Christianity

Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315.  © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro
Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315. © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro
A Brief History of Christianity in Europe

“Jesus saith to him: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me.” Matthew 19:21 at Bible Hub. The Douay-Rheims Bible.

In the beginning there were the Jews. There is a Biblical prophecy in Judaism of a messiah, a great leader who is to bring peace to this world, united under Judaism. The prophecy sets out a number of conditions that need to be met before any person can be considered the messiah.

Messianic claimants have appeared through the years, but haven’t always succeeded – or been recognized. Some people say there is always a potential messiah, waiting to be called, for when the time is right and when we are worthy.

At the time of Jesus there were other messianic movements, that of the Christians (according to his followers) being only one. The Christian sect believed the messiah had now come in the form of Jesus, and the world would end within about 80 years. Jesus’ utopia was in the spirit world. The path was through death, judgement and possible salvation.

Jesus was a Jewish preacher and leader who preached among his people as a Jew in the Jewish tradition, and waited for them to follow him. When they didn’t, he extended his ministry to non-Jews – casting the net wider – but initially, his was a messianic, apocalyptic, Jewish sect; using the Jewish Bible for scripture, and evolving Jewish traditions, as they applied to his time.[1]

The mainstream Jews didn’t accept this, because of their rules about the messiah,[2] and Jesus hadn’t accomplished the list. For one thing, he had died too soon.

Not without help.

He was killed, but then he came back, defeating death, and told his startled disciples that he’d be back again before the last of them died, and he would bring the end of the world with him. It should be a short wait.

He told his followers one evening in Galilee that he was starting a new church with them, and that they were to go out and spread the message. This is called “The Great Commission.”[3]

He said the Holy Spirit would give them special powers, and he breathed on them, and they could understand other languages and heal people. It was like magic. God’s magic.

The disciples went out to preach, speaking in the languages of the places they went to. They went to Greece, Africa, and even Rome, where Peter set up his church. These were simple communities of believers. There was no “Church” in the sense of buildings, and modern bishops, and things like that because Jesus would be back soon, and the world would end. There was no point in building churches, writing books or creating traditions.

As the disciples carried out their Great Commission, churches were set up all over the Mediterranean and into Asia.

While Christianity was rooted in Judaism, non Jews, known as Gentiles, wanted to join too, and things had to be adapted to accommodate them. Did they have to become Jews first? The Apostle Paul was big on bringing non-Jews into the fold, and he was willing to drop some of the conditions to being a Jew to accommodate them. Within a few hundred years, Christianity would become mostly Gentile.

One by one the disciples died, until there was no one left who had been alive to hear Jesus. With the passage of a hundred years, the Holy Spirit seemed to have vanished into thin air. Was the magic gone? Where was Jesus…?

…Jesus wasn’t back yet. Church leaders concluded it was time to get organised and get the whole idea of Christianity into a coherent order for the long haul.

They didn’t have a lot to work with.

Jesus hadn’t lived or preached very long (only as much as three years), and nobody actually wrote anything down until many decades later, and they don’t seem to have actually known Jesus. The most influential Apostle, Paul had been a Jewish persecutor of Christians before his remarkable “epiphany,” so who knows how much he was, or should be, trusted. His original job was essentially to protect the Jewish faith from Christianity, but then he converted, and yet, as a convert, he was instrumental in opening up Christianity to non-Jews, neatly fulfilling his original commission. He’s been called the first corrupter of Christianity by some.

There were a lot of gaps in the dogma. Could non-Jews really be Christians? Did they have to be circumcised? Which laws of the Old Testament did they have to follow? Since Jesus had started a new priesthood, did they have to follow any of God’s instructions to Jewish priests? Were sacrifices still necessary?[4] They started talking, and then they started arguing, and they’re still doing it today.

We don’t know the full body of Christ’s teachings. What we have today is the result of two thousand years of bitter argument and struggle to create a consistent interpretation and for the position of authority to enforce it, which was largely won in the first thousand years by the Catholic Church in Europe, and which subsequently controlled the official dogma until the sixteenth century – the time of Faust and Martin Luther.[5]

We can’t necessarily refer to the Bible to know Christianity. The Bible is a set of separate books assembled by the Church into a narrative.[6]

And even in reading it, we are struck by what we thought would be in there, but actually isn’t – all the things that we ourselves bring to the table because of our cultural heritage, which itself is shaped by other cultures. The Devil is a good example: borrowed, probably, from the Zoroastrians, attached to Job’s nemesis, and fleshed out with Greek and pagan dressings. He changes with the times.

