This is a brief history of Christianity. The first part is a commentary on the book of Acts.
Christianity is about following Jesus, not his followers. It is
supposed to be the church of Jesus and not the church of Peter or Paul.
We have a number of sayings attributed to Jesus, and it seems clear that
his followers did not understand what he was saying. Or as John put it,
The disciples were so often wrong that some people call them the "D'UH"-sciples. It sometimes seems that they got everything wrong. They failed to grasp the most fundamental things. For example, Jesus taught us not to exercise authority:
But the apostles wanted the opposite:
In response, Jesus "took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me." Yet the apostles still did not understand. In the very next chapter they keep the children away from Jesus:
So Jesus tried another approach. If they are not ready to accept children, can they at least see that a rich man does not fit in the kingdom of heaven? No. This amazed the apostles.
The apostles simply never understood:
They did not understand his warnings on authority and hypocrisy:
They were so often wrong that they grew afraid to ask him questions:
Even the chief apostle completely missed the point.
The apostles (apart from John) did not even understand the nature of God:
Even after he let himself be crucified the Apostles still thought that Jesus wanted power. So when they saw the mocking title "king of the Jews" they adopted it as their own. They then created a hierarchical church, exactly the thing Jesus said not to do.
The word "apostle" comes from the same Greek word as apostate : it means one who has gone forth. Jesus chose his apostles was turn people to Jesus, not to turn people to their own words.
If we follow the apostles we must not listen to them, we must listen to Jesus instead. We must choose God, not man.
Is Jesus such a bad teacher that he cannot speak for himself?
Like the apostles, we have Jesus as our Guide. Like the apostles, we can go direct to God, But unlike them we do not have to guess in the dark. The prophecies have now been fulfilled and we can see them all around us (see part ten of this book). They could only see as through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12) but we can see God face to face.
God is not man. Man makes mistakes, often serious ones. God does not.
We should follow God, not man.
The church is made of men.
Therefore we should follow God, and should not follow the church.
Jesus opposed the concept of authority, other than the authority of logic (see commentary by Mark 1:22, Mark 9, Mark 10:42-44, etc. ). The word church does not even appear in Mark, or Luke, or John, and only twice in Matthew.
Church is the Greek word "ekklesia" meaning the community: a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly. Greek democracy was based on such gatherings. The word originally had nothing to do with religion. The two references in Matthew are these:
This is the famous "Peter as the rock" scripture. Yet Jesus said that his information was not transmitted through flesh and blood, so the church cannot possibly be based on a person. The word "Peter" is the Greek "petros", a masculine noun meaning a fragment of rock, such as a stone a person might pick up and throw. But "upon this rock" refers to the Greek "petra", a feminine noun, referring to bedrock, e.g. a wise man builds his house (perhaps made of stones, petros) on bedrock (petra) (Matthew 7:24-25).
Peter had just deduced that Jesus was the messiah (i.e. he used logic to work out that Jesus was the one anointed for a special purpose: see commentary to Mark 1:10). Jesus' community (ekklesia) is based on this bedrock: i.e. the bedrock of logic (of God) and not of flesh and blood (such as Peter).
But we have seen that Peter was a proud man (see below). Peter would be tempted to see the rock as meaning himself. Perhaps this is why, two chapters later, the apostles argue over who is greatest (Matthew 18:1) and Jesus has to tell them that is not how the kingdom of God works.
The other reference to church is in Matthew 18:
A publican is tax collector, a sinner. If people do not listen to the church (the community) they are no better than a tax collector. Tax collectors ignore the complaints of the community (who naturally hate taxes).
After Jesus died his followers often referred to churches, led by apostles and pastors who ruled by appeal to hierarchical authority. These leaders told the church what to do, they did ot listen to the church. This is all described in the book of Acts.
In this history we point out some serious failings in Peter and Paul. But those failings do not matter: the gospel is about principles, nor mortal men. Jesus did not need perfect people, he did not need heroic leaders or a perfect Biblical text: he had logic. He had God.
So please do not be offended if this book criticizes Peter and Paul. We can see their failings without undermining the church.
We can still praise Peter and Paul. They did great things, world changing things. They kept the name of Jesus alive. True, they were human, so their Christian church was not as food as it should have been, but we can fix that now. And the first step is to see the church as it really was, not as it claimed to be.
Men are proud. They want to be important. So it follows that the church, made of men, would also be proud and want to be important. Take the apostles for example:
Peter was proud. He would argue with anybody, even with Jesus:
Peter expected to be rewarded for his efforts:
Peter considered himself better than all men - but Jesus saw through him:
As long as Jesus was there the disciples could be corrected when they were wrong. But later generations needed to claim that the apostles were always right. So they decided that the apostles supernaturally got smarter at Pentecost. It's a miracle! But that's not what the Bible says.
The supernatural Pentecost idea is justified using John chapter 14. Jesus says he is leaving soon, but not to worry: the disciples will get a comforter, the Holy Ghost:
Over the next three hundred years the church argued over what this comforter was. Jesus? His memory? A supernatural force? A person? Church leaders needed to justify their authority, so it was decided that the comforter was a supernatural thing that whatever the leaders said was always right.
But that is not what those verses say. "Holy ghost" just means holy
breath, and by extension holy words or ideas. Comforter is just that:
something that comforts. Jesus' words area comfort. The context makes
Jesus was too popular
By John chapter 11, Jesus was gaining so many followers that the Jewish authorities were getting worried. The Romans were beginning to notice:
"Miracle" just means a mighty work. The Pharisees may have been thinking of the many Roman followers of Jesus. The Romans knew this was a man they could respect: if Jesus gained enough followers the Romans might decide to include him on a political level, and the Pharisees would lose their "place" of political influence.
Or possibly the Pharisees thought Jesus was just another zealot and
would one day cause a rebellion that would cause the Romans to send in
their armies. Either way, Jesus had to die.
Jesus now saw that he could not stay.
Soon his followers would have to survive without his bodily presence. Besides, as long as he was there the disciples never thought for themself: they were just dazzled yes-men. Jesus was trying to build a kingdom, not a one man show. He needed to first press home the message to their hearts, then get out of the way:
The word "glorify" is an example of the early church changing the
meaning of words to make them sound supernatural and hierarchical. The
Greek word is "doxa" and means ideas. Jesus always saw himself as simply
representing the common man ("the son of man"). The common man had to
get the "doxa", the idea, then Jesus had to get out of the way: the
stalk of wheat has to be broken up so that its seeds can spread.
He planned to fake his death
Also in John chapter 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from being "dead".
Lazarus was a trusted member of the inner circle, a brother of the Mary
who wiped Jesus feet with her hair. He was sick, then somebody declared
him dead. He was treated with ointment, wrapped in a shroud, and laid in
a tomb with a stone over the entrance. Four days later Jesus was able
to revive him. This seems to be a dry run for faking Jesus' death (see
part seen of this book for why the death was probably faked). After this
Jesus confidently stated that he would be killed, but not to worry: he
would come back.
Jesus trained his disciples to function without him
After chapter 11, where the Pharisees determine to kill Jesus, and Jesus saw that resurrection was practical, he spent the rest of his time training his disciples to function alone. He first went to the house of Lazarus, among his inner circle of wealthy women who funded his work (see Luke 8:1-3, and the cost of Mary's ointment). Then chapters 13 to 16 are his teachings to his disciples at his last supper, and 17 is his final prayer for them in the garden. The main points are:
So in this context we can see why having Jesus' spirit was a great comfort. For more about this comfort, how Jesus can literally live in us, and how we can live forever, see part two of this book.
The Jewish world "feast of weeks" is celebrated seven weeks (a week of weeks, 49 days) after Passover. In Greek it's called Pentecost ("Pente-cost" = fiftieth). Jesus' followers knew its significance: it recalls when Moses was ready to give the law. So it is fitting that Pentecost is when the gospel went forth to all nations. The word spirit (Greek "pneuma") means "breath" and can represent words and ideas, so in this sense the spirit burst forth at Pentecost. But there was nothing supernatural about it:
The significance of the Feast of Weeks is that Israel was preparing for the giving of the law. It had nothing to do with receiving the spirit, it was about the law going forth. Pentecost is when the gospel went forth from the Jews to the Gentiles. to understand it we need to see what went before:
Clearly the disciples would be very excited. They are in Jerusalem waiting for the message to tell them to spread the gospel to the whole world.
The excitement would be at fever pitch: something is about to happen!
'Suddenly': not suddenly at all. It's the Greek 'en' and just means "in, by with etc."
'Sound': Greek "echos" as in the word echo: a sound like noisy distant voices. A sound, noise, spoken of the roar of the sea waves, rumor, report.
'Sound from heaven': see the concept of "voice from heaven" in to Mark 1:11. The people began speaking, they felt inspired.
'Wind':Greek Pnoe meaning breath, breath of life, wind. It is only used one other place in the Bible, also in Acts, and is there translated breath: he giveth to all life, and 'breath', and all things (Acts 17:25). It comes from the same root as pneuma (as in pneumatic tires) meaning breath, and also meaning spirit. So there was a noisy breath or spirit.
