New Perspectives on Christianity’s Beginning

We do know that Acts tells a straight-line narrative: the story proceeds without interruptions or subplots. But if only because it simplifies the actual sequence of events, it cannot be taken to be a valid history of early first-century Christianity. Besides, the story contains many unanswered questions that Luke did not bother to hide and poses obvious questions he ignored. Even more upsetting is the appearance of puzzling characters like Apollos, who knew only John’s baptism and the Ephesian disciples who had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Strangest of all, we learn nothing about Christianity’s arrival in Rome! How can these oddities be explained?

See Also: Paul – the Promoter of Christianity

The Collection for the Saints as a Polite Bribe: An Effort to Humanize Paul

Christian Beginnings and Gnosticism: Aspects of My Religious Biography

"A Letter to Jesus: A Confession"

A New Explanation of the Resurrection of Jesus: The Result of Mourning

By Gerd Lüdemann
Emeritus Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity
Georg-August-University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University
February 2018

1. Judaism prepares the way for Christianity[1]

The synagogue in the Diaspora was not only a major source of persecution for the ancient church but also an important prerequisite for the birth and growth of the Christian community in the Roman Empire. The network of synagogues provided both routes and centers for the spread of Christian propaganda. Thus, the mission of the new religion, carried out in the name of the God of Abraham and Moses, found a field ready for it.

The dispersion of the Jews in the first century CE

Jews were scattered throughout most of the Roman Empire, but their actual numbers can only be estimated. For instance, Philo (15/10 BCE–after 40 CE), a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, reports that of the five city districts of Alexandria two were called “Jewish” because they were inhabited predominantly by Jews (In Flaccum 43). “In both Egypt and Syria there may well have been 1,000,000 Jews; in Palestine 500,000; in the rest of the Roman Empire at least 1,500,000. If there were 55,000,000 inhabitants in the empire, at least 7 percent of them must have been Jews.”[2]

“In Rome at that time the male Jewish population was between 12,000 and 15,000. According to the most reliable information, the free population of Augustan Rome about 5 BCE was approximately 600,000. 12,000 to 15,000 Jews would represent between two and three percent of that number.” (Harnack)

What Christians inherited from Judaism

It is surprising that in the Diaspora a religion that not only maintained a wall between itself and all other religions, but also reflected a national tradition in its practices and promises, should have displayed such an active missionary impulse and had such great success.

Missionary effort alone cannot explain it. Rather, the evidence shows that Judaism’s blossoming resulted from its influence on others and from internal changes: that it had become both an ethnic and a world religion. Jews felt proud that they had a message and a program to bring to all of humanity: the One God, creator and judge, and his holy moral law, further a “spiritual quality of worship without images.”[3] From this consciousness they derived a sense of moral obligation of which Paul reminds his fellow Jews:

You are sure that

you are a guide to the blind,
a light to those who are in darkness,
an instructor of fools, of the foolish,
a teacher of babes,

having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.[4]

Other elements of the tradition were minimized. In many instances the primary goal may have been conversion.[5]

The Christian mission owed to the preceding Jewish mission religious communities already founded over all the cities, and previous knowledge of the Old Testament, with excellent catechetical and liturgical instruction about its details.

Thus Christian missionaries were able to employ Jewish practice with relatively few changes, and the easily adopted content included regular worship of God, as well as an impressive apologetic for monotheism, historical teleology, together with “judgment day” and a recognizably superior set of ethical principles.

The debt is so large that Ernest Renan sarcastically hails the Christian mission as a continuation of the Jewish propaganda: “A generation of fanatics has robbed Judaism of its wages and it was prevented from gathering in that which it prepared.”

To paraphrase Harnack: The injustice that the Christian church deployed against Judaism is almost unprecedented in history. It not only took possession of and transformed Judaism’s sacred foundational text, the Hebrew Bible, but went so far as to rebut the debt and to cut every connection with Israel. The daughter disowned the mother, and then she looted her.

