THE MEDIEVAL ROOTS OF MODERN CHRISTIANITY
by Kris Klingensmith
Posted to the homeplanet manifest 4/24/99
It can safely be said that the history of Europe is in many respects a religious tale. In those strange, tumultuous decades following the withering retreat eastward of a drunken, wheezing Rome, invisible spirits roamed freely over the hearts and minds of superstitious Europeans. Gods peered down angrily from the heavens, demons lurked in the murky underworld, forest and countryside were haunted by a myriad of troublesome imps and devils. With the coming of Christianity and its gradual, inexorable assault on these wild indigenous religions, seeds were sown which, in time, produced the Western Culture we more or less recognize today.
But what was it about this new religion that captivated -- and thereby transformed -- medieval Europe? More specifically, how is it that the teachings of a gentle, young Hebrew sage could evolve into an often violent and anti-Semitic religious movement of such influence and power?
The ironic truth is that Christianity succeeded in medieval Europe by operating on two conflicting levels. In the early Middle Ages the appeal of Jesus' teachings as presented in the New Testament, along with the tendency of superstitious humans to willingly accept religious conjecture as Truth, allowed for the formation of an elite group of powerful religious leaders. Many of these men, although they were entrusted with the spiritual life and well-being of the multitudes of believers who trusted in them, spent most of their lives tucked away safely in Rome, solely intent on maintaining and enforcing their power, no matter what the cost. Time and again during the Middle Ages this cost proved dreadfully high, yet the faithful remained so, despite remarkable cruelties and flagrant debaucheries on the part of the religious elite. The presence of both true believers and self-motivated opportunists assured the continued growth of Christianity throughout Europe.
This is not to say that those who reaped the rewards of wealth and power from the fears and hopes of the faithful masses did not possess their own measure of faith. They certainly did, but it was a faith based on the rather arrogant assumption that they alone were chosen by God to represent and defend the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, and to enforce the acceptance of Christianity throughout pagan Europe. Convinced of this lofty calling, "The Church" held itself above and beyond the dominion of any secular kingdom or authority, often to the annoyance of many a king or prince with an opposing point of view. The Church fancied herself subject only to God Himself, whose divine personality and intent was from time to time conveniently reinterpreted by the Church in order to more accurately conform to the Church's ambitions.
How different then, was the faith of the medieval peasant. The peasant could claim no divine calling, except perhaps to be cast into a fiery eternal hell, but for the Saving Grace of Jesus. And even salvation was not assured, for the severe, sin-punishing Jesus of the mid and later Middle Ages bears little resemblance to the modern Fundamentalist Jesus so popular today. What vague hope for heaven the common medieval man or woman might possess was far outweighed by a very real fear of eternal damnation. As Will Durant notes in "The Age of Faith:"
"Christ was to this age no "gentle Jesus meek and mild," but a stern avenger of every mortal sin. Nearly all churches showed some representation of Christ the Judge; many had pictures of the Last Judgement, and these portrayed the tortures of the damned more prominently than the bliss of the saved. St. Methodius, we are told, converted King Boris of Bulgaria by painting a picture of hell on the wall of the royal palace. Many mystics claimed to have had visions of hell, and described its geography and terror. The monk Tundale, in the twelfth century, reported exquisite details. In the center of hell, he said, the Devil was bound to a burning gridiron by red hot chains; his screams of agony never ended; his hands were free, and he reached out and seized the damned; his teeth crushed them like grapes; his fiery breath drew them down his burning throat. Assistant demons with hooks of iron plunged the bodies of the damned alternately into fire or icy water, or hung them up by the tongue, or sliced them with a saw, or beat them flat on an anvil, or boiled them or strained them through a cloth. Sulphur was mixed with the fire in order that a vile stench might be added to the discomforts of the damned; but the fire gave no light, so that a horrible darkness shrouded the incalculable diversity of pains." (p.733)
These were some of the images in the mind of the medieval peasant when he considered his religion. The terror of damnation was a life and blood reality to the vast majority of common people in the Middle Ages. Salvation was never a certainty; it could be lost even at the very moment of death if the proper religious protocol was not followed. One thing was certain, however; the very real possibility of eternal torture in hell. Hell awaited anyone foolish enough to abandon the Sacraments, or failed to adhere to the beliefs and practices set forth by medieval Christianity's premiere promulgator, the Church of Rome. The best one could do was to remain blindly faithful to the Church, which is what most citizens did. Thus, the Church held captive the heart and soul of an entire continent, bringing riches and authority to those so fortunate to be counted among the religious elite.
