Main The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation

The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation

Year: 2012
Publisher: The Teaching Company
Language: english
Pages: 283
Series: The Great Courses
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The History of Christianity:
From the Disciples to the
Dawn of the Reformation
Course Guidebook
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson
Candler School of Theology, Emory University

PUBLISHED BY:
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The Teaching Company.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New
Testament and Christian Origins
Candler School of Theology,
Emory University

P

rofessor Luke Timothy Johnson is the
Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New
Testament and Christian Origins at Emory
University’s Candler School of Theology. Born in
1943, Professor Johnson was a Benedictine monk
from the ages of 19 to 28. He received a B.A. in
Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint
Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, and an M.A. in Religious
Studies from Indiana University before earning a Ph.D. in New Testament
Studies from Yale University in 1976.
Professor Johnson taught at Yale Divinity School from 1976 to 1982 and at
Indiana University from 1982 to 1992 before accepting his current position
at Emory. He is the author of 29 books, including The Writings of the
New Testament: An Interpretation, which is used widely as a textbook in
seminaries and colleges. He won the 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award
in Religion for his monograph entitled Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman
Religion and Christianity. He also has published several hundred articles
and reviews and has lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities.
Professor Johnson has taught undergraduates, as well as master and doctoral
students. He has directed about 20 doctoral dissertations. At Indiana
University, he received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching,
was elected a member of the Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching,
and won the Brown Derby Teaching Award and the Student Choice Award
for Outstanding Faculty. At Emory, he has twice received the On Eagle’s
Wings Excellence in Teaching Award, and in 2007, he received the Candler
School of Theology Outstanding Service Award. In 1997 and 1998, he was
a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, speaking at college campuses across
the country.

i

Professor Johnson is married to Joy Randazzo. They share 7 children, 13
grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren. Professor Johnson’s other Great
Courses are The Apostle Paul; Early Christianity: The Experience of the
Divine; Great World Religions: Christianity (2nd edition); Jesus and the
Gospels; Practical Philosophy: The Greco-Roman Moralists; The Story of
the Bible; and Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. ■

ii

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION
Professor Biography.............................................................................i
Course Scope......................................................................................1
LECTURE GUIDES
Lecture 1
The Historical Study of Christianity����������������������������������������������������3
Lecture 2
The First Cultural Context—Greece and Rome�������������������������������10
Lecture 3
The First Cultural Context—Judaism�����������������������������������������������17
Lecture 4
The Jesus Movement and the Birth of Christianity���������������������������25
Lecture 5
Paul and Christianity’s First Expansion��������������������������������������������32
Lecture 6
The Diversity of Early Christianity����������������������������������������������������39
Lecture 7
The Unpopular Cult—Persecution����������������������������������������������������47
Lecture 8
Forms of Witness—Martyrdom and Apologetic��������������������������������54
Lecture 9
Extreme Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries������������������������������61
Lecture 10
The Shaping of Orthodoxy���������������������������������������������������������������68
iii

Table of Contents

Lecture 11
Institutional Development before Constantine����������������������������������75
Lecture 12
The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy�������������������������������������������83
Lecture 13
Imperial Politics and Religion�����������������������������������������������������������90
Lecture 14
Constantine and the Established Church�����������������������������������������97
Lecture 15
The Extension of Christian Culture�������������������������������������������������105
Lecture 16
Monasticism as Radical Christianity����������������������������������������������� 113
Lecture 17
The Emergence of Patriarchal Centers������������������������������������������120
Lecture 18
Theological Crisis and Council—The Trinity�����������������������������������127
Lecture 19
Theological Crisis and Council—Christology���������������������������������135
Lecture 20
The Distinctive Issues of the Latin West�����������������������������������������143
Lecture 21
Expansion beyond the Boundaries of Empire��������������������������������150
Lecture 22
The Court of Justinian and Byzantine Christianity��������������������������157
Lecture 23
The Rise of Islam and the Threat of Iconoclasm����������������������������165
iv

Table of Contents

Lecture 24
Eastern Orthodoxy—Holy Tradition������������������������������������������������173
Lecture 25
From Roman Empire to Holy Roman Empire���������������������������������181
Lecture 26
Benedictine Monasticism and Its Influence������������������������������������188
Lecture 27
Evangelization of Western Europe�������������������������������������������������195
Lecture 28
The Great Divorce between East and West�����������������������������������202
Lecture 29
Monastic Reform����������������������������������������������������������������������������209
Lecture 30
Cathedrals and Chapters���������������������������������������������������������������216
Lecture 31
The Crusades���������������������������������������������������������������������������������223
Lecture 32
Papal Revolution����������������������������������������������������������������������������230
Lecture 33
Universities and Theology��������������������������������������������������������������237
Lecture 34
The Great Plague���������������������������������������������������������������������������244
Lecture 35
Corruption and the Beginnings of Reform��������������������������������������251
Lecture 36
The Ever-Adapting Religion�����������������������������������������������������������258
v

Table of Contents

Supplemental Material
Bibliography������������������������������������������������������������������������������������265

vi

The History of Christianity:
From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation

Scope:

W

hatever one may think about Christianity today—and views on
the subject are both lively and divided—it is impossible to deny
the importance of this religious tradition in history. Beginning
as an obscure sect of Judaism in the 1st century of the Common Era, over
the course of 300 years, Christianity went from being a maligned and
persecuted superstition to the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since
that unexpected turn of events, it has never ceased being an important player
in the shaping of culture and politics, above all, in Europe. Certainly, for the
bulk of the period covered by this course, the Christian religion provided
the shape of the symbolic world, both for the remnants of the Roman order
called Byzantium and for the medieval synthesis that arose after the collapse
of the empire in the west.
Given such historical importance, it is the more striking that ignorance
both of Christianity’s internal development and its cultural impact is so
widespread, not only among the religion’s detractors but equally among
its most avid advocates. In place of solid historical knowledge, a variety
of misconceptions flourish. Some of these have to do with the origins of
the religion. Others concern its internal development. Still others distort
problematic aspects of its history, such as the Crusades and inquisition.
A first goal of this course, then, is simply to provide a reliable account of
Christianity’s first millennium and a half— an account that is superficial to
be sure, given that covering 1,500 years in 18 hours requires both selectivity
and a willingness to simplify complex realities. Simple attention to the facts
as they unfold can have a clarifying effect and dispel some of the myths and
misperceptions that somehow find their way into public consciousness.
A second goal of the course is to show how Christianity distinctively is
shaped by, and gives shape to, diverse political and cultural worlds. In the
final lecture, we will see that the designation of Christianity as an “ever1

adapting religion” is entirely appropriate. Christianity has been, from the
start, astonishingly adaptive to its environment. We will consider its story
in three stages: (1) We trace the original cultural context within which the
religion came to birth (Judaism and Greco-Roman culture), its originating
experiences and convictions, and its process of survival and self-definition
through centuries of persecution. (2) We then show the consequences of
Christianity’s being made the official imperial religion by Constantine
and his successors, consequences that were both good and bad and never
without a certain amount of ambiguity. Thus, we see how the religion
expanded to meet its new cultural role, even as it experienced violent
internal conflicts over matters of doctrine and practice. We also see radical
versions of Christianity that began in the 2nd century resurface in the form
of monasticism, arguably the most important of all Christian institutions
in terms of its historical significance. This part of the course ends with a
consideration of the stable Orthodox tradition of the East. (3) Finally, we
sketch the process by which popes, monks, and German kings formed a new
society in Europe that was called Christendom: We will show its positive
cultural accomplishments (cathedrals and universities) and more negative
political adventures (Crusades, investiture, inquisition); we will show both
the glory of the medieval synthesis and the elements of corruption that called
for reform, a call that many heeded even before the Reformation of the
16th century.

Scope

In addition to paying close attention to the way in which Christianity interacts
with political and cultural contexts, the course will address what are usually
regarded as the more “religious” aspects of Christianity: its experiences and
convictions, its beliefs and practices, its mode of worship and its manner
of life. All of these have undergone change through the centuries, and
the course will provide some awareness of the roles played by monk and
mendicant, mystic and inquisitor, crusader and theologian, pope and peasant.
And because Christianity is so adaptive to circumstance, so defined by the
changing societies within which it has been shaped and which it has helped
shape, this course considers at the very end the question of the essence of the
religion: Through all this change, does anything remain constant? ■

2

The Historical Study of Christianity
Lecture 1

C

hristianity began in obscurity as a minor sect of Judaism in the
1st century of the Common Era. For the first three centuries of its
existence, it offered few signs that it would one day dominate the
world. Over a period of two millennia, it has grown, spread, and constantly
changed, now appearing in every land and every language. It is the largest and
most universal of the world’s religions. This course considers the first three
stages of this grand story, beginning in this first lecture with a discussion of
the importance of applying a historical perspective to Christianity and the
limitations we will face as we embark on this endeavor.
Justifications for Our Study
• Christianity is the world religion that is most explicitly historical in
its character. Its central claim is that the divine enters into human
history in a specific human person and changes it.
o Arguably, it is also the world religion that has most affected
the course of history itself. It is impossible to consider the
historical development of the West without taking Christianity
into account.
o
•

It is, therefore, both natural and necessary to approach this
religion in historical terms.

Contemporary ignorance and credulity with regard to Christianity’s
past make historical study imperative.
o Although true historical knowledge is always a fairly rare and
restricted commodity, the present age in particular is neither
interested in, nor well informed about, the past.
o

The result of this historical amnesia is that the present
generation is easy prey to distortions of the past.

3

•

Lecture 1: The Historical Study of Christianity

•

Lack of good historical knowledge is just as widespread among
Christians as it is among Christianity’s critics.
o Many Christians assume anachronistically that current forms
of piety and worship and even the current shape of their Bible
have been in place from the beginning, when in fact, they have
gone through complex development over time.
o

The same ignorance explains the fascination with bizarre
theories, such as those in The Da Vinci Code, which sold
millions of copies to readers incapable of detecting the novel’s
historical errors.

o

In a milder fashion, certain fictions concerning the Christian
past have remarkable staying power: that certain gospels
preceded those in the New Testament but were suppressed
because they advocated a more radical form of religion or that
the Christian creed was a late invention of bishops under the
direction of the emperor Constantine.

