Links: The First Two Centuries

Moderately Interactive Map of the Roman Empire — This is a fairly sweet resource — you can click through and see the size of the Empire at various times.  The point of the map is to compare the Celts and the Romans — use whatever is of interest to you.

Cicero on Crucifixion — Concerning ancient Roman attitudes toward crucifixion, you can find quotations from the ancient world by Googling “Cicero on crucifixion,” but this link is to part of the fuller speech of the Roman orator Cicero.  The center of this reading is a paragraph that reveals Cicero’s horror at crucifixion and its shamefulness.

Introduction to the Septuagint — This is a fairly basic introduction to the Septuagint (that is, the early Greek translation of the Old Testament that early Christians used).  If you’re interested in some similar content from a slightly more scholarly perspective, you should consult this link.

The “Mystery Cults” in the Greco-Roman World — This site discusses the “mystery cults” as part of a generally interesting discussion of non-monotheistic religions in the ancient Roman empire.

Images of Ancient Feasts — There are lots of resources out there about “feasts” and dining in ancient Rome, but very few combine solid text, accessibility for the amateur, and some images. This one is pretty good, with both actual images and digital reconstructions, and it lets you learn more about what typical Romans feasts looked like.  Christians as well as non-Christians would have partaken in these feasts, if they had the means to do so.

Gladiatorial Combats — This is a very nice source with lots of follow-able links on many matters concerning gladiatorial combats.

The Cult of Asclepius — The healing cult of Asclepius was widespread in the ancient world, and there are many parallels to the early Christians’ view of Jesus as healer.  This link includes ancient testimonies to that cult.  You might browse the various quotations here, as they will help you get a sense of what that cult entailed.

The Destruction of Jerusalem — This site provides an account about the destruction of Jerusalem, from a Jewish eyewitness named Josephus.  This text is, in fact, the only eyewitness account to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. And, incidentally, while Josephus was Jewish, he had surrendered to the Romans, which was how he survived the destruction.  NB: the text is rather long and is in an old-fashioned translation.  If you want, you can peruse the section headings to see what you might be interested in, rather than reading through the whole thing.

Ignatius of Antioch — Here’s a nice Wikipedia page on Ignatius, one of the most important bishops of  this time period, in terms of his textual legacy.  If you follow the links under “Letters,” you can find online versions of a number of his letters.

More Correspondence between Pliny and Trajan — This is a very important early correspondence depicting “official” Roman policy concerning Christians — at least in one region of the empire.  The earlier letters give you the sense of the two men’s working relationship; the last portion concerns Christians.  Notice how Trajan says that anonymous “lists” of purported Christians are not to be admitted — it seems that he thinks the Romans too “enlightened” to accept such under-handed tactics.

The Catacombs in Rome: This is the Vatican site on the catacombs.  There’s some nice information here, along with some good images.  It’s not exhaustive, but it provides a good introduction.

Gnosticism — It can be difficult to find a dispassionate presentation of the Gnostics, but this link does a good job.  For a much more extensive discussion of the phenomenon, check out this link.

The Epistle to Diognetus — This text is a second-century letter that nicely illustrates early Christian attitudes toward the world around them.  Notice especially chapters 5-6 of the Epistle, where the author clearly articulates the distinction between Christians and everyone else.  The reason I give you this text is that it helps illustrate the mindset that could be questioned in times of grave sin, as discussed in chapter 7.  Are Christians really that separate from the world?  We need strong leaders to guide us when we fall.

Greco-Roman Thought and Philosophy — Trying to find a good but brief introduction to Greek philosophy is challenging, and this site is the best thing I’ve been able to find these days.  It’s pretty readable, and it does have a view toward the emergence of Christianity.  This link is also helpful, especially on the philosophical side.

Justin Martyr and Early Christian Worship — People often cite Justin Martyr as the first description of early Christian worship.  This is the fuller text, which is an excerpt from Justin’s “1st Apology.”

