The collections

Christians in the 3rd century

Three centuries after Jesus' crucifixion in Jerusalem, the Christians are emerging as a growing force within theRoman Empire. But behind this term "Christians", behind this claim to the inheritance of Jesus Christ that pagans find it difficult to understand, is in reality a multitude of communities more or less autonomous with doctrines and practices that are sometimes radically different, at the origin of what we now call the writings apocrypha Christians.


The Nazarenes are Judeo-Christians present in particular in Syria and the Decapolis. They see themselves as the direct heirs of the Church in Jerusalem and are characterized by a Christian doctrine superimposed on Judaic law. Thus, the Nazarenes believe in the dual nature of Jesus (human and divine) but do not deny Jewish rites: respect for Shabbat, Jewish holidays, circumcision ... With the exception of bloody sacrifices and the consumption of meat. This refusal to abandon Jewish law is based on a saying of Jesus quoted by the evangelist Matthew: " Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to accomplish ". Consequently the Nazarenes link the Jewish and Christian scriptures and even have a gospel of their own, that known as “of the Hebrews” written in Aramaic and of which only fragments remain to us.


The Ebionites, literally "the poor", form the other great movement of the Judeo-Christians with the Nazarenes from whom they probably came. Like the Nazarenes they remain very attached to Jewish law, they have their own gospel and privilege the gospel of Matthew. They abhor blood sacrifices, do not eat meat and do not drink wine, to the point of celebrating the Eucharist with water. They also attach great importance to water and ablution as a tool of purification. Their view of Jesus, however, greatly sets them against the Nazarenes. They consider that Jesus is indeed the son of Joseph and Mary, whose virginity they deny. For them, Jesus is a prophet, who is only elevated to the rank of Messiah through baptism. To make their convictions coincide with the writings, they use a stripped-down version of the Gospel of Matthew which no longer features the virgin conception of Mary. Moreover, they do not hesitate to truncate the Hebrew Bible passages concerning the sacrifices in the Temple, passages considered shocking.

The Elkasaites

Heirs to the teaching of Elkasai (a 2nd century Iranian Jew), the Elkasites form the third great Judeo-Christian movement. They are then very present in Transjordan, Arabia and Palestine and are even developing in Rome. Like the Ebionites, from which they probably came, they attach great importance to water, but they push the phenomenon to its paroxysm, going so far as to deify it even though they refuse to deify Jesus who does not is for them the last of the prophets, animated by the soul of Adam. A prophet who would still be an angel with his feminine double the Holy Spirit. The primary importance they place on water is reflected in everyday life through immersions, for individuals of course, but also for food. In this regard, food bans are quite strict with the prohibition of meat, fermented drinks but also Greek bread and vegetables grown outside the community.

Paradoxically, for a religiosity inspired by Christianity, the Elkasaïtes are characterized by a strong propensity for esotericism with divinatory, astrological and incantatory practices of a magical nature.

Such a particular adaptation of Christianity is based on a body of very specific texts, composed of the Hebrew Bible and purified Gospels. This is not sufficient to justify Elkasaïte practices, the community uses its own books such as the “Revelation of Elkasai” which would have been given to the founder by an angel (we note here, as with the idea of ​​the last prophet, themes common to Islam, which later developed in the same region). We also note that Saint Paul and his writings are completely rejected, as is generally the case in Judeo-Christian communities. It must be said that Saint Paul, "the apostle of the pagans", never ceased to denounce their lack of openness.

The Gnostics

The Gnostics are at the origin of a great literature forming a good part of the apocryphal texts: Gospels of Thomas, of Mary, of Judas… They form a very complex movement, a nebula of various movements structured nevertheless by some constants.

Gnosis ("knowledge") is a very hermetic and elitist thought that can be compared to mystery cults. For the Gnostics, the Supreme God created male and female emanations, the eons, but the last, Sophia (Wisdom), left the pleroma (the Kingdom of God) creating at the same time imperfection and death and engendering the demiurge who created the terrestrial world. Accompanied by his archons, this demiurge ("the maker"), generally assimilated to the God of the Hebrew Bible, imprisoned the spiritual being that was man in a bodily prison and placed him in this material and evil world that he had just created. After this fall, the few men who have succeeded in remaining aware of their spiritual nature must try to free their soul from the grip of the flesh to reach the pleroma, the realm of the true God, the one we only know very well. little and that the Gnostics sometimes call “the Unknown”.