The study of Christianity’s history has, therefore, both a corrective
and a creative function. It can correct errors and misconceptions,
such as those about the origins and subsequent development of
Christianity, through a fuller and more responsible assessment of
the evidence.
o With regard to Christian origins, was Jesus, as some have
argued, connected in some way to the Qumran community
located at the Dead Sea? The answer is no. Was Paul, as some
have argued, an agent of the Sanhedrin who sought to extirpate
the Christian movement as an official hit man of the Jewish
court? The answer again is no.
o

4

We could answer the same way with regard to subsequent
developments within Christianity. Was medieval Catholicism
totally corrupt, with no element of authentic Christianity within
it? There is no reason to think so. Was Byzantium all show and
no substance? In both cases, the answer is no.

•

Historical study can also provide the basis for a reconsideration of
the past and a path to the future.
o How do the tragic missteps leading to the split of Eastern
and Western forms of Christianity in the 11th century instruct
present-day Christians concerning ecumenical relations?
o

How do reforming movements through the ages, especially
those found among monks and mendicants, provide insight
into the power of intentional communities to change societies?

The Nature and Limits of Historical Study
• What do we really mean when we use the word “history”? History is
not simply “the past” or a historian’s description of “what happened
in the past.” It is better understood as a constructive activity in the
present, carried out by historians.
o Historians take the pieces of memory from human events
and experiences that have been preserved in some form and
subject them to critical analysis: Are they first- or second-hand
primary sources, or are they secondary sources? What are the
provenance, dating, and biases of the sources?

•

o

On the basis of the pieces thus tested, historians then try
to construct a narrative concerning the events to which the
sources bear witness. Historical accounts, therefore, always
have some “fictional” elements, simply because it is impossible
to construct narrative without them.

o

Historical accounts are also, therefore, properly revisionist,
both because new information becomes available and because
historical perspective constantly changes.

As a constructive activity carried out in the present with bits of
memory from the past, history is also inherently limited in its way
of knowing reality.
o It has to do with human events in time and space, but even
defining the character of “events” and their boundaries involves
guesswork. We speak blithely of World War II or the Depression,
5

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

Much that is important in human experience falls outside the range of
historiography; only indirectly can we imagine what it must have been like for
someone from the forests of Germany in the 8th century to enter the marble
grandeur of the Hagia Sophia.

Lecture 1: The Historical Study of Christianity

but these are artificial boundaries, drawn—for purposes of
analysis—within the constant flux of human experience.
o

•

6

Further, much that is important in human existence falls outside
the range of historiography. The actual human experience of
events, for example, can be reached only indirectly and with
great difficulty: What was it like for someone coming from
the forest of Germany to enter the Hagia Sophia? What did
mothers think as they prayed over their dying infants during
the great plague?

Above all, the task of historians is constrained by the availability
and state of sources.
o What was said or done had to be perceived, what was perceived
had to be written, what was written had to be preserved, and
what was preserved had to be edited, translated, published,
and read.

o

Interpretation enters into every step of the process: The point of
view shapes perception, perception shapes writing, assessment
as to value determines preservation, and so on.

o

Original sources get lost or destroyed and must be reconstructed
from later publications; some of history’s most memorable
persons and events have slender evidentiary support, and some
of history’s trivia is massively supported.

Limitations in Analyzing Christianity
• It’s important to note that all scholars of Christianity have
definite perspectives and limitations. For example, many
are not disinterested observers but active participants in this
religious tradition.
•

Throughout our study, we will presuppose that religion is
something real, not just a scholarly construct. People in the real
world organize their lives around experiences and convictions
concerning ultimate power. We will further presuppose that there is
a real religious tradition called Christianity that can be described in
all its permutations. Finally, we will accept that social determinants
and forces, along with ideas, are real and must be taken into
consideration in our study.

•

The sources for the study of Christian history in its first 1,500 years
are unevenly distributed in terms of period and language.
o For the earliest period, there is little or no material evidence,
and the literary evidence is sparse.
o

In contrast, for the middle and later periods, there is a great deal
of material evidence, including cathedrals, shrines, artwork,
and literature. The limitation here is that little of this evidence
pertains to the lives of ordinary people. Much of the history
of Christianity that we will discuss comes to us from literate
people with some position in society.

7

o

•

Our richest literary (and material) evidence comes from within
the Roman Empire and uses Greek and Latin. But Christian
literature also encompasses Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian,
and Slavic literature.

Our sources are also uneven in terms of their perspective.
o With some few exceptions, the majority of evidence comes
from insider rather than outsider sources.
o

Insider sources themselves must be distinguished in terms
of their orthodox (“right-thinking”) and heterodox (“otherthinking”) perspectives; by far, the greatest number of sources
comes from orthodox authors.

Lecture 1: The Historical Study of Christianity

Organization of the Course
• The first section of this course, entitled “The Beginnings,” covers
the first three centuries of Christianity.
o After a rapid survey of Greco-Roman and Jewish culture pertinent
to the understanding of Christianity, the lectures consider the
birth and first expansion of the religion in the 1st century.
o

•

8

Over the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Christianity experienced crises
from without (persecution) and within (heresy) that forced
institutional and intellectual development.

The second section, entitled “The Imperial Religion,” covers
roughly the 4th to the 8th centuries.
o Special attention is given to the cultural and political
adjustments consequent on becoming the imperial religion as
Christianity expanded into new significance.
o

During these centuries, positive developments in worship and
piety were offset by severe and divisive conflicts over doctrine.

o

Of great subsequent importance was the growing cultural
divide between the East (centered in Constantinople) and the

West (centered in Rome). Expansion of Christianity into new
lands and new languages increased.
•

•

The third section, “The Medieval Church,” covers the 9th to the 15th
centuries, bringing our survey to the edge of the Reformation.
o Increasing complexity of relations with emperors and kings
was a constant theme of these centuries.
o

The split between the Eastern (Orthodox) version of
Christianity and the Western (Catholic) version divided
Christianity, just as the threat of Islam grew more powerful.

o

The creativity of Christianity in Europe was marked by the
development of monasticism (and its reforms), crusades,
cathedrals, and universities.

o

Other aspects of medieval Christianity, including obvious
corruption, began to stimulate efforts at reform.

The final lecture of the course considers Christianity as “the everadapting religion,” asking what elements remain constant within all
its historical changes.

Suggested Reading
Johnson, A History of Christianity.
Marty, The Christian World.

Questions to Consider
1. Consider the difference between a naive and a critical understanding of

history, between thinking of the past as a place one can go to and history
as a constructive activity of the present.

2. Why is the historical study of any subject dependent on the availability
and character of primary sources?

9

The First Cultural Context—Greece and Rome
Lecture 2

U
Lecture 2: The First Cultural Context—Greece and Rome

nderstanding the cultural contexts in which Christianity was born is
of fundamental importance for grasping the history of this religious
tradition. Like other religions of the West, Christianity is grounded
in the material world and, at every stage, is shaped by cultural circumstances.
It is not a timeless form of spirituality that teaches its adherents to liberate
themselves from the body or involvement in society. Rather, Christianity was
born at a certain time and place and bears within it the imprint of the cultures
from which it originated and grew. Further, such cultural conditioning does
not apply only at the beginning but throughout Christianity’s long history.
Christianity is a religion that constantly emerges from, adapts, and reshapes
the cultures that it engages.
Defining “Cultural Context”
• A cultural context can be thought of in terms of a “symbolic world”
that expresses and provides meaning for human existence. A
symbolic world is not removed from specific social structures and
processes but, instead, grounds social realities.
•

10

Specific social structures, dynamics, and practices make sense
because of the ideas, images, metaphors, and symbols that give
them shape.
o The many discrete practices of students (e.g., attending class,
reading, studying, writing, taking exams) make sense only
within a symbolic world called “education.”
o

The disparate activities of American politics (e.g., campaigning,
soliciting, caucusing, voting, taking office) make sense only
within the symbolic world called “representative democracy.”

o

In similar fashion, ancient Greek civilization was held together
by a symbolic world called paideia, meaning both Greek
culture and the education that shaped people in that culture.

The Mediterranean World
• The basic coordinates of the world established the boundaries for
the first chapter of Christianity’s existence.
o Temporally, this first chapter began with the conquest of the
oikoumene (“known world”) by Alexander the Great (356–323
B.C.E.) and extended to the imperial recognition of Christianity
by Constantine the Great (313 C.E.).
Geographically, it embraced the lands that encircle the
Mediterranean Sea, from Spain in the west, through North
Africa in the south, Palestine and Syria in the east, and Gaul
in the north. But lands outside and along the fringes of this
territory were also significant.

o

Within a two-season climate (dry and rainy), the economy of
this world was agriculturally based, with cultivation of olives,
figs, grain, and grapes. There was also significant fishing and
small-animal husbandry. Not small farms but great estates
(latifundia) with absentee landlords were the rule.

© Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Thinkstock.

o

Technology of the ancient Mediterranean world was quite advanced, more
advanced than at any period in the West until the Industrial Revolution.
11

Lecture 2: The First Cultural Context—Greece and Rome

•

o

Technology was advanced in architecture (aqueducts, temples,
baths), warfare, and seafaring. Cities were large and crowded.
Slave labor supplied energy for mining, transportation,
farming, and household management.

o

Politically, it was a world of empire (Parthian, Hellenistic,
Roman), with city-states (poleis) exercising greater and lesser
autonomy within provinces answerable to central authority.

Certain aspects of “Mediterranean culture” preceded and persisted
through changes of imperial rule.
o Society was stratified both at the larger level (with a small
nobility and a large slave class) and at the level of the
household; in both, male dominance prevailed.
o

The practice of patronage (benefaction) served to mitigate
differences in status and wealth: Patrons gave benefits to
clients and clients responded with honor.

o

Honor and shame were powerful motives for behavior at every
level, although the pertinent “court of opinion” could vary.

o

The dominant religious system was polytheism, in which divine
power was distributed among personal beings of a higher order
who governed diverse aspects of the world. Interestingly, this
system mirrored the social world: The gods were the patrons
who provided benefits to humans, and humans were obligated
to pay honor and glory to the gods.

The Influence of Greek Civilization
• Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Mediterranean world
established the imprint of Greek civilization that endured for
centuries—in the East, over the entire 1,500 years covered by
this course.
•

12

Alexander’s vision was to extend the civilization of the classical
period of Athens to all of the known world so that there would be no

more “Greek and barbarian”—everyone would enjoy the benefits of
Greek civilization.
o He established the polis as a center of cultural diffusion
through such institutions as the gymnasium, where the paideia
of Greece could be learned from the classics.

