Jewry and the Coming of Christianity

Few readers of this book are likely to have heard of Abgar, far less of his east Syrian kingdom, Osrhoene; yet this little-known and obscure monarch was long believed to be the first Christian king. In fact, the story of his conversion is a legend; it seems to have been under his descendant, Abgar VIII (or IX, so vague is our information), that Osrhoene became Christian at the end of the second century ad. The conversion may not even have included the king himself, but this did not trouble hagiographers. They placed Abgar at the head of a long and great tradition; in the end it was to incorporate virtually the whole history of monarchy in Europe. From there it was to spread to influence rulers in other parts of the world.

All these monarchs would behave differently because they saw themselves as Christian, yet, important though it was, this is only a tiny part of the difference Christianity has made to history. Until the coming of industrial society, in fact, it is the only historical phenomenon we have to consider whose implications, creative power and impact are comparable with the great determinants of prehistory in shaping the world we live in. Christianity grew up within the classical world of the Roman empire, fusing itself in the end with its institutions and spreading through its social and mental structures to become our most important legacy from that civilization. Often disguised or muted, its influence runs through all the great creative processes of the last 1500 years; almost incidentally, it defined Europe. That continent, and others, are what they are today because a handful of Jews saw their teacher and leader crucified and believed he rose again from the dead.

The Jewishness of Christianity is fundamental and was probably its salvation (to speak in worldly terms), for the odds against the historical survival, let alone worldwide success, of a small sect centred upon a holy man in the Roman eastern empire were enormous. Judaism was a matrix and protecting environment for a long time as well as the source of the most fundamental Christian ideas. In return, Jewish ideas and myths were to be generalized through Christianity to become world forces. At the heart of these was the Jewish view that history was a meaningful story, providentially ordained, a cosmic drama of the unfolding design of the one omnipotent God for His chosen people. Through His covenant with that people could be found guidance for right action, and it lay in adherence to His law. The breaking of that law had always brought punishment, such as had come to the whole people in the deserts of Sinai and by the waters of Babylon. In obedience to it lay the promise of salvation for the community. This great drama was the inspiration of Jewish historical writing, in which the Jews of the Roman empire discerned the pattern which made their lives meaningful.

That mythological pattern was deeply rooted in Jewish historical experience, which, after the great days of Solomon, had been bitter, fostering an enduring distrust of the foreigner and an iron will to survive. Few things are more remarkable in the life of this remarkable people than the simple fact of its continued existence. The Exile which began in 587 BC when Babylonian conquerors took many of the Jews away after the destruction of the Temple was the last crucial experience in the moulding of their national identity before modern times. It finally crystallized the Jewish vision of history. The exiles heard prophets like Ezekiel promise a renewed covenant; Judah had been punished for its sins by exile and the Temple’s destruction, now God would turn His face again to Judah, who would return again to Jerusalem, delivered out of Babylon as Israel had been delivered out of Ur, out of Egypt. The Temple would be rebuilt. Perhaps only a minority of the Jews of the Exile heeded this, but it was a significant one and it included Judah’s religious and administrative elite, if we are to judge by the quality of those - again, probably a minority - who, when they could do so, returned to Jerusalem, a saving Remnant, according to prophecy.

Before that happened, the experience of the Exile had transformed Jewish life as well as confirming the Jewish vision. Scholars are divided as to whether the more important developments took place among the exiles or among the Jews who were left in Judah to lament what had happened. In one way or another, though, Jewish religious life was deeply stirred. The most important change was the implanting of the reading of the scriptures as the central act of Jewish religion. While the Old Testament was not to assume its final form for another three or four centuries, the first five books, or ‘Pentateuch’, traditionally ascribed to Moses, were substantially complete soon after the return from the Exile. Without the focus of cult practice at the Temple the Jews seem to have turned to weekly meetings to hear these sacred texts read and expounded. They contained the promise of a future and guidance to its achievement through maintenance of the Law, now given a new detail and coherence. This was one of the slow effects of the work of the interpreters and scribes who had to reconcile and explain the sacred books. In the end there was to grow out of these weekly meetings both the institution of the synagogue and a new liberation of religion from locality and ritual, however much and long Jews continued to pine for the restoration of the Temple. The Jewish religion could eventually be practised wherever Jews could come together to read the scriptures; they were to be the first of the peoples of a Book, and Christians and Moslems were to follow them. It made possible greater abstraction and universalizing of the vision of God.

