Getting Down to the Historical Basics
by Douglas Lockhart
I am driven, finally, to remark on Archbishop Pell’s special type of Catholicism. I say ‘special’ because its raw certainty sets it apart. The repetitious boast of Protestant evangelicals to be in possession of a ‘blessed assurance’ is one thing, but George Pell’s theme tune goes much further – he claims to be in possession of an unbroken spiritual authority stemming from the Apostles. Given the present findings of New Testament scholarship, such a claim can no longer be taken seriously.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists are not interested in the apostolic succession; they rightly recognise it as evidence of a power struggle that has been going on in the Church since the Emperor Constantine’s largess fell on Rome’s Christian community in the fourth century. George Pell, on the other hand, sees it as legitimising his Church’s every other statement. Dent the notion of an uninterrupted apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter and you automatically dent Pell’s authority claim. Categorically reject such a notion as many New Testament scholars do, and his claim to a super authority straight from God through Jesus and St Peter evaporates.
In Pell’s mind, the apostolic succession stems from the Apostle Peter, the disciple said to have been nominated by Jesus as head of the Church, and that’s the end of the story. But it is not the end of the story, it is the beginning of a scholarly debate which, on the evidence now available, shows the Catholic Church’s claim to an uninterrupted line of authority from the Apostles to be untenable. The connection between the Apostolic Church, Paul’s charismatic assemblies and the later church at Roman is, to say the least, tenuous. As the Jewish New Testament Scholar Dr Hugh Schonfield has observed, the idea that the Catholic Church is the inheritor of the true tradition of the Apostles “…illustrates the power of a lie if it is a thumping big one.”
Peter not chief spokesman for the Church
As far back as the mid-sixties, Hugh Schonfield was explicit about Peter’s role in the Apostolic Church, or ‘party’ of the Apostles. He tells us that Peter was not the chief spokesman for that Church, and that he was never converted to the Apostle Paul’s way of thinking. James the Just (Jesus’ younger brother) was chief representative of Jesus in the early Apostolic community, belief to the contrary the result of centuries of Catholic propaganda. Confusion arises by too simple a reading of the book of Acts where much that is going on has been clumsily edited to create an illusion, the illusion of a Church under Nazoraean control being in substantial doctrinal agreement with Paul and the later Roman Church.
Dispassionate scholarship supports Schonfield. Authority was not invested in Peter as the Gospel of Matthew seems to suggest, but in members of Jesus’ family – Desposyni in Greek. Members of this family led by James formed a dynasty, or Caliphate, which continued up until the time of Hadrian (AD 135). These heirs were: James, Simeon, Justus, Zaccheus, Tobias, Benjamin, John, Matthew, Philip, Seneca, Justus 11, Levi, Ephraim, Joseph and Judas. Hebrews all, these relatives of Jesus rejected the Roman church’s claim to be the new Mother Church, and according to the Jesuit historian Malachi Martin, descendants of these leaders had the temerity to turn up in Rome and demand recognition of this fact by Pope Sylvester 1 in 318 AD.
Heirs of Jesus
The demands made by these heirs of Jesus were as follows: (1) that the confirmation of the Christian bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Alexandria be revoked; (2) that these bishoprics be conferred on members of the Desposyni; and (3) that Christian Churches resume sending money to the Desposyni Church in Jerusalem, which was to be regarded as the Mother Church. Having provided sea travel for these Nazoraean leaders as far as the Roman port of Ostia, Sylvester must surely have recognised them as important, but such a barefaced claim to superiority over the Roman Church must have come as something of a surprise.
Nazoraean rejection of Rome’s claim on the Apostle Peter is also to be found in the Clementine Homolies and Recognitions, fourth-century translations from Greek into Latin reflecting third-century problems. These documents carry information written to counter Western propaganda concerning Peter. Although the sections written by the Apostle Peter are believed to be forgeries, the statements made by pseudo-Peter nevertheless accurately reflect Nazoraean concerns. On behalf of Nazoraean outrage at the Apostle Peter being ‘borrowed’ by Rome and made into an advocate for Paul’s ideas about Jesus, pseudo-Peter denounces the Western Church’s attempt to reverse what he himself has said and done, and we are left with a clear indication of what had been going on in the earlier period.
In the Recognitions, pseudo-Peter condemns those who dare misrepresent him and rails against those offering an authority other than that of the Nazoraean Council. This is direct and unmistakable. Teachers lacking Nazoraean (Apostolic) credentials are not to be believed; only teachers from the Jerusalem Church carrying the testimony of James the Lord’s brother, or, interestingly, whosoever may come after him, are to be believed. All teachers have to be approved by the Jerusalem Council, and there are no Apostles other than the original twelve.
