Early Christian Spirituality
IV. Christian Context
In the midst of the first century CE, Christianity exploded across the religious and social scene of the Roman Empire. Within forty years, from 30 to 70 CE, the movement grew from a few hundred in Palestine to several thousands in communities spread across the ancient world. And "the Way," as adherents liked to call their faith, expanded despite prejudice and persecution.
I acknowledge much of the following information flowed from the mind of biblical scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson. He approaches the subject of the gospels and the early Christian experience from a phenomenological perspective. He investigated the phenomena of the early Church on its face value, judging it against its own norms and logic to discover what it can tell us about the Christian religious experience.
B. The Transcendent: The Risen Christ and the Spirit
Johnson begins with the presence of two transcendent actors claimed by early Christians: the Risen Jesus and the Spirit. Early witness, especially in the Pauline letters, focused upon the Resurrection experience. While disciples had some interest in the life of Jesus from Nazareth, they focused upon his presence in the community in light of the Second Coming. He did not merely come back to life; he was the source of life, the "life giving Spirit" (1 Cor 15;45). While he did have a resurrected body, he rose above any earthly. reality to become a transcendent power, sharing fully in the life of God as "Lord." He was not merely resuscitated, he was transformed into a spiritual presence that lived in the Church community.
Johnson described the Spirit, not in terms of Trinitarian theology that developed in the age of the Church Fathers, but in far more primitive language. For early Christians, he claims, the Spirit was their power source. The Spirit swept over believers, enlivening them and transforming them. It empowered disciples to undertake not only a new faith, but a new world view, new social conditions and a higher level of moral living. The Spirit gave Christians the strength to withstand the insults and attacks from neighbors, even family members.
C. The Church: Locus of the Transcendent
Early Christians focused upon the divine presence and power in the context of the community. Many pagans esteemed spiritual teachers, foLk healers and ecstatic prophets who erupted in unintelligible speech. Some even joined cult communities to experience a sense of spiritual unity. But nowhere did teaching and such spiritual "gifts" as healing, tongues and prophecy come together as in the Christian community. More than a gathering of Spirit endowed individuals, the Church itself was locus of spiritual power. For, in the community of believers, one could experience the transcendent presence of the Risen Christ and encounter the power of the Spirit.
New Testament authors saw the Church as the dwelling place of the divine through four metaphors. First "the people of God" (Acts 15:4; Rom 9:25; 1 Cor 10:7; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 13:12; 1 Pet 2:9–10; Rev 18:4; 21:3) stressed continuity with Judaism while claiming exclusivity as "THE people." Next, "the household of God" echoed the ancient title for Israel as the "household of Israel" (Acts 2:36; 7:42) while it paralleled the social framework of the Hellenistic household (see 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 3:3, 6; Heb 10:21; 1 Pet 4:17; 2 Tim 2:20; 2 Cor 5:1). Third, the "the temple of God" (1 Cor 3:9, 1 Cor 3:16–17; 1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 5:1; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21; Eph 4:12; Rev 3:12; Rev 7:15; Rev 21:22) emphasized the community, not the edifice in Jerusalem, as the arena for God, especially the Spirit; the community of Essences at Qumran made a similar claim. Finally, Paul's "body of Christ" (Rom 12:4–5; 1 Cor 6:15; 1 Cor 10:16–17; 1 Cor 12:12–27; Eph 1:23; Eph 2:16; Eph 4:4–16; Col 1:18, Col 1:24) connected the community to the Risen Christ through the power of the Spirit. In these writings, early Christians claimed a continuity with Judaism, yet held an identity that became more distinct over time; they insisted their community was the dwelling place of YHWH because the Risen Christ lived among them through the power of the Spirit.
D. Means of Growth
God's Message and Acts of God's Power
How did the Church expand so rapidly? The answer lay in the message and the spiritual power of the missionaries.
1. Kerygma: God's message
The Greek word "kerygma" meant the proclamation of the message. It presented the Good News initially and encouraged conversion, unlike didache (Greek for "teaching" from where we received the word "didactic") which informed the newly baptized of their faith on a deeper level or "mystagogia," the period for newly baptized Christians to deepen their faith from the instruction of the clergy. It struck the hearer on a personal level, challenging him or her to believe the message. The New Testament mentioned it eight times, twice in the gospels (Mt 12:41, Lk 11:32) and six time in the letters of Paul (Rom 16:25, 1 Cor 1:21, 2:4, 15:14, 2 Tim 4:17 and Titus 1:3). However, the term reached far beyond its use in Scripture, for kerygma was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Kerygma demanded a response. God compelled the preacher to proclaim it (Titus 1:3). It disturbed the person and pointed to faith (Acts 2:37). It judged the listener, depending upon his or her response (Mt 12:41 and Lk 11:32). It revealed God's wisdom that the world considered foolishness (1 Cor 1:21). Without truth in its content, faith became useless (1 Cor 15:14) and implicitly led the believer to fatalism (1 Cor 15:32). Kerygma, the proclamation of Jesus' Passion, Death and Resurrection, disrupted the lives of those who heard it, for it was Spirit-driven.
