Uncovering Early Christianity: A Postmodern Spiritual Quest
David Bottorff, Loyola University Chicago Institute of Pastoral Studies | M.A. Pastoral Counseling Student
Early Christianity proved to be a profound pivotal point around which the social, political, economic, and spiritual lives of many people living in the Mediterranean Basin turned. This shift is characterized by a typology of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. At the same time, this pattern of change was mirrored by one of enslavement, freedom, and reverse discrimination. Reconciling the truth of these two concurrent yet contrasting typologies, whether over the course of centuries or mere moments, has proved to be both a great personal challenge and the key to my subjective appreciation of Early Christianity. This essay explores the tension between what Early Christianity was for its seminal proponents and the gravity it exerts in the life of this post-modern author. Further, it attempts to convey my relationship with a monumental and personally challenging question: How could one man, who by all rights should have been lost in the annuls of history, effect such tremendous change in the way we appreciate salvation of the human soul? This subject remains near to the heart of my lifelong spiritual quest.
Uncovering Early Christianity
Early Christianity precipitated catalytic change in the way much of the world relates to the great metaphysical forces shaping our human condition. For many, including myself, the concepts of mystery, hope and meaning were profoundly altered by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as told by his seminal biographers. Biblical scholars use many tools to examine scripture, including historical, political, ideological, psychological, form, and redaction approaches (Pregeant, 2009). The conclusions can be widely divergent. To express my personal take on Early Christianity, I rely not only on these academic findings, but also on the Buddhist epistemological hermeneutic through which I read scripture.
To articulate what Early Christianity was, and what it means to me, I turn to the recurring typologic analogue described by Brueggemann (1984) in his Psalms exegesis—that of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. This organic sine pattern repeats time and again throughout human history, and finds expression at the fulcrum point around which spirituality in the Mediterranean Basin pivoted some two millennia ago—the life and times of Jesus.
A salient example of this pattern is found in Exodus. In that story, enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt represented a kind of orientation, albeit uncomfortable. As God, with helpful mediation by Moses, freed the Hebrews from bondage, they were forced to endure disorienting plagues, the angel of death, and the crossing of a traitorous sea before allegedly wandering 40 years in the desert. This community eventually found reorientation, establishing a new social order in a promised land. The emerging society came complete with a new set of laws, not the least of which was the Decalogue.
An earlier example of this typology is found in Genesis. Adam and Eve transitioned from tranquil orientation with the Creator in a resplendent Garden of Eden, to a disorienting conflict with a wrathful God, and eventually into a reoriented relationship with the divine in an uptight world where clothing was no longer optional.
Early Christian Texts
Early Christianity also follows the Brueggemann algorithm, and it is in this context that I have come to internalize the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The Mark, Matthew and Luke synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John, and the letters of Paul differ in purpose, content and audience (Pregeant, 2009). They do, however, have overarching themes, not the least of which is hope in the face of despair, a message that emanates most directly from the story of Jesus’ resurrection itself. These texts also address key aspects of the human condition, including the inability of even the most devout to obey direction, believe what they see, or understand what they hear. Thomas doubting the resurrection (John 20.24-29) and Peter denying his affiliation with Jesus (Mark 14.30, 72; Matthew 26.34, 75; Luke 22.61) come to mind as examples of both weak faith and infidelity. They were fallible; I am fallible; all of us can be forgiven. Underlying these shortcomings is trepidation against surrendering to faith for faith’s sake. The Pharisees of Judah are characterized by these early texts as stubbornly committed to antiquated rules, but even those ostensibly dedicated to Jesus had trouble surrendering disbelief and embracing a new covenant with God. This struggle also is my struggle.
The Early Christian texts have in common attention to a relatively short period of history during which social, political, economic, and religious institutions underwent significant transformation. Between the years shortly before the birth of Jesus and about 180 C.E., many communities of the Mediterranean Basin and the Fertile Crescent enjoyed the relative calm of Pax Romana (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010; Parchami, 2009). Jews of the Levant, especially in Galilee, were chafing under the Roman boot, with disorientation and disgruntlement peaking at the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E. (Pregeant, 2009). It was about this time, between roughly 50 to 90 C.E., that Paul and the others are estimated to have written, codifying what had been oral tradition. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was both a precipitant for disorientation—an unanticipated type of Messiah who would ironically be executed by human hands—as well as a seed of life from which a new social order could grow—a new spin on salvation, one available in the present.
Much to its credit, early Christianity embraced liminal populations, giving them shelter under an umbrella of egalitarian love and radical faith (Ludwig, 2010). In aggregate, the message resonating throughout the early writings is clear: Salvation came in the person and message of Jesus, it is available in the here and now, and it offers a veritable cornucopia of comfort and spiritual nourishment of which we can avail ourselves at any moment and from any station in life. As social and cultural minority, I find comfort in the promise of fraternity among similarly marginalized people. Other themes of Early Christianity also resonate strongly for me, including the availability of hope in the face of hopelessness, the innate wisdom of women in spirituality, the value of all humans regardless of disability, and the role of metaphor in story interpretation. The parables of Jesus, used to turn traditional reasoning on its head in a bid to awaken faith in an ultimately unknowable God, also play a keen role in the way I appreciate and integrate Early Christianity. Even Mark’s notion that suffering can lead to salvation has traction in my strife-ridden life.
The unfortunate fact is that, even within the envelope of Early Christianity, love and compassion, faith and salvation, were not the only messages being broadcast. A concomitant corollary to the Brueggemann (1984) typology is its evil twin brother: oppression followed by liberation followed by oppression. That is to say, just as a people or a person can transition from comfort to discomfort and back to comfort in a revised setting, groups and individuals also shift from being oppressed to deliverance, then to being oppressors themselves. These two patterns get played out simultaneously in the story of Jesus and his followers, as it does elsewhere in human history. We do not know exactly what Jesus said and did. We do know his biographers do not always have him presenting a peaceful “live and let live” message. Rather, both Jews and Gentiles who refused to embrace the Messiah nature of Jesus were criticized, both directly and indirectly. Even Jewish Christians who did not go public with their faith came in for some heat. Jesus could be a rebel rouser, as when he disrupted commerce in the Temple, or even when he killed a fig tree for not bearing fruit at the ready (Matthew 21.18-20). Worse, New Testament passages critical of Jews and Gentile “pagans” were used in subsequent centuries to justify bigotry and the worst possible forms of persecution. In this sense, early Christianity is both divine microcosm of spiritual transformation, and a cautionary tale against hubris.
Frankly, I do not believe it is adequate to argue that some uncomfortable texts should be dismissed by virtue of their archaic time and place origins. It also is not adequate to argue that when subsequent generations took the message of Early Christianity far afield, they simply misconstrued the original message. No, I believe deviation from the divine message of Jesus and his early advocates is an integral and important aspect of the human condition, one which must be taken into consideration whenever we strive for our highest goals. The human fallibility factor, modeled by frustratingly disobedient if not downright ignorant disciples, must weigh into the equation for human psychology to reach equilibrium.
Early Christians are not alone in turning the gift of freedom into self-righteousness, whether immediately or years after the fact. Just as the pattern of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation played out, so too did the pattern of oppression, liberation, and reverse domination. In the famous story of Exodus, the Israelites arrived in their promised land, only to brutally suppress the native Canaanites (Noll, 2001). They found justification for doing this in the same texts that admonished them to respect sojourners, reject oppression, and love fellow man. Looking back further, Adam and Eve shifted from being dependent upon nature, to fleeing the perfect expression of it, and eventually, through their progenitors, to oppressing God’s other creations. Mankind found justification for this conquest in texts as far back as Genesis 1.26, and we pay the price today in terms of extinctions, global warming, and resource deprivation.
When the Jewish leadership returned from Babylonian Exile, they marched into Judah only to repress those who had remained behind. If early scripture is correct, this is the same community that, from its perspective of superiority, adamantly refused to hear Jesus. Then there was the horrific Holocaust. European Jews transitioned from relative security to severe and almost unimaginable persecution before being freed and delivered back to the promised land of Israel. Displaced and marginalized Palestinians suffer to this day under the brutish authority of a disproportionately powerful Israeli state.
Closer to home, we know the Pilgrims fled religious persecution in Europe, crossed a dangerous body of water not unlike the Red Sea, and arrived in the nearly pristine promised land of North America. Once established, they and followers killed the natives to fulfill manifest destiny. Even during the American Revolution, Thomas Paine characterized King George III as Pharaoh (Paine, 2009) while John Adams said the disposition of King George III towards the people of America was “more unrelenting and malignant than was that of the Pharaoh towards the Israelites in Egypt” (Stroll, 2008, p. 179). These vehement liberationists were part of the same crowd that treated fellow human beings as property.
I believe that by objectifying God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, Christians established a dualism between that which is divine and that which is human. As a result, far too much energy was spent on saving souls for Parousia and far too little energy was spent on finding the kingdom of heaven here on Earth.
Groups and Individuals
Early Christianity unquestionably contains many life- and spirit-affirming messages. I find the revolutionary power of radical faith thrilling. The world is a better place to the degree each student of Early Christianity can implement these profound teachings. The problem appears to stem from group-think. From a macro-societal perspective, I have little evidence mankind is capable of accepting and maintaining beneficent compassion for the least fortunate—of embracing salvation through radical faith in a new covenant with God through Jesus—without slipping back into age-old patterns of intolerance and ego-driven power mongering. While encouraged at one moment, I am discouraged the next.
Fortunately, I have much more trust in the power of faith to act in the lives of individuals. John 3.38 quotes Jesus as saying, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That observation forms the bedrock of my experience, and I struggle against internal slavery on a daily basis. Early Christianity, as with Exodus and other stories, is the tale of an enslaved people in search of a promised land (Langston, 2006). I moved from an orientation with drug and alcohol use, to disorientation during periods of abuse, and to reorientation as a person in recovery. This process required faith in a power greater than myself, a gift for which I am grateful. At the same time, however, I shifted from being a slave to addiction, through a period of deliverance, only to be filled with dangerous hubris.
Here is where the hope comes in. Just as addiction is defined as a disease of chronic relapse, so too is the human condition characterized by repeating patterns of success and failure. Perfection does not appear to figure into the equation, but a willingness to keep trying does. Jews may not be a Palestinian’s best landlord, but Israel is the only functioning democracy in the immediate neighborhood. Christians may have persecuted Jews, but we see wonderful acts of kindness blossoming all over the world thanks to Jesus and the faith put forth during those Early Christian days. Liberation theology in South and Central America stands out as keen contemporary examples. The Pilgrims may have turned into the scourge of indigenous North Americans, but at least the “imperial” United States helped end genocide in Kosovo (W. Brueggemann Interview, December 7, 2010), and for many remains a beacon for tolerance and dignity in the world. And I, having committed many miscreant transgressions, study pastoral counseling, hoping to one day treat the psychological and spiritual needs of people in distress.
There is so much to consider regarding Early Christianity, a person probably could write a book or two on the topic. Rather than slog through unnecessary academic details, this essay attempts to convey my relationship with a monumental and personally challenging question: How could one man, who by all rights should have been lost in the annuls of history, effect such tremendous change in the way we appreciate salvation of the human soul? This subject remains near to the heart of my lifelong spiritual quest.
 Parallels between Exodus and the story of Jesus are too numerous to list here. A very short set of examples includes the message of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19.1-25) vis a vis Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the way Jewish first born were saved on Passover (Exodus 11-12) as Jesus was saved from Herod Antipas (Matthew 1-2), the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples of Jesus, the coincidence of Last Supper occurring on or about Passover (quartodeciman and quintodeciman), and the parallel between the sacrifice of a perfect sheep for salvation of the Jews as juxtaposed against the sacrifice of Jesus for the salvation of all mankind. Indeed, Paul interprets Jesus as the Passover lamb (Witherington, 2006).
 The historical accuracy of all ancient texts must be questioned. The Jews may have wandered 40 years in the desert, but there is no archeological evidence of that having happened. Similarly, employing a demonym, the Merneptah Stele indicates Egyptian King Merneptah effaced a people called “Israel” during his reign from 1213 to 1203 B.C.E., yet we know this population lived on (Noll, K. L., 2001).
 The Exodus typology is told and retold throughout the bible. Psalm 77 references the Exodus story. Likewise, the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15.20-21) sung after the Jews crossed the Red Sea is similar to the Magnificat, or Song of Mary, found in Luke (1.46-55). A list of examples is almost endless.
 The author of Mark, committed as he was to the imminence of Parousia, proclaimed the Jesus of Galilee. He tried to make sense of why Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 C.E. while linking hope for redemption to suffering.
 Matthew’s composer rewrote Mark, talking about Jesus as founder of a new Israel and working to harmonize differences between the Jewish and Christian meanings of the word “Messiah.”
 The author of both Luke and Acts introduced an even more universalized vision. He noted that the God of ancient Jewish tradition stayed loyal to his people despite infidelities, and could be counted upon under terms of the new covenant. A fundamental transformation was underway, one that called for a radical shift from ego centeredness to spirit centeredness. The author wanted readers to know the era of salvation already was upon the people, although not yet complete.
 John calls for Jewish tradition to be reimaged in light of a High Christology that emphasized the divinity of Jesus over his human qualities. Perhaps written about, and in defense of, a marginalized Christian community, this replacement theology argues the old systems already have been destroyed, along with the physical symbols of Jerusalem and the Temple. In this view, Jesus existed before becoming manifest on Earth, is Logos, and his purpose is to restore and reveal through wondrous signs, or semeia, to those who witness.
 Paul emphasized outreach to the Gentiles, focusing on the value of faith over slavish adherence to Torah law and cosmetic genital surgery. His message was that Jesus sought to free mankind from a preoccupation with status, hierarchy, and boundaries.
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Langston, S. M. (2006). Exodus through the centuries. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Ludwig, R. A. (2010). The four gospels. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of Pastoral Studies, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL.
Noll, K. L. (2001). Canaan and Israel in antiquity: An introduction. London: Sheffield Academic.
Paine, T. (1984). Paine: Collected writings. New York, NY: Penguin.
Parchami, A. (2009). Hegemonic peace and empire: The Pax Romana, Britannica, and Americana. New York, NY: Routledge.
Pax Romana. (2010). In Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/447447/Pax-Romana
Pregeant, R. (2009). Encounter with the New Testament: An interdisciplinary approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
Stroll, I. (2008). Samual Adams: A life. New York, NY: Free Press.
Witherington, B. (2006). What have they done with Jesus? Beyond strange theories and bad history—Why we can trust the Bible. New York, NY: HarperCollins.