The Church Fathers were crazier than a Muslim staring at cartoon Muhammad.
The early Christians are often cited by apologists to support the authenticity of their beliefs. The general attitude is that those who were closest to the time of Jesus were in the best position to judge the truth of the stories surrounding him. Oral tradition being what it is,
this sounds like a reasonable proposal. The trouble comes when you actually sit down and read the stuff these people wrote.
As it turns out, the early Christians, the “Church Fathers,” were a real bunch of loons. Credulous, deceitful with a talent for spreading ludicrous rumors. You’d have second thoughts hiring these folks to mow your lawn. For some of them, you’d worry that they would accidentally kill themselves with the lawn-mower. For others, you’d be concerned that they would steal it. These were not the sort of people that you’d entrust your immortal soul to.
The Church Fathers’ writings are replete with bizarre claims that make you scratch your head at best, and foam at the mouth at worst. In some circumstances, it seems obvious that the author is a liar. In others, they appear more like gullible fools. Both circumstances are a result of the environment in which these people were writing. Charlatans and their victims were in ample supply in those days. The Roman Empire was respectably advanced compared to what came later, but not so much that nonsense could not gain mainstream acceptance. To illustrate that point, here’s a few bit of tripe of that the Church Fathers spouted.
The Church Fathers and Kinky Animals
First up out of the gate, we have the Epistle of Barnabas (written around 100-131 AD). You might be tempted to dispute my inclusion of this non-canonical document, but the point is that the early Christians accepted it. It reveals the psychology of the people that took Christianity seriously in the first place. Additionally, it is revealing of the nature of the type of people that would write such drivel in the first place. Here is a taster of some of the noxious verbal diarrhea spewed out of Barnabas’ theological orifice.
An explanation it gives (10:6-8) for some tenants of Mosaic law:
“’Moreover thou shalt not eat the hare.’ Why so? . . . for according to the number of years it lives it has just so many orifices.
Again, ‘neither shalt thou eat the hyena’ . . . Why so? Because this animal changeth its nature year by year, and becometh at one time male and at another female.
Moreover He hath hated the weasel also and with good reason. . . . For this animal conceiveth with its mouth.”
That’s right! Some especially spicy animals live a double life as sexual degenerates! You are what you eat, you know. One day it is a nice hare sandwich, the next it is whips and chains.
So, is it wrong for me to criticize the ancient world’s command of zoology? Should I give the author a pass for not knowing better? Well, that’s just the problem! This passage illustrates the type of things these people could be convinced of. There was no fact-checking in those days. For anything you wrote, there was a sizable audience ready to believe it. The author of this text was likely close enough to receive a second or third hand account of Jesus, buuuuuut come on, every good story needs a pot of steamy hare stew.
The Church Fathers: I saw a Centaur
St. Jerome (347-420) is another example of a mentally addled dingbat. We know him for his famous translation of the Bible. This was not his only accomplishment, however.
Oh no. His gifts as a writer are only the tip of the unstable iceberg.
St. Jerome, you see, was an active member of the early Christian rumor mill. He was quite happy to take whatever lovely story he overheard in the market and record it for posterity. The folks who see the Virgin Mary on toast would have had the ear of this great and learned “Doctor of the Church”. He would have seen to it that the whole world knew of the “Miracle at Bob and Mary’s Diner”.
As an example of this man’s discernment, take this story he relates about St. Anthony of the Desert (taken from Vitae Patrum, Book 1a, Chapter VI). It begins with St. Anthony wondering (as all humble saints do) whether there was anyone in the desert more perfect than he was. In a dream he is informed that another such person does exist and that he ought to seek him out. So off he goes, and on the way this happens:
“ . . . he saw a creature half man, half horse, which in the opinion of the poets [an opinion worth consulting!] is called a Hippocentaur. As soon as he saw it he signed himself on the forehead with the cross.
. . .
Dumbfounded, Antony turned over in his mind what he had seen and went on a bit further. After a short time he saw a tiny little man in a stony hollow, with a hooked nose and horns on his forehead, with his lower parts ending in the hooves of a goat.
. . .
Lest anyone should be tempted to disbelieve any of this [oh, I wouldn’t dare!], remember that the whole world bears witness to the fact that during the reign of the Emperor Constantius a living creature like this was put on show in Alexandria [they put it in the zoo!], providing the people with an extraordinary sight. And later its dead body was taken to Antioch, preserved in salt lest it rot in the heat, where the Emperor himself saw it.”
