A Sceptics Church History
All Hallows Eve
Divorce And Marriage
Punishment After Death
According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica 'abortion was apparently a common and
socially accepted method of family limitation in the Greco-Roman world'.
A number of early Christian theologians vehemently condemned abortion, but it appears
to be the case that no papal or ecumenical council edicts specifically forbade it, until
pope John Paul II added abortion to the list of actions deemed to be worthy
of excommunication in 1983.
In Britain and America the use of harsh criminal sanctions to deter the practise of
abortion only began in the 19th century.
Some early parts of the old testament say that there is no afterlife (see Ecclesiastes
9:5-6, for example) while later parts of the old testament say that there is.
The Albigenses were group of Christians based in the South of France (named after the
town of Albi) who preached against the corruption that they percieved to be endemic in the
It is hard to know exactly what else they believed, however, since present knowledge of
them is derived from their opponents (who finally pretty much wiped them out).
In 1209 Pope Innocent III felt that the Albigenses were problematical enough to be
declared heretics. He also instigated an implacable war at that time, the Albigensian
Crusade, which threw the whole of the nobility of the north of France against that of
the south and destroyed the relatively advanced Provençal civilization.
This was the only crusade waged against fellow Europeans, with an estimated 20,000 people
killed by various armies (including the army of Vatican itself). Albi was captured in 1215,
but sympathy for the Albigenses continued underground, at least until the Inquisition one
hundred years later.
See also Cathars.
Before and after the time of Christ, Alexandria in Egypt (in a suburb of present-day
Cairo) was famous for it's places of learning, the thinkers who lived there, and the
ideas that these people entertained. It sat between the Middle East, Greece and
Egypt, geographically and philosophically.
It was home to the gnostic group
of Christian doctrines that were fairly popular before being declared heretical,
and it was the home of Origen, one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the
church (who was himself condemned by a church council). It was also the home of
the world's greatest library.
When the library at Alexandria was burned by a Christian mob in 391 AD, the loss
to history was immense. At the time, it held a vast amount of information from
the ancient Egyptian, Mesopotatamian and Greek cultures.
The library had originally been set up in 235 BC by Ptolemy III, an offshoot of the
Museum Of Alexandria that predated it. It was organized in faculties, with
the salaries of staff paid by the Egyptian king, and the long-term aim was to translate
into Greek notable works written in other languages of the Mediterranean, the
Middle East, and India. Considering that by the time of it's destruction it had been
going 625 years, the resources it held must have been awesome.
The mob who destroyed the Alexandria's library in AD 391 were almost certainly
encouraged in their deeds by the city's Christian patriarch Theophilus. Similarly ugly
scenes took place 21 years later when the patriarch Cyril probably helped to encourage
the 'Christian' mob that went after Hypatia the scientist.
All Hallows Eve
The Christian All Hallows Eve festival, on October 31st, falls on the same night as
as the pagan Samhain.
In pagan times Samhain was a time when 'the veil between our world and the otherworld'
was thought to be particularly thin. Supposedly this was good time to perform acts of
magic, and it was a time when entities from behind the veil could step though the
crack and cause trouble on our side. Much of our Halloween folk tradition goes back to
pagan practises that predate Christianity: the 'trick or treating', the dressing up as
witches, and so on.
The 'apocrypha' is the word used to describe all of those 'books' or 'book chapters',
dating from the early days of Christian belief, that might have been included in
the 'new testament', but which were not.
Subsequently the word 'apocryphal' has come to
suggest some kind of untrue rumour, and the church itself has declared these books to be
none other than 'pious frauds', contrasting them with the contents of the new testament,
which, we have been assured, represents the one true account of the life of Jesus (and
The writer of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1.1) tells us there were many other
accounts of the life of Jesus circulating about when he wrote his account.
So how correct is it to make a totally rigorous distinction between 'apocryphal'
and 'non-apocryphal'? Let's look at some of the issues here.
There are actually some 200 books in the form of 'gospels', 'epistles' and so on from the
first couple of centuries AD that concern the life of Jesus Christ. All of these may be
considered to make up 'the apocrypha'. Of these, only 27
are accepted by the church. 'The church' in those days was the early 'church fathers',
who effectively sat in 'committee' mode in order to vote on whether or not to
include a particular work in the 'acceptable' corpus of literature that later came
to be known as the new testament.
Some examples of the documents that they rejected are
gospels supposedly written by Jesus
the 'acts' of John, of Paul, of Peter, of Phillip, of Thaddeus, of Thomas (as contrasted
with the new testament 'acts of the apostles')
the 'apocalypse of Peter' (as contrasted with the new testament 'apocalypse of John')
Jesus' personal correspondence
letters written by Mary
Pilate's official report to the Emperor regarding Jesus
official documents, reputedly written by the apostles, to lay down church law
the 'book of James', narrating the miraculous birth and infancy of Mary
the 'gospel according to Thomas' that describes Jesus' life until the age of twelve
So who wrote these rejected documents?
According to various historians (for instance Gibbon, in his
history of the Catholic church) most them were written by clerics themselves.
The same historians have often pointed out that it was not uncommon for these same
church officials to try and pass off their work as being that of one of Jesus' disciples,
Are the books that subsequently became known as the new testament really so very
One last word. St Augustine (perhaps the most influential individual in the history
of Catholicism) said 'I would never believe the Gospels to be true, unless
the authority of the Catholic Church restrained me'. (Augustine, De Genesis).
In 1947, a new set of documents written before 200 AD, and which (also) gave some
'alternative' views of Christ and his teachings, was discovered in earthenware
pots by a Bedouin in Upper Egypt. See
The Christian May Eve/Roodmass/Walpurgis Night festival, on May 1st, falls around the
same time as the pagan Beltane.
Beltane, like Samhain, was considered in pagan times to be one
of the 'in-between times, when the year was swinging on it's hinges, the doors of the
other world were open, and anything could happen'.