There was a narrowing, too. Although Jewish religion might be separated from the Temple cult, some prophets had seen the redemption and purification which must lie ahead as only to be approached through an even more rigid enforcement of what was now believed to be Mosaic law. Ezra brought back its precepts from Babylon and observances which had been in origin those of nomads were now imposed rigorously on an increasingly urbanized people. The self-segregation of Jews became much more important and obvious in towns; it was seen as a part of the purification which was needed that every Jew married to a gentile wife (and there must have been many) should divorce her.

This was after the Persian overthrow of Babylon. In 539 BC some of the Jews took the opportunity offered to them and came back to Jerusalem. The Temple was rebuilt during the next twenty-five years and Judah became under Persian overlordship a sort of theocratic satrapy. In the fifth century, when Egypt revolted against Persian rule, this was a strategically sensitive area, and it was governed lightly and with the help of the native priestly aristocracy. This provided the political articulation of Jewish nationhood until Roman times.

With the ending of Persian rule, the age of Alexander’s heirs brought new problems. After being ruled by the Ptolemies, the Jews eventually passed to the Seleucids. The social behaviour and thinking of the upper classes underwent the influence of Hellenization; this sharpened divisions by exaggerating contrasts of wealth and differences between townsmen and countrymen. It also separated the priestly families from the people, who remained firmly in the tradition of the Law and the Prophets, as expounded in the synagogues. The great Maccabaean revolt broke out (168-164 bc)against a Seleucid king of Hellenistic Syria, Antiochus IV, and cultural ‘westernization’ approved by the priests but resented by the masses. Antiochus had tried to go too fast; not content with the steady erosion of Jewish insularity by Hellenistic civilization and the friction of example, he had interfered with Jewish rites and profaned the Temple by seeking to turn it into the temple of Olympian Zeus. Perhaps, though, he only wished to open the temple complex to all worshippers, as was normal for any temple in a Hellenistic city. After the revolt had been repressed with difficulty (and guerrilla war went on long after), a more conciliatory policy was resumed by the Seleucid kings. It did not satisfy many Jews, who in 142 BC were able to take advantage of a favourable set of circumstances to win an independence which was to last for nearly eighty years. Then, in 63 BC, Pompey imposed Roman rule and there disappeared the last independent Jewish state in the Near East for nearly two thousand years.

Independence had not been a happy experience. A succession of kings drawn from the priestly families had thrown the country into disorder by innovation and high-handedness. They and the priests who acquiesced in their policies excited opposition. They were challenged in their authority by a new, more austere, school of interpreters, who clung to the Law, rather than the cult, as the heart of Judaism and gave it new and searchingly rigorous interpretation. These were the Pharisees, the representatives of a reforming strain which was time and time again to express itself in Jewry in protest against the danger of creeping Hellenization. They also accepted proselytism among non-Jews, teaching a belief in the resurrection of the dead and a divine Last Judgement; there was a mixture in their stance of national and universal aspiration and they drew out further the implications of Jewish monotheism.

Most of these changes took place in Judaea, the tiny rump of the once great kingdom of David; fewer Jews lived there in the time of Augustus than in the rest of the empire. From the seventh century onwards they had spread over the civilized world. The armies of Egypt, Alexander and the Seleucids all had Jewish regiments. Others had settled abroad in the course of trade. One of the greatest Jewish colonies was at Alexandria, where they had gathered from about 300 BC. The Alexandrian Jews were Greek-speakers; there the Old Testament was first translated into Greek and when Jesus was born there were probably more Jews there than in Jerusalem. In Rome there were another 50,000 or so. Such agglomerations increased the opportunities to proselytize and therefore the danger of friction between communities.

