What We Can Learn from a New History of Early Christianity

Mr. Freeman is a freelance academic historian. His Egypt, Greece and Rome, second edition, OUP, 2004, is used widely as an introductory textbook in US universities. His The Closing of the Western Mind and AD 381 explore the relationship between Christianity, the Roman empire and Greek philosophy. He travels widely in the Mediterranean and his The Blue Guide to Sites of Antiquity, Fifty Sites that Explain the Classical World is also just out.

When reading the mainstream church histories, I often come across the argument that an event, say the physical resurrection of Christ, certainly happened because there is no other historical interpretation which makes sense. It worries me. Most events in the ancient world are poorly recorded and we simply have no grounds to make any historical interpretation at all! We just have to say we do not know what happened. So when theologians often say they are certain what happened, historians tend to be more cautious. In my New History of Early Christianity I discuss some historical evidence about the resurrection accounts that I think is overlooked though I conclude that, despite the lack of conclusive evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, the important thing was that early Christians believed that it happened.

Why should someone who is primarily a historian of the ancient world and a relaxed agnostic who drifts in and out of churches to hear friends’ sermons have anything to contribute to a history of Christianity? Let us take a simple case of the apostle Paul. Luke tells us that he was born a Roman citizen and his use of privileges, such as electing to go to Rome for trial, seem to confirm this. Many biblical scholars say no more. For a historian at home in the wider world of the first century Roman empire, however, Paul’s citizenship rings alarm bells. Citizenship was very rare in the Greek world in this period for someone of Paul’s status and background and it is very unlikely that he or any of his family would have been granted it. However, the Romans had an extraordinary process by which the children of freed slaves could gain citizenship and pass it down to their families. So the most likely explanation is that Paul was the son, or possibly grandson, of a freed slave (his family may have been enslaved in the Roman conquest of the east). Acts 6:9 specifically notes a synagogue of freedmen in Jerusalem visited by citizens of Cilicia, Paul’s native province, so Paul may have attended it when he was in Jerusalem. (For those interested Jerome Murphy O’ Connor’s Paul, A Critical Life, OUP, 1996 explores Paul’s citizenship further.)

So Paul may have been only a generation from slavery. This is important. First it means he had an ambiguous social position: he had a status which gave him privileges but only because his father or grandfather had been members of that most ignominious group of all, the slaves. No wonder he often felt marginal. He frequently mentions slavery in his letters -- note Romans 6- 15-19, for instance -- but, despite having read widely in Pauline studies, I have never found a scholar who relates these passages to Paul’s own possible experience of slavery. (I am always open to being advised otherwise on this point!) So perhaps a historian with a wider knowledge of the Roman empire can bring something to biblical studies.

So where might my history differ from others? In the first part "Beginnings," I have reorganized the New Testament texts to discuss them chronologically. A great deal had gone on in the early Christian communities before any known gospel was written and so my chapter "Fifty years on: the Gospel Writers Reflect on Jesus" is as late as Chapter Seven. I also stress that the books of the New Testament were assembled slowly – the Book of Revelation did not make it into the canon until the fourth century. It is equally important to stress that there were many texts, such as the First Letter of Clement, that are known to have been widely read but did not make it into the New Testament. So a well-read Christian of the early second century may have known several early texts of which we now know nothing but certainly would not have seen anything like a New Testament.

If there is a thesis that stretches through the book, it is the immense difficulty that the early Christian communities found in achieving consensus and unity. I use my knowledge of the wider empire to show just how many cultural niches there were in which Christianity settled. There were very different Greek and Latin Christianities. I stress this diversity and give the evidence for it because I think it is underestimated. Studies such as Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity assume all too easily that there was a single movement called "Christianity," growing steadily. There is a mass of evidence against this view. The historian Eusebius, writing just thirty years after the Diocletian persecutions, wrote that God had sent them because of the mutual hostility of Christian communities!

Those who have read my earlier books will know of my argument that Christian theology of the fourth century was of a high intellectual standard and that one has to look for the legislation of the Christian emperors, notably Theodosius (379-395), for the stifling of Christian diversity. I repeat this argument here and take the story of the very different Christianities that developed in the Greek east and the Latin west up to AD 600. On the way, I discuss the gnostics -- were they overthrown by an authoritarian church? -- I think not. It is all fascinating stuff and I have tried to include the latest findings.

I hope Christians as well as non-Christians will read my book. There may be surprises and shocks as I challenge some conventional interpretations but no one is harmed by lively debate and I hope this book encourages it. It is vitally important for us all to understand how the Christian churches were born.

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Charles Freeman - 12/8/2009

Dear Donald and respondents to him, Thank you very much for your comments. I don't know of Conybeare's work but it sounds fascinating- thank you for letting me know of it. I hope you enjoy my book.
When we are looking at Roman citizenship in this period in Greece there are really only two ways to get it- being a prominent citizen like Josephus who was in with the ruling Roman elite, or through being a freed slave. It is not impossible that Paul's family bought citizenship,although it would be less likely than acquiring it through the second way. Freedman were often very influential people(one must remember that the Romans often enslaved educated people who had got on the wrong side in warfare) and it is interesting that Acts refers to a synagogue of freedmen from Cilicia so we know that there must have been freed slaves with Jewish backgrounds there, wealthy enough to travel to Jerusalem - so why might Paul not be among this historically recorded group? I am not saying that I am right but why look out for an out of the way explanation- citizenship being sold- when there is a straightforward one in front of one? Thanks for the interest and I do hope this encourages further research, Charles.

Donald Wolberg - 12/7/2009


Thank you for the suggestion. I shall track down Mr. Carmichael's book.

Elliott Aron Green - 12/6/2009

on the historical Jesus, you might read Joel Carmichaels The Crucifixion of Jesus [or some such title].

Donald Wolberg - 11/30/2009

The personality and determination of Paul remains a fascinating subject, even to non-specialists and "other than believers," such as myself. The same can be said of religion in general, where the origin of belief may or may not match well with fact. Mr. Freeman's new work certainly sounds like a must read, and that is my intention.

Mr. Freeman's comments regarding the intersection of history and religion are rather interesting to me; I have just read, "The Jesus Legend; A case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition," by Paul Rhodes and Gregory A. Boyd, (2007), Baker Academic, very much on subject, but perhaps contrary to Mr. Freeman's methodology.

I was fortunate to acquire and am trying to get through the wonderful detail of a copy of Conybeare, Howson and Bacon (1869), "The Life and Epistles of St. Paul," in all its 917 pages of marvelous text and plates--I wonder if Mr. Freeman has seen this volume and his thought about it, if he has. I am not sure if I see Mr. Freeman's suggestion of slavery as a part of the Pauline life history, and would note that A.N. Wilson, in "Paul, the Mind of the Apostle," (1997), Norton, notes that during the time of Athenodorus, Governor of Tarsus, "Roman citizenship could be purchased for 500 drachmae..." (p.29). Wilson suggests that Paul's father or grandfather may have found prosperity as tent makers and purhased citizenship.

Finally, Bruce Chilton, "Rabbi Paul; An Intellectual History," 2004, goes a long way, I think, to placing Paul in the context of his time. From my admittedly non-specialist and amateur perspective, I think that John Dominic Crossan has done much the same for Jesus in his, "The Historical Jesus," (1992). Harper Collins, and his different approach to origins in his "The Birth of Christianity," (1998) Harper Collins. I do look forward to reading Mr. Freeman's book.