So in other words, the people were crowded together, excitedly expecting something to happen (verses 1-2) and began speaking noisily: they felt inspired.
This is the key verse for believers in the supernatural. Acts was written many years later, when the apostles needed to justify their power, so they may have always intended this verse to be supernatural. But the verse could also mean something more ordinary:
'Appeared': Greek 'Optanomai' as in the word optic. It just means to look at. It was a crowded, noisy room, so people were looking around.
'Cloven': divided. Luke, the author of Acts, uses this word more than any other writer: In Luke 11 Satan is divided against himself, in Luke 12 a house is divided against itself, in Luke 17 they divide (share) a cup of wine, and in Luke 23 the soldiers divide Jesus' clothing.
'Tongue': language, as in verse 11; we do hear them speak in our tongues
'As of fire': Greek 'Hosei': as it were, as though it had been. So it is not literal fire. When somebody has an exciting message we say they are on fire! For example, The founder of Methodism, encouraged everyone to preach as if they were on fire, then people will listen to your message:
Fire in or on the head is a metaphor used in various places in the Bible: it's not to be taken literally:
So Acts 2:3 simply continues the excitement of the previous verse, and could perhaps be translated:
The next verse says the same thing:
The different languages are then explained:
'Devout': Greek "Eulabes" meaning taking hold well - the word is only used once before in the Bible, by Luke again, in Luke 2:25: there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. Devout means looking for some prophetic event. These people are ready to hear the message. They would have heard about Jesus.
'The multitude': not the devout. The devout already knew about Jesus because they were devout. They were pilgrims, so they probably spoke Greek as well as their native tongue.
'In his own language': They heard about Jesus in Greek, and now they tell their fellow countrymen in their native tongue.
The visitors are amazed that an obscure local preacher is being talked about by people from all nations. This was the big breakthrough that allowed the church to expand rapidly: it was interesting to all nations, and not just to fishermen from Galilee. The importance of Pentecost is nothing to do with literal flames over heads, it is about when other nations heard the gospel.
At this point it may be helpful to briefly jump ahead to chapter 8. It shows how the hierarchical church caused the idea of holy spirit (holy ideas) to evolve and change:
"Spirit" originally meant breath, or ideas (see part 2 of this book). So "Holy Spirit" originally meant holy (correct) ideas. Jesus based his ideas in logic (God), so they were correct. So they came to see "correct ideas" as supernatural ideas approved by the hierarchy. If people were whipped up into a frenzy of excitement and church leaders approve then they say the holy spirit is present. We see the same in modern times. Whereas academic scholars test truth against logic, most believers test it against excitement or tradition.
So in this passage we see that converts were baptised by a humble missionary, but do not receive "the Holy Spirit" when the senior apostles visit, and lay their hands on people. The anticipation and their charisma did the rest, causing people to become greatly excited, deeply committed to the leaders, so the leaders could say the correct ideas (holy spirit) had come and the church was strong. This dedication to hierarchy and the supernatural frenzy dominates Acts:
Let us now return to Acts chapter 2 to finish the evolution of the holy spirit:
At Pentecost Peter quotes the end of Joel 2 (in the Hebrew Tanakh this is chapter 3). Joel is talking about the rejoicing when the kingdom of Israel is saved from the armies of the North (i.e. they came via the fertile crescent - it could be either Assyria or Babylon in 721BC or 587 BC. The book of Joel is hard to date as it does not give precise details). Peter applies this to Jesus. It illustrates several changes from the teachings of Jesus: appeal to authority, mis-quoting scripture, and the rejection of good works. Let us now look at each
Jesus taught with parables of everyday life, only occasionally quoting scripture. He taught with his own authority, and not as the scribes who claim their authority from the text (see Mark 1:22). Peter and the other disciples returned to the scribes' way of teaching: throughout the book of Acts they quote scripture at length, but almost never refer to Jesus' own teachings.
Peter is not a scholar. He mis-applies this passage. "The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon into blood" has nothing to do with pentecost. Peter is caught up in the excitement of the moment, and remembers another scripture about being excited, but completely misses its point. This led to generations of Christians looking forward to the moon becoming blood, and of course being disappointed again and again. Peter stops his quote at the crucial point "call on the Lord" - if he had continued then the context would show the real meaning:
Chapter 3 continues on the theme of persuading the other nations to let scattered Israelites return to their land. Joel is talking about the return of the Jews. "The great and terrible day of the Lord" is when the Lord keeps his promise to let them return. This took place with the decree of the Persian emperor Cyrus, as referenced in Isaiah:
Joel's reference to "blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke." of course refers to war: since the Jews were taken captive through violent conquest he expects the return to involve something similar. Violent conquest typically involves burning villages.
The smoke causes the sky to become dark, the fire causes the moon to seem red at the time, and it stays red for some time until the air is completely clear of smoke particles, which can take several days. A red sky is a common occurrence, and is because of dust on the air. Dust causes light to diffract in such a way that it appears more red. This dust also allows atmospheric water vapor to condense, hence shepherds associate red skies with approaching rain.
Peter sees excited people so it reminds him of Joel chapter 2. But Joel is talking of war and violence. (Jesus understood better than Peter. When Jesus paraphrased Joel 2, in Mark 13:24-25, he was predicting a similar occurrence: a time of violence and burning cities, as a result of zealots provoking the Romans to violence, something that eventually happened in AD 70.).
Peter's misuse of Joel begins a grand tradition of misquoting scripture, leading Christians to expect supernatural miracles that were never promised. The greatest example of this is the book of Revelation (see commentary by Mark 12:14, in part 6 of this book).
The key to twisting scripture is to change the meaning of words. We see this frequently, for example with "spirit" (Greek "pneuma", breath) becoming a disembodied ghost, and "faith" (Greek "pistis", a conclusion based on evidence) becoming blind faith. In this case, Joel talks of "wonders" in the "terrible" day of the Lord, with the moon turning to "blood". Future generations then ignore the context (the return of the Jews in Old Testament times) and let their imaginations run wild. In this case:
Joel is talking about a time of burning villages, events you will not forget, that will cause fear. Yet modern readers twist this into predictions of planetary cataclysm!
Peter then quotes Joel as saying:
This is the start of the believe and be saved doctrine. But Peter is quoting Joel, and if we continue to read Joel, the next verse says:
'As the Lord said': This is the familiar "you shall be an example to the nations" teaching of Isaiah, which can be traced to Moses' finally summing up of his message before he died, in Deuteronomy 28:9-10:
In other words, call on the name of the Lord implies keeping the commandments. But in later Christianity it was interpreted as just call on God, actions are not needed.
This saved without works doctrine became so prevalent that James had to write a letter in rebuttal. The epistle of James says that faith without works is dead.
Christ means messiah or anointed one. Jesus became the anointed one at his baptism when he was symbolically anointed by the holy spirit. Anointing of kings was usually done by the laying on of hands, when something like oil, water or milk (or in Jesus' case, spirit) was placed on their head. Here Peter is saying that, like Jesus, people will receive the anointing of the holy ghost. They will therefore become anointed ones in their own small way.
There is no evidence of Jesus giving the holy ghost by the laying on of hands. This is another change after Jesus left. Later we see the laying on of hands for the giving of authority, in opposition to Jesus' teaching not to rule by authority (Mark 10:42-44 commentary). Perhaps this is related to Jesus' warning in Mark 13 that there would be false Christs after he left.
Contrast this communist system with how Jesus shared goods: when feeding the five thousand Jesus did not gather the food centrally, he simply set the example and let people work out their own methods.
This amassing of money give the apostles great power. Power corrupts.
Before continuing, we must remember why Jesus choose Peter as a disciple: Peter is fearless. In this chapter we see how Peter was repeatedly imprisoned and beaten, but that did not slow him down. He faced the threat of stoning every day (e.g. Stephen was stoned to death in chapter 7) yet he taught fearlessly and in public. Other apostles would perhaps have been more cautious, but not Peter. Jesus could rely on Peter to get the message out, no matter what the cost. Thanks to Peter we have Mark's gospel.
But while he repeated it faithfully, it is not clear that Peter understood the gentle side of the gospel. Look at Peter's preaching: it's all about power and miracles. Peter was a hard man. His birth name was Simon, but Jesus called him "Simon the stone" (Mark 3:16: Peter means "rock" or "stone".)
But Peter was not perfect...
Officially this was to have it shared out as needed. But that is not the way Jesus did it. When feeding the 5, 000 and the 4,000 he simply showed the example of sharing and let his followers arrange their own ways. And with the man with the withered hand he may have arranged for work. But he never asked for money.
One commentator observed that this would fit well in the movie the Godfather.
This does not say God killed him, but simply that he died. This is what we know:
The next verse implies that this is within three hours. Peter may have something to hide.
Acts 2:43 said that "fear came upon every soul" but there the word is ambiguous. In that context perhaps it just meant believers were impressed by their leaders. The next reference to fear provides more clarity:
Not just the church was afraid. Also people who did not belong to the church. Why would they fear? There are three possibilities:
This sounds good until we read the next verses:
Other translations say none of the rest dared join them. They did not dare join: this is fear again.
