Early Christianity by lifemate


									Early Christianity
          Christianity in two millennia of existence can only be described as a dramatically volatile and
dynamic worldview 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 worldview 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 worldview. 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 accommodate itself to the political and social theories underlying the authority of the
emperor. These accommodations 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 religion 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 worldviews? 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.
Christianity 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
Christianity 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 roughly 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.
Christianity 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.
Christianity 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' 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.
Christianity 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 worldview.
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.
Christianity 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 legitimization of authority also changed
profoundly—the transformation went in both directions.
Christianity 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 withhold retributive
justice when wronged. It is individualistic in that ethics are the sole responsibility 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.

         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 heterogeneous 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
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 disparate 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 revealed 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 beneficent 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
         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 biographers 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
         The relevant term in this philosophical recasting of Christianity 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

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
         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,

Jesus of Nazareth
         The central figure in the foundation of Christianity was Jesus of Nazareth. In the earliest of his
biographies, we have glimpses into a radical Jewish teacher from humble origins who drew on Pharisaical
teachings. We also have glimpses of a Jewish shaman who cured the sick and cast out demons along the
lines of popular Jewish practice. For some of his contemporaries, Jesus seemed to have been regarded as
the Messiah, or "Anointed One," meaning that he was the king anointed by Yahweh to deliver Israel from
its enemies. For the Christians following Paul, Jesus was the crucified and risen God that served as a
prelude to the final judgement and destruction of the world. For these early Christians, Jesus was the
Christos, Greek for "anointed one," but this was God himself incarnate. For the last biography of Jesus,
that ascribed to John, Jesus was the logos, the divine plan or pattern of the universe made flesh in its
         Who was this founder, this man with so many identities? Did he actually exist? What were the
circumstances of his life? What did he actually say? Through what means have we come to know of him?
         The last question will help us answer the others. We come to know about Jesus of Nazareth
through sources that are well-removed from his life and, in the case of the biographies, removed even
from the living memory of his life. How reliable are those sources? Where did they come from?
The Gospels
         The texts through which we come to know of Jesus of Nazareth are the Gospels, a set of four
canonical texts outlining the life and sayings of Jesus. The first three of these Gospels—whose authorship
is attributed to Mark, Matthew, and Luke—recount events and sayings in very similar and parallel ways;
these are called Synoptic gospels after the Greek word meaning "that which can be seen at a glance." The
fourth gospel, attributed to John, is a theological work vastly different from the other three.
         These biographies were written relatively late. The first, the Gospel attributed to Mark, was
written at its earliest between 70 and 80 AD; the last, that attribute to John, was probably written around
120-135 AD.
         The reason for the lateness of biographies of Jesus was that the early Christians felt no need for
either a biography of Jesus or a collection of his sayings. For the early Christians believed that the Christ
event in history was the immediate prelude to the end of the world and final judgement of humankind.
Paul of Tarsus in his epistles wrote that the present generation, his own, would see the apocalypse. In the
Synoptic gospels, Jesus of Nazareth also claimed that the people around him would still be alive for the
last days.
         Anticipating the immediate end of the world at any moment, the early Christians felt no
obligation to record the life or sayings of Jesus— there was, after all, no future to bequeath this material
to. These early Christians were more concerned with preparing themselves for the expected apocalypse
and for spreading the truth of Christianity to as many people as possible before the anticipated end of
         During this time, the life and sayings of Jesus circulated in an oral form through Christian
teachers and public speakers. This oral material included stories and sayings attributed to Jesus, but they
did not exist in any systematic, organized, or universal form. These sayings and stories would be used by
teachers and speakers as they fit the particular occasion or subject of the moment. A public speaker would
use a saying attributed to Jesus as an occasion to lecture or discuss some aspect of Christianity or morality
with his audience. What the speaker talked about largely determined what the speaker chose to remember
about the life and sayings of Jesus.
         At the same time that these stories and sayings were circulating haphazardly around the early
Christian world, another set of stories about Jesus were being created. When Paul reinvented Christianity
as a religion of a dead and risen God, Christians soon found themselves having to legitimate Jesus of
Nazareth as deserving that status. The very first thing that needed to be accounted for was the death and
resurrection of Jesus. The history of Jesus' death, called the Passion ("suffering"), and the resurrection are
probably the oldest strata of the stories surrounding Jesus.
         But the early Christians needed more than the Passion and Resurrection to legitimate Christ as
having divine status. So the early Hebrew teachers of Christianity turned to the prophetic and messianic
tradition of Judaism and began to develop proofs of Christ's divinity by aligning events in Jesus's life with
older prophecies. This process also included configuring the humbly born Jesus of Nazareth as a
descendant of King David through his father, Joseph, since the messianic prophecies were clear that the
Messiah would come from the line of David.
         This legitimizing process continued when the religion entered the Greek world. The Greeks
associated divinity with miraculous stories and miraculous birth—from the Greek world would arise, for
instance, the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin, even though the virgin birth of Jesus
contradicted the earlier placement of Jesus as a descendant of David through Joseph.
         None of this material existed in a written, coherent or universal form for several decades after the
death of Jesus. At some point, scholars believe that a written text of only the sayings and teachings of
Jesus was in circulation, probably in an effort to standardize the proliferating teachings attributed to Jesus
in the oral tradition. This text, called Q, is only the product of guesswork by scholars, but it seemed to be
a source used in two gospels.
         The Gospels were the first attempt in early Christianity to come up with a coherent picture of the
life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The first gospel, Mark, is the shortest and shows the greatest
familiarity with Jewish life and thought. The later gospels, however, show increasingly less familiarity
with the Jewish context of Jesus's life and mission until we come to the last gospel whose author is
uninterested in that context. All of the authors of the gospels show some unfamiliarity with Palestinian
geography which indicates that they were written by non-Palestinians, either Jewish or Greek.
         All of the gospels are anonymous and were written largely in an attempt to provide some standard
collection of the stories circulating about Jesus—with the exception of the Gospel of John which is more
concerned with making a theological argument. These gospels were not, however, immediately
recognized as authority. As late as 96 AD, Clement, the Bishop of Rome, proclaimed the only
authoritative texts of Christianity to be the Old Testament and the various sayings attributed to Jesus in
circulation. The Gospels didn't appear in Christian writings until around 135 AD.
         By that point, gospel writing began to take off and continued unabated until the end of the third
century. For the oral tradition surrounding the life of Jesus was very rich: there were stories of the life of
Mary, the life of Joseph, of the youth and young adulthood of Jesus, of the events in hell between Jesus's
death and resurrection, and so on. By the end of the third century, these stories had also found their own
gospellers whose texts competed with the original four.
         The first four gospels, however, soon were regarded as authoritative and authors were ascribed to
them. It wasn't until the end of the second century that Irenaeus of Lyon argued that two of the gospels,
Matthew and John, were written by two of Christ's apostles and the other two, Mark and Luke, were
written by disciples of Christ's apostles. From this point onwards, the four gospels had the quality of
eyewitness testimony.
