The Early Jesus Movement and Its Congregations
The Early Jesus Movement was initially centered in Jerusalem but soon produced four distinct parties—Disciples, Brethren, Hellenists, and Apostles—each ministering to different ethnic groups in Jerusalem and throughout the Roman Empire. Almost inadvertently, this diversity contributed to the movement’s strength in speedily spreading through the Mediterranean world.
By going from one Jewish synagogue to another, built all over the Empire in response to earlier Jewish diasporas, by 60 CE at least one of the four parties established congregations in many of the Empire’s cities, including its four largest, Rome, Corinth, Alexandria, and Ephesus. Although a patron-client-slave social structure dominated each city, the cities’ histories and cultures also differed considerably, challenging Christian congregations with issues of social class antagonisms, gender, slavery, poverty, use of magic, paganism, and Roman rules against promulgating “foreign” religions and even forming associations. Due to their proximity with one another in these cities, the congregations also had to learn to deal with their ministries’ differences.
Growing influence of Gentiles within the movement undoubtedly contributed both to controversies among the parties but also to their eventual resolution. The Apostle Paul’s Letters (especially Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans) provide an insider’s look at the controversies and their consequences on the movement. We see Stephen’s blood spilled as Hebrew fought Hellenist. We watch Paul vilified, beaten, and even stoned for his ideas. We learn that in Rome during Nero’s persecution of Christians (64 CE on), Christians informed on one another, just as Judas had done to Jesus. Such deep-seated controversies also divided the various parties. Yet a spirit (they called it the Spirit of Christ) kept influential Christians working with one another.
A chapter on each city offers details on how their congregations coped with the problems. In general, Disciples and Brethren parties responded by re-interpreting historically Jewish traditions. In contrast, Hellenists’ and Apostles’ re-interpretations blended Jesus’ teachings with historically Greek traditions. We believe that to observe and understand these issues as they took place is an exciting venture. We invite you to join us in it.