic Church faced a dilemma of logic and “advertising appeal.” There were Bible verses indicating Jesus was fully human, and there were other Bible verses indicating Jesus was fully God.
The “human portrayal” had the greater appeal to church members, because Jesus would be seen as “one of them.” The “divine portrayal” had the greater power for church members because Jesus would be seen as someone who could himself forgive sins and grant favors.
Ultimately, the Church chose a union of both portrayals, using the fuzzy logic of calling the combination a “sacred mystery.” And the Holy Ghost was thrown into the combination as well. The Holy Ghost itself being a kind of popularized characterization of the “Logos,” which we discuss below. And so, we end up with the “Trinity.”
The unity of Christ’s humanity-and-godliness was affirmed by the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus (431 CE) and Chalcedon (452 CE). These Councils were assemblies of bishops from across all Catholic Christendom. The councils were called to put down “heresies” that had emerged asserting distinctions between Jesus’ human and divine natures. 26 Today, the Catholic Church recognizes 21 Ecumenical Councils in all, the most recent one being the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.
So far, we have discussed the major mythical events attributed to Jesus’ life. These mythical events, if believed to be true, would eventually lead people to believe that Jesus is God. But we have not yet told the story of that “final naming.” We first want to look at the social psychology behind making a human spiritual leader into a divine being.
As we discussed early in this Essay, miracles and magic have eventually been attributed to nearly all the leaders of religions, and this has been true of Christianity. Many religions have taken popularization even farther by bestowing the ultimate miracle on their human leader by declaring him or her to be a God. This has been true in Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity – at least in the popularized versions of these religions. (See our three Essays, Evaluating Hinduism; Evaluating Taoism & Zen; and Evaluating Buddhism.)
Islam, of course, stands alone in its insistence that the Prophet Muhammad, (as well as Jesus), was a human being, and not a God. Islam originated in good part as a protest against the Christian concept of the Trinity, and Islam, to its credit, has strictly maintained this position. (See our Essay, Evaluating Islam.)
The Popularization of Other World Religions
Interestingly, at the time of early Christianity, there were popularization movements in religions across the globe. These “bhakti-styles” of Hinduism and Buddhism happened at the same time Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism were taking root around the start of the Common Era. 27
In India, the new Bhakti-style Movement in Hinduism allowed followers to win moksha (enlightenment and spiritual liberation) through the grace of the gods Shiva or Krishna. Similarly, Mahayana Buddhists could win nirvana (spiritual liberation) through the grace of a Buddha or a bodhisattva (enlightened teacher) of their choosing. Professor Stephen Prothero writes that “Many of these supra-mundane human beings (enlightened teachers) now have followings rivaling those of St. Jude or the Virgin Mary.” 28
Assigning divine power to the founders of religions provides an easier way out of the hard disciplines of moral living and doing good works. Why? Because the leader can now use his (or her) divine power to “boost” followers across the finish line” and into heaven. All you need is sincere faith and sincere repentance to enter heaven after death.
In Christianity, it also helps if the Kingdom of God has been moved from “Here-on-Earth-and-coming-soon” to “After-death and the ‘Second Coming’.” Promising paradise only after Jesus’ second coming was a stroke of promotional brilliance: it means that between now and the Second Coming, none of the faithful would ever show up at their church doors “demanding a refund.”
Of course, by making it easier to be a Christian, and easier for Christians to enter heaven, the sacred Books of the New Testament also make it easier for the church fathers to grow the membership of their congregations.
Note: One might judge that Hinduism and Buddhism don’t really “have” a heaven. But if Hinduism’s moksha and Buddhism’s nirvana entail ending the cycle of death and rebirth, and attaining Awakening – what is that, really, except a description of heaven? “Awakening” is a kind of disembodied, purely spiritual heaven, but a union with the godhead none the less.
Elevating Jesus to God: The Gospel of John (written between 90-110)
Mark, Matthew, Luke and John all tell a story of Jesus’ life, and all recount versions of what Jesus said. All of them contain miracle myths. But only the Apostle John changes the entire focus of his Gospel from “Jesus as messenger” to “Jesus as Son of God;” from Jesus-as-preacher to Jesus-as-Christ.
While Paul’s Letters to the Romans provided logic and clarity of the new doctrine of “Justification through Faith,” (and told gentile followers of Jesus that they were not required to get circumcised), the Gospel of John provides the poetic grandeur. Scholars of ancient Aramaic say that the language in John is more sophisticated, more Hellenized, than the language used in Mark, Matthew, or Luke. 29
In the Synoptic Gospels, (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus states his “identity” only a couple of times. And even these instances are judged by vote of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar not to be authentic words spoken by Jesus. One of these passages is Matthew 28:18-20:
Then Jesus came to them [His twelve disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:18-20
But the author of the Gospel of John has Jesus saying many times and in different ways that he is the Son of God – I am the ‘Living Bread’ (John 6:51), I am the ‘Light’ (8:12), I am the ‘Door’ (10-9), I am the ‘Way,’ the ‘Resurrection’ and the ‘Life’ (11:25), I am the ‘way, the truth, and the life’ (14-6); I am the true ‘vine,’ and my Father is the ‘vinedresser’ (15-1), I am the ‘Son of God.’ (10:36).
The Gospel of John is Unique: Erudite, Theological, and Likely Not Jesus’ Own Words.
The Jesus Seminar Scholars tell us that The Gospel of John did not draw anything from the earlier Gospels Mark, Matthew, Luke, Thomas, or from the lost “Q-Source”
The Jesus Seminar Scholars also assert that almost none of the Jesus-sayings written in John are the authentic words of Jesus. Nevertheless, they are now part of Christianity, and as such they present both merit and error to Followers of Continuing Creation.
The Gospel of John, written by an unknown author between 90 and 110 CE, is quite different from the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. As described by the Jesus Scholars in the Five Gospels:
“In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke], Jesus speaks in brief, pithy one-liners and couplets, and in parables.” “In the Gospel of John, by contrast, Jesus speaks in lengthy discourses or monologues, or in elaborate dialogues…” (The Five Gospels p. 10.)
In the Synoptic Gospels, “God’s imperial rule is the theme of Jesus’ teaching.” In John, “Jesus himself is the theme of his own teaching.” – (The Five Gospels p. 11.)
In the Synoptics, Jesus champions “the causes of the poor and oppressed.” In John, Jesus “has little or nothing to say about the poor and oppressed.” (The Five Gospels, p. 11.)
John has no appealing domestic scenes of a birth story or a last supper. Instead of a birth story with shepherds and farm animals, John presents a grand metaphysical story of Creation involving God, Jesus, and something called “The Word,” which we discuss in the next section.
Twisted Logic – “Redemption Through Jesus’ Sacrifice of Himself”
But before we take up “The Word,” we want to look at the twisted reasoning the Gospels and the Epistles use to “explain” the events of Jesus’ life and death in the doctrine of post-Jesus Christianity.
The “Logic” of the new supernatural religion created around Jesus goes like this:
- God creates Man in his own image, and even allows man to have knowledge of the difference between good and evil. (It’s biologically true that humankind has the capacity for both cooperation and competition, both construction and destruction; both good and evil.)
- After God creates the world, all the animals, and Adam and Eve, a few thousand years go by during which God rewards humankind (really, just His chosen tribe of Israel) for doing good things; and punishes humankind for doing bad things. During this time, the Hebrews burn many, many dead animals on the altar in a continuing effort to persuade God to calm down and help them more – especially when it comes to winning wars against neighboring tribes.
- By the time of Jesus’ birth, God has grown tired of men continually choosing evil, and so he embarks on a multi-step plan. First, he mystically impregnates the woman Mary, who gives birth to God’s own Son, Jesus of Nazareth. (Now, remember: God is all powerful and all-seeing, so he knows everything that is going to happen next.)
- Then (and this part is historically true), Jesus preaches a new morality, consisting of extending brotherly love, social equality, and charity to everyone. Jesus draws some large crowds, the Pharisees and the Romans feel threatened, and the Romans crucify Jesus as a rabble-rousing troublemaker.
- Followers of Jesus now have a problem: how could God’s chosen one have been crucified if he in fact was the chosen one? How could God let it happen? Learned followers looked back into the scriptures to find the answers. One text is the Jewish Day of Atonement, where one goat (the scapegoat), carrying the sins of the people, is driven out into the desert to die, and the other goat is sacrificed to God on the altar in the Temple.
- So, the post-Jesus writers say that Jesus was sacrificed by God, like a lamb on the altar of God (similar to what God almost required Abraham to do with his son Isaac), to appease God. This bloodthirsty human sacrifice story draws on the Second Temple tradition of blood sacrifice of animals, but now the new story is enlarged from animal to human sacrifice.