Jesus of Nazareth
         This tortured route of transmission that ended with the four gospels indicates several things about
the life and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth: first, the sayings and stories remembered by teachers and
speakers was strongly influenced by how the religion was presented and the circumstances it was
presented in. Simply considering Jesus to be a dead and risen God immediately created a situation which
privileged stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Christian teachers moved into different
communities, they would find need of different parts of the tradition. Second, the long period of oral
transmission and the decentralized way in which the stories and sayings were distributed throughout the
Christian world indicate that many of these stories and sayings were distorted or even made up whole
cloth to suit particular needs. This has led some scholars to assert that, if there was a historical Jesus, his
life and teachings are permanently lost to history.
          For all that, there is a remarkable consistency to the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth
(except those contained in John ) and this lends tremendous credence to the Christian belief that the
historical Jesus is the Jesus of the gospels. The truth probably lies somewhere between the scholarly
belief in the unreliability of the gospels and the Christian belief in them as an infallible portrait of Jesus.
          So what do we learn about Jesus of Nazareth as he is presented in the Gospels?
          As might be expected, the cornerstone of the Gospels is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In
their central arguments, the Jesus of Nazareth is a dead and resurrected god whose purpose was the
spreading of truth before the final judgement.
          In the teachings attributed to Jesus, it is abundantly clear that he was an apocalyptic teacher who
believed that the world would end within the lifetime of the people he was speaking to. The foundation of
these teachings was that human beings could be saved by both believing his word and by modelling their
lives on the higher moral law of God, that higher moral law that was the foundation of Jewish law. To this
end he believed that Pharisaical teaching was an appropriate guide to following this higher moral law; his
criticism of the Pharisees was that they did not live by what they taught.
          In line with this higher moral law, Jesus of Nazareth preached an ethics of selfless concern for the
welfare of others, rejection of material wealth, and non-retribution, all of which were standard in Jewish
ethics. In many statements, Jesus of Nazareth explicitly rejects government and politics as a legitimate
sphere of human action.
          The religion that he taught was an intensely individual and interioristic religion. Righteousness,
which means the performance of right actions, for Jesus of Nazareth was not a quality of actions but a
quality of the interior state of the individual. This was not really a break with the Jewish tradition, but it
was the core of the way Jesus defined the human relationship with the divine.
          There is abundant evidence in the Gospels that Jesus considered his teachings to be for Jews only;
this is a curious tradition for the gospellers to maintain in the face of the massive spread of Christianity
into the Gentile world. But nowhere does Jesus of Nazareth construct his teachings or the religion he's
espousing as anything other than for Jews and in one place explicitly says that his mission is only to the
          Included in the gospels are a number of miraculous events, many of which correspond with
shamanic practices of curing the sick and casting out demons. In the gospels, Jesus is perfectly
comfortable with many of the superstitions of the popular Judaism of the time, such as belief in demons.
The gospellers, however, are less comfortable with these stories and present these miracles as arguments
for the divinity and special mission of Jesus rather than in the shamanic tradition from which they are
Ultimately the Jesus who emerges from the gospels is concerned with preparing the Jews for the last
event in history and who actively preaches that human beings can enter individually into a correct
relationship with God through both faith and trust in God and through an active, ethical concern with both
the material well-being and the suffering of others. Onto this template, Paul of Tarsus would add a new
emphasis—Jesus as a dead and risen god co-extensive with God himself.

Paul of Tarsus
         The second important founder of Christianity is Paul of Tarsus (originally Saul of Tarsus, ~5-67
AD)who, even though he was a young contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, never even met him. In fact, he
spent part of his early career rooting out Jewish Christian communities and prosecuting them. Not long
after, however, he underwent a vision and converted to the new religion and brought to it an energy and
creativity that soon made him the most prominent leader in the new movement. Unlike Jesus of Nazareth,
Paul's role in the foundation of Christianity is absolutely clear. The standard narrative of his career was
written down within a decade of his death, and many of his writings were preserved. We can be fairly
confident in ascribing ideas and doctrines to Paul, whereas there is much dispute over what genuinely
belongs to Jesus of Nazareth in the accounts of his career.
         Paul was a product of the Jewish diaspora and was born in the Cilician city of Tarsus in Asia
Minor; unlike all the other earliest followers of Christianity, he was not a native of Palestine. As a citizen
of Tarsus he was also officially a citizen of Rome. Raised in Greek culture and fluent in Greek, it was
natural that he would take the side of the Hellenists in the dispute over the direction of the church. He
was, however, also a member of the Pharisees, a zealous group of Jews that focussed rigorously on Jewish
Law and the strict adherence to that law.
          His natural orientation towards the Greek world led to his most significant innovations in the new
religion; it's not unfair to say that the religion Paul left the world was a substantially different religion
than what he started with. The most salient aspect of the theology and ethics of Paul is his emphasis on
Christianity as a universal religion. Whereas Jesus of Nazareth and many of his followers seemed to
narrowly conceive of the religion as a religion of the Jews, Paul, in the context of the debate between the
Hebrews and the Hellenists, tirelessly and creatively recast Christianity as a religion for all peoples.
          This required some significant innovations that Paul would build off of the teachings of Jesus of
Nazareth that were circulating around him. The centerpiece of the debate between the Hebrews and the
Hellenists was the refusal of the Hellenic Christians to abide by Jewish law—it was, after all, a foreign
law. The flashpoints for the dispute were Jewish rules of eating and circumcision, neither of which the
non-Jewish Christians wanted to adopt. For the Jewish Christians, this made the Greek Christians
          Paul argued that the Law was utterly worthless in gaining salvation; the sacrifice of Christ was
enough. In order to make this argument, he relied on the Greek and Roman legal concept of the spirit and
the letter of the law. In Greek and Roman jurisprudence, one could argue that, even though a defendant
has committed a crime according to the letter of the law, that defendant has not broken the law in terms of
the spirit or intent of the law. There was, Paul argued a deeper intent or spirit to the Law given the
Hebrews; that intent or spirit was summed up in the teachings and the death of Jesus of Nazareth and was
inscribed in every human soul. Much of this had precedents in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but the
full-out rejection of the Jewish Law was an earth-shattering change for it allowed Christianity, which did
not have many Jewish followers, to explosively spread throughout the Roman world.
          Paul also had to deal with cultural practices among the Greeks and Romans who were forming
Christian communities. It is clear that he felt that many of these practices were not only antithetical to
Jewish law, but to what he considered the spirit of Christianity as well. So while Paul was magnificently
tolerant of Greek practices of eating or circumcision, he did not tolerate other aspects, such as
homosexuality. In pursuit of this, he took a contradictory course to his universal stance and declared
salvation off-limits to an entire set of people engaged in certain behaviors. In social and political terms,
his list of excluded peoples would reverberate throughout Christian history in social tensions and, in some
cases, violent oppression of excluded groups.
