This is a long series on the Bible. Here are all the previous parts, that you really need to check out in order if possible to get the full picture of what I’ve suggested about the Bible thus far.
- Series Archive
- Please Note: There is a podcast version of this series available as well.
As a way of catching us up, it seems helpful to remind ourselves of the basic flow of events that we’ve been tracing:
- #1 Jesus Event: his life, teachings, death, resurrection (the most important from an ‘event’ perspective), appearances, ascension, and future return.
- #2 Jesus Movement: the ongoing gathering of communities committed to worshiping the Triune God and living in the power of God’s Spirit to represent God’s Kingdom (or party, or other image for God’s values coming to bear among us)
- #3 New Testament Documents (or, as I said previously, “Jesus Documents”): various documents that are recognized as being Holy Scripture, although not systematically organized throughout all the churches.
- #4 Compiled Bible: This is finally put together in the fourth century, in continuity with what the churches throughout the known world already affirmed about a particular set of 27 documents (along with the Hebrew Scriptures).
The early church was driven by the Jesus Event to form the Jesus Movement. This produced Jesus Documents that eventually became the “Jesus Book” (Compiled Bible).
The Jesus Movement should have been snuffed out by years of on again off again persecution. But instead, it grew. And here’s been the main point of these early reflections on the Bible:
The Bible is not the point, it points to the Point who is a Person. Jesus is the Point and the Event of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension launched a movement in the world. The resurrection specifically is the anchor-point of the Jesus Event that gave the movement courage and joy as they continued to tell others about God’s love. The Bible is central to the Christian faith without being the center of it. That place is reserved for Jesus alone.
As we noted last time, placing Jesus at the center led the early Jesus Movement to suffering, and at times: death.
The early church leader, Tertullian (155 - 240 CE) is cited as saying:
“If the Tiber floods the city or if the Nile refuses to rise or if the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, a famine, a pestilence, at once the cry is raised: ‘Christians to the lions!’”***
As we looked at in part 4, the earliest Jesus-followers committed themselves to Jesus and his movement, even ’til death. From the days of the apostles through 250 CE, the people of Jesus found themselves in times of relatively little pressure and persecution and intense seasons of it. (See the timeline in the previous post.) Tertullian gives his perspective from his own lifetime.
Christians often were scapegoated when things went wrong. Their unwillingness to worship the gods of empire left people suspicious of them. While it was legal for Jews to worship only one God, the lines continued to blur as to whether or not this movement of Messiah-followers qualified as Jews. Ultimately it was decided that they did not.
One of the worst seasons of persecution came during the reign of Decius (reign: 249-251 CE). He issued an edict calling for the worship of the (non-Christian) gods across the empire. This was the first systematic, empire-wide attempt to suppress Christianity. Up to this point, most persecution was localized but this move was a big deal.
By January of 250 CE, orders came that customary annual sacrifices in Rome to Jupiter and the other imperial gods must be observed everywhere else. While this wasn’t specifically directed at Christians per se, it directly affected them uniquely: either they accommodate or risk execution.
When Decius ordered everyone (without partiality) to worship the imperial gods, the system’s rigidity involved unique ways to prove you had complied. Documents called “Libelli” were required if you were stopped by authorities to prove that you had participated in the Greco-Roman sacrifices. (If you want a modern-day parallel, get to know some undocumented persons and what it is like to be asked about “papers”.) We have copies of these types of documents:
Of course, by this time, the members of the Jesus Movement were rooted in the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament documents. However, these scriptures (as I said earlier) weren’t readily available in a completed package. The stories they knew either orally or through their local leaders (who likely kept and copied the Scriptures) propelled them to faithfulness. Although Decius wasn’t in power long, his actions led to immense suffering. Not for a book—but in order to be faithful to a Person: Jesus.
Well, I hope this catches you back up. If you’d like, feel free to go back to parts 1-4 to get the full picture. In our next installment, we’ll trace the rest of the story to the time of Constantine.
*** Andy Stanley used this quote in his series The Bible for Grown-Ups (week 1). In many ways, Stanley inspired my extended look at the early church, but I made it my own as well. The ‘spirit’ of this series in parts 1-6 was inspired by Andy Stanley in the Bible for Grown Ups, week 1 as well. I took my own direction with it but his emphasis in that talk and elsewhere on the ‘event’ that grew Christianity instead of the Bible as the foundation has been quite helpful.