In its first three centuries, Christianity began to separate from Judaism while also selectively incorporating the Jewish Scriptures and laws that it regarded as most useful, as is clear from the Didache. There were Gnostic Christians who were prepared to reject Judaism completely, along with the books of the Bible that finally became known as the Old Testament in the 4th Century. They regarded the Genesis Creator of the Hebrew Bible as a false and evil God and also denied the humanity and Jewish heritage of Jesus and his earliest followers. Orthodox Christianity did not accept the Gnostic argument that the creator mentioned in Genesis was a lesser or evil being compared to the True God, although a constant tension between the material and the physical worlds has always run through Christianity, as well as its understanding of Christ’s nature. Although early Christians rejected the pagan Greco-Roman gods and the cults of the Roman god-emperors, Platonic or Gnostic dualism was a far more difficult problem and Christianity was always in danger of veering off to one side or the other. Christianity’s Arian and Jewish-Christian traditions emphasized the humanity of Jesus while the Gnostics and dualists regarded him more as a divine or spiritual figure. These disputes continued until the church councils at Nicea and Chaldedon finally defined Jesus as fully divine and fully human, but the opportunities for dialectic tension were virtually endless. Athanasius and the theologians at the Nicene Council had an almost impossibly complex theological and intellectual problem, since they had to affirm Jesus as both the Father and the Son, while at the same time maintaining the Jewish tradition of monotheism, and although their Trinitarian solution had to be taken on faith, it has remained confusing and difficult to explain on a purely rational level (Weinandy, 2007, p. 60).
Early Christians struggled with defining their own identity in opposition to Judaism and paganism, and also against other Christians whose teachings were regarded as heretical. Like all people in the ancient world, they “located the truth of their beliefs and practices, and established their identity, by appeal to origin, essence and purity”, and the connection to Judaism gave them an ancient and venerable theology (King, 2003, p. 37). At the same time, they also defined Judaism “with suppressed truth now gone awry and paganism with error” (King, p. 38). Christianity did not define itself as a matter of individual choice, which hardly existed in the ancient world, but as part of a “tradition and way of life” (King, p. 39). Judaism provided Christians with a respected past, but they also had to decide how much of the Jewish law and Scriptures could be incorporated for their own purposes. Paul had argued that Israel now included all Gentiles from ‘the nations’ who accepted Christ, and that they would no longer have to follow Jewish laws and dietary practices, while Matthew declared Jesus to be the fulfillment of the law and prophets (King, p. 41). Even in the 3rd and 4th Centuries, the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity were not necessarily clear and absolute, since Jewish Christians still attended synagogues, practiced circumcision and adhered to Jewish dietary laws. They did not believe that following Christ required “a definite break with Judaism” (King, p. 41).
As a Jew, Jesus was also influenced by the early Pharisees and rabbis, such as Hillel the Elder. His emphasis on “loving relationships, good deeds, and charity toward the less-advantaged” along with his commandment “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”, are clearly part of the authentic teachings of Jesus as well (Fisher, 2005, p. 244). At the same time as Christianity was being formulated, the early Talmud and Midrash writers were also adding ideas not found in the original Hebrew Bible such as the immortality of the soul, and were describing God in “more transcendent, less anthropomorphic ways”, such as the Shekhinah or manifestation of the divine spirit that is drawn down to earth by “human acts of faithfulness, charity, and loving-kindness” (Fisher, p. 246). Parallels between this idea and the later Christian concept of the Holy Spirit are obvious, even though Judaism naturally refused to accept the Trinity of the divine status of Jesus as affirmed by the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. For that matter, it has never been clear that Jesus and Paul thought in these terms either. Paul and Jesus were both rabbis and Pharisees, and even the earliest Gospel accounts mention that Jesus taught in the synagogue from an early age and was famous for his great wisdom and learning. Paul was also influenced by non-Jewish religions, especially of the Gnostic and Greek-Hellenistic variety, which have not been as thoroughly studied as Judaism and ‘orthodox’ Christianity (Sanders, 1977, p. 21).
