Earliest Christianity Did Not Look Like a Religion

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by Neil Godfrey

I have long been intrigued by the second century “church father” Justin Martyr identifying himself as a philosopher, not a “priest” or elder or bishop or other ecclesiastical type of title. He left it on record that he came to Christianity after surveying a range of other philosophies, not religions.

Time-warp forward to 2001 and the chapter titled “Does Pauline Christianity Resemble a Hellenistic Philosophy?” by Stanley K. Stowers in Paul Beyond the Judaism/Hellenism Divide (edited by Troels Engberg-Pedersen) and we find a rather solid explanation for Justin’s identification, I think.

Stop thinking of the “Jewish Synagogue” as the model for Paul’s churches

One of the first points Stowers sets down is that

We must remember that first-century Jews were Judeans. Interpreters should not, in principle, segregate Judeans from Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and so on by creating something suspiciously like a modern religion called Judaism. Even Jews who lived permanently in Rome or Alexandria were Judeans living outside of their traditional homeland and therefore similar to Syrians, Greeks, or Egyptians who lived abroad. (p. 83)

(Steven Mason makes the same point with his preference for the word Judeans in place of Jews in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74.)

What Stowers is trying to get through to us is that we need to jettison any notion that when Jews were meeting in synagogues they were in some sense being astonishingly different from anyone else, and it therefore follows that scholars should be very careful before suggesting that Paul’s churches (and gentile Christianity itself) grew out of the synagogue.

A synagogue is a meeting place or meeting practices of Judeans. In our language Judeans were an ethnic people. Unfortunately the idea of “the synagogue” as a Jewish church still haunts much scholarship. (p. 83)

Judean worship was similar to the worship of other gods

Stowers argues that before 70 C.E. Jewish worship, even in the Diaspora, was centrally focussed on the temple in Jerusalem. The great temple festivals, tabernacles, pentecost, passover, were celebrated by Judeans throughout the empire. These were agricultural festivals that celebrated the gifts of produce and livestock that God gave his people, of success in trading and in acquiring the blessings of children.

Temple time with its agriculturally oriented calendar shaped the calendar of the Jews (sic) in general. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals and sacrifices was a major feature of the period. Many Judeans of the Diaspora directly participated in the temple cultus sometime during their lives. The temple tax that supported the daily sacrifices in the temple and the first fruit offerings that signified the ancient pattern of reciprocity and divine giving of productivity were among the major yearly efforts of Diaspora communities. (p. 84)

What of the place of the scriptures? It is generally agreed that the reading of scriptures was a very important for the religious life of Judeans. For Stowers,

The Torah, Prophets, and Psalms are . . . absolutely dominated by the centrality of the temple, priesthood and cult. The epics and myths of Judeans were about land, people, and socio-economic reciprocity with God and other Judeans. . . For Judeans, unlike for Christians, to study scripture was to be oriented toward an actual temple, a place where reciprocity with the divine was enacted in the imagined exchange of produce from the land and shop, womb and market. (p. 85)

Judean religion was focused on the idea of reciprocal exchange with God. God blessed his people; his people offered sacrifices and gifts and communal worship in return. And the temple was the focus of this exchange. Stowers writes that the religion of a Judean living 500 miles from Jerusalem differed little in principle from the one living 20 miles away.

Other cultural groups, those from places other than Judea, throughout the empire, recognized these Judean religious customs as counterparts to their own.

The dominant activities of the temple were sacrificial offerings of grain and animal products. Judeans shared these practices with Greeks, Romans, and most peoples of the Mediterranean world. Josephus proudly proclaims that Judeans share the practices of sacrificing domestic animals with “all the rest of humanity” (Ag. Ap., 2.137). (p. 85, my bolding)

Pauline Christianity did not look like a typical religion

— Paul has no altar to Hephaestus in his shop

— and he does not belong to an association of leather workers with a calendar of sacrificial feasts.

— He does not tell myths about how God or the gods gave human crafts, land, and agricultural skills so that they could possess the goods of human life.

— Nor does he instruct members of his churches to collect first fruits and tithes for the temple in Jerusalem.

