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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 4: “Boundaries Defined (50 CE – 300)” – Part I

Chapter 4: “Boundaries Defined (50 CE – 300)” – Part I


      1. MacCulloch points out that there seems to be a discrepancy between Jesus’ sayings in the gospels and Paul’s message in his epistles.  He writes, “[Paul] made notably little reference in his letters to the ‘kingdom of God’, that concept of radical turn to world history which had meant so much to Jesus and had accompanied his challenge to so many existing social conventions.  Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire, here and now, emphasizing without Jesus’s witty ambiguity that everyone must ‘be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.’  His command to obedience had a great future in Christian conversations.” (loc. 2219)  In your understanding of the NT, do you see this discrepancy?  Do you see a divide or contradiction between Jesus’ and Paul’s messages?  Was Jesus’ message politically subversive and radical to the Roman government and establishment while Paul’s was politically subversive in a different way and that he never wanted an overthrow of the Roman authority?  Can these two points be harmonized or is MacCulloch’s assessment wrong?  State reasons for your argument.
      2. MacCulloch finds little evidence that Paul or the early church supported the abolition of slavery.  He writes:  “There is no suggestion that he [Onesimus] should be freed, only that now he could be ‘more than a slave’ to Philemon; and certainly there is no question of consulting Onesimus about his own wishes.  The Epistle to Philemon is a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery.  Slavery was, after all, an indispensable institution in ancient society.” (loc. 2214)  Furthermore, he cites that similar sayings by Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop Ambrose of Milan, and Bishop Augustine of Hippo (aka Saint Augustine) provided more robust defenses on the idea of slavery than non-Christian philosophers before them did.  Does this surprise you contrary to what you’ve heard before?  Does this disturb you?  How does this historical reality affect your understanding of the gospel and its message of freedom and equality?  Is the gospel message even about freedom and equality for all from “bondage” in the first place?  Why or why not
      3. MacCulloch devotes a section on the affects of Gnosticism on the early church.  He writes about their emphasis on dualism, a very low view of creation, a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, darkness and light, that might have been influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism. Do you see strands of Gnosticism within the church today? Do we sometimes have a “docetic” or purely spiritual view of Christ in our church today – seemingly believing that he never took on flesh by a human woman and never felt what we felt – in particular human suffering?  They looked down upon martyrdom and saw it as an overindulgence of the flesh and accused early church leaders of misleading believers that martyrdom was a noble and God-honoring way to die.  Do they have a point?  Even today, there are many missionaries and pastors who encourage their congregations to suffer for the faith even to the point of death- even that if they don’t suffer for their faith they don’t have a “genuine” faith.  Do you see this in some churches today?  Do you sympathize with them on this message of perhaps being “radical” for Jesus?

Reflections By Michael 

Consider the theology and philosophy of Marcion in the early second century CE.  He was a biblical literalist who despised any figurative or allegorical interpretation of scripture. “He was determined to pull Christianity away from its Jewish roots… he came to the same conclusion as gnostics in saying that the created world must be a worthless sham and Jesus’s flesh an illusion; his Passion and death should be blamed on the Creator Demiurge… He saw the Creator God of the Jews as a God of judgment, rather than the God of love whom he saw perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ.” (loc. 2450)  Furthermore MacCulloch writes, ” There are curious resemblances in Marcion’s thought to the spiritual progress of Martin Luther: the revulsion against the idea of a God of judgment, the contrast between Law and Gospel, the fascination with Paul and the single-minded search for a core message within the inheritance of sacred writings.”  (loc. 2470)

Do you see Marcion’s thoughts as a “natural” progression or an inevitable result of Christianity’s split from it its Jewish roots? 

Christianity’s split from Judaism was already in full swing by time Marcion appeared on the scene.  What animated Marcion was his desire to establish a coherent and uniform set of creeds in the midst of the chaos and confusion in the Christian world of his time.  Whereas Gnosticism appears to indirectly question the assumptions and beliefs set by the followers of Old Testament Judaism, Marcion wanted to make clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brought forth a new covenant for a new age and that the laws of the Old Testament no longer carried any merit.  I don’t think Marcion was interested in separating Christianity from its Jewish roots, but rather resisting the doctrinal errors that the Jews kept falling into.

Or was he deeply misguided in his interpretations of the Old Testament and Paul’s writings? 

Just exactly what books of the Old Testament did Marcion really read and believe?  It would be hard to determine what exactly were his interpretations of the Old Testament since little of his original writings remain.   The interpretations of the Old Testament clearly differed between the Jews and the Greek Gentiles, and Marcion used Paul’s writings to clearly differentiate the God of Judgment in the Tanakh and the God of Love expressed in Jesus Christ.  It’s rather odd how Marcion insisted on removing all traces of the Tanakh from the New Testament when he clearly used it for multiple references to the saving work of Christ.  The question is how much exposure Marcion had to the conflicts that arose between the Jewish and Gentile Christians of his time.

Do you see Marcion’s thoughts being alive and well in churches today, as well as in modern popular thoughts about God? 

We can clearly see some of the influence of Marcion in many of the fundamentalist and orthodox churches today that hold to a literal interpretation of scripture as opposed to say liberal denominations that view the Bible allegorically.  At the same time, most of the Christian world today have no trouble viewing the God of judgment and the God of love all in the same vein, assuming of course you hold to a Trinitarian view of God.  Since the concept of the Trinity most likely did not exist during the second century, it must have been difficult for Marcion to reconcile the two conflicting images of God he saw in both the Tanakh and Paul’s writings.

Do you see traces of Marcionism in your beliefs as well- now and or in your past?  