This confirms the earlier suspicion: outsiders are afraid that they will be stoned to death by the followers of Peter.
Forgiveness of sins was a big motivator to Peter - this would certainly appeal to a man with a temper, but Mark did not consider forgiveness a large part of the message. Mark based his gospel partly on Peter but also knew Jesus personally, as one of the seventy whom Jesus sent out. Mark saw the same things as Peter, but remembered the teachings. We see how Peter picks up on details that impress him, but the other teachings are just not important to him.
This is exactly what Jesus condemned in Mark chapter 7. The Pharisees neglected their families, by saying their time and property was "corban" or dedicated to God. Now the apostles do the same, saying that somebody else can look after the widows, the apostles are too busy praying and preaching.
At this point pure religion leaves the apostles: James said that pure religion is to visit the poor and widows (James 1:27), and Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven in similar terms (e.g. in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25). So it is ironic that Peter chose this men so he could preach, and these men became closer to God and were better preachers. The preaching of Stephen and Philip in particular had a great effect on the church, as we read in Acts 7 and 8, the climax of church growth before Paul appears.
Peter's hard line views on the law of Moses were popular with the priests. In contrast, Jesus was so unpopular he was crucified.
That verse is just a summary of Stephen's teaching. Stephen was a powerful preacher, but like Peter he focuses on prophecies and obedience. He seldom mentions the kingdom of God, and never mentions Jesus' parables. He nevermentions Jesus' teaching against hierarchies. To Stephen and Peter, the message is not what Jesus said, but that we should obey the apostles.
The conflict between followers of Jesus and the traditional church reaches a peak with Stephen's incendiary speech in Acts 7. The we hear of Saul (Paul) for the first time:
This is the first appearance of Saul. His behavior is perfectly reasonable from his point of view. Look at the new movement objectively:
The new movement was...
Seriously, how are the authorities supposed to react? Who would you react? You can't reason with them, you can't imprison the ring leaders, and if you do nothing they very soon will overthrow the state, bringing the wrath of the Romans. What would you do?
Why did Philip go to Samaria? Was it random? Nothing in Acts is random: it is a book about the progress of the church, the fearlessness of the apostles, and the rise of Saul/Paul. The apostles are not the kind of men who run and hide, and wait to be destroyed. What did Jesus say to do with enemies? Love them. Convert them. Saul was said to be active throughout Judaea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). So the most likely explanation is that Philip is taking the message to Saul's heartland.
Apocryphal texts record that Simon was another name for Saul. Let us look at the evidence for this in Acts
Philip, like Simon, was a miracle worker. People followed because of his miracles. Are these miracles supernatural? No, as we saw in part six. They only called miracles because they are not understood.
Note that there weree very few dramatic healings in Jerusalem, where there are many witnesses. There are fewer witnesses in rural Samaria. The fewer witnesses, the less understanding, the greater the miracle. This is consistent with hearsay and not consistent with supernatural healing ability.
But there was a certain man: a literal Greek translation shows just "but certain man" which could just as easily be translated "but the man" or "but this man". Which man? Philip? Saul? Or somebody else?
Called Simon: Sorcerors typically use a different name to the one they were born with. So for example:
So the man called Barjesus ("son of Jesus") has the sorceror name "Elymas". It was common for people to take on new titles for religious reasons: Jacob/Israel, Simon/Peter, Saul/Paul, The more important you are, the more names or titles you have: hence Jesus/Christ/the son of Man/the son of God/Rabbi/Lord/Logos/etc.
This was the moment when Saul was first called Paul. Barjesus called himself Elymas and tried to influence the ruler through magic. So Saul called himself Paul and did the same.
This was a major event for another reason: not just because Saul used a new name, but this is the only time in the New Testament when a miracle was used to harm another person. The actual miracle involved a "mist" - Occam's razor suggests a powder or vapor to temporarily blind someone. This was well within the ability of an accomplished first century conjurer.
Simon may have been Saul's pre-Christian sorceror name, just as Paul was his post-Christian "I have spiritual gifts" name. "Saul" means "to ask" and "Simon" means "he hears". Saul asks for divine power; Simon hears the answer from the spirits. Saul did not change his name to Paul on conversion, but later when he claimed spiritual gifts. "Paul" means "small", probably referring to his humility before his new master.
What is "sorcery"?
Bewitched is the Greek "existemi" - usually translated as "amazed". As when Saul amazed people simply by declaring he was now a Christian:
Sorcery: Greek "mageuo". This is the same root as the word "magi" used for the three wise men in Matthew 2. So Simon was one of the magi, a devout and holy man from another country who followed the stars. This all parallels Saul: he came from Tarsus in Asia, and was very devout, but he did not grasp the whole picture.
Religious leaders as magi
If Simon could not (at first) perform great miracles, then why is he then called a magus? This follows from the previous chapter. In Acts 7, Stephen spoke of true miracle workers (e.g. Moses in Acts 7:36, who "shewed wonders and signs") and contrasted them with the unfaithful Jews:
Stephen considered all unfaithful Jews to be like like those who "worship the host of heaven" (astrology, the stars). Just like the three wise men of the east, the magi. Since Saul rejected Jesus he would also be classed in this group. Saul was a magus.
It should be remembered that magic was a normal part of the Jewish religion. Every prophet was expected to perform signs and wonders.
The Bible's condemnation of sorcery was only a condemnation of unapproved sorcery. Deuteronomy 18:10-11 condemns magic, but then Numbers 5:11–31 uses magic: to test if a woman is faithful to her husband. (Like most magic, it probably worked through psychology.) In 1 Samuel 28:3–25, King Saul visits the Witch of Endor. There are other legends of Solomon using magic, and examples such as this in the apocrypha:
The Babylonian Talmud has a lot to say on magic, magicians, amulets, spells, and exorcisms:
So "charismatic leader of the Jews" and "Jewish scholar" both imply some support for or practice of magic. This of course changed in the Middle Ages, when persecution meant the jews were often accused of witchcraft, and they had to avoid anything that might give look magical. but in ancient times magic and religion were mixed.
Regarding signs and wonders, Pauol was an expert:
Paul made supernatural gifts a bedrock of his religion:
Saul's later preparation in Arabia
We sometimes think that Saul became Paul at his road to Damscus experience, but that is not the case. He then spent up to fourteen years beefore his first missionary joueny, where (when he left) he was still called Saul (Acts 11). The first mention of the name "Paul" is in Acts 13, when he battled a sorceror with an Arabian name (Elymas was probably Arabic for "the wise"). This is after coming back from Arabia (Galatians 1:17).
Several scholars suggest a reason for Saul going to Arabia: his references to "zeal". This links him to Elijah, who also went into the southern desert to prepare. Elijah was known as the great miracle worker of the Old Testament (see part four of this book). For Saul, Arabia probably meant Sinai: he was going to then place where, according to the supernatural view, Moses communed with God and performed miracles. Galatians says he was taught by no man.
Paul mentioned Arabia as if he just casually dropped by on his way to Damascus, but it was hundreds of miles in the opposite direction. If you work out the dates, Paul was preparing in Arabia for anything from 3 to 14 years. He then reappeared, calling himself an apostle with supernatural spiritual gifts, saying he had been taught by no man, but by Jesus and by God (Galatians 1:1) and used magic to defeat another sorceror to prove it.
Paul knew about Moses and magicians. In 2 Timothy 3:8-9, Paul names the magicians who performed miracles against Moses: Jannes and Jambres. But they are very minor figures who were not named in the Old Testament. Paul probably read about them in an apocryphal book, called the "Repentance of Jannes and Jambres". It tells how, as with Paul, enemies of the church (in this case magicians) later changed sides.
Saul, the great man
God: this is Samaria, in the heart of the land of Israel, with Jerusalem to the south and Galilee to the north. So the God they refer to is the Jewish God. So Simon is a religious leader.
Then why not call Simon a leader of the Jews? Because like Saul he does not seem to have an official position (in Acts 9 Saul has to ask permission of the Jerusalem leaders, and is description as "a young man" does not suggest formal authority).
Recall the first appearance of Saul:
Acts is not like Mark: it does not include eye witness details simply to add colour. Every detail is here for a reason. To lay your clothes at someonee's feet indicates this person has some status. He was respected among the Jews.
Again we see the indication that Simon was a magus, a wise man, and a popular man due to his interest in miracles. Much like Saul is later described.
Simon joined the church
Joining the church is another parallel with Saul, who became a Christian. Another parallel is with Paul's eagerness to be an apostle.
Simon and the power to give the Holy Ghost
Simon was accustomed to power. He wanted to be like an apostle. at this stage in church history this meant the power to say "receive the Holy Ghost". To understand why we must look again at the concept of the Holy Spirit.
At this stage in church history the idea of "the holy spirit" was changing. Like everything else it began as simple and logical, but was becoming supernatural and hierarchical:
Simon and money
Why did Simon offer money? Because all that he knows about the gospel comes from Philip. Philip was chosen as one of seven men who were to look after the widows: that is, obtain and distribute money. So Simon knew that Philip needed money - this was a perfectly reasonable offer from his point of view.
