The Origins of Christian Morality

The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries

Wayne A. Meeks
Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 285
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    The Origins of Christian Morality
    Book Description:

    By the time Christianity became a political and cultural force in the Roman Empire, it had come to embody a new moral vision. This wise and eloquent book describes the formative years-from the crucifixion of Jesus to the end of the second century of the common era-when Christian beliefs and practices shaped their unique moral order.Wayne A. Meeks examines the surviving documents from Christianity's beginnings (some of which became the New Testament) and shows that they are largely concerned with the way converts to the movement should behave. Meeks finds that for these Christians, the formation of morals means the formation of community; the documents are addressed not to individuals but to groups, and they have among their primary aims the maintenance and growth of these groups. Meeks paints a picture of the process of socialization that produced the early forms of Christian morality, discussing many factors that made the Christians feel that they were a single and "chosen" people. He describes, for example, the impact of conversion; the rapid spread of Christian household cult-associations in the cities of the Roman Empire; the language of Christian moral discourse as revealed in letters, testaments, and "moral stories"; the rituals, meetings, and institutionalization of charity; the Christians' feelings about celibacy, sex, and gender roles; and their sense of the end-time and final judgment. In each of these areas Meeks seeks to determine what is distinctive about the Christian viewpoint and what is similar to the moral components of Greco-Roman or Jewish thought.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16090-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Morals and Community
    (pp. 1-17)

    Even in an age that some describe as post-Christian, the beginnings of the strange movement that was to become Christianity in all its varieties continue to fascinate thoughtful people. Both the central story Christianity had to tell and all the histories we construct to explain its origin seem so improbable. Yet something more than mere curiosity about an ancient puzzle draws our attention to the first centuries of Christian history. Our interest in the question betrays our awareness that, whether or not we regard ourselves as Christians or in any way religious, we cannot altogether escape the tectonic shift of...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Turning: Moral Consequences of Conversion
    (pp. 18-36)

    Early Christianity was a movement of converts. That is, the Christians thought of themselves as people who had turned their lives around, from one state to another profoundly better. Turning around (Greekepistrophē, Latinconversio) is a metaphor that could have broad and multiple consequences for the way the early Christians perceived their moral possibilities and obligations. Its generative potential is visible already in the earliest Christian document we have, the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. First Thessalonians is a letter of moral advice. It aims to reinforce a variety of things that Paul has taught the new...

  6. CHAPTER 3 City, Household, People of God
    (pp. 37-51)

    The eloquent exhortation that we know as the Epistle to the Hebrews climaxes with a vision of “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22 in the New Revised Standard Version, hereafter cited as NRSV). Then, returning to the imagery of the Israelites wandering in the desert, the author calls on Christians to go forth to Jesus “outside the camp. . . . For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:11,14, NRSV). Yet the specific admonitions that stand between these two flights of metaphor pertain to life...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Loving and Hating the World
    (pp. 52-65)

    Jesus said, ‘Whoever has become acquainted with the world has found a corpse, and the world is not worthy of the one who has found the corpse.’”¹ This is not the Jesus of the canonical Gospels, to be sure, but the one called “the living Jesus” of theGospel of Thomas, who utters sayings that the prologue to that Gospel understandably calls “cryptic.” TheGospel of Thomas, which probably originated in Syria sometime in the second century, was widely disseminated and read among Christians for several centuries thereafter, until authorities of the emerging catholic churches succeeded in suppressing it. It...