- Thus, the former sacrifices of lambs now become the sacrifice of the “lamb-of-God.” But the story has a good ending because God resurrects Jesus and elevates Him to heaven where he sits on the right hand of God.
- Now all Christians need do is believe in this story (especially the parts about divinity and being saved), sincerely repent, and they will in fact be saved and can enter heaven after they die. As poetically described by the author of the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
- But wait! According to the doctrine of the Trinity… the Son IS God. So, God is sacrificing part of himself to himself. Does this make any sense? Do we shunt it to the side as a “magic mystery,” because no mortal can comprehend the ways of God?
- God presumably consumed the animal sacrifices he received in the days of Old Testament. That doesn’t seem to happen here in the New Testament (‘thank God’). Nevertheless, Christians for the next two thousand years will participate in the ritual eating of Jesus. In Holy Communion — a watered-down rite of human sacrifice — parishioners drink wine and eat bread which a priest “transmutes” into the blood and body of Christ. (In more reformed denominations, the wine and bread merely “symbolize” the blood and body of Christ.)
“And he [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” (Luke 22:17-19)
Summing Up the Above 10 Points
Richard Dawkins, Emeritus Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Oxford University, summed it up this way in a 2012 interview with Chip Rowe:
“There’s no evidence Jesus himself was barking mad, but the doctrine invented later by Paul that Jesus died for our sins surely is. It’s a truly disgusting idea that the creator of the universe—capable of inventing the laws of physics and designing the evolutionary process—that this protégé of supernatural intellect couldn’t think of a better way to forgive our sins than to have himself tortured to death.” 30
Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple Computer, summed it up this way: “God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we like God anyway because he made trees.” (Attributed to Steve Jobs, in the movie, Steve Jobs.)
The above statements from Hitchens and Jobs are extreme. But we do know that people have historically been most comfortable turning to family Gods, patron Gods (a God for tailors, a different one for shepherds), and tribal Gods. It is difficult for a widespread and diverse population to adopt a monotheistic God. An attraction of post-Jesus Christianity is that it makes the “One Big God” of monotheism accessible to common people. It does that by embodying God in the person of Jesus.
Viewed as a mythical metaphor, we could say that at Jesus’ crucifixion, God separates the human aspect of Jesus (which is tainted by sin), leaving the original Godly aspect of Jesus to be taken up into heaven where it is re-absorbed back into the unity of God.
Or, if we use a different metaphor, we could say this: By becoming human as Jesus, God absorbs all the sin and suffering of humanity and dissolves it away in his infinite Self. As a result, humans come out the other end free of suffering, in a place called heaven. And by this same process, God has changed Himself from a harsh, punishing God of War and Law to a God of Love.
A related question is, why does God change his disposition (from punishing to forgiving) in this way? Well, He just decides that His love is greater than His law and justice.
Viewed as a poetic metaphor – the fictional story woven around Jesus serves to convey God’s decision in the New Testament to become a God of Love (CC people would say “Love and Creating”), leaving behind the Old Testament God of Commandment, Law, Judgment, Punishment, and Vengeance. Thus, Christianity is a very important advance in Western (desert) theology. This is a clear Strength of Christianity.
But here’s a clear Shortcoming of Christianity: the logic of Christian communion is a very convoluted, knotted string to unravel! Today in the twenty-first century, do we really want to express our spirituality by symbolically drinking blood and eating flesh? Wouldn’t it make more sense to watch the flowing water of a mountain brook, and hear the chirping of birds in the trees? After all, the brook, birds, and trees are real products of the Process of Continuing Creation, not myths!
There should never be a sensationalized, magical, unscientific version of the Book of Continuing Creation. In our modern age, people can access scientific and historical knowledge on the internet. This knowledge can bring them to an appreciation of Continuing Creation (“CC”).
A good visual metaphor for the Processes of Continuing Creation would include images from Nature, such as a beautiful tree whose translucent spring-green leaves are backlit by the morning sun.
In Christianity, the idea of people making new beginnings idea is anthropomorphized and known as the Doctrine of Forgiveness of Sins, or in evangelical denominations, as “being born again in Christ.“
We Followers of Continuing Creation heartily support the idea of new beginnings. However, we find no hard evidence for the magical idea of God-gifted “grace” in the Christian process. For us, the process of a personal New Beginning requires work: the admission of wrongs, full or at least partial restitution, and the practice of new behaviors. This reliance on magic is a Shortcoming of Christianity.
Hinduism and Taoism also have no magical way to make a new beginning. In these religions, there are no second chances, no new beginnings, no forgiveness. All of one’s bad deeds (actions, thoughts, and intentions) accrue to one’s ledger of bad karma, and these must be balanced out by good deeds (in this life or on reincarnations) of equal value. A person’s “karmic scorecard” is never wiped clean all at once. There is no supernatural agent of rescue, such as the forgiveness of all sins by true belief in Jesus, and thus being reborn fresh and pure of heart. This is a Strength of Hinduism and Taoism.
However, a popularized version of Buddhism, known as Pure Land Buddhism, is more like Christianity because it does admit new beginnings.
Logos — The “Word”
The Gospel of John does not have a birth in Bethlehem story for Jesus as do Luke and Matthew. Instead, John reaches back to the creation of the world, and says that Jesus was with God and part of God all along. In doing this, the writer of John uses the Greek word Logos, which has traditionally been translated as Word, but has a wider meaning as we shall see.
Here are the first fourteen verses of the Gospel of John (New International Version), followed by our commentary:
“In the beginning was the Logos [translated to English as the “Word”], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
“There was a man sent from God whose name was John [the Baptist]. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” (John 1:6-8)
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1: 9-13)
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
“Word” comes from the Greek “Logos.” What Does Logos Mean?
If we ask modern Christians what the word “Word” means in the Gospel of John, they are likely to say, “It’s just another word for Jesus.” But it’s not that simple; it is more abstract and more profound. (For more on this topic, see the Wikipedia article, Logos (Christianity).
It is true that the Gospel of John sets up a strong equality: Word = God = Light = Jesus. From this comes the peculiar notion of the Trinity, where Jesus, when he walked the Earth, was both human and Divine. He was (and now is) both the Son of God and at the same time indivisible from God.
Plus, a third indivisible manifestation of God, the Holy Spirit, (the inspirational and communicative “face” of God is added to give us the Trinity. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is what the Gospel of John refers to as the “Light,” and/or the “Word.” It’s a minor issue, since God =Jesus = Holy Spirit.
The Magical, Illogical Concept of the Trinity is a Shortcoming of Christianity.
“Logos” is a Greek word meaning “ground” [as in grounds for, or the background of]. It became a technical term in philosophy beginning with the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC), who used the term for the principle of order and knowledge. 31
Ancient Greek philosophers used Logos in different ways. Aristotle applied the term to refer to “reasoned discourse” or “the argument” or “fundamental knowledge” in the field of rhetoric. 32
The Stoic philosophers identified the term Logos with the “divine animating principle” or “active reason” pervading the Universe. 33
In Hellenistic Judaism, the philosopher Philo (c. 20 BC – AD 50) adopted the term into Jewish philosophy. Philo (20 BC – 50 AD), wrote that “the Logos of the living God is the bond of everything, holding all things together and binding all the parts, and prevents them from being dissolved and separated.” 34
The author of the Gospel of John may have learned the idea of Logos from the Greek philosophers or from the Hebrew philosopher Philo. 35
Professor Bart Ehrman writes that Logos can also mean Creation: “God creates all things by speaking a ‘word’: ‘And God said, let there be light. And there was light.’” Thus, Logos comes from God, and since it is God’s Logos, in a sense it is God. But once he emits it, it stands apart from God as a distinct entity. This entity was sometimes thought of as a person distinct from God. The Logos came to be seen in some [pre-Christian] Jewish circles as a hypostasis.” 36
Note: Hypostasis: The underlying or essential part of anything as distinguished from attributes. The fundamental substance or essence of something.
Note the similarity of John’s “Logos” to the interrelated, interlocking natural processes that worked and still work to create the universe, the Earth, all living things, and all sciences, arts, and inventions of humankind. This similarity is a Strength of post-Jesus Christianity.
The writer of the Gospel of John uses Christian Logos as the divine process through which all things are made and further identifies Jesus Christ as the “incarnate Logos.” This is one place in the New Testament where “God” begins to be conceived non-anthropomorphically, as something other than a super-person, and this is a Strength of Christianity since Jesus. However, making Logos “incarnate” in Jesus is a Shortcoming, because it is a myth. 37
Continuing Creation, the ever-evolving interconnected Sum of all natural Creative Systems, shows us that the concept of God–as–Logos in the Gospel of John is a lot like our concept of Continuing Creation here in this Book. Both concepts envision an active process of forming patterns, organized systems, and information.
