One of the principal concerns of the early Church Fathers, having sought to establish their apostolic succession through Peter, had been to lay down a Creed. Such a Creed was needed to unify widely scattered communities whose competing groups were advocating rival theologies and supporting different understandings of Christianity. It was also required to combat the teaching of their principal opponents, the Gnostics, who, as we have seen, did not accept the distinction between priests and laity; looked upon the Virgin Birth as the emanation of the Savior from God the Father as a spirit, not as a physical birth from a human mother; denied that Jesus was crucified at the time of the Roman Empire,* claiming instead that he had lived many centuries earlier; regarded the Resurrection as having been spiritual, not physical, suggesting that it is to be understood symbolically, not literally; and claimed that they had their own secret sources of apostolic tradition, separate from those of Jerusalem.
The Nag Hammadi documents do not provide details of this apostolic tradition. However, the writings of Paul make it evident that he, too, rec
*No mention is found in any of the Nag Hammadi texts of Jesus Christ being crucified by Pontius Pilate. As emphasis, it is worth repeating a passage (already given in Chapter 18) from the Apocalypse of Peter 81-82, which denies the New Testament account in this regard: "The Saviour said to me, 'He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me.'"
ognized apostles who, like himself, had had visions of Jesus but had no link with those of Jerusalem. The New Testament itself offers evidence that teachers emerged from Egypt during the apostolic age to spread Paul's Gentile-Christian gospel in different parts of the Roman Empire. One was Apollos, who is mentioned several times in Paul's letters (I Corinthians 1:12 and 16:12, and Titus (3:13) as well as the Book of Acts (18:24)). According to Acts he was "a native of Alexandria . . . [who] spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus . . . " A variant of the Acts text mentions that Apollos had been instructed in Christianity in his homeland (that is, Egypt). Apollos arrived in Ephesus, the ancient Greek city in Asia Minor that became the center of Christianity there, even before Paul, who found the Church already in existence when he arrived. Another passage in his letters shows that he and Apollos had both made Christian converts in Corinth, the ancient Greek city: "one saith I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos . . . Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed . . ." (I Corinthians 3:4-5).
Although the early Church Fathers had looked to Peter as the source of their authority, they, like Paul, taught in the first century a.d. that the only confession of faith required of Christian converts was baptism combined with the confession that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans: "if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" (10:9).
The earliest attempt to lay down the basis of a Creed—and reinforce the story of the life, suffering and death of Jesus in the first century A.D.— was made by Ignatius of Antioch, an early Church Father, shortly before he was arrested during persecution of the Christians by the Emperor Trajan (c. A.D. 52-117), transported to Rome and thrown to the lions in A.D. 107. His quasi-creedal statements read in part: "our Lord . . . was truly of David's stock after the flesh, Son of God by the Divine power and will, begotten truly of the Virgin . . . truly nailed in the flesh on our behalf under Pontius Pilate, and Herod the tetrarch . . . through His resurrection He might set up an ensign ... in the body of His Church." This is the first time that Pontius Pilate is mentioned in connection with the death of Jesus, and also the first time that we have a statement that he was "nailed." The chief purpose of this quasi-creedal statement was to affirm a time and place for the death of Jesus, the way he died and his physical resurrection.
It was Irenaeus, among a number of second century A.D. ecclesiastical writers, who argued that there could be only one Church, which must be
"orthodox" (that is, right-thinking), catholic (universal) and apostolic (Petrine), and that outside that Church "there is no salvation." He declared in his book Against Heresies that those of "orthodox" belief would accept and follow the teaching of "those who possess the succession from the apostles": "Suppose a dispute concerning some important question arises among us; should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches, with which the apostles held continual intercourse, and learn from them what is clear and certain in regard to the present question?" He also argued that because of its apostolic tradition and the faith "which comes down to our own time by means of the succession of the bishops ... it is necessary that every church should agree with this church (the Church of Rome) on account of its preeminent authority." Tertullian (c. A.D. 155-222), another of the early Church Fathers, condemned as heretics all who did not accept the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, including the Gnostics.
By the third century A.D. the Church had become organized to the point where instructions were being given by the Church of Rome to all local branches, however small, that they were to be organized in a hierarchy consisting of one bishop and at least two elders (priests or officials) and three deacons. But what was "orthodox" belief? Several variations of the earlier Creed had developed over the years. The first attempt to assemble a body of bishops representing the whole Christian Church resulted in the attendance of more than 300, who were urged by Constantine, presiding over the assembly at Nicaea, to decide on a common Creed. While the Nicene Creed that emerged preserved the basic structure of the earlier Creed, it elaborated its articles to exclude heretical interpretation—in particular the Arian heresy, which denied that Christ had been both true God and true man—and condemned anyone who refused to accept the literal truth of the Nicene Creed. The divinity of Christ was stressed by the insertion of such phrases as "begotten of the Father" and "true God of true God," and the Creed ended with the threat that "the Catholic Church anathemizes" anyone who did not accept its contents.