•

o

He encouraged intermarriage among Greeks and barbarians to
break down ethnic and cultural differences.

o

He extended the use of the Greek language so that it became
the “common language” (koine) for succeeding centuries.

o

He encouraged the practice of religious syncretism, by
which different polytheistic systems could be regarded as
functionally equivalent.

o

The ideal that Alexander sought was “cosmopolitanism,” a
sense of world citizenship that would derive from always
having available the forms of Greek civilization.

The effect of empire was to distort the very values that Alexander
sought to propagate: Hellenism was something other than ancient
Athenian culture.
o The city-state of Athens had citizen participation, which was
lost in empire and in huge metropolises.
o

Further, the Attic Greek of Athens was influenced by Semitic
languages as it was extended so that the koine of the empire
was not exactly the same language as that used by Sophocles
and Plato.

o

Athenian culture was intensely local, but making it universal
reduced its effect. The most highly mobile members of society
felt most acutely that the flip side of cosmopolitanism is social
alienation or anomie.

13

Lecture 2: The First Cultural Context—Greece and Rome

•

Developments in Hellenistic religion and philosophy corresponded
to new social realities.
o Although the civic festivals remained central and popular and
the Olympic pantheon active, new aspects of religion emerged.
Chance (tyche) and fate (heimarmene) emerged as inexorable
forces superior to the gods themselves. Religious associations
and mystery cults offered salvation from fate and chance, as
well as a place in the world.
o

Philosophy turned from theory to therapy, with a focus on how
to live well in an alienating world. Philosophers no longer
wrote about the perfect state or the republic. What would be the
point in a world run by empire?

o

Philosophical schools, such as those of the Pythagoreans and
Epicureans, offered an organized form of life—a community
life that provided sound teaching, sound practice, and the
opportunity to live in a face-to-face community of moral
integrity in the midst of a world that made little sense.
Philosophers focused on the cultivation of virtue and the
healing of the soul.

o

Stoic philosophers initiated allegorical interpretation of
the classic myths to save them for moral instruction. This
interpretation would be taken over by Judaism and Christianity.

The Roman Contribution
• The Roman contribution to the Mediterranean culture was more
recent and, for a time, more external and superficial.

14

•

Rome established control over the Mediterranean as a republic and
continued its rule as a principate (beginning with Caesar Augustus
[27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.]) through a system of provincial governorships
and prefects.

•

During the time of Christianity’s nascence, the empire was selfconsciously Greek in its cultural outlook.

•

•

o

Its literature and philosophy imitated Greek models, and Greek
tutors were highly valued.

o

The Roman deities were merged syncretistically with the
Greek; Zeus’s equivalent, for example, was Jupiter.

o

Practices of sexuality, particularly male bisexuality, were taken
over from Greece, although with different social valences.

Safe provinces, such as Asia Minor, were governed by the Senate,
while dangerous provinces, such as Palestine, were ruled by Rome
through military prefects.
o The conquest of territory and the securing of safe boundaries
(as against the Parthians) was a constant Roman concern.
o

A byproduct of conquest was slavery, which grew enormously
under the Romans and led to revolts, such as that of Spartacus
that took place in 73–71 B.C.E. That revolt had a tremendous
impact on the Roman psyche because it seemed to threaten the
very structure of society. As a consequence, another byproduct
of military rule and expansion was a willingness to violently
suppress local uprisings by the populace.

o

Military colonies (peopled by veterans) and military
encampments helped secure internal order.

o

Heavy taxation of the provinces enriched the city of Rome and
helped pacify its huge population.

Roman rule did not please everyone, as witnessed by the revolts
among the Jews in 67–135 C.E., but the Romans’ efficient imperial
order had positive benefits for a new cult.
o The system of roads that were meant for military and
commercial use enabled travel and communication through
personal contact and letters.

15

•

o

The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) eliminated bandits by land
and pirates by sea, making transportation safe and predictable.

o

The extension of citizenship in the city of Rome to members of
the provinces increased commitment to Rome and extended the
privileges of law more widely.

Within decades of its emergence, the Christian religion was more
Gentile than Jewish in its population, which meant that, from its
earliest period, it bore the traces of Mediterranean culture, Greek
civilization, and Roman rule in its DNA.

Suggested Reading
Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity.
Lecture 2: The First Cultural Context—Greece and Rome

Malina, The New Testament World.

Questions to Consider
1. How do the tools of cultural dissemination adopted by Alexander

illustrate the point that a “symbolic world” involves social structures, as
well as ideas and images?

2. What impact did the fact of empire have on Greek and Roman culture?

16

The First Cultural Context—Judaism
Lecture 3

I

n the last lecture, we saw how important Greek and Roman culture was
for understanding earliest Christianity, not merely as a static setting
but as a set of living influences. In this lecture, we’ll examine the most
important and problematic cultural context for early Christianity, namely
Judaism, the “symbolic world of Torah.” As we’ll see, the importance of this
context is both straightforward and problematic—straightforward in that the
Christian movement began as a sect within 1st-century Judaism and attempted
to engage the Jewish Scriptures and problematic in that the Christian claim
that Jesus was the risen Lord appeared as heretical within Judaism.
The Jewish Cultural Context
• The importance of the Jewish context is both obvious and
straightforward: The Christian movement began as a sect within 1stcentury Judaism.
o Jesus was a Jew and his first followers, including Paul, were
Jews who called Jesus their Messiah (“anointed one”); their
allegiance, furthermore, was to Judaism.

•

o

The first efforts to interpret the significance of Jesus and his
Resurrection engaged the Jewish Scriptures (Torah).

o

So intense and sustained was this engagement that the writings
of the New Testament, although composed in Greek and using
many forms of Greco-Roman rhetoric, can legitimately be
called Jewish literature.

o

Within 150 years, these writings would be joined to those of
the Jewish Scriptures to form the Christian Bible.

The problematic character of the Jewish cultural context is less
obvious but equally significant for the future of Christianity.

17

Lecture 3: The First Cultural Context—Judaism

o

As we will see in the next lecture, Jesus was not a messiah
according to standard Jewish expectations; indeed, he
overturned those expectations.

o

Moreover, the claims made for Jesus by Christians—above
all, the claim that he was the risen Lord—appear as heretical
within Judaism.

o

The interpretation of Torah from the perspective of belief in
Jesus exacerbated the strains with Judaism.

o

From the beginning, the inclusion of Gentiles with GrecoRoman perceptions placed additional strain on the relationship
with Judaism.

The Diversity of Judaism
• Judaism in the 1st century was not the religion of ancient Israel as it
is depicted in the writings of the Old Testament but was a changing,
complex, diverse, and vibrant religion within Greco-Roman
culture that drew considerable attention both from outsiders and
new members.
•

Both to Gentiles and to themselves, Jews appeared as singular
among Mediterranean peoples, a “second race,” because they
shared the symbolic world of Torah.
o Torah refers, first of all, to a set of texts (the five books of
Moses, then the rest of Scripture), then to the story of a
people contained in those texts, the commandments to which
that nation was obligated, and the wisdom that suffuses
those commandments.
o

18

Jews were bound by certain convictions and practices that set
them apart. In contrast to Gentile polytheists, they were strict
monotheists and considered themselves a chosen people joined
in a covenant of loyalty with the one God of Israel.

•

o

The covenant was expressed by observance of the
commandments, which established Jews in righteousness with
God and their neighbors. Obligatory were not only the Ten
Commandments but also the social legislation of the Law.

o

Equally important were ritual commands concerning the
observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, endogamy (marriage
within a specific group), and dietary and purity regulations.

Despite these unifying elements, several factors contributed to the
differentiation and even division of Jews in the 1st century.
o The first of these factors was geography. Although many Jews
lived in Palestine, at least twice as many had lived for as long
as 600 years in the Diaspora (“the scattering”), in countries
from Babylon to Rome.
o

Jews were further set apart by their language. Most Jews in
Palestine spoke Aramaic (a dialect of Hebrew)—although
some spoke Greek—and read their Bible in Hebrew. In the
Diaspora, Greek was spoken and read exclusively—the Bible
had been translated into Greek already by 250 B.C.E.

o

Further, the dominant cultural forms in Palestine were those
shaped by Torah; in the Diaspora, Jews lived within the
dominant Greco-Roman culture. In addition to reading Torah
in the synagogue, they could go to the gymnasium and read
Homer in Greek.

o

A final factor was ideology. Especially in Palestine, Jews
sharply disagreed on how to engage the “foreign” incursions of
Greek culture and Roman rule. For Jews in the Diaspora, life
within a pluralistic culture had tensions but was, overall, more
positive than not, because religious symbols were not tied to
social forms.

19

Assimilation and Separation in the Diaspora
• Jews in the Diaspora experienced the same tension between the
desire to assimilate and the desire to separate that similar minority
groups often do.
o Assimilation was expressed by adoption of the majority
language, the change of names, and participation in shared
cultural pursuits (as at the gymnasium); thus, in Alexandria,
Jews read the Bible in Greek and interpreted it allegorically, as
Greek philosophers did Homer.
o

Lecture 3: The First Cultural Context—Judaism

•

Gentiles, in turn, responded ambivalently to the presence of Jewish
communities in their midst.
o Many Gentiles were attracted to Judaism because of its
antiquity, moral teaching, and bloodless worship; some became
converts (proselytes), and others were “God-fearers” who
frequented synagogues but resisted full initiation.
o

•

Other Gentiles engaged in anti-Semitic attacks, accusing Jews
of a variety of crimes, including “atheism.” These crimes can
be summed up by the terms amixia (“failure to mingle”) or
misanthropia (“hatred of humans”).

Jews in the Diaspora responded to attacks by developing a wideranging apologetic literature based on the Septuagint (the Greek
Bible), using a variety of genres (history, poetry, moral instruction)
to demonstrate that Jews were philanthropic (“lovers of humanity”).
o One of the most famous of these writers was Philo of
Alexandria, whose allegorical interpretations of Scripture were
influential on later Christians.
o

20

Separation was expressed by the maintenance of “holiness”
(difference) in assembly (the synagogue), in worship (the
Sabbath), and in ancestral identity markers (circumcision).

Many of the apologetic arguments used by Diaspora Jews
would be employed by Christians when they later faced
similar attacks.

