Early Christianities

Jesus of Nazareth did not call his disciples “Christians”… the term was coined by observers in the city of Antioch sometime in the 30s or 40s AD who witnessed Greek-speaking followers of Jesus passionately affirming his unique status as the christos (anointed) Jewish “Son of God” who had risen form the dead (Acts 11:26).  The neologism [coining of a new word] illustrates a point of exceptional importance in tracing the emergence of Christianity: that it was a process based upon the physical movement of ideas into a world beyond Galilee and Roman Judaea.  And as the ideas travelled, they found themselves in cultural surroundings significantly different from the world that Jesus had known.  This in turn stimulated an astonishingly extensive and diverse series of responses to Jesus and his teachings as reported.  And the emergence of Christianity is the history of the relationship between those ideas and their origins in the ancient Near East.  (John Curran – Queen’s University Belfast)

A major theme of the book, in fact, will be the diversity of early
Christianity — in fact, the diversity of early Christianities. I will look at the many different ways Jesus was thought to be either divine or human or some combination of both. I’ll highlight different ways early followers of the Jesus movement dealt with the fact that the movement itself came out of Judaism but before long was dominated by gentiles. (Dale Martin – Professor Yale)

Most [contemporary scholars] recognise that there was no single church from which Gnostic heretics deviated.  Rather, Christian communities were diverse form the start… … Numerous independent Christian communities , none with a fully convincing claim to exclusive authenticity as “true Christianity”, emerge from the fog of c 100 CE and jostle for position; in hindsight, we can identify the “horse” that will emerge as the dominant orthodoxy by the end of the third century, and we watch it as it compete with and overcomes its rivals.   (David Brakke – Professor Ohio State)

Within Jewish and Christian areas of religion there were certainly some strands that excluded other groups.  But this is by no means the whole picture.  The evidence of inscriptions, in particular, shows us individuals happily mixing what from our perspective we might wish to call Jewish, Christian and Mithraic elements – and practices of this sort are far too widespread to be considered “deviant”.  (Emily Kearns – Oxford)

For centuries after Jesus’ death, there were people who believed in Jesus’ divinity as the incarnate Messiah but who also insisted that in order to be saved they must eat only kosher, keep the Sabbath as other Jews do, and circumcise their sons.  Here was an environment where many people, it would seem, thought that there was no problem in being both a Jew and a Christian.  (Daniel Boyarin and Jack Miles – Boyarin Professor Berkley)

Torah-observant Jewish Christianity was eventually squeezed out between the ascendant Gentile Church and developing rabbinic Judaism, both of which opposed it.  … Jesus’ brother, James [was] the leader of the Torah-observant faction in the Jerusalem “mother church”… James and Peter were important figureheads, but the themselves were only the tip of a huge Jewish Christian iceberg that is mostly invisible to us because of the eventual triumph of Gentile Christianity.   (Joel Marcus – Professor Duke University)

While the portraits of the disciples in the fourth gospel score points about titular leaders and by implication their followers, the image of Peter in the last chapter takes on special significance.  Rehabilitated from his triple denial of Jesus by a triple protestation of love (John 21:15-17), he is finally commissioned to “feed the sheep” (John 21:17).  This chapter acknowledges that, however much the apostle Peter and perhaps other ecclesiastical leaders were inferior to the Beloved Disciples, their authoritative position should be respected.  John 21 then suggests that Johannine believers were becoming reconciled with the wider church of the second century.  (Harold Attridge – Professor Yale)

Justin’s argument for the antiquity, and hence superiority, of Christianity was, as AD Nock observed, “an answer to what was at the time a most damaging criticism of Christianity – namely that it was a new thing followed in contravention of good old customs.  (A.J. Drodge Professor University of Toronto)

