Votes : 0

Diversity and Communion among the First Christians: The genesis of the New Testament

Marc Rastoin, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Nov 26th 2021


A considerable effort needs to be made to become immersed in the religious world of the first century. It involves dealing with a world very different from today, if only because the term “religion” did not always mean the same thing for people of that time as it does for people now. It was a world in which Christianity was a modest reality. The evangelical parable of the small seed that becomes a large tree is very suitable for describing the beginnings of Christianity. To continue the metaphor, it was a shrub from which many branches rapidly sprouted.

A very religious world

First, a world in which the religious dimension is present everywhere needs to be imagined. There were no clearly defined religions on one hand and autonomous states and political structures on the other. The Roman Empire, like all states of the time, had a strong religious component and worship of the emperor was widespread, especially in the East. The emperor had the power to “cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Rev 13:15). Each nation could keep its religions, but at the same time needed to accept the spread of the Roman Empire’s religious propaganda. This religious dimension of social bonds posed a particular problem for Christians and was at the origin of Rome’s increasingly repressive attitude toward Christianity.

Second, it was a world that was mostly pagan, in which cults with a multiplicity of greater and lesser gods shared city spaces, linguistic areas and peoples. In Alexandria, the Egyptian god Serapis was particularly venerated, and in Ephesus, as the book of the Acts of the Apostles reminds us, the goddess Artemis. When Paul preached in Ephesus, local artisans rebelled because they saw in his preaching a potential threat to their trade in statues, which was linked to a temple that was considered one of the seven wonders of the world: “‘And there is danger that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.’ When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (Acts 19:27-28).

With such a variety of more or less hierarchical polytheisms, every location had its own favorite god. The pagan world was rich, thriving and easily syncretistic. Magic and popular superstitions coexisted with more mystical tendencies in an almost philosophical nature. The Acts of the Apostles portrays this cultural atmosphere in a meaningful way.

Nevertheless – and this is the third fundamental element – it was a world in which the Jewish faith had become widespread, to the point that thousands of people had become sympathizers. There were the “converts,” people who adhered to Judaism, and the “God-fearing,” people who went to the synagogue on Saturdays even though they had not formally converted. The Acts of the Apostles refers to them as the group to be approached and to become the focus of attention for Christian missionaries. Cornelius is described as follows: “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:1-2).

 The dominant Hellenistic culture

According to the historian Erich Gruen, Judaism was the Hellenistic religion par excellence.[1] This statement surprises us because we are accustomed – wrongly – to easily contrast Judaism and Hellenism. In reality, Judaism was a religion that, due to its universalism and the importance that it gave to morality, led to it being of particular interest in the Hellenistic world of the time. In fact, it attracted many people, although precisely because of this fact it frightened others and aroused numerous prejudices. It brings to mind the situation of Islam in Western societies today. Judaism was a religion that simultaneously attracted (as evidenced by numerous conversions) and was criticized. Most anti-Jewish stereotypes, spread by Egyptian priests like Manetho, date back to that period and have continued for centuries (cosmopolitanism, hatred of non-Jews, etc.).[2]

In the first century, Christianity appeared as a very small shrub in the shade – so to speak – of the tree that was Judaism. Christian faith developed in an extremely “religious” world, although many, wanting a more philosophical religion with more rational worship that was not linked to bloody sacrifices, criticized such a world that was full of superstitions and strange rituals. It was a world where, in the eastern part of the empire, Judaism was a powerful and dynamic religion that communicated the biblical message through the Greek translation of the holy books, the Septuagint, which was very well known and widespread.

Even though there were some points in common, Judaism was divided into very different currents. There were common principles, but also many differences according to location, religious practices and social classes. From the family of Philo of Alexandria – whose brother controlled Egyptian customs and whose nephew would become the chief of staff for the Roman army that would lay siege to Jerusalem – to the Jewish peasants of Syria or Arabia, there were significant differences.

