This 1st episode of CS is titled, “It Begins.”
The best place to start is at the beginning. But with Church History, where is that? Where do we begin?
Most MODERN Christians would probably start with Jesus. That seems pretty straight-forward.
But where would the FIRST Christians have begun?
They were Jews, and considered what they believed as a purified form of Judaism; a faith Moses would have approved of. They believed Jesus was Messiah, the long hoped for & oft prophesied Savior Who came to restore the faith God revealed to Abraham 2000 years before.
So à Where would Peter, Andrew, John, James, or Thomas have begun telling the story?
The Apostle John begins his story of Jesus at creation with the words “In the beginning …” We’ll come up in time considerably and start with the man known as Jesus of Nazareth engaged in His public ministry; traveling through Northern Israel with a dozen disciples.
At that time, the 1st Century of what modern historians like to called the Common Era, Israel was an uneasy part of the Roman Empire. Unlike some provinces that counted being part of Rome a privilege, Israel loathed their Roman occupiers. Most Jews resisted more than just political domination by a foreign power; they also despise the Greek culture the Romans brought with them.
All this stirred the pot of popular expectation among Jews for the arrival of the Messiah who they anticipated would be primarily a political figure. Scripture foretold He’d replace corruption with paradise; the wicked would be punished, the righteous rewarded, and Israel exalted among the nations. Messiah would restore David’s throne and rule over the affairs of Earth.
Some prophets spoke of a war between good and evil that would resolve in the Messiah’s victory. This flavored the anticipation of many. They cast Rome as the chief adversary Messiah would crush.
By the 1st Century, different groups had developed around their belief in what was the right way to prepare for this political Messiah.
The Pharisees devoted themselves to the Law of Moses and religious tradition.
The Essenes took a segregationist approach, pursuing holiness by moving to isolated communes to await Messiah’s arrival.
Zealots advocated armed resistance against Rome as well as those Jews who collaborated with the hated enemy. Zealots drew their inspiration from the successful Maccabean Revolt against the Syrian Greeks a couple hundred years before.
A 4th group were the Sadducees who took a more pragmatic approach to the Roman presence & accommodated themselves to the Greco-Roman culture they were convinced would eventually become the status quo. Sadducees were a minority but held most of the positions of political and religious leadership in Jerusalem.
The last and by far largest group among the Jews of 1st Century is rarely mentioned; the Common People. They were neither Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene nor Zealot. They were just à Jews; everyday people in covenant with God but preoccupied with fields, flocks, trades, markets, family, & well—Life; the daily grind. They held opinions regarding politics and religion but were too busy surviving to join one of the groups who claimed superiority to the others. It was these commoners who were most attracted to Jesus. They were drawn to Him because He did a masterful job of refusing to be co-opted by the elites.
Jesus came in the traditional mode of a Rabbi, but was anything but traditional. Like other rabbis, He had disciples who followed Him, but His teaching stood in contrast to theirs. His words carried authority that challenged the thick, hard shell of tradition that had become encrusted round their religion. Listening to Jesus wasn’t like listening to a commentary on Torah, which so many other teachers DID sound like. Listening to Jesus was like listening to Moses himself, explaining what the law was meant to be and do. Then—Jesus did something that really made people pay attention; He validated His teaching by performing miracles. And not a few. He did many!
It was a tough assignment to carve a path through Jewish society that didn’t intersect with the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots or Sadducees, but Jesus negotiated it perfectly. Both His life and teaching powerfully demonstrated genuine Judaism and revealed the shabby counterfeit of the religious pretenders. At first they tried to co-opt Him and turn his rising popularity to their agenda. When He refused to make common cause with them, they turned on Him.
Jesus furthermore resisted the efforts of the common people to make him King. Their hope that He was Messiah swelled to the call that He claim Israel’s throne. They wanted a political leader. But that was not Jesus’ mission & He resisted their attempts to install Him as monarch.
Jesus’ consistent message was the true nature of the Kingdom of God. Contemporary Judaism saw that Kingdom as primarily political, military, & economic. A realm in which …
- Israel would rule instead of Rome.
