Early Christianity
Christianity

Categories   Christianity in two millenia of existence can only be described as a dramatically volatile and dynamic world view and religion. It has undergone numerous transformations since its inception as the religion has been required to adopt to new roles in society and to changing world views; it has also, as the first deliberate multicultural religion, been deeply transformed by its early translation into foreign cultures and its later translation into European and world cultures. While historians emphasize the cultural unification that occurred in Europe with the diffusion of Christianity, we should also emphasize that medieval Christianity was profoundly changed by its diffusion into other cultures.

   The most relevant fact in the history of Christianity as a religion and as a world view was that it was almost immediately transplanted from its native culture into dramatically different foreign cultures. This translation of Christianity into a foreign culture happened right at its foundation; it did not have time to develop as a Jewish religion before it was recast in the light of a non-Jewish culture. Much of the later foundation of Christianity as a religion was occupied with this transformation; this activity would deeply affect the transmission of the history of its founding. Almost all biblical scholars are in agreement that the texts which narrate the founding of the religion—the gospels—were written late in the process with the knowledge that the religion would be pass into Greek and Roman culture.

   We can understand Christianity in terms of this process of translation. Foundational Christianity is the philosophy, mysticism, and teachings of a small group of Jews centered around the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The bulk of the religion, ethics, and teachings originate with Jesus of Nazareth after whom the religion is named. Scholars are in intense disagreement over the historical Jesus, but it is clear that he did not write; what we know of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth come from a series of texts—called gospels—written some thirty years after his death. Nevertheless, foundational Christianity also includes the small number of followers who continued the religion after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The later history of foundational Christianity told in the gospels would give these followers a special role during the lifetime of Jesus as apostles, though that may be a later mythologizing because of their unimpeachable importance after the death of Jesus. Included in this group was a late convert to the religion—Paul of Tarsus—whose writings and activities rival those of Jesus of Nazareth in formulating the doctrine, ethics, and sociology of the new religion.

   Early Christianity can be understood to be that period in which Christianity was translated into Greek and Roman culture on one side and into North African culture on the other side. Both translations would produce a Christian religion remarkably different from much of foundational Christianity. The learning module on Civilizations in Africa discusses African Christianity in some detail; we'll be interested here in early Christianity in the Greek and Roman worlds.

   The principle character of early Christianity is the gradual translation of the Jewish religion of Christianity into the Greek and Roman world view. The initial stage of this process overlaps with foundational Christianity; the most important figure in the transformation of Christianity into a non-Jewish religion was Paul of Tarsus, one of the founders of the religion—the division between foundational and early Christianity is not a neat one. This process of transformation is also evidenced in the earliest histories of Jesus of Nazareth, the Gospels, in which Greek ideas often flow freely. The compilers of the Gospels were already familiar with the movement of Christianity into the Greek and Roman worlds and are trying to account for it in some way. The history most influenced by Greek thought is the Gospel of John, a very late history, whose narrative is structured almost completely around Greek ideas giving it a character vastly different from the earlier histories.

   The most dramatic event in the history of early Christianity is the adoption of the religion as the state religion of Rome. This was a momentous event not only for the spread of Christianity but for the very soul and nature of the religion as well. For when Christianity became the religion of the Emperor of Rome, it had to accomodate itself to the political and social theories underlying the authority of the emperor. These accomodations included coming under the control of the emperor and dealing with the emperor's divinity as well. Just because Constantine became Christian in 383 AD did not mean he had to surrender his claim to godhood! There was a more pressing problem for Christianity after it became a state religion in Rome—how to transform an essentially anti-political and anti-materialist relgion into one that can legitimate authority and temporal rule. For the Roman state built the authority of the state on Roman religion—Christian religion now had to fill the gap and not only justify authority but had to provide political and social theories to underlie all the uses of that authority. It's not unfair to say that foundational Christianity was not designed for that particular job—the result was a earth-shaking transformation of the religion itself.

   Finally, what we call medieval Christianity was the diffusion of Christianity throughout European cultures from 400 AD until the Renaissance. There are two distinct stages in this diffusion. In the first stage, Europe was a highly diverse, multicultural society. As Christianity spread among this diversity of cultures it was transformed in part by each of these cultures. As the cultures of Europe varied, the forms of Christianity often varied between them and some cultures, such as the Irish Celts, held up these differences as a point of cultural pride. In the second stage, roughly corresponding to what we call the high middle ages, Christianity became a common ground for a European monoculture. It became the ground on which the "idea of Europe" was discovered; I often speak of the high Middle Ages as "the discovery of Europe."


