Providing Insight into the history of the Christian Church
This 1st episode of CS is titled, “It Begins.”The best place to start is at the beginning. But with Church History, where is that? Where do we begin?Most MODERN Christians would probably start with Jesus. That seems pretty straight-forward.But where would the FIRST Christians have begun?They were Jews, and considered what they believed as a purified form of Judaism; a faith Moses would have approved of. They believed Jesus was Messiah, the long hoped for & oft prophesied Savior Who came to restore the faith God revealed to Abraham 2000 years before.So à Where would Peter, Andrew, John, James, or Thomas have begun telling the story?The Apostle John begins his story of Jesus at creation with the words “In the beginning …” We’ll come up in time considerably and start with the man known as Jesus of Nazareth engaged in His public ministry; traveling through Northern Israel with a dozen disciples.At that time, the 1st Century of what modern historians like to called the Common Era, Israel was an uneasy part of the Roman Empire. Unlike some provinces that counted being part of Rome a privilege, Israel loathed their Roman occupiers. Most Jews resisted more than just political domination by a foreign power; they also despise the Greek culture the Romans brought with them.All this stirred the pot of popular expectation among Jews for the arrival of the Messiah who they anticipated would be primarily a political figure. Scripture foretold He’d replace corruption with paradise; the wicked would be punished, the righteous rewarded, and Israel exalted among the nations. Messiah would restore David's throne and rule over the affairs of Earth.Some prophets spoke of a war between good and evil that would resolve in the Messiah's victory. This flavored the anticipation of many. They cast Rome as the chief adversary Messiah would crush.By the 1st Century, different groups had developed around their belief in what was the right way to prepare for this political Messiah.The Pharisees devoted themselves to the Law of Moses and religious tradition.The Essenes took a segregationist approach, pursuing holiness by moving to isolated communes to await Messiah's arrival.Zealots advocated armed resistance against Rome as well as those Jews who collaborated with the hated enemy. Zealots drew their inspiration from the successful Maccabean Revolt against the Syrian Greeks a couple hundred years before.A 4th group were the Sadducees who took a more pragmatic approach to the Roman presence & accommodated themselves to the Greco-Roman culture they were convinced would eventually become the status quo. Sadducees were a minority but held most of the positions of political and religious leadership in Jerusalem.The last and by far largest group among the Jews of 1st Century is rarely mentioned; the Common People. They were neither Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene nor Zealot. They were just à Jews; everyday people in covenant with God but preoccupied with fields, flocks, trades, markets, family, & well—Life; the daily grind. They held opinions regarding politics and religion but were too busy surviving to join one of the groups who claimed superiority to the others. It was these commoners who were most attracted to Jesus. They were drawn to Him because He did a masterful job of refusing to be co-opted by the elites.Jesus came in the traditional mode of a Rabbi, but was anything but traditional. Like other rabbis, He had disciples who followed Him, but His teaching stood in contrast to theirs. His words carried authority that challenged the thick, hard shell of tradition that had become encrusted round their religion. Listening to Jesus wasn't like listening to a commentary on Torah, which so many other teachers DID sound like. Listening to Jesus was like listening to Moses himself, explaining what the law was meant to be and do. Then—Jesus did something that really made people pay attention; H
This episode of CS is titled – “Transitions”We ended the previous episode with Jesus on the cross just outside the walls of Jerusalem late Friday afternoon. The Jewish leaders & Romans thought that was the last of the enigmatic trouble-maker from Galilee. For that matter, His followers thought that was the end as well.If that HAD BEEN the end of Jesus’ story, how might history have labeled Him?Modern skeptics who consider the resurrection a mythic post-script, added by Jesus’ later followers, cast Jesus as a religious & social reformer; one whose goal was to turn the stiff formalism of 1st Century Judaism into a more personal & intimate faith in God. These skeptics recast the miracles attributed to Jesus as myths meant to explain the effect of His charismatic personality on others. They contend Jesus didn’t really turn a few fish & loaves into fish sandwiches for thousands; He merely used the generosity of a young boy to provoke the crowd to share with one another. He didn’t really walk on water, He merely came along the shore in a low lying mist. And He didn’t really rise from the dead; His example of love for God and others merely inspired the disciples to follow His example. His MEMORY endured, not His literal person; says the skeptic.So, WAS Jesus merely a reformer? Was His mission just to return Judaism to something Moses would have given a hearty thumbs-up to?While Moses would indeed endorse Jesus, He wasn’t merely one of the many prophets God sent to call people back to Himself. Moses would approve of Jesus because all Moses did pointed to & prepared the way for Jesus. Jesus was the original Former, not a RE--former; He was, the “I AM” Who spoke to Moses from the burning bush & commissioned him to lead Israel out of bondage, into the Promised Land.This becomes clear when we consider the words of Jesus at that last meal He shared with His disciples. When He