Islam


Part II


The Christian Councils

 

 

Note: The following is largely excerpted from the book "Whoever You Thought You Were ... You're A Jew!"

 

 

 

If Islam was "born" the day Sarah threw Hagar out of the house, then it was "confirmed" by the Christian Councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Ephesus.

In no way can the rise of Islam be held to be independent of the developments of early Christianity, which we shall therefore now examine.

 

Paul

 

It must be conceded that the greatest evangelist in the history of the world was Paul. The armies of Muhammed got just as far, but Muhammad himself never left Arabia. Buddhism spread just as far to the east, but Buddha himself never left India.

Paul, on the other hand, single-handedly carried Christianity the full length of the Roman Empire, from Israel all the way to Spain. The magnitude of this feat staggers the imagination. And he had no army, he himself bearing only a single weapon: his vision of Christ, whom he had never personally met.

Having expressed such profound admiration, it must now be added that for Jews and Muslims, Paul is regarded as one of history's greatest trouble-makers. For he started a new religion, called "Christianity", which allowed for peaceful coexistence with no doctrine other than itself.

The story of Paul is well-known to all Christians. His Hebrew name was "Saul", and he first appears in the New Testament as "Saul of Tarsus", a city which still exists in modern-day Turkey.

Paul's was a rich Jewish family. He was a Roman citizen, which conferred great privilege on a man at that time -- a privilege which was to save him when he was later arrested for his Christian activities (Acts, Chapter 22). He went to Judea to study and eventually to live.

While in Judea, he, exercising fully his aristocratic prerogative, became very much involved in the effort to stamp out the "new religion" which was being spread by the disciples of Jesus. It cannot be over-emphasized that at that early date, the "new religion" was indistinguishable from orthodox Judaism, save in one respect only: that it expressed reverence for Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Paul was present at, and zealously involved with the murder of Stephen, the first known martyr of the fledgling Jewish-Christian Church. Thus, Paul was a man who believed in the appropriateness of killing those whose religious views differed from his own.

In the beginning of his career, he devoted his full powers to the persecution of those who would dare challenge the prevailing ideas about Judaism. In the end, nothing really changed. He was still devoting his full powers to the persecution of those whose religion differed from his own, but by then "his own" was Christianity -- Paul's personal version of Christianity, which is, nowadays, simply called "Christianity".

Paul's conversion was one of the most momentous happenings in western history. With characteristic vehemence, he had obtained a fistful of arrest warrants, and was on the road to Damascus to arrest any Christians he might find there. While on the road, he heard the voice of Christ himself, from heaven, saying "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?". And Saul said "Who art thou, Lord?". The voice answered "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (Acts, Chapter 9).

Paul arose from this vision, and was blind. He was led by the hand to Damascus, where, instead of persecuting the early Church, he joined it. His eyesight was then miraculously restored, and his career was launched.

 

An Aside: "Damascus"

 

We must now interrupt this story to ask a question which may someday prove to be important. Where was "Damascus"?

Until the present century, it was always assumed to be the famous city of that name in Syria. But in the caves of Qumran, whence came the Dead Sea Scrolls, were found no less than 10 copies of a work generally referred to as the "Damascus Document" (i.e., Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscript CD). In this document are frequent references to a "new covenant" made in "Damascus".

It seems clear that the inhabitants of Qumran were those who subscribed to this "new covenant". Why, then, did the scroll not speak of a "new covenant in Qumran"? Why "Damascus"?

There is no answer, as of yet, to this question. But it needs answering, because the Damascus Document, like certain other scrolls found in those caves in Qumran, contains language which often sounds as much like the New Testament as the Old. There is a growing body of opinion which states that these scrolls represent a priceless documentation of the doctrine of the earliest Christian Church, at a time when Christianity and Judaism were essentially the same religion, differing only in that the new sect accepted the authority of Jesus, and rejected the authority of the Rabbis in Jerusalem.

It could be that the Qumran community fled there from an earlier home in Damascus, Syria. Or it could be that the Qumran community called itself "Damascus", for some now-obscure reason. This matter is rendered all the more intriguing by considering that the Muslim prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ states that he will appear initially in, of all places, Damascus. Very interesting! What does it all mean?

 

Back to Paul

 

Having arrived in Damascus, wherever that proves to be, Paul astonished the early Christian Church members by proclaiming the glory of Christ instead of arresting Christ's followers. There is no doubt that they regarded him with great suspicion at first. Later on, they accepted the sincerity of his conversion, and sent him out to spread the Word.

The favored evangelical assignment must surely have been Jerusalem, but Paul, as a newcomer, was sent north to visit the gentiles. I'm sure that the gentiles listened attentively at first, but when he explained to them that they had to give up all their favorite foods and cut the flesh from around the tips of their penises, they balked.

