Toward Earliest Christianity
The Missing Dimensions of the Modern Christian Faith
If one peruses a New Testament today, one will read that the earliest Christians came together on certain purposeful occasions, sang hymns, shared together a meal in memorial to Christ, practiced water baptism, believed that Jesus was Lord and Messiah, and believed in an Almighty God, sometimes called “Father.” In this respect, modern-day Christians are no different. Christians of today, whether Catholic, Protestant, or non-denominational, share these deep and long lasting traditions passed down from their earliest predecessors. But if one reads the New Testament more closely, one finds that certain other practices and beliefs among the earliest Christians have not been handed down to Christians of the present day. Christians of the first century were commonly engaged in activities that by today’s standards were “psychic,” “paranormal,” “mediumistic,” and “supernatural.”
Angelic visitations, spirit guides, manifestations of spirits through the agency of deep-trance mediums, visions of the spirit world, messages from the spirit world, and other forms of spirit communications dot the earliest Christian landscape as necessary, vital, and quite matter-of-fact occurrences. These occurrences were well known among the earliest Christians for they were given the mission of continuing the work of Christ through the tutoring from spirits themselves, as we see in John 14 and 16, the Acts of the Apostles, and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, just to name a few passages. One explicit passage in this direction is found in 1 Peter 1:12, “things that have now been announced to you by those through whom a holy spirit, sent from heaven, preached the good news to you.” In this passage we see a direct correspondence between “a holy spirit” and the “preaching of the gospel”: holy spirits delivered the gospel to the earliest Christians. Exactly how holy spirits accomplished this task (or that they ever did) is unknown to Christians of today.
The Christian Bible provides Christians with clear boundaries for authoritative Scripture. Christians do not hear sermons on the Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Paul or 1 Clement or 3 Corinthians even though these were, at one time, circulated and read among Christians of the past. For modern Christians, however, they are not canonical or “normative” texts; they do not appear in our Bible because of what is believed to be their improper, false, or inadequate representations. Of course, the decision as to what is orthodox Scripture has a long, unstable history.
Nowadays, modern Christians hear the gospel read and explained to them from an English translation of a Greek text (usually the King James Version) by a human preacher who has been trained in a Seminary for that task. English versions are themselves interpretations of a Greek text; interpretations that do not always reflect adequately the Greek text, and interpretations that sometimes do not agree among themselves on some very pivotal doctrinal issues. Hence, “the” Bible is merely an illusion, for there are many bibles and no two are exactly alike. A glance at any parallel English bible that presents multiple columns of the same book, chapter, and verses will reveal discrepancies that cannot be maintained by a serious Christian.
During the Reformation Era, the Christian Scriptures achieved a status that would catapult them to the level of God’s very words; what the Bible says, God says. And so the legacy of “the” Bible as the Word of God continues with us to this day. The principle of sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” was left in the wake of the Reformation in reaction to allegiance to the Papal office of Rome; no priest, no Pope, no human has any authority, only Scripture. What quickly evolved thereafter was the notion of the authority of Scripture. The Bible, specifically the New Testament, is now considered by the lot Christians to be the inerrant, reliable, inspired, and unchanging words of God. Proof-texts are often used to support the authority of Scripture, e.g. 2 Tim 3:16, “all Scripture is inspired of God,” and Jesus’ quoting Scripture during his temptation by Satan in the desert. But the practice of proof-texting is very flimsy at best. It is the simplistic practice of believing that a theological debate can be settled by quoting a few passages from the Bible. Theological positions and Church beliefs are often argued or “proven” simply by pointing to a particular passage that “proves” the belief. Allow “x” to be a particular belief: “I believe that ‘x’ is true. See? It says so right here.” Not so easy.
Christians of past generations have never had access to consistent Scriptural texts. Although a good portion of the New Testament as it was canonized in the fourth century has maintained its general look as we know it today, some key texts have popped in and out over the centuries. For instance, English-speaking Christians of the sixteenth century read “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (King James, 1 John 5:7). This is a clear Trinitarian proof text that, however, does not appear in any modern English version for the simple fact that it never appears in any extant Greek text (with the exception of one made to order by Erasmus at the behest of certain bishops). So, for a time 1 John 5:7 was inerrant, reliable, inspired, and unchanging Word of God. Or was it? In a similar vein, Jeremiah complains of the vicissitudes of Torah texts produced by scribes of his day, “How can you say, ‘We are wise, we have the law (Torah) of the Lord’? Why, that has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes” (Jer 8:8). The author/s of Jeremiah preserved for us an insight into the potential scribal corruptions that did, in fact, occur. All of ancient literature that has been transmitted to us moderns has suffered the same fate at the hands of scribes, good intentioned though they may have been, and the Word of God was no different for it, too, was not spared such corruption.
