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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Church of the New Testament.


The Christian church is both depicted in most of the books of the NT and presupposed by all of them. Every one of them is the product of one setting or another in the early Christian communities. Sometimes the location of that setting is actually stated; in other cases it is not hard to see a good deal about its character. Though most of the books bear the name of a single author, there is good reason to think that, even if those ascriptions were in fact accurate (and most of them probably are not), we ought to see these writings partly as productions of the church. While they reflect the thought of some single mind—a genuine author—they were not written in isolation in some equivalent of a modern author's secluded retreat, but from the midst of a particular group of Christians with whom the author was in close interaction. Even the author of Revelation, shut away on Patmos, has his mind on the fellow-Christians from whom he is separated.


But, as we saw earlier, churches were not all of one kind or, in many matters, of a single mind. They differed in geographical location; in exposure to some of the cultural features that have been described; in their relation to Jewish observances and the local Jewish community; in attitudes to leading Christian figures such as Peter and Paul; in social composition (Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor); in the handling of moral problems, such as divorce and the scope of generosity. While the Christian churches were a far closer network than any other organization of the time that is at all comparable (and this is surely a major factor in their success, both now and later), held together by visits, letters, and a measure of supervisory responsibility felt by founders and leaders and by one church for another, they were nevertheless often strung out across great distances and surely were compelled to engage in much independent decision-making. As letters such as Galatians and 1 Corinthians show very well, the independence and the supervision could find themselves on a collision course. Many of the NT writings were indeed both an instrument of cohesion (as in due course they recommended themselves to a variety of communities) and a product of difference (in so far as they were designed to meet local and transient needs, or to counter or correct lines taken in other writings and places).


If our interest is in the churches within or for whom the NT books were produced, then the most obvious place to begin—and the place where we shall get the most direct results—is the corpus of genuine letters by the apostle Paul. Here is the most transparent (or at any rate the least opaque) window available to us as we seek to look at the life of early Christian communities. That immediately creates narrowness, for they cover only a limited range of churches—in Greece and Macedonia (1 and 2 Cor, 1 and 2 Thess, Phil), Asia Minor (Gal, Col, Philem), and Italy (Rom). (Other letters are of uncertain Pauline authorship or unclear geographical destination: Eph, 1 and 2 Tim, Titus.) Moreover, they vary a great deal in the degree to which they illuminate for us the lives of those to whom they are addressed—as distinct from the thought and interests of Paul who addresses them. Clearest of all is the church in Corinth, where we have the two NT letters (the first of them directly concerned with a welter of practical problems) and personal information from Rom 16 , written at Corinth and including greetings from members of the Corinthian church. And Acts 18 gives an account of Paul's initial mission in the city. There is also archaeological and literary material shedding light on the Corinthian background (Theissen 1982; Meeks 1983; Murphy-O'Connor 1983 ).


What is perhaps most surprising about this community, established in the early 50s, is the small degree to which its manifold problems appear to reflect difficulties that are related to Christianity's Jewish origins. There were, it appears, some Jewish members, but what one might expect to be their concerns (Law observance, relations to Gentile members, and scriptural interpretation) scarcely figure. This was, already, largely a Gentile community, and most of its problems sprang from overexuberant and élitist religiosity on the part of the most articulate and wealthy members. More clearly than any other NT writings, these letters give evidence of a church whose cohesion was made precarious by the dominance of these religious ‘experts’. Precarious, that is, in the eyes of Paul, who insists that all-embracing dependence on Christ implies the transcending of social and racial divisions (1 Cor 1–4; 12:13 ) and the giving of full honour and consideration to the simpler and poorer members ( 11:17–34; 12:1–13 ). In Paul's perception, the Lord's supper was to be the outward manifestation of this basic equality of generous love, rather than the focus of social division that it had become in Corinthian practice. They were simply continuing to run their meetings along the hierarchical lines taken for granted in a place such as Corinth in households and in guilds and associations of various kinds.


