Chapter 1: Introduction
The Christian Church is one of the facts of our time which one may like or dislike, but which no intelligent observer of the contemporary scene will wish to ignore. When therefore we set out to study the events out of which it arose, and the part that its Founder played in them, we are not like archaeologists digging up the remains of a forgotten civilization, or palaeontologists reconstructing an extinct organism. The events are part of the living fabric of a contemporary society whose dependence on its Founder is a permanent feature of its Continuing existence. It may help to make this continuity more real to our minds if we attempt to trace, in barest outline, the place which the church has held in the history of the last nineteen centuries.
Putting the time-machine into reverse, we may find our first stopping place at the great upheaval of the sixteenth century which changed mediaeval Europe into the Europe that we know — or did know until the great wars once again moved the old landmarks. Humanism, Reformation, Counter-Reformation — these may stand for the forceful uprush of new ideas, which, with some unfortunate accompaniments, shaped a new world and inspired a new culture of which we became the heirs. The church stood near the center of the eruption, which indeed is not intelligible without it. The upheaval fragmented the church itself, and it still arouses passionate emotions in the fragments. Only a little reflection is needed to show that that part of its past at least is very much alive in the church of today. The present effort to transcend the divisions is one of the signs of its continued vitality.
Moving upstream, we come to the Middle Ages, the period of the gothic cathedrals, of the crusades, of great systems of law and administration, and of massive scholastic philosophy. At that time Europe was “Christendom.” Its civilization was directed by men who, however mistaken at times, intended to interpret and apply the principles of the Christian religion. Without the church, the Middle Ages would be a void.
Behind the Middle Ages lies the Dark Age, when Europe slowly struggled out of the mess into which it had been plunged by the decline of Rome and the incursions of the barbarians. The only institution which bridged the gap between the old civilization and the new one, as yet unborn, was the church. It preserved the rudiments of law, order and humanity. It encouraged, through the monastic orders, the revival of agriculture and crafts, and it laid the foundations of learning and education. It is impossible to conceive what would have come out of the chaos of the Dark Age without the church.
On the far side of the gap lay the Roman Empire, the final embodiment of the older civilization. Under Constantine the Great, Rome accepted the leadership of the Christian Church, which gradually took the whole system under its guidance, to hand on its most vital elements to a later age. The persecution to which Constantine put an end had been a matter of survival. The church prevailed not only because it had the faith, tenacity and courage to survive, but also because it had proved itself superior to its rivals.
Behind Constantine lay two centuries and a half of struggle. At times it was overt, often it was concealed; but at no time was any emperor free from anxiety about the “Christian question.” At an early stage of the struggle, two Roman writers have left a record of the way in which they looked at the “Christian question” of their time.
Early in the second century the Roman governor of the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor, Gaius Plinius Secundus, commonly called the Younger Pliny, wrote to the Emperor Trajan about some of his problems.1 He had on his hands strikes, municipal scandals, and political disaffection. There was also some religious unrest. Many temples, he reported, were practically deserted, and in some, services had been discontinued. There was a slump in agricultural markets, because people were no longer buying beasts for sacrifice as they should. It was all the fault, so his informants said, of some people called “Christians,” who formed a secret society which could be up to no good, and who were certainly disloyal to the empire, since they refused to offer sacrifice to the god-emperor. So a number of Christians were arrested and brought to trial. The examination (according to the governor’s report) failed to find evidence against the accused of any criminal activities. At worst, it pointed to “a degraded and extravagant superstition.” But they did refuse sacrifice to the emperor, and anyhow they deserved to be punished for their “inflexible obstinacy.”
In the course of the examination, Pliny found out something about the practices of the Christian society. They were accustomed, he discovered, to meet on a fixed day very early in the morning, to sing hymns responsively to Christ “as to a god,” and to bind themselves by a solemn oath, not (as he had apparently expected) to some nefarious crime, but to keep the moral law: not to rob or steal, not to commit adultery, not to defraud. Later, they took a meal together, a very simple and harmless meal (the governor notes) — and nothing more. Pliny is a bit confused about what actually happened when Christians met on Sunday, but there is not much difficulty in recognizing some of the elements of what is now called a Communion Service. Millions of people all over the world took part in just a service last Sunday.