Early Christianity spread in diverse cultural environments characterized by various languages. There were two major linguistic areas: the Greek-speaking world, that is, the Hellenistic world, whose metropolises were Alexandria, Antioch, Tarsus, Ephesus and Athens; and the Aramaic-speaking world, which ran from Judea to Syria, passing through Galilee, and which extended further east, even beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. However, many inhabitants of Judea and Galilee were Greek-speaking, and many Aramaic-speaking people lived in Antioch or in Alexandria. The groups were formed according to the culture of reference, even when living in the same city. Peter Lampe’s research shows that the Jews of Rome, despite having Latin names, primarily spoke Greek to each other.[3]

Luke informs us that in Jerusalem there were “some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians and others of those from Cilicia and Asia” (Acts 6:9). This synagogue, of Greek language, was opposed to the first Christians, even the Greek speakers, represented by Stephen, who had achieved an important place in the Jerusalem community – although not without difficulty, as recounted by Luke (cf. Acts 6:1-5). The names of the first deacons are Greek, and the city of Antioch is mentioned for the first time in Acts 6:5. Luke later tells us that “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11:26). It was in Antioch, not in Jerusalem, so as to distinguish these disciples from both non-Christian Jews and pagans. They were the ones who worshipped “Christ,” the Messiah, but the term is Greek.

In this way, gradually, some communities formed in the large cities of the eastern Mediterranean area, as well as in the countryside of Galilee and Samaria. Very different writings correspond to this diversity of communities and languages. They account for quite different theologies and divergent positions on some concrete issues. A few significant examples will now be taken into consideration.

Debates among the first Christians

On the question of the Law, there was a difference between the writings that insisted on observing the Law of Moses – in its elements that are primarily identifying, such as circumcision and food customs that created a “barrier” between those who observed the law and others – and those that emphasized the primacy of faith.

Then there was the question of divorce. Mark and Luke passed on a tradition that goes back to Jesus, according to which a man must not divorce his wife (under any circumstances, it is implied). On the other hand, the communities that recognized the Gospel according to Matthew acknowledged that there was an exception, with a clause that is difficult to translate: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:9).

The contents of this exception can be discussed endlessly: is it perhaps a matter of rules on incest, which was more tolerated by the pagans than by the Jewish laws? It is difficult to establish. For his part, Paul, writing to the Corinthians about a pagan or a pagan convert, added another exception: “To the rest I say – I and not the Lord – that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. […] But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you” (1 Cor 7:12-15). In the name of Christian freedom, Paul adapted tradition to a new situation.[4]

Another typical situation was the position of Christians toward Rome and the Empire. Some Christian groups considered the Roman Empire to be a place of radical hostilities toward God. This is the case in the Book of Revelation, which severely attacks Rome, comparing it to a ferocious beast thirsty for blood. There is a reference to the texts of Qumran that speak of those men – the kittim, the Romans – who worshipped the eagles of their legions, the brute force. These texts see in the Roman world above all evil, sin and hostility toward God. Other texts however emphasize that the Roman magistrates were an institution desired by God, who created an ordered world and increased the strength of Rome. Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome that the Roman judges must be respected and that they needed to pay taxes (cf. Rom 13:3-6). There were many who thought that Paul should have also denied the accusation according to which he was labeled a rebel and imprisoned as a seditionist. For its part, however, the Book of Revelation harshly judges Rome and the merchants – some of whom one might think were Christian – who were taking advantage of the Roman system: “I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast […]. On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.’ And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (Rev 17:3-6).

We can see how these two tendencies, which probably had their foundation in a local situation, also correspond to two great theological perspectives that all of Christian history has kept in mutual tension: on one side, a theology of creation that values the order of creation and, on the other, an apocalyptic theology impressed by the radicalism of evil in the world. This tension still remains today: we want to denounce the radical evil present in many forms in our world, and at the same time accept humbly working with others so that the beauty of the world is more fully manifested.

