The growth of Christianity during the first centuries of the modern era was phenomenal, especially among the lower orders. People who had nothing on earth and who lived in poverty were promised immense rewards in the after-life – provided they accepted their lot as slaves. This doctrine had an obvious appeal to the downtrodden masses, but it had equally obvious advantages for the ruling class. Eventually, the latter realized this and took the appropriate measures. But all these measures were in vain. The Church continued to thrive despite persecution – and possibly because of it.
Christianity and communism
The crisis of slave society in the Roman Empire found its reflection in a crisis of the old morality, philosophy and religion. They represented a world that had outlived its usefulness and had already passed into history. The temples stood empty and people sought a religion that would offer them some consolation for their endless sufferings and some prospect of salvation. In this context the idea of a Saviour, a Redeemer, had an obvious attraction.
The only hope for a revolutionary overthrow of slavery would have been to unite the slaves with the Roman proletariat – the mass of propertyless free citizens in Rome. But the Roman proletariat, unlike the modern working class, was a non-productive, parasitic class that lived off the state. The real productive class was the slaves on whose backs the whole oppressive and parasitic edifice rested. In The Eighteenth Brumaire Karl Marx quoted Sismondi’s statement: “The Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society whereas modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat.”
Just as the defeat of the great revolt of 66-70 CE produced a mood of helplessness and despair among the mass of propertyless Jews, so the defeat of Spartacus and the numerous other slave revolts in the later Roman Republic eventually convinced the slaves of the impossibility of defeating the Roman state. These defeats paved the way for the rise of the Emperors, under whose despotic rule, every class was ground underfoot.
What was the secret of the success of the early Christians, and how did they come to dominate the world? The Roman ruling class looked on Christianity contemptuously as a movement “of slaves and women.” That was just a way of saying that it was a movement that reflected the aspirations of the most downtrodden and oppressed layers of society. That was the main source of its strength. The popular masses in the Roman Empire embraced a religion that was preached by slaves and oppressed to the point where the ambitious and opportunist Constantine finally saw conversion to this religion as the best means of consolidating his hold on power.
The Acts of the Apostles show that the early Christians believed in equality. The communion of believers was expressed in the form of primitive communism. All who joined this communion had first to relinquish all their worldly goods. Tertullian (c. 160-230 CE) wrote: “We are brethren in our property, which with you mostly dissolves brotherhood. We therefore, who are united in mind and soul, doubt not about having possessions in common. With us all things are shared promiscuously, except the wives. In that alone do we part fellowship, in which alone others (Greeks and Roman pagans) exercise it.” (See Acts 1:39)
John Allegro notes: “The early Church also observed a form of communism, was at loggerheads with established Jewry as represented by the Jerusalem cultus, practiced a ritual meal of some kind, baptised its initiates, and paid special regard to the teachings of the biblical prophets, whose every word was thought to offer insight into the future of mankind.” (JM Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth, p. 4)
This communism was already practiced by a Jewish sect that was active at the time when Christ was supposed to have lived: the Essenes. Kautsky drew the conclusion that the early Christians were just another branch of the Essenes. But when he wrote The Foundations of Christianity, Kautsky did not have any idea that in the future archaeology would be able to cast a striking light on this obscure movement.
All the attempts to crush the Christian movement by state repression failed. Therefore, the ruling class did what they always do in such circumstances. If they cannot defeat a movement by force, the oppressed classes resort to cunning. They corrupt the leaders and absorb them into the state itself.
The story goes that while riding towards Rome for the final battle with his rival Maxentius, accompanied by Eusebius, his faithful bishop, he saw the cross in the setting sun and heard the words “in this sign conquer.” The battle of the Milvian Bridge, which took place on October 28th 312 CE, was a bloodbath in which Maxentius and his army of some 25,000 were slaughtered.
It is said that during his triumphant march on Rome, Constantine had crosses erected in the streets to celebrate his victory. However, this story of the cross was not made public until after Constantine's death, when he was obviously not in a position to deny it. Since the only source of this story is Eusebius, it can safely be assumed that it was a deliberate invention on his part. It was Eusebius who played a key role in the “conversion” of Constantine a few years later, so it would have been very much in his interest to embellish it with a miracle or two.