Here is another parallel with Paul. Paul's missionary journeys were designed to send money to church headquarters at Jerusalem. 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9 are about collecting money for the Jerusalem church: a famine in the AD 40s is causing hardship, especially for the older members who like to retire to live near the holy city and need support. 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, Galatians 2:10 and Romans 15:26 also refers to this: the collection took years - i.e. the length of his missionary journeys. In AD 46 an initial donation was made by the church at Antioch (Acts 11:29-30), and most scholars think the money was finally given to the apostles in AD 57. So both Paul and Simon offered money to the Jerusalem church. We are not told where Simon got his money, but he was seen as a great man od God, so he probably collected money for the needs of the church, just a Paul did.
In other words, Simon wanted to be an apostle (see commentary on "the holy spirit in Acts")
This is a clear parallel with Paul, who wanted to be seen as an apostle, even though he did not spend years accompanying Jesus (the requirements for being an apostle in Acts 1). Paul claimed the right to be an apostle because he was sent out to get money for the church. He did this, and also gained converts (by promising them a faith that did not require circumcision or good works). In exchange he claimed to be equal to the apostles.
Notice the symbolism here: Simon Peter ("Simon the rock") opposes Simon Magus ("simon the supernatural"). The Ebionites, the Christians who rejected Paul, saw Peter and Paul in these roles: one demanding good works, the other offering cut-price religion.
Simon was humiliated
I perceive that thou art... Simon has failed. He wanted to make a deal with Philip, but instead gained a rebuke. But instead of fighting he backs down. This is like Paul and the apostles: although Paul often disagrees with them, he is a good politician and will talk like they are al the closest friends. and although Paul boasts of his achievement, he also wants to appear meek.
This is ambiguous regarding Simon: is Simon now on the inside, rubbing shoulders with the apostles? If so then he is not Paul, because Paul is still angry with them (in Acts 9:1). But if Acts 8:25 refers to Philip leaving Simon after humiliating him, then proud Simon would be angry, like Saul.
We have seen that Simon was just like Saul. In part 2 of this book we saw that if someone shares the same ideas they are effectively the same person. But did Simon physically the same person as Saul? Here is a summary of the evidence:
The case against
Why would Simon persecute a church he belonged to?
Simon would oppose the church for the same reason the sanhedrin persecuted Jesus: he was humiliated. Jesus threatened his status. Simon expected power when he joined, and he got none. He had previously used supernatural claims to gain status, just as the sanhedrin did.. But Jesus used logic. He had his own, better system, which maede supernatural claims look silly and small.
Acts 7 shows Saul as an important person. Acts 8 shows Simon trying being humiliated. Saul is then more aggressive against the church. Eventually he becomes reconciled to the church and changes his name to Paul. This is is a natural progression is we remember what we know about Saul: he is a young man with great ambition:
Note the meaning of his names: they relect Saul's roles as he gains maturity. He starts as an angry young man, and gradually learns that humility is more effective. Every great politician follows the same path.
"Simon" means "he hears." He is like every charismatic leader in history. He heard the spirits and showed spiritual gifts (miracles) as proof.
"Saul" means "he asks." He wants to be part of the existing power structure. The Simon persona did not get enough followers, and he failed to become a leader of the hot new group. So he goes back to the authorities and asks to be a cult fighter. What better cult fighter than a disaffected member of the cult?
"Paul" means "small." Claiming humility worked in raising his status among thr Jews. He used the same method for the Chrustans. What better convert tha one who was a former enemy? He built his reputation and theology around "look at what a bad person I was, I am nothing, and now I am your servant". By so doing he finally succeeded: people saw him as an apostle, and as more important than the other apostles.
Paul is a text book example of the ambitious young man in business. Wherever he was, he rose to the top. Switching sides was just like changing jobs, joining a competitor on his way up. This was not cynical, it was just what all ambitous young Romans would do.
Let us continue his story in Acts:
The Acts 22 version:
The Acts 26 version:
Saul's persecution was enough to bring Jesus out of hiding. Jesus had plenty of time to plan how to change Saul's mind. How did he create a blinding light then temporarily blind Saul?
We know that it happened at noon in a hot desert country, so the sun was very bright. We also know that Jesus had at least one accomplice (he told Saul to visit Ananias in Damascus for further instruction. ) The obvious way to achieve the dazzling light effect is for an accomplice to carry a large metal dish to reflect the sun's rays. This could get Saul's attention, make Jesus appear very bright, then blind Saul. Eyes normally recover from directly looking at the sun: lengthy exposure may take a while to completely return to normal, as in Saul's case.
Once Saul is dazzled, Jesus can hide and speak from hiding, so Paul's companions never see him. Blinding Paul also means they will stay with Saul to protect him, and so they will not follow Jesus when he disappears.
In chapter 22 we see the reason why Paul was sent to the gentiles:
Apparently Saul was in serious risk of harm from the Christians. We saw in Acts 5:26 that the Christians were believed to use stoning if they thought they could get away with it.
Ever since Pentecost (where people from all nations were interested in Jesus) the idea of going beyond Israel must have weighed on his mind. Now that Saul/Paul has joined, and is passionate about the gentiles, Peter must be thinking about it all the time: if Paul goes to the gentiles, and Peter stays with the Jews, the church will split in two and Paul will have many more followers than Peter.
Peter must be remembering how Jesus was happy to offend the Pharisees, and now the greatest Pharisee of all (Saul) is saying these rules are not essential to others. Peter is thinking about it so much that he dreams about it.
As with Pentecost, they spoke in many languages: their own natural languages. There is no suggestion of the supernatural. See also Paul in Acts 19.
Christian is a Greek name, unlike the Hebrew names Pharisees, Essenes, etc. .
Note the timing: as soon as Paul arrives, and the church decides to target non-Jews, the followers take on this separate identity. Until this time they were Jewish. After this they are increasingly seen as a gentile group. This is a huge change. It fundamentally changes the whole nature and purpose of what Jesus did: he came to establish a political kingdom in Israel, where all people are equal. This has been changed to its opposite: a system of belief based on life after death, without any political purpose now. And far from being equal, it becomes a hierarchy of leader worship with Jesus at the top, next apostles, next bishops, and ordinary people at the bottom.
This is probably the time to look at the influence of Paul.
We saw in Acts 6:7 that Peter's church was popular with the Jewish priests. Presumably Peter's group in Judaea had the following teaching:
Paul argues with the apostle Barnabas:
Jesus argued vigorously against the Pharisees, but Pharisees now feel at home in the church.
Presumably Mark wanted the church to stay Jewish. Note that Jesus did not tell Paul and Peter to stop being Jewish, he simply wanted flexibility (e.g. eating unclean beasts was not central to the law of Moses) and to offer the message to gentiles.
Why would it matter to Mark to stay Jewish? Perhaps because Jesus' message is a physical political kingdom. The Jewish faith is built around the concept of an actual kingdom, not just the hope of something better after we die. Once Jewishness is forgotten the physical kingdom is forgotten as well.
True, the dietary laws and circumcision are an inconvenience, but they serve to give the church an identity. Moses added those things to give an alternative to the usual identifiers: idol worship. The Christians now idolize Jesus, preventing them from seeing his message of equality.
This is another sample of the apostles' teaching style. It's all about Jesus as magical leader, not about what he taught. It's based on scripture, as the scribes taught, and not on reason.
The church was beginning to oppose Caesar, rejecting what Jesus taught. See the Book of Revelation for example, in the commentary by Mark 12:14.
Like the scribes, they will only believe something if it is in the scriptures. See commentary by Acts 2:7-8.
This is a superb opportunity: Jesus would have used logic and gained influential followers
Instead of using logic, Paul declares the supernatural: the Pharisees' notion of resurrection. These people specialize in logic, so the reception is predictably lukewarm.
This is the final split with the Jewish church.
By this point in Acts, speaking in tongues is not about communicating, but rather a new convert speaks words that nobody understands. For more about speaking in tongues see 1 Corinthians 14. How did the change happen?
Pentecost was notable because people of all nationalities spoke to each other in their languages. This was a major event in church history, and so speaking excitedly in a foreign language came to be seen as a sign of God's spirit. It fit well into the existing religious idea of speaking in tongues:
Others have summarised the picture thus:
It was a small step from the ecstasy of foreign languages at Pentecost to the idea of supernatural tongues. This is an example of the natural religion of Jesus becoming the supernatural religion of Paul.
A piece of silver was probably the Roman denarius, a day's wages for a laborer, or perhaps 50 US dollars today. So the story is that the men burned several million dollars' worth of books. This seems unlikely. These events all took place in distant lands, so the story could easily have been exaggerated by the time they reaches Luke, the author of Acts.
Paul expects that as soon as he leaves others will contradict his message.
i.e. from the apostles and other leaders: not just outsiders
This bothered him constantly, day and night. We must conclude that he often met church leaders, including apostles, who disagreed with his view of Christ. The epistle of James is probably an example of this: Paul preaches grace, but James preaches the need for good works. James may be the same as James who was one of Jesus' inner circle (along with Peter and John), so should have a good idea of what Jesus meant. Unlike Peter, James and John were never called Satan.
