Christianity’s Infancy Narrative


16 September 2016

I have always liked a quotation attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”

By profession and calling, I am an historical theologian. The focus of my curiosity and my research has always been how believers, across the centuries and in a variety of cultures, have experienced their Christian Faith and how they gave expression to it in words, symbols, rituals, and institutional structures. 

Periodically – especially if he is a bit annoyed by something I have written — a bishop friend reminds me that while I may “perhaps” know more about the church’s history than he does, he, nevertheless, has the fullness of priesthood and possesses complete “sacramental power.” He stresses that at the Last Supper Jesus ordained the first bishops and he, as a “successor of the apostles,” has that same ordination. My old friend is doing exactly as Napoleon observed: presenting the version of past events that he and more than a few of his colleagues have decided to agree upon.  

I would suggest that today’s historical theologians would have a more nuanced understanding of what the historical Jesus actually did at the Last Supper and what happened in the early Christian Church.  

Historians see three major periods for the early Church, as it developed from the primitive Christian community animated by the Easter experience, until the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. It was a church that experienced growth, cultural change, and significant modifications over a period of about 500 years. We have: 

1) The Apostolic Community: from time of the Death/Resurrection of Jesus, probably sometime between 27 and 34 CE, until around the year 100 CE.   

2) Greco-Roman Christianity as distinct from Judaic Christianity: from around 100 to 313 CE when the Edict of Milan gave Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire.  

3) Post Constantinian Christianity: from Constantine until the Fall of Rome in 476 CE.  

THE APOSTOLIC COMMUNITY – until around 100 CE. 

In the Apostolic Community, certainly in the beginning, there were still some who had experienced Jesus with their own eyes. The community was an “ekklesia,” an assembly or gathering of Christians animated by the Spirit of Christ, often referred to as “The Way,” based on the well-known statement by Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” In the beginning they were Jewish Christians who attended synagogue on the Sabbath and gathered in their homes on Sunday to pray and reflect on the life of Jesus and celebrate “the breaking of bread” (Eucharist) in his memory.  

Those who presided over the house churches and early Eucharistic celebrations were the men and women who were heads of the households. Ordination did not yet exist. The historical Jesus never spoke of ordination, did not ordain anyone; and he did not lay down any institutional blueprint for the church. Life in the Apostolic Community was charismatic and free-form.  

As the Apostolic Community began to grow and create its own structures, “elders” (presbyteroi) were appointed for local communities, “deacons” (diaconoi) ministered to groups with special needs; and “overseers” (episkopoi) were chosen to provide broader-based supervision. While Peter “the Rock” had a major role among the Apostles and Jesus’ disciples, James “the brother of the Lord” became the key leader of the Apostolic Community in Jerusalem.  

The Apostolic Community strove to live in harmony but was not without controversy. Around the year 48 CE a major issue arose in Antioch. (Its ruins lie near the modern city of Antakya, Turkey.) The issue was whether or not circumcision was required for “Christians,” the non-Jewish converts to the way of Christ. The new Gentile converts did not follow all “Jewish Law” and refused to be circumcised, because circumcision was considered repulsive in Hellenistic culture. 

Paul and Barnabas were not inclined to impose the Jewish rite of circumcision on Gentile converts to Christianity. The community in Antioch decided to consult the Christian community in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas, together with Titus their Greek companion, as well as some others, were sent to Jerusalem to attend what we call the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE. 

At the Council of Jerusalem, Simon Peter (Acts 15:7–11 and Acts 15:14) argued that since God had demonstrated divine approval of Gentile converts by giving them the Holy Spirit, no other burdens should be placed on them. Paul and Barnabas were then invited to give an account of their ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). In the end it was James who submitted a proposal, which was accepted by the council and became known as the Apostolic Decree: 

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19–21) 

GRECO-ROMAN CHRISTIANITY – until round 313 CE. 

During this period, we see the establishment of ordination not for the sake of giving a person special power but for the sake of church order: a form of quality control for those who exercise leadership in the Christian community. To safeguard the community of faith, only leaders with proven and accepted faith, good Christian knowledge, and proven leadership skills would be authorized – ordained – for ministry in the community of faith. 

In the Greco-Roman period, we see as well a growing institutional distinction between the ordained and the non-ordained; and a gradual limitation on the role of women in the community of faith, thanks to the influence of people like the Christian theologian Origen (185 to 254 CE) who observed: “For it is improper for a woman to speak in an assembly, no matter what she says, even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since they come from the mouth of a woman.” During this period, we also see the influence of Platonic philosophy in a tendency to stress the spiritual over the physical. Nevertheless, there is still a strong sense of being a collaborative community of believers. 

