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Studying The Early Christians: The Introduction to We Look For the Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians | Carl J. Sommer

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A common perception is that we live in an age indifferent or even hostile to the study of history. This perception is fed by the stereotype of the teenager bored with the endless memorization of dates and facts. But there are plenty of reasons to think that people are not really bored with history after all. A trip to the local bookseller will confirm one inescapable fact. Every bookstore has a large section devoted to history. There are always two or three people milling around in these sections, thumbing through thick tomes on who-knows-what obscure subject. And plenty of these people finally snap their books shut and stride purposefully over to the cash register with their new possession. The simple fact is there are plenty of people who love history and can't stop filling their bookshelves with books on every imaginable historical subject.

Why do we read history? I suppose there are three reasons. First, and most basically, we love a good story. We read history for the same reason our ancestors told stories around the campfire, with the youngsters hanging on every word. The second reason is related to the first; like the Greeks and Romans themselves, we read history for inspiration. The stories of great deeds from the past motivate us to try harder, to strive to do great deeds in our own time. The third reason is more spiritual in nature. It is trite but true to say that we read history to gain insight into our roots. By studying the past we learn who we are and how we came to be where we are, and, hopefully, how to chart out a wise course for the future.

This third reason, once the most widely cited of all reasons for studying history, is currently in question. In our day, one of the greatest debates among philosophers, theologians, historians, and social scientists has to do with the question of human nature. To put the matter plainly, the question is, is there such a thing as human nature? Are there any facts about man that are true of all people, in all times? To you and me, the answer to these questions might seem obvious, but, with some notable exceptions, most historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers today argue that there is no such thing as human nature.

The basic argument runs something like this: a human being is the product of his environment. Our modes of thinking and acting, our ways of looking at reality, all the things that in fact make us human, are produced in us by the social conditions into which we happen to be born. Since these conditions are constantly changing, modes of thinking, acting, and looking at reality also constantly change. When enough time has passed, and enough social conditions have changed, men become different so there is little point of contact between people of different eras. Thus, the differences between people today and those who lived 2,000 years ago would be so great that we really cannot understand the people of the past. The best we can do would be to study them and gain some insights into their thoughts and behavior, similar to the insights Jane Goodall gains from studying chimpanzees. This position is fed by and in turn provides nourishment for cultural and moral relativism.

Against this position is the traditional stance, a position still held by some Christian theologians and philosophers. This position holds that, despite changes in the outward manifestations of culture, the basic truths of human nature remain the same for all times and peoples. [1] These basic truths are derived primarily from the first four chapters of Genesis. They can be summarized as follows: (1) Man was created in the image and likeness of God. (2) The first human beings freely chose to defy God's will. (3) As a result, all of human nature was broken, distorted, and became prone to sin. (4) God promised to intervene personally to restore humans to their original state.

In the traditional Christian position, all men, despite cultural and historical differences, have certain basic experiences in common. Among these common experiences, one would list on the positive side (1) the desire for union with a transcendent being (God), (2) a deep longing for truth, beauty, and goodness, (3) the desire for freedom, and (4) a tendency on the part of some people to expend noble effort to achieve great good. On the other hand, we also experience (1) a strong tendency toward confusion regarding our true good, (2) an inability to act upon the good even when we can discern it, and (3) a tendency on the part of some people to degenerate to the lowest depths of depravity.

The argument between the "postmodernist" and the traditional Christian positions may seem hopelessly obscure, or even silly, but it is still very important. The consequences of accepting the postmodernist position are devastating. For historians, the main consequence is that we can't really know very much about the past, and consequently can't learn very much from things that happened in the past. This tends to reduce the role of the historian to that of a student of curiosities; the things he can learn might (or might not) be interesting but have no relevance for today.

On the other hand, the Christian position on human nature gives immediate relevance and life to the study of history. By studying how things were done in the past, we can learn many valuable lessons on what to avoid and what to strive for today. It is with this hope that I write this book. The Roman world had many facets that are strikingly similar to elements of modern life. There are problems in the world today that can be overcome only by the practice of largely forgotten Christian virtues. Perhaps we can learn from the practices of the early Church. Perhaps we can learn how to transform the culture in which we live with the power of the gospel. But we can do so only if we truly understand the situation of the world at the time of the early Church and if we have an accurate understanding of the cure the first Christians provided for the ills of their time.

A Note on Methodology

How does one go about studying the everyday lives of ancient people? There are only two real sources of information about the past: documentary evidence and the archaeological record. Both these sources bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the table. Let's take a brief look at them.

By documentary evidence I mean the letters, treatises, tracts, historical works, poems, plays, and other literature of the age in question. Documentary evidence has the advantage of being sure; as long as historians can read the language with confidence and know the meaning of the words, they can reconstruct the meaning and context of the documents and gain a great deal of information from them. But documentary evidence has three main weaknesses:

1. It is difficult to know how accurate the author was. Some authors lie deliberately, for various reasons, and others are simply mistaken on certain points.

2. Documents are usually written by literate elites and provide few windows into the thoughts and beliefs of ordinary people. This is especially true in historical eras in which the ability to read and write was confined to the privileged.

3. Documents generally represent only the point of view of the author. There is no real way of knowing if anyone else believed what he believed.

Archaeological evidence lacks these weaknesses. When an archaeologist discovers a pot or a house or a burial site, chances are that an ordinary person used that pot or house or burial site. Thus, modern archaeology has provided a remarkable window into the lives of ancient people, but it has its own set of difficulties:

1. It is difficult to tell what to make of a particular archaeological find, without documentary or inscriptional evidence to accompany it. For instance, a burial site tells how a particular group buried a corpse, but nothing about what they believed about death. A burial site accompanied by an inscription is more informative, but without theological or philosophical documents independent of individual tombs, it is difficult to make inferences about beliefs.

2. Archaeological evidence is susceptible to the biases of the archaeologist. If the archaeologist starts with assumptions about a particular culture, ambiguous evidence will probably be interpreted to fit those assumptions.

3. Despite advances in carbon dating, artifacts are difficult to date with precision. Since I am confining this work to the three-hundred-year period at the very beginning of Christianity, this is a crucial weakness. Archaeologists argue, for instance, over the dating of objects and inscriptions in the catacombs. If those objects should be dated to the fourth century, they are of no help to this work, but if they can be dated to the second or third century, they are very useful indeed.

In regard to the period of early Christianity, we have a relatively large number of documents. Generally speaking, they fall into three categories:

1. The writings of orthodox Christians, consisting of letters to neighboring Churches and friends, writings (apologies) intended to defend and explain the faith to non-Christians, theological treatises, and histories.

2. Writings that have been deemed heretical or unreliable by orthodox Christians. This category would include the so-called Gnostic gospels, as well as apocryphal acts of the apostles. These writings are theologically suspect in orthodox circles, and their historical accuracy is questionable.

3. The writings of pagan authors who came into contact with Christians. These writings primarily consist of brief mentions in historical works, satires designed to ridicule Christian beliefs, and the letters of prominent pagans wondering what to do about the problem of Christianity.

Each of these types of documents in turn has its own strengths and weaknesses. The orthodox writings tell us what the Church believed, but practices often have to be inferred, except in the "Church order manuals", which give details about certain rites. Inferences about everyday life can be made from these documents in two ways. Direct inferences can be made about specific practices mentioned in the documents, and indirect inferences can be made when certain practices are criticized. An example would be Tertullian's criticism of Christians who served in the Roman army. One could, from this criticism, reasonably infer that there were Christians in the Roman army.

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