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The Apostolic Movement

The first Chris­t­ian fel­low­ships put a great empha­sis upon uni­ty amongst one anoth­er, yet the odd thing is they seemed always to have been squab­bling over what kind of uni­ty they were to have. The old­est authen­tic doc­u­ments we have con­cern­ing their beliefs, cus­toms, and strug­gles are Paul’s let­ters.  In these let­ters, he is fre­quent­ly defend­ing him­self against some oth­er mes­sen­ger of the faith who has refut­ed his mes­sage, say­ing, “No, Paul didn’t tell it right. We have now to tell you the real thing.” So, it is clear from the very begin­ning, that there are dif­fer­ent ways of inter­pret­ing the fun­da­men­tal mes­sage. There are dif­fer­ent kinds of prac­tice, with many argu­ments over how “Jew­ish” are they to be; how “Greek” are they to be; how do they adapt to and pen­e­trate the sur­round­ing cul­ture?  There were also no uni­form answers about the real mean­ing of Jesus death; was the res­ur­rec­tion in body or spir­it only; what teach­ings of Jesus were most impor­tant, and what did they mean?

Paul’s con­ver­sion as an Apos­tle may date as ear­ly as three years after Jesus’ death, and no lat­er than the year 35. He was in Dam­as­cus when he was called, accord­ing to his own wit­ness. So it looks like there are already, with­in two to five years after Jesus’ death, Greek speak­ing con­gre­ga­tions out­side of Pales­tine, and very ear­ly in Anti­och.  There were also very ear­ly com­mu­ni­ties in Samaria and Galilee.

The Apos­tle Paul is, next to Jesus, the most intrigu­ing fig­ure of the 1st cen­tu­ry of Chris­tian­i­ty, and far bet­ter known his­tor­i­cal­ly than Jesus because of his many let­ters that have sur­vived as pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments of the era.  There are many aston­ish­ing things about him.  Paul’s mis­sion car­ried Chris­tian­i­ty through Asia Minor, and present-day Turkey, into Mace­do­nia, and Greece, and before his life was over into Rome (although he did not found the Church of Rome). In his own time, he saw him­self pri­mar­i­ly as a prophet to the non-Jews, to bring to them the mes­sage of the cru­ci­fied Mes­si­ah, and he does this in an extra­or­di­nary way.  This is espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing because he began his career as one of the high­est Jew­ish author­i­ties. His impact has resound­ed through­out the his­to­ry of Chris­tian­i­ty through his writ­ings which com­prise about two-thirds of the New Tes­ta­ment.

In the writ­ings of Paul we see for the first time the lan­guage that will become the hall­mark of all the lat­er Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion. Indeed this is where we get much of the vocab­u­lary that makes Chris­tian­i­ty dis­tinc­tive. The term “Christ” is a title. It’s the Greek trans­la­tion of the Hebrew word Mes­sioc and they both mean exact­ly the same thing. They both refer to some­one who is anoint­ed for lead­er­ship by God. The term is iden­ti­fy­ing Jesus as a reli­gious fig­ure in a new way.

For Paul, how­ev­er, the term “Christ” does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly sig­nal a Chris­t­ian frame of ref­er­ence that every­one today would have rec­og­nized. The term Christ, Mes­si­ah, could have been used by any num­ber of dif­fer­ent Jew­ish peo­ple and still meant dif­fer­ent things. So just to hear that term, even in the Syr­i­an city of Anti­och, prob­a­bly was­n’t all that unique, and yet it must have sparked some inter­est. It is sig­nif­i­cant there­fore that the Book of Acts tells us that the term “Chris­t­ian” (which meant Christ’s men) was first coined in Anti­och as a ref­er­ence to the Apos­tle Paul and St. Barn­abas, who were indeed Christ’s men. This could have been as much as ten years after the death of Jesus.