— He tells those who have business dealings to act as if they were of no importance (1 Cor 7:30-31).

— He does not see his work as a source of goods for supporting a valued way of life organized as a household, but as an instrument to aid his work in teaching others the Christ myth (1 Cor 9:1-27; 4:11-13; 1 Thess 2:9).” (p. 87, my formatting)

Early Christian groups did not look anything like the above religious communities. They lacked

  • temples
  • ties to land
  • animal and other types of sacrifice
  • agricultural festivals or festivals for other types of productivity

They also lacked rituals and other practices related to intergenerational continuity, not having

  • rituals for birth and death
  • sacrificial practices related to purification from birth and death pollution
  • sacred spaces, i.e. altars, so that purity and pollution became moral metaphors
  • nothing like circumcision
  • no marriage rituals or sacrifices (Paul did not even encourage marriage!)

All that is missing here constituted the heart of ancient religion. (p. 87, my bolding)

Such practices contributed towards ethnic identification. Earliest Christianity did not emulate contemporary religious praxis. Paul’s Christians organized themselves differently.

So did the followers of Hellenistic philosophies.

I’ll address the points in common between philosophical schools and Pauline Christianity in the next post.


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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Earliest Christianity Did Not Look Like a Religion”

  1. Even baptism – was it a one time event or a repeated ritual? Was it performed uniformly or did it vary as it does today? And how exactly did Christian ritual cannibalism go?

  2. Hi. I wonder why people would have joined if we rule out reciprocal exchange with gods through sacrifices, no marriage, birth, death rituals, no ethnic solidarity (as with Judeans in synagogues) what was the attraction? What was in it for them? What was so attractive that people did indeed join up in considerable numbers.

  3. Individual rituals have no intrinsic purpose. You could stop performing any individual ritual and nothing would change in your life aside from having more free time. Rituals are performed to normalize events and activities and to create an illusion of spirituality. Something like death is very disruptive to peoples’ lives, but it is inherently normal.

    What normalization does is gives people something to do that they are “supposed to” do to mask uncertainty and anxiety about a situation (much in how people try to cope with Trump by normalizing his behavior), but it doesn’t really address how anyone should cope, which is a question of psychology. Thus religious (not spiritual) people have more general anxiety and uncertainty about death as a great hole to be filled with whatever the religion purveys, regardless of whether it has anything to do with death.

    The distinction between spirituality and religion is praxis with purpose. Proper spirituality is coping; it has an effect both when you start and stop doing it, and the most important thing about it is that you can get better over time. With religion, a ritual is either “on” or “off” and whether it is or not has only superficial, temporary effects.

  4. The unique thing about Christianity is that it is non-ethnic. At the time the Roman Empire spanned the known world. People of many ethnicities lived together and travelled around. You don’t need to know the particular pantheon of Gods, history, or tradition of the various ethnicities, you can literally “know nothing”, and then ironically become a teacher. Underlying Christianity is a very simple snake oil scam. You too can become a snake oil salesman and make a living at it. It’s a great opportunity, like Amway, Primerica, Mary Kay, whatever.

    1. They aren’t selling eternal life, that’s just the cover story. The snake oil scam convinces you that you are broken and need of salvation, lots of people already believe that, making it very easy.

  5. I honestly have to say that “philosophy” is a marvelous excuse for the success of Christianity, but even from Paul himself you can see he’s selling snake oil and that’s what the real business of Christianity actually is. First you accept that you are broken and accept salvation, then you become one of the many apologists we have to endure constantly and badly arguing that Christianity is actually a philosophy and not a religion. Since I left the church there is no end to new books repeating the same claptrap.

    1. Hmm, considering Paul’s way of making a living. What to make of the instances where he mentions the need to raise money to help the poor in Jerusalem? Is it to be seen as another way of talking the dupes out of their money and was he just pocketing extras or was there really an international thing going on? Was he still connected to the headquarters of a wider ring of snake oil sellers and owing them a yearly tribute of loot as loyal underling of a “capo di tutti capi”? Cephas? Another translation of this curious nickname is pressing forward then.

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