Early Christianity IV
January 11, 2009 7 Comments
In those times there were no churches or steeples, no pews, no altars, as we know them. The Christmas holiday did not exist yet. Many things, like the date when Jesus was born, were totally uncertain throughout the second, and into the third century. It finally appears for the first time on a Christian calendar in the fourth century as December 25. One cannot help but feel that the real beginning of Christianity is well over two hundred years after the death of Jesus
While the New Testament mention the idea of a church, using the Greek word “ecclesia,” early Christians didn’t worship in magnificent cathedrals. The early Christian followers of Jesus would have mostly met in private homes. Who presided over these rituals was at the time is an open question.
The early Christian churches were not organized as we might think of today, where there might be a pope in the Catholic Church, or priests, or even pastors leading the churches. The early Christian communities were completely egalitarian.
But a hierarchy finally begins to emerge, taking on the form of the society around this young church. As these congregations and community continue to grow, there is a need for more and more structure. With that structure there came a power struggle.
As Christian communities were taking hold around the Mediterranean, women were crucial in spreading and nourishing the new faith. But when at the beginning of the second century, a hierarchy begins to develop…its face is male. Eventually, Christianity would come to oppress and silence women. So throughout most of its history, Christianity has been known as a male religion. Only the men can be leaders of the church. Only men can be elders, priests, pastors, or the pope.
How do you baptize? Do you immerse, or do you sprinkle? What do you do if there’s not enough water? How do you celebrate communion? How do you break the bread? What should you say when you have the Lord’s Supper? The Didache provided structure for the earliest Christians.
The Didache is a composition that is titled “The Teaching of the 12 Apostles to the Gentiles.” This is part of the legacy of the Jerusalem and Jewish Christian community to help the gentile Christian community’s structure themselves. In Jerusalem lies the single surviving copy of the Didache. It was written about 100 A.D., and is a type of How-To manual for early Christians.
With this structure came power. And with that power came the final foundation stone of what we recognize today as the church, the authority to define what is sacred scripture and what is heresy.
By the end of the first century, the letters of Paul have been collected. The Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, had been written. But it would take another several centuries before the official canon of the church took shape. Different Christian communities had different gospels that they read during worship services. Eventually, of course, only four Gospels made it into the New Testament. Scholars are fairly convinced that these four are the earliest Gospels.
The church leaders ensured the survival of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by discouraging the reading of other books in services and not reproducing them, which was the easiest way to destroy a book. That’s probably what happened to most of the gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament.
Armed with an organized hierarchy, a distinct set of beliefs and rituals, and canon of sacred texts, the Christian church had structure and power. Christianity was attracting millions of followers and growing in influence. It presented a clear and present danger to the Roman Empire.
Rome in the second century was the center of a very vast empire. It was now confronted with the growing threat of Christianity. But the empire itself helped Christianity spread by virtue of its roads, bridges, and trade. Some of the earliest writings of the New Testament and in the writings of Paul Christians are told to obey the emperor, they should be good citizens, and pay their taxes. The empire is seen as beneficial to Christians. But later, as a mark of their defiance, Christians refused to bow down to the Roman emperor, and by the time you get to the Book of Revelation, the empire is the enemy. The antichrist is the Roman emperor.
In the ancient world, there was no divide between religion and politics. Religion was part of social life. It was part of political life. This made Christianity unusual because all other religions could participate in imperial worship, the worship of the Roman emperor. This did not set well with the Emperor so throughout the empire, Christians were tortured and slaughtered. Leaders had their eyes gouged out, were horribly crippled and killed, but throughout it all they refused to renounce their religion.
These actions by the Romans created an army of Christian martyrs.
But Christianity was also addressing the needs of this life. Some scholars have thought that the Christians attention to social needs is what initially attracted people to this faith. Here was a community of people that treated one another as brothers and sisters. They gathered together for worship every week and took care of the needs of one another.
In the late second century a plague wiped out a third of the Roman Empire. Christians stayed behind to help the sick and dying and gave them food and drink. Many of the dying people recovered and were destined to join the ranks of their helpers. Also many who stayed behind were women, and they came to embody the nurturing and healing quality of Christianity.
Christianity claims to be the only right religion, but in the Roman Empire this was a unique phenomenon. Christianity was monotheistic to the extent that it claimed that if you worship YHWH you have to give up all the other gods. As soon as Christianity converted somebody to this new faith, it destroyed the other religions.
Christianity not only survived, but thrived in the Roman Empire. By the end of the third century, Emperor Diocletian, whose own wife and daughter had converted to the religion, was so threatened by the growing power of Christianity, that he launched another campaign to wipe it out.
The empire at this time was probably over 60 million people and there were probably around 3 million Christians at the time. They were known to be a problem throughout the empire. So Diocletian decided to try and persecute the Christians. A religion, whose very founder told the people to turn the other cheek, saw its followers slaughtered by the thousands in public.