We are now about to come full circle. I began this series of posts by looking at Couchoud’s account of Gospel origins. That led to his arguments for the origins of the remainder of the New Testament literature, with particular attention to the possible role of Clement of Rome. I then said, What the heck, and decided to go through the rest of his book, too, even if it meant going back to the beginning, with the place of John the Baptist at Christianity’s foundations, early divisions within the church, Paul’s letters and his opposition to the Christianity represented by the Book of Revelation. Next, Couchoud prepares for his discussion of the creation of our New Testament Gospels. And that is where I begin this post. He first surveys the “state of Christianity” in the Empire in the decades following the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem — in particular, what various “Christianities” looked like in various quarters of the Roman empire: Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome.
The passing of the prophets
Couchoud attributes the rapid growth of earliest Christianity to the zeal of its prophets. As the churches grew the prophets multiplied exponentially. But “prophecy does not tolerate mediocrity.”
Paul and John were the torch-bearers of the procession, and after them came a great multitude of minor prophets, who left nothing capable of survival. Their finest inspirations would have been utterly lost if it had not been for the flowering of the gospels. (p. 109)
The strengths of the prophets were also their undoing:
The prophetic gift is a principle of anarchy. Each prophet is divinely inspired, therefore of the highest authority. Where their divine inspirations disagreed, there was a dispute, and there could develop no common accord. What had brought about the end of the Jewish prophets of six centuries before now brought an end to the Christian prophets. The Lord was late in coming; the ekklesia which anxiously awaited the Advent became over-numerous and their adherents difficult to manage. Re-organization of bankruptcy became the word of the day. (p. 109)
So by the year 170 the church had reorganized itself and was in no danger of being undone when Montanus and his two prophetesses arose to disturb the ecclesiastical peace in Asia Minor. By then the church had a powerful weapon to defend itself against such spirit-inspired anarchy: a Book, or Books, of the Life and Teachings of the Lord Jesus. But what was happening to the churches before these gospels appeared?
The most obscure period in the history of Christianity
The half century from 70 to 120 “is the most obscure period in the history of Christianity”. Couchoud, following Joseph Turmel, aka Henri Delafosse (machine English translation here), dates the letters of Clement and Ignatius to around 150 c.e. That leaves “scarcely a document of any importance” through these 50 years.
So the generation following those who knew Paul and John leave not a trace. Curtain falls. Long intermission.
Act 2: Pliny the Younger, Jerusalem is a memory
When the curtain rises once more, we are in the year 111, and the scene is in Bithynia and Pontus, the province of Pliny the Younger, who expresses his astonishment at finding the country infested with people who ought to be condemned to death. Not for many years has the centre of Christianity been in Jerusalem. That city is slowly recovering from its destruction by Titus. The Church has four provinces — Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus. (p. 110)
Asia Minor / Ephesus
This region where both Paul and John had preached was where the most Christians were to be found. Macedonia and Greece were its adjuncts.
Elders in the city of Ephesus repeat and share their reminiscences of John and turn many of these into legends.
In Ephesus Christ-followers competed with disciples of John the Baptist. Jews and Samaritans lived side by side. An anonymous successor to John, and one with deeper spiritual sensibilities and thoughts, was to emerge from Ephesus. Northern Asia Minor, in the Pontus region, a successor to Paul was soon to emerge in the person of Marcion.
Syria / Antioch
Antioch, a town of Greek culture, was on the borders of the Aramean country which lay about Berea (Aleppo), Hierapolis, Nisibe, Edessa, and the frontiers disputed between Roman and Parthian. It was particularly in this Aramean part of bilingual Syria, widely peopled by Jews from ancient date, rather than in the Grecian part, that Christianity took a strong hold. (p. 110-111)
Here Christianity took the appearance of a reformed Judaism. The spirit of James thrived.
The Bible was translated into Aramaic and illustrated with reasonable commentaries and incredible tales.
Syrian Christianity, while not ascetic, was austere, heavily mystical and “emphasizing the moral and practical side of the faith.”
Its literature abounded with striking phrases revitalizing traditional wisdom. Strange, lyrical poetry was produced in the epistle attributed to James and in the poems attributed to Odes of Solomon.