Luke was writing probably 15 years, maybe 20 years after Mark, and actually knew the Gospel of Mark. He reproduced a good bit of Mark’s Gospel in his Gospel, in the Gospel of Luke. What is striking is that he took out this verse that – where it says that where Jesus says that he’s come to give his life as a ransom for many. Luke took out that verse, and when Luke portrays the crucifixion of Jesus, there’s nothing about the crucifixion scene that makes you think that this death is meant to be an atonement for sin. In fact, Luke also wrote a second volume that we have in the New Testament. He also wrote the Book of Acts, which talks about the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire. And there are a number of sermons in Acts in which the apostles are trying to convert people. And in these sermons, they talk about the death of Jesus, but they never mention that Jesus’s death is an atonement for sin. Instead, what they say is that Jesus’s death was a huge miscarriage of justice. The people who did it are guilty before God, and they need to turn to God so that God – in repentance – so that God will forgive them. In other words, the way the death of Jesus works in Luke is not that it brings atonement for sin. It’s the occasion that people have for realizing their sinfulness so that they can repent, and God will forgive them. [interviewer - So that's a pretty fundamental difference in the perception of the symbolic significance of Christ's death] Absolutely. And it’s not the only – these are not the only two views. The early Christians had a lot of different views about the significance of Jesus’s death. The thing that made them all Christian, I think, is that all of them thought that Jesus’s death, in some way, was important for human beings’ standing before God. But as it turns out, there are some groups of Christians – in the first, second century – who didn’t think that the death of Jesus actually mattered that much for salvation. (Bart D. Ehrman Professor University of North Carolina)

The story of the development of early Christian theology is by its nature one of
division and dispute, and it was in exploring the grounds and consequences of
those disputes that Chadwick excelled. He quoted, not without approval, a
remark by the early church historian Socrates of Constantinople to the effect
that “controversy and conflict are the very stuff of church history, and that
if the Church were suddenly to be at peace, there would be nothing for [the
historian] to record”.  (from The Times
obituary of Professor Henry Chadwick)

James and his Nazarenes remained practising Jews, loyal to Jesus , but also teaching
and praying in the Temple for the next thirty years.   James was widely admired there as a Jewish holy man.  Jesus’ Judaism was clearly no
more idiosyncratic than that of the many other preachers who came before and
after him.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of Buckingham)

trend [in the Roman Empire] towards monotheism starts before Christianity – not
before Judaism, but before Christianity, to a great extent under Jewish
influence. There were either converts to Judaism or what I would call
fellow-travellers – people who thought that the Jewish religion was the best on
the market but who did not want to undergo what was demanded of a convert to Judaism
– for men, circumcision for instance – and who were God-fearers, heaven-fearers
– people who accepted the idea not only of a single true God above all the
other gods who were not really divine which were reflections and in that sense
who were devaluated and in that sense not really divine.  And some people also believed in the main
prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible starting from Abraham – who was not
really a Jew – and who saw themselves in this long process of prophetic
biblical monotheism… or pagan intellectuals who believed that there was only
one real god – the Neo-Platonists.  It is
quite broadly recognised that one can speak of pagan monotheists who did not
believe in the biblical prophetic monotheism.  So there are two kinds of pagans who are
searching for the one God above all gods, or beyond all gods.  My instinct tells me that the attraction of
Jewish monotheism starts before the empire through Jewish communities,
including in Rome, the Jewish God offers something that was not offered or
otherwise on the market of religions in a sense.  And to some people this appears very
attractive – in particular women in the imperial family and in the upper
classes of society from the fourth century onwards are attracted by Jewish
monotheism.  (Guy Stroumsa – Professor Oxford)

The New Testament authors believed that they lived at the end

of days (as did the Apocalyptists in general). Jesus’ Resurrection was

understood as the beginning, or first event, signalling that the general

resurrection was in progress. Paul thought the end would come in the

lifetime of the members of his churches.  There was a tremendous

apocalyptic tension in the New Testament consciousness anticipating

the time of redemption. The Christian church has obviously had to

modify the apocalyptic timetable. If Jesus’ Resurrection was the first

resurrection of one of the faithful, a long time has intervened before

the remainder of the faithful are raised bodily to life. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)

[discovery of “The Gospel of Judas”] More commonly, however, the view is
propounded that the Gospel of Judas joins the ranks of the
four New Testament Gospels (as well as other early Christian
Gospels) as a new addition to the tumultuous confusion—or,
put differently, the fascinating diversity—of early Christianityand its portrayals of Jesus. A new school of thought has emerged
and attracted a good deal of media attention which advances
this case for a multiplicity of early Christianities, none of which
should he prioritized over any other. After all, the story goes, it
was only because one particular party was the victor in the early
Christian power-struggle that what we now know as Christianity won the day. This new approach to Christian origins has been adopted both by some scholars and by popularizers such as Dan Brown, and now the fight is on to determine whether the
Gospel of Judas supports this revisionist approach or not. (Simon Gathercole – Cambridge) 