          The bulk of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are eschatological; he is largely concerned with
individuals preparing for the end of the world. While Paul, like Jesus of Nazareth, seemed to believe that
the end of the world would happen within the generation of his listeners, he nevertheless downplayed the
eschatological aspects of the religion, preferring instead to focus on the personal salvation aspects of the
teachings. It is Paul who is largely responsible for the individualistic and personal focus of Christianity.
          While the career of Jesus of Nazareth strongly focuses on women and the social status of women,
Paul was reactionary against both Jesus' radicalism towards women and the Greek liberality that allowed
women a stronger voice in the community than was allowed among the Jews. He demanded that women
be silent in church and in matters of theology, thus re-establishing a gendered difference that, it seems,
Jesus had in part erased. At the same time, however, there are clearly women serving in the roles of
priests and he speaks them.
          While Jesus of Nazareth has absolutely nothing to say about slavery—even though it was a
common practice—Paul seems to approve of it. In fact, he demands that slaves obey their masters. At the
same time, however, he understands the contradiction of a Christian owning another Christian as a slave.
He doesn't demand that slaveowners give over their slaves, just simply that it would be the Christian thing
to do. In the history of racial slavery from the 1600's to the 1800's, the injunction by Paul that slaves
should obey their masters would loom very large in the arguments for slavery.
Above everything else, Paul was a masterful compromiser. He knew when issues mattered and when an
important issue should simply be let go of in favor of the expansion of the church. This gives his extant
writings a character of indecisiveness, contradiction, and sometimes opportunism. But his goal was the
expansion of the central teachings of Jesus of Nazareth throughout the Roman world; as long as he felt
that the core or spirit of those teachings were adhered to, he was willing to compromise other things or
tolerate in one situation what he wouldn't in another.

Hebrews and Hellenists
         The debate which inspired the innovations of Paul of Tarsus and radically changed the face of
Christianity was that between the Hebrews and the Hellenists. For many centuries, that debate has been
regarded as a volatile and sometimes violent debate; historians have begun to question whether or not
such a conflict even occurred. At some level, however, there emerged doctrinal and social friction
between Christian communities composed of Hebrews and those composed of non-Hebrews, mainly
Greeks. That conflict, at whatever level it was played out, eventually resulted in Paul's formulation of
Christianity as a universal religion and a reorientation from eschatological concerns to concerns over
personal salvation.
         Much of our history of the very earliest years of Christianity after the death of Jesus come from
two texts: a history written by Luke, The Acts of the Apostles, and a shorter history written by Paul in
his Letter to the Galatians. After the death of Jesus of Nazareth, very few of his followers stuck with the
new religion. The group which kept this small number of followers together were called the apostles of
which there were twelve in number; in Christian history, they were the closest followers of Jesus of
Nazareth. It's possible, though, that their importance in maintaining the religion following the death of
Jesus of Nazareth provoked the later histories to overdetermine their direct relationship with Jesus of
Nazareth. Be that as it may, all of these apostles working tirelessly to continue the religion were Hebrews,
and some, such as James, the brother of Jesus, were devoutly invested in Jewish practice, ritual, and law.
         They faced a fundamentally different task than Jesus of Nazareth. Whereas Jesus of Nazareth was
largely concerned with teaching ethics and preparation for the coming judgement, the apostles had more
practical concerns--how do you keep a community together based on principles derived from the
teachings of Jesus? It was clear that such communities should be egalitarian and non-materialistic. Entry
into the earliest Christian communities involved giving up one's wealth to the common society of
Christians and living communally and equally with others.
         These small societies were at first entirely composed of other Jews, so the bulk of the laws and
practices of these communities were derived from Jewish law. But some Jews entering these communities
were Hellenized Jews; they were fluent in Greek language and culture and considerably less invested in
Jewish life and law.
         Equal in authority to the Twelve Apostles were a group called the Seven in the histories. The
original apostles, it seemed, were less interested in the day to day governance and finances of the
Christian communities than they were in teaching, thinking, and, in a couple cases, writing. That job fell
to another group, the Seven, who administered the communities, handled the finances, and organized
charity, such as feeding the poor and caring for the sick. The most pressing problem faced by the early
Christian communities was the large number of poor that those communities had to take care of; it was
this need that prompted the Twelve to appoint the Seven as, you might say, administrative assistants.
         One figure looms large among the Seven: Stephen, who is a "Hellenist" in Luke's history. What
"Hellenist" means is subject to great dispute; it seems to mean only that he was a diaspora Jew fluent in
Greek culture and language, as opposed to a Palestine Jew raised in largely Hebrew traditions—hence
Palestine Jews are called "Hebrews" in Luke's narrative. It's unclear if the Hellenists and the Hebrews
have radically different takes on Christianity or if they had uniform viewpoints within their own separate
groups—what is clear, though, is that the ideas of Stephen ignited a debate that would continue for
several decades and threaten the very unity of this fragile, early church.
         Stephen got into serious trouble somehow through his preaching, probably by offending other
Greek-speaking Jews. He had offended them sufficiently that he was hauled up in front of the Jewish
religious court, the Sanhedrin, and whatever he said there was sufficient to garner his execution either
officially or in a mob action, thus making him the first Christian martyr and gaining him his title, Stephen
Proto-Martyr. His speech in the Sanhedrin was critical of both Jewish Law and the Jewish temple--he
criticized, however, the lack of sincerity among the Jews in following the Law and practicing temple
worship rather than the institutions themselves. These accusations began a process of criticizing or
defending Jewish Law and Jewish ritual within the Christian community; the perception, however, that
Christians were criticizing the Law led to a Jewish crackdown on Christian communities--Luke calls it a
"severe persecution." This persecution--the first in Christian history--was severe enough to break up the
Palestinian Christian communities and impel the Twelve to break up.
          The greatest and one of the most zealous of these persecutors was Saul of Tarsus, who would
later become the apostle Paul. After he is converted, he takes up the cause that seemed to be initiated by
Stephen when he criticized Jewish law and practice. Shortly after the beginning of his apostleship he
converts the first non-Jew--Cornelius--to Christianity.
          The controversy that would thrust Paul center-stage was a split between the church in Jerusalem
and the church at Antioch, in Asia Minor, which largely consisted of diaspora Jews. The Antiochene
church had also admitted non-Jewish Christians and a dispute arose over whether or not Jewish Christians
should eat at the same table as Gentile Christians who did not follow food preparation prohibitions—who
sat, therefore, at an unclean table.
          Now the rituals of early Christian communities were very simple; the only real important rituals
were the eating of a common meal, called the agapé, or "love feast," and a celebration of the Last Supper
of Christ called the eucharist. So the controversy over sitting at the same table with Gentiles wasn't about
just eating dinner—it cut to the very heart of Christian religious community.