Jewry offered much to a world where traditional cults had waned. Circumcision and dietary restraints were obstacles, but were far outweighed for many a proselyte by the attractions of a code of behaviour of great minuteness, a form of religion not dependent on temples, shrines or priesthood for its exercise, and, above all, the assurance of salvation. A prophet whose teaching was ascribed by the Old Testament compilers to Isaiah, but who is almost certainly of the Exile, had already announced a message to bring light to the gentiles, and many of them had responded to that light long before the Christians, who were to promote it in a new sense. The proselytes could identify themselves with the chosen people in the great story which inspired Jewish historical writing, the only achievement in this field worthy of comparison with the Greek invention of scientific history, and one which gave meaning to the tragedies of the world. In their history the Jews discerned an unfolding pattern by which they were being refined in the fire for the Day of Judgement. A fundamental contribution of Jewry to Christianity would be its sense of the people apart, its eyes set on things not of this world; Christians were to go on to the idea of the leaven in the lump, working to redeem the world. Both myths were deeply rooted in Jewish historical experience and in the remarkable though simple fact of this people’s survival at all.

The big communities of Jews and Jewish proselytes were important social facts to Roman governors, standing out not only because of their size but because of their tenacious separateness. Archaeological evidence of synagogues as special and separate buildings does not appear until well into the Christian era, but Jewish quarters in cities were distinct, clustering about their own synagogues and courts of law. While proselytizing was widespread and even some Romans were attracted by Jewish belief, there were also early signs of popular dislike of Jews in Rome itself. Rioting was frequent in Alexandria and easily spread to other towns of the Near East. This led to distrust on the part of authorities and (at least at Rome) to the dispersal of Jewish communities when things became difficult.

Judaea itself was regarded as a particularly ticklish and dangerous area and to this the religious ferment of the last century and a half BC had greatly contributed. In 37 BC the Senate appointed a Jew, Herod the Great, King of Judaea. He was an unpopular monarch. No doubt there was popular distaste for a Roman nominee and a ruler anxious - with reason - to preserve the friendship of Rome. Herod earned further dislike, though, by the Hellenistic style of life at his court (though he was careful to display his loyalty to the Jewish religion) and by the heavy taxes which he raised, some of them for grandiose building. Even if it were not for the legendary Massacre of the Innocents and his place in Christian demonology, Herod would not have had a good historical press. At his death, in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided between his three sons, an unsatisfactory arrangement which was superseded in ad 6, when Judaea became part of the Roman province of Syria governed from Caesarea. In ad 26 Pontius Pilate became Procurator, the taxing officer or, effectively, governor, an uncomfortable and exacting post he was to hold for ten years.

It was a bad moment in the history of a turbulent province. Something of a climax to the excitements of nearly two centuries was being reached. The Jews were at loggerheads with their Samaritan neighbours and resented an influx of Greek-Syrians noticeable in the coastal towns. They detested Rome as the latest of a long line of conquerors and also because of its demands for taxes; tax-gatherers - the ‘publicans’ of the New Testament - were unpopular not just because of what they took but because they took it for the foreigner. But worse still, the Jews were also bitterly divided among themselves. The great religious festivals were often stained by bloodshed and rioting. Pharisees, for instance, were deeply antagonistic to Sadducees, the formalizing representatives of the aristocratic priestly caste. Other sects rejected them both. One of the most interesting has become known to us only in recent years, through the discovery and reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which it can be seen to have promised its adherents much that was also offered by early Christianity. It looked forward to a last deliverance which would follow Judaea’s apostasy and would be announced by the coming of a Messiah. Jews attracted by such teaching searched the writings of the Prophets for the prefigurings of these things. Others sought a more direct way. The Zealots looked to the nationalist resistance movement as the way ahead.

