Despite the existence of a vast literature of commentary, there are still many who imagine the New Testament to be the only source of information on early Christianity, and who imagine that the texts have been preserved exactly as they were written. Actually, the early Fathers engaged in the systematic suppression and rewriting of these early documents— Celsus says that even the gospels were rewritten to suit the needs of controversy, and they certainly contain many interpolations of later date. (106) Three of the gospels seem to be inaccurate copies, with later additions, made from an original document now lost. (67) At the same time, the Fathers excluded from the New Testament many books whose validity was just as great as some of those they included, because they did not like the account they gave. Streeter says:
“Had the Church waited until the year A.D. 500 before drawing a sharp distinction between inspired scripture and all other religious writings the greater part of the literature contained in Dr. James’ Apocryphal New Testament would almost certainly have been included among the sacred books of Christianity.”
The picture of early Christianity which emerges when this source material is considered on a comprehensive comparative basis is appreciably different from that which most people carry in their minds. What we find is numerous small congregations, held together by a vivid religious experience, helping one another, trying to live in brotherly amity, but totally uninterested in doctrine as we know it. They do not celebrate either the birth of Christ or His death as festivals; they do not claim that He was divine. (The divinity of Christ did not become official doctrine of the Church until A.D. 269 and then only over the protests of the patriarch of Samosata, who said it was nonsense.) Nor, of course, did they claim that He was miraculously born of a virgin, a claim which was not made until the second century. (67) Augustine denied this story as late as the fifth century.
They do not, of course, celebrate the Eucharist, for, as Clover says, “There is a growing consensus of opinion that Jesus instituted no sacraments”. That it was Paul who borrowed this rite from the mystery religions and introduced it into Christianity seems to be beyond doubt. Paul, as Reitzenstein has shown, was soaked in the mystery religions. (The similarity of the Eucharist with pagan rites was so obvious that the Christians were driven to declare that the Devil had inserted parodies of it in the pagan religions, prior to the birth of Christ, especially to discomfit them.) What they do celebrate is the Agape, a real meal to which the brethren brought real food, but which was also the occasion for prayers, inspired speaking and the evoking of a mystical experience. And it is this which they regard as the essential and central feature of their religion.