A wild and wonderful range of beliefs and doctrines flourished in the earliest centuries of the Christian church. Countless writers offered their own reinterpretations of what Jesus might have said and done, often creating spurious gospels as vehicles for their ideas. We generally assume that this chaotic and creative world ended when Christianity became the Roman state religion in the fourth century, when the orthodox suppressed rival sects as heretics, and suppressed their scriptures. No later than 400 or so, the alternative Christianities had gone underground, to await rediscovery in modern times.
But did they? Actually, in pretty much any and all subsequent eras of the church, we easily find movements and thinkers who would have fit perfectly into that ancient world, and their ideas look as if they were precisely drawn from that earlier era. It's just a question of looking for them.
Even in the Middle Ages -- supposedly, that age of unquestioning orthodoxy -- some heretics lived in an intellectual world very close to that of the Gnostic gospels that we have heard so much about in recent decades. Or indeed, to the modern New Age.
One long-running nightmare for the Catholic Church was the Free Spirit movement, which taught an intoxicating mixture of pantheism and antinomianism. Once believers realized that God really was all things, and all things were God, then they too became God. Knowing that the present world was all that existed, they spurned stories of Judgment or an afterlife: Heaven and Hell were here and now. Like God himself, those things existed only within us. Above us, there's only sky.
Free Spirit adepts scorned the official church, all its teachings and sacraments. As God, these women and men were subject neither to the divine Law nor to mere human laws, and at least in theory, they claimed the right to do anything they chose. Contemporary exposés alleged grotesque sexual excesses.
Beyond question, many accusations of Free Spirit activity were false or exaggerated, and we know that inquisitors had lists of standard questions to which suspects were induced to agree. Sometimes, though, we hear the movement speaking in its own unmediated voice, and a startling voice it is. In a few instances, accused individuals discussed their views freely, without official prompting. Not only do such cases confirm that Free Spirit theories existed much as claimed, but they offer tantalizing glimpses of ongoing religious debates that amaze a modern reader.
One classic example was John Hartmann, who was interrogated in Erfurt in 1367. His support for a spiritually-based communism has made him a mainstay of Marxist historical accounts of the Middle Ages. But the greatest surprises come from Hartmann's religious thoughts. If they were just his eccentric musings, they are surprising enough, but if he was drawing on a wider tradition, his remarks suggest that some stunning beliefs circulated underground in medieval Europe.
The interrogator easily proved that Hartmann did not accept conventional legal or moral restraints. He then pushed that admission to secure detailed statements about scandalous conduct that the suspect refused to condemn. Could any reasonable person really believe that consensual sex was not a deadly sin? But in Hartmann's case, the exchange then moved into very strange territory indeed. Seemingly out of nowhere, the interrogator asked whether Christ had himself been a Free Spirit. Hartmann's reply was nuanced. Not at first, he said, as Jesus was originally a regular, limited human being, but at his crucifixion, on Good Friday, he truly became a Free Spirit.
The interrogator's next question is simply baffling. So, he said, had Jesus had sex with Mary Magdalene after his Resurrection? In contrast to his previously outspoken answers, Hartmann now became evasive, oddly so as he must have known that he had said more than enough to consign himself to the flames. What else did he have to lose? Even so, he replied that "though he well knew the answer, he preferred not to give his opinion." I suppose Hartmann's considered answer would have been "yes", but even if not, who would expect a question like this even to be under discussion at this time?
We might read Hartmann's words as those of a madman, or even of a creative religious entrepreneur. But his views also had a very long historical pedigree. His comment about Jesus's human stature reflects countless debates through the centuries on the nature of Incarnation. And he would not be the first to claim that Jesus's divinity had not belonged to him throughout his earthly life, but was rather bestowed later -- usually at the Resurrection.
But it is the Magdalene passage that most intrigues. As we know today, ancient Gnostic texts like those that surfaced at Nag Hammadi in 1945 presented a Jesus who gave lengthy speeches and teachings in post-Resurrection appearances. He spoke to an elite body of disciples including faithful women, such as Mary Magdalene. Other texts suggest an intimate special relationship between Jesus and Mary, which some have interpreted as sexual.
Why on earth did an inquisitor ask his question in 1367, a thousand years after we assume the matter was long-since settled and forgotten? It is mysterious, unless he was addressing an issue that was under serious discussion in the Free Spirit subculture. But where are Free Spirit believers getting so many ideas that seemingly hark back to the earliest centuries? Early Gnostics had likewise believed that the Gospel stories were purely symbolic representations of inner psychological realities.
Were those Free Spirit theories surfacing independently, based on critical readings of the church's approved Gospels? Or do they indicate the existence of subterranean traditions, possibly mediated through later pseudo-Gospels? Surely early alternative gospels like those of Nag Hammadi were not still available in any recognizable form -- were they?
We know that some thirteenth century French heretics believed that the Magdalene had been the concubine of the material Jesus, although not of the true spiritual Christ. This was the view of the Cathars or Albigensians, who used a library of pseudo-Gospels and other scriptures they received from heretics in Bulgaria. Of their nature, such texts were unlikely to survive church investigations, and were usually burned when found, and it's surprising that even a few of these Albigensian treasures survive. But we have to wonder what else might once have circulated, either as a whole text or in fragments -- or even in oral transmission?
Just how many gospels were read in medieval Europe? Four, fourteen, or forty? How many have we lost?
So, no, at no point in history did Christianity lose its bewildering diversity.