However, we hardly feel that Jesus was the only human representative of Logos who ever lived. Nor do we think the message that Jesus preached is the world’s complete and final wisdom. (We discussed the shortcomings of Jesus’ message in our earlier Essay, “Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching.”)
Instead, we feel that Continuing Creation speaks through all people, but through some individuals more than others. And whenever Continuing Creation speaks through humans, it is the end-product of long chains of the biological and cultural evolution of those humans.
Finally, we Co-Creators do not agree with the irrational belief that Jesus had magical powers, or that an irrational belief in those powers can get people into heaven. Still, some people are more centered in Continuing Creation, more imbued with logos, than others. As a very important religious leader who expanded the sphere of human love in Western civilization, Jesus was clearly one of those people.
Medeival Catholic Theologians Intellectualized the Story of Jesus
After Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire, educated theologians would continue trying to reconcile magical miracle stories with high philosophy and reasoning. The two most famous Catholic Theologians were Saint Augustine (354-430) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Saint Augustine (a.k.a. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430), took the view that, if a literal interpretation contradicts science and humans’ God-given reason, the biblical text should be interpreted metaphorically. While each passage of Scripture has a literal sense, this “literal sense” does not always mean the Scriptures are mere history; at times they are rather an extended metaphor. The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was a symbol of the order of creation. 38
Self-centeredness made Adam and Eve eat of it, thus failing to acknowledge and respect the world as it was created by God, with its hierarchy of beings and values. 40 The book of C.C. recognizes that Biblical metaphor (like all metaphors) are illustrative, personable, even vivid stories that appeal to and teach people with all levels of education. The danger is always that people may revert to literal interpretation of the stories. That is why we recommend that all mythical passages and miracle stories in religious books should be fine-lined through and annotated.
Augustine taught that the sin of Adam and Eve was either an act of foolishness (insipientia) followed by pride and disobedience to God or that pride came first.[d] The first couple disobeyed God, who had told them not to eat of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). 43
Instead of “Logos,” How about “The Ground of All Being?”
Several important modern Christian theologians have adopted the non-anthropological description of God found in the Gospel of John. For example, Paul Tillich, (1886-1965) a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran theologian, considered God to be “The Ground of All Being,” or “The Ground of Being-itself,” meaning the foundation or ultimate reality that precedes all beings and all being. Dr. Tillich was a proponent of Spiritual Naturalism, which is a “perspective that finds religious or spiritual meaning in the natural world and rejects the notion of a supernatural realm.” 44 A large percentage of today’s practicing Christians – both Catholic and Protestant – also view God as Tillich does, although they may not articulate it very well and/or very often.
Continuing Creation, the sum of all interacting creative systems, shows us that Tillich’s view that God is the “Ground of All Being,” is similar to our own view of Continuing Creation, but Tillich’s view lacks our scientific description of the Processes of Continuing Creation. Tillich views God as a noun or maybe as a force, while we view Continuing Creation as an on-going system of interlocking processes.
“Logos” was a fairly successful effort to intellectualize the story of Jesus. However, the three-in-one concept of the Trinity is another matter.
So, it “comes to pass” that God-The-Father, God-The-Son, and God-The-Holy-Spirit are seen as One, particularly in the Gospel of John and in the Epistles of Paul. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch provided early support for the Trinity around 110 CE. 45
Eventually, the diverse references to God, Jesus, and the Spirit found in the New Testament were brought together to form the doctrine of the Trinity—one Godhead subsisting in three persons and one substance and exhorting obedience to “Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit.” 46.
But the Trinity is not formalized as an indivisible, mystical reality of Three-in-One and One-in-Three, with the full weight of the Catholic Church behind it, until the First Council of Nicaea in 325.
Still, we Followers of Continuing Creation have several problems with the Trinity which we cannot overcome:
- Our First problem is simply that it never happened — the Logos was never “made flesh,” unless we are talking about how the Processes of Continuing Creation turned inert elements into living creatures through Emergence and Evolution, by which Wholes are made that are greater than the sum of their parts. See our Essays, Complexity and Continuing Creation, The Processes of Evolution and their Meaning, and Flows of Energy Assemble Molecules into Life.
- Second, Continuing Creation cannot be embodied or contained. The Muslims are right about this. No symbol, image, name, or personification of Continuing Creation can be mistaken for Continuing Creation, because Continuing Creation is not containable. Therefore, no such symbol can be sacred, and must never be an object of veneration. But a set of symbols, each of them understood to be imperfect and partial, can stand for important aspects of Continuing Creation. These include the Tree, the Mobius strip we use as our logos, and the Golden Ratio Spiral, all of which we discuss in our Essay, Mathematics and Continuing Creation.
- Third, we don’t think that Continuing Creation talks to individuals, or pays attention to, or acts toward individuals. However, Christians who feel they are able to “walk and talk” with Jesus may feel greater personal support than they would have received from the Old Testament’s remote and commanding This “gentling tone’ is a Strength of Christianity.
- Fourth, we do think there is just one Growing Organizing Direction; but one composed of many, many interacting sub-processes. And Continuing Creation also has many branches – as do trees.
Gnostic Christians (roughly 100-200 CE)
The view of Christianity written by Paul and the author of the Gospel of John eventually become the religion of the Roman Catholic Church. But this religion, based on Jesus’ divinity and “saving ability,” did not emerge without a struggle. Other interpretations of Jesus message had some initial success but were eventually stamped out as heresies. 47
Many different Jesus movements formed in the decades after Jesus’ death, and a number of them (especially the Gnostics) had their own gospels and large libraries of literature that are still available to us today. What we now know of as the New Testament is a very small selection put together by the particular branch of Christianity in the 4th century that gained power thru the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity. After that, other visions of Jesus were actively suppressed, and much of their literature was lost for centuries. 48
Gnosticism – An Early “Heresy”
One of the largest and most impactful of the early un-orthodox Christian sects was Gnosticism. Although it was eventually declared a heresy and eliminated by the Roman Church, Gnosticism remains important for three reasons:
- First, many scholars believe Gnosticism provides a look at the early oral teachings of Christians after Jesus’ death.
- Second, because it is a forerunner of mystical Christianity, and we have said that most great religions have a philosophical version, a popularized mythical version, and a mystical version.
- Third, the Gnostics were wrestling with the same crazy logic of the Jesus Story as we ourselves have in this Essay. For example, how could God want, need, require, or even prefer a sacrifice of His son-who-is-himself in order to grant people entry into heaven?
The Gnostics Claimed “Secret Knowledge”
The word “Gnostic” means “of or relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge.” But for the Gnostics, logos was not as intellectualized as was the Logos seen in John. The Gnostics supposed a “secret knowledge’ behind Jesus’ sayings that Jesus would tell only to his most trusted followers. Other Gnostics felt they could uncover the secret knowledge for themselves through individual study and prayer, much as Hebrew scholars had attempted to do over hundreds of years using the esoteric Kabbalah approach. Gnosticism also provided a greater role for women in their church.
The Gnostics modeled their practices partly on the mystery religions that were the most popular religions in the Empire when Christianity was growing. They were called “mystery religions” because they involved secret ceremonies known only to those initiated into the cult. (The Greek word, “mysterion,” means something secret—it should not be told. It particularly applied to the rites of initiation and the secret objects that were “revealed” only to the initiates.)
The promise of “Secret Knowledge” is perennially attractive to the new recruits of many movements and organizations. The Freemasons offer it, as do the Protective and Benevolent Order of Elks, The Mafia, and many other clubs down through history. Secret knowledge and behaviors are Shortcomings of all Spiritual Paths, because they divide groups into “us versus them.”
The Practice of Continuing Creation has no secret knowledge, no “inner” doctrine that is available only to people having some special status. We have no codes and no hidden meanings. All facts and all writings are available to all practitioners, and everything is open to debate. In addition, every individual within our Practice is free to decide which elements of our tradition are parts of his or her own Practice of Continuing Creation, and which are not.
Texts and Beliefs of Gnosticism
The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about 54 ancient texts were found near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. These Gospels are based upon the teachings of several spiritual leaders. They were written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD and were discovered in 1945. These documents are not part of the standard Biblical canon of any mainstream Christian denomination, and as such are part of what is called the New Testament apocrypha. The main Gnostic Gospels included:
- The Gospel of Thomas was written about 150 BCE and discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945). Scholars believe this Gospel records a very early oral tradition of Jesus’ words, contains only sayings of Jesus — no narrative stories, no mythical miracles. The Gospel of Thomas proclaims that the Kingdom of God is already present for those who understand the secret message of Jesus (see the saying of Thomas #113) and lacks apocalyptic themes. 49 It is a Shortcoming of Christianity that the Gospel of Thomas in not included in today’s New Testament.