The origin of this thought is old and poorly understood. Gnostics often claim the legacy of Simon the Magus who appears in the Acts of the Apostles as a magician who sought to buy Peter and John their ability to impose the Holy Spirit by the hands.

Concretely, the Gnostics are repugnant to all that is matter. They divide men into three categories: the hylics (who are no more than flesh and instinct), psychics (other Christians, deceived by the demiurge) and pneumatics, the few who are able to receive gnosis, knowledge. This rejection of matter generally involves a rejection of procreation, although in some rare cases the discrediting of the matter leads on the contrary to libertinism.

To justify this very elitist thought, at the antipodes of the universalist discourse of the Gospels of John, Mark, Luke and Matthew, the Gnostics generally reject all or part of the old Gospels in favor of a multitude of new Gospels which represent a good part of the apocryphal literature known to us. In this gnosis Jesus and the Holy Spirit are generally two male eons created by God to rescue the female eon Sophia who seeks to right her fault, or at least to save pneumatic beings. For the Gnostics, the historical and carnal Jesus is in himself but little, at best a prophet, but above all the simple receptacle of the eon which infiltrates during baptism into the evil world of the demiurge. Therefore the aeon Jesus was not born of Mary (unlike the historical Jesus) and did not suffer on the cross: either he left the body of the historical Jesus before the crucifixion, or Simon of Cyrene was crucified in his place, or that he does not feel the pain inflicted on the flesh and laughs on the cross ... Consequently the symbol of the cross does not represent anything for the Gnostics, the role of Jesus was essentially to transmit, after the episode of the crucifixion ( when the eon is released from the body), the famous gnosis: revelations at the origin of an abundant literature.

Gnostic thought is above all a syncretism which feeds on Christianity as sometimes other religions. In the 3rd century precisely, the Persian Mani (216 - 276) thus developed Manichaeism, a Gnostic thought which claims to be the heir of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism ...

The Marcionists

Marcionists share with Gnostics a clear differentiation between the God of the Hebrew Bible and the true God who appears only in the Gospels. But we do not really know which of the Marcionists or the Gnostics influenced the other (the idea may also have germinated autonomously in both)… The Marcionists form a deeply anti-Judaic Church, founded by Marcion (c. 95 - 161), a Pontic shipowner whose legend says that he was excommunicated by his own father who was a bishop… Based on the sentence of Jesus quoted by Luke “ Nobody puts new wine in old wineskins either He rejects outright the idea that Jesus could have been a Jew!

To justify and disseminate his position, he rewrites what must be the basic corpus by removing the Hebrew Bible (he invents the terms of the Old and New Testaments which will be taken up by the Great Church) and rewrites the Gospel of Luke in by removing all elements evoking the Jewish origin of Jesus. He also keeps the letters of Saint Paul. Suddenly, Marcion preaches that Jesus was not born of Mary, that he is fully and only God, that he did not incarnate despite appearances and that he suddenly appeared in the synagogue of Capernaum. However, even if he did not actually incarnate, Jesus would have suffered on the cross to redeem men before descending into hell to save all those who had opposed the demiurge of the Old Testament (everyone, except the Jews…).

Rejecting matter, like the Gnostics, the Marcionists reject marriage and procreation. However this doctrine will find many followers and spread in the East, but also in Rome where it is well established. For the Marcionists, Christ was neither male nor female, the latter have an important role in the community: laying on of hands, exorcising, baptizing ...

The Great Church

What is called the Great Church is the majority movement, better structured than the communities we have seen previously. From the Church of Rome to that of Alexandria is a whole network in full swing, animated by the Fathers of the Church. A whole network of communities whose doctrine gradually unites through regional synods (for example in Antioch in 268).

The doctrine of the Great Church is to say that the material world, with Man, is the work of a good God and one who is indeed that of the Hebrew Bible. Jewish writings are therefore perfectly accepted and the Great Church even considers that they

announce the coming of Jesus Christ. The nature of the latter is still widely debated, but relying on the gospel of John the majority consider him to be the Son of God, incarnate with a dual human and divine nature. This Jesus is well regarded as being born of the Virgin Mary and of the Holy Spirit, being crucified and resurrected on the third day. The doctrine of the Great Church is meant to be saving, pacifist and universal (open to all without distinction of origin, social rank, wealth ...).

