Heresies in Early Christianity: Reading time about 6-7 minutes.
Early Christianity outside Europe
This is the third of a four-part series of posts about the origin of the Christian Church, or more accurately, churches. So far, I’ve written about the transformation of Saul, the persecutor of Jesus’s followers, to Paul, the dedicated Christian apostle. I also presented information about how and why Paul’s version of Christianity appeared to be in competition with the version of Jesus’s actual disciples. Now I want to look at the expansion of Christianity and how it related to those two manifestations of the religion.
As a descendant of European Christians, I learned the history of Christianity’s spread from Jerusalem to Europe, and then fifteen centuries later to North America. That was all I knew about the geography of Christianity until I was a middle-aged adult. As an American, I guess that’s all my Christian culture required me to know. I never heard much about the rest of Christianity’s reach. Later, I found out why—almost all those sects outside Europe came to be considered heresies, or “incorrect” forms of Christianity. Since they were considered heresies, orthodox Christians tried to suppress them and strike their existence from the historical record. But with the many discoveries of ancient texts, especially in the twentieth century, we’re able to understand the first few centuries of Christianity clearer than ever before.
From a Christian emperor to a Christian empire
After Constantine in the fourth century, all but one emperor tried to impose a single form of Christianity on all citizens of the empire. Only Julian I, in AD 361, attempted to discard the privileges of the Christians and allow people to practice the religion of their choice.
After Julian, orthodox Christianity became increasingly intolerant of the slightest deviation from the standard. So, to stay safe, not only did everyone in the empire have to become Christian, but they also had to practice the religion in the exact way the emperor and the Church councils dictated.
The only exceptions were the Jews. In some regions Christians tolerated Jewish residents if they remained submissive and didn’t cause trouble. But in other places Christians treated them horribly and forced them to either convert or face the consequences.
The influence of Jesus’s disciples
After the pharisees in Palestine murdered a Jewish follower of Jesus named Stephen, the rest of his sect sought other regions to spread their message. Extra-biblical writings told of them fanning out into Asia and northeastern Africa. Those who chronicled these events reported that in the first century an apostle named Mark founding a church in Alexandria, Egypt. From there Christianity took hold farther south in Sudan (biblical Nubia). Second-century writings reported that Thomas founded a church in India, Bartholomew and Thaddeus evangelized Armenia, and Simon and Andrew took their message to Georgia. At that time, there were even Christians living peacefully among the Zoroastrians in Persia. Evidently, they had trickled in from Antioch and Edessa, in Syria. These were the sites that most Christians aren’t aware of.
The first century had been an incredible time for the introduction of the religion. It offered many advantages over older polytheistic religions and people were ready for change. Christianity offered a caring god, something few polytheists had previously experienced. Potential converts heard wonderful stories of miracles performed by that god through his followers, and that trusting in him would lead to a heavenly afterlife. Average people were drawn to Christianity because of the Gospels being sympathetic to the poor and underprivileged.
The Aramaic-speaking disciples of Jesus founded all the above churches in Jewish diaspora communities in Asia and Africa. So, initially those converts retained most of their Jewish cultural practices. That set them apart from the converts of Paul, Barnabas, and Silas, who didn’t have to follow Jewish dietary customs and become circumcised.
While all that evangelizing was going on in Asia and Africa, the mission to the gentiles was going strong in Anatolia and Mediterranean Europe. By AD 100 there were over forty Christian congregations in existence, mostly in Asia. The decisive split between the two forms of Christianity came during the period between the two Jewish rebellions against Rome—from approximately AD 70-132. That was the time when Jews were most unpopular in the Roman Empire. So naturally, gentile Christians wanted to distance themselves from their Jewish rivals. Due to Roman suppression of the Jews, the gentile Christians were finally able to eclipse Jewish Christianity.
By the early fourth century, the people of Edessa, Ethiopia, Armenia, and Georgia had adopted Christianity as their states’ official religion. This was even before Constantine converted to Christianity on his deathbed in AD 337, and at a time the Roman Empire had a very low percentage of Christians.
Due to various schisms, or splits, the influential Church of Antioch spawned a variety of churches. The Melkites, Maronites, and Syriac Catholics became associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Antioch also generated the Greek and Syriac Orthodox churches that were not associated with the Roman Catholic Church.
Locating and destroying heresies
As early as the second century, the proto-orthodox Christians were already rejecting other forms of Christianity. For one, they were in competition with the Marcionites. Around AD 144, Marcion of Sinope had been the first Christian to popularize a collection of scriptures—a predecessor to the New Testament. From that time, proto-orthodox Christianity continued to be in suppression mode. When Christianity later gained political power, every time a group of Christians began to reject developing orthodox theology, scripture, wealth, or abuse of power, the orthodox bishops would take action. With each new threat, they met for a Church council and declare the new group dangerous and heretical.
