Archives For early christians

The Future of Faith (Cox, Harvey)

As we have seen, these early Christian “historians” were neither critical nor neutral. They were not even historians. They were churchmen who aspired to become the leaders of the next generation of Christians. They were anything but disinterested, and they had an agenda that was not particularly hidden. Looking for a potent way to establish their own authority, they seized upon a very compelling idea.

A historian is supposed to be a person that is critical of stated history but remains neutral as to the results. Some of the early church  “historians” were as Mr. Cox mentioned not really historians at all but men, and I mean men literally, who were looking for ways to get and maintain authority in the church.

The very compelling idea mentioned here was apostolic authority.   True biblical scholars knew that neither Paul nor the apostles had passed on any “apostolic authority”. They had in fact warned against that very thing! The ancient writers in this area were by no means neutral in their beliefs. They were in fact fighting for control in order to consolidate power. This is an every present thing throughout all human history.

This authority has been recently found to be self-justifying fiction. When today’s biblical scholars and historians had to cope with the new evidence from Nag Hammadi they came to understand that apostolic authority must now be understood as an invention of a much later than thought period of the church. In fact they have found that early Christianity was actually far more diffuse than previously thought.

Since this is the first time I think I have mentioned Nag Hammadi I should probably tell you a little about that. Here is what Wikipedia says:

Nag Hammadi is best known for being the site where local farmers found a sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices, together with pages torn from another book, in December 1945. The mother of the farmers burned one of the books and parts of a second (including its cover). Thus twelve of these books (one missing its cover) and the loose pages survive.[1] The writings in these codices, dating back to the 2nd century AD,[2] comprised 52 mostly Gnostic tractates (treatises), believed to be a library hidden by monks from the nearby monastery of St Pachomius when the possession of such banned writings, denounced as heresy, was made an offence.

The contents of the Coptic-bound codices were written in Coptic, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. The Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas.

All the texts have been public since 1975, and are available online.

While the Nag Hammadi could take up an entire historical study I will only be referencing it a few times at the beginning of this study. It is worthy of a more critical examination which I hope to attempt and do later.

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A Small Closure….

August 2, 2012 — Leave a comment

We have filled a small corner of our mosaic of church history so I will soon be moving on to discuss some of the early theologians of the church. I am certainly not done talking about the ordinary people who made up the beginnings of the church but I wanted to try to have a small closure for now.  I couldn’t find a better quote about that than this one from Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith:

In the last few decades however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous. The following are now evident. First, there never was a single “early Christianity” there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown. Second, it was not the apostles themselves, but subsequent generations who invented “apostolic authority,” and both creeds and hierarchies emerged much later than had been thought. Third, an essential key to comprehending the earliest Christians, including those who wrote the New Testament, is to see their movement as a self-conscious alternative to the empire that tyrannized them. And the best way to understand the succeeding generation of Christian leaders is to notice how they reversed course and gradually came to admire and emulate that empire.

This quote was in reference to some recent discoveries, among them the Dead Sea Scrolls and other studies.  What I want you to learn from these studies so far is:

  • There was never a single “early Christianity”. Instead it was a very diverse group.
  • The idea of heresy was unknown for hundreds of years. Given its preponderance in later church history this is a very important thing to remember.
  • Apostolic authority was the invention of later years. Church leadership and its very vertical structure was an invention of men who came centuries after the early people of the Way. Let’s not forget that as we move forward.
  • There were basically no creeds or hierarchies in the early church. This is probably one of the most important points.
  • We must understand the early Christians relative to the times they lived.
  • We must understand that at some point in early church history the leaders reversed course and came to admire and even emulate the empire they were taught to be distinctly separate from.

It is difficult to know where to put the blame for this reversal of being a foreigner in the empire’s land and being one of them. It was not a distinct moment in early church history but instead creeped into it via the opinions of some of the early leaders being influenced by the power of the empire. That is not to say that we cannot identify turning points but it was not a single event that caused this reversal.  We certainly can and will  be looking at this in this study.

Is it possible to bring back the foundations and practices of the early church today? To a degree yes it can be done but we must realize that it must be done relative to our current situations and our past history. The old saying that “You can’t go home again” is true in the respect that it won’t be the same as when you left. You will be a different person with different perspectives and wisdom. The same goes for the church…

TO start this post here is a quote from Robin Myers book entitled The Underground Church – Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus.

