Christianity's Historical Context

Understanding the world in which Christianity developed helps understand Christian beliefs.

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Yet among gentiles the movement took hold: It offered the antiquity (in antiquity, "old" was "good"), morality, and community of Judaism, and it also offered what Jews already had: a covenantal rela­tionship with heaven that would lead to eternal life.

Pagan Polytheism?

Was that direction toward the gentile world one of pagan polytheism and idolatry?

Christians, of course, would say "no," as would most his­torians of the early church. Granted, it is not incorrect to think of Chris­tianity as having adopted numerous pagan practices, from setting the date for the birth of Jesus--December 25, the day dedicated to the ancient sun god--to the adoption of Yule logs, Christmas trees, and Easter bunnies.

But adaptation of cultural practices is an important way that religions de­velop; we might think of Jewish non-scriptural traditions, from jelly donuts and latkes at Hanukkah, to hamantaschen at Purim, to whatever the lat­est bar mitzvah fad is. Showing a shared good taste, Jews and Christians both have eggs for our spring festivals (respectively, Passover and Easter).

Jewish Practices

In terms of its relationship to Jewish practice, the earliest Christian movement had at first only one sacred Scripture, the Bible of the synagogue (Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim, or Torah, Prophets, and Writings). However, rather than insisting that all gentiles who joined the new movement convert to Judaism, the church after some debate concluded that this was unnecessary. Gentiles were not to be obligated to perform any distinctly Jewish practice.

Thus, gentile Christians were not bound by circumcision, kashrut [dietary laws], etc. That decision itself, however, was quite kosher: Resident aliens in Israel were not bound by these laws; the few scriptural statements about the "world to come" do not indicate that gentiles must convert to Judaism.

Further, during the Hellenistic period, Judaism developed the idea of the Noahide Laws--seven laws given to Noah and hence binding all humanity, not just Jews. Gentiles who followed these laws (prohibi­tions of murder, sexual sins, theft, idolatry, blasphemy, eating the limb from a living animal; the establishment of courts of justice) were consid­ered "righteous" (as today we have the category of the "righteous gen­tile") and accordingly were worthy of eternal life. Thus, gentiles in the church were required to conform to basic moral precepts only.


As for polytheism, the earliest Christian texts, which were written by Jews (such as Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who came to be known as St. Paul), do not encourage one to pray "to" Jesus. Rather, one prayed "through" him to God (the Father). This is also the role of the Saints and the Virgin Mary in some church teachings (most notably, the Roman Catholic Church). These figures are not "divine," but are viewed as hav­ing special intercessory powers.

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Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she also directs the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.