Thumbnail image credit (Fra Angelico’s painting of St. Peter preaching): Wikimedia Commons

Suggested next click: the next set of links (the patristic period)

Justin Martyr, First Apology: Part 2

In the first post about Justin’s First Apology, I wrote some about the text overall and also about some of the themes that are prominent in the text.  Here, in this second and last post (before turning to the Dialogue with Trypho), I want to think about what Justin said that he was intending to do in the work.  In chapter 23, after his introduction, he says that he wants to make three arguments: 1) that Christian teachings are true of their own accord, not just because of similarities with those of Greco-Roman philosophers (chs. 24-29); 2) that Jesus alone is God’s Son, is the “Logos” (or “Word”), became incarnate as human, and as a human was the great teacher of the Christians (chs. 30-53); and 3) whenever there are parallels to Christian teaching in Greco-Roman poets or philosophers, it is because the “demons” learned of God’s plans and implanted them in the minds of pagans to stand as a later witness against the Christians (chs. 54-68).

Christian Teaching as True

This section is short and relatively straightforward.  He began the text by noting the prevalence of Christians receiving punishment, not because they were criminals but apparently just because they were Christians.  Here he extends that idea, noting that Christians are punished for things like not worshiping the Roman gods — even when others do the same thing and don’t receive the same consequences.  As Justin says it, we Christians believe in the true God and don’t do bad things.  Nonetheless, we receive punishment.  He closes this section by talking some about the phenomenon of exposing infants, and how Christians don’t do it, not only so as to avoid the obvious sin of murder, but also to avoid more indirect kinds of sexual immorality (since so many exposed infants were taken and sold into prostitution or slavery).  Even though Christians avoid something that is obviously bad for Roman society, still they are punished.

Jesus’s Divinity and Incarnation

This section is quite interesting to me because it contains LOTS of prophetic anticipations of Jesus.  Some are the ones were are familiar with from the New Testament, but some aren’t.  If you’ve ever wondered what texts early Christians used to understand Jesus (think of the Emmaus story, where Jesus explains “what was said in all the Scriptures” concerning him), then you should check this part out.  Other noteworthy sections:

  • In section 36, he has some very interesting thoughts about the inspiration of Scripture.  Where elsewhere he talks about the “Prophetic Spirit” inspiring the prophets, here it is “the Word of God who prompts them.”  His emphasis on the Word speaking in different divine characters reminds me of Matthew W. Bates’s new book, in which he argues that the divine characters’ speaking “in character” helped lead to early Christian ideas about three distinct persons in the Trinity.
  • Section 37 (and sec. 63, incidentally) contains a reading of Isaiah 1:3-4 which he uses to argue that the Jewish people didn’t understand God’s work in Christ.  However, this passage in Isaiah also talks about an ox and a donkey who know their “master,” which is actually the source of the common Christmas iconography of the “ox and ass” who attend Jesus’ birth.
  • The editor of my translation says that Justin often indulges in various digressions.  That’s true!  Some are really important, though, as in section 43, where he takes up a (possible) complaint: if God really foreordained everything about Jesus, does that mean that everything is predetermined?  Justin gives an emphatic “No!”  God made us with free will, and he calls us all to repent and turn to him.  As he says in section 52: because we believe in the past fulfillment of some prophecies, we should believe in the future fulfillment of others!  So repent!
  • Finally, in section 46, Justin says that many ancient people, including non-Jewish philosophers, could be considered “Christians” because they lived “by reason.”  In Greek, this phrase is meta logou, which could potentially be translated “with the Word.”  (See also sections 59-60, where Justin argues that Plato got some of his material from Moses.)  This idea was not unique to early Christian writers, as can be seen best in Clement of Alexandria from just a few decades later.

Demons, Poets, and Philosophers

In this last section, Justin notes a common objection to Christianity: that the stories of Jesus are not unique because other ancient gods or heroic figures seem to have done the same things: Bacchus was considered a “son of God,” Bellerophon was seen seated on a foal (Gen. 49:10-11), that Hercules was considered super-strong, and that Persephone (a child of Zeus) was resurrected from Hades.  But, as Justin notes, no god was ever crucified, which does suggest that Jesus’s story is unique.  While there are certainly reasons to question Justin’s logic here — really? the demons were behind Greek and Roman mythology? — it is interesting that he also says that the demons are causing hatred of Christians (sec. 57) and that they incited the Jews of Jesus’s day against Jesus and his followers (sec. 63).  Since he’s writing to the emperor, I wonder if there is a subtle implication here: while your forebears and the Jews may have been controlled by the demons, YOU don’t have to be.  Treat us in accord with our actions — not just according to the inciting of demons!  You’re the emperor — you get to set the rules!