          Now the mission to the Gentiles did not start out with the intent of criticizing or rejecting Jewish
law and ritual, but the controversy at Antioch demanded either the assertion of Jewish law in the Christian
community or, on the other hand, criticizing or rejecting part of it. The problem wasn't the Gentiles, the
problem was Jewish Christians. For the mission to the Gentiles accepted that Gentiles would not have to
obey Jewish law; if, however, Jewish Christians sat down to the same table as Gentiles, they would be
breaking Jewish law. So the Apostle Peter and Barnabas, the head of the Antioch church, simply decided
that Jewish Christians should not eat with Gentile Christians. The problem was added to when Jewish
Christians also demanded that Gentiles be circumcised, a demand that the Gentiles did not want to
comply with.
          Eventually, Paul, the strict Pharisee, would argue that the Gentile church is a distinct entity; its
non-allegiance to Jewish laws, such as circumcision and dietary laws, were allowable and justified by the
spirit of Christianity. Thus, the debate between Hebrews and Hellenists, which probably didn't take place,
was provoked by a criticism, not of Jewish practices, but Jewish sincerity in those practices by a
Greek-speaking Jew. The debate would end with the formulation of a Gentile church independent of
Jewish law, a church largely composed of Greeks. It was this church, not the Hebrew church, that became
the origin of Christianity as a world religion.

The Early Church
The Earliest Christians
         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 parceled 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
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.

The Early European Church
          The most significant event in the history of European Christianity was the conversion of the
Emperor Constantine to Christianity. Born in 280, Constantine became one of the four emperors of the
empire after the retirement of Diocletian. This scheme soon fell apart until there were only three generals
vying for control: Constantine in Gaul, the least populated portion of the empire, while rule in Rome was
under the control of Maxentius, and the east under the control of Licinius. In 312, Constantine threw
caution to the wind and marched on Maxentius's forces, even though he was vastly outnumbered. The
most important battle occurred at Milvian Bridge; he both won the battle and killed his rival, making him
emperor of Rome and Gaul and soon emperor of the east as well.
          Constantine claimed that his victory was the result of his conversion to Christianity; he, according
to one biography, had been instructed to carry the banner of Christianity into battle. Since he won the
battle, he decided to become Christian. Even so, he was not baptized until he was dying many decades
          Constantine, however, had several problems with his new faith. In particular, foundational
Christianity was manifestly anti-political. Its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, consistently condemned worldly
authority and insisted that the Christian life is a non-worldly, individualistic, non-political life. As a
result, the foundational Christian texts are not only anti-Roman (for Judaea was part of the Roman Empire
during the life of Jesus of Nazareth), but consistently dismissive of human, worldly authority. If
Christianity were going to work as a religion in a state ruled by a monarch that demanded worship and
absolute authority, it would have to be changed.
          The early Christians had tolerated the emperors and regarded them as a kind of necessary evil.
Constantine, as a Christian emperor, though demanded their obedience both temporally and in terms of
faith. To this end, he merged the office of emperor with the Christian faith and assumed authority over
doctrinal matters. Added to this equation was the divinity or partial divinity normally bestowed on the
emperor. Constantine's Christian conversion did not stop him from presenting himself as divine both in
the theater of imperial power and on coinages. There's no reason to believe that Constantine did not in
fact believe that he was divine, even in spite of his Christianity.
          This was a new and unsolvable problem in Christianity. As long as the emperor was a pagan,
there was no question of the relationship between the church and the state. The church did its thing and
the state did its sinful thing. The presence of Christian imperial authority, however, led to severe conflicts
and disruption. The question of the relationship between the church and a Christian government has yet to
be resolved in the West.
          Constantine had other problems as well. In Constantine's view, the Christian church was a
powerful tool for unifying the Empire socially and politically. If the church could become unified, that
would provide a bulwark against the centrifugal forces pulling the empire apart. The problem, though,
was there was no established or unifying doctrine. In fact, there were as many forms of Christianity as
there were communities of Christians. The church was severely divided over fundamental questions; in
particular, the speculations of the eastern churches on the nature of divinity were considered grossly
heretical by the Latin churches. What would finally call Constantine into action to unify the church was
the schism between the Arians and the Athanasians.
          The major schism between the churches in the Greek-speaking east and the churches in the West
was founded on the eastern insistence in engaging in philosophical speculation on questions of doctrine;
the western churches, by contrast, largely focussed on administrative rather than doctrinal problems. If the
church was going to be unified, however, these two separate approaches had to be unified. The flash point
came with the dispute over Arianism, which the western churches regarded as outright heresy.
         The Alexandrian bishop Arius, like many of his eastern counterparts, was primarily interested in
defining the nature of the Trinity—God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost—and insisted in his theology that
there was an absolute division between God and Christ. God the Father, he argued, was hierarchically
differentiable from God the Son. The opposite position called Athanasianism, after the bishop
Athanasius who advocated it, was that God the Father and God the Son were one and the same thing.
Both the western church and the bishop of Constantinople came down on the side of Athanasianism—the
Alexandrian church subsequently dug in its heels on the matter.
The Council of Nicea
         Perhaps the most important task that Constantine undertook was the Council of Nicea which was
called largely to arbitrate the conflict between the western church and the Arians and to decide the
question of the relationship between imperial power and the church. The Council dealth with more than
this controversy, however, and made major doctrinal decisions that were meant to apply to the whole of
the Christian world. This council is important as the first attempt to centralize doctrinal authority among
         The Council officially ruled against Arianism, but the movement continued until the emperor
Theodosius I officially condemned it and rooted it out in 383 and 384. The basic orthodoxy of
Christianity was instantiated in what came to be called the Nicene creed, the basic statement of belief for
orthodox Christianity. Constantine accomplished more, however, for the Nicene council also ratified his
own power and Christianity would begin the long struggle, lasting to this day, between the anti-political
ideas of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christianity that is compromised to allow for human authority and
The Donatists
         The most important conflict of the fourth century was the doctrinal dispute between the Donatists
and Catholics; this created the most significant division in the western church until the sixteenth century
and the advent of Protestantism. Donatus was a bishop in North Africa during the persecutions of
Diocletian; unlike the rest of the empire, the persecutions in North Africa were relatively mild as the
governor only demanded that Christians hand over written copies of the Christian scriptures as a gesture
of repudiating their faith. He did not really interfere with Christianity in other ways. Many Christians
complied with the law. However, after the persecutions ended, those Christians that had not given up their
scriptures called the others traitors and would not allow them back in the church—among these "traitors"
were priests. Donatus argued that the sacraments were rendered invalid if they were administered by
corrupt priests—Donatus wanted, then, a church of saints rather than a Catholic, or "universal," church.
