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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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1. Judaic Christianity. The disciples of Jesus, if they
appeared ready to confess their despondency and even
weakness at the time of the Crucifixion, made a recov-
ery so rapid that it puzzles the historians. It altered


374

the course of history; for though, as a result of it, they
did not exactly announce a new religion to their fellow
countrymen, they proclaimed an “event” which
brought the older faith to its culmination, shattering
its traditional framework and calling for a host of new
interpretations. It would seem that, during the lifetime
of Jesus, they may have followed Him without properly
understanding the drift of His teaching; and it would
appear to have been the vividness of their belief in
the Resurrection that transformed the situation for
them, enabling them to feel that now everything could
be fitted into place. It had in fact convinced them that
Jesus was the fulfilment of the famous prophecies on
which the Jews had been relying for a long time; and
that, if the truth had been so difficult to recognize,
it had been because those prophecies—and particularly
the notions of the Messiah and the divine Kingdom—
had been construed in too mundane a manner. Once
this basic insight had been reached, a remarkable work
of intellectual synthesis was quickly achieved, and
there followed an amazing missionary endeavor, which
required considerable bravery at first and cannot be
plausibly accounted for by reference to mundane
vested interests. It is clear to the historian, and it was
amply admitted at the time, that the dynamic behind
all this was the conviction that the beloved Leader
has risen from the dead. There was a strong expectation
that He would quickly return.

It has always been a matter of the greatest difficulty
for Christianity—and perhaps for any similar form of
faith—to secure by peaceful means and sheer mission-
ary endeavor the wholesale conversion of a people
already dominated by an exclusive form of supernatural
religion. The Holy Land was in this position, and
though Judaism was in a fluid and interesting state,
the disciples produced only what appeared to be an
addition to the multitude of sects and parties there—
some of these latter being impressive on the spiritual
and ethical side, and some of them so similar in one
way or another that the tracing of influences among
them is a delicate affair. The Church for a few decades
was predominantly Judeo-Christian, its members still
attending the Temple and conforming to the Law, but
meeting also in private houses or the Upper Room for
instruction, prayer, and the breaking of bread. Until
the war which led to the destruction of the city in
A.D. 70, it was the group in Jerusalem (with James,
the brother of Jesus, at its head) which was the leader.

It seems to have been quickly recognized that con-
verts from paganism were admissible; and pagans were
encountered in great numbers when the gospel was
carried to the virtually Greek cities, such as Caesarea,
on the Palestine coast. Communities were soon estab-
lished also in Damascus and the Hellenistic city of
Antioch, beyond the frontier; and Antioch, where the
term “Christian” came into use, became the center for
a wider missionary campaign in the Greco-Roman
world. But also, at this early stage in the story, Chris-
tian missions (following previous ones on the part of
the Jews) spread eastwards to Transjordan and into
Arabia, and they were pushed forwards to the upper
Euphrates and the Tigris. Here, churches using the
Aramaic tongue became important during the earliest
centuries. Some difficulty arose over the question
whether the pagans should be made to conform to the
Jewish law and this may have created additional diffi-
culty for Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, as Jewish
nationalism became more intense, more exacting. But
the extension into the Greco-Roman world, together
with the destruction of Jerusalem, brought the Chris-
tian faith a higher degree of autonomy, a further scope
for development; and it opened to Christianity the
possibility of becoming a world-religion. The early
need for exposition in the Greek language, the marriage
with Greek ideas, and the contact with a highly devel-
oped culture were to prove important in this connec-
tion. “Historical Christianity”—the religion as we have
actually known it in its concrete development through
the centuries—comes in some respects as a Greco-
Jewish synthesis, owing part of its power to the combi-
nation of two such highly different systems. It would
be interesting to know how the religion would have
developed if, in its early generative period, it had
combined with a different culture.

The historian is hampered because the Christians in
their very earliest period produced so little in writing,
or at least preserved so little. Their leaders knew what
was needed at the time, however, and the whole future
question of authority in the Church would seem to have
been decisively affected by the fact that (for the imme-
diate purpose) so much was realized to depend on the
evidence of eyewitnesses, and the primacy was natu-
rally given to these. Perhaps it is for similar reasons
that one glimpses the importance of certain relatives
of Jesus in the earliest days at Jerusalem; and, of course,
Saint Paul was accepted as an Apostle because his
particular vision of the risen Christ was regarded as
giving him first hand knowledge. Once the eyewitnesses
had passed off the scene, it was natural that a certain
primacy should be conceded to those who had been
closest to them—those to whom they had communi-
cated most; and the objective was the preservation of
what had originally been delivered at first hand—what
in the course of time could only appear in a less cogent
form as “tradition.”

The attempt to secure uniformity in the Church
would seem to go back to the jealousy with which the
Judeo-Christian leaders in Jerusalem regarded the


375

“Hellenizers”—some of these latter being Jews who
had been affected by Hellenization or pagans who
(before becoming Christian) had been converts to
Judaism. When the “Hellenizers” carried the gospel
to pagans in the Greek coastal cities of Palestine or
in Syria, it would appear that the Church at Jerusalem
would send a “Hebrew” to check on the result of their
work. But, in spite of the care that was taken, there
were aberrations even amongst the Christians in
Palestine; and in Samaria, which had already been
heterodox in its Judaism, an irregular form of Christi-
anity slid away and became the origin of Gnosticism—
this after A.D. 70, when the failure of Jahweh to grant
victory in an apocalyptic war helped to produce a
movement partly directed against the Old Testament
deity. Henceforward, the rise of Christianity was par-
alleled by the multiplication of Gnostic sects which,
in spite of their fantastic character, proved imposing.
Now, more than ever, it was necessary to safeguard
the original doctrines of the Church.