The First Christians and Some of Their Biggest Myths

(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ELIZABETH BROCKWAY/THE DAILY BEAST)
(PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ELIZABETH BROCKWAY/THE DAILY BEAST)

Did early Christians have Bibles? Hide in catacombs? Oh, and as far as why Peter was crucified upside down…

Whether you like it or not, if you live in Western Europe or North America your world is shaped by Christianity. But Christianity was not inevitable. Jesus was not the only Messiah executed by the Romans for sedition. His impact is felt and the religion founded in his name exists today because of the work of his followers—the Apostles and first disciples who spread his message. We know a little about their work from the Bible (Acts of the Apostles) and there are some almost cartoonish portrayals of them in stories composed decades, even hundreds of years after their deaths. But it’s largely a murky period. Most of what we think we know about the earliest Christians comes from later traditions, Hollywood epics and, sadly, The Da Vinci Code.

1. They weren’t Christians. 

Jesus and his disciples were Jews: Their scripture was Jewish, their religious rituals were Jewish, and their conception of the Messiah was Jewish. It’s certainly true that in the Gospel of John, a text written at the earliest around 90 CE, Jesus says some pretty vicious things about Jews (spoiler alert: He didn’t actually say those things). And it’s true that Paul discouraged Gentile converts from embracing the full demands of Jewish law, including circumcision. But neither Paul nor any of the evangelists know the name Christian or use it to describe followers of Jesus.

The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the name Christian was first used in Antioch in the 60s. But a growing consensus among scholars maintains that Acts of the Apostles was likely written around 115 CE. And none of the Gospels or epistles written in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, use the word Christian at all.

What this means is that for the majority of the first century, followers of Jesus were known as Jews. Even Paul seems to have agreed. A number of books including Professor Joshua Garroway’s Paul’s Gentile-Jews, have argued that Paul intended even converts to be Jewish. And that when he said for Christ there was neither “Jew nor Greek” he meant because all of his followers were now Gentile-Jews.

The actual split between Jews and Christians, what scholars call the parting of the ways, took place over the course of centuries. As late as the fifth century John Chrysostom, the eloquent Bishop of Antioch, was complaining that Christians would not stop going to synagogues.

2. They didn’t agree with each other.

A modern visitor to Rome would notice all of the Churches dedicated to Peter and Paul and the statues positioning them alongside one another as friends. But the truth is there was friction between the two. According to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul tells a story in which he called Peter a hypocrite for refusing to eat with the Gentiles in front of James and the other Apostles. There seems to have been considerable disagreement between Paul and the original group about the religious requirements to be placed on Gentile converts and the amount of fraternization between Jewish and Gentile converts. It’s an uncomfortable moment and one that the author of Acts of Apostles tries to erase.

The disagreements didn’t stop there. Throughout Christian history, but particularly in the first four centuries, there were heated debates about the afterlife, the role of women, the practice of baptism, the date of Easter, and so on. Some people will present these debates as a tussle between “orthodox Catholics” and “heretics” but the truth is that these groups weren’t as clear-cut in the second century as they are in retrospect. It isn’t the case that the authoritarian Catholic Church clamped down on heresy and suppressed other groups. Maybe some people would have liked to, but there was no organized church hierarchy that had the power to do this kind of thing (sorry, Dan Brown). Moreover, at the time, everyone sincerely thought that they were the only ones who accurately preserved God’s Church. And it’s because of this that people fought so vigorously to defend their position and argument.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast
Candida Moss

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