As for 2 Tim 3:16, often touted as the pivotal proof-text for the inspiration of Scripture, we may consider the remarks Jonathan Sheehan, a professor of History at the University of Michigan, who writes concerning the ascendency of the authority of the Bible during the Reformation Era:
At the precise moment that the Bible shouldered such enormous responsibilities, its authority began to quiver under the load. Even in St. Paul, sixteenth-century readers might have sensed the strains. “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching,” Paul wrote in his letter to Timothy. But did he? For many readers of the new vernacular and scholarly Bibles that populated the period, he did not. Rather he said something somewhat different: “All scripture inspired by God is profitable for teaching.” Indeed, this second reading would have been the more familiar, since it was taken from the Latin tradition and put into many of Europe’s sixteenth-century vernacular Bibles. In Elias Hutter’s 1599 Nuremberg polyglot Bible, the Italian, French, and Greek versions embraced the first version, while Spanish, German, and Latin repeated the latter. William Tyndale’s 1524 English translation of the New Testament followed the Latin version, but the Geneva and later the King James Bibles followed the Greek. The difference was minor—the presence or absence of the Greek word kai (“and”)—but the passage meant something quite different in Erasmus’s 1516 Greek New Testament than it did in Luther’s 1522 German one. What was, in the Greek Bible, a comfortingly secure blanket proclamation of biblical inspiration was, in German, a distinctly less reassuring profession that only some Scriptures were in fact given by God’s hand (The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005] 1-2).
Here we have an instance whereby knowledge of the original language can give us two equally possible, yet profoundly different, interpretations. The reason for this is that the Greek text of 2 Tim 3:16 lacks the verb “to be” (estin) and states literally, “all scripture inspired by God.” In English, “is” can occur in one of two places: “all scripture is inspired by God” or “all scripture inspired by God is.” The differences in meaning are as Sheehan describes them above.
So how reliable are our bibles? Some contain whole books not found in others, e.g. the Catholic deuterocanonicals, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and an appendix to Daniel, Bel and the Dragon, are not authoritative for Protestants. Multiple New Testament verses in English versions are punctuated differently, thereby giving different meanings to the same text, even though there was no punctuation in Greek. As an example, Rom 9:5 in the New International Version reads “from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen,” while the New American Bible version reads “from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.” In one Christ is God; in the other God and Christ are distinct, they are not identical. Which is inspired? Which is reliable? Which is inerrant? Which is unchanging? The answer to these questions depends not on Scripture per se, but rather on the theological position of the person reading it. If one was not privy to these different readings of Rom 9:5, then it would not matter. The fact is that the Greek text, once translated into English, can be punctuated either way here in 2 Tim 3:16, thereby giving two different readings of the same text. Here again, even knowledge of the original language does not solve the problem for us, and this is true for many problems of this nature in our English versions.
Who can enlighten us as to the reliability and truths (or not) of Scripture? Would modern Christians ever think of being enlightened by “a spirit” from heaven who preaches a sermon, maybe through an entranced medium or simply via a direct voice from out of the air, as was the case, oftentimes, in Old Testament days? Did the figures of the Old Testament have a Bible? When they consulted God, did they consult a book? Modernity, or the age shaped by the Scientific Revolution and the European Enlightenment, has reduced reality to the physical world, and Christians have partly become participants in this. While they believe in God, who is “a Spirit” (Isa 31:3 and John 4:24), a belief in “spirits” and a spirit world is cast aside as superstitious beliefs of a bygone, less enlightened age. Or else, spirits are thought to be real, but these spirits, if contacted, can only be demons and evil spirits. Modern English versions support the injunctions against contacting spirits in Lev 20:27 and Deut 18:10-12. Yet, these same versions also describe elsewhere intentional intercourse between other spirit sources, e.g. Yahweh, a spirit of God, a spirit of the Lord, and an angel of the Lord. These are the sources from which Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Jacob, Saul, David, and Solomon are said to have learned of God’s words, from God Himself.