Into this electric atmosphere Jesus was born in about 6 BC, into a world in which thousands of his countrymen awaited the coming of a Messiah, a leader who would lead them to military or symbolic victory and inaugurate the last and greatest days of Jerusalem. The evidence for the facts of his life is contained in the records written down after his death in the Gospels, the assertions and traditions which the early Church based on the testimony of those who had actually known Jesus. The Gospels are not by themselves satisfactory evidence but their inadequacies can be exaggerated. They were no doubt written to demonstrate the supernatural authority of Jesus and the confirmation provided by the events of his life for the prophecies which had long announced the coming of Messiah. This interested and hagiographical origin does not demand scepticism about all the facts asserted; many have inherent plausibility in that they are what might be expected of a Jewish religious leader of the period. They need not be rejected; much more inadequate evidence about far more intractable subjects has often to be employed. There is no reason to be more austere or rigorous in our canons of acceptability for early Christian records than for, say, the evidence in Homer which illuminates Mycenae. Nevertheless, it is very hard to find corroborative evidence of the facts stated in the Gospels in other records.

The picture of Jesus presented in them is of a man of modest though not destitute family, with a claim to royal lineage. Such a claim would no doubt have been denied by his opponents if there had not been something in it. Galilee, where Jesus grew up, was something of a frontier area for Judaism, where it was most exposed to the contact with Syrian-Greeks, which often irritated religious sensibilities. There preached in the neighbourhood a man called John, a prophet to whom crowds had flocked in the days before his arrest and execution. Scholars have tried to link John with the Qumran community, which left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls; he appears, though, to have been a solitary, highly individual figure, a teacher modelling himself on the Prophets. One evangelist tells us that he was the cousin of Jesus; this is possibly true, but less important than the agreement of all the Gospels that John baptized Jesus as he baptized countless others who came to him fearing the approach of the Last Day. He is also said to have recognized in Jesus a teacher like himself and perhaps something more: ‘Art thou He that cometh, or look we for another?’

Jesus knew himself to be a holy man; his teaching and the evidence of his sanctity, which was seen in miracles, soon convinced the excited multitude to Jerusalem. His triumphal entry to the city was based on their spontaneous feeling. They followed him as they followed other great teachers in the hope of the Messiah that was to come. The end came with a charge of blasphemy before the Jewish court and the relaxation of the letter of Roman law by Pilate in order to avoid further trouble in a violent city. Jesus was not a Roman citizen and for such men the extreme penalty was crucifixion after scourging. The inscription on the cross on which he was nailed said: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’; this was a Roman governor’s political irony, and that the significance of it should not go unnoted was ensured by posting the words in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. This was probably in AD 33, though ad 29 and ad 30 have also been put forward as dates. Shortly after his death, Jesus’s disciples believed that he had risen from the dead, that they had seen him and his ascension into heaven, and that they had received a divine gift of power from him at Pentecost which would sustain them and their adherents until the Last Day. That would soon come, they also believed, and would bring back Jesus as the judge sitting at the right hand of God. All this the Gospels tell us.

If this was what the first Christians saw in Christ (as he came to be called, from the Greek word meaning ‘the anointed one’) there were also in his teaching other elements capable of far wider application. The reported devotional ideas of Jesus do not go beyond custom; Jewish service in the Temple and observance of traditional holy days and feasts, together with private prayer, were all that he indicated. In this very real sense, he lived and died a Jew. His moral teaching, though, focused upon repentance and deliverance from sin, and upon a deliverance available to all, and not just to Jews. Retribution had its part in Jesus’s teaching (on this the Pharisees agreed with him); strikingly, most of the more terrifying things said in the New Testament are attributed to him. Fulfilment of the Law was essential. Yet it was not enough; beyond observance lay the duties of repentance and restitution in the case of wrong done, even of self-sacrifice. The law of love was the proper guide to action. Emphatically, Jesus rejected the role of the political leader. A political quietism was one of the meanings later discerned in a dictum which was to prove to be of terrible ambiguity: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’

