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Early Christian Communities

ISS Reports


On Saturday the 14th of May, three scholars spoke to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St Peter's Church on different aspects of early Christian community. Philip Harvey reports.

There was ambivalence in the early church about making art, said Dr Felicity Harley-McGowan (University of Melbourne) due to the prohibition in the Second Commandment about making graven images. But this was not the prevalent attitude. Early Christian imagery is very simple, borrowing directly from the shared Greco-Roman art of daily life. Generic images like sheep, birds and fish were adapted for Christian meaning. The image that we treat as central, the cross, only emerges later in the early church. Artistic representation could be employed in domestic and funerary contexts. Personal objects were also used, e.g. in personal jewellery and adornment, on terracotta lamps and other basic household utensils. With the discovery of the synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria we now know that Jews in the period were also using images based on Scripture. Saint Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215) specified in his writing which images could be used in art: dove, fish, ship in sail, lyre, anchor, fisherman. We can see this in Roman seal rings, which are early examples of how images can be incorporated in an acceptable manner. When Christ first starts being represented it is as a wise teacher, an image that Romans of the time would have related to and understood, based on Greco-Roman models. Hence He is portrayed as a philosopher, or even as the emperor. Likewise, the Roman image of the shepherd was readily adapted. Although Christians understood the language of the good shepherd from Scripture, they had in Roman art a readymade pre-existing image to work with, the god Hermes the ram-bearer. Popular images from the Old Testament used in early Christian art are also telling about the communities. In keeping with faith in the resurrection, there is a noticeable emphasis on people who are delivered up from death: Jonah, Susanna, and the three faithful men in the fiery furnace, described in Daniel.

Dr David Gormley O'Brien (Trinity College Theological School) presented strong portraits of two highly influential figures in Christian community. The first was the very same Clement, who sought to create a community of friends, like the Epicurians. Clement of Alexandria was a very educated and civilised person. He travelled all over the known world in search of learning. He is the first Christian writer to mention Buddhism. Also the first to talk about going to church, in the sense of it being something one does. He knows his Bible, but also Plato and Aristotle. He worked in catechesis, but Clement was even more interested in cultivating advanced Christians in gnosis, or knowledge. The process was for pagans to become neophytes, and then to develop a gnostic friendship with God, which is the ultimate form of salvation, replacing pagan superstition. Faith progresses to reason, fear to love. You can only benefit when you become more like God. Clement reclaims gnosis for the church from the Gnostics. A gnostic in his terms is a friend of God. True gnostics are Christians, according to Clement, over against the false Gnostics. Another development in Christian community starts happening over one hundred years later in Fourth Century Egypt: the rise of monasticism. Here we met the second of David's two figures, Saint Pachomius (ca. 292-348). He didn't invent monasticism but he pioneered ideas that led towards its consolidation. Very like Clement, Pachomius embarked on an agenda of assembling souls to be made perfect in God. It was observed that there is something seemingly contradictory about monasticism. There is the choice of anchoritic life, i.e. retreat, withdrawal from the world, and then cenobitic life, i.e. living in community. Both of these forms flourished in Egypt. Inside the highwalled monastery that he had built beside the Nile, Pachomius established a daily life of work and prayer for the community members. He wanted to create a community of equals, based on the Apostles. Everyone had to learn to read, also to memorise Scripture. Pachomius provided a model of monastic community life that would soon spread all over Europe.

The New Testament reveals the directions of early Christian worship, according to the Revd Dr Andrew McGowan (Trinity College Theological School). There are feeding stories, where Jesus blesses food and eats with others. Then there are institution narratives, of which the Lord's Supper is a fundamental source. In Acts we have descriptions of meetings and baptisms, indeed all sorts of ways in which the Holy Spirit is seen as happening. 1 Corinthians talks about the Lord's Banquet, the first scriptural reference to the Eucharist, predating by many years the accounts in the Gospels. Through this early period there are other inherited documents (prayers, church orders, reports) that indicate either implicitly or by direct expression the changing form of early Christian worship: Didache and the First Apology of Justin Martyr (2nd cent.); Tertullian, Saint Cyprian of Carthage, the Acts of Thomas, Didascalia Apostolorum, and the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus (3rd cent.). From the very start we are presented with a wide variety of forms of worship practice. It is arresting to be reminded that many of the first Christians, who of course were nearly all Jews, continued to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century, before its destruction at the hands of the Romans. The breaking of bread would have been done at home as well as in community meeting places. The places and spaces of Christian worship in the first centuries were diverse and it is only with the effective legitimisation of the religion within the Empire (Emperor Constantine, early 4th cent.) that public churches become part of the landscape. Clearly there were many more professing Christians in a city like Rome than there were churches to accommodate them. Andrew referred to 'The Second Church' by scholar Ramsay MacMullen, a book in which it is argued that there must have been all sorts of Christian worship practices going on in additional places to the public church buildings. It is at this time that we see the emergence of worship zones within the church itself, i.e. the placement of altar, reading lectern and screens to serve the smooth conduct of the worship. Then too we see the early metaphorical use of Scripture, e.g. the Temple directions in Exodus and Leviticus, as aids to the conduct of liturgical worship. Andrew observed how Christians took up the theological meanings of the Jerusalem Temple in churches before the Jews started doing the same thing in the synagogues of the Common Era.

Notes taken by Philip Harvey.

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