Over the centuries the books that have been put together to make up the Christian
'bible' have gone through quite a few translation processes. Some have been translated
from Hebrew to English, some from Greek to English, some from Old English to Modern
English, and so on. And inevitably, people make mistakes when doing difficult translation
work. I'm not going to look at this subject in any depth here, fascinating
though it is (I've just spent a long time putting this page together and I
need a rest!). Here's a couple of tasters, though.
The chapters of our old testament were extracted and translated from the Jewish
Torah. In Genesis, where in the Christian bible it says 'god created the Earth', in
the original Hebrew, the word that has been translated for us as 'god' is originally
'elohim'. A better translation of 'elohim' is actually gods-that-are-both-male-and-female.
So the translatation should perhaps be:
'in the beginning, gods-that-are-both-male-and-female created the Earth' not
'in the beginning, God created the Earth'.
Clearly there may be serious implications for Christian theology in translation problems
Similarly, when our bible talks about 'the word', this is usually a translation of the
Greek word Logos, that actually means a whole lot more than 'word'. Logos is a word
that would have been full of meaning for the ancient Greeks. Almost none of
that meaning comes down to us via that really rather inappropriate one-word equivalence.
Giordino Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake by the church for telling people that
'the universe is infinite' and 'the centre of infinity is anywhere'. That's the potted version, anyway.
Here's a bit more detail.
Bruno had a difficult life. Born five years after the death of
Bruno went to school at the Monastery of Saint Domenico (where Thomas Aquinas had once
taught). After school he became a Dominican priest, but it was not long before he got
into trouble with the church heirarchy, arguably due to the fact that he had an
extremely inquiring mind, he asked difficult questions, and he was not content to
keep quiet when he got answers that didn't make sense.
He began to write books, and travelled around Europe, spending quite a lot of time
in England where he gave talks and did translation work.
In his first couple of books he held that ideas are only the shadows of truth: a point
of view somewhat ahead of his time. Then he wrote that to try and prove the dogmas of
the church by human reason (as his contemporary Lully had tried to do) was a lost
cause. Bruno pointed out that Christianity is entirely irrational, that it is
contrary to philosophy, and that it disagrees with other religions. Oops!
Later on, anticipating Descartes, he said: 'who so itcheth to philosophy must set
to work by putting all things to the doubt'. He could not conceive that God and nature
could be separate and distinct entities as laid down in Genesis and taught by the Church.
While Bruno concieved of an infinite universe, he tried to imagine a god whose majesty
was equal to that. Bruno also embraced Copernicus' idea of the sun at the centre of
the solar system (and not the Earth, as we now know to be the case). Besides effectively
saying 'the universe is infinite' and 'the centre of infinity is anywhere', he also
suggested that there even might be other inhabited worlds elsewhere in the Universe,
with beings capable of rational thought, equal or possibly even superior to ourselves.
As far as the Christian church at the time was concerned, man was very much the centre
of the created Universe. Bruno's words were therefore blashemous. Bruno managed to avoid
serious trouble with the church for most of his life though: he seemed blissfully
unaware of the potential trouble that he could get himself into most of the time.
Until, that is, After 14 years of wandering around Europe Bruno accepted the invitation
of a young Venetian who offered a place to live back in Italy, but who then brought
charges against him before the Inquisition. For seven years, between 1593 and
1600, Bruno rotted in a Papal prison. The trial dragged on: Bruno would not recant,
until finally he was sentenced to death. As he was burning to death at the stake,
a crucifix was presented to him. He pushed it away.
In 1603 his books were listed on the Vatican's Index Expurgatorius (the 'banned list').
As a consequence, few people have read them even to this day.
See also Copernicus,
Darwin and Galileo.
The Cathars were a Christian sect who flourished mostly in France in the 12th and 13th
centuries until the Vatican deemed them to be heretical. The Cathars undoubtedly had much
in common with the Albigenses who were also
persecuted alongside them.
The Cathars were 'dualists' in that they believed in both a 'good' plane of reality
'above', and also an 'evil' plane of reality 'below' here on earth. (A view that is sometimes
known as the Manichean Heresy, by the way).
The Cathars also believed that Satan created, and ruled, the earth. The goal of life on
earth was therefore to transcend the material plane, or 'free the spirit', as soon as
They thought Jesus was merely an angel, and that his human sufferings and death were an
illusion. Like the Albigenses they also
criticized the worldliness and corruption of the Catholic Church.
Since Cathar doctrines struck both at the roots of orthodox Christianity and at the political institutions of Christendom, the authorities of church and state united to attack them.
In 1209 the ironically-named pope Innocent III felt that the both the Cathars and the
Albigenses were sufficiently problematical to qualify them for 'heretic' status. Soon after
this pope Innocent went further and instigated an implacable war against them, the
Albigensian Crusade, which pitted the nobility of the north of France against that of the
south and destroyed the well-developed 13th century Provençal civilization. This was the
only crusade waged against fellow Europeans, with an estimated 20,000 people killed
by various armies, including the army of the Vatican itself.
In 1244 the great fortress of Montségur near the Pyrenees, stronghold of the
select group of Cathar ascetics known as 'the perfect', was captured and destroyed.
What were left of the Cathari were forced to go underground.
Christian scholars in the 3rd century AD said that Christ was conceived on the
spring equinox (March 25th) such that the birth then happened nine months later on
December 25th. They chose to believe this mainly because of a pre-existent belief that
the world was created on March 25th. Clearly it seemed reasonable that Jesus should also
have been conceived (and later died) on this date.
It was not until AD 273 that the date when Christmas should be celebrated was fixed by the
church heirarchy at midwinter. This brought Christianity into line with (other)
'sun-god-worshipping' religions such as Mithraism.
A century later, and with refreshing honesty, St Chrysostom, Archbishop Of Constantinople,
said that the date for Christmas had been set at midwinter so that 'while the heathen
were busied with their profane rites, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance'.
