Adolf Von Harnack

In the preface to his seminal work, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Adolf von Harnack claimed: "No monograph has yet been devoted to the mission and spread of the Christian religion during the first three centuries of our era" (1908, vii). Before Harnack's work, it is said, there were only myths of origin: "The primitive history of the church's mission lies buried in legend; or rather, it has been replaced by a tendentious history of what is alleged to have happened in the course of a few decades throughout every country on the face of the earth But the worthless character of this history is now recognised on all sides" (1908, vii, slightly modified; cf. MacMullen 1981, 206n. 16: "so far as I know [Harnack's work] is the last [devoted to this subject]—certainly still standard").

This claim is patently ridiculous, once we acknowledge that the nineteenth-century German liberal academic understanding of the past is every bit as much "a tendentious history" as are, for example, the narrative of Christian beginnings in the canonical Acts of the Apostles or the triumphal account of Christian origins by Eusebius of Caesarea. Nonetheless, Harnack's claim to originality underscores the relative recentness of the scholarly recognition that early Christianity's success within the Roman Empire was hardly as assured as Gibbon's earlier (however ironical) reference to "the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself and.. .the ruling providence of its great Author" plainly, if playfully, presupposed. Furthermore, Harnack's claim also makes clear why Gibbon's so-called "secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church" have now become of primary interest.

Unlike Gibbon's characterization of the Jewish religion as "narrow and unsocial," Harnack a century or so later begins his work by describing "the diffusion and limits" of Judaism as the crucial historical factor that both made possible and underwrote early Christianity's eventual success. The language of mission is used by Harnack as though it were a self-evident category for historical description:

To the Jewish mission which preceded it, the Christian mission was indebted, in the first place, for a field tilled all over the empire; in the second place, for religious communities already formed everywhere in the towns; thirdly, for what Axenfeld calls "the help of materials" fur nished by the preliminary knowledge of the Old Testament, in addition to catechetical and liturgical materials which could be employed without much alteration; fourthly, for the habit of regular worship and a control of private life; fifthly, for an impressive apologetic on behalf of monotheism, historical theology, and ethics; and finally, for the feeling that self-diffusion was a duty. The amount of this debt is so large, that one might venture to claim the Christian mission as a continuation of the Jewish propaganda. "Judaism," said Renan, "was robbed of its due reward by a generation of fanatics, and it was prevented from gathering in the harvest which it had prepared." (Harnack 1908, 15)

To nascent Christianity the synagogues in the Diaspora meant more than the fontes persecutionum of Tertullian's complaint; they also formed the most important presupposition for the rise and growth of Christian communities throughout the empire. The network of the synagogues furnished the Christian propaganda with centres and courses for its development, and in this way the mission of the new religion, which was undertaken in the name of the God of Abraham and Moses, found a sphere already prepared for itself. (Harnack 1908, 1)

It is surprising that a religion which raised so stout a wall of partition between itself and all other religions, and which in practice and prospects alike was bound up so closely with its nation [Volkstum], should have possessed [in the diaspora] a missionary impulse of such vigour and attained so large a measure of success. This is not ultimately to be explained by any craving for power or ambition; it is a proof that Judaism, as a religion, through external influence and internal transformation was already expanding, and becoming a cross [Mittelding] between a national religion [Volksreligion] and a world-religion (confession of faith and a church). (Harnack 1908, 9; modified)

The duty and the hopefulness of mission are brought out in the earliest Jewish Sibylline books. Almost the whole of the literature of Alexandrian Judaism has an apologetic and propagandistic tendency. (Harnack 1908, 9n. 3; slightly modified)

While all this was of the utmost importance for the Christian mission which came afterwards, at least equal moment attaches to one vital omission [empfindliche Lücke] in the Jewish missionary preaching: viz., that no Gentile, in the first generation at least, could become a real son of Abraham. His rank before God remained inferior. Thus it also remained very doubtful how far any proselyte—to say nothing of the "God-fearing"—had a share in the glorious promises of the future. The religion which repairs this omission [diese Lücke ausfüllen] will drive Judaism from the field [aus dem Felde schlagen]. (Harnack 1908, 12-13)

Again, Harnack's description of ancient Judaism is hardly sufficient. To suggest, for example, as Harnack does in the last citation, that Christianity succeeded where Judaism failed, is, to say the least, a lamentable lapse into the worst sort of traditional dogmatic Christian historiography. Also dubious is Harnack's assumption (though hardly his alone) that there actually was such a thing as a Jewish mission. Harnack presumes that the presence of Jewish communities throughout the ancient Mediterranean world as well as the fact that some Gentiles did become Jews, the possibility of proselytes, and the writing of apologetic literature, all support such a conclusion. None of this is self-evident, however, not to mention the Hegelian conception of history, which seems to lurk within Harnack's reference to early Judaism as "a cross [Mittelding] between a national religion [Volksreligion] and a world-religion (confession of faith and a church)."