It is good to remem­ber, how­ev­er, that while we think of the term Chris­t­ian in lofty and pos­i­tive terms, at the time that it was coined it was prob­a­bly a slur. It was prob­a­bly thrown at these ear­ly fol­low­ers of Jesus as some deroga­to­ry des­ig­na­tion of them.  It is typ­i­cal with any new reli­gious move­ment that the insid­ers may have their own self iden­ti­ty, while those out­side label them with anoth­er term designed to exclude and repel. So when we hear at Anti­och that they are called “Chris­tians” we have to think of that more in the vein of them being called “Mes­sian­ists” or “Christies.”

But Paul had his oppo­nents — some­times from the lead­ers of the Jerusalem church led by James the broth­er of Jesus.  With great con­cern they cau­tioned the con­gre­ga­tion of Gala­tia. “Wait a minute, Paul told you a very sim­pli­fied gospel that makes it easy for you to become a mem­ber of this new group.  But we know, after all, that if you’re real­ly going to be a real Chris­t­ian, you first have to be a real Jew and that means, you have to be cir­cum­cised and you have to keep dietary reg­u­la­tions of the Torah.” And Paul would reply, “No, you don’t under­stand how rad­i­cal­ly new this thing is, which God is doing here.”

Paul com­mands with unprece­dent­ed author­i­ty this Jew­ish school, this Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy, this Jew­ish sect, and declares that its teach­ings are so impor­tant that the entire map of the world needs to be redrawn.  As this hap­pens the sim­ple dichoto­my of Jews and gen­tiles fades away and we no longer sim­ply have a Jew­ish school argu­ing with oth­er Jews about inter­pre­ta­tions of law and the­ol­o­gy. We now have a new map of the world. The teach­ings of Jesus have with­in them the secret to under­stand­ing the new cos­mic order. The old dis­tinc­tions between Jews and gen­tiles are now oblit­er­at­ed. That dis­tinc­tion has been sup­plant­ed by a new, more won­der­ful and beau­ti­ful idea in which we have a new Israel that will now embrace both Jews and gen­tiles.  Through those who accept­ed the new covenant and the new faith we can see the begin­nings of what might be called the emer­gence of Chris­tian­i­ty as dis­tinct from Judaism.

For some Chris­tians, this nev­er hap­pens. They can’t bring them­selves to say that God has thor­ough­ly redrawn the map of the cos­mos and has tak­en them out of the Jew­ish world and pushed them onto the stage of his­to­ry. Oth­ers dis­agree with Paul on exact­ly how to read this new map and exact­ly what it means, and most impor­tant­ly, where do the Jews fit in now, those Jews who are “being left behind.”… But, in any case, the Chris­t­ian Church itself was now emerg­ing as a new inde­pen­dent group by the mid­dle of the 2nd cen­tu­ry.

With this explo­sive spread of Chris­t­ian church­es it can­not be expect­ed that every­where, every­body was doing and believ­ing the same thing, singing the same hymns and read­ing the same scrip­tures and telling the same sto­ry. So we have a begin­ning with great diver­si­ty, and the slow process, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, to estab­lish a greater uni­ty among the very diverse church­es. Devel­op­ing uni­ty was already a process in Paul’s church.  In fact that was his main moti­va­tion for writ­ing let­ters, to insure that these new­ly con­vert­ed Chris­tians in Eph­esus and Philip­pi and Thes­sa­loni­ki and in Corinth have some una­nim­i­ty in their beliefs.

Chris­tian­i­ty, or one would rather say “Chris­tian­i­ties,” of the sec­ond and third cen­turies were a high­ly var­ie­gat­ed phe­nom­e­non. We real­ly can’t imag­ine Chris­tian­i­ty as a uni­fied coher­ent reli­gious move­ment. Cer­tain­ly there were some reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions. There were insti­tu­tions devel­op­ing in some Chris­t­ian church­es, but only in some. And, this was not uni­ver­sal by any means. We know from the lit­er­a­ture recov­ered at Nag Ham­ma­di, Egypt, that Gnos­tic Chris­tian­i­ty did not have the kind of clear hier­ar­chy that oth­er forms of Chris­tian­i­ty had devel­oped. They still clung to a charis­mat­ic lead­er­ship mod­el.