Jews in Palestine
• Because of a different set of circumstances, Jews in Palestine
experienced greater tensions with Gentiles, as well as greater and
sharper divisions among themselves.
•

The dominant cultural and political forces of Greece and Rome were
experienced as an “irresistible force” from the outside against the
“immovable object” that had been post-Exilic Judaism in Palestine.
o The reform of Judaism after the Exile had connected religious
devotion to the Lord with specific social and political
institutions: king, land, Torah as law of the land, and temple.
Religious observance, then, was intimately connected to
specific social institutions.
o

•

Thus, the pressure of Greek language, culture, and religion
could be regarded as a fundamental threat, and Roman rule
(abetted by taxation and military presence) could be regarded
as oppressive.

The same tensions of assimilation and separation were, therefore,
more fraught because they involved material realities rather than
simply ideas.
o Some Jews, especially those among the aristocrats, were
comfortable with Hellenization and advocated a policy of
accommodation.
o

Others, such as the Maccabees and their descendants, identified
loyalty to Torah (and God) with Jewish possession of social
and political institutions. To be a Jew meant having a Jewish
king. To be a Jew meant having a safe and holy temple. To be
a Jew meant having Torah as the law of the land, not simply
something that is read in the synagogue. These Jews resisted
“outsider” influence.

o

As philosophical schools, the “sects” described by the Jewish
historian Josephus, represented distinct political and religious
positions. For example, the Essenes and Zealots were militantly
21

opposed to foreigners and those who accommodated them.
The Sadducees identified themselves with the Temple and
the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) but preserved them through
cooperation with foreigners.
o

Lecture 3: The First Cultural Context—Judaism

•

22

The sect that represented the future of Judaism, the Pharisees,
remained politically neutral and centered their community
commitment on the observance of Torah, reinterpreted through
scribal technique (midrash).

Jews within Palestine expressed resistance to Greek culture and
Roman rule in a variety of ways.
o The active aggressive stance was found among those, such
as the Zealots, who battled for Jewish liberation through
the Jewish War (67–70 C.E.) and the Bar Kochba revolt
(132–135 C.E.).
o

The passive resistance stance was found among those, such as
the Maccabean mother and sons, who suffered martyrdom in
witness to Torah rather than abandon the Law.

o

The stance of imaginative resistance was found among writers
of apocalyptic literature, whose highly symbolic and dualistic
reading of history imagined the reversal of fortunes brought
about by God. Within this literature, we find the development
of two fundamental convictions that would influence
Christianity: a belief in the resurrection of the dead and a belief
in the coming of a messiah.

o

The stance of physical withdrawal was found among the
Essenes at the Dead Sea (Qumran), who created an alternative
life based on a distinctive interpretation of the Law and saw
themselves as the fulfillment of Torah’s prophecies.

o

The stance of ritual resistance was found among the Pharisees,
whose practice of purity laws made it possible to live among
those different from them and whose highly flexible midrashic

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

The Essenes at Qumran near the Dead Sea adopted a stance of physical and
ritual withdrawal; their interpretation of themselves as the fulfillment of Torah’s
prophecies mirrored later Christians’ interpretations of themselves in relation
to Torah.

interpretation of the commandments made the sect capable of
surviving the destruction of the Temple.
The Pharisees and the Christians
• After the destruction of the Temple at the end of the Jewish War,
two groups of Jews emerged as rivals for the heritage of Israel: the
Pharisees, whose dedication to Torah would develop into classical
Talmudic Judaism, and the Christians, whose central symbol of
a crucified and raised Messiah was even more adaptable to new
circumstances. Both found their future as intentional communities,
or associations, within the empire.
•

In the next lecture, we’ll learn about the Jesus movement and
the birth of Christianity and see how this new “thing” in the
Mediterranean world created profound tensions within the symbolic
world of Judaism.

23

Suggested Reading
Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora.
Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah.

Questions to Consider
1. In what ways was the Judaism of the 1st century different from the
religion of ancient Israel?

2. How did the powerful influences of Greek and Roman culture help

Lecture 3: The First Cultural Context—Judaism

shape the Judaism within which Christianity emerged?

24

The Jesus Movement and the Birth of Christianity
Lecture 4

H

aving sketched the cultural matrix within which Christianity was
formed—the complex civilizations of Greece and Rome, built on
Mediterranean culture and further complicated by empire, and the
equally complex symbolic world of Judaism—we now turn to the Jesus
movement and the birth of Christianity. The metaphor of birth is particularly
appropriate in the case of Christianity because it entered history at a specific
time and place and with a definite parentage. Like an infant, Christianity
entered the world bearing the genes of Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures,
but it combined those elements in a new and distinctive fashion, so that it
was not simply a version of what had preceded it but something truly new in
the world.
The “Founding” of Christianity and the Life of Jesus
• Christianity was not “founded” by Jesus in the obvious or
straightforward sense that other great religions have founders.
This point can be made by comparing Jesus to Muhammad as the
founder of Islam or the Buddha as the founder of Buddhism.
o In the case of Muhammad, the prophet received revelations
throughout his life that were gathered into the Qur’ān and
provided a body of social teachings on which an Islamic society
could be (and was) based. In contrast, Jesus’s teachings tended
to be aphoristic and parabolic and were far from systematic.
o

In the case of Prince Siddhartha, the experience of
enlightenment led to the Four Noble Truths, by which others
could also experience nirvana and attain the Buddha-state.
Jesus’s inner experience is not communicated by the Gospels,
and Christians do not claim to share his distinctive experience
of the divine.

o

Jesus’s itinerant ministry in rural Palestine lasted from only one
to three years, reached a limited number of people, and ended
25

Lecture 4: The Jesus Movement and the Birth of Christianity

in apparent failure, with the abandonment of his followers and
his execution by Roman authorities.
•

Nevertheless, responsible historical inquiry can yield important
statements concerning Jesus as a person of the 1st-century
Mediterranean world. Such an inquiry involves using all available
sources (insider and outsider), testing the sources for bias,
determining lines of convergence among sources, and resisting the
urge to speculate beyond what the evidence allows.

•

Although historians cannot establish a full narrative concerning
Jesus independent of the Gospels, they can state with greater and
lesser degrees of probability important facts about him.
o With the highest degree of probability, Jesus was a 1st-century
Palestinian Jew who was executed by the Romans around the
year 30 C.E. and in whose name, shortly thereafter, a movement
arose and spread across the Mediterranean, generating writings
in a variety of literary genres.

•

o

With a very high degree of probability, patterns of his activity
can be determined: He spoke of God’s rule, taught in parables,
worked wonders, interpreted Torah, associated with marginal
elements of his society, and chose 12 followers as disciples.

o

With a high degree of probability, it can be stated that Jesus
was baptized by John, that he performed a prophetic gesture
in the Temple, and that he was opposed by elements of the
Jewish leadership.

Although these statements are significant, they fall short of
providing a narrative or supplying the self-understanding and aims
of Jesus beyond what is provided by the Gospels—whose bias of
faith is intractable.

The Resurrection of Jesus
• According to the earliest Christian writings, Christianity did not
begin with what Jesus said and did before his death. It began with
26

experiences of Jesus after his death by his followers in a new mode
of existence: As resurrected from the dead and exalted to God’s
presence, Jesus is “Lord” and “Christ.”
•

•

Paul’s letters provide evidence for the claims made by the first
believers, which are all the more startling because they were at odds
with believers’ empirical circumstances.
o First, believers claimed to have been saved; this salvation is
not, in the New Testament, a future or a hoped-for state but a
present reality.
o

Further, they claimed to be saved from negative conditions,
such as slavery, law, sin, and death itself.

o

They believed they had been established in conditions of rightrelatedness to God and other humans that could be described in
terms of peace, joy, righteousness, and freedom.

o

They claimed new capacities of speech and action, both
external (the working of powerful deeds) and internal (in
moral dispositions).

o

At root, they claimed an experience of ultimate power that
came from another and that transformed them. The symbol in
the New Testament for this power is the Holy Spirit. The term
“spirit” here refers to the medium of this power, which touches
humans in their human capacities of knowing and willing. The
term “holy” refers to the fact that the power comes from God,
the Holy One.

The source for the earliest believers’ claim to empowerment—to
being in possession of the Holy Spirit—was the conviction that
Christ himself had been empowered by the very power of God.
This is the Resurrection (exaltation) of Jesus. This combination—
that Jesus had been raised and that believers possessed the Holy
Spirit—was the fundamental conviction and experience of the
earliest believers and the birth of the Christian religion.
27

Lecture 4: The Jesus Movement and the Birth of Christianity

•

o

The early believers’ claim was not that Jesus avoided death, or
lived on in some fashion in the memory of followers, or was
resuscitated for a time. None of these equals “the good news.”

o

The gospel message (“the good news”) is that after his death,
Jesus entered fully into the power and presence of God, that
he was exalted—enthroned—to a full share in God’s own life.
He is, therefore, “Lord,” sharing the designation of Israel’s
God (Kyrios).

o

The Resurrection of Jesus is not an event of the past but a
condition of the present, not something that happened only
to Jesus but also to his followers, not a weakened form of
presence but a more powerful form of presence of Jesus among
his followers through “the power of the Holy Spirit.”

o

Because of this experience, believers saw themselves “in
Christ.” They saw themselves not only as a “new covenant”
within Judaism but as a “new creation” and a “new humanity.”
Jesus was not simply a messiah for Jews but was the “image of
God” for all humans.

This claim to the experience of divine power in an immediate and
transforming fashion marked the first Christians and accounted—
much more than their moral teaching or manner of life—for their
appeal to others.
o That a human being had joined the divine realm as a “son of
God” and was a lord and benefactor to humans would not have
seemed strange to Gentiles.
o

28

To Jews, the claim that Jesus was a messiah was not
theoretically a problem, but the claim that he was Lord made
his followers appear as polytheists and, therefore, as heretics.

•

In 1 Corinthians 1:18–25,
Paul acknowledges that the
“message of the cross,” which
was for Christians the “power
of salvation,” appeared to
Greeks as foolishness and to
Jews as a stumbling block.

