THEOSOPHY, Vol. 24, No. 10, August, 1936
(Pages 433-443; Size: 29K)
(Number 5 of a 29-part series)
FIRST CENTURY CHRISTIANITY
THEOSOPHY is the ancient Wisdom-Religion, as old as thinking man, and part of the work of the Theosophical Movement is to keep these immemorial ideas alive in the world, so that men and women can live intelligently and purposefully.
Jesus the Christ was a member of that great Fraternity of Adepts which stands behind the Theosophical Movement. His aim and purpose, therefore, was to promulgate the fundamental principles of the ancient Wisdom-Religion, to exemplify those principles in practice, to give the world a truer realization of the SELF and a profounder conviction of Universal Brotherhood. Jesus did not come to found a new religion, but to purify the old religion of its dross. He did not come to bring new dogmas, but to replace with universal principles the narrow dogmatism that had crept into the Jewish religion. He did not come to establish a new form of priestcraft, but to destroy the power of the priests and give knowledge to the people themselves. Human nature was the same then as it is now, however, and the Prophet of Galilee met the same fate that has befallen most of the representatives of the Theosophical Movement who incarnated with but one purpose -- to benefit mankind. The impersonal doctrines that he taught were soon perverted by his personal followers, and the bond of Brotherhood that he tried to establish was soon rent asunder by creeds and sects.
Apollonius of Tyana was a member of this same Fraternity. His aim and purpose was identical with that of Jesus. He promulgated the same impersonal truths, taught the same noble ethics, led the same life of self-sacrifice and altruism that Jesus had led. Yet, there is no record that Jesus and Apollonius ever met. This, however, can easily be explained. For Jesus, as has been shown, lived in the first century B.C., while Apollonius lived in the first century A.D., and even if Jesus' life did extend into the so-called Christian era, he must have spent those years teaching in Judea, while Apollonius was busy in Aegea and Antioch.
When Apollonius returned from India after spending thirteen years with the Sages of Kashmir, he went back to the city of Antioch where he had formerly resided. According to Church history, both Peter and Paul were in Antioch at the time, and there was a large Christian community in the city. But, strange as it may seem, Apollonius made no effort to contact either the Apostles or the Christians. Why was that?
In the first chapter of the Ocean of Theosophy, Mr. Judge makes a statement, the importance of which is sometimes overlooked. He speaks of Apollonius as an Adept who appeared at a descending cycle, and only for the purpose of keeping a witness upon the scene for future generations.
If it seems strange that the Christian era is described as a descending, rather than an ascending cycle, we have but to compare the religious, philosophical and intellectual condition of the world around 500-600 B.C. with its condition around 500-600 A.D., to realize the truth of Mr. Judge's statement.
Why then was a witness needed in this first century of the Christian era? So that the Wisdom-Religion might be kept alive and the line of the Theosophical Movement remain unbroken. If the followers of Jesus had been capable of performing this task, no other "witness" would have been necessary. The fact that Apollonius appeared to perform his mission at this particular time should give the world much food for thought; but we will now look at the other side of the picture and see how the early Christians performed theirs.
The first Christians were drawn from three sects. Some of them were Essenes and Therapeutae, members of that same mystical sect with whom Jesus had studied in Egypt; others were Nazarenes; the rest were Ebionites. The first Christian community was composed of small groups, scattered about and organized into secret societies, with their own passwords, grips and signs of recognition. All of them were, with slight differences, followers of the ancient Theurgic Mysteries. All of them more or less kabalistic. And, in spite of the fact that Jesus had gained his knowledge from them, all of them were doomed within the next two hundred years to be denounced as "heretics" by the Church. Of these three original sects, only one has survived in its integrity, and because it still exists, unaltered, it may be interesting to trace its genesis and growth.
After Jesus had returned from Egypt, he came and dwelt in the city of Nazareth, "so that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'" The Nazarenes were the descendants of the ancient Chaldean Initiates. They were a philosophical sect, and were naturally opposed to the worship of the personal God Jehovah, which was then so prevalent in Judea. In place of the personal god idea, the Nazarenes substituted the impersonal Principle which present-day Theosophists call the Absolute. In place of the theory of the creation of the world they substituted the doctrine of Emanations. They must therefore be considered as one of the early Gnostic sects.