A Roman historian, writing in 354, said that the first time Christ's birth was
celebrated with a feast by the church was in 336 AD.
The Roman festival of Saturnalia took place around the time of the midwinter solstice
(December 21st). This was a time for feasting. Perhaps one good reason to eat a lot at
this time of year is to replenish fat reserves against the cold.
In ancient Rome throughout the seven-day period of Saturnalia all business (ie all work)
was suspended; slaves were given temporary freedom to say and to do what they liked;
some moral restrictions were relaxed; and presents were freely exchanged.
Further west in pagan Europe the Yule festival (from the Norse meaning 'wheel') was held
at the time of the winter solstice, that is, on the 21st or 22nd of December. This was when
the God Of The Waning Year, aka the Holly King, was defeated by the God Of The Waxing Year,
aka the Oak King, and the year's tide turned from darkness towards the light of summer.
This is where the traditional use of holly in Christian Christmas festivities in Britain
comes from. (Oak leaves aren't readily available in the middle of winter).
According to Frazer, writing in the Golden Bough, 'Bethlehem' means 'house of bread'. And according to the early church father and church historian St Jerome (who lived in Bethlehem
from AD 386 to 420) there was a site sacred to Tammuz in Bethlehem. Tammuz was a corn-god
whose death and resurrection also represented the cycle of the sun's waxing and waning throughout the year.
Santa Claus as we know him in the UK and the US, owes a lot to Saint Nicholas.
If St Nicholas was a real historical character, then he was a fourth
century bishop, imprisoned during the Roman emperor Diocletian's persecution of
Christians, later released under the Emperor Constantine Great's amnesty, who
attended the Council of Nicaea (also known as the First Ecumenical Council) in 325 AD.
Some historians claim that St Nicholas was always a fiction, however. (As, for instance,
Nicholas' name does not appear on lists of bishops attending the Council Of Nicea).
St Nicholas was known by various names in Europe, for instance Sinterklaas in Holland.
(Think about it... the two sets of words actually sound very similar). So
the name Sinterklaas came to New York with the Dutch in the 17th century, after which
it was mispronounced by other New Yorkers, giving rise at last to Santa Claus.
The present-day idea of giving presents at Christmas can be traced back to a (Christmas)
poem called A Visit From St Nicholas by the American Clement Moore in 1823. Nicholas
was especially popular in the Middle Ages, being known for his generosity in
particular. Clement Moore seems to have picked up on this when writing the poem for
his children. (And in the Middle Ages St Nicholas' festival was on December 6th:
this was when presents were distributed, in honour of the patron saint of giving).
Here's a chunk of Moore's 1823 poem.
Down the chimney St.Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in furs from his head to his foot,
and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.
His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump -a right jolly old elf-
And laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
It is interesting to see that Moore's picture of a 'jolly old elf' bears little
resemblance a Christian saint, the 'tone' is not religious, and there is no
reference to any 'religious' figures or festivals in there either. Just as, when
Mary was elevated to a place in the Christian
pantheon, satisfying a 'goddess-shaped yearning', as Geoffrey Ashe put it, so it
seems that the Christmas myths that we have cooked up between us has filled the
need for an altogether more rich affair than plain vanilla Christianity could
provide. On this, the most sacred day of the Christian calendar, too!
Moore's picture of Santa did not spring fully-clothed from out of nowhere.
He was almost certainly drawing on the earlier writing of Washington Irving in
America who revamped St Nicholas' image in 1809, to represent him as a jolly
pipe-smoking Dutchman with baggy pants, who cleared treetops in a horsedrawn wagon
dropping presents on children's houses as he went.
So Irving was (probably) responsible for the 'jolliness' of Santa, while Moore
was responsible for the sleigh and reindeer, substituting them for Irving's horse
After Moore, the next person particularly responsible for our present day image of
Santa was the American political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Nast was commissioned by
Harper's Weekly magazine in 1863 to produce a Christmas cartoon. So Nast drew a
cartoon of Santa. Though American, Nast was originally German, so I guess
there's a chance that Nast drew on childhood descriptions of the German
Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) but mostly, it seems, he was illustrating the
image of Santa portrayed by Clement Moore in the poem above.
Every Christmas for twenty-three years Nast set aside his political cartooning to
produce a Santa drawing, and the overall picture of Santa that Nast portrayed
developed as time went by.
Nast was responsible for Santa's now familiar red suit, his workshop at the North
Pole, and the close association Mother Goose characters.
Some have suggested that Santa's red and white robes go all the way back to a
historical St. Nicholas, since bishop's robes were sometimes red and white then.
Others have suggested a connection to the (red and white) fly agaric fungus, which
certainly featured in Norse shamanic practises. But as yet, these propositions are
hard to back up.
Is it true that Santa's coat is red and white because these are 'Coca-Cola' colours?
Well, not exactly, since Nast had been responsible for giving Santa a red coat.
But. In 1931 Coca-Cola hired another German artist, Haddon Sundblom, to
produce images of Santa to go with their Christmas advertising campaigns. These
too were influential, putting even more emphasis on the red and white
colours of Santa's robes so that they matched Coca-Cola colours more closely.
This is said to be the company's most successful campaign ever in terms of the effect
of the advertising.
Santa Claus' reindeer are probably from pre-Christian Lapland, mythologically
speaking[!], but no one is quite sure. The Christmas tree, on the other hand, certainly
has it's origins outside of Christianity. Evergreen trees, evergreen wreaths, and evergreen
garlands have been symbols of eternal life in Egyptian, Chinese, and Hebrew cultures.
Tree worship in general was common among pagan Europeans, and it survives to this day
in Ireland and parts of Scandinavia, where trees may be found hung with pieces of cloth
at any time of year.
