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Early Christianity was Different (in the Roman-era context)

October 7, 2015

In my posting about Anna Collar’s recent book, I noted the striking differences between the kind of evidence we have for early Christianity in comparison with other Roman-era religious groups.  In the example from Collar’s book (and we could multiply it), we have a body of inscriptions, but scant textual data.  In the case of early Christianity, we have no inscriptions till the 3rd century (and then only a limited number and from few geographical locations), whereas we have a torrent of literary texts composed in the first three centuries.  (Consider, for example, the ten volumes of the classic set, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, for a readily available sample . . . and it’s only that.)  So, why this difference, and what does it reflect?

This particular difference, the prolific production of literary texts in early Christianity, is one of the several distinctive features of the religious movement that I discuss in my current book project (which I hope to send to the publisher by end of October, with the aim of publication by Autumn 2016).  I’ll comment here briefly on this particular matter.

In the Roman era, “religion” (our term, not theirs) was typically a set of cultic performances, mainly sacrifice/gifts to gods.  People liked the gods to do things for them, and the gods liked gifts.  So, it was a convenient exchange.  You could offer a god a gift to ask for a boon, or in thanks for one.  There were also regular sacrificial rites, at periodic times, essentially to keep the god in a positive relationship with you, your city, nation, etc.

This produced physical evidence of “religion.”  There were sacred places, and shrines or temples built.  There were altars, and images of the gods.  There were “ex voto” objects purchased and given to the temple/god in thanks for answered prayers.  Substantial gifts would often also involve an inscription (just so the god and other people didn’t overlook who gave the gift).  These “dedicatory” inscriptions form the main part of the data that Collar studies on the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, for example.

But early Christianity (in the first three centuries CE) didn’t have shrines or temples, or altars, or cult-images, and no sacrifice was involved.  So, no dedicatory inscriptions or ex voto objects, or whatever.  (The earliest church structure thus far identified firmly is the famous Dura Europos one dated in the 3rd century CE.  But it didn’t include an altar or image or such.)

Instead, early Christianity was heavily the propagation of teaching about the Christian God’s purposes and will for human life, which included the formation of responsive groups (“ekklesias”) called to exhibit the way of life demanded by the God.  There were, to be sure, cultic/worship actions and rites, e.g., baptism invoking Jesus’ name as the entrance rite, and the sacred shared meal.  But early Christianity didn’t generate the kinds of physical objects generated/used by other religious groups of the time.

Indeed, some scholars (e.g., Edwin Judge) even urge that early Christianity can’t be called a “religion” in the terms applicable in the Roman world, and should be classified as a peculiar “philosophy” instead.  For my part, I still prefer to classify early Christianity as a peculiar kind of Roman-era “religion,” although I grant that it exhibits a number of features that are more commonly found among some philosophical groups of that time.

Of course, there are also obvious parallels/similarities with the practices and emphases characteristic of Jewish synagogue gatherings of the time.  In these settings, too, texts were read and discussed, and teaching and prayer were central.  It’s a “no-brainer” to presume that early Christian practice was shaped by the Jewish matrix in which it first emerged.

But, in comparison with that Jewish matrix, the aggressively trans-ethnic nature of early Christianity, even in the earliest decades, made it a distinguishable entity.

As I noted in my 2006 book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans), the earliest physical artifacts/evidence of early Christianity is heavily comprised by remnants of literary texts, fragments of manuscripts, some of which are dated as early as the mid/late 2nd century CE.  But, of course, manuscripts can travel about (unlike inscriptions or shrines).  And so it’s a bit more difficult to use the kind of evidence that Collar drew on in her book when it comes to mapping the spread of early Christianity.  (That’s probably why she didn’t try to tackle the question in her study.)  For that we have to rely heavily on textual evidence, the mention of people and places in the literary texts produced by and about early Christians.

My main point:  Profound differences in the nature of early Christianity in comparison with other Roman-era religious groups account for the differences in the nature of the physical remains and evidence that we have.

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16 Comments
  1. Larry, the strange thing is that Nero led an army out of Rome in 66 CE, supposedly for a Greek holiday. It couldn’t have been for the same reason as his “pogram” in 64 CE, could it? There were a number of people who could have written untruthful propaganda about Nero after his death. The inscription (taken from graffiti) CHRISTIANOS is claimed by at least one scholar to have been written in mockery. So were the “Christians” the ones who had been causing the Romans so much trouble.

    • Geoff: I don’t get the relevance of your reference to Nero’s trip to Greece. As to Nero himself, by all accounts he did turn into a nasty piece of work. And, yes, in the eyes of some Romans, Christians were trouble (as I’ll indicate in my current book project).

  2. Sean permalink

    Wayne Meeks said something similar: *Christians had no shrines, temples, cult statues or sacrifices; they staged no public festivals, musical performances or pilgrimages. As far as we know, they set up no identifiable inscriptions. On the other hand, initiation into their cult had social consequences that were more far-reaching than initiation into the cults of familiar gods. It entailed incorporation into a tightly knit community, a resocialisation that demanded (and in many cases actually received) an allegiance replacing bonds of natural kinship, and a submission to one God and one Lord excluding participation in any other cult. Moreover, this artificial family undertook to resocialise its members by a continual process of moral instruction and admonition; hardly any aspect of life was excluded from the purview of mutual concern, if we are to believe the writings of the movement’s leaders. The church thus combined features of household, cult, club, and philosophical school, without being altogether like any of them.* See Wayne Meeks, “Social and ecclesial life of the earliest Christians,” in Cambridge History of Christianity. eds. Margaret M. Mitchell and Francis M. Young (Cambridge, 2008), 152.