What is Christianity?   Foundational Christianity is truly remarkable in its character; perhaps the most remarkable aspect for a student of cultures is how radically the world view and focus of the religion challenged the existing world view. What were the central ideas of Christianity at its foundation? How do these ideas become the foundation of later world views? In summing up the main ideas of foundational Christianity, I'm collapsing Jesus of Nazareth with the later founders of Christianity because the history and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is told from a perspective that comes after the activities of the followers of Jesus, including Paul—this makes it very difficult to surgically remove, you might say, Jesus of Nazareth from the followers that recast and remade the religion.


BulletChristianity is otherworldly.

   Foundational Christianity posits a world or universe that is both different and above the material world. In both ethical and religious terms, foundational Christianity asserts that the proper concern of human life are the realities of this other world. Concern for the material world is consistently construed as misdirected.


BulletChristianity is dualistic.

   Christianity conceives of the universe as essentially dualistic in much the same terms as Zoroastrianism and Essene Judaism, from which Christianity is derived. In foundational Christianity, the universe is divided between two rougly equal forces—a force of good and a force of evil—which are in constant conflict. This conflict is largely played out in individuals rather than in some grand physical battle, as in Zoroastrianism.

   Foundational Christianity is dualistic in another sense—it also conceives of the universe as divided into two poles, one associated with the divine and spiritual world and the other associated with the material world, the stage on which human history is played out. Of the two worlds, one's proper attention is focussed on the divine and spiritual world.


BulletChristianity is transcendentalist.

   The relationship between the divine and the material worlds in foundational Christianity is a transcendental relationship. This means that the divine world is not only superior to the material world but that the material world gains its value and meaning only in relation to the divine world. However, the divine world gains its value and meaning only from itself—it is not dependent on the material world while the material world is dependent on it.

   The term which grounds foundational Christian transcendentalism is the word logos, a concept that is introduced after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a Greek concept that is discussed only in the Gospel of John , the Gospel most influenced by Greek thought and the mystical religions circulating in the Greek world. Logos in Greek means something like meaning or pattern; when the term is used as "meaning," it refers to the entire meaning of a sentence rather than the specific meaning of a word. In Greek philosophy, the term refers to the sum total of the phenomena of the universe; in later Greek Stoic philosophy, it refers to something like the overall meaning or overall plan to all phenomena. The Christian use of the term relies on this later meaning; the divine is a pattern or meaning to the sum total of human history and material phenomena. The author of John , however, introduces a radically new element. Not only does that author associate logos as the divine pattern with God in the same way as Greek philosophy—"In the beginning was the logos , and the logos was with God and the logos was God"—the author also claims that the logos was fully present in material form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—"and the logos was made flesh." The transcendental world, then, was fully made present in an instant in time—the Christ event in history—and as such becomes accessible in a finite form for the rest of humanity to understand. This is a radically new innovation; in Greek and Stoic philosophy, the logos as the divine pattern of the universe is completely inaccessible to human understanding since it comprises the whole of history and phenomena.


BulletChristianity is a salvation religion.

   The primary focus of human activity is salvation; this is a fairly complex idea throughout foundational Christianity without real clear development. A salvation religion is one that asserts that human beings will be admitted to the other world through the agency of the divine rather than through their own agency. Two things are required in a salvation world view: first, the world in which we find ourselves is a world of suffering and misdirection while the other world is one without suffering; second, admission to the other world is through the agency and beneficence of the divine.

   Foundational Christianity builds on a concept introduced into Judaism through the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. Christianity asserts that salvation is an aspect of one's life after one has died—it is not an aspect of the material world. Salvation, however, is not open to everyone; the alternative is an afterlife of punishment. While foundational Christianity is vague about the nature of the afterlife in terms of salvation, it's clear from statements of Jesus of Nazareth and later writers that the Christian afterlife of punishment is one of retributive justice. This afterlife of punishment was unorthodox in Judaism, but had been introduced into popular Judaism through Persian culture. As Jesus of Nazareth developed his ethics and theology, the circumstances of the afterlife, both good and bad, began to loom very large. By the time Christianity moves into the hands of Jesus's immediate followers, the afterlife, both the saved and non-saved version, have become the central concern of the religion.