Christians  came from both the Greek religious
environment (Gentile Christians) and Judaism (Jewish Christians), but also from
the group of pagans who were ready to convert to Judaism (the so-called
‘God-fearers’) – [Christians came from a] multiplicity of backgrounds.  (Marie-Zoe Petropoulou)

Although acknowledging the Jewish roots of their
religion, second‐century Christian writers strongly stressed their distance from Judaism. This undoubtedly constitutes an indicator of tension in the relations between Jewish
and Christian communities of the time.  (Marie-Zoe Petropoulou)

James and Paul hold a different position on

the relationship between works and faith. It seems to me very difficult not to see this as an anti-Pauline position

parallels between Jewish Christian groups, especially the Ebionites, and the Essenes and the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls. While these parallels are not that striking, it is not unreasonable to see aspects of Jewish Christian theology, for instance, the anti-cultic stance of some of the texts we have discussed, as continuations of trends already present within non-Christian Judaism. Here certain forms of Jewish Christianity, especially those which engaged with other Jews, might have perceived themselves as forming a reform movement within Judaism.   (James Carleton Paget – Cambridge)  

One of the greatest strengths of Wilson’s book [Paul:  The Mind of the Apostle] is that it reveals the extent of our ignorance about the origins of Christianity.  (Karen Armstrong)

The Christians claimed that they had replaced the Jews as the chosen people on earth.
(Polymnia Athanassiadi Professor Athens and Michael Frede Professor

The pieces of surviving evidence strongly suggest that animal sacrifice was not a phenomenon entirely foreign to the Early Christian liturgy. Contrary to the prevailing opinion that denies the existence of any form of animal sacrifice as a part of Christian
worship, the survival of ritual immolation of animals in the Christian milieu is convincingly corroborated by a number of texts. The enactment of animal sacrifice is reflected in the literature of the Early Christian and Medieval period.  (Katerina Kovaltchuk – Leuven) 

Animal sacrifices were indisputably practiced in a Christian context
in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.  (Katerina Kovaltchuk – Leuven)

Yet it was noticed already in the early centuries of the Christian era, as revealed by some sources which will be discussed later, that a more efficient way of conversion was not a complete eradication of old rituals and cultural
customs, but their adaptation to the new religion — the process
that is defined as the “Christianization of rituals” in modern scholarship.
In fact, the process of “Christianization of rite” was not a short-term event,
but it subsisted over a period of many centuries; in this regard, Late Antiquity witnessed
the most intensive phase of Christianization. The old pagan rituals that underwent
some sort of alteration and adjustment to the new religious system are called “Christianized” rites. (Katerina Kovaltchuk – Leuven)

There are several sources that evidence the practice of Christianized sacrificial rituals in the Western parts of Christendom. A vivid description of miracles connected with the enactment of animal sacrifice can be found in the poem 20 of Paulinus of Nola. (Katerina Kovaltchuk – Leuven)

It appears from this passage that there was a special association of the church dedication feasts with the ritual immolation of animals. A custom of sacrificing an animal at Easter is also testified to among the liturgical practices of the Roman Church. Some ninth-century authors record that such a custom of offering a paschal lamb, which was subsequently consumed by the priests and all the faithful, was still in use in the church at their times. (Katerina Kovaltchuk – Leuven)

 The account of the celebration of the encaenia of St. Sophia, which described lavish animal immolations conducted by the emperor Justinian, has been re-examined in the light of surviving evidence. The conclusion reached in the process of the present study suggests that the theme of animal sacrifice was not that alien and bizarre to the Byzantine audience as it had been thus far believed.  (Katerina Kovaltchuk – Leuven)

Mr. Aslan depicts earliest Christianity as surviving in two streams
after Jesus: a Hellenistic movement headed by Paul, and a Jewish version headed
by James. This dualism repeats 19th-century German scholarship. Nowadays, most
scholars believe that the Christian movement was much more diverse, even from
its very beginnings. (Dale Martin – Professor Yale) [from review of Reza Aslan "Zealot"]

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