The Mission. On the Copts and their natural tendency towards heresy (part 2 of 6)
First century AD, literally. Almost a century has indeed passed since the crucifixion and the Mission has yet to get off the ground. Even if the apostles are dead and their relics are jealously guarded by a very small number of faithful, and even if the first bishops are traveling to the edges of the known world, such as the Urals, in fact there is no stable community of Christians in the world, except perhaps that of Jerusalem which, however, does not count for the purposes of the game. The only one that existed was in Rome, but the locals, in fact, have returned to Jewish customs, referring to the Torah and its outdated teachings. Now we call those there Ebionites, and they are the first heretics of the Christian world. But we don't give up: the time of renunciation will come. So let's see how things will turn out now with the...
Second era. Pax Romana (91 AD - 300 AD)
As mentioned, Christian communities around the map are still few and far between. Nonetheless, it is decided to step up the game: the first six churches of the Christian religion are founded in the main cities of the ancient world. Six patriarchs are placed at their see, still unaware of the arguments that their respective congregations will encounter in the years to come due to apparently laughable discrepancies in the respective doctrines. These disputes, upon closer inspection, begin immediately, because these religious leaders come from communities of non-conformists who have often been reached by the Word only through hearsay, more or less as it happened in Rome, where in fact now even the Pope is an Ebionite. The Patriarch of Constantinople, for example, does not have the faintest idea of what the teachings of Christ are: what he knows he imagines starting from the doctrines of Gnosticism, where his background is rooted, a set of pagan teachings which, in that eathen's nest which is Constantinople, mixes with the cult of Mithras, giving birth to something very far from conventional Christianity. The Catholicos of Armenia, however, tries to do things well. He wonders if sacred texts exist: he is given the Torah, and is told that they read that in Rome. The good man falls for it. Thirty years pass and even Armenia becomes a den of Ebionites.
|The epidemic returns.
While the Church faces its first problems, history presents itself again: Ctesiphon is devastated by a new plague epidemic, and the ever vigilant Christians manage, this time, to convince their Zoroastrian neighbors that, if they had prayed for the right God the first time, maybe the problem would not have arisen again. The mystification works, also thanks to the great religious freedom granted around here, and Ctesiphon becomes widely Christian.
Despite this initial success, the failure to the will of the founding fathers to Christianize the entirety of the Parthian Empire becomes, in the meantime, a sad observation for the entire Christian world. Ignatius of Antioch, the second successor of the apostle Paul, tired of this situation, packs his bags and reaches Persia, where his fervor and his invitation to firmly obey the bishops' directives earn him a reputation as a great preacher. Even if his words do not always reflect the canon theoretically desired by the Christian leadership, he manages, alone, within a few years, to convert the entire region. After that he heads to Merv, a city characterized by a population which is very poor and presumably receptive to a religion designed for them. Along the journey, however, a mugger stabs him. The Syriac Archbishop, in order not to let his intent fall on deaf ears, therefore heads to Merv, taking upon his shoulders the already antithetical words of Ignatius of Antioch and attempting to replicate his sermons. He fails to do so, and indeed by following up on the chaotic theories of the great theologian he achieves the sole result of making the Christian doctrine even more confused in the world. The counter indicating the coming of the Dark Ages increases by 1.
It will take another thirty years to have the first satisfactions: the archbishopric of Merv is renewed a couple of times and manages, after so many vicissitudes, to bring the poor of the city to his side. The Parthian Empire is finally converted. The belated success of phase 1 of the Apostolic Mission fills bishops around the world with hope, starting with that of Nobadia, who first converts the slaves of the region and then moves southwards, to Makuria, following the Nile the same way the apostle Mark had set out to do so many years before. The Christian successes in the Middle East, however, do not escape the attention of the Roman leadership: the Emperor Antoninus Pius is not happy about it and gives the order to feed the lions. In Cilicia many Christians are put to death and in response, as it had already happened in Rome over a century earlier, the poor of the region embrace Christian ideas en masse. The news reaches nearby Antioch, where someone thinks "Ah, Christianity is beautiful! How can we find out more? They must have published these theories in a book". A Torah pops up. Before it can be explained to them that that is outdated stuff, Antioch also becomes Ebionite.
|Zero money, counters of the dark ages rising.
A bitter metaphor of contemporaneity.
Meanwhile, the bishop of Makuria finishes converting his region, then proceeds in turn along the Nile, reaching Alodia, where the cult of Isis is notoriously practiced. A religion widely spread among... women! In carrying out his office this pious man also discovers the Mount of Venus, therefore, and returns home shocked by emotions. However, he leaves behind him a lady of some influence, evidently, because she alone works to bring the Word to her fellow worshipers, succeeding in the attempt.
All in all, therefore, the Coptic branch of Christianity is also starting to be quite solid. Attention shifts towards the North African one, where the bishop of Numidia, practically little more than a custodian of the mortal remains of Judah, receives the order to get going: he converts the Roman province, then moves towards the Mauretania Tingitana.
In short: despite a shaky start, Christianity seems to be making it.
It is at this point that the problems with the Copts begin to emerge.
