Social and ecclesial life of the earliest Christians

wayne a. meeks

The movement that began with Jesus of Nazareth and would eventually become the Christian church in its manifold varieties developed with astonishing rapidity and exhibited diverse forms from its earliest years. Most of those early developments remain invisible to us, and scholarly attempts to plot their outline must be viewed with scepticism, but roughly we may say, with a modern sociologist, that the movement began as a Jewish sect and was soon transformed into a Graeco-Roman cult.: The evolution was not unilinear. Some experiments, probably more than we can know, failed; others were suppressed by rival groups. We can piece together only fragmentary pictures from several aspects of that process - the social forms of association from the Galilean beginnings to the post-Easter community in Jerusalem and the house congregations in the cities of the Roman empire, the social location of typical converts, forms of worship and ritual and other dimensions of an emerging Christian subculture.

Community organisation

Perhaps the most profound innovation that the followers of Jesus introduced into the ancient Mediterranean world was a new form of religious community. There is much truth in the assertion by Adolfvon Harnack, in his classic study of 'the mission and expansion of Christianity', that by the year 300 ce it was 'this church itself. . . through its mere existence' that had replaced the activity of 'missionaries' in apostolic times, and that it was able to do so by indigenising its radical and revolutionary claims into forms that seemed 'familiar, wished-for, and natural'.2 We can gain some sense of both early Christianity's 'naturalness' in its environment and its novelties only by comparing it with contemporary

1 Stark and Bainbridge, Future of religion, ii3.

2 Harnack, Mission und Ausbreitung, 526-7, my trans.

social phenomena. We must keep in mind, however, that we are comparing, on both sides, reconstructions formed from scarce and sometimes random evidence.

Jesus and his followers Several different models can be used to fill out the sparse and often contradictory picture provided by the earliest traditions about Jesus and his adherents. Some features suggest a movement we might call, somewhat anachronistically, political, that is, defined primarily by its response to the situation produced by Roman hegemony3 Other elements in the tradition suggest the quite different picture of a circle of disciples with a teacher,4 while others seem to describe the clients and publicists of an exorcist and miracle worker.5 Still other parts of the tradition seem to depict Jesus in the specifically Jewish and biblical colours of a prophet,6 so that his followers look like an eschatological renewal movement. These different models need not be mutually exclusive.

Keeping in mind that all the stories of Jesus we have in our sources have been transformed by the posthumous reinterpretation that had to take place if the movement was going to continue after his death, the crucifixion itself is the one firm starting place for historical investigation of the group that formed around Jesus.7 This form of execution immediately shows us how Jesus and his followers appeared to one key set of observers - the Roman governor and his advisers. The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus describes several movements whose leaders met similar fates at the hands ofthe Roman authorities, from the time whenJudaea was organised as a subprovince under Syria in 6 ce to the eve of the revolt in 66. Josephus writes as a former commander of one group of the Jewish rebel force and as a survivor who had become a client of the Flavian house; he is not an objective observer. In Roman eyes what was important about all the movements Josephus describes was that they were dangerous to the Roman peace in an area perilously close to the eastern frontier. Josephus' accounts probably magnify the anti-Roman aspects of the story by describing the disturbances with the categories and the animus

3 Note the importance of the title 'king of the Jews' in the trial and crucifixion narratives in all the gospels. Revolutionary elements are also clearly implied in the stories of Jesus' solemn entry into Jerusalem, his attack on practices in the temple, and his prediction of the temple's destruction and replacement.

4 The portrayal of Jesus as teacher dominates especially the gospel of Matthew.

5 Cf. for example, the sequence of stories in Mark 1:14-3:30.

6 E.g. John 6:14; Acts 3:22-6; Mark 14:65; the many prophetic judgement oracles among the sayings attributed to Jesus, such as Matt. 11:20-4; 21:22-46; Luke 6:24-6; Matt. 10:34-6.

7 See especially Dahl, 'Crucified Messiah'.

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