Radical Primitive Christianity

The Gnostics were mystics, deeply interested in spiritual knowledge and wisdom. They sought such information from many sources, including the sacred texts of the Hebrews, the Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, and others. History reveals they were of Jewish, Zoroastrian, Muslim, and other faiths. In this book, you will read about the Gnostics who were part of the early Christian movements.

The Gnostics believed that God could be known experientially through knowledge of the self. They called this self-knowledge gnosis and themselves gnostikoi, the Knowing Ones. They felt no need for salvation from one another because they believed salvation came through gnosis when the divine spark within them merged back into the Godhead. The fifty-two mostly Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 cast a new light on the diversity and conflicts of the early Christian communities. The manuscripts dated to the third and fourth centuries and were copied from originals dating to the second century. Early church fathers considered Gnostic writings heretical and banned them, making it dangerous to possess such texts. Because of the inherent danger of protecting such literature, the monks of St. Pachomius, so it is believed, hid the documents in caves near Nag Hammadi in Egypt where the materials were found.

According to the book of Acts, the word “Christian” was not used until about a decade after Jesus' death. The term first showed up in the language of nonbelievers in Antioch, Syria, a place that later became known as the center of Gentile Christianity. The word “Christian” was used to refer to the followers of Christ. In Greek, the term for “Christian” is Christianoi.

To understand these theological conflicts within the earliest communities, it is helpful to place them in the milieu of first-century Palestine. The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews living in Palestine, a land occupied and governed by the Romans. Like their ancestors, these Jews yearned for the Messiah (literally “anointed one”), who would rescue them from secular rule, restore the kingdom of Israel, and reconcile the Jewish covenant with God. Jesus' supporters became “followers of the Way of the Lord” that Jesus had demonstrated for them. They believed he was the Redeemer whose coming was prophesied in their Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament). They saw themselves as students of Jesus practicing an alternative form of Judaism.

Jesus' followers lived in a world of rising sectarian tension, religious disputes, increased polarization, and political unrest. While complying with their own Mosaic Law, religious and cultural beliefs, and traditions, Jews were also required to adhere to the laws of the polytheistic Romans who claimed their system originated with Jupiter and functioned with the blessings of their various gods. The Roman governors, as representatives of Rome, wielded enormous economic, political, social, and legal power over their subjects. Roman justice, even far from Rome in Judean territory, was swift and often harsh.

When Jesus began his ministry, his first-century Jewish brethren most likely held widely different views of him. Some perhaps saw him as just another charismatic preacher among the many prophets, exorcists, magicians, healers, and others who traveled through Galilee and Judea. Those who saw him work miracles may have come to believe he was the Messiah, while the more dubious among them may have thought he was simply an accomplished magician. In Jesus' lifetime, many Jews harbored increasing animosity toward others in their communities whom they saw as becoming worldly because of outside influences, primarily from the Greco-Roman culture. The political and religious climate of that time fostered hope among the Jews that the long-hoped-for Messiah was coming to lead the nation of Israel, lifting from it the yoke of Roman rule. It was a time of rising sectarian tensions and apocalyptic expectations.

Modern scholars characterize the Jesus movement as essentially an eschatological movement. “Eschatological” derives from the Greek eschatos, meaning “the utmost” or “the end.” Many Jews during Jesus' lifetime believed in their ancient prophets' predictions of a coming “day of the Lord” or end-time, and for some, Jesus' words and deeds resonated with those beliefs, heightening expectations of the Apocalypse. It is worth noting that the definition of “Apocalypse” is the disclosure of God in the guise of Messiah, rather than the destruction of the world when the unveiling takes place. Some Jews found elements of Jesus' teachings objectionable, dangerous, and even radical. To them, he must have seemed like a rebel, intentionally shaking up the status quo.

What is apocalyptic ideology?

Apocalyptic thinking centers around the belief that the end-time is near and that God will judge the righteous and the wicked. Apocalyptic expectation remained high during the time of Jesus and afterward. Many of Jesus' disciples believed that after his death and resurrection, he would return within their lifetimes to establish the kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus' Radical Practices

Jesus' egalitarian view of women, for example, went against the traditional patriarchal idea that women were the property of men. Jewish men could look into their holy scriptures and find male role models. In those texts, they didn't see examples of the great patriarchs treating women as equals. It is likely that the more orthodox Jewish males resisted changing their beliefs about the status of women in Jewish society. Jesus knew that many Jews of his time believed in their Hebrew scripture's admonition “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24), but he taught his followers to “turn the other cheek and do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:28–31).

Jesus ignored purity rules. As he walked to the house of Jairus to raise the man's daughter from the dead, a woman who had had a bleeding condition for twelve years touched the hem of his garment. Jesus healed the woman, but then was considered ritually unclean (according to Jewish purity rules). Even so, he continued on, sought out the dead child of Jairus, and restored her life. Now, because of contact with the dead, he was considered doubly unclean.