•

In antiquity, the manner of Crucifixion was the most shameful
death was proof of the quality of all deaths, used mainly for
of a life, and Jesus’s violent slaves and rebels against the
death by legal execution Roman order; the fact that Jesus
died in this manner disqualified
disqualified him as a source of him as a source of divine life for
divine life for both sides of the both Greeks and Jews.
cultural world.
o Paul says that the “Greeks seek wisdom,” meaning that a great
soldier or sage could join the gods—but crucifixion, the most
shameful of all deaths and one used mainly for slaves, could
appear only “foolish.”
o

Paul further says that “Jews seek signs,” meaning signs that
Jesus was a genuine messiah for the Jews, but Jesus did
nothing to make things better for the Jews; he did not restore
the kingdom, the Temple, or the Law. In Jewish terms, he was
a failed messiah.

o

The manner of Jesus’s life was that of a sinner; worse, his
manner of death was one cursed by God, for “cursed is anyone
who hangs on a tree” (Deut. 21:23).
29

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

The Manner of Jesus’s Death
• If the Resurrection of Jesus
was the good news, his death
seemed problematic to both
Gentiles and Jews, appearing
to disqualify him as a source of
divine life for others.

Lecture 4: The Jesus Movement and the Birth of Christianity

•

The problem was not only for outsiders; those who came to believe
in Jesus were also “Greeks and Jews,” bringing their cultural
perceptions with them.
o The earliest Christians experienced what sociologists call
“cognitive dissonance”: the apparent contradiction between
their symbolic world and their experience. Such dissonance
must be resolved through denial of the convictions, denial of
the experience, or reinterpretation of the convictions in light
of experience.
o

Within the symbolic world of the early Christians, Jesus ought
not to have been the source of life because of the manner of his
death. But their experience of the Holy Spirit’s power in their
lives—a power that manifested itself in new capacities and that
they saw as deriving from Jesus—made them call him both
“Lord” and “Christ.”

o

To maintain both their experience and their symbolic world,
the early Christians had to reinterpret their symbols in light
of experience.

o

In order to get on with their own story, then, they had to come to
grips with Jesus’s story, especially his death; thus, the process
of reinterpretation that began at once led to the construction
of the Passion accounts—the story of Jesus’s suffering—as the
first part of the Jesus story to reach set form.

A Complex and Tense Religion
• From the time of its birth and earliest growth, Christianity was a
complex and tension-filled religion.
•

30

Sociologically, it was underdetermined and parasitic: Beginning
as a sect of Judaism, it was expelled from the synagogue and
became a Gentile association (an intentional community) without
obvious boundaries.

•

Culturally, it was mixed, with a symbolic world shaped by a
Judaism that was already Hellenized and with steady success
among Gentiles rather than Jews.

•

Religiously, it made claims to an experience of ultimate power
through the Holy Spirit that were cosmic but disproportionate to the
actual situation of believers in the world.

•

Conceptually, the founding figure of Jesus presented a set of
major challenges to understanding: Was he cursed or the source of
blessing? If he was Lord, then what does that mean for monotheism?

•

Many of the subsequent issues faced by Christians would involve
the same tensions that marked the entry of the religion into the
world and its first expansion.

Suggested Reading
Johnson, The Real Jesus.
———, The Writings of the New Testament, especially pp. 83–136.

Questions to Consider
1. Discuss the ways in which the “founder” of Christianity differs from the
founders of Buddhism and Islam.

2. How does the concept of cognitive dissonance help explain the necessity
of Christians to reinterpret their symbolic world?

31

Paul and Christianity’s First Expansion
Lecture 5

I

Lecture 5: Paul and Christianity’s First Expansion

n the last lecture, we saw that the experience of power, even if from an
unlikely source, was the distinctive claim made by the first believers.
This power was not political, economic, or military but religious.
The first believers claimed that they were touched by God through the
Resurrection of Jesus. The persuasiveness of this claim to themselves and
others must be the key to understanding how a failed messianic movement
made its presence felt across the Mediterranean world within decades and
with no other visible means of support. In this lecture, we’ll look at the rapid
and mostly spontaneous spread of Christianity across the western empire
from 30 to 70 C.E.
The Acts of the Apostles
• The Acts of the Apostles was written circa 85 C.E. as the second
volume of the Gospel of Luke, but it describes events from 30 to
62. It is the indispensable if also limited narrative account of the
first expansion of Christianity.
•

Despite its obvious bias (it sees the movement as directed by God’s
Holy Spirit), Acts is, by the standards of ancient historiography,
reasonably reliable, given that it traces the stages of Christianity’s
expansion from Jerusalem to Rome.
o As archaeology and other ancient literature confirm, Acts gets
its world right in considerable detail, including dates, local
leaders, and political processes.
o

•

32

Where it is possible to check Acts against other information,
such as Paul’s letters—which to some extent overlap Acts
16–20—Acts gets the basic facts about the movement right,
as well.

The limits of Acts as a historical source are also real, requiring a
careful and critical use of its narrative.

•

o

It is selective, focusing primarily on two leaders (Peter and
Paul), on the westward rather than eastward expansion, and on
cities rather than rural areas.

o

It does not have good sources in some instances. The first
eight chapters concerning the founding of the community
in Jerusalem contain little actual fact; as a good Hellenistic
historian, Luke fills the lacunae with impressive speeches
and summaries.

o

It has definite biases. Acts emphasizes unity among Christian
leaders, for example, as well as continuity between Israel and
the church.

o

As an apologetic narrative that covers more than 30 years
in 28 chapters (many of them consisting of speeches), Acts
necessarily smoothes over a much rougher course of events.

Supported by other early writings (such as the letters of Paul),
Acts is a reliable source for certain aspects of Christianity’s
first expansion.
o The expansion was amazingly rapid, its speed matched only
by the spread of Islam, which had the advantage of arms and
diplomacy. Within 10 years of the death of Jesus, there were
Christian communities throughout Palestine and Syria; in 20
years, across Asia Minor and into Greece; and in 25 years,
in Rome.
o

It spread through preaching in public but even more
through personal contacts, such as the conversion of
households and those Gentiles (called God-fearers) who
frequented synagogues.

o

The expansion of Christianity was carried out in conditions
of duress. The movement spread not necessarily because
people accepted it but at least in part because of harassment

33

and even persecution, forcing early believers into frequent and
difficult travel.
o

Lecture 5: Paul and Christianity’s First Expansion

•

Christianity had to accomplish five transitions without a
long period of stabilization and without strong institutional
or textual controls: (1) sociological, from a rural itinerant
movement to an urban household association; (2) geographical,
from Palestine to the Diaspora; (3) linguistic, from Hebrew
and Aramaic to Greek; (4) cultural, from dominant Jewish
institutions to dominant Gentile culture; and (5) demographic,
from Jewish majority to Gentile majority.

The diversity found in the writings of the New Testament, in terms
of genre, perspective, and argumentation, are rooted at least in
part in the diversity of experience and circumstance of the earliest
Christian communities.

The Life of Paul
• During the roughly 40-year period of 30–70 C.E., three
developments in Christianity occurred simultaneously.
o Communities (churches = ekklesiai) were founded and nurtured
in cities from Jerusalem to Rome; these communities had
shared rituals, such as baptism and meals, as well as practices
of preaching, prayer, and teaching.

•

34

o

In such social settings, oral traditions concerning Jesus were
handed on in anecdotal fashion to legitimate and guide the
practices of the community.

o

Leaders of churches, such as Paul, James, and the author of the
Letter to the Hebrews, wrote letters to communities that were
read aloud in the assembly.

Paul’s life is sketched both in Acts, where he dominates chapters
9–28, and in more fragmentary form in his letters.

Convinced by his Pharisaic convictions that Jesus was cursed
by God because of his death (Gal. 3:13), Paul sought to
extirpate the movement.

o

He had, in his words, an
encounter with Jesus as
Lord (1 Cor. 9:1, 15:8;
Gal. 1:15–16; see Acts
9:1–9) that made him an
apostle to the Gentiles.

o

Apart from four to six
years spent in prison, he
spent the rest of his life
founding communities in
Galatia, Macedonia, and
Achaia. He died a martyr
under Nero.

o

•

© Photos.com/Thinkstock.

o

Christ appeared to Paul as
to “one untimely born”; Paul
interpreted that experience as his
commissioning to be an apostle to
the Gentiles.

Paul is important as
a missionary of the
movement, as a leader in
the conversion of Gentiles, and as the first and arguably most
important interpreter of the story of Jesus.

Scholars debate how many letters were written by Paul during his
lifetime and how many after his death by followers, but the letters
are nonetheless of unparalleled importance for what they tell us
about early Christianity in the cities of the empire.
o Paul’s letters are not systematic but occasional, not personal
but official, not mere rants but rhetorically crafted arguments
meant to persuade.
o

He was a firsthand witness to the convictions and claims—and
troubles—found among believers 20 to 30 years after the death
of Jesus.

35

Lecture 5: Paul and Christianity’s First Expansion

o

Paul is the source for the earliest religious claims concerning
the Holy Spirit, Jesus as Lord, and the church as the body
of Christ.

o

He is the earliest recorder of such Christian practices as
baptism, the Lord’s Supper, healing, speaking in tongues,
and prophecy.

o

His letters show the diverse forms of authority and structure
the early communities developed, from the authority of the
apostle himself to the local boards of elders.

o

In his responses to various crises in his communities, Paul
illustrates the need for translation and interpretation of
fundamental experiences and convictions in solving human
conflicts and errors.

Paul’s Letters
• Paul’s letters open a window to a variety of serious tensions that
challenged the first urban Christians and continued to haunt this
religion through the centuries.

36

•

The issue of authority was fundamental: Jesus is Lord of all, but
how is his reign exercised? Paul was sent as a delegate (apostolos)
by God and the risen Christ, but his claims to authority were not
self-validating or universally recognized. What was the relationship
between the itinerant authority of the apostle and the local
authorities placed in the church?

•

Becoming “God’s assembly” through conversion—this is an
intentional not a national or biologically based community—
demands “holiness,” but how is “difference” to be expressed? What
manner of life distinguishes the “saints” from the “world”?
o Distinctions from Gentiles were fairly easy, given that idolatry
and the vice characteristically associated with idolatry were
easy to detect and prohibit.

o

•

Distinctions from Jews were harder, because they shared
the same symbolic world of Torah. Should believers,
then, be circumcised, or observe the Sabbath, or practice
purity regulations?

