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Early Christianity as reconstructed from limited sources

2012/04/08

Below is a piece I wrote a few years ago for a class about the history of Greece and Rome. The assignment was to write about what we could determine about Christianity using only Luke, Acts, Galatians and Ephesians. We were to pretend these books were the only surviving records of the period, so no using any external sources for information. I went whole-hog with it and decided that the titles are external information, thus the rather awkward references to the author of Luke and Acts. Since it’s Easter and I’ve been writing about how modern Christianity involves a lot of embellishment on the Bible, I have decided to post it. You will find the essay below the fold. I got an A, IIRC.


Christianity seems to have been an apocalyptical offshoot of Judaism based around the teachings of a man named Jesus who reputedly performed miracles. He was executed by the Romans as a rabble-rouser, but Christians believed he would return to replace society with a new, more righteous order. These four books come from a sect that had completely broken with Judaism, but this was a controversial position. We have a history of Jesus’s life and a history of the spread of the church after Jesus’s death. This focuses on Jesus’s disciples and Paul, who was a later convert. Both works are anonymous, but seem to have been written by a companion of Paul. I shall refer to him as the traveler. (I use male pronouns, but there is no direct textual evidence of this and women do seem to have been active church members.) The other books, or more accurately, letters, were written by Paul to fledgling churches in the province of Galatia and the city of Ephesus to settle doctrinal disputes.

The timeline is unclear. The traveler is clearly writing several decades after Jesus’s death. In his opening, he describes recording accounts handed down by eyewitnesses in order to preserve them and better spread the message of Jesus and it does seem some of Jesus’s contemporaries were still alive at the time of the writing. The latter book seems to have been written after Paul’s letters because they lay out doctrines which were established by the time the traveler wrote. Also, Paul describes an encounter with Peter that presumably happened during the events of the second book because there is no indication they are still in contact at the end. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians that it has been seventeen years since his conversion, so the traveler was probably writing twenty to fifty years after Jesus’s death.

The traveler addressed both his books to a Theopholis. In Greek, this means “lover of god.” Theopholis seems to be an actual person from the text, presumably a publisher who was supposed to disseminate the books, but could be a name for the Christian community. Note that while his works are written in Greek to a man with a Greek name, he spends a great deal of space establishing Jesus’s Jewish credibility.

Christianity is tied to Judaism most obviously by sharing the same god. This god is shown to be the father of Jesus, albeit through supernatural means. He did not directly appear to Jesus’s mother, Mary, but had his messenger, Gabriel, a figure from Jewish scripture, inform her of her pregnancy. The author described traced Jesus’s ancestry to Israel’s King David, but for unknown reasons, did this through his stepfather, Joseph and related how Jesus amazed temple scholars with his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures at age twelve. When Jesus was an adult, his ministry was announced by John the Baptist, who was a Levite, or member of the Jewish priestly class. In the second book, his death is tied to prophesy in the book of Isaiah.

Why would Greeks care about any of this? The traveler’s second book contains multiple references to “god-fearers,” who were apparently religious devotees of the Jewish god who had not actually converted to Judaism. The books were most likely aimed at them. A religion that followed the Jewish god, but did not require its adherents to follow Mosaic Law or make them second-class believers under Jews would appeal to such a group. Paul, in fact, explicitly promoted this as a benefit of Christianity in his letter to the church in Ephesus.

While they recognized its Jewish origins, Paul and the traveler did not think of Christianity as a type of Judaism. Jesus repeatedly broke the Sabbath, or Jewish religiously mandated day of rest. When the Pharisees, who were Jewish religious authorities, publically challenged him on this, hoping to undermine him, he always managed to stump and humiliate them. He also openly criticized them for hypocrisy and meaningless shows of piety. They responded by getting the Roman governor, who was apparently sensitive to the demands of local leadership, to crucify him as a criminal. The author completely absolved the Romans of responsibility for this and produced a Jewish mob to demand his execution, putting blame squarely on the Jews.