At the time of which we are speaking, the Nazarenes themselves were divided into several different sects, one of them being known as the Ebionites. The Ebionites were the pupils and followers of the early Nazarenes, and at that time John the Baptist was their Prophet. While Jesus was living in Egypt, his cousin John had affiliated himself with the Ebionites, and had made so much of the ancient Chaldean rite of baptism which they practiced that he had become known as "John the Baptist" instead of "John the Ebionite." According to the Codex Nazaraeus, John had been baptizing for forty-two years when Jesus came to him and was baptized by him in the river Jordan. This would make Jesus over sixty years old at the time of his baptism.
Many of Jesus' immediate relatives belonged to this sect of the Ebionites. After Jesus' death they were driven out of their native land by bitter persecutions, and finally found refuge in Persia. And there today the traveller may converse with the direct descendants of these "Disciples of St. John" who listened to the "man sent from God" and were baptized by him in the river Jordan. These "Disciples of St. John" and their modern descendants, the Mendaeans, do not believe in the divinity or the uniqueness of Jesus, but consider him merely as one of the great Prophets. They do not read the Christian Scriptures, but confine themselves to the document which contains many of the esoteric teachings of Jesus -- the original Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus, like all other great spiritual reformers, divided his teachings into two parts: exoteric and esoteric. His exoteric teachings were given out to the multitude in the form of parables, and consisted for the most part of the same ethical rules which had been taught by his predecessor, Gautama the Buddha. His esoteric teachings were reserved for the few. As the Gospel of St. Mark records:"Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables. That seeing, they might see and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand." --Mark iv:11-12.Although Jesus does not seem to have established a regular esoteric school of His own, as Apollonius did, there was one document which contained many of his secret, or esoteric teachings. This was the original Gospel of Matthew, written in the Chaldaic language, but with Hebrew letters, by an Evangelist who was the close friend and companion of Jesus. This Logia of Matthew, which contains the "Sayings of Jesus" mentioned by Papias, is the only half-original document that has come down to us from those primitive days. These "Sayings" were of the same nature as the small manuscripts put into the hands of neophytes who were preparing themselves for initiation into the Mysteries, and contained the revelation of many important rites and symbols. Like the Aporrheta, or secret discourses of the Mysteries, these Logia could be understood only with a key.
Modern scholars generally agree as to the authenticity of this document, basing their conclusions upon the many references to it that are found in the works of early writers. In the year 140 A.D. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, wrote:"Matthew, however, composed the Logia in the Hebrew dialect, but each one interpreted them as he was able."Forty years later, Papias' statement was corroborated by his pupil, Irenaeus. In the second century parts of this Gospel came to light in the works of Basilides, the Christian Gnostic, who claimed that he had been instructed by Matthew himself. In the fourth century a copy of this document fell into the hands of the Church Father St. Jerome, who found it in the Library collected by Pamphilus in Caesarea, and was commanded to translate it by the two Bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus. He made the translation under protest, for he recognized its esoteric character. Writing under the name of Hieronymus, Jerome says:"A difficult work is enjoined, since this translation is commanded by your Felicities, which St. Matthew himself, the Apostle and Evangelist, did not wish to be openly written. For if it had not been secret, he (Matthew) would have added to the Evangel that what he gave forth was his. But he made up the book sealed in the Hebrew characters, which he put forth in such a way that the book might be possessed only by the men most religious."By his own confession, Jerome admits that this Gospel contained the real teachings of Jesus. He must have realized that of the two Gospels of Matthew -- the one written in Hebrew and the other in Greek -- one must be spurious. Why then did the Church choose to perpetuate the Greek, instead of the original Hebrew Gospel? The answer is not difficult to find. If it had adopted the original Gospel, the very foundations of the Church would have been shattered. For in that Gospel it was not the divinity of the man Jesus that was proclaimed, but the divinity of the Christos-principle that lies latent in every man. And so, according to his own confession found in Book II of his Commentary to Matthew, Jerome deliberately substituted the Greek Gospel for the Hebrew, the one in our present Canon evidently having been written by Jerome himself. And so, owing to the efforts of this too zealous Church Father, the very meaning of the terms Chrestos and Christos has now become a dead letter to the Christian world.
