The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Christianity, version 1

April 19th, 2018 · No Comments · christianity, history

Before Constantine became the sole emperor of Rome, Christianity was not the official state religion, but after Constantine, Christianity was the official state religion. I think this is a reasonably uncontroversial statement.

We have very little written information about the history of Christianity prior to Constantine, mostly because he had all of it burned. In its place, we have been given the Early Church myth, in which the apostles of Jesus spread the Gospel to the corners of the world. The primary problem with the Early Church myth is that it depicts people doing things in places that, due to cultural limitations at the time, and the heavy presence of Roman legions, really couldn’t have been done.

The Early Church myth also posits a great deal of state persecution was inflicted upon true believers. History indicates otherwise. State persecution against any religious groups was very rare, and until the time of Constantine, never held against Christians.

But what really happened is lost to history, as far as I have been able to determine. Based on what I do know, I can make some educated guesses and draw some lines based on cultural habit. When I do this, some other things come into focus. Here’s the web of assumptions I have woven:

The text of the Gospels was created by Josephus as a witness artifact to his history of the Jewish Wars, which itself was a tribute to his captor and ruler, the Flavian Emperor Titus. In this context, the Gospels predict the appearance of Titus as the prophesied messiah, who brought order and peace to the land of Judea. The character(s) of Jesus  forecasts the actions of Titus, only forty years later.

It was Titus’ little brother, and successor, Domitian, who established the emperor cult in honor of Titus. The formation of this cult would have been through existing buildings and priesthood already established honoring the Caesarean emperors before them. Presumably, this was Christianity, version one. Although we don’t know what it was really like, there is a lot we do know. As an extension of the Imperial Cult, this early version of Christianity probably praised Rome as the “light of the world” and the “city on a hill”. It likely celebrated the holy Spirit of Rome, its Senate and it’s People. At the center of worship stood the Father — the prior Emperor — and the Son — the current Emperor — who were worshiped and glorified as Saviors of the world.

We know there wasn’t any worship or adulation of crucifixes, no Mary myths yet, and no marriage or death rites. It’s not clear if a communion rite would have part of this early form of Christianity, although eating together was a favorite Roman social pasttime. Baptism by water likely had a role, if was celebrated this early, in distinguishing these initiates from those of Mithraism and their baptism by blood. None of the hymns sung today were present in these first years, no saints, and no holidays — save one for the birthday of the Emperor.

What Christianity, version one, likely included was: incense, chanting, call-and-response prayers, incense, processions, bell-ringing, sermons, incense, fraternal greetings, and feasting. These are easy guesses because these were elements of most of the other religions practiced in the Empire at the time (in the mid-first century). More than anything this cult would have been a celebration of Roman culture and history. And incense.

Due to the direct mention of the seven churches of Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the book of Revelations, we could assume that these seven churches were probably of greater importance than any other churches. Perhaps these were the last ones that remained true to this original faith until the time of Constantine. Or perhaps these were the first established by the Flavians, or their proximity to Judea gave them a leadership position by glint of geography. It just occurs to me that they may have been the major cities mentioned in the Epistles, so they were mentioned so as to help bring the book of Revelations into the whole of the New Testament.

Probably the most important element of this exploration is the recognition that the theology of Christian writers prior to Constantine would have been working in a different context than those who came after. Since Constantine burned everything associated with the original Christian cult, and wasn’t beyond adding his own ideas into the writings of prior works, we can’t actually be certain of any texts. We can presume that any changes made would have been to bring the older texts into regular order with the new theology, but also that any such changes would have been minimal.

In other words, the differences between Christianity before and after the transition of Constantine were minimal, and largely confined to areas of doctrine. Whether the nature of God is trinitarian or singular is irrelevant to the lay participant. What was important was the incense and the bells and the chanting. Sharing the hearing of the sermon with his fellow Romans was important — that fellowship was important. Being Roman was important. Not to put too fine a point on it, but being the right kind of Roman was important: a Christian Roman was best. And that is what Christianity, version one, celebrated.