Saturday, April 28, 2012

Christianity and the Roman Empire – Part II The First Century (Continued)

During the third decade of the first century a new prophet appeared in Galilee. His message was consistent with the currents of the time, but he also placed a new focus on the poor and disadvantaged. Most importantly, he claimed to be inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth through his own special relationship with the creator.  This post is about that prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, and the religion created in his name. Christianity caused a violent reaction in the Roman empire initially but, in time, conquered it. In 476 A.D. when Romulus Augustus abdicated, it was only the pope who was left standing.

Jesus of Nazareth was raised in Galilee, but we know little about him before his meeting with John the Baptist. Starting in the mid-twenties A.D, he travelled across Galilee preaching a message of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. To properly prepare for this event, the Jewish people must repent for their hypocrisy and embrace all human beings as their brothers, including women, the poor, and the disadvantaged. Without that repentance, they could hold no hope for immortality.

Jesus was well-educated (Pharisee caliber?) and was a master at using parables to reinforce his teachings. He was also said to have healed the sick and cared for the most desperate of human beings.

Despite his wisdom and charisma, Jesus’ Galilean mission was a failure because the people could not comprehend his message. Even his family did not understand his intent, causing him to express frustration at them. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters… he cannot be a disciple of mine.” AndA prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." In addition to his lack of success, Jesus had created animosity in the Galilean Pharisees, who were angered by his criticism of the Jewish law and could not abide his association with undesirables.

Later, when Jesus heard that the Baptist had been executed, he was forced to hide in the kingdom of Philip to avoid the wrath of Antipas, who was sensitive to perceived revolutionary activity.

Finally, Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, knowing full well he might have to die for his beliefs as the Baptist had done. He chose Jerusalem because it was the center of the Jewish state and a demonstration against the leadership would have the maximum impact. That demonstration is known as the cleansing of the temple, where he turned over the tables of merchants and criticized the Sadducees for disrespecting the holy place.

The response of the Pharisees and Sadducees was a plot to have Jesus eliminated. They convinced the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, that the prophet’s activities were subversive and he represented a threat to Roman rule.  Then, following a mock trial, Pilate agreed to have Jesus crucified.

Jesus’ horrible death nearly destroyed his followers who could not accept that their messiah would die in such a shameful way when he was supposed to lead them to glory. But then, defeat became victory when his followers believed they saw Jesus alive after the crucifixion, proving that he had risen from the dead. If he had risen from the dead and become visible he must have had a special relationship with God and that special relationship had to be father and son, they reasoned.

A small sect of Jewish Christians formed in Jerusalem which held to the Jewish faith but also worshiped Jesus as a new kind of messiah – the suffering servant of God. As time went on, perhaps through the mid-thirties, small parishes were formed with simple worship services, in Synagogues, incorporating baptism with a celebration of the last supper. All Christians patiently waited for the kingdom of God to arrive.

During this time a parallel mission was begun by Paul (Saul) of Tarsus who had seen a vision of Jesus, circa 37 A.D, and become converted to his cause. Paul’s message about Jesus was carried to the gentiles who were not a part of the original mission. He spent two and a half decades traveling the middle east on foot, nurturing embryonic Christian communities in Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, Damascus, Phrygia, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Rome. The larger of these communities contained enough converts to require Bishopic leadership.

The above map shows the early Christian communities with approximate founding dates. The dates come from the travels of Paul, who we associate with most of them.

As one might imagine, a conflict eventually developed between Paul and Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem over the requirement to observe Jewish law. Paul traveled to Jerusalem circa 50 A.D. to meet with James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, and the other Christian leaders. The end result was the relaxation of the requirements for gentiles including circumcision. Later, as we discussed in the last post, Christianity become a Gentile religion when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. James was stoned to death in 62 A.D and most of the rest of the leadership were killed in 70 A.D.

Parallel to the work of Paul and the Jerusalem Christians was the effort to document the life of Jesus. In the beginning there was no reason to write about Jesus’ life because the world was about to end. But it didn't! When would it end? No one knew. By the time Mark was written (circa 60 A.D.) the church was already three decades removed from the life of Jesus. New generations were being converted and these individuals wanted to know more about Jesus and his life. The Church’s answer was to document events previously related only by word of mouth.

So the end of the first century arrived to see a maturing Christian religion solidly entrenched in important cities of the middle east and Rome. It was a religion of Gentiles by this point because the Jewish Christians were gone. Rome had become the capital of the Catholic Church very rapidly. We don’t have a record of significant missionary work there until 60 A.D. when Peter and Paul arrived, a decade or two behind Antioch, Corinth, and the other centers. Obviously, the position of Rome was enhanced by Peter and Paul living and being martyred there. By 90 A.D, Pope Clement was writing to the church at Corinth advising them as the leader of the church.


Simone82 said...

How do you consider the existence of christian people in Rome as Act of Apostles wrote under Claudian Empire, around 40 A.D.? Is it possible to know as community or simply a fellow of Christ?

It's important to consider that from Cesarea to Rome by sea in a few days: this simply consideration how make possibile that the christian community arrive in the center of empire post 30 years? The existence of cross in Pozzuoli and Pompei, not datable precisely, rise the question when the christian adopt the cross as symbol and when they arrive in Italy as community and not simple as fellow. said...

I understand now a major aspect of your position on the historicity of events related to Christianity: you have adopted a naturalistic viewpoint denying any form of supernatural. This is your intellectual choice. But to decide in their place, that what the followers of Jesus imagined a resurrection because they fell victims to a mass delusion/hallucination is not intellectually commendable, simply because you were not there to interview any of them to verify their claims, and you also refuse to listen with an open mind to their own testimonies as recorded in the NT. If you want to remain objective - and I am sure that this is your honest intent - then the wording to use is thus: "his followers believed / were certain / claimed that they saw Jesus alive after the crucifiction". A scientific approach is to leave the door open to scrutiny, discussion and re-evaluation, NOT keeping it shut.

Mike Anderson said...


Imagined is a bad use of this word in this context if it implies delusion or hallucination. I think believed among your words is the best. said...

I have also observed a historical inaccuracy in what you say about Peter moving to Rome to eventually die there... This is according to Tradition, and this tradition is based on a forgery, the apocryphal writing "The Acts of Peter" (written around 150-200 A.D. = about 100 years after these events purportedly took place), according to which he leaves Jerusalem on a chase to intercept Simon the sorcerer (chap.4 ff). It's noteworthy to point out that even though rejected by the Roman Catholic Church as unreliable, its declarations about Peter were accepted as historical because of the need to justify the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome over the others by the death - therefore succession - of Peter as Pope in Rome. You can find a great number of shunned scholarly studies confirming this... but you must seek to find.