A summary of his teaching: grace.
A possible reference to Peter in Acts 5, demanding money from the believers?
He insists that he does agree with practical religion, but crucially he sees it as the Pharisees did, as private charity rather than an organised kingdom. Many people believe that the only solutions to poverty are either communism or private charity. Jesus offered a third alternative: justice. That is, cooperation, based on paying people for what they actually create and sharing the rest.
Baptism, as taught by John, only symbolised the washing away of sins: he preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1:4) Repentance was essential to the process. While Paul also preaches good works the emphasis has change: baptism itself becomes the washing way of sins, and good works are a result and not a cause.
Good works, and Jesus' teaching, were not part of Saul's conversion, so they were not central to his message when he preached to others.
Paul was saved from the Jews by the Romans, and then saved from the local Romans by central Roman authority. In the next chapter the Romans save Paul from a specific death plot, and he is able to plead his case before Rome in the chapter after that. at the end of chapter 26 he learns that Rome was ready to free him had he not appealed to Caesar.
This is more evidence that Rome was good for the church. Just as Pilate was prepared to release Jesus, and Jesus said to render to Caesar, and when a Roman soldier compels you to go a mile, go two. Rome was always useful to the church: for example, and the missionaries were able to travel freely because of the Roman peace. It is ironic then that the Christians later rejected Jesus' teaching and treated Rome as the enemy.
This could be a physical visit, but the simplest explanation is that it is a dream: it reflects what Paul would have been thinking anyway.
This is the second time Paul tried to appease the Pharisees by emphasizing his Pharisee belief in supernatural physical resurrection. Jesus only taught of rising again in the sense that Elias rose again in John the Baptist. But Paul was not there to hear that, and was no friend of Mark who wrote it down. Paul, who called himself a Pharisee, naturally assumed that Jesus agreed with the Pharisee teaching on the topic. We see here that Paul's teaching emphasize this kind of resurrection in order to appease the Pharisees.
Paul then says he was never criticised except on one point:
So the people saw the general Christian view of resurrection as unorthodox. This suggests that the Christian view is known to be different from the Pharisee view. But Paul insists that it is not.
Jesus appeared to Paul, so Paul knows him to be alive.
Paul suggests the prophecies were about a hope for centuries later. But if we examine the prophecies (e.g. in Isaiah and Daniel) they are mostly either contemporary (e.g. the nation can be saved from Assyria in 721 BC) or else general principles that righteousness will lead to the nation being blessed. This causes a problem for the Pharisees. The Pharisees had become very influential, and by their standards the nation is reasonably righteous: it ticks all the boxes. If people did not tick the boxes they could be stoned for disobeying. Yet the nation is not blessed as the prophets promised. So the Pharisees conclude that the blessings refer to hundreds of years away.
This idea of prophecy as predicting centuries later was adopted by Christianity for the same reason: their prophecies (e.g. in Revelation) were not fulfilled as expected, so they are placed in the distant future.
Neither the Pharisees nor Paul considered the possibility that their own interpretation of prophecy may be wrong.
Perhaps the emphasis on grace comes from a misreading of the epistle to the Romans: perhaps Paul does teach that good works are needed. But it could just be that he considers works are the result, the proof of already being saved. Either way, Jesus went further. When asked hot to obtain eternal life (by the rich young man) he specified the ten commandments as a first step, and then when they are obeyed he turned to economic matters.
In Acts. 27 Paul is shipwrecked. If Jesus was able to calm the storm, and promised that his followers could do greater things, why couldn't Paul calm the storm? Because Jesus never calmed the storm: like Paul, he simply showed superior knowledge of the ship's abilities.
In Acts 28 Paul is bitten by a snake and heals people. The best miracles happen when there are fewest eyewitnesses. This is on a remote island.
Everybody thinks it is the other person who does not understand. This is why the supernatural is so dangerous: it cannot be objectively tested, so there is no way to know who is right. So to improve our chances of being right we must reject the supernatural.
These are the last words of Acts, and reveal the final great change to the teachings of Jesus. The kingdom of God is no longer concerned with the Jews, so it is no longer a political kingdom. Paul makes no reference to establishing a political kingdom. It is fitting that the final teaching of the book of Acts is to reject the first and overriding teaching of Jesus: the establishment of the a literal kingdom of God.
The disciples changed Jesus' message in at least the following ways:
Misunderstanding while Jesus was present:
1. The supernatural: his followers assumed he was doing the impossible.
2. Rule by authority: he was never able to convince them to abandon this.
Peter was not scholar
3. Peter read Joel 2 out of context, as if we are saved simply by calling on God.
Paul's personal background
4. Tongues: Paul originally saw the Christians as just another cult, so he assumed that Pentecost was the kind of thing seen in other religions.
5. Chosen by grace: Paul was chosen so he assumed all conversion should be this way.
6. Resurrection: Paul's Pharisee belief, emphasised to prove Christianity is not heresy.
They remove checks and balances.
7. They rely on scripture for authority, like the scribes (see Mark 1:22). This gives power to the elite minority who can claim a better understanding of mysteries. Contrast this with Jesus, who taught via parables - appeals to everyday logic.
8. Prophecy becomes about the far future, and therefore not subject to proof. Contrast this with Jesus: his economic and social rules that can be tested.
9. The kingdom of God is no longer seen as an economic entity: nothing that can eb easily tested.
Peter and Paul were not responsible for the most damning change: that came later. All the other changes could be fixed because the church was self correcting: anybody at any time could appeal to logic and start doing it right. But in later years appeals to logic (to God) were banned. The only acceptable rules were whatever the bishops said. Everything else was called heresy and was grounds for excommunication, and later even death.
In the early days heresy was a good word. "Heresy", from the Greek "haereses" just means choices. The church was itself a heresy: the sect ("haeresis") of the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5).
Paul was proud to be a heretic:
Paul embraced the label "heretic" when it suited him, but later as he gained power he disapproved of those who were heretics from his own view (1 Corinthians 11:19 speaks negatively of "haereses"). But in the early days the church was strong enough to embrace widely varying opinions: e.g. over whether a Christian should keep the law of Moses.
Jesus made no effort to establish a single hierarchical movement, and corrected those who tried to:
Jesus had no need to fear different versions of his message, because his message could be tested: if it worked it was valid. In the previous example the man could obviously do great things ("miracles") and that was all the authority he needed. The kingdom of God was known by its results: it did not fear false versions because the true version, having more fruit, would grow faster than the others (see the parables of the talents, the tree, the sower, etc. ).
This is why Jesus could genuinely love his enemies: they were no threat to him. Attacking those with a different choice (heretics) is not love, it merely betrays weakness in your own position.
The wise Pharisee Gamaliel understood this point:
Some people condemn Gamaliel, but he saved a good man. Even if Paul had been bad, Jesus plainly taught to love our enemies, not just in words but to mean it.
There were many different viewpoints in early Christianity: Wikipedia lists sixty different variations of gnosticism alone. In the early days differences were never a problem: for example some Christians kept the law of Moses, others did not, and apostles (in Acts) disagreed amongst themselves. However, Jesus taught to love, not fight, so they all got along.
It is true that Jesus warned of false Christs and false prophets, but he gave a simple way to detect them: remember his words. Whereas Jesus taught love enemies, false prophets taught hate enemies. Whereas Jesus taught not to claim authority as the gentiles do, false prophets would claim authority and use that to coerce others.
In the second and third century it happened just as Jesus (and Paul) had predicted. Many arose who wanted to attack others' views and demand obedience based on their beliefs.
In the early days the church found it helpful to assign one man in each city to be a shepherd, to keep people together and help new converts. However, the whole point of the new covenant (when the concept was introduced in Jeremiah 31) was that nobody should tell somebody else what to believe.
This was possible because the new law was much simpler than Moses' law: it was logic. Itwas love. Logic and love do not need any appeal to authority. They do not need a ruling class to issue commands. The principles can be learned by anybody. They were contained in the parables of Jesus.
Jesus' teaching was self-correcting. Sure, different people may have understood it differently - some felt they should be Jewish, others felt they did not, bit those were unimportant details. The teaching it was known by its fruits. Everybody knew that if an approach brought forth less fruit, less love, less goodness, it was wrong.
The lack of top-down control was key to the success of the church: it singled the church out as a place where people genuinely care for each other, and it made the church very hard to persecute:
However, some bishops wanted to be indispensable, like the pagans.
Some bishops wanted power, to lead by authority, to say know ye the Lord? and excommunicate those who did not fit their own interpretation. This was an innocent wish at first: they just wanted everyone to think like they thought. But it was pride: it was then a small step for bishops to have palaces and become kings in all but name.
As the church expanded this temptation grew greater. The church became divided. Instead of allowing both Jews and non-Jews, allowing both Greeks and non-Greek thinkers, divisions arose. The bishops sought to condemn everybody who did not agree with their opinions.
The importance of this change cannot be overemphasised. God is logic. We understand logic through dialog. Different people have different ideas, and we see which one works. This is healthy. But the appeal to authority is its opposite: an appeal to opinion.
