A New History of Early Christianity

A New History of Early Christianity

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
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    A New History of Early Christianity
    Book Description:

    The relevance of Christianity is as hotly contested today as it has ever been.A New History of Early Christianityshows how our current debates are rooted in the many controversies surrounding the birth of the religion and the earliest attempts to resolve them. Charles Freeman's meticulous historical account of Christianity from its birth in Judaea in the first century A.D. to the emergence of Western and Eastern churches by A.D. 600 reveals that it was a distinctive, vibrant, and incredibly diverse movement brought into order at the cost of intellectual and spiritual vitality. Against the conventional narrative of the inevitable "triumph" of a single distinct Christianity, Freeman shows that there was a host of competing Christianities, many of which had as much claim to authenticity as those that eventually dominated. Looking with fresh eyes at the historical record, Freeman explores the ambiguities and contradictions that underlay Christian theology and the unavoidable compromises enforced in the name of doctrine.

    Tracing the astonishing transformation that the early Christian church underwent-from sporadic niches of Christian communities surviving in the wake of a horrific crucifixion to sanctioned alliance with the state-Charles Freeman shows how freedom of thought was curtailed by the development of the concept of faith. The imposition of "correct belief," religious uniformity, and an institutional framework that enforced orthodoxy were both consolidating and stifling. Uncovering the difficulties in establishing the Christian church, he examines its relationship with Judaism, Gnosticism, Greek philosophy and Greco-Roman society, and he offers dramatic new accounts of Paul, the resurrection, and the church fathers and emperors.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16658-3
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Maps
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. [Maps]
    (pp. xvii-xx)
    • CHAPTER ONE A Trial
      (pp. 3-7)

      ThePraefectus, the Roman governor of the province of Judaea, can never have looked forward to travelling up to Jerusalem from his headquarters at Caesarea on the coast. It was his task to supervise the keeping of good order at the feast of the Passover each year. Some hundreds of thousands of Jews from throughout the Mediterranean would have gathered for the feast and there was always the chance of disorder. Pontius Pilate, appointed the governor of the province in ad 26, certainly had no reason to expect a warm welcome. On his very first visit to Jerusalem he had...

      (pp. 8-18)

      Jesus was a Jew. For much of Christian history this has been denied or avoided. The apostle Paul began the tradition through his own ambivalence about the relationship between Jesus and traditional Judaism. In John’s gospel, written some sixty years after the crucifixion by a man steeped in Greek culture, Jesus is portrayed as already distancing himself from his Jewish heritage, above all in Chapter Eight of the gospel where a confrontation leaves a group of Jews ready to stone him. Some sixty years further on (c.155), Melito, the bishop of Sardis, presented what had become a conventional narrative: ‘O...

    • CHAPTER THREE Jesus before the Gospels
      (pp. 19-30)

      When Herod’s kingdom was divided among his sons after his death in 4 bc, one of them, Herod Antipas, was made tetrarch (literally ‘ruler of a fourth part’, of Herod’s original kingdom) of Galilee. He remained in power until ad 39, for the whole of Jesus’ life. So, contrary to conventional belief, Jesus was subject to a local ruler rather than directly to the Romans while he taught in Galilee. Herod Antipas’ ‘kingdom’ was a prosperous and well-populated region, its land was fertile and well watered and a wide variety of crops – fruits, vines, olives, grain and flax –...

      (pp. 31-46)

      The death of Jesus was a devastating blow. How can we imagine the intense psychological trauma that the disciples must have experienced? They had lived with him for many months, sharing the hardships of the road, the welcoming crowds as well as the mockery of those who despised his mission. Even in Galilee tensions were acute, especially after Herod Antipas’ execution of John the Baptist. The message of the coming kingdom grew with the movement and the arrival in Jerusalem must have seemed the culmination of all that had been promised. Where better for the kingdom to be inaugurated? Any...