Centuries ago there was a Christian tradition in Germany to set up a
paradise tree in the home on December 24, when and where December 24th was
celebrated as the festival of Adam and Eve. Wafers, symbolic of redemption, and later
food, were hung on this paradise tree.
The fact that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, liked to have a Christmas tree
probably did a lot to popularize their use in Britain the mid-19th century. (Prince
Albert had German family contacts). Use of a tree at Christmas was probably brought
to North America by German settlers as early as the 17th century.
In 418 AD Augustine (354-430 AD) wrote a book called Marriage and Concupiscence.
This book provided the justification for more than 1,000 years of Christian teaching on
birth control. But Augustine's views were not evidence-based: -still less were they based
on scripture. All the same, these views have come down us (and been taken on board by many)
as though they represent some kind of immutable law. Do they? Or are they views of
(originally) just one man? Arguing from the somewhat dubious premise that sex
is sinful, Augustine went on to conclude that male semen transmits Adam's original sin
from generation to generation.
Arguing from some other premise, he also said that coitus interruptus, and other forms
of what today would be called natural family planning, where also wrong.
After Augustine, the church took these views on board to the extent that they became
Catholic dogma, but it is instructive to bear in mind that in the four hundred years
between Christ and Augustine, such views were not part of mainstream Christianity.
In fact, it is only in the last century that hostility to contraception has
really become entrenched in the Catholic church in terms of dogma. Pope Pius XI's
encyclical Casti Connubii (1930) condemned all methods of birth control except
periodic abstinence as 'grave sin', and this teaching was reaffirmed by Pius XII in
The man who did most to develop the contraceptive pill, John Rock, was himself a Roman
Catholic. In 1966 he was one of a number of people calling for a reassesment of Catholic
orthodoxy vis a vis contraception. He was a member of the Commission for the Study of
Population and Family Life, a group that was convened by pope Paul, and which, after
many years' study, submitted it's report to him in 1966.
The medical experts on the commission recommended by a vote of sixty to four to liberalize
Roman Catholic teaching on birth control. The cardinal members of the commission
recommended liberalisation by a vote of by nine to six.
Two years later, however, Pope Paul dug in his heels and restated the traditional
teaching. Using papal authority to assert that 'every conjugal act [has] to be open to
the transmission of life', his Humanae Vitae came as a surprise to most church leaders
and left many of the laity in a painful conflict between obedience and conscience.
Six hundred Roman Catholic scholars signed a statement challenging the Humanae Vitae
encyclical then, but nothing changed. In fact, a new conservative movement within the
Roman Catholic Church drew strength and inspiration from it.
Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) was really the founder of modern astronomy.
Born in Poland, he studied at Cracow and Bologna Universities before becoming a canon
in Frauenburg cathedral in Poland, a position that enabled him to pursue scientific
interests for the rest of his life. Years before telescopes, Copernicus spent
many years making 'bare eyeball' observations of the heavens from a turret on the
wall around his cathedral before finally publishing De Revolutionibus, in
which he asserted the view that the earth rotated on its axis once daily,
travelling around the sun once yearly. Prior to this (and following on from the
views of Aristotle and Ptolemy) it was universally believed that the earth was fixed
at the centre of the Universe, with the sun travelling around the earth. For
Copernicus to postulate a heliocentric model of the solar system at that time
was fantastically revolutionary.
When Copernicus died in 1543 his work had not
yet caused the commotion that it was later to do. It was not until the next
century in fact that others with a scientific cast of mind, such as
Galileo really began to 'side' with Copernicus.
Similarly it was not until the next century that the church realised what a major
threat to their world-view Copernicus' theories were: his book De Revolutionibus
was placed on the Index Expurgatorius (the Vatican's banned books list) in 1616
(from which it was not removed until 1835). The church clearly made it harder to
do science in those days. See also Bruno,
Darwin and Galileo.
This is what it says in the Koran, Surah 4:157-158:
'they said (in boast), "we killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle
of God" –but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made
to appear to them'.
Contemporary Muslim commentators have gone to some lengths to explain that
these words need to be treated with care, insofar as they were
not meant to be a plain historical account: rather (it may be said) they
illustrate something of the 'mystery' of the crucifixion.
Earlier commentators were less equivocal, however. For instance, Al-Baidawi,
who lived in the 13th century, and whose commentaries on the Koran remain
popular, relates the following in relation to Surah 4:157:
'It is related that a group of Jews insulted Jesus and his mother, whereupon
he appealed to God against them. When God turned (those who insulted Jesus
and his mother) into monkeys and swines, the Jews came to an agreement to
kill Jesus. Then God informed Jesus that he would raise him up to heaven; so
Jesus said to his disciples: "Who among you will agree to take a form similar
to mine and die (in my place) and be crucified and then go (straight) to
heaven"? A man among them offered himself, so God changed him into a form to
look like Jesus, and he was killed and crucified.'
Other Islamic commentators have even provided a name for the substitute:
Simon of Cyrene.
According to Baigent, Leigh & Lincoln in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail:
'Certain Muslim writers speak of Jesus hiding in a niche of a wall and
watching the crucifixion of a surrogate as is described in the Nag Hammadi
Early in the nineteenth century Bishop Usher, Primate Of All Ireland, calculated the
date of the creation of the Earth to have been October 23rd 4004 BC.
Bishop Usher was the head of the non-Catholic church in Ireland at that time. His
calculations were derived from the bible, using (as even his detractors have admitted)
a great deal of ingenuity. While our knowledge of the world has improved since the
early 19th century, many Christian creationists to this day believe that Bishop
Usher's calculations were and are correct. People holding such beliefs also refuse to
accept that the fossil record (for instance) provides evidence of a history of the
world that stretches considerably further into the past. Latter-day creationists may
also not accept the validity of Darwin's theories of evolution.
