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WHO WERE (ARE) THE SPIRITUAL DESCENDANTS OF JESUS?

In “The Secular Gospel of Sophia,” the bishops in attendance at the First Great Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 are described as “these spiritual descendants of the barefoot God” (reference to Jesus). However, in the novel Sophia and her Gnostic mentor Timaeus are also in attendance at the Council. As a Gnostic Christian, Timaeus honored a very different Jesus than the Jesus the orthodox bishops worshiped. It cannot be that both the bishops and Timaeus were “spiritual descendants” of Jesus. One of the unanswered and, I would argue, unanswerable questions inherently posed by the novel is, which group (the bishops or Timaeus and Sophia) are the true spiritual descendants of Jesus?

The First Great Ecumenical Council was held at Emperor Constantine’s palace at Nicaea in May 325 AD. In many ways, the Council represents the beginning of the Catholic Church specifically and, in a more general sense, the beginning of Christianity as it has been understood ever since. The Council was certainly the first step in the Roman Empire’s long and tortured path in its conversion from a pagan realm, where the worship of multiple deities with overlapping spheres of power and influence, was, over the course of the next 60 years or so, replaced by a religion that insisted that its three gods were actually only one God and that its understanding of what that God (or those gods) demanded was the only legitimate understanding. Under the watchful eyes of Emperor Constantine, the diverse Christian churches of the Fourth Century began to define what it meant to be a Christian, what one calling himself a Christian was required to believe and how Christians were required to worship their three-in-one God.

Prior to Nicaea there were many different versions of Christianity, from those that believed that salvation was available only to those who adhered strictly to the Mosaic law of the Pentateuch (Ebionites), to those who believed that Jesus overthrew Mosaic law and who subscribed only to the Gospel of Luke and some (but not all) of the Pauline epistles (Marcionites), to those who believed that Jesus came from a realm beyond reach of the God of Moses to explain that the Hebrew god was an evil and inferior deity and that salvation comes, in part, from knowing this (Gnostics). In other words, the diversity among those calling themselves “Christians” was far greater in the three centuries before Nicaea than anything now existent.

Proving this last point requires only the knowledge that almost every Christian creed of today or of the last 1600 years honors the same 27 books of the New Testament. Yet these 27 books were selected from over a hundred Christian gospels and other texts by the bishops of what, in the years following the Council at Nicaea, became the Catholic Church. Who is to say whether the 27 books selected are more sacred or holy or, most important for this discussion, more truly representative of what Jesus taught than the 52 “Gnostic” gospels that were found in a cave in Egypt in 1945 where they had been placed 1500 years earlier by someone seeking to preserve them from certain destruction by the same religious authorities who selected the books of the New Testament?

Every novel is an oddity of sorts. Common to many novels is that by shifting a reader’s perspective, the author can generate sympathy for characters for whom the reader would otherwise remain indifferent or worse. The first third of “The Secular Gospel of Sophia” follows our heroine as she wanders the ancient holy land in tow to the Gnostic Christian Timaeus, whom she comes to love. Timaeus is a sympathetic character: blind, kind, friendly and generous. What’s not to like? So it is natural that the reader roots for Timaeus and Sophia when they infiltrate the Council at Nicaea and hopes no harm will come to them there. Yet in doing so, the Christian reader is rooting against the side that won and, more importantly, the side that defined what we believe it means to be Christian.

So, were the bishops at the Ecumenical Council at Nicaea “the spiritual descendants” of Jesus? Was Timaeus? Or given the fact that the victors so assiduously eliminated the writings of the other early Christian groups, is it even possible to answer this question? And if the answer is that it is impossible to know, what effect should not knowing have on one’s Christian faith? I will return to this final question in a few days when I write something on the inherent tendency toward violence by those who are certain they have all the answers.

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