POST-CONSTANTINIAN CHRISTIANITY – until around 476 CE. 

Under the reign of Constantine the Great, from 306 to 337 CE, Christianity became the legally accepted and dominant religion of the Roman Empire. It became the official religion of the Roman Empire, with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE. 

In the post-Constantinian period, Christianity became a full-fledged institutional church. It took over the Roman Empire’s governmental structure, like dioceses for instance. The pomp and ceremony of the old Roman imperial court became the official ceremonial ritual for the Bishop of Rome. (And for many popes thereafter.)  

Bishops during this period became regional civil judges. The church’s liturgy and sacraments became more standardized. Women were edged even more to the background; and we see disturbing signs of misogyny in great churchmen like St. Augustine the Bishop of Hippo (354 to 430 CE) who observed: “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” And, perhaps not so surprisingly, we see the beginning of a real clerical culture. 

Most importantly in this post-Constantinian period, church authorities approved which books belong to the official canon of the New Testament. Major decisive moments came in the Synod at Rome in 382 CE and the synods at Hippo in 393 CE and Carthage in 397 CE which ratified the Synod at Rome.  

Concluding observations

(1) We cannot reverse the clock, nor should we, even if we could. We are contemporary people living in contemporary time. “We are not on earth as museum keepers,” Pope John XXIII said, “but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare a glorious future.” 

(2) It would be greatly beneficial, however, if we could live and minister with the open-minded spirit and creativity of the Apostolic Community. In this way we would best respond to the signs of our contemporary times….. 

(3) Sorry this blog post is longer than usual.  

(4) Next week some brief but to the point thoughts about Peter as “the first pope.” 



5 thoughts on “Christianity’s Infancy Narrative

  1. I have found myself wondering about the sign value in much of this. The sign of baptism is very clear, and very physical. I’m almost surprised it has remained strong through the period when everything else seems to have “deteriorated” to the spiritual-philosophical realm. Then I look at marriage, and wonder about the sign value there. We have the marriage vow, and the giving of rings. That doesn’t strike me as being very physical, nor a strong sign. It’s interesting to recognize that physicality is still required, insofar as marriage without intercourse can be annulled. We require the physical, but not within the sign of the marriage ritual. I am not proposing any particular changes, but it seems to me the sign of the marriage sacramental ritual could and should be strengthened considerably.
    And then I look at Eucharist, and I find myself wondering where the sign is. Seldom do we have any indication of a meal being prepared and shared. In most cases, the bread is brought, not as a loaf, but as individual wafers. The only “breaking” that takes place is in the fraction rite. And in some churches, even the cup is split up into individual thimbles/glasses. No sense there of blood poured out from one for all and all time. We seem to have moved, very early in the life of the church, from a physical meal setting for the Eucharist to a theological/spiritual/philosophical thought process. That move has made for some wonderful theology of the Eucharist, to be sure. But I suggest it’s also taken away any sense that, as we gather together for the Eucharist, we are gathered for a family meal. This loss shows up especially when, as happens more and more often these days with marriages across denominational lines, our churches are populated by Christian spouses of traditions other than Catholic.
    We welcome them for the gathering, for the telling of family stories and traditions, for the funding of the church, and for the preparation of the meal. But when it comes time to eat, we treat Christians of other traditions, not as the brothers and sisters (even if perhaps somewhat estranged) they are, but as “other”, perhaps as servants, but definitely not as friends, and even less as the brothers and sisters in Christ which they are. And, in the manner of Downton Abbey, we send them to the scullery to eat their meal, while we enjoy the food they have helped prepare.
    Perhaps it’s time the history gets rewritten, to more fully match our history rather than a story we have simply made up as self-proclaimed Reformation victors. Perhaps, too, it’s time we restore a sense of physical reality/sign value to our sacraments, of marriage but especially of the Eucharist. Perhaps then we will begin to see each other as brothers and sisters, rather than people to be converted, or foes to be vanquished. And perhaps then, the Eucharist will be allowed to effect unity, rather than requiring unity before we can give thanks.

  2. Am so enjoying these history lessons (even though some of the quotes, regarding women, “bristle me feathers” a bit 😉 ). If only our Church hierarchy would put such thoughtful reason together. If only we could fulfill our own Apostolic Creed.

  3. Your “bishop friend” could certainly benefit from your columns! Also, it was
    not “too long” since I always learn so much and always look forward to your
    next essay. I appreciate and agree with your conclusions and always wonder
    what would have happened to the spirit of VatII had not the popes quashed it.

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