Jesus' act of healing on the Sabbath evoked the anger of the Pharisees, a sect of Jews for whom zealous adherence to God's laws and commandments was extremely important. The Pharisees enforced the laws written in the Torah. They felt that all Jews had to obey the purity laws to ensure purity inside and outside of the Temple. Josephus, the Jewish historian writing near the end of the first century, noted that the Pharisees were expert expositors of Jewish law.

Jesus' Radical Followers

After Jesus' death, his followers sometimes acted in opposition to traditional Jewish thinking. The Apostle Paul had a vision to take the gospel to non-Jews (Gentiles). His evangelism converted many Gentiles to Christianity. But dissension arose immediately with the early Christians in Jerusalem (who still saw themselves as a sect of Jews) over whether or not Paul's Gentile converts should be circumcised, obliged to follow Mosaic Law and Jewish dietary laws, and converted to Judaism. The Jews could trace their obligation to be circumcised back to God's commandment to Abraham.

This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. — Genesis 17:10–11

In the end it was decided that Gentiles could seek the Lord (without all those requirements) if they “abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20).

Paul, who became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, became embroiled in a conflict when he was accused of violating purity laws by bringing Greeks into a Temple area restricted to Jews, thus sparking a riot (Acts 21:16–40). Paul was arrested. Tensions were rising in Jerusalem at the time, perhaps due to widespread apocalyptic sentiment and the political unrest fomented by the Zealot movement, a fringe radical group of militant patriots (some say an offshoot of the Pharisees) who advocated an armed rebellion to overthrow the Romans.

Possibly concerned about Jewish dissension, Paul had his young disciple Timothy circumcised to avoid conflict with the Jews in Lycaonia. Timothy was the son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother. Paul wanted the young man to accompany him on his missionary travels around the region, but also possibly feared opposition over Timothy's status as an uncircumcised male.

The New Testament letters of Paul reveal schisms, misunderstandings of Jesus' teachings, internecine squabbling, turmoil, and conflict among the fledgling Christian communities and churches that he had established during his missionary travels beyond Palestine in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonia. The New Testament Acts of the Apostles reports that the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem continued Jewish traditional practices and observances, including attending Temple. But they also followed a routine of attending prayer sessions in homes and participating in dinner fellowship with other believers. By the end of the first century, Christians had established certain rituals and espoused key beliefs. However, they would continue to develop, shape, and clarify their theology over the next few centuries.

How did early Gnostic beliefs differ from the more literalistic or proto-orthodox beliefs?

The Gnostic groups embraced the idea of gnosis, or self-knowledge, as the path to salvation while the proto-orthodox believed that Jesus died for their sins and his death ensured salvation of those who accepted him as Savior. Some Christians believed that Jesus was a mortal with a divine message, others felt that he was fully human and that Christ dwelled within him. Certain Christians believed that Jesus did not die.

At least one of Jesus' disciples who some might consider a radical follower was Simon the Cananaean (also known as Simon the Zealot). Cananaean derives from the Aramaic and means “zealous one.” Simon may have been a member of a subsect of Zealots known as the Sicarii, dagger assassins (sicarii is a Latin term for a kind of dagger). Like the Pharisees and the Zealots, the Sicarii desired a messiah, descended from King David, who would reclaim the throne of Israel for the Jewish people. The Sicarii were committed to ousting the Romans, using violence if necessary toward achieving that aim.

Although many scholars disagree, some sources suggest that Simon Peter may have also been a Zealot. Most assume that his name, Simeon bar Jona, meant simply Simon, son of Jona. However, Simon Peter's name is spelled in Matthew 16:17 as Barj-jona and the Aramaic word for outlaw, baryona, is not a far leap to make. Others believe a more likely candidate than Simon Peter was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Several sources suggest that Iscariot may have been a corruption of the Latin word sicarius (dagger-man), a Roman moniker for Zealot.

When you read the New Testament stories about the followers of Jesus, you begin to see that they were ordinary people living in extraordinary times of social change and religious and political unrest. They saw in Jesus the embodiment of the Redeemer promised by their ancient prophets. They believed his death heralded the coming end-time. They came to believe that his death would bring them salvation. Choosing to follow Jesus meant they now had to live a radical life, one accompanied by great risk, possibly death. The Gnostic scriptures, on the other hand, suggest that the followers of Jesus saw things a little differently than those espousing a literalist view. Their salvation came not from someone else, certainly not from the death of Jesus, but through an inner process of questioning and understanding until enlightenment was achieved. But they did see Jesus as a being of light who came to earth as a revealer to bring gnosis, not from a God who demanded his suffering and death but from the “ageless, unproclaimable Father,” as explained in the Gnostic Gospel of the Egyptians.

The divergent ideas of early Christians suggest that birth and evolution of Christianity were fraught with dissension, disagreement, and disharmony as the early church sought consensus on many issues. Common beliefs and unity would help the religion to survive; otherwise a divisive splintering off could only endanger it.

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