In the second century, many Christians believed in two gods—one of which, the god of the Old Testament, was evil. Many others believed in hundreds of gods. Many were thoroughly Jewish, believing that Christians must observe all Jewish laws and rituals. Many were strongly anti-Jewish, and rejected the Old Testament altogether. Many thought Jesus was purely human; many others thought he was purely divine, and left no footprints when he walked.
Today’s Christians are divided into thousands of denominations, with a wide range of opinions on nearly every political and social issue. Despite these differences, however, almost all Christians believe in the Nicene Creed. They share the same New Testament and the same Old Testament; they believe in a single, all-powerful God; they believe in the Trinity consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all of which are equally God.
Christians in the first and second centuries would have marveled at this level of uniformity. For one thing, neither Jews nor Christians of the first century agreed on what the Hebrew Bible was—unlike today, different people had different ideas about which books should be in the Bible and which books should be left out. For example, the Epistle of Jude, which is part of our New Testament, quotes Enoch as scripture; Enoch is no longer considered canonical by either Jews or Christians. The New Testament canon was even less agreed upon—it did not become established under centuries after Jesus’ death. For this reason, early Christians could (and did) pick and choose books which supported their point of view to be scripture, often modifying verses in the process, while rejecting the books supported by their opponents.
Jewish Christianity: 1st century
In its earliest form, Christianity was a sect within Judaism. In fact, even calling this group Christian is anachronistic because they would have considered themselves truly and fully Jewish, not members of another religion.
The Jewish origin of Christianity presented a problem: should Gentile converts be required to observe Mosaic law, with its circumcision and dietary restrictions? Unfortunately, virtually all Christian writings we have from the first century are in the New Testament, and none of the New Testament authors unambiguously answer “yes” to this question. However, we do have evidence from Paul about conflicts in the early church around precisely this issue:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by this hypocrisy. […] I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ (Gal 2:11-13)
Evidently, James (the brother of Jesus) had some authority and strongly believed that Gentile converts should observe the law. James’ people so intimidated Cephas (aka Peter) that he refused to even eat with Gentiles. The “other Jews”, including Paul’s travel companion Barnabas, were also persuaded; Paul never claims to have convinced them otherwise. It seems that Paul lost this battle.
Pauline Christianity: 1st century
As we have seen, Paul sharply disagreed with people he called Judaizers. His letters polemicize at length against them, sometimes taking a nuanced view towards the law, but at other times berating it with extreme vitriol. For example, Galatians is a letter that Paul wrote to a church he founded. He says:
You foolish Galatians! Who as bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Gal 3:1-3)
“The flesh” is probably a reference to circumcision. Paul elaborates:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian (Gal 3:23-24)
This is possibly Paul’s strongest attack against the law. Not only is the law not something Gentiles should follow, it is like a guard confining us to prison. Although Paul’s view on the law is too complex to elaborate here, it is safe to say that he did not think Gentiles should keep the law, nor did he think keeping the law was sufficient for either Jew or Gentile.
Jewish Christianity: 2nd century
The Ebionites were a group of Palestinian Jewish Christians who believed Jesus was fully righteous under the law. Because of his righteousness, they believed, he was chosen (“adopted”) by God to be his son at his baptism. Not only was Jesus not God, he was completely human—he could do miracles only because he was empowered by God’s Spirit.
The Ebionites believed all followers of Jesus must obey the Law in its entirety, with the exception of animal sacrifices—for them, Jesus was already a sufficient sacrifice. Thus, males had to be circumcised; everyone had to avoid work on the Sabbath, eat only kosher food, destroy leaven on Passover, and so on.
We know of three gospels used by 2nd century Jewish Christians, although all of them survive only in quotations by later church fathers who were their enemies. The Gospel of the Nazareans was an Aramaic gospel, which the church fathers claim is a translation of the Gospel of Matthew, minus the first two chapters. The Gospel of the Ebionites seems to be a merger of the synoptic gospels; it abolished animal sacrifices and promoted vegetarianism. The Gospel of the Hebrews was used in Alexandria, Egypt. It contained narrations of Jesus’ baptism, temptation, and resurrection, among other things, but does not appear to be copied from our four gospels.
Needless to say, Jewish Christians not only did not embrace Paul’s letters as scripture, they rejected these letters as heretical. After all, Paul was against the Law—why would any Jew think he was not heretic?
Anti-Jewish Christianity: 2nd century
Marcion (c. 85-160) believed Jews worshipped a false god. Yahweh created the world, but his demands were harsh and his punishments cruel. Yahweh ordered the Israelites to commit genocide against the Amalekites by slaughtering every man, woman, child, and domesticated animal (1 Samuel 15:3), whereas Jesus told his followers to love their enemies (Luke 6:27). Obviously, then, Jesus was sent by a higher god than Yahweh—a god of love and compassion, not of violence and hatred. This higher god sent Jesus to save the humans from Yahweh and his demands. Under their Christology, Jesus was purely divine and not human, a belief called docetism. To them, Jesus’ entire human life, from his birth to his ministry to his crucifixion, were all an illusion.
The Marcionites, not surprisingly, considered Paul to be the most authentic apostle. They also had their own Gospel, which does not survive, but is quoted extensively by their adversary Tertullian. This gospel was apparently an edited version of the Gospel of Luke, with several changes. The first two chapters were removed because they dealt with Jesus’ birth, as Marcionites believed Jesus could not have been born. Favorable references to the Jewish God were removed. Some passages could also have been added, because apparently, the gospel has Jesus claiming he has come “not to fulfill the Law, but to abolish it.”