Yet a Messiah who would be a political leader was expected by many. Others sought a leader against the Jewish religious establishment and therefore were potentially a danger to order even if they aimed only at religious purification and reform. Inevitably, Jesus, of the house of David, became a dangerous man in the eyes of the authorities. One of his disciples was Simon the Zealot, an alarming associate because he had been a member of an extremist sect. Many of Jesus’s teachings encouraged feeling against the dominant Sadducees and Pharisees, and they in their turn strove to draw out any anti-Roman implication which could be discerned in what he said.

Such facts provide the background to Jesus’s destruction and the disappointment of the people; they do not explain the survival of his teaching. He had appealed not only to the politically dissatisfied but to Jews who felt that the Law was no longer guide enough and to non-Jews who, though they might win second-class citizenship of Israel as proselytes, wanted something more to assure them of acceptance at the Day of Judgement. Jesus had also attracted the poor and outcast; they were many in a society which offered enormous contrasts of wealth and no mercy to those who fell by the wayside. These were some of the appeals and ideas, which were to yield in the end an astonishing harvest. Yet though they were effective in his own lifetime, they seemed to die with him. At his death his followers were only one tiny Jewish sect among many. But they believed that a unique thing had happened. They believed that Christ had risen from the dead, that they had seen him, and that he offered to them and those that were saved by his baptism the same overcoming of death and personal life after God’s judgement. The generalization of this message and its presentation to the civilized world was achieved within a half-century of Jesus’s death.

The conviction of the disciples led them to remain at Jerusalem, an important centre of pilgrimage for Jews from all over the Near East, and therefore a seminal centre for a new doctrine. Two of Jesus’s disciples, Peter and Jesus’s brother, James, were the leaders of the tiny group which awaited the imminent return of the Messiah, striving to prepare for it by penitence and the service of God in the Temple. They stood emphatically within the Jewish fold; only the rite of baptism, probably, distinguished them. Yet other Jews saw in them a danger; their contacts with Greekspeaking Jews from outside Judaea led to questioning of the authority of the priests. The first martyr, Stephen, one of this group, was lynched by a Jewish crowd. One of those who witnessed this was a Pharisee from Tarsus of the tribe of Benjamin, named Paul. It may have been that as a Hellenized Jew of the dispersion he was especially conscious of the need for orthodoxy. He was proud of his own. Yet he is the greatest influence in the making of Christianity after Jesus himself.

Somehow, Paul underwent a change of heart. From being a persecutor of the followers of Christ, he became one himself: it seems to have followed a sojourn of meditation and reflection in the deserts of east Palestine. Then, in ad 47 (or perhaps earlier; dating Paul’s life and travels is a very uncertain business), he began a series of missionary journeys which took him all over the eastern Mediterranean. In ad 49 an apostolic council at Jerusalem took the momentous decision to send him as a missionary to gentiles, who would not be required to undergo the circumcision, which was the most important act of submission to the Jewish faith; it is not clear whether he, the council, or both in agreement were responsible. There were already little communities of Jews following the new teaching in Asia Minor, where it had been carried by pilgrims. Now these were given a great consolidation by Paul’s efforts. His especial targets were Jewish proselytes, gentiles to whom he could preach in Greek and who were now offered full membership of Israel through the new covenant. The doctrine that Paul taught was new. He rejected the Law (as Jesus had never done), and strove to reconcile the essentially Jewish ideas at the heart of Jesus’s teaching with the conceptual world of the Greek language. He continued to emphasize the imminence of the coming end of things, but offered all nations, through Christ, the chance of understanding the mysteries of creation and, above all, of the relationship of things seen and things invisible, of the spirit and the flesh, and of the overcoming of the second by the first. In the process, Jesus became more than a human deliverer who had overcome death, and was God Himself - and this was to shatter the mould of Jewish thought within which the faith had been born. There was no lasting place for such an idea within Jewry, and Christianity was now forced out of the Temple. The intellectual world of Greece was the first of many new resting-places it was to find as the centuries went by. A colossal theoretical structure was to be built on this change.