That was in AD. 112. About that time a friend of Pliny’s, Cornelius Tacitus, was engaged on a history of the Rome of the Emperors.2 He came to the reign of Nero, and to the great fire of Rome. Rumors had got about that the emperor had had a hand in starting the fire. Something must be done, so the Roman police looked about for a scapegoat. They found one, says Tacitus, in a body of people known as “Christians,” who were generally disliked by the Roman populace for their disgraceful practices. So a number of Christians were arrested and charged with arson. Many were put to death, with such refinements of torture that public dislike began to turn to sympathy for the victims. Tacitus does not appear to believe the charge of incendiarism, but he comments brutally that they were anyhow enemies of society (and so by implication deserved what they got). Their founder, he learned, was a criminal who had been executed by Pontius Pilate, governor of Judaea, thirty years or so earlier. Unfortunately the death of the ringleader had not stopped the mischief. The “pestilent superstition” had flared out again, and soon reached Rome, where, he bitterly remarks, every foul and horrible thing finds its way sooner or later. At the time of the fire, its adherents amounted to an “Immense multitude”; so he says, but possibly he exaggerates the danger to society. So here at last, from a reputable, if unamiable, Roman historian, we have an account of the beginnings of Christianity, in the late twenties or early thirties of the first century.
Our journey upstream has brought us to a highly significant period in the history of the world. The Roman Empire had recently taken shape under Augustus (whose reign spans the transition from “BC.” to “AD.”). It was an immense political achievement. It also made possible new adventures of the human spirit, for it was like a great reservoir into which the currents of ancient civilization flowed, and out of which rose all the streams of later history in the western world. In the spiritual sphere, quite apart from Christianity, it saw the harvesting of earlier tendencies in the emergence of new ways of religion and a new outlook in philosophy. Tacitus could not know, nor Pliny, that the group of people whom the one thought a danger to society and the other a set of pig-headed cranks were the vanguard of a body which would take charge of the whole new movement, give it directions, and carry it into ages far ahead. But so it was. Among numerous new faiths with which the Roman Empire abounded, one was destined to survive, carrying the germ of a new order — the Christian religion, whose Founder, born under Augustus, was put to death under his successor Tiberius; and whose followers, soon becoming a large and influential society, paid him divine honors and vowed themselves to him for the service of the moral law.
It is now time to look at the origins of this society at closer range. Judaea, says Tacitus, was the place where the trouble began, so to Judaea we must now direct our attention. Palestine lay near the eastern confines of the Roman Empire, which in that region was the successor of the Greek monarchies set up after Alexander the Great had conquered the Persians. Throughout the region, the Greek language and Greek culture were a binding force, while political unity was imposed by the Roman administration. Most of the subject peoples were reasonably content to have it so. Roman rule might be severe, often harsh, sometimes oppressive, but it was an improvement on the anarchy and misrule of the Greek monarchies in their decline. Palestine, however, was an exception. The Jews who formed the dominant part of its population were a peculiar and a stubborn people. The Romans never understood them. They had for long been subjects, first of the Persian Empire and then of the Greek monarchies of Syria and Egypt. They had absorbed a good deal of the culture of their successive masters, but a nationalist revival in the second century BC. had given them a taste of independence under a native dynasty. It began in the heroic resistance of the Maccabees, flourished for a time under their successors, the Hasmonaean princes, and fizzled out in sordid squabbles among their last heirs, when a Roman takeover became inevitable. But the Jews did not forget their brief spell of glory, and indulged a dangerous nostalgia. The first intention of the Romans had been to govern by “indirect rule,” and for a time it worked, but in the end the southern part of the country was organized as the Roman province of Judaea, under governors of secondary rank with the title of prefect (subsequently procurator), while the rest was left under puppet princes. At the time of our story the prefect of Judaea was Pontius Pilate, whose term of office was from AD. 26 to 27.
