Who is the “Real Christian”? Reading Time: Approximately 7 minutes.
This is the second installment of my four part series concerning “Real Christians,” following up on The Mysterious Paul of Tarsus. In the conclusion of my book, In Search of Christian Origins: A Timeline of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I stated why I believe the label “real Christian” is meaningless because different sects of Christians have believed and behaved in so many diametrically opposing ways. The closest meaning of that label seems to be, “you either don’t believe in or don’t practice Christianity the way I do. And I know I’m a real Christian, therefore you can’t be one.”
The church of Antioch
The most important early Christian church was Antioch, in present-day Turkey. Paul was said to have had a significant role in creating that church and it later sponsored his missionary journeys. Many members of the Antioch church came from Jerusalem; so some may have been those that Paul had previously persecuted. It seemed to be quite a diverse and dynamic church.
Antioch was the congregation where the term Christian was first used to describe the followers of Jesus. Beside Paul’s focus to the north, the church’s influence also spread to the east and south. What this all means is that within a little more than a decade after Jesus’s crucifixion, several different types of Christianity were in existence. One was Paul’s mission to the gentiles of Turkey and Greece, based on the teachings of his spiritual Christ. The other was the apostolic version based on the teachings of the followers of Jesus. And we know that neither group spread the version of Jesus found in the Gospels for the simple reason that the Gospels had not yet been written.
As it appears, the only time Christianity was ever united were those few years between the resurrection of Jesus and Paul’s encounters with his spiritual Christ. The book of Acts mentioned that fifteen years after Paul’s conversion, he was still at odds with Peter and maybe James about what to expect from converts. This infers that those two forms of Christianity—Paul’s and the disciple’s—may never have gotten along well. In his book, From Jesus to Christianity, L. Michael White states: “The blowup with Peter was a total failure of political bravado, and Paul soon left Antioch as persona non grata, never again to return..
Paul and the false teachers
In his epistles written in the 50s and 60s, Paul warned his churches of false teachers, false prophets, and false doctrines. In fact, almost all the books in the New Testament warned against them. Those false teachers were people who would try to confuse new converts and undermine “true” Christianity. Sometimes the writers named their false teachers, but often they didn’t. https://truediscipleship.com/calling-false-teachers-by-name/
In my book I pointed out various examples of how the earliest Christians condemned each other. That bickering about those who believed the right things and the others that were trying to mislead new Christians was one of the reasons that many educated pagans in the Roman Empire wanted nothing to do with Christians. There were other reasons also, but I won’t go into that here.
Could Paul have been a false teacher?
After putting the pieces together I’ve wondered if Paul himself could have been a false teacher. We assume Paul taught Jesus’s true message, but there’s no way to know that. We assume he was a real Christian because he was originally credited with writing almost half of the New Testament, and how can one question the character of a saint? But he could easily have changed Jesus’s message. We only have his word that he truly represented Jesus. Acts stated that when he experienced his vision, none of his traveling companions saw or heard anything. Another problem was that he said he never sought out the original disciples to learn about Jesus. Based on this, he had every opportunity to create his own version of the religion for his own purposes. When he warned against false teachers, could he have been referring to the Jewish Christianity of James and Peter?
Reviewing Paul’s history, he absolutely had persecuted the authentic followers of Jesus. Stephen was an example. Paul was supposedly tracking down others from that sect in Damascus when he encountered the spiritual Christ. He wrote that he then became a disciple of this spiritual Christ and learned everything he needed to know from him, not any of the Galilean disciples who lived and traveled with Jesus. So, it’s as certain as scripture can be that at one point Paul certainly persecuted real Christians. The next question is, did he become one of them or did he start his own religion? Evidence seems to show that he didn’t want to become one of them.
Paul’s influence on early Christianity
Around AD 47, as a missionary, Paul took his mystical version of Christianity to the Greek-speaking Jews and gentiles. His version spread through Greece and into Italy, where he corresponded with the previously established church in Rome. By AD 313, Paul’s Christianity would become well-established in the empire. That’s when emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, ending Diocletian’s persecution and restoring Christianity to its former legal status.
