New Light on Earliest Christianity -- By: Robert Houston Smith
BSP 3:4 (Autumn 1974) p. 109
New Light on Earliest Christianity
[Robert Houston Smith received a Ph.D. in New Testament from Yale University in 1960. At present he is Fox Professor of Religion at the College of Wooster and director of The Wooster Expedition to Pella.]
The following article first appeared in Archaeology, Vol. 26, No. 4, October 1973, and is reprinted here, slightly abridged, with permission.
We know that the earliest Christians were Jews who continued to embrace both the beliefs and customs of Judaism and who differed principally from their fellow Jews in regarding Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. These Jewish Christians, as they have come to be called, had their earliest centers in Galilee, where Jesus preached for the greater part of his ministry, and in Jerusalem, where finally at Passover, he was put to death. This community, sometimes referred to as the “primitive church,” was destined to flourish for several generations only, from the time of Jesus’ death until the end of the Second Jewish Revolt in Palestine in A.D. 135. After that time, it drifted slowly into oblivion.
Archaeological evidence of the early Jewish Christian community — at least prior to the Second Jewish Revolt — is extremely scanty. This is logical enough since the community was small and virtually indistinguishable from the larger Jewish community in the practical matters of daily life. Despite these obstacles, students of early Christianity have persisted in seeking to uncover mementos of Jesus, the Apostles and the primitive church; it is a time-honored quest stretching at least as far back as Constantine the Great (whose
BSP 3:4 (Autumn 1974) p. 110
concern with the primitive church was less historical than pious) and reaching a crest during the course of the Crusades when an enormous number of alleged early Christian relics found their way to Europe. Needless to say, few of these relics were authentic survivals.
Even archaeologists have been prone to such enthusiasm; the past hundred years have seen a number of “discoveries” of objects supposedly from the earliest days of the church. The famous Chalice of Antioch, probably Byzantine in date, was at first thought to be the very chalice used in the Last Supper. A generation ago a number of interpreters believed that the Dead Sea Scrolls had been written by Jewish Christians, and more recently it has been suggested that certain Galileans mentioned in letters from Wadi Murabaat in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, penned during the Second Revolt, were Christians. Other bits of questionable evidence continue to come forward from time to time, such as graffiti on ancient walls, marks scratched on ossuaries (bone repos...
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