Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Why was the early church persecuted?

I'm off to Holland for a few days. Before I drive off, here's an interesting excerpt from N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God. I have certain theological issues with Wright's approach to Biblical exegesis (e.g. I don't think "worldview" = "theology" - I find that rather "anthropocentric", and I disagree with his the way he appropriates both the Old and the New Testaments for the contemporary church), but the guy's a stellar historian and eloquent to match. The following is interesting food for thought:

But why was the early church persecuted? Why is any group persecuted? We have already looked at the pagan persecutions, and the answer at first sight is various: because Nero wanted a scapegoat; because the Christians were suspected of secret vice; because they were atheists; because they would not do the required homage to the emperor. All of these make sense, and are clearly part of the sufficient condition for persecution in each instance; but they do not quite explain the regularity of the persecution, nor the apparent frequency of people, not themselves in authority, informing against Christians. Lots of cults in the empire practised vice, whether secretly or openly; plenty of people had eccentric theological views; some, like Cynic philosophers, made light of their obligations to the authorities. The Christians came into all of those categories in the popular mind, but none of them is big enough to do justice to the evidence.
What we seem to be faced with is the existence of a community which was perceived to be subverting the normal social and cultural life of the empire precisely by its quasi-familial, quasi-ethnic life as a community. Evidence of similar phenomena abounds in our own time. A member of a tight-knit Roman Catholic community in rural Quebec becomes a Baptist; his house is burned down, he has to flee the village, and the police do nothing. A Protestant pastor in Northern Ireland makes a gesture of reconciliation, on Christmas Day, towards the Roman Catholic priest on the other side of the square; he receives death threats, at the communion rail, from senior members of his own congregation. A Muslim boy in the occupied West Bank, cared for in a Christian hospital, converts, and is unable to return to his family because they will kill him. A Jewish woman is told that if she becomes a Christian her right to live in Israel will be called into question. When communities react like this, it can only be because they feel that their very foundations are being shaken. Mere belief—acceptance of certain propositional statements—is not enough to elicit such violence. People believe all sorts of odd things and are tolerated. When, however, belief is regarded as an index of subversion, everything changes. The fact of widespread persecution, regarded by both pagans and Christians as the normal state of affairs within a century of the beginnings of Christianity, is powerful evidence of the sort of thing that Christianity was, and was perceived to be. It was a new family, a ‘third race’, neither Jew nor Gentile but ‘in Christ’. Its very existence threatened the foundational assumptions of pagan society. In Crossan’s happy phrase, apropos Matthew’s story that Pilate’s wife had troubled dreams on the night of Jesus’ trial,

That never happened, of course, but it was true nonetheless. It was a most propitious time for the Roman Empire to start having nightmares.

But why did Jews persecute Christians? Were they not both in the same boat—branded as atheists, regarded as the scum of the earth, scorned when doing badly and resented when doing well? The answer here clearly lies in the ferocity of polemic between different pressure-groups, parties and/or sects within the same parent body. Sibling rivalry is fiercest when the siblings have an inheritance to share, or when one feels that another is ruining the chances of any of them inheriting it at all. Reading between Paul’s lines, that seems to have been what was going on in his case at least. The Pharisees’ programme of Torah-intensification was radically questioned by the Christian movement, not because they threw open their doors to Gentiles (lots of Jews ate with Gentiles; there was, as we saw in chapter 8, something of a regular sliding scale of assimilation, and so far as we know the Pharisees did not use violence to curb it), but because they claimed that precisely in doing so they were celebrating the fulfilment of Israel’s long-cherished hopes. This has a direct analogue in Paul’s surely deliberate irony in 1 Corinthians 7:19: neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, since what matters is keeping the god-given commandments, of which of course circumcision is one. There are some things that can only be expressed through such irony and apparent contradiction, and I suspect that the early Christian claim is one of them: the claim, that is, to be acting in accordance with the whole divine purpose for Israel, precisely in dismantling those aspects of traditional praxis, and in disregarding those traditional symbols, by which for centuries Jews had ordered their lives.
Here we reach the heart of it. What evokes persecution is precisely that which challenges a worldview, that which up-ends a symbolic universe. It is somewhat threatening to other first-century Jews to regard your community as the true Temple, and perhaps it is just as well to keep such ideas within the walls of an enclosed community in the desert; but since the belief, as held in Qumran, involves an intensification of Torah, the vicarious purification of the Land, the fierce defence of the race, and the dream of an eventually rebuilt and purified physical Temple in Jerusalem itself, one can imagine Pharisees debating it vigorously but not seeking authority from the chief priests to exterminate it. It embodied, after all, too many of the central worldview-features. The equivalent belief as held within Christianity seems to have had no such redeeming features. No new Temple would replace Herod’s, since the real and final replacement was Jesus and his people. No intensified Torah would define this community, since its sole definition was its Jesus-belief. No Land claimed its allegiance, and no Holy City could function for it as Jerusalem did for mainline Jews; Land had now been transposed into World, and the Holy City was the new Jerusalem, which, as some Jewish apocalyptic writers had envisaged, would appear, like the horses and chariots of fire around Elisha, becoming true on earth as it was in heaven. Racial identity was irrelevant; the story of this new community was traced back to Adam, not just to Abraham, and a memory was preserved of Jesus’ forerunner declaring that Israel’s god could raise up children for Abraham from the very stones. Once we understand how worldviews function, we can see that the Jewish neighbours of early Christians must have regarded them, not as a lover of Monet regards a lover of Picasso, but as a lover of painting regards one who deliberately sets fire to art galleries—and who claims to do so in the service of Art.
I therefore suggest that the beginning of the break between mainline Judaism and nascent Christianity came not with AD 70, not with some shakily reconstructed decree promulgated by the historically dubious ‘Council of Jamnia’, but with the very early days in which a young Pharisee named Saul believed it his divine calling to obtain authority to attack and harry the little sect. Analogies within the Jewish world suggest that this pattern is correct. The deep divisions between the Essenes and the Hasmoneans on the one hand, and the Pharisees on the other, emerge bit by bit in the Essene writings, and yet the actual splits which produced them clearly occurred at specific times which considerably antedate those writings. So, too, the even deeper division between those who claimed to be the heirs of the scriptural promises on the basis of Temple, Land, Torah and race, and those who claimed the same thing on the basis of Jesus and his spirit, goes back behind any writings or decrees which we possess or can guess at, to the moment when some hitherto frightened and puzzled Jews came to the conclusion that Israel’s hope, the resurrection from the dead, the return from exile, the forgiveness of sins, had all come true in a rush in Jesus, who had been crucified. This, it should be noted carefully within present debate, does not make Christianity anti-Jewish, any more than the Essenes, the Pharisees, or any other sect or group, were anti-Jewish.
The church, then, lived under pressure from the very first. It is perhaps this, as much as anything else, which kept it united when so many other pressures might have driven it towards division.

Wright, N. T. (1992). The New Testament and the People of God (449–452). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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