The simple and unchecked use of terms such as mission, missionary, and preaching for conversion does not account for the eventual spread and social advancement of early Christianity within the ancient Mediterranean world. In this section, I focus my critique on use of the category of mission. Equally dubious, however, are other correlate notions as well. The use of such terminology assumes that there was a special Christian message (Botschaft, gospel, kerygma) to be proclaimed. Again, this is hardly self-evident. In what follows, I hope to demonstrate why such assumptions are historically dubious. A number of other questions will then become pressing. For example:

• How would we tell the story of the prolonged—and, in many ways, never resolved—internecine struggles between Jews, Christians, and other religious groups during the first two centuries ce, if we were self-consciously to eliminate or bracket out of our narrative and explanatory vocabulary all references to a mission of any sort on the part not only of pagans and Jews but also of early Christians?

• In which ways would a social history of the diverse relations between Jews, Christians, and other religious groups, in different cities of the early Roman Empire, shorn of all teleological assurances, change our description of this formative phase?

One result of recent research into Jewish and Christian beginnings is a renewed awareness of so-called paganism's continuing appeal and ongoing vitality in late antiquity (e.g., Lane Fox 1986). The polemic of early Christian and Jewish writers against the ritual practices and social mores of their cultural counterparts no longer appears to historians of the period to be especially representative of life on the ground for most persons— Christians, Jews, and others—in the ancient Mediterranean world. According to Ramsay MacMullen and Eugene N. Lane:

The emergence of Christianity from the tangled mass of older religious beliefs, eventually to a position of unchallenged superiority, is surely the most important single phenomenon that can be discerned in the closing centuries of the ancient world. In its impact on the way life was to be lived thereafter in the West, it outmatches even the decline of Rome itself It must be said in criticism of [previous books on this subject], however, that they make little or no mention of the body in which Christianity grew—as if obstetrics were limited to passing references in a handbook on babies. How about the mother? Will she not help determine the manner in which the child enters the world and, to some extent, its shape and nature? (MacMullen and Lane 1992, vii)

Regarding Harnack's The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, MacMullen observes: "It is justly admired for its scholarship. Among its thousands of references to sources, however, I can find not one to a pagan source and hardly a line indicating the least attempt to find out what non-Christians thought and believed" (1981, 206n. 16). Already Nock in his seminal study, Conversion, had contended:

We cannot understand the success of Christianity outside Judaea without making an effort to determine the elements in the mind of the time to which it appealed... .In the first place, there was in this world very little that corresponded to a return to the faith of one's fathers as we know it. Except in the last phase of paganism, when the success of Christianity had put it on the defensive and caused it to fight for its existence, there was no traditional religion which was an entity with a theology and an organization. Classical Greek has no word which covers religion as we use the term. Eusebeia approximates to it, but in essence it means no more than the regular performance of due worship in the proper spirit, while hosiotes describes ritual purity in all its aspects. The place of faith was taken by myth and ritual. These things implied an attitude rather than a conviction [viz., conversion]. (Nock 1933, 10)

Soteria and kindred words carried no theological implications; they applied to deliverance from perils by sea and land and disease and darkness and false opinions [and war], all perils of which men were fully aware. (Nock 1933, 9)

These external circumstances [of conquest and invasion and contact between foreign groups] led not to any definite crossing of religious frontiers, in which an old spiritual home was left for a new once and for all, but to men's having one foot on each side of a fence which was cultural and not creedal. They led to an acceptance of new worships as useful supplements and not as substitutes, and they did not involve the taking of a new way of life in place of the old. This we may call adhesion, in contradistinction to conversion. By conversion we mean the reorientation of the soul of an individual, his deliberate turning from indifference or from an earlier form of piety to another, a turning which implies a consciousness that a great change is involved, that the old was wrong and the new is right. It is seen at its fullest in the positive response of a man to the choice set before me by the prophetic religions [i.e., Judaism and Christianity]. (Nock 1933, 6-7)

Nock immediately continues: "We know this best from the history of modern Christianity" (1933, 7). Then, at the beginning of the next paragraph, Nock refers to William James, whose theoretical framework in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) is certainly psychological, if not simply modern American Protestant. To his credit, nonetheless, Nock swiftly notes: "We must not, however, expect to find exact analogies for [James's description of the experience of conversion] beyond the range of countries with a long-standing Christian tradition" (1933, 8). In fact, a subsequent essay by Nock, "Conversion and Adolescence," demonstrates how the association "in modern times" between adolescence and "some sort of moral and religious crisis" (i.e., conversion) was not true for Greco-Roman antiquity (1986).

