Early Christianity
Backgrounds

   There is a pronounced tendency in Christian history to stress the innovative character of the religion inaugurated by Jesus of Nazareth; this view of Christianity was introduced by the early Christians themselves. This view tends to elide the social and religious backgrounds that operated in the formulation of this new religion, particularly the role of Judaism. The hostility between Jews and early Christians led to a mythology that Christianity was a substantial departure from Judaism; this view has led to serious anti-Semitism and the insistence on the discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity is itself a fundamentally anti-Semitic stance.

   When examined in its individual parts, there's nothing original or new about the early Christianity, from the stories and teachings of its founder to later reformulations by the followers of the new religion in the first century AD. What was perhaps original about Christianity was its combination of several heterogenous elements into a single structure; it was continuous with a variety of traditions, philosophies, and religious practices, and synthesized all of these into a new structure.

   It may surprise most people familiar with Christianity that the oldest strata of the early religion that we have available to us are not the stories and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but the letters of Paul, an orthodox Jew and a later follower of Jesus who had never met him. The religion that Paul founded was based on one overwhelming aspect: the death and resurrection of God in the form of Jesus. It was this death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that constituted for Paul the Christ event in human history. This risen god religion had roots in many other religions, especially Greek and Persian religions. The Christianity of Paul was also eschatological in that it focussed on the final events in history that would set the universe right once and for all. The Christ event in history, for Paul, was only the prelude to the final event in history, the last judgement of humanity and the destruction of the world. In this, Paul was drawing on popular Jewish religion which itself drew heavily from Persian influences. At the same time, however, Paul was a Pharisee, which meant that he believed that Jews, God's chosen people, should abide by the Mosaic law. Pharisaical thought is all over the letters of Paul and, we'll find, in the teachings later ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth in his biographies.

   Onto this structure would be added orally transmitted stories about the life of Jesus of Nazareth and sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, who may have lived from around 3 BC to around 30 AD. These stories and sayings were not understood in any systematic or narrative sense in the first decades of Christianity, but rather in bits and pieces as they applied to certain contexts. Very late in the process—perhaps after everyone who had known Jesus of Nazareth had died—these stories and sayings were collected into a systematic form sometime after 70 AD. These texts, called gospels, did not seem to have much of a life in early Christianity—in 90 AD, Clement, the Bishop of Rome, proclaimed that the only official texts of Christianity were the Old Testament and various sayings attributed to Jesus Christ, none of which matched the sayings recorded in the Gospels. The Gospels do not seem to have any authority in the early Christian world until around 120 or 130 AD, the time when the last authoritative Gospel was written (The Gospel of John ) almost a century after the death of Jesus.

   The Jesus presented in these Gospels gradually evolves from a rabbinical teacher in the earliest gospel to the logos in John . The teachings ascribed to Jesus in all but John are strongly Judaic. Jesus preached an eschatological, messianic and dualistic religion which had strong ties to popular, unorthodox Jewish belief. At the same time, the ethical teachings of Jesus drew on the tradition of the Pharisees and traditional Jewish teaching—from the doctrine of love and non-retribution to the golden rule itself. The Gospels tend to emphasize the radicality of the sayings of Jesus, but almost all the ethical teachings of Jesus are fully in line with Jewish and Pharisaical ethics. The only exception are the teachings ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John , which reflect Greek ethical and metaphysical speculation.

   So we have two ways of understanding the historical layers of Christianity: a.) the sequence of founders from Jesus of Nazareth to Paul to later writers and the writers of the Gospels or b.) the sequence of writers from Paul to other writers to the writers of the Gospels. In the first understanding, Jesus of Nazareth is the founder of the religion; in the second, Paul emerges as the first voice in Christianity and the collection of sayings and stories surrounding Jesus of Nazareth are a later accretion. This is how we can understand the two historical sequences as one: the religion was founded by a relatively obscure, non-authoritative individual, Jesus of Nazareth, who preached a religion that combined both traditional, Pharisaical Judaism with popular messianic and apocalyptic Judaism. All the evidence points to the idea that Jesus of Nazareth considered these new teachings or religion to apply only to Jews, the chosen people of God. These teachings were modified in the tradition first by Paul, who stressed the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the death and rebirth of God and also universalized the religion by including non-Jews and exempting them from the strictures laid down for Jews. The later traditions, represented by the Gospels and epistles ascribed to others, would stress these universal characteristics in conflict with Judaism. The religion would become Hellenized, that is, its theology would be drawn from Greek and mystical religions and these influenced the selection and even content of the stories and sayings attributed to the founder.

   This means that the backgrounds to Christianity are manifold. First, we have the historical situation in Palestine that Jesus of Nazareth and his immediate followers, including Paul, moved in. Second, we have Judaic tradition and teaching which Paul drew on and Jesus of Nazareth seemed to heavily draw on. Third, we have popular Jewish religion which the common run of Palestine Jews lived with. Much of Jewish popular religion was unorthodox and would not have survived if not for the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was so heavily influenced by it. Third, much of Jewish popular religion derived from a Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, leaving us to another thread of influence. Fourth, we have the intrusion of Greek ideas into the religion culminating in the last Gospel which abandoned most of the Judaism still present in the religion. Some of these elements were introduced by Hellenized Jews, such as Paul, and others were introduced late in the process by non-Jews. Finally, we have the religion moving among other mystical religions from which it drew some ideas and rituals. We'll deal with all of these in turn:


The Historical Background   The historical situation around 30 AD was a grim one for Jews. Five hundred years earlier, they had been conquered by Assyrians and the highest officials and the wealthiest members of society were taken into exile. The exile ended when Cyrus, the Persian, conquered Assyria and returned the Jews to their homeland in 516 BC. The Jewish state, however, was only a religious state—it remained a vassal of Persia but was free in religious matters and the application of religious law to government and society. Life did not change dramatically when Alexander conquered Palestine, but soon the region was passing between rival Greek kingdoms, one based in Egypt and one in Syria.

   Out of the continuing subservience to foreign powers came two strong traditions in Jewish culture, one orthodox and one not. The first was messianism. In Hebrew thought, the Messiah, or "Anointed One," was any king sent by Yahweh to punish the enemies of the Jews. The Messiah came whenever the historical situation was too desparate for humans to handle; Yahweh would choose out an individual and correct the historical situation through that person. The second was apocalypticism, an unorthodox and popular movement ultimately derived from Persian religion. Apocalypticism is the belief that the historical situation will be set right at a certain point in history for all time. The two beliefs are fairly similar—they both assert that God intervenes in history to set it right. But there also very different: messianism asserts that God will set history right only temporarily and through a single individual while apocalypticism asserts that God will set history right permanently through appropriately awe-inspiring means. Both of these concepts were ways that Jews interpreted their history, but they were distinct and separate concepts.

   In Jewish thought the two concepts don't start coming together until after Palestine came under the rule of the Romans. The situation under the Romans was intensely humiliating; under the Romans, the Jews lost some religious independence. While they could still practice their religion, the Romans reserved the right to appoint priests. They were also faced with Roman regulations that seemed to violate the law given them by Yahweh. This led to subversion and rebelliousness, but the Romans were far too powerful to resist militarily. In the face of the desperateness of the situation, it seems that these two concepts—messianism and apocalypticism—combined in the popular imagination. The synthesis would emerge fully formed in the theology of Jesus of Nazareth.


The Pharisaical Background   Pharisees and the Pharisaical tradition have gotten a bad reputation in Christian history. This is in part explainable by strong resistance that the early Christians met with from the Pharisees who declared Christianity to be a heretical religion—it may be no exaggeration to assert that the Pharisees are the principal reason Christianity did not become a Jewish religion. Nevertheless, the Pharisees were only one historical instantiation in a Jewish tradition that dated back to the prophet Ezra; among the accomplishments of this tradition and the work of the Pharisees were the compilations of the books of Hebrew prophets, the standardization of the Torah, and the earliest works of the Jewish interpretive text, the Talmud .

   The Exile forced the Hebrews to re-evaluate their religion; the event did not fit the promises of Yahweh that formed the core of their religion. After the Exile, the prophet Ezra formulated a theology that explained the disasters encountered by the Hebrews. He asserted that the Hebrews deserved these disasters as just punishment for disobeying the will of God. Furthermore, the will of God was fully elaborated in the Mosaic books—the Torah, or "Teachings" or "Law"—which contained everything one needed to know to follow that will. If the Hebrews would follow the Torah, then historical disaster, the just punishment of Yahweh, would not be visited on them.

   This produced a profound realignment of Jewish faith. Previous to the Exile, Jewish faith focussed on the Abrahamitic aspect of the religion—this aspect was summed up in the Berit, or "promise," given to Abraham. After the Exile, the focus of Jewish faith and intellectual activity became the Mosaic aspect of the religion—the law or teachings given to Moses by Yahweh and the elaboration of those teachings in the Mosaic books.

   This theology was taken up by a group of teachers called the Sopherim, the first in a line of Jewish thought that would eventually produce the Pharisees. These teachers focussed on the Mosaic teachings in an attempt to convert them to a set of precepts that people could live by—they were, then, trying to turn the Mosaic books into a living religion. If all Jews had to live by the Torah, then they needed someone to explain it to them.

   The Sopherim interpreted the Mosaic texts in verse by verse commentaries called Midrash. These explanations took two forms. One set of explanations attempted to interpret the precepts or commands in the Torah into a form that could apply to the manifold phenomena of existence. The explanations of the precepts in the Torah were called halachah, or "walking," as in walking in the ways of Yahweh. These halachah were derived from the commands and precepts of the Torah and provided a set of directions for following these commands. The Torah, however, also contained ideas and passages which were not commands or precepts—the explanation of these passages were called haggadah. The haggadah were more in the line of providing understanding or advice from the text of the Torah rather than directions.

   The entire project was founded on two ideas: first, that Yahweh required obedience to his will from the community of Jews; the halachah were designed to guide the believer who has already freely chosen to obey God. Secondly, and most importantly, the duty to obey the will of Yahweh was not merely a communal duty, it was an individual duty. It was up to the individual to follow the Torah even in his non-communal life. There was a strong individualistic aspect to the ethics of the halachah tradition; it was from this that Christianity would develop its individualistic focus.

   The Sopherim period ended around 270 BC; there followed a long hiatus at the end of which Jewish teachers took up the practice again. The inheritors of that practice would eventually be the Pharisees. All of these teachers and Pharisees continued to develop halachah which were eventually collected into the Mishnah and then the Talmud.

   The later teachers, including the Pharisees, introduce some new elements to the practice. The most important of these is the concept of the unwritten Torah. In the centuries following the Greek conquest of Palestine, the Hebrews had come in contact with many foreign cultures, practices, and ethical systems, much of which were good and in accordance with the Torah. This led to a concept that there is an unwritten Torah behind not only these practices, but all human custom, including the Torah itself. This was an absolutely ground-breaking innovation, for it introduced a concept of a morality that was higher than the Torah itself and which could be used against literal interpretation of the Torah. For instance, one of the clearest commands in the Torah is that no work should be done on the Sabbath. However, the Pharisees argued that the unwritten Torah had higher moral injunctions—for instance, if one is attending a sick person, that is a higher duty than keeping the Sabbath, so one should not hesitate to do work to help the sick on a Sabbath day. The very foundation of the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth is essentially Pharisaical in this respect—there is a moral system that is higher than just the precepts contained in the Torah. This concept also would produce Paul's concept that the Law is written on every human heart and goes beyond the narrow precepts of the Torah.

   The Pharisees, too, stressed the role of the individual over that of the community. The whole ethical system of the Pharisees was the human obligation to do the will of God. The basic ethical term in the halachah and the Pharisaical tradition was mitzvah, or "duty" or "obligation." These duties, or mitzvoh , comprised the moral universe of the orthodox. One was to imagine one's life as composed of obligations or duties that you owed to God; these duties were an opportunity to display your will to obey God. It was a commonplace in orthodox Jewish tradition and Pharisaism that the mitzvoh were not burdens but rather occasions for joy, the simhah shel mitzvah, or "joy of the command." The Pharisees themselves revelled in the mitzvoh and elaborated piles of them based on the Torah. In fact, it's not unfair to say that the entire system of the Pharisees can be reduced to this one word, mitzvah .


Popular Judaism and Zoroastrianism   The religion of the Pharisees was the orthodox religion of the Jewish world at the time Christianity emerged; beneath this, however, their existed a living, dynamic popular religion that had many unique and unorthodox characteristics. We know much about this popular religion from the only organized and systematic form that Jewish popular religion took: Essene Judaism. We assume, however, that popular Judaism outside the Essene boundaries looked very similar.

   The Essenes took many of their beliefs from Persian sources and popular superstition and merged them with orthodox Jewish tradition. From Persia they took apocalypticism, a dualistic world view, and a myth of an evil god in conflict with Yahweh; from popular superstitions they took a belief in the operations of angels and demons and a set of rituals and healing practices designed to ward off demons.

   Essene and popular Judaism believed that the universe was divided into two competing forces, a force of good—Yahweh—and a force of evil, which was given various names. Human history and human life could be understood in terms of the conflict between these two forces. They also believed that the conflict would end in a final battle, after which the world would be destroyed, humanity would be judged, and the universe would be set right permanently.

   These ideas were introduced into the Hebrew world view by the Persians and their religion, Zoroastrianism, and combined with indigenous Hebrew ideas such as the idea of Yahweh as judge of humanity and the old Israelite idea of the last Day of the Lord. Zoroastrianism asserted that the the universe was created by a supreme and benficent god, Ahura Mazda, but was marred by the conflict engendered by an equally powerful evil god, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. Human history and human life was the stage on which this conflict was played out. At the end of time, the world would be destroyed and human beings would be judged through fire. Then would follow a final conflict between the forces of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu; the latter would be defeated and the history of the universe would come to an end.

   All of this was taken up in popular Judaism; these views, however, were considered heretical in orthodox Judaism. In addition, Zoroastrianism divided history into epochs, each lasting 3000 years. Early Christianity would derive its sense of the divisions of history from the Zoroastrian epochs.

   In popular Judaism, people believed that many if not most phenomena were caused by angels, servants of God, and demons. "Demon," actually, is a bad translation—in Greek the word means a "good spirit." The Hebrew words most commonly used were Mazzikin and Shedim, both of which mean "destroyers."

   The concept of angels were derived from polytheistic religion; since they all began as gods and closely resembled gods, orthodox Judaism did not encourage angelogy though angels were an officially sanctioned theological belief. From an orthodox view, however, belief in angels detracted from the supremacy of Yahweh, who intervened directly in human life and history, and from the central role of humanity and human obedience to Yahweh. The importance of angels in Jewish thought and practice accelerated dramatically after the Exile as the historical situation looked increasingly desparate and began to appear in Jewish writings frequently. It was believed that angels served both a protective and intercessory role. It was angels, for instance, that brought one's prayers to Yahweh. The essential character of angels, though, was that they were supernatural beings that humans needed to deal with to influence phenomena; all sorts of shamanistic and ritualistic practices arose around this belief.

   The Mazzikin and Shedim, however, were even more deeply ingrained in popular Jewish thought and practice. Almost all untoward events, including sickness and accidents, were ascribed to their influence. They lived in dirty and unclean places and literally surrounded by the thousands every individual in their daily lives and so constituted an ever-present threat. In daily life, this produced a special set of ritualistic and magical practices designed to ward off demons or cast them off when they successfully made someone sick, insane, or whatever. Daily life involved the use of prophylactics, such as charms, and prophylactic practices, such as not praying near dirt, to ward of demons. Daily life also included shamanic healing that, by casting demons out of a sick animal or human, also cast out their baleful influence.

   The biographies of Jesus of Nazareth plant him firmly in this shamanic tradition and some scholars believe that this was his essential historical identity. The biogaphers of Jesus of Nazareth would fold this shamanism into a larger structure of understanding the Christ event history which, for them, was entirely comprised of the death and resurrection of Christ the god.


Greek Culture and Thought   The Jews and early Christians also moved in a culture strongly influenced by Greek thought and religion. Much of the written texts of Christianity, including the Gospels, were written from this Hellenized perspective. Even the earliest of the gospels, that attributed to Mark and written between 70 and 80 AD, takes great pains to explain the meaning of even the most trivial of Jewish practices—indicating that Mark was writing to a primarily non-Jewish audience.

   So pronounced is the influence of Greek culture, that the earliest texts of Christianity are not written in a Jewish language, such as Hebrew or Aramaic, but in Greek. And the Greek is a very strange Greek; it is not the Greek of classical Greek literature or Greek philosophy, but an essentially different language with its own unique words. It turns out that this strange form of Greek was the Greek used around the Hellenistic world in informal letters; it was colloquial Greek, that is, the Greek of everyday, unofficial, unlearned life. We call this Greek Koiné, or "Common Person," Greek.

   So the writers and compilers of the Christian tradition were not writing in official Greek culture, but writing for common people. The Greek culture that influenced the formation of Christianity was everyday Greek culture more than official Greek culture as embodied in Greek philosophy and literature.

   What were some characteristics of that Greek culture? The first and most important were the salvation religions circulating around the Greek world, particularly those of the gods Prometheus and Herakles. Paul seemed to derive much of the structure of his religion of the dead and risen salvation god from these salvation religions circulating among the populace.

   Secondly, the version of the Hebrew scriptures—the Torah, the literature, and the prophets—that the early Christians, besides Paul, used to explain the role of Christ in relation to Jewish salvation history was the Greek version of these scriptures, the Septuagint. This is very important in that the Septuagint contained numerous mistranslations of the Hebrew. Jesus of Nazareth, in the arguments against the Pharisees attributed to him, often relies on the Greek translation or mistranslation of the Torah or the prophets rather than the original Hebrew. This reliance on the Greek text would form one of the most effective weapons against early Christianity used by orthodox Jews.

