Jesus Never Existed – The Criminal History of the Christian Church
Arianism Christianity's Last Link with Rationality
Scholars trained in the schools of Greek philosophy and rationality did not entirely lose their mind when they became Christian theologians. It was quite reasonable, therefore, for them to proceed from the concept of a single, universal creator god to the proposition that whatever else Christ may have been, he was less than the supreme god, a subordinate deity somewhere between man and the Almighty.
This, in a nutshell,
was the view of Arius, a theorizing presbyter
in 4th century Alexandria.
Borrowing freely from the lexicon of pre-Christian philosophers, Greek words like 'ousia' (essence), 'hypostasis' (substance), 'physis' (nature), and 'hyposopon' (person), were given new 'Christian' meanings by Arius and those who came after him.
Arius was an proficient orator, writer (his major work in 323 was "Thalia", later burned of course) and song writer! His sea shanties popularised his religious ideas in the coastal port cities.
But Arius had a much younger political rival and adversary in the shape of a fellow Alexandrian, Athanasius. Protégé of the then bishop (Alexander), Athanasius devoted himself to memorizing scripture and "the true science of the profound mysteries."
speculation was not Athanasius's strong suit but neither was he
bound by "scripture alone." Rather, he stood by belief and experience of
Divine Mystery, as interpreted in "the traditions of
the Church." He had no need for the logic of Greek
Athanasius and "Divine mystery"
Promoted above the venerable Arius, Athanasius gained the bishop's throne in 328 and held on to it (though half spent in exile!) for more than forty years. He defended to the last the right of the ecclesiasta to interpret God's Will placing so-called "Church tradition" on a par with the Gospels.
Throughout his tumultuous life and he was banished by no fewer than four Roman Emperors Athanasius clung tenaciously to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was God (just like Horus, son of Osirus, was God.) The one true God made apparent his Will, Word, Wisdom, what-have-you, through 'emanations' and Christ was such an emanation. Squaring this particular circle monotheism and yet Christ as god required a peculiarly illogical ("mysterious") formula but then Egypt was just the place to find such a formula. Athanasius returned repeatedly to Upper Egypt, hiding among the monks during times of exile (356 - 61; 362 - 63; 356 - 66).
The Egyptians had always deified these emanations, typically grouping them into trinities (in fact, a whole hierarchy of trinities). Thus, Isis-Horus-Set, Amum-Maut-Khonso, Atum-Shu-Tefnut-Mahet, etc., etc., reigned for thirty centuries, an eternal godhead.
The key aspect for the Egyptians (and Athanasius) was the god/human interface. "Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father" was a traditional Egyptian mode of including a man-god within the greater godhead. The pharaohs stepped into the trinity on Earth (as Horus) and became the heavenly element (as Osirus) after death. Athanasius wrote:
Thus the religion of the Pharaohs was recast in Christian form.
major literary contribution to the world was a work of fantasy,
equal to that of the 'Incarnation', the 'Life of Antony,' a
model of inventive hagiography. This fiction was to inspire such
luminaries as Jerome and Augustine in their own "lives of
saints." The Life, a paean to asceticism and the power
of the Lord's name, is awash with "demons" and "miracles."
Struggle for "Orthodoxy"
Rivals in every sense, Arius and Athanasius shattered any hopes Constantine may have entertained of a united Christian Empire. Exasperated by their obduracy he convened the first "universal" (ecumenical) Church Council and demanded an agreed ("orthodox") creed.
Convening at Nicaea in 325, for several months the theologians wrangled. Emperor Constantine had had enough. After personally struggling with dimly understood nuances of Greek theology and taking counsel from the Spanish prelate Ossius of Cordova this pagan thug and murderer proposed the formula which expressed (his idea of) the precise relationship of Christ to God: he opted for "of one substance" (in Greek 'homoousion').
Thus was it determined that "Jesus of Nazareth" had, in fact, been God Incarnate, the infinite creator of the universe. No mere carpenter, temporarily filled by 'Divine Essence', this new god of the Romans was no less than the eternal King in Heaven.
Overawed by the master of the world, the assembled bishops (with only two exceptions) endorsed "the creed."
High Summer of Arianism
But many churchmen were unhappy with this "two god" formula. Arius, sent into exile, travelled widely in the east and gained many supporters. Constantine remained far from clear just what he believed. When Ossius fell from favour Arius returned to it.
He submitted to Constantine a creed which the emperor judged to be orthodox and a contrite emperor ordered that Arius should receive the holy communion in the cathedral of Constantinople.