The assembly that meets “in Christ” has egalitarian ideals: There
is not Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:28), but
meeting in the stratified location of the household (oikos) meant
complications for those ideals.
o Did the Jew have an advantage over the Gentile? Why or why
not? What did that mean for common table fellowship?
o

Did males continue to have supremacy in all matters or only
those in the household? Did the Spirit represent a liberation
for females?

o

If all are “brothers and sisters” within the worship assembly,
why did that not change the social status of master and slave
when the worship ended?

o

The rich should not be honored if poverty is the ideal, but rich
members of the community served as benefactors. Should they
not be leaders, as well?

The Vibrancy of the Early Christian Movement
• Paul’s letters also bear witness to the vibrancy and energy of the
nascent Christian movement as it exploded across the empire.
•

If early Christianity were simply the “Jesus movement” as a sect
within Judaism, many of these issues would not have been raised;
Jesus would simply have been another prophet or teacher. It was the
power of the religious experience of the Resurrection that generated
these great tensions.

•

Paul’s vision of the church as a “new creation” in which members
are a “new humanity” in the “body of Christ” is a utopian conception

37

of community that had great appeal, but it also had the capacity to
disrupt the order of society.
•

Already in Paul’s letters, it is possible to see how Christianity forced
open accustomed cultural values and began to reshape them—not
all at once, never completely, and not always successfully, but it is
difficult to account for Christianity’s appeal through the centuries
without recognizing this power for social change as one of
its elements.

Suggested Reading
Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic Historiography.
Meeks and Fitzgerald, The Writings of Saint Paul.
Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life.

Lecture 5: Paul and Christianity’s First Expansion

Questions to Consider
1. How is the diversity of earliest Christianity—reflected in the writings of
the New Testament—grounded in the conditions of its first expansion?

2. Discuss the proposition that Paul is the real “founder” of Christianity.
Does this accurately capture his role?

38

The Diversity of Early Christianity
Lecture 6

I

n the last lecture, we discussed the important role played by the apostle
Paul in the explosive expansion of Christianity across the Roman Empire
in the middle decades of the 1st century. Because his letters occupy such
an important part of the New Testament and because he is the great hero of
the Book of Acts, it is tempting to elevate Paul’s historical importance to the
level of his canonical (or literary) prominence. But it is an important function
of historical study to correct simplistic and distorted views of the past. In
this lecture, we will look at other manifestations of earliest Christianity
witnessed by the New Testament.
Popular Perceptions of Early Christianity
• Popular perceptions of Christianity’s first decades tend to be
simplistic and distorting.
o Consider, for example, the view that Jesus was the real “founder
of Christianity” and that Paul distorted the Jesus movement
because of his own sick personality or, more benignly, the
view that Paul is the real “inventor of the Christ cult.” Both
distort by oversimplifying: There were many more players than
just these two. Indeed, the Book of Acts itself places Paul in
the midst of a larger and more complex movement involving
many people.
o

•

Similarly distorted is the view that the first decades of
Christianity generated a wild diversity of writings but that
all the interesting versions were eliminated at the Council of
Nicaea. Once more, the view distorts by oversimplifying. There
were other gospel accounts in addition to the four canonical
Gospels, but none was earlier, and most were far from being
more interesting.

A more adequate historical account is almost always one that
respects complexity.
39

Lecture 6: The Diversity of Early Christianity

•

o

Thus, the writings we have in the New Testament are, so far
as we can tell, the earliest evidence for Christianity. Efforts
to discover earlier “sources” within them, or to appeal to
compositions from Nag Hammadi, or to cite fragmentary
gospels as evidence for major movements are not convincing.

o

At the same time, many historians neglect the evidence of
diversity provided by the canonical writings themselves. In
addition to the 13 letters attributed to Paul are letters from
James, John, Jude, Peter, and the anonymous author of Letter
to the Hebrews; the four Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John; and the visionary composition called the book
of Revelation, ascribed to John the Seer.

o

These writings (all composed before 100) predate any
archaeological evidence for Christianity and amply testify to
the diversity of experience, conviction, and perspective in the
earliest decades of the religion.

The importance of these other canonical writings, simply as
historical sources, can scarcely be overstated. By their sheer
existence as literature, they make clear that earliest Christianity
was not represented only by Paul but by a variety of other leaders
working in diverse communities. They also contribute additional
evidence concerning the earliest movement beyond that offered by
Acts and the letters of Paul.
o In terms of geographical expansion, these writings speak of
Jewish-Christian communities through the Diaspora (James);
Gentile communities in Pontus and Cappadocia, as well as Asia
and Phrygia (1 Peter); churches in Galilee, as well as in Judaea
and Samaria (Mark, Matthew); and specific communities of
Asia Minor in addition to Ephesus (Revelation).
o

40

In terms of social circumstances, they show that Jewish/
Christian interactions were more complex than suggested by
Paul alone (see Matthew, Luke, John, James, and 1 Peter), that
questions of property and poverty occupied other churches

o

In terms of political
posture, they reveal a
spectrum of attitudes
toward
the
Roman
Empire, from positive
accommodation (1 Peter)
to passive resistance
(Revelation).

o

In terms of religious
inspiration, the narratives
of the Gospels, the
poetry of Revelation,
the powerful rhetoric
of Hebrews, and the
prophetic voice of James
alert the historian to
the fact that the earliest
decades of Christianity
had more vibrant and
creative minds than
only Paul’s.

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

than Paul’s (Hebrews and James), and that oppression and
persecution occurred in other communities than Paul’s
(Hebrews, 1 Peter, Revelation).

The canonical writings reveal
a range of attitudes about the
Roman Empire, from positive
accommodation and praise in 1
Peter to passive resistance to
imperial oppression in Revelation.

The Gospel Narratives
• Pride of place in the New Testament collection is undoubtedly
held by the four Gospels, not so much because they are historically
accurate in their accounts of Jesus as because they represent
irreplaceable witnesses and interpretations of the church’s faith in
Jesus, for both ancient and present-day Christians.
•

The Gospel narratives appeared some 40 to 50 years after the death
of Jesus and represent crystallizations of earlier traditions handed
down in assemblies.
41

Lecture 6: The Diversity of Early Christianity

•

•

42

o

The memories of Jesus’s statements and deeds were, in all
likelihood, transmitted orally in specific social contexts (worship,
teaching) in the form of individual units, called “pericopes.”

o

Stages of composition probably preceded the writing of full
narratives. The Passion account (from Jesus’s arrest to his
burial) probably reached set form first.

o

It is possible that a collection of Jesus’s sayings was also
gathered. Scholars hypothesize a source, called Q, whose
material is found in Matthew and Luke.

The best explanation for the appearance of written narratives after
generations of oral tradition is a convergence of historical factors
around the year 70.
o The death of eyewitnesses (often by martyrdom), such as
Peter, James, and John, meant that the oral tradition lost
important controls.
o

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the Jewish War
against Rome meant the loss of the Jerusalem community,
as well as the symbolic center for the movement in
Jesus’s homeland.

o

The rapid increase of Gentile conversions meant that GrecoRoman more than Jewish perceptions would be at work
among believers.

o

The threat was that the meaning of Jesus’s words, actions,
and story could be lost with the loss of the Palestinian Jewish
context. Writing them in the form of a narrative served to
stabilize the tradition.

Despite obvious literary similarities to other ancient GrecoRoman and Jewish narratives, the Gospels share certain distinctive
characteristics. Most important is the nature of memory found in
them. The Resurrection is not simply an event at the end of the

story but an all-pervasive perspective on the entire story: The one
remembered is believed to be powerfully alive among those who
are remembering.
•

•

Because of the long process of memory and compilation, the
Gospels have an unusual layered quality.
o The most available level is that of the evangelist’s literary
work, in which earlier traditions are organized and shaped into
a narrative providing a portrait of Jesus.
o

Next most available are the signs of oral tradition that still
cling to many parts of the Gospel narratives.

o

Least accessible are the actual words and deeds of Jesus as
they were spoken or performed in Palestine some 40 years
before these accounts were written by those believing in his
Resurrection and exaltation as Lord.

The four canonical Gospels share a relative degree of
interdependence and a relative degree of independence.
o The three Gospels called “Synoptic” (Matthew, Mark,
and Luke) have a demonstrable literary interdependence.
Similarities in language, material, and sequence require that
such literary dependence take place at the level of written
compositions: One was written first, and the others used it in
their composition.
o

The majority of critical scholars conclude that Mark wrote
first and that Matthew and Luke used his Gospel as a source
independently. Matthew and Luke also share material not
found in Mark (often attributed to Q); finally, both Matthew
and Luke have material unique to each.

o

In one sense, Matthew and Luke can be regarded as expanded
(and, by their light, improved) versions of Mark’s Gospel.

43

o

The Gospel of John (the “Fourth Gospel”) makes use of
material found also in the Synoptics but shapes the entire
narrative so distinctively that no literary dependence on those
Gospels is suspected.

The Gospel Portraits of Jesus
• As interpretations of Jesus, the four Gospels offer distinct portraits;
as witnesses, they converge on the character of the human Jesus.

Lecture 6: The Diversity of Early Christianity

•

44

Each Gospel portrays Jesus and his disciples in accordance with the
evangelist’s social context, use of Torah, and literary goals.
o In Mark, Jesus is the powerful son of God, whose proclamation
of God’s rule is demonstrated by convincing deeds, yet as son
of man, he is powerless before his enemies. Jesus is himself the
“mystery of the kingdom” and the “parable,” and his disciples
fail either to understand him or, worse, show loyalty to him.
The drama of discipleship is central.
o

Matthew uses Mark’s basic plot and opens it to a conversation
with formative Judaism—shaped by the ideals of the Pharisees
and the techniques of the scribes—with which Matthew’s
community was in conflict. Jesus appears as the fulfillment,
the teacher, and indeed, the personification of Torah.
Corresponding to the image of Jesus as teacher, the disciples,
though no less faithless than those in Mark, understand the
teachings they are to pass on.

o

Luke also uses Mark but extends his story to another complete
volume (the Acts of the Apostles). Jesus is God’s prophet
who reverses societal norms, heals, and associates with the
marginal. In the sequel, his disciples live out his ideal as his
successor-prophets.

o

John portrays Jesus as the man from heaven who, as the light,
intersects the darkness of the world and calls it to conversion.
His disciples are to continue his witness to the truth of God and
will experience the same hatred from the world as Jesus did.

