In order to understand Christian heresy, it is necessary to look at the historical development of Christian orthodoxy. Orthodoxy came out of the various ecumenical Council of the Christian community. As we shall see though, not all of the so-called ecumenical councils were truly ecumenical. As Christianity fragmented, those attending the councils became more and more restrictive. By the Middle Ages, and if not sooner, these ecumenical councils were limited to the Western Christian community. After the Reformation, these councils were limited to the Roman Catholic community. That’s certainly does not qualify as ecumenical in my book.
The first officially recognized counsel was not really a counsel at all. It allegedly took place in Jerusalem around 50 A.D. The only record of this counsel, and I use the word loosely, exists in the Acts of the Apostles. There is mention of a meeting in Jerusalem between Peter and Paul in the Letter to the Galatians. That hardly qualifies as serious historical evidence that this counsel actually happened.
A short aside here: the writing and analysis of history is a science in the broadest sense of that word. As a science, history requires verifiable evidence. That means there must be either official documentation of an event or multiple hearsay accounts by reputable witnesses. I know this may offend some of my more fundamentalist Christian readers, but mentioned in the Bible does not qualify as verifiable evidence, unless there are other reputable witnesses. As far as I know, the only mention of the apostolic Council is in the New Testament and all references to that counsel refer back to the scriptural references. Unlike later councils, there are no written records for the first Council. That means we all need to take this event as probably fictitious.
According to Wikipedia, the Free Online Encyclopedia,
Accounts of the council are found in Acts of the Apostles chapter 15 (in two different forms, the Alexandrian and Western versions) and also possibly in Paul’s letter to the Galatians chapter 2. Some scholars dispute that Galatians 2 is about the Council of Jerusalem (notably because Galatians 2 describes a private meeting) while other scholars dispute the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles.
If this Apostolic Counsel never occurred, then why is it the foundation of Christian orthodoxy? Remember that the main decision of that counsel wise to remove certain traditional Jewish ritual practices like circumcision for Gentile converts to Christianity. Circumcision is a very painful procedure to undergo as an adult. Eliminating the need for circumcision is probably a sensible decision. But then, when has religion ever really been sensible? I think we need to look at this decision more closely and analyze its justifications more deeply.
Paul is considered by all Christians to be the “official” Apostle to the Gentiles, appointed as such by Jesus himself in a vision that Paul had on the road to Damascus. As far as I know, there were no witnesses to this vision other than Paul himself. It is Paul’s word and Paul’s word alone that is the evidence, if you want to call it that, that has been accepted as the basis for removing this extremely important Jewish ritual for Gentile converts. What this means is that Gentile converts are something other than Jewish. Remember, Jesus was a Jew. So were his disciples. So were his original followers, for the most part. Why would Gentile converts want to differentiate themselves from Jewish converts? The answer is found throughout the New Testament, especially in the letters of St. Paul. Paul constantly refers to “Judaizers” coming into Gentile communities that he had converted to Christianity and these “Johnny-come-lately’s” would tell the recent converts that what Paul was preaching was not true Christianity. In order to become a true follower of Jesus, it is necessary for them to undergo circumcision as well as follow all of the Jewish dietary restrictions, some of which had been lifted for the Gentiles. In other words, these new Christians had to become Jews!
Apparently, Paul, whoever he really was, had a rather strong streak of anti-Semitism. That is one reason that I am skeptical about the scriptural account of Paul’s conversion. Paul may have become a follower of Jesus, at least the Jesus that Paul created, but I seriously doubt he was ever a Jew. The Orthodox tradition about Paul is that he was a Roman citizen, probably because of his father. Since Roman citizens who were Jewish were practically nonexistent in the first century, then was Paul’s mother was Jewish? That would certainly be consistent with the Jewish tradition that children born of the Jewish mother are considered Jewish, no matter what ethnic city or religion the father was. Of course, it is also quite possible that whoever created Paul was aware of this tradition and used it to explain how Paul could be both Jewish and Roman at the same time.
One of the more egregious aspects of Christian anti-Semitism is the belief, propagated by Orthodox traditions, that it was the Jews who killed Jesus. However, assuming Jesus was crucified in the first century A.D., it was not the Jews who did it. No Jewish institution or person had the authority to sentence someone to death by crucifixion. Only the Romans could do that. Perhaps the accounts in the New Testament that tried to make the Jewish authorities responsible for the Crucifixion were tainted by Gentile anti-Semitism. Or, perhaps, they were tainted by a pro Roman bias. Either way, it is clear that the authors of the New Testament were definitely trying to differentiate Gentile Christianity from any affiliation with anything Jewish.
Most Christians, including Christian biblical scholars, believe that the Act of the Apostles and the letters of Paul were written during the latter half of the first century A.D. I am inclined to be skeptical about those dates, since the earliest existing tax date to the third or fourth century A.D. Yes, there are apparently was some sort of debate during the second century about what should be included in the Christian canon (see my articles on Marcion). However, if we are going to go down that conspiracy theory road here, it is possible that whoever wrote the earliest histories of Christianity during the latter days of the Roman Empire created them from whole cloth in order to justify the power structure of the church. It would not be the first time something like this was done, nor the last time.
In order to truly understand the implications of this supposed did Apostolic Council of the first century A.D., it is necessary to look at the first actual ecumenical Council that took place in Nicaea in 325 A.D. It was called, supposedly, by the Emperor Constantine in order to provide consistency and clarity to Christian belief. In other words, this counsel was called to establish the foundations of Christian orthodoxy. The Council of Nicaea will be the next topic of our discussion, along with something that is called “the donation of Constantine.” It is these two events that set-in motion the development of Christian orthodoxy and its ever-increasing political and social power.
For a general overview of the official ecumenical councils, I suggest you read this Wikipedia article.
Until next time, peace and love! Hopefully, it won’t be four months! 🙂