- Messiah would reign in place of Caesar.
- Judaism would replace paganism.
- And the sandal finally would be on the other foot.
Jesus’ message was a much different take on the Kingdom. It wasn’t about politics or economics. It was about the heart, the inner life. Jesus repeatedly emphasized that to be in covenant with God meant to be in an intimate relationship with Him, not as some distant, disinterested deity, but as a loving Father.
Jesus’ popularity with commoners created jealousy on the part of the leaders. His unblemished example of a warm & endearing godliness revealed the pathetic shabbiness of the merely religious. When He cleared the Temple of the fraudulent marketplace the leaders used as a source of income, they decided it was time to get rid of Him. They convinced themselves they were only protecting the nation from Rome’s wrath against the insurrection they claimed Jesus was sure to lead. They arrested Him, ran Him through a sham-trial, then turned him over to the Romans for execution, saying He encouraged rebellion; a charge Rome took quite-seriously. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, knew he was being played by the Jewish leaders but when they threatened to complain to Rome, already being on thin ice with the Emperor, he relented & turned Jesus over for scourging & crucifixion.
As they turned away from Jesus’ cross late Friday afternoon, they thought, “Good riddance! At least we won’t have to worry about Him anymore.”
Yeah, good luck with that.
Ch. 1 of Bruce Shelley’s excellent book Church History In Plain Language begins with this line, “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.”
Anyone who’s decided to investigate the History of the Christian Church has probably wondered at the astounding success of the Faith in light of its central event & the belief that flows from it.
An interview with the disciples the day after the crucifixion would in no way give anyone the idea Christianity would one day spread to the ends of the world & number in the billions.
The transformation that took place among Jesus’ followers after His resurrection is convincing proof of His rising from the tomb. The disappointment that marked Jesus’ followers immediately after His execution is understandable. What isn’t, is their amazing resurgence to carry on His mission. The only rational explanation for their continuation & the growth of the Jesus movement was the resurrection.
By the 1st Century, Judaism had infiltrated much of the Roman Empire and had a small number of converts from among Gentiles in many cities. But these “God-fearers”, as they were called, were a tiny number considering how long Judaism had existed. The Jews had never embarked on a campaign to spread their faith. Gentile converts to Judaism were almost accidental and accommodated in the synagogue reluctantly. Yet within a century after the Resurrection, Christianity had spread across the Empire. The miraculous growth of the Church stands as eloquent testimony to its miraculous origin.
And now for a little background on the CS podcast.
What you’re hearing is a 3rd version of Season 1 of Communio Sanctorum. The number of subscribers has grown tremendously; with many saying they’ve listened to the episodes multiple times. Version 2 contained some material that was time-sensitive; news about podcast awards, a Reformation tour, and such. Things that are no longer applicable. I thought it best to redo the series omitting all that. The CS website is also being updated and a Spanish version is being produced. It seemed an apropos time to re-record Season 1 with a refresh of the content.
I got turned on to the genius of podcasts a few years ago. Being a history nut, I went looking for my favorite subject – Rome – and found Mike Duncan’s brilliant podcast series the History of Rome. Now hooked, I next devoured Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Emperors & Norman Centuries.
Then I went in search of a similar format podcast on Church history. I was looking for short episodes, easily listened to while working out, going for a run, or working in the yard. All I could find at that time were long lectures, most given in a college or seminary. And while the content was solid, they weren’t all that interesting. What I was looking for were episodes of between 15 & 20 minutes that would break Church history up into easily digested sessions.
Not finding it, I decided to do it.
So let me be clear. I’m not an historian, not even close. I love history & am a student of it. An historian is someone with access to, and does research on primary level materials. An historian is someone who gains familiarity with the past because she/he has interacted in some way with those who MADE history; if not them directly, then with the records and artifacts they left behind. All I can do is take the work of real historians, cull it, repackage it, then put it out there for whoever wants to engage it.
The study of history is by nature filled with dates and names à and that’s where many would-be students find their eyes rolling toward the back of their head in utter boredom.