As an example of the 'debate' between science and creationism that continues to this day,
it's interesting to look at the debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce
way back in 1860 at the British Association in Oxford. Various eminent people had gathered
there to discuss Darwin's recently-published book The Origin of Species. Darwin wasn't
there himself, as he was shy, with no great talent for public speaking, whereas
professor Huxley, head of the Royal College of Surgeons and President of the Royal
Society (and Aldous Huxley's great-grandfather) was both fierce and articulate and
determined to defend Darwin's theories against what he percieved to be the the ignorance
of ecclesiastical opinion at that time.
When Wilberforce asked Huxley whether 'it was through his grandfather or his
grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey' the anti-evolutionists thought this was
a great joke. Huxley's response was to explain Darwin's central thesis and then say that
he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor. Finally he said he 'would
be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great natural gifts to obscure the
truth'. See also Bruno,
Copernicus and Galileo.
Here is a list of over sixty Christian Church Groupings And/Or Doctrines.
Why? To underline the fact that Christian belief is, and always has been, somewhat
diverse. Isn't it possible to do something similar with most other world religions? Why yes
Disciples Of Christ
Free Will Baptist
John The Baptist
Latter Day Saints
Mar Thoma Syrian
Progressive National Baptist
Seventh Day Adventist
Spanish Reformed Episcopal
Divorce And Marriage
Most non-Catholic Christian churches allow divorce. In the Catholic church today marriage
is seen as indissoluble (except on grounds of adultery). The history of the Catholic
church's position on divorce is very complicated, however, with various positions being taken
over the years. I'm not going to go into the detail at all here!
It's 'interesting' to see how the church has tended to treat women differently to men
vis a vis teachings on divorce and marriage, though. This is what two early 'church fathers'
had to say:
'you shall not divorce your wife except for the cause of adulterous fornication'
(Clement of Alexandria 202 AD)
'so long as a husband lives, be he adulterer, be he sodomite, be he addicted to every
kind of vice, if she left him on account of his crimes he is still her husband still
and she may not take another'
(Jerome, 4th century AD).
Roman Catholic theology asserts that the entire church is infallible (and therefore
cannot err) when, from bishops to laity, it shows universal agreement in matters of
faith and morals. (See Papal Infallibility).
Statements backed up with this kind of universal agreement were considered by the early
church fathers to be 'dogma' -that is, divinely inspired teachings.
Easter is a Christian festival that celebrates the Resurrection of Christ, with
resonances to a number of 'pagan' mythologies.
Eostre, for instance, was a Tuetonic goddess. Eastre was the name of an Old English
spring festival. The Jewish Passover festival is on the night of the first full moon
of the first month of spring, and the earliest Christians celebrated their 'Easter'
then, although it wasn't called that at the time. By the middle of the 2nd century
most churches had transferred this celebration to the Sunday after the Jewish feast.
The Easter egg is a non-Christian symbol, from a mythology where the goddess was
responsible for producing a 'world-egg' from which the world emerged, after the egg
had been split open by the heat of the sun. In some pagan cultures there were spring
festivals of the sun around Easter-time or Candlemas where these myths were
ritually brought to life.
The Easter bunny that you come across in some western cultures is probably a
throwback to pagan fertility rites involving the idea of a divine conception
that takes place in spring so that the rebirth of the sun can happen nine
months later, at midwinter. (The rabbit being a particularly randy creature).
If it were possible to talk with a 2nd-century Christian now, and analyse his or her
beliefs in relation to contemporary church dogma, how much common ground would there be?
Let's say that person was from Alexandria. For three centuries after Christ's death Alexandria
was a cauldron of philosophical debate and a melting pot of religious belief, with various
Christian sects effectively merging what we would now call 'Christian' with beliefs extracted
from Egyptian, Mesopotamian or Greek traditions
Christian thought went through many changes at this time, so even if you could speak the
same language, it's not at all certain that you would recognise more than a handful of
his or her beliefs. In the course of the first few centuries of Christianity
'theology became more hard and merciless -hell was intensified, and enlarged, and
eternized -heaven shrunk, and receded, and lost its compassion -woman (despite the
deification of Mary) was regarded as weak and despicable'
J.W. Hanson, Universalism, The Prevailing Doctrine.
Can we assume that those people responsible for defining early church dogma, and who
set the tone for the next two thousand years, were enlightened individuals, clear channels,
if you like, for the transmission of something divine? Gregory of
Nazanzius, a 4th century church father and bishop of Caesarea, when writing to Jerome,
for instance, said:
'a little jargon is all that is necessary to impose on the people.
The less they comprehend, the more they admire'.
C. Volney, The Ruins p. 177 (1872).
It is not difficult to find other quotations from early church mentors that demonstrate
an enthusiasm for spreading Christianity which was at the expense of complete
honesty. Eusebius wrote that he unscrupulously suppressed all that would be a disgrace
to early Christianity, for instance. Similarly Augustine Of Hippo recommended that
churchmen should 'conceal at fitting times whatever seems fit to be concealed'
(Augustine Of Hippo, On Lying). (See also the Apocrypha).
At the same time it is important to bear in mind that political factors were clearly
very important determinants, helping to blow the church this way and that in terms of both
Christian belief and practise. (See Mary,
for instance). Rome had military control of the entire Middle East at this time. The Roman
emporer Constantine became converted to Christianity early in the third century AD, and
the widespread use of Latin in Catholicism dates back to then, when it was the
day-to-day language of the Roman empire.
After the Emperor Constantine I (280-337 AD) decreed that Christianity was to be the
state religion of the Roman Empire, and as the church heirarchy became increasingly
centralised and based in Rome, it was decreed that doctrinal arguments should be
settled by Church Councils, beginning with the Council Of Nicea in 325.
Here is a brief synopsis of the first twelve Ecumenical Councils.