  8. CHAPTER 5 The Language of Obligation
    (pp. 66-90)

    It is time now to examine some of the specific ways in which early Christians gave moral directives to one another. In this chapter we will sample some of the typical patterns of language by which they expressed moral obligations. The study of early Christian ethics would benefit from a complete catalogue of such action guides, but that task would exceed the bounds of this book, not to mention the reader’s patience. The samples we shall consider begin with some of the simplest forms and move toward more complex compositions. That progression will also take us from forms of language...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Grammar of Christian Practice
    (pp. 91-110)

    Alasdair MacIntry, seeking to rehabilitate the concept of virtue as the center of ethical discussion, first had to define in a special sense the notion ofsocial practice, “as providing the arena in which the virtues are exhibited and in terms of which they are to receive their primary, if incomplete, definition.”¹ MacIntyre gives strong reasons for believing that virtues are embedded in social practices and that they point toward ways of achieving goods that are internal to those practices. That viewpoint coincides nicely with the perspective from which we began our observations of early Christian morality, and it is...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Knowing Evil
    (pp. 111-129)

    The moral landscape—the picture of reality that, just beneath the level of conscious reflection, shapes our moral intuitions—requires dark colors as well as light. We need to know, at some level of awareness, what stands over against that which we take to be right and good. We require explanation for the retarding friction that sometimes inhibits our affirming the good, some myth to render graphic and plausible the conflicts that arise in our willing. We must, therefore, know about evil.

    The way the early Christians pictured the causes and mechanisms of evil is an important part of their...

  11. CHAPTER 8 The Body as Sign and Problem
    (pp. 130-149)

    For thoughtful moralists in antiquity, the root of many of our moral dilemmas seemed to lie in the fact that we inhabit bodies—or, as the Platonists used to say, we are imprisoned or buried in bodies. Philo, even though he is a Jew, is quite typical of such moralists when he represents the struggle for virtue, to which every good person is called, as a contest, in its simplest terms, between soul (or mind) and body. Philo finds this struggle inscribed on nearly every page of the Pentateuch, contrary to what most readers would think the text’s plain sense....

  12. CHAPTER 9 A Life Worthy of God
    (pp. 150-173)

    When the early Christians talked about human behavior, they also talked about God, usually in the same breath, as it were. Nothing could be less surprising than that. The same thing is true of all varieties of Jewish moral discourse in antiquity, as one can readily verify by sampling at random almost any surviving Jewish literature, from the Bible itself to the Dead Sea Scrolls to Philo to Josephus (the Book of Esther is an exception that proves the rule). Furthermore, it was by no means unusual for pagan moral philosophers in the Roman Empire to begin their discussions of...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Senses of an Ending
    (pp. 174-188)

    It requires no particular philosophy to discover that time passes and, once past, cannot be brought back, though the puzzle of time is one that captivates philosophers. The aging Seneca states more elegantly than most the feel of time gone by: “omnia in idem profundum cadunt,” “all things fall into the same abyss” (Epistle49.3) or, in another place, “Quicquid aetatis retro est, mors tenet,” “Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands” (Ep. 1.2, trans. Richard M. Gummere).

    For Christians, however, even the dead are raised, and those deeds fallen into the abyss have not fallen from God’s...

  14. CHAPTER 11 The Moral Story
    (pp. 189-210)

    The ancients knew that stories helped to inculcate morals—or to corrupt them. Young men, Plutarch said, could hardly be kept away from the fables and myths of the poets altogether, and besides, there was much good to be learned there. Only, he warned his friend Marcus, they ought to be careful to teach their sonshowto listen to poetry, for “they require oversight in their reading even more than in the streets.”¹ One of the ways Moses showed himself a superior legislator, Philo claimed, was that he set the laws within a narrative—a narrative, moreover, that begins...

  15. Postscript. History, Pluralism, and Christian Morality
    (pp. 211-220)

    Our ethnographic journey into the foreign world of Christian beginnings is at an end. We return to our present, wondering perhaps whether our own world will now look a bit different from before, as it often does to the eyes of a traveler returning from strange places. The purpose of this inquiry has been resolutely historical and descriptive. It will have succeeded to a large extent if it has done no more than to make the ethos of the early Christians seem even more distant from the ordinary concerns and beliefs of people today than it did before. This is...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 221-242)
  17. Bibliography of Secondary Works Cited
    (pp. 243-260)
  18. Index of Early Christian Literature
    (pp. 261-269)
  19. Subject Index
    (pp. 270-275)