Although Western Christianity would eventually be defined as a belief system about God, throughout its first five centuries people understood it primarily as spiritual practices that offered a meaningful way of life in this world not as a neat set of doctrines, an esoteric belief, or the promise of heaven. By practicing Jesus teachings, followers of the way discovered that their lives were made better on a practical spiritual level.

Given for the past 1500 years or so, or at least since the age of Constantine, Christianity has been pretty much defined by what we are supposed to believe about Jesus it is hard to remember that was not the case for the first four hundred years or so. When we look back at history sometimes we lose track of time. In this instance the institution known today as Christianity went 350 years without a one required set of beliefs that defined them. That is longer than the total history of the United States. There was an accepted diversity in almost every congregation.  Strict alignment to beliefs were just not important to them in those years. Yes, sometimes those outside of their group, such as evidenced by Paul’s letters gave advice but they didn’t dictate beliefs.

We will soon be studying how the change from following Jesus to believing particular things about him happened. Most of the beliefs that we hang our current Christian faith on now were never mentioned by Jesus himself but were instead inventions of men who came later; often times much later.  We will be getting into those details in future posts. To understand the history of the church, even the early history, is to understand man’s involvements in its formation. Yes almost every change that occurred the author claimed divine inspiration as its source. But this is even true for all those things that were thrown aside when the “official” church document known as the Bible was formulated.  Can we really be so sure that everything chosen was from God and everything reject was not?  In order to understand church history it is necessary to look at everything for ourselves and not to just take what others tell us to believe.

This will be especially true in the coming weeks when I start to look at the history of the things that formulated this “Age of Belief” that many are now starting to question.

I want to give you a quick answer up front to the question posed in the title above.  The answer is absolutely not. Let’s use the following quote from Harvey Cox in his book the Future of Faith as a starting point for this post.

Recent discoveries about the first three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus shed a bright new light on a series of old enigmas. They help clarify how Christianity deteriorated from a movement generated by faith and hope into a religious empire demarcated by prescribed doctrines and ruled by a priestly elite. They trace how a loose network of local congregations, with varied forms of leadership, congealed into a rigid class structure with a privileged clerical caste at the top ruling over an increasingly disenfranchised laity on the bottom. They help explain why women, who played such a vital leadership role in the earliest days, were pushed to the underside and the edges. These discoveries suggest that Christianity was not fated to develop as it did, that what happened was not simply a natural process like a tiny acorn growing into a mighty oak. A different historical trajectory was possible, and this has significant implications for the future.

Some of my posts coming up it might look like I am trying to put all the mistakes of the church onto Constantine but as quoted above much of it actually took place before that fateful event at Nicene in the fourth century.  When humans are involved in any structure or event they tend to pollute it innocence. This actually started happening to the Christian church even before it became a State religion. As mentioned a privileged clerical cast arose who tried to take over the many varied local congregation even in the early church.  Some were successful; some were not. One example of humans polluting the innocence of the church was the fact that they pushed out women as significant part of church leadership because that is how the empire treated them. Women were to be considered property of men and not leaders of an institution. How could they then be leaders of a religious colony? Knowing about the past is vital not to return to it, but to learn from it, from both its mistakes and its successes. Even the early church had its mistakes as well as its successes. It is important that we recognize that fact if we are to learn from those early Christians going forward in a new church paradigm…

Let’s start this post with a long quote from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass:

The early Christian text (from the second or third century) known as the Epistle to Diognetus explains that Christianity is neither an ethnicity nor earthly citizenship but a way of life that is somehow at odds with the societies in which the faithful reside. Christians may look like everyone else, but their actions—including practices of hospitality, charity, and nonviolence—make them different: For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe…. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.

The first thing that struck me about this quote is that early Christians deemed their faith as a way of life that is most often at odds with the societies in which they lived. In other words for it they were radicals in their culture. They lived their lives quite differently than those around them.  Can we look at the above quote and say even in the slightest that this is also what current day Christians look like?  I think not! Have we lost the zeal for a true Christian life?  Most statistics today clearly show that today’s Christians have been almost totally blended into the country where they reside. Do we treat our fellow Christians in foreign lands as if there were our brothers? Do we put  our nation’s flag before God? Why is there even any flag showing in our churches? Aren’t we foreigners even in the land of our birth? Sadly we have morphed into something that barely resembles the early members of our religion.

The Didache

July 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

Given the amount of weight that “correct” beliefs have with so many churches today it is hard to understand just how little weight the early church put on such things.