North of Judaea proper, but still within the Roman province, was the district known as Samaria. Its inhabitants were of Israelite and mixed descent, and followed a religion basically the same as that of the Jews, though it deviated in some particulars. But the Jews ostracized them as aliens and heretics. Rankling memories of the past, and centuries of estrangement, had bred between these people of kindred stock, close neighbors in a very small country, a mentality of mutual hatred, which found expression constantly in petty provocations and occasionally in murderous affrays.
The northern part of Palestine, known as Galilee, with the territory to the east of the Jordan, was under a native prince, Herod Antipas. Galilee had a mixed population, thick on the ground. It was a hotbed of Jewish disaffection. Many Galileans who passed for Jews must have been descended from foreigners forcibly “converted” when the Hasmonaean princes conquered the territory, but their zeal for their religion was not the less fanatical for that. The prefect of Judaea always kept an anxious eye on the turbulent Galileans who descended in their thousands on Jerusalem for the national religious festivals. At such seasons he was accustomed to leave the seat of government at Caesarea and take up residence in Jerusalem, and to see that an adequate force of troops was on hand in the castle overlooking the temple courts.
For the temple was the nerve center of Jewish life. Politically, the tiny Jewish enclave was negligible, but as a religious center it had world-wide significance. Of this the Roman government was well aware, for there were Jews everywhere in the empire who looked to Jerusalem as their metropolis. Five centuries earlier, when the Jewish community revived after having been almost extinguished as a separate entity, it had organized itself as something more like a church than a state. Its “constitution” (if we may call it so), at least as fundamental and immutable as that of the United States, was the so-called Law of Moses, which not only covered the field of civil and ecclesiastical order, but also provided a comprehensive code of social and personal ethics by which, in theory, every member of the community, whether resident in the mother country or dispersed abroad, was bound. In consequence, that class of person who were recognized as learned in the Law, and made it their business to expound it, acquired a position of peculiar influence and prestige. These persons were known by a term which is conventionally translated as “scribes,” but might be more adequately represented by some such phrase as “doctors of the Law.” The obvious difficulty of carrying out the provisions of the Law in all their minutiae, in a situation far more complicated than that for which they were originally framed, led those who desired seriously to make the attempts to form themselves into “fellowships” for mutual support and instruction. The members of these fellowships had come to be known, in our period, as “Pharisees,” a word of uncertain derivation, which is thought to mean something like “the separated.” If so, it would describe their position aptly enough, for they evidently felt themselves, and other people felt them, to be in some measure separate from “the people who care nothing for the Law.” They were respected and influential, and their fellowships included men of high moral and intellectual quality, though they were no doubt open to the temptations common to people who set out to be more religious than their neighbors. They were strong in the local “synagogues,” which served not only as places of worship but as social centers and even, to a limited extent, as organs of local self-government for the Jewish community.
In the capital, the presence of the temple gave overriding power and prestige to the hierarchy. The High Priest, whose office was hereditary in certain families, exercised great authority, though the Romans had clipped his wings considerably. He presided over the grand council or senate, known as the Sanhedrin (a Greek word spelled as Hebrew — a sign of the depth to which Greek influence had penetrated). The imperial authorities, after their custom in the provinces, allowed the Sanhedrin to exercise a substantial, though well controlled, measure of local autonomy. In the main the priestly aristocracy and their immediate adherents tended to be friendly, or subservient, to the Romans. It was to their interest, and they may well have believed it was to the interest of Jewry as a whole, to maintain as smooth relations with the paramount power as was possible in the situation. At the time of our story the High Priest was Joseph Caiaphas, who had been put into the office by Pilate’s predecessor. But much power seems to have remained in the hands of his father-in-law, Annas. Annas had been induced or forced to retire from the highest office some years earlier, but it was only to remain influential behind the scenes while he maneuvered five of his sons in succession, as well as his son-in-law, on to the pontifical throne. The “house of Annas” has an unsavory reputation in Jewish tradition.