The Acts of the Apostles give plentiful evidence of the uproar which such teaching could cause and also of the intellectual tolerance of the Roman administration when public order was not involved. But it often was. In ad 59, Paul had to be rescued from the Jews at Jerusalem by the Romans. When put on trial in the following year, he appealed to the emperor and to Rome he went, apparently with success. From that time he is lost to history; he may have perished in a persecution by Nero in ad 67.

The first age of Christian missions permeated the civilized world by sinking roots everywhere in the first place in the Jewish communities. The ‘Churches’ which emerged were administratively wholly independent of one another, though the community at Jerusalem was recognized to have an understandable primacy. There were to be found those who had seen the risen Christ and their successors. The only links of the Churches other than their faith were the institutional one of baptism, the sign of acceptance in the new Israel, and the ritual practice of the eucharist, the re-enactment of the rites performed by Jesus at his last supper with his disciples, the evening before his arrest. It has remained the central sacrament of the Christian Churches to this day.

The local leaders of the Churches exercised independent authority in practice, therefore, but this did not cover much. There was nothing except the conduct of the affairs of the local Christian community to be decided upon, after all. Meanwhile, Christians expected the Second Coming. Such influence as Jerusalem had flagged after ad 70, when a Roman sack of the city dispersed many of the Christians there; after this time Christianity had less vigour within Judaea. By the beginning of the second century the communities outside Palestine were clearly more numerous and more important and had already evolved a hierarchy of officers to regulate their affairs. These identified the three later orders of the Church: bishops, presbyters and deacons. Their sacerdotal functions were at this stage minimal, and it was their administrative and governmental role which mattered.

The response of the Roman authorities to the rise of a new sect was largely predictable; its governing principle was that when no specific cause for interference existed, new cults were tolerated unless they awoke disrespect or disobedience to the empire. There was a danger at first that the Christians might be confounded with other Jews in a vigorous Roman reaction to Jewish nationalist movements, which culminated in a number of bloody encounters, but their own political quietism and the announced hostility of other Jews saved them. Galilee itself had been in rebellion in ad 6 (perhaps a memory of it influenced Pilate’s handling of the case of a Galilean among whose disciples was a Zealot) but a real distinction from Jewish nationalism came with the great Jewish rising of ad 66. This was the most important in the whole history of Jewry under the empire, when the extremists gained the upper hand in Judaea and took over Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus has recorded the atrocious struggle which followed, the final storming of the Temple, the headquarters of resistance, and its burning after the Roman victory. Before this, the unhappy inhabitants had been reduced to cannibalism in their struggle to survive. Archaeology has recently revealed at Masada, a little way from the city, what may well have been the site of the last stand of the Jews before it, too, fell to the Romans in ad 73.

This was not the end of Jewish turbulence, but it was a turning-point. The extremists never again enjoyed such support and must have been discredited. The Law was now more than ever the focus of Jewishness, for the Jewish scholars and teachers (after this time, they are more and more designated as ‘rabbis’) had continued to unfold its meaning in centres other than Jerusalem while the revolt was in progress. Their good conduct may have saved these Jews of the dispersion. Later disturbances were never so important as had been the great revolt, though in ad 117 Jewish riots in Cyrenaica developed into full-scale fighting, and in ad 132 the last ‘Messiah’, Simon Bar Kochba, launched another revolt in Judaea. But the Jews emerged with their special status at law still intact. Jerusalem had been taken from them (Hadrian made it an Italian colony, which Jews might enter only once a year), but their religion was granted the privilege of having a special officer, a patriarch, with sovereignty over it, and they were allowed exemption from the obligations of Roman law which might conflict with their religious duties. This was the end of a volume of Jewish history. For the next 1800 years Jewish history was to be the story of communities of the diaspora (dispersion), until a national state was again established in Palestine among the debris of another empire.