The correlation of conversion with adolescence is actually not explicitly a postulate of James but, rather, had been suggested earlier by Edwin Diller Starbuck (1915, 28-48) on the basis of data that are decidedly American Protestant (evangelical) in nature. Even so, Starbuck himself noted that inductions made on this basis "are not necessarily true for savages or statesmen or Catholics or persons living in a different historical epoch" (1915, 13).

Nock is at his best, it seems to me, when he describes the specific cultural concerns and the open-ended or unorchestrated aspects of the different social and religious practices of ancient paganism. Nonetheless, Nock is quite untrustworthy, in my opinion, in his evaluation of the significance of the difference between these concerns and practices and those of "the prophetic religions" of Judaism and Christianity; if only because of the psychological theory of religion, which appears to inform Nock's critical assessment of ancient paganism's relative strengths and weaknesses, as well as the lingering Christian bias of Nock's use of the category of prophetic (cf. Nock 1933, 10, 15-16). According to Nock:

This contrast is clear. Judaism and Christianity demanded renunciation and a new start. They demanded not merely acceptance of a rite, but the adhesion of the will to a theology, in a word faith, a new life in a new people. It is wholly unhistorical to compare Christianity and Mithraism as Renan did, and to suggest that if Christianity had died Mithraism might have conquered the world. It might and would have won plenty of adherents, but it could not have founded a holy Mithraic church throughout the world. A man used Mithraism, but he did not belong to it body and soul; if he did, that was a matter of special attachment and not an inevitable concomitant prescribed by authority. (Nock 1933, 14)

In reply to Nock, we might agree that, indeed, it is wholly unhistorical to compare Christianity and Mithraism as Renan did. But, it seems to me, to observe that Mithraism before 325 ce "might and would have won plenty of adherents"; to compare the means and manner of this appeal to those of Christianity; and to analyze the reasons why one group (Christianity) finally came to garner imperial favour, while the other (Mithraism) did not, especially in light of the close link of the latter to the Roman military, is about as properly historical an investigation as one could imagine. Moreover, is the way in which "a man used Mithraism" finally so different from the way(s) in which most men and women in antiquity "used" Christianity or Judaism?

In this regard, the only significant difference between Mithraism and the so-called prophetic religions of Judaism and Christianity might be the fact that those in Judaism and Christianity, such as Paul or the rabbis, with a putatively special attachment to their faith, succeeded in having their specific claims to authority and their conviction of the need to "belong body and soul" to their particular persuasion preserved in writing through an enduring social institution. Conversely, the conceivably similar schemes and desires of other pagan priests and cultic leaders—that they, too, would continue to enjoy the active loyalty of their devotees; that these persons would participate regularly in the life of a given cult and contribute financially to its ongoing maintenance; that their group would obtain and retain wider social recognition ranging from a certain minimal respectability and local influence to a more generalized hegemony or monopoly—simply failed to leave a comparable trace.1

1 Cf. P.Lond. 27101. 14, which forbids a member of the cult of Zeus Hypsistos "to leave the brotherhood of the president for another" (meid' apfojchoreisefin ek] tes tou heg[ou]menou phratras eis heteran phratran). See, further, Roberts, Skeat, and Nock (1936, 52) for discussion of the term phratra in this inscription.

To suggest that Judaism and Christianity were distinguished by "the adhesion of the will to a theology, in a word, faith, a new life in a new people," utterly obscures the fact of active or, at least, interactive participation by members of both groups in the regular round of ancient urban life. Far from being an exceptional case or merely a problem of neophyte misunderstanding, the situation faced by Paul, for example, in 1 Corinthians 8-10 with the question of food-offered-to-idols eloquently testifies to the ongoing cultural ties that still existed between some early Christians and their non-Christian, non-Jewish neighbours in ancient Corinth. These ties, moreover, likely were less a function of the general ubiquity of so-called idols than of the enduring human desire, unabated under Roman imperial rule, to eat well whenever possible. Likewise, Paul's letter to the Galatians attests a similar proximity between some early Christians in this region and the cultural traditions of early Judaism. In his letter to the Romans, Paul reveals his own lingering sense of identification with the same tradition.