While dates & names can’t be avoided, this podcast aims at providing a narrative of church history to help contemporary Christians connect to their roots. To use a well-worn cliché, we really do stand on the shoulders of giants. What we’ll see is that those giants themselves stand on previous generations who loom large because of the lives they lived and what they accomplished. Hopefully, by discerning our place within that massive edifice we call the Church, we can faithfully provide firm shoulders for the next generation to stand on. à That isn’t an unfit analogy when you consider both Paul’s & Peter’s allusion to the church being a building made of living stones.
I just said CS is aimed primarily at contemporary Christians. A bit surprising to me is the number of non-Christians who’ve enjoyed the podcast. Many interested in history and wanting to fill out a gap in their knowledge on church history have expressed their appreciation.
As we end this 1st episode, let me give a quick review on HOW I’ll be presenting this History of Christianity & the Church.
There are many ways to study history and many theories for interpreting the past.
One way to recount History is to divide it into Pre-Modern, Modern & Post-Modern.
While defining these categories could devolve into a podcast in itself, let me summarize.
In Pre-modern times, history was propaganda. It was recorded to promote some agenda, usually of the ruler who commissioned it. You may have heard the saying that it’s the winners who write history. That’s pretty much the way the recording of Pre-modern history was. Records that painted an alternative view of the officially sanctioned story were rounded up & destroyed. Divergent monuments were torn down and scrolls burned to erase the evidence of a substitute view of the way things went down.
In the Modern telling of history, a more scientific approach is applied to recording and interpreting events. The winners still dominate the main tale, but the voices of the defeated and despised are also considered. While the Modern scientific approach to history is more accurate than the pre-modern version, it’s not entirely free from bias in that the Modern Historian still has to speak of events from his or her cultural perspective. And the selection of what facts to report or neglect is a form of editorial bias.
The Post-modern approach to history is a largely cynical method based on the idea that truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the mouth of the teller & pen of the writer. The problem in describing Post-modernism is that it’s a philosophy still under construction and resists definition. Some Post-modernists would say Post-modernism is an amorphous paradigm. The moment you define it, you’ve said more what it’s not than what it is. The Post-modern view of history is that nearly all accepted history from both the pre-Modern and Modern eras is suspect precisely because it’s accepted. There’s a visceral and knee-jerk rejection of authority in Post-modernism and nothing is deemed so authoritarian as tradition. As a consequence, post-modern views of history tend to be avant-garde and fringe theories one reads alongside a more traditional view.
Our approach here will be from a Modern perspective. And while it’s impossible to be entirely free of bias, I will try to provide an unfiltered review of the history of Christianity & the Church.
A Bibliography of the books & sources I use in researching is available on the Sanctorum.us website.
Oh – & here’s something I found fascinating. People left comments on the iTunes portal page labeling me with all kinds of different religious affiliations. Some were convinced I was a Roman Catholic, others that I was Eastern Orthodox, some that I was a 5 pt Calvinist, a few that I was a raving Arminianist. While the majority of comments gave the podcast high marks, there was some confusion over where I line up theologically. No matter how much I try to “Dragnet” it & report just the facts, Ma’am – It’s inevitable that my doctrinal bias is going to color the material. When I do move from reportage to opinion or analysis, I’ll do my best to mark it off as my opinion.
If you’re curious who I am & what my theological position is – you can find that on the Sanctorum.us website. Go to the “Lance’s Bio” page.
Many thanks to Lemuel Dees, a long time subscriber and voice over artist for providing the CS intro and outro and to Dade Ronan at Win at Web for massive help in setting up the new website.
Thanks as well to Roberto Aguayo for translating the episodes into Spanish and to John Parra for the intro and outro of the Spanish edition of CS.
There’s a final announcement I need to share as we close. To date, CS has been a labor of love I was able to accommodate fairly easily financially. As the podcast has grown, requiring a LOT more bandwidth, the costs for hosting the audio files has risen dramatically and outstripped my ability to sustain. So though I was loath to do so, I’ve had to add a donation feature to the CS page. CS is free, but over the years several have asked if they could make a donation. I didn’t have a way to do that, till now. So, hey, if you wanna’ – now you have way to do so. ‘Nuff said.