Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The curiously missing history of early Christianity

Something happened to the Christian faith movement in the later first century—something mysterious.

Whatever happened took place between the era of the apostle Paul, circa the 50s and 60s AD, and the era of Ignatius of Antioch, circa 100-110.  If you check out this table, which graphs the use of Christian vocabulary against extant texts ordered by their estimated dates, but excluding the Gospels, then it is evident that the man known as Jesus of Nazareth spread as an idea sometime during that period.

Jesus Christ's only existence in first-century texts outside the Gospels is in general terms such as the "Son of God" who "died" by "crucifixion" and was "resurrected".  Whereas in second-century texts he has been given a historical context and his familiar earthly biography, and we suddenly start reading about specific people, places and activities such as Herod, Mary, Pilate, Nazareth, Jerusalem, exorcisms, healings, miracles, etc..  None of these specific narrative features exist in the Pauline epistles from the earlier period (except for in obviously fraudulent interpolations).

I am convinced that the reason for this has been proven by Richard Carrier in his recent book: the original Jesus was a spiritual being who was believed to have been killed and resurrected in the heavens.  The Gospel according to Mark was written as an allegory of the spiritual beliefs, hopes and experiences of a certain branch of the movement.  Then, probably in the chaos of the Roman war on the Jews, this "in-joke got into the water supply" (to borrow a phrase) and the surface narrative spread as if it were a historical report.  Since then, it has been mistakenly believed that the original gospel, named for Mark, was an attempt at real history.

Since Carrier's book proves its case to my satisfaction, I'm not going to rehearse the arguments here.  What I want to do is point out the oddly missing history of this mysterious period of early Christianity.  I'm more interested here in the history of the institutions than of the ideas.  I will use for this purpose the Church History by Eusebius of Caesarea, written in the first decades of the 4th century as the first complete history of the movement.

The question I ask of Eusebius' Church History is: what does he know of the early history of the movement, beyond what he knows from the texts of the New Testament, the works of the Jewish writer Josephus, and other texts that we have?  In other words, what does the institution of the Church know from its records?  Eusebius should have to hand the records of the Church: lists of officials, accounts of their deeds, maybe their memoirs and letters.

Let's start with the supposed disciples of Jesus.  Beyond the twelves given in the Gospels (in which the lists do not match) Eusebius knows of seventy more from Luke 10:1 (seventy-two in some manuscripts).  What were their names?  According to Eusebius,
there exists no catalogue of the seventy disciples.
Not a good start.  Apparently Barnabas "is said" to be one of them.  So too "they say" Sosthenes was one.  Both names are drawn from Pauline epistles where no mention is made of their being disciples: the word is not used in those texts.  Eusebius says he has a now-lost book called the Hypotyses ("Outlines") by Clement of Alexandria which names Cephas as one of the seventy, "a man who bore the same name as the apostle Peter" whom Eusebius jarringly identifies as the rival of Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians!  A few more names are scraped out of NT texts.  Even this lost book was apparently just an exegesis of passages from the Bible.  Then Eusebius relates a story about one of the seventy that involves Jesus writing a letter to King Abgarus of Edessa, a letter Eusebius has read in his "archives", but which is a patent fake.

That's it for the supposed seventy disciples of Jesus.  Plainly put, the first and foremost historian of the young Church has no record of who they were.  He scrapes a few names together from texts we too have, and appends a gross forgery.  A pathetic haul of evidence, I would say.  Where is the institutional memory of the Church?

I'm not surprised by this first finding, since I expected the seventy to be an invention anyway, like everything specific to Jesus in the Gospels.  So let's move on to Book Two and the early spread of the movement and the establishment of churches.  Eusebius glories in the story of the growth of the Church:

In every city and village, churches were quickly established, filled with multitudes of people like a replenished threshing-floor. ... They renounced with abhorrence every species of demoniacal polytheism, and confessed that there was only one God, the creator of all things, and him they honored with the rites of true piety...
All very well, Eusebius, but get down to the brass tacks of who, and when, and where.  What information have you got?