The Didache was basically an instruction manual used in the early Jewish-Christians (Ebionites) in Syria and Asia Minor in the 1st and 2nd Centuries, although no complete copy of it was thought to have survived until a Greek manuscript was discovered in Istanbul in 1873. Although its theology falls well within the later ‘orthodox’ Christian tradition, it was not included in the Biblical canon. It copied Jesus in incorporating much of the Jewish law, and had a list of prohibited acts such as murder, adultery, theft, corruption of boys, magic, divination, astrology, and coveting the goods of others. All of these could be found in many other Christian texts of the time and later, and the Didache describes them as the way of death (Milavec, 2003, p. 5). In addition, it borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount, calling on Christians to be gentle, kind, patient, long-suffering, to share with the needy, give generously to charity, and to avoid anger, hatred or lust. This was the way of eternal life (Milavec, p.11). All Christians were required to confess their failings before the entire church, although they were to be rebuked in a gentle way (Milavec, p. 15). Baptism would be by immersion in water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while communion would be taken with both bread and wine, giving thanks “for the life and knowledge which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus” (Milavec, p. 23). In addition, Christians were required to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, looking forward to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. Finally, the Didache refers to the lasts days and the end of the world, which will be a time of war, violence and lawlessness and the appearance of a “world-deceiver as a son of God” who would do miracles and deceive the many. Those Christians who remained faithful to the end, however, would be saved when Christ returned again (Milavec, p. 39).
Marcion and many Gnostics were particularly hostile to the Jewish Scriptures, arguing that the Creation in Genesis was really the product of an evil god as opposed to the Higher Being revealed by Jesus and Paul. They did not believe that Adam and Eve had committed original sin by discovering the knowledge of good and evil, since this had allowed them “to perceive that the creator of the world is but a jealous and vengeful pretender” (King, p. 45). In the Gnostic Epistle to Flora in the second century, Ptolemy classified the Jewish Scriptures into three types, which originated either with God, Moses or the Jewish elders. Only those parts that were from God, such as the Ten Commandments, were pure and perfect enough to be incorporated into the Christian Bible, while other parts like the Jewish “eye for an eye” had been corrected with the command of Jesus to “turn the other cheek” (King, p. 46). Ptolemy also agreed that Jesus has revealed the True God to humanity, not the inferior one who created the material world. One of the Nag Hammadi texts, The Testimony of Truth, claimed that even the apostles “mistook the world creator for the True God” (King, p. 47). One second century Gnostic text, the Epistle of Barnabas, called for a complete break with Judaism because the Jews had broken their covenant with God, while the Gnostic Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Truth hardly mentioned the Jewish Scriptures at all (King, p.44).
Early ‘orthodox’ Christian polemicists like Irenaeus of Lyons attacked the Gnostics for these ideas that the creator God was false, the material world was evil or that Jesus did not have a physical body. In his Expose and Overthrow of What is Falsely Called Knowledge, Irenaeus claimed that the Gnostics did not regard Jesus as a savior who had taken on the sins of the world but brought salvation only through this type of “knowledge revealed only to them” (King, p 27). In Against the Heresies, he “set a pattern for attacking one’s opponents that would persist to the present day”, when he attempted to show that that Gnostics were “inspired by evil spirits” (King, p. 31). He traced their origins to Simon Magus (Simon the Samaritan) and his wife Helen, who he regarded as followers of the Devil sent to bring chaos and disorder into the world. Justin Martyr also thought that Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures, but his opponents claimed that these were also a mixture of truth and error. In his tract Dialogue with Trypho the Jew in 160 AD, Justin attempted to create “a Judaism useful for Christian polemics”, when he argues against Trypho for denying that Jesus was God and calling Christians ‘heretics’ for violating dietary laws and not celebrating Jewish holidays (King, p. 42). Justin countered that the Jews had broken their covenant with God by rejecting Jesus and had been punished with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. He was emphatic that “God had rejected Israel and offered universal salvation to the Gentiles”, although he also argued for incorporation of Moses, the Ten Commandments and Jewish monotheism and ethics into Christianity (King, p. 43). Because of this, the official theology of most Christian churches up to the 20th Century held the Jews collectively responsible for deicide—the murder of Christ (Neusner, 2001, p. 263).