- The Gospel of Mary (recovered in 1896). The Gnostic movement had almost as many female leaders as male. Many Gnostics believed that Mary Magdalene was the true companion (perhaps the wife) of Jesus. “Peter said to Mary…Tell us the words of the Savior…which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them.’” Mary responds to Peter’s request by recounting a conversation she had with the Savior about visions. (Mary) said to Jesus, “Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’” He answered and said to me: “Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.” (See The Wikipedia article, Gospel of Mary.)
- The Gospel of Truth (from the Nag Hammadi Library) describes Jesus as having been sent down by God to remove ignorance. It also says that knowledge grants salvation, which constitutes eternal rest, and describes ignorance as a nightmare.
- The Gospel of Philip (Nag Hammadi Library) The Gospel of Philip defends the tradition that claims Mary Magdalene had special insight into Jesus’ teaching.
- The Gospel of Judas, (recovered via the antiquities black market in 1983). The Gospel of Judas consists of conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. The Gospel argues that the other disciples did not learn the true Word of God, which Jesus taught only to Judas Iscariot. The Gospel of Judas says Judas’s “betrayal” was done in obedience to instructions given to him by Christ. 50
The End of Gnosticism
Roman Catholicism has had no tolerance for personal, individual interpretation of the scriptures. That would have been too chaotic for the Catholic bishops to handle, especially since most people could not read. It would have splintered the church (and, of course, undermined the Catholic Bishops’ authority and status). Interpretation of the scriptures could only be done by the priests and bishops who were sufficiently educated to handle it.
So, over time, the Gnostics were out-competed and actively repressed by the Catholics, who were male-oriented and who preached a highly structured theology consisting of priest-imposed rules and rituals, not an individualistic, contemplative inward search. Finally, Bishop Irenaeus fully stamped out Gnosticism late second century.
Individual interpretation of the scriptures would have to wait for the Protestant Reformation, more widespread literacy, and invention of the printing press. (See our next Essay on the subject of Christianity, Medieval Catholicism to Protestant Reformation.)
A number of other heresies were also quashed during the early centuries of Catholic Christianity. For a list of them, see Wikipedia, “List of Heresies in the Catholic Church.” In that article, Gnosticism is categorized under seven different heresies.
The “Oneness”of Catholic Christianity in the West, and of Orthodox Christianity in the East, was a Strength because it kept Christianity on track, and a Shortcoming because it prevented the richness of individual religious experiences.
Classic Christian Creeds
The Apostles’ Creed, one of two famous creeds in the Christian faith, is all about swearing to the divinity of Christ, and not at all about swearing to what Christ had to say. It has roots as far back as 150 C.E, and 450 C.E. as we know it today.
In late October of 312 CE, Emperor Constantine convened the Christian bishops to meet in The First Council of Nicaea, a town near Constantinople. While the palace there was under the close “protection” of the imperial guard, Constantine commanded the bishops to erase any major theological disagreements between them. 51
They did so, and went on to develop a short creed, which all Catholics were expected to recite during various gathering and ceremonies.
Creeds are simplified, easy-to-remember summaries of key beliefs. They are meant to be recited by worshipers, and thereby remembered and ingrained. Creeds are one of several codifications and simplifications, including the catechism, the doxology, fixed ritual prayers, and fixed ritual blessings such as “last rights.” All of these serve to make a religion understandable to common people and to provide uniformity in belief and practice. In all these documents the church stresses the Religion about Jesus, and neglects teaching the Religion Taught by Jesus.
Historically, there are three principal Creed’s, all of them similar:
- Apostles’ Creed 120-250 BCE, and as we know it ~450 C.E.
- Creed of Nicaea – 325.
- Nicene Creed (somewhat modifying the Creed of Nicaea) – 381 BCE
Amazingly, The Apostles’ Creed, quoted below, contains nothing of Jesus’ moral teachings (nor does the Nicene Creed of 381):
The Apostles’ Creed (Most likely from the 4th Century. In use since the 8th Century)
“I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell: the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.”
The longer but highly similar Nicene Creed (as amended at the Council of Constantinople in 381) can easily be found and read online.
The figure of Jesus in these creeds is a mythical or heavenly figure, whose connection with the sage from Nazareth is limited — nothing between his birth and death, i.e., nothing Jesus said appears to be essential to his mission or to the faith of the church.
In other words, there is nothing in these creeds about believing in what Jesus taught, only about Jesus’ divinity and magical powers. Jesus has been replaced with Christ. “This conception was undoubtedly derived from the view espoused by the apostle Paul, who did not know the historical Jesus. For Paul, the Christ was to be understood as a dying/rising lord, … of the type he knew from Hellenistic mystery religions. In Paul’s theological scheme, Jesus the man played no essential role.” 52
Note: The Practice of Continuing Creation has something similar to a creed. In our statement of “The Principles We Hold True.” (So that the reader can make comparisons, our document includes copies of Christianity’s “Apostles’ Creed,” the Unitarian Universalists’ “Seven Principles and Six Sources,” and Reverend Michael Dowd’s “Eco-Credo.”)
The Catholic Religion teaches that if you believe Jesus is the Son of God who will return to Earth and usher all his followers (alive and dead) into heaven; and if you go through several ritual sacraments including baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, Confession & Penance, Anointing the Sick or Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony, and Last Rites, then you will in fact get to go to Heaven.
Protestant Denominations are, in varying degrees, less formal, less ritualistic than Roman Catholicism, and they call for more Bible study, free-form prayer, and inward searching.
To reinforce the certainty of a magical journey up to heaven, and to prove Jesus’ supernatural power, believers are told that a number of miraculous events happened during Jesus’ life. These include Jesus’ immaculate conception, his feats of healing, rising from the dead, and appearance after death.
The Official Books (The Canon) of the New Testament
While the Creeds were being written, important Christian theologians and bishops met in a series of conventions to decide which of the many “gospels” were worthy enough to be included in the “New Testament” of the Holy Bible.
Many different Jesus movements formed in the decades after Jesus’ death, and a number had their own gospels and large libraries of literature that are still available to us today. Among these documents were the substantial writings of The Gnostics. What we now know of as the New Testament is a very small selection of “books” put together by the Catholic Church in the 4th century. This selection gained power thru the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity. After that, other early writing about Jesus were actively suppressed, and much of their literature was lost for centuries. 53
The Choice of Latin Only for the Bible and the Mass
For centuries, the texts of the New Testament were kept only in the dead language of Latin. This was a strategy to keep them pure. Christians spoke scores, perhaps hundreds of languages and dialects. If the church had allowed the Gospels to be translated into so many languages, it would have led to mistranslations and doctrinal differences, especially over the time span of hundreds of years. Besides, there was minimal intellectual discourse outside Greek and Latin, at least until the latter Middle Ages.
Of course, keeping the sacred texts in Latin also gave the Catholic priesthood a “monopoly on reading and understanding,” and thereby centralized, disciplined power over dispensation of the religion. Thus, the early choice of “Latin Only” can be seen as a strategy of both simplification and preservation.
The Book of Revelation
The New Testament’s apocalyptic Book of Revelation, a.k.a. “The Apocalypse of John,” has been attributed to John the Apostle, one of the 12 disciples, but historically thought to be written by an unknown author between CE 81 and 96. The Book of Revelation is a fantastic nightmare of frightening myths. Its inclusion in the New Testament clearly shows the political motivations of the Ecumenical Councils that selected the books for inclusion. Apparently, they needed a scary horror-show to be the “stick,” to go along with Jesus’ own “carrot” message.
We Agents of Continuing Creation say: in future editions of the Bible, the entire Book of Revelation should be lined through to indicate its macabre insanity. Or just leave it out altogether.
Catholic Monastic Life – Calm, Devotion, and Prayer
With the hierarchical structure of the priesthood in place for cultivating the faith of the general populace, the Roman Catholic Church, in a stroke of genius, created side-pocket organizations for the people who actually did want to follow the Religion of love and charity taught by Jesus. The men could become monks, and the women could become nuns. The monastic traditions allow people who want to follow Jesus’ communal doctrine of radical sharing and living without possessions to do so. For the most part, these people have been asked to live apart from the general populace, so that main-line people would not come to question the worth of their own lives in comparison to the lives of the Jesus-emulators.
The ascetic (simple and self-denying) lifestyle of the Essenes living in the first century set an example Jesus own lifestyle, and for the Christian monks and nuns. The word “monastic” derives from the Greek word “monos,” meaning alone, and the earliest Christian monks did live alone, as hermits. The first Christian monastery, the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, was built in 346 C.E. in Egypt. The Benedictine Monastic Order was founded at Monte Casino in Italy in 529. We discussed the Essenes in our earlier Essay, Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching. (Also see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_monasticism_before_451.)