How is it that such a powerful religion was able to emerge in the first place? Medieval Christianity drew its strength and inspiration from Jesus, a young Hebrew sage from Nazareth in Galilee, who lived during the first century of the Common Era. For roughly three years Jesus taught throughout Palestine, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was "at hand," and urging all who heard Him to repent and live a life more pleasing to God the Father, since divine judgement was sure to come one day. Jesus was ultimately arrested and executed as a threat to the political stability of the Roman occupied region, but very soon thereafter word spread that Jesus had risen from the dead, and had been seen by several of His disciples. It was also reported that Jesus had ascended into heaven, again in the presence of eyewitnesses, after instructing His astonished disciples how His teachings were to be presented to the world.
At the outset, Christianity was little more than an offshoot of first-century messianic Judaism. But within a few decades, due primarily to the exhaustive preaching and revolutionary theological calculations of Saint Paul, Christianity began to capture the imagination of the world. Far more than any other individual, Paul was responsible for fraiming and promoting the crucial doctrines of the Christian faith. After a powerful mystical experience in which Paul "met" the glorified Jesus, Paul expanded the original teachings of Jesus -- which were essentially Jewish in their scope -- and formed them into a new, worldwide religion. It was Paul who advocated the inferiority of the Mosaic Law in favor of reconciliation with God through faith in the redemptive power of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.
Paul's writings had already been circulated throughout many of the new churches of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean BEFORE the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus were distributed. As a result, Paul's declaration of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism was already widely accepted. This is important in the evolution of medieval Christianity when one considers the social and political environment in which the gospels were produced. By the middle part of the first century the rebellious rumblings of the Jews were becoming increasingly troublesome to Rome. Since Rome took little interest in the religious affairs of its subjects -- apart from realizing the potential threat of fanaticism -- Christianity was viewed as little more than yet another zealous offshoot of Judaism. It was important to the early Church that a distinction be established between the peace-loving Christians and the insubordinate Jews, and this distinction was clearly set in the gospels. Repeatedly in the gospels, "the Jews" are portrayed as enemies of Christ, constantly disputing His message, always deviously plotting against Him and eventually setting Him up to be crucified. Paul's assertion of Christ's superiority to Judaism, coupled with the gospel's treatment of the Jews as villains and Christ-killers, sowed the seeds of Church sponsored anti-Semitism which eventually blossomed into full blown persecution of the Jews during the Middle Ages, and beyond.
In "History and Myth," David Donnini argues pervasively against the veracity of the gospel accounts, pointing out their historical inconsistencies regarding events leading up to the crucifixion:
"How many Christians have undertaken to study that historical period closely? How many have asked themselves whether the presumed custom of liberating a prisoner on the occasion of the Jewish holiday of Passover really existed or not? How many have read the works of the Jewish authors Philo and Josephus Flavius, Jesus near contemporaries, or even know they exist? These two authors, who describe in detail customs and events in ancient Palestine, never mention such a custom and always depict Pilate as a cynical and hard procurator who never asked permission of anybody and who, even less, never submitted himself to the popular will of the Jews but, on the contrary, always ruled with a strong hand and atrocious cruelty. The Pilate of the Gospels, in front of the shouting crowd, declares himself defeated and announces blamelessly: "I'll wash my hands, you are responsible for this innocent blood, not I," and then sets free a man (Barabbas) many theologians want to identify as a revolutionary, one who fought the might of the Roman invaders."
Donnini continues: "At this point, into the mouth of the Jews there had been put a sentence that is a real ideological manifesto: "...Then answered all the people and said; 'His blood be on us and on our children'" (Matt.27:25). This is the start of a two thousand year anti-Semitism. The Jews of Jesus' day seem aware of their fate and, what is more curious, ready to accept it: the terrible war against the Romans, the destruction of JErusalem and the Temple, the massacre of hundreds of thousands of them, the Diaspora, the persecutions perpetrated by the Christians, the Inquisition, the infamous name "perfidious Jews," two thousand years of oppression and extermination... Well then, here is a dramatic confirmation; the authors of the four gospel texts called canonical by the Church (meaning they are the only ones that evidence the truth) had without a fixed idea; they had to discredit the Hebrew race and cover it with shame for having wanted the death of the "Son of God;" so satisfying and excusing Christianity's historically hostile attitude towards Judaism."
