Out of Egypt: Embracing the Roots of Western Theology
© Ahmed Osman 2001
The competing royal, military and priestly classes of that time were in conflict over the visions and imposition of a new religion and civil strife ensued. This led to the fall of Amarna rule and with this the memory of both great leaders was officially suppressed in Egypt, and completely forgotten in Israel. While the Egyptians restored their old cults, the Israelites adopted new Canaanite deities such as Ashtaroth and Ba'al. Only during the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC, eight centuries after the death of their leader, did the Jewish scribes restore the name of Moses and his teaching, while still denying the violent death of Joshua his successor. The Egyptians, on the other hand, kept the memory of Tutankhamun alive by associating him with Osiris, Hermes and Serapis first, before they used the name 'Jesus' following the translation of the Bible into Greek in Alexandria. For Jesus is the Greek name given to Moses's successor in the Bible that was produced in the mid-3rd century BC.
Two similar, but separate, Messianic groups developed during the last centuries BC: the Jewish-Christian Essenes in Judaea and Jerusalem, and the Gentile Gnostics of Egypt and Alexandria. While St. Peter belonged to the Jerusalem community, St. Paul was initiated into the Egyptian movement. The Jerusalem Church, however, was limited in number, about 4,000 in the 1st century AD, because it only converted members from within the Jewish community, before it disappeared completely in AD 70, following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. It was the Egyptian Gentile Church, though, that spread all over the different parts of the Roman Empire.
The great success of the new Egyptian religious movement nevertheless represented a threat to the authority of Rome, which never stopped persecuting Egyptian Christians. Alexandria remained the main international religious centre, even when Rome controlled all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean. So when the Fathers of the Church of Rome wanted to establish a hierarchical ecclesiastical system under their authority, they were encouraged by the political power of Rome. In their need for a justification for their authority, the Roman Fathers claimed that Christ did appear physically to his disciples and not just in a spiritual form, and handed them this priestly authority as his representative on earth. As PST Paul made it clear in his letter to the Galatians that his encounter with Christ was only spiritual, they chose Peter for this part. A miraculous explanation was given in the Book of Acts to allow Peter to escape from prison where Herod Antipas put him in AD 44, to be executed a few days after the Passover feast. This was followed by assurances given by the Roman Fathers that Peter came to Rome and handed its Church the authority he had obtained from Christ. This was the main reason for choosing Palestine for Jesus to appear in, as this was Peter's country. A time in December and a place in Bethlehem was fixed for his birth; a crucifixion during the time of Pontius Pilate became part of the Creed.
Ptolemy I had established a new universal cult of Serapis and built the Serapeum in Alexandria to be its centre of worship. The translation of the books of the Old Testament into Greek which followed, where it became available for scholars, led to a philosophical and theological conflict between Egyptians and Jews, which resulted in the definition of a new Christian theology. As this development took place within the Serapeum, Temple and Library, this establishment became the center for the new Gnostic Christian religion and philosophy. It was from this Alexandria centre that Christianity reached Rome, as well as many other parts of the Roman Empire.
Nobody knows how the Church of Rome was established. Neither the Book of Acts nor the writings of the early Fathers explain how Christianity arrived in Rome. As has been discovered, Suetonius, the Roman historian, mentions the expulsion of followers of Chrestus from Rome, during the time of Emperor Claudius c. AD 40-50. This indicates that a flourishing Christian community existed in Rome, even before St. Paul went to Corinth or Ephesus in AD 49. By the time of Nero (AD 54-68), the Christian community in Rome was already of a considerable size. How did Christianity reach Rome at that very early date?
Only two routes could have been possible for Christianity to get there: from Judaea with Jewish slaves and immigrants; or from Egypt with the Roman soldiers coming home, or with arriving Egyptian mystery cults. As no evidence exists for Christianity coming to Rome from Jerusalem or Antioch, the only possible route was from Alexandria in the same way as it reached Corinth through Apollos of Alexandria. The Mysteries of Isis and Serapis came to Rome even before 100 BC, and a temple for Isis and Serapis was established on the Campus Martius, not far from the famous Pantheon. It was a vast structure, the central part being 420 feet long, and approached by a long colonnaded court lined with lions and sphinxes. The site of the temple is now occupied by part of the Church of Sant' Ignazio, a section of the Collegio Ramano, the apse of the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, and the Via del Pie di Marmo. Serapis was commonly represented as bearded, with a staff like that of Zeus or Asclepius, and wearing the symbolic modius or kalathos also worn by the personification of Hades - a tall cylindrical headdress, wider at the top, sometimes decorated with three upright leafy branches. Like Christ, he healed the sick and had the ability to appear to mortals in their sleep. The priesthood attached to his temples was made up of Egyptians or Graeco-Egyptians, many of whom were of Alexandrian origin, or educated there.
It is a well-known fact that the early worshippers of Christ amongst the Gentiles were also worshippers of Serapis, and it is easy to see how Christianity reached Rome at this early date. This is confirmed by the fact that in AD 19 Tiberius expelled both Jews and devotees of Serapis from Rome. Christianity, like the worship of Serapis, was regarded by the Romans as yet another mystery cult. No doubt the cult of Isis and Serapis was the most popular religion in Rome during the first half of the 1st century AD, when Christianity is first attested in the capital. The fact that the new faith came to Rome via Alexandria did not help to bring the two Churches closer; on the contrary, it put them in conflict over the leadership of the Christian movement. From the early days of the 2nd century AD, the newly established bishops of Rome - the centre of political power - showed their intention to establish their authority over all Christian Churches of the empire. The New Testament canon, the Creed, and the institutional structure of the Church emerged in their present forms only in Rome towards the end of the 2nd century. Neither PST Paul nor any other of the early apostles of the Gentile Church organized a priestly authority to run the Church. The 1st century Church was not a hierarchical organization and had no priestly rulers, while the elders of the community supervised the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. During this period numerous gospels circulated among various different and complex Christian groups. By the end of the 1st century, however, the Fathers and elders of some communities established themselves as bishops, ruling their communities. With the appearance of the bishops a new, threefold ministry system emerged during the 2nd century, and the earlier diversified forms of Church leadership gave way to a unified hierarchy of Church office. By AD 200, Christianity had become a hierarchical institution.
When Gnostic Christians refused to accept Roman authority, the Christian movement was split into two groups: Roman Orthodox and Egyptian Gnostic. The Gnostic teachers, however, continued to oppose this new development, claiming that those Church officials had no authority, insisting that all believers were equal, and regarded salvation as a result of personal experience. But the Church of Rome, supported by a majority of Churches, took a leading role in rejecting all other viewpoints as heresy. In order to confirm the divine authority of the new order, the bishops hit back at the Gnostics, accusing them of being heretics. Although it was on Paul's gospel that the Gentile Churches had been established, the emerging priestly rulers of the communities looked to St. Peter and the Church of Jerusalem to justify their authority. This conflict then developed into a struggle between the newly emerging bishops who wanted to establish their ecclesiastic authority, and the teachers of Gnostic Christianity who opposed them. Thus the early conflict between Peter and Paul - between Judeo-Christian Jerusalem and Gentile Antioch has now been replaced by a new conflict within the Gentile Churches themselves, between orthodox Rome and Gnostic Alexandria.
The chance for the bishops of Rome came when Emperor Constantine adopted the Christian faith in the 4th century, and gave them political and legal authority, which they used to enforce their position. The ultimate defeat of Alexandria then followed at the time of Emperor Theodosius I, when Theophilus, his bishop in Alexandria, destroyed the Serapeum, and the religious centre of the empire hence forward moved to the Vatican in Rome. It was then that the Alexandria library was destroyed, all writings which did not agree with the account of the Roman Church were regarded as heretic and burned, and all religious teachers who disagreed with the orthodox doctrines were punished. For ten centuries after this event, only the Bible and the teaching of the Church of Rome were allowed as sources of knowledge and education, in what came to be regarded as the Dark Ages.
That is how the Egyptian origins of Christianity have been hidden for approximately 16 centuries. Thanks only to the archaeologists and scholars of modern Europe, copies of the lost knowledge such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library have been discovered again. Now the real history behind the Bible can be revealed.