2. Charisms: Acts of God's Power
Charism was a Greek term for "gift." Paul specifically defined it as a grace freely given by the Spirit to an individual for the benefit of the Christian community. Notice the charism differed from the natural talents a person might possess from birth; a charism came directly from God. The Greek "charisma" (literally "grace-thing") dovetailed with "charis," the word for grace that formed the basis of St. Paul's theology.
Originally, charis referred to the Greek custom of social reciprocity. At a feast, the host and his guests exchanged gifts. Clans created social, economic and political ties based upon give and take between them. City fathers bestowed gifts of money, food and religious festivals on their citizens in return for civic allegiance and the payment of taxes. Within the Roman Empire, the emperor insured an imposed peace that resulted in trade and prosperity for the inhabitants; in return he expected tribute. The Latin phrase "quid pro quo" summed up reciprocity, a social contract that the poet Seneca called "the chief bond of human society."
Paul shifted the meaning of charis from reciprocity to one of fellowship based upon love. Through Christ, God bestowed the gift of salvation upon humanity out of "agape," unconditional love. This notion of mutual respect and self giving upset the notion of relationships built upon gift and counter-gift, for it leveled class systems. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).
Not only did charis produce a radical equality, it manifest itself in behaviors Paul called "charisms." In an ancient culture that viewed reality awash in spirits, magicians and charlatans claiming extraordinary powers gained popularity. Christian charismatics differed from these wonder workers and foLk healers in two ways: 1) they were to express their charisms without cost and 2) they employed their gifts at the service of the community. Indeed, unlike individual pagans who declared some spiritual power, the Christian assembly itself was charismatic, a community of believers who exercised interacting gifts for the good of all members. For this reason, Paul considered the Church the Spirit-infused "Body of Christ." (1 Cor 12:12-27).
3. The Relationship between Kerygma and Charism.
The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 acted as the prototype for evangelization, threading kerygma and charism together and fusing them with their source, the Spirit.
As the scene opened, the author Luke painted a gathering of the faithful when the Spirit blew from heaven and inflamed them. With the charism of tongues, they proclaimed the "mighty deeds of God" in a way members of their audience could easily understand. In essence, this reversed the curse of God against those building the Tower of Babel (see Gen 1:1-9); instead of creating different languages to divide the nations, the Spirit gave the Church gift to proclaim the Good News in a way everyone could accept. This set the stage for Peter's kerygma.
The crowd who gathered had mixed reactions to Peter's words. Amazement and confusion let to derision by some (Acts 2:13) but opened the ears of others. In the end, his message pierced the hearts of many listeners (Acts 2:37). The power of the proclamation and the promise of the Spirit led many to receive baptism (Acts 2:41).
The intrusion of the Spirit into the life of the assembly (speaking in tongues) disrupted the lives of those in Jerusalem with the Good News. Thus, Acts 2 presented the prototype proclamation in the context of ecstatic utterance, only to heighten its divine source.
In First Corinthians (1 Cor 1:18, 1 Cor 1:21-24, 1 Cor 2:4-5), Paul addressed the relationship between his kerygma and spiritual signs in the context of wisdom vs. foolishness.
1:18 The word about the cross is foolishness to those perishing but to those being saved is the power of God.
21 Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through its wisdom, God was please to save believers through the foolishness of kerygma. 21 Jews require signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we present kerygma of Christ crucified, a scandal stone to the Jews and on the other hand, foolishness to the Gentiles. 24 But, to the called, Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power and wisdom of God.
1:21 "a scandal stone" Caravans would coral camels at night by surrounding the animals with large stones. The camels would not step over the stones, lest they would stumble over them. Thus, the Greek word "skandalos" or "stumbling stone" entered the English language as an action that gave rise to shock and dismay, a scandal.
2:4 My word and my kerygma were not persuasive in wisdom, but in a demonstration of Spirit and power, 5 so that your faith would not be based upon the wisdom of man, but on the power of God.
Notice Paul shifted kerygma squarely on the death and resurrection of Christ, while maintaining the shock value of the proclamation. Many considered his message foolishness. Yet, he saw the message as counter-cultural wisdom due to its source, which he boasted in terms of charisms ("demonstration of Spirit and power"). These few verses agreed with the Pentecost narrative; charism served kerygma.