The unity of the primitive Christian community was of short duration, for it soon split up into two distinct branches. The first branch may be called the Christian Kabalists of the Jewish Tanäim School; the second, the Christian Kabalists of the Platonic Gnosis. The first branch represented the Jewish faction of Christianity; the second, the Gentile, or pagan faction. The first was represented by the followers of Peter; the second by the followers of Paul.
Secular history is just as reticent about Peter as it is about Jesus, and Church history just as full of contradictions. And so again, as in the case of Jesus, we must turn to that section of the Talmud known as Sepher Toldos Jeshu for information that is at least consistent. This book describes Peter as a Jew, "a faithful servant of the living God," a man given over to austerities and meditation, who lived in Babylon at the top of a tower. It also credits Peter with having invented a burning hell and threatening every one with it, and speaks of him as a man who promised miracles, but performed none.
Peter was claimed by the Jews as one of their own brethren, faithful to the old Law, a defender of the Old Testament, and an apostle of circumcision. Peter therefore represents the Jewish faction of the early Christian Church. The Jewish tendencies of this faction are admitted by all Christian historians. The eminent Catholic historian, the Reverend Father George Stebbing, C.SS.R. says in his Story of the Catholic Church:"The Church at Jerusalem was of course entirely Jewish, and being composed mainly of those who had been most zealous for the Law, its members in great part still clung to its observance, and some went so far as to think that any Gentiles who embraced Christianity would by the very act bind themselves to the Mosaic Law which all the first disciples of Our Lord had been trained to keep. And, coming from Judea to Antioch, they put pressure on the Christians there to make them do likewise, at least in the matter of circumcision."Considering the fact that Peter, the Founder of the Church of Rome, was a circumcised Jew, that (according to Eusebius) the first fifteen Christian Bishops were also circumcised Jews, and that "all the first disciples of Our Lord" had been trained to keep the Mosaic Law, why then did the Church make such an effort to depart from that Law? But the Reverend Father Stebbing continues:"Paul and Barnabas came forward as spokesmen of the opposite view. This decree, which was a victory over the Judaizing tendencies of some of the early Christians, must have helped and secured Paul in his Apostolate."In other words, Paul secured his Apostolate by going against the very Law which "all the first disciples of Our Lord had been trained to keep." This matter of circumcision seems to have been an important issue with the early Christians, for Paul says:"The gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter." --Galatians ii:7.In these very words is found one of the many reasons why an outside "witness" was required upon the scene. For they show that, even at this early date, the Christians were not concerning themselves primarily and entirely with the philosophical and ethical precepts of their great Teacher, but with side issues. What has circumcision to do with the spiritual life? If it was as important as the early Christians considered it to be, which of the two "gospels" was correct: the gospel of circumcision committed unto Peter, or the gospel of uncircumcision committed unto Paul? The Church of Rome must have considered the first "gospel" as the correct one, for it acknowledges that the twelve circumcised disciples were chosen to be the foundations of the new City of God, and that Peter, the circumcised Jew and the apostle of circumcision, was chosen as the Rock upon which the Church was to be built. As the Reverend Father Stebbing says:"The twelve disciples were chosen to be the twelve foundations of the new City of God. One of their number was chosen out, given the new name of Peter, and declared to be the Rock upon which His Church was to rest. Given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, he was to open and shut its gates with full commission of authority in the name of its King."If Jesus used the word "Peter," what did he mean by it? Was it Peter the man? Would any great Adept like Jesus choose a personality as the foundation of his work? Would he deliberately choose for that responsible position the only disciple, save Judas, who denied him at the moment of danger, the only one, furthermore whom he addressed as Satan?"And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying: Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men." --Mark viii:32.There is a tradition in the Greek Church that has never found favor in the Vatican. It shows Jesus' recognition of the chain of causes that was even then being forged. This tradition states that Peter, frightened at the accusation of the High Priest, denied his Master three times just before the cock crowed. Jesus, who was then passing through the hall in the custody of the soldiers, turned to Peter and said:"Verily I say unto thee, Peter, thou shalt deny me through the ages, and shalt never stop until thou shalt be old, and shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee and carry thee whither thou wouldst not."Can we then believe that it was Peter, the unfaithful disciple, whom Jesus chose to be his successor? If not, what then did Jesus mean by the word Peter?