Some of the most potent elements, however, in Jewish society of the- first century stood outside the official establishment. There were various sects with their own peculiar doctrines and practices. One of these has in recent years become known to us through the discovery of the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls.” These contain the sectarian literature of a quasi-monastic community whose settlement has been identified at a spot known as Qumran. While fanatically zealous for the Law they had their own interpretation of its precepts. They repudiated the priesthood in Jerusalem, in favor of priests of their own, whose “orders” (to use modern phraseology) they regarded as alone “valid.” They guarded an exclusive membership and lived under a strict and puritanical discipline, practicing rituals of the most demanding kind. They were ferociously nationalist in temper. One of their documents contains elaborate directions for the organization of an army to fight against the “Sons of Darkness,” It moves largely in the realms of fantasy, but there is no reason to doubt that these sectaries did look forward to a final war of liberation ending with the triumph of the Jewish people over all their enemies. The document does not mention the Romans by name but their alias is sufficiently transparent.
Whether the pious sectaries contemplated turning fantasy into reality by joining in a military rising is uncertain. Probably they did. If they did not, there were others who did. Ever since, in AD. 6, a certain Judas of Galilee had led an abortive rising against the Roman government, an underground resistance movement remained in being, and broke out sporadically from time to time, until at last they succeeded in precipitating a full-scale rebellion in AD. 66. They liked to be called Zealots. The government called them bandits. The type is familiar enough in the twentieth century. The attitude of the Pharisees toward this clandestine movement seems to have been equivocal; many of them would probably have said that they approved their aims but disapproved of their methods. The priestly aristocrats were nervously anxious to damp down any dangerous manifestation of militant nationalism.
Altogether, what with party rivalries, sectarian disputes and political differences, Palestine in the first half of the first century was in a state of constant unsettlement. It was in this atmosphere of tension that, as Jewish tradition avers, “they hanged Jesus of Nazareth on the Eve of Passover because he practiced sorcery and was leading Israel astray.” 3 It is as unsympathetic an account as the Roman historian’s, but once again it is an outside view which helps to put the beginnings of Christianity on the map of first-century history.
That is about as far as we can get by looking at the matter from the outside. It is now time to take a fresh look from the inside.
Once again, we may start with contemporary facts, under our immediate observation, and move upstream. If we want to get an inside view of the Christian movement, the natural course is to go into the church — any church. What are these people doing? The church does a good many things, some of them perhaps more useful and relevant than others. Some of them are being done by other bodies — better done, it may be. But there is one activity in which the church meets with no competition. Its special business is the worship of God. Let us assume, at least for the purpose of argument, that Worship is a serious employment for intelligent beings, and worth trying to understand. Unless we do in some measure understand it, we are not likely to understand either the nature or the history of the church. That assumption being granted, it is interesting to ask what exactly Christians do in church when they worship God. I am not here asking about the fathomless profundities of man’s communion with the Deity, but about what anyone may observe when Christians are engaged in worship.
Their ways of worship vary a good deal; but in any church you may enter you will find that certain things always form part of it. They all make use of some form of words, spoken or sung, which express belief in God. They praise God for his goodness and power, and thank him for all good things of life, because they believe him to be the Maker of all things, visible and invisible. Thinking of his goodness, and of all that seems to deny that goodness, they confess their own misdeeds, follies and weaknesses, ask for and accept forgiveness and offer themselves to his service. Again, since God is the source of all good, they ask him for things desirable and necessary for themselves and for other people. They also listen while passages are read from the Bible, a collection of ancient writings of various kinds, in which the being and attributes of God are set forth in many different aspects and the moral law is declared; in which also events of ancient times are recorded. This preoccupation with ancient history is a characteristic, and at first sight a rather curious, feature of Christian worship. Many people have no patience with it, and ask, what have all these bygones to do with the needs of people in the twentieth century? Part of the answer is that these ancient events are moments in a living process which includes also the existence of the church at the present day; and another part is that, as Christians believe, in these events of ancient time God was at work among men, and it is from his action in history rather than from abstract arguments that we learn what God is like, and what are the principles on which he deals with men, now as always. In any case, it was out of these events that the church itself emerged, and this, they believe, was God’s doing. If we are enquiring into the historical origins of Christianity, this testimony to events is of considerable interest.
