2017-07-12
Excerpted from "The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins," by Gregory J. Riley. Reprinted with permission from HarperSanFrancisco.

Where did Christianity come from? It went from no adherents in the year zero to become the world's largest religious tradition today. What were its origins?

This is a different question from "Why was it so successful once it began?" It is a question about the historical process that led to its invention. "Invention" is a word rarely used in this connection, but it is an apt word. Early Christians themselves were quite conscious that what they were about was something new. The Synoptic Gospels have Jesus declaring that what he was doing was "new wine" requiring "new wineskins" (Mark 2:22). The cup of the last supper and the eucharist is called the cup of "the new covenant," from which language we get the name for the New Testament in contrast to the Old Testament. The book of Colossians describes the message of the Christians as "the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations, but has now been revealed" (1:26, NRSV). From the viewpoint of the first-century followers of Jesus, they were onto something fresh, something hidden from the past.

That genuine sense of newness, that excitement about being in the leading ranks of God's new spiritual kingdom, should itself come as some surprise, given the efforts of the early church to claim the opposite. Christians were quite sensitive to the often-voiced criticism that they were a novelty, and for ancients, nothing new was good, especially in religion. A "new man" was an upstart politician from outside the established families; a "new thing" was a political revolution, an attempt to overthrow the state. The Golden Age, like the Garden of Eden, lay in the past, and the world had long since been devolving into chaos. Any religion that had arisen just a few years earlier was clearly something suspect, defective, revolutionary.

Christianity was in fact something new, but it was drawn from and contained ideas that were very old. As a result of criticism about their recent rise on the one hand, and their own need for understanding and legitimation on the other, Christians traced their beginnings back to the Old Testament and cast themselves as the continuation of the history of Israel. Jesus and nearly all of his early followers were Jews, so their own traditions as Jews were their natural background. These Christians saw themselves as heirs to the promises made to the patriarchs, Moses, David, and especially the prophets. They were the new Israel, with roots that went back through old Israel to the beginning of creation itself.

But Christianity in reality had a much wider historical base and a far more complex lineage than the small nation of Israel alone. It is how best to understand that complex lineage is the subject here.

Look at five major subject areas that make up the core of the Christian faith, the main content of the River of God: the rise of monotheism, the subsequent development of Christian Trinitarianism, the arrival of the Devil and ideas about eschatology, the development and consequences of the concept of body and soul for humans, and the advent of Jesus as Savior.

Each of these subject areas had a long history of development. In no case were the initial stages of these ideas anything like what they turned out to be in their final forms in the church of the fourth century CE. In fact, it does nto appear that these concepts existed at all (in the sense that we understand them) at the beginning of the period of our study approximately three millennia earlier: no one we have record of was a monotheist, and certainly not a Trinitarian. There was no Devil, humans did not have souls, and there was no need for a heavenly savior. Nevertheless, there were here and there intimations of each idea--preparations, so to speak, for the eventual rise of the more complex and defined ideas of later times.

In their early histories, each of these concepts was understood differently from culture to culture, and some were completely absent. Each took many centuries to develop and was the result of contributions from several traditions. Inspired individuals and communities of believers melded together competing and often conflicting ideas time and again in periods of crisis. New forms existed side by side with older versions of the same basic ideas. Stage by stage, each progressed, transformed, or regressed to form the eventual Christian doctrines. Over time the ideas became intertwined and interdependent: one first needed a Devil to have an eschatology; one first needed a soul to require a heavenly savior. Even within Christianity itself, when each of these larger ideas was well in place, there was a wide variety of conception from one community to the next. It was not until the time of the creeds in the fourth Christian century and later, when definitions and orthodoxy became prime concerns, that these ideas became standardized. Yet the creeds and definitions bear the signs of long historical development from concepts born in non-Christian societies centuries, even millennia, earlier.

One of the most important advances in religion in human history was the development of monotheism from what was near ubiquitous polytheism. Polytheism, the belief in many gods, is the opposite of monotheism, the belief in one God. Several cultures surrounding Israel arrived at one or another version of monothieism, some long before Israel existed as a nation. Eventually, a particular kind of monotheism arose in Israel itself, but it did not take hold for centuries. Surprisingly, no culture seems to have retained the singular view of monotheism of the inspired writer of Isaiah chapters 40-55. That view itself evolved quickly as his heirs added new insights to the flow of tradition, while older views continued in competition, eventually winning a place in the final formulations.

The single most important contribution toward the development of monotheism and our conceptions of God did not come from Israel or ancient religion at all, but from ancient science. New scientific understanding of the size and shape of the universe changed the way the gods and then the one God were viewed. The old, small universe was seen to be in fact much, much larger than ever before thought. The old, small gods who ran it became either expressions of the (newly conceived) one God beyond all gods or merely God's servants, angelic beings who did the will of the unseen One. Science again judged the material world to be something other than and foreign to the nature of the one God. In fact, the spiritual nature of the one God was so different in kind that the act of "creation" itself became a problem. This immaterial and unknown God did not, in fact could not, create the material world directly, but did so only through the agency of a second divinity, a being emanated from the One for the purpose of creating and managing the universe to be.

