The course of ecclesiastical history in the first 50 years of the Christian era has been the subject of considerable confusion, resulting from a number of misapprehensions. Principal among these are that no Christians existed for Paul to persecute before a.d. 30 or 33, the two dates given in the gospels for the Crucifixion; that the gospels are historical works whereas their real purpose is theological; that Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and learned his teaching from the Jerusalem apostles; and that Simon (later named in the gospels as "Simon called Peter,"* the first Pope), leader of the Jerusalem apostles, made his way to Rome in the middle of the century and was martyred there during Nero's persecution of the Christians. It is only when these myths are exposed that it becomes possible to reconcile conflicting chronologies and make logical sense of the events of these first 50 years and of those that followed.
The early years of the Christian era were a time of great spiritual expectation. The Essenes were awaiting the return of their Teacher on the Day of Judgment at the end of the world. John the Baptist, later described in the gospel as "the man sent from God" (John 1:6), was the first Essene to come out into the open and try to initiate all Jews into a baptism of repentance, a confession of the sin of having rejected their Messiah and the need for moral cleansing. In the words of Josephus, who confirmed John
*As I shall show, the name Peter (Greek, the Rock) did not exist at this time but was a subsequent interpretation of gospel authors. Until we reach that point it will cause less chronological confusion to refer to him generally as Simon.
as a historical figure as well as a biblical one, John commanded the Jews "to come to baptism; for the washing (with water) would be acceptable to him (God), if they made use of it. . ."
The evangelist Matthew confirms that John the Baptist was not preparing the way for Jesus to be born, but for his Second Coming: "In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (Matthew 3:1-3). John's baptist movement aroused such enthusiasm, and such a large following, that Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39, fearing that John might become a rallying point for Jewish dissidence, had him arrested, imprisoned and later executed. The date of John's execution is usually given as A.D. 28. He was succeeded by Simon (Peter) (Plate 28), another Essene (since his teaching was of a Jewish Christian nature, similar to Essene teaching), who from the time of his accession was looked upon as undisputed leader of the Jerusalem apostles.
They, for their part, not only continued with John's teaching but claimed that his prophecy had been fulfilled and that they had seen Christ. Because nobody else had seen him, their story was not believed (this is communicated by the account of the episode), and it was generally thought that the person who had risen from the dead was actually John. We find two references to this belief in the Gospel of Mark after the disciples had been sent out two by two to preach repentance: "And king Herod heard of him; (for his name was spread abroad:) and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead . . ." (6:14), and: "But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead" (6:16).
The teaching of Simon (Peter) and the Jerusalem apostles was a mixture of the Old (Mosaic) Covenant, made with Abraham, and the New Covenant, promised by John the Baptist. The Old Covenant, whose essence was "keep my commandments," is to be found in Genesis 17:7, 10: "And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee .. . This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised." Although circumcision was an ancient Egyptian custom, this covenant had been applicable only to Jews who observed the custom of circumcision. It brought with it no promise of an eternal life.
Simon (Peter) and the Jerusalem apostles adopted, in addition, the New Covenant of John the Baptist, which also contained no specific promise of resurrection, and they, too, restricted its application to circumcised Jews. The limitations of the teaching of Simon (Peter), compared with the redemption teaching of Paul, can be seen in two verses of the Book of Acts, as it was finally written in the second half of the second century A.D.: "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ the Messiah* for the remission of sins" (2:38), and "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the time of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord" (3:19).
It was at this time, in the middle of the second half of the second decade A.D., that Paul began to play a crucial role. Paul (Plate 29) was born at Tarsus in Asia Minor during the early years of the Christian era. As a young man he made his way to Jerusalem, some 400 miles to the south of his birthplace, to study the Torah—the first five books of the Old Testament, ascribed traditionally to Moses—at the Temple college under a renowned Pharistic rabbi Gamaliel. In the opening chapter of his later Epistle to the Galatians—Celtic people who lived over a large area of Asia Minor and who had been converted to Christianity by Paul in the course of three epic missionary voyages—he confesses that at this early stage of his life he "persecuted the church of God, and wasted it. . ."