Huge gaps exist in Christian thinking and experience between earlier times and more recent times. This is not because of some trivial insight of “social progression” where we, as a modern society, would be expected to do things differently than the earliest Christian societies of two thousand years ago who had no electricity, cars, airplanes, and other modern conveniences. The gaps are not those of advances in scientific know-how, between a first-century society and a twenty-first century society, but rather those of insight and understanding that shake the very foundations of Christendom as we have come to know it today. For instance, hardly a modern-day Christian would ever be aware that reincarnation was a belief among first-century Jews and Christians. The resurrection of the dead is, in fact, based on the premise of reincarnation. The Second Council of Constantinople of 553 AD, however, declared this doctrine anathema.
A well-known doctrine that is ingrained in the Christian psyche is the doctrine of the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three of equal substance yet one God. The history of the development of this doctrine though reveals that it is an interpretation of a disparate collection of a few texts that are held together by some very clever exegetical gymnastics. Is Jesus ever called “God” in the New Testament? If so, then why is Moses likewise called “God” in Exodus 4:16? Is “the Holy Spirit” ever called “God” in the New Testament? What about other “spirits” who were called “holy” in early Judaism and Christianity? Any thinking Christian can learn of the personalities responsible for the doctrine of the Trinity which, as we shall see, is actually not Christian at all.
Another facet of early Christian practice is one that has been designated as “heresy” or “theological error”: the early Christian practice of communicating with the spirit world of God. Evidence for this is abundant and dots the New Testament text like pine trees that dot the Oregon landscape. Whenever a modern Christian hears of “the spirit world” the specter of demons and devils arises in their minds. The only spirit of God they are familiar with is “the Holy Spirit” Himself. There is only one such Spirit, unique and equal to God. But this, as a part of the doctrine of the Trinity, is an artificial doctrine not to be found in the New Testament. Christians of today are ministered to by “the Word of God” which refers to the Bible that is read aloud to the congregations during a Sunday service. The earliest Christians had no New Testament book. They received the Word of God directly from God Himself just as the authors of both the Old and New Testament texts describe. The true Word of God is Christ Himself (John 1:1), and God's Word is His Christ who sends us His holy spirits to communicate the Word of God, i.e. Christ, to humanity (John 16:12). No book was ever meant to usurp the role of God's Word to humanity.
Although most conservative Christians, both lay and administrative, will in fact concede to the notion that the earliest Christians were “inspired” and had visions and received direct messages from God or His spirits (sometimes called “angels”), they confine such phenomena to the first or second century alone. They further conclude that once the Scriptures were “given to us” there was no longer any need for visions, inspirations, and angelic visitations. Christians could now come face to face with God in His written Word. Thus, any claims of inspiration or spirit communication after the canonization of the New Testament are considered bogus or demonic deceptions. Sometimes, modern Christians talk about the mid-to-late second-century Christian group, the Montanists, as a primary example of extra-biblical inspiration that threatened the authority of Scripture. But there is a problem with this reckoning. Montanism occurred during a time when there was no canonical New Testament with 27 books, and many Christians were still in the practice of communicating with God’s spirits. The canon of the New Testament as we know it today was not established until the fourth century by Athanasius of Alexandria who, in his Festal Easter Letter 63 lists, for the first time, the New Testament books as we know them today. Before that time, there was no clear consensus among Christians as to which Christian literature was “orthodox” (normative for the Church) and which was “heterodox” (not normative for the Church). Even after Athanasius, many eminent Christians disagreed with him and included other Christian texts as equally authoritative. Some also questioned other texts as to their authority such as 1 Peter and Revelation. Most rural Christians never saw a complete New Testament for centuries, let alone were privy to what was “orthodox” and what was not.
