The Christianity Battles
What if Ebionite Christians, Marcion Christians, or Gnostic Christians had been more convincing?
BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell
The Gnostics believed that regular Christians were superficial in their understanding and that there were deeper secrets, messages that Jesus had conveyed, that the Gnostics understood. It was these deeper messages, correctly understood, that bring salvation. In other words, the death and the resurrection of Jesus really isn't what brings salvation at all--it's his secret teachings that must be understood.
I'm also interested in what happened during the Christianity battles. Was it just sparring by writing letters, or did things ever get violent?
I don't think that there was any physical violence going on. I think it was more like Democrats and Republicans arguing about something or another.
So how could they declare a victor?
The proto-orthodox ended up winning the way an ideology commonly wins. If it's capitalism versus communism, you end up convincing a majority of people that you are right--and they agree with you and disagree with the opposition. The ancient world didn't have mass media, but they did have, especially among the proto-orthodox, a concerted effort to write literature in support of their points of view. Even though most people couldn't read, everybody could hear something being read. Literature in the ancient world was read aloud, and I think literature played a huge role in the proto-orthodox win because the proto-orthodox wrote against the various kinds of heretics and proved pretty convincing.
Another theme I picked up in the book is that the proto-orthodox had a need for martyrdom, persecution, and blood. Do you find it interesting that that's what people were ultimately drawn to?
Yeah, that is interesting. The thing is, Christians were worshiping a crucified man and the proto-orthodox insisted that to follow him, really to follow him, was to experience his fate. There were other groups of Christians who argued that Jesus didn't really suffer, but only appeared to suffer. Some of the Gnostic groups, for example. And they didn't advocate martyrdom because they didn't think Jesus had been martyred.
If you extrapolate to current times, church demographers always say that if you espouse a more rigorous set of beliefs for membership, people will tend to gravitate toward that. Maybe that's what was going on?
Yes, Christianity really thrives among populations that are experiencing suffering. Christianity started out that way, as a minority religion in a very tough world.
Your book is one of several on related topics right now that everybody, it seems, is interested in. Why has finding these alternate Christianities become so important?
I think that there's such a wide range of beliefs today, that people stress more today than they used to the need to find answers for yourself. When people realize that Christianity has always included people trying to find answers for themselves, and that the answers often differed from one another, that resonates with something that's going on in the modern world.