There were also very dif­fer­ent views of Jesus in the var­i­ous types of Chris­tian­i­ty.  Per­haps the stark­est con­trast was among those who con­sid­ered them­selves as Gnos­tic Chris­tians, and those who con­sid­ered them­selves Chris­tians in the old Pauline view of things. On the one hand, Paul, and Pauline Chris­tian­i­ty, would have placed all of the empha­sis on Jesus’ death and res­ur­rec­tion, and the sav­ing pow­er of that death and res­ur­rec­tion. Gnos­tic Chris­tian­i­ty, on the oth­er hand, would have placed its prime empha­sis on the mes­sage, the wis­dom, the knowl­edge, the gno­sis (which means ‘knowl­edge’ in Greek)—the knowl­edge that Jesus trans­mits, and even the secret knowl­edge that Jesus trans­mits. So, on one hand, faith was held in the sav­ing event of Jesus’ life and death, and, on the oth­er hand, knowl­edge was held as the great source of adher­ence to a high­er con­scious­ness.

The sec­ond cen­tu­ry was the age of def­i­n­i­tion before Chris­tian­i­ty. Now that it real­ized it no longer was Judaism, or no longer was a form of Judaism it had to fig­ure out well then, what is it exact­ly? What is Chris­tian­i­ty? What makes it not Judaism? How is it able hold on some­how to the Jew­ish Scrip­tures (the Old Tes­ta­ment), and still not be Judaism? This was one of the major ques­tions con­fronting Chris­t­ian thinkers, writ­ers, and Church lead­ers of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry. This was the great age of Chris­t­ian diver­si­ty, sects, schools, and “here­sies” of all kinds.  It was only in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry that we begin to see the emer­gence of what might be called ortho­doxy, or some­thing that might sim­ply be called “Chris­tian­i­ty” in a kind of uni­form body of doc­trines and text, that is to say the New Tes­ta­ment. The New Tes­ta­ment as a col­lec­tion of texts is a prod­uct of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, as Church lead­ers decid­ed which books were sacred, which books were author­i­ta­tive and which ones were not.

By the third cen­tu­ry of our era, we have some­thing called Chris­tian­i­ty with its own sacred books, its own rit­u­als, its own ideas.  But this is also the great age of con­fronta­tion with the Roman Empire. The third cen­tu­ry was the great age of per­se­cu­tions. The Roman Empire wakes up to real­ize that there is some­thing new afoot, and from their per­spec­tive, sin­is­ter, in new groups that are threat­en­ing the social order and ulti­mate­ly the polit­i­cal order of the Empire.  And, the Roman Empire was cor­rect. The Romans cor­rect­ly intu­it­ed that the vic­to­ry of Chris­tian­i­ty would mean the end of the Roman Empire, the end of the clas­si­cal world.  When we think of per­se­cu­tion we see it, of course, from a Chris­t­ian per­spec­tive. We see it as hero­ic mar­tyrs con­fronting the might of Rome. The mar­tyrs are indeed a spec­ta­cle of trag­ic devo­tion. Their sac­ri­fices were mag­nif­i­cent demon­stra­tions of Chris­t­ian faith. On the oth­er side of the coin, how­ev­er, we must real­ize that the Roman Empire was doing what all bureau­cra­cies do. It was try­ing to pro­tect and to per­pet­u­ate itself.