took the cup to inaugurate the rite of Communion, He said something remarkable. “This is the NEW COVENANT in my blood which is shed for you.” Those young men sitting round that table could not mistake what Jesus meant, for it was something that had been burned into them since childhood. Jesus made claim to the cherished promise of the Prophet Jeremiah who in ch. 31 said,“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”Jesus laid claim to that promise, saying He was its fulfillment & what He was about to do in going to the cross would activate the New Covenant. Jesus didn’t come just to reform Judaism or refresh the covenant Moses mediated with Israel. He came to consummate that covenant and initiate a new, based not on the performance of the Mosaic Law, but on abiding faith in Him.Of course, if Jesus had remained in the tomb, He’d be nothing but a miniscule footnote to the history of the 1st Century, if that! à Just one more in a long parade of Jewish trouble-makers who had a little flurry of popularity among some malcontents. Nothing of consequence would have followed.But His resurrection changed everything. It turned His timid band of followers into men of unquenchable vision & voracious determination. Only the resurrection can acc
This week’s episode is titled "Strategic."We ended the last episode with a look at the different perspectives of 1st & 2nd Generation Christians. The debate centered on what role the Jewish law held for Jesus’ followers. Culturally-immersed 1st Generation Jewish believers tended to cleave to the law, while the more Greco-Roman acculturated 2nd & later generations adhered to the Gospel as articulated by the Apostle Paul.Keep in mind that Paul's arrival at the Gospel of Grace through Faith wasn't an easy journey. He began as a strict Pharisee, fanatically loyal to Moses & Jewish tradition. It was Paul who presided at the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. And Stephen was put to death precisely because he dared to say that the new covenant Jesus inaugurated superseded the old covenant installed by Moses & represented by the Temple & priesthood in Jerusalem which were now effectively obsolete in God’s plan. This drove the Jewish ruling council into a literal rage that led to Stephen’s death.Paul well understood the arguments of the Judaizing legalists who advocated adherence to custom. He understood them because he’d once held them. But he came to realize faith in Christ alone bestowed the righteousness God requires. Salvation was not the product of human work; it was a gift God bestows, a gift received by faith.Amped by this realization of salvation by grace through faith, Paul was compelled to take the Gospel were ever he could. The book of Acts describes 3 journeys he took to spread the Faith & plant churches.On his 1st journey he and his friend Barnabas went to the island of Cyprus & the urban centers of the mainland north of there, a province called "Galatia" in modern-day Turkey.On his 2nd adventure Paul went back over the fledgling fellowships begun on the previous journey, then travelled to the West coast of Asia Minor. Taking ship, he sailed across the Aegean Sea and landed in Macedonia. The Gospel had arrived in Europe, possibly for the first time.Then Paul swung south into Greece where he visited Athens & other key Greek cities. Returning to his home base at Antioch in Syria, he didn't stay long before once again setting out on a 3rd mission with the aim of planting churches in strategic locations.Paul had a plan. He didn’t just go wherever the winds of fancy drove him. He was strategic, recognizing the need to plant congregations in influential cities. He knew if healthy churches could be set up in the urban centers of the Empire they’d act as jumping off points for mission work to their surrounding provinces. The strategy worked & Christianity spread rapidly.We’re not unaware of the religious and philosophical environment the early Christians lived in. Outside Israel, much of the Roman Empire was a spiritual hodgepodge. The Greek & Roman pantheon was ubiquitous, with most commoners paying homage to the gods, not out of any genuine piety or devotion so much as out of a sense of civic duty. “Respect the gods or pay the price" was the attitude of the common people. Everyone had a duty to throw the gods their proverbial bone now and then, lest they get angry & withhold the rain-or-send floods. No one wanted to be the cause of disaster, so most went through the forms to pacify the gods & keep them off the collective back. But heartfelt devotion to the gods was rare.Living alongside this kind of generalized respect for the gods was a much less common, but far more devoted adherence by some to the philosophies of a handful of Greek sages. Guys like Epicurus & Zeno. The concern of such philosophies was how to have the best life. Though their ideas often contradicted the demands of the gods, many who held to Epicureanism, Stoicism or one of the other philosophies saw no tension between their beliefs & religious practices.But by the 1st Century, many across the Romans world had grown disillusioned with the old god