This legend was seized upon by later Christian historians as proof that the Emperor was now a disciple of Christ. In fact, Constantine remained a pagan to the end. He was an ambitious and unprincipled careerist, who was determined to become the sole head of the Roman Empire and made use of Christianity to achieve this end. The history of his reign is the history of bloodthirsty campaigns through which he took the lives of hundreds of thousands of his enemies. In fact, the more blood he spilled the greater he became.
By 320 CE the only rival who still stood in his way was the Emperor Valerius who ruled the east. In a bloody battle fought at sea, Valerius was outflanked and defeated. Not satisfied with the death of over 25,000 men Constantine murdered the entire family of Valerius, including the children, cousins and anyone else who might have some claim to the throne. He later showed particular ingenuity in disposing of his own wife, Fausta, who was locked in the bath, which was then heated to the point where she was slowly roasted. She was the mother of Crispus who had been also murdered by Constantine on the grounds that he had had sex with his mother-in-law. Now sole emperor, Constantine was able to marry a new wife, Constantia.
Constantine was now the sole ruler of a vast Empire that stretched from Britain to the far eastern regions of Persia, and from Germany to North Africa. In order to hold all this together he needed not only a rod of iron but some basis of support in the population. Constantine’s connection with Christianity played an important role in consolidating his power. The sycophant Eusebius called Constantine “the most pious son of a most pious and prudent father” and even goes so far as to claim that his father Constantius was, “at heart”, a Christian. But that has not the slightest basis in fact. Constantine himself remained a pagan all his life, and this is well attested to by the historical record.
In order to conceal Constantine’s paganism the cunning Eusebius invented the story that the Emperor was converted on his death bed. But on the one hand, it has been shown that documents credited to Eusebius are forgeries. On the other hand, the so-called Christian symbols on coins minted under Constantine are, in reality, pagan symbols. It is well known that the Christians took over many pagan symbols so that they could claim an ancient origin for the Church.
Let us cite just one example. Ever since Alexander the Great it was common for Emperor’s to associate themselves with the Sun, a custom which Alexander himself had copied from the monarchs of the East. The Christian halo is in fact copied from traditional depictions of Alexander, who was shown with the sun’s rays surrounding his head. When Constantine identified himself with the Sun God Apollo, he was merely following the same tradition.
Eumerius, writing in 310, informs us that Constantine had statues of the sun gods carried before him to emphasize his devotion to the sun god Apollo. He also notes that Constantine Clorus's name is to be found on edicts of persecution. It is a matter of historical record that this “most pious son of a most pious and prudent father” had many Christians tortured, exiled and jailed. According to those who knew him he sacrificed to Apollo right up to his death. He proclaimed himself the Son of Apollo and gave gifts to the temple of the Sun God.
Pagan elements in Christianity
Despite his pagan beliefs, Constantine was sufficiently astute to realize that all the attempts to suppress the Christian religion had failed. The Christians seemed to thrive on persecution and martyrdom. Even before he first seized absolute power, he was already considering whether it would not be better to incorporate the Christians into the state and use them to police and control the masses.
The Roman Empire in the phase of its decline was a fertile ground for the spread of mystical ideas. This partly explains the rapid spread of new religions from the East. This was a superstitious time, when people believed it possible to conjure up supernatural powers by the use of magic signs, formulas and rites. They believed in miracles. To win popularity the Church had to provide these things. Eusebius presented the cross as a magic sign, the effectiveness of which was said to be proved by Constantine’s victory. Early Christianity was thoroughly impregnated with superstition.
Originally, Christianity had been a Jewish sect. It was Paul who developed the idea of converting non-Jews, eliminating circumcision and the dietary prohibitions that were serious obstacles to winning over the latter. Over a period the early Church changed and regulated its doctrines to suit its new position in society. But when the new religion broke out of its original Jewish context it was mangled, changed beyond recognition and turned into something quite different. This led to new contradictions.
By the second century Christianity was no longer a purely Jewish affair. The message of the Christians was gradually watered down to make it more acceptable to the Roman middle class. (“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”). Interestingly, the Christians were not opposed to slavery, though they were for the poor. The new religion began to acquire an increasing number of alien elements taken over from paganism and “baptized” with a little Holy water. Pagan tradition held that all gods were of a virgin birth, and this was transmitted into Christian myth, although it formed no part of the Jewish tradition. The first Vatican was built on the site of the temple to Jupiter.