Galatians gives evidence of a different situation. Here it is indeed the implications of Christ for the adherence of his followers to Jewish observance that is in question, in particular the traditional Jewish identity-markers of circumcision, sabbath, and food rules. This letter gives a vivid picture of the bitterness caused by this issue (1–2 especially). Whether or not Paul was the first to see adherence to Christ as transcending this observance, and so as eliminating it at least as far as Gentile Christians were concerned (and therefore in effect dethroning it for all Christians), he it was who gave a rationale, scripturally based at that, for resistance to the imposition of the old Jewish marks of valid membership of God's people (3–4; see also Rom 4 ).


Some writings point to there being groupings of churches, whether on a geographical basis, or in relation to a shared missionary-founder. There would often be a shared language—a particular idiom or set of ideas in which to express Christian belief. This is most easily seen in the case of the communities visible in the Johannine Epistles. Here we have evidence of a number of Christian groups (it is unclear how many), where there is a limited degree of common acquaintance (3 Jn) and so perhaps a fairly wide geographical spread, but all sharing some sort of organizational unity (2 Jn 1 )—and having to struggle to maintain it (3 Jn). The basis of this unity, fragile as it was, was the form of Christian belief whose classic expression was in the Gospel of John, with its distinctive, finely tuned vocabulary of key words (light, life, truth, word), endlessly rewoven like elements in a complex fugue. But it is plain that there was no machinery for the exerting of rigid discipline among these Johannine Christians: the occasion for the first two letters is the emergence of division about the interpretation of their manner of belief concerning the person of Jesus. It is also plain that, even in the short time that must have elapsed between the writing of the gospel and the letters, some of the key words changed subtly in sense, in response to the quarrels. ‘Love’, for example, becomes a duty confined to the like-minded (Brown 1979 ).


The Revelation of John, with its letters to seven churches in Asia Minor (chs. 2–3 ), may again testify to some kind of group consciousness among a set of congregations, though it is unclear whether the admonitory role adopted by the seer is self-appointed or represents a formal acceptance by these churches of a special relationship. That such groupings might not be tight or exclusive is suggested by the fact that the church in the major centre of Ephesus appears in three different sets: the seven churches of Revelation, the largely different seven churches who received letters from Ignatius of Antioch (c.110 CE), and the Pauline foundations (Acts 19 ). The speed with which the main NT writings seem to have circulated itself suggests the effectiveness of at least informal ties among the churches, as does such a project as the collecting of Paul's letters, presumably from the churches which had initially received them, a process perhaps concluded by the end of the first century.


What has been said so far about the early Christian communities may seem to point to virtual simultaneity among the situations depicted; and it may seem that as, at the outside, the time-span of their composition was no more than seventy years (say, 50–120 CE), and as the period is so distant and obscure, there is little scope for attempts to refine that approach. But we are not entirely without the possibility of identifying developments even within that relatively short period, though certainty very often eludes us.


The first development was the shift in the character of the Christian movement from the period of Jesus' ministry to the subsequent mission and the living of the Christian life. Our written sources in the NT itself, the gospels and Acts, present it as the smoothest of transitions. At first there was, it seems, a brief time of Galilean ministry by Jesus and a small group of adherents, supported from time to time by transient and anonymous crowds. It was marked by constant movement, and a few references to Jesus' home (Mk 2:1, 15 ) scarcely modify this picture of endless mobility. The fact that the dominant mode of Christian life soon came to be settled and static speaks for the accuracy of this picture: any temptation to redescribe Jesus' circumstances in the light of later times has been resisted.


This time was also marked by the rural character of its setting: the big urban centres of Galilee in Jesus' day, notably Sepphoris and Tiberias, are conspicuous by their absence, even though the former was only a few miles from Nazareth where Jesus was brought up. There are of course numerous references to ‘cities’, in general and by name, but none of them is much more than a village or small town in modern terms. They were small settlements in an overwhelmingly peasant-dominated and agriculture-centred world. We have already seen that, in congruity with this mode of life, this was a setting where Aramaic was the dominant language and where literacy and a wider culture were almost certainly rare. While, like the wandering character of Jesus' ministry, the rural setting has amply survived any attempt the evangelists might have been expected to make to conform their account of Jesus' activities to the urban setting of the churches of their own experience, the Semitic speech has been almost totally obliterated (Mk 5:41; 7:34; 14:36 —all dropped by Matthew and Luke in their parallel passages), and Jesus is depicted as possessing both scriptural knowledge and technical interpretative skill, including the ability to read (Lk 4:17 ), and even perhaps some acquaintance with current popular moral teaching with Cynic affinities. The question attributed to the people in the synagogue (Mk 6:2 ), ‘Where did this man get all this?’ has never been satisfactorily answered, except in the terms of supernatural endowment—which the evangelist is no doubt content for us to entertain. However, it has to be said that evidence about synagogues in Galilee in this precise period (as distinct from a little later) and about educational opportunities at village level is practically non-existent and intelligent guesses vary, some more optimistic than the tone adopted here (Freyne 1988 ).


