20120507-ChristAsSol 3rd cen.jpg
Christ as a Sun God, AD 3rd century
When you think about it is quite remarkable that Jesus of Nazareth developed a following and that following gave birth to the huge movement of Christianity. As Huston Smith pointed out in The Religions of Man, Jesus was "a little-known Jewish carpenter who … was born in a stable, died at the age of thirty-three as a criminal rather than a hero, never traveled more than ninety miles from his birthplace, owned nothing, attended no college, marshaled no army, and instead of producing books did his only writing in the sand." [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

There is no indication that Jesus himself ever claimed he was the the Son of God, but his followers did. They wrote down their own interpretations of his life and words and passed their views on orally. After the Jesus’s death his followers and believers called themselves an assembly. These early believers, including the apostles (Jesus's twelve closest followers, or disciples) Peter, James, Matthew, John, and Thomas. At first they only preached the word of Jesus to Jews. But as word about Jesus and his Resurrection spread, people all across the Mediterranean region embraced the faith and became what were later called Christians. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

Christianity began as a small movement. When Jesus died his immediate followers perhaps numbered no more than a hundred. In the years after the crucifixion these followers stayed close to Jerusalem, where they were led by Jesus’s brother James and had success winning converts among Jews. Jewish leaders regarded them as a threat and forced them move from Jerusalem to Samaria, Damascus and Antioch, where there were large Jewish communities.

The first Christians were Jews and thought of themselves as Jews. Christianity emerged as a distinct sect in the second half of the A.D. 1st century and its followers were first called Christians in Antioch around the same time. As Christianity spread it absorbed some elements of the cultures around it. Orpheus and Hercules became the good shepherd and a metaphor of Christ.

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers thedailybeast.com ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

The Term "Christian

Geoffrey Wigoder wrote in in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: The early followers of Jesus referred to themselves as "brethren" (Acts 1:16), "disciples" (Acts 11:26), and "believers" (Acts 2:44), and the Jews at first called them "Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5) – i.e., probably the followers of Jesus the Nazarene (cf. Matt. 2:23). The term "Christians" seems to have been applied to them at first by outsiders (Acts 11:26), but was soon adopted by them as a convenient term of identification. In 64 A.D., during the Neronian persecution, the term seems to have already become current in Rome (Tacitus, Annals 15:44).

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “The term "Christian" was first coined in Antioch probably some ten maybe even fifteen years after the death of Jesus. Now while this term Christian of course becomes the standard terminology for all later Christian traditions, and we think of it in much more lofty and positive terms, at the time that it was coined it was probably a slur. It was probably thrown at these early followers of Jesus as some derogatory designation of them. This is what we often see happening with new religious movements.... We often find in the sociology of sectarian groups that the group may have one self designation. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“They may call themselves "the way" or "the true light" or something like that because that's their religious self conception, but outsiders will often label them by the name of the leader or the name of some catchy element in their message that sparks their interest. So when we hear at Antioch that they're called "Christians" we have to think of that in more in the vein of them being called "Messianists" or "Christies." People who follow a Messiah or just talk about the Messiah an awful lot and we're not actually sure who coined the term. Whether it's other Jews who didn't believe in the Messiah or pagans who heard these Jewish groups talking about messianic ideas. It's not entirely clear.

Paul and the Early Church

Paul's conversion

According to the BBC: “It has been suggested that the work of Jesus Christ and the impact of his death and resurrection would not have made any lasting impact on the world were it not for the missionary work of Paul. The account of Paul's conversion to Christianity is contained in the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. Before his conversion Paul had been known as Saul and had been violently opposed to the Christian faith as taught by Jesus and after his death, by his disciples. [Source: BBC, June 8, 2009 |::|]

“Saul experienced a dramatic conversion, known as the Damascus Road conversion, when he was temporarily blinded. He found himself filled with the Holy Spirit and immediately began preaching the Christian gospel. Paul's teaching centred on understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a central turning point in history. He understood the resurrection to signal the end of the need to live under Jewish law. Instead Paul taught of living in the Spirit in which the power of God was made to work through human flesh. | ::|