The monastic, ascetic path is present in nearly all great religions. It is a prime example of the alternative of the withdrawal response to social and economic stress. Examples include the Essenes in Judaism, Buddhist monks and nuns, Hindu yogis, even the Amish and Mennonites, in their own practical, American way. As we’ve said elsewhere, we Agents of Continuing Creation support the choice of contemplative life… for the minority of People who find it attractive. But the main thrust of our Way is to actively construct, discover, and create.
Note: To capture one aspect, the contemplative mood, of monastic life, go online and listen to a chorus of contemporary monks or nuns perform a Gregorian Chant.
The status of monks as apart from secular life (at least theoretically) also served a social function. Monasteries became a place for second sons to live in celibacy so that the entire family estate would go to the first son and not split all the sons (and/or daughters).
For centuries, many cities had a Magdalene House (also called Magdalene asylums or Magdalene laundries) for prostitutes within the walls, often a pre-industrial laundry where the women and girls toiled ceaselessly with little reward. Other orders of nuns were favored by monarchs and rich families to keep and educate their maiden daughters before arranged marriage (or to hold daughters indefinitely if they proved to be “too unappealing” for marriage.)
Poverty, Chastity, Obedience… and Wealth
Ironically, many Catholic monastic orders in Europe accumulated great wealth during the Middle Ages. Since none of the monks were allowed to marry, none of the wealth they created during their lives could be passed down to sons or daughters. Instead, the fruits of their labors stayed in the hands of the monastery and thereby increased the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. (See Wikipedia, Dissolution of the Monasteries.)
The monasteries also turned out to be centers of literacy, learning, and even some new technology, such as improvements in waterwheel-and-grindstone technology 54 Most of the Greek literature, philosophy, and science we still have today exists because it was preserved in medieval monasteries. 55 And many Catholic orders are devoted to charity work for hundreds of years, and that is clearly a laudable use of their members’ time and energy.
However, the Process of Continuing Creation shows us that a life of complete retreat into introspective prayer is more like death than life. Continuing Creation’s design for most of us is to actively, constructively, and sustainably engage the world all around us. However, partial or periodic retreat – into meditation, contemplation, introspection, or “alone time” – are salubrious ways to regenerate our creative energies. Older people may benefit from increased (but hardly total) retreat, to aid them in evaluation of their lives and loves, so that their wisdom may better be passed to the young people around them.
Original Sin, also called “ancestral sin,” is the Christian doctrine of that every person is born in a state of sin stemming from Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience to Jehovah when they consumed fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Some scholars contend that this Hebrew phrase is best understood as “the knowledge of everything,” rather than the narrower “knowledge of morality.” 56 We will stick with the traditional interpretation – moral knowledge.
Early Roman Catholic theologians including Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose supported this doctrine, seeing that it was based on the New Testament teaching of Paul the Apostle (Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22) and the Old Testament verse of Psalm 51:5.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430), well-known today as “Saint Augustine,” and perhaps the foremost theologian of Christianity, formulated a rather severe interpretation of original sin that would become particularly popular among Protestant reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, who equated original sin with even thinking about or tending toward sin. Augustine affirmed that original sin persisted after baptism and it completely destroyed human-kind’s freedom to choose. 57
The biological subsystems within the Process of Continuing Creation show us that we humans are born having a mix of both good and evil because we have both traits of cooperation and competition. Much of this duality results from the fact that we humans are naturally selected on two levels: as individuals and as members of a group or tribe, i.e., “group selection.” 58.
Evolution on the individual level gives a competitive advantage to selfishness, while evolution on the group level gives a competitive advantage to sharing with others. The constant tension between the two cannot be fully resolved; it must be worked out situation by situation, precedent by precedent. That’s why law may be the best example of cultural evolution that there is. Religion alone will never meld societies together – fair and just laws are also required.
But the religious doctrine of Original Sin makes evil the fault of humans. This doctrine adds guilt and shame to our psyche, which are totally uncalled for and unproductive. On balance, the doctrine of Original Sin is likely a Shortcoming of Christianity; although when it alerts us to seriously harmful and immoral behavior in our cultures, it acts as a Strength.
Family Values as Written and Preached by the Apostles
The beautiful and touching story of Jesus’ birth in a manger, attended to by a loving Earthly father and mother, is a marvelous image of family values. The presence of the wise men and the shepherds extends the love to all humanity, and the presence of the farm animals extends it to all Earth’s creatures.
But in the central mystical myth of post-Jesus Christianity, God has his own son tortured and killed. He does this to save the world from himself, i.e. from his own wrath over the sinful nature of humankind, which he supposedly created in his own image. Despite being illogical, this story hardly sets a positive example of “family values” for humans to follow. (John 3:16) The illogic and unreality of this central myth is a Shortcoming of Christianity.
In Paul’s letters (epistles) to various nascent Christian congregations around the Mediterranean, “Family Values” continue to get short shrift, just as they did in the Jesus’ own teachings:
- In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wishes that men and woman would abstain from sex, but he tells them to “come together” to avoid being tempted by Satan. Finally, after discouraging marriage for eight verses, Paul concedes that “it is better to marry than to burn.” (1 Corinthians 7:5 and 7:9)
- A Christian believer may either keep or divorce an unbelieving spouse. (These verses are known as the “Pauline Privilege.”) (1 Corinthians 7:12-13)
- “Else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.” This verse means that the children of nonbelievers are unclean, but believers’ children are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:14)
- “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-24)
Women Had Repressed Status in Early Roman Catholic Christianity, and Still Have So Today
In our prior Essay, Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching, we saw that the actual teachings of Jesus were fairly favorable toward women. Not so under Roman Catholicism. Roman Christianity continues the Old Testament tradition of seeing God as purely male. He can be a harsh, punishing Father figure, or a loving father figure, but He has no female aspects.
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord.” (1 Peter 3:3-6. New International Version)
“Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family… The widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. (1 Timothy 5:3-6)
“As for younger widows, do not put them on [a list to receive charity]. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.” (1 Timothy 5:11-15)
The Early Positive Portrayal of Mary Magdalene
We saw in our earlier Essay, Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching, that Jesus regarded Mary of Magdalene as an important and respected follower. The earliest post-Jesus Christian communities also held Mary Magdalene in high regard.
The Gnostics, who were eventually suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church, gave her even more importance. The Gnostics portrayed Mary of Magdalene as a visionary leader of the early movement, someone whom Jesus had loved more than he loved the other disciples. 59 (See, From Jesus To Christ – The First Christians | FRONTLINE | PBS Web: 2 November 2009.) The Gnostic Gospel of Philip names Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ koinônos, a Greek word variously translated in contemporary versions as partner, associate, comrade, companion. 60
The Gnostic text Pistis Sophia (“unadulterated wisdom”), possibly dating as early as the 2nd century and discovered in 1773, presents a long dialog with the risen Jesus in the form of his answers to questions from his disciples, including his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Martha. In this text, the risen Jesus has spent 11 years teaching the “lower mysteries” to his disciples. Now Jesus reveals the “higher mysteries,” which are complex cosmologies and knowledge required for the soul to reach the highest divine realms. At one point, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene: “Mary, thou blessed one, whom I will perfect in all mysteries of those of the height, discourse in openness, thou, whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” 61
Later Roman Catholic Denigration of Mary Magdalene
The notion of Mary Magdalene being a former prostitute or loose woman dates to a claim by Pope Gregory I or “Gregory the Great” (540-604 C.E.) made in an influential homily in/or around 591. In it, Pope Gregory identified Magdalene with the anonymous sinner bearing the perfume in Luke’s gospel. 62 (See the Wikipedia article, Mary Magdalene.)
The seven devils removed from Mary Magdalene by Jesus (Luke 8:1-3 and 8:3) “morphed into the Seven Deadly Sins.” In subsequent religious legend, Mary’s story became conflated with that of St. Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute who then lived as a hermit. With that, Mary’s image was, according to Susan Haskins, author of Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, “finally settled…for nearly fourteen hundred years.” 63
The “composite” Mary Magdalene (half saint, half whore) was never accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches, who saw only Mary the disciple, and believed that after the Resurrection she lived as a companion to the Virgin Mary.
Modern Views of Mary Magdalene
Today, Mary Magdalene is considered to be a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran denominations. In 2016, Pope Francis raised the level of liturgical memory on July 22 from “memorial” to “feast,” and for her to be referred to as the “Apostle of the apostles.” A number of Protestant churches also honor her as a heroine of the faith. 64
Mary, Mother of Jesus
People the world over have a need and a desire for the divine to be represented by a female figure. But Mary Magdalene was not to be the source of female spirituality under the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, the Roman Church elevates Mary, Mother of Jesus, not only to sainthood, but to near God-like status in what many scholars call “The “Cult of the Virgin Mary.” (See also, the “Immaculate Heart of Mary.”)
