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Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Gospel According to Somebody

In my contacts with them I have often-enough been taken aback by the apparent lack of knowledge shown by Christians about the background of their own faith. Much seems to be taken for granted, and there is a general acceptance that ‘things are the way they are’. So if you who are reading this consider yourself a Christian, can you (for example) say why there are four gospels, and who wrote them? Well, this is not a quiz – although you might ask yourself whether or not you know the answer. After all, it does concern the very foundations of the beliefs which you hold. Let’s first mention what the respective answers are not. There are not four gospels because these were the four that were written, and neither are they by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

The four gospels were certainly not written as part of a cohesive Testament. They were among a whole collection of many such texts from the 1st- and 2nd-centuries, and in their day were not even the most popularly read, as is often presumed. No, the reason why there are now just four gospels in the New Testament is because of the vigorously-enforced personal opinions of a single individual.

Irenaeus of Lyons
In the 2nd century, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lugdunum (now Lyons) in what was then Roman Gaul, wrote a massive multi-volume work with the no-nonsense title Against Heresies. For this particular bishop, there were rather too many gospels for his liking, and so he set about doing some judicious canonical pruning. Out went all the gospels and other texts that he personally considered to be wanting, until just four remained: the four canonical gospels as we know them today. Why four? Irenaeus himself tells us his reason: [1]“…for there are four zones in the world and four principal winds.” Yes, that really was this man’s logic behind his decision.

So of course the burning question has to be: who decided that Irenaeus had the necessary authority single-handedly to make these sweeping root-and-branch changes which virtually remodelled Christianity at that time? Well.. he did, actually. He was, after all, a bishop. And only a religious experience by either a bishop, a priest or a deacon carried any spiritual weight. Because bishops, priests and deacons were directly descended from, and therefore had the authority of, the original disciples (a process formally known as Apostolic Succession), which is why only these three hierarchies of the Church were qualified to know about such things. So all authority rested with orthodox them, and you as a member of the laity had to toe the party line.

An English translation of the opening words of Against Heresies, which shows clearly enough the style of Irenaeus’ invective. I have read enough to know that his text continues in the same emotive style.
So it’s a no-brainer that all beliefs which did not accept this hierarchical structure of the Church were branded by Irenaeus as heretical. Now, a cynical soul might think that Irenaeus was driven by motives that perhaps had as much to do with preserving his own power base as they had to do with any religious fervour. Because if all had equal rights before God, and if all individual spiritual experiences were equally valid, then what need for a bishop? And indeed, Irenaeus directed his most toxic invective against such groups as the [2]Christian Gnostics, who openly advocated this egalitarian approach to their faith, and who certainly did not need a bishop to tell them where things were at.

So if you insisted on sidestepping this religious chain of command, and believed passionately that all souls are free and equal, that you had the right to take the responsibility for your personal spiritual life and development, and that your own spiritual experience counted for as much as anyone else's.. well, then you were thinking the thoughts of a dangerous mind, because to Irenaeus this is what marked you out as a [3]heretic.  

And who wrote those four gospels? We simply do not know. Tradition attributes them to the eponymous four apostles, but tradition is not supported by scholarship. Some [4]sources, glimpsed indirectly through the lines of these texts, remain as shadowy unknowns, their identities lost to history. We can only say with certainty that the gospels were written by somebody. But Irenaeus we do know about, as the arbiter of the four gospels now in the New Testament. But the bending of others to his iron will came at a terrible human price, and that price was paid by the thousands of persecuted Gnostics, who thanks to Irenaeus’ unrelenting diatribes found themselves on the wrong side of what he personally had decided was correct to believe. Predictably, this man who directed such toxic invective against all whom he saw fit to disagree with, duly received sainthood, and is still regarded by many as a worthy father of the church.

And the eventual outcome of history? Scholarship now points to the fact that it was the [5]Gnostics’ version of Christianity that could have been closer to the original form of Christian beliefs, and it seems that Irenaeus merely created things in his own image.

The top image has been created digitally to convey the idea of an unknown authorship for the Gospels. No Bible was actually defaced. I have various editions of the Bible on my bookshelf, and treat all of them with due respect.

Eusebius of Caesarea
[1] J. Stevenson: A New Eusebius, 1957. Eusebius of Caesarea was a 3rd- to 4th-century chronicler of the early church, his Ecclesiastical History being his best-known work. Its reliability is now questioned by scholarship, and it is suspected that at least to some extent he fictionalised events. See also my previous post Anthony of the Desert: Life as Fiction for another example of fictionalised history created by another church father (Athanasius). Commissioned by Emperor Constantine to produce fifty Bibles, Eusebius took it upon himself either to include or exclude texts of his own choosing, based upon a shaky 'genuine to dubious' rating system of his own devising. Which, beyond the selection by Irenaeus, has had its influence upon the twenty seven books which now comprise the New Testament. As is the case with both Irenaeus and Athanasius (with whom Eusebius had contact regarding copied volumes of scripture), Eusebius was also elevated to sainthood.

[2] Even right here in the 21st-century, I read on a website ( which purports to give an impartial account of the history of Gnosticism such florid (and distinctly unscholarly) invective as: "As Christianity grew within and without the Roman Empire, Gnosticism spread as a fungus at its root." and: "So rank was its poisonous growth that there seemed danger of its stifling Christianity altogether, and the earliest Fathers devoted their energies to uprooting it." It seems that the purging emotive rhetoric of Irenaeus lives on. And the use of the term 'Christianity' for the 2nd-century is a misnomer. At that time, the form of belief advocated by Irenaeus, which eventually became Catholicism, was neither more nor less legitimate than any other kind. But for the reasons given here (and for other reasons to which I shall be returning on this blog) it was the form which won, through sheer force of will - and also through the often relentless persecution and extermination of those other Christian beliefs which it perceived as its rivals.  

[3] Language can become a weapon, and purges and persecutions can result from labels. The word heresy simply means ‘choice’, meaning one’s personal right to choose one’s own beliefs, but Irenaeus effectively evolved the term negatively to imply something false and evil. Even now, thanks to Irenaeus, the term heretic has pejorative connotations to many, and the 4th-century eventually saw the criminalization of heresy punishable by death, with the Church in effect having the authority to pronounce sentence.

[4] A lost gospel text known as ‘Q’ (from the German Quelle, meaning ‘source’) can be inferred from the unknown authors of Matthew and Luke, who drew upon this lost text for their own writings.

[5] It is worth remembering that in it’s beginnings, Christianity had no church, no Bible, and it was not even called ‘Christian’. There were many, many different forms, some belonging more to the Hebraic tradition of the prophets, others more to the gentile authority of the apostles, and still others taking their inspiration from a broader base of spirituality which included the pre-Christian mystery schools. None of these was more ‘right’ than the other: they were just different. In scholastic terms, we have no reason to think that a Gnostic form of proto-Christianity was not the base out of which the early form of the religion grew. But history, as they say, is written by the victors, and it was the domineering and authoritarian will of early church fathers such as Irenaeus that triumphed to become the Catholic (meaning ‘universal’) church.

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