Early Christian Worship

One last interesting point in this text: before he closes, Justin gives some explanation of early Christian worship practices.  In section 61, he says that he’s doing this to avoid being “unfair”; I assume he means that he won’t just bash other religions, but rather he’ll give insight into his own, even the semi-secret rituals.  So, in section 61 he talks about baptism, in 65-66 he discusses communion, and in 67 he gives a run-down of a “typical” Christian Sunday in the mid-second century.  He suggests that these activities are typical of Christians — that he’s not describing an unusual service.  But we are so grateful for his inclusion of this material; it’s some of the only stuff we have from this early about Christian worship at this time.

That’s it for Justin’s First Apology.  Come back for his Dialogue with Trypho!

Image credits: https://www.emaze.com/@AOLQOIIZ/Infant-Mortality-Rate (dead infant),  http://www.journeywithjesus.net (Fra Angelico’s fresco of the Nativity), and https://commons.wikimedia.org/ (Frederic Leighton’s The Return of Persephone)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Contemporary Catholicism

As some of you know, I grew up (and still am) in a Protestant denomination, but I did my Ph.D. in church history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.  One of the MANY great things that happened during my time in South Bend was that I got to know Catholicism much, much better — not just individual Catholic brothers and sisters, but also the broader movement as a whole and in its diversity.  Some of you currently belong to Catholic churches or have in the past, and so you are naturally aware of aspects of modern Catholicism — but some of you do not have that knowledge.  As a result, I want to reflect upon an important event that ended right at fifty years ago — the so-called “Second Vatican Council” — and what it means for contemporary Catholicism.

Now, because of our various backgrounds, I can’t assume that you know much about pre-Vatican-II Catholicism before this week.  Among Protestants, probably the most well-known feature of older Catholicism is the use of Latin in each church’s worship., as opposed to the “vernacular” (that is, local languages).  Also, if you’ve seen certain movies, you might know that the priest used to celebrate the Mass with his back to the congregation, facing the back wall.  And you might possibly be familiar with the relative lack of good preaching in Catholic churches at that time, and how many Catholics viewed worship as a confusing experience.

priest_ad_orientem

I’m willing to bet, though, that you did not know about how closed off the Catholic church was during recent centuries; in fact, one of the greatest enemies of 19th-century Catholicism was the so-called “modernism,” as this list of 80 (!) modern “errors” that Pope Pius IX rejected can testify.  In fact, some authors have argued that pre-Vatican-II Catholicism was largely about protecting a type of “medieval fortress,” with as few gates as possible open to the modern world.

Of course, there were exceptions, as you may also know.  For example, Jesuit missionaries traveled very far afield, even experimenting with new missionary methods.  Also, there were many Catholic thinkers who were in conversation with the modern world; the controversial priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin provides just one example.  But for the most part, especially in the West, “Catholicism” was often associated by Protestants with being “conservative,” and even sometimes “backward.”

But in the wake of Vatican II, many changes have happened, as you now know.  Catholics can now experience worship in the vernacular (German in Leipzig, English or Spanish in the part of Texas where I live, etc.).  They can now see their priest’s face, as he faces them around a table that is much closer to the congregation.  They can hear good preaching – even if it is rather short.  And those of us who are Protestants would probably be more welcomed than we would have been 50 years ago.

Those changes are rather well-known.  But what about some less famous modifications that still impact us?  One important one is the growth in Catholic participation in ecumenical movements.  The recent Pope John Paul II was well-known for this sort of thing, in his visiting of Eastern Orthodox churches, and even sharing Communion with its leaders!   Second, if you were to take my own road and attend graduate school at a Catholic university, you would enjoy much more academic freedom there than you would have before Vatican II.  There wouldn’t be as much need to line up your research with traditional Catholic teaching.  Finally, we’ve seen new emphases in Catholicism: on youth ministry, on using media in ministry (e.g., the TV network EWTN), and on composing new, indigenous worship music.