These theological questions and practices were the ones that divided Christians. Experience shows that the problems were not necessarily doctrinal, but rather concerned rituals and practices. Although they formed small, fervent communities – or maybe because they formed small, fervent communities – Christians experienced divisions. Most of the New Testament writings show signs of these more or less large divisions.

 Personal conflicts

In addition to the divisions concerning rituals, there were personal conflicts. Paul was informed about the divisions present in Corinth where the Christians claimed their allegiance to one leader or the other: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” (1 Cor 1:11-13).

Even Johannine Christianity – a form of Christianity made up of small, very united communities in the same territory of Asia Minor, the Roman Province of Asia (Ephesus) – knew the drama of schisms and excommunications. Some people chose to exclude themselves and others were expelled from the community.

In fact, Christian writings, such as those of Qumran, contain serious warnings to not accept heretics and advocates of discord: “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person” (2 John 1:9-11). In this case, the doctrinal question seems to be preeminent.

But the personal aspect of the division appears more clearly in John’s next letter: “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (3 John 1:9-10).

Even Paul had severe expressions against “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ,” opposing both himself and his teachings. With severity, he adds: “And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:13-14). Regarding the sinners in the community, he says: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one” (1 Cor 5:11). In one particular case, Paul invited the Corinthians to hand over the guilty to Satan: “You are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). The meaning of these words is not clear, but it was probably a form of excommunication. Of course, in such divisions, it is difficult to distinguish the theological aspect from the purely personal or cultural one.

Therefore, we must not think of the origins of Christianity as a privileged time in which there were no divisions or cultural problems. The first Christian writings abundantly testify to the existence and intensity of these divisions. Although few in number, the Christians needed to face profound conflicts concerning both doctrine and practice, divisions between local communities and from within them. Let us not forget that the Christians lived in a flourishing religious world, from which their members came. Some of them followed a few Jewish practices, others some pagan customs. The friendships and social networks of the ancient world continually forced them to make fundamental decisions and constantly be questioned about what could or could not be accepted.

Mutual recognition

In this situation, how was it possible to form the New Testament as it is known to us today? How was it possible that, despite these divisions, those Christians succeeded in gradually building what, in the second century, will be called the “great Church,” or Catholic? How was it possible that the disciples of James, Peter, Paul and John were able to recognize each other? How did the forces of division not succeed in extinguishing the common feeling of belonging to the same community? For one simple reason: because together with the centrifugal force of division there were, at least just as strong, the centripetal forces of communion. There was a great desire for unity, linked to the profound feeling of sharing the same faith.

When Luke composed the summaries of the Acts (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37; 5:12-16), he was certainly idealistic, but at the same time took into account this strong feeling of communion that united the first Christians of Jerusalem. When the author of the Gospel of John composed the great prayer of unity (cf. John 17), he bore witness to this great aspiration.

It can be said that this unity was achieved thanks especially to two major factors: in the first place, acceptance of the primacy of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, among them, that of Peter; in the second place, the rejection, by the majority, of theological extremisms. On one hand, there was the recognition of the authority of the apostles and a tradition that went back to Jesus and, on the other, having limits in place for the diversity of practices and beliefs.

Gradually, the authority of Peter and the Church connected to him became a condition sine qua non of belonging. Throughout the first century, the role of Cephas-Peter became increasingly emphasized. Two great Christian movements were accepted – not without difficulty – by the Petrine communities: the communities that referred to Paul of Tarsus, to him whom they, as his followers, dared to call “the apostle Paul” (although he had not been a part of the circle of the Twelve and had not known Jesus according to the flesh, as he himself explicitly stated); and what were known as the “Johannine communities,” which related to a character wrapped in mystery, called “John the Elder” (according to Bishop Papias in the second century) or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

The primacy of Peter

The recognition of the primacy of Peter happened in diverse, but analogous, ways in the two Christian traditions. In the Pauline tradition, it was pointed out that, although he had entered into conflict with Cephas-Peter in Antioch (cf. Gal 2), Paul had also wanted to be in communion with him and with the pillars of Jerusalem. Paul had personally met the apostles of Jerusalem and had come to an agreement with them: “When they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Gal 2:7-10). Paul also affirms that without recognition on behalf of the apostles close to Jesus, his mission would have been in vain (cf. Gal 2:2).