The nationalists of Judaea apart, Jews elsewhere in the empire were for a long time thereafter safe enough during the troubled years. Christians did less well, though their religion was not much distinguished from Judaism by the authorities; it was, after all, only a variant of Jewish monotheism with, presumably, the same claims to make. It was the Jews, not the Romans, who first persecuted it, as the Crucifixion itself, the martyrdom of Stephen and the adventures of Paul have shown. It was a Jewish king, Herod Agrippa, who, according to the author of the Acts of the Apostles, first persecuted the community at Jerusalem. It has even appeared plausible to some scholars that Nero, seeking a scapegoat for a great fire at Rome in ad 64, should have had the Christians pointed out to him by hostile Jews. Whatever the source of this persecution, in which, according to popular Christian tradition, St Peter and St Paul both perished, and which was accompanied by horrific and bloody scenes in the arena, it seems to have been for a long time the end of any official attention by Rome to the Christians. They did not take up arms against the Romans in the Jewish revolts, and this must have soothed official susceptibilities with regard to them.

When they emerge in the administrative records as worth notice by government it is in the early second century ad. This is because of the overt disrespect which Christians were by then showing in refusing to sacrifice to the emperor and the Roman deities. This was their distinction. Jews had a right to refuse; they had possessed a historic cult which the Romans respected - as they always respected such cults - when they took Judah under their rule. The Christians were now clearly seen as distinct from other Jews and were a recent creation. Yet the Roman attitude was that although Christianity was not legal it should not be the subject of general persecution. If, on the other hand, breaches of the law were alleged - and the refusal to sacrifice might be one - then the authorities should punish when the allegations were specific and shown in court to be well founded. This led to many martyrdoms, as Christians refused the well-intentioned attempts of Roman civil servants to persuade them to sacrifice or abjure their god, but there was no systematic attempt to eradicate the sect.

Indeed, the authorities’ hostility was much less dangerous than that of the Christians’ fellow subjects. As the second century passed, there is more evidence of pogroms and popular attacks on Christians, who were not protected by the authorities since they followed an illegal religion. They may sometimes have been acceptable scapegoats for the administration or lightning-conductors diverting dangerous currents. It was easy for the popular mind of a superstitious age to attribute to Christians the offences to the gods which led to famine, flood, plague and other natural disasters. Other equally convincing explanations of these things were lacking in a world with no other technique for explaining natural disaster. Christians were alleged to practise black magic, incest, even cannibalism (an idea no doubt explicable in terms of misleading accounts of the eucharist). They met secretly at night. More specifically and acutely, though we cannot be sure of the scale of this, the Christians threatened by their control of their members the whole customary structure which regulated and defined the proper relations of parents and children, husbands and wives, masters and slaves. They proclaimed that in Christ there was neither bond nor free and that He had come to bring not peace but a sundering sword to families and friends. It was prescient of pagans to sense danger; in such views.

Christianity’s greatest contribution to a later western civilization would be its stubbornly prophetic and individualistic assertion that life should be regulated with reference to a moral guidance independent not only of government but of any other merely human authority. It is not hard, therefore, to understand the violent outbursts in the big provincial towns, such as that at Smyrna in ad 165, or Lyons in ad 177. They were the popular aspect of an intensification of opposition to Christianity which had an intellectual counterpart in the first attacks on the new cult by pagan writers.

Persecution was not the only danger facing the early Church. Possibly it was the least grave. A much more serious one was that it might develop into just another cult of the kind of which many examples could be seen in the Roman empire and, in the end, be engulfed like them in the magical morass of ancient religion. All over the Near East could be found examples of the ‘mystery religions’, whose core was the initiation of the believer into the occult knowledge of a devotion centred on a particular god (the Egyptian Isis was a popular one, the Persian Mithras another). Almost always the believer was offered the chance to identify himself with the divine being in a ceremony which involved a simulated death and resurrection, and thus to overcome mortality. Such cults offered, through their impressive rituals, the peace and liberation from the temporal which many craved. They were very popular.