    • CHAPTER FIVE What Did Paul Achieve?
      (pp. 47-65)

      Paul dominates any history of early Christianity. He is the loner who made Christianity universal, the authoritarian who wrote in terms of the equality of all before God. He transformed the spiritual teacher of Galilee into the crucified and risen Christ. Yet it is impossible to write more than a fragmentary account of his life. The sources that survive, perhaps six or seven letters of the many he must have written, and the narrative of his activities in the Acts of the Apostles, are not full enough even to provide an accurate chronology. The context in which his letters were...

    • CHAPTER SIX The Letter to the Hebrews
      (pp. 66-71)

      The Letter to the Hebrews is one of the most fascinating documents of the New Testament. The story of its eventual inclusion in the canon is absorbing in itself. It was known to Clement, bishop of Rome in the mid 90s and by later Romans such as Justin Martyr in the mid-second century. By 200 it was being used in Egypt and North Africa under its present title, ‘Letter to the Hebrews’ (and this is the title attached to the oldest surviving manuscript). The author was unknown and in the mid-third century the theologian Origen suggested that only God knew...

      (pp. 72-86)

      The years 66 to 70 were traumatic ones for the Roman Empire. The emperor Nero had become increasingly unbalanced and when a revolt broke out against him in Gaul in 68 he panicked and committed suicide. In the power struggle that followed, three emperors came and went before an experienced but relatively unknown army officer, Vespasian, commander of the troops in Judaea, now in revolt against Roman rule, declared himself emperor with the support of the governor of Egypt and the Balkan legions. In 70 Vespasian set off for Rome, leaving his son Titus in charge of Judaea and it...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT John and the Jerusalem Christians
      (pp. 87-96)

      There is a power and sophistication to John’s gospel that immediately place it apart from the synoptics. While it is undoubtedly a gospel, with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, miracles, a passion, crucifixion and resurrection appearances, it draws on very different historical traditions. It was probably impelled by the history of the community for which it was written and the focus on Jesus and his mission is intense.¹

      The origins of John appear to lie close to Jerusalem and in distinctive eyewitness accounts, passed on perhaps from an early Christian community. The gospel is centred in the...

    • CHAPTER NINE Creating a New Testament
      (pp. 97-110)

      In his Easter letter of 367, the ebullient bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, referred to a set of Christian writings that he regarded as authoritative. He described them as ‘canonised’ in the sense of being texts that held the core of Christian belief. There were twenty-seven of them. This was the earliest reference to the complete New Testament, as we know it today, although less complete lists are known from the end of the second century onwards, notably in the Muratorian fragment of about 200. In 393, at a provincial council of bishops meeting in Carthage, further approval of this ‘canon’...

      (pp. 111-120)

      The early Christian communities present a major challenge for the historian: the sources are so limited. However, we may gain insights from modern examples of small independent churches. In James Ault’s account of Baptist fundamentalism in the United States,Spirit and Flesh, for instance, he explores the setting up of a small Baptist community in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1980s. The average size of a congregation was about a hundred. The personality of the preacher proved important, as did the atmosphere of welcome that the community provided, especially as there were so many rival Christian groups in the town for...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Toeholds in a Wider Empire
      (pp. 123-131)

      The astonishing expansion of the Roman Empire began in the fifth and fourth centuries bc with the absorption of the mountainous terrain of Italy. The challenges of these early campaigns established a pattern whereby each victory led to the accumulation of plunder and manpower that fuelled the next conquest. Sicily, the Carthaginian empire of the western Mediterranean, and the whole Greek world of the east followed. By ad 117, on the death of the emperor Trajan, the entire Mediterranean and outlying areas such as Britain and Dacia, across the Danube, and the civilisations of ancient Egypt and the Near East...

