Church History: Rome and the Apostolic Era

Our Wednesday night dinners and classes at church started this evening, and I joined the “Back to the Future” class that is being co-taught by Ken Rees and John Gruel. It will be a 15 week course, and as a text we’re using Church History In Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley. This may sound like an extremely dry subject to some, but I am actually very enthused about it– in no small part due to the fact that both Ken and John are fantastic teachers and scholars, and I know I’ll learn a great deal just going to class! However, unlike many of my high school, undergraduate, and (sadly, yes) even graduate classes– I really want to do the assigned readings each week to get even more out of the study. Yes, the road to certain places is paved with good intentions… and I’ve started out courses with similar pledges (“Yes, I WILL do all the assigned readings!”) but hopefully this will be different. The fact that I’ll be able to blog my reflections and notes will certainly help, I think. I considered tonight starting an “Eyes Right” podcast, and among other things I may see if Ken and/or John will let me record and podcast some of their lessons.

Mainly for my own edification (but perhaps for yours as well) here are my re-written notes from tonight’s class. I actually didn’t take a laptop to class (gasp!) and took hand-written notes (a rare occurance for me these days) but that oversight shall be remedied next week!

There are several reasons we are doing this study of church history:

  1. To better understand each other! Even in a “Presbyterian” church, we have a very diverse group of members who share a diverse set of religious experiences. It is important to know “where we come from” and where the church has been, to better understand its present as well as its future.
  2. We are studying the history of the church to better understand how God has preserved His church. One major evidence of God’s active hand in the affairs of men and women today as well as throughout history is the fact that the church still exists and is strong! At so many points of its history, you would think the church was going to be killed off! Yet it still survives. This is good to know and appreciate, because it is a testament to God’s faithfulness as well as his active role in our lives.
  3. As a church congregation, we are seeking to recapture for our own time the real missional calling of THE CHURCH. Like the old kid’s rhyme goes, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a meeting place THE CHURCH IS THE PEOPLE!” And we are called to be missional! We are not supposed to go to a church building on Sundays and maybe other days of the week, and just fellowship and be “fed.” We are also to go and SERVE. Studying the history of the church will give us all a better understanding and perspective on what it means to be “missional” today in the 21st century.

Early Roman Church History

The circumstances surrounding the birth of the Christian church really were remarkable and unique. It was no accident that God chose to send his Son into the world at the precise moment of history that he had chosen. Had Jesus lived 100 years earlier, or 200 or so years later, the Roman empire would have been at a very different stage in its development. At that time, Rome was a very unique innovation in the world. Rome represented about 20% of the world’s population and a large percentage of its commerce. Rome’s government was very unique: People could be Roman citizens (like Saul of Tarsus, later to be named Paul) even if they were not born in Italy, and even if they were Jewish. Rome was one of the first truly multi-ethnic states. Jews were even given special dispensations by the Roman Caesars. They did not have to have Roman images in their temples, for example. This was a quid-pro-quo for assistance the nation of Israel had given to Rome in previous years.

Rome introduced roads to many parts of the world, and although these were established primarily for military purposes they also brought many associated benefits. Rome was the first nation with the strength to have a navy which patrolled sea lanes in the Mediterranean, and their suppression of piracy (at least some of it) was a historic first.

The Romans didn’t push their language on everyone. Latin was spoken in Italy, but Greek was the predominant language in much of the Mediterranean and was a common and unifying language to a large extent. About one third of the population in Rome during this era were slaves, and they had a pretty hopeless existance with little chance for freedom. Slavery at that time was NOT based on race. There were many ways a person could become a slave, and not many ways to become free.

People during this era were alert to the idea of a Messiah coming. The Jewish Zealots would periodically have a leader arise who would claim to be the Messiah, and that person along with his followers were violently put down by the Romans. Still, people were attuned to this idea and alert to the possible arrival of a Savior.

When the dark ages came (approx. 500 – 1500 AD) a real window of opportunity for the spreading of the Christian gospel throughout the Mediterranean via the Roman empire closed down.

I HAD SEVERAL THOUGHTS OF MY OWN DURING THIS LESSON TONIGHT, NOT MENTIONED BY THE TEACHER BUT WORTH RECORDING HERE:

  • I THINK A CASE CAN BE MADE THAT A “WINDOW” FOR SPREADING THE GOSPEL AGAIN OPENED AROUND 1500 THROUGH THE WORK OF LUTHER AND THE OTHER REFORMERS. TO A LARGE EXTENT, DURING THE DARK AGES I THINK THE PERPETUATION OF THE GOSPEL MESSAGE WAS RELEGATED TO MONKS ISOLATED IN THEIR MONASTERIES. LUTHER BROUGHT THE GOSPEL MESSAGE AGAIN TO STAGE CENTER AND HELPED THE CAUSE OF CHRIST IN MANY WAYS. OF COURSE TECHNOLOGY (THE PRINTING PRESS) PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN THIS PROCESS OF DYNAMIC CHANGE– WHICH WAS VIOLENTLY OPPOSED BY THE CHURCH WHICH HAD BY THAT TIME BECOME INSTITUTIONALIZED.
  • ALL OF JESUS’ TEACHINGS WERE BASED ON THE OLD TESTAMENT. WE NEED TO REMEMBER THAT HE DIDN’T HAVE THE NEW TESTAMENT TO REFER TO OR TEACH FROM, BECAUSE IT HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN. WHEN PEOPLE ASK QUESTIONS REVEALING THEIR MISCONCEPTION THAT THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT WAS A DIFFERENT GOD THAN THE GOD OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, IT MIGHT BE HELPFUL TO POINT THIS OUT. JESUS WAS THE FULFILLMENT OF OT PROPHESY, AND IT WAS HIS LITERACY OF THE OT (AS WELL AS THE LITERACY OF OTHERS, LIKE PAUL) WHICH WAS PIVOTAL IN CARRYING THE MESSAGE TO MANY OF THE JEWS.
  • JESUS HAD MANY ROLES IN LIFE, BUT ONE OF HIS PRIMARY ROLES WAS THAT OF AN EDUCATOR!
  • PAUL WAS A WRITER, AN ENCOURAGER, A COMMUNICATOR, AND AN EXHORTER!

Jesus’ message was unique and contrasted sharply with that of many others living at the same time.

  • The Essenes were a monastic group that retreated away from the world. Jesus always remained in and engaged with the world. He did retreat at times to the wilderness and other places to rest and restore his body and spirit, but he always returned to engage. This is a good model we should keep in mind and follow in our own lives!
  • Unlike the Jewish Zealots, Jesus advocated peacemaking and coexistance with Roman rule.
  • The message of Jesus consistently focused on the concept of a “new kingdom.” At times it was unclear if that kingdom was in the present or future, and if in the future in the near or long term. “Kingdom” was a unifying theme, however.

The Sadducees were the elite in Jewish culture because they were in charge of Temple worship. They were very “cozy” with the Romans. The Pharisees’ name means “separated ones.” They were not necessarily wealthy, but were distinguished primarily by their focus on legalism and following the law. They were interested in purity and generally withdrawing from “unclean ones,” which contrasted sharply with the example of Jesus who embraced the sick, the poor, and the ritually unclean. Pharisees were focused on synogogue worship, which had sustained the Jews throughout the Babylonian captivity when the Temple was destroyed and not available for worship.

Jesus didn’t give his disciples a standardized test to measure their aptitudes! He was also very unique in his day because he included women in his circle of close confidants. Leaders selected by Jesus were empowered with a variety of charismatic gifts, which means “gifts of the spirit.” His instructional model included direct instruction followed by internships as the disciples went out two by two, and then came back to report, reflect, and share. Jesus modeled his servant-style of leadership during the Last Supper as he washed the feet of his disciples.

After the death/crucifixtion and resurrection of Jesus, Peter is transformed from a coward and a very awkward speaker to a powerful spokesman challenging established Judaism. In the early church, Christians were called “the way” and both thought of themselves as a sect of Jews and were regarded that way by others. They practiced traditional Jewish customs and rituals but also added their own, like gathering on Sundays to share about their faith.

There were two primary groups of Jews in this era. The Hellenistic Jews were Greek speaking, and had a more rationalistic/scientific approach to thinking. They generally preferred Greek to Hebrew. The family of Jesus was very important in the early years following his death and resurrection. We don’t read much about Jesus’ half-brother, James, during the years of his ministry. However, James played a very important role in leading the early church after Jesus’ resurrection. After Stephen’s death in 36 AD, most of the Hellenistic Jews left Jeruselum for Antioch and other locations. This was a phase of the Jewish diaspora.

Much of the growth of the early church happened in the cities rather than in smaller, rural towns. About 60 AD, Nero led Rome and he really thought he was a “god.” Paul and Peter were both executed in Rome approximately 66 AD as part of Nero’s persecutions of the Christians. Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome. This period of persecution led to a final breach between those who continued to call themselves “Jews” and those who become known as “Christians.”

THIS WAS A GREAT START TO THIS CLASS AND I LOOK FORWARD TO LEARNING MORE! OUR LESSON FOR NEXT WEEK IS TITLED, “PERSECUTION AND ORTHODOXY.” OUR ASSIGNED READING IS CHAPTERS 4, 5 AND 6 OF OUR TEXT, SO I BETTER START READING SOON! 🙂