The Romans tried to sup­press Chris­tian­i­ty but failed by such a stag­ger­ing mea­sure that in the fourth cen­tu­ry, Chris­tian­i­ty has become the state reli­gion.  By the end of the fourth cen­tu­ry the new­ly offi­cial Chris­t­ian Church of Rome is per­se­cut­ing all non-Chris­t­ian groups in the Empire! By the end of the fourth cen­tu­ry it was ille­gal to prac­tice any form of pub­lic wor­ship oth­er than Chris­tian­i­ty in the entire Roman Empire. There is a great mys­tery here.  How could there have been such an extra­or­di­nary rever­sal?  Jesus was exe­cut­ed by the Romans as a pub­lic crim­i­nal and a threat to their way of life. Yet three cen­turies lat­er he is being hailed as a God, as part of the one true God, who is the God of the new Chris­t­ian Roman Empire. That is a remark­able pro­gres­sion of pos­si­bil­i­ties, an aston­ish­ing devel­op­ment in the course of three cen­turies.  It’s hard to under­stand exact­ly how it hap­pened or why it hap­pened that way, but it is impor­tant to real­ize that Chris­tian­i­ty of the fourth cen­tu­ry is not the same as the Jesus move­ment of the first or even the sec­ond cen­tu­ry.

This of course takes place grad­u­al­ly. It doesn’t hap­pen every­where all at once, in the same way. It’s a com­plex pro­tract­ed process that must allow for vari­ety. Ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty, by mov­ing into dif­fer­ent cul­tures, dif­fer­ent uni­vers­es of thought and reli­gion in the ancient world also adopt­ed numer­ous con­cepts from oth­er reli­gions, which enriched the ear­ly Chris­t­ian move­ment tremen­dous­ly.
Con­stan­tine & The Coun­cil of Nicea

The trans­for­ma­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty over the first 325 years of its exis­tence is real­ly a pro­found one. The one who start­ed out as a mes­sian­ic claimant, or a reli­gious-polit­i­cal rebel, a vic­tim of the Pax Romana, had by the time of the con­ver­sion of Con­stan­tine estab­lished the offi­cial reli­gion of the Roman Empire. Even then, that’s not a sim­ple trans­for­ma­tion. It would take anoth­er hun­dred years before most of the Roman world real­ly con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. But still, with the con­ver­sion of Con­stan­tine, it was a very sig­nif­i­cant change, and that change was one that unfolds in sev­er­al stages. What is orig­i­nal­ly a move­ment oppressed by Cae­sar, because it’s a com­peti­tor, even­tu­al­ly becomes a cult of the Lord Christ. With the con­ver­sion of Con­stan­tine it becomes an impe­r­i­al reli­gion.

One of the most sur­pris­ing founders in the entire Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion was the Roman Emper­or Con­stan­tine. As a young man he was a suc­cess­ful Gen­er­al in the Roman army des­tined to become Emper­or. But before he can attain that posi­tion he must gain vic­to­ry over anoth­er suc­cess­ful Gen­er­al. As their strug­gle unfold­ed Con­stan­tine had a vision on the bat­tle­field. Luck­i­ly for the Church, there was a Bish­op near­by to inter­pret what the vision meant. Con­stan­tine nev­er con­vert­ed, at heart, to Chris­tian­i­ty, but became a patron of one par­tic­u­lar branch of the Church. It was not acci­den­tal that it was the branch of the Church that had the Old Tes­ta­ment as well as the New Tes­ta­ment as part of its canon. The sig­nif­i­cance of that is this: Inclu­sion of his­tor­i­cal Israel as part of Chris­t­ian redemp­tive his­to­ry, pro­vid­ed an entire lan­guage for artic­u­lat­ing the rela­tion­ship of gov­ern­ment and piety. It pro­vid­ed the mod­el of King David and all the kings of Israel. Using this gov­ern­men­tal con­cept the Bish­op explained the vision to Con­stan­tine.

Moved by the pow­er of his vision, Con­stan­tine did indeed con­quer, and in a sense became the embod­i­ment of a right­eous King. He con­sol­i­dat­ed his pow­er by con­quer­ing not only the west, but even­tu­al­ly also the Greek east. There were many more Chris­tians con­cen­trat­ed in the east­ern cities, which were the social pow­er cen­ters of that cul­ture. Con­stan­tine had been giv­en an amaz­ing posi­tion of hav­ing a the­ol­o­gy of gov­ern­ment with which to con­sol­i­date his own sec­u­lar pow­er. And, it worked both ways. From the begin­ning of the Jesus move­ment, there were always prob­lems nego­ti­at­ing the prop­er rela­tion between the mem­bers of the move­ment, who owed their alle­giance to a dif­fer­ent Lord, and the pow­ers of the state. There was no cen­tral orga­ni­za­tion at that time in church his­to­ry, and a Bish­op was not only the local offi­ci­at­ing leader of a con­gre­ga­tion, but its high­est office as well.  This made for diver­si­ty of faith and often seri­ous dis­agree­ments.  The answer had been pro­vid­ed and the oppor­tu­ni­ty for res­o­lu­tion was seized, as much by a few sur­rep­ti­tious, oppor­tunis­tic Bish­ops, as by the Emper­or.