He knows of the conversion of Cornelius and of a multitude of other Greeks in Antioch: this is from "Acts of the Apostles" in the NT.  This is followed by some information on Jewish history drawn from Josephus and Philo, whose writings we have, and some items from Greek historians.  Then a story from Acts about James being killed (assumed by Eusebius to be James the brother of John, both apostles in the Gospels), spiced with a tale from the aforementioned Clement:
He says that the one who led James to the judgment-seat, when he saw him bearing his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was himself also a Christian.  They were both therefore, he says, led away together; and on the way he begged James to forgive him. And he, after considering a little, said, "Peace be with thee," and kissed him. And thus they were both beheaded at the same time.
This is the sort of ridiculous legend that seemingly had to pass for Christian history for want of real records.

To continue through Book Two, we get some stories from Josephus, then more from "Acts", then from Justin Martyr.  Then we get an utterly fact-free account of Peter's success at preaching in Rome:
And coming to the city of Rome, by the mighty co-operation of that power which was lying in wait there, he was in a short time so successful in his undertaking that those who dwelt there honored him as a god by the erection of a statue. But this did not last long.
This is pure trash.  It is superfluous really to add that no Roman source mentions anything like it.

What about the lives of early Christian believers?  Eusebius refers to Philo as a source on early Egyptian Christians.  Actually, Philo in his work On the Contemplative Life was not describing Christians at all, but a sect known to him as "therapeutae".

Eusebius records Philo's account of this religious movement.  For example,
[Philo] says: "The whole interval, from morning to evening, is for them a time of exercise. For they read the holy Scriptures, and explain the philosophy of their fathers in an allegorical manner, regarding the written words as symbols of hidden truth which is communicated in obscure figures. They have also writings of ancient men, who were the founders of their sect, and who left many monuments of the allegorical method. These they use as models, and imitate their principles."
These things seem to have been stated by a man who had heard them expounding their sacred writings. But it is highly probable that the works of the ancients, which he says they had, were the Gospels and the writings of the apostles, and probably some expositions of the ancient prophets, such as are contained in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in many others of Paul's Epistles.
It is plain that Philo could be describing a Jewish sect that is not in any way Christian.  This is entirely likely since he gives no indication of their believing or doing anything distinctively Christian.  Why then does Eusebius resort to the assumption that they were Christians?  Presumably because he did not have access to anything better from within the institution of the Church.

After this, still in Book Two, more Josephus, and more, and more, chapter after chapter.  Then we get to hear about Paul's life after his first trial in Rome, and thus after the end of the story related in "Acts of the Apostles" in the NT.  Unfortunately, there appears to be no real historical source, since Eusebius' whole story is derived from the fraudulent "Second Epistle to Timothy" out of the NT.  Where is the Church's actual record and memory of the career of Paul, aside from what is contained in his authentic and forged epistles?

At last, Eusebius comes to a subject on which he seems to have a credible story: the martyrdom of James, the man called "the brother of the Lord" in Paul's epistle to the Galatians (the meaning of the "brother" phrase is disputed).  The source is a late second-century writer called Hegesippus.  So not a primary source but somebody writing only once the fabrication of legends was already epidemic.  Moreover, the story of James being stoned and beaten to death in Jerusalem lacks any real corroboration in secular sources.  Eusebius (and many modern historians with him) imagines that Josephus corroborates it, but Richard Carrier has shown that the original passage could not have referred to James or Jesus the Christians at all, but rather to another Jacob and Joshua altogether, to give them their equivalent Hebrew names.  So the martyrdom tale of James may well be legendary anyway.  It is difficult to credit that James, a born brother of Jesus, existed as a major figure in the early Church, since he plays no role in any of the Gospels (quite aside from Jesus being a fictive character!)  There is no solid ground of evidence to be had here.

