When the Jesus Movement Became the Christian Church

When the Jesus Movement Became the Christian Church March 9, 2018

I have blogged quite a bit recently on early Christian history, and the further I get into this material, the more interested I become in one particular period – quite a narrow period in fact, of a quarter century or so. I keep coming back to these years as the critical turning point in early Christian history, and it rarely receives the respect it demands. For all the attention paid to the era of the Council of Nicea, about 325, there is an earlier time that is at least as important, and arguably much more so. Let me make my case for the years around 200 AD – or let’s say, more broadly, between the late 180s and 215. One generation.

In terms of modern social theory, this period was when the movement changed from being an upstart sect – spontaneous, passionate, inchoate – to a fully-formed institutionalized “church,” a change symbolized by new structures and hierarchies, more formalized patterns of worship and liturgy, and the strict regulation of individual prophecy. Also transformed were notions of authority, with a shift from charismatic or prophetic credentials to an emphasis on tradition and (gradually) on bureaucracy. Newer institutions also felt a powerful impetus to centralization and standardization. This was a classic transmutation of a kind that has befallen so many other new religious movements through human history.

To illustrate this, let’s think about the Easter Wars then raging. In the 190s AD, Christians were passionately divided over the question of whether Easter Sunday should fall on Sunday. However nitpicking the issue might sound, the controversy actually involved very substantial issues of identity, culture and faith, issues that shaped the West’s religious tradition. Just how closely should the new Jesus movement hew to practices derived from Judaism?

Easter commemorates the Resurrection that is the central fact of Christian faith. According to the lunar Jewish calendar, Jesus had perished on the 14th day of the month Nisan, a Friday, and the gospels reported that he had been resurrected on the Sunday. As that Friday fell in the season of the Passover, Christians commemorated it with the Greek term for that feast, Pascha. For many centuries, Christians have followed that Friday/Sunday pattern. The date may vary from year to year, but Good Friday always falls on a Friday, and Easter Sunday on a Sunday. How could things ever have been otherwise?

But matters were very different in early times. In the churches of Asia Minor – some of the oldest of all Christian communities, and the ones most closely tied to the apostles – Christian Pascha in the second century always fell on the fourteenth of Nisan, whatever the day of the week, and thus followed Jewish practice. The Alexandrian church, in contrast, favored Sunday observance, and so did Rome. About 190, Rome’s bishop Victor demanded that Asian bishops fell into line, and a series of strikingly far-flung councils and synods demanded that the Resurrection day should fall on Sunday. Those holdouts who favored the old apostolic practice of observing the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan suddenly found themselves labeled as heretics with the ugly technical label of Quartodecimans, literally “Fourteeners.”

However technical the calendrical minutiae in this affair, it points to a powerful theme in Christian history, namely just how late in that story the churches decided matters that we might have thought were absolutely fundamental. We normally think of a rigid separation between Christian and Jewish practice sometime around 70 AD, and certainly no later than the end of the first century. That is the interpretation offered in the myriad of books, articles and sermons that appear each year. Yet a hundred years after that supposed separation, some of the most significant churches were still relying on a Jewish structure of months and days. How, we might ask, how could so fundamental an issue, so powerful a symbolic marker of religious identity, still be undecided?

In many other ways as well, Christians at this time were still believing and doing things that fit better with what we might think of as the earliest apostolic ages. Most accounts present the earliest church as a thoroughly radical and utopian sect, open to prophecy, charisma, and miracle, and living in daily expectation of Christ’s imminent return.  As this event was pushed ever further into the future, so the emerging church spiritualized its messages and promises. At the same time, it developed into a more formal institution, with its hierarchy and bishops. That transformation was acutely apparent in matters of authority. While the earliest church depended on living apostles and inspired prophets, its successors followed an institutional church, and obeyed the mandates of scripture. Surely, we think, such a change must have been accomplished not long after the closing of the New Testament, at the start of the second century.

Such a trajectory fits poorly with the historical facts. Still at the end of the second century, major congregations were seriously debating the approval of the so-called New Prophecy of Montanism, a charismatic movement that claimed that its living prophets were proclaiming spiritual truths equal in authority to those of the scriptures. Still at this time, the range of scriptures in general Christian use was far larger than later Christian concepts of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. Still at the end of the second century, some respected Christian leaders insisted that the Bible’s promises of a future miraculous age of peace and plenty had to be read in a material and terrestrial sense, and not postponed and spiritualized as a supernatural promise of Heaven. Still, major churches followed interpretations of Christ and his mission that by later standards were radically heretical, and far beyond the fold of acceptable belief. Large sections of the Christian community felt able to reject the whole Old Testament, and the Jewish God that it revealed.

On every one of these issues, and on many other questions of belief and practice, and we see the critical era of transformation and decision at the turn of the third century. Although changes had been accumulating gradually, the pace of change then accelerated rapidly to create a revolutionary transformation. This was the watershed moment at which the Christian movement made the decisive move from being a Jewish sect to a free-standing independent church, on the verge of becoming a world religion.

If all the simmering issues were not resolved and the various factions suppressed – as they assuredly were not – then at least it was clear that future debates would be fought out within one mainstream community, the Great Church, a vast transcontinental entity spanning the known world, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. The wave of councils summoned forth by the Paschal debates of the 190s was in fact the first clear evidence of that global reach.