      (pp. 132-141)

      Christians first met in private houses. The earliest known example of a ‘church’ comes from the remote city of Dura-Europus on the Euphrates (in modern Syria). This had been a settlement of the Seleucids, one of the Greek dynasties that succeeded Alexander the Great, but from ad 160 the Romans had transformed it into a garrison town from where they could lead the defence of the eastern empire against a newly aggressive Persian empire. The inhabitants were a lively mixture – descendants of the original Macedonian settlers, migrants from the surrounding steppes and the trading city of Palmyra, Jews who...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Was There a Gnostic Challenge?
      (pp. 142-154)

      What, if anything, exists beyond the material world we experience around us? There was intense dispute in this period among Jews, pagans and Christians alike over what survived after death, a ‘soul’ perhaps, or even a reconstituted earthly body, and whether it could experience reward or punishment. Then there was the issue of who might be selected for special favour, what forms of commitment, belief or behaviour were necessary to ensure entry into a state of bliss rather than one of misery or even eternal punishment. Furthermore, how could one learn about the world beyond when there seemed no empirical...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Idea of a Church
      (pp. 155-162)

      Prophecy ran deep in Jewish history and ‘the gift of prophecy’ was recognised by Paul as one way in which ‘the Spirit’ could manifest itself in an individual (1 Corinthians 12:10). In theDidache, the short manual of advice to Christian congregations, prophets are seen as pervasive in Christian life. Visiting prophets are to be seen as ‘high priests’ and if they can prove themselves the community should support them. The problem lies in distinguishing between false and true prophets. The true prophet, the congregations are told, does not ask for money for himself and behaves as he teaches. Even...

      (pp. 163-168)

      The daily life of Christian communities in this period remains murky: the evidence is simply scant.¹ There is no surviving Christian art from before 200, almost no funerary inscriptions from before the third century. The earliest church history, that of Eusebius, concentrates on lists of bishops and graphic accounts of persecutions. So it is difficult to recreate the lives of second- or third-century Christians. Some Christian apologists wished to emphasise the similarity of their lives to their pagan counterparts. As Tertullian the ebullient church father from Carthage puts it in his ownApology: ‘We live together with you in this...

    • INTERLUDE ONE The Earliest Christian Art
      (pp. 169-170)

      There is nothing from before ad 200 which can be recognised as distinctively Christian art. This is partly because Christian communities were small and poor but it is possible that traditional Jewish conventions about portraying images may have inhibited them. Any public display of Christianity would certainly have invited retaliation. There is, in fact, a canon of the Council of Elvira (c.314) that specifically forbids the painting of church walls, a stricture still followed by the Donatists in north Africa as late as the early fourth century. While the baptistery at Dura-Europus is decorated, the neighbouring meeting hall is not....

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN Celsus Confronts the Christians
      (pp. 171-175)

      The earliest systematic attack on Christianity to survive is ‘On the True Doctrine’ by Celsus.¹ It tells us what educated Greeks found difficult about Christianity. Nothing is known about Celsus other than what his writings tell us and they give no hint as to where he came from or where he wrote. They probably date from the 180s – much the same period as Irenaeus. Celsus was clearly well educated in the ideas of his time but he was not a particularly sophisticated thinker. In fact, his temperament comes across as conservative and he was happy to repeat the religious...

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Challenge of Greek Philosophy
      (pp. 176-185)

      At the very beginning of Christian history, Paul laid down a challenge to ‘the wisdom of the wise’: ‘I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ (1 Corinthians 2:3). He initiated a negative response to philosophy, especially to the rigour of rational thought, which has persisted in strong or weak forms throughout Christian history. Yet for the Greeks the use of rational thought was intrinsic to serious learning and it was precisely the emotional, faith-centred commitment to Christ that most disturbed them. If Christianity was to attract more highly educated Greeks it would have...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Origen and Early Christian Scholarship
      (pp. 186-195)

      There could have been few backdrops more conducive to intellectual creativity than the great city of Alexandria. Founded by Alexander in 332 bc, Alexandria flourished as the major port of the eastern Mediterranean, its lighthouse one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’. The Ptolemies, the Greek dynasty that succeeded Alexander, had been major patrons of culture and the city soon became the leading centre in the Greek world for science and mathematics. The library was the most impressive in the world even if its ambition of having a copy of every single Greek text was never realised, while the...