In the early years Christianity Bibles weren’t available to local congregations because it would be several hundred years before it was formulated by a council of then current day church leaders. But there were several other important documents that were used used by local congregations. One of the most important was what is now called the Didache. You could consider it an instruction book to teach someone who wanted to join the group  known as the Way how to put their faith into practice. For the most part there was nothing in the Didache about the beliefs that we deem so important today.

One thing we must realize about the early Christians was that joining their group was not about taking an altar call. It required several years of “internship” and showing that you were up to the task of “being” part of the Way. The Didache was the manual that many used to insure that you were properly prepared to be a Christian. Here is what Wikipedia says about the Didache:

Most scholars place the Didache at some point during the mid to late first century. It is an anonymous work, a pastoral manual “that reveals more about how Jewish-Christians saw themselves and how they adapted their Judaism for gentilesthan any other book in the Christian Scriptures.”……

(Talking about the use of the Didache by the early church) …

There can also be seen many similarities to the Epistles of both Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch [a couple of other epistles not included in the Bible].  The Shepherd of Hermas seems to reflect it, and Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria also seem to use the work, and so in the West do Optatus and the Gesta apud Zenophilum. The Didascalia Apostolorum are founded upon the Didache. The Apostolic Church-Ordinances has used a part, the Apostolic Constitutions have embodied the Didascalia. There are echoes in Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Cyprian, andLactantius.

As you can see from this quote the Didache was a very thoroughly used document in the early church. We can only speculate as to why it wasn’t included with the Bible. I will talk about that more in coming posts.

Hospitality….

July 12, 2012 — Leave a comment

Hospitality was a very important thing to the early Christians. They put it above beliefs in their understanding of Jesus. I will use a quote from Diane Butler Bass’ book Christianity After Religionto illustrate this point:

Not offering hospitality was a much greater failure than not believing that Jesus was truly God and truly human. Early Christians judged ethical failings as the most serious breach of community, even as they accepted a significant amount of theological diversity in their midst. 

Hospitality to these early followers meant following Jesus’ command to love one another. But just what did they mean by hospitality? It was sharing whatever you have with those who don’t have as much. It was caring for those who had no one else to care for them. It was loving the unloved. These were things that the People of the Way were most concerned about.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt. 25:34–36)

This testimony represents Jesus’s notion of hospitality. Unlike today, the early Christians were extremely good at hospitality.  Hospitality was the primary Christian virtue. From the New Testament texts that unambiguously urge believers to “practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13) through St. Augustine’s works in the fifth century, early Christian writings extol hospitality toward the sick, the poor, travelers, widows, orphans, slaves, prisoners, prostitutes, and the dying. It totally astounds me that the current political party in the U.S. that claims the Christian banner is so unlike any of this characteristics!

From what historians can gather, hospitality—not martyrdom—served as the main motivator for conversions. People just saw how these early Christians lived and wanted to be a part of it. Hospitality was a BIG thing in the early churches.

Lets finish up this post with a quote from A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Bass, Diana Butler). She talks about an early Christian document call the Epistle to Diognetus (no unfortunately this one did not end up in our current day Bible as it just might have changed some of our beliefs about Jesus) :

The early Christian text (from the second or third century) known as the Epistle to Diognetus explains that Christianity is neither an ethnicity nor earthly citizenship but a way of life that is somehow at odds with the societies in which the faithful reside. Christians may look like everyone else, but their actions—including practices of hospitality, charity, and nonviolence—make them different: For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe…. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.

Lets look at just how much the Followers of the Way increased in membership during the Pre-Constantine years. Here is what Wikipedia says about that:

Early Christianity spread from city to city throughout the Hellenized Roman Empire and beyond into East Africa and South Asia. The Christian Apostles, said to have dispersed from Jerusalem, traveled extensively and established communities in major cities and regions throughout the Empire. The original church communities were founded in northern Africa, Asia Minor, Armenia, Arabia, Greece, and other places by apostles (see Apostolic see) and other Christian soldiers, merchants, and preachers. Over forty were established by the year 100, many in Asia Minor, such as the seven churches of Asia. By the end of the 1st century, Christianity had spread to Greece and Italy, even India. In 301 AD, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first state to declare Christianity as its official religion, following the conversion of the Royal House of the Arsacids in Armenia. Despite sometimes intense persecutions, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin.

