As you now know, my book on the second century has just been released in the UK: Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (SPCK, 2017). It will be released in the US with IVP Academic in the Spring.
Since it has been released, folks have been asking how this book connects to the modern church. In other words, can we learn anything from the Christians of the second century that may help us in our current cultural moment? Absolutely. Here are a few lessons to consider.
1. Second-century Christians were regarded as “haters.” One might think the small size of the early Christian movement would allow it to be overlooked or ignored. But this is not what happened. On the contrary, the Roman government noticed Christians and didn’t like what they saw. Christians were seen as offensive, rude, peculiar, and a threat to a stable Roman society. Consequently, they suffered significant political persecution (arrested, thrown in jail, sometimes martyred).
Why were Christians viewed this way? Because of their refusal to worship the Roman gods. Christians were insistent that only Jesus was worthy of worship. And to not worship the Roman gods was to run the risk of invoking their displeasure. So, Christians were viewed as reckless and callous to the welfare of their fellow man. They were called “haters of humanity” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44).
Put bluntly, it was the exclusivity of Christianity that was made it so offensive. The same is true today.
2. Second-century Christians were regarded as intellectually deficient. In addition to political persecution, the Christians suffered significant intellectual persecution. Christian doctrine was regarded as ridiculous, silly, and not worthy of the assent of the intellectual Roman elites. The likes of Lucian, Galen, Fronto, and Celsus offered scathing critiques of this “new” religion, mocking its books (the Gospels) as well as its founder (Jesus).
So, if you think the level of cultural ridicule Christians receive today is new, think again.
3. Second-century Christians were a textually-centered, “bookish” movement. In spite of the intellectual ridicule noted above, it is worth observing that second-century Christians were characterized by their distinctive commitment to the Scriptures as the basis for everything they did. They not only read these books, but they studied them in great detail, copied them in great numbers, and distributed them across great distances.
So dominant was the Christian commitment to their “books,” that even the critics took notice. Indeed, this is the reason that Christianity was often regarded more as a philosophy than a religion. In the ancient world, religions were not typically associated with written texts so directly. So, Christianity stood out in this regard (along with Judaism).
While some in the modern day will insist that Christians did not use or need the Scriptures in the earliest stages, the historical data says otherwise. Indeed, this “bookish” aspect of Christianity has been lost in some circles today. And this is one of the core elements that we need to recover.
In the end, these are three observations from the second century that have many implications for today. While prior generations of Christians might have enjoyed a time when the modern church was a lot like the church of the fourth and fifth centuries, the current generation of the church finds itself in a situation that looks a lot more like the second.
Thus, in order to engage with our modern world, perhaps we don’t need a new apologetic but an old one. A second-century one.
Literate Barbarian says
Just got my copy from across the pond. Looking forward to reading it after Canon Revisited.
Love your work.
Lois Westerlund says
Thank you for this. You do us all a great favor when you apply the knowledge gained by solid scholarship so acutely to our daily lives as Christians today. Does it not shine a light on the inroads our culture has made on the Church today?
True mr kruger
Don Young says
Love your stuff. A workmate approached me after reading a ludacris book by Ehrman. I should thank him because as a result, I found your site. I had an experience similar to yours with Ehrman, I took a class at a university from a professor of New and Old Testament studies who was an atheist and really forced his prejudice on students. He did a lot of damage to people who were weak in their faith. May these men find God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Brady Mayo says
Always read the counter arguments to scholars like Erhman. Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig do circles around the Erhman’s of this world.
Brady Mayo says
I would just add that it was not the exclusivity that allowed the second century Christians to leave their mark but their love for “the lesser of these” (the poor, the mentally ill, the oppressed, the addict, the prisoner, the orphan and the widow) was their real legacy. Without that it did not matter what they believed.
But its very much in light of what they believe that they did such works of the spirit. Our beliefs determine how we act in the world.
In fact in spite of what they did they were looked down upon by the pagans as well as mocked for their beliefs,
This too-brief post doesn’t pull apart the “why” of being labeled a hater. If my core beliefs (in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the sin nature of humankind, etc.) are an offense, there isn’t much I can do, as renouncing those beliefs is a bridge too far. But when non-core beliefs, attitudes and statements are giving me that label, is “hater” an apt description? At various times, Christians have held numerous questionable and arbitrary (and usually regressive) positions (against interracial marriage, in favor of dubious wars, in support of slavery, in opposition to women voting) and have used the faith to defend those positions. I’m old enough to remember when the primary opponents of a national MLK Day were white conservative religious leaders; how else would you describe these people, except to call them “haters”? I found this statement (Put bluntly, it was the exclusivity of Christianity that was made it so offensive. The same is true today.) far too flippant and incomplete.
mark e mcculley says
But Luther and Zwingli and Calvin made themselves loved with the right people. They have up pacifism and the Sermon on the Mount. Calvin–“The magistrate, if he is godly, will not want to exempt himself from the common subjection of God’s children. It is by no means the least significant part of this for him to subject himself to the church, which judges according to God’s Word ” (Institutes, 4.11.13)
Calvin—though godly kings defend the kingdom of Christ by the sword, still it is done in a different manner from that in which worldly kingdoms are wont to be defended; for the kingdom of Christ, being spiritual, must be founded on the doctrine and power of the Spirit…. Yet this does not hinder princes from accidentally defending the kingdom of Christ; partly, by appointing external discipline, and partly, by lending their protection to the Church against wicked men.