         The North African Donatists were fiercely oppposed by the western church and energetically
opposed by Augustine, who was bishop in Hippo in North Africa. The Donatists, however, hung on as a
secret church until the Muslims invaded North Africa in the late 600's. The reason Donatism is important,
though, is that the movement was revived in the twelfth century in Europe as the Catholic clergy had
become desperately corrupt. A new, popular movement revived Donatism and not only criticized corrupt
clergy but declared them unworthy to deliver valid sacraments. In this respect, sixteenth century
Protestantism in its attacks on the corrupt clergy was the descendant of the the Donatist movement.
The Patristic Age
         From the third to the fifth century occurred a period of incredibly rich, creative, and brilliant
thought in both the Latin and the Greek church. Some of the best and most creative minds wrestled with
this new religion, its theology, its organization, and its social and political implications in a virtual flood
of writing. The writers of this period were eventually designated Fathers of the Church or the Patristic
writers and represent perhaps the most creative period of Christian intellectual activity.
         The character of this theological and social thought varied widely; there is no unified Patristic
"thought." The most radical differences among the Patristics were between Latin and Greek writers; the
Greek writers focussed heavily on theological speculation while the Latin writers were less concerned
with abstract questions as they were concerned with practical questions of organization, catechism, and
governance of the church.
         Church history has acknowledge four individuals as the most important Fathers of the Church:
Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Augustine is discussed in another section of this
module and Gregory is discussed in the learning module on the Middle Ages.
         Jerome (340-420) was vital to the history of the church for his translation of the Greek Christian
scriptures and the Greek and Hebrew Jewish scriptures into Latin. Before Jerome, there existed Latin
versions of the Christian scriptures, but Jerome brought all his talents as a masterful writer and rhetorician
to the translation. His translation, called the Vulgate because it was written in common Latin, became the
standard text of Western Christianity until the advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.
         Jerome was not a major figure in the early church; he lived a quiet life first in Rome and then in
Jerusalem where he ran a school. In the Middle Ages, however, he and his writings would become some
of the most influential writings of the patristic era.
         In his writings he advocated mastery of language; along with Augustine, he was one of the
staunchest supporters of a Christian "rhetoric." He was also influential in shaping the severely misogynist
doctrines of the early and later medieval church. He believed that women were nothing but bad news for
men—their passions were uncontrollable, they fell into sin, they were not ruled by reason, and that they
degraded men. These texts were enormously influential in defining gender in the Catholic church and the
medieval world.
         Besides Augustine, the giant figure of the Latin patristic tradition was Ambrose (died 393),
whose monumental created some of the great triumphs and some of the great tragedies of early Christian
thought. He was the most important figure in Christianity in the last twenty years of his life. His most
important innovation was the importation of Roman rules of governance into the church.
         Ambrose himself had been a Roman official. As bishop of Milan, he did not see the church office
of bishop as fundamentally different from a Roman secular office. The bishop, like a governor, gave
decrees, edicts, and commands. The Christians under his governance obeyed these decrees, edicts, and
commands. Like a governor, the bishop was an aristocratic figure whose central virtue was efficiency;
this became the model for church officials well into the sixteenth century.
         Under this new concept of church officialdom, the church would be run under its own
law—canon law—that would be based on duties and punishments of officials and everyday Christians.
         One of Ambrose's most significant legacies to the Middle Ages and the medieval church was his
fierce hatred of women. Like many other bishops, he felt several pressures urging the church to gender
equality. On the one hand were communities of virgin nuns who were held up as the highest exemplars of
spiritual life; on the other hand, the Gnostic religions, including Gnostic Christian religions, accorded
women something approaching gender equality. Yet still there was Paul of Tarsus, who claimed that
women shouldn't speak on matters of doctrine. So Ambrose concluded that church offices, ie, the
priesthood, should be completely closed off to women. It wasn't enough to assert this; Ambrose had to
prove why women were insufficient to occupy priestly offices.
         He argued that women were fundamentally flawed, especially in the area of sexual control. He
believed that women were destined, through their sexuality, to always tempt men as Eve had tempted
Adam. This was not the fault of men but rather the fault of women's lack of sexual control. In many ways,
Ambrose's exclusion of women from church office reflected the Roman exclusion of women from offices.
Ambrose, however, introduced a radically new element to Roman misogyny—he linked female inferiority
to female sexuality. It was female sexuality that was the threat and the fundamental flaw of women; this
was the logic that explained such paradoxical views as holding up virgin nuns as being the highest
examples of spirituality while at the same time denying women any official role in the church. One cannot
overestimate the influence of Ambrose's linking of misogyny with female sexuality—it is the single most
dominant aspect of gender relations from Ambrose to our time.
         Perhaps more disastrous was Ambrose's religious intolerance and his legitimation of this
intolerance. Throughout the early years of Christianity, the religion lived alongside a multitude of other
religions. On the one hand was Roman and Greek paganism, the official religion of the empire; on the
other hand were a multitude of other religions, from ethnic religions such as Judaism to mystery religions
such as Gnosticism and Mithraism. Not only did Christians live side by side with these religions, but they
often crossed over and sometimes incorporated elements of these other religions into their own.
         When the Emperor Gratian (375-383) signalled that the state religion would not paganism by
removing the statue of Victory from the Roman Senate, Ambrose formulated an argument that if were
Rome were a Christian empire, no other religion, including paganism, could be tolerated. In his debate in
the Roman Senate with Ambrose, the pagan Symmachus argue eloquently for religious tolerance, but
Ambrose argued that there was one and only one correct religion and all others should be stamped out.
         This position soon became the church's position and had two far-reaching consequences. From
the fourth century onwards, one of the principal characteristics of Christianity was its intolerance—in
fact, often extremely homicidal intolerance—of other religions. For Rome, however, this religious
intolerance was one of the central reasons for the disintegration of the Roman Empire. In many ways, the
Roman Empire held together because of its religious tolerance. Subject states did not enjoy being under
the empire, but the cultural and religious freedom that they had at least made it bearable. When the
Christian Empire began to suppress native religions, areas under Roman control soon rebelled. These
rebellions fractured the empire in pieces at a point in time when migrating Europeans were invading the
         The triumph of the church resulted in problematic changes to the church. Ambrose, as noted
above, began a trend of reconceiving clerical office as something more along the lines of secular offices.
The Roman concern with practical administration drained much of the spiritual mission of the early
church. The Patristic writings departed significantly from the spirituality of the earliest Christian texts; in
the place of faith and insight they offered only rationality and arguments. This secularization of the clergy
and the church as well as the rationalization of Christian discourse led to the growth of a new Christian
phenomenon, monasticism.
         The earliest monks were not clergy, but ordinary individuals who fled the poverty of the church
to live spiritually dedicated lives while suffering extreme poverty and self-affliction. Seeing the church as
too worldly and too materialistic, they lived solitary lives of severe ascetism, or "world denial." This
form of monasticism in which an individual ascetic lives alone is called eremetic monasticism, that is, the
monasticism of a hermit.