On the other hand: "Of any organized or conscious evangelizing in paganism there are very few signs indeed, though it is often alleged; of any god whose cult required or had anything ordinarily to say about evangelizing there is no sign at all" (MacMullen 1981, 98-99). There is, perhaps, some evidence of debate with other perspectives, the effort to persuade, a certain self-promotion, even the advertisement of assorted wares for sale. But, again, none of this reveals more than ordinary human social life. One can hardly speak of a pagan mission in antiquity; unless, maximally, as Nock notes: "in the last phase of paganism, when the success of Christianity had put it on the defensive and caused it to fight for its existence" (1933, 10).

One might ask: What, then, made the social-religious practices of paganism and, specifically, participation in and identification with the group-life of different voluntary religious associations, so appealing to their members? One obvious answer is philotimia (cf. 1Thess. 4:11; Rom. 15:20), i.e., the opportunity these groups and their diverse habits gave to acquire honour to persons who apparently did not or could not hope to succeed so otherwise. Other possible motivations include the ubiquitous desire for "salvation" or bodily health and healing as well as personal improvement, including vengeance, justice, the avoidance of natural and other disasters, increased social power, even consolation in the face of death. In addition, there were sometimes explicit economic benefits: a guaranteed loan, if needed, and burial, when needed (though not likely in excess of actual financial contributions). To be a priest in a given cult was evidently profitable. At least, the purchase and resale of these activities were routinely reg ulated, suggesting some sort of marketable commodity. Finally, it has been suggested: "The reasons why people found associations attractive were doubtless many, but we should never underestimate the basic and instinctive desire of most people to socialize with those with whom they share things in common—devotion to a deity, a trade or skill, a similar background, or even just a love of eating and drinking in good company" (Wilson 1996, 14).

After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion, both early Judaism and early Christianity stood at the beginning of a protracted struggle to define, defend, and reproduce themselves in the face of other cultures, within which the adherents of these religions were obliged to live. Although the process was certainly marked by growing Christian claims to constitute the new "true Israel," including how properly to read the sacred scriptures shared between these two traditions, there is also evidence in rabbinic literature of another ongoing debate between the emergent arbiters of Jewish identity and the surrounding pagan culture(s) as well. The following questions suggest themselves:

• What do the repeated polemical references in rabbinic literature to "Epicureans," or the multiple Greek and Latin loan words in Talmudic Hebrew, suggest about the types of cultural conversations in which developing Judaism was engaged at the time (see, e.g., Fischel 1969; Luz 1989)?

• Is there a Jewish apologetic literature written after 132 ce with only a pagan audience—i.e., no Christians—in view? If not, why not? If so, how does Jewish apologetic literature compare with parallel Christian efforts to persuade Jews and pagans, viz. other early Christians of the truth and righteousness of (orthodox) Christianity?

• Is there any evidence of a desire on the part of early Judaism to increase the number of persons identified as Jews by attracting adherents from "all the nations" in which communities of Jews could then be found? If not, why not?

Martin Goodman's seminal article, "Jewish Proselytizing in the First Century" (1992; cf. Goodman 1994), argues: "On examination...the evidence for an active mission by first-century Jews to win proselytes is very weak. I think that it is possible to go further and to suggest that there are positive reasons to deny the existence of such a mission" (Goodman 1992, 70). According to Goodman, this is to be contrasted:

with developments within Judaism later in antiquity. At some time in the second or third century [not unlike paganism on the defensive, as

Nock described it] some Jews seem to have begun looking for converts in just the way they were apparently not doing in the first century... .The missionary hero in search of converts for Judaism is a phenomenon first attested well after the start of the Christian mission, not before it. There is no good reason to suppose that any Jew would have seen value in seeking proselytes in the first century with an enthusiasm like that of the Christian apostles. The origins of the missionary impulse within the Church should be sought elsewhere. (Goodman 1992, 74-77)

Whether or not Goodman is correct in his statements about "the Christian mission"—Goodman's conventional claims in this regard merely serve as a foil for his more competent and balanced description of early Judaism— he does make a compelling case against the earlier assumption by Har-nack and others that:

the idea of a mission to convert was inherited by the early Jesus movement from contemporary Judaism. I should make it clear that I do not doubt either that Jews firmly believed in their role as religious mentors of the Gentile world or that Jews expected that in the last days the Gentiles would in fact come to recognize the glory of God and divine rule on earth. But the desire to encourage admiration of the Jewish way of life or respect for the Jewish God, or to inculcate general ethical behaviour in other peoples, or such pious hope for the future, should be clearly distinguished from an impulse to draw non-Jews into Judaism It is likely enough, then, that Jews welcomed sincere proselytes in the first century. But passive acceptance is quite different from active mission. (Goodman 1992, 53-55)