The coming of Easter was celebrated with orgies and ritual sacrifices in many parts of the Roman Empire, including cakes distributed to the public in the name of Anna, another term for sun, from which the word “honour” was derived as well as “annual”, “annum” and “anus”, the shape of which resembles a star. The town of Bethlehem was in ancient times a cult centre of the Mother Goddess, whose star was the planet Venus. It is therefore not too difficult to discover the origins of the Star of Bethlehem that is said to have guided the Three Wise men of the East to the stable where the infant Christ is said to have been born.
Even the word Sunday has a pagan origin. Either it is derived from the name of the Scandinavian sun Goddess Sunna (a.k.a. Sunne, Frau Sonne), or it is derived from “Sol”, the Roman God of the Sun. Their phrase “Dies Solis” means “day of the Sun.” The Christian Saint Jerome (d. 420) commented, “If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth.”
The same is true of the cult of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. There is no tradition of virgin births in Jewish religion, but it is common in paganism. All over the Middle East the worship of the Mother, the Goddess who represented the earth, fertility, love, life and death, was widespread. In Egypt she was called Isis and in Persia Astar (“I-star” means “mighty star”) or “Ashtarith”. When she disappeared in winter the life of the planet disappeared with her, and the earth was dead and barren. When she returned in the spring all life returned with her.
This rotation of the seasons naturally suggested to the minds of people closely connected with the agricultural cycle the idea of a dying and resurrected Deity. This is the pagan origin of Easter (which in the English language comes from Eostre, a.k.a. Eastre), the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxons and other Germanic peoples of Northern Europe. The Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility was also known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos.
These innumerable pagan admixtures have aroused tremendous indignation among the Christian fundamentalists like the Jehovah’s witnesses, who have assiduously attempted to purge them. The problem is that if all the pagan myths are eliminated from the New Testament, there would be very little left.
Although the new religion found its first and most enthusiastic adepts in the most oppressed and marginalized elements of society (slaves and women) it gradually attracted the attention of a layer of the educated and privileged classes, who were increasingly alienated by the spiritual emptiness of a decadent society. The Church offered every individual the hope of salvation and the promise of life after death. By contrast the old gods seemed cold and aloof.
The pragmatic Constantine calculated cynically that any disadvantages that might flow from the abandonment of the old religion would be outweighed by the advantages of having the Church, with its powerful apparatus and control over the masses, as an ally. He achieved his aim by the simple expedient of co-opting the leaders of the Church (the bishops) into the state.
In the period of approximately 100-300 CE we see a gradual consolidation of the power of the bishops, the crystallization of a privileged bureaucratic stratum. Gradually, the Christian Church acquired a bureaucratic apparatus, which fused with the state. The bishops were originally the treasurers. They began to concentrate in their hands considerable wealth and authority. In an ironical footnote Gibbon writes:
“I somewhere heard or read the frank confession of a Benedictine abbot: My vowof poverty has given me an hundred thousand crowns a year; my vow of obediencehas raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince.” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XXXVII, Monks and Arians). And Gibbon wonders to what excesses the abbot’s vows of chastity had led him.
This cynical opportunist used religion to strengthen his grip on power. Andreas Alföldi (The conversion of Constantine and pagan Rome, 1948) reports that what Constantine did was considered by his contemporaries as “an ingenious trick to cheat the masses.” To do this, he had to establish doctrinal orthodoxy and stamp out any other doctrines. At that time there were a huge number of competing versions of Christianity, each with its own Gospels and rites. In the first decades of the second century there were a large number of rival Christian sects that were in bitter conflict.
In order to consolidate his power, Constantine had to eliminate all competing versions and introduce orthodoxy. It took a series of bloody wars to extirpate these “heresies”. Constantine imposed order by state violence, backed up by the even greater threat of eternal punishment wielded by the authorities of a Church that had become merely an arm of the state power. The bishop of Rome, who originally had no special status (and would have been subordinate to the bishop of Jerusalem), was now elevated to the Supreme Head of the Church – the Pope.
It was Constantine who built the church of the Holy Sepulchre and other “Holy Places” in Jerusalem, although there was absolutely no basis for claiming that these places were what they were supposed to be. Constantine’s mother, Helena, who is said to have been the daughter of a fishmonger, went to Jerusalem to obtain the nails that were supposed to have been used in the crucifixion of Christ, together with pieces of wood from the original cross and even some milk from his mother's breasts! The Catholic Church still has possession of these “Holy Places”, which every year bring in a handsome profit.
