Intro | Part I
How do you explain the rapid spread of Christianity? Within the world of academia, litres of ink are spent trying to explain, understand and justify this phenomenon. In articulating the enormity of what took place, Tom Wright writes:
“The single most striking thing about early Christianity is the speed of its growth. In A.D. 25 there is no such thing as Christianity; merely a young hermit in the Judean wilderness, and his somewhat younger cousin who dreams dreams and sees visions. By A.D. 125 the Roman emperor has established an official policy in relation to the punishment of Christians…”Christianity exploded into the Greco-Roman world. What had started in Jerusalem had, within 100 years spread as far as southern France, Ethiopia and possibly even India. This is quite remarkable, given what we said about Jesus in the previous post. Jesus saw himself as the pinnacle of God and Israel’s story, limiting his ministry almost exclusively to Israel. What he offered, and what he embodied, was a new way forward for Israel. So how did we end up with the church? Although the church’s praxis in 125AD bore some continuity with Israel, the church’s shape and life was also looked quite different from Israel.
Various reasons have been suggested to explain this. For instance, was this the work of the Apostle Paul, distilling Jesus’ call to Israel into a more palatable message for non-Jews? Or perhaps the fourth century ‘pagan’ Roman Emperor Julian was right when he argued the church grew because of their love and hospitality:
“These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.”There’s some truth in this, and we’ll explore Julian’s raison d’être for the growth of the church more in a future post. However, I want to suggest that the answer lies in a major shift in the worldview of the Apostles and the early church. They came from a Jewish background, and held a worldview consistent with first century Judaism. Yet for some reason their worldview had totally changed. I want to suggest that the resurrection of Jesus was a complete shift in the first century Jewish worldview.
That the early Christians believed in the resurrection is unsurprising – it was part of the standard Jewish worldview. However, what stood at the periphery of the Jewish worldview was now front and centre of the Christian hope. The conviction of the early church was that the resurrection had happened, not at the end of history as the Jewish worldview believed, but now in the middle of history. The resurrection of Jesus changed everything. We can trace what this meant for the early church in Paul’s letter to the Roman church (see Romans 1.1-6). The resurrection of Jesus declared that he was the Son of God, the Messiah; the true descendant of David and hence Israel’s true King.
The resurrection showed that Jesus was Israel-in-person, Israel’s representative, the one in whom Israel’s destiny had reached its climax. He was Israel’s King – raised from the dead. And if he was Israel’s King, then the Psalms and the prophets insisted he was also the world’s true Lord:
“Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” Romans 1.5-6This is why Christianity developed new practices and symbols apart from Judaism. The early Christians understood that Israel’s story had come to fruition in Jesus. The old symbols of God’s people would have to find new meaning in him. So the church started meeting on Sunday’s to celebrate his resurrection. They broke bread and drank wine together to commemorate his death and remind each other that they belonged together in him. The prayed and sang to him, because the story of Israel and the world was now focused around Jesus. And they were now on a mission. Jesus had fulfilled Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations; now the nations must be brought into allegiance to him. It was time for the nations to join in God’s promises Abraham.
“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Romans 15.8-9This raised questions about the continuing connection between the church and Israel, and the place of the law and Israel’s symbols in the life of the church. The early Christians only started to answer this question as they came to terms with who Jesus is and what that means for the world. The church grew first and fore mostly because they understood themselves to be on mission. Jesus has been raised, and he is the King, of both Jews and Gentiles.
I feel that it’s all too easy for us to underestimate how big an issue this was for the early church. Yet this was the major issue in the first century church, that the gentiles could be “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus”. We do ourselves a disservice when we screen this issue out of our reading of the New Testament.
My other reflection on this post is that mission and theology need to be more closely held together than is often case today. From what I’ve seen, the two ‘disciplines’ are often at arm’s length of each other. Yet, in one sense, it was because of theological reflection that the early church launched into mission. I wonder what would happen if our missionaries, church planters, evangelists etc. spent more time talking to theologians, and vice versa because the theological reflection in Acts often happened after the Holy Spirit took the initiative to bring gentiles to Christ.
For Further Reading:
- NT Wright: The Resurrection of the Son of God, 2003. RSG is a tour de force. Read this if you want to understand more fully how the resurrection of Jesus changed the worldview of the Apostles and the early church. If 800+ pages isn't your cup of tea, try Wright's Surprised by Hope, 2008.
- James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 2003 and Beginning from Jerusalem, 2008. I've only just managed to look through these. Massive and magnificent!
- Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 1997. Stark isn't a historian by training, and is a little bit sketchy when he moves away from history. Nevertheless, this is a important book. Helpful to have a sociologist's perspective.