         Monasticism first appeared in the eastern reaches of Christianity in the third century when the
Roman Empire seemed to be falling apart; in this sense, monasticism was related to the anxiety and
uncertainty of the age. It did not really spread, however, until after the conversion of Constantine and the
realignment of the church along more material and political lines. At that point, the practice spread
throughout the east to Egypt and North Africa. The extreme forms of eremeticism are legendary; these
ascetic monks soon were sought out by Christians who literally worshipped them and the various material
that came in contact with them—or came out of them.
         In the fourth century, monasticism soon adopted a communal form. Again, monks were not
clergy but rather laymen that came together in a community to remove themselves from the world. This
form of monasticism, called cenobitic monasticism, was most successfully implemented by Basil
(330-379), who, after a time as a hermit monk, came out from the wilderness to found a community of
other monks.
         The most essential difference between the communal monasticism of Basil and the eremetic
monasticism practiced before was the nature of self-discipline and rejection of the world. The eremetic
monks would discipline themselves to reject the world by engaging in self-torture, sometimes bordering
on the psychotic. Basil, however, believed that one could discipline one's body and will as well as reject
the world through constant labor rather than self-torture. So the community of monks he set up engaged in
constant physical and spiritual labor; this would become the pattern for both Western and Eastern
          While Basil set the pattern for monasticism, the most important figure in its development was
Benedict (480-547), who composed a set of rules, the Benedictine Rule that would become the standard
model of monasticism in Europe.
          Monasticism until the time of Benedict was largely an eastern and North African affair; the
Romans, ever practical, didn't take much interest in removing themselves from the world and took even
less interest in torturing themselves. Benedict, however, changed all that. His rule—which, by the way, he
largely copied from another source—stressed that the life of the monk should at least be tolerable. While
the monk did constant spiritual and physical world, he would also get enough to eat, a little bit of wine,
and a good night's rest. Eastern monasticism on the other hand imposed severe depredations on its
members—fasting, lack of sleep, and other unpleasant privations. Benedict's innovations that softened the
severity of monasticism made it a more practical life-choice. One could remove oneself from the world
and dedicate every hour of every day to the service of God and the disciplining of the self without having
to suffer severely.
          The eastern monasteries were composed of more or less independent monks; Benedict's rule,
however, specified that the community would be under the rule of one individual, the abbot. That abbot
would govern all aspects of the community and the individual members would obey the abbot in
          The Benedictine rule introduced into Western culture the idea of regulated time. For Benedict
believed that every waking minute should be consumed by labor either physical and spiritual. The
monastic community was regulated by an uncompromising daily schedule. At a certain time of the day,
one would attend mass. At another time, one would work in the garden, and so on. Our entire orientation
towards time in European and European-derived cultures owes its origins to Benedict's regulation of time.
          The Benedictine monasteries were perhaps the most important cultural practice of the early
Middle Ages. They were the centers of learning in Europe well into the eleventh century and their
missionary work was the only reason why Christianity spread throughout Europe. They were also the
only line of transmission of classical culture into European medieval culture; had the Benedictine
monasteries not formed it would have been highly likely that the heritage of the classical world would
have been lost in the Middle Ages.
Leo I
          Our history of the early Roman church appropriately ends with Pope Leo I (ruled 440-461), who
is also known as Leo the Great. He was really the first major ecclesiastic and politician to recognize not
only the reality of the Roman collapse but its consequences for world being born. In the face of a dying
world and another world struggling to be born, he recast the office of the bishop of Rome and its political
relationship to other political groups.
          He realized that he needed to deal with more than the Emperor of Rome, who controlled very
little territory, and negotiated with both the Huns and the Vandals to secure some measure of
independence and political control. He recognized, though, that the loss of imperial power meant the
diffusion of the church's unified influence over the Christian world. The church had to somehow replace
the emperors as a unifying force—the logical candidate was, naturally, the pope or bishop of Rome.
          We're accustomed of thinking of the pope as the supreme head of the church, but this was only a
slow development. The pope, or bishop of Rome, occupied a position of respect in the church hierarchy
but was by no means pre-eminent among Christian bishops through the Roman period. Even in the
Middle Ages, the pope did not occupy this pre-eminent position until the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Leo I, however, believed that the pope should somehow become both a political and doctrinal unifying
force. Should the empire fall, the leadership of the West, according to Leo, should pass to the emperor.
          He based his argument for the supremacy of the bishop of Rome on an old, semi-developed
doctrine called the Petrine Succession. In the Gospel of Matthew 16.15-19, Jesus of Nazareth lays his
hands on Peter and gives him the "keys to the kingdom." Since Peter became the first bishop of Rome, the
bishops of Rome were the inheritors of Peter's mission, including those keys to the kingdom. Leo
interpreted the Petrine Succession as instituting the bishopric of Rome as the rock or center of
Christianity; the bishop of Rome, in Leo's version of the Petrine Succession, was the primate or "first" of
the church in all matters of doctrine and governance.
The effects of this decision were momentous. The western church had long before that accepted the
Petrine Succession so they easily adopted Leo's claim that the Petrine Succession implied that the bishop
of Rome was the primate of the church. The eastern churches, however, did not have a long history of
accepting the Petrine succession—this one drive one more wedge between the two churches. Leo's
doctrine of the primacy of the bishop of Rome also drove the engine of the history of the early medieval
church which in large measure can be read as an attempt to consolidate and legitimate the power of the

         Augustine (354-430) is so important in the remolding of Christianity of the fourth and fifth
centuries that it's hard not to think of him as a founder of Christianity on a par with the original founders
of the religion. He was a brilliant and creative man who lived at a time when the European world was
changing in shattering ways; not only had no-one quite melded Christianity with the political authority it
had as a state religion, but also that authority was crumbling down around everyone's ears as the Roman
empire began to fragment into a million separate states. In the face of these profound changes, Augustine,
using early Christianity as a base, fundamentally remade the religion by emphasizing and explaining
some aspects and by introducing others. It is from Augustine, for instance, that medieval and later
Christianity will inherit much of the Christian ideology of sexuality; it is from Augustine that the
fundamental basis of medieval political theory will be derived; and it is from Augustine that Europeans
will derive their sense of the meaning and trajectory of individual lives.
         Augustine was born to a pagan father and a Christian mother in the North African city of Tagaste;
he was probably of the ethnic stock that modern-day Berbers are derived from. In his early adulthood,
Augustine struggled with his ambitions, his sexuality, and with competing philosophies and mystical
religions, not even accepting baptism until he was thirty-three. He began his career as a profoundly
successful orator, but soon fell into Manicheism, a mystical relgion that combined Christianity and
Mithraism, a Zoroastrian religion older and very similar to Christianity in its basic outlines. He soon tired
of the contradictions within the religion and began to explore Platonic philosophy; it was in the midst of
that project that he was converted to Christianity. He was brilliant man and never really left off the
ambitiousness of his youth; within a short period of time he soon became Bishop of Hippo, a position he
occupied for the rest of his life.