Before the empire came to the Church’s rescue, there was no way to adequately enforce orthodoxy. But once the orthodox had the emperor’s backing, the state could punish heretics. The severity of the persecution all depended on who was emperor or governor. At that time, the popes in Rome hadn’t gained much power, but after they did, they would be in control of forcing heretics into conformity.
In my book I wrote of many occasions when the orthodox attempted to destroy heresies in early Christianity and later. They saw threats in the Marcionites, Donatists, Ebionites, Carpocratians, Cerinthians, Elcesaites, Nazarenes, Arians, Gnostics, Pelagians, Montanists, Nestorians, Monophysites, Manicheans, Cathars, Waldensians, Protestants, Hussites, Iconoclasts, Apollinarians, Lollards, and others. Their campaigns against the Cathars and Waldensians were particularly vicious, bordering on genocides.
The early churches in Asia and Africa
In the fourth century the Persians observed that the Roman Empire was on its way to converting to Christianity. Only then did they begin to persecute Christians. They didn’t want to take any chances that Christians would be an internal threat to their empire’s security. To the Persians, being Roman equated to being Christian, and visa versa. As time passed that persecution ended. By AD 410, Christians were even allowed to establish a church in the Persian capital. Over the centuries, that church went by many names—East Syriac Church, Assyrian Church, Babylonian Church, the Church of the East, and later the Nestorian Church. This church’s major influence came from Theodore of Mopsuestia, aka Theodore of Antioch. The Roman Empire had exiled Theodore’s disciples after orthodox bishops declared them heretical, but their growing Persian Church would become incredibly successful.
The Saint Thomas Christians in India eventually became affiliated with the Church of the East, so they too were considered heretics. In the fifteenth century the Catholics finally arrived in India in the form of Portuguese explorers and Jesuit missionaries. They persecuted the indigenous Saint Thomas Christians because they didn’t consider them “real Christians”. The Church’s attitude was to “correct” all heretics, even if they’d been in existence for ten centuries.
The Council of Ephesus
In AD 431, at the Council of Ephesus, Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, ran into conflict with orthodox theologians and his political enemies. The straw that broke Nestorius’s back was his opposition to the prevailing orthodox belief that Jesus’s mother, Mary, was also the mother of God. Since the Church was committed to the concept of the Trinity, they would have believed Mary was God’s mother, and I suppose the mother of the Holy Spirit as well. However, Nestorius couldn’t stretch his theology that far. He believed Mary was Christotokos (Christ-bearer), not Theotokos (God-bearer).
Because of his opposition, the council condemned Nestorius and sent him into exile. Those who agreed with his theology became known as Nestorians. They were no longer welcome in the Roman Empire, but they were appreciated by the Persian Church—the Church of the East—and infused that church with their theology.
The Council of Chalcedon
Another significant turning point in Christian history was the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. Another major split occurred between those who believed Jesus possessed one nature that was expressed as both divine and human, and those who insisted that he had two distinct natures. Orthodox bishops at the Council declared the ancient churches in Syria, Armenia, Egypt, Armenia, and Ethiopia to be in error because they believed in one shared nature of Jesus.
Those one nature believers were known as Monophysites or Miaphysites. By the time the Islamic conquests began in AD 634 many of them would be so fed up with the orthodox church trying to control their theology that they welcomed the Arab invaders. They may have felt that the Islamic one-nature-of-God belief and the Arab’s rejection of the Trinity was a theology they could live with. In most of the land the Arabs conquered, they allowed Christians to maintain their own churches and worship as they wished as long as they paid their required taxes and didn’t forget who was in charge.
The Nestorian crisis and the Chalcedon schism were evidence of a severely intolerant, judgmental, and persecutorial Church.
My take-away from this era
The most ironic part of this entire early Church history is that by the sixth century, orthodox Christians in Rome and Constantinople, those originally inspired by Paul’s version of Christianity, would condemn all other varieties of Christians as heresies. That included the churches in India, Syria, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Ethiopia, and Egypt supposedly founded by the actual apostles of Jesus, or their spiritual descendants.
When I think about it, it’s similar to the attitude of the Jewish Pharisees. Like Paul persecuting those who weren’t “real Jews”, orthodox Christians “knew” they were the “real Christians”, so they felt entitled to mold all others into being just like them.
Since the orthodox considered almost all Asian and African sects heresies, I’m led to an unexpected conclusion. It seems that no one who had ever met the human Jesus, or his disciples, played any role in establishing what became orthodox Christianity. We know Paul never met the earthly Jesus, and he was the major influence on orthodox theology.