Despite the different strands in scripture, the position taken in this essay is that the main elements of Christian identity, as exemplified in what we can discover about the practice of pre-Constantinian Christianity, and recalled and practiced by minorities within the Christian churches down the centuries, are nonconformist and based on the principle that "we must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5: 29; and see further Bradstock and Rowland 2001). The subversive character of the nascent Christian movement was early recog nized by outsiders who, hearing that Christians were proclaiming "another Jesus" and acting against the decrees of Caesar, accused them of "turning the world upside down" (Acts 17: 6; see Hill 1972).
Emerging Christianity before the fourth century ce was characterized by such a counter-cultural, even sectarian, spirit. At the heart of the baptismal experience was the clear message of a transfer from one dominion to another, involving the acceptance of Jesus Christ as king of kings and lord of lords. What is so striking about the New Testament texts is that they were written by people who had little or no political power, with a vision of the world which was at odds with the prevailing ideology. The many indications of impatience with the status quo suggest that they propounded and expected a different kind of understanding of and way of living in the world. Not drawn from one particular race or background, Christians were a different sort of people, committed to a different kind of life and culture, more often than not (until the time of Constantine) at odds with the wisdom and politics of the age. Once it became the religion of the rulers, its inclusive rhetoric could easily be used to serve rather different ends. The radical slogan of Galatians 3: 28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female," has a rather different ring when uttered to serve as the "social glue" of an inclusive, cosmopolitan and eventually fragmenting empire.
The emerging pattern of existence in early Christianity, diverse though it undoubtedly was, is characterized by the martyr spirit (in the strict sense of the word). That is not to say that persecution was widespread, but difference and the distinctiveness of lifestyle and practice were. The acts of the Christian martyrs (Musurillo 1972; Lane Fox 1986; Boyarin 1999) are testimony to this distinctiveness, and it was a pattern which was basic to later exemplifications of Christian minorities. Politically, these were people who were not neatly integrated into Greco-Roman society. Because of their allegiance to Jesus, the early Christians were known as members of a superstition, a deviation from the norms of accepted behavior. The New Testament is the collection of documents of a marginal group. Joining the Christian community meant conversion to a position in society which was at odds with its values, nowhere better exemplified than in the conversion accounts in Justin Martyr (First Apology 14) and Cyprian (First Letter to Donatus 3; Kreider 1995). From the position of discomfort, persecution, oppression and minority status throughout history, Christian people have found that biblical texts have resonated with their lives and led them to positions at odds with society. In the face of growing accommodation between the values of God and Caesar, monastic asceticism made its appearance in the desert of Egypt. Originally a hermit-like existence, it evolved into communities of heaven on earth. This way of life threw into the sharpest possible relief the growing worldliness of the churches. There was an emphasis on manual work alternating with prayer and reflection. The solitary voices in the wilderness grew into an integral part of church and society, prompting their own renewal movements in the later Middle Ages pioneered by people like Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi, who in their turn sought to recapture the original vision of Jesus and exemplify its political character in communities of perfection (Garnsey and Humfress 2001; Lane Fox 1987; Rousseau Pachomius 1985; Kreider 2001).
The roots of this alternative, counter-cultural, political identity are fundamental for interpreting Christianity's foundation documents as they would have been understood by the Christians of the first centuries. Baptismal liturgies stressed the different character of the citizenship involved in being a member of this new "race." It meant deliverance from the demonic world which controlled the values of the world at large, values which Christians deemed antithetical to human flourishing (Justin First Apology 14). The catechumenate and baptism were part of a process of inculturation into a very different political culture. Paul sketches it in Romans 12, writing of the renewal of the mind and the offering of living sacrifices. For some this was literally true, as the martyr narratives testify. Martyrdom, however, was not extraordinary but at the end of a continuum which saw Christians engaged in a public demonstration of a different political ethos, in which Christ, not Caesar, was Lord (Phil. 2; Rev. 19: 16). That alternative political practice was supported by practical and administrative arrangements manifested in networks of communication and mutual support. The latter in particular embodied an alternative polity which could be seen at the local level (Justin Apology I 65-7) and internationally (Paul's collection for the poor in Jerusalem being the earliest and most remarkable example of this, e.g. Rom. 15: 25; 2 Cor. 8-9).
Was this article helpful?
Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.