Secular Popes, Ossification, and Corruption
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a number of Popes led armies into battle, had wives and mistresses, and fathered sons. See Wikipedia’s List of Sexually Active Popes. See also, Piers Paul Reed, “The Popes Who Waged War,” in the Catholic Herald, 8-15-2019. During the Renaissance, in the mid-1600s, the so-called “Secular Popes” ruled over the Papal States of central Italy, in addition to ruling over the Catholic Church.
Opposition to Birth Control
The Catholic Church has long been opposed to birth control, regardless of the hardship and suffering this causes for poor families, and despite today’s clear evidence that Earth’s human population threatens to overwhelm the planet’s environment. This is an ongoing Shortcoming of Roman Catholic Christianity.
Suicide is a Mortal Sin
In Catholic Christianity, a “mortal sin” is a gravely sinful act which can lead to damnation if a person does not repent of the sin before death. Catholic doctrine holds that it is a mortal sin to commit suicide no matter how much pain a person may be in, and no matter how hopeless the medical prognosis may be. In death by suicide, there is logically no chance for the person to repent before death. This doctrine about suicide is a Shortcoming of Roman Catholic Christianity. Every adult has the right to end his or her own life, especially when the suicide is not opposed by members of person’s immediate family.
Celibacy, the “Men Only” Priesthood, and Molestation
The Catholic insistence that only men are eligible for the priesthood, and that priests may not marry, has persisted down to the present day. This unfortunate policy resulted in the Catholic Priesthood becoming a harbor for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of active child-molesters, most of whom persisted decade after decade. Rather than being expelled, Priests were routinely shuffled from parish to parish in a heinous shell-game of crime concealment. The ongoing, long-standing tragedy was finally exposed in the 1990’s.
We Co-Creators see productive work as a moral good, if that work contributes to the progress of Continuing Creation — the progress of science; engineering; medicine; ecology; justice; relationships with family, friends, community, and society; and personal well-being.
Millions of followers draw their spiritual sustenance from Christian denominations. In addition, Christianity has, over the centuries, provided a wealth of charity to the world’s less fortunate people. Lastly, Catholic denominations have supported artists providing the world with magnificent cathedrals and churches, and masterpieces of music and art. All these are clear and important Strengths.
Life is difficult, and if Christianity works for you, we have no desire to turn you away from it. But if you seek a different path, or if you have questions, consider The Practice of Continuing Creation.
APPENDIX A – Timeline of Christianity
Note: References for much of the following Timeline is from: The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives, a Crossroads Mini-Course,” Boston College, at http://www.bc.edu/schools/stm/crossroads/resources/birthofjesus/intro/the_dating_of_thegospels.html]
- 0-33 CE – Approximate years for the Crucifixion and Death of Jesus.
- 33-43 CE –- “The Apostles spread Christianity to Jewish communities around the Mediterranean. The religion taught by Jesus first grows among the Jews in Judea. Then the original Twelve Apostles who accompanied Jesus as a living man fan out to preach Jesus’ teachings to Jewish communities across the Mediterranean. The book of Acts reports that the early followers continued daily Temple attendance and traditional Jewish home prayer. Other passages in the accepted (canonical) Gospels mention reverence for the Torah (generally translated as “the Law” in English translations of the Bible) and observance of Jewish holy days.
- 33-100 CE – The “Apostolic Age.” Most of the Gospels are written based on oral retellings that include myths and fantastical stories. These Gospels are attributed to the Apostles and their contemporaries; but they were usually written by later authors.
- 40-60 CE — Paul of Tarsus (St. Paul) begins preaching to Gentiles, starting in Antioch, then a major Roman city near today’s border between Turkey and Syria.  The new converts did not follow all Jewish Law and refused to be circumcised,  as circumcision was considered repulsive in Hellenistic culture (Greek culture from the time of Alexander the Great) . At the Council of Jerusalem, Paul (supported by Peter) argued that circumcision was not a necessary practice. The council agreed, but deemed other aspects of “Jewish Law” to be necessary.
- 50’s CE – the “Q-Document” is written. Scholars believe that a now lost gospel, dubbed the “Q- document,” was written about 50 C.E. We know that much of Matthew and Luke are based on the earlier Gospel of Mark. However, about 200 nearly identical passages appear in both gospels Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Scholars conclude these 200 passages must have come from a single earlier, now lost source — the “Q document.”
- 50-70 CE –The letters of Paul, written to several early Christian congregations between 50 CE and 70 CE, were among the first recorded Christian documents. However, since they do not tell the story of Jesus life, or attempt to recount Jesus’ sayings, they are not considered “Gospels.”
- 55-58 CE — In Paul’s Letter (Epistle) to the Romans and the Gospel of John, Jesus the human sage and prophet is re-envisioned as the Son of God, and also as an indivisible part of God himself. Jesus’ original message of moral and spiritual reform is replaced by the doctrine that that simply having true faith in Jesus’ correctness an divinity will guarantee a person’s entry into Heaven after death.
- 63-68 CE — the Apostles James, Peter, and Paul are killed. The deaths of these important church leaders likely encouraged the writing down of narratives about Jesus.
- 66-70 CE — Roman armies defeat the Zionist army and destroy Jerusalem and its Temple (the Second Temple), effectively ending a four-year Jewish revolt against the Empire.
- 77-110 CE — The Gospel of Mark probably dates from c. AD 66–70. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke date from around AD 85–90. The Gospel of John was most likely written around AD 90–110.70 CE – The Gospel of Mark is written. The author is unknown. This Gospel is judged to be independently authored – it does not draw on any known predecessor documents.70–100 CE – Gnosticism. Groups of Jewish/early Christian believers emphasized personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) above the orthodox teachings, traditions, and authority of religious institutions. Gnosticism generally presents a distinction between a supreme, hidden God and a malevolent lesser divinity (sometimes associated with the Yahweh of the Old Testament)  who is responsible for creating the material universe. Consequently, Gnostics considered material existence flawed or evil. They held that the principal element of salvation to be direct knowledge of e hidden divinity, attained via mystical or esoteric insight. Many Gnostic texts deal not in concepts of sin and repentance, but with illusion and enlightenment.
- 80’s or 90’s CE – The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are written, drawing on Mark and the now-lost Q-document as their main sources. Whenever Mathew and Luke agree, but there is no parallel in Mark, Q is the source. (Mark, Matthew, and Luke are together known as the Synoptic)
- 81-93 CE — The Book of Revelation is written — a nightmarish vision of apocalyptic violence intended to scare people into becoming disciples of Jesus and following the emerging doctrines of the Christian Church.
- 90-110 CE – The Gospel of John is written (not by John the Baptist or John the Apostle, but an unknown author.) This Gospel reinforces and provides poetic grandeur for the theology in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is very different from Mark, Matthew, and Luke; it has Jesus speaking in long and eloquent lectures. The Jesus Seminar scholars judge the Gospel of John not to have any sayings actually spoken by Jesus.
- 100-250 CE — In different parts of the Mediterranean, Jesus’ words are interpreted in different ways, giving rise to arguments between schools of Christian thought, including the Gnostics (100-250 CE), etc.
- 150 CE – The Gospel of Thomas is written. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus. About half resemble those found in the Synoptic Gospels, and half are thought to come from Gnostic sources. (Many scholars say the Gospel of Thomas contain oral traditions from around year 50.) This gospel was discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945.
- 180 CE– Saint Irenaeus, a Bishop in Gaul (present-day France), issues his book Against Heresies – a detailed attack on Gnosticism. (Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
- 200-300 CE — The 2nd [100-200] and 3rd [200-300] centuries saw a sharp divergence from Christianity’s early roots. There was an explicit rejection of contemporary Judaism and Jewish culture by the end of the 2nd century, with a growing body of anti-Jewish literature.
- 299-303 CE – Roman Emperor Diocletian persecutes and kills Christians and also Manicheans (followers of a major post-Jesus religion which taught that the universe is a struggle between light and darkness).
- 305 CE – The Council of Elvira decides that “marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this, shall be deprived of the honor of the clerical office.” (Canon 33)
- 312 CE – Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converts to Christianity.
- 313 CE – Constantine issues the Edict of Milan, decreeing that Christians are free to practice their religion in the Roman Empire.
- 312-337 CE — Throughout his rule, Constantine supports the Church financially, builds basilicas, grants privileges to clergy (e.g. exemption from certain taxes), promotes Christians to high office, and returns property confiscated during the persecution by prior Emperor, Diocletian (244-311). Thus, Christianity gets a tremendous boost of money and organizational power. This is a main reason for Christianity’s growth and power, allowing it to become the world’s largest religion today.