•

Despite such divergence in interpretation, the four Gospels converge
in their understanding of the character of Jesus and of discipleship.
o They agree that Jesus is defined by an absolute obedience to
God rather than by career, popularity, possessions, pleasure, or
power: “not my will but your will be done.”
o

They agree further that this radical obedience is expressed
through dispositions of self-giving to others: He “gives his life
for others” and is “the servant of others.”

o

They agree that discipleship is a matter of “following” Jesus
and exhibiting the same character of radical obedience and
self-emptying love.

The Gospels as Fundamental Norm
• The Jesus shaped by the canonical Gospels has served as a
fundamental norm for subsequent Christians—all the more
powerful because it is cast in the form of story.
•

The realistic narratives enmesh Jesus in the world of materiality,
time, history, and the goodness of human bodies; the Gospels stand
against all efforts to make Christianity a timeless, bodiless, antiinstitutional religion.

•

The Gospels also provide a Jesus who can surprise, shock, and
challenge comfortable religious accommodation: Christian reform
movements have consistently appealed not to the “historical Jesus”
but to the human Jesus of the Gospels who shaped subsequent
history as the “historic Christ.”

Suggested Reading
Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament.
Stein, The Synoptic Problem.
Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus.

45

Questions to Consider
1. How does taking into account the full range of New Testament writings
expand the understanding of Christian origins?

2. Discuss the distinctive character of the Gospels, especially with respect

Lecture 6: The Diversity of Early Christianity

to the complexity of their composition and the nature of memory found
in them.

46

The Unpopular Cult—Persecution
Lecture 7

T

o this point in the course, the lectures have described the contexts
of Christianity within Mediterranean culture, Greek civilization,
and Roman rule; its birth within the symbolic world of Torah; its
first rapid expansion; and the composition of its earliest literature. But it is
premature to speak of “Christianity” in these earlier stages as though it were
a fully defined and distinct entity; the process of its formation continued into
the 2nd century and only then achieved greater clarity. The next six lectures
trace the history of this continuing formation in the 2nd and 3rd centuries,
beginning in this lecture with a discussion of persecution.
Antecedents of Christian Persecution
• The antecedents to the persecution of Christians reveal the social,
political, and religious issues involved.
•

The Roman Empire, like the Greek Empire before it, was concerned
above all with the good order on which the stability and prosperity
of the city-state and the empire (oikoumene) depended.
o The worship of the gods was an inherent and necessary part of
such world maintenance; the participation of all in the “city of
gods and men” was a fundamental premise of ancient politics.
Plutarch despised the Epicurean philosophy primarily because
its denial of the gods was attached to a withdrawal from
political involvement. It thus represented a challenge to good
order and a threat to society.
o

Although the Roman Empire was generally receptive to new
religions, especially when, like Judaism, they were ancient
traditions of a conquered nation, participation in the empire’s
benefits required the recognition of the empire’s gods. Cults
regarded as subversive were dangerous.

47

o

Lecture 7: The Unpopular Cult—Persecution

•

Even when a cult enjoyed imperial recognition or official
favor, it could be the target of local resentment and harassment.
Ancient people were no less prone than we are to fear and
resent that which is strange.

Two examples preceding Christianity show such premises at work
and help explain the subsequent experience of Christ-believers
when they became sufficiently numerous to be noticed by outsiders.
o Although Judaism was granted imperial recognition as a national
religion—and reciprocated by offering sacrifices and prayers for
the emperor—there are instances of its being persecuted.
o

For example, the Maccabean books show that resistance to
syncretism under Antiochus IV Epiphanes in Palestine led to
executions, most famously that of the aged Eleazar and of the
seven Maccabean brothers with their mother. Philo tells us
of anti-Semitism in Alexandria that expressed itself in local
riots against the Jews, requiring an appeal to the emperor
for assistance.

o

Even among non-Jews, philosophers who challenged traditional
beliefs or who withdrew from religious practices, such as
the Epicureans, were suspected of subversion. Individual
philosophers who challenged social mores or popular religious
tenets were sometimes put to death (Socrates and Zeno) or
exiled (Dio of Prusa, Epictetus, Seneca) as “enemies of the
Roman order.”

Early Christian Vulnerabilities
• In its first centuries of its existence, Christianity was particularly
vulnerable to attack from both Jews and Gentiles. It was
sociologically underdetermined and ideologically oppositional.
o As an intentional community, the Christian cult drew from both
Jews and Greeks but had no secure place in the world. It did not
meet in established temples or synagogues but in households.

48

•

o

Its understanding of “holiness” demanded an opposition against
paganism (with its idolatry) and Judaism (with its Law).

o

Insofar as it succeeded in expressing egalitarian ideals, it
was inherently threatening to the stratified world of ancient
patronage.

The earliest evidence of opposition comes not from the side of the
Roman Empire but from the side of the Jews.
o The question of the involvement of Jewish leaders in the
death of Jesus is difficult and contentious. Certainly, he was
executed under Roman order, but it is likely that some degree
of cooperation if not instigation can legitimately be ascribed
to some Jewish leaders. With the exception of the Gospel of
Luke, however, the Gospels certainly tend to exaggerate the
complicity of the Jewish population in the death of Jesus.
o

Nevertheless, the evidence of the New Testament (especially
Acts and Paul’s letters) supports the fact that in the first
decades, Jews harassed and sought to subvert the Christian
movement. In fact, Paul attests that he was a persecutor of
the church before his conversion and that after becoming an
apostle was persecuted by his fellow Jews.

o

For the Jews, the problematic claim was not that “Jesus
is Messiah,” for such a confession (right or wrong) was
compatible with Jewish identity. The troubling claim was that
“Jesus is Lord,” that is, as the son of God, he shared fully in
the life and power of the divine. This claim offended Torah
observers who interpreted the manner of Jesus’s death as an
indication that he was cursed by God and who believed that
declaring Jesus as Lord was the equivalent to polytheism.

o

The sources speak of two forms of harassment: stoning
(attested by Paul and Acts) and excommunication from the
synagogue (attested by Acts and the Fourth Gospel).

49

Lecture 7: The Unpopular Cult—Persecution

•

Christians put Roman rulers and administrators in a difficult situation.
o So long as Christianity flew under the flag of Judaism (as a
“sect” of Judaism), it would enjoy the same privileges accorded
that ancestral tradition, but when relations with Jews were
severed, as they were by the late 1st century, the subversive
elements in Christianity could not be ignored.
o

Unlike Jews, Christians had no temple where sacrifices could
be offered for the emperor, thus smoothing relations. In fact,
Christians were aggressive in their attacks on Gentile idolatry:
The gods of the nations were idols and demons. Aggressiveness
was shown, as well, by intense proselytism.

o

The separateness of the cult, above all its refusal to participate
in the “city of gods and men,” marked its members for the
same attacks that had been made on Epicureans (and Jews):
They were atheists and were guilty of misanthropy.

o

The earliest Roman sources concerning Christians (Suetonius,
Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger) considered them superstitious
and were impressed by their stubbornness.

Historical Facts of Persecution
• Constructing an adequate historical account of persecution from the
1st to the 4th centuries is difficult. The precise events are uncertain,
and there are large gaps in the evidence.
o For the most part, evidence comes from Christian sources,
which understandably tend to maximize state opposition
and oppression. Thus, in Christian lore, Marcus Aurelius
is a notorious persecutor, but there is little evidence of this
persecuting activity under him.
o

50

It is difficult to distinguish the occurrence of local riots (as in
the Martyrdom of Polycarp) or even regional repression (as
in Pliny the Younger) from systematic state persecution, or
temporary spasms of persecution from sustained efforts.

o

The numbers of Christians killed over these centuries is
particularly difficult to assess, although to be sure, the effect
of persecution should not be measured only by numbers
of fatalities.

o

It seems clear, moreover, that Christians enjoyed periods of
peace that sometimes lasted for decades.

Overall, however, a consistent pattern appears to emerge:
When Christians were persecuted by state authority, it was as a
corollary of some larger political concern for the security of the
imperial order.

•

The best known (or suspected)
persecutions can be summarized
according to century.
o In the 1st century, Nero killed
Christians in 64 as a way
of deflecting blame for the
fire in Rome from himself.
According to Tacitus, Nero
“inflicted the most exquisite
tortures on a class hated
for
their
abominations...
[and] hatred of mankind.” A
persecution under Domitian
(89–96) is postulated as the
backdrop to the oppression
and murder depicted in the
book of Revelation.
o

© Photos.com/Thinkstock.

•

In the 1st-century persecution
under the emperor Nero, it
was said that Christians were
mocked, attacked by dogs,
crucified, and burned.

In the 2nd century, a regional repression under Trajan (109–111)
in Asia Minor is known from the letter of Pliny, as well as
from the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. Under Marcus Aurelius
(162–177), a persecution in Lyons can be documented and may
have been more widespread.

51

o

The 3rd century saw more violent outbursts of persecution
under Septimius Severus (202–210), Maximinus (235), Decius
(250–251), and Valerian (253–258). These were especially
virulent in North Africa. In contrast to such spasms were
lengthy periods of peace.

o

The most systematic and sustained persecution was the last,
under Diocletian and Galerius (302–311), which led right up
to the issuing of the Edict of Milan in 312, finally granting
religious toleration to Christians.

Lecture 7: The Unpopular Cult—Persecution

Effects of Persecution
• Although the exact facts about the centuries of persecution are
difficult to ascertain, the effect on Christianity is clear.
•

Under conditions of uncertainty and duress, Christianity continued
to grow, partly by means of conversion and partly by means of
childbirth—the refusal to practice abortion or infant exposure led
to larger families.

•

Persecution generated two responses from within Christianity: the
celebration of martyrdom as perfect discipleship and the writing of
apologetic literature in defense of the movement.

•

The long-term effect on the Christian psyche was real: Like an
abused child for whom early trauma continues to define later
behavior, Christians tended through the ages to bear a sense of
aggrievement and to become abusive toward others in turn when
they came into power. We will see how imperial Christianity turned
the state instruments of persecution on Jews, pagans, and those
considered to be heretical in their Christian teaching.

Suggested Reading
Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church.
Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom.
52

Questions to Consider
1. Discuss the several ways in which political rule and religious freedom
could come into conflict in antiquity.

2. How is the persecution of Christianity in particular made more
intelligible by the peculiar character of this new cult?

