Christian Self-Definition in the Imperial Context

Thanks to the positively Noachidic deluge we are a little behind. So, on Tuesday this week we will What happened when he died? We have already seen that his communities suffered crises of authority. So, as we look toward the turn of the Second century, we see also how Christian communities, seeking to establish a Pauline heritage and to answer the problems his charismatic leadership had partly created, began to organize and develop hierarchical structures which would become the norm in Christian Churches.

This is the era in which bishops, priests, and deacons emerged as distinct functions within a bureaucratic hierarchy. The authority of the bishop especially became one of the key questions for Christian self-identification in the Roman world. The bishop—and his apostolic succession—came to be seen as the guarantor of legitimacy in a local church, and the point of connection with other churches across the Mediterranean world.

In the Second and Third centuries the Christian churches experienced new crises of identity and authority. Various teachers in Rome, Syria, and Egypt, emerged with great charismatic authority and idiosyncratic formulations of Christianity. We hear of Marcionites, Basilideans, Valentinians, Sethians, Gnostics generally, Ophites, Ebionites, Quartodecimians, Docetists, Adoptionists, and others. The differences between these are differences of understanding of the identity of Jesus and the efficacy of his death. These groups predicate their distinctiveness on the texts and interpretations they regard as “canonical.” And each community gathers around its head and teacher. Thus, the hierarchy of Christian churches, and especially the authority of bishops as administrators and expositors of Scripture lies at the center of these great ecclesial and doctrinal debates which rolled through the Christian world in the century before it was officially recognized by Roman authority.

We will close on Thursday with the correspondence of Pliny and Trajan, and selections from Justin Martyr’s First Apology, in which he seeks to locate Christianity as a respectable and licit movement within the Roman world. Pliny and Trajan show us something of the Roman struggle to know what to make of Christians, and what to do with them. This correspondence is often regarded as evidence of official Roman policy toward Christians, and a model for understanding the phenomena of martyrdom and persecution. We will touch on, but will not deeply engage, those phenomena, but will end by asking—what happens to Roman society as Christianity becomes an organized religious movement distinct from Judaism?


Dissension and Consolidation


We see now how growing tensions between the Jesus movement and the Jewish communities begin to define a new attitude towards Judaism’s place within the new religion, leading to very different responses to traditional Jewish religious practices.  We will also look at Roman perceptions of the movement.  By the end of the First century, authorities who formerly could not even make sense of the name “Christus”,  were beginning to distinguish “Christians” from other Jews, and we will see how this is reflected in Nerva’s tax policies.

On Thursday, we will look at communities after Paul.  What happened when he died?  We have already seen that his communities suffered crises of authority.  So, as we look toward the turn of the Second century, we see also how Christian communities, seeking to establish a Pauline heritage and to answer the problems his charismatic leadership had partly created, began to organize and develop hierarchical structures which would become normative thereafter.

Tuesday:  HebrewsBarnabas

Thursday:  1-2 TimothyLetter of Ignatius to the Ephesians, Acts of Paul and Thecla

Early Days of the Jesus Movement

Having examined the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth in light of Roman rule and Sectarian Judaism, and having seen the fate of Jerusalem in the Jewish Rebellion, we look this week at the “Jesus Movement” which sprang up following Jesus’ execution at the hands of the Romans.  We will look at the spread of the Movement within Judea, particularly in and around Jerusalem prior to 66CE, and its development as a Jewish sect in the Diaspora thereafter, as detailed in the Acts of the Apostles and Gospel literature.

We will then turn on Thursday to the man himself, Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the Apostle.  Paul has often been hailed as the first Christian because it was not only his tireless missionary work which helped spread the Jesus Movement across the Roman world, but his interpretation of Jesus’ ministry and death as working across ethnic and social boundaries, which made this spread possible.  We will see that Paul worked primarily in Hellenistic cities with Jewish populations and that his own ministry continued the confrontational spirit of Jesus’, even while giving it the trans-national, even cosmic, character which would define Christianity’s self-definition in later centuries.