After the union became an oper­a­tive real­i­ty, those who pro­pelled Con­stan­tine into vic­to­ry would be giv­en fed­er­al fund­ing for spon­sored com­mit­tee meet­ings and urged to iron out dif­fer­ences of opin­ion about doc­trine and creeds. Solv­ing this prob­lem was essen­tial for the empire to seize con­trol of the Church and for the con­sent­ing Bish­ops to obtain pro­tec­tion and legal state author­i­ty. But how could such agree­ment be accom­plished when the great strength of ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty was its adap­tive resilience, and rebel­lious defi­ance of all lim­it­ing struc­tures?  The res­o­lu­tion would come slow­ly and cau­tious­ly, as some of the east­ern Bish­ops began to present the Emper­or with a con­sen­sus of opin­ion on their ideas of true Chris­tian­i­ty.  Once he was con­fi­dent that enforce­able uni­for­mi­ty could be achieved, Con­stan­tine con­vened the Coun­cil of Nicea on June 19, 325.  He did so at that time because he had just com­plet­ed his con­sol­i­da­tion of author­i­ty over the whole of the Roman Empire, which com­prised the major­i­ty of the world at that time. Up until 324, he had ruled only half of the Roman Empire. And he want­ed to have uni­for­mi­ty of belief as well—or at least no major dis­putes with­in the Church he desired to rule.

Some records state that 318 Bish­ops attend­ed the Coun­cil and oth­ers say there were only 270 present.  Either way, it was a small num­ber com­pared to the thou­sands of Bish­ops lead­ing con­gre­ga­tions in the late Roman Empire. Specif­i­cal­ly, the Coun­cil of Nicea was a response to a cri­sis that devel­oped in the Church over the teach­ings of a pres­byter or priest of the church in Alexan­dria.  His teach­ings sug­gest­ed that Jesus was not ful­ly divine, that Jesus was cer­tain­ly a super­nat­ur­al fig­ure of some sort, but was not God in the fullest sense. The Coun­cil of Nicea was called to medi­ate that dis­pute, and the Coun­cil did come down on the side of the full divin­i­ty of Jesus. But the Coun­cil did not lim­it itself to that medi­a­tion.  All the major deci­sions of doc­trine that have gov­erned the con­for­mi­ty of Chris­t­ian faith and prac­tice for more than 1,600 years were estab­lished by the Coun­cil of Nicea.  That includes the Apos­tles Creed so revered by most denom­i­na­tions (though no apos­tle ever pro­nounced it).  Many deci­sions were made about the authen­tic­i­ty of scrip­ture, and offi­cial inter­pre­ta­tions of it were pub­licly man­i­fest.  Because their agree­ments were sol­id and enforce­able, the Bish­ops were giv­en their legal state author­i­ty and Con­stan­tine became the Emper­or of the Church as well as Rome.

One of his first actions as Emper­or of the Church was to autho­rize per­se­cu­tion of all Chris­tians that dis­agreed with the new­ly estab­lished rules. The gnos­tic Chris­tians were espe­cial­ly tar­get­ed.  Chris­tians who did not have the Old Tes­ta­ment as part of their canon were also tar­get­ed. The list of ene­mies was long. There was a kind of inter­nal purge of diverse prac­tices and beliefs as Con­stan­tine built a sin­gu­lar Church under to his per­son­al author­i­ty.

