Early Christianity
The Early Church

The Earliest Christans   The earliest Christian communities following the death of Jesus of Nazareth were small, communal groups under the leadership first of the Twelve and then under a financial and administrative control of the Seven, appointed for precisely that administrative purpose. As you might imagine, the community of Christians was incredibly small. Even as the community increased in size, authority remained vested in a small group in Jerusalem who parcelled out authority to individuals in other cities and decided important issues raised throughout the world of Christianity.

   These early communities were largely concerned mainly with preparations for the end of time for the early Christians were convinced that the end of time would happen within their generation. Communal life consisted of shared property, sparseness of material comfort, and charitable activities. The earliest Christians celebrated only two rituals in addition to the standard Jewish rituals: the love-feast, or Agap&eacutpe;, and the Eucharist, a celebratory re-enactment of the last meal between Christ and his followers.


The Gentiles   The Christian mission as it was understood by Jesus of Nazareth and the Twelve was a Jewish mission; the preparations for the end of time involved only the chosen people. The chosen people, however, were of two types: Palestine Jews and diaspora Jews. While historians emphasize much of the differences between the two groups, they still had much more in common than they had differences. Paul's great innovation was the successful expansion of the Christian mission to include Gentiles; in the end, this was why Christianity survived as a religion. Part of Paul's conversion of the mission was to reconfigure Christian activity. While Christian activity had largely focussed on preparations for the end of time and on communal life, Paul believed that the Christian mission was to spread the truth about Christ as the dead and risen god and to prepare as many people as possible for the upcoming apocalypse. For Paul, Christians should become evangelists, from the Greek word, euangelos , which means "good messenger." This reconfiguration of the role of the Christian was in large part the most important cause of the dramatic spread of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean world.

   The Gentile mission largely focussed on Greeks throughout Asia Minor and Syria, but it very quickly expanded to Europe, the Arabian peninsula, and North Africa. Paul and his immediate successors focussed on Asia Minor and Europe, but the mission also went south into Arabia and Africa and east into Mesopotamia. These missions were relatively independent and would only intersect in the third century; there are aspects of African Christianity that were unique, such as the belief among Ethiopian Christians that they are in a descent line with King David.


The European Church   Paul and his immediate followers, however, were more interested in the Greek cities of Asia Minor, the Balkans and Greece, and later Rome itself. The earliest communities throughout these areas were small, isolated and self-governing. While there was a vague sense of hierarchy in this rapidly spreading movement, Christian communal life was more or less egalitarian. Each community had a set of elders, or presbyters, that made larger decisions for the community and a set of priests or deacons that helped with ritual matters. If the letters of Paul are an indication, there didn't seem to be any gender bias in filling the office of deacon.

   As the communities grew, both in cities and in surrounding towns, they came under the social, economic, and religious control of episkipoi, or "bishops." These bishops eventually gained control over not only individual communities, but Christian communities in surrounding rural areas.


Mystical Religion   Throughout the first, second, and third centuries, Christianity competed with a host of similar mystical religions all throughout the Greek world. The most important was Mithraism, which shared many similar characteristics with Christianity. Unlike Christianity, though, Mithraism barred women from worship; a large number of the earliest converts to Christianity were women, even though Paul argued that women should be silent on religious matters.

   Another religion popular throughout the Greek world was Gnosticism, which comes from the Greek word for "knowledge." We don't much about the origins of Gnosticism; the first recorded Gnostic teacher is Simon Magus, who lived at the time of the ministry of the Twelve. The Gnostic religion centered around the figure of Sophia, or Wisdom, which was believed to have come down from Heaven to earth, where she became besmirched, but was raised up again by God to heaven. This religion derived from the Canaanite religion, which also worshipped a Wisdom that had descended and risen to Heaven; so the roots of Gnosticism go back to at least the seventh century BC. The Hebrews incorporated some aspects of Gnosticism, including a proto-Gnostic Canaanite religious text embedded in Proverbs 8-9.

   What is significant about Gnosticism is that it made itself at home with practically every religion circulating around the Mediterranean. The worship of Sophia was easily folded into Zoroastrianism, with it's battle between good and evil, Judaism, with its concept of a supreme God, Stoicism, with its myth of the descent of light to the earth, Mithraism, with its story of the descent and resurrection of the sun-god, and, finally, Christianity, with its story of the descent and resurrection of Christ. There were Zoroastrian Gnostics, Jewish Gnostics, Stoic Gnostics, and, of course, Christian Gnostics.

   Christian Gnosticism was a major competing religion for early Christianity; one of its most popular manifestations was Man

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-31-97