         Augustine soon took on the role of fighting erroneous ideas; it's clear that his long flirtation with
philosophy and Manicheism had bred an individual intolerant of competing viewpoints. He took on Greek
and Roman philosophy, Manicheism, and Christian heretical viewpoints as his primary project and
generated thousands of pages of writings trying to establish the correct views on every issue from the
nature of God right down to some of the most trivial ethical issues. In all of this, he was concerned with
the proliferation of thinking and viewpoints on the matter; in the process of correcting error, however, he
filled out much that was undefined in early Christianity and created a new and consistent
structure—sociological, ethical, political, and theological—that would usher in a new form of Christianity
and Christian society in the Middle Ages.
         So what are the main components of Augustine's thoughts? It doesn't really help us to understand
Augustine by talking about the various heresies, philosophies, and doctrines that he reacted against; what
was the substance of his thought? Perhaps we should explore Augustine through many of the concepts he
introduced and expanded on.
The Two Cities
         One of the central controversies that Augustine faced was the relationship of government and
authority to Christianity; this problem had been worked on less successfully for over a century before
Augustine. When Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410, a number of non-Christians blamed the event on
the abandonment of the pagan Gods for the Christian God. In an attempt to refute that argument,
Augustine wrote a long treatise on human history and human authority, The City of God.
         In this work, Augustine argued that the world of history can be divided along two trajectories.
The first trajectory is the human history of wars, government, authority, taxes, conquests, and laws; the
second trajectory of human history is the sacred history of human salvation. These two histories are
absolutely independent of one another; as one might expect, it is sacred history that is the most important
of the two terms. All human life can be understood in these terms; one's actions in the world ally you with
either the one trajectory of history or the other. Some human beings primarily participate in the worldly
history of humankind and some human beings primarily participate in sacred history; humanity, then, can
be divided into the Two Cities. Those who participate in secular history belong to the City of Man; those
who participate in sacred history belong to the City of God. While these two cities are more or less
separate from one another, the City of Man exists solely for the advancement of the City of God.
         Whatever happens in secular history advances sacred history; any setback or any crisis in secular
history is, from the point of view of sacred history, always an advance in the course of human salvation
history. The sack of Rome, then, is not a tragedy from the standpoint of the City of God.
         Since the City of Man exists to advance the sacred history of the City of God, this means that the
temporal authority of the City of Man also exists to advance sacred history. Rulers are put into place in a
grander scheme advancing human salvation—even if those rulers are immoral or non-Christian, they have
the larger-scale purpose of advancing the City of God. For instance, even though the emperors of Rome
were pagan during the life of Christ, their actions in uniting the Mediterranean world under a single state
allowed for Christianity to spread all throughout the empire.
         This argument—that temporal authority in any form essentially advances human sacred
history—would become the basic political theory of the Middle Ages and beyond.
         One of the most important of Augustine's writings was the Confessions, in which Augustine
narrated his early youth leading up to his conversion to Christianity. Now, conversion in Latin means
"turning around"; a conversion is a point where one quite literally and dramatically reorients one's life and
thoughts. In the Confessions , Augustine based his narrative form on Paul of Tarsus's theoretical
framework in which conversion is structured as the death of the old self and a birth of a new self, a
framework important in modern European Protestantism in the form of "rebirth." However, Paul's
formulation involves not simply rebirth, but the death of the old self. This is what Augustine seized on in
the Confessions ; conversion, like death, is a process—one's entire life takes one to the point of
conversion. That also means that the conversion point gives meaning and value to all that had come
before—one can understand the real meaning and trajectory of one's life only after conversion.
         This becomes in Augustinian thought a way of understanding the whole of human history. The
conversion point in history was the Christ event; not only can AD time be explained in terms of the Christ
event, but that event also gives meaning and value to all of BC time. Reading history in the light of the
Christ event was called typology, but typology applied almost entirely to the human history recorded in
the Jewish scriptures and history. In The City of God Augustine applies typology to the whole of secular
history; one can define the meaning and value of even pagan history by referring to the life and teachings
of Christ. One can also apply the Christ event typologically to one's own life. Each individual life plays
out the Christ event in history. Conversion reconfigures each individual life as playing out the whole of
sacred history in a microcosm.
         Augustine, as an individual who lived in sin much of his life, was obsessed with the nature of sin.
He wanted to define not only what it was, but what caused it. At some level, he believed that the myriad
of sins committed by people could be isolated into a single motivational factor. That factor was voluntas,
or "will." Voluntas was an old concept in Rome and referred to the psychological mechanism that
impelled one to move and act in the world. Roman Christians had applied the term to human action, both
good and bad, and argued that human beings have free will—that is, every human being is individually
responsible for decisions that they make rather than being impelled to those decisions by forces outside
themselves, such as God. Augustine himself wrote extensively on the nature of the free will in a variety of
works directed against the Pelasgian heresy, which asserted that all human actions are predestined by God
and so outside the control of human will.
         Augustine, though, was more concerned with what made the will go wrong. He was particularly
fascinated by the fact that one could will contradictory things. I don't want to commit adultery but I do it
anyway, or, in his most famous words, "Give me chastity . . . but not yet."
         So he formulated the human will as being in reality two wills. There is a carnal self that wills
sinful actions and a spiritual self that wills belief, self-denial, and ethical actions—in much the same way
that human communities in history are divided into a City of Man and a City of God. The carnal will he
called cupiditas, or cupidity, and the spiritual will he called caritas, which is the Latin translation of the
Christian term, agapé, which means "selfless love." But caritas is more than selfless love; it is the will to
be like God and to be united with God. It is, in simple terms, the will to God, while cupidity is the will to
         These two wills are in constant battle with one another; they are absolutely antithetical and desire
completely different objects. When Augustine trains his eye on individual psychology, what he
formulates a self divided against itself; this sense of self-division would become the most lasting legacy
of Augustianism to the medieval and modern worlds. We still, in fact, carry around the sense that we are
deeply divided against ourselves.
         The formulation of the carnal self, that is, the will that is impelled towards sinful objects, lies
behind Augustine's radical reformulation of sexuality. From its foundation, Christianity was antithetical to
sexuality in a strongly gendered way—foundational and early Christianity focussed very heavily on
female sexuality and homosexuality as typifying sexuality in general. Augustine discussed sexuality in
less gendered terms (although his treatise on virginity largely concerns women) and in more interiorized
terms. Rather than talking about sexuality as an act, he talked about it as an interior state, a triumph of the
carnal will over the spiritual will. All sexuality, all sensual pleasure involved the triumph of the carnal
will; since sin was located in the carnal will and not the act, Augustine developed a rigorous puritanical
attitude towards sexuality that European culture would obsess about for the next fifteen hundred years. It's
not unfair to point to the origins of European sexuality, both in its puritanism and its most libertine
character, to the formulation of human sexuality by Augustine as located in the will.