The term that most accurately describes one goal of the Second Vatican Council is the Italian word “aggiornamento,” which means “bringing up to date.”  Catholicism certainly hasn’t been well-known for being innovative in its recent history; if anything, it’s been known for being behind.  And so, just bringing the Church “up to date” is a real win for Catholicism.  Sometimes just catching up is really important.

pope_francisBut why is this important for those of us who are Christian but not Catholic?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First, Catholic churches are no longer places that ought to feel particularly intimidating to us.  A lot of the barriers have come down in that regard.  Second, we can learn about recent Popes – people like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I – and we can truly admire them.  The reality is that we really have a lot in common with them, whereas before we might have thought of them as “stick-in-the-mud Catholics” who are really different.

The final reason this is important is that, as our world continues to change, I really think that we will become more and more dependent on our fellow Christians, of whatever stripe.  It will become more and more important than we can join together in common work, even though we have doctrinal differences.  Thus, it will be important that we can know and learn more about Catholicism, just as it will be important that Catholicism is more and more able to learn about and accept us.

Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that those who come after his disciples “will be one,” and that that oneness will be a testimony to the world concerning Jesus.  May it be so among us!

Image credits: http://www.onepeterfive.com/ad-orientem-liturgy-end/ and http://mattfradd.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Pope_Francis_in_March_2013.jpg

Modern Worship and the Protestant Reformation

church history bookThe church history class I teach most often at our university is a so-called “survey” course — one in which we try to absorb elements of all 2,000 years of Christian history in ONE SEMESTER.  As you can guess, we’re always having to treat things at less depth than I would prefer, in the interest of getting the “big picture.”

When we get to modern American Christianity, it can sometimes be hard to see how church life in our day is connected with events from previous centuries.  However, it’s important to know — and a class focused on the history of Christianity in the U.S. would teach you — that many modern American denominations come directly out of the events of the Reformation.  There are, of course, Lutheran churches in America, as well as Episcopal and Methodist churches that are descendants of the Anglican Reformation in England.  But there are also churches descended from the Anabaptist movement (like the Amish and Mennonites) and several denominations that descend from the teaching of John Calvin (e.g., the Baptists and Presbyterians).

But something else that is true is that many denominations in America are based on a mixing of various Reformation traditions.  Think, for example, of the Churches of Christ, which (despite their claims to “non-denominationalism”) have their organizational roots in both Baptist and Presbyterian churches.  A more common example lies in the doctrine (that is, the theological teachings) in various churches.  When preachers focus on justification by grace, they are influenced by Luther.  When they focus on the sovereignty of God, they are influenced by Calvin.  When they strongly lean on the separation of church and state, they are influenced by the Anabaptists.  And you can hear all of these things in one and the same church, despite the variety of influences!

christomlinFor many of us, though, doctrine can be rather dry, and it often doesn’t affect us directly.  But the ways that we worship do affect us directly.  They are important to us, and they are important vehicles for our relationship with God.  And many of these ways of worship also go back to Reformation practices or principles.  Here are just a few examples:

  • We worship, pray, and hear Scripture read in the vernacular, a practice that arises from all the Reformation traditions.
  • We can sometimes emphasize the Eucharist (Communion) very strongly, and this emphasis sometimes goes back to Catholic or Anglican influences.
  • We very often lean heavily on a sermon in our worship, and this tradition arose in the Reformation world with people like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.  That’s especially true with preachers who are able to make the word relevant to contemporary life – as is so often the case in many of our “megachurches.”  Luther might not love some aspects of modern church life, but he would love the connection of “sound doctrine” with everyday life.
  • Finally, we use music a lot in our worship, and most of the ways are reflections of Reformation ideas.  When we have beautiful music performed by talented (maybe even professional) musicians, we participate in an impulse that was prominent the Catholic church after the Reformation.  When we emphasize congregational singing, we follow the same impulse for church participation that animated Luther.  That’s especially true when we put Christian words to familiar songs.  When we sing psalms set to music, we follow Calvin’s ideas.  When we sing simple, heartfelt songs, we follow Zwingli and the Anabaptists.  Note that a modern worship often has all of these: simple, meditative song, psalms and hymns set to music, rousing congregational pieces, and maybe even a “special” performed by a choir or ensemble.  We are truly a mix.

congregationalworship

So what does this mean for us?  As was the case with universities, I find myself in a spirit of gratitude with regard to the Reformation influence on our modern worship.  I love music, and I love worship, and I am so grateful that Christians have found so many tools with which to worship God in the varied history of our faith.

