The First One Hundred Years of Christianity: An Introduction to Its History, Literature, and Development
By Udo Schnelle and translated by James Thompson
Baker Academic, 2020
688 pages (cloth), $60.00
Few eras of history are more captivating for Christians than the earliest years of the church. The apostles spreading the gospel across the Roman Empire. A church free of the institutional and political conflagrations that would plague it in future generations. Minimal persecution. Consistent growth. Abounding unity. It was a golden time of rapturous faith. At least, that is one version of the story.
Another version is directly critical of this kind of fond reminiscence and speaks not of resurrection from the dead and apostolic proclamation but of an unmarked grave, years of silence, decades of discord, and controversial claims about how the church of the first century was alien to what later orthodoxy would claim as Christian faith. Sober historians and theologians have long recognized the dangers of both such extremes, but the question remains: What did the earliest Christianity look like?
Udo Schnelle’s The First One Hundred Years of Christianity addresses this crucial question and stands as an engaging, extensive, and exact treatment of this all-important and oft-contested epoch of the church. Employing a variety of lenses, tools, approaches, and sources, Schnelle paints a detailed picture of the theology, practices, and development of the first Christian century that will inform and satisfy anyone hoping to immerse themselves in the rich history of this era. Less an argument than an encapsulation and compendium, this work is an accessible and invaluable voice for engaging the first century of the church.
Schnelle begins with consideration for how one might approach the study of early Christianity given our current intellectual climate and limitations. He takes a nuanced evidential approach that remains attentive to postmodern critiques, critical theory, and material culture without letting those lenses dominate his project. With philosophical underpinnings firmly in the post-postmodern camp, Schnelle interacts with key European, American, and postcolonial voices throughout this volume. After a helpful overview of attendant archaeological, cultural, historical, and economic contexts, Schnelle takes a deep dive into the key moments, figures, and developments of the first century of Christianity.
Structurally, Schnelle utilizes a watershed approach, locating four key events in the early development of the church: Easter Sunday, the Jerusalem Council, the turbulent decade of the 60s, and institutionalization. This last development he seems to locate on the boundary of the century; the other three, however, form the crux of his outline for the progression of Christianity.
Immanently noteworthy is the seriousness with which Schnelle approaches the Easter event and subsequent experiences of the resurrection. In taking a theo-historical approach that prioritizes four sets of source material (the Synoptics, Acts, authentic Pauline Epistles, and the Gospel of John), Schnelle furthers the growing practice of taking New Testament texts as earnest historical data, rather than overtly biased religious texts to be ignored by true historians or viewed as anachronistic retrojections that say little about the earliest church. Schnelle moves through these sources discerningly but does an admirable job of hearing these voices on their own terms, instead of following the well-worn scorched-earth approach of certain past scholarship. He is careful not to overstate the limits of historiography or the historical case that New Testament documents make, yet he does so in measured and realistic ways.
Next, Schnelle takes his lead from Acts and traces the growth of the church from Jerusalem through the Greco-Roman world. Beginning with a careful examination of the biographical and social world of Jerusalem and the earliest Jesus followers, he considers the hierarchies, organizations, and communities visible in extant evidence. It’s then on to the early mission of the church outside