Over the course of this week we will be able to explore the emergence of largely autonomous communities bound together through their letters.  It will be clear very quickly that the Jesus Movement was not homogenous, and that the variety of communities and expressions of this movement, as well as the charismatic authority which maintained them, as often as not actually created new crises of leadership which later generations would have to solve.

Tuesday:  Acts of the Apostles

Thursday:  Paul, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans


Consequences of the First Jewish Rebellion

As we said from the outset, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE was horrific, seismic, and transformative for all parties involved in this course. For the Romans, the successful conclusion of this major rebellion led credibility to a new dynasty that had no family ties to the previous Julio-Claudian Dynasty. So how would the Romans know this new dynasty was in some crucial sense legitimate in the eyes of the gods? Victory, of course!

The political value of Vespasian and Titus’ victory over the Jews cannot be underestimated.  Beyond the material assistance of the Roman soldiers in Vespasian’s command in backing his bid for emperor, the victory in Judea allowed them a major cause for celebration and commemoration. War spoils and prisoners of war were used to begin construction on a massive amphitheater in the center of Rome, purposefully built over the former site of Nero’s sprawling palace. Now generally known as the Colosseum, its other name is the Flavian Amphitheater, and it remains one of the most impressive monuments of Imperial Rome. Another lasting monument is the Arch of Titus, commemorating Titus’ triumphal entry into Rome. As you can see in the picture to this post, the war spoils from the Temple are proudly paraded before the Roman populace as proof of Roman power.

For the Jews, this becomes a transformative period that will work a lasting change in the nature of Jewish piety. With the major cult center of the Temple now gone, the whole of Jewish religious life is reorganized without the pilgrimage center of Jerusalem at its heart. The Synagogue—already an established social and religious institution in many Jewish communities around the Mediterranean world—will now come to have the function it retains to this day. The old sectarian differences now give way to new social structures, and eventually Rabbinical Judaism will emerge as the dominant force in defining the Jewish religion.

For the early Jesus movement, the destruction of Jerusalem following some decades after the death of Jesus was both a crisis and an opportunity. On Thursday in particular, we’ll trace why this destruction is important in dating New Testament writings, and how it came to have new meaning as the movement transformed itself into Christianity.

For Tuesday 4/5 read in particular Josephus chapters 19-22 for the siege of Jerusalem, destruction of the Temple, and the Roman celebrations.

For Thursday 4/7 read Hayes and Mandel 207-215 ; and also Matthew 24-25, Luke 22, Luke 13.


The First Jewish Rebellion, 66-70 CE

This week we descend into the sad story of the Jewish Rebellion of 66-70 CE, a traumatic event that would forever change the nature of Judaism, the situation and later development of the Jesus Movement, and even the Roman Empire. We have studied at some length the tensions that existed between the peoples of the region and their Roman overlords, and we have also taken a look at the tensions within the Jewish communities of Roman Palestine as a whole. But what irrupts in 66 CE is not entirely something that could be understood plainly from such precedents.

We will divide the week into a consideration first of the rebellion (i.e., the Jewish seizure of Judea and the expansion of the conflict into surrounding areas) then of the repression, i.e. the Roman defeat of those Jews who decided to resist Roman power.  It is important to realize that this stage of the conflict greatly changes the game, for it concerns military conflict–the one thing the Romans typically excelled at, even when they failed in other ways in terms of their imperial system.

So there are two things to master: 1) the outline of events (as provided by Hayes and Mandell, chapter 4) and 2) the “textures” of the conflict, for which Josephus is our source as for so many other things. The reading is a little harder to assign here, as just how much Josephus you read depends on how much “texture” you wish to explore.  Readings for Thursday are therefore given a little differently from our usual style.  We will highlight in class things from the Josephus reading to consider, so make sure to bring your book!