First Ecumenical Council 325.
to condemn the Arian heresy (that Christ is not divine but a created being)
to banish Arius to a life of exile
to assert the absolute equality of the Christ the Son with the God the Father (the
to define a proper means by which bishops could be consecrated
to condemn the lending of money with interest by clerics
to disallow bishops, priests, and deacons to move from one church to another
Second Ecumenical Council 381.
to affirm belief in the 'Holy Spirit' as the third person of the Trinity 'who with the
Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified'
to condemn the 'Macedonianists' who took exception to such a belief
Third Ecumenical Council 431.
to elevate Mary from woman to virtual diety
Fourth Ecumenical Council 451.
to approve the Nicene Creed
to affirm that Christ has two distinct natures
to condemn the teachings of Nestorius
Fifth Ecumenical Council 553.
to reject the Nestorian idea that Christ has two natures (see above). The fact that
this turned an edict from the Fourth Ecumenical Council on it's head caused a great
deal of trouble in Africa, North Italy, France and Spain with some bishops refusing
allegiance to Rome. Compliance was eventually forced in some cases by force of arms
to insist on the unity of the person of Christ in his two natures, divine and human
to ratify an earlier condemnation of the church father Origen
Sixth Ecumenical Council 692.
this council was held in Constantinople. It was not attended by the pope or
other representatives from the Western Church
a number of doctrinal differences between the Eastern and Western churches came to
light here, for example clerical celibacy was rejected. The Western Church
never fully accepted the validity of this ecumenical councils.
Seventh Ecumenical Council 787.
to condemn Iconoclasm.
to reestablish the use of images in Christian worship
Eighth Ecumenical Council 869-870.
to excommunicate Photius, patriarch of Constantinople. After this time the Eastern and
Western 'branches' of Christianity became permanently divided: the Eastern Orthodox church
in the East, and the Roman Catholic church in the west. It's worth pointing out here that
the rift between the eastern and western branches of the Christian church undoubtedly
owed a great deal to the political rivalry between Rome and Constantinople
(aka Byzantium) in Roman times. The emporer Constantine the Great transferred the
capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium in AD 330, and in many ways the power
of church elders based in Byzantium grew from that time until the Eighth Ecumenical
Council, over five hundred years later
Ninth Ecumenical Council 1123.
to condemn simony
to prohibit laymen from disposing of church property
to forbid clerics in the major orders to marry
to forbid the uncanonical consecration of bishops
Tenth Ecumenical Council 1139.
to condemn the reformist followers of Arnold of Brescia
to condemn the election of the rival pope Anacletus II
to repudiate percieved heresies concerning holy orders, matrimony and the Eucharist
Eleventh Ecumenical Council 1179.
to declare the rival pope Frederick I Barbarossa an 'antipope'
to withdraw support from Frederick I Barbarossa
to restore church property seized by the antipope Frederick I Barbarossa
to establish a two-thirds majority of Cardinals as a requirement for papal election
to condemn the Cathari and Albigenses as heretical
to authorise Christians to use arms against vagabond robbers
Twelfth Ecumenical Council 1215.
to 'recover' the 'Holy Land'
to determine how church property should be used
to determine the rents on church-owned properties
to determine the procedures for ecclesiastical courts
to order Jews and Saracens to wear distinctive dress
to oblige Catholics to make a yearly confession
to oblige Catholics to receive Communion during Easter season
to sanction the word 'transubstantiation' in relation to the eucharist
to (further) condemn Cathar teachings
to condemn Waldensian teachings
to order a four-year truce among Christian rulers so that a new crusade could be launched
The eucharist is the name given to the Christian ritual involving food and wine where
participants are called upon to remember Jesus' 'last supper'. It is also called 'holy
At the last supper Jesus reputedly said 'this is my body' when he handed the bread
around, and he reputedly said 'this is my blood' when he handed the wine out.
The eucharist has been part of Christian ritual since the very earliest days of
the church, surviving in most branches of Christianity to this day. Precisely because
it was so ubiquitous in the early church there was little need to formalise the ritual
or compel people to practise it via church edicts and so on.
From the earliest days there was an awareness of profound symbolism in the ritual
relating to aspects of the crucifixion, but it was not until the 12th century that the
term 'transubstantiation' was used to describe the means by which the makeup of the
bread (or wafer) and wine were considered to change in the course of the ritual so
that Jesus somehow or other became 'literally present' in what was normal
everyday food and drink.
This doctrine was elaborated by scholastic theologians in the 13th to 15th centuries.
It finally became formally recognised by an Ecumenical Council at the Council of Trent
(and thus become church dogma) between 1545 and 1563.
In 1965 pope Paul VI underlined the Catholic church's commitment to the notion of
transubstantiation in the context of the eucharist.
Early church theologians, and especially those we have later come to call 'gnostics'
(such as Clement and Origen) were bewildered by the question of evil. The question
that they struggled with, more or less, is this:
'how does one reconcile the three propositions:
i) evil exists
ii) god has perfect power
iii) god has perfect goodness?'
If evil does exist, then why doesn't a perfectly powerful god just get rid of it?
Some thinkers (eg William James) have attempted to resolve the problem by saying that
the god of Christianity is not completely powerful.
Christian Scientists seem to lean pretty much in the direction of solving the
problem by saying that evil doesn't exist.
After the fierce theological debates of the first couple of centuries of Christian
thought, the 'Catholic' position seems to have more or less firmed up as:
try and live with the tensions involved in affirming all three propositions at once
Galileo Galilei was born in Italy 1564. He died in 1642.
His main achievements were
an influential determination to always use precise measurements
an influential determination to avoid making assumptions based on metaphysical principles
the use of the telescope in astronomical observation
the discovery of sunspots
the discovery of mountains and valleys on the moon
the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter
the discovery of the phases of Venus
discovery the laws of falling bodies
the discovery of the motions of projectiles
work on motion and mechanics that did much to contribute to Newton's laws of gravitation
Galileo strongly believed in Copernicus' ideas, that the sun was at the centre of the
solar system, and that the earth moved around the sun. At this time the church still
adhered to the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic views (in contradiction to Copernicus) that the
planets went round a fixed earth, that only perfectly spherical bodies could exist in
the heavens, that nothing new could ever appear in the heavens, and so on.
