A Brief History of Early Christianity

“[W]ould you tell me the name of the church you are affiliated with, what it stands for, and how it is differs from the Roman Catholic church. In other words, how and when did your church originate and when? What are the beliefs and mission of its founders? What kind of catholic church is it, and how is it different or the same as the Roman Catholic church? The reason I am asking is my son’s interest and questions regarding your ordination to priesthood. [My son’s] wife is catholic and so are her parents. Their experience is that it takes many years to become a catholic priest. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.”

I remind readers, it should be noted the following is my personal opinion and may not represent the official opinion of the church and seminaries I have attended. For any errors and omissions I claim fault to be my own.

A Brief History of Early Christianity

This will be brutally short and inelegant, as I am trying to keep this introductory statement to less than 1,000 words!

However, I find it important to first preface such a conversation with a longer perspective. If we go back to roughly the period between 1,000-333 bce we find what has been called the Axial Age. This is a rich period in history during which all the major world religions largely developed into the religious organizations and faith traditions we recognize today. To better understand the New Testament and Christianity we need to better understand the Hebrew Bible (what Christians somewhat depreciatively call the “Old” testament). To better understand the Hebrew Bible we need to have some understanding of their key developmental stages.

Sidebar: “Before the Common Era” is the same time range as B.C., Before Christ. The difference is bce is not insulting non-Christians. I feel it is improper to speak only from a Christian-centric point of view when discussing history. I agree with the scholarly view that it is more equitable to promote and use inclusive terminology as much as possible, therefore I have adopted the use of bce and ce to identify dates as Before the Common Era (aka “BC”), or of the Common Era (aka “AD”).

The Axial Age

In terms of what I believe is most important to a Christian perspective, the Axial Age begins just before the age of the United Monarchy/Kingdom under the reigns of the Hebrew kings Saul, David, and Solomon. Prior to the United Monarchy the tribes of Israel were isolated and generally autonomous. Then they formed a United Monarchy under Saul so they could repel attacks from other nations (the meaning of the word gentiles).

After the reign of king Solomon the United Monarchy fell apart, and formed an Upper and Lower Kingdom. The Upper Kingdom (of Israel) fell to the Assyrians (c. 720 bce). Later the Lower Kingdom (of Judah) fell to the Babylonians (c. 586 bce). This is the time of the Babylonian exile. This is most likely where what was to become Judaism became influenced by Zoroastrianism (primarily understood to be a Persian religion, although some scholars dispute this point; additionally, the degree of influence this had upon for formation of Judaism is subject to scholarly debate; personally, I think it was an important influence).

The period of Babylonian exile is important to the understanding of Judaism because when the Persian king Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians (c. 539 bce) they permitted -and even promoted- the return of the people of Judah to the Land of Canaan. They even financed the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is really important. Without a Temple there is no Temple worship, and without Temple worship, there really is not a form of ancient Judaism. (We properly call the pre-exile people Hebrews, or the people of Israel. Judaism and the Jewish religion do not appear until after the Babylonian exile and the re-building of the Temple.)

Most scholars define the end of the Axial Age as the conquest of Alexander the Great, who brings in the Hellenistic period. Under Alexander the entire empire was greatly influenced by the Greek civilization, and this remained true even after the Roman empire defeated the Greeks. This is important to Christianity because we inherit this confluence of civilizations. The majority of scholars accept that the entire New Testament was originally written in Greek, for example. (There is some debate on this point, although with regard to isolated books of the New Testament, not the entire anthology.)

Period of Great Upheaval

In the centuries immediately before the time of Jesus there was a great deal of religious upheaval. The last of these great influences was apocalyptic. This is important because this greatly effected early Christianity, and I would argue does so to this day (just read the Book of Revelation; and the Dead Sea scrolls).

Following Jesus, the next most important date is 70 ce (Common Era, aka AD). This is when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. (This became a final defeat around 135 ce, which was when the final Jewish revolt against Rome took place.) At this point we can mark a clear line in history. Ancient Judaism comes to an end. Rabbinic Judaism is born from the ashes of Temple Judaism. So too is born Christianity. We commonly, and inaccurately, think of Christianity as evolving from Judaism. By which we mean modern Judaism, which is Rabbinic. This is an error. Both the modern forms of Judaism and the modern forms of Christianity are born from the ashes of the immediately preceding Temple period.

Both Judaism and Christianity -which began as a Jesus Movement within Judaism- continued to develop during a period of upheaval for several centuries. With regard to Christianity, it was quite varied in the years immediately following Jesus, as people struggled with their understanding of Jesus’ ministry. These early forms of Christianity include:

  •  Mithraism and Christianity (200BCE +)
  •  Ebionite Christians (1st-4th Century)
  •  Docetism (1st-7th Century)
  •  Arian Christians (2nd-8th Century)
  •  Marcionite Christians (2nd-5th Century)
  • Roman Christianity / Pauline Christianity (4th Century +)

(A Roman Catholic view on this point may be reviewed at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03712a.htm)

But which is the “proper” form of Christianity?

This is still debated by some to this day. However, for practical purposes we can say that the orthodox views are what form “real” Christianity. However, when we say this, if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that also means the victors write history. *Any* form of early Christianity which “wins” in the long run defines itself as “orthodox” and all other forms are defined (by the orthodox) as unorthodox, or heretical. (The root meanings of these words in fact mean right opinion/belief (orthodox) and choosing not to belief rightly (heretical); meaning to choose not to believe as do the orthodox.) Along these lines, I find it important to recall that some of the early church fathers who were in their own day considered very orthodox were later declared to be heretics, or to have held heretical beliefs. Origen of Alexandria serves as an example.

Mixed in with these early forms of Christianity are the spiritual beliefs of Platonism and Neoplatonism. Concepts such as heaven are born from Platonism, not Christianity. Some argue the entire idea of our nature’s being comprised of both a body and spirit is a Greek concept. This in itself is quite interesting, but I do not wish to consider the effects of the various Greek spiritual traditions upon Christianity at this time. (They are however, clearly important influences reaching to this day.)

The Christian canon takes nearly 400 years to define what books comprise the Holy Bible

Another point which I believe is worth our consideration is that the “Holy Bible” as we think of it today did not even exist until late in the 4th century. That is nearly 400 years after the crucifixion of Jesus! And the New Testament itself was not committed to writing until somewhere between 50 ce and 100 ce. For the decades prior to this, everything existed in the oral traditions surrounding the varied understandings of Jesus and his ministry.

Scholars debate exact dates of the Christian sacred texts. Paul’s letters are consider by the majority of scholars to have been written before any of the Gospels, beginning around 50 ce. Of the Gospels, the three “synoptic” Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke/Acts) are dated between 60-90 ce, and are earlier than the Gospel of John, which is clearly written much later, somewhere around 95-100 ce. (Roughly contemporary with the apocalyptic Book of Revelation.) The Gospel of Thomas’ dates are much less certain. The most reasonable arguments to my mind place some of the sayings very early, originating in the oral traditions of Jesus’ day, while other sayings date much later, into the early 2nd century.

I introduce the above topics, not to form clear delineations of the various understandings of what it means to be Christian, but rather to make it clear there were -and still are- many competing ideas of what it means to be a Christian. This has always been true of our religion. Perhaps it will always.

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