Egypt / Alexandria
Another major centre for Christianity: part Greek, part Jewish, some worshiping Yahweh, others devoted to the Mysteries of Isis.
It was here that Philo let loose a “flood of allegorical and theosophical speculations”. There was also “the charlatanism of an over-subtle people of market-bargainers.”
Roman emperor Hadrian wrote of Alexandria while he was there:
Here the worshippers of Serapis are Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are devotees of Serapis. Here there is not a Jew archisynagogue, nor a Samaritan, nor a Christian presbyter who does not claim to be an astrologer, a haruspex, or a schoolmaster. When the patriarch [Jew] himself comes to Egypt, some of them make him worship Serapis, others Christ. . . . They have but one God, Money. This is He whom all Christians, all Jews, and the whole world reveres.
This was the centre of that form of Christianity we call Gnostic. Gnostic Christianity competed against other forms of gnosticism.
Alexandria produced the Epistle of Barnabas, and epistle “in which the allegorical exegesis of the Bible borders on delirium”.
The gnostic speculations of Basilides and Valentinus were also born here.
Here Christianity ran the greatest risks because this religion was banned in Rome. The support of a few consular families was not sufficient to protect the main body of Christians here. Hiding their true colours was often deemed a necessity. Jews here had a legal status that was not shared with the Christians. Nonetheless the Christians here did share something of the Jewish outlook we found in Syria. And like the Syrian churches these believers abstained from meat that had not been ritually bled, and this habit separated them from the fellowship of the other Romans.
(The same custom of abstaining from meat was found in the churches at Vienne and Lyons (which were affiliated with the churches of Asia Minor and Phrygia, as well as to the church in Africa, also affiliated with Rome.)
Rivalries and divisions
Practices and beliefs varied and at times internal disputes tore Christians apart. Clement strongly indicates it was internal rivalries that resulted in the martyrdoms of Paul and Peter — “thus reconciling them in common apotheosis.”
The main body of the church in Rome was made up of Judaizing foreigners, i.e., Greeks and Greek-speaking “Orientals”.
They loved to listen to the former slave, the Arcadian Hermas, babbling some of the visions which appeared to him on his way to his country house. (p. 112)
So much for the Greek-speaking Christians in Rome. The Latin-speaking Romans themselves, and their African colleagues, kept apart from the Greek speakers. Like their nonChristian brethren in this city, they showed a different spirit, more realistic and administrative:
Their importance grew, however, till they took charge of affairs in 189. The Hebrews and converted Grecians [i.e. Jews speaking Greek], ardent students of the Bible, formed a little elite, proud of their high culture. Wearied by persecutions and by doctrinal uncertainty, were they not often tempted to return to Judaism? To them the Epistle to the Hebrews was addressed under a light veil of fiction. From all parts of the Roman world, Christians came to the Eternal City, bringing with them the doctrines and rites peculiar to the church of the district whence they came. Some, such as the Asiatics, formed special communities.
It was on this church in Rome was imposed the burden of arbitrating among these disputes and differences. It was Rome’s destiny to seek to bring about uniformity.
The rise of the bishops
So the picture is one where there is no central authority in any one church. Elders continued to administer each assembly.
The Corinthians broke this custom when they dismissed several bishops and elected a single bishop as their head. Clement was to write a letter faulting them for this action. Or at least he was the scribe who wrote on behalf of the Roman church.
But it would not be long before Rome itself followed the Corinthian model. In 154 Anicet introduced the single ruling bishop into Rome. This office was cemented in 189 by the African Victor. (A few of the names before Anicet have been traditionally preserved, but the succession list drawn up by Hegesippus is quite imaginary.)
The churches around the empire exchanged letters to share the latest revelation or a liturgical prayer or some other document purporting to be of ancient authorship.
What held them together was the common expectation of the Advent of Jesus and their common threat of persecution. Christian societies were forbidden to meet and if any were denounced as a Christian there would usually be little hope of survival. Emperors Trajan and Hadrian eventually put an end to the laying of false information and lynching.
Such is Couchoud’s picture of the state of the churches. Some may find it an outdated and simplistic scenario, somewhat stereotypical. Or maybe there is much in it that is still valid. In the next post on this series I come to more detail of Couchoud’s portrayal of how the various churches met the challenge of the demise of the prophets.
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