That last paragraph ought to do it for you. Jerome is not joking. He insists that there really was a centaur. There really was a Satyr. He appeals to eyewitness testimony of these things existing! Perhaps it was his intent to have centaurs and what not included in Christian mythology, or perhaps he spent a little too long the forbidden forest at Hogwarts. Maybe if we believe hard enough, we can capture one of these things and create an exhibit in the San Diego zoo, or alternatively allow one of them to give your kids divination lessons.
We are talking about a “Doctor of the Church” here. A “learned” man as far as early Christianity is concerned. It says a lot about your group when your “intelligentsia” amount to old fools. Half senile men who pass on whatever fantastic story they picked up off the street.
More than that, this speaks to the atmosphere in which early Christianity developed. A society in which anyone with a platform could say anything and be taken seriously. Christianity may as well have been a Hannah Barbera cartoon for its sense of reason and realism.
Oh, and I ought to mention, St. Anthony is supposed to be 90 years old when this event takes place. 90 years old and wandering around unassisted through the desert. Another hermit living in that desert at that time is said to be 113. It looks like the key to health and longevity is living alone and starving in a sun-baked wilderness (or not being able to count). Perhaps it is civilization that has cost us the longevity of biblical lore.
The Church Fathers: The Phoenix
So, the early Christians had a poor grasp of zoology. Their opinions seem to have come entirely from hearsay. Not to be discouraged however, they persisted in writing about. It seems that everything they heard, thought or felt was worthy of posterity. How arrogant can you get? Their behavior comes off as that of tabloid newspaper publishers. “World’s fattest man weighs three tons!” “Mel Gibson owns a sex slave!” “Kim Kardashian gives birth to a half-man, half-horse baby. Kanye enraged!” “Jewish Rabbi rises from dead.” That’s the level of discernment these people show. Ye olde Rupert Murdoch would be proud.
This behavior sooner or later starts to impact the writer’s theology. Making good on their zoological track record, the early Christians were enamored with the Phoenix. This bird shows up in several places. Each time it is treated as a real creature (in Dumbledore’s office). Each time it is used to bolster the Christian claim of resurrection.
From chapter XXV of the First Epistle of Clement (written between 80-140 AD), here is an example of this argument being made:
“Let us consider that wonderful sign, which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round it. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. [Oh, is there?] This is the only one of its kind, and lives fiver hundred years. [Were you watching it?] And when the time of its dissolution draws near . . . it builds itself a nest . . . into which . . . it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which . . . brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent . . . And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun . . .”
The argument being made is that believing in resurrection is not such a leap when one considers that the phoenix has been doing this forever (perhaps Clement was a phoenix breeder?). Well, if you believe in the phoenix, you just might find this convincing. Maybe you just find this strange blend of pagan mythology and Christian theology appealing, like one might find the idea of a zombie apocalypse strangely exciting.
The Church Fathers: Origin of Heresies
As has been shown, the early Christians were keen on spreading stupid rumors and lending credence to fantastic stories. This is trivial when it comes to the sighting of a centaur or the reproductive cycle of a weasel. It becomes much more important when it involves matters of theology. Is it possible that the Christian faith, itself, is a rumor? Well, the behavior of these Christian evangelists and early Christian doctine certainly suggests that!
Rumors have a tendency to be different after each telling. Paul thinks James slept with Suzanne in a hotel room. If you ask Sarah, however, she’ll say it was in the cleaning closet of a Waffle House. Eric says it never happened. Tami says it was a rape. Thus it was with Christianity. The myriad of early heresies point to this fact. There were the Manicheans, the Arians, the Marcionists, the Montanists and many, many more. Each of these groups regarded itself as the true Christianity. Each of these groups denounced the others.
Listing heresies, however, doesn’t do the situation justice. In fact, it is almost certain that beliefs surrounding the life and works of Jesus himself, are the products of rumor. One notable example is the age of Jesus at death. Christians, today, are taught that he was crucified at 33. The ancients, however, were not in agreement on this.
Some ancients would claim that Jesus lived to be an old man. A great example would be St. Irenaeus. Yes. SAINT Irenaeus. This heretic was canonized by the Catholic Church. He has a feast day and everything! He was said to be a bishop (of Lyons) and to have held an audience with the Pope (Pope Victor). None of this legitimacy, however, stopped him from challenging one of the most basic opinions on Jesus’ life.
In Book II, Chapter 22 of Adversus Haereses, Irenaeus writes:
“He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are this age . . . a youth for youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise he was an old man for old men, that he might be a perfect Master of all,
not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age
. . .
“those very Jews who then disputed with the Lord Jesus Christ have most clearly indicated the same thing . . . [they said to him] ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period.”