Leaving these matters aside, we do not have to look for the reason behind the original organizational simplicity, even indifference, of the movement that centred on Jesus. It lay surely in the vivid sense of God's imminent fulfilment of his saving purpose—to which, as we have seen, the gospels (not to speak of Paul and most other early Christian writers) bear witness. True, in the Qumran sect we have a Jewish group that combined such a sense (despite their existence for two centuries without its realization) with the most meticulous rules and observance covering every aspect of the common life. But in the case of both John Baptist and Jesus, the policy is different: open not secluded, of mass appeal not separatist, personal not immediately communal in its effects. There is not much sign in the gospels (and again the resistance of inevitable pressure to conform the story to later situations is impressive) of any attempt by either of these charismatic figures to ensure the survival and stability of a movement, with the structural provision which that requires. What there is, for example the commission to Peter (Mt 16:17–19 ), has all the marks of coming from later times: in this example, the words are added by Matthew to Mark's narrative, reducing it to confusion when we read on to ‘Get behind me, Satan’, addressed now to one just assured of the most crucial role in the church. Even when such material is taken into account, it does not amount to a blueprint: in the later first century, when the gospels were written, the church had still not reached a Qumran-like point, where every detail of life should be provided for by rule. The strong eschatological impulse from Jesus had not exhausted itself, despite the great changes which had nevertheless occurred.


Those changes were indeed momentous. Almost all the features of Jesus' ministry that have been described were replaced by their contraries. Mesmerized by the smoothness of the transition as described by Luke, as we move from his gospel to the beginning of Acts, readers have been reluctant to grasp how incongruous are the ‘before’ and the ‘after’. Much attention has long been given to the question of how and why the Christian movement survived the death of its founder and the seeming failure of all his hopes and promises; and in answering that question, attention has focused chiefly on the resurrection of Jesus as offering, somehow, the key to the problem's solution. But there is the at least equally fascinating institutional problem. Evidence to shed light on it is almost non-existent, and Luke has thrown us off any scent there might be, encouraging us to see the move as the most natural thing you could imagine: of course, Jesus' followers simply established themselves in Jerusalem, where they happened to be, and started preaching.


In fact it was remarkable that, in institutional terms, the Christian movement survived the crisis. It was done at the cost of severe changes to some of its central attributes and perspectives. Most obviously, there was a shift from rural to urban settings, probably first in Jerusalem, as Acts says, but soon in other major cities—Antioch (one of the largest cities of the ancient world) and then, in due course, in Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, in the 40s and 50s. The world of Galilee was left behind. Indeed, with the exception of a single allusion in Acts 9:31 , we have no clear evidence of Christian activity there after Jesus left for Jerusalem. For all we can tell, his work there was without trace—a passing whirlwind. (References to appearances of the risen Jesus there, in Mt 28 and Jn 21 , are of uncertain value in this regard and nothing visible follows from them.)


There was a shift too (and necessarily, given the urban locations) from itinerant to settled life, with missions undertaken from permanent urban centres. The result of this shift was that tensions arose between the more mobile missioners and the members of Christian congregations who did not normally reckon to leave their city boundaries and whose Christian life soon expressed also a change from a movement of unorganized individual adherents, many of them perhaps transiently impressed by the preaching of Jesus (the ‘crowds’ of the gospels), to one of tightly knit congregations, many of their members belonging probably to a small number of households in a given place and living quite circumscribed lives, marked in all kinds of ways by their Christian allegiance. We have seen that the letters of Paul testify amply to some of the problems resulting from this new allegiance, working its way within the social framework of such cities of the Graeco-Roman world as Corinth and Thessalonica.