What we know as Christianity has itself been shaped by outside influences – from the Babylonian captivity generations before Jesus (and the historical Jesus), to the cultural mixings of Persian, Greek and Egyptian (etc.) beliefs around the time of Jesus, to the late effects of the rediscovery of Greek philosophy just before the time of Faust.

Add to that the traditional “pagan” traditions and beliefs of the people who were converted and the efforts of the Church to accommodate them.[7]

A reason why all of this is important to Christians is the same for many faiths – if you do it wrong; it’s worse than not doing it at all. A ritual done wrong is the true definition of evil.

Another reason is that it brings out division and fighting: at first, there were many different “Churches” dispersed throughout the ancient world, separated by thousands of miles and by different Apostolic origins and different cultures, languages, and experience. Left alone, they would soon diverge into isolated cults that could not be Christianity, at the loss of all souls and identity.

For a united Church to rise out of this, it was necessary to evolve and enforce uniformity and conformity among the congregations. But it would be true evolution in the Darwinian sense – a survival of the fittest, in which sects attempted to impose their own beliefs, ambition, and authority over the others, with the triumphant forces dominating.

The Catholic Church grew in association with the old Roman empire. Being the state religion gave the Roman Catholic Church the power it needed to impose and enforce its own vision.

Claiming direct descent from the Apostle Peter, the Catholic Church was sure that the Holy Spirit was still with them, and that they had the power that Christ gave to the disciples: the power to forgive sin, to expel devils, to work miracles, and even to grant salvation.

“That’s presumptuous nonsense,” objected the Protestants many centuries later, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

And so the Earthly Church grew with magnificent buildings, powerful clergy, and appropriately magnificent rituals and ceremony.

There were still a lot of groups with discordantly different ideas about what Christianity was, some as convincing as what the Church said. The Cathars, to give an indication, who were largely exterminated from the south of France in the thirteenth century, called themselves “the good Christians.” They thought the Old Testament god was an evil God (Satan) who had created the Earth, and that humans were angelic beings trapped in it, locked in the cycle of reincarnation until salvation. The good New Testament god had created the spiritual world to which the Cathars sought to be released.[8]

Over the years, the Church worked to make sense of the bits of information they had, to construct a perfect explanation to cover all situations. A lot of people lost their positions and their lives being on the wrong side of seemingly trivial things which however threatened to undermine the whole construct. For example, to argue whether Jesus was God or just a man could get you executed.

Scholars created thin and delicate bridges of reasoning based on slight foundations rising through air. Having reached these precarious positions, it became necessary to defend them against all comers–including other scholars who had thought of alternate clever things.

When Christianity had become a state religion in the Roman Empire, things really took off – the money, the prestige, the access to power, the ability to dictate directly to the nation, to direct the faith of an entire empire – sweet stuff, but also a heavy responsibility. Could this remain the Church of Jesus?

The Church made a point of saying that it wasn’t enough to read the books – you needed to take guidance from the Church, but that was okay, because the Church was guided by God. Anything the Church said had the stamp of God on it, so you could trust them. “Infallible,” they said.

Over time, the Church got a lot of power over people’s lives. They controlled how people thought and what they could read, write or talk about. Naturally, some people resented that, and fellow God-fearing Christians suffered. There is still considerable resentment over that, which may distort your own ideas about the Church and Christianity.

One of the things the Church said, which particularly irritated the Protestants later on, was that they had that magic – God’s own magic – the bona fide breath of the Holy Spirit that Jesus bestowed on his disciples. They claimed they had the ability to literally turn a biscuit and a glass of wine into the flesh and blood of Jesus. They claimed the ability to forgive sins on the behalf of God, and to exorcise demons.[9]

Skeptics argued that while Jesus gave that power to his disciples, including Peter, the founder of the Church of Rome, there was no reason to think that that power extended for eternity through the succession of priests after them.

The Catholic Church underwent a great many years of schisms and corruption, and by the fifteenth century, in various parts of Europe, people were so disillusioned (and over-taxed and impoverished) by the Church’s corruption and wealth, that they were inclined to reject anything except what they could read directly in the Bible – except they couldn’t, because they couldn’t read Latin or get close to to a rare Bible manuscript. They had become spectators to their own worship.

But around 1450, concurrent with the invention of the printing industry (presses, paper-making, and distribution), a rising merchant class was getting rich, powerful, educated and ambitious. Opportunity meant change. More and more people bought and read newly printed Bibles written in their own languages.