53

Forms of Witness—Martyrdom and Apologetic
Lecture 8

I
Lecture 8: Forms of Witness—Martyrdom and Apologetic

n the last lecture, we discussed the persecutions experienced by
Christians at the hands of both Jews and Gentiles in the first 280 years
of the religion’s existence. The oppression of believers included social
ostracism, the expropriation of property, economic marginalization, exile,
and death. This lecture takes up the forms of witness that evolved in response
to persecution: the tradition of martyrdom and the writing of apologetic
literature. Each in its way was of extraordinary importance in shaping the
Christian vision of the world in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and even beyond.

A Context of Tribulation
• From the perspective of Christianity’s eventual triumph, it is
difficult to imagine just how problematic, even dangerous,
conditions of life were for Christians in the first 280 years of the
religion’s existence.
•

54

As an intentional community that drew members from both Jews
and Gentiles, it was also at odds with both Jews and Gentiles, while
enjoying no natural institutional source of support.
o Christians withdrew from participation in the cultic life
(festivals, processions, meals) that was regarded as essential
for citizenship in the “city of gods and men.” They thereby
marked themselves as aliens to the larger culture that demanded
complete participation in such civic religion.
o

After the Jewish War of 67–70, in which Christians refused
to participate, and after the Birkat Ha-minim, which excluded
Christians from the synagogue, the Christian community no
longer enjoyed the protective umbrella of Judaism.

o

It lacked legitimacy, approval, or any status. In the eyes of
the philosopher Celsus, who wrote a devastating attack on

Christians in the late 2nd century, it was a religion of women
and slaves.
•

As we have already seen, although formal state persecutions were
sporadic and interspersed with relatively long periods of neglect,
they were direct attempts to suppress the movement by violence
and even death.
o The very uncertainty of the breakout of persecution was a
contributing factor to the tension felt by Christians during these
centuries. It could happen suddenly and without warning.
o

•

The actual number of Christians killed is not the whole story;
the oppression of believers included the expropriation of
property, economic marginalization, exile, and social ostracism.

Two responses to this context of tribulation characterize the 2nd and
3rd centuries: martyrdom and apologetic. Both had roots in Judaism,
and each developed in distinctive ways during these centuries when
Christians endured repression.

The Tradition of Martyrdom
• The term “martyr” (martys) means “witness,” and the ideal of
witnessing to one’s convictions even to the point of death arose
within Judaism; for Christ-believers, martyrdom found its perfect
realization in the innocent suffering and death of Jesus.
•

In the early 2nd century B.C.E., the Maccabees resisted efforts by
the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to impose syncretistic
worship, symbolized by the eating of pork forbidden by Torah.
o The elderly Eleazar and seven sons with their mother publicly
refused to submit, even when threatened by death, and were
executed one after the other.
o

Their witness to Torah was also a witness to the fidelity of God
and to faith in a future resurrection: God will reward those who
honor him. The fourth son cries out before his execution, “It is
my choice to die at the hands of men with the God-given hope
55

of being restored to life by him; but for you there will be no
resurrection to life” (2 Macc. 7:14).
•

The Gospel of John and the book of Revelation depict Jesus as a
witness to God in the face of death.
o In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Pontius Pilate, “For this I came
into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs
to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). And before his
death, he tells his followers, “You must bear witness as well,
for you have been with me from the beginning” (15:27).
o

Lecture 8: Forms of Witness—Martyrdom and Apologetic

•

The book of Revelation, in turn, calls Jesus the faithful witness
in the shedding of his blood (1:5, 3:4), and his followers are
also witnesses (19:10).

In the 2nd century, martyrdom came to be regarded by many
believers as the perfect form of discipleship. They saw themselves
conforming completely to the pattern of suffering for others in
witness to God’s truth that was established by Jesus.
o Already Paul had spoken of believers “bearing in their body
the death of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10), and if they are thus totally
conformed to Christ in his death, they can hope to share in his
Resurrection (Phil. 3:11).
o

Those who “confess Christ” in the face of persecution, torture,
and the threat of death but fall short of actual death were
accorded second rank of honor as witnesses and came to be
called “confessors.”

Notable and Anonymous Martyrs
• The tradition of martyrdom in Christianity began with the apostles,
especially Stephen, who was, according to Acts, put to death by
stoning by the Jewish court, and Peter and Paul, who were killed in
the persecution in Rome under Nero. The tradition continued in the
2nd and 3rd centuries among both notable and anonymous believers.

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During the reign of the emperor Trajan, Ignatius told the Romans: “I will not only
be called a Christian but found to be one,” meaning, in his death.

•

Three highly visible Christian leaders bore witness in a way that
glorified martyrdom.
o Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was arrested circa 107 and was
carried to Rome as a captive for execution; in seven letters to
churches in Asia Minor, he exalts in the death he faces under
the emperor Trajan. He begs the Roman Christians not to
intervene when he arrives, seeing martyrdom as the completion
of his discipleship.
o

Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, collected the letters of
Ignatius, and himself wrote a letter of exhortation to the
Philippians. His execution in 155–156 was celebrated by The
Martyrdom of Polycarp, which explicitly connects his witness
to that of Jesus.

o

The Christian philosopher Justin was condemned as a Christian
and suffered martyrdom under the emperor Marcus Aurelius
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circa 165; his trial before the Roman prefect was recorded
and is extant. When the prefect orders him a final time to offer
sacrifice to the gods, Justin refuses, saying, “Through prayer
we can be saved on account of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Lecture 8: Forms of Witness—Martyrdom and Apologetic

•

•

Evidence also exists for the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of
relatively unknown Christians.
o A letter from the churches of Vienne and Lyons attests—shortly
after the event—to the suffering and death of a considerable
number of Christians in Gaul under Marcus Aurelius in 178.
o

Later in the 2nd century, the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs
likewise provides evidence of North African martyrs.

o

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity is an account, close
to the events, of the imprisonment and death of Christians in
North Africa in 203.

The most passionate statement concerning the ideal of martyrdom
is found in Origen of Alexandria’s Exhortation to Martyrdom in
235: The death of the martyr is the closest possible conformity to
the witness of Christ. Origen speaks of the inducements to turn
away from the pain of suffering and says, “if turning from all of
these we give ourselves entirely to God … with a view to sharing
union with his only begotten son and those who have a share in
him, then we can say that we have filled up the measure of bearing
witness” (3.11).

Apologetic Literature
• A second response to persecution is the composition of apologetic
literature. Such literature also had its roots in Judaism and in the
New Testament.
•

58

Apologetic literature arose among Diaspora Jews, such as Philo and
Josephus, who responded to anti-Semitic charges of misanthropy
with histories and philosophical treatises that demonstrated that the
Jewish Law and manner of life were actually philanthropic.

•

Although supposedly directed to outsiders, such apologetic
literature played an important role in shaping Jewish identity, by
portraying the tradition in terms understandable to the wider world.

•

In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles has many of the
elements of apologetic literature: “The way” is portrayed as
benevolent and nonthreatening to the social order. Luke tries to
show that the Christian movement is continuous with Israel and is
philanthropic in character.

•

The Christian literature termed “apologetic” in the 2nd and 3rd
centuries shared certain features.
o The device of addressing the emperor was probably fictional,
though it is possible that a reading by authorities might occur.
o

A consistent feature—one not likely to endear the movement
to Gentiles—was an attack on idolatry, that is, the religious
practices of the larger world.

o

Positively, a case would be made for the legal innocence of
Christians and the injustice of persecuting them.

The Emergence of Intellectual Self-Consciousness
• By casting convictions in language intelligible to the wider world,
apologetic literature contributed to the development of a sense
within Christianity of having a place in that wider world and created
a reasoned case for the religious movement.
•

An anonymous composition from the 2nd or early 3rd century called
the Letter to Diognetus emphasizes the idea that Christians are like
their neighbors in every respect but bring benefit by being the “soul
of the world.”

•

Before his martyrdom in 165, Justin wrote a first apology
addressed to Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, a second
apology addressed to the Roman Senate, and a Dialogue with
Trypho, defending Christian claims to a Jewish interlocutor. Justin
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Lecture 8: Forms of Witness—Martyrdom and Apologetic

portrayed Christianity as the best of philosophies, summing up the
best desires of Gentile and Jewish wisdom.
•

The brilliant Carthaginian convert Tertullian was trained in law, and
his Apology of 197, written in Latin, appeals for the legal toleration
of Christianity. Tertullian argues that Christians are highly moral
and benefactors to society, even as he attacked the religious mores
of Gentiles.

•

The lengthiest and most intellectually sophisticated apology was
written by Origen of Alexandria at the beginning of the 3rd century.
In the eight books of Against Celsus, he responds vigorously
to the attacks made on Christianity by the Greek philosopher. In
his extensive argument against Celsus, Origen demonstrated an
intellectual capacity and learning equal to his interlocutor.

•

With the apologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Christianity took
the first steps toward intellectual self-consciousness and toward
claiming a place within Greco-Roman culture—on its own terms.

Suggested Reading
Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century.
Moss, The Other Christs.

Questions to Consider
1. What does the willingness to be martyred say about the early Christian
convictions concerning union with Christ and the resurrection of life?

2. Discuss how the writing of apologetic literature—the practice of “seeing
ourselves as others see us”—has an effect on both self-presentation and
self-understanding within communities.

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Extreme Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries
Lecture 9

S

ome Christians in the age of persecution willingly accepted
martyrdom as a witness to Christ and their hope in the resurrection
from the dead. Others composed apologetic literature, seeking a place
in the intellectual world of the empire. But there were other manifestations
of the Christian religion in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, even those that can
be considered extreme. The deeply experiential character of this religion
manifested itself especially in phenomena that, at the same time, resembled
aspects of Greco-Roman religion and appeared to threaten good order within
Christianity. None of these manifestations truly represented Christianity’s
future, but none of them was ever totally suppressed, and each recurred in
different forms through the centuries.

•

The infancy gospels of James
and Thomas focus exclusively
on the birth and childhood of
Jesus. They place an emphasis on
wonder-working and the physical
purity of the body.

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The Visible Working of Divine Power
• One manifestation of Christianity
is this period was a distinctive
religious sensibility that extended
and amplified an element found
in the New Testament Gospels
and Acts: an emphasis on
wonder-working and the working
of divine power in visible ways.
This was expressed in a variety
of new gospel narratives and acts
of apostles.

The infancy gospel of James
depicts the birth of Jesus as
miraculous, almost as if the less
human Jesus is, the more divine
we can assume him to be.

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Lecture 9: Extreme Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries

o

In the infancy gospel of James, the perpetual virginity