To fix his belief and slow down the proliferation of other doctrines deemed heretical, the Fathers of the Church decided to sort through all the various and varied texts and gospels that were then found in Christendom. This sorting took place between the middle and the end of the 2nd century, it is methodically based on the age and origin of the texts. The Fathers of the Church in fact decide to keep only the oldest texts and which were written by an apostle, or at least the companion of an apostle. The New Testament thus defined by Irene of Lyon now includes only four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In addition to these four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of Paul, the First Epistle of Peter and the First Epistle of John are also retained. Irenaeus also considers the Apocalypse of John to be reliable. However, in the third century, certain communities of the Great Church, still quite autonomous, made some arrangements with this corpus: some refused, for example, the Apocalypse of John. Conversely, this Apocalypse created extreme movements in asceticism and evangelical exaltation: this is the case, for example, of the Montanists who, because of the imminent approach of the Last Judgment, do not fear martyrdom (this movement remains very lively in the 3rd century, although condemned by the Great Church).

Christians in the Empire

In the third century, Christians became, despite persecution, a visible minority of the Roman Empire, they are even an unavoidable minority in certain regions such as Asia Minor, around Carthage or in the North of Egypt by the demographic weight that they represent. The Roman power meanwhile is more and more hesitant towards the members of this community which calls into question several of its fundamental values ​​(in particular with the notions of pacifism, human dignity, monotheism ...) but which has taken on such a scale. that we can no longer rationally hope to destroy it.

The beginning of the third century was marked by the persecutions orchestrated by Emperor Septimius Severus. On his death, Christian / pagan relations tend to normalize, especially under the reign of Philip the Arab (244 - 249). The middle of the century is meanwhile much more harmful for Christians with the reign of Emperor Trajan Decius (250 - 251). A fierce pagan, Emperor Decius seeks to unite his empire at a time when the borders, especially on the Balkans, are threatened. Making official cults the glue of the empire, he issues an edict ordering all to honor traditional deities with sacrifices. Christians, monotheists, obviously cannot sacrifice to these gods whom they consider to be idols. Denounced by hostile populations, brought before Roman justice, those who persist are imprisoned, tortured and put to death. Thus, in Rome itself, Bishop Fabian is executed. His colleagues from Antioch and Jerusalem die in prison. Under threat, many Christians renounce their faith. The death of Trajan Decius could have put an end to these persecutions, but the emperor Valérien designates them as responsible for the plague which rages from 250 to 265: in 257 liturgical celebrations are prohibited, priests and bishops are forced to sacrifice to the gods under penalty of exile. The following year, Valérien condemns to death any cleric, senator or Christian knight, which clearly shows the anguish of the pagans in the face of the spread of Christianity among the Roman elites… The new bishop of Rome, Sixtus II, is beheaded with his deacons.

The reign of Gallienus marks a breakthrough. The new emperor became aware of the inability of his father's policies to stem the spread of Christianity, and he issued an edict of tolerance offering Christians freedom of worship. This edict of imperial tolerance prevailed during the last forty years of the third century. A few years of respite which contrasted with the great persecution orchestrated under the reign of Diocletian at the dawn of the fourth century.

The Roman power thus dealt a very severe blow to the Christians of the 3rd century, directly of course with the exiles, the persecutions, the mutilations, the executions which depopulated the communities and did not incite to the conversion ... But also indirectly in creating in fact a new status: that of Christians who have renounced their faith under duress but want to continue living in Christ. The question of their future creates distinctly two movements within the Great Church: that of the Roman Novatian priest who advocates the greatest firmness towards them, and the movement of Corneille who encourages forgiveness and their reintegration into the Church. . The two men are consecrated bishops of Rome by their supporters, thus creating the first schism of the Great Church which is not resolved until the synod of 251 which validates the election of Cornelius. This does not prevent the supporters of Novatien from continuing to make themselves heard ...

The Christians of the third century thus form a veritable mosaic which leaves an oil spot on the Mediterranean rim without the knowledge of a Roman Empire hesitating on the modalities of the containment that it is trying to put in place. The Great Church, despite its internal divisions and the not inconsiderable number of Christians from other communities, gradually manages to structure itself, to convince, to establish a clear doctrine which wants to be universal and which will prevail in the following century under the Emperors Galerius and Constantine.

For further

- COTHENET Edouard & PELLISTRANDI Christine, Discovering the Christian Apocrypha: Art and Popular Religion, DDB, 2009.

- FOCANT Camille & MARGUERAT Daniel (ndd), Le Nouveau Testament commenté, Bayard, 2012.

- GEOLTRAIN Pierre & BOVON François (sdd), Apocryphal Christian Writings, Volume 1, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1997.

- LENOIR Frédéric, How Jesus became God, Fayard, 2010.

Video: History Of Church: The Third Century. (January 2022).