- 325 CE – First Council of Nicaea. Constantine assembles nearly all Catholic Bishops, and commands them to erase all major theological disagreements between them. The bishops do reach consensus on key theological questions, many of which are reflected in the Nicene Creed.
- 346 CE – The first Christian monastery is established, in Egypt.
- 354-430 — The life of Saint Augustine, a.k.a. Augustine of Hippo – Famous Catholic theologian. Augustine took the view that, if a literal interpretation contradicts science and humans’ God-given reason, the biblical text should be interpreted metaphorically. While each passage of Scripture has a literal sense, this “literal sense” does not always mean the Scriptures are mere history; at times they are rather an extended metaphor. The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was a symbol of the order of creation. Self-centeredness made Adam and Eve eat of it, thus failing to acknowledge and respect the world as it was created by God, with its hierarchy of beings and values.
- 380 CE — The Edict of Thessalonica of Theodosius I, makes Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. As Christianity placed its stamp upon the Empire, the Emperor shaped the church for political purposes. (Charles Freeman (2008). A.D. 381 – Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. ISBN 978-1-59020-171-8.)
- 405 CE – The 27 Books of the New Testament are canonized (formally adopted) by Pope Innocent I.
- 300-500 CE — Under Imperial influence, Christianity develops a strong unified and episcopal (bishop-governed) structure. It adopts a military-style chain of command, strict doctrine, and tight church law (canon law, ecclesiastical law). Non-orthodox interpretations of Christianity are suppressed as heresies.
- 451 CE — The Council of Chalcedon re-asserts the teachings of the ecumenical Council of Ephesus against two heresies: one that tried to separate Christ’s divine nature from his humanity, and another that tried to portray Christ as solely divine in nature. [see wiki Council of Chalcedon, foots 1, 2, and 3.]
- 1054 CE — Split between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
- 1500 CE onward – The Protestant Reformation.
- 1517 CE – Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The theses are severe critiques of the Roman Catholic Church, principally objecting to: (1) the ease of priestly forgiveness of sin, (2) the idea of purgatory, and (3) the church’s sale of indulgences promising to ease guilt and punishment after death.
- 1535-45 CE –- Henry VIII Dissolves the Catholic Monasteries in England. The monastic lands (about 25% of England’s landed wealth) passed to the King, who granted much of it to his nobles. (This was part of the Protestant Reformation in England.)
- 1545-1648 CE – The Counter-Reformation or The Catholic Reformation. The Catholic Church works on many fronts to reform itself and to counteract the influences of the Protestant Reformation. It included extensive anti-corruption efforts, spiritual movements, and the creation of new religious order, such as the Jesuits. In included an expansion of the “Inquisition,” (begun in the 12-th century) which “examined” suspected heretics and witches; and burning a number of them at the stake. In Portugal and Spain, Jews and Muslims were forced to convert or emigrate.
- 1540 CE to the present day -–The Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), a religious order of Catholic Priests. It was formed to energetically carry out the goals of the Counter-Reformation. Jesuits became known for their robust health, intellectual abilities, and advanced academic educations – all useful in arguing against Protestantism and secularism. They are known as the “Soldiers of God.” Jesuits have formed and run many schools universities. Jesuits have also performed difficult missionary work all over the world, particularly in Mexico, Central, and South America.
- 1600-1750 CE — the “Puritan” movement within Protestantism seeks to “Purify” the Church of England of “Roman Catholic practices. “Reformed” Churches such as the Presbyterians (particularly in Scotland).
- 1649-1659 CE – Following a civil war in England, generally between the Puritans and the nobility, and the execution of King Charles I in January 1649, the “Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland” is ruled as a Republic by Parliament and/or by Oliver Cromwell as “Lord Protector of the Republic.”
- 1660 CE –“The Restoration.” Charles I’s son, Charles II, is crowned King of Great Britain.
- 1738 CE – Origins of the Evangelical Christianity. Affirms the centrality of (1) being “born again,” in which an individual experiences personal conversion, (2) the inerrant and literal authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity), and (3) the importance of spreading the Christian message to other people (i.e., “evangelizing”).
- 1820 CE to present day – The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints (Mormonism). Its exaltation doctrine says that mortal families can be reunified after the resurrection, and that spiritual fathers and mothers can, after celestial marriage (“sealing ceremony”), have spirit children in the afterlife and inherit a portion of God’s kingdom. The most significant LDS rituals can be performed via proxy in behalf of those who have died, such as baptism for the dead.
- 1820-1840 CE – American Transcendentalism Movement – An important Forerunner of Continuing Creation. Leaders include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Throeau. A core belief is in the inherent goodness of people and nature. Transcendentalists saw divine experience inherent in the everyday, rather than believing in a distant heaven. Transcendentalists saw physical and spiritual phenomena as part of dynamic processes rather than discrete entities. [ wiki [foots 1,2, and 3.] (See our Essay, Forerunners to Our Path & Practice.)
- 1825 CE to the present – Unitarian Universalism. (See our Essay, Forerunners to Our Path & Practice.)
- 1886 – Discovery of the “Gospel of Peter” in the sands of Egypt. This non-canonical is widely thought to date from after the composition of the four canonical gospels. Scholars are divided as to the exact date of the text, with Bart Ehrman placing it in the first half of the 2nd century and considering it to have been compiled based on oral traditions about Jesus, independent of the canonical gospels.
- 1898 – Discovery of the “Gospel of Mary. Scholars do not always agree which of the New Testament people named Mary is the central character of the Gospel of Mary. Stephen J. Shoemaker and F. Stanley Jones have suggested that she may be Mary the mother of Jesus, other scholars say it is likely Mary Magdalene.
- 1945 CE – Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library of early Christian and Gnostic texts near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Includes the complete Gospel of Thomas.
- 1946-56 – Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (a.k.a. the Qumran Cave Scrolls). These are ancient Jewish and Hebrew manuscripts dating to the 3rd century BCE to 100 CE. They are not Christian documents. Archaeologists have long associated the scrolls with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, although some recent interpretations have challenged this connection and argue that priests in Jerusalem, or Zadokites, or other unknown Jewish groups wrote the scrolls.
- 1962-65 CE – Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (“Vatican II”). An extensive reform of the liturgy. Mass could now be said in native languages, not just in Latin. Gave a larger role in the church to Catholic laypeople. Opened dialogue with other churches. Introduced the concept of religious freedom. Allowed prayer with people of other religions.
- 1970’s – Gospel of Judas. The Gospel of Judas is a non-canonical Gnostic gospel. The content consists of conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. It is widely thought to have been composed in the 2nd century (prior to 180 AD) by Gnostic Christians, rather than the historic Judas himself. According to the text, Judas is the only one of Jesus’s disciples who accurately understands the words of his master. This Gospel contains few narrative elements; essentially, the Gospel records how Judas was taught by Jesus the true meaning of his message.
- 2015 CE – Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ Encyclical, (“Praise Be to You: On Care for Our Common Home.”) The pope critiques consumerism and irresponsible commercial and industrial development, laments environmental degradation and global warming, and calls all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.” [see wiki on Laudato si’; foots 1 and 2]
Footnotes to this Essay and its Timeline:
- Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 2014, Harper Collins, p. 105.
- Matthew Hartke, “An Unshakable Kingdom: How Cognitive Dissonance Explains Christianity,” Resurrection Review, Nov. 11, 2022. Online at mlharke.wordpress.com
- Shaye I.D. Cohen: Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University, “The Path to Victory,” From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, Part One, 1998. Frontline, PBS.
- Dr. Bart Ehrman, Ibid, pp. 90-92.
- J.D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 1994, Harper Collins, pp 5-6.
- J.D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 1994, Harper Collins, pp. 89-91.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in The Bible, 2009, Harper Collins. See also a Wikipedia article, “Jesus Interrupted,” which summarizes that Ehrman book.
- Bernard P. Robinson, “Matthew’s Nativity Stories: Historical and Theological Questions for Today’s Readers,” in Jeremy Corley, (ed.), New Perspectives on the Nativity, 2009, Bloomsbury, p. 111. ISBN 9780567613790.
- Mary Beth Gladwell, The Shepherd Motif in the Old and New Testament, Dwell Community Church.
- Anders Hultgård, “The Magi and the Star—the Persian Background in Texts and Iconography,” 1998, in Peter Schalk and Michael Stausberg, (eds.), Being Religious and Living through the Eyes’: Studies in Religious Iconography and Iconology: A Celebratory Publication in Honour of Professor Jan Bergman, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis: Historia Religionum, 14. Uppsala, Almqvist & Wiksell International. pp. 215–25. ISBN 978-91-554-4199-9.
- Dorothy Lee, Transfiguration (New Century Theology), 2004, Bloomsbury Academic, Continuum Publishing, p. 2. ISBN 978-0-8264-7595-4.
