The Evolution of Christianity
The doctrine of Trinity, which is one of the fundamental constituents of Christian dogma, was absent from Christianity during the lifetime of Jesus Christ. The maximum one can grant is that this doctrine started taking shape after the Crucifixion. It took many centuries for it to reach its final well defined but inexplicable form. It went through a long process of extremely bitter and controversial debates between Christian theologians and philosophers representing different religious, cultural and traditional backgrounds. It was greatly influenced by the myths and the traditions of various lands, which hosted Christianity in its early period.
The main stem of Christianity, however, which took care of and nurtured the development of Christian beliefs and philosophy in its early formative part was of Jewish stock. Jewish influence remained predominant throughout the early part of Christian history. The disciples of Jesus, who learnt and understood Christianity directly from Jesus and witnessed it in the form of his life, belonged to this stock. They were the primary custodians of Christianity and had deeply embedded roots in the holy soil of Jesus’ instructions and way of life. It was they who witnessed the Crucifixion and had seen Jesus survive from his attempted murder.
Early Christians appear to have been fundamentally divided over both the nature of Jesus and whether to adhere to the Mosaic Law or not. In the second phase of Christian development, St Paul acquired the most pivotal character in giving Christianity a new philosophy and ideology. There were fundamental differences of opinion between Paul and James the Righteous. While James looked after the Jerusalem Church, Paul was preaching in the West, particularly to the gentiles. The Western Church evolved along Pauline doctrinal lines, whereas the Church in Jerusalem developed along monotheistic teachings. One offshoot of James’ ministry was the Ebionites, a sect whose name derives from the Hebrew ebionim meaning ‘the meek’ or ‘the poor’. They were the Jewish Christians, for whom Jesus took on the mantle of Messiah and not that of the ‘Son of God’. They followed the Mosaic law with great zeal, and had their own Gospel known in various contexts as the ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’, ‘Gospel of the Ebionites’ or the ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes’. Here is a description of the Ebionites drawn from various sources.
In his book ‘The History of the Church’ written in the 4th century AD in Caesarea, Eusebius mentions the Ebionites in Book 3, Vespasian to Trajan. He mocks at their views, saying that their name comes from their poor and mean opinion of Jesus. The Ebionites regarded Jesus as mortal and esteemed him as righteous through the growth of his character. As Jews, they observed the Sabbath, and every detail of the Law, and did not accept the Pauline idea of salvation through faith alone. He also talks of another group of Ebionites who accepted the virgin birth and the Holy Spirit, but refused to accept Jesus’ pre-existence as ‘God the Word and Wisdom’. They followed a ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’ which could possibly have been St Matthew’s Gospel. They observed the Sabbath and Jewish system, but celebrated the resurrection.
R. Eisenman and M. Wise while describing the background of Ebionites in their book The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (1992) say that James (the ‘Zaddik’ or ‘Zadok’, meaning Righteous) was the leader of the Jerusalem Church in the middle of the first century (40–60 AD approx.). The branch was retrospectively called Jewish Christianity in Palestine. The Ebionites developed from this branch. The Community who followed James were known as ‘the Poor’, (Galatians 2:10, James 2:3–5) a designation mentioned both in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In many ways, Eisenman feels that the Ebionites were similar to the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They honoured James the Righteous, and believed Jesus to be their mortal Messiah, while Paul had become an Apostate for the Law. They observed the Law and the Sabbath with great zeal. They held James in the highest regard, while Paul was considered ‘The Enemy’.
According to Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in The Messianic Legacy, the source of the original teachings of the Ebionites, Gnostics, Manicheans, Sabians, Mandeans, Nestorians and Elkasites has been described as the Nazarene philosophy. They refer to Nazarene thought as: ‘An orientation towards Jesus and his teachings which derives ultimately from the original Nazarene position, as articulated by Jesus himself, then propagated by James, Jude or Judas Thomas and their immediate entourage.’ Their beliefs were:
1. Strict adherence to the Mosaic Law
2. Recognition of Jesus as Messiah
3. Belief in the normal human birth of Jesus
4. Hostility towards Pauline views
There is a collection of Arabic manuscripts kept in a library in Istanbul which contains quotes from a 5th or 6th Century text ascribed to the ‘Al-Nasara’, written in Syriac and found in a monastery in Khuzistan in south-west Iran near the Iraq border. It reflects the views of the Nazarene hierarchy escaping from Jerusalem after the destruction in 66 AD. It refers to Jesus as a human being and stresses the Judaic Law. Paul’s followers abandoned the religion of Christ and turned towards the religious doctrines of the Romans.
Of all the various doctrines which evolved during the formative stages of Christianity, only those who believed in the Nazarene philosophy can justifiably be given preference. These early Christians were taught the meaning of Christianity by Jesus himself.