Paul was a man of communion: communion among the Churches, communion among the people, communion between the pagan-Christians and the Judean-Christians. He who had received a singular and direct revelation from Christ never wanted to break communion with Cephas-Peter; he, who said that he had not received his Gospel from man, affirmed that if Cephas had disapproved, his efforts would have been in vain. For this reason, Paul, who initially thought he would not to go to Jerusalem for the collection that was being prepared for years (cf. 1 Cor 16:3-4), decided to go there in the end: “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints” (Rom 15:25).

Paul was driven by a passion for communion. He did not want his missions and his communities to be separated from the greater Church – which had its roots in Jerusalem – and from the communities founded by the other apostles. In a word, he accepted that his apostolic charism was recognized by the authority of Peter and conferred by Christ himself (prior to the resurrection). It is perhaps due to this voluntarily ecclesial act that, in the end, his letters were accepted by all. Paul was anything but a quarrelsome, independent apostle who only followed his inspirations and despised those of others. On the contrary, this man was so sure of himself that in these circumstances he appeared very humble. This did not prevent him from speaking strongly to Peter when, in Antioch, he thought that Peter did not act in a correct way. But his freedom of speech was accompanied by a background of communion. This kind of teaching is always relevant.

The recognition of the primacy of Peter is expressed even more clearly in the Johannine writings. Peter is an important person in John’s Gospel. However, John does not tell the episode reported in Matt 16:13-19, with Jesus’ statement about Simon: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church….”[5] Nevertheless, the fourth Gospel twice highlights the primacy of Peter. The first time is at the sepulcher, where the story is constructed in such a way that it is Peter who is the first to enter: “The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first” (John 20:4). The second time is in chapter 21, where it is emphasized that Jesus entrusts Peter with his pastoral appointment: “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs’” (John 21:15).

However, at the end of the passage, Peter accepts the special mission of the other disciple: “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them […]. When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’” (John 21:20-22).

The Gospel of John, therefore, serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it affirms the legitimacy and value of the teachings of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Peter (and his followers) do not have to doubt them. On the other hand, this disciple (and his followers) recognized the primary role of Peter. Thanks to this dual operation, John’s Gospel was accepted into the greater Church, and the Johannine communities were accepted by the others.

Exclusions and boundaries

In addition to the recognition of Peter’s authority, the unity of Christians was achieved with two major decisions that the Church took in Jerusalem: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:28-29).[6] The New Testament has clear traces of these decisions and the groups that challenged them. The two currents that were gradually rejected are, on one side, Judaized Christianity, which claimed that converted pagans needed to enter into the Jewish people by putting into practice the ritual commandments; and, on the other, the proto-gnostic current – the great threat of the second century – which saw in Christianity an esoteric doctrine, characterized by a number of ecstatic and mystical practices and knowledge, rather than a fraternal communion based upon a rigorous ethical approach.

The Judaizing communities were asked to recognize the legitimacy of the Christianity of baptized Christian pagans and to be in communion with them. This difficult option has been widely referred to in the central part of the Acts and constitutes the most important fruit of what is referred to as “the Council of Jerusalem” (cf. Acts 15).

The Judaizing communities were certainly numerous in the Aramaic world, as Paul, whose letters oppose the Judaizing missionaries, informs us. From the beginning of the second century, these communities were marginalized. This definitely does not justify the fact that the primarily Pagan-Christian communities allowed themselves to be consumed with pride and disdain for them, forgetting Paul’s admonition in Rom 9-11.