Appeal to authority is a classical logical fallacy, "argumentum ad auctoritatem". Sometimes authority figures are largely correct. We would hope that the apostles would be mostly correct. But the apostles are men, not God, and can be wrong in details. As each generation interprets the previous generation the errors multiply.
So appeals to authority lead to increasing error, whereas appeals to logic are self correcting: each generation can test ideas and demand evidence: by their fruits ye shall know them.
Jesus worked by asking logical questions about beliefs. The only idea he ever attacked was hypocrisy (e.g. in Matthew 23). If we are consistent, and answer opponents' difficult questions, then no matter what we believe we will eventually have to come to the truth, because logic is no more or less than consistency.
Hypocrisy among the leaders of the Jews angered Jesus, because he came to create a political kingdom of God and their hypocrisy was core of the problem. They had the law of Moses, they had everything they needed to make a fair and successful society, but they opposed God by putting tradition before logic.
In the earliest days Christ (Greek Christos) may have been lnown as Chrestos ("the kind or helpful one"). It also has the less common meaning of "the oracle of God". Chrestos was a common Greek name and may have been the common people's name for Jesus.
Is possible that Jesus was always referred to as Chrestos ("good") by the common people. But as the bishops gained power they preferred the term 'Christos' (anointed one, messiah) because of its connotation of king, implying a hieracrchy of authority.
The bishop of Rome's power was based on his connections with the apostles. Count how often Tertullian refers to apostles in this short passage:
Tertullian even criticizes Luke because he did not have the title apostle. He even criticizes Paul because Paul cannot trace his authority to the other apostles.
With several bishops claiming power over others sooner or later one of them would win. Rome, being the center of the Roman empire, and visited by Peter and Paul, always had a strong case and ended up on top. (Jerusalem, the natural home of the church, was almost empty after the Jewish uprisings were crushed.)
Once the learned were crushed, was there any alternative to the hierarchy of Rome? Yes, the Celtic church based in Britain. There is evidence that most of the apostles, and even Jesus himself when younger, visited Britain. See "The Drama of the Lost Disciples" by George F. Jowett for a review of the medieval legends and earlier sources. Was the Celtic church was an earlier and purer form of Christianity? Certainly the Celtic church seems closer to the economic laws of the Bible:
Eventually Britain sent the monk Pelagius to Rome to preach the need for good works. He was a prophet, an outsider, like John the Baptist condemning the sins of the established church. He was shocked by the moral laxity of the Roman Christians: they believed that God had supernaturally pre-destined some to be saved, so their works made little difference. But without good works there could be no good results. The city was in decline. Pelagius argued that the Christians should do good works and think for themselves (free will was his major concern).
But it was too late. The city continued to reject good works, continued to weaken, just as Israel had weakened while believing itself to be righteous. As in 600 BC and AD 70, the self-proclaimed people of God were ripe to be overrun by invaders. Pelagius was their last warning, coming at the eleventh hour, but he was too late. He watched as the Visigoths sacked the city in the year 410.
Pelagius had some success preaching in Carthage, where they had just (in 397) decided on the canon of the Bible, so were perhaps more aware of the Bible's contents. Meanwhile, the greatest defender of Roman belief was Saint Augustine. Augustine had to somehow explain why, after Rome adopted their version of Christianity, the city grew weaker and fell to the barbarians. Augustine decided that the kingdom of God was a supernatural thing and did not have to physically exist on earth. He made that the subject of his famous book, The City of God. The book also also promoted the idea that Adam and Eve were had original sin, and that unbaptised children go to hell. The book profoundly influenced the medieval world.
Pelagius disagreed with Augustine. Pelagius' view, supported by the bishop of Jerusalem, was that the kingdom of God is something that requires thought and careful choices, then hard work here and now, and what happens now depends largely on what we do. Augustine persuaded his friend the emperor of Rome to banish Pelagius from Italy. Forever after Pelagius was condemned as the greatest heretic of all.
How exactly did a lack of good works doom Rome? What good works were most important? What was the economic mechanism of decline? The answer is the same as always:
The simplest way to destroy an economy is to reject land rent. According to the historian Pliny, concentrated land holding were a fundamental weakness in Rome:
While larger estates did increase efficiency in the short term (due to economies of scale), this was more than offset by the costs of unemployment. The rich could live in their wealthy villas and pay nothing to support the state. The poor meanwhile had no money to invest. So the state became weaker and weaker.
Constantine is famous for adopting Christianity for the Roman empire. He is less known for his disastrous tax policies. In order to finance his various reforms he placed heavy taxes on trade, but effectively none on land.
The result of course was that the major land owners withdrew from public life. They didn't trade, they lived in their huge estates and had little to do with the city of Rome. Rome weakened and decayed. In the words of the History of Rome Podcast (episode 138, the end of the podcast) this led the end of the Roman Empire in the west.
There are of course many other causes of Rome's decline, but they all came down to the elite just not caring for the empire, because they had their own lives on their huge estates.
Once again we see that rejecting land rent and embracing taxation (i.e. wasting economic potential) leads to the destruction of nations.
Meanwhile, according to the historian Tacitus, the Germans had a system where nobody could monopolize land. So while Rome weakened, the Germans (the Goths) remained strong and could never be conquered. Eventually the Goths conquered Rome.
So we see that logic is logic regardless of labels. Constantine thought he was following God, but in fact rejected him. The Goths' land laws came from pagan times yet were more Christian than Rome, So the Goths defeated Rome. It is as the Old Testament prophets said: follow God and the nation prospers, reject him and be eventually led into captivity.
The period of decline from the fall of Rome and rise of Christendom (roughly AD 400-800) used to be called The Dark Ages. Historians now dislike the term because it might imply that nothing is known of that period, or that there was no progress in any area. Clearly intelligent people continued to be born, and outside Europe there was progress of different kinds. But the fact remains that within Europe life expectancy reduced.
Life expectancy is the bottom line: life was not just changing, it was getting worse.
In the later Roman empire the lack of profit from land (due to taxes) led people to drift to the cities. There the emperor had to give them free grain to prevent riots. The land began to empty, so laws were passed that tied people to their master's land. Thus was born serfdom, a form of slavery. Any profit from small business was taken away in tax, and the elites had no reason to plan ahead (it was always quicker to steal) so economies stagnated.
During this period of decline some tried hard to do the right thing. Some Bible readers read "blessed are the poor" and became ascetics, renouncing all wealth. Just about all the great thinkers in the early church understood that land wealth should be shared (see Ownership: Early Christian Teaching by Charles Avila). So they understood sharing, but nobody seemed to grasp the concept of creating wealth.
Supernatural belief was the curse of the middle ages. They believed in supernatural grace without good works or free will: that good things all come from a supernatural God in ways that we can neither influence nor understand. So when Rome fell, when the roads and sewers broke up, when people were enslaved and everybody died younger, they simply didn't know what to do.
This book condemns authoritarianism, but not Catholicism. Many Catholics, such as St Francis of Assissi, were not authoritarian.
The cause of the dark ages was not the Catholic church, but the big Roman land owners taking all the resources and not caring for the empire. They did not love their neighbour. The Catholics merely tried to survive with that was left.
The Catholic church as a whole also did some great things. It preserved the written gospel. It united the warring kingdoms of Christendom, which got them a tiny bit closer to "love thy neighbour": it gave the nations enough stability to look beyond simply killing each other.
The next step, killing others (in the Crusades) may not seem like much of a moral advance, but it put the Europeans in contact with other cultures again, which paved the way for the renaissance.
Is anyone better than the Catholics?
If you are anti-Catholic, what is the alternative? Any long running religion has its own shameful skeletons. The Catholics are just a bigger religion, so are an easy target, plus they have all the complacency and corruption that always comes with being number one. What is your alternative? Protestantism? Capitalism? Socialism? Each of these movements has their own problems.
Large movements like churches or political parties are easy targets for hate. But Jesus taught a better way: his solution worked for everybody. He did not need to blame anyone. He just offered them something better.
Agnostics and atheists can say that religion tends toward the supernatural, and of course that invites error, leading to suffering, Religious people can point out that not a single atheist civilisation has ever lasted more than a few generations: evolution is not on their side. Isn't the end of civilisation the worst outcome of all?
Agnostics and atheists can say look at Scandinavia and Britain - lower church attendance correlates with higher living standards! Catholics can point out that correlation is not causation, national differences also correlate with good luck (e.g. Scandinavia has raw materials and a small population), and these nations rely on the highly religious Americans for military protection
Statistically, religion is irrelevant compared with economics. See for example Hans Rosling's talks on TED, particularly the one on how many children religious people have. The greatest danger is not religion (or atheism), but that we waste time arguing over beliefs instead of focusing on trade.
The growth of the supernatural meant logic had a harder time in medieval Europe than in Roman times.
The ancient Romans were more open to new ideas: in Roman times you could worship what you want as long as you added Caesar to the list and paid your taxes. So despite the taxes and hierarchies the people had a small amount of freedom to think. But the medieval church took away even that freedom: even your thoughts had to please the leaders.
Ironically the church supported philosophy, as long as the philosophers agreed with the church.
