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

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.

The heretical and historically unreliable writings have to be used with great circumspection. I have used them only in those instances where they might provide a window into the practices prevalent in the time when they were written, not the time about which they purport to write. For instance, the Acts of Barnabas purports to be about the life of the Barnabas mentioned in the New Testament, but it was most likely written in Egypt in the third century. It is probably completely worthless in reconstructing the life of the real Barnabas but, if used carefully, can shed light on the beliefs and practices of Christians in third-century Egypt.

I regard the writings of the New Testament to be historically accurate, if one takes into consideration the unique purposes of each book. One will gain very little of direct historical information from the Book of Revelation, for instance, but the book can be helpful to historians in understanding the sitz im leben of the community that produced that book. On the other hand, I regard all the Epistles traditionally assigned to Paul as being written while Paul was still alive, either at Paul's dictation, or by his close associates and with Paul's full approval. I also think that the two Letters traditionally ascribed to Peter were produced while Peter was alive and accurately reflect his thought. These are positions held by a minority. Most contemporary scholars think that 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Philippians, and other Epistles of the New Testament were not written by the authors to whom they were traditionally ascribed.

The question is important and deserves more space than I can devote to it here. For now, I will only observe that my reading of the Christian writers immediately after the New Testament period has convinced me that the early Church placed such an emphasis on apostolic authority that if the apostles were not the authorities responsible for these Letters, all forms of orthodox Christianity have nothing on which to base their authority. The early Christians insisted on concrete historicity. They insisted on the historicity of Christ, in an age uninterested in historicity. And they made arguments based on historicity, arguments that were central to their own authority. Furthermore, they were arguments that in some cases could be verified or contradicted by living witnesses.

For instance, in A.D. 96, when Clement of Rome, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, wrote that the apostles had personally appointed bishops and deacons, and that these authorities should be obeyed, he was making an assertion about which many people would know the truth or falsity. Since this assertion was central to the conclusion of his argument, it must have been believed to be true by his readers. Similarly, when, in A.D. 107, Ignatius of Antioch repeatedly wrote that Christians should be obedient to their bishops, there would have been people still alive who had known the apostles, and they would have known if Ignatius' letters accurately reflected the true intentions of the apostles. For this reason, this present work "privileges" the authentic writings of Clement of Rome, the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus of Lyons (who knew men who knew the Apostle John; Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in the immediate aftermath of a horrific persecution in Lyons). The writings of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian of Carthage will also receive prominence because they testified to the shaping of the ongoing tradition, handed on from the apostles to the earliest bishops, despite the fact that these writers were not in a position personally to know the truth, and in some cases did not undergo martyrdom.

Returning to the heretical writings, one final point needs to be made. It must be acknowledged that many authors deemed heretical were in fact martyred for their beliefs. We should acknowledge this fact and honor these martyrs. But the simple fact is that they were not in a position to know the truth. Despite some of the more extravagant claims made regarding the Gospel of Thomas, all the so-called Gnostic texts were most likely the product of that unique period of history from the middle of the second to the middle of the third century. [2] It is highly unlikely that any of the Gnostic writings go back to the first century, as most of the New Testament and some of the postapostolic writings do. Therefore, these writings are given a secondary status in this work.

In many ways, the pagan documents are the most useful to historians of the early Church, if used carefully. In the satirical writings, the authors often thought they were making fun of the Christians, but they were actually providing the highest praise. For instance, Lucian of Antioch made fun of the Christians by writing a satire about a group of Christians who provided charity for a charlatan named Peregrinus. The satire was designed to show how na•ve the Christians were, but what we learn is how widespread and systematic the charitable actions of the early Church were.

From pagan historians and official documents we gain a certain amount of useful information about Christians, but primarily we learn what the Romans thought about the Christians, particularly their misconceptions about Christianity. We also gain valuable insight into the motivation behind the various persecutions the Church experienced. Archaeological data also have to be handled with care. Archaeology is a relatively young discipline, existing for fewer than three hundred years. Nevertheless, in that short period of time archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of ancient cities, uncovering enormous amounts of information about the ancient world. This information can be used quite profitably in reconstructing the everyday lives of the people of the Roman Empire, and quite a bit of this information actually can shed light on the lives of the early Christians. However, for the reasons mentioned above, I am hesitant to use the archaeological data without documentary evidence to accompany it.