The recently converted province of Nobadia, in fact, receives visits from some pilgrims from Anatolia, who bring with them certain theories borrowed from the ancient cults dedicated to the goddess Cybele... it turns out that the Christian doctrine in Nobadia is overturned by the newly born Montanist heresy, which undoes some of the costly and necessary progress achieved in the Nile region by generations of missionaries. The Christian community has in the meanwhile put aside a fair amount of treasure, thanks to the stability of the Syriac and Coptic churches. The entirety of this budget is invested in hard work to repress the Montanist ideas. An entire year's earnings are squandered all at once in Nobadia... to no avail. The desperation of the Christian world fuels the soul of the philosopher Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, who, understanding the times of crisis in which he finds himself, goes to Mauretania, converts it, then returns to his native Carthage, converts it too... and retires without leaving any trace behind him, which is a good thing, because historically he as well embraced Montanism, while in this case he dies as a good Christian without himself trying to muddy the doctrine of the Nazarene.
|The slaves of Makuria,
the same ones who stained their hands
with Marc's blood,
An interesting fact is that his work of conversion in Carthage prevails over the already widespread tendency of the locals to embrace Christian doctrine. In this city there was in fact the other great center of the cult of Isis, which historically merged easily into the Christian one, apparently combining with the Marian cults, as already happened in Alodia. Mechanically this would have given me access to a free roll to convert the province already back when Judah visited it, but I forgot to do so. As a result, thanks to the work of Tertullian, the Mission now finds itself with a cult of Isis that continues to exist in Carthage despite a full spread of Christianity.
All this, however, does nothing to stop the Montanist heresy in Nobadia. Indeed: the confusion in faith fuels a religious debate that would be better to remain silent, and which instead spreads as far as Makuria, where the group of Anatolian pilgrims responsible for the previous messes in nearby Nobadia moves. These try to bring order by better explaining their religious doctrine. Reference is made to the theories of the Patriarch of Constantinople... which as we know is not a true Christian, but rather a believer in Mithraist Gnosticism, whatever it is. And the omelette is done: out of nowhere a Gnostic sect is born in Makuria too. Fortunately this happens shortly after the local bishop returns home, still infatuated with the women of Alodia. Once he overcomes the hormonal shock he activates and meets the Gnostics, managing to convince them to abandon their senseless path. Then he mans up, returns to Alodia, discovers it already converted, says "Wow", goes straight to Ethiopia and continues beyond it, until he meets the surprised Himyar clans, who never thought there was anything interesting on our side of the desert. The bishop decides that this can be a good border for Christianity: he does what the other guy did in the Urals, renaming himself archbishop, after which he travels back to Nobadia, meets the Montanist heretics, and silences them at the first blow, finally eliminating this plague too.
While all of this is happening, Christianity knows another great theologian: Origen of Alexandria, a professor who writes letters left and right with the aim of bringing order to Christian doctrine. A precedent to which, as we will see, others after him will refer, even if no one still will bother to learn its most ambitious teaching ("Verba volant, scripta manent") by transcribing the Bible, which continues to be transmitted orally.
In the meanwhile, almost two hundred and fifty years have passed since the crucifixion of Christ. His ideas have become confused on several occasions, but this is only the beginning: suddenly the very pagan scholars of Iberia decide that Christian ideas make enough sense, but only if they are completely detached from those expressed in the Old Testament, whose god was clearly different from the "new" one preached by that Peter they murdered two hundred years earlier. This
very lucid criticism of the philology of a religion born from the evolution of previous and weakly interconnected cults bizarre attempt to establish a priori how Christianity works thus gives rise to yet another heresy: Marcionitism. The local bishop, in fact the custodian of the ossuary containing Peter's remains, meets them and tries to reason with them. The church gives him an infinite amount of money to carry out religious propaganda, but exactly as happened in Nobadia years before there is nothing he can do: he wastes all this money and dies, perhaps not before having in turn embraced the Marcionite heresy as well.
|Cyprian of Carthage plays hard.
The Christian elite throws their hands in their hair, praying for someone to save the Mission once again. And their prayers are answered: Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus, bishop of Carthage, tired of these Anatolian pilgrims who claim to spread Christianity without ever having ever visited the Holy Sepulchre, takes a journey to Anatolia, which he converts, and then goes to Greece, converts that too, and finally meet the Gnostic-Mithraistic Patriarch of Constantinople, a certain Titus, taking advantage of all the popular support gathered during his journey to have him deposed. Both heresies active in Constantinople, Gnosticism and Mithraism, are eradicated, and thus the Greek branch of Christianity is finally sanitized. A new Patriarch, called Domezio, is put in Titus's place, and the good Cyprian returns to Carthage, where he will live out the rest of his days without being martyred, unlike what happened in real history.
|The Greek Church after the passage of Cyprian.
He is not the only one to leave Constantinople: several Gnostics, accused of heresy, do not accept conversion to Christianity and are now once again looking for a new home. They land in Alexandria, nothing less than the headquarters of the Coptic Church, which has already proven fertile ground for heresies, and not only do they establish a new Gnostic sect there, but they even make a heretic of that idiot of the new Coptic Pope, Theona of Alexandria, who, despite an infinite number of attempts by the Archbishop of Nobadia to make him see reason, gives the order to stop paying the contributions to the general coffers of Christianity.
We are in 300 AD and, compared to the end of the previous era, things have undoubtedly changed. In theory, Christianity spread widely in the ancient world. However, the frequent tendency to develop heresies of various kinds demonstrates the difficulties in keeping together a vast cult built solely on word of mouth. Three hundred years after the crucifixion, in fact, no one has yet brought order to the Christian canon, which still lacks a written text. The New Testament, in short, still has to come, and this continuous generational telephone game between missionaries is doing a lot of damage.
But even before the coming of the first Bible there is another event that is about to shake history and reshuffle the cards on the table: the completely unexpected arrival of a Christian Roman Emperor... Constantine.
See you in a week with part 3, in which Rome stops feeding Christians to the lions... or maybe not.
Do you want to read other stories? Click here for the full list.