Brilliant philosophers devised complex arguments in support of the supernatural. For example, it is argued that the universe is complicated, complicated things do not arise by chance, therefore an outside force (a supernatural god) must have caused them. Yet this god must himself have a complicated body so by this same argument he cannot exist. So it is decided that this god somehow exists outside of the universe. But the universe, by definition, is everything that exists: that is saying he does not exist. So the philosophers would find another reason that did not make sense, and if that failed find another reason, and so on. Philosophy changed from a love of knowledge into a love of arguing. As long as a philosopher could continue to argue they considered it a success. This silenced any critics: no critic ws taken seriously unless he could answer every philosopher, and that was a never ending task because they would always have another excuse to believe the supernatural.
The medieval church still needed philosophers: it was teaching nonsense and needed it to sound intelligent. It created a new kind of philosophy, a kind of anti-philosophy.
True philosophy is simple. Philo-sophy means love of knowledge. Ancient philosophers loved knowledge, so they found ways to create more: they created rules of logic. But they knew that impenetrable jargon is not knowledge: knowledge is known by its fruits. It is measured by its effect on real things, things you can see and touch and do, ordinary things. They also knew that deceiving yourself is very easy and very dangerous, so they kept things simple. Pythagoras developed math. Plato developed dialog and invited ordinary people to discuss things in his public arena. Socrates catalogued things. Great philosophers were above all simple and practical.
Jesus is a superb example of loving knowledge. His method was to apply logic to whatever interested people (see commentary by Mark 1:22). He spoke about buying and selling, how to be happy, about tax and land and kings and paupers, life after death, everything. He lived in a highly religious society so also spoke a great deal about the religion of the day, using the religious language they understood. He produced (and produces) practical, understandable truths on every subject. He produced large quantities of it, in form that others could spread even further. He loved knowledge so he created as much as possible!
In contrast, medieval philosophers wrote long, complex books that only fellow philosophers could understand. They spent their time saying the old ways were right and must not be questioned in any way that mattered. Any philosopher who dared question the church or the king would find himself out of a job, and if he continued, probably dead.
Even when philosophy gained freedom after the renaissance, the tradition stuck. "Real" philosophers were expected to speak the language of the medieval obfuscators: to write long books that almost nobody read. The great lovers of knowledge, the cataloguers and discoverers, are now called "scientists" instead.
In part 4 of this book, written history and good laws were described as God's tool box: the tools of logic. Used with logic they could build anything. But used blindly they could hammer you thumb or cut off your hand. In the medieval period the tool box was all but destroyed. The Bible was reduced to a blunt hammer, where words like blessed are the poor were hammered into the poor so they knew their place, but not applied where it was most needed, to the rich. The economic laws (do not tax, charge land rent instead) were ignored. Any new books tended to add no knowledge but support the status quo, and te Bible itself was only available to the clergy, and then only in Latin, a language the common people could not read.
People still had free will and brains, they could still use logic independently and rediscover the things that used to be in the books, but the medieval church did its best to stop that, by controlling thought and saying that free will and good works would not achieve anything. Anybody who questioned existing ideas was i danger of being punished.
So the tool box of logic was destroyed. But logic itself can never be destroyed. Sooner or later somebody would discover those tools or make their own, and then they would win. Why? Because logic is about what works. By definition. People can work hard to destroy what is created, but logic always creates, and sooner or later it will create something strong enough that cannot be destroyed. Eventually Logic (God) will win. Because logic is logic. God is God.
As the ban on choice subsided, new religious ideas arose. This led to wars, because church and state were so closely linked. Eventually nations like America arose, demanding that church and state must be separate.
This illustrates how far Christianity had slid from what Jesus taught. His teachings were not hierarchical, and could be applied anywhere: he supported Israel, and he supported their apparent enemies, Rome. His system worked anywhere. It was "leaven" that made any kind of bread rise. The idea that he needed his own organisation, and that this organisation might contradict another organisation, misunderstands what he was doing.
As with the issue of separating church and state, the question "which church is right" misunderstands what Jesus did. Jesus clearly disagreed with his church - e.g. over stoning for adultery, and the habits of the leaders, but he never left it until the forced him out: he used logic to improve it.
Logic (God) fixes everything. It does not matter where you start: if you follow logic you get to the same place eventually. As for the secondary features, the particular world view, whether we follow this book or that book, these features are symbols, like a language. We need a common language, but it does not really matter whether what symbols are used. This is where Jesus was such a genius, and why his followers could never understand: they wanted him to say "we are right and others are wrong; obey us, not the other guy". But instead he said "love your enemies" and he meant it: he told people to obey the Pharisees even though they killed him. He knew that any path would work as long as you apply logic at every stage.
But what do you do if your own organisation opposes you? You do what Jesus did: focus on God, find ways to cooperate as far as possible (e.g. Jesus supported the law of Moses even while preaching a higher way). When finally his church tried to kill him, he let it. But again he outsmarted them: using his apparent death as a way to leave, to be stronger than ever. If the message is clear enough it will spread, it cannot be stopped by death.
Despite the mistakes, the Bible survived. History has many examples of Christians who tried to live Jesus' economic teachings. There are countless quiet and hard working people who believe that people have equal claim to land, and nobody should take another's wealth. Some, such as the American founding fathers, tried to create new utopian societies based on fairness.
But without a solid basis in economics, including the role of rent and the evils of tax, these efforts were weak and were easily opposed. Utopias either collapsed or degenerated into hierarchies and tax collectors. A better understanding of economics had to wait for Adam Smith (see below, and he is still misunderstood).
What are the new religions like? What do you do if you find yourself in one but disagree? I was raised as a Mormon so should probably say something about the new religion I know best: Mormonism. Like most religions, it began as an attempt to get closer to God (logic), then succumbed to the temptation of hierarchical power.
The origins of Mormonism
Mormonism was founded by logic (God). Specifically, the logic that if the church today is like the church in ancient times it should look and behave the same, more or less. That is simple consistency. Consistency is another name for logic. In particular, Joseph Smith noticed two problems with modern churches. First, there was no new scripture, and especially no scripture from ancient America. So he produced the Book of Mormon. Second, the churches of his day lacked any logical basis for their claims, so he rejected their authority.
Mormonism and power
That was in the 1820s. To see what happened next it helps to read Daymon Smith's "Cultural History of the Book of Mormon" and "A Book of Mormons". The book of Mormon was originally opposed to hierarchy: it describes churches that had priests and teachers but no central leader: people might to go to a high priest for advice, but anybody could be a prophet. There was no top down hierarchy between Jerusalem and Zarahemla, or between Zarahemla and the land of Nephi. They followed the Old Testament model where the high priest officiates in the temple, he does not run the church.
The Book of Mormon speaks of a restoration of the Jews to their land, and a restoration of ancient teachings. But it does not speak of a restoration of the organisation of the primitive church, because no such organisation existed. Or at least, it did not exist until Jesus left and the apostles followed the top-down command methods of the gentiles. But since then Christianity had become synonymous with top-down power. So most of the reformers of the 1820s took hierarchical authority for granted. The Campbellites for example wanted a restoration of an original hierarchy. A prominent Campbellite was Sidney Rigdon, and he brought the idea to Joseph Smith. From then on "restoration" did not mean restoration of the non-hierarchical truth, but a restoration of an imagined perfect hierarchy. The early converts were appalled.
Appeal to authority is a classic logical fallacy authority: it is against logic; against God. In contrast, Jesus told us to be known by our results: "by their fruits ye shall know them." A prophet is judged by what he does, not by who he knows.
Before seeing how claims to authority corrupted the church, let us celebrate the strengths of Mormonism:
Strengths of Mormonism
The first three strengths of Mormonism are the same strengths as any close knit religion. The rest come from its initial idealism:
This message was inspirational and the movement grew quickly. But converts dropped off in the 1850s and again in the 1990s. Let's see why:
Weaknesses of Mormonism
Power corrupts. Joseph found he could use his position to put himself above others, then to make his followers build grand buildings (such as the Kirtland temple) where he could sit in the highest seat. He started an ill-advised bank to get money, and finally marry other men's wives and pressure their daughters into sleeping with him. These led to the apostles leaving the church and the great apostasy of 1837. But most of it was hidden from the ordinary members. Polygamy did not become public until the 1850s, leading to a worldwide slump in converts. It did not help that converts who were attracted to a land of sharing and democracy in the desert found instead a theocracy where the leaders lived in grand mansions and the ordinary people were ordered around. They sent back letters warning their friends and by the end of the 1800s the flow of new converts dried up.
Seeing the damage caused by polygamy, Mormonism followed the example of the early church. Early Christianity eventually thrived by becoming model citizens so that eventually the emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion. Likewise Mormons became model citizens and growth once again increased. Higher than average growth continued until the late 1980s, but slowed down in the 1990s with the rise of the Internet. Like the Catholic church and the printing press, any hierarchy based on supernatural claims has problems with new sources of unregulated information.
For more about Mormonism and its history of loving power, see Michael Quinn's scholarly masterpieces "Origins of Power" and "Extensions of Power." Quinn is a faithful believing Mormon. But he pointed out the power structures, so he was excommunicated. Yet to this day he remains faithful in his heart.
