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?


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Associate Professor of Classical Studies The Honors College at the University of Houston

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