Thus, pagans, according to MacMullen, did not evangelize, and, according to Goodman, there is no history of a Jewish mission. Nonetheless, it remains self-evident to these and other scholars that early Christians somehow did evangelize and had such a mission. For example, MacMullen nonchalantly writes: "With Gnosticism, however, we approach the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in which despatch of emissaries from a central organization, and other formal aspects of missionary activity, were perfectly at home" (1981, 98). And Goodman begins his essay with the confident assertion: "Other religions spread either because worshippers moved or because non-adherents happened to find them attractive. Christianity spread primarily because many Christians believed that it was positively desirable for non-Christians to join their faith and accrete to their congregations. It is my belief that no parallel to the early Christian mission was to be found in the ancient world in the first century" (1992, 53; cf. Goodman 1994, 91-108).

Is this, in fact, true? Not whether there is any parallel in the ancient world to "the early Christian mission" but, rather, whether there ever was such a thing as "early Christian mission." It is clear that, virtually from the beginning, early Christianity did find adherents across the customary ancient divides of social class or status and ethnicity. Within a generation, early Christianity appears to have included, among its diverse constituencies, persons of disparate origin. The concrete reasons for this state of affairs, however, remain to be determined.

I have tried to formulate the preceding paragraph as precisely as possible. For it is not at all obvious, at least to me, however zealous later Christians may have been about the ultimate truth and authority of their particular view of things, that this persuasion, for the first century or two of its existence, programmatically sought or even thought about seeking to convert the known world or a significant percentage of it "to Christ." While Christianity plainly emerged, developed, and spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, that it did so, within the confines of the Roman Empire, intentionally or self-consciously as a particular social (political; philosophical) project, with the recruitment of new members as a founding feature of its official purpose, is anything but clear. Again, I say this because it is precisely this sort of unargued assumption that, in turn, tends to make self-evident the highly questionable historical judgments about early Christianity's predictable, inevitable, understandable, probable, reasonable subsequent success.

This would be true, in my opinion, also for Paul, who otherwise describes himself, albeit only in Galatians and Romans, as Christ's emissary to the Gentiles. Unfortunately, I cannot develop here the argument that will be required to dismantle the prevailing view of the apostle Paul as early Christianity's first great missionary. At the same time, the issue is obviously important—indeed, crucial—to the usual scholarly imagination of the different ways in which Jews, Christians, and others in the early Roman Empire related to one another and to the larger social world(s) surrounding them. For this reason, in my judgment, we ought to find extremely interesting and cause for further reflection what John T. Townsend reports in his article, "Missionary Journeys in Acts and European Missionary Societies" (1985). According to Townsend, there is no evidence, before the preface to Acts in the first edition of J.A. Bengel's Gnomon Novi Testamenti (1742), that any previous Christian reader or commentator on the narratives of Paul's travels in Acts ever thought to observe, in the sequence of Paul's various encounters and diverse experiences, a series of intentional missionary journeys:

What is true of ancient writers is also true of those belonging to a later age. Neither Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) nor John Calvin (1509-64) nor Theodore Beze (1519-1605) nor Cornelius à Lapide (1567-1637) nor Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) interpreted Acts in terms of the traditional [three-fold] missionary journeys. In fact, the earliest reference that I can find to these journeys is in the first edition of J.A. Bengel's Gnomon Novi Testamenti In the years following the first edition of Gnomon most writers on Acts adopted a missionary-journey pattern. It found its way into the major commentaries, including those of J.H. Heinrichs, H.A.W. Meyer, and H. Alford. Thus, by the middle of the century the three-missionary journey system had become firmly established in the exegetical tradition of Acts. Why should a missionary-journey pattern have been imposed on Acts at this time? A likely answer is that commentators were reading their own presuppositions back into apostolic times. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw an escalation of Western missionary activity. It was an era for founding missionary societies... .Since it was standard missionary practice for evangelists to operate out of a home base, one should not be surprised at the exegetical assumption that Paul, the great missionary of the New Testament, had done the same. (Townsend 1985, 436-37)

Whatever the actual relations were between Christians, Jews, and others in the different cities of the early Roman Empire; however these groups and persons must have engaged in diverse and reciprocal struggles for social and religious success; it seems unlikely that any of them, including early Christianity, did so with any sort of mission in mind. What, then, each of these persuasions did imagine it was doing locally, and how each of them would have understood its defining activities vis-à-vis the parallel presence and similar endeavours of contiguous groups in a given urban environment, is one of the principal topics to be addressed in the investigations to follow.

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