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