We said that the strong sense of an imminent manifestation of God's power, to judge and then to save his own, survived the lifetime of Jesus—it is the framework of Paul's faith—and the shift to a more organized mode of existence. But certain of its concomitants in the earlier phase are no longer prominent. It was not practicable in the circumstances of an urban institution to follow the pattern of abandonment of family and property which is so strong in the preaching of Jesus. No doubt, with the exception of Jesus' immediate circle of itinerant preachers, there was always a measure of metaphor in the interpretation of this theme: Peter was married when he ‘forsook all and followed’ Jesus (Mk 1:16–20, 29–31 ), and remained so (1 Cor 9:5 ), and indeed Mark studiously omits wives from the list of relations to be left behind ( 10:29–31 ; cf. the prohibition of divorce in 10:1–12 )—though Luke (looking back through ascetic rose-tinted spectacles?) does not ( 18:29 ). The message might be interiorized into attitudes of single-mindedness and self-abnegation, or modified to spur Christians into generosity (forsaking not all wealth but certainly some), whether to the needy of the Christian group or to outsiders (Lk 10:25–37 ). There is astonishingly little on these themes in the ethical sections of the letters of Paul (Rom 12:13; 16:1–2 on giving; and 1 Cor 7:12–16 on marital problems in relation to conversion); though it is hard to believe that passages such as Mk 1:16–20 did not resonate with people whose Christian decision cost them dear in terms of family relationships and inheritance (cf. Jn 9 ).


Christian family life, with its development of injuction and advice for its regulation, was not long in becoming a primary concern in the urban congregations. It had soon become an institution in its own right, and it figures in one form or another in many of the NT letters (1 Cor 7; Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:21–6:9; 1 Pet 2:18–3:7 ), in terms much like those found in both Jewish and Greek compendia dealing with the same themes. The church had become domesticated. The note of abandonment, as a constant sound in the Christian ear, was muted, as emphasis shifted to the maintenance of church life.


It has become common to give more attention to a second transition in church life during the period in which the NT books were written, and sometimes it has been exaggerated or misleadingly described, perhaps in surrender to the impulse to contrast an early golden age with subsequent decline. This is the development in the later years of the first century and the earlier years of the second, of a greater concern to formalize and legitimate Christian institutions of many kinds. The first moves towards an authorized body of Christian writings probably belong to this time and are one mark of this trend. Others include the final replacement of itinerant missionaries (such as Paul and his associates) by the leaders of local churches, so that the churches now bear the weight of Christian organization and authority: there is no outside body to turn to, except other churches comparable to one's own. Despite the emergence of networks and groupings, local leaders became more prominent, and in more and more places, a single ‘supervisor’ (episkopos, later acquiring the status of a Christian technical term, ‘bishop’) came into being as the chief officer of the Christian community. As a matter of history, he probably arose from among the natural leaders of household-churches in a given place, but some bishops at least soon came to see their role in much more lofty terms: as representatives of God the Father and vehicles of the Spirit's utterance. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c.110 CE; Staniforth and Louth 1987 ) show us a man whose high sense of his place in the Christian scheme of things makes Paul's idea of an apostle pale by comparison (Campbell 1994 ).


There is little surviving evidence, but it is likely that forms of worship came to be formulated in the same period. The Didache (not in the NT and unknown until a single manuscript came to light in 1873) contains forms of eucharistic prayer from Syria, probably from the late first century. There are signs too of an increasing concern with conformity to whatever in a particular place was seen as orthodoxy: both the Johannine and the Pastoral Epistles show this trait, and in the latter case, there is more interest in urging such conformity than in elaborating on the beliefs actually involved. These pseudonymously Pauline letters are also insistent on the need for respectable behaviour, acceptable to society at large, and on the sober qualities required in church leaders (1 Tim 2:1–4; 3:1–11 ). It is all a far cry from the exuberance and brave independence of mind that mark the mission of Paul half a century before.


