Perhaps some readers wonder if there might be some historical plausibility
to the gnostic portrait of Jesus and the apostles as teachers of pagan
polytheism. After all, Israel has at times wandered far from God in her
national pilgrimage. Manasseh went so far as to set up an idol in the temple
of God: "And he set a carved image, the idol which he had made, in
the house of God, of which God had said to David and to Solomon his son,
In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen before all the tribes
of Israel, will I put my name for ever..." (2 Chronicles 33:7). Was
the first century a time, like the days of Manasseh, when pagan polytheism
held sway in Israel?
All witnesses, pagan, Jewish and Christian, say no, this was a time of
great zeal for the law. The Old Testament canon, in case some might think
it ill-defined, was closed and had been closed for centuries:
"For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death....during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them. For it is no new thing for our captives, many of them in number, and frequently in time, to be seen to endure racks and deaths of all kinds upon the theatres, that they may not be obliged to say one word against our laws and the records that contain them..." (Josephus, 'Against Apion,' Book 1, 8).
There is no historical plausibility to the claim that Jesus and his apostles
taught pagan polytheism. Prior to Pompey's conquest in 63 B.C., Judaism
had been expanding not contracting; in the first century A.D., the non-Gentile
inhabitants of Palestine were as committed to monotheism as they had ever been.
Readers of Dan Brown will recall how that author magnifies Constantine's
role. People have been doing that for a very long time, like the ambitious
and unscrupulous forger of 'The Donation of Constantine.' These people
constantly revert to this theme, though it is not so:
"By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense." (Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels, Introduction p. xviii-xix).
Before the legend gets started that Constantine invented monotheism, some
explanation might be in order.
When Constantine became emperor, Christianity, which had been persecuted, became a legal faith. But the Christians remained a minority; they were in no position to disestablish paganism. That did not happen for a long while. The Vestal Virgins were sent packing in 394 A.D., their sacred fire extinguished. Within sixteen years, in 410 A.D., Alaric the Goth sacked Rome, just a coincidence, no doubt.
Under Constantine, the government first began to fund the construction
of Christian churches, while not ceasing to pay for pagan temples. Unfortunately
the separation of church and state had not yet been thought of. Paganism
had always been supported by public funds. The 'demiurge,' a figure familiar
from gnostic and pagan philosophical writings, was, in this lower realm,
the title of a public office, 'the people's builder,' a contractor maintained
at public expense to construct temples and other public buildings. From
'demos,' the people, and 'ergon,' work, comes 'demiourgos,' "one who works for the people..." (Liddell and Scott). The
idea that the building of temples ought to be funded by private monies
collected through building drives was a great discovery not yet made.
It should be apparent that government funding of religion is a formula
for setting religious sects at one another's' throats, not for promoting
civil peace. Though this lesson should have been learned in Constantine's
day, it has not even been learned yet. For example, the long-suffering
tax-payers of North Carolina pay Dr. Ehrman's salary. But there is nothing
voluntary about contributing to the tax revenues; if you do not pay what
the tax-man demands, you go to jail. It is tyranny to coerce the Christian
citizens of North Carolina to subsidize anti-Christian propaganda. Surely
what private persons do with their money is no concern of the public, but
Dr. Ehrman's activity should not be sponsored by public monies. Neither
should the state of North Carolina hire a Christian publicist to rebut
Dr. Ehrman; how could it be fair to tax the atheists and agnostics of that
state to spread the news that the Bible is inspired? No more fair than
it is to tax the Christians to spread the news it is not. Rather, the state
of North Carolina should stay out of the religious arena, an arena where
it has no competence and no special calling.
The religious controversy which Constantine did volunteer to referee was the dispute between the orthodox and the Arians, who are represented in the present day by the Jehovah's Witnesses. Neither party to the dispute questioned whether monotheism was superior to polytheism; they both freely conceded that it was. Both, in fact, accused each other of polytheism, confident that making this charge stick would end the debate. The Arians accused the orthodox of introducing diversity into the nature of God by their teaching of the trinity, an offense, as they saw it, against monotheism. The orthodox accused the Arians of polytheism because in explaining the many clear scriptures teaching the deity of Jesus Christ they were obliged to revert to the idea, "and the Word was a god" (John 1:1, New World Translation). Perhaps this is why Arians do not like clear statements of the deity of Jesus Christ. The gnostics did not have a dog in that fight.
They say sunshine is the best disinfectant, and the early church needed
buckets of it. The gnostics did not spread their teachings through open,
public preaching. They never would have allowed a volume to be sold to
the public like James Robinson prepared of the Nag Hammadi Library. It
was the teachers of orthodoxy like Irenaeus who wanted this literature
open to public scrutiny, not the gnostics.
Secrecy can be a two-edged sword. A secret society whose teachings are
maligned may find it difficult to respond, since, after all, their documents
are not open to public examination. For example, Jack Chick Comix says
that the Freemasons worship a goat-headed idol named Baphomet. The Masons
indignantly deny this, explaining that their order is a harmless fraternal
organization, not a religion. To this the critics respond that they think
so only because they are on the lower rungs of a society whose rituals
and ceremonies are, after all, secret.
There is no Christian who thinks it is a good thing to worship a goat-headed idol named Baphomet, or doubt that those who would do such a thing ought to receive the left foot of fellowship, but people do not believe the Masons do this. Just imagine that the very worst accusations are all true, and you have the situation between Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and the gnostics. The surfacing of the Nag Hammadi Library has only proved that these men did not lie, they did not exaggerate.
The God of the Jews
When Bart Ehrman does not remember he is supposed to be pretending polytheistic
gnosticism stood on an equal footing with apostolic Christianity, why,
he simply forgets: