Part IV: The first Christian century

In the fourth part of the book Wright outlines a history of the early church – a ‘quest for the kerygmatic church’ analogous to the well-established programme of a ‘quest for the historical Jesus. He begins by plotting a spectrum of scholarly opinions regarding the constitution of early Christianity: at one end of the scale, there is the view that the early church quickly became a Hellenistic movement (also incorporating Gnosticism); at the other, the view that the church emerged as ‘a Jewish messianic sect, going out into the world with the news that the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had now revealed himself savingly for all the world in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus’ (344). Currently the debate is quite finely balanced. ‘Many scholars are now of the opinion that the main problem in describing the origin of Christianity is to account fully both for the thorough Jewishness of the movement and for the break with Judaism that had come about at least by the middle of the second century.’

Wright sets out nine historical fixed points, in reverse chronological order, for an investigation of the development of the early church up to the middle of the second century: i) the martyrdom of Polycarp around AD 155/6; ii) Pliny’s letter to Trajan between AD 110 and 114 regarding the treatment of the illegal sect of Christians; iii) the letters of Ignatius written during his journey to Rome to face martyrdom under Trajan (AD 110-117); iv) the interrogation of certain blood-relatives of Jesus by Domitian around AD 90, recounted by Hegesippus and record in Eusebius’ History; v) the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70; vi) Nero’s scapegoating of Christians in Rome after the great fire in AD 64; vii) the stoning of ‘James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ’ in AD 62, recorded by Josephus; viii) the activity of Paul in the first half of the 50s; and ix) Suetonius’ evidence for the expulsion of the Jews from Rome because of ‘continuous disturbances a the instigation of Chrestus’ around AD 49.

As with the history of first-century Judaism, Wright proposes to begin not with particular writings but with the elements that made up the early Christian worldview: praxis, symbols, questions and answers, and, most importantly, the characteristic stories told by early Christians (358).

Under praxis he examines mission, sacrament (baptism and eucharist), worship with reference not only to God but also to Jesus, ‘a strong and clear ethical code’, the non-performance of animal sacrifices, and a willingness to suffer martyrdom for the sake of Christ (359-365). The early Christians constructed their world view around rather subversive alternatives to the regular symbols of both Judaism and paganism: the highly offensive symbol of the cross, supplemented by the symbolic status of Christian martyrs; mission to the whole world in place of the Land and ethnic identity in the Israel’s symbolic universe; the person of Jesus instead of the temple – a transfer of symbolism that “was forcing them to articulate the meaning of the word ‘god’ itself in a new way”; creeds and baptismal confessions as the new ‘badges of community’ membership instead of circumcision, kosher laws, and sabbath (365-369). Early Christians also, naturally, had a different set of answers to the four worldview questions (369-370): Who are we? Where are we? What is wrong? What is the solution?

Stories in early Christianity fall into two categories: large and small. Wright first considers the large stories told by the major writers of the New Testament: the Gospel writers, Paul, and the author of Hebrews. The central contention here is that in each case the overarching story about Israel is retold and subverted. So, for example:

Paul’s theology can… be plotted most accurately and fully on the basis that it represents his rethinking, in the light of Jesus and the divine spirit, of the fundamental Jewish beliefs: monotheism (of the creational and covenantal sort), election, and eschatology. This theology was integrated with the rethought narrative world at every point (407).

Much of chapter 14, which considers the place of smaller stories within early Christianity, has to do with the description of an appropriate method of form-critical analysis especially in reaction to the traditional form-critical assumption that the stories in the Gospels “reflected the life of the early church rather than the life of Jesus, in that the early church invented (perhaps under the guidance of the ‘spirit of Jesus’) sayings of Jesus to address problems in their own day’ (421). There are also some important remarks here about the nature of ‘mythological’ language: ‘the language of myth, and eschatological myths in particular (the sea, the fabulous monsters, etc.), are used in the biblical literature as complex metaphor systems to denote historical events and to invest them with their theological significance’ (425). Wright also addresses here the question of the sayings sources, Q and the Gospel of Thomas, and refutes the modern hypothesis (cf. Kloppenborg, Downing, Mack, Crossan) which asserts that Q and Thomas bear witness to a primitive conception of Jesus as ‘a teacher of aphoristic, quasi-Gnostic, quasi-Cynic wisdom’ (437).