The Role of St Paul
Evidently St Paul and his school do not belong there. In fact, from the time of St Paul onwards, as Christianity spread to alien lands and pagan faiths within the Roman Empire, it began to be powerfully influenced and bent by the cultures and mythologies prevalent in those lands and went further away from its nascent purity. St Paul did his bit in influencing the deterioration of the Christian thought by introducing his own brand of mysticism. He was neither of Jewish stocks nor did he have any direct contact with Jesus, except through his claimed vision. He was already, it seems, under the powerful influence of the alien cultures. Apparently there were two options available to St Paul, either to fight strenuous battles against a world of superstitions, myths and legends prevalent in the lands of the Roman Empire from times immemorial or to give in to them and let Christianity change to suit their requirements and ambitions. This gave them the message that Christianity was not essentially different from their legends and myths. He found the adoption of the second option far more profitable and convenient and let Christianity change to suit the ambitions and philosophies popular in the gentile world. This strategy worked well in as much as it gained a great number of converts to the new faith who otherwise would not have been easily available. But at what cost? Unfortunately, it ended up only in an unholy competition between noble Christian values and pagan myths. What St Paul changed was only the names of the pagan gods and replaced them with Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Ghost. It was not him in fact who invented the myth of Trinity and introduced it to the pagan world in the name of Christianity, on the contrary, he borrowed the myth of the Trinity from pagan mythology and bonded it to Christianity. From then on it was the same old paganism but with new names and new faces. Pauline Christianity, therefore, did not succeed in changing the doctrines, myths and superstitions of the pagan world but only ended in changing Christianity in accordance with them. If the mountain did not respond to his call, he decided to go to the mountain.
Of course it is anybody’s prerogative to choose between Pauline Christianity and that of James the Righteous and other early leaders of Christianity who were the disciples of Jesus Christ himself.
The Reality of Jesus
But here we want to establish the point that the main stock of Christianity continued to develop along unitarian lines and kept itself aloof from the later innovations which generated the rigmarole and complexities of Christian dogmas such as the godhead of Jesus as the Son, the Trinity, Inherited Sin, Redemption, physical revival of Jesus, etc. The views of the early leaders of the Church, among whom James the Righteous is prominent, were simple and honest and had no internal contradictions or paradoxes hiding behind a smoke screen of mystery. A study of the history of Unitarianism in Christianity establishes beyond question the fact that the Unity of God, uncomplicated by the slogan of Trinity, remained the official doctrine of the true Church of Christ in its pristine purity. Please remember that this short treatise is not an attempt to convert Christians to any faith other than that of Christ. It is simply a genuine effort to invite the Christians back to the pure unadulterated faith and practice of Jesus himself. It is a sincere attempt to revert the fiction back to the facts of Christianity — facts that are certainly as beautiful as they are realistic and satisfy both the head and the heart. For almost two thousand years, it is not the legends woven around the reality of Jesus Christ that have kept Christianity together and have helped it to survive the challenges of reason and ever growing enlightenment borne out of scientific progress, nor is its survival due to the mystic belief of Trinity. What has held the truth and essence of Christianity together is the beauty of the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is the divine conduct and not the divine person of Jesus that has been so beautiful to adhere to. It was the suffering, patience and perseverance for the sake of noble ideals and his bold upright rejection of all despotic attempts to make him change his principles that have been the real backbone of Christianity. It is still as beautiful and as loveable today as it was ever before. It has influenced so powerfully the Christian minds and hearts that they remain bonded to Jesus and would much rather shut their eyes to logical discrepancies than to break away from him. His real greatness lies in the fact that he transcended and conquered the forces of darkness that had conspired to vanquish him despite being a frail human being and no more than a human being. That victory of Jesus is something to be shared with pride by the children of Adam. As we see it from the Muslim vantage point, he is one of the most noble progeny of Adam. He taught humanity by his example of perseverance in the face of extreme suffering and pain. Not to surrender but to remain steadfast in the teeth of extreme trial was the noblest achievement of Jesus. It was his life of suffering and pain that redeemed humanity and made him conquer death. If he had accepted death voluntarily, it would have been tantamount to an attempt to escape his state of suffering. How can one conceive this to be an act of bravery? Even the act of those who commit suicide, under extreme pressure, is taken to be a mere act of cowardice. To share suffering in life is far better than to escape suffering through death. Hence the concept of the supreme sacrifice of Jesus by accepting death for the sake of humanity is hollow sentimentality with no substance in it. The greatness of Jesus, we again insist, lay in his supreme sacrifice during his lifetime. All his life, he defied the temptations to give in and exchange a life of suffering with that of ease and comfort. Day in, day out he confronted death but refused to give in and lived for the sake of the sinful to bring them to life. He conquered death not by surrendering himself to death, but by refusing to bow down to it. He defeated it roundly and emerged from its clutches where a lesser man would have perished. Thus he proved his truth and the truth of his word beyond a shadow of doubt. That is how we see Jesus and that is why we love him so. His voice was the voice of God and not the voice of his own ambitions. He said what he was commissioned to say, neither more nor less than what God had told him to say. He worshipped God throughout his life and worshipped Him alone and never did he require any mortal to bow before him or before his mother or the Holy Ghost. This is the reality of Jesus to which we invite the Christians of all denominations and faiths to return.
Note: This excerpt is taken from the Book “Christianity, A Journey from Facts to Fiction” written by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad. The original book can be free download here: