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From Christ to Christianity

How the Jesus Movement Became the Christian Church in One Lifetime

Dr. Edwards delivered this address on Oct. 7, 2021, at Theology Matters’ conference at Providence Presbyterian Church, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

Imagine that we can travel back in time to the first century, by a time machine, for instance, or as Michael Crichton submits in his book Timeline, by “faxing” ourselves into the past. We wish to find the historical Jesus. According to the Gospels, what should we look for, what should we expect to find?

Here are the  rudimentary  elements of the Jesus movement portrayed in the Gospels:

  • Jesus was an itinerant teacher,
  • leading a small movement,
  • with no name.
  • It consisted of an inner circle of twelve men,
  • but it was augmented by many other men and women
  • in rural Palestine.
  • It was centered in the northwest quadrant of the Sea of Galilee,
  • it was ethnically Jewish
  • and spoke Aramaic in public, but Hebrew when reading and discussing Scripture.
  • It celebrated Passover,
  • worshiped in synagogues
  • on Sabbath (Saturdays),
  • and it read from scrolls.

Now, let’s consider making a second time trip, not to Galilee in the year 28, but to Ephesus or Magnesia on the west coast of present-day Turkey in about the year 100. Ignatius of Antioch wrote letters to these cities at the turn of the century, i.e., about seventy-five years after Jesus died, and he describes the church to which he wrote in his letters. Here is what we find: 

  • The movement founded by Jesus in rural Galilee is now thoroughly urban.
  • It is no longer isolated to Palestine but pulsating throughout the Roman Empire, particularly on the Antioch-Rome corridor.
  • The church is now largely Gentile rather than almost exclusively Jewish. 
  • It has abandoned Hebrew and Aramaic and shifted entirely to Greek.
  • Christians are no longer meeting in Jewish synagogues, but in “churches.”
  • Churches are not superintended by Apostles, as in Jesus’ day, but by bishops.
  • Worship services are no longer on Sabbath, but on Sunday.
  • The celebration of Passover has yielded to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
  • Sacred scripture is no longer limited to what we know as the Old Testament—Pentateuch, Writings, and Prophets—but augmented by specifically Christian scriptures—four Gospels, epistles of Paul and Peter and a Christian apocalypse.
  • These scriptures are no longer written in heavy clumsy scrolls, but in the most radical information technology to hit the world at the time, the codex, a reader-friendly volume of leaves of paper bound on one edge and written on both sides that offers instant access to any part of the volume.

What do these two lists tell us?  They tell us that by the turn of the first century, that is to say, roughly seventy-five years after the death of Jesus, we encounter a Christian community that conforms to none of the descriptions of the Jesus movement in the Gospels.

A few of the above changes have already happened by the time the New Testament was written. One of them is the transition from Hebrew/Aramaic to Greek. All extant early Christian writings that we possess are written, like the NT itself, in Greek rather than in Aramaic or Hebrew. We know that Jesus and his followers spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic, but remarkably not one Hebrew or Aramaic Christian document is extant today. Greek eclipsed Hebrew as a written medium of communication in Christian early and entirely.

Most of the changes, however, were in the process of taking place in the first century. 

  • The gospel was breaking out of its Palestinian context and pulsating along the Jerusalem-Rome corridor.
  • Christianity was ceasing to be a rural movement and becoming a primarily urban movement,
  • and it began to include Gentiles as well as Jews
  • The name of the new movement was changing from the Way to Christian;
  • Jesus’ chosen leaders were changing from Apostles to elders and bishops;
  • Worship was changing from Saturday to Sunday

Still other changes were yet to come, well beyond the time of Ignatius, in fact. The inclusion of Christian writings in what would become the New Testament canon is one such change. Although the documents of the New Testament were functionally effective already in the second century, the New Testament canon was not officially defined and closed until the fourth century.

It is often the case that the more familiar we are with something, the less aware we are of its significance.  Think of this as a “principle of familiarity.” With regard to our present subject, there is nothing revolutionary about our descriptions of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. All of us would come up with a similar list on our own. The writings of Ignatius are less well known, to be sure, but all told they are no longer than the Gospel of Mark, and hence they can be read in entirety in less than two hours. If we read them, we would come up with a second list of descriptions equally similar to the one above.  Nothing in either list is essentially new to us. Indeed, we consider both descriptions as equally Christian. It is this general familiarity that blinds us to the revolutionary significance of the two lists, for every single description of the form of the church has changed, but the content of the faith has remained rooted in, continuous with, and descriptive of Jesus without fundamental change

Allow me to explain and defend this thesis by making four points. First, the description of Jesus’ ministry corresponds to virtually no church that you know of, but the description of Ignatius’s ministry corresponds to virtually every church that you know of. These changes occurred in the first seventy-five years of the Christian movement, and I wish to argue that they represent the most significant developments in the entire history of Christianity. 

Protestant scholars, especially, have typically considered the latter years of the first century and early years of the second century, i.e., the years in which Ignatius of Antioch ministered, to be a fallow historical period in which the early church either flat-lined or regressed theologically. Protestant histories of early Christianity typically make a cursory pass through––or a long-jump over––the time period between the death of the Apostles (ca. AD 70) and the appearance of the Apologists––Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian (ca. 150). This patronizing historiography is due to a scholarly prejudice, which was championed by Adolf von Harnack but followed by many others, that viewed the interim between the death of the Apostles and the rise of the Apologists to be a digression or degeneration from the vibrant faith of Apostolic Christianity to a stultified and institutionalized faith that was either unhealthily tethered to or in reaction against Judaism. According to this view, only when the tributary of early Christianity flowed away from its Semitic background and into the major Hellenistic current of the world, as represented in the concepts, vocabulary, and institutional forms of Greek and Latin culture, that Christianity gained access to the means by which it could grow and mature. In other words, only when the church ceased to be “Jewish” and became “Greek” did its theological and ecclesiastical existence warrant genuine historical inquiry.

This paradigm has prevailed in the past century-and-a-half of Protestant scholarship and is based in large part on anti-Semitic prejudice rather than on historical evidence. The opening line of Adolf Harnack’s two-volume The Mission and Expansion of Christianity begins with the following sentence: “To nascent Christianity the synagogues in the Diaspora meant more than the fontes persecutionem of Tertullian’s complaint; they also formed the most important presupposition for the rise and growth of Christian communities throughout the empire.”[i] Harnack’s monumental study of early Christianity, which still today furthers our knowledge of the early church, portrays the development of early Christianity not simply as a reaction against Jewish persecution, but against Judaism itself. His anti-Jewish rant in the fifth chapter is both painful and shameful to read in a post-Holocaust world.  I believe this paradigm to be grossly erroneous. The period between Paul and Justin Martyr is not an unfruitful interim, a “holding pattern,” a time in which the church had not “come of age,” or worse, a “devolution.” Rather, the resultant form and structure of the church, as is evident in the introductory contrast between the Jesus movement of AD 30 and the church of Ignatius in AD 100, reveal the period between AD 70–150 to be the most creative period in the history of Christianity.

Second, these tectonic changes were achieved for the most part not by the influence of extraordinary Christian leaders but by the lay demography of the church. They were “grass-roots” developments rather than “top-down” impositions. 

Orthodox and Catholic scholars have traditionally regarded Ignatius of Antioch as the greatest post-New Testament figure who belongs equally and justly to both Orthodox and Catholic traditions. Ignatius of Antioch is a truly remarkable historical figure, for his fame and influence rest entirely on a mere six weeks of his life. Taken prisoner in Antioch, Ignatius was conducted under guard to Rome, where he was thrown to the beasts in the newly constructed Colosseum. As he passed through what today is western Turkey, Ignatius wrote seven letters to churches––some of which were the same churches to which John wrote in the Revelation (Ephesus, Philadelphia, Smyrna). Everything we know about Ignatius derives from the substance of those seven letters, all of which were written within a six-week period. Nothing before or after those six weeks is further known about his life. Both Orthodox and Catholics regard Ignatius as the last figure in the early church whom they hold in common, after whom the single Christian tradition forks into Orthodox and Catholic traditions.

Protestantism, on the other hand, has tended to minimize the significance of the post-New Testament era. The very terms by which it is known, “post-Apostolic” or “the Apostolic Fathers,” compare it unfavorably with the New Testament era; and its leaders, Ignatius and Polycarp, for example, are compared equally unfavorably with the Apostle Paul or the Apostle John or the Apostle Peter. True, the post-Apostolic era lacks figures like Paul, Peter, and John, but equally true, every period thereafter lacks such leaders! No other figure in Christianity––not Origen or Augustine, not even Luther––has ever equaled the contribution and significance of the Apostle Paul for Christianity. The same could be said of the Apostles John and Peter. The absence of figures like Paul, John, and Peter is thus irrelevant to the matter. What matters are the tectonic changes in Christianity that we have noted.  Given these changes, the absence of figures like Paul, John, and Peter enhances the significance of the post-Apostolic era, for the constitutive changes that we noted at the outset were not produced by apostolic superstars (an expression that is a contradiction in terms), but rather by the faithful witness and mission of mere Christians whose names and feats, for the most part, have vanished from the record. 

Thanks to the Book of Acts and epistles of the Apostle Paul, which preserve some 150 names of persons and places associated with the early Christian mission in the West, we are fortunate to know a fair amount about the expansion of the early church from Jerusalem to Rome. We know, however, that the early church also spread eastward at the same time that it spread westward to Rome. Indeed, its eastward expansion was three times the distance of its westward expansion to Rome––beyond India all the way to China. But we know of no Dr. Luke who wrote its history or Rev. Paul who wrote epistles to the churches of this eastward expansion.  Compared to the 150 names associated with the westward expansion of Christianity in Acts and the Epistles, we have a mere dozen names associated with the church’s eastward expansion, and several of the names are seemingly apocryphal. These two branches of church expansion––one well-known, the other almost wholly unknown––tell us that the growth and maturity in the church occurred “democratically” rather than by a few major luminaries of the faith like Paul, John, or Peter. No one calls this generation “the greatest generation,” and yet it achieved what neither its arguably greater forebears nor followers achieved. If ever the church was indebted to “the priesthood of all believers,” it is the effect of that priesthood in the first seventy-five years of Christian history.

