Historian of Early Christianity waiting for school to start . . . ask me anything!


#1

I’ve seen a few posts by Atheists looking to answer questions, so I thought it might be fun for me to try the same thing with my interest - Early Christian history.

A few pieces of background: I’m a professor of Early Christian history (including the Historical Jesus) at a US university. I am a historian, NOT a theologian. If you have any questions about Christology or things of that nature, I am not the best resource.

Also, I am not interested in debating faith. That is something best left to vehicles other than the internet.

So, if anyone has any questions, I will do my best.


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#2

I’ve been wondering, what is the earliest mention of priests in early Christianity?

Also, do you have any information on how early Christians received communion? I’ve heard they used to receive communion with a piece of cloth spread on their hands, but found no sources to back it up anywhere.


#3

Two excellent questions, which have very controversial answers.

On priests: The controversy is based on what you mean by a priest. If you mean a priest similar to what you find in the Catholic Church today, you are asking a very different question than if mean more simply a religious leader of a Christian community. If you mean the former, they did not really begin to exist until the second or third century, depending on where you are looking geographically. And their first mention would likely be the famous letter of Pliny the Younger. Again, there is debate about what he is describing and some historians argue that there are earlier references in Paul, but I disagree that Paul is describing something akin to the modern priesthood.

If you mean priests, as a leader of Christians, then the first mention goes back to Paul. In particular he describes deacons specifically in terms that make sense to most modern Christians.

Communion: the earliest Christians took communion as a communal meal. I just thumbed through James Dunn’s “Christianity in the Making” because he has a whole section on this, but I couldn’t find it. I’ll have to look more in depth for you.

Essentially, for the first few centuries, the mass was developing. And communion developed along with the mass. It is important to realize that there was as yet no “Church” in the modern sense - that is, no bureaucracy to decide these matters universally. Each community made its own decisions on things like which gospels to read, and how exactly to take communion.

I hope that is helpful.


#4

How much of the canonical NT writings have been altered in any degree from original manuscripts and how does this compare to the early non-canonical writings?

Peace!!!


#5

I’m opening a can of worms here, but what is the earliest mention of women serving as deacons or clergy?

FYI, I support a male-only priesthood because I believe in the theology that the priest acts ‘In persona Christi’.


#6

On priests: The controversy is based on what you mean by a priest. If you mean a priest similar to what you find in the Catholic Church today, you are asking a very different question than if mean more simply a religious leader of a Christian community. If you mean the former, they did not really begin to exist until the second or third century, depending on where you are looking geographically. And their first mention would likely be the famous letter of Pliny the Younger. Again, there is debate about what he is describing and some historians argue that there are earlier references in Paul, but I disagree that Paul is describing something akin to the modern priesthood.

This suggests that the Catholic minister did not exist until the second or third century, which would be controversial to assert on a Catholic forum.

It may be more appropriate when speaking of the designation of “priest,” but not the office of such itself. Catholic priests existed from the first century on, as priest is simply an English transliteration of “presbyter,” and that these ministers were priests in the sacrificial sense is dependent on the understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, which is clearly taught in the first century (Didache and Clement’s letter). Putting the pieces together, we see how the Christian presbyter or elder or minister in the first century presided over the sacrificial offering of the Eucharist, and so was a “priest” in the sacrificial sense.

Therefore, Catholic priests existed in the first century.


#7

In short, all of them. The earliest versions we have only date to about the 300’s depending on the specific writings, and there is clear evidence of redaction before that date. You can check out the writings of E.P. Sanders on this, his work is very accessible to the non-specialist. Sadly, without more original manuscripts we have only evidence-based guesses as to how much the canonical and non-canonical texts have been altered. Almost all historians, however, believe that the differences are relatively minor (i.e. differences of degree, not kind).

The non-canonical writings have gone through similar degrees of redaction. There is a lot of fascinating research into non-canonical works, but since they tend to only have few examples (only one complete Gospel of Thomas, and not even a complete copy of the Gospel of Peter), the research is limited when it comes to how they were composed.


#8

Paul mentions deaconesses in his Letter to the Romans, which is generally dated to around 58 AD. The identification of Phoebe as a Deaconess is not usually explicit in English translations, but is clear in the Greek. They are also mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Pliny the Younger. In short, they definitely were a thing. Exactly what their role was is unclear, however. But then again, exactly what role anyone had in the first two centuries of Christianity is unclear from a historical perspective.