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “Paul, who apparently started his life as Saul, was a Jew from the Diaspora, from Tarsus, who according to his own account in his Epistle to the Philippians was a Pharisee, by training. And someone who tried to abide by the Torah, the way of life of the scriptures. Paul had an encounter with the resurrected Christ, which is something reported in the Book of Acts as the Damascus Road experience. That's a dramatization clearly, but Paul himself in his Epistle to the Galatians talks about a revelation of Christ that he had. And through that revelation he became convinced that the person who had died on the cross as a political criminal was, in fact, God's anointed Messiah. And the essence of his gospel, what he preached through the Mediterranean world, revolved around the significance of those two events, the death and resurrection of Christ.... [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Some of his letters to fledgling churches throughout the Roman Empire are contained in the New Testament and outline Paul's theology. He insisted that Gentiles had as much access to the faith as Jews and that freedom from the Law set everyone free. It was this teaching which was essential for the development and success of the early church which would otherwise have remained nothing more than another Jewish sect. | ::|

“Paul established Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire, including Europe, and beyond - even into Africa. However, in all cases, the church remained small and was persecuted, particularly under tyrannical Roman emperors like Nero (54-68), Domitian (81-96), under whom being a Christian was an illegal act, and Diocletian (284-305). Many Christian believers died for their faith and became martyrs for the church (Bishop Polycarp and St Alban amongst others). |::|

“When a Roman soldier, Constantine, won victory over his rival in battle to become the Roman emperor, he attributed his success to the Christian God and immediately proclaimed his conversion to Christianity. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine then needed to establish exactly what the Christian faith was and called the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD which formulated and codified the faith.| ::|

Early Christians: Paul’s Congregations

Paul in Ephesus

Paul's early congregations were portrayed being comprised mainly of lower class people, but they were in fact made up of of what could be described as "upwardly mobile" people. Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “What kinds of people belong to these early congregations? Who signs up? Paul's congregations are typically based in individual homes. We call those "house churches" these days. They didn't have church buildings. There probably weren't that many synagogue buildings that one could recognize. Even Jewish communities typically began in homes as well, and in these home congregations or house churches we should imagine a mix of people from across the social spectrum of any Greek city. There's the owner of the house, a kind of wealthy patron. It might be someone like Stephanus or Phoebe. Also the members of their household, family members as well as household slaves and even their clients if they were in a artisan guild. Say tent makers or merchants of some sort. We might typically expect that the household would include not only the immediate family and others around them but even the clients and business partners.... Paul seems to have recognized the opportunity that these house church congregations afforded for getting into the networks of individual relationships that afford to him access to many different people within the Greek city. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The worship of an early Christian house church probably centered around the dinner table. They don't necessarily all sit facing forward like in a church building that we think of today but rather they're in someone's dining room and the center of their activity really is the fellowship meal or the communal meal. The term communion actually comes from this experience of the dining fellowship.... We need to remember that dining is one of the hallmarks of early Christian practice almost from the very beginning. All the gospel traditions tend to portray Jesus at the dinner table as a very important part of his activity. Paul's confrontation with Peter at Antioch is over dining, and when we look at the context of the letters, especially First Corinthians, the role of dining in fellowship is central to all of their religious understanding and practices.

“We also know that all other aspects of worship that we think of as going with early Christian practice probably happened around the dinner table as well. Paul refers to one person having a song and another person bringing a prayer. Everyone is contributing to the banquet whether it's in the form of food or in the form of their piety and worship. They all bring it to the table.... Some of them bring prophecies or charismatic gifts, and these too form some of the concerns that Paul deals with in some of the letters. Sometimes charismatic gifts also produce tension within Paul's communities. We hear at times of Paul having to discipline people or suggest that the congregation discipline people by kicking them out of the fellowship dinner because he doesn't like the ethical behavior of some people. We hear of questions of dining with pagans and going to dinner parties where the meat might not be of a suitable sort, so there's all kinds of questions that come up in the context of this house church environment in Paul's letters.

Paul's Message Appeals to a Range of Social Classes

Paul wrote in First Corinthians (1 Cor 1.10 -1.17); 10 I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga'ius; 15 lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Steph'anas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. [Source: Revised Standard Version]

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The traditional view of the composition of the early Christian communities — and the ones we know anything about are the Pauline communities — is that are from the proletariat. Early Marxist interpreters of Christianity make a great todo with this. It's a movement of the proletariat.... [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“But if you actually look at the Book of Acts, and you look at Paul, and you begin to collect the people who are named, or identified in some way, here you have Erastus, the City Treasurer of Corinth; you have Gaius of Corinth, whose home is big enough to let him be not only Paul's host but the host to all of the Churches of Corinth, all of the little household communities can meet in his house at one time. You have Stephanos and his household who have been host to the community. You have Lydia, in Philippi, who is the seller of purple goods, a luxury fabric. You have Prisca and Aquila, and we wonder why the woman is usually mentioned before her husband. She must be a woman of some consequence, who runs a tent making establishment, accordingly to the Book of Acts, in which Paul joins, as a fellow artisan.

Masters and slaves in the ancient Roman Empire

“So you begin to get the impression that you have quite a variety of different social levels represented in these early Christian communities. Not people at the absolutely top level; you have, with the exception possibly of Erastus, no one from the aristocratic orders - no one who would be a member of the city council. You have no agricultural slaves, are at the bottom of the hierarchy. But, in the rest of the social pyramid, everything in between, you seem to have representatives in these early Christian groups. The people who are named, whom we can identify, have the further characteristic that they seem to cross various boundaries, they're betwixt and between. In some ways, they are marked by high social status. Take Paul, himself. He clearly uses Greek very fluently. He clearly has rhetorical skills, though probably not of the sort that one would have learned at the university. He knows some of the things that are being discussed in the philosophical schools. On the other hand, he's a hand-worker, a tent maker, which is at the other end of the scale, and this is characteristic of most of those people that we know of, as leaders, who are named in the group. So, we begin to get a picture of upwardly mobile people, to use a modern anachronistic way of describing them.

Proto-Christians After Jesus’s Death

After his death, Jesus was seen by Jews as a failure as a Messiah, who by definition was supposed to conquer the oppressors of the Jews and created a Holy Jewish Empire. It was only after his death that the definition of a messiah for Christians would change from a victorious fighter to a peaceful, moralizing savior.

A central prophecy of early Christianity was a Second Coming of “clouds of glory” that was supposed to happen soon after Jesus’s death. In Mark Jesus told his disciples “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” But that didn’t happen at least in any kind of obvious way. As for an explanation the early Christians took a different tact: that salvation had arrived in the form of the church and sacraments and eternal life was available to anyone through salvation.

Some scholars said that the transformation of the perception of Jesus from a militant rebel rouser to a prince of peace took place after A.D. 70 when Jewish insurgent movements were crushed, the Jewish Temple was destroyed and Jewish people fled from Israel to various points around the world. At that point in time Jews realized there was little hope of establishing a Holy Jewish Empire through violent means, while the teachings of Christ showed that personal salvation was possible by following the peaceful teaching of Christ as told by St. Paul and other missionaries.

The Roman writers Josephus (A.D. 37-100),Tacitus (A.D. 56-117) and Suetonis (A.D. 69/75-after 130) refer to Jesus in their discussions of the new Christian sects.

First Christian Communities and Judaism

Pharisees and Saducees (Jewish sects) with Jesus

Christianity was first regarded by the Romans as sect within Judaism while the Jewish community viewed it as the “Jesus cult.” Most of the first Christians were Jews who saw themselves as Jews and as followers of a Jewish sect and didn’t see themselves as Christians. They worshiped at the Temple and followed the laws of Moses and were circumcised. Gentiles were required to become Jews before the could become Christians.

Over time the Jewish community became the disillusioned with members of the Jesus cult as it recruited Gentiles and neglected Jewish law, particularly the rules of circumcision. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Judaism was dealt and near fatal blow and Christianity emerged as a religion in its own right. Jewish authorities severed ties with Christians at the council in Jamnia in A.D. 83, where it was also decided that Hebrew cannon of scriptures was closed and that no Christian writing would be accepted as sacred texts.

Even so for many centuries Passover and Easter were celebrated together and many Christians attended synagogues. As the religion won more non-Jewish Roman converts it began to take on more of a Roman character. Only after several centuries did they begin to view themselves as Christians. For centuries after the Constantine’s conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century many Jews called themselves Christians.

Wandering Charismatics Soon After Jesus’s Death

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “One of the earliest indications that we have of the Jesus movement is what we tend to call "wandering charismatics," traveling preachers and prophets, who go on saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand, continuing the legacy of Jesus' own preaching, apparently. They travel around with no money and no extra clothes. So, they are supposed to perform miracles and heal the sick for free but they apparently begged for food. This is a different picture of the earliest form of the Jesus movement than what we've come to expect from the pages of the New Testament and yet, it's within the tradition, itself. We hear even in Paul's day that he encounters people who come from Judea, with a different kind of gospel message, and it looks like these are the same kind of wandering charismatics that we hear of, in the earlier stages of the movement, after Jesus' death. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The Jesus movement is a sect. How do sects behave? One of the things they have to do is, they have to distance themselves from their dominant cultural environment. A sect always arises within a community with whom it shares a basic set of beliefs and yet, it needs to find some mechanism for differentiating itself. So, sectarian groups are always in tension with their environment. That tension is manifested in a variety of ways - controversies over belief and practice; different ideas of purity and piety. But, another manifestation of that tension is the tendency to want to spread the message out, to hit the road and convince others that the truth is real.

Early Christian Rituals: Baptism and Sharing a Meal

Dura-Europos church, the earliest identified Christian house church, located in Dura-Europos, Syria, appears to have been a normal house converted for worship between AD 233 and 256

At an early stage Christians developed what would become two primary sacraments — baptism and the Eucharist. Baptism is a religious ceremony in which a person is dipped in or sprinkled with water as a sign of being cleansed of sin. In the Christian religion baptism also signifies that a person has been admitted to church membership. The Eucharist commemorates The Last Supper — Christ's last meal with his disciples before he died. Early Christians met on Sundays, for it was on a Sunday that Jesus had risen from the dead. They also recited prayers together and read from the Old Testament and from Paul's letters. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “Among the things that make the Christians different are a couple of rituals which they developed, early on before the very earliest sources that we have about them. One of these is an initiation ceremony, which they call baptism, which is simply a Greek word that means dunking. It's interesting that if you go to the little town of Dura-Europas and that 3rd century Christian building... precisely where one would expect to find the statute of one's god in any of the normal shrines of a religious group, you find what we would think of as a bathtub, with some interesting paintings on the wall behind it. This is the Baptistery. This is the place where people are initiated into this new cult. Why is that the center? Why is that the focal point? Clearly something happens here which is fundamental to the establishing of identity of a group, which at the same time binds them together so that they speak of themselves with family terms but also separates them, in some sense, from the society around them. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“A second major ritual which they developed is a meal, a common meal, which they have together, which is designed as a memorial of The Last Supper which Jesus had with his disciplines. This is recorded already in one of the letters of the Apostle Paul, and he presents this as a tradition which he has received and handed on to the people in Corinth. So, it's a very, very early thing and has various interpretations, but as a ritual, clearly this is an ongoing way in which the community has gathered and reasserts their unity with one another and their difference from others.

Diversity in Early Christian Communities

Early Christianity was extremely diverse and often contradictory in its beliefs and practices. Some 'Christianities' with unorthodox beliefs and practices were deemed outcasts; other merged and morphed; whole others fell by the wayside and became extinct. Geoffrey Wigoder wrote in the “Encyclopaedia Judaica”: A major difficulty in tracing the growth of Christianity from its beginnings as a Jewish messianic sect, and its relations to the various other normative-Jewish, sectarian-Jewish, and Christian-Jewish groups is presented by the fact that what ultimately became normative Christianity was originally but one among various contending Christian trends. Once the "gentile Christian" trend won out, and the teaching of *Paul became accepted as expressing the doctrine of the Church, the Jewish Christian groups were pushed to the margin and ultimately excluded as heretical. Being rejected both by normative Judaism and the Church, they ultimately disappeared. [Source: Geoffrey Wigoder, “Encyclopaedia Judaica”, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “Christianity did not start out as a unified movement. We have to remember that the disciples were probably dispersed at a very early time.... That is, at a time where there was no fixed formulation what the set of Christian beliefs should be. What Christian rituals should be. What they should think about Jesus or what they should tell about Jesus. The sources that we have tell us that Christianity started as a very diverse movement, as the founding of churches... moved into very different cultural and language contexts.... [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ] Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “We tend to think of the success of Christianity in the second and third centuries just on the eve on really when it becomes the prominent religion in the Roman Empire as if it were just one form of religiosity, when in fact the opposite is true. Christianity was extremely diverse during this period, and we probably ought to think of it as a kind of regional diversity; that is, the Christianity of Rome was different than Christianity in North Africa in certain ways, and that was different from what we find in Egypt, and that different from what we find in Syria or back in Palestine. We have, in effect, different brands of Christianity living often side by side, even in the same city. So, it's a great deal of diversity. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“At one point in Rome,... Justin Martyr has his Christian school in one part of the city, and the gnostic teacher Valentinus is in another school in Rome, and another so-called heretic by the name of Marcion is also in Rome just down the street somewhere. All of these along side of the official papal tradition that developed as part of St. Peter's See in Rome, all there together. So, even within one city, we can have great diversity.

“Now, what's significant about this diversity is the fact that each form of Christian tradition tended to tell the story of Jesus in different ways. The image of Jesus for Justin Martyr is rather different than that that we see for Valentinus or Marcion or others as well. And this is especially true even in other parts of the empire. This is where we start to see a kind of proliferation of gospels ... all over the empire, and by the third and early fourth century [more] than you can actually count, and certainly more than you can easily read within a bible.


Holland Lee Hendrix told PBS: “Christianity, or one would rather say "Christianities," of the second and third centuries were a highly variegated phenomenon. We really can't imagine Christianity as a unified coherent religious movement. Certainly there were some religious organizations.... There were institutions developing in some Christian churches, but only in some. And this was not universal by any means. We know from, for example, the literature recovered at Nag Hammadi, that gnostic Christianity didn't have the kind of clear hierarchy that other forms of Christianity had developed. They still clung to a charismatic leadership model. And so there was a lot of variety in 2nd and 3rd century Christianity.... [Source: Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“There were very different views of Jesus in the various types of Christianity.... Perhaps the starkest contrast was among those who considered themselves as gnostic Christians, and those who considered themselves Christians in the old Pauline view of things. On the one hand, Paul, and Pauline Christianity, would have placed all of the emphasis on Jesus' death and resurrection, and the saving power of that death and resurrection. Gnostic Christianity, on the other hand, would have placed its prime emphasis on the message, the wisdom, the knowledge, the gnosis, that's where the word gnostic comes from, the Greek word for knowledge, the knowledge that Jesus transmits, and even the secret knowledge that Jesus transmits. So one would have on the one hand faith in the saving event of Jesus' life and death, and on the other hand knowledge as the great source of adherence to the Jesus movement on the other hand.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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