That there was a real danger that Christianity might develop in this way is shown by the importance in the second century of the Gnostics. Their name derives from the Greek word gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge’: the knowledge the Christian Gnostics claimed was a secret, esoteric tradition, not revealed to all Christians but only to a few (one version said, only to the Apostles and the sect to which it had subsequently descended). Some of their ideas came from Zoroastrian, Hindu and Buddhist sources which stressed the conflict of matter and spirit in a way which distorted the Judaeo-Christian tradition; some came from astrology and even magic. There was always a temptation in such a dualism, the attribution of evil and good to opposing principles and entities and the denial of the goodness of the material creation. The Gnostics were haters of this world and in some of their systems this led to the pessimism typical of the mystery cults; salvation was only possible by the acquisition of arcane knowledge, secrets of an initiated elect. A few Gnostics even saw Christ not as the saviour who confirmed and renewed a covenant but as one who delivered men from Yahweh’s error. It was a dangerous creed in whatever form it came, for it cut at the roots of hopefulness which was the heart of the Christian revelation. It turned its back on the redemption of the here and now of which Christians could never wholly despair, since they accepted the Judaic tradition that God made the world and that it was good.

In the second century, with its communities scattered throughout the diaspora and their organizational foundations fairly firmly settled, Christianity thus seems to stand at a parting of ways, either of which could prove fatal to it. Had it turned its back on the implications of Paul’s work and remained merely a Jewish heresy, it would at best have been reabsorbed eventually into the Judaic tradition; on the other hand, a flight from a Jewry, which rejected it, might have driven Christians into the Hellenistic world of the mystery cults or the despair of the Gnostics. Thanks to a handful of men, it escaped both and became a promise of salvation to the individual.

The achievement of the Fathers of the Church who navigated these perils was, for all its moral and pietistic content, above all intellectual. They were stimulated by their danger. Irenaeus, who succeeded the martyred Bishop of Lyons in ad 177, provided the first great outline of Christian doctrine, a creed and definition of the scriptural canon. All of these set off Christianity from Judaism. But he wrote also against the background of the challenge of heretical beliefs. In ad 172 the first Council had met to reject Gnostic doctrines. Christian doctrine was squeezed into intellectual respectability by the need to resist the pressures of competitors. Heresy and orthodoxy were born twins. One of the pilots who steered an emerging Christian theology through this period was the prodigiously learned Clement of Alexandria, a Christian Platonist (perhaps born in Athens), through whom Christians were brought to an understanding of what the Hellenistic tradition might mean apart from the mysteries. In particular, he directed Christians to the thought of Plato. To his even greater pupil, Origen, he transmitted the thought that God’s truth was a reasonable truth, a belief which could attract men educated in the stoic view of reality.

The intellectual drive of the early Fathers and the inherent social appeal of Christianity made it possible for it to utilize the huge possibilities of diffusion and expansion inherent in the structure of the classical and later Roman world. Its teachers could move freely and talk and write to one another in Greek. It had the great advantage of emerging in a religious age; the monstrous credulousness of the second century cloaks deep longings. They hint that the classical world is already running out of vigour; the Greek capital needed replenishment and one place to look for it was in new religions. Philosophy had become a religious quest and rationalism or scepticism appealed only to an infinitesimally small minority. Yet this promising setting was also a challenge to the Church; early Christianity has to be seen always in the context of thriving competitors. To be born in a religious age was a threat as well as an advantage. How successfully Christianity met the threat and seized its opportunity was to be seen in the crisis of the third century, when the classical world all but collapsed and survived only by colossal, and in the end mortal, concession.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!