The vast majority of medieval Christians were in no position either intellectually or politically to challenge Rome on these matters, and actually participated in the persecutions, assuming that since they were decreed by the Church, they certainly must be part of God's plan. Once again, the non-spiritual ambitions of the religious elite were carried out by the willing masses.
From the death of Paul around A.D. 65 to the conversion of Constantine in A.D. 312, Christianity was considered illegal, and for the most part practiced "underground," under sporadic persecution. It nevertheless grew steadily in numbers and influence, and by the end of the third century the Church -- although still operating illegally -- had grown into a massive and wealthy international organization with a membership that included over twenty percent of the population of the Roman Empire.
With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312, and Theodosius' declaration of Christianity as the official state religion of Rome in 380, the Church became both legitimized and politicized. This newfound legitimization made possible the vast missionary movement that swept across Europe as Rome retreated to the east, while the politicization of Catholic Christianity brought about the unfortunate but inevitable corrupting influences that political power always brings. The fourth century also witnessed the diminishing influence of the true, historical Hebrew Jesus in favor of a new, mythical European Christian Jesus developed by Christian/Catholic saints and philosophers; a Jesus who was more suited to the needs of the ever-growing and now politically powerful and wealthy Roman Catholic Church. This is important in understanding medieval Christianity since it was this reinterpretation of the life and work of Jesus that allowed the Church to persecute and slaughter her enemies with a clear conscience. But any attempts to defend the atrocities of the medieval Church are easily put to rest with the honest consideration of one simple question: would the real Jesus of Nazareth approve of the pogroms, Crusades, and Inquisitions whereby many thousands of human beings were subject to mind-numbing torture and agonizing death, Church-sponsored and therefore carried out "in His Holy Name?"
Of course not. Only a madman would approve of such barbarism. Yet until fairly recently the Roman Catholic response to this question would probably have been a troubled "yes," since until this century it was widely accepted by the Roman Church that the medieval -- and modern -- church proceeded in full completeness and perfection from the head of the glorified, risen Christ. Conservative Catholic orthodoxy would have nothing to do with the possibility of Christianity evolving from a blend of first-century messianic Judaism and the theology of Saint Paul (who was himself subject to classical Greek and Roman influences.) This attitude is softening, according to Norman F. Cantor in "The Civilization of the Middle Ages:"
"In this century... liberal Catholics, using an Aristotelian term, say that the modern church was potential in earliest Christianity, and Catholic scholars have joined in the arguments over origins (of the Christian faith). In this field, as in many others, the intellectual emancipation of present-day Catholicism has powered a creative burst of intellectual activity among Catholics. The Roman Catholic church is no longer an anti-intellectual institution, and biblical scholarship has shared in the benefits of the change." (pg.32)
The Roman Catholic Church is still evolving, there is no doubt about that. A casual read of "News Notes," San Diego's conservative lay Catholic newsletter, reveals a number of conflicts and debates currently raging throughout the modern Church. Abortion rights, women priests, homosexuality, even the perpetual virginity of Mary and the Immaculate Conception are on the table now, much to the dismay of the orthodox faithful, whose troubled letters to the editor are posted in every issue. In a recent edition, a reader wrote a scathing attack on pro-Protestant "vermin," who, since Vatican II, have "crept out of her (the Church's) woodwork and into her classrooms, there to disgorge their heretical notions upon the minds of countless young seminarians and college students." In the same letter this individual actually defends the Catholic Church's position on torture during the Inquisition, noting that "it was never condoned beyond it's mildest forms, and then only as a last resort in order to save a soul from damnation." From time to time the heretics write in as well, evidently with little fear of this "mild" torture or a fiery death at the stake, indicating that inded some progess has been made since the Middle Ages.