      (pp. 196-204)

      While Alexandria was the largest city of the eastern Mediterranean, Carthage, capital of the Roman province of Africa was, after Rome, the largest city in the west. Capital of the old Carthaginian empire which had been humiliated and destroyed by the Romans in the third and second centuries ad, it had been revived as a Roman colony and its port was the link between the increasingly grain-rich provinces of the African mainland and the hungry masses in Rome. Some two-thirds of Rome’s grain came from Africa by the first century ad. With the original Carthage razed to the ground, the...

      (pp. 205-214)

      The earliest voice of a Christian woman to survive is that of Perpetua, a martyr who was persecuted in Carthage in the early third century. Perpetua was a well-born woman of twenty-two, mother of a baby boy whom she was still suckling when she was arrested as a catechumen. (She was baptised when in prison.) In the Passion account of herself and a slave girl Felicity¹ no reason is given for her arrest and it causes great distress within her family. Her father pleads for her to show reverence to the traditional gods but she steadfastly refuses. She is sentenced...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE The Spread of Christian Communities
      (pp. 215-222)

      In hisHistory of the Church, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea on the coast of Judaea, sees the period from Gallienus to the outbreak of persecution by Diocletian, one of over forty years, as a period of peace and growth. The goodwill the emperors showed to Christians was such that Christians were now employed in the imperial households; in some cases they were apparently preferred to their non-Christian counterparts, perhaps because their sober living made them more trustworthy servants. There were cases, Eusebius tells us, of Christians becoming provincial governors, but even pagan ones allowed Christians to meet freely. The growing...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO The Motives of Constantine
      (pp. 225-237)

      ‘Let me now obediently sing aloud the new song because after those terrifying darksome sights and stories, I was now privileged to see and celebrate such things as in truth many righteous men and martyrs of God before desired to see on earth and did not see, and to hear and did not hear . . . a day bright and radiant, with no cloud overshadowing it, shone down with shafts of heavenly light on the churches of Christ throughout the world.’¹ So, in the final chapter of hisHistory of the Church, Eusebius rejoices at the toleration and patronage...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE Debating the Nature of God
      (pp. 238-247)

      The church desperately needed new talent to meet the many demands that Constantine had placed on it. The release of the clergy from the heavy burdens of local taxation and patronage meant that the class who most contributed these, thecuriales, was now attracted to Christianity. Many of its members were used to administration, overseeing building projects and distributing the grain supplies to the poor and all these roles were increasingly the preserve of the church. This was also a highly educated class. Philosophical argument was at the core of traditional education and converts from paganism now had a new...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR The Stifling of Christian Diversity
      (pp. 248-253)

      Theodosius’ roots were in the Christian aristocracy of Spain. He had been appointed emperor of the east in 379 at a moment of great crisis. Valentinian, probably the last Roman emperor to be able to mount effective assaults on the barbarian tribes, had died in 375. His successor in the western empire, his son Gratian, was only sixteen. Valentinian’s brother, Valens, still ruled over the eastern empire but in 378 he was killed in a devastating defeat at Adrianople by an army of Goths. The victorious Gothic bands were never strong enough to take any major cities but they had...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE The Assault on Paganism
      (pp. 254-260)

      Theodosius was a pragmatist. By 382 he had accepted the inevitable and come to an agreement by which the Gothic victors of Adrianople were allowed to settle in Thrace and declare themselves allies of the Roman state. While this brought peace, the forced compromise did not augur well for the future of the empire. There was another major blow to the empire in the summer of 383 when the commander of the British legions, Magnus Maximus, revolted against the rule of Gratian, the young emperor in the west, and crossed over to Gaul. Gratian’s credibility was shattered as his authority...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX ‘No one is honoured before him’: THE RISE OF THE BISHOP
      (pp. 261-270)

      ‘The peak of nobility is to be reckoned among the sons of God.’ This extraordinary statement made by Hilary, bishop of Arles between 429 and his death in 449, sums up the dramatic change of status that Constantine brought to the bishops. Hilary is echoed by John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople: ‘Prefects and city magistrates do not enjoy such honour as the magistrate of the church; for if he enters the palace, who ranks the highest, or among the matrons, or among the houses of the great. No one is honoured before him.’ The resources that were now available...