Tertullian also insisted that Christianity should be rooted in Judaism and had to avoid any admixture with Greco-Roman philosophy, but neither he nor Justin could point to a commonly accepted version of the Christian Bible, which did not yet exist in second century. This remained “an open question for many others” at the time as well, as did the question of what ‘orthodox’ Christianity truly meant (King, p. 28). The writers of the Didache also opted for partial and selective incorporation of Jewish law, but did not mention the synagogue, circumcision or dietary laws (King, p. 42). Tertullian blamed Gnostic ‘heresy’ on the influence of Plato, Zeno, Stoicism and other elements of Greek philosophy, especially in their belief that Jesus had no physical body and the material world was inferior and evil. He noted that Paul had also warned about the dangers of Athenian influence on Christianity, although ironically Tertullian was also condemned as a heretic (King, p. 33). All of this became the standard ‘orthodox’ Christian view of the Gnostics that has come down to the present, along with the idea that rejected the authority of the apostles and the bishops who claimed to be their successors. In reality, the polemicists provided an extremely distorted image of Gnosticism since they also regarded Christ as a savior rom ignorance “that must be enlightened with true teaching” (King, p. 27). They asserted that their interpretations were also based on apostolic traditions, while some even believed that salvation would be universal in the end, without any Last Judgment or separation between the saved and the damned. This was the message of the Gnostic Apocryphon of John, for example.
Early ‘orthodox’ polemicists attacked Gnosticism as ‘heresy’ and their purpose was to construct the boundaries between what later became ‘orthodox’ or ‘catholic’ Christianity in opposition to Judaism, paganism and carious Christian ‘heresies’. Until the 4th and 5th Centuries, however, when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under the edicts of like Constantine and Theodosius, Christian ‘orthodoxy’ was still fluid and in dispute. Only because of the power of the Roman state did Christianity become a unified religion that had not existed before. Early Christian polemicists deliberately exaggerated the differences between these groups and minimized the similarities, although for the first three centuries of Christianity no commonly recognized hierarchy or Scriptural canon existed. In the end, the ‘orthodox’ Christians won the battle and their words were preserved, which was not the case with their opponents. Contrary to popular belief, the Council of Nicea in 325 AD did not discuss the Biblical canon, but other issues related to the nature of Christ and the controversy against the Arians, who were in fact favored by the emperor Constantine and his sons. In this respect, there is considerable doubt about whether the ‘first’ Christian emperor was really an orthodox Christian at all, at least by Nicene standards. By the time of this Council, however, the Biblical canon for the New Testament had long been formalized. This process had begun in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, when orthodox theologians and writers had already attacked the Gnostic books as ‘heretical’, particularly because of their denial that Christ was the Savior or that he had a real physical form, or their idea that the creator of the physical world was a false and evil deity. At the same time, they had already decided which of Gospels and letters were authentic, dismissing the later Gnostic books as frauds and forgeries.
Fisher, M.P. (2005). Living Religions, 6th Edition. Prentice-Hall.
King, K. L. (2003). What Is Gnosticism? Harvard University Press.
Milavec, A. (2003). The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary. Liturgical Press.
Neusner, J. (2001). Understanding Jewish Theology: Classical Issues and Modern Perspectives. Global Publications.
Sanders, E.P. (1977). Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Fortress Press.
Sharpes, D.K. (2007). Lords of the Scrolls: Literary Traditions in the Bible and Gospels. Peter Lang Publishing.
Weinandy, T.G. (2007). Athanasius: A Theological Introduction. Ashgate Publishing.