- Professor Bart Ehrman, “How Jesus Became God,” Great Courses television series, 4-7-22.
- Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, 1993, Polebridge Press, Harper Collins, p. 480.
- Bart Ehrman, Ibid. pp. 76-77.
- Crossan, Ibid. p.163.
- The Five Gospels, Ibid., p. xiii.
- Bart Ehrman, Ibid., pp130-131.
- Bart Ehrman, Ibid., p. 132.
- Sir James Frazer. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 1993, Ware: Wordsworth.
- Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D’Aquili, M.D., PhD, and Vince Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, 2001, Ballantine Books, 62.
- Bart Ehrman, Ibid., p. 133.
- Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 1997, Doubleday, p.407. See also Werner Georg Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, 1975, Abingdon Press, pp. 392-94 and 401-03.
- Shaye I.D. Cohen: Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University. “The Path to Victory.” For Frontline: From Jesus to Christ.
- Edward H. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism, 2004, Paulist Press. ISBN 978-0-8091-4324-5.
- Paraphrasing Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001, Basic Books (Perseus Book Group).
- Roberta C. Chesnut, “The Two Prosopa in Nestorius’ Bazaar of Heracleides,” The Journal of Theological Studies, 1978, pp. 392-409. doi:10.1093/jts/XXIX.2.392. JSTOR 23958267. 1978, p-392-409.
- Wendy Doniger, “Bhakti Hinduism,” in Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, 2010, Harper One, Harper Collins, pp. 188-190.
- The Jesus Seminar, et al., The Five Gospels, Ibid, p. xv. See also, Gary M. Burge, “Gospel of John,” in Craig A. Evans (ed.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus, 2014. ISBN 978-1-317-72224-3.
- Chip Rowe, Interview of Christopher Dawkins,” Playboy Magazine, 8-20-2012. Pp 63-66 and 135-138. See also, Chip Rowe, “Playboy Interview with Richard Dawkins”, Playboy, Vol. 59, No. 7 (September 2012), pp. 63-66, 135-138, PDF available online.
- “Heraclitus,” Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed), 1999.
- Christof Rapp, “Aristotle’s Rhetoric,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Spring 2010 Edition. See also, Paul Anthony Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern: The Ancien Régime in Classical Greece, University of North Carolina Press, 1994, p.21. ISBN 0-8078-4473-X.
- A.Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age, pp. 37–38. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
- Philo De Profugis, cited in Gerald Friedlander, Hellenism and Christianity, P. Vallentine, 1912, pp. 114–115.
- A.Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age, pages 37–38. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. See also, James Lindsay, Studies in European Philosophy, 2006, p. 53. ISBN 1-4067-0173-4.
- Bart Ehrman, Ibid., p. 74.
- David L. Jeffrey (1992). A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. p. 460. ISBN 978-0802836342.
- Augustine of Hippo, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram), VIII, 4.8; BA 49, 20. See also, Augustine of Hippo, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram), VIII, 4.8; BA 49, 20.
- Augustine of Hippo, De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 , De Genesi ad literam, 2:9
Augustine took the view that, if a literal interpretation contradicts science and humans’ God-given reason, the biblical text should be interpreted metaphorically. While each passage of Scripture has a literal sense, this “literal sense” does not always mean the Scriptures are mere history; at times they are rather an “extended metaphor.” 39 R.A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, 1970, Cambridge, pp.149-153
- Augustine of Hippo, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram), VIII, 6:12, vol. 1, pp. 192–93 and 12:28, vol. 2, pp. 219–20, trans. John Hammond Taylor SJ; BA 49,28 and 50–52; PL 34, 377; cf. idem, De Trinitate, XII, 12.17; CCL 50, 371–372 [v. 26–31; 1–36]; De natura boni 34–35; CSEL 25, 872; PL 42, 551–572. The tree was a symbol of the order of creation. Self-centeredness made Adam and Eve eat of it, thus failing to acknowledge and respect the world as it was created by God, with its hierarchy of beings and values. 41
The “Natural Theology,” of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) attempts to explain Christian theology in terms of Nature and Reason, as propounded by the ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle. Of course, Aquinas (like Augustine) could not base his theology on the fundamental processes of Evolution, since he lived roughly 400 years before Charles Darwin, and before the advent of science.
Note: Thomas Aquinas’ “Natural Theology” is not the same as our Continuing Creation. Aquinas tried to explain Christian doctrine by comparing it to the natural world. Continuing Creation takes the scientific realities of nature, as they are, and finds spiritual meaning within those factual processes. Nevertheless, the theologies of Augustine and Aquinas are solid and well-meant attempts to “translate” the Bible into Continuing Creation’s framework of Nature, Reason, and Science.
Catholic theologians generally subscribe to Augustine’s belief that God exists outside of time in the “eternal present”; that time only exists within the created universe because only in space is time discernible through motion and change.
Augustine’s “metaphorical” interpretation of scripture and Augustine’s “Natural theology” are steps toward Continuing Creation’s finding Purpose & Meaning in Nature, Reason, & Science (without and myths or miracle stories). On the other hand, the Catholic priests and monks (and maybe the nobility) held literacy and Reason tightly their breasts for most of the Middle Ages, until the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.
A Conceptual Link Between Christianity and Taoism
Interestingly, the Gospel of John first mentions the Word, and only then mentions God. Thus, while saying that The Word was God, this Gospel at least implies that Word came before God. This is similar to language in the founding text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ch’ing, where the reputed author, Lao Tzu, says that the Tao is older than God:
The Tao Te Ch’ing, Chapter 4:
The Tao is like a well:
Used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
Filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God. 42 Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching – A new English Translation, Harper Perennial, 1992, Chapter 4.
- William R. Murry, Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, 2007. ISBN 978-1558965188.
- Gordon Fee, “Paul and the Trinity: The experience of Christ and the Spirit for Paul’s Understanding of God,” 2002, in Davis, Stephen (ed.). The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity. Oxford University Press, p.52. ISBN 9780199246120.
- Bruce M. Metzger & Michael D. Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993, Oxford University Press, pp 782-783.ISBN 978-0-19-974391-9.1993.
- Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Karen L. (2007). Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, 2007, Viking Adult. ISBN 978-0670038459.
- Mack Burton, Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, 1995, Harper, pp. 6-7.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (revised ed.). Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 75–78. ISBN 0-19-512473-1. See also, Elaine Pagels “The Secret Gospel of Thomas,” June 4, 2003, National Public Radio,
- Stefan Lovgren, “Lost Gospel Revealed; Says Jesus Asked Judas to Betray Him,” National Geographic News, April 6, 2006, Retrieved 2007-04-22. See also, Elaine Pagels and Karen King, “The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity,” National Public Radio, March 14, 2007.
- Dominic Crossan, Ibid. P. 201.
- The Jesus Seminar, et. al., The Five Gospels, Ibid., pp 5-8.
- Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth, 1989, Harper Collins, pp. 6-7.
- T.F. Glick, Glick, T.F. Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia, 1970, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 178. ISBN 0-674-46675-6p.
- See, for example, Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, 1995, Anchor Books (Random House).
- Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (4th ed.), 1997, W.W. Norton & Co., p. 36. ISBN 978-0-393-31689-6. See also, Nicolas Wyatt, Space and Time in the Religious Life of the Near East, 2001, A&C Black. p. 244. ISBN 978-0-567-04942-1.
- Kenneth M. Wilson, Augustine’s Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to “Non-free Free Will”: A Comprehensive Methodology, 2018, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck., pp. 16–18; 157–159; 269–271; and 279–285. ISBN 978-3-16-155753-8.
- Joan E. Strassmann, Joan E.; Robert E. Page; Gene E. Robinson; and Thomas D. Seeley, (March 2011). “Kin Selection and Eusociality,” March 2011, Nature, 471 (7339): E5–E6. Bibcode:2011Natur.471E…5S. doi:10.1038/nature09833. PMID 21430723. S2CID 205224117.
- Karen L. King, “Women in Ancient Christianity: The New Discoveries, 2009, Frontline: The First Christians.
- Antii Marjanen, The Woman Jesus Loved: Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Documents, 1996, Brill. ISBN 9004106588.
- James and D.E. Desiree Hurtak, Pistis Sophia Text and Commentary, 1999, Academy for Future Science, 1999. See also, Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel, translated by G.R.S. Mead, 1991 and 2006, The Book Tree. ISBN 978-58509-268-3.
- Richard J. Hooper, “The Crucifixion of “Mary Magdalene: The Historical Tradition of the First Apostle and the Ancient Church’s Campaign to Suppress It,” Sanctuary, 2005 p. 81. ISBN 978-0-9746995-4-7.2005.
- Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, 1993, Riverhead Books, The Berkley Publishing Group.
- Holy See Bulletin 10/06/2016.