Murder of Arius
On the very day which had been fixed for his triumph, Arius died suddenly and under strange circumstances. "His bowels suddenly burst out in a privy." says Gibbon, the cause a choice "between poison and miracle."
Arius had been eliminated but a vexed Constantine turned his wrath on the Athanasians. Though Constantine's Council of Nicaea was ever after hailed as the lodestone of Catholic Orthodoxy, Constantine himself died as a baptised Arian in 337.
After his death, the imperial family remained divided on the issue and a blood purge ensued. The victor and probable murderer, Constantius II, took the eastern throne at the age of 20, with Arian clergy swaying his simple, superstitious mind. For a generation, Arianism would prevail and Catholicism stumbled.
Athanasius, outmaneuvered, retreated to Rome, accompanied by monks from the Egyptian desert. Athanasius exile in Rome brought Pope Julius I into the struggle. He called a council favourable towards Athanasius at Sardica in 343 but this council was avoided by the Eastern bishops and ignored by Constantius. It got worse.
By 350, with his two brothers dead, Constantius' writ embraced the whole Roman world. Arian bishops commanded important sees throughout the empire, most importantly at the imperial cities of Milan and Constantinople.
Yet fatally for the cause of Arianism, speculation encouraged further speculation. Council followed council (14 were held between 341 and 360) "in which every shade of heretical subterfuge found expression..." (Catholic Encyclopedia).
The Arians broke into diverse groups according to which term they supported - 'anomoios' (dissimilar), 'homoios' (similar) or 'homoiousion' (like in substance).
Favourites moved in and out of court circles with alarming frequency. The empire's resources were drained by the navel gazing.
Beardless Jesus gets his Arian baptism and pagan river god looks on!
5th century 'Arian' Christian baptistery ceiling, Ravenna.
Attempts to resolve Arian differences were made at Sirmium (351, 359). The final formula was an ambiguous 'homoean' ('of like substance') declaration that Constantius forced on the church in two councils, Rimini (for the West) and Seleucia (for the East) in 359. This 'homoean' victory was confirmed and imposed on the whole Church by the Council of Constantinople in the following year.
Said Jerome after the Council of Rimini:
"The whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian."
The Catholics were left dependent on Rome for support.
At first, the obstinate Bishop in Rome, Liberius, was forced into exile but subsequently he regained his lucrative see by subscribing to the Arian creed in so doing gaining everlasting opprobrium from Catholics as "a heretic pope." Other Western bishops, like Hilary of Poitiers, Ossius of Cordoba and Eusebius of Vercellae were banished to Asia, though they maintained contact with other renegades like Basil and the two Gregories.
As the war dragged on, rival Arian and Catholic bishops fought each other in the streets. The wily pagan emperor Julian (360 -63) encouraged all exiled fanatics of the Galilean to return home in the fond hope that they might destroy each other. In Alexandria, where the dispute began, that largely happened.
Erstwhile bacon salesman George of Cappadocia, a grandee of the Arians and future St George of England! seized the bishops chair when Athanasius was driven into the desert. So incensed were the inhabitants by his persecutions that they took their revenge on George by throttling the bishop and dumping his body in the sea.
Mysteries" the path to Power
"The West, which remained free from controversies of an abstract nature, and was faithful to the creed of its baptism.
Intellectual centres were chiefly Alexandria and Antioch, Egyptian or Syrian, and speculation was carried on in Greek. The Roman Church held steadfastly by tradition ...
From these doubtful theorizings Rome kept aloof."
Athanasius, exiled first to Gaul (335-337) and then to Rome (339-346), took with him the notions that would become the Catholicism in the west. It meant his understanding of what had been "agreed" at Nicaea; the precepts of monasticism; and unrestrained nonsense relating to demons and miracles.
He entered a fertile ground. Latin did not lend itself to subtle distinctions of theology nor was there any Greek tradition of philosophical discourse. The west produced no theologian of note before Augustine in the fifth century. In Italy and the untutored western provinces, relics, demonology and miracles made far greater sense.
Athanasius died in 373 but his dogmas had been enthusiastically taken up by the popes.
The Trinity Why adopt such a 'difficult' dogma?
Two things distinguished the Catholics from their Arian opponents: one political, the other doctrinal. Politically, the eastern sees, though each preserving a limited degree of autonomy, were ultimately subordinate to imperial control. The Patriarchy in Constantinople was in the gift of the emperor and functioned as a department of the state.
In contrast, the Popes in Rome increasingly saw themselves as independent of, and ultimately superior to, any secular authority. Sees in the west became thoroughly subordinate to the Bishop in Rome. In short, Catholicism was a tightly disciplined structure of power and wealth, rivaling the state.