   From Greek religion, the early Christians would derive some of the most important miraculous aspects in the biography of Jesus of Nazareth, such as the virgin birth of Christ, which had no precedent in Jewish tradition. In an attempt to legitimate Christ's role as the dead and risen God, the early proponents of the religion had to draw on traditions familiar to their audience. When the early Christian mission was among Jews, the early Christians drew on the sayings of the prophets to legitimate Christ as the dead and risen God. When the early Christian mission was among Greeks, they drew on mysteries found in Greek religion, such as the virgin birth of the miraculous individual. They weren't always comfortable with these stories; the writer of John , for instance, rejected the virgin birth story.

   The most long-lasting philosophical influence of Greek culture is present in the final canonical texts of early Christianity, the most important of which is the Gospel of John. In this biography of Jesus of Nazareth, the author was concerned primarily with developing a Greek theology of the Christ event that subordinates all the other aspects, such as the dead and risen God, the shaman, the ethical teacher in the mold of the Pharisees, and so on. John's theology drew heavily on Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism.

   The relevant term in this philosophical recasting of Christinnity was the Stoic idea of logos, which means "meaning" or "pattern," as the wholeness of phenomena and history as it is contained in the divine mind. The entire course of material phenomena and human history is a working out of the logos contained in the divine mind. In John's theology, the Christ event in history was the incarnation of the logos in history; while Stoicism held that the logos is unknowable, John was asserting that the life and teachings of Jesus Christ contained the whole of the logos for humanity to understand.

   John also relied on an ethical term that appeared throughout the stories of Jesus of Nazareth, that of agapé , or "selfless love." The concept in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and Paul had its origins in the Jewish orthodox tradition that demanded that Jews love both their neighbors and their enemies. For John, however, agapé became the operative principle of the universe; it described not only a moral injunction, but the entire relationship of the divine to the humanity. In other words, what was an ethical principle was turned into a metaphysical principle—in this, again, John was partly indebted to Greek Stoicism.


Mystical Religions   In the Jewish, Greek, and Roman world in which Christianity circulated, there were a number of similar religions and movements which were in direct competition with Christianity. These religions were serious problems for the early Christians; not only did they drain off converts, they often closely resembled what was being taught by the early Christians, thus undermining the uniqueness of Christianity.

   John the Baptist. According to the historian of early Christianity, Luke, the central competition of Christianity among the Jews was a Jewish movement founded by John the Baptist who, unlike Jesus of Nazareth, shows up in non-Christian history. We know only the barest outlines of his career, but he seemed to be a charismatic ascetic who preached a return to the basic ethics of Judaism. His movement seemed partly founded on the idea that orthodox Jews, including Pharisees, advocated the same ethical purity but didn't live by their own standards. Central to his movement was a symbolic washing away of impurity, called baptism in Greek, which became the cornerstone of his movement.

   The movement he founded was so powerful that, according to Josephus, a non-Christian historian, King Herod had him killed. The movement lasted beyond his death and was very present in the earliest decades of Christianity. It was also serious competition, for many of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were identical to those of John. The followers of John resisted the new Christian religion, so early Christians folded the movement into Christian history. In Christian history, John is configured as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus of Nazareth, and baptism became a central ritual in early Christianity.

   Mithraism. In the Greek world, there were a number of mystery religions circulating about. Christianity would have to face many of these down, the most important of which was Mithraism.

   Mithraism was an offshoot of Persian Zoroastrianism. It shared the same texts and same basic beliefs, such as the final judgement and the conflict between good and evil forces. In Zoroastriansm, Mithra was the sun-god who was a divine lieutenant of the supreme god, Ahura-Mazda. Mithraism, however, worshipped Mithra for a different function.

   The Mithraists believed that Mithra came to earth in a human form in order to experience human suffering first-hand and atone for that suffering. He was incarnated, had followers, organized a last supper with those followers, was executed, and rose from the dead. While the outline of Mithra's career on earth is nearly identical with that of the Christ, and while Mithraism pre-dates Christianity by almost four centuries, almost no scholars believe that the outlines of the history of Christ were derived from Christianity. However, the early Christians understood perfectly that the similarities were serious enough that Mithraism constituted competition.

   This competition between Mithraism and Christianity heated up in the second and third centuries AD; both religions converted each others' followers fairly aggressively. Eventually, early Christians would fold some aspects of Mithraism into Christianity. For instance, for the Mithraists, the death and rebirth of Mithra represented the solar cycle since Mithra was the sun god. The most important ceremony for the Mithraists was the birth of Mithra which was determined appropriately as the winter solstice. Early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ and nowhere in any of the histories is the date of Jesus' birth set down. In their attempt to deal with Mithraism, they folded the celebration of Mithra's birth at the winter solstice into a Christian celebration of the birth of Christ, also held at the winter solstice, Christmas.

Richard Hooker

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-2-98