   Foundational Christianity does not make the circumstances of salvation and punishment very clear. It seems at the outset the entrance requirements are fairly low; in the Gospels Jesus of Nazareth claims that faith in himself is sufficient, whatever faith means in the context. Jesus of Nazareth points to one and only one group as excluded from salvation—the wealthy—but except for this one exclusion links salvation entirely to one's internal state. Later writers, such as Paul of Tarsus, will greatly expand the exclusion list; this can largely be seen as an attempt to make the religion fit the new growing social character of Christianity and the small, self-sufficient societies building up around it.


BulletChristianity is world-denying.

   The dependent relationship that the material world has on the world of the divine seriously degrades the value of the material world as a sphere of human action and human desires. Foundational Christianity rejects the material world as a proper sphere for human desires and human action to be focussed on and instead places the divine and spiritual world—the transcendental world—as the only proper focus of human endeavor. In religious terms this is called a world denying or ascetic world view. A fairly large number of statements by Jesus of Nazareth imply that he expects people to give up worldly possessions—he demands it unambiguously of one individual. In addition, the only group of people that Jesus of Nazareth completely, irrevocably and without any qualifications of any kind excludes from salvation are wealthy people—he doesn't exclude tax collectors, adulterers, homosexuals, or blasphemers, but without admitting any exception to the rule claims that all wealthy people will not gain salvation, including the faithful. It's a curious exclusion and one that's hard to explain—it is certainly consistent with the ascetic dimension of foundational Christianity. It's important to understand, however, that even though foundational Christianity demands a rejection of the material world, Christian ethical action is often ruthlessly focussed on the material well-being of others. It is not enough to sell all you have—the second part of the injunction is to give the money to the poor.


BulletChristianity is anti-political.

   As an aspect of the world-denying, individualistic, and interioristic character of Christianity, the world of government and authority is explicitly rejected as a proper sphere for human action and human concern. This anti-political aspect of Christianity is in part explainable by the fact that it was a marginal religion with followers from the least powerful parts of society. It is, however, a philosophically consistent position with the rest of Christian philosophy, theology, and ethics. The most serious challenge to Christianity came when individuals in authority became Christians; that problem was compounded when Rome became officially Christian and all authorities were Christians. Since foundational Christianity is antithetical to the exercise of government and authority, the religion had to be fundamentally changed. The nature of political authority and the legitimation of authority also changed profoundly—the transformation went in both directions.


BulletChristianity is an ethical religion.

   One surprising aspect of Christianity is that, in spite of the anti-worldly, individualistic, anti-material, and anti-political nature of foundational Christianity, it is also an intensely ethical religion. While it rejects this world as a legitimate concern for human beings, the early founders of Christianity develop one of the most active and rich ethical systems ever devised. It has several properties. It is societistic in that it is focussed on the welfare of others. It is materialistic in that the dominant concern is the material welfare of others. It is active in that it demands that individuals take an active role in improving the welfare of others. It is non-retributive in that it demands individuals to withold retributive justice when wronged. It is individualistic in that ethics are the sole responsiblity of individuals rather than social groups. It is interioristic in that it postulates that ethical behavior arises from an internal state—in philosophical terms, this is called agent ethics, since the ethical focus is on the intentions and motivations of the person doing an act rather than on the nature of the act itself.

   In its earliest founders, Christian ethics is built on a single term, agapé. This is a difficult word to translate; the most common English equivalents are "charity" and "love." The Greek language had three main terms for love: "eros," "philos," and "agape." Eros was the physical, sensual, and sexual love one felt for another human being; it is from this word that we derive the word "erotic." Philos comes closer to the love one feels for a friend; if you say, for instance, that you love a particular book, the word you'd use is "philos." Hence words such as "philosophy," "the love of wisdom." In both these terms one is describing a mutual relationship; your love in both cases is defined by what you get out of the relationship. If the book was boring, you wouldn't love it.

   Agapé was used to describe what we would call altruism, a selfless love for the welfare of another. Agapé is not defined by what you get out of the relationship; in fact, it really isn't present if you are somehow being rewarded for it. This is the term that foundational Christianity uses to define the relationship of God to humanity; God has agapé towards humanity, that is, God is selflessly concerned for the welfare of humanity without gaining anything from that concern of from the welfare of humanity. In addition, this agap&eacupte; is evenly distributed to all humanity; no individual because of class or wealth or position is unequally excluded. And that is what Christian ethics demands of individual humans; as an individual you should imitate the agapé of God in your relationships with all human beings. It is from this concept that the entire structure of Christian ethics is built.

Richard Hooker



Next
Backgrounds


World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-31-98