By challenging Aristote and Ptolemy as he did, Galileo's views were also a challenge
to the idea of 'the divine perfection of the heavens' as taught by the Christian church.
In 1614, after his ideas had been denounced from the pulpit, Galileo wrote a long,
open letter on how quoting the bible in scientific arguments was an irrelevance,
suggesting that interpretation of the Bible should be adapted to increasing knowledge,
and suggesting further that no scientific position should ever be made an article
of Roman Catholic faith. Oops.
In 1616, a church edict was passed to censor his books, and Galileo was also instructed
(by a local cardinal) at this time that he must no longer defend the concept of a
moving earth. Galileo remained silent on the subject for years, busying himself with
other matters. In other words he more or less complied. This was not enough for the
church, however: the Inquisition summoned him to Rome in 1633 to stand trial for
'grave suspicion of heresy'. The charge was based on the allegation that Galileo had
not complied with the 1616 edict instructing him to keep quiet. Even though
the Inquisition produced no evidence to support it's case, Galileo was nevertheless
found guilty and sentenced to house arrest for life. His most recent book was burned.
The Inquisition also had sufficient 'influence' to order that the sentence against him
should be read publicly in every university in Italy and beyond.
In October 1992 a papal commission acknowledged the Vatican's error, after pondering
the subject for 13 years. In other words, finally, it took the church over
400 hundred years to publicly admit that it was wrong to treat Galileo in the
way that it did, even though 200 years after Galileo there was more than enough
evidence to conclusively prove that he had been right to say 'the earth moves'.
See also Bruno,
Gnosis might be defined as 'self-liberation through knowledge'.
Gnosis, knowledge, philosophy applied to religion, was deemed to be all-important by
Clement, Origen, and the most prominent of the early church fathers. As the power
of the church grew, however, in later centuries many of these individuals came to be
condemned by one or another edict, from popes, church councils and so on.
At the same time the gnostic ideas that had been freely expressed in the first
few centuries of Chistian thought, also came to be condemned (as heresy) and driven
One of the most basic ideas within gnosticism is the idea that an individual may,
through their own effort and insight, discover divinity for themselves, without the
need of a priest of any kind to mediate between the 'seeker' and 'the sought', between
the ordinary individual and divinity. Had such an idea become accepted (as it was in
Buddhism for example) an awful lot of people would have been looking for alternative
ways to earn a living.
52 papyrus texts were accidentally discovered by a poor Bedouin farmer inside a cave
in Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt in 1945. The earliest of these scrolls were written
somewhere between 150 and 200 AD, though the likelihood is that these were based
on earlier works.
(The earliest gospel of the new testament 'gospels' was reputed to have been written
around 60 AD).
The Bedouin who found them burned many of these documents on a fire at home before
realising that they might be valuable as more than firewood. The writings on the
scrolls became known as the Gnostic Gospels. Elaine Pagels, PhD (Harvard) made an
intensive study of these documents, summarising them in her book 'The Gnostic Gospels'.
This is what she had to say:
'These Gnostic writings describe many of the people and events found in the New
Testament, but from a strikingly different perspective. They show us that the early
Church, far from being the unified body we have assumed it to be, was deeply split
from the beginning; that many followers of Christ were not in agreement on the facts
of his life, the meaning of his teachings, or the form the Church should take'.
'From such texts as the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas... we learn that
... many Gnostics challenged the priestly authority and believed instead in the
presence of the divine within the human, that the way to salvation was through
self-knowledge. We learn of Gnostic groups that believed in a God who was both
Father and Mother, and that woman and man were spiritual equals'.
'The Living Jesus of these (Nag Hammadi) texts speaks of illusion and
enlightenment, not of sin and repentance... when the disciple attains
enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master'.
'By A.D. 200, Christianity had become an institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy
of bishops, priests and deacons who understood themselves to be the guardians of the
only 'true faith.' The majority of churches, among which the church of Rome took a
leading role, rejected all other viewpoints as heresy'.
The Great Schism in the Catholic church occured in 1378 when there were two, rival,
popes. The Council Of Pisa attempted to sort out the mess by deposing both pope
Gregory XII (in Rome) and pope Benedict XIII (in Avignon), replacing both of them
with the new pope Alexander V.
It took a while for the council's edicts to be recognised, however, so for a while
that year there were actually three competing popes. It took until 1415 and
the Council Of Constance, however, before the doctrinal unity that had been
'compromised' by the Great Schism was reimposed (at the expense of the lives of a
number of 'heretics': Jan Hus, mentioned in the section on
hymns was one of these.
The old testament teaches that there is no hell. (The new testament teaches that
For fifteen hundred years of Christian faith, until 1501, the only music included as part
of Catholic worship were unaccompanied songs in Latin that were sung by monks or
It was not until 1501, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, that a 'breakaway'
Catholic movement, intent on making the words understandable to a congregation again,
introduced their own hymnbook of 89 songs in the Czech language. Some had been written
by the reformer Jan Hus, who had been burned at the stake for his Reformist beliefs after being labelled a heretic at the Council Of Constance.
Hypatia (370-415 AD) was an Egyptian Neoplatonist philosopher who lived in
She was also the first famous female mathematician. Hypatia became the head of the
Alexandria's Neoplatonist school of philosophy, where her remarkable intellect, along
with her eloquence, modesty, and (last but not least) beauty, attracted many pupils.
There was a good deal of religious tension in Alexandria at that time, with different
strands of Christianity struggling to gain the upper hand (and the various Gnostic
sects based in Alexandria coming off worst in these struggles more often that not).
Also at that time many Christians associated science with paganism (qv the
flourishing Greek culture that the church was still involved in 'converting').