As a general rule, archaeological evidence will be used with great circumspection. For example, in ancient Herculaneum, a house has been discovered with a cross-shaped indentation in the plaster in one of its rooms. When it was first discovered, this house created ripples of excitement in Christian circles. The part of Herculaneum that contained this particular house had been destroyed in A.D. 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Could there have been Christians in southern Italy in 79, with crosses mounted in the wall of their home? The thought thrills the imagination. The problem is that there could be other reasons for this particular indentation (a wooden frame could have been sunk into the plaster to allow a cabinet to be mounted, for instance). Also, we have no other reason to think the household was Christian (no artwork, no fish symbols, etc.). Furthermore, there are no other examples of people sinking crosses into the wall plaster of their houses. (Why not simply hang the cross on the wall, rather than sink it into the plaster?)

While I still consider it possible that this house had a Christian symbol, I do not include this particular house in my analysis of early Christian life. The objections are serious enough to raise doubts about what really happened in the house in Herculaneum. It may be that in a few years new evidence will be discovered that will make it more likely that this house contained dedicated Christians, but for now I cannot seriously consider this piece of evidence. For these reasons, this work relies on both archaeological and documentary evidence to reconstruct the lives of the early Christians. I am not averse to using unorthodox sources to illustrate the lives of the early Christians, but only within certain carefully delineated boundaries. Generally speaking, these documents will be used to shed light on the period in which the work was written, not the period about which it purports to write.

Negative evidence will also be considered; if an author condemns a certain practice, I will be willing at least to consider the possibility that some Christians were engaged in that practice. If a pagan author criticizes Christian behavior that would be considered admirable today, that pagan author will be taken at face value.

The Boundaries of This Study

It is fashionable, in scholarly circles today, to emphasize the diversity of early Christianity: If these scholars are correct, my task is even more difficult. Rather than describing one set of belief and practices, I would be forced to describe dozens, or perhaps even hundreds. Fortunately for me, these modern scholars are only partly right. When they are arguing for the diversity of the early Church, they are including in their definition of Christianity certain heretical groups such as Gnostics, Marcionites, Montanists, and a host of other groups that at one point or another were found to be in heresy. In this study, for purposes of convenience and personal inclination, I have chosen to consider only those Christian communities that later became the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. It will be necessary, on occasion, to mention the beliefs and practices of the heretical communities, but my main focus will be on those branches of Christianity that maintained apostolic succession and orthodox teachings about Christ and the Church.

Some readers will be disappointed to find that my primary focus is not on the New Testament Church, but rather on the two hundred years following the death of the last apostle. Naturally, New Testament data will be included in this work, but my primary focus will be on how the Christians from A.D. 100 to 313 understood the teachings of Christ and the apostles. There have been numerous works, by far better scholars than I, exploring the period of the New Testament. I am interested in the two-hundred-year period immediately following the writing of the New Testament, because the Church of this period was closer to the time when Christ and the apostles walked the earth than the Church is today. [3] We should at least consider the possibility that they understood the teachings of the New Testament better than we do today.

I am also interested in this period because one can clearly trace the development of certain Catholic ideas such as apostolic succession, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the sacraments of baptism, holy orders, and matrimony. At this point, I should make clear my personal presumption: my study of the early Church has convinced me that the first Christians were essentially Catholic in their outlook. All branches of orthodox Christianity (and by this I mean all branches of modern Christianity that adhere to the tenets of the Nicene Creed) owe their basic beliefs and even their canon of Scripture to the proto-Catholics of A.D. 100-313. For this reason alone, the beliefs and practices of the early Christians are worth studying.

It is my hope to introduce the treasures of early Christianity to a large number of people. This work is directed to a nonscholarly audience. I have made few assumptions about the level of historical knowledge of my readership. For this reason, I have included several aids throughout the work. At the end of Chapter 1, you will find a historical timeline that might be helpful. Also, at the end of the work, you will find an appendix giving a brief description of the most important figures mentioned in this work.

But I would urge my readers not to focus too heavily on the historical details of the period and concentrate instead on what we can learn from the lives of the early Christians. They were ordinary people, to be sure, but their lives were touched by grace, and many of them achieved a level of spiritual grandeur we can only marvel at today.


[1] This position is admirably summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 355-61.

[2] See Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), for a summary of the reasons the Gnostic writings should be dated to this later period.

[3] Moreover, this is the period in which Christianity was transformed from a sparse, regional religion into a significant presence in the Roman world.

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Carl J. Sommer holds a Master's Degree in Historical Theology. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife and two children.

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