There never was a complete cessation of inspiration among Christians during the first several centuries A.D. As one author has rightly noted, “The idea that certain individuals who are invested with the gifts of the Spirit did not come to an end with the apostolic age. In subsequent centuries, the application of the designation ‘bearer of the Spirit’ . . . which had originally been reserved for the prophets and teachers, was enlarged to include martyrs, monks, holy men, priests, and bishops. They were recognized as such because the Spirit was manifest in a myriad of different ways” (Claudia Rapp, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005] 57). The Greek word translated as “bearer of the Spirit” is pneumatophoros, literally, “one moved by a spirit” and occurs in most contexts of “one moved to speak by a spirit.” Interestingly enough the condemned Montanist movement used this same Greek word to describe their inspiration.
Inspiration by “the Holy Spirit” was considered the source for doctrines that emerged during the fourth century. Some fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity and the Deity of the Holy Spirit, were thought to have been “inspired” in the church fathers credited for devising these doctrines. For instance, the Cappadocian father, Gregory of Nazianzus, claimed that the Deity of the Holy Spirit had been revealed to him in his day, the 360s AD, even though he admits that the Spirit's Deity is not clearly stated in the Bible. This particular church father is the first to have explicitly called the Spirit “God” and yet he admits that such a revelation in not clearly supported by the Bible. Likewise, Athanasius was said to have been “inspired” in his writings concerning the Holy Spirit which are the cornerstone for Trinitarian doctrine. Any inquisitive and curious soul can read an English translation of Athanasius's The Letters of Saint Athanasius Concerning the Holy Spirit and see exactly from where we get the doctrine of the Deity of the Holy Spirit and of the Trinity itself. Once the Deity of the Holy Spirit had been established, Bishops believed that the Spirit played a leading role in church council decisions. See the article J. H. Crehan, "Patristic Evidence for the Inspiration of Councils," Studia Patristica 9 (1966): 210-215.
This presents us with the remarkable problem: what many modern Christians claim to be restricted to the first Christian communities was in fact thought to have continued well into subsequent centuries by Christians themselves. Furthermore, the claim for inspiration was a key factor in the formulation of Christian doctrine that modern Christians hold to be dear, true, and sacred. So, if Christians assert that inspiration ceased after the Apostolic Age, then they must be prepared to question doctrines that were later formulated and thought to originate in inspiration. How reliable are these inspirations if they can be shown to have no clear correspondence to any biblical text, a criterion that modern Christians live by? Even Gregory of Nazianzus admitted that the Deity of the Holy Spirit is not biblical, but he, nevertheless, supports its veracity by claiming “revelation” for this particular idea. Who or what revealed this to Gregory? Can we be so sure that God revealed this to him? If so, then why is Gregory of Nazianzus barely known to Christians today if he is responsible for one of the most fundamental and primary doctrines of Christendom: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? Christians assume that the writers of the New Testament texts already knew and meant this whenever they wrote “the holy spirit” or “the spirit.” But what modern Christians do not know is that Gregory of Nazianzus is, in part, responsible for the idea of “gradual revelation” of Christian doctrine, and this answers the question for Gregory why the Deity of the Holy Spirit is not clearly found in the New Testament; the Deity of the Spirit was only gradually revealed. Gregory and his coreligionists are the ones to whom it was finally and clearly revealed. You would think that such a figure would be as famous among Christians as Paul, but he isn't. Christians unwittingly read fourth-century doctrine back into a first-century text that was composed when no such doctrine existed.
Revelation from a spirit source was expected to continue without cessation among Christians (1 Thess 5:19-20, The Didache 11, The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11). The only problem with this was that two classes of spirits were thought to have been operative among Christians: holy spirits and evil spirits. The institution of the “discernment of spirits” and the “testing of spirits” betrays a knowledge of the potential deception of evil spirits who must be sifted out from among the genuine truth-bearing holy spirits. Was this discernment always practiced? Were Athanasius or Gregory aware of the criteria for discernment? Did they really engage in spirit communication in the way of the earliest Christians or was their “inspiration” more along the lines of a hunch or a gut feeling? Was their inspiration from God? How can we be sure, especially in the light of Paul’s warning: “Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the future some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions” (1 Tim 4:1). No Christian group, past or present, believes that they are inspired by demons or deceitful spirits. Yet, many Christians point their fingers at other Christians and assert “demonically inspired” as the Montanists were so accused. Christians have always accused one another of giving heed to evil spirits or demonically inspired thoughts. How are we to discern and sift through the morass of Christianity?