of the 1st century AD. The emergence of imperial power in Rome and the new social rules it entailed demanded a religion that could give a religious blessing to the new social norms. The coexistence of many peoples and cultures in the Roman Empire encouraged religions that all cultures found acceptable.
If early Christianity hadn’t existed, another religion would have taken its place. The emperor’s cult was an attempt along these lines in Asia Minor. Because early Christianity was a necessary phenomenon of the early Roman Empire, it can, and must, be investigated as a historical phenomenon, beyond theological assumptions.
Early Christianity: a necessary manifestation of the early Roman imperial period
My answer to the question of whether early Christianity
is a necessary rational truth or a random historical truth goes back to the solution that was favoured during 1,900 years of Christianity. Post-World War I Protestant theology’s concept of a free-floating divinity (God as the “entirely other”) is completely foreign to the Biblical authors. In their view, God is always related to the world and to human history.
Early Christianity saw itself as closely linked to the time when Jesus and his apostles appeared. That is why the Jewish ruler, the Roman governor and the emperor are mentioned by name. That is why the text refers to astronomical phenomena such as the star of Bethlehem (planetary conjunction of 7 BC) and the transition to the new spring sign of the Zodiac.
Early Christians were convinced that God became man, precisely in the early Roman imperial period, in the historical person of Jesus (prologue to John’s Gospel). Theologians are on the wrong track if they try to make Jesus into a myth (Bultmann), the star of Bethlehem into a legend and the new age that began with Jesus and the disciples into a religious fantasy.
What were the consequences? The Jesus who stood in the centre of historical events,
who could only be silenced by the personal intervention of Pilate, the Roman governor, became an insignificant itinerant preacher. The acclaimed Messiah, whose followers were driven out of Rome by imperial edict for causing tumult a few years after his death, became an unknown rabbi who avoided Hellenistic cities. A piece of world history became a pale social utopia. The foundation of a world religion dissolved into nothing.
Protestant theology solved the problem by making Jesus into a religious genius who drew all his wisdom out of his own person or to put it in religious language, who was given his gifts by God. Theologians proved to be supporters of the thesis “people make history”, through the concept of genius that originated in the Romantic movement of the early 19th century.
This thesis has long dropped out of fashion in historical studies and has been replaced by more modern methodological concepts.
What did the changed view of early Christianity mean? After the First World War, God’s sending his son
into the world was no longer viewed in Protestant theology as a rational decision by God, but as a totally free decision of a sovereign deity freed from all historical constraints. In other words, God could have sent Jesus 500 years earlier or 1,000 years later. The necessary rational truth of early Christianity became the random historical truth of Jesus. Protestant research on Jesus “freed” Jesus’ person and message from all conditions of spiritual history and its historical setting.
Jesus was suddenly placed as an erratic block in a historical landscape with which he did not communicate. Attempts to understand Jesus from the Jewish point of view can’t really weaken this impression.
Then the First World War broke out, and that changed everything. The Christian cultural consensus
was challenged. History was no longer perceived as a rational development, but as a chaotic process. Protestant theology held on to the view that God guides history, although it was obviously no longer rationally guided but happened chaotically. God’s will could therefore no longer be understood as a historical necessity, so instead the theologians emphasised the erratic in God’s will, God’s freedom, and placed God in opposition to the chaos of the world and world history.
into an imperial monarchy was made necessary by historical circumstances – in other words it was a historical necessity – was not the emergence of Christianity on the eastern edge of the empire, on the dividing line to the hostile Parthians who ruled the Orient, also a historical necessity, dictated by historical conditions? This was the view of Paul and the early Christians, at any rate, and they named the inevitability of what they observed and experienced “God’s will”.
The emergence, evolution and historical development of Christianity was considered to be a rational truth, seen by Hegel as the unfolding in history of the world spirit – viewed as Christian, of course. This view prevailed up to the period of German idealism and the liberal theology of the 19th century.
The early Christians fixed the change of the astrological age
to the change of the spring sign of the Zodiac, from Aries to Pisces. What do the historians say? In the period of Constantine it is not hard to conclude that the Christianity of the 4th century AD was best suited to becoming an empire-wide religion.
But what about the early Christianity of the 1st century AD, a small Jewish sect, so unimportant that Flavius Josephus overlooked it? Or should we perhaps reconsider? Didn’t Jesus himself lay the foundation for Roman Christianity, long before Paul? Is Christianity perhaps more than a Jewish offshoot after all? Is Palestine, a religious melting pot, a pool of cultural and religious influences, perhaps necessarily the breeding ground for a new religion?
Emperor Augustus reshaped Rome into an empire when it was sunk in civil war and set new social standards; was this era perhaps also the compelling reason to found a new religion? The clash of Eastern and Western cultures took place in little Galilee on a model scale and much earlier than in the rest of the Roman empire, and reconciliation was needed much earlier; is it possible that this was the cultural and religious model for the Roman empire that faced the same conflicts at a later date?
Necessary rational truths and random historical truths
The real problem that historians of early Christianity
have to solve lies deeper, however. If Christianity is not ordained by a higher power, is its emergence random or a historical necessity? Is it, in Lessing’s words, a random historical truth or a necessary rational truth? To put it another way, is the emergence of Christianity a necessary requirement of the time or rather a random event?
Paul says in Ephesians 1: 10 that God sent his son when the right time, the Kairos, was fulfilled. The New Testament seems to be of the opinion that it was the deity’s free will to save mankind through his son Jesus; however, God’s goodness also forced him, so to speak, to carry out his intention.