The Council of Nicaea
Over a period, from being a revolutionary movement of the poor and dispossessed, the Church became a bulwark of the state and a firm defender of the rule of the wealthy and privileged few. The introduction of the rule of celibacy was actually a measure to protect Church property and prevent it being lost to children through inheritance.
The Scriptures were repeatedly purged to wipe out all traces of the original revolutionary and communist message of early Christianity. But it was impossible to remove it completely. The Church got round this difficulty very simply. The Bible was only made available in Latin, which the overwhelming majority did not understand. The only ones allowed to interpret the Scriptures were the priests, who were gradually separated from society as a special privileged caste. The original communistic ideas of the early Christians were thoroughly purged, so that only a few remnants remain in the version of the New Testament available today.
From the very beginning the authority of the Gospels was gradually acquired by tradition. The Gospels do not even claim to have been written by the Disciples of Christ, but gradually, people have accepted that they were – from force of tradition, and nothing else. By the end of the Third Century there were at least 20 Gospels in circulation, as well as numerous letters, lives and sayings of Jesus Christ etc., amounting to more than eighty in total.
It was the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) that formally defined the divinity of Jesus. For many days the Council pondered the problematic question of the nature of Christ and the Trinity. How could the Son be also the father, and what about God the Holy Ghost? These questions were not satisfactorily resolved even when the Council ended. There was still no agreed text, which probably did not matter to most of them, since they could not read.
Very little is known about this celebrated meeting because it has been erased from the historical record by the Church who wished to hide the truth about what went on. However, scholars have established that the Council was packed by Constantine's men, who were willing to carry out the will of the Emperor. The bishops were a motley crew: some were ex-slaves or ex-convicts from as far afield as the border with India, Egypt, the Sahara Desert, Persia, England, Africa, Greece and other exotic places. Many were supporters of an array of heretical sects: Arians, Donatists, Gnostics, etc
Such men were in no position to compete in debate with the educated intriguers who supported Constantine. There were a number of problems that irked the emperor such as the refusal of Christians to serve in the army or worship the Emperor. But these could be managed with intelligent tactics. And in any case, all attempts to destroy the Church through repression had failed. The presence of the emperor was in itself enough to make them shake in their shoes. Many probably had never seen him before, and certainly not this close. And if psychological intimidation was not enough, other more direct methods were available.
Some of those present had already suffered torture at his command. These tortures included having an eye extracted with a hot iron, or having one’s leg ligaments cut, and other pleasant methods of persuasion that left one blind or crippled. These men would not be eager to repeat the experience. Just to make sure of the vote, before the meeting ended some delegates had been murdered for having expressed their thought with excessive frankness. One of these was Arias, the founder of the Arian heresy, who had the temerity to advocate his ideas at the Council. Others disappeared and were never seen again.
In the end there remained a small handful of accepted works that have come down to us as the Bible. What people could or could not read was decided by an endless series of bloody religious wars, purges, persecution and martyrdom. It was far more vicious than any of the persecutions launched by the pagans against Christianity. The struggle to suppress heresy was long, bitter and bloody, and it lasted for hundreds of years.
The banned books
Marcion (ca. 85-160), was the first to work out an “accepted canon”. In order to impose his criteria, he summoned the first ever Church Council. But things did not work out as he had anticipated. The bishops promptly excommunicated him. After which, he returned to Asia Minor where he continued to promulgate Marcionism, and became one of the most notorious heretics of the age. Similar ideas later reappeared among the Bulgarian Bogomils of the 10th century and the Cathars of southern France in the 13th century.
By a supreme irony, the arch-heretic Marcion had established a precedent for banning unacceptable works. He helped create the notion that certain theologies should be sanctioned as orthodox, while others should be condemned as heresy – a term hitherto unknown in the Church. Orthodoxy was closely linked to power. Following in the footsteps of Marcion, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria was the first to introduce an index of permitted books. Anything else should not be read.
This was the first time anyone had suggested that only some books should be accepted as part of the Christian canon. It opened the way for the later censorship, lists of prohibited books, excommunications, anathemas and persecutions of heresy. Prior to this there were no fixed ideas and no authorised texts but rather a confused and volatile mixture of many contending tendencies and sects, with a bewildering array of divisions and sub-divisions. But all that changed when Christianity became fused with the state, and set about destroying all rival movements.