It was one of those great bottlenecks of history. Something had to be done, or the early Church would have died a neonatal death. So Paul became a politician. By his own admission (I Corinthians 9:19-24), he tried to be "all things to all men". Like a candidate for office, seeking votes from an ethnic group, he endeavored to speak their language, eat their food, and, as far as possible, be one of them. As long as they would listen to him talk about Christ, he would accommodate himself and his religion to their needs, and to their limitations.

A glimpse into the world of the early Church which sprung from proselytizers such as Paul is offered in the book of Revelation, Chapter 2. The author, usually presumed to be the Apostle John, has a dream or vision in which he hears the voice of Christ addressing himself to the early Churches in Asia Minor. For example, regarding the Church at Pergamos, the voice of Christ in the dream/vision says...

 

"I know thy works...thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you...

...But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication (Revelation 2:12-16)".

 

A "few" things? This Church, and the others mentioned in Chapter 2 of Revelation, were obviously motley affairs indeed; places where acceptable religious practices mingled freely with pagan obscenities. In no way could such things have been tolerated by the Jewish-Christian Church in Jerusalem.

That latter Church, the Church in Jerusalem, was the Church of Jesus Christ as Jew. That Church was, is no more, but shall be again before the End of religious history comes. That Church was destroyed; first by persecution from Jews, then Romans, then by the Christians themselves. But the final blow, as we shall presently see, was Islam.

 

Abrogation of the Law of Moses

 

Paul and his co-workers to the north of Israel were at obvious odds with the early Jewish-Christian Church in Jerusalem. Paul's way of dealing with gentiles was to declare them free to eat any food, and free to renounce the Covenant of circumcision. Some hint of the trouble which arose because of these teachings may be obtained by reading the latter half of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, especially Chapters 15 and 21.

With respect to the Jewish dietary laws, Paul obviously failed to prevail over the gentile taste for pork and other foods forbidden to Jews. Either according to his own ideas, or perhaps proceeding on the basis of the famous dream of Peter (Acts 10:10-17) he declared, to the gentiles, that belief in Christ caused their food to become "clean".

If the transgressions of Jewish law had ended there, subsequent world history might have been very different. But Paul dispensed with circumcision.

Even in today's most ultra-reformed Jewish congregations, where the great majority of Jewish laws have been abrogated, there neither is, nor ever has been, any serious discussion about abandoning the Covenant of circumcision. Thus, in reneging on the most fundamental token of man's Covenant with God, Paul crossed a line which no devoted follower of the Law of Moses would ever cross with him.

True, the prophets of old had taught that circumcision of the flesh was of no value if the "heart" was not circumcised also (Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4 and 9:26, Ezekial 44:7-9). The converse, however, that circumcision of the flesh was obviated by "circumcision of the heart", was not the word of God, but of Paul.

On the contrary, God declared circumcision to be an "everlasting Covenant" (Genesis 17:13), and if actually performing the act were not necessary, then why would God have demanded it?

The abrogating of the Covenant of circumcision, in the interest of spreading the word of Christ, proved to be the death blow of the early Jewish-Christian Church. Unremitting hostility from the chief Rabbis of Jerusalem ultimately prevailed, and the Israeli branch of the early Church was outlawed.

The surviving branch of the early Church was the branch which was physically outside the reach of the Rabbis; the branch created by Paul and his co-workers.

These Pauline Christians did not follow Jewish law. In particular, they renounced the Covenant of circumcision. There was no chance of reconciliation between this church and Judaism.

Modern world history had begun.

 

The "Nature" of Christ

 

The followers of Jesus never regarded him as "only" a prophet, but as much more. At the very least, he was regarded as the Jewish Moshiach, the promised Messiah.

Immediately, there was trouble. As we have already seen (see Chapter 12 of this book), the writings of the prophets about the so-called "End Times" required the fulfillment of a number of very large prophecies which had not been fulfilled. The "lion" was surely not lying with the "lamb", and all nations were surely not flowing to the "mountain of the Lord" in Jerusalem. Something was wrong. What was it?

There is no exact answer to the above question, yet. Truthfully, the doctrinal problems of those days are still very much with us today -- none of them has really been solved. That is why I said earlier that I often feel that Christ is still on the cross... waiting for us to decide.

At any rate, the members of the early Church needed something concrete to hold to. Recognizing that all the End Times prophecies were not fulfilled, the notion that the Messiah would have two comings was proposed, and accepted. The First Coming was the one the world had already witnessed in Jesus. The Second Coming would be the return of Christ, in His full glory, at the End of Time.