Some minor modifications were made by an assembly of 150 bishops at the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381. The phrase in the earliest Creed "born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary," which had been omitted from the Nicene Creed, was restored with slightly different wording—"was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary"—to protect the doctrine of the Third Person of the Trinity. The threat of being declared anathema was also excised. The result was basically the Creed that is still in use today, with some modernization of the language:
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; God of God, light of light, true God from true God; begotten not made; of one substance with the Father; through whom all things came into existence; Who because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of Whose kingdom there will be no end; and I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and life-giver, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son is together worshipped and together glorified, Who spoke through the prophets; in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism to the remission of sins; I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
By a happy coincidence, the myth that Jesus had been crucified at the time when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judaea received fresh impetus when Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, claimed to have discovered the "true" Cross in Jerusalem in A.D. 325, the same year that her son summoned the bishops to Nicaea to discuss the matter of the Creed. This would have been a remarkable achievement. Historically, the "true" Cross never existed. Furthermore, according to another tradition it had already been discovered three centuries earlier. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, recorded the tradition in his third-century history of the Church. As outlined earlier, the woman who found the "true" Cross was said to have been Protonica, the wife of Claudius. The discovery was made, it was said, during the reign of Claudius's uncle, Tiberius, who ruled from A.D. 14 to 37. Protonica, a Christian convert, traveled from Rome to Jerusalem where St. James showed her Golgotha, the hill on which, according to the New Testament, Jesus had been crucified. She found the "true" Cross after forcing the Jews to hand the hill over to Christians. Subsequently, her daughter, who had accompanied Protonica to Jerusalem, died suddenly, but was restored miraculously to life when her corpse was put on the Cross. This apocryphal story is by tradition attributed to St. James, who set it down in writing and sent it to the apostles.
At the time of Protonica's supposed discovery, the Roman-Latin cross, as we have seen, had not yet been established as the symbol of Christ, and Christians—not yet known then as Christians, but as "the way," the same term used by the Essenes— employed the ankh, the Egyptian cross, or a fish as their symbol: The Gnostics also used the ankh: it can be seen on the leather covers of some of the volumes in their Nag Hammadi library.
The tradition of Protonica's supposed finding of the "true" Cross was not only mentioned by Eusebius but published later in Doctrina Addai (the teaching of Addai). According to Christian legend in Syria, Addai was one of 72 disciples of Jesus, who was sent by him to establish the Syrian branch of the Church. Doctrina Addai, which is considered apocryphal, came to light in the fourth century A.D., which is perhaps significant as the story of Helena's discovery of the "true" Cross in A.D. 325, although widely accepted as true, is clearly a replica of the Protonica legend. Helena is said to have gone at the age of 79 to Jerusalem where she, too, found the "true" Cross as a result of an excavation at Golgotha. In her case, the genuineness
A. These are the different forms of the cross, which was used as a symbol of Christ until the fourth century. They all represent the Egyptian ankh, the symbol of eternal spiritual life. It was Rome who replaced the ankh with the Latin-Roman cross, a symbol of punishment, in the fifth century.
B. Chi-Rhos, monograms consisting of the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ—chi (X) and rho (P).
Early Christian Symbols
Early Christian Symbols of her discovery was demonstrated by the miraculous recovery of a crippled woman when she was stretched upon the Cross.
Helena deposited the main part of her find in a church erected over the spot at Golgotha. Of what remained, one portion was sent to Byzantium, the ancient Greek city on the Bosphorus that, as Constantinople, became the new capital of the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 328, and inserted in the head of a statue of Constantine, and another to Rome where a new church, Santa Croce (Holy Cross), was built to accommodate it. The popular acclaim for Helena's supposed discovery led to small fragments of her Cross—by now established as an essential element of "orthodox" Christian belief as well as having historic validity—being sold, encrusted with gold and jewels, to rich believers who wished to own so priceless a relic.
Brisk demand resulted eventually in there being, in one form and another, sufficient relics of the "true" Cross to amount to several crosses. Today further relics are to be found in Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. An early solution was found to the problem of such a plethora of relics from a finite source: "The miracle of the 'multiplication of the Cross' was devised so that the relic suffered no diminution (et quasi intacta maneret—and, as it were, remained intact)" (Paulinus Epistula II ad Serverum),* a form of relic usury.