All the same, it does not do to paint too sharp a contrast between the solid and perhaps unexciting interests visible in some of the late NT writings and the enthusiasm and innovation of earlier days. If Paul is aware of the inspirational force of the Spirit in himself and among his converts, Ignatius shows comparable assurance, speaking with the voice of God. He is no mere ecclesiastical official, basing his position on human legitimation and just, as it were, doing a job for the church. On the other hand, Paul himself is far from being uninterested in due order in his Christian communities. It may sometimes have been hard to achieve or, as in Corinth, power had come to be concentrated in persons he disapproved of—even if they were themselves, it appears, claiming charismatic inspiration. But the whole tone of his correspondence shows an acute concern for properly accredited leadership, as 1 Cor 16:15–17 tactfully indicates. He was no lover of spiritual anarchy (Holmberg 1978 ).


However the matter is analysed in detail—and there is room for difference of opinion—it is evident that the churches underwent considerable changes, even within the relatively brief period to which the NT testifies and even to the extent of producing contradictory opinions and policies (for example on ethical questions such as the continuing role of the Jewish Law in daily life, Houlden 1973 ).


It is to be noted that all this took place among a still obscure body of people—spreading rapidly across the Mediterranean map and growing in numbers right through the century, but, in the writings available to us, showing little awareness of the world of the history textbook. There are, however, some marks of that world: the author of Revelation has his eyes on the fate of the Roman Empire and is aware of the rise and fall of emperors; Luke knows about Roman governors and other officials in the territories he describes, as well as something of the system they operate (Sherwin-White 1963; Lentz 1993 ). Yet the events that might be expected to have made an impact on the late first-century writings of a religious group with Jewish antecedents—the Jewish rebellion in Judea, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple at Roman hands, and the mass suicide at Masada—have left only oblique traces, such as elements in a parable (Mt 22:7 ) and symbol-laden prophecies on Jesus' lips (Lk 21:20–4 ). On the face of it, this is astonishing, so much so that some critics have been led (in the teeth of all other considerations) to date the NT books well before those happenings of 66–73 CE (Robinson 1976 ). It may be better to see this silence as evidence of the degree to which the Christian communities responsible for these books had by the time of writing abandoned their Palestinian and, in many cases, their Jewish roots, at least in social and institutional terms. These events impinged, on people whose loyalties and interests now lay elsewhere and who were removed from the immediate scene, less than seems to modern people to be credible.


Finally, part of the explanation lies also in the high concentration that marked the self-understanding of the Christian communities: they had strongly formed beliefs not just about God and Jesus, but also about the church itself. In other words, the detached and analytical terms in which the church has been discussed in this article would have been wholly alien to them. In Jesus' own preaching, there can be little doubt that, even if he did not establish ‘cells’ of followers in the Galilean countryside and villages (and there is no sign of such groups), his preaching of the dawn of God's kingdom, his visible and effective sovereignty, involved communal assumptions. What was to emerge was a purified and rejuvenated ‘people of God’—some sort of ‘Israel’.


The urbanizing of Christianity, visible in Paul and elsewhere, brought no break in this ‘Israel-consciousness’. Above all in Rom 9–11 , Paul produced a complex and ingenious theory to demonstrate the continuity between the Israel of the Scriptures and the Christian community, made up of Jews and Gentiles on equal terms (at least in Paul's determined view). But Paul also saw the church in a quite different perspective, one that was in tension, if not contradiction, with the idea of continuity which his Jewish roots and his sense of the one God of history would not allow him to forgo. This other perspective, for which he also argued with great skill and passion, centred on Christ and the sheer novelty that had come on the scene with him. It was nothing less than a new creation (2 Cor 5:17 ), with Jesus as a new Adam, starting the human journey off all over again (Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:22 ). In him, the human race was created afresh. Paul's highly concentrated image of the church as Christ's body encapsulates this consciousness, in which the Jew–Gentile divide is not so much overcome as undermined and rendered irrelevant (1 Cor 12; Rom 12; Gal 3:28 ). By clever scriptural arguments, chiefly involving the figure of Abraham (Gal 3; Rom 4 ), Paul sought to reconcile these two perspectives. They did not convince Jews, and while Christians mostly maintained that they were the true heirs of the old Israel, it was the idea of their membership ‘in Christ’, expressed in baptism and eucharist, and worked out in following his teaching as found in the gospels, that chiefly occupied their practical consciousness. John's gospel systematically shows Jesus, and then those attached to him as branches to vine and as sheep to shepherd (15; 10), as embodying and absorbing all the great attributes and properties that had belonged to Judaism and the people of Israel. They belonged now to the people of Jesus.

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