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Christianity’s big bang

14 January 2022

Within 70 years of the ministry of Jesus, the movement had taken a very different shape, says James R. Edwards


A 19th-century chromolithograph of the Sea of Galilee, showing the city of Tiberias in the foreground. From Sinai and Jerusalem: Scenes from Bible Lands by F. W. Holland (SPCK, 1870)

A 19th-century chromolithograph of the Sea of Galilee, showing the city of Tiberias in the foreground. From Sinai and Jerusalem: Scenes from Bible Lan...

IF WE were asked to list the basic characteristics of Jesus’s ministry in the four Gospels, we might come up with the following:

It is an itinerant ministry. It is a rural movement. It is located in Palestine, mostly on the north-west quadrant of the Sea of Galilee. It is an ethnically Jewish movement. Its inner circle consists of twelve men accompanied by many other men and women. Its participants speak Aramaic in public but Hebrew when reading and discussing scripture. Its participants worship in synagogues on the sabbath. Its leader and his followers celebrate Passover. Its sacred texts are those of the synagogue, and they are written on scrolls. It is a movement with no official name.

Now, suppose we were asked to come up with a second profile, this time of the Church as it was at the time of Ignatius of Antioch (the end of the first century). We are, of course, much less familiar with Ignatius than we are with the Gospels. Nevertheless, we can read through all seven of his letters in less time than it takes to read through Mark, the shortest of the Gospels.

From Ignatius’s letters, we might make the following deductions about the Church in that time:

It is primarily urban. It exists mostly outside of Palestine, in the Roman world. Its life is centred no longer around synagogues but churches. Its members are predominantly Gentile. Its primary language is Greek. Its members worship by celebrating the eucharist, and they do this on Sunday. It is superintended by bishops. Its sacred scripture is no longer limited to the Jewish Pentateuch, Writings, and Prophets; it now also includes specifically Christian writings. Its scriptures are written in codex, or book, form. Its members are called Christians.

These are the two profiles: the first, of Jesus’s ministry circa the year 30; the second, of the Church in Ignatius’s day, circa 100. We often fail to see the significance of things with which we have long been familiar. This phenomenon of familiarity may affect our judgement of the two profiles. We affirm that both are fair representations, and we regard both as equally “Christian”. Otherwise, we may find neither surprising.

Therein lies the beclouding potential of familiarity, of “seeing but not seeing” (Isaiah 6.9): for not one item in the second profile is the same as in the first. Within 75 years of the death of Jesus, the movement he founded conformed to virtually none of the forms of his ministry.


A RURAL movement became acculturated to an urban environment; a Jewish movement became primarily Gentile; a movement that spoke exclusively Aramaic and Hebrew transformed into one that wrote, preached, and evangelised in Greek; a movement born and bred in Palestine evolved into a thoroughly cosmopolitan, Graeco-Roman movement that spread along the highly influential Jerusalem-Rome corridor.

The seed of a movement planted in synagogues flowered in churches — churches that met no longer on sabbath but on Sunday; that celebrated eucharist rather than Passover; whose canon was no longer limited to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings of the Old Testament, but was expanded to include Christian writings that were produced and disseminated no longer on scrolls but in codices.

“Jesus went throughout the villages teaching” (Mark 6.6). So the Gospel of Mark summarises the itinerant ministry of Jesus. His circuit-riding fame spread beyond Galilee to Syria in the north, Transjordan in the east, and Idumea in the south; but his ministry proper remained almost completely confined to Galilee. To a rather small part of Galilee, in fact.

If you picture the Sea of Galilee as the face of a watch, nearly every episode in Jesus’s Galilean ministry takes place between ten o’clock and one o’clock, and almost all near the shore of the sea. Only isolated episodes take place at three o’clock, on the eastern side of the sea, in the Decapolis — the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, for instance, and the feeding of the four thousand.

Most surprisingly, not a single episode in the Gospels takes place between six o’clock and nine o’clock. Tiberias, the capital of Galilee and the largest city in Palestine outside Jerusalem, was positioned on the western shore of the sea, at nine o’clock sharp, visible from virtually any place on the sea, and only ten miles south of Capernaum, the home base of Jesus’s ministry. There is, however, no record of Jesus or his disciples ever going there.