The Book of Mormon
The elephant in the living room for the church is the Book of Mormon.
For years the book has been portrayed as a literal history of ancient
America. But there is no need for this. As a nineteenth century American creation it is far more important.
Even if the historical evidence supported the Book of Mormon the book
would have no purpose: we already have the Bible, so "another witness"
is redundant. But all the evidence points to it reflecting the ideas and
interests of the 1820s America, and that is what makes it exciting.
Because a future historian (thousands of years hence) could easily look
back and see early nineteenth century America as the most important time
and place in world history: perhaps second only to the invention of
writing in ancient Sumer.
If the Book of Mormon reflects the values and interests and faith and
creativity of that age (warts and all) it becomes something worth
To see why, consider perhaps the most famous sociology book ever written, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" by Max Weber (1905).
The Book of Mormon and Max Weber
Weber did not believe in a supernatural God, but he was fascinated by the progress he saw all round him: he was raised in Germany as the nation industrialised at unprecedented speed. All around him factories were being built, wealth was increasing, and people were pulled out of poverty and given new opportunities undreamed by their ancestors. It looked like the real kingdom of God: a kingdom based on logic, with technological miracles, no more poverty, and what looked like a future of peace and joy.
Weber, a brilliant polymath and "arguably the foremost social theorist of the twentieth century" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) looked for an explanation. Why were Germany and other nations pulling ahead so quickly while other nations remained in poverty and suffering? Weber concluded in his masterpiece that it was due to how the protestants understood the Bible: he invented the idea of the Protestant work ethic, whereby people invested in work rather than in luxuries.
We do not have to agree with Weber on the specifics: Catholics would probably argue that success was due to a rediscovery of forgotten Catholic teachings; atheists might argue that it was a result of the decline of organised religion. But the general principle is sound: building a better world depends on our values and priorities.
The biggest flaw in Weber's argument was exposed by the history of Germany after the book was published: two devastating world wars. Though taking a longer view Germany learned from its mistakes and is now stronger than ever in every way. But still, Germany is no longer seen as the ideal example of nineteenth century progress. A much better example of progress is probably the United States in the same period.
The United States and the Kingdom of God
In the nineteenth century the United States did many terrible things, yet still did morally better than other nations. As a result become the most advanced nation on earth. In "Five American Contributions to Civilization" Charles William Eliot argues that America changed the world in five ways:
When historians look back in thousands of years' time, they might well see nineteenth century America as just as important as ancient Sumer in the creation of civilisation. If the Book of Mormon reflects the imagination and concerns of early nineteenth century Americans, of the generation born after independence, then the Book of Mormon becomes a guide to creating the kingdom of God.
Non-Mormons do not have to see it that way of course. But for Mormons, a nineteenth century Book of Mormon is far more important than a fourth century Book of Mormon could ever be. The Book of Mormon follows the same pattern as the Bible: if we focus on the supernatural then it breaks, but if we focus on the kingdom of God it becomes much stronger.
Other sacred books
The Book of Mormon is of course just one way to organise history. "Science and Health" is another one. The "i Ching" is another. There are endless ways. Choosing a religion is like a child choosing a career: the key to success is not which career or which religion, but whether you choose one that works for you, and then embrace logic: do it right.
Summary: Mormonism as an example of new religion
The Mormons follow the pattern of every new religion: it begins by proclaiming logic and utopian ideals, and it grows. These ideals are then replaced by a focus on supernatural hierarchy and obedience, and the movement loses its spirit. It is a universal theme: power corrupts.
But truth is truth and God is God. When old ideas slip, new ideas arise to challenge and replace them, and thus we progress. And so we come to the topic of modern science and economics.
Religion and economics were originally not separate, they were simply the rules for a strong household and strong nations (see the introduction to this book). "Religion" originally meant "re- legos" or "to repeat a logical idea" (see part one of this book). Perhaps the most powerful logical ideas, the most powerful "religions", are science and economics. They provide the stories and miracles and comforts that supernatural religions once offered. The best of them worship logic (i.e. God).
Crucially, science and economics do not need hierarchical authority. They are judged on their results. Anybody can set themselves up as a scientist or economist, anybody can challenge anybody else at any time, and stand or fall on merit. As Jesus said, by their fruits ye shall know them.
Great scientists and great economists even find themselves using the word God.
None of these men were religious in the conventional sense (except insofar as society forced them to be: e.g. Adam Smith had to sign a confession of faith to get a job at a university). But the metaphor of God is the simplest and therefore best way to explain logic on the largest scale.
It is tempting to say "OK, I can accept God is a metaphor, a personification of logic, but our ancestors were so simple minded they thought he was real! We are more advanced: we can tell the difference between the metaphorical and literal." But are we really so much smarter?
All reality is metaphor: every idea is a simplification of something deeper. For example, what is a human? Just a collection of ideas - see part two of this book. Even such absolutes as solid matter, or numbers themselves, turn out to be names for very different complex deeper stuff. See answersanswers.com/universe. The quest for "real" versus "metaphorical" is a fool's errand. Our ancestors treated both impostors as the same. they judged ideas simply on whether they work. The idea of God seemed to work (that is, no atheist society ever survived) and that makes the idea real in every meaningful sense.
So when Adam Smith talks of "the invisible hand" and "the impartial observer" he is in the tradition of the ancients: "Metaphor or literal?" is the wrong question. The right question is, "does this idea work?"
Adam Smith, and Einstein, and every other great thinker probably believed in God (logic) in the same way that Moses and Jesus did. Their minds could cope with the big abstract ideas as underlie reality. The problem is that lesser minds could not.
That is what sets the greatest thinkers apart from the rest of us. Their minds are comfortable with higher abstractions.
God is an abstract concept (see part one of this book). Humans are also abstract concepts (see part two of this book). Abstract concepts underly and produce the surface features we experience. Moses and Jesus understood that a good metaphor is just as real as a person or a rock. Hence Jesus could talk about his beliefs as a rock: "upon this rock I will build my church" ad "the wise man built his house upon a rock." These things were real. They understood the bigger picture. The problem is that later followers did not. Later followers embraced the supernatural because they could not get their heads around the reality of metaphors, or the hard work of earning respect instead of the much easier task of scaring people with ghosts and hierarchical power. The rock of reality was too hard for them.
True religion was never about belief anyway. It was always about action. The law of Moses is concerned with action, not belief (aside from loving God - that is, loving logic). The word "faith" (Greek "pistis") originally meant a conclusion based on evidence. Moses and Jesus were abstract thinkers and practical leaders. There is no evidence that they ever "believed" in the sense of holding a supernatural image on their heads.
In ancient times there was no difference between religion and economics: there were simply the rules for running society. So economists are like prophets. Take Adam Smith for example:
So Smith taught moral laws, the rules for society, and human metaphors for the infinite. He called the rich to repentance and promised a better world. He is in every way a modern prophet. The fact that he does not fit into conventional religion is a sign of how far conventional religion has fallen.
Jesus said that we know a true prophet by his fruits. The fruits of following Smith's teachings are wealth that has increased many times over since Smith's day in the 1700s. In his day one of the biggest killers of the poor was hunger. Today in his nation one of the biggest killers of the poor is obesity (and its effects such as heart disease. The dramatic increases of wealth, even for the poor, have given us longer lives, comforts and miracles that even kings could not dream of. (Critics might argue that modern wealth is a result of technology, not economics. But mechanical devices and steam have been known for thousands of years. They did not produce vast wealth until the economic conditions were right.)
All these blessings are a result of just a very shallow embrace of good economics. We still don't really follow Adam Smith. True, we have division of labor and limited trade, but we don't have completely free trade (including free movement of people, which would end global poverty). Crucially (and suicidally) we still tax work instead of land. Yet we have made a start and the rewards are all a round us.
Prophets are routinely misquoted and hated. For example, Jesus taught us not to have hierarchies, and yet his followers call him a king. A similar injustice befell Adam Smith. He taught the value of altruism, and taxing unearned wealth, yet he is remembered as "every man for himself", and contrasted with like Gandhi:
Yet this is the opposite of what Adam Smith taught. Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments" is precisely about our impulse for nonviolence and equality. "The Wealth of Nations" is precisely about why nations were poor despite the poor working very hard. Taxing ground rents instead of work will create precisely the justice and equality that Gandhi wanted. Adam Smith is a man nobody knows.
In this way Adam Smith is like Cain: as we saw in part three of this book, Cain and his people created cities, metalwork and music. They created the things that bless all mankind. But Cain refused to follow dictators, and for that the dictator falsely accused him of murder: Cain's name has been hated ever since.
Oh, and one other thing: the name "Cain" means "metalworker" or "smith". So the man who invented civilisation has the same name as the man who invented wealth: Cain was the smith of the Adam race, or in other words, the Adam smith.
Everyone who wants a better world shares the same spirit. It is the same thinking and message throughout human history:
All these thinkers are close brothers and sisters. The centuries that separate them are nothing.
The ancients saw a broad pattern in human history: good behavior makes your society strong, and the strong replace the weak. This pattern can be called a prophecy for the history of the world. That is the subject of the final part of this book.