This 4th Episode is titled, “Martyrs.”Modern marketing tactics first produced, and now feed contemporary culture's obsession for “the latest thing.” The slogan & label "New & Improved" is a frequent feature in packaging.The opposite was the case in 1st Century Rome. That Eternal City, and really most of the ancient world, was suspicious of anything new and novel, especially when it came to ideas. They had tremendous respect for tradition, believing what was true had already been discovered and needed to be preserved. Innovation was grudgingly accepted, but only in so far as it did not substantially alter tradition.The religion of the Greeks and Romans was sacrosanct precisely because it was ancient. Judaism, with its fierce devotion to only one God was incompatible with the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods, but it was tolerated by the Romans precisely because it was ancient.Also, while Jews were fiercely loyal to their religion & became violent when attempts were made to convert them to paganism, they were not, as a rule, engaged in making converts of others. Judaism is not, by nature, a proselytizing faith.Christianity's early struggle with Rome began in earnest when Judaism officially denounced the Christians and banish them as a movement within Judaism. This took place shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Until that time, followers of Jesus were considered as a kind of reform movement within Judaism. But toward the end of the 1st Century, Rome realized the Jews had divorced themselves from the Christians. Christianity was something new; a religious novelty; so, under suspicion.And whereas Judaism tended not to proselytize, Christians couldn't help winning others to their Faith. This brought Christianity into close scrutiny by the authorities. The more they investigated, the more concerned they grew. Like the Jews, Christians believed in one God. But their God had become a man. Christians had no idols, practiced no sacrifices, & built no temples. These were yet more religious innovations that fired suspicion. The Christians seem to be so reductionist in their practice they were suspected of being, get this à Atheists.As we saw in the previous episode, the paganism practiced by most people of the Empire in the 1st & 2nd Centuries wasn't so much a heart-felt devotion to the gods as it was a sense of civic duty. “Respect the gods by visiting their temples with the proper offerings, or, suffer their wrath.” à Well, every new convert to the Christians meant one less pagan throwing their appeasing bones to the watchful & increasingly upset gods. People began to worry the growing neglect of the gods would lead to trouble. And indeed, whenever a drought, flood, fire, or some other catastrophe ensued it was inevitably blamed on "Those atheists = the Christians."“Christians to the lions,” became a frequent solution to the ills of the world.The concern of the pagans was ill-attributed, but well-founded. Not because their gods were angry, but because in some places so many had become Christians the pagan temples were nearly empty. Acts 19 tells us this happened in Ephesus and a letter from the Governor of Bithynia in the early 2nd Century repeats the concern. This led to a growing call for punishment of the Christians. A few would be rounded up and put to death to prove to the gods the earnestness of the pagans to appease them.Other factors that encouraged hostility towards believers was their secrecy. A description of Christians by Pliny, the Roman governor of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan in AD 111 is enlightening. Pliny had already executed some Christians based on little more than their scandalous reputation. He’d given them an opportunity to recant but when they refused, Pliny saw this rebuff of his mercy as a provocative stubbornness worthy of punishment. But after a flurry of executions, Pliny had 2nd thoughts: Was the mere reputation of Christians d
This episode is titled “Writings.”The history of the Christian Faith & Church inevitably has to deal with the importance of Books. From its earliest days the Faith has been intimately linked to the Scriptures. At first, Scripture was the Hebrew Bible or what is known today as the Old Testament. But other writings were added to the Church’s Bible as the years passed.The question of what writings to include in the Bible was one of the major topics of discussion during the first 4 centuries. But the question of what ought to be included or excluded is not nearly the contentious debate skeptics claim. With rare exception, church leaders generally agreed what texts comprised Scripture. Their reluctance to make an official pronouncement was because humility prohibited them claiming the authority to do so. Still, by the 4th Century, Church leaders recognized time was running out on those who were in a position to make the needed determination.Following the age of the martyrs, the next period of Church history was marked by theological challenge. It was crucial local congregations have a standard to go by, an authoritative body of doctrine by which to evaluate what was being taught. That authority was the Bible.Christians started with those Scriptures the Jews already revered as God’s Word, the Tanach, or as Christians referred to it, the OT. To this base of 39 books, believers added another set of writings they called the New Testament. Together, these 2 Testaments comprise what's called the “Canon of Scripture.”Canon means a measuring rod, as in a ruler. The Canon of Scripture is the standard for measuring if something is straight, if it aligns with truth. The Bible was esteemed Truth because it was regarded as God's inspired & inerrant Word.And that's what proved such a daunting challenge to Church leaders as they considered what to include in the NT Canon. Who were they to decide what was inspired by the Holy Spirit & ought to be regarded as the standard by which to evaluate all else? Still, the task was necessary so they developed a criteria by which to decide what ought to be included in the Canon. Their reasoning went like this . . .First was the OT canon of Jewish Scriptures. Then Jesus came as the Word of God made flesh. Though Jesus wrote no books, His life and words were written on the hearts and minds of the Apostles, whose teaching in both oral & written form was accepted as authoritative.Early evidence makes it clear that letters from the Apostles were circulated & read in the churches, being accepted as laying down the norms of Christian belief and practice. A ravenous hunger for stories of Jesus moved the Apostles