#9

Of course. But as I said, I am a historian, not a theologian.


#10

Right, but I don’t think it’s historical to say Catholic priests didn’t exist in the first century.

There were a lot of layers added on over the centuries. For example, being a bishop or presbyter in the first few centuries wasn’t a “job” as it later would become.

But the essence of being a Christian minister has not changed: They lead the congregation in worship, the center of which has always been the Eucharist, which is a sacrifice.


#11

Fair enough. I understand your point.


#12

Besides Jesus and others named specifically in the Bible, who is your favorite early Church person? Also, how do you define early Church?

I might have actual questions depending on how you answer that second one, lol


#13

First of all, thank you for your kind offer to answer our questions here. I have several questions, mainly arising from discussions on other websites with Protestants, in particular Calvinists (or near-Calvinists) who insist that in the early Church there were only local Christian communities, each having its own elders/overseers, but without any hierarchical or diocesan structure and without any higher-ranking clergy.

My first question has to do with the people described in the Epistles as “apostoloi” in certain passages where most translations use a term such as “messengers” or “representatives”, as for example in these three verses (in the NIV):

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (Rom 16:7)

As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you; as for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ. (2 Cor 8:23)

But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. (Phil 2:25)

In these passages, is the word apostolos being used simply in a general sense to refer to any “messenger” or “envoy,” or does it designate a specific position, function, status, or rank within Paul’s Church?

If it is being used in the latter sense, how long did the Church retain this position, function, status, or rank? By the time of Constantine’s reign, for instance, the term had already fallen into disuse, hadn’t it? Can anything more specific be said about the timing?


#14

The word presbyter for priests is still very much used. I think the problem is with the English language.


#15

I’ve been in this profession too long to have favorites! If I had to give an answer though, I would want to have a chat with Clement of Alexandria and ask him if he really wrote that letter about the Secret Gospel of Mark (look it up sometime, fascinating episode).

Obviously historical eras are entirely subjective, so I avoid hard dates. I believe Early Christianity is the period in which the religion was born and matured, so I look at it from roughly 50 BC to the First Council of Nicaea. Other historians define it differently, of course.

And yes, in line with recent trends in scholarship, I examine the period before Jesus was born. The context in which he lived is critical to understanding Early Christianity.


#16

You’re welcome. The conversations (even the passionate ones!) are the best part of being a historian.

I had no idea there would be so many questions about clergy, and nothing so far about Jesus! Not that there is a problem with that, I just didn’t expect it.

Anyway, as to how Paul uses “apostle,” it is widely held that his use of the term was far more elastic than Jesus’. In my opinion, and only my opinion, in these cases he is using it very broadly.

In other cases, like when referring to himself, I believe he is using it essentially as Jesus did (I have no evidence obviously, but I have often wondered out loud if this was part of the source of the friction with Peter and James). Other than Paul, no mainstream Early Christian appears to have declared themselves an Apostle. And very quickly the term became a title for the Twelve.


#17

Where do you teach, Bill?


#18

Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Understanding the context of writings of hundreds of years ago is important, imho, and helps us see the difficulty of finding solutions to the entirety of today’s ethical issues.

I’m curious about the secular issues caused by King Phillip of France, the 19-year old monarch that needed more money, so changed something concerning taxation of churches. What were the turmoils and changes caused in the world of his day? Did they have permanent effects?


#19

Thank you, Bill. That’s a good start. Two more questions, if I may, about the Epistles.

(1) Do you agree with the division into seven “authentic” amd seven “deutero-Pauline” epistles?

“Authentic”— Romans, 1 & 2 Cor., Gal., Phil., 1 Thess., Philemon
“Deutero”— Eph., Col., 2 Thess., 1 & 2 Tim., Titus, Hebrews.

If so, what are your views about the authorship of the “deutero-pauline” epistles? Ben Witherington, I think, favors Luke as the author of the Pastoral epistles (visiting Paul in prison in Rome and acting as his secretary), and someone else has mentioned Apollos of Alexandria as the likely author of Hebrews.

(2) Authorship and date of the Epistle of James. Do you attach any weight to the argument that it can’t be James “the brother of the Lord”, the James of Acts 15, because of the late date at which the epistle was admitted to the canon? There would have been no such delay—the argument goes—if it was known that the author was such a prominent and highly regarded leader of the early Jewish Church.


#20

Roughly when do you believe that the “Church in the modern sense” came into being? Thanks in advance!


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