This passage unequivocally claims that Jesus was at least in his forties when he died. Irenaeus wrote the above words around 180 A.D. This is relatively close to the events it concerns (some fragments written by Papias bring us even closer). One would think that being so close to the events would allow these authors to have some kind of agreement on when they occurred. This turns out not to be the case. Jesus’ history was as nebulous then as it is now.
What room does Irenaeus’ philosophy leave for the crucifixion? Well, the above writing, Adversus Haereses, makes ample citing of the gospels to establish his case. The gospels certainly mention the crucifixion. So, is it possible that Irenaeus believes that he was crucified as an old man? What does that say about the historicity of these events?
Well, there are a handful of possibilities. Perhaps Irenaeus denies the crucifixion, which would contradict the gospels. Perhaps he believes the crucifixion happened at age 33, but that Jesus rose again and continued preaching until about age 50. This would deny the Pentecost, which would also contradict the gospels. Finally, Irenaeus could believe that Jesus was crucified as an old man. This would shift the date of the crucifixion by decades, demonstrating that Irenaeus had no access to any historical record that could definitively say the crucifixion happened at any point in time.
This last possibility is most interesting. If Irenaeus is capable of disputing the date of the crucifixion, that demonstrates that as early as 180 A.D. there was no official record of this event. Outside of the gospels, Irenaeus had nothing to go by. If Christianity had spread by mere hearsay, this would make perfect sense.
Thus we see the foundation of Christianity. Christianity was spread by a mess of bickering factions with no common understanding of the events they preached. They could not agree on anything. Everyone was partisan to the version of the story they had heard. Now consider that the early Christians were happy to believe and advocate all sorts of nonsense related to centaurs, satyrs, phoenixes and orally conceiving weasels. Would this lead you to the opinion that Christianity had its origins in intellectual honesty and rigor? Do you think it would have flourished the way it did if these virtues had been applied? Hell, I don’t. Instead, I find it most reasonable that Christianity flourished in a sea of undisciplined credulity.
The Church Fathers: The Low Character of Early Christians
So, what type of person became a Christian in those days? The answer should be obvious at this point.
I’ve mentioned that the ancients did not know much about anything, and that the outrageous claims of the Church Fathers might be partially forgiven on this account. That does not change the fact that the early Christians were among the worst that their society had to offer. The above material may not illustrate that so easily, but the accounts of Christian contemporaries clearly indicate what they were thought of in those days.
In Chapter 4 of “On the True Doctrine” (written around 178) Celsus writes:
“The [the Christians] would not dare to enter into conversation with intelligent men, or to voice their sophisticated beliefs in the presence of the wise. On the other hand, wherever one finds a crowd of adolescent boys, or a bunch of slaves, or a company of fools, there will the Christian teachers be also-showing off their fine new philosophy . . . Now if, as they are speaking thus to the children, they happen to see a schoolteacher coming along, some intelligent person, or even the father of one of the children, these Christians flee in all directions, or at least the more cautious of them.
. . .
“Thus, the Christian teachers warn, ‘Keep away from physicians.’ And to the scum that constitutes their assemblies, they say ‘Make sure none of you ever obtains knowledge, for too much learning is a dangerous thing: knowledge is a disease for the soul, and the soul that acquires knowledge will perish.’”
All in all, if Celsus is to be believed, the early Christians were seeking out the exact sort of people that would be inclined to engage in rumor spreading. They were looking for the crazy cat ladies, the tabloid readers and the Virgin Mary on toast folks of their day. When Paul proclaimed the virtues of being a “fool for Christ” it seems he was being literal. They wanted actual fools. This was their target audience from the beginning.
This well explains Christianity’s early history. Christian missionaries preyed on the vulnerable and then entrusted the vulnerable to carry-on in their tradition. The vulnerable, of course, are not very reliable stewards. Unfortunately, the next generation would simply uncritically pass on whatever felt “right.” You could not expect them to exercise any discernment in spreading the message, because they didn’t exercise any when they accepted the message. As a result, the message became muddled, incomprehensible and contradictory from one group of Christians to the next. This state continued and worsened until the Counsel of Nicea when the disjointed dogmas were merged into one monstrosity.
I could go on listing other examples of the insanity of the early Christians. There are a few I have left out and many more I could probably dig up. Those that I have listed, however, should well illustrate the comedy that was the early Church. Most of what I have included was information distilled from “Forgery in Christianity” by Joseph Wheless. Those interested in learning more could start there, or, if they prefer, they could just peruse the writings of the Church Fathers and wait for the craziness to jump out at them.
By Jason Calhoughney