Imagining the First Christians

The New Testament's very existence testifies to how passionately the earliest Christians kept in touch with one another. It largely emerged organically.
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During the first session of introductory New Testament courses, I often invite students to imagine a different world. After introductions, the distribution of the syllabus and other preliminaries, students ponder: Imagine a world in which the average life expectancy for women is 25 or 30 years, where men's average life expectancy is more like 40. Imagine a world in which the average woman must complete pregnancy at least five times -- just to hold up her share of the population. Imagine cities in which perhaps one in three inhabitants are slaves. Imagine living on a street lined with four- or five-story apartment buildings, a street only six or eight feet wide and served by no public plumbing. Imagine living with no meaningful police force, where the strong almost always get their way and violence frequently resolves conflicts.

What would religion look like in a world like that?

Religion offered two major benefits for most people in the Roman Empire: protection and belonging. You and I may have learned about the classical Greek gods in high school, but the early Christians (those who were not Jews) inhabited a richly populated spiritual universe. Local gods, regional gods, professional gods, family gods and household gods expected recognition and required satisfaction. Evil spiritual forces also lurked, threatening to harm the unobservant. Acknowledging the gods, whether through direct personal worship or through public festivals and ceremonies, provided protection for households and communities. Moreover, honoring the gods fostered community, as trade guilds, burial societies, ethnic groups, and extended families linked religion to their diverse group identities.

Earliest Christianity offered one alternative movement in that complicated spiritual economy. Emerging from Judaism, a significant ethnic and religious minority identity in its own right, the first churches stood among those ancient religious movements that offered individual mystical experience, promised the ability to transcend death and cultivated alternative communal relationships. Their competition included popular philosophical movements that trained people to discipline themselves in order to transcend suffering and respond to Fate (capital F) with freedom and equanimity.

Those earliest churches displayed one particularly remarkable trait: a passion to keep in touch with one another. We see this most clearly in Paul's letters, many of which include greetings and news from cities all over the eastern Mediterranean world. Paul sends and receives reports from one city after another. He praises the believers in Thessalonica, capital of Macedonia, because their reputation has spread not only throughout Greece but also "in every place" (1 Thessalonians 1:8). While in Ephesus (modern Turkey), Paul receives news from Corinth (in Greek Achaia; 1 Corinthians 1:11-13; 7:1). To Rome he sends representatives from Corinth and its suburbs (Romans 16:1-2). As Paul raises money in Corinth, he reminds the believers there of the generosity he has received from other regions of Greece (2 Corinthians 8:1-7).

We occasionally receive brief glimpses of the passionate regard these early Christians held for one another. We cannot confidently identify the location to which the Gospel of Mark was addressed, but the story pauses for one telling detail. The Romans compel "a passer-by," a certain Simon from Cyrene, to carry Jesus' cross. This is how the story identifies Simon: "It was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus" (15:21, NRSV). Cyrene was in Libya, and apparently Simon had moved to Roman Palestine, but for our purposes that's not the point. Imagine Mark's first audience as they hear the story for the first time. "It was Simon -- you may know him. You certainly know his sons Alexander and Rufus."

Perhaps Alexander and Rufus are in the room when the story is read. Perhaps their names evoke warm memories. Somehow Simon's accidental brush with Jesus has created a legacy. Two of his sons -- Did he have only two? Did he have daughters? -- stand among the prominent believers a generation later. This little aside in Mark's Gospel reveals the importance of such relationships for the earliest Christians.

The New Testament's very existence testifies to how passionately the earliest Christians kept in touch with one another. Some people imagine a group of powerful old men selecting the New Testament books in a smoke-filled room. That's not how things happened at all. The formation of the New Testament largely emerged organically. Imagine a church in one city, which might share a copy of Mark's Gospel with another church that lacked it. Imagine churches distributing their copies of Paul's letters with one another so that eventually most of the churches have the same collection. For the most part, the New Testament canon grew from the books that were the most widely read and treasured.

By a certain point in the second century, it seems most every significant church read and possessed copies of the four Gospels, Acts and 10 letters attributed to Paul. Other books also circulated, but less evenly. Some of these made it into the canon while others did not. The primary factor in their inclusion was their widespread use.

Imagine, again, how these books circulated. No class of professional scribes had emerged in the early churches. Instead, individuals copied their manuscripts by hand. They used extremely expensive writing materials such as papyrus and animal skins (parchment), which required a lengthy manufacturing process. They found ways to circulate these documents with one another over vast distances in challenging travel circumstances. These believers, most of whom had never met, went to such great lengths to share these resources because they cared deeply for one another.

In my next post I'll reflect on the diverse people who populated those earliest churches.

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