A few years later, Constantine relocated the capital of the empire to Constantinople, where any Roman Christianity he transported with him blended with the prevailing Greek version of the religion. The missionary work of Paul, Silas, and Barnabas three centuries earlier had also resulted in Greek Orthodox Christianity. That means we have Paul and his associates to credit for planting the seeds of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Orthodoxy becomes creed
In AD 325, Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea, located near Constantinople. That was whereorthodoxy, or the “correct” form of the religion, was becoming more rigidly established. By that time those churches that Paul had founded had dealt with Gnostics, Marcionites, and Arians, in addition to the Jewish Christians. And each of those early Christian sects thought its theology was the only correct or true one. The major advantage enjoyed by the Nicaean or orthodox Christians was that they were the sect that had the emperor’s support. Therefore, they could impose their beliefs on others. While the barbarians were destroying the western empire, the church in Constantinople became the center of Christian orthodoxy.
Under Constantine’s influence, Paul’s form of Christianity was codified in the Nicene Creed as the model for all Christians. Like Paul’s epistles, it was scant on information about the human Jesus. It’s only mentioning of Jesus in the creed was his incarnation as a human, his suffering, “rising”, and ascension into heaven. In the original creed there was nothing about his birth to a virgin or his nativity, his sayings during his Sermon on the Mount, his trial and execution on a cross by the Romans, his post-resurrection appearances, or any of the compassionate teachings that attracted many of us to Christianity. The creed, like Paul’s epistles only focused on Jesus Christ being the Son of God and what that signified.
I wonder about what the original twelve disciples taught. Did they teach the humanness of Jesus? We don’t know much of what they taught was in synch with the Gospels because they were evangelizing in the 30s and 40s and the Gospels weren’t written until the 70s and 80s.
Interesting theory about Simon Magus
The New Testament book of Acts, written around the 80s, mentioned Simon Magus. He was a Christian magician of sorts who wanted very much to be like Peter in spiritual abilities and was willing to pay to possess that power. More was written about him in second-century, non-biblical sources. Justin Martyr wrote that he was even the leader of his own sect, known as Simonians.
So little is known about early Christianity. Later writers had to go back and try to recreate what had happened. Legends became intertwined with reality. There were stories about the Buddha becoming a Christian saint, the Asian kingdom of Prester John, the Holy Grail, and many other legends. They were all attempting to pull some actual history out of mythical fog and shadows. Today, there are a significant number of early Church historians who think there are valid reasons for believing that Simon Magus and the apostle Paul were the same person.
What about Peter in Rome?
Non-biblical sources told of Peter and Paul teaching together in Rome and both being martyred there. That’s the tradition that’s passed down and believed by most Christians. But it wasn’t until the middle to late second century that the church of Rome adopted the Peter tradition. That’s when it apparently became established that Peter had come to Rome in the AD 60s and become the church’s first bishop. Peter obviously hadn’t started the church because Paul wrote the epistle to the Roman Church around 57-59, before he or Peter were ever reported to be in Rome. Second century writers reported that around 64, Peter and Paul became victims of Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome.
However, there is no proof that any of that happened. There are many historians of early Christianity who think the idea of Peter coming to Rome was conceived to give the bishop of Rome primacy over all other Christian bishops. The rationale was that if the Church of Rome could trace its heritage back to Saint Peter, the rock on which Jesus is quoted as building his church, that would legitimize Rome as the center of Christendom. That ultimately became the reality, and the popes, or bishops of Rome, became the highest officials in the Catholic Church.
The relations between Peter and Paul are intriguing and probably determined the course of early Christianity. Although there is much speculation by experts, we may never know what their relationship was truly like.
One subject I want to explore in the next blog post is whether any of Jesus’s actual disciples—the ones who took Christianity to the Jews—ever had any influence on what became orthodox Christianity. Also, I want to trace how orthodox Christianity interacted with non-European Christianity.