Jesus had been initiated into both the Chaldean and Egyptian Mysteries. The word Peter comes from the Mysteries. It was the Chaldean title of the Supreme Hierophant, and meant an interpreter. As Professor Alexander Wilder points out in his Introduction to the Bacchic and Eleusinian Mysteries:"In the Oriental countries the designation of Peter (in Phoenician and Chaldean, an interpreter) appears to have been the title of the Hierophant."Therefore if Jesus used the word Peter, he must have meant that any one who was capable of carrying on his work must be an interpreter of the Mysteries. As Peter, the disciple, had never been initiated into the Mysteries, how could Jesus have chosen him to be their interpreter?
There is another word in the Mysteries which throws additional light upon Jesus' statement: "Upon this Rock will I found my Church." That word is Petra, meaning a Rock and referring to the Rock-temple, and by metaphor to the Mysteries. Hence the Rock upon which Jesus' work was founded must have been the Mysteries themselves.
During the final initiations into the Mysteries, a double set of stone tablets, called the Petroma, was used by the Hierophant. The combination of the two words Peter and Roma, forming the word Petroma, gave the Church still another opportunity to profit by the name of the disciple. The idea of the Keys given to Peter to unlock the gates of Heaven also comes from the Mysteries. There the Key was used to symbolize the vow of secrecy taken by the candidate, which would forever lock his lips. It also symbolized the unlocking of hitherto impenetrable mysteries to which his initiation would entitle him. And so in the Mysteries themselves we find the solution to the mystery of Peter.
Although Peter is claimed by the Church of Rome as its titular founder, the history of his life, even from Catholic sources, seems to be based upon assumption. The Reverend Father Stebbing says:"St. Peter is supposed to have gone first to Rome. The accepted period of twenty-five years for his episcopate in the city of Rome is dated from this time. We now lose sight of Peter in the Acts, and are left to conjecture the details of his further career."Many modern critics are of the opinion that Peter was never in Rome at all. Justin Martyr, the great champion of Christianity, whom the Reverend Father Stebbing calls "the most valuable witness to the Faith," wrote extensively in Rome during the second century. And yet, strange as it may seem, Justin appears to be ignorant of Peter's existence. Neither does any other writer of consequence mention Peter in connection with the Church of Rome earlier than the days of Irenaeus.
The reason for the first split in Christianity becomes still more apparent when we observe the difference between Peter and Paul. Where Peter was an "unlearned and ignorant man" (Acts iv:13), Paul was learned, a Greek scholar, a student of the Gnosis. There is no doubt that Paul had been partially, if not completely, initiated into the Mysteries. His choice of language, the phraseology so peculiar to Greek philosophers, certain expressions used only by Initiates, all point to the position he had attained. His name is a further indication of the same fact.
Paul's real name was Elisha Ben Abuiah. The name of Saul, which means "a vision of Paradise," denoted his position as a Chrestos, or disciple on probation. When he was initiated and became a Christos, his name was changed to Paul, which means "the little man." As the Initiates in those days were always called "Little Ones," the name of Paul tells its own story.