But this did not solve all the problems. According to Biblical Prophecy, exemplified in Zechariah 2:10-11 (discussed in "Yeshua Messiah-Jesus Christ" and elsewhere on this web site), the Messiah in his full glory was so holy that the distinction between the Messenger and He who sent Him would be blurred. To many bishops of the early Christian Church, this meant that Jesus had to be God. Thus was born the controversy about the "nature of Christ", an evil controversy which has caused at least a hundred million deaths, innumerable wars, and untold suffering.

Whenever I think of this controversy, I think of it as an imaginary dialogue between a Jew and a Christian. I know of no historical record which documents any such dialogue occurring on an official level, so my imaginary debaters are spokesmen for whole generations whose debates may only be known by their outcome. If we had been there at that time, however, we would surely have heard passionate exchanges of words such as this one:

 

JEW:

Jesus was just a philosopher.

CHRISTIAN:

Jesus was a prophet.

JEW:

If Jesus was a prophet, he was a false prophet.

CHRISTIAN:

Jesus was a true prophet. He was more than a prophet -- he was the Messiah.

JEW:

Jesus was nothing more than a good-natured schizophrenic.

CHRISTIAN:

He was nothing less than the Son of God!

JEW:

He was a troublesome, meddling lunatic!

CHRISTIAN:

He was God Himself, God-on-earth, the Third in the Holy Trinity!

 

These two imaginary debaters, arguing about the mystery of who Jesus was, are unable to agree. So they force each other to extreme positions, each one, in the end, asserting that there's "no mystery at all" -- he and he alone understands the "nature of Christ" fully.

Although the dialogue is imaginary, I believe that it well expresses a process whereby the mystery of Christ came to be systematically denied by those in power. A profound event in history -- Jesus' life and ministry -- was reduced to trivial terms, to cater to people's needs for simple explanations to complex problems.

A total polarization of opinion rapidly developed in the early Christian era. Either you regarded Jesus as a deadly enemy, or you regarded him as God Almighty Himself -- here on earth as a man. Those were your choices.

For a century or two, there were people who desperately tried to maintain a middle ground, but the Jews probably harassed them by calling them "dirty Christians", or the equivalent thereof, and the growing numbers of dogmatic Christians probably harassed them by calling them "dirty Jews". There was thus pressure to either revert totally back to "pure" Judaism, or to surrender to the Christian majority and accept Christ as God. Anyone who continued to proclaim himself a middle-of-the-road Christian was branded an "heretic".

As a result of books like Irenaeus' "Against the Heresies", and Councils such as Nicaea, Chalcedon and Ephesus, the pure water of early Christianity came gradually to be replaced with the muddy waters of man-made doctrine.

 

The First Council

 

By the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. The believers in Christ as the literal Son of God (or as God Himself, on earth as a man) were in the majority. But dissenters were prevalent, and the fighting was hot and heavy.

Historically, one of the most durable of the early dissenters was Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria. Arius taught that Christ was created, not eternal, and that he was not of the same substance as God. His bishop disagreed, holding that Christ was eternal and of the same substance as God. The controversy which resulted from this dispute was so severe that Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, at which 300 bishops, men, voted that Christ was God. Religious "democracy" was born; Arius was exiled and condemned as an "heretic".

Influential friends, including the Emperor's daughter Constantia, succeeded in effecting a compromise solution which made possible Arius' return from exile and his re-admission to the Church. But, before this could take place, he dropped dead while walking in the streets of Constantinople.

But Arianism did not die; not then and not ever. Full-fledged Arian Christian groups flourished for centuries; a constant thorn in the side of the Catholic Church. Among the most prosperous of these were the Visigoths, who played a major role in the history of Europe, especially the regions now known as France and Spain, where Arianism prevailed until the Muslim conquest of 711. And today, the Arian concept of Christ survives in Unitarianism and Islam.

 

 

More Councils

 

The Council of Nicaea did not solve the problem of serious divisions in the Roman Church. A century later there remained, in the minds of the Eastern bishops, a burning question. What was the relationship between the human and divine natures of Christ? Were they "co-joined" or did they dwell in him separately? In Europe, it had already been determined (apparently with little dissent) that they were co-joined.

But another world-class dissenter, Nestorius, the presbyter of Antioch, vehemently disagreed. He declared that Jesus was a man, and that the "divine" component of his nature dwelled within the man. When Nestorius was promoted to the position of bishop of Constantinople, he delivered a sermon against calling Mary the "mother of God", declaring that she had borne a man, not a god.

Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, took a stand against Nestorius, and the fighting became so fierce that another Council was called. At Ephesus in 431 the bishops met again, and in a session laden with political intrigue, Nestorius was accused of reviving the "heresy" of a certain Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch in 260 A.D., who had taught that Jesus was a man who became divine, rather than God become man.

Nestorius was condemned and banished.