E. Charisms: Tongues, Prophecy,
Healing and Prayer/Visions
1. Tongues and Prophecy
Like kerygma, charisms were controversial. They had a disruptive effect both within and without the community. Inside, the practice of tongues and prophecy became unruly during community gatherings, so Paul insisted upon decorum (1 Cor 14:26-33). For outsiders, such charisms could lead to either rejection or conversion (1 Cor 14:22-25).
Luke-Acts and the Pauline letters noted the office of prophet. The author we call Luke mentioned prophets (Acts 11:27, Acts 13:1, Acts 15:22, Acts 15:32) of both genders (female prophets: Anna in Lk 2:36-38 and the four daughters of Philip the evangelist in Acts 21:9). Paul listed the office of prophet as a leadership role, second only to that of the apostles (1 Cor 12:28). Christian prophets shared many functions of Hebrew prophets: predicting future events (Acts 11:28, 20:23, 25, 27:22), declaring divine judgment (Acts 13:11, Acts 28:25-28) and employing symbolic actions (Acts 21:11). Prophets spoke to edify, exhort and comfort the community (1 Cor 14:2-3); they were foundational to the evangelization effort (Eph 2:20). Above all, they spoke in the name of the Lord (Deu 18:22); Luke Timothy Johnson held their utterances acted as a source of oral tradition, the same as the narratives that had roots in Palestine.
Both pagans and Christians held the power of healing in high esteem. Healing shrines and individuals reputed to have restorative powers (known as "divine men") gained great popularity in the Greco-Roman world. Judaism had the prophetic tradition of Elijah and Elisha. The growing reputation of Jesus from Nazareth (both before and after his death) depended in part on his healing powers. Through the commission given by Jesus (Mk 16:15-18), the community itself claimed the charism of healing through its missionary leaders (the apostles in Acts 3:1–7; Acts 5:12–16, Philip in Acts 8:4–7, Peter in Acts 9:32–43 and Paul in Acts 14:6–10; Acts 16:18) and local elders (1 Cor 12:28–30; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5; James 5:13-17).
Of all the charisms, healing had the greatest impact, not only for it's power to amaze, but its metaphorical meanings. It revealed the presence of God in the world, validating the agency of the healer as a divine messenger. It showed the compassion of the healer and, by extension, the mercy of God. It transformed people, changing them from skeptics (like Saul) to disciples (Paul). It symbolized restoration of the sick, not only to full health, but to renewed place in the community; early Christians connected "healing" and "saving." It symbolized faith both in the healer and in God; it gave disciples, both ill and related to the ill, hope.
However, even healing could scandalize. Skeptics, both pagan and Christian, questioned the efficacy of the charism, even to making charges of fakery. Ancient polemicists charged Jesus as a master of dark magic and his followers of necromancy, invoking the spirit of the dead (especially a criminal) to accomplish evil.
Prayer and visions paralleled the other charisms, for good and ill. We could see communing with the divine as a conversation; humans, both individually and in community, spoke to God in prayer; God spoke to humans through visions. Ancient people, pagan and Jewish, had traditions of this conversation; Jesus and his followers continued in this vain. In Luke, the Nazarene was a person of prayer (Lk 3:21; Lk 5:16; Lk 6:12; Lk 9:18, Lk 9:28–29; Lk 11:1; Lk 22:41, Lk 22:44–45; Lk 23:46) and taught his disciples to do the same (the "Lord's Prayer" in Mt 6:9–13; Lk 11:2–4). The author of James (Jam 5:16-18) encouraged prayer as a means to connect with divine power. The New Testament, especially Acts (Acts 7:54–60, Acts 10:9–16) contained a plethora of vision accounts. Paul's vision on his way to Damascus (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8, Acts 9:1–9; Acts 22:4–16; Acts 26:9–18) stood as a pivotal point in the history of the early Church. And the most controversial book in the Christian canon, Revelation, was an extended vision given to John the Elder on the island of Patmos.
Yet, visionaries have claimed messages from God that contradict and even subvert the shared beliefs of the Church. Many inside and outside the community cast a skeptical eye upon the assertions of such people.
F. Life in the Community
1. Baptism: Entry into the community of divine power.
Access to the community and its experience of the Spirit came through baptism. The ritual of water immersion most likely grew out of the Jewish practice of the mikvah, a bathing after the contact with the unclean to prepare one's self for worship and fellowship. While the Jewish faithful simply bathed themselves without any prayer, neophytes to the Christian community were baptized by another, usually a church leader, in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38) or the Trinity (Mt 28:19). Like the baptism John the Baptist and his followers administered, Christian baptism was, in part, a sign of repentance which allowed the believer entry into Messianic community and a share of the Spirit. Through this ritual washing, the neophyte gained the spiritual power inherent in the Church.