Paul was a student of the Platonic Gnosis; in other words, of the ancient Wisdom-Religion as it was given out by Plato. This study had given him an impersonal concept of both God and Christ. The God that Paul worshipped was never the personal God Jehovah, but the Impersonal Principle that is indicated by the very word God itself. For this word comes from the ancient Persian word Goda, meaning Itself, or that which emanates from the Absolute Principle. The impersonal concept of God was considered as a "heresy" by the Jehovah-worshipping Jews, and in another century it was the "heresy" most bitterly fought by the Church. And yet Paul said:"This I confess to thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers." --Acts xxiv:14.Paul's heretical view of God included an equally heretical view of Christ. He never considered Christ as a man, but as a Principle. "If any man is in Christ," he said "he is a new creature." And again: "I am crucified in Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."
Peter was a conservative, faithful to the old Law, a defender of the Old Testament. Paul was a radical who exhorted his followers to free themselves from the trammels of Jewish dogmatism. "Cast out the bondwoman and her son" (the old Law and the Synagogue) he cried. "The son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the free-woman. Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty with which Christ hath made us free; be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." Peter was an orthodox Jew, Paul a heretic. Peter was an apostle of circumcision, Paul an apostle of uncircumcision. And yet, in spite of the fundamental differences between these two Apostles, Peter and Paul are claimed by the Roman Church as the "twin-founders" of the Apostolic See.
The average person who wants to know the history of the first century of Christianity naturally turns for information to books written by modern Christian historians, Catholic or Protestant, as the case may be. The Theosophist, following the method suggested in the second object of the Theosophical Society, makes a comparative study of the works of different writers, going back, wherever possible, to the original sources.
The Reverend Father Stebbing, in the preface of his book, gives us his reasons why Church history should be studied from the Catholic point of view. He says:"This is meant to be history; but history from the Catholic point of view. And if there is a tone becoming the Catholic telling the story of the Kingdom of God upon earth, it is a tone of triumph rather than anything else. For the Catholic who tells the history of the Church knows that it came from God; knows that it has an abiding presence in it in sunshine and in storm; knows that it must win in the end and on the whole."This eminent Catholic historian informs us that the Christians of the first century "presented a bright example of the ideally perfect Christian life. All were of one heart, one mind, one soul." But strangely enough, the writings of Peter and Paul tell an entirely different story, and show that the "twin-founders of the Apostolic See," at any rate, were far from that condition. Paul says:"When Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, for he was to be blamed. For before that certain men came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles; but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel, I said unto Peter before them all: 'If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?'" --Galatians ii:11-14.Paul was a brave, honest, fearless and outspoken man. His rebuke of Peter was not a personal one, but was made against the hypocrisy of his actions, and furthermore was made to his face. When Peter replied to Paul's accusation, he did not have the courage to come out boldly and openly, as Paul had done, but addressed him under another name, calling him an enemy and a personal rival. But, says Canon Westcott (On the Canon: page 252): "There can be no doubt that St. Paul is referred to as the 'enemy.'" Peter's reply is found in the Clementine Homilies:"Some among the Gentiles rejected my lawful teaching, and accepted certain lawless and foolish teaching of the enemy. I have followed him as light upon darkness, as knowledge upon ignorance, as health upon disease."And then addressing Paul directly, although still anonymously, Peter continues:"For you now set yourself up against me, who am a firm rock, the foundation of the Church. If you were not an opponent, you would not calumniate me, you would not revile my teachings, as though I were condemned."The first split in Christianity commenced with the dissensions between Peter and Paul. In a short time these dissensions were between their followers. The Jewish Christians were putting pressure on the Gentile Christians by trying to force them to adopt the Mosaic rites and ceremonies. The Gentile Christians retaliated by excluding the Jewish Christians from all hope of salvation. When Justin Martyr was pressed to declare the sentiments of the Church in this matter, he confessed that there were many among the orthodox Christians who not only excluded their Jewish-Christian brothers from all hope of salvation, but who also declined any intercourse with them in the common offices of friendship, hospitality or social life. Therefore, if the statements of the two Apostles and the "most valuable witness to the Faith" are to be believed, the Christianity of the first century was not the expression of brotherly love that the modern Christian historian would have us believe.
The seeds of dissension which were sown in the first century came to full fruition in the second. For by that time the Church itself was split up into two opposing factions. On the one side stood the orthodox Church of Rome; on the other the movement known as "Christian Gnosticism."