New College, University of Edinburgh
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World Christianity and Christian Origins

For some time now I have been interested in the question: How did the early Christian movement persuade others that its God, its gospel message centering upon a crucified and resurrected Messiah, and its attendant way of life were superior to competing Greco-Roman ways of worship and piety toward their gods?[1] Some of the most illuminating works that explore this (or related) questions have seemed to me to be characterized by an interesting tension. On the one hand, powerful arguments have been mustered that demonstrate early Christian distinctiveness among ancient Mediterranean religions (e.g., Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods; Kavin Rowe, World Upside Down; One True Life). J. B. Rives has argued that Christianity is historically innovative precisely because “it represents the growth of a new social and conceptual system, a new ideology of religion” (p. 16, italics mine).[2] On the other hand, other fine scholars have convincingly pointed to the ways in which early Christianity bears remarkable similarities to Greco-Roman religiosities in its ways of being religious (e.g., Luke Timothy Johnson, Among the Gentiles).

This does not seem to be a situation of an “either/or,” but rather one where both distinctiveness and similarity, tension and continuity, characterize early Christianity’s relationship to Greco-Roman religions. And perhaps this is not too surprising given that the Christian movement’s persuasiveness was dependent upon its ability to present its God and way of life as the superior alternative that brooks no competitors but within the cultural and religious logic of its competitors.

I wonder if contemporary studies in World Christianity, studies which examine how religious devotees communicate with those who have competing religious commitments, can shed some light on my original question. For example, missiologists and intercultural theorists have reminded us that the gospel is always articulated within culture, though it is not identified with any particular local culture.[3] It is a simple fact of the history of Christianity that the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified can be, and has been, articulated through the language, ideas, and stories of the local pre-Christian cultures. Since Christianity does not sacralize any particular language or culture, every new culture is, thereby, destigmatized as well as relativized.[4] Lamin Sanneh has emphasized the significance of the fact that the earliest Christians did not spread the gospel message through diffusion or cultural adoption, but rather through translation – which “rests on the persuasive nature of the idioms adopted in religious practice.”[5] The contents of the Christian proclamation, then, were “received and framed in the terms of its host culture; by feeding off the diverse cultural streams it encountered, the religion became multicultural. The local idiom became the chosen vessel.”[6] While the proclamation of the gospel message will entail obvious points of difference and discontinuity, one should not underestimate the importance of the gospel message’s appropriation of the local culture/religion it encounters. John Flett describes this dynamic clearly: “Conversion demands significant continuity with the local cultural heritage and leads to an expansion in the Christian tradition itself. To speak of Jesus Christ in another cultural milieu is to open that message to the range of questions, resources and idioms found in that culture, including those in the political and religious spheres.”[7]

Those historians who have sought to explain the success and expansion of Christianity have not often emphasized the stories, the discourses, the beliefs, and ideologies of the Christian movement as a primary reason for its success.[8] Historians of Christian origins have not, at least to my knowledge, sufficiently engaged Averil Cameron’s Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire. Here Cameron argues that the rise of Christianity cannot be explained solely through social and economic observations. Rather, much of Christianity’s success is due to its invention of a totalizing Christian discourse which established itself “in the hearts and minds of people.”[9]

I find the insights from contemporary intercultural theorists and Cameron’s emphasis on discourse, stories, and ideology suggestive for my initial question. When we turn to the book of Acts and its engagement with Greco-Roman religions and cultures it seems to me to present a similar missionary dynamic that becomes a defining feature of Christian identity throughout its history. Acts makes abundant use of Greco-Roman religious discourses in order to show that the early Christian movement embodies supremely the superior elements of Greco-Roman religiosity and philosophy.[10] Acts portrays its characters and movement as working within the cultural and religious logic of a variety of aspects of Greco-Roman religiosity as a means of simultaneously; criticizing and disrupting pagan beliefs, allegiances, and ways of life, and using said Greco-Roman cultural scripts to portray Christianity as the superior Greco-Roman religion. Christianity – or at least Christian discourse – emerges out of intense conflict with Greco-Roman religiosity. But its employment of Greco-Roman religious scripts, themes, and philosophy results in deep cultural convergences between Christianity and pagan religion as the former emerges out of the latter. The Acts of the Apostles provides significant testimony to this dynamic as it both adapts to and criticizes aspects of the culture within which it takes root.

For example, we see Luke adapting scripts, themes, and traditions from ancient Mediterranean culture as means of communicating the gospel. In addition to the well-known example of Paul’s appropriation of Stoic philosophy in his proclamation in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), I think of the following as indicating Luke’s adaptation of the gospel to Greco-Roman cultural patterns and traditions: Luke’s literary prefaces and their similarities to Hellenistic historiography (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2), the portrait of Jesus as participating in four symposia (Luke 5:27-30; 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-24), the transformation of the traditions of Jesus’ crucifixion into that of noble death (Luke 23; cf. Acts 4:29; 5:29), the shaping of Jesus’ resurrection appearance in the literary guise of a theoxeny (Luke 24:13-35; cf. Acts 28:1-10), the use of philosophical friendship language to exalt the Jerusalem church’s common life (Acts 2:41-47; 4:32-35), God’s validation of the Christian movement as exemplified in the apostle’s prison escapes (Acts 5:19-20; 12:1-17; 16:25-34), and the depiction of the Christian movement’s power and success as validated through victorious turf-wars against its competitors (8:14-25; 13:5-12; 19:11-20; 28:3-6). Thus, throughout Acts, Luke portrays the Christian witnesses both disrupting the cultural and religious allegiances of his Greco-Roman audience even as he calls them to exclusive allegiance to the God of Israel and his Messiah, even as he works within their cultural and religious logics.

 

Written by Prof. Joshua Jipp

 

Notes:

[1] See the recent posing of this question by Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016).

[2] J. B. Rives, “Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology,” in The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries (ed. W.V. Harris; Leiden: Brill, 2005), 16.

[3] John G. Flett, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 246-247.

[4] Flett, Apostolicity, 276-277.

[5] Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (revised; Maryknoll: New York, 2009), 33-34.

[6] Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations (Oxford Studies in World Christianity; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 26.

[7] Flett, Apostolicity, 261.

[8] But now more recently, Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?, 108-129.

[9] Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), 27.

[10] I have written in more detail on this and have reproduced a short section from my forthcoming, “Did Paul Translate the Gospel in Acts 17:22 – 31? A Critical Engagement with C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life.” In Perspectives in Religious Studies. Forthcoming 2018.

 

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  • CSCO Team,
  • 14th November 2017

Comments

  • Bryant J Williams, 14th November 2017 at 8:53 pm | Reply

    Joshua,
    You have already mentioned Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods, and, Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (in FN 1); but he as several other books that offer more intense scrutiny of the theology and practice of early Christianity. One of which is the following:
    Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.
    Two aspects that should be explored more fully are 1) the influence of Diaspora Judaism with the Greco-Roman culture; and, 2) the influence of a Jewish-Christian worldview as seen in the writings of the NT (since all the authors of the NT are Jewish except Luke). For it is clear that the rise of Christianity goes against the Greco-Roman culture and religions of that time. One should also note the difference between Greco-Roman views on prophecy (Oracle of Delphi) and the Judeo-Christian view on prophecy.

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