Marcion was the first to create a Christian canon. His canon consisted of eleven books: ten letters by Paul plus the gospel.
Gnostic Christians had, in my opinion, the most colorful beliefs. In general, they claimed that the material world is bad or evil, and that secret knowledge (Greek “gnosis”) is necessary for salvation. They were also extremely diverse—so much so that it is nearly impossible to hold up any belief or scripture as the Gnostic belief or scripture. In fact, many scholars object to the term Gnostic because of its broadness and its anachronism—nobody in the 2nd century called themselves gnostics, even if we would call their beliefs patently gnostic. Rather than trying describe every gnostic belief, I will describe one particular set of beliefs that are unambiguously gnostic and similar to the beliefs of the Valentinians.
At the beginning there was a Supreme Being called Bythos, the most perfect god in the universe. This being thinks, and by thinking, it emanates lesser gods known as aeons. These aeons can themselves emanate when a male and female aeon come together. Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”) decided that she wanted to emulate the Supreme Being, and emanated without a male consort. As a result, she created a monster: the Demiurge. This clumsy, highly imperfect, and maybe even evil god is the god of the Old Testament. The demiurge creates the material world, including humanity.
Most humans are just mud bodies, doomed to die and rot. However, some humans—namely the Gnostics—are children of Sophia herself. They have a divine spark in them, trapped inside their material body. In order for this spark to be free and rejoin the Supreme Being, it needs secret knowledge.
This secret knowledge was delivered by Jesus, the Redeemer. According to one belief, Sophia felt sorry for her offspring trapped in the material world, and strove to draw nearer to the Supreme Being to comprehend it. In her striving, she emanated an aeon higher than herself, which came to earth in the form of Jesus. By learning the secret knowledge delivered by Jesus, gnostics can be one with the Supreme Being once they die.
To summarize, consider these questions posed by Theodotus, a 2nd century formulator of Eastern Gnosticism: “who we were, what we have become, where we were, whither we have sunk, whither we hasten, whence we are redeemed, what is birth and what rebirth.”
Who we were: divine beings
What we have become: trapped in the material world
Where we were: in heaven, with the supreme God
Whither we have sunk: into the world
Whither we hasten: back into heaven
Whence we are redeemed: from being embodied
What is birth: damnation, imprisonment, death
What is rebirth: death, learning one’s true self
The Gnostics, like other Christians, had their own gospels. Two unambiguously gnostic gospels, which we are lucky to have in their entirety, are the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter and the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. At the beginning of the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus lectures Peter, emphasizing the importance of true knowledge and the evils of ignorance. He criticizes people who call themselves “bishop” and “deacon”—in other words, church leaders—as if they had divine authority. The author’s depiction of the crucifixion is interesting:
He whom you see above the cross, glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his physical part, which is the substitute. They are putting to shame that which is in his likeness. But look at him and me.
As Jesus later explains, there are two forms of Jesus—one material, one spiritual. The one being crucified is only material; destroying the material body does nothing but free the spirit, which is why “the living Jesus” is laughing above the cross.
The Gospel of Judas Iscariot is no less interesting. In this gospel, Jesus rebukes all of the disciples except Judas for thanking the creator god, who is not his god. Jesus praises Judas for understanding that Jesus has come from the “realm of Barbelo”. In some gnostic beliefs, Barbelo is a divine being, the mother of all things, far superior to the creator of the material world. Jesus then reveals secret knowledge to Judas and Judas only: the world was created by a blood-thirsty rebel and fool, he says, not by the one true God. Only by knowing these secrets can anyone be set free.
Proto-orthodox is a term applied to Christians whose beliefs would, centuries later, become the orthodoxy. Of course, during their own time, every Christian group claimed to be “the orthodoxy”; the proto-orthodox had no idea that they would eventually win out, even if they fervently hoped they would.
The proto-orthodox argued that Jesus was simultaneously human and divine. The rejected gospels that appeared to support Gnostic beliefs, such as the gospels of Peter, Philip, and Thomas. They accepted Matthew, a favorite among Jewish Christians, and John, a favorite among many Gnostics. By accepting gospels into the canon that seemed to portray Jesus differently—he seems completely human in Matthew, but very divine in John—the proto-orthodox could argue that he was both human and divine.
The proto-orthodox generally accepted our four gospels and many of Paul’s letters as scripture. However, works such as Acts, Hebrews, Revelation, and the catholic epistles (2/3 John, Jude, 2 Peter) were not widely attested, and many works now considered non-canonical were accepted, such as Shepherd of Hermas or Epistle to the Laodiceans. As far as we know, the first person to propose our New Testament canon is Athanasius in 367 AD. Athanasius’ list would not be widely accepted until the late 4th century.
The diversity of early Christianity was not to last. Jewish Christianity began to be eclipsed by Gentile converts after the First Jewish-Roman War, when Jewish Christians were scattered throughout the diaspora. Gnosticism was a serious competitor with proto-orthodoxy in the second century, but by the early 4th century, gnostics were kicked out of the church and officially forbidden to meet. By the end of the 4th century, gnostic books were banned in the Roman Empire and gnostics were put to death. The Roman state, now ruled by a Christian emperor, enforced orthodoxy through both legal and non-legal means. Other than banning heresies outright, the emperor used his power to convene councils of Christian bishops, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325, to reach consensus on doctrinal issues.
My main source for this blog post is The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings by Bart Ehrman. This is supplemented by information from this Yale lecture series and from The New Oxford Annotated Bible, as well as from my research on the Internet.