to develop a standard oral tradition that we see today forming the core of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, & to a certain degree, Luke.But how do we get to the 27 books that form today's NT canon? What criteria did Church leaders use when they finally identified those books?1St - A candidate writing for inclusion had to have a self-identifying quality about it as having been inspired by God. It had to possess a certain power to affect the lives of readers toward God.2nd - A candidate writing had to have a long reputation among the churches for having been used in worship to the edification of believers.3rd - A writing had to have a close connection to an Apostle. If not written by the Apostle himself, was the author a close associate of an Apostle & did it bear the mark of the Apostle’s influence?For example . . .Luke wasn’t an apostle but his Gospel and the Book of Acts are included in the NT because he was a close associate of the Apostle Paul and had interviewed the other Apostles in researching Jesus’ story.Mark wasn’t an apostle, but received his information about Jesus from the Apostle Peter. He was also a companion of Paul’s; sort of. But that’s another story.On the other side of the issue, in the late 1
This week's episode is titled “Buy One, Get One Free.”In the last episode we touched briefly at a heretic named Marcion. He was one of the first to introduce a false teaching that would evolve into a major challenge to the emerging Christian Faith; that errant movement was known as Gnosticism.Marcion was the son of the pastor of the church in Pontus, on the Southern coast of the Black Sea. He was a ship-owner sailing passengers & shipping cargo throughout the Empire. Around AD 140, Marcion’s father disfellowshipped him from the congregation. This was the result either of Marcion’s seduction of a young woman, his increasingly heretical ideas, or both. Whatever the reason, he relocated to Rome where he was unknown & his reputation was untarnished. When he made a large contribution to the church at Rome, it greased the wheels of his acceptance as a member in good standing.But Marcion soon began espousing ideas that diverged from what the elders taught. In his previous travels, Marcion had been influenced by a teacher named Cerdo, an early advocate of what today is known as Gnosticism.Now, let me be clear, Gnosticism was more a religious trend than a united movement with a settled set of doctrines. While Gnostics held a common set of core beliefs, they interpreted them widely. This makes describing Gnosticism difficult. Generally, we can say it was a mash-up of àGreek philosophy,
Eastern mystery cults, and
Christian terminology.From Greek philosophy, Gnostics borrowed the idea that all physical matter was inherently an unalterably evil, while the spiritual realm was equally, inherently & unalterably good. From esoteric & occult Eastern mystery sects they took the idea there was a secret body of knowledge that when understood granted enlightenment. This enlightenment was the Gnostic equivalent of salvation because it liberated one’s consciousness from mere physical existence into a kind of permanent spirituality.Gnosticism took its name from this idea of “salvation thru enlightenment.” The Greek word ‘gnosis’ means ‘knowledge.’Because the Christian movement was growing rapidly, Gnostics adopted Christian forms & terms as a sneaky marketing ploy, hoping to pawn off their ideas as an elite form of Christianity. The ploy worked & Gnosticism took root in several congregations just as winds of false teaching do in every generation.Marcion was one of the first to introduce Gnostic elements in his highly-edited form of Christianity. Drawing from Cerdo, he proposed 2 different gods; an angry, vengeful OT deity, & a warm, fuzzy father-figure of the NT. Toting the Gnostic line, Marcion said the physical body was evil & promoted a rigorous asceticism that denied all physical pleasure. Marcion’s followers took communion by drinking water because wine was too tasty. They went so far as to say even marital sex was taboo.Marcion claimed Jesus was not born of Mary. He said Jesus appeared at Capernaum in AD 29 as a grown man. Note that = Jesus only appeared. Marcion said Jesus didn't have a literal body. He couldn't since being physical, the body was evil. Jesus only appeared, or seemed to have a body; in truth, he was more phantom than tangible.This is called Docetism; one of the earliest forms of Gnosticism. Docetism comes from the word meaning to seem. Marcion said the death & resurrection of Christ weren't literal; they couldn't be since Jesus wasn't corporeal. They were just a phantom demonstration of God's love and sacrifice. Though the church at Rome quickly became hip to Marcion’s theological shenanigans & declared his ideas heretical in 144, they gained some traction and Marcion set up a counterfeit church in both Italy & in Asia Minor where the Eastern mystery cults were popular. Marcionite fellowships reached as far as Arabia & Egypt & were still operating well into the 4th Century.Marcion’s was only one of several streams of Gno
I’m a history buff and devout Christ-follower. This is a wonderful marriage of 2 favorite things.
Insightful but flawed
The main narrative series is excellent and I recommend it wholeheartedly. However, season 2 is heavy on editorializing and opinion. The episodes arguing in favor of right-wing economics and creationism are filled with appalling errors and strawmen. Avoid these and stick to the chronological series and you’ve got a 5 star pod on par with The History of Rome.
As a lay-leader in my local church with some light teaching responsibility this podcast has been extremely helpful. Not only is it interesting but the early episodes in particular help to frame the epistles and specific issues Paul and the other Apostles may have been addressing.