After his admission about persecuting Christians, which his letters indicate took place in the third decade A.D., Paul goes on to give his own account of his conversion that is totally at variance with the account found in the Book of Acts, which claims that, on the road to Damascus, Paul had a vision of Jesus, who asked: "Saul, Saul (his original name), why persecutest thou me?" (9:4). This encounter is not mentioned by Paul in any of the letters he wrote—more than a century earlier than the appearance of the New Testament gospels—to the communities he had converted to Christianity. Instead, in his Letter to the Galatians, without making it clear where he had his spiritual encounter with Jesus, he goes on to stress that his teaching owed nothing to any man, including the Jerusalem apostles: "it pleased God to reveal his Son to me ... I conferred not with flesh and blood . . . Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them that were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia . . ." (1:1517).
The reason for the contradictions between Paul's account of his life and the version we find in the Book of Acts is examined in more detail later, but
*The origin of the biblical word "Messiah" (Savior) is the Hebrew Mashih. The English name "Christ" derives from Christos, meaning an anointed one, a king, used in the Greek translation of the Bible in the third century B.C.
in the meantime it seems reasonable to approach such discrepancies on the lines suggested by Martin Debelius, Professor of Theology at Heidelberg, in the early pages of his book Paul, published in 1953: "The information about Paul as it is presented in The Acts Of The Apostles is not reliable since it is not autobiographical; and if it contradicts plain statements in the letters [of Paul] it has to take second place."
Paul makes it clear in another passage from this letter that the precise spot where he underwent his period of initiation in "Arabia" was Mount Sinai, which he compares with Jerusalem, (4:24, 25), the Mountain of God* where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments during his period of exile some 14 centuries earlier and where the Lord also appeared to him with the instruction to return to Egypt, accompanied by Aaron, to lead the Israelite Exodus.** In another of his letters Paul discloses in addition that it was during the time he spent at Mount Sinai that God revealed to him that "Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel" (Ephesians, 3:3-6).
Mount Sinai has been a place of pilgrimage since the time of Moses. The mountain, nearly 7,500 feet high, is one of many peaks in the arid southern Sinai peninsula that forms the wilderness through which Moses tried to lead the Israelites on their protracted journey to the Promised Land. Even today this wilderness has little water and a few cramped valleys where the marginal soil yields limited supplies of vegetables and dates, sparse sustenance for wandering bedouin families and their flocks.
In the earliest years the area around the foot of the mountain, where the monastery of St. Catherine remains a place of pilgrimage today, was a haunt of hermits*** At the time Paul emerged on the scene, in the first half of the first
*The Israelite God appeared to Moses at this mountain. The Koran also states that God spoke to Moses at the mountain that had been holy to the local Shasu (biblical Midianites) even before the time of Moses, and it remains holy till now where the St. Catherine monastery is a focus for pilgrims.
**As we saw earlier, the strong surviving tradition of St. Catherine's monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai identifies the mountain as the setting of the Transfiguration. Mount Tabor, to the east of Nazareth, has been put forward as a rival setting, with a Franciscan church built there for pilgrims. This resolves geographical difficulty if, as the New Testament indicates, the Transfiguration occurred shortly before the Crucifixion. Traveling from Mount Sinai to Jerusalem would have involved an arduous overland journey of some three hundred miles.
***Sinai was a haunt of hermits for two reasons. It was the place where Moses spent many years in meditation, and it was the spot where Joshua/Jesus/Tutankhamun died.
century A.D., the Syrian city of Damascus and the area of east Jordan and Sinai were under the control of Nabatean Arabs and their king, Aritas III. To the Nabateans, who had replaced the biblical Midianites (the Shasu, allies of Moses in his wilderness years), Mount Sinai was a holy place to which they traveled in pilgrimage. The long tradition of the mountain as a
place of such pilgrimage is clear from inscriptions—in Nabatean, Greek, Latin and Arabic—on the rocks of Wadi Haggag, the Ravine of the Pilgrims a narrow valley on the major road that led from Eilat (biblical Elath) at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mount Sinai area.
It is a reasonable assumption that, if the Therapeutae were established in all the nomes of Egypt at this time, one of their settlements would be found around Mount Sinai with its long tradition as a sacred place of holiness and pilgrimage. Certainly, it is possible to detect the ascetic influence of the Therapeutae in Paul's later life. He lived according to the rule of the Therapeutae, never lived with his own family, never married, and never possessed wealth—he spent his life trying to know Christ and spread this knowledge to others. The Therapeutae's concept of wealth held in common is also reflected in the fact that, despite their doctrinal differences, the Church founded by Paul at the Greek city of Corinth used to send financial help to Jerusalem.