  3. Does this difference in extant remnants of the early Christian movement have anything to do with the nature of OT texts and NT texts being viewed as covenantal documents? As I read this I thought of Christians having been referred to as “people of the book” (though I forgot who said that) and wondered if there was a connection.

    • I’m not clear what you’re trying to say/ask. “Covenant documents” isn’t a term I recognize from early Christian texts and discourse.

    • Ken permalink

      If I recall, the the “people of the book” reference is Islamic, referring to Jews and Christians.

      • The label “people of the book” was a Muslim category for religions that had sacred books, scriptures. It didn’t refer to the “bookish” nature of any religion.

  4. It would be interesting to observe the practices of the very first “Christian” Jews prior to the destruction of Herod’s temple or even subsequent to it. I think it’s possible they didn’t automatically abandon traditional Jewish sacrifice (when the temple still existed), worship, and lifestyle practices simply because they received the revelation of Jesus as Messiah.

    • James: I agree. Indeed, Acts of the Apostles claims that Jerusalem (Jewish) members of the ekklesia there continued to frequent the Temple (and so, as I see it, continued to approve its sacrificial system). Likewise, Acts even claims that Paul took part in Temple ritual.
      My point was that in their gatherings as circles of the early Jesus-movement they didn’t use images, altars, shrines, etc. And, of course, as the Jesus-movement quickly became trans-ethnic, and so came to function beyond the Jewish people, the early Christian circles continued to function without these physical objects.

  5. Richard Last permalink

    I suppose that this model for understanding the ‘nature’ of ‘early Christianity’ in comparison with other ‘religions’ depends on where you draw the boundaries around these concepts and – on a related point – how fluid you imagine the practices and beliefs of ‘early Christians’ to have been. If you are open to including the kinds of cult practices performed by the Corinthians as part of ‘early Christianity’, for instance, then it would be very difficult to know an inscription, papyrus, or other physical object produced by a ‘Christian’ if you came across it – unless it cohered with ‘Christian’ literary/theological texts that idealize ‘Christian’ identity as rather fixed and homogeneous.

    I would suggest that the same idea applies when comparing ekklesiai with ‘synagogues’ and associations. Some papyri reference late antique trade associations whose memberships included (but might not have been limited to) Christians. I hesitate to imagine that groups such as these would have met the description of ekklesiai in paragraph 6 (and in other paragraphs, such as the trans-local point made later). And although I would reject a model of the development of ‘early Christianity’ that broke down early ‘Christian’ history into distinctive ‘periods’ (which reifies the notion that ‘Christian’ identity was fixed until the period changed and then became fixed into something else – but was never really fluid within a time period), it might nonetheless be relevant to highlight that arguments have been made that some of the earliest Christ groups could be understood as professional associations, as well (which – to bring this back to your main point – raises questions about what kinds of literary, physical, etc. evidence these particular groups produced from within ‘early Christianity’).

    • Richard: It’s not essential for my viewpoint that “Christianity” was fixed or fluid, or a problem that it was (self-evidently) varied. (So, please avoid ascribing any such notions to me, if you please.) I’m afraid, also, that your comment is a bit too . . . compacted for me to know precisely what you’re referring to in some cases (e.g., your reference to “the kinds of cult practices performed by the Corinthians”). In any case, contrary to your assertion, it isn’t necessary to invoke a “fixed and homogenous” Christian identity, beliefs, etc., to recognize that (a) there was a new religious movement that emerged and was treated as a distinctive development from the earliest years, (2) that people at the time were able to recognize them often (as reflected in Nero’s pogrom), and (3) that ascribing Jesus a special/unique status seems to have been an earmark of at least most of the forms that we know of. I suggest that you jettison the “fixed” category, that you seem to use as a whipping boy. Few of us today actually operate with any such notion. It’s a bit of a red-herring, don’t you see?
      Oh, and “Late Antique” often = 4th century & later. I specifically referred to the first three centuries, particularly the first two.

  6. Larry, what about some of the images found in the catacombs of Rome? I believe there is a picture of a mother with a child. What do these signify? And in a second location there is a picture of women with their arms raised seemingly praising God and presumably leading the worship. Also the places where these images are shown must have been places of worship.

    • The Christian catacomb art is now generally dated to early 3rd century CE, or a few perhaps a bit earlier. So, no earlier than the manuscripts I mentioned. These burial sites were places where early Christians met sometimes, not as regular worship-sites, but, e.g., to commemorate Christian dead.

      • Larry, what about the inscription CHRISTIANOS found at Pompeii? That must be early.

      • The “Christianos” inscription remains under scholarly disputation, but it is not impossible at all that there were Christians in Pompeii, or that people there knew of Christians. After all, reports of Nero’s pogrom against Christians place it in 64 CE, and Pompeii was destroyed in 79 CE.

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