Ancient scientific discoveries and philosophical mediations on them were fundamental to later Christian understanding of the nature of God. Eventually, as a result of these scientific discoveries and the conclusions of theologians who developed their implications, the church defined the doctrine of the Trinity. At the inception of Christianity, however, neither the concept of the Trinity nor the terms necessary to describe the idea existed; there was not yet even language for such sophisticated formulations. The process took hundreds of years. Early Christians fought their most significant internal battles over how to define and understand the divine nature. What does a monotheistic tradition that believes in the one God do with Jesus the Lord, or later with the Holy Spirit?

At a significant point in the religious evolution of the ancient Near East, at an important confluence of river and tributary, God gained an enemy in the Devil. Conceptions of the enemy of God changed from their beginnings in stories about the conflicts of the gods in more than one culture to become the Christian Devil. The most significant point was the time of the Exile, when Babylon, which had once again conquered the Israelites and exiled the upper classes to Mesopotamia, was itself conquered by the Persians. The Persians were a thoroughly foreign, Indo-European culture that brought a wholly new understanding of the divine to the Semitic Israelites.

Zoroastrianism had been present in Persian culture for hundreds of years before Persia expanded into Mesopotamia. The basic position of Zoroastrianism was the God was opposed by a near equal but opposite being, the Devil. One early form of that theological dualism claimed that at the beginning there was but the One, the single God alone who contained all there is--all opposites, all things good or evil. This one God then emanated two roots or sources, the Holy Spirit and the Devil, who were destined to fight each other for a predetermined number of ages until the battle was won.

A major value of the concept of the Devil is its ability to explain evil in the world. If there is only one God at the beginning of all things, all-knowing and all-powerful, then were does evil come from? In real-life terms, it was the as-yet-unanswered question of undeserved suffering that provided the stimulus for change. In the Exile, the Israelites experienced undeserved suffering on a massive scale--and were confronted with a new answer. The old view of the central story of the book of Job, that one must be silent in the face of calamity caused by God, gained a new perspective: the calamity came from Satan, because God and Satan were using the innocent in a kind of contest over loyalty. Whose side was Job really on?

In time, this concept grew in sophistication in the light of the changes in ancient cosmology. Not only God and the Devil, but armies of spiritual forces were at odds, organized in ranks and levels of power, ruling territories, peoples, even the stars and planets. And how and when was the great cosmic battle to end? Early Christians were very concerned that the end would occur during their lifetime, and New Testament writers often warned that although the end might be soon, no one knew when it would occur. The end itself was conceived of as a final war between good and evil that included a great, fiery catastrophe that would destroy not only the enemies of God, but heaven and earth as well.

The scientific advance that was fundamental to the development of modern monotheism also contributed greatly to a new view of the human being. It was the development of the idea of the soul--the idea that a human being was not merely a clay pot into which God had breathed the breath of life, but a dualism of body and soul--that laid the foundation for equality among peoples.

Historically, the two ideas, monotheism and the concept of the soul, are not related. Monotheists existed who did not know of the dualism of body and soul, and body-soul dualists existed who were polytheists. The dualism of body and soul is the single most important foundation on which Christianity is based; indeed, without it, Christianity would not exist. Jesus' own view of proper human life--right relationship with God and the world at large--stands on the idea of the dualism of body and soul. To cite Jesus' words in the Gospel of Mark, "What does it profit one to gain the whole world and lose one's soul?" (8:36). Here lies one of the greatest differences between Christianity and the religion of the Old Testament. Much of the difficulty within Christianity today, in fact, arises because of misunderstanding or neglect of this central doctrine.

Where did the idea of the heavenly savior come from? How did it come about that human beings needed to be saved at all? Adam in Genesis, for example, is not "saved" in the Christian sense; he simply lives a very long time and then returns to dust. The concept of the universe in which human beings had been created underwent radical change from its beginnings as a small, good place that would last forever to become a world of darkness in which constant battle between spiritual forces was taking place. In the midst of that battle were humans, now with eternal souls that could be won or lost by loyalty to one side or the other.

But we humans were overmatched, deceived, led astray. We were very much in need of a divine and powerful leader who could teach us what was true about the spiritual world and overcome our enemies. In earlier times, when the enemies were mere humans, armies at war for example, saviors were human military leaders like Joshua or David. Now, however, the kingdom was no longer that of the land of Israel in Palestine; it was the kingdom of heaven, a spiritual kingdom. We humans were in need now of someone from outside our cosmos of darkness who could lead us back to our true and eternal home. And then, at the final moment, he would return to defeat permanently the Devil and his legions, and to judge the living and the dead.

Finally, we need to ask about the implications about the River-of-God understanding of the history of our tradition for the present. Where will the River of God flow in the new century? Christianity arose out of the melding of thousands of years of interrelationship between God and humanity in many cultures. That relationship did not stop in the first century of the apostolic generation, or the fourth century of the creeds, or the 16th century of the Reformation. One of its main turning points was the scientific discovery of the much larger size of the earth and the surrounding cosmos, necessitating a revolution in the older conceptions of God and the soul.

Today, people of faith face another series of scientific advances. We live in a universe inconceivable to the ancients, apparently infinite and random, perhaps destined not for destruction by fire, but for continual expansion into frozen lifelessness. Those discoveries must again influence and change our understanding. Religious truth has been about making order out of chaos, about finding one's place in God's plan. But it has also been about the mystery of knowing a God who is ultimately unknowable, who is greater than mere human understanding. We have grown, we have changed time and again, but we are still faced with the mystery.

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