Image credits: http://www.stjohnadulted.org/Gonzalz1.jpghttps://bicyclefreaksforchrist.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/chris-tomlin.jpg, and http://www.nwhills.org/ministries/worship-music/worship-band.html

Liturgy / Worship as a Unifying Force

CharlemagneMany of you will have heard of Charlemagne, the great Frankish (Germanic) ruler of the late seventh and early eighth centuries.  Charlemagne influenced Western Europe in many ways, both in the church and in the state, but I’m thinking today about a quest he made for unity in his empire.  As you may know, Charlemagne’s efforts included conquering lands, repelling invaders, securing his borders, reviving culture, etc.  But the unity that he achieved in a political way wasn’t totally secure, because people could always rebel.

However, there was also a spiritual question, in that there was a spiritual power down in Rome that people had begun to call the “pope” — the spiritual “father” of all Christians, in the eyes of some.  One big question for Charlemagne concerned how political and spiritual powers would co-exist: who is in charge?  Is it the pope or the emperor?  Or some combination of the two?  Could this question even lead to a breakdown in the unity of the empire?

One tactic that Charlemagne used to unify his empire was to unify the worship that existed throughout the empire.  In other words, he attempted to standardize the Christian worship of his “Carolingian” empire.  You might think that would be easy, but you’d be wrong.  Besides all the difficulties of communication across hundreds of miles in those days, there were some very specific, distinct, and already ancient worship traditions associated with lands in his empire: in Spain, in northern Italy (centered in Milan), and in Gaul (now France).

So what was Charlemagne to do?  Should he take one of these local traditions and make it “empire-wide”?  Actually, what he did was to send messengers to Rome to find out how they “did worship” there.  He knew that Rome was a very ancient Christian city, and he viewed Roman traditions as the most authoritative.  It’s not unlike the reasoning employed by King Oswy at the Synod of Whitby in the late 600s — but that’s a story for another day.  (Feel free to research it, if you like!)

I don’t think this move on Charlemagne’s part is just an interesting historical footnote.  I think that many of us have experienced the same kind of cultural cohesiveness that comes from a common worship tradition.  Those of us in the Churches of Christ may know what this is like.  Until recently, all over the Bible Belt, people in Churches of Christ sang many of the same hymns, heard much of the same prayer language, and experienced similar preaching.  This was comforting: if one was traveling, one could visit an unfamiliar Church of Christ and yet feel right at home.

More broadly, and more recently, the most common way this unity happens nowadays concerns modern worship music.  As you know, there’s been an explosion of modern worship music in the last 20 years, and whether you are in a Bible church, a community church, a Baptist church, etc., there’s a good chance that you’ll hear songs you know.  Does this create unity outside the church walls?  Maybe.  But it certainly creates unity as we share worship experiences together.

lifting hands

Closest to home, as members of the our university community, we all experience communal worship on campus (in our daily “Chapel” gatherings).  Some of us like the all-music “Praise Day,” some prefer the more contemplative “Come to the Quiet,” and still others like the aptly-named “Small Group” Chapels.  But we all know the experiences, and we all know the standard complaints that students levy against required worship.  Despite those complaints, though, one reason that the University administration preserves the Chapel requirement is that, while our students come from different worship backgrounds, worship as a bonding social experience is very powerful in community-building.  This bonding occurs on a sociological level – there are human-level phenomena working here – but we believe it also happens in a spiritual way.  We believe that the Holy Spirit binds us together as Christians, and one way the Spirit does this is through our worship.

So, the next time you’re bored in a worship service, I’d encourage you to think a bit about what’s actually happening during that service, and why lifelong Christians often find hymn-singing to be so powerful in their later years.  God is binding us together, as the old song goes, with cords that may not be able to be broken.

Image credits : http://www.traditioninaction.org/History/HistImages/CharlemagneImages/A03_DurerPortrait.jpg and http://erniecarrasco.com/2015/02/08/worship-vs-emotion/