That Great Church was fundamentally committed to the defense and promotion of the doctrinal mainstream, defined in ever more precise terms. Wholly new concepts of orthodoxy became commonplace, together with new vocabularies. It was around 200 that the brilliant African theologian Tertullian (c.160-220) first applied the Latin word trinitas to the Christian deity. As with the poor Quartodecimans, those who espoused yesterday’s normality suddenly became today’s heterodoxy.

A brief summary of this era would include the following “firsts” – the innovations and breakthroughs – all from that short period around 200:

*Scale and Diversity: The church’s vast geographical scale demanded a much greater recognition of linguistic and cultural diversity, beyond the original Greek and Aramaic. For the first time, Latin and Syriac became vehicles of major Christian writing and thought.

*A World Church: Despite its growth, the church retained its sense of common identity, as manifested by the first great councils.

*Planting Roots: Globalization coincided with localization. As the churches developed local roots, they no longer relied on itinerant leaders and immigrants. Victor, whom I have already mentioned as the Roman Pope of the 190s, was the first holder of that office to speak Latin.

*As a dubious blessing of this trend, the church’s very first anti-Jewish polemic in Latin appeared a year or two after 200.

*Authority and Tradition: In the extensively preserved Christian discourse and debate of this era, arguments repeatedly relied on church tradition and long authority, exactly the characteristics of an institutionalized church rather than a sect.

*Hierarchy: Although bishops and clergy are recognizable in earlier eras, their roles and functions now become much more standardized and formalized. They become the crucial transmitters and guarantors of tradition and authenticity. Victor may have been the first Roman Pope to act as a bishop, rather than the chair of the governing board of the local congregation.

*Institutional Life: churches and bishoprics now became corporate property-owning institutions, vastly increasing the material concerns at issue in any theological debates.

*Clergy and Laity. It was precisely around 200 that we find the first evidence of clergy as a distinct profession or caste, a textbook sign of the distinction between a sect and a “church.” That concept in turn consigned the rest of believers to the category of “laity”, literally just “the people.”

*Priesthood. The theory of Christian clergy as priests originates in this era, with all the Old Testament implications of that term, and all the theological implications of that insight.

*Christian Identity: The Easter controversy was the clearest example of a newly assertive Christian identity and ideology separate from Judaism. Meanwhile, it was also around 200 that Jewish thinkers took their own steps to a new distinct identity with the maturity of Rabbinic Judaism.

*Creating Catholic Theology. Around 200, Tertullian creates the language of later Catholic theology in a wide range of matters, notably including the concept of clergy, and of clerical celibacy. His writings gave later Latin-speakers a firm theological foundation both in language and concepts.

*Church Order: These years mark a new sophistication in Christian liturgy and devotional practice, and more formal rituals. Several surviving texts demonstrate the near-obsessive concern with “Church Order,” with its assumptions about formality, hierarchy, and the specialized roles of the emerging clerical caste.

*Eucharistic ideas in particular became central to spiritual power and prestige, with shared communion the essential criterion for church membership.

*Cultural Genesis: The volume and diversity of Christian cultural and literary contributions grow massively in these years, suggesting a whole new scale of intellectual engagement. Christian musical culture and hymnody also originate at this very time.

*Engagement with Mainstream Culture: Only in this era could Christian thinkers, for the first time, engage in serious debate with the pagan cultural mainstream, through sophisticated apologetics, and the emergence of distinctively Christian philosophy. These efforts manifest a new social confidence, and new class pretensions.

*Engagement with Political Power: Tentatively at first, Christians first began to appear among ruling elites, and even included in their ranks the king of a state, the borderland of Osrhoene.

*Theology, and the Great Leap Forward: The need to participate in mainstream intellectual life revolutionized Christian theological discourse, demanding a new rigor in theological categories, and in turn provoking the debates that so agonized the Great Church over the following three centuries. These divisions were especially evident in concepts of the Trinity, and of the person of Christ.

*Exploring the Christian Scriptures: From earliest times, Christians had been deeply engaged in scriptural exegesis and commentary, but with reference to the Old Testament. From the end of the second century, the focus shifted to the newly-defined New Testament, with the first pioneering commentaries on books in that collection, and intense debates about the proper contents and limits of Christian scripture.

So many critical components of later Christian thought, life, writing, culture and devotion – so many ideas, arguments, institutions, and genres – have their roots in this effervescent period.

So prolific are the changes of this era, and so far-reaching, that it demands to be recognized as one of the most significant turning points in the formation of Christianity. It was at least equal in importance to the far better-known era of Nicea, when the range of possible historical outcomes was far narrower than in the earlier period. The period around 200 was a time of near-infinite possibilities, on matters far broader than something as specific as the date of Easter. Indeed, so much of what the Council of Nicea debated reflected issues that had arisen about 200.

Scholars have long recognized the pivotal importance of some of the thinkers of this era, especially Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, but new (and indeed very recent) discoveries and insights have vastly enhanced our knowledge of these years. We know much more than we did about the Gnostics and Sethians, about the pagan world, and indeed about the mainstream church itself – and scholarship has boomed. The more we discover, the more vital these transition years appear.

In terms of that Christian story, the years around 200 marked the end of the beginning. More on this in coming posts.


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