People compared what they read against what they had been told. They had the book in their hands, and the tradition of community worship from the early years.

In contrast to the message of Christ, the Church was enormously wealthy, owning between 20-30% of Europe, and was doing a tremendous business selling forgiveness for sins (even up-coming ones) for money.[10] Monastaries were described as brothels, while the Papacy and lesser offices were purchased with bribes.

The venal corruption of the Roman Catholic church was scandalously offensive to decent Christians. As far as the selling salvation was concerned, the cause was the abuse of belief in the continuing magic of the Holy Spirit. The unfitness of the Church supported the contention that the Holy Spirit had flown.

The Protestant Reformation resulted from a desire to reform the Church. Protestants wanted to place more weight on the word of the Bible (they eventually assembled their own), and rejected “magic” in the form of saints, sacerdotal priests, charms, and so on. The Catholic Church responded slowly, resisting.

Conflicts arose over faith. As religion was tied to state, one affected the other, leading to battles for supremacy within populations and among ruling alliances. In the German states in 1555, it was concluded that people should simply follow the religion of the prince of that region.[11]

However, the Protestant denominations, once free of the Catholic Church’s efforts to maintain a single doctrine, divided into further squabbles over many of the old issues which will probably never be decided: are good works really important to salvation, or is faith sufficient? Can a person change their destiny at all, or is salvation pre-determined by God?

Politics played a large role in the growing chaos. The Church had positioned itself as arbiter of divine right to rule, over the princes and kings of Europe, and politics and religion were inseparable. The early seventeenth century Thirty Years’ War began as a conflict between Protestant and Catholic forces in the German states, and further degenerated into political instability. Causing immense destruction, deaths in Faust’s homelands during the war reached 30-60 percent of the population. The traumas and stress of the conflict caused another major outbreak of witch-hunting hysteria.

In many places people soon concluded that religion should stay the hell away from the state, and the state should stay the hell away from religion: freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

The separation of church and state system has worked quite well for some time, though in degrees. Disturbingly, religious involvement in the state continually threatens some nations, notably the USA with its “faith-based initiatives.”

The Catholic Church introduced reforms to renew and strengthen the spirituality of the Church and recover lost souls. Corruption was attacked, and standards were raised.

So what is true Christianity? If any one of the existing forms of Christianity is the right one, then those people have a chance at salvation. Everyone else is Satanic, despite their good intentions, and going straight to Hell. It’s quite possible those true Christians were exterminated a thousand years ago.

Looking at the Faust stories, we can see they’re not very friendly towards the Catholic Church: not surprising given their roots in the Protestant uprising. What obligation should Faust or any independent-thinking person have to any particular version of the faith? We hope that the person most deserving of salvation is the one who seeks the truth and follows the virtuous path, and not just the one lucky enough to be born into the right tradition. Otherwise, we’re just puppets on the hands of time. Freewill or determinism; faith, works or pre-destination – all are undecided.

Footnotes

  1. See, for example, Early Christians. []
  2. “Most of the scriptural requirements concerning the Messiah, what he will do, and what will be done during his reign are located in the Book of Isaiah, although requirements are mentioned by other prophets as well.” Wikipedia: Jewish messianism. []
  3. See: Wikipedia: The Great Commission. []
  4. See: Wikipedia: Biblical law in Christianity. []
  5. Faust is strongly associated with Luther’s Reformation. In fact, it may be that Faust was known by Philipp Melanchthon, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation and a colleague of Luther. Small surprise, really: while the Holy Ghost may have disappeared in the second century, the Devil was on a tear in Faust’s time – Martin Luther is known for his battles with the literal Devil. []
  6. See: Wikipedia: Biblical canon. []
  7. Examples of Church accommodations include blessings, amulets and talismans; the invocation of saints; the placement of churches on existing sacred ground, and the assumption of the pagan holy days. []
  8. Reincarnation is not a part of Christianity as we know it. In Christianity, you get one chance at salvation. There are no re-tries, no putting it off ’til next time. []
  9. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:15–19. []
  10. Because “good works” were pleasing to God, and nothing could be more good than supporting the Church, clearly giving money to the Church was a good work. []
  11. “Cuius regio, eius religio is a Latin phrase which literally means “Whose realm, his religion”, meaning that the religion of the ruler was to dictate the religion of those ruled. At the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which ended a period of armed conflict between Roman Catholic and Protestant forces within the Holy Roman Empire, the rulers of the German-speaking states and Charles V, the Emperor, agreed to accept this principle.” From Wikipedia: Cuius regio, eius religio []

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