In a recent social media discussion with both a large group of atheists and theists, the topic of church miracles entered the picture. The Biblical miracles were the specific target of the conversation, however other miracles and events that are difficult to believe from historical writings became a very tensious topic for our conversation.
The conflict in modern converastions could not be nearly as difficult as they were in the first and second century. This was a very tensious time in the middle east, where there were Jewish, Muslim and then suddenly a large Christian presence in the region during the time of the first church, which was the first and second century AD. Not only were there these religions competing in the region, but Rome had a huge presence in the area and acted as a government to Israel.
The Roman general Pompey in his eastern campaign established the Roman province of Syria in 64 BC and conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC. Julius Caesarconquered Alexandria c. 47 BC and defeated Pompey in 45 BC. Under Julius Caesar, Judaism was officially recognised as a legal religion, a policy followed by the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Herod the Great was designated ‘King of the Jews’ by the Roman Senate in c. 40 BC.
This is when both the Judaeo cultures and Roman cultures started to overlap, and at the same time the first church of Christ was beginning. So there were of course many branches of these faith traditions in this time.
One of the groups were the Gnostics, who had very different beliefs from the Romans. The Romans would of course install a pope as leader of the entire church, and in 325 AD the Roman Catholic Church would call the council of Nicaea. The first pope is a large historical dispute, as well as the doctrines and cannonized books called to be sorted out in the council of Nicaea.
Council of Nicaea, also called First Council of Nicaea, (325), the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, meeting in ancient Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey). It was called by the emperor Constantine I, an unbaptized catechumen, who presided over the opening session and took part in the discussions. He hoped a general council of the church would solve the problem created in the Eastern church by Arianism, a heresy first proposed by Arius of Alexandria that affirmed that Christ is not divine but a created being. Pope Sylvester I did not attend the council but was represented by legates.
The debate about the divinity of Christ was a hot dispute in this council and eventually the books of the Biblical cannon and the nature of Christ whether natural man or diety was sorted at this council as well.
The council condemned Arius and, with reluctance on the part of some, incorporated the nonscriptural word homoousios (“of one substance”) into a creed (the Nicene Creed) to signify the absolute equality of the Son with the Father.
This leads us back to the Gnostics. There are numerous references to the Gnostics in second century proto-orthodox literature. Most of what we know about them is from the polemic thrown at them by the early Church Fathers. They are alluded to in the Bible in the pastorals (spurious Paulines of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus), for example 1 Timothy 1:4 and 1 Timothy 6:20, and possibly the entirety of Jude.
The Gnostics were a small group of dedicated intellectuals with strong spiritual beliefs and were regarded as heretics, and were likely murdered by Catholics for their hearasy. It is not clear what happened to the Gnostics in the 2nd century however, and it may be that they lived on in secret to escape persecution after creeds written by Bishop Irenaeus were adopted.
It is known that other forms of Gnosticism rose up and they were slaughtered.
Gnostic groups that faced immediate threat of death include the Manichaeans, Cathars, Templars, and Mandaeans, which are the only Gnostics that have had an unbroken line of succession since their foundation into the modern era.
One thing that history often reveals about the successive groups of Gnostics throughout history, is their tendency to be unorthodox, and it is likely because of the impending threat of death for being heretics that the Gnostics did not form an orderly membership or tenants of belief.
This brings us to the present day, where the oldest surviving manuscripts of many New Testament books were found near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hamadi in 1945. Some of the archives date back to the first century, and most to the second and third century. It is likely that the Gnostics who were facing intense persecution hid these manuscripts away to preserve them during the time shortly after Saint Athanasius condemned the use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 A.D. Which were lucky enough to survive past the age of the persecution and domination of the Catholic church, when many writings did not survive.
Although we live in a different time in the world where in the Western World and much of the Eastern World people will not be brutally killed for heresay. The discussion about these documents and these groups of Gnostics throughout history is still taboo. Although speaking about the Dead Sea Scrolls seems very main stream these days, the writings of the Gnostics tug on some tightly held religious strings of Christians and other groups alike. Some are not willing to even explore these texts, and others explore them and quickly dismiss them. While there are a select few who have taken on a quest to discover more about them.
I recently visited the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin to get a view at thousands of ancient texts, some of them are Biblical texts from the epistles of Paul that date back to a time close to when the Gnostic manuscripts were written. I believe that it is very likely that these papyri were also written by the Gnostics, but there is not a definite answer on that yet.
In summary, the oldest known manuscripts of the New Testament defy most doctrines and contradict most writings that were compiled by the Catholic creeds in the fourth century. From denying the diety of Christ, to having a completely different view of Jehovah and the means of salvation.
I am not as framillar as I would like to be on this matter, so I will not comment on the doctrinal implications of these manuscripts. However two very important manuscripts that were found in this archive were the Gospel of Thomas that deals with Christ’s divinity, and the Gospel of Mary that elevates Mary Magdalene which appears to elevate Mary as an apostle herself and one of the most trusted associates of Jesus of Nazereth.
I have included the links to my sources for this article in the text above.
Written by Ryan Thompson, February 17th 2018