Christianity today has thousands of different denominations today, all with minor and some major differences, but today’s variations of Christianity pale in comparison to the differences in beliefs of earlier Christians! From whether or not Jesus was actually divine, to arguments over how many gods there actually were, these now extinct sects provide some unique insights into the development of Christianity!
1. Ebionite Christians (1st-4th Century)
The Ebionites were Christians that believed that Christians still had to follow all of the Jewish laws, such as circumcision and the Jewish Sabbath. They opposed Paul since he taught that Christians did not have to obey Jewish laws. They however, believed Jesus to be the messiah. They had conflicts with more Pauline Christians, over whether or not to follow Jewish laws. They were the closest to the very early “Jewish Christians”.
2. Gnosticism (1st-7th Century)
Gnostic Christians are also a well known sect that is extinct now. They believed that an inferior god created Earth, and hindered everyone’s spiritual development, and the Hebrew texts were a product of this inferior god! The superior god tricked the inferior god by sending a savior and the sacrifice of this savior undermined the inferior god’s power. Research has been done that suggests that early Christianity was more Gnostic in nature, and that the trinity today is derived from the older more Gnostic-like beliefs.
3. Docetism (1st-7th Century)
Docetists believed that Jesus was not physically present, but more of a spiritual being, since the physical world was imperfect and separate from God, and Jesus could not have been imperfect and corrupted in order to be the spiritual savior. Their explanation for why Jesus did not write anything down or leave a record was that he could not as he wasn’t a physical being.
4. Arian Christians (2nd-8th Century)
Arian Christianity was named after Arius, a prominent theologian. Arianism states that Jesus, being the son of God is holy, but inferior to God, thus opposing the trinity. Their concept of Jesus was that he was special, in that God could have created him before other things, but he was not an immortal man, or a god either. This was opposed by the predecessors to modern day Christianity who believed in the divinity of Jesus and the trinity. The Council of Nicea met to refute Arian beliefs and created the Nicene Creed in opposition to Arian Christians.
5. Marcionite Christians (2nd-5th Century)
These Christians, in my mind are the most fascinating of the ones mentioned. They believed that the god in the Old Testament and the god in the New Testament were separate gods! The reason for that was the inconsistency between the old God being more wrathful and harsh and the new God being more merciful and forgiving. They thought that they could not possibly be one god with wild mood swings! Therefore, there must have been two! They knew the Christian texts very well, and their compilation of those texts would later develop into the Bible today. Pauline Christians heavily opposed them and one writer published five volumes refuting Marcionism!
(Compare, angry God vs. forgiving God)
6. Roman/Pauline Christianity (4th century-present)
Lastly, Pauline Christians are most like contemporary Christianity, with beliefs in the trinity and divinity of Jesus. Their creed, is still recited in Churches today:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
It is amazing to think there was such variation within Christianity. Many beliefs today, would discount many sects from being considered Christian at all! I find it interesting that many would be considered polytheistic, with two, 30, or even 365 gods! while others were more strictly monotheistic, and non trinitarian. These older sects were heavily suppressed, and often written about from the perspective of their opponents, however, the most interesting tidbits found their way back. These and many other sects go to show, how varied and diverse the history of something which seems more unified and monolithic can be. This website goes into these, and much more within the topic of Early Christianity in much detail!