2. Luke-Acts on the origins of Christianity

We read in the Book of Acts of an extraordinary happening that occurred at Pentecost, the festival fifty days after the Passover when Jesus was executed. Luke reports that the disciples met in a house in Jerusalem, when they were suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in diverse tongues recognizable to a polyglot group of auditors representing the languages of he known world. Thus filled with the Holy Spirit and emboldened by an exhortation by Peter, Luke relates, Jesus’ followers initiated a missionary campaign that immediately won 3,000 converts and day by day thereafter gained more awe-struck believers for the cause of Christ. From that time on, Luke assures us, the mission continued to expand under the directions of the Spirit and by the unflagging efforts of the apostles and the other followers, all of whom acted in full accord and harmony. This united and essentially monolithic picture of early Christianity continues throughout Acts.

The truth was, of course, a much more colorful and complex phenomenon. The evidence points to a Christian movement that began in many different places, where various gatherings of disciples sought to understand what they had learnt from Jesus, how and why his life so suddenly ended.

The texts that have survived indicate that the several churches or communities had very different views of the import of Jesus, the meaning of his death, and the reports of his resurrection. Indeed, some took these latter claims to reflect a revival of Jesus’ body, some envisioned a spiritual exaltation, while others dismissed such ideas and concentrated on spreading his proclamation and his teaching.

Even Acts makes clear the existence of various Christians and their rivalry and disagreement with one another. Those favoring the continued observance of Jewish Law actively opposed those who would admit Gentiles without imposing on them the demands of the Torah. Still others retained the primitive traditions associated with John the Baptist and were unaware of Pauline canons of ritual and practice.[6] And all this is apart from the thoroughly attested activity of the communities that produced the Gospel of Thomas and the Q document. Indeed, pluralism was typical of the early church: the movement was never the unified entity that Acts portrays.

And that is unfortunate, because the author of Acts intends his work to be taken as a historical reportage on early Christianity. The very first verse of Acts invokes the opening of his gospel which he claims to have critically evaluated all the available sources and goes so far as to attest the precision of the result.

1 Since many have attempted to compose an account about the events which have come to fulfillment among us, 2 as they have been handed down to us from those who from the beginning were themselves eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too have thought it good, since I have investigated everything carefully from the start, to write them out in order for you, excellent Theophilus, 4 in order that you know the certain basis of the teaching in which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1–4).

This same introduction plainly refers to previous accounts – none of which he deems satisfactorily accurate – and promises what today might be called a new critical edition. The opening words of Acts constitute a virtual guarantee that the same intention and criteria guided his account of the spread of Christianity in his second book.

We do know that Acts tells a straight-line narrative: the story proceeds without interruptions or subplots. But if only because it simplifies the actual sequence of events, it cannot be taken to be a valid history of early first-century Christianity. Besides, the story contains many unanswered questions that Luke did not bother to hide and poses obvious questions he ignored. Even more upsetting is the appearance of puzzling characters like Apollos, who knew only John’s baptism[7] and the Ephesian disciples who had never heard of the Holy Spirit.[8] Strangest of all, we learn nothing about Christianity’s arrival in Rome! How can these oddities be explained?

Luke uses carefully selected characters to demonstrate Christianity’s triumph. We meet “good guys” – like the disciples, Christian teachers, and martyrs –and “bad actors” – like heretics,[9] unbelieving Athenians,[10] unfriendly Roman officials,[11] and the inevitable but distasteful Jews.[12] Still, despite a few bumps in the road the path to ultimate salvation leads straight ahead and has no forks or detours.

To be sure, such basic narrative strategies yield stories that are easily remembered and reiterated, and thus likely to be influential. Unfortunately, by avoiding the nuances and complexities that are part of human history, such simplistic dramatization necessarily distorts the truth. The abundant evidence of Christianity’s early diversity compels us to adopt a highly critical view of Acts because it shows how much Luke has left out. Above all, we may find ourselves reluctant to accept his biases concerning Jews and other troublemakers who hinder what he sees as the monolithic and inevitable progress of Christianity.

Today, the good/bad, orthodox/heretic distinctions are at last coming to be seen as judgments made after the fact by those who wished (and still wish) to promote the winners – among whom they see themselves.

