Alpha Christianity


It was quite likely that Jerusalem, the chief city of Palestine, would soon become the center of early Christianity, and very likely that Antioch, the chief city of the eastern Mediterranean, would not long afterward rise to prominence in early Christianity, and extremely likely that Rome, the capital of the Mediterranean world, would later on aspire to, and in the end, succeed in achieving, the central position in early Christianity. And so it happened. The question is just how and when it happened. It seems that shortly after the 60's, Rome began to appropriate unto itself Paul, Peter, John Mark, and by association the Gospel of Mark, which was then still recognized as the oldest and thus the most authoritative Gospel.

Paul was executed in Rome in c60. 1 Clement, written by the then Bishop of Rome in c96 to the Corinthians (on the explicit model of Paul's letters to the Corinthians), not only contained advice about their present errors (very like Paul), and then went on to provide something like a Gospel: a complete guide to Christian belief and practice. This looks like a first venture to assert the power of Rome to determine correct belief, and also to impose correct belief on other churches.

1 Clement 5 lists people who suffered due to "strife," by which it means doctrinal and practical inconsistency. Peter and Paul, in that order, are both included in that list. 1 Clement also mentions Paul as preaching to the far corners of the world, which can only have meant Spain. The legend that Paul was released in c60, went on to preach in Spain, and died on a later occasion, is very favorable to the image of Rome (it absolves Rome of responsibility for Paul's execution in c60). But it is not true; there is no trace of Paul in Spanish Christian traditions until centuries later. The association of Paul with Rome, especially when whitewashed with the Spain myth, helped to establish the prestige of Rome.

The supremacy of Rome in doctrinal matters was not quickly consolidated. Disputes with the eastern churches over such details as the date of the observance of Passover (the Quartodeciman controversy) persisted into the 2nd century. But the claim of Rome not only to possess, but to monopolize, the true tradition of Jesus, gradually succeeded. Rome's Apostolic credentials, in a doctrinally enforceable form, come through clearly in the early pages of Irenaeus Adv Haer (late 2c).

The first known leaders of the Roman church were Linus, Anacletus, and Clement (the same Clement who wrote the Epistle to the Corinthians in c96). Their names (though not those of Peter and Paul) are commemorated in the Latin Mass. Irenaeus gives other names, explaining that Sixtus (that is, Sixtus I, the name is more exactly Xystus) was the sixth in order from the Apostles. But the sequence, and especially the dates, are not at all points securely known. Notwithstanding these areas of uncertainty, the fact that the contrary power, the secular Empire, was itself centered in Rome, made it inevitable that the Christian world, which grew up in opposition to the secular world and its power, would tend to center there also. In this sense, Rome replicates on a larger scale the earlier supercession of Galilee by Jerusalem. Jerusalem in its time was also a dual center, of collaborationist priestly Judaism, which supported Rome, and also of renegade Christianity, which defied both Rome and the Jewish collaboration party. The execution of Sixtus II in the persecution ordered by the Emperor Valerian in 258 has its exact historical analogue in the execution of James Zebedee (then the leading figure in the Jerusalem branch of the Jesus movement) by the Roman client King, Herod Antipas I, in c44. In both cases, the administrative center of Christianity had been attracted to the point of power, which was also the point of greatest danger.

This Jerusalem > Rome trajectory, which Luke made the mainthread of Acts, is indeed one of the great arcs of Christian history. Let it be added that a balanced view also requires recognition of the Antioch > Alexandria link, whose basis was laid back in the times of the Persian Empire, the importance of Edessa on the eastern end of the Syrian world, and of Ephesus in Asia Minor on the western end.

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25 Nov 2011 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page