Here it is instructive to note that at the beginning of the nineteenth century Edith L. Butcher, who worked with Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of modern archaeology, collected different forms of the Cross she found in Egypt. Petrie himself did the same in Italy, and they published the result together. Mrs. Butcher stated that:
It is generally agreed that the use of a cross by Christians as a symbol of Christ the Redeemer did not come into general use until the time of Constantine. It seems to have been early in use by the Egyptians, who adopted a form of the ankh, the Egyptian hieroglyphic sign which is sometimes called "the key of life," or "the life of the world to come," as a link between the old faith and the new.
When the great temple of Serapis was solemnly destroyed by the order of the Emperor Theodosius, there were laid bare certain characters which they called hieroglyphics, having the form of crosses. The Christians claimed these as evidence that the great building had once belonged to their faith. But some of the heathen converts to Christianity
*The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
who could read the ancient writing, interpreted the inscription. They said that the character resembling the Cross signified in ancient days "the life to come."
The Cross in Egypt, by Edith L. Butcher, The Cross in Italy, by W. M. Flinders Petrie,
The earliest Christian symbol (in Italy) which can be dated is not the Cross, but the XP monogram "Chi Rho = CHR." There is no question that this is the military labarum sign found on the Roman coinage as the standard, from Constantine onwards . . . We should have expected the ensign to be a vertical cross in a circle; but this form does not appear in use until a century later . . . The earliest example (of the XP monogram) as a Christian symbol is said to be of A.D. 323.
it is a.d. 380 that the (Roman) Cross appears on the coinage of Gratian.
Constantine had become emperor in the west of the Roman Empire in A.D. 312 after defeating Maxentius, his rival and brother-in-law, at the battle of Milvian Bridge outside Rome. A year later, he and Licinius, the Emperor of the East, issued the Edict of Milan, which gave formal recognition to Christianity as one of the religions permitted in the Roman Empire. It appears from his letters and edicts that from then onward Constantine regarded himself as the chosen servant of The Highest Divinity, whom he identified as the God of the Christians. In the course of the next decade his legislation showed many signs of Christian influence. Bishops were given civilian powers. They could settle civil suits in which their decision was final. He made Sunday a public holiday, according to Christian practice.
It was not until a.d. 324 that Constantine became sole emperor when Licinius provoked a civil war by a renewed campaign of persecution or Christians in the East and was defeated in battle. From this point the increasing piety of Constantine saw him devote more and more of his time to his religious education, reading the scriptures and theological works, listening to sermons and himself delivering homilies to his court, and involving himself in the schisms that raged within the Church at the time. He spent lavishly on building churches at Rome, Constantinople, Antioch (ancient capital of the Macedonian kingdom of Syria) and the holy places in Palestine.
While tolerant of paganism in a half-hearted way, he destroyed a number of famous pagan temples, confiscated the treasures of others and stripped cult statues of their gold. His gifts of gold and land to the Church and his favorites, and his spending on a new capital, Constantinople (formerly Byzantium and finally dedicated in May, A.D. 330), were on such a lavish scale that he was forced to introduce new taxes, one on senators as well as levies of gold and silver on tradesmen and craftsmen. He did not exclude himself from this munificence. In his declining years he became a bizarre figure who wore wigs of various colors and flowing robes of embroidered silk, and hung himself about with precious jewels.
Constantine was one of the fortunates. Death came in A.D. 337, at the age of 64, when he had moved to his Asia Minor palace in the suburbs of Nicomedia, hoping that the bracing air and warm baths would help to restore his failing health. His illness gave him the opportunity to join the body of the faithful formally through baptism, administered by his friend and confidant Bishop Eusebius.
If, as he lay dying, Constantine was familiar with the warning of Chrysostom, he cannot have felt optimistic about the size or brightness of his star. In the course of his life he is said to have been guilty, among other things, of the murder of Crispus, the only child of his marriage to the obscure Minervina. The murder is reputed to have been carried out at the instigation of Constantine's second wife, Fausta, who saw the successful and popular prince as a formidable rival to the ambitions she had for her own three sons by Constantine. It was followed by a bloodbath that earned the emperor comparison to Nero, the legendary persecutor of Christians in the first century A.D. Constantine had also been responsible for the murder of Licinius after defeating him in the civil war, and later the murder of the son of Licinius, who was also named Licinius and Constantine's nephew; and—although some doubt exists in the matter—the murder of Fausta by having her suffocated by steam in a scalding bath.
All in all, Constantine, the first Christian to wear the imperial purple, has been condemned as a weak and vacillating ruler who had a violent temper, was driven by ambition, who could be both kind and appallingly cruel. In the treatment of his rivals he was both unscrupulous and ruthless. Nevertheless,
236 The Keys of the Kingdom his action in making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, giving civil power to the Church and supporting it with his generous patronage, had momentous consequences for the future history of the world—even if it would be another 40 years before it began to become clear just how momentous these consequences would be.
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