So much for the Apostle Paul.
James the brother of Jesus
Robert Eisenman tells us that the Recognitions and Acts are parallel accounts taken from a common source, and that the Recognitions are more faithful to that source. Scholars such as Raymond Brown and John P Meiers note that the author of Acts has a tendency to smooth over fierce battles in the early church. The facts suggest that by the end of first century and during the first quarter of the second, leaders of the Apostolic church had little knowledge of doctrinal developments among Rome’s Christians – they had taken off on a journey of their own making. After the invasion of Judea by the Romans in AD 70, it must have come as a complete shock to this remnant of the Nazoraean sect to discover that a whole new view of Jesus had evolved as a result of Rome’s interpretation of Paul’s teachings – teachings that even early on had caused the Apostles to question both his credentials and his motives.
It will no doubt be argued by the Archbishop that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were actually his cousins, and that the sub-Apostolic Church after James fell back into Judaism, so disqualifying itself from Paul’s more advanced ideas about Jesus. But this is an evaluation based on the notion that the Apostolic Church went along with Paul’s ideas in the first place, and that is simply not true. Blink an eye at circumcision and the dietary laws on behalf of Gentile converts the Naroraeans certainly did, but when it came to Paul’s notion of Jesus’ death on the cross being a propitiatory sacrifice for humanity’s sins, they drew back in dismay. This was not the Messiah (Christ) they had been preaching. Arthur Dewey observes that there is nothing in any of the texts “….to suggest the brothers were ‘cousins’. Rather, we have multiple attestations that Jesus had brothers…..Indeed, the whole debate over ‘brothers versus cousins’ might well mask the more interesting historical question of the family dynasty that served as a model for church organisation in the first century for some of the early Jesus believers.”
Separate Jesus communities in Rome were in violent disagreement
There were disagreements, divisions and jealousy in the Christian camp at Rome during the time of Nero (AD 64). Christians denounced and betrayed one another over differences of interpretation. Strange as this may seem, it is in fact easily explained. Sources suggest that Christians and Jewish Christians were by that time clearly distinguished from the Jews. This is to say that the Romans knew exactly who they were persecuting, and that apart from orthodox Jews and Christians, Nazoraean sectarians were also active in Rome during this period. So when we read that Christians denounced and betrayed one another, what we should understand by this is that the theologically and politically separate Christian and Nazoraean Jesus communities were in violent disagreement.
This is to say that the Archbishop’s claim to possess a divine authority stemming from the Jerusalem Apostles is flawed in terms of modern scholarship, and is at best an inflated notion based on Church traditions. Pell’s much vaunted apostolic succession is imaginary, the many opinions his Church has built on this edifice little more than spiritual grandstanding. An unbroken doctrinal continuity connecting the Nazoraean sect to the Roman Church through Paul is a myth which to all but a few historians has long since been discredited. Pell’s belief that he has the spiritual authority to nominate who is a ‘sinner’, and who is not, is a prime example of a claim to authority run amuck. Unwilling to seriously consider what is going on at the cutting edge of New Testament scholarship, Dr Pell is deeply and disturbingly subservient to the rules, regulations and traditions of a Church which, by the fourth century, had already swapped Jesus’ message of spiritual freedom for secular power.
In the face of this world’s many problems, dogma and dogmatism may seem like a safe haven to this man of the cloth, but this is the twenty-first century and thinking people will not any longer put up with this kind of thinking. Sin can no longer be interpreted in terms of what the Catholic Church (or any other Christian Church for that matter) believes or does not believe it to be. Sin is not ‘disobedience’ to a raft of divine commandments, it is, as that wily New Testament scholar Robert Funk has said, “the infinite capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.” As we are all guilty of self-deception, perhaps Archbishop Pell should hesitate before pronouncing his next anathama.
Schonfield, Hugh, The Passover Plot, Element Books, UK, 1993
Raymond Brown & John P Meiers, Forum, New Series, 2, 1 Spring 1999, Jesus: The Early Years, Polebridge Press, California
Dewey, Arthur, Forum, New Series 2,1 Spring 1999, The Family of Jesus, Polbridge Press, California.
Eisenman, Robert, James the Brother of Jesus, Faber and Faber, 1997
Martin, Malachi, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, G P Putnam’s & Son, 1981
Thiede, Carsten Peter & D’Ancona, Matthew, The Jesus Papyrus, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996.