For St. Paul, baptism was the ritual of complete initiation. The church at Corinth nearly tore itself apart with feuds between competing leaders claiming to have superior abilities; in the second century CE, many Christians ("Gnostics") would claim to possess superior knowledge. In either case, ambitions drove some to seek higher levels of initiation, marking them not only different from outsiders, but superior to insiders. Paul would have none of that. He insisted that baptism alone gave the believer full access to knowledge and power that flowed from the Spirit. While the community did require leadership, and while some Christians had different charisms, all believers shared in the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:4-6). (Later, theology for the initiation sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist developed, but this reasoning found its roots in baptism.)
2. Eucharist and other meals
Meals in ancient society cemented social bonds. Sharing a meal defined family and friends; excluding others demarcated outsiders and enemies. For the early Christian community, the ritual meal of Eucharist meant fellowship, not only between believers, but with the Risen Jesus.
In First Corinthians (1 Cor 5:6–8; 1 Cor 10:14–22; 1 Cor 11:17–34), St. Paul emphasized exclusivity in the Eucharist; outsiders and immoral people should not partake in the meal; he also insisted that believers who received Communion should not share in meat offered to idols or the meals of pagan religious festivals. He argued against internal divisions; the rich should not hold a prejudice against the poor. Finally, he also pointed to the past in the Passover of Jesus, while looking forward to the Second Coming" "for as often as you might eat this bread and you might drink (from) this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he should return" (1 Cor 11:26).
While Eucharist marked the pinnacle of life in the community, members also shared common meals. Both canonical writings (Acts 2:42, 46) and apocryphal texts (Acts of John 84, 108; Acts of Thomas 27, 50) mentioned such social gatherings. Scholars have debated the similarities and differences between meals of the Christian community and pagan meals in Greco-Roman society. Christians were surrounded by a general culture that honored its dead in ritualized gatherings; some aspects of those meals did resonate in the Church. However, believers did not come together to recall the spirit of the deceased; they felt called to gather by a leader they claimed who transcended death and, thus lived.
3. Worship in the community.
Early Christians marked their worship outside of any sense for sacred time or space. There was no evidence they celebrated special feast days or seasons besides the "Lord's Day" (1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10) and possibly Passover (1 Cor 5:7); the presence of Risen Lord permeated their worship, for they gathered together "in the name of Jesus." Before the fourth century CE, they gathered in house churches.
For the apostolic era, the ritual form of worship was hard to define. Certainly, early Christians borrowed the custom of reading and commenting on Scripture from the synagogue. Such rituals as the fellowship kiss, the washing of feet and sacred meals (the Lord's Supper) existed; the use of kinship language (calling each other "brother" and "sister") defined their relationships within the community. Spontaneous outbursts of charisms (tongues and prophecy) probably punctuated the proceedings, as these demonstrated the spiritual power the community claimed to possess. Worship in the early community, then, grew out of its Jewish roots, gathered in house churches and centered around two convictions: the Risen Jesus was omni-present and they were Spirit driven.
G. Changes the Church
faced in the Apostolic Era
Luke Timothy Johnson proposed five transformations the Church underwent, found in the book of Acts. They were:
Acts recounted the movement of Christianity from Judea in Palestine westward to Rome and beyond. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, this also marked a transition from the mother community in Jerusalem to the Diaspora in the Empire.
The gospels to Acts recounted the shift of location from rural Galilee to urban centered around the Mediterranean rim. The "Way" was no longer a country phenomena, but a city cult.
With the shift from Palestine to the Diaspora, the language of the Church changed from the Aramaic (or mixed Greek-Aramaic) speech of Palestine to the koine Greek found throughout the Empire.
With the move from Palestine to the Diaspora, the Church moved from a Jewish culture that had some Greek influences to fully Hellenistic surroundings.
From 30 CE to 70 CE, the Church grew from a Jewish-Christian movement to a majority Gentile institution.
The rapid expansion of Christianity in the apostolic era resulted in these diverse changes which were reflected in the different genres found in Christian literature and the diverse practices of the community listed above. These changes created tensions that found their way into the conflicts between the Paul and his Jewish-Christian opponents, between leaders like Paul and Simon Peter. The resulting shifts ultimately set up opposition from non-believing Jewish brethren on one side and prejudiced pagan neighbors on the other.
In the end, the Church expanded despite growth pains and external opposition. In part, it's success lie in its novelty. It was a community of spiritual power that claimed to gather around a man who transcended death. Its message disrupted social ties and norms; its strict monotheism stood against the tolerant polytheism of pagan culture. While comparable to other ancient cults, its practices created controversy; the charisms of speaking in tongues, prophetic outbursts, claims of healing and witness to visions garnered both praise and ridicule. While the community had ties to the venerable religion of Judaism, it rose so quickly in the apostolic era that it demanded to be judged on its own basis, a majority Gentile movement with a world view unlike any other.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine. Chantilly, Virginia: The Great Courses, 2002. Print.