08 June 2009

Jive history . . . .

Posted by at 11:34 AM Read our previous post

Over at the wonderful Internet Archives there is a page devoted to a series of thirteen lectures by one Tom Nelson on the history of Christianity, spanning from the beginnings through the reformation and on to modern times. After listening to it in its entirety, I'd like to comment on the first lecture here only. The rest of the series I found to be fairly well outlined and even useful and somewhat informative, but the first lecture is SO bad, that it took some force for me to continue listening. What bugs me so much about it? Let's take a quick look. In the first six or seven minutes, Mr. Nelson says all the following:

“The first period is the age of Catholic Christianity. It goes from 70 AD to 312. Now let me tell you why we call it “catholic Christianity.” How many of you, when I said “Catholic Christianity,” you immediately thought of a pope? Of pope, of Mary, of icons, rosaries, holy water? No, that’s not what we mean by catholic Christianity. The term “catholic” is a term that merely means “universal.” That’s all. 70–312 was a unique time in church history because there was no division within Christians. Ideologically, you did not have Protestants and Catholics. And later on, Catholics, and Lutherans, and reformed Calvinists, and Anabaptists, and Mennonites, they just kept fragmenting. This was Catholic; it was universal. Everybody pretty much believed and lived the same. After 312, you’re going to have a geographic division. You’re going to have a western capital of Christianity that’s called Rome and you’re going to have an eastern capital that’s called Constantinople. But at this point, it is a Catholic system. It’s a sweet time in the church. It’s the one time in Christian history that the church was not either geographically or theologically divided. It was our first love, Catholic Christianity. And this period is marked by five different things [and] I’ll walk through four of them this morning with you. […] And incidentally, why do we say 70 to 312? Let me give you a preface. 70 is a good time to begin Christian history because that’s when Judaism officially ends, because what happened in 70 AD? The locus [sic] of Judaism, Jerusalem and the Temple, were destroyed, so there was nothing that a Jew could go to call his own, and he was exiled throughout the Roman Empire whenever [sic] Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome. So in 70 you have the official ending, in a sense, of the “ism” that Judaism had become. And it became the theology of the exiles. Why do we go to 312? Well, if you know your old studies in ancient history, in 313 something happened that was absolutely monumental. A Roman emperor became allegedly a Christian. […] “

Now, anyone who is even cursorily familiar with the voluminous work done on the historical period in question will immediately see the HUGE blunder(s) in the quote above. But, as the introductory paragraphs which precede this barrage of misinformation shows, the lecturer fully knows that his audience (his church congregation) will likely never get around to reading or investigating any of it on their own. This is what ultimately frustrates people like me so much about such enterprise. People are prone to obediently accept a ready-made package as long as it coincides with their chosen world view, without question, not really caring for either accuracy or the verisimilitude of the subject at hand. It astounds me. But as Elvis Costello once sang: "I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused." For those who are not so acquainted with the pertinent materials, allow me to point to his error:

Simply put, to claim that between the years of 70 CE and 312 CE (the lecturer's use of AD—scholarship has abandoned this convention— is already a red flag signaling that this is not founded on scholarship but on obstinate faith) there was universal harmony among all Christians, as Mr. Nelson does here, is just absurd. Pure folly. He paints a Utopian picture that is completely divorced from reality. The explicit variegation within Christianity is the focus of exhaustive studies such as Walter Bauer's seminal 1939 work "Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity" and more recent treatments such as Bart Ehrman's "Lost Christianities." Even were one to disregard the work done on the subject over the course of the last couple of centuries and instead limit oneself to the writings of the early Christians themselves, it would become quickly evident that there were Christian groups in conflict with each other in those days. Even as far back as in Paul of Tarsus' day!

A small selection of easily verifiable facts:

  • The author of the epistles ascribed to John slams the docetist Christians whom he finds theologically threatening. (circa 125 CE)
  • Marcion of Pontus, a Christian bishop, is called the "first-born of Satan" by Polycarp. (circa 145) Marcion's followers were part of a highly structured hierarchical organization, one that paralleled and even rivaled (complete with bishops, sacraments and the rest) that which would eventually congeal and emerge as the Catholic church we know today.
  • Valentinus (120–160 CE), one of the earliest Gnostic Christian teachers, gathers a following that survives well into the fourth century.
  • Tertullian, a Carthaginian, arguably the most prolific Christian writer of his day, becomes a follower of Montanus and is duly excommunicated. (circa 210 CE)

Now, I'm not here to defend any of their teachings; that's not my point. But the fact is that all of this speaks of division. All of the above men are rancorous toward those they deem heretical, and, as the record shows so well, the rancor is more than reciprocated.

So when I hear Mr Nelson say things like, "there was no division within Christians," and ,"it’s the one time in Christian history that the church was not either geographically or theologically divided," I can't help but think to myself, 'What the fuck is he talking about?! Has he read ANYTHING at all on the subject?'

He can only be deriving his stance from a literalist fundamentalist reading of the Acts of the Apostles, which he obviously considers to be a historically accurate account of what happened after Jesus died, one that is unquestionable. This reminds me of the Christian equivocation of the words "Pharisee" and "hypocrite." Now, if your only understanding of what the Pharisees were comes from a literalist reading of the gospel narratives, then it's rather easy to develop this habit of using these two terms interchangeably like some Christians do, but limiting oneself to that gospel material is not only narrow-minded and obstinate, it also deprives us of an understanding of a good and pious people who were immeasurably influential in the development of our cultural inheritance, and who, incidentally, deserve respect. It does much disservice to a great people, and, moreover, is intrinsically and blatantly anti-Semitic.

Which brings me to my final point:

The contention that, "70 [is] when Judaism officially ends" that he makes has to be one of the stupidest, most absurd things that could be said about the historical period in question. I understand the narrow-mindedness that could conceive such an idea, and as such, I find it a hateful and vain concept. It is deeply unjust. It makes me sad to hear such things in this twenti-first century.

Judaism ended in 70? Tell it to Bar Kochba. Tell it to Akiba. Tell it to Maimonides. Tell it to Abulafia. Tell it to Anne Frank and Elie Weisel and Isabella Leitner.

I mean . . . the nerve!

I hear things like this lecture and it makes me sad for humanity, for it makes me realize how far we still have to go, for not only is it rare that a Christian congregant even hears of early church history, when he/she does, it's liable to be bullshit like this.

Lying in the name of the lord?

Meister Eckhart once said, "What is truth? Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep to the truth and let God go."

I concur.




  1. You're a better man than me, listening to the rest, I really struggle to get past stuff like that. It is much better though to glean what you can than to throw it all out like I tend to do.

    It is amazing that someone who has really studied history like that can remain blind or deluded, or willing to delude others.
    Would you really guess he is lying? Or maybe remaining willingly deluded or subconciously single minded on the traditional history. Though there is a fine line between the two.

  2. It's hard to tell. On the one hand I understand the source and cause of the delusion and i generally don't object to statements of faith, where no empirical evidence exists. But I can't help but feel that we are all individually responsible to inform ourselves when there IS evidence available.

    Thanks for dropping by. I enjoy reading your blog as well.



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