Note: This is the first of two articles on the Jesus Seminar’s “Social World of Early Christianity”
Christianity was a pacifist, “anti-Imperial” religion that emphasized practice rather than belief until it was commandeered by Roman emperor Constantine, according to a group of liberal New Testament scholars.
“What do you have to believe in the Sermon on the Mount? What must you do in the [Nicene] Creed?” asked Bernard Brandon Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary, a school affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Scott contrasted the two as examples of pre and post-Constantinian Christianity during his talk “From Jesus to Constantine: From Disunity to Unity” at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. The talk was part of a series on the social world of early Christianity sponsored by the Jesus Seminar March 9-10 given to about 40 almost exclusively elderly and retirement-age persons at the parish hall of the Capitol Hill Episcopal Church.
Comprised of liberal scholars and laypersons who question scripture’s historicity, the Jesus Seminar draws from sources outside of the Biblical canon in order to produce what they assert to be a more authentic view of Jesus than the church espouses. Popularized in the 1980s, the group made headlines by voting up or down traditional church teachings on the person of Jesus Christ.
From “Disunity to Unity”
Scott, a layperson in the United Church of Christ (UCC), argued against accepted Christian orthodoxy in his talk. The charter member of the Jesus Seminar asserted that early Christian unity was a myth and that a multiplicity of views likely prevailed in the early church until the fourth century Roman emperor imposed unity beginning with the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed cut both ways, Scott described, simultaneously unifying Christians and excluding those who did not affirm the creed.
“In the beginning it wasn’t unified – In fact, it was probably divided,” Scott claimed. The seminary professor asserted that prayers of Christ in the book of John (chapter 17:20-23) concerning unity were not Jesus’ speech, but added in later.
“Me thinks he doth protest too much,” Scott added. “If you have to pray for unity, then you probably don’t have it.”
Scott also said that the letters of John portray a community torn apart by division, and that early Christians “were making it up or figuring it out as they went along.”
Contrary to the “a highly idealized view of unity” that Scott saw portrayed in John, the New Testament scholar said that the Apostle Paul argued with every church he wrote to except for the Thessalonians.
“Until recently, we have had the canon as the exclusive focus for viewing early Christianity and its history,” Scott reported. “Constantine’s [Nicene] creed and the resulting orthodoxy prevented us in ways from seeing the diversity in the canon. It was there for us to see, we just didn’t want to see it.”
Scott asserted that Constantinian-imposed orthodoxy “provided a filter that mushed everything together.”
“Not Belief, But Praxis”
Scott cited Rodney Stark’s 1996 book, The Rise of Christianity to explain his view that the movement became dominant because of its practices, not its beliefs. The seminar professor did not address how beliefs strongly differing from paganism shaped Christian practices.
Among the reasons cited for Christianity’s growth was the fertility of Christian women, their status in Christian society and Christian care for the sick.
Explaining that many pagan Roman women had frequent abortions resulting in sterility, Scott pointed out that between the time of emperors Augustine and Constantine, the empire’s population dropped about 20 percent. Pagans also exposed unwanted children (disproportionately girls) to the elements. During the same period of time, the Christian population grew substantially. Christians and Jews did not practice abortion or infant exposure, according to Scott, instead collecting infants abandoned by others. The result, Scott shared, was a surplus of women in Christian communities. The female surplus facilitated further growth by marriages to and the conversions of pagans, who had a surplus of males in their population.
Citing Stark, Scott also noted the ability of Christian women to maintain their own property after marriage – something their pagan counterparts could not do. Lastly, Scott pointed to pagans frequently abandoning their sick, not wanting to fall ill themselves. Christians stayed to care for their ill populations, resulting in a higher rate of survival.
“There was a positive physical benefit of belonging to this group,” Scott summarized. “What made Christianity grow was not belief, but praxis.”
Claiming that it was Constantine who sought to change Christianity’s emphasis to one of right belief, the seminary professor pronounced that “early Christianity was always a struggle.”
“The odd thing about Nicea is that it didn’t work – they had to keep having councils,” Scott judged. However his penultimate claim was that the Roman emperor continued to appear on coinage depicted as the sun god. The speaker concluded that Constantine was a “mean S.O.B.” who “killed three of his sons because they were getting too ambitious.”
“He’s playing both sides,” Scott concluded.