This week’s assignments are:

  • Tuesday March 29: Hayes and Mandell, chapter 4; Josephus, chapters 8 & 9 (esp. the speech of Agrippa, 156-163)
  • Thursday March 31: Josephus, chapters 11, 12 (pp. 215-222), 16, 18 (pp. 317-322), 21

Jesus in the Context of Roman Rule

Matthew 22:21 “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

This week we will turn our attention to Jesus of Nazareth.  We will focus on his life and ministry in context both of Roman rule in Judea and Palestine, and of the theological, cultural, and political trends that we have discerned in late-Second Temple Judaism.  Drawing on Richard Horsely’s account, we will see that Jesus (and that more shadowy figure, John the Baptizer) emerges not only as a teacher of ethics, but, like John before him, as a popular leader and advocate for a new society, focused on the Galilean village as opposed to the Jerusalem Temple.  His teaching work included a sectarian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which brought his ministry into conflict with other sects in Judea.  His popularity, with its messianic and prophetic tones, brought him into conflict with the Jerusalem elites and, ultimately, with the Roman authorities.  The life and ministry—and death—of Jesus is the story of a prolonged and chosen conflict with Roman and Jewish authorities worked out through scriptural interpretation and Jewish sectarian practice.

For this week, we will focus on Horsely’s Jesus and Empire, but with reference especially to the Gospel of Mark as a primary text.  We will also look  at parts of the Gospel of Matthew.

This week’s assignments are:

  • Tuesday, March 22:  Horsely, Jesus and Empire, chapters 1-4, Gospel of Mark (in Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings)
  • Thursday, March 24:  Horsely, chapters 5-6, Gospel of Matthew (in Ehrman; also highly recommended: re-read Cohen, chapters 5-6)

Sectarian Judaism in the Second Temple Period

The Second-Temple period did not know just one Judaism, even in Jerusalem.  Rather, it was a period of great intellectual expansion, and a time of protracted social and political divisions.  These factors, combined with interaction with Diaspora Jews East and West, led to several alternative formulations of “true” Judaism.  After the destruction of the Temple, most of these formulations died out or were deliberately rejected, and what emerged—Rabbinic Judaism—was far more homogenous.  But in the First century, a Jew in Jerusalem (or elsewhere) would be regularly presented with several different notions of what it would mean to be a Jew.

The groups that emerged, particularly during the Hasmonean era, came in time to be “sects.” That is, they perceived themselves as the “true” or “correct” form of Judaism, and they defined themselves by contrast with other claimants.  Sects each constructed their own interpretation of and relationship to the Law, the Temple, and Roman authorities.  They could ask in the same breath whether one ought to sacrifice in the Temple or pay taxes to Caesar.  They might debate about whether the dead are raised to life, or whether God favors armed resistance to Rome.  Sects in this era were inevitably politically as well as religiously groups


So who are all these groups?  Josephus tells us about three “schools” of Judaism:  the Essenese, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.  But he later talks about bandits and Sicarii, too.  In the Gospels, Jesus meets regularly with Sadducees and Pharisees, but also has to deal with Herodians and the followers of John the Baptizer.  Philo of Alexandria tells us about Essenes and a group called the Therapeutae.

Are all of these “sects”, or “schools”?  What distinguishes each?  Are they equally important?  This week we’re going to look at some of the sects which emerged under the Hasmoneans and thrived under the Romans, to see what sort of religious, cultural, and political options were open to a Jew in the First century CE.

On Tuesday we’ll look first at Pharisees, Sadducees, and “bandits.”  On Thursday we’ll focus on more radically sectarian Judaism in the Qumran community.  This is the group that left the Dead Sea Scrolls to posterity.  In those scrolls we can read the fascinating story of one close-knit group’s disaffection and resistance to mainstream culture.

Readings:  Josephus, Ch. 7 and Appendix A; Cohen Ch. 5-6

Additional readings:  the Community Rule (1QS), the War Scroll (1QM), the commentary on Habbakuk (1QHab), available here.