These narrative anti-Jewish elements had doctrinal consequences. Apparently, in the early days of the church, there was a major controversy over whether adherents needed to follow Mosaic laws regarding diet, the Sabbath and such. While according to the traveler, Peter said that Jesus had declared all things clean, Paul said that Peter still kept kosher when in Jewish company and rebuked him for this. (It is unclear which event happened first.) Paul apparently extended the rejection of the Jewish law farther than many of his contemporaries. He said that believers were absolved of their sins through God’s grace, not through adherence to the law. By adhering to the law, you were effectively trying to earn grace, which is an offense to God. To Paul, Judaism was not only unnecessary to Christianity, but anti-Christian.

Paul’s views on this may have been shaped by his own Jewish background. He had been a Pharisee and before his conversion, participated in the oppression of Christians, including a stoning. In fact, Christians faced dangerous opposition wherever they went. Herod, who was king of the province of Judea, arrested some members of the church, including Peter, and executed Jesus’s brother James. Paul was arrested in Asia due to local Jewish opposition. He was also arrested in Philippi after allegedly casting an evil spirit out of a slave and making her lose her economically valuable ability to see the future.

Paul’s message was a bit different than Jesus’s and so was his method. Jesus used a purposefully obscure style. He taught mainly in parables, which were metaphors that would represent the supernatural in ordinary terms. When he was questioned he would generally respond with another question. He could be direct when rebuking people, though. He seems not to have written anything nor traveled outside of Judea and relied on word-of-mouth to spread his teachings. Paul, however, was far more Hellenized. His style relied on logical arguments for doctrinal points, which is how he was able to extrapolate Jesus’s teachings. He traveled widely and wrote letters to be distributed among the churches.

The church seems to have organized quickly, though rather loosely, after Jesus’s death. While Jesus frequently commanded people to give money to the poor, by the beginning of the traveler’s second book, people were giving money to the church, which the church would then distribute. However, there seems to have been little official hierarchy. Travelling preachers like Paul soon planted churches all over the Roman Empire. The itinerants were  quartered in believer’s houses, which is also where church meetings were held, perhaps because of the hostile political climate.

The principle doctrine of Christianity was the need to repent of one’s sins and trust their god. Jesus taught that a tax collector (apparently assumed to be corrupt) who admitted to being a sinner was better off than the most pious Pharisee. Humility was central to this concept. All people were considered sinners and someone who thought himself righteous would be unable to seek forgiveness. Throughout the traveler’s works, people are punished for arrogance or dishonesty to God. John’s father Zachariah was struck dumb for months for questioning Gabriel. King Herod was killed for thinking himself a god and early believers Annias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying about how much money they gave to the church.

Part of this humility was the rejection of worldly goods. This not only meant wealth, but anything that tied people to the material world and society. Jesus commanded a rich man who wanted to follow him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. His disciples left their jobs and families without even saying goodbye. Paul warned against being a slave to worldly pleasures. Christians were supposed to find joy and meaning through their religion, not through their senses or their social status.

While believers rejected the material world, they did reportedly have a connection to the supernatural. Jesus was said to heal illnesses and disabilities, even at a distance, and cast out evil spirits, which caused pain and behavioral problems in the afflicted. Many conversions are attributed to Jesus and his later followers’ ability to heal. Most notably, he reportedly even healed himself after he was crucified and appeared again to his disciples. He then commanded them to spread his message throughout the world and transferred his abilities to them before ascending into heaven. The disciples miraculously gained the ability to speak other languages to better do this. Christians believed Jesus continued to intervene directly after he left, appearing to Paul and Peter in visions, smiting Herod and releasing Christians from jails on several occasions.

The Christians spread the message of Jesus because they believed he would soon return and only those who had repented of their sins would be saved. By converting people, they were preparing the world for him. Jesus frequently taught that Jerusalem, its temple and even basic social institutions like the family would be destroyed. Sometime after this, he would return and establish his father’s kingdom. He said he would return before the current generation died off, so Christians were essentially working against the clock to spread his gospel as  far as possible before his return.

While Christianity spread wide geographically, it doesn’t seem to have acquired a large number of believers, at least by the time of these writings. Because of their small numbers, common beliefs and social separation, they must have been a close-knit group. At least, these things are true of Paul’s branch of Christianity. There were competing versions, but our surviving sources contain very little information about them.

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