Moving on, let's see what Eusebius knows about the first bishops, the original institutional leaders of the Church:
When Nero was in the eighth year of his reign, Annianus succeeded Mark the evangelist in the administration of the parish of Alexandria.
And... that's it for Annianus.  No personality or deeds, apparently.

What about the line of bishops at Rome?  Let's see:
After the martyrdom of Paul and of Peter, Linus was the first to obtain the episcopate of the church at Rome. Paul mentions him, when writing to Timothy from Rome, in the salutation at the end of the epistle.
And... that's it for Linus!

What did Simeon do as bishop of Jerusalem?  Apparently nothing—except to get crucified at the age of 120!  What of Linus' successor Anencletus in Rome?  Apparently nothing!  Abilius, successor to Annianus in Alexandria?  Evarestus?  Justus?  You can guess.  I am not making this up: there is nothing recorded by Eusebius of anything more that these early Church leaders were or did.  The lists go up to Ignatius of Antioch, and I am already highly suspicious about his stories, derived from his letters, since those letters appear to be misattributed to him.  Then the lists go on and on once more.  Eusebius is at least sometimes honest enough to admit ignorance:
The chronology of the bishops of Jerusalem I have nowhere found preserved in writing.
 What about Peter and Paul, and their supposed martyrdoms at Rome?  Eusebius says this "is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day".  Not much by way of evidence.  Nothing else besides a few brief mentions by Christian writers.  Tertullian told his Roman readers, "Examine your records", to find the evidence, but gave no indication what evidence was to be found where.  That, apparently, is it.  Where on Earth is the Church's history of the martyrdom of its greatest apostles?

What about the regions where the apostles preached beyond the Holy Land?  Let's see:
Parthia, according to tradition, was allotted to Thomas as his field of labor, Scythia to Andrew, and Asia to John, who, after he had lived some time there, died at Ephesus. Peter appears to have preached in Pontus, Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Asia to the Jews of the dispersion. And at last, having come to Rome, he was crucified head-downwards; for he had requested that he might suffer in this way. What do we need to say concerning Paul, who preached the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem to Illyricum, and afterwards suffered martyrdom in Rome under Nero? These facts are related by Origen in the third volume of his Commentary on Genesis.
So there is some tradition assigning place-names to some apostles.  Naturally, these connections could be claimed by regional churches in order to enhance their authority, and are not much good without more solid details and corroborating evidence.  Peter "appears to have preached" in various parts of Turkey, parts which are all named in the "First Epistle of Peter" in the NT.  Nowhere else?  Did the Church of Eusebius' day know no more of Peter's preaching tours than what it could glean from the text of one letter?  The reference to Paul in Illyricum comes from Romans 15:19.  Where did Origen get his supposed facts?  We do not get a chance to judge any primary sources.

This could go on and on, but I think I have done enough to show that, judging by the Church's foremost historian, there is effectively no real history of the Church.  There are New Testament texts that we still have, there were writers sharing various stories, there were irrelevant and abused references from non-Christian historiansbut essentially no available primary sources such as one would expect of an institution: no lists of holders of important posts, no records of their deeds, no memoirs.  Essentially nothing of primary historical value for telling the history of the Church in the decades after the supposed foundation of the Christian movement.  Names and places were scraped out of the New Testament rather than discovered in institutional records.  This might be partly alright if we could at least trust the "Acts of the Apostles" about the apostolic period, but they are a fraud, created by the Catholic Church to rewrite history so as to make Paul a loyal follower of Jesus' disciples.

The question is, then, why did the early Church not preserve its institutional history?  Could it be because the Church of Eusebius was not the same movement as the early Church?  Because the Catholic Church, believing in a human Jesus the son of the God of the Jews was a late invention, whereas the original Christian movement believed in a spiritual Jesus sent to save mankind from the God of the Jews?  (On which difference see my previous post on the Historical Paul.)  What if the orthodox Church had no real history of the later first century to relate, and was forced to desperately scrape something together from scraps, simply because it did not exist as such in that period, but rather emerged as an organisation much later than it claimed?

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