    • INTERLUDE TWO The Art of Imperial Christianity
      (pp. 271-273)

      Very soon after Constantine’s Edict of Toleration of 313, Aquileia, one of the richest cities of northern Italy, commissioned a great double basilica. One part was for catechumens, the other for those already baptised. Its floor was covered with rich mosaics only rediscovered under medieval silt in the early twentieth century. The themes are very similar to those of earlier Christian art: Jonah and the whale, fishermen and the Good Shepherd. Yet this was now an opulent and public display. Money from both Christian and imperial sources was poured into Christian buildings, their decoration and all the fittings, including jewelled...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN An Obsession with the Flesh
      (pp. 274-284)

      ‘Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are dressed up in jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying.’¹ The ascetic scholar Jerome was among many who were appalled by the new opulence of the church. Only a hundred years earlier bishops had been in hiding, their sacred texts were being seized and any display of open ostentation would have been destroyed. Now the church was flaunting its wealth and actively seeking to dominate city life. Jerome wrote that the history of the church was one of decline, ‘from the apostles down to the excrement...

      (pp. 285-297)

      The theology of Augustine dominates the western tradition. For centuries Augustine’s view of humankind, his attitudes to free will, the certainty of eternal punishment in hell for most, and his support for a hierarchical misogynist society were to become part of the European religious, and, to some extent, secular, heritage. Yet like his mentor the apostle Paul, he was a loner. His African diocese was remote from the major centres of Roman intellectual life in the west when even in cities such as Rome and Milan knowledge of Greek was fading. Despite being well educated, Augustine was unable to read...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE Divine but Human
      (pp. 298-305)

      While Augustine was writing and preaching in northern Africa, events were moving fast in the eastern empire. On the death of Theodosius I in 395, the empire was split between his two young sons, Honorius in the west and Arcadius in the east. Power sharing between emperors had become common since the time of Diocletian but now the division into western and eastern empires became permanent. The fates of the two halves were to be very different. The western empire collapsed while, in one of the most remarkable survival stories in world history, the ‘Romans’, as the Greeks now called...

    • CHAPTER THIRTY The Closing of the Schools
      (pp. 306-312)

      Despite the intervention of Marcian, the Council of Chalcedon did not bring peace to the church. In Alexandria the mere mention of the phrase ‘two natures’ set off rioting by the monks and anger among traditionalists. The inclusion of extracts from Cyril’s works in the Chalcedonian formula was not enough to calm them. They dug out phrases from theTome, such as ‘the Word performing what appertains to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what appertains to the flesh’, which, they claimed, could only refer to two natures and thus to ‘heretical’ Nestorianism. They were so furious with the...

      (pp. 313-320)

      The east saw the greatest destruction of pagan shrines, but their obliteration was also common in the west. Martin of Tours, one of the most popular bishop-saints of the late fourth century, was renowned for miracles which caused the collapse or burning of a shrine. There is a dramatic falling off of pagan activity in the archaeological record after the fourth century and the written sources of the time give us triumphant accounts of the breaking up of pagan statues. In the laterEcclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede describes with approval the massacre of a group...

    • CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO Faith, Certainty and the Unknown God
      (pp. 321-326)

      Byzantine Christianity tended to remove God as far as possible from the believer. An important Syrian writer of the early sixth century, known as Pseudo-Dionysius, as his works were once believed to be the genuine thoughts of the Dionysius converted by Paul, expressed his belief that ‘the saved and hidden truth about the celestial intelligences should be concealed through the inexpressible and the sacred and be inaccessible to the common masses . . . We have no knowledge at all of God’s incomprehensible and ineffable transcendence and invisibility.’ Here is the complete contrast to Eunomius’ belief that the nature of...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 327-336)
  11. Glossary
    (pp. 337-352)
  12. Further Reading
    (pp. 353-358)
  13. Timeline
    (pp. 359-366)
  14. Index
    (pp. 367-378)
  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)