Doctrinally, Catholicism kept aloof from fruitless "Christological" speculation on the nature of the god-man. Its call was for unity around an unfathomable mystery.
Stop thinking, Believe!
Instead of theology it opted for a legitimising stratagem of bones and miracles. Roman Catholicism, with no authentic links to the Galilean saga, was building its power base on spurious claims of "signs and miracles."
That shadowy "third person" of the trinity the Divine Wisdom or Holy Spirit could be identified with many things not least with "the communion of saints", the institution of the church itself, a new visible "city of God" on earth. The fantastic nonsense of the Trinity set Catholicism free of all restraint.
With the 'Holy Spirit' let loose all manner of wonderful events could occur at the behest of the Catholic bishops. Literally, the magic of the Holy Spirit, was made live and well, beavering away on behalf of the Bishop of Rome and his henchmen.
The elevation of the soldier Valentinian I in 364 brought a Catholic to the throne in the West, though not a particularly devout one. But it was he who brought Ambrose (city boss of Milan) to the fore. Ambrose persuaded Valentinian's son, the young caesar Gratian, to depose six Arian bishops and enact a series of laws between 379 and 380 prohibiting Arianism in the West. The argument was settled, as ever, by force.
With Gratian dead at 24 Ambrose moved on to his younger sibling. In the hands of Ambrose the 'Trinitarian creed' was developed to inform the dim witted Valentinian II, a child otherwise under the influence of his Arian mother, the Empress Justina. The naked power struggle between politico bishop and Regent masqueraded as a theological dispute on the nature of the godhead. A mob animated by some convenient martyr's bones settled the matter.
The Trinity, "that unfathomable mystery", had become the central doctrine of Roman Christianity, enforced on pain of death. After a generation in the doldrums Catholic "Orthodoxy" triumphant in the west now got its comeback opportunity in the east.
In 381 the Spanish fanatic Theodosius I and a mob of rumbustious bishops arrived in Constantinople from the west. The new pious Emperor outlawed Arianism (and everything else of which he disapproved) throughout the empire.
At the Council of Constantinople it was proclaimed that not only was Christ god but that the Holy Spirit was god too! The bishops and their emperor declared that mysterious entity, flexible yet bafflingly obtuse, a fully paid up member of the godhead, thus giving the Roman world a triune god three versions of nonsense rather than one.
Early in the 5th century the Trinitarian dogma was re-labelled the "Athanasian Creed", in honour of the original fanatic who had preferred Egyptian mysteries to Greek philosophy.
(In later centuries, the rather woolly concept of the 'Holy Spirit' would be upstaged by the altogether more visual 'Mary Mother of Jesus'. The Trinity itself would give the 'Scholastics' of the Middle Ages a lifetime of leisured theorising).
When Roman captives, gold or troops passed beyond the northern frontier, Arian Christianity went with them. As early as the 360s some of the Vandal tribes had acquired Christian talismans and from them the trinkets of Christ passed to remoter tribes. Famously, a Roman monk of Gothic ancestry Ulfilas set his hand to rendering his own written form of the Gothic tongue and translated parts of the Bible which one presumes might have been read to the illiterate tribesmen. Or maybe not. By the 370s, Arianism had been adopted by the Goths and spread from them to nearly all the German tribes.
During the migrations and invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries, the barbarian kingdoms which arose on the fallen empire of the west, were almost all of Arian persuasion. Arianism served each in the same fashion it had served Constantinople under the Arian emperors: as a 'national' religion, in embryonic form potentially a 'department' of a 'national administration,' with bishops chosen by kings. The very notion was anathema to the 'universal' persuasion of the Catholics whose grand design was for ecclesiastic not secular power, under the international authority of a papal monarch in Rome.
The one exception was a barbarous tribe from the marshlands of the Rhine the Franks who became the favoured sons of the Catholics. The symbiotic relationship between the Catholic bishops and the Frankish warlords brought both to the mastery of Western Europe.
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Robert Graves, Count Belisarius (London, 1938)
Rowan Williams, Arius (SCM Press, 2001)
Arthur Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Thames & Hudson, 1986)
Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (Morningstar & Lark, 1995)
Richard Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe (Harper Collins, 1997)
Edward Gibbon, The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1799)
Michael Grant, The Climax of Rome (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, 1996)
Michael Grant, Fall of the Roman Empire (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, 1996)
Robert Wilken, The Christians As the Romans Saw Them (Yale UP, 1984)
Robin Fox lane, Pagans & Christians (Viking, 1986)