The Christianity Battles
What if Ebionite Christians, Marcion Christians, or Gnostic Christians had been more convincing?
BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell
Yes, exactly. Would Christianity have taken over the empire, for example, if that's the kind of Christianity it was? Or would it have remained a small group of people? I think the reason Christianity ended up taking over the empire was because the Roman Emperor himself converted---Constantine
. And it's hard to imagine him converting to one of these other kinds of Christianity.
Why do you think the religion that Constantine chose, the current form of Christianity-which you call the proto-orthodox-won out?
To some extent they won because they were better debaters. Each of these groups was fighting all the other groups on various fronts, but the proto-orthodox seemed to have been better organized than the other groups and seemed to have been more intent on establishing a worldwide network of similar people. And so they ended up taking over the churches in the major areas where there were lots of Christians, such as Rome, and eventually in Alexandria, Egypt, and Jerusalem.
Who belonged to the proto-orthodox groups?
Most of them were completely unknown to us by name, but they included most of the authors whose works have survived to today, outside of the New Testament. They're people like Ignatius of Antioch, and Tertullian. These are people whose works are well-known to historians of early Christianity.
Most proto-orthodox, like most other people in the Christian churches, tended to be lower class. The authors whose works survived would have been the elite among the proto-orthodox. They were people who had advanced education and had become authors. So just like today, most Christians are just regular folks. But some people write books and become famous for them. A lot of them were pretty good debaters-you know, they could argue a point pretty well.
What was the difference between the proto-orthodox from a geography and class standing, and the heretical groups?
In the second century there were difference kinds of Christianity in different parts of the empire, so that in Alexandria, a majority of people were Gnostic--or in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey, the majority of churches were Marcionite. Or in lands around what today we call Israel, the majority of Christians were Ebionite. But in some of these places, there were also proto-Orthodox people. Proto-orthodox was clearly the majority in the city of Rome, and it may have been in the majority in the city of Antioch, in Syria, and in several other larger places.
It was partly geographical, but you have different kinds of people in the same place--so for example in Rome, which was largely proto-orthodox, we know of Gnostics there, and we know that Marcionites started out there. It's like today: there are Mormons here in Chapel Hill, but if you go to Salt Lake City, there are a lot of Mormons.
When were these battles over Christianity taking place?
The main battles that we know about took place about 100 years after Jesus died and for the next, say, 50 or 70 years. The battles then dribbled on into the third century, and it's during this period that people were formulating theological statements for their points of view. That formulation of theological views came to a head in the early fourth century, when the earliest Christian creeds were formulated.
The proto-orthodox had won by the time of theCouncil of Nicea
, and so the arguments at that point are on much more subtle points of theology. Everybody at the Council of Nicea would have agreed that these other groups were heretical.
What are some of the differing beliefs of these various groups that are now considered beyond the pale?
We'll start with the Ebionites. The Ebionites were complete monotheists, so there's only one God, and nobody else could be God, so Jesus is not divine for them. Jesus is a full flesh-and-blood human being, who was more righteous than anybody else and so God chose him to be his son. In other words, He gave him a mission to die for the sins of the world. But he wasn't himself God, so the Ebionites maintained their Jewishness because they thought that Jesus was Messiah, predicted by this one God. They denied the deity of Jesus, they rejected the teachings of Paul, and their scriptures were mainly what we would call the Old Testament. So they didn't have an idea of the virgin birth or anything that would make Jesus anything other than human.
The Marcionites took just the opposite point of view. They thought there were two gods. They accepted that there was a God of the Old Testament, but they thought that God was a secondary, lesser being to the True God, who was the God of Love, who sent Jesus into the world to save people from the God of the Old Testament. So there are literally two different gods. Christians are the ones who follow the God of Jesus, rather than the God of the Old Testament.