Part four concludes with a ‘preliminary sketch’ of the early Christians:

Aims: the motivating force behind early Christian mission is found in ‘the central belief and hope of Judaism interpreted in the light of Jesus’. Added to this belief that Israel had now been redeemed and that, therefore, the time of the Gentiles had come, was the experience of the divine spirit:

…the overwhelming sense of being sustained and driven on by a new kind of inner motivation, which they could only attribute to the outpouring of the divine spirit, compelled the early Christians to the conclusion that the strange events concerning Jesus that they had witnessed really did constitute the fulfilment of Israel’s covenant expecta­tions, really were the end of exile and the beginning of the ‘age to come’ for which Israel had longed (446).

By themselves, however, this new belief and new experience were not enough to account historically for the development of early Christianity. We must also take into consideration the context of the new community within which belief and experience functioned.

Community and definition: community is defined in the first place sacramentally by baptism and eucharist, both of which ‘draw the eye up to the most striking feature of the life of the early community: the worship of Jesus’ (448). This worship was not ‘a sign that the communtiy was moving away from creational or covenantal monotheism, but rather a sign of a radical reinterpretation within that monotheism’. The common life of the church, centred sacramentally on Jesus, ‘functioned from the first in terms of an alternative family’. It also entailed a ‘new socio-political orientation’, which meant that the church was somewhat alienated from Jewish and pagan society and inevitably suffered persecution.

Development and variety: Wright identifies a number of axes along which early Christian diversity was expressed: various aspects of Jewish-Gentile diversity; salvation-historical continuity with Israel or an ahistorical faith with a ‘vertical eschatology’; flexible or fixed forms of ministry; literalist or metaphorical interpretations of apocalyptic imagery; low christology or high christology; the cross made central or marginal to a doctrine of salvation; charismatic enthusiasts or ‘early catholics’ (455). What held this diversity together was that the early Christians told consistent form of Israel’s story ‘which reached its climax in Jesus and which then issued in their spirit-given new life and task’ (456).

Theology: ‘Early Christianity was monotheistic in the sense in which Judaism was monotheistic and paganism was not; that is, the early Christians embraced creational, covenantal and hence eschatological monotheism’ (457). The doctrine necessarily entails two central dualities: of the creator and the creation, and of good and evil. The early Christians addressed these themes on the basis of the Jewish sources, but they consistently reorganized them around the fixed points of Jesus and the spirit. So for example, to the question, How is the creator active within the creation? they gave the answer: ‘this creator god had acted specifically and climactically in Jesus, and was now acting through his own spirit in a new, Jesus-related way’. To the question, How is the creator dealing with evil within his creation? they reaffirmed the original answer, which was that God intended to address the problem of evil through Israel, with two amendments: first, that through Jesus God had dealt with the problem of the evil that was within Israel; and secondly, that it was the people of Jesus, as a ‘continuation of Israel in a new situation’, who were to ‘fulfil Israel’s vocation on behalf of the world’ (458). Finally, the church took over the Jewish doctrine of salvation and transposed it to a law court setting so that it becomes fundamentally a question of the ‘righteousness of God’.

The major underlying difference between the Christian and the Jewish views at this point was that the early Christians believed that the verdict had already been announced in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Israel’s god had acted decisively, to demonstrate his covenant faithfulness, to deliver his people from their sins, and to usher in the inaugurated new covenant.

Hope: ‘Precisely because Jesus’ resurrection was the raising of one human being in the middle of the history of exile and misery, not the raising of all righteous human beings to bring the history of exile and misery to an end, there must be a further end in sight.’ This ‘further end’ consists of four elements, each of which is a ‘rereading of Jewish hopes in the light of Jesus and the divine spirit’ (459). i) Jesus will be vindicated as a divine prophet when Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed. ii) The kingdom of Israel’s God will spread into the whole world. iii) Christians believed that Israel’s God would ‘physically recreate those who were his own, at some time and in some space the other side of death’ (460). iv) Finally, there was a expectation of the return of Jesus. This is not the subject of texts which speak of the ‘coming of the son of man on a cloud’, which have to do rather with his vindication through resurrection and exaltation and through the destruction of Jerusalem. The return of Jesus belongs instead to the renewal of the whole created (462).