In 412 the city of Alexandria acquired a new, conservative-even-by-standards-the-day, Christian patriarch by the name of Cyril. Hypatia continued to teach and publish that
year even though she must have known that she was in great danger. The one day on her
way to work a mob of Christians pounced on her, tore off her clothes, and ripped the
flesh from her bones using abalone shells. Cyril was canonised (made a saint).
See also Alexandria.
In the first few centuries of Christianity, the making of portraits of Christ
and the saints, and the use of such icons in worship, was consistently opposed.
Nevertheless the use of icons grew more and more popular, especially in eastern areas.
There has been quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing over the years here! For instance:
In 730 the Byzantine emperor Leo III banned the use of icons. ('Iconoclasts' such as
Leo objected to the use of icons in Christian worship for various reasons, not the
least of which was the old testament injunction against images in the Ten Commandments
-qv Exodus 20:4).
In 787, Seventh Ecumenical Council condemned Iconoclasm and the use of images was reestablished.
The church council of 815 forbade the use of icons once again.
In 843 the widow of the recently-deceased emperor Theophilus finally restored icon
veneration, a situation that remains until the present day in the mainstream Catholic
church (though not in all types of Christian church).
Pope Alexander IV first established the Office of the Inquisition in Italy in 1254.
The first Inquisitor was Dominic, the Spanish founder of the Dominican order of monks.
It's purpose was to discourage religious beliefs and practises that differed
significantly from Roman Catholic beliefs and practices. That is, to stamp out
'heresy'. The Inquisition spread across most of Europe and was not abolished until
1820 (in Spain).
It is important to underline the fact that (as with the 'witch hunts') a great deal
of black propaganda has probably been disseminated against the Inquisition by non-
Catholics wishing to undermine the Catholic church. As with recent historical enquiries
into the witch hunts, recent work on the Inquisition suggests that fewer people
died at the hands of the Inquisition than had previously been thought.
Even today it is not hard to use the internet to track down woodcut images of the
Inquisition produced at the time it was happening that are truly gruesome,
with people being flayed alive, having their eyeballs gouged out, and so on and so
forth. But many of these images, it has been suggested, were almost certainly produced
by Protestants in a deliberately propagandist way, insofar as they were knowingly not
made to be accurate representations of true events. The printing press had only just
been invented, and seemingly it was used to great effect as an instrument of
anti-Catholic black propaganda in Protestant countries.
On the other hand, however, Catholics themselves have often had a tendency
to downplay the Inquisition's iniquities in the past. Let's take the example
of Jean Antione Llorente, for instance.
Jean Antoine Llorente was 'secretary' to the Spanish Inquisition from 1790-92, and
apparently he said:
'The horrid conduct of this Holy Office weakened the power and diminished the
population of Spain by arresting the progress of arts, sciences, industry, and commerce,
and by compelling multitudes of families to abandon the kingdom; by instigating the
expulsion of the Jews and the Moors, and by immolating on its flaming shambles more
than 300,000 victims'.
But was he telling the truth? The 'downplayers' have sometimes maintained that
Llorente was exagerrating because he was an 'anti-Catholic' Catholic. If so, then why
was it that Llorente became 'anti' I wonder?
It is very difficult, after all this time, to make accurate assesments of the
numbers killed by the Inquisition. A quarter of a million? Less? More?
The Inquisition happened, and it was, at times, tremendously brutal.
That much is true.
In the new testament 'gospels' of the Christian bible Mary is the woman who gives
birth to Jesus.
In the bible, she is not made out to be divine. So where did the 'Holy Mary,
Mother Of God' idea, so strong in present-day Catholicism, come from?
Where did the idea that Mary is virtually a goddess in her own right, capable of
interceding on behalf of those who pray to her, come from?
The answer is The Council Of Ephesus, 431 AD, otherwise known as the Third
Ecumenical Council. Here the leaders of the church, spiritual leaders who also had
a great deal of political power, realised that the best way for them to compete
with the Dianic goddess-cults in Greece at that time was to elevate Mary to a place
in the Christian pantheon. Evangelically speaking, they weren't doing too well just
then, and in terms of advertising, the move they chose to make was a classic.
a basic idea that if you want to persuade people to give up one set of beliefs and
replace them with another set of beliefs, then the best way to do that is to express
those new beliefs in terms that people can already relate to. This is what the church
fathers did. The 'pagan' Greeks were having trouble relating to the monotheistic,
patriarchal, absolute-power God of the Christian evangelists. The roots of the 'great
mother' and 'divine virgin' cults prevalent in Greece then went all the way back
to Babylonia and Assyria, and they were strong. So 'if you can't beat them, join them'!
This is what the committe of clerical leaders effectively chose to do when they sat
down and elevated Mary to de facto goddess status.
But, you may say, didn't Origen use the expression 'theotokos' (mother of god)
in the 3rd century?
OK, so he did, but the Council of Ephesus raised this designation to a dogmatic
standard. Furthermore, the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 AD added the
title 'eternal virgin'. It was only after these decisions had been made that the name
of the mother of God came to be invoked as often as the name of Christ in the prayers
and rituals of the Catholic Church .
In pre-Christian times the worship of Mithras was widespread in a number of countries in
what we now call the the Middle East. Like Jesus, Krishna, Dionysus, Horus, Tammuz,
Baldur and others, Mithras was a 'redeemer' god sent to earth for the good of humanity.
The parallels between Mithras and Christ are particularly stark, however.
Mithras was born in a cave, on December 25th, to a virgin mother
Mithras came from heaven, being born as a man, so that humanity could be redeemed from a state of sin
Mithras was known variously as 'Savior', 'Son Of God', 'Redeemer' and 'Lamb Of God'
Mithras travelled across the country teaching, with twelve disciples in tow, until his death
Mithras was buried in a tomb when he died
Mithras reemerged from the tomb, having come back to life
Mithras' resurrection was remembered every year with much celebration
Mithras worship involved a sacram