Third, the changes we have noted were not accomplished by a strategic mission plan.  As we noted earlier, the changes from Jew to Gentile, from rural to urban, from Hebrew to Greek, and so forth, took place in different ways, at different times, and in different regions of early Christianity. There was no centralized plan by which these changes were accomplished.  Rather, they were the result of the early church seeking to organize its corporate life of witness, worship, and mission according to Christology. The changes that I noted at the outset of this talk were the result of the early church’s commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the formative influence of his Lordship in all aspects of its life, including worship, mission, and structure. In this respect, early Christianity was “Reformed” Christianity––reformata, semper reformandum––“Reformed, always reforming.” 

The primary “rule of faith” or compass point to which the early church reformed its theology, ecclesiology, and mission was a historical narrative that we call today––and may have been called then––the kerygma.  The kerygma is alluded to frequently in the Pauline Epistles, and it is synthesized in the speeches of Acts in the following skeletal form:

I. The Messiah promised in the Old Testament has come.

II. He is Jesus of Nazareth, who

  1. did good and executed mighty works by the power of God,
  2. was crucified according to the purpose of God,
  3. was raised from the dead by the power of God,
  4. is now exalted as “Lord” to the Right Hand of God,
  5. and will come again in judgment to restore all things.

III. Let all who hear believe this message, repent, and be baptized.

The kerygma was simple and memorable, it was public and knowable, and it was universal. Unlike the oracle of Delphi, for example, where the omphalos was hidden deep in the bowels of the Temple of Apollo and could be discerned only by a special Seer, the kerygma of the church was public domain, accessible to rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, educated and illiterate.  The kerygma was not revealed in a secret place to select devotees, but proclaimed in the agoras and public squares of ancient cities. This dynamic core of the Christian proclamation guided and even determined the external changes in the church that we noted at the outset of this lecture. The changes that occurred between Jesus and Ignatius were determined by the early church’s conviction of the universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ. One thinks, for example, of the incongruity of excluding Gentiles from the community of Christ because they were uncircumcised; if the early church was to fulfill the great commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19), which itself had been adumbrated in the call of Abraham that in him all nations would be blessed(Gen 12:3), then early Christianity had to include Gentiles in the embrace of the gospel. Had it not done so, the church would failed in fulfilling the universal mission of salvation history. The same is true for other changes we have noted, including breaking free from the confines of rural Palestine for urban centers, and forsaking Hebrew and Aramaic for Greek. If the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was of universal significance, then it must be made universally accessible. 

Fourth, and finally, within the tectonic changes in the form of the church, the integrity and essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ remained constant. It was this constant core that accounts for our being able to proclaim equally Christian both the community of Jesus and the community of Ignatius, despite their external differences. In the first seventy-five years of Christianity, we witness the theological and ecclesial puberty of Christianity: the physique changes, but the DNA remains the same.  We see a powerful yet characteristic irony of the adaptivity of the gospel to new forms without the captivity of the gospel to those forms.  Ernst Lohmeyer pictures early Christianity in terms of a stage on which two plays are happening at the same time.

The history of early Christianity offers from its beginnings an unusual double drama. Hardly any other religion penetrated lands and provinces with its message, or entered so fully into human relationships and conditions as did early Christianity.  … Yet scarcely was any other religion so unaffected by the fates and crises of the time in which it began and grew, holding fast to its course, so that it remained largely unaffected by the burning issues and problems that brought down the societies into which it entered.[ii]

The first seventy-five years of Christian history exhibit the most significant development of the church in all Christian history. This was not a fallow era, and interlude between New Testament Apostles and the later church fathers, but the most creative epoch in the history of the church. In these same seventy-five years, the tectonic changes of the church owe more to the faithfulness of ordinary believers––its democratic laity ––that to stellar individual church leaders. Nor were these changes and developments achieved in accord with a centralized or strategic plan of the church.  Rather, they were the result of the early church seeking to organize its corporate life of witness, worship, and mission according to Christology. And finally, the changes reveal an adaptivity of church forms but not a captivity of its Christological core. In the first seventy-five years of the Christian era every description of the form of the church changes, but the content of the faith remains rooted in, continuous with, and descriptive of Jesus without fundamental change. Jesus Christ was the New Wine, and new wine required New Wineskins! 

[1] Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity I-II, trans. James Moffatt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908), I:1.

[2] Ernst Lohmeyer, Soziale Fragen im Urchristentum (Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1921), 129. Translation mine.

James Edwards
James Edwards
Dr. James R. Edwards, Ph.D., is the Bruner-Welch Professor Emeritus of Theology at Whitworth University.


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