Thus, by a single stroke, a large quantity of books that were hitherto regarded as acceptable was excluded from the Christian canon. Books such as the Gospel of Mary Madeleine, and Philip were rejected. The first two letters of Paul to the Corinthians were accepted but the third one was left out. The Book of Revelations only narrowly scraped in, on the dubious grounds that it was the work of St. John (though this was only a tradition with no proven base).
At least fifty early texts are known to us, though there must have been many more. Epiphanius attacked no fewer than eighty heresies. They all disappeared without trace, and all we know about them is contained in the polemics against them written by their orthodox Christian enemies. That remained the case until 1945, when the Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Egypt. This manuscript dated from the fourth century, but the work itself is undoubtedly older. Some scholars believe it dates from the First century. If this is the case, it is older than most of the “official” Gospels.
The text is, miraculously, intact. Most significant, it contains no Life of Jesus, but is only a list of sayings of Jesus, some of which are identical to those contained in the New Testament, but others completely different. A total of 114 sayings are ascribed to Jesus, and are prefaced with “Jesus said”. But the style and content are strikingly different to that of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The “Jesus” of this Gospel is a very different character to what is depicted in the New Testament. He does not die, kisses Mary Magdalene on the mouth and takes revenge on his enemies.
For hundreds of years scholars have assumed that the “sayings of Jesus” are the earliest Christian texts. The Gospel of Thomas fits in well with this description. It begins: “These are the hidden sayings of the living Jesus that Didimus Thomas wrote down.” It appears to be the work of a Gnostic sect, which believed that Christianity contained a hidden meaning, accessible only to those “in the know”. The same kind of belief was shared by the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Gospel of Thomas was condemned as a heretical forgery. The question is why? There is no death, and therefore no Resurrection, which takes away a fundamental element of Christian doctrine. This is already a severe blow to the accepted teachings of the Church. Death and Resurrection, Easter etc., are all ruled out.
In relation to Peter, it is very strange that there are Letters attributed to him, but no Gospel. Eusebius mentions a Gospel of Peter – but he mentions it as yet another heretical forgery. In it, as in the Gospel of Thomas, Christ does not die on the cross. According to this version, Jesus was entirely divine, and therefore could not die, but only appeared to do so, because he only appeared to be human. The supporters of this heresy (Doceticism) were known as the Docetae (“illusionists”) for obvious reasons.
This idea fell into disfavour as Christianity left its Jewish roots and Gentile Christianity became dominant. Finally it was declared heresy at the end of the second century, and was rejected by the Emperor Constantine at the First Council of Nicaea, which wrote the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The Creed of Nicaea states that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. This idea, completely alien to the Jewish tradition, has its roots in paganism, where Zeus was in the habit of coming down to earth in different disguises to impregnate young virgins.
The early Jewish-Christian Gospels make no mention of a supernatural birth. Rather, they state that Jesus was begotten at his baptism. Mark’s Gospel contains no mention of the Virgin Birth of Jesus. The Church Fathers believed that the first gospel was written by the Apostle Matthew, and his account was called the Gospel of the Hebrews or the Gospel of the Apostles. This, the first written account of the life of Jesus, also contains no mention of the Virgin Birth.
When Jesus is baptized Matthew states: “Jesus came up from the water, Heaven was opened, and He saw the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove and enter into Him. And a voice from Heaven said, ‘You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased’.” And again, “Today I have begotten You. Immediately a great light shone around the place.” This clearly conveys the idea that Christ was “begotten” at the moment of baptism, not before.
Others held precisely the opposite view, that Christ was entirely human, and not divine. He was an ordinary man who, for some reason or other, was chosen by God. The Holy Spirit entered his body, not at birth but in the moment of his baptism. He thus became the Chosen of God. This naturally did away with the virgin birth presented by Matthew. The Ebionites still believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that he was just the eldest son of Mary and Joseph. Interestingly, the word comes from the Hebrew word ebyon, meaning “poor”.
The Early Church regarded these texts as false gospels. The early church was extremely sensitive about such works, and the reason for this sensitivity is obvious. A series of bloody wars were fought to extirpate as heretics all those who refused to conform to the official Church doctrine.
[To be continued...]