Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 12

Continued from last week...

Christians like to think that the early days of the Church were a time of glorious unity and holiness, when there was one united Church of simple folk humbly worshipping the Lord with simple piety, no liturgy, no theology and all this while wearing togas and sandals and hiding out in catacombs. Don’t believe it for a minute. The first Christians were indisputably Jewish, or better put, Israelite as I have been insisting. Jews are great sticklers for theological and liturgical precision. Have you ever been to a Passover meal? Or argued with a rabbi? A good Passover meal takes about four hours, so does a good argument with a rabbi.

The first Christians were quick to adapt temple and synagogue ritual to their own beliefs in the resurrection of Jesus and his teachings.  The rituals of the temple and synagogue involved scripture reading, immersions, hand washing, priestly vestments, bread, wine, water, oil, sacrifices, lamp lighting and music The rituals of Christianity soon involved scripture reading, immersions, handwashing, priestly vestments, bread, wine, water, oil, sacrifices, lamp lighting and music.

There is a fascinating recording called The Sacred Bridge in which there is a comparison of the Sephardic Jewish melody for Psalm114, “When Israel Went Out from Egypt” with the Gregorian chant melody. The melodies are not similar. They are exactly the same. It is thought that the Psalm tones and style of music of the temple were adopted whole cloth by the early Church. The psalms were the hymns of the Church as well as of the temple and synagogue. The first Christians didn’t say, “Wait just a minute! We are Christians now and should be singing, “The Old Rugged Cross” or “How Great Thou Art!’” and not this old temple stuff!”  We kept singing the songs we knew because they spoke to us of the Messiah, the Christ.

In the Catholic Church we still sing them. We also inherited the love of a good religious argument from our Israelite forbears. Just as there were a number of sects in first century Judaism, so too there were a number of sects in the early Church. There were the Ebionites, a kind of Jewish version of Christianity that believed Jesus was the Messiah, but they weren’t so comfortable with the idea that he was the Son of God. As more Greeks and other non-Israelites entered the church all the philosophical fine points of the Greeks created chaos. There were Nicolaitans, Cerinthians, Marcions, the Montanists, the Carpocratians, to name but a few.

Then there was the “great church” or the “church of the bishops.” This largest and most wide distribution of the Christian sects taught that Jesus had formed a structured missionary organization led by elder/supervisors. (The word supervisor in Greek is “episkopos” whence comes our word in English, “bishop.”) The church conferred this episcopal authority by a “smicha,” a laying on hands, just the way the elders of Israel and the rabbis had done since the times of Moses.  By the year 100, this sect of Christians was called the “Universal Church,” that is, “Catholic” (in Greek) and by the year 180AD, it was clear that this sect of Christians looked to the heir of St. Peter, bishop of Rome as its doctrinal authority. (c.f. Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3) After almost three centuries of theological squabbling with these smaller sects, the Catholic Church developed a completely new headache called Arianism. In the year 311 AD, give or take, an Egyptian presbyter taught that Jesus was certainly the Son of God, but only by adoption. The Father had created Jesus in time before anything else and then adopted him. The Father was thus superior to the Son. This made the Trinity a nice tidy chain of command, much like the Greek idea of the demiurges, one being proceeding from another and much like a Roman army. 

In 313 AD, Constantine had legalized the Christians. He wanted to promote the religion, but which flavor of Christianity to promote? He liked Arianism. It was so tidy and military. He assembled as many bishops as he could get a hold of in the town of Nicaea across the Bosporus from his new capitol Constantinople. The bishops dealt with thorny problems like the ordination of eunuchs, the proper date for Easter and also that problem with Arius. The bishops told Constantine that, “No, we have always believed in a co-equal, co-eternal Trinity, and Arius is nuts.” Well, most of the bishops said that. That should have settled the matter, but it went on to tear the Church and the body politic up for the next two or three hundred years. At least Constantine and his successors had a consistent Catholic creed, the Nicene Creed with which they could figure out who was in and who was out.

Over the next century the position of the state church hardened like concrete and within a very short time the ancient Roman cult was illegal. The old Roman religion was pretty much dead anyway. Constantius, son of Constantine, followed his father Constantine on the throne. He was never quite sure if was an Arian or Catholic, but seems mostly to have been a Catholic. He was certainly no friend of the Jews. Constantius turned up the pressure on the Jews. He and his brothers when they still shared the throne, made a law limiting the ownership of slaves by Jews and forbidding marriage between Jews and Christian women. Presumably, Christian men could still marry Jewish women, who would, of course, be expected to convert. Another law which Constantius issued as sole emperor (his brothers having all mysteriously died), decreed that a person who had converted from Christianity to Judaism would have all of his property confiscated by the government. To be fair, this may have been about business. It may have been an attempt to limit the people who were available to work with Jews whose businesses were in conflict with the state in an increasingly planned economy.

Thus, life in the Roman/Christian (Byzantine) empire got a little bit worse year after year after year... After battles with barbarians, relatives, and other usurpers, he died without a clear heir, having only one posthumous daughter, Flavia. So the nephew, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, was the only possible choice for emperor. He is known to the Jews as Julian the Hellene. He is known to Christians as Julian the Apostate.

Next week: Sometime you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you. Jews make a couple unfortunate decisions.

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