Posted by: ken98 | November 17, 2009

The Rebirth of Long-Dead Religions

Day 68 – Ken here
(DEF v.1, ch.15, pp.450-460)

I am actually writing before dinner – mirabile dictu – this can’t continue – I’ll slip back to my old procrastinating, prevaricating ways before long I’m sure.

We continue the great chapters on Christianity – all 140 pages of them – all of which, I’m sure were fascinating to an 18th century audience fresh out of the Enlightenment, but which seem kind of old hat to 21st century readers (or at least this 21st century reader).

The Story

Reasons for Growth of Christianity
1) Zeal of Jews (cont.)

  • Judaism did not grow, why? not interested in proselytization, “dangerous” rite of circumcision, puzzling empty sanctuary
  • Christianity grew, why? built on proselytization
  • Brief history of Nazarenes, church of Jerusalem – converted Jews core of early church, clung to old law until reign of Hadrian (130’s) and the conquest of Jerusalem during the 2nd Jewish War – Nazarenes give up old law, join more general gentile church
  • Remnant of Nazarenes, Ebionites continue in old law as Christians thru the 4th century, when Ebionites disappear (300’s)
  • Brief history of Gnostics – group of Christians who rejected the Old Testament God of justice as unlikely, believing only in the New Testament God of love. Heavily influenced by Neo-Platonists and heavy on theory of celestial hierarchy and invisible spiritual kingdoms
  • Brief Socio-Economic status of Gnostics – upper class, educated, most successful in Asia, Egypt
  • Brief outline of relationship of old gods versus new: old gods are literally satanic demons, fooling people with miracles worked with demonic powers (attitude of newly converted polytheists)

    Gibbon, Christianity, and the Rebirth of Long-Dead Religions

    We take for granted that Christianity is like any other religion, part socio-economic construct, part spiritual guidance and not an unassailable absolute revelation. But Gibbon lived in a world only a century out of the religious wars and only a couple of centuries out of the Reformation, so state religions are all cutting edge stuff to him. On top of everything else, Gibbon is English, and so, has a fairly recent blood-soaked national history associated with changes of state religion. So maybe it merits the last 2 chapters of his first volume of the Decline and Fall. It certainly was going to get him into enough trouble for taking the trouble to write the 2 chapters.

    Gibbon tackles the very current topic of religion as history very, very seriously: battling superstition, gullibility, and religious prejudice
    with bountiful, well documented rationality. And, again, it is to him and his cohorts (the English and French philosophes) that the United States is a country seriously concerned with religious intolerance and the separation of church and state – at a minimum in theory, if not always in practice.

    Gibbon looks at Judaism briefly, Christian Jews (the Nazarenes, the Ebionites), then at Gnostics (whom he despises as mere theoreticians – polar opposites of his own very pragmatic English religiosity), then early primitive Christian beliefs concerning the old gods versus the new god. In a new direction for history, Gibbon begins regularly doing a sort of basic socio-economic analysis of the population groups he’s interested in – very advanced work for the 1770’s! He does so here with the Gnostics, and later with the Christian population as a whole.

    The ancient sects of Gnostics, and Essenes (Nazarenes) were extinct in Gibbon’s day, but in the 21st century they have been reborn. How strange it would seem to him to see his long descriptions of those sects not as a virtuoso academic exercise on obscure early Christian beliefs, but a description of a historical predecessor to a modern church. Which goes to show you how different a place the 21st century is to live in as compared to the 18th.

    Actually Gibbon very elegantly contrasts the 3 major movements in the primitive church: 1) those who believed both Old and New Testaments and attempted to reconcile the two (the general, gentile church), 2) those who believed only the Old Testaments and some of the New (rejecting esp. Paul of Tarsus’ influence)(Nazarenes, Ebionites, “believing Jews” in Gibbon’s words), and 3) those who believed in only the New Testament god of love and light, and thought the Old Testament god of justice ridiculous (Gnostic sects – there were over 50).

    Quoteable Gibbon
    Gibbon – On Why Judaism was not a Rapidly Growing Religion
    I think Gibbon was feeling this particular line of reasoning very personally, and very sharply.
    Per Gibbon: “The painful and even dangerous rite of circumcision was alone capable of repelling a willing proselyte from the door of the synagogue.” (DEF v.1, ch.15, p.451).

    Gibbon – On Gnostics, and the rejection of the Old Testament as False
    Per Gibbon: “There are some objections against the authority of Moses and the prophets, which too readily present themselves to the skeptical mind; though they can only be derived from our ignorance of remote antiquity, and from our incapacity to from an adequate judgment of the divine economy. These objections were eagerly embraced and as petulantly, urged by the vain science of the Gnostics.” (DEF v.1, ch.15, p456).

    Essene, Nazarene on Mount Carmel, Yeshua Mount - modern painting

    Essene, Nazarene on Mount Carmel, Yeshua Mount - modern painting

    Modern Day Nazarenes and the word Nazarene
    This from Wiki:”In contemporary Israeli Hebrew, the term “Notzri” (נוצרי) – likely to be derived from or related to “Nazarene” – is the general word for “Christian.
    …In all Arab countries Christians are called “Nasara” “نصارى”(Plural of Nasrani نصراني). The term “Nasara” is used many times in the Qur’an when referring to Christians.”

    There are modern Nazarene, Essene movements with presences on the web (here, for example) (Not to be confused with the protestant Church of the Nazarene which rose out of the revivals of the 19th century).

    Gnosticism - modern day gnostical allegorical painting showing the emanations, hierarchies, degrees of light and materiality present in the world, and those seeking the higher path out of gross materialism

    Gnosticism - modern day gnostical allegorical painting showing the emanations, hierarchies, degrees of light and materiality present in the world, and those seeking the higher path out of gross materialism

    Modern Day Gnosticism
    An example of modern day gnosticism here, and a brief summary from that site: “Gnosticism is an ancient belief system whose basic tenets seem to reappear in many different times and cultures. Gnostics hold that this world is essentially a prison for the spirit. In Gnostic forms of Christianity, for example, the creator god of the Bible is interpreted as an evil demiurge, who built the world to trap us; the real God is on a higher plane entirely, and Christ is our connection to him, providing the possibility of reuniting the trapped spark of spirit within us with its divine source.”


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