In startling contrast to their rural routine with Jesus in Galilee, his apostles, disciples, and family relocated to Jerusalem after his ascension. Jerusalem had been ground zero of opposition to Jesus, with both temple leaders and Roman authorities colluding to crucify him. Despite hostility in Jerusalem and the ipsissima verba of Jesus to return to Galilee, the Twelve appear in Jerusalem — with the very temple as their operational base — at the beginning of the book of Acts.

This wholly unexpected event, for which no explanation is offered in the New Testament, illustrates the point of this chapter. In Martin Hengel’s words: “There are hardly any parallels in the sociology of religion to the astonishing fact that in the briefest period of time the Galilean Jesus movement, which to begin with was a purely rural phenomenon, became a predominantly urban community in Jerusalem.”

Briefest period of time, indeed. The Twelve are anchored in the temple at Pentecost, 40 days after Jesus’s crucifixion.


THE transition from rural to urban, the “crossing of the most fundamental division of the society of the Roman Empire”, in the words of Wayne Meeks, was a momentous step for early Christianity, because the qualities that made the Graeco-Roman city effective for mediating the dominant values of Hellenism also made it effective for mediating Christianity.

The typical Graeco-Roman polis was ruled by a legislative council consisting of as many as several hundred free men. It had stadiums for athletic and chariot races; theatres for dramatic performances, blood sports, and political gatherings; and gymnasia and baths for physical training, bathing, and displaying personal influence.

All these monumental edifices were enclosed within city walls and serviced by aqueducts. Aqueducts alone changed the nature of a city, for they eliminated the massive expenditure of physical labour and resources required to haul water into a city from the outside.

The availability of clean water made possible public baths and the commerce and human interchange that attended them, raised standards of living and general health, and produced a leisured class of citizens.

The focal point of the polis was the agora, the exhibition area at the city centre that was surrounded by columns, to which city gates opened and arterial roads led, and over which architectural monuments presided. Regardless of how many people lived in a given polis, each polis functioned as a purveyor of Graeco-Roman culture.

Similar to “Hollywood” today, which signifies not only a suburb of Los Angeles but also a worldwide purveyor of American film, the polis was not only a place, but also a means of transmitting the influence of Rome to the world it dominated. The polis inculcated a more universal perception of humanity than any previous social structure. A human being was no longer a member of a small city-state, wherein non-members were considered aliens and barbarians, but a member of a universal empire that superseded tribal divisions and embraced all peoples.

When Christianity made its way into the polis, it made its way into the dominant social influencer of the ancient world. The magnetism of the polis in attracting and shaping peoples is evident in the 16th chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, in which he names more than 30 individuals, many of whom he knew from previous mission locales, who, in the intervening years, had migrated to Rome.

The long and harrowing mission of the apostle Paul reaches its climax in Acts 28.14: “And so we came to Rome.” Rome seems an obvious goal to Western readers, for whom Rome’s influence has been so formative. There were many reasons, however, why Rome would not have been the obvious terminus of the Christian mission in the first century.

Judaism set the precedent for early Christianity in many respects, and, when Jews were driven from Palestine, they went south to Egypt or east to Babylon, but not to Rome. With the annexation of Palestine to the Roman Empire under Pompey in the first century BC, Jews began turning to Rome, but usually for redress of grievances or financial errands related to Rome’s hegemony in the Mediterranean.

These detours did not change the enduring cultural alliance of Palestine with Egypt and Babylon, which had withstood the dissolution of Alexander the Great’s empire into the petty kingdoms of the Antigonids (Macedonia, Attica), Seleucids (Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia), and Ptolemies (Cyprus, Egypt, Cyrene). Historically, Palestinian Jews were influenced by — in order of significance — the Seleucids, the Ptolemies, and the Antigonids. Rome rarely figured into the equation.

This is an edited extract from From Christ to Christianity: How the Jesus movement became the Church in less than a century by James R. Edwards, published by Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, at £20.99 (Church Times Bookshop £18.89); 978-1-54096-140-2. Used by permission.

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