Among the services of the church there is one in particular which in different forms is observed by all kinds of Christian societies. It is variously known as the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Mass. Under all its different forms we can recognize features of the Sunday assembly of Christians which intrigued the Roman Pliny in AD. 112. As then, so now, the assembly of Christians is centered on a communal meal — reduced now to its simplest elements of bread and wine. About that central act cluster most of the elements of Christian worship which we have briefly noted. At the crucial point of the service you will hear spoken some such words as these:
The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God, broke it and said: “This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me.” In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said, “This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial to me.”
When these words are spoken, it is understood that the whole service is placed within the context of what Jesus said, did, and suffered on the occasion referred to, and is to be understood on that basis. The depth of meaning which Christian people find in those words it is not necessary here to attempt to set forth. But it is important, for our present purpose, to observe that in this central act of Christian worship — in this act, therefore, which more than any other expresses all that Christianity is — there is included an act of remembrance. The church — every gathering of the church, everywhere, under every form — remembers that on a certain night its Founder said and did certain definite things, briefly reported: that on the same night he fell into the hands of his enemies; and that he suffered a violent death (for the broken body and the shed blood can mean nothing else). The memory of the church thus takes us back to the same point where we formerly dropped anchor on our journey up the stream of history — the moment of the foundation of the church, when its rounder “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” All lines run back to that precise point, which we might date tentatively to Friday, April 7, AD. 30. Not indeed that the exact calendar date is either certain or important; other dates are possible between AD. 29 and 33; but it is of some importance that the church remembers an event which is actual, concrete and in principle dateable like any other historical event.
The remembrance goes back in a continuous chain. At every service there are present elderly people who fifty or sixty years ago heard those words spoken by, or in the presence of, men old enough to be their grandparents; there are young people who, it may be, will repeat them in the hearing of their grandchildren. And so the endless chain goes on. For nineteen centuries there has not been one single week in which this act of remembrance was not made, one generation reminding another.
This continuity of memory within the church may be illustrated by an example. Round about AD. 200 there died at Lyons in France the bishop of that city, Irenaeus by name, one of the outstanding Christian leaders of his time. It happens that a letter of his has come down to us, addressed to an old fellow student named Florinus from whom he had been separated for many years. The letter brings up reminiscences of their student days together at the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor. In particular he recalls how they used to attend lectures by Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who died about AD. 155, at the age of at least eighty-six. He must have been getting on in years when Irenaeus and Florinus heard him. Irenaeus reminds his old companion — and there would have been no point in it if Florinus could not confirm his recollections — how Polycarp used to tell them stories about “John the disciple of the Lord,” whom he had known personally many years before. Which of the persons named John was meant, seems uncertain, but that he was a personal follower of Jesus is clear. Irenaeus, then, in France shortly before AD. 200, was able to recall at only one remove a man who had known Jesus intimately. When the bishop of Lyons broke bread with his little congregation as a memorial of the death of Jesus, he was not thinking of something he had found (where Kipling’s John Nicholson found his God) “in a printed book,” but of something that he had been told by his old teacher, whose friend had been there and knew. That is what the memory of the church is like.
A corporate memory handed down from generation to generation becomes what we call a tradition. Our knowledge about the origins of the church, and about its Founder, rests primarily on a living tradition, which had its beginnings in the actual memories of those who had witnessed the events and had personal dealings with the principal Actor in them. A tradition may be altered or distorted in the course of long transmission by word of mouth. When once it is written, it stands substantially unaltered. It may therefore be tested and controlled by a careful and critical study of the documents which caught and fixed it at the earliest accessible stage in its development. The New Testament contains the deposit, in writing, of the continuous tradition about Jesus at various stages of its transmission during the first century of the church’s existence. The principal documents are the four gospels, and to these we must now turn. Meanwhile it is a fact of some significance that these records, whatever their historical value in detail, are about a Person whose role in history was remembered. For the event to which we have been led back by all lines of approach, from outside and from inside, is not some remote, forgotten episode of the past, recovered, as it might be, through digging up an ancient tomb or unearthing a manuscript in a cave. It is something that has never dropped out of the memory of the oldest surviving society in the western world.
1. Pliny Correspondence with Trajan, letter 96 (97).
2 Tacitus Annals XV. 44.
3. Babylonian Talmud. Tractate Sanhedrin, 43b.