The other great temptation occurred predominantly in the Greek-speaking Christian community, but also spread into the world of Judaism in the Aramaic culture. This was referred to as “Gnosticism” or “gnosis.” In fact, there is also “good” gnosis, but the bad one, to which Saint Irenaeus was opposed, turned knowledge into the door of salvation. It is difficult to establish when this arose, but most scholars think that it appeared at the end of the first century.

The Johannine writings witness to the existence of this current and reject it because it rejected the incarnation of Jesus Christ and transformed Christian faith into mythology. “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world” (1 John 4:2-3). This current experienced major development in Egypt and produced many writings, including the apocryphal Gospels of Thomas and Judas.

The final writings of the New Testament, in particular the Second Letter of Peter, date back to the time of Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna and Bishop Clement of Rome. From that moment on, if the primacy of Peter were not recognized there could be no unity among Christians. Of course, since it is a Western Church – that of Rome – which refers in a special way to the two apostles Peter and Paul since they died in Rome, the exact limitations of this primacy have been the subject of many discussions among the great Mediterranean Churches.

The canonical reconciliation of Peter and Paul, sanctioned by their common martyrdom in the same city, did not put an end to the conflicts among Christians. Rather, it clearly showed that the Christianity brought by the Twelve and represented by Cephas-Peter is inseparably united with the more Hellenistic Christianity brought by Paul of Tarsus, the man who had not known the earthly Jesus. These two primary cultural and linguistic lungs of the Eastern Mediterranean meet in the same Church. Judeo-Christians and Pagan-Christians gave life to a new religion, distinct from both the dominant Paganism and from Judaism.

                                                                 * * *

In conclusion, it can be said that diversity is a part of the essence of Christianity. Since its origins, it has been culturally, linguistically, ethnically and theologically plural. It was formed by communities that were inside and outside of the empire; by communities of Greek liturgical language and Aramaic liturgical language; by communities that refer to one precise apostolic tradition and others that do not. These differences gave rise to real conflicts which sometimes resulted in excommunications and schisms. But these communities were also animated by a strong desire for communion, by a common memory of Jesus and by shared rituals, above all baptism and the Eucharist.

It is this desire that made it possible for different texts and traditions to be accepted into the same body, the New Testament. As the Torah of Israel had been the unification of the sacerdotal and Deuteronomist currents, so the New Testament is the unification of heritage for the Christians of Judea-Galilee and the Greek-speaking communities of Asia Minor, of the communities founded by Paul and the ones founded by the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

The Old and New Testaments cannot be understood without a strong desire for communion and mutual recognition between different schools of theology and literature, rooted in diverse communities. The centuries that followed were marked by the same tensions: forces of separation due to differing theologies and liturgical concerns – for example, the date of Easter[7] – were opposed to an increasingly organized movement for communion. It is this movement that made the time of the Councils possible. But that is another story.

[1].Cf. E. S. Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998.

[2].Cf. Y. Chevalier, L’antisemitismo: L’ebreo come capro espiatorio, Milan, IPL, 1991.

[3].Cf. P. Lampe, Die stadtrömischen Christen in den ersten beiden Jahrhunderten: Untersuchungen zur Sozialgeschichte, Tübingen, Mohr-Siebeck, 1987.

[4].Cf. J. P. Meier, Un ebreo marginale: Ripensare il Gesù storico. 4: Legge e amore, Brescia, Queriniana, 2009, 80-184.

[5].Peter’s profession of faith in Matt 16:16 has the equivalent in John 6:68-69.

[6].For a theological analysis of how the canon was constituted, cf. B. Sesboüé, “Essai de théologie systématique sur le Canon des Écritures,” in C. Theobald et al., Le canon des Écritures, Paris, Cerf, 1990, 523-539.

[7].Cf. E. Cattaneo, “La data della Pasqua nella Chiesa antica,” in Civ. Catt. 2018 I 529-543.

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.