CHURCH HISTORY: AD 100 thru AD 300

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.

We left off with that repeated question: What happened? Many students ask me this question, not just in reference to the history of Christendom, but in reference to our Judaic roots. We come from an incredibly Jewish story, following a Jewish rabbi and his Jewish talmidim. How did we become so separated from our Jewish foundation?

There are many in scholarship who weigh in on these opinions. From a historically respectable perspective, I have found two opinions to be most plausible (based on what we know), and one of those opinions I hold personally.

The first opinion is based on an understanding of a much more defined schism between the Jewish and Gentile Church (read: Paul and James). As we discussed before, I don’t miss the undeniable tension between the Church in Jerusalem and the Church of Asia, but I also hold to the record given to us in the book of Acts and believe the Apostolic leaders were able to come to an agreement and mutual understanding (binding and loosing, if you will, as described in the records of Acts 15 and elsewhere). This option believes that this Christian movement, which began in Jewish rank and order, was much more bent on the proclamation of their subversive “gospel” and this created unwanted (especially in Asia) political tension. The Jewish Exception outlawed (in part) aggressive proselytization, and this new Jesus movement was challenging that status quo and upsetting the empire. This theory proposes the Jewish religion jettisons its Jesus following believers, who are mostly Gentile in nature. 

There are certainly pieces in history to support this theory, but I don’t think this is what we actually see happening, especially in light of recent scholarship. The late David Flusser suggested decades ago that early Christianity was predominantly a Jewish movement that didn’t see such internal tensions until much later. One of the largest criticisms of his theory was the lack of evidence for Jews and Gentiles worshipping together. In the last twenty years, as archaeological efforts have increased in modern Turkey (biblical Asia and Asia Minor), we are finding more and more evidence to suggest Flusser was correct.

So instead, I cling to the theory that the schism happened later, just after the turn of the century. When Trajan and later Hadrian were emperors, they led some of the most aggressive (although maybe not the most brutal) persecutions of the Jews. Historians have long wondered why the target of these persecutions seemed to have such a Jewish focus. The Jews weren’t the largest imperial threat to Roman power — it would seem the Christians were. Many have suggested (rightly so, in my opinion) that the Christians were in fact so Jewish that they were seen as an indistinguishable part of Judaism.

From what little pieces of history we have, and though most of Judaism originally stood behind their Gentile converts and theosabes (except in those rare “Synagogue of Satan” places), these same Gentiles seemed to turn their backs on their Jewish brothers and sisters when Rome came looking to extinguish Judaism. Choosing to fall back on their uncircumcised roots, they left their Jewish counterparts out to dry and created a schism that we never healed. Following the Hadrianic persecution and the Bar Kochba revolt, this helps explain why the writings of the early church are so anti-semitic in their teachings (just one or two generations removed from the apostles).

But this schism will have more than relational implications. Now that the Jews are gone, this Jesus-following body has lost their connection to the Text. They no longer have walking libraries of Torah and Jewish narrative to teach and lead them. The moment this anchor was pulled up, Gentiles were left to lean on the only thing they knew intimately. Unfortunately, the worldview that dominated the Hellenistic culture was Gnosticism (you may want to review our discussion on Colossians).

This conflicting worldview led to all kinds of corrupted teachings and beliefs (even if we assume the presence of New Testament writings and the Didache, the early church’s manual for passing on the Apostle’s teaching to new converts). Almost immediately, there were arguments for the rejections of different writings. A man by the name of Marcion was arguing for the rejection of the Tanakh and most of the gospels, with a full acceptance of the letters from Paul, much of the gospel of Luke, and some other letters. If that sounds familiar, it’s because much of evangelical Christianity continues to approach the New Testament in the same way. Marcion was eventually declared a heretic and his arguments rejected, but he had brought up the need for this Gentile movement to declare which teachings would be authoritative, and the movement went forward.

From this we received the Muratorian Canon, which is what our New Testament is based on. This canon had only 22 of the 27 letters in it, and the larger conversation surrounding it would later lead to the reordering of the Hebrew Scriptures for Christians (with an undeniable anti-semitic bent).

This unfortunate new world probably would have brought other issues to the table had the Gentile Christian movement not been at odds with the empire of Rome. As they continued to deal with the persecution that came and left and came and left, they were forced to bind together and cling to the essentials for the survival of their faith. It is a dark shame that we weren’t able to do this with the company and leadership provided by our Jewish brothers and sisters. We will be left to wonder what could have been. Would the “Age to Come” have arrived and Jesus’s return been realized, just as the writers of the New Testament were claiming? Maybe so.

For now, they run for their lives. They stand and they die. But it’s all about to change.

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