Like most children brought up in the Christian religion, I was taught that the Bible, at least certain portions of the Bible, was historically accurate in every detail. The first chapter of Genesis might be open to poetic interpretation, but everything from Adam and Eve on was to be taken at historical face-value. The battles, miracles, and exiles of the Old Testament, totally historical. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were historical biographical sketches of Jesus from four different points of view. My upbringing was not one that demanded literal belief of every word, but we came pretty close to that ideal pretty much of the time. To me as a teenager, even if I saw no other confirmation that Christian belief was true, I was certain that the Bible was a solid foundation that would bolster my belief even though the stormiest trials of faith.
Then I learned a bit about the history of the Christian church, including that of the Bible. After about two decades of Sunday School instruction, what I learned was deeply unsetting.The most disturbing thing I found out was that there were many different sects of Christianity from the beginning, and the differences between them made the most volatile disagreement between modern denominations look piddly. In fact, for a couple of centuries after Jesus was said to have lived and died, they could not even agree on who he was. Let me say that again…for about the first two centuries, different sects of Christianity could not agree on who Jesus was exactly or what his true nature was. Seriously. (Most of these differences are now called heresies, and I found the way they were determined to be heresies and how the “heretics” were dealt with to be just as troubling as their disagreements.)
Some believed that Jesus was born in the normal way, was adopted with God’s spirit at baptism, and then was abandoned by God’s spirit before he died (since God cannot die, of course). Some thought he was a special prophet of God, but totally separate from God in being. Others thought he was totally a spiritual being and not really human at all! Didn’t Jesus clearly reveal what his nature was when he was on earth? How could there be such discord on this very important point among the early Christians so very soon after they had met him in the flesh (don’t forget some didn’t even think he HAD flesh)? And if there was so much confusion back then, how are we supposed know what to believe today?
Actually, a unified Christian view of the nature of Jesus was not nailed down (no pun intended) until about 325 CE, with the Nicene Council. By this time, some of the Christians had gained some clout with the Roman government. It was declared church dogma that Jesus was “one substance” with “God the Father” and was therefore 100% God and 100% man at the same time. All who taught otherwise were persecuted or killed as heretics, and their books were burned. In other words, the winning view did not win because it had evidence on its side, but because it had the power to censor and destroy opposing ideas on its side. With the full approval of God’s Holy Spirit of course, if you take the council leaders at their word. How someone would go about confirming this with the Holy Spirit is not exactly clear. Also suspect to me was the idea that it was of utmost importance that everyone believe exactly the same way…where was the idea of religious tolerance in those days?
Consider the time frames here as well. Assuming Jesus lived from about year 0 to 30 CE (give or take a few years) and the orthodox view of Jesus was officially decided in 325 CE, that means the church didn’t come up with a unified belief about the nature of Jesus until 300 years later! Is this not like a group of people who claim authority in historical matters getting together to decide on some nuance about the American Revolution, and then declaring that if anyone henceforth questions their pronouncement, that person shall be declared a heretic and their research burned?
There is a lot more to the the dubious nature of Christian history, but this early disagreement over the nature of Jesus is the one I found the most worrying when I learned about it. If Jesus so clearly revealed himself to his disciples, who then immediately passed his teachings on to the rest of the world, how could there be such confusion and disagreement over who he even was or whether or not he even had a physical body? And what about Paul, from whom the modern church gets the bulk of its theology? He never even met Jesus, but claims (and we have the collaboration of his servants to back him up) to have had a vision. Consider this is in light of the his severe disagreements with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, who had supposedly had personal ties with Jesus himself. There are also known forgeries and serious inconsistencies in the biblical manuscripts themselves, and the inconvenient fact that we have no idea who wrote any of the Gospels (they were written anonymously, decades after the events they claim to describe). It goes on and on.
Small caveat: I am not a historian myself, and no kind of authority on historical matters. I have only taken a couple of classes in Christian history and read a few books. If my blog post has piqued your curiosity and made you want to read more, then my goal has been accomplished. If you would like to read it from people who have actually done the research, I recommend the sources below.
Anything by Bart Ehrman, especially Misquoting Jesus regarding forgery in the New Testament, Lost Christianities regarding early Christian sects that are little known today, and Jesus, Interrupted. Click on his name for more information on the author and his books.
Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier. An earlier version of this work can also be found for free online at The Secular Web. See Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?
For a pretty quick read of the arguments that Jesus never existed as a historical character at all, see Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald.
To clarify the point on Christian persecution of so-called heretics, is this passage from the Wikipedia article on Christian Heresy. According to this, the Christians who deemed themselves “orthodox” were not able to really persecute the heretics immediately after the Nicene Council, but they did so when they gained the power.
The first known usage of the term ‘heresy’ in a civil legal context was in 380 AD by the “Edict of Thessalonica” of Theodosius I. Prior to the issuance of this edict, the Church had no state sponsored support for any particular legal mechanism to counter what it perceived as ‘heresy’. By this edict, in some senses, the line between the Catholic Church’s spiritual authority and the Roman State’s jurisdiction was blurred. One of the outcomes of this blurring of Church and State was a sharing of State powers of legal enforcement between Church and State authorities. At its most extreme reach, this new legal backing of the Church gave its leaders the power to, in effect, pronounce the death sentence upon those whom they might perceive to be ‘heretics’.
Within 5 years of the official ‘criminalization’ of heresy by the emperor, the first Christian heretic, Priscillian was executed in 385 by Roman officials. For some years after the Protestant Reformation, Protestant denominations were also known to execute those whom they considered as heretics. The last known heretic executed by sentence of the Roman Catholic Church was Cayetano Ripoll in 1826. The number of people executed as heretics under the authority of the various ‘church authorities’ is not known, however it most certainly numbers into the several thousands.