The Bish­ops who were in agree­ment with the Council’s deci­sions were ter­ri­bly grate­ful for so much impe­r­i­al sup­port and rein­force­ment. The ben­e­fits of impe­r­i­al patron­age were enor­mous. In the late Roman Empire the lines of pow­er were clear and unques­tion­able. A Roman Emper­or (who was not yet even a believ­er) was the absolute author­i­ty. There­fore, Bish­ops were able to take advan­tage of Constantine’s mood, and his curi­ous intel­lec­tu­al inter­est in things like Chris­tol­ogy, the Trin­i­ty, and Church orga­ni­za­tion. They were able to have Bibles copied at pub­lic expense. They were final­ly able to have pub­lic Chris­t­ian archi­tec­ture and big basil­i­cas. Alto­geth­er there was a com­fort­able sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between the Empire and the Church even if cer­tain points of integri­ty were seri­ous­ly ques­tion­able.

Records plain­ly con­firm that Con­stan­tine did not con­vert to Chris­tian­i­ty as an exclu­sive reli­gion. Clear­ly he was cov­er­ing all bases. Con­stan­tine was a con­sum­mate prag­ma­tist and a match­less politi­cian. He gauged well the upsurge of inter­est and sup­port that Chris­tian­i­ty was receiv­ing, and so he con­sumed it and export­ed it through his own rule. But what’s impor­tant to under­stand and appre­ci­ate about Con­stan­tine is that he was a remark­able sup­port­er of Chris­tian­i­ty. He legit­imized it as a pro­tect­ed reli­gion of the empire and patron­ized it in lav­ish ways. With Con­stan­tine, in effect the king­dom had come. The rule of Cae­sar now had become legit­imized and under-gird­ed by the rule of God.  That was a momen­tous turn­ing point in the his­to­ry of Chris­tian­i­ty.

The impe­ri­al­iza­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty can be seen in many Roman mon­u­ments where impe­r­i­al ide­ol­o­gy and sym­bol­ism, along with the trap­pings of impe­r­i­al grandeur, are brought into and over­laid onto the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion. An excel­lent exam­ple of that is the apse mosa­ic in the Church of San­ta Poden­ziana at Rome. Here, we have what seems at first glance to be a tra­di­tion­al scene from the gospels.  Jesus is seat­ed in the mid­dle of his Apos­tles who flank him along either side.  It resem­bles a Last Sup­per scene, except there are two women seat­ed behind who are dressed like very noble Roman women. It’s prob­a­bly a Roman ver­sion of the Vir­gin Mary and Mary Mag­da­lene. The great­est change how­ev­er, is in the por­tray­al of Jesus. Jesus is now in a very elab­o­rate, expen­sive toga, seat­ed enthroned in an impe­r­i­al chair. This Jesus looks like the Emper­or him­self, and here he sits enthroned in front of a very elab­o­rate cityscape behind. But, it’s not the city of Rome; it’s the new impe­r­i­al city of Jerusalem. Behind him we see Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepul­chre that had only recent­ly been com­plet­ed in Jerusalem.  Behind that is the rest of the new city of Jerusalem rebuilt for the first time, sig­nif­i­cant­ly, after it had been destroyed in the first revolt. So, Constantine’s impe­r­i­al patron­age of the Church is reflect­ed in a vari­ety of ways—in the rebuild­ing of Jerusalem, in the estab­lish­ment of Chris­t­ian mon­u­ments, and now in one more way: in the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Jesus and his dis­ci­ples.  They blend per­fect­ly with the Roman aris­toc­ra­cy and are part of the main­stream of Roman soci­ety. This is an impe­r­i­al Jesus who had been trans­formed into the Lord Christ of Heav­en, with the Emper­or Con­stan­tine rul­ing in his name.  Con­stan­tine had suc­cess­ful­ly found­ed the Church of Rome, and in this ges­ture has estab­lished the gov­ern­ing prin­ci­ple through which the author­i­ty of Heav­en could be del­e­gat­ed to one human being.

Read more…  The Tree & The Branches
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