As you can see there was rapid growth during the early years. Some today believe that before Constantine made Christianity a State religion where membership was mandatory that the church was struggling to grow. This was just not the case.  In three hundred years they had basically spread throughout the known world. Yes, when Christianity was made mandatory it grew but its new members just didn’t have the compassion  in either faith or practice of  the earlier followers.  Nothing mandatory is ever approached with the same zeal as when it is a choice. And, of course, being a mandated state religion also brought power and money which would inevitably lead to corrupting influences among some of the church leaders.

What would have been the alternative path of Christianity had Constantine not used it to try and shore up his crumbling empire? Of course we can only speculate about that but I personally believe that Christianity just might have been much stronger without his interference.

But that is a matter for another post….

In this post lets revisit one of the quotes from Robin Myers’ book entitled The Underground Church – Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus.

Empires seldom worry about religious beliefs that have no real effect on the loyalty of their subjects. But when that loyalty is subverted or replaced, those beliefs must be investigated and the believers crushed…

It would take time  before People of the Way came up on the Roman radar screen. I think the Roman emperors thought that when the executed to primary leader of this rag-tag group that would drive them into oblivion but of course the opposite was actually true.  As reported in the Book of Acts and elsewhere when people heard of this man Jesus Christ who was a great rabbi and was executed by the Romans but then raised from the dead they anxiously wanted to know more.

One thing that was basically different about common people in those days and people today was that most in those days were completely convinced that they were bound by the circumstances in which they were born. There was little or no hope that they could advance in their circumstances. If you were a slave you were a slave for life; there was no way to change that.  So, when they heard of this carpenter’s son who defied the Roman empire and in a symbolic way defeated them they saw a glimmer of hope that things can actually change.

And Change they did. As these small groups continued to grow they unsettled some of the leaders of their day. The most outrageous thing they did was refused to bow down to the Roman emperor as their lord. That was considered treasonous in those days. The People of the Way said they had a different lord and would not bow to the Roman emperor. By not proclaiming the emperor as lord they were, as the quote above says, the beliefs in a different lord had to be investigated and the believers crushed.

Since the People of the Way were just common people the Romans targeted their leaders. This included people like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Origen and others. Almost all of them were eventually hunted down and sent to the coliseum. But more on that later.  Some argue in addition to their loyalty to a man called Jesus that one of the main reasons for the success of Early Christianity was the Christian emphasis on caring for the sick. During the late Roman period there were a number of devastating plagues: the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD), the Plague of Cyprian (251-270 AD). The followers of the Way were front and center in helping others during these trying times. So they were, as we say today, “walking the walk”. That is they were very adamant in doing what their spiritual leader told them to do rather than just being in awe of him. If only we could return to actually doing what Jesus said instead of just believing things about him maybe Christianity would also see the tremendous surge of membership today. Who knows….

For the month of July we will be studying just how the early Christians went about practicing their faith.

As will be typical of many of my posts I will start them out with quotes from one of my many sources that got me to thinking about the current post.  This quote comes from a book by Robin Myers entitled The Underground Church – Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus.

We forget to distinguish between history as a record of the elites and history as a record of the people. While most academics concentrate on the theologians who wrote the treatises and on the bishops who argued about questions of authority, the most important constituency of all gets left out: the vast majority of ordinary people whose lives were dramatically changed by the Jesus Movement. This included women, peasants, and slaves.

It is important to understand just how diverse the early church was. For the first three centuries there were no creeds or lists of beliefs that you had to follow to call yourself a follower of the Way. For the most part  these early Christian groups were just ordinary people who had banded together around their trust in the teachings of Jesus.  One common practice was that they would sell their possessions and turn the proceeds over to the leader of their group to be used for the benefit of all. This was part of their core beliefs of hospitality. We will get into that in a future post.

Because, almost all the people of The Way were illiterate they left little behind in the way of written documents. There were some documents being passed around during this period, some of them by the Apostle Paul among others, but for the first hundred years or they were simply unavailable to many. But in recent years artifacts of their existence have been found to let us know a little more about them.  We also know more about them from the study of tax law, and organizational documents from the Roman military of the times. We know that they were a big enough perceived threat to the Roman empire that many of their leaders, but only a small percentage of followers, were executed in the Coliseum.

We know that they lived their daily lives around their faith to an infinitely greater degree than do today’s Christians. But faith to them was not citing a creed, they just didn’t exist for the most part for several hundred more years, but instead faith was defined as a trust in the teaching and wisdom of Jesus Christ. They trusted in what Jesus did and said. Christians were centuries away from putting beliefs ahead of actions.