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Post details: The History of Early Church

The History of Early Church

The pope has resigned. Just like that.

When you witness something that last happened in 1415, historical reflections elbow their way into the forefront of your mind. And rightly so. There really are only a few social phenomena more fascinating than the continuing story of Christianity - the fortunes and misfortunes of the religion that has become a major force in the development of the Western civilization. Whether you believe in it or not, the world as we know it would have been very different without it.

Not so long ago I was browsing around You Tube and found a three hour documentary titled "Christianity, the First Thousand Years" - a riveting account of travails and growing pains of the early church and communities associated with it. Watching it was like making a trip to the springs of the Amazon river, exploring the little creeks and rivulets winding their way through jungles of human evolution, and yet knowing all too well what potent water giant they'd become 2,000 miles down the road.

Since that time I spoke with a couple of Christians and was surprised how little they actually knew about the origins of their own church. Most of them expressed the conventional belief that the history of Christianity had been a smooth and linear progression - a collection of small streams that grew effortlessly and steadily and eventually culminated in the robust hierarchy of the Catholic Church, placing monasteries, abbeys, cathedrals and other houses of worship at the feet of humanity. A development guided along by the almighty hand of divine inspiration, eloquently encoded and chronicled in the good book. In other words, their view of history resembles a retouched technicolor infomercial devoid of any signs of usual human fumblings.

For them, the movie is quite an eye opener. All three hours of it: from daily fights for the sheer survival of the new creed to subtle power struggles of an incipient player on the political scene. You get to understand the significance of rituals and sacred dates borrowed from old religions to facilitate the transition to the new belief. You get to appreciate the edge given to it by its emphasis on eternal life and social values. You get to watch its tentative maneuvering through the pantheon of contemporary gods as it searched for a place of its own. You get to admire its efforts to define itself against the backdrop of existing beliefs, especially against Judaism, from which it expanded. Never mind that at times it lead to such extremes as Marcionism which effectively proclaimed the difference of their respective Gods. And you also get to ponder how the growing church dealt with the problems of scale and how it tried to streamline and unify answers to some very basic questions lest it should fragment itself into non-existence, a multi-decade endeavor that came to a head at the Council of Nicea (325 AD). In other words, you get to marvel at the slowly rotating carousel of living history.

Another fascinating aspect which the movie touches upon is the composition and development of its canonical texts. Most of us might simply assume that the Bible as we know it was just handed down to us by higher authority. But the politics behind the holy scripture is as fascinating and intricate as the text itself. At first each congregation maintained sacred texts on their own. However, as the flourishing church tried to cope with the increasingly confusing spiritual legacy, a need to organize and consolidate their written heritage naturally arose. Soon after the Nicean council, today's Bible gradually emerged from numerous meetings of church's elders, from a mixture of literary hand-me-downs and - yes - from behind the scenes politicking. Considering how much was at stake in controlling the final message, it is not too surprising that many records fell through the cracks. Recent archaeological discoveries offer but a fleeting taste of what was left behind: the Gospel of Thomas - full of Jesus' recorded sayings, the Gospel of Judas - portraying its protagonist in a light much more favorable than other narratives, the Gospel of Philip - best known for its portrayal of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Mary - advocating more active role for women, or the Gospel of Peter - firmly rejected for its insinuations of docetism. The number of gnostic or apocryphal texts not only shows that there was no shortage of written testimonials to choose from, but their mind boggling variety also illuminates what the forefathers of the church deemed undesirable and harmful to its chance of success.

Needless to say, the movie could not skirt one of the most profound events in the successful campaign of the young faith - the battle of the Milvian Bridge - a truly turning point for the heretofore distressed church. In this episode of endless Roman battles for the imperial throne, Constantine and Maxentius fought over the route across the Tiber river. What made this one distinct was the fact that Constantine, allegedly inspired by divine vision, daubed the shields of his warriors with the Chi-Rho sign (Greek letters signifying Christos) and went on to win the battle. Whether this act actually brought about the victory is hard to say. What we can say is that for Christians it meant the end of prosecution, the beginning of religious tolerance (Edict of Milan) and after a few decades even promotion, encouragement and at the end the status of the official church. Flying on the wings of the sprawling Roman Empire, Christianity took off and never looked back.

The movie presents one more angle of looking at this event though. What if it wasn't the church that benefited from Constantine's conversion. What if it was the Emperor who used the wide spread appeal of Christianity as a glue to try and unite the crumbling empire. You be the judge.

Of course if you search YouTube a bit deeper you find many other intriguing links to follow. From Nicolas Notovich and his assertion that Christ was strongly associated with the already established buddhism and influenced by it to the extra-terrestrial connections in the vein of Erich von Daniken. One way or another, these tangential contributions further accentuate the prominent role of spiritual quest and search for higher forms of being in our life. But you don't have to venture that far into the video labyrinth. The History of the Church as presented by the movie is interesting enough. It shows that even divinely inspired action follows the same general dynamics as other social movements. They reveal the same anatomy of power. By understanding how this originally small and obscure sect survived 2,000 years and how it snowballed into a major religion, we can get useful clues about our present condition.

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