But the banishment of Nestorius did not suppress the dissension of those still within the Church who agreed with the Nestorian point of view. Consequently, it became necessary to convene yet another council, the Council of Chalcedon, in 451. At this final Council, the European bishops triumphed over the East, and the fundamental Catholic concept of Christ as undisputed God-on-earth became permanently established. This meant that Christ was declared (by democratic consensus) to be God, and simultaneously man, both natures being fully integrated into a simultaneous and unified entity. This is indeed a mystery.

In spite of the sound political majority engineered by the West, there remained numerous influential Eastern bishops who refused to cooperate, and the Churches known as Monophysite, Coptic, and Jacobite, which persist to this day, separated themselves from the body of European Christianity. Furthermore, The Nestorians continued to dissent, and Nestorian Churches, some of which survive to this day, spread all the way to China and India.

 

 

Racial and ethnic aspects of the Christian Councils

 

There is a side to the Christian Councils that I have never seen discussed, and it's high time that it was. This is the aspect of racial and ethnic prejudice.

Those who were most likely to be blood descendants of people who had walked with Jesus were the relatively dark-skinned people of Arabia and Egypt. These were the lands in and adjacent to Israel, where the events of Christianity actually took place.

It was among the relatively dark-skinned people of the Middle East and Egypt that the idea that Christ was a man, not a god, refused to die out. Since these were the people physically closest to Jesus, their concept of him should have carried more weight than it did.

It is an historical fact that the notion of Jesus as God was championed by the relatively light-skinned bishops of Europe, especially France. These were people who had never walked with Jesus, and were not descended from people who had.

It is a mistake to regard these differences between East and West as being trivial. In an American court of law, it is difficult or impossible to convict a man of a serious crime upon the presentation of written evidence alone. The spoken testimony of living, breathing eye-witnesses is required. There is no substitute for having been there.

But in the "nature of Christ" controversy, the body of dissenters, who were most representative of those who had been there, was overwhelmed by a body of largely European bishops whose knowledge of Jesus was second-hand.

As one reflects on these events, one begins to see that there was a racial and ethnic side to this story. The white bishops of Europe had inherited the wealth and political power of the Roman Empire, and they used it to suppress the views of the Arab and Negro Bishops of Africa and Asia. The prevailing view about the "nature of Christ" was thus determined by the politically advantaged, whose knowledge of Jesus was second-hand.

 

Subsequent fate of Christianity in Africa and Asia

 

It is certain that the founders of the African and Asian Churches endured just as much persecution as their European brothers. But for many thousands of them, the reward for their faithfulness was excommunication by the new Roman Church. This must have been a painful blow.

With the sole exception of Ethiopia, Christianity did not spread very quickly in Africa. And in Asia, where Christianity first took root, it went on to largely die out. The Nestorian Churches of China disappeared without a trace. In India, a few remain today, but they are no more than a "drop of water in a bucket" in a nation of nearly 1 billion inhabitants. Likewise in the countries of the Middle East, only tiny Christian minorities survive, and most of them are descendants of dissenting churches, formerly branded as "heretical" by the Roman Church.

Although I have never seen it suggested in any Muslim source, I cannot refrain from pointing out that the Prophet Isaiah, who foresaw the coming of Jesus, foresaw also the sufferings of the African and Asian Christians, and correctly predicted their outcome. In two places in the Book bearing his name, Isaiah addressed himself to these problems. The first such place is in Chapter 19, verses 23-25:

 

In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians.

In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, [even] a blessing in the midst of the land:

Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed [be] Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.

 

In annotated versions of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, these verses are quickly passed over. They cannot be made to accommodate themselves to any historical events of note in the history of either Jews or Christians.

But these prophecies were clearly fulfilled in the life and ministry of Muhammad, whose efforts alone brought about the enduring legacy of the worship of the God of Abraham, through Islam, in these nations.

The relationship of these prophecies to the events of the early Christian church is clear. We have seen that the centers of dissent, eventually called "heresy", were Alexandria and Antioch. Alexandria is in Egypt, and, in the days of Isaiah, the nation in which Antioch is now located was called Assyria.

The restoration of proper worship of God to Egypt and to the nations of the Middle East, with Israel as "third" with them, is such an obvious reference to Islam that I cannot help but marvel that no commentary, not even one of Muslim origin, has seen fit to mention it.

Yet Isaiah mentioned it, not only once but twice. Again, in Chapter 27, verse 13, he prophesied:

 

And it shall come to pass in that day, [that] the great trumpet shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the LORD in the holy mount at Jerusalem.

 

Thus, the Dome of the Rock, built in 638 AD either directly on, or else close to, the site of Solomon's Temple, may seem like an affront to Jews and Christians, but it was known to the prophet Isaiah one thousand years before it was built.

 

 

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