It is impossible to look back to the Middle Ages through the lens of history and clearly comprehend all the subtleties of medieval Christian thought and behaivior. In our age of wealth and comfort, the experiences that were common to a poor, unscientific and superstitious culture are so alien they can scarecly be imagined, yet understood. This much is certain, however; for the medieval common man and woman, religion took the place of information, since there was so little information available to them. In spite of its violent and xenophobic tendencies, the Church was able to offer a sense of order to the extreme disorder, uncertainty, and injustice of medieval life. Will Durant writes in "The Age of Faith:"
"The power of Christanity lay in its offering to the people faith rather than knowledge, art rather than science, beauty rather than truth. Men preferred it so. They suspected that no one could answer their questions; it was prudent, they felt, to take on faith the replies given with such quieting authoritativeness by the church; they would have lost confidence in her had she ever admitted her fallibility. Perhaps they distrusted knowledge as the bitter fruit of a wisely forbidden tree, a mirage that would lure man from the Eden of simplicity and an undoubting life. So the medieval mind, for the most part, surrendered itself to faith, trusted in God and the Church, as modern man trusts in science and the state. ...In Christendom, as in Islam, they surrendered to God; and even amid profanity, violence, and lechery, they sought Him and salvation. It was a God-intoxicated age." (p.738)
And so it was that a God-intoxicated Europe staggered into 1347 and shook hands with a devil known as the Black Death. In four brief years, 17 to 28 million people perished, and along with these poor souls went a significant measure of the prestige and authority of the medieval Church. By this time the Church was already demonstrating a rather blatant disregard for spiritual matters, appearing more intrested in increasing its wealth and political advantage. The moving of the seat of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1309 was particularly odious to many people, even though many historians consider the Avignonese popes -- particularly Clement VI, who was pope during the plague years -- of high caliber. Nevertheless, according to Robert S. Gottfried in "The Black Death:"
"When the Black Death brought the crisis of the imperial Christian Church to a head and provided it with as stiff a challenge as it had since its earllier days, both its spiritual and educational offices were found wanting. Christians did not abandon their faith, but many of them sought alternative paths to spiritual peace and freedom." (p.83)
The impact of the Black Death on the Catholic Christian Church is still debated, but one thing is certain; the failure of the Church to deal effectively with a disaster of such staggering proportions forced a collective rethinking of its authority. People who had witnessed the flight of the clergy in the face of death began to think for themselves regarding their own spirituality. Gottfired writes:
"The Christian Church had many problems before the advent of the second plague pandemic. It was a huge, unwieldy, and vastly complicated institution, and, even at its nadir, there was much about it that was good. But the Black Death made an issue of the proper function of the clergy. It made people ever more conscious of the omnipotence of God and the inevitability of Judgement Day. A poorly behaved clergy made many people wonder about alternate means of salvation."(p.88)
This "wondering" smoldered for generations, eventually bursting into the sparkling flames of the Reformation, which forever diminished the spell of Catholic Christianity on Europe. Of course, in time Protestantism was defiled as well, growing rich and fat, as so many worldly enterprises do.
And what of Jesus of Nazareth in all of this? A few hours before He was killed, He stood, bloodied and humiliated, before the man who would in minutes change the world forever by sentencing Him to a tortuous death on the cross. At that terrible moment at the end of His life, Jesus spoke seven short words to Pontius Pilate that big-time Christianity has never comprehended; seven words that fly in the face of all the sanctimony and self-righteous thievery that history has endured, from Constantine to Jimmy Swaggart:
My kingdom is not of this world.
Cantor, Norman F. "The Civilization of the Middle Ages." New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.
Donnini, David. "History and Myth, Part Five: The Christians Responsibility in Anti-Semitism." www.dada.it/donnini.gesing.htm Translated and summarized from "Cristo, una Vicenda Satorica da Riscopriere." Erre Emme Edidioni, Roma Italy, 1994 and "Nuove Ipotesi Su Gesu." Macro Edizioni, Sarsina (Florence), Italy, 1993
Durant, Will. "The Story of Civilization, Vol. Four: The Age of Faith." New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.
Gottfried, Robert S. "The Black Death." New York: The Free Press, 1983.
Ryland, Tim, ed. "News Notes," May 1997, p.3.
"Saint Joseph Edition of the Holy Bible." New York: Catholic Book Publilshing Company, 1963. The entire quotation is: "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom was of this world, my followers would have fought that I may not be delivered to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (John 19:36) Evidently Pope Urban II missed this passage, or didn't give it a lot of thought, since his loyal followers foought like hell "for the kingdom during his Crusades.