Luke interprets the continuity of salvation as a “course” or “way.” In a sermon – which he puts into Paul’s mouth in Pisidian Antioch –the apostle speaks of John the Baptist’s “entrance” into the world[13] and says, “As John was finishing his course …”.[14] Acts perceives Christian life generally as a “way”[15] and in looking back on his missionary activity in his farewell speech at Miletus,[16] Paul describes the end of his missionary work as the completion of his course.[17]

As was the case with Jesus, John the Baptist, and the apostles, Luke has a theological purpose for recounting the activity of Paul: he is committed to explaining and defending his concept of salvation history. This history is to be seen in the movement from Galilee to Jerusalem[18] and from Jerusalem to Rome.[19]

The worldwide scope of the mission encompasses the whole Roman Empire[20] and Paul emerges as the central character in the spread of the good news. Every element of the story – the Galilean genesis; the crisis, tragedy, and exaltation in Jerusalem; the establishment there of the first community; and what Luke sees as the experimental mission of the Hellenists – leads towards the universal availability of salvation. Halfway through Acts, the Jerusalem conference serves as a pivotal event, distinguishing the primitive church from that of the present and laying the foundation for Paul’s independent mission.[21] The Pauline era grows out of and is validated by the sacred history of the Jerusalem community.

Because Paul’s “first missionary journey”[22] antedates the Jerusalem conference, it has a transitional function. First, it illustrates the issues that provoke the conference: the fact and the success of taking the gospel to the Gentiles in Antioch[23] were in effect charted by the geographical scope of the new itinerary. Second, Luke uses the journey to present the well-known transformation of Saul into Paul[24] and elevate Paul’s status to that of “The Apostle to the Gentiles”[25]

Thereafter, Paul advances alone to center stage, and his mission carries him all the way to Rome. Clearly, this narrative strategy has theological motives, for Luke’s placing it after the Jerusalem conference emphasizes his congregation’s roots in the primitive church and thus the continuity of salvation history. Luke’s motives are not primarily chronological; chronology is pressed into the service of theological meaning. He is an apologist, not a secular historian. When he has found out the theological significance of an occurrence, he is able to derive from it the “correct” chronology. We would do him an injustice to scrutinize a report of his on the basis of historical research alone, for the litmus test must always be theology: namely, how does this or that fit into the history of salvation.

These results indicate that we should look at the journeys of Paul in the framework of Luke’s theology of salvation history. Moreover, the relationship of salvation history and profane history in Luke-Acts raises a fundamental question concerning the use of secular historical data gathered from Luke-Acts in any valid history of early Christianity.


[1] For the following section cf. Adolf von Harnack. Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums. 4th edition, 1924; Hans Lietzmann. A History of the Early Church. Volume I. The Beginnings of the Christian Church, Cleveland: A Meredian Book, 1961; Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. Gerd Lüdemann. The Acts of the Apostles, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005. I thank Tom Hall for his help in matters of style and content.

[2] Lietzmann, A History of the Early Church I, 76.

[3] Lietzmann A History of the Early Church I, 81.

[4] Rom 2:19–20.

[5] Note Matt 23:15.

[6] See Acts 18:25–19:1–17.

[7] Acts 18:24–28.

[8] Acts 19:1–7.

[9] Acts 20:29.

[10] Acts 17:16–34.

[11] Acts 24:24–27 (Felix).

[12] Acts 20:19.

[13] Acts 13:24.

[14] Acts 13:25.

[15] Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22.

[16] Acts 20:18–35.

[17] Acts 20:2.

[18] Luke 4:14 and 24:47.

[19] Acts 1:8 and 28:16–30.

[20] See Luke 2:1.

[21] Note Acts 15:39–40.

[22] Acts 13:1–14:28.

[23] Acts 11:20–21.

[24] Acts 13:9.

[25] See Acts 13:13, 16, 43, 45, 50; 14:20.

Comments (1)

There is little sense of Paul’s joining or supporting a Christian organisation in Rome. His ringing declaration that he will go to the Gentiles, clearly those in Rome, who will listen - not have been listening - indicates completely autonomous decision making on his part. That is to say that in Acts Paul is the founder of the Gentile church in Rome. The picture is quite startlingly different from what we find in Romans!

#1 - Martin Hughes - 03/02/2018 - 20:25

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