Both now and as in the past, I always struggled with the idea of a wrathful God, but through time and experience I have come to realize that a God of love must also be a God of judgment otherwise how would you explain way the existence of sin.  God must judge sin otherwise he would not be a God of love.  If you cannot come to reconciliation with this very important simply go talk to any person who experienced or witnessed an atrocity committed by another human being or reflect on the sins committed against you at any point in your life.



Point 3 Gnosticism and martyrdom

Yes I see strands of Gnosticism in church today, particularly the cosmic battle of G versus E.  There is much emphasis of “spiritual warfare” or “the devil made me do it.”  At times it is almost used to abdicate responsibility.  I’ll pray for you, but do nothing to help with your material needs or as Jesus put it in Mathew 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

The material world and the spiritual world are not separate, but entwined.  Actions in the physical world affects our spiritual life.  Hunger can directly affect our mood and sometimes a physical contact such as a reassuring hand can increase an emotional bond.

With emphasis of the material, that is not to say the spiritual is not important as well.  There are spiritual issues as well that can affect us in the material world.  Emotional abuse can cause physical harm such as elevated stress.  There also may be “evil spirits”, but we overemphasize them instead of a more mundane.  Instead of just praying for defense against spiritual warfare, act with self sacrifice loving your neighbor as yourself.

There does seem an overemphasis of martyrdom or suffering for the sake of suffering.  Suffering can be used to increase wisdom like Job, but we shouldn’t be worshiping it.  Suffering helps to show us what is most important, which is God, not that the material is unnecessary.  God made the world and declared it good, our problem is that we hold the material as more important than God.

To die for God is an honor, but God would much rather have us live and be good to one another.  Just as God gains no pleasure from punishing sinners, but instead rejoices when they repent.  Martyrdom has been abused, during the crusades the Muslims were perplexed at the mad Christian soldiers who seemed glad to through their lives away on suicidal attacks.  Dying for what you believe is easy, living is hard.



Maculloch writes about how gnosticism arose as a “dialogue” with Judaism that was most likely  influenced by Persian Zoroastrianism and possibly even from Indian sources as well.  Gnostic thought seems to have crept into and mixed well with mainstream Christianity over the many centuries of its existence.  Much of the attitudes of dualism, an overemphasis on the soul/spirit over the body/flesh (ie, save the soul, forget the body attitude), a low view of creation, and even mysticism and a longing for the supernatural have become a part of mainstream, or at least, more charismatic or fundamental circles of Christian churches today.

As shown in the media, many prominent Christian (fundamentalist) leaders in the government have let their gnostic/dualistic beliefs affect public policy against preserving the environment, stating that since the world is fallen and sinful and will go away as soon as Christ will return shortly, they see no need to enact laws or policies to help preserve the environment.  In many other churches, there are repeated sermons about how evil our bodies and our carnal instincts are and how we are to continuously to suppress them through more rigorous spiritual disciplines – by focusing more on our spiritual development and looking down upon anything that has to do with the body (by mostly seeing the body as something corrupt and sinful).  I think this attitude also contributes to a negative attitude toward science and promotes a culture of anti-intellectualism (which is funny b/c early gnostics included people of sophistication and learning).

Gnosticism, I believe, within more conservative/fundamentalist circles has given an overtly spiritual view of Jesus in our mind’s eye.  At one end of the spectrum, He is portrayed as more of the distant, cosmic, all-powerful Jesus; at the other, He is like the supreme, supernatural “nice guy” who smiles lovingly down upon us and has little kids sit on his lap in the midst of lush green meadows in a pristine landscape.  With doctrines like the “immaculate conception” or the doctrine of the “virgin birth” so that Jesus wouldn’t be “contaminated” with Adam’s sin, we lose sight of the true humanity of Jesus – that he was a man – a human being – of flesh and blood who experienced all the pains, temptations, short-comings, and joys of everyday life.  We tend to love the power of Christ, and neglect his willing weaknesses in order to relate with us.

I believe the reason why gnosticism is so easily incorporated into our modern Christian mindset today is because it often provides easy and accessible “black and white” answers to complex questions that doesn’t take too much sophisticated understanding.  As MacCulloch wrote, “Evil simply exists; life is a battle between good and evil”, or the world is just a battlefield against God and Satan/demonic forces.  An upside to all this is that it seems to have a tendency to produce passionate believers and incorporates a lot of emotion into the worship of God, yet it is at the expense of serious theological and open engagement with other religions, philosophies, and sciences.

Also, being “radical” for Jesus doesn’t mean that you preach a version of the gospel to everyone you come in contact with, going door-to-door, etc., or that you go on every single mission trip to third-world countries, etc.  If you don’t do any of these, I don’t believe that makes you any less of a true Christian.  It’s sad that many well-meaning Christians may be looked down upon if they don’t participate in any of these activities.





  1. Tim Snoddon says:

    1. MacCullough’s assessment of the discrepancy between Paul and Jesus is generally correct. Jesus was a prophet, whose purpose was a message of having a unified faith see God through himself, “the Son of Man.” Paul on the other hand can be seen as the founder of Christianity’s beginnings of achieving power. He was to set the guidelines of how the faith could be united with the superpower of the day and gain it an absolute status in society. While obedience is hardly avoided by Christ, we can see two men of the same ideology but with differing missons.

  2. Tim Snoddon says:

    2. In these pre-feudal years, it should not surprise us that slavery was part of the rituals of battle and was seen as a necessity. Logically, there is no evidence to suggest Paul would not adhere to slavery. Symbolically, certain narratives that have come from the Bible have been culturally adorned as being abolitionist examples and strike at the heart of a race or nation’s freedom. Therefore, when logic is segregated from the narrative and narrative interpretation, it’s importance disminishes.

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