Outline

I. Christianity spread across the Mediterranean world with remarkable speed, planting communities (ekklesia = assembly = church) from Jerusalem through Asia Minor and into Europe, within twenty-five years.

A. Our primary source for this first expansion is the second volume of Luke's Gospel, called the Acts of the Apostles (ca. 85), which must be supplemented by information provided by epistolary literature of the first generation, especially Paul's letters. Acts is our only narrative account of Christian beginnings.

1. Acts is a limited source, failing to tell us much of interest, selective in its focus and use of materials, and with a definite theological bias. For example, Luke disposes of six years of Paul's career in three lines; he does not tell us how Christians got to Rome.

2. Acts resembles ancient history in that it contains some fact and some fiction.

3. Acts tells only of the westward expansion of Christianity and of Christianity in cities, rather than in rural areas.

4. It is nevertheless of unparalleled importance for giving us some of the facts about Christianity's early years (the most important of which are confirmed by other sources), as well as insight into features of its life.

B. Christianity's geographical expansion is all the more remarkable in light of two considerations.

1. Its success was not dependent on military or diplomatic power but on the persuasive speech of wandering preachers (apostles) that took place in the open forum and in households and whose only demonstrations of power took the form of healing.

2. The expansion took place under conditions of duress: local harassment and persecution, the death of leaders, the lack of a strong or controlling center.

II. The Acts of the Apostles and other early literature show the consequences of such rapid and uncontrolled expansion.

A. The movement enjoyed no long period of stabilization during which traditions could be collected and teachings, organized. It was required to negotiate five major transitions from the beginning and throughout the first generations.

1. Geographically, the movement traveled from a Palestinian base to the Diaspora, and after the destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e., the Jerusalem church disappeared.

2. Sociologically, it moved from an itinerant, rural phenomenon (the Jesus movement) to an urban cult located in households.

3. Linguistically, it moved from the Aramaic of Palestine (and, possibly, the speech of Jesus) to the koine Greek of the Hellenistic world; all the writings of the New Testament are in Greek.

4. Culturally, it moved from being a sect within Palestinian Judaism to an assembly within the dominant Greco-Roman culture.

5. Demographically, it increasingly succeeded among Gentiles rather than Jews, so that by 70, the majority of Christians were already Gentile in background.

B. Given that all these transitions took place from the start and were accompanied by the conditions of stress already enumerated, Christianity was literally a new thing in each place it appeared.

1. The diversity found in early Christian literature—a diversity not only of genre but also of theme and perspective—is grounded in the diversity of early Christian communities.

2. Christianity began in diversity. Given the conditions of its birth and growth, diversity is less a surprise than the existence of any unity to the movement.

III. The Acts of the Apostles shows both the transcendent and the all-too-immanent aspects of the early Christian movement.

A. It enumerates the kinds of religious rituals and expressions with patterns that point to the experience of power. These will become the subject of our subsequent analysis:

1. Baptism is a ritual of initiation that is associated with the "gift of the Holy Spirit" and marks entry into the community of believers (Acts 2:38-41; 8:12-17; 10:47-48; 19:5-6).

2. Speaking in tongues ("glossolalia") is a sign of possession by the Holy Spirit and of prophecy (2:1-13; 10:44-46; 19:6).

3. Common meals express unity in the Spirit and the presence of the risen Lord (1:4; 2:46; 10:41; 20:712; 27:35).

4. Healing is a demonstration of divine power and a restoration of human community (3:1-7; 5:12-16; 8:4-7; 14:8-13; 27:7-10).

5. Prayer and visions give access to divine power (1:24-26; 4:23-31; 7:54-60; 9:1-19; 10:1-16; 13:1-3; 16:9-10; 18:9-11; 21:10-11; 22:17-18; 27:23-25).

B. It also sketches the human struggles that accompanied the movement's first expansion: conflicts between parties in the church, between leaders, between different ideological positions, and between members of this movement and, on one side, members of the Jewish tradition who did not accept Jesus as Messiah and, on the other side, Gentiles who found this new teaching and practice ridiculous.

Correction of a misspeak in the recorded lecture: it was Peter and John who healed the lame man at the temple, not Peter and Barnabas.

Essential Reading: The Acts of the Apostles.

L. T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 125-153.

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