         We have, then, two possibilities open for human potential. One can participate in the secular City
of Man and be governed largely by one's carnal will, or one can participate in the sacred history of the
City of God and be largely governed by one's spiritual will. Since the basic duty of human life is
individual salvation, one is bound by existential responsibility to participate in the City of God and to be
governed by the spiritual will.
         Shirking that responsibility is called negligentia, or "negligence." Anything that you do on earth
that is governed by your carnal will and that does not contribute to your salvation or to larger salvation
history is negligence. In the Confessions , Augustine gave the following example. While sitting at his
writing table, his eyes strayed to a spider weaving a web. Rather than doing the work he was supposed to
do, he now idly watches the spider. That's negligence: rather than participating in the work one should do,
one is distracted by the desires of the carnal self.
Regio dissimilitudinis
         All of the above ideas relate to human action and human will, but what about human reason and
human knowledge? What about epistemology?
         In his earliest works, Augustine takes pains to argue against the Greek and Roman skeptical
tradition which asserts that humans can know nothing for certain. This certainty is what guarantees faith
at some level. But that doesn't mean that certainty is gained through reason and philosophy, but that some
process higher than reason is necessary.
         In fact, Augustine will reject the entire philosophical project of antiquity that relies on human
reason alone. While he would argue that Platonic philosophy can come to most truths of religion, the
Christ event in history and its significance lay beyond the powers of human reason alone: "I found in
Platonic philosophy all the truths of Christianity save one: 'The Word was made flesh.'"
         In the Confessions , the term that Augustine applies to his own philosophical speculation is regio
dissimilitudinis, the "region of unlikeness," in which his mind was wandering. What does that mean?
Why is human reason and the phenomenal world a "region of unlikeness"?
         Augustine and other early Christian writers imagined human beings and the phenomenal world as
somehow reflecting God or being like God. This isn't a similarity in identity, but more like a metaphorical
similarity. How does metaphor work? When you use a metaphor, say, "Joe is like a lion," there are two
parts to the comparison. The most relevant part are those aspects of a lion that a person can imitate:
bravery, irascibility, and so on. There are also parts of the metaphor that don't apply: Joe does not walk on
four legs or have a mane or live in a pride. The same applies to human similarity to God: we are similar in
some respects and dissimilar in others. The realm of the material world and the whole area of human
speculative reason is the area of dissimilarity, what makes us different from God—hence, the "region of
unlikeness" where most of us spend our lives.
         This leads to a new insight on sin. Rather than simply disobeying God or following one's
cupidity, the essential aspect of sin is that it makes you different from God. Any activity that is different
from God, including reason, takes you away from your essential nature, which is your similarity to God.
The Classical World
         The most pressing cultural problem of Christian late antiquity was what to do with the cultural
heritage of the Roman and Greek pagan past. Many Christian thinkers believed that the pagan past should
be abandoned completely; this was a tough project in that all of them had been brought up in that
tradition. This included classical education which involved the study of rhetoric and the liberal arts.
         Augustine argued that Christians should take whatever is useful from the classical world in the
same way that the Jews took the gold out of Egypt when they were freed by Moses. We have seen how
Augustine recovered pagan history—by folding into the typological scheme of salvation history—in
much the same way, he argued to maintain classical education. Much of the material in that education
would change, but the salient change would be the ends to which the education was put. No longer would
grammar, rhetoric, and the liberal arts be used for worldly success, rather they would be used to interpret
and understand the Bible and salvation history. In part through Augustine's educational program, the
classical world was more or less continuous with the medieval world.
         Like all good Romans, Augustine believed that education was suited only to the elite in society.
While classical education could advance one in one's understanding of the Bible and salvation, Augustine
believed that the masses of Christians should only be catechized—that is, made to memorize—the
doctrines of the church without learning to understand them.

         Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born about 480 A.D. into the prestigious family of the
Ancii; he rose quickly to the top of the Roman political establishment (which was, of course, ruled over
by non-Romans). He was, in addition to a wildly successful politician, as his father was, a profoundly
intelligent scholar of Greek, particularly Platonic philosophy. The Roman Empire was at this point
Christian, and if it weren't for Boethius's treacherous end, he probably would have been barely
remembered in history. As it happens, he got caught in a conflict between the Roman Emperor,
Theoderic, and the Eastern Emperor, a conflict concerning the unification the Roman and the Eastern
churches. Theoderic was a Ostrogoth and had invaded Rome in 489, assuming the title of emperor in 493.
He was, by all accounts, a good leader and just man; however, he was an Arian Christian—a vile heretic
in the eyes of the Roman Church. He seems to have trusted Boethius for a while; however, Boethius's
attempts to negotiate with the Eastern Church soon were construed as treason by Theoderic and he
slapped him in prison, tried and convicted him of treason and sacrilege, tortured him mercilessly for
months, and killed him in the cruelest possible manner.
         In the months before his death, Boethius, his body torn from daily tortures, began to deeply
question his Christian faith in both religious and intellectual terms. He had, from all we know, been acting
in perfectly good faith regarding the controversies splitting the Roman from the Eastern churches; he had
faithfully served Theoderic; the evidence at the trial was more or less cooked up by his persecutors; for
these injustices, he began to question why it is that evil exists in the world. By what law did God allow
good people to suffer, as he did, and evil people to prosper, as Theoderic seemed to be doing? So he sat
down to write about this problem, and the short treatise he produced, The Consolation of Philosophy,
became the single, most important book in the West in medieval and early Renaissance Christianity. If
anyone defined a world view for the medievals, and even the people of the Renaissance, it was this poor,
battered man trying in his last days of life to explain his suffering and the existence of evil.
         The fiction of the work is that Boethius is languishing in prison (as he really was) awaiting his
execution. He comforts himself with poetry, lamenting the general state of chaos in the world. A figure
then appears to him, Lady Philosophy, who undertakes to open his eyes and teach him the order of the
universe; after knowing this, he will be able to understand why God permits evil in the world. There are
two perspectives on the world: the human and the divine. The former perspective gives us the idea of
"fortune," the latter the idea of "Providence." These two perspectives are perhaps the most important
legacy Boethius bequeaths to history and the Western concept of history and time, and I'm having you
read the section of the work which defines the difference between the two. The problem of Providence
leads to a second question: if God knows the future, does that mean that the future is predestined and that
human beings have essentially no moral choice in the matter? The second section you are reading
attempts to explain how "Providence" (which means: "seeing forward") does not mean
"predetermination" or "predestination."

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