Paul gives a precise chronology of the years that followed his conversion, which must have taken place in the fourth decade A.D.: "after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Simon (Peter), and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:18-19). Despite some scholarly debate, it is generally accepted that the "three years" indicates the period of Paul's initiation in Arabia.
Before going on, it is perhaps useful to examine the notion of initiation. All knowledge, including the knowledge of writing, was regarded by Egyptians as part of a holy practice. Knowledge is power, so it should not be given to anyone before he has proved himself capable of using it wisely. Not everybody would be able to acquire all kinds of knowledge, for the explanations given by the priests to ordinary people would be different from those they give to a king or to another priest. In acquiring knowledge, no one could move to a higher degree before being tested and found trustworthy for more revelations. Those who reach the highest degree are those chosen by the spiritual powers themselves, through revelation. Irrespective of age or length of training time, those who receive a vision with the spirit are regarded as having reached the highest degree.
We have a good example of this situation in Tuthmose III. As he was neither the son of the queen nor the husband of the royal heiress, he should not have been able to succeed his father on the throne. Nevertheless, during a celebration at the Karnak temple Amun, carried on a boat by priests, approached the spot where the young prince was standing and led him to the holy of holies in the temple, where only a king could enter. This was followed by a vision the prince had (and later recorded in his Annales) of a flight to heaven where he saw the god Ra, who placed the royal serpent on his forehead. This meant that Tuthmose was chosen by the god himself; this is the spiritual importance of this king (i.e., David).
St. Paul remained in Arabia for three years, the course of someone who was fully initiated into the whole mystery of the sect. We do have some indication of this in his writing. The word "mystery" appears 17 times in Paul's letters, yet is found only five times in the entire Bible outside Paul's letters; once in Mark and four times in Revelation. Here are some examples:
"For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits" (Romans 11:25).
"Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began" (Romans 16:25).
"But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom" (I Corinthians 2:7).
"How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery . . . Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ" (Ephesians 3:3).
"And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God" (Ephesians 3:9).
This mystery is the proof of Paul's initiation into the third degree. Moreover, the accounts of Galatians regarding Paul's encounter with the spirit of Christ meant that he became one of the few, which can explain why the Nag Hammadi gospels have high regard for Paul.
The reference to "James the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:18-19) is not to be interpreted in the sense of a blood brother, but of a brother in belief. Although the words "brother," "brethren" and "sister" are usually used in the Bible to signify a blood relation, this is not always the case. They are sometimes employed to signify a religious bond. Matthew, for example, quotes Jesus as saying, "whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother" (12:50). There are many indications in the early Christian communities that it was through faith that one became a "brother" or "sister" of the Lord. Again, Matthew quotes the risen Christ describing his disciples as brothers in the sense of followers when he sends them a message: "go tell my brothers that they go into
Galilee, and there shall they see me" (28:10). Paul also uses "brothers" to indicate a religious bond in his various letters.
In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus gives an account of a trial that took place in A.D. 64, which suggests a possible alternative explanation of the appearance of "James the Lord's brother" in Paul's narrative. It appears that while awaiting the arrival of Albinus, the new governor of Palestine, the Jewish high priest, Ananus, had ordered some opponents to be stoned to death for breaking the law. As a result of protests about the matter from just citizens, Albinus sacked Ananus and replaced him with another high priest named Jesus, whose brother James had been one of the victims of death by stoning.
Paul's own narrative goes on to explain that, after this first visit to Jerusalem, he went to Syria and Cilicia, the part of Asia Minor where he had been born. There his face was unknown and people "had heard only, That he who persecuted us in times past now preached the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me." At this time a flourishing Gentile-Christian community already existed at Antioch, then the capital of Syria. Paul became associated with its leader, Barnabas. Ultimately, the community commissioned Barnabas and Paul to preach the Gentile gospel beyond the confines of Syria. This resulted in the first of Paul's three missionary journeys, beginning with a visit to Cyprus, the homeland of Barnabas.
The conflict between the Christian Churches of Jerusalem Simon (Peter) and Antioch Paul came to a head on the return of Paul and Barnabas from this first missionary voyage. Apostles of the Judaeo-Christian Church demanded that Gentile Christians should be circumcised and made to observe the Mosaic Law (that is, convert to Judaism). Paul eventually resolved the dispute at what is commonly known as the Council of Jerusalem, at which it was agreed that Simon (Peter) would be the apostle of the Jews and Paul the apostle of the Gentiles: "fourteen years after[wards] I went up again to Jerusalem . . . and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles . . . when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter (Simon) . . . James, Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision" (Galatians 2:1-2, 7, 9).
Use of the name "Peter" in Paul's two accounts of his visits to Jerusalem is curious because we have no mention anywhere before the final version of the Books of Acts in the second century A.D. of anybody named peter as the leader of the Jerusalem apostles. The Greek originals of the text of Paul's letters (as found in Novum Testamentum Graece), show that he never used the name "Peter" but referred to the leader of the Jerusalem apostles as Kepha or Cephas, the Aramaic word meaning "dome." The name "Cephas" was also used as a synonym for Simon in John's gospel account of how Simon was renamed: "And he [Andrew] brought him [his brother Simon] to Jesus. And when Jesus beheld him, he said: Thou art Simon, the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone" (1:42). The more liberal use of "Peter" in the Book of Acts is clearly the work of a later copyist, seeking to support the false view that Peter rather than Paul should be looked upon as the founder of modern Christianity, and also trying to make sense of chronologies that did not match.
The same problem has arisen over the actual date of the Council of Jerusalem. Many modern scholars place it during or just before A.D. 44, the date of the death of Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great. They base this belief on an account in the Book of Acts of how, shortly before his own death, Agrippa I arrested and imprisoned Simon (Peter): "Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews he proceeded further to take Peter also ... he put him in prison . . . intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people" (12:1-5).
We are then told that on the last night of the Passover—the night before he was to be brought "forth to the people," presumably to be executed like James—Simon (Peter) found himself released miraculously from prison through the intervention of an angel who freed him from his chains and led him, in an understandable daze, past guards and through locked gates to freedom. It is then said that he "departed . . . and went into another place" (12:17). Scholars who favor A.D. 44 interpret the phrase "went into another place" as biblical shorthand for "went to his death."
This dating creates problems, however, for scholars who look upon the gospels as a literal account of the life, suffering and death of Jesus. Deducting 17 years—3 for Paul's initiation in Sinai, 14 between his two visits to Jerusalem—means that Paul was persecuting Christians as early as a.d. 27, three years before the earliest date given in the gospels for the Crucifixion and Resurrection. They have therefore interpreted "went into another place" as meaning that Simon (Peter) went to Rome and, by implication, returned to Jerusalem for a later conference with Paul. This sequence of events, for which we have no evidence or explanation, is further complicated by the fact that the Book of Acts suggests that Paul had three, not two, meetings with Simon (Peter) in Jerusalem. Here again, as in other contradictions between Paul's letters and the account of events in the suspect Book of Acts, common sense suggests that Paul's personal version of the story is to be preferred— allied to the fact that not a scrap of evidence exists to support this later dating or the view, which is merely a self-serving tradition, that "Simon called Peter" ever saw Rome.
For a bishop of the branch of the Church in Rome, the political capital of the civilized world, the view from the Vatican in the last decades of the first century A.D. would not have been encouraging if he shared the authoritarian views of the Jerusalem apostles.
Peter was dead (he died in A.D. 44). Our bishop could no longer look to Jerusalem, the seat of the Judaeo-Christian Church of the Essenes, for support because the Romans had wiped it out. After four years of trying to quell a Jewish uprising against them, they eventually captured the city in A.D. 70, destroyed most of it and set fire to the Temple. Inhabitants who had not died from hunger during the prolonged siege were either killed or taken captive and sold into slavery—and the Judaeo-Christian Church vanished from Jerusalem.
This was only part of our bishop's problem. The branches of the Christian Church founded around the Mediterranean by Paul were created on the informal lines favored by the Gnostics, as we saw earlier, rather than the rigid demarcation into an authoritarian priesthood and obedient laity favored by the Jerusalem apostles. The Gnostics believed that all Christians were equal, having received through their initiation the charismatic gift of direct inspiration through the Holy Spirit. When they met, all members, men and women, took part initially in drawing lots to decide who should serve as the priest to supervise such rituals as baptism of new initiates and the Messianic Banquet. We find this individuality reflected in one of Paul's letters: "when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation . . ." (I Corinthians 14:26).
The beliefs of members of these branches of the Church about the essential nature of Christianity varied. Their gospels—in the sense of "glad tidings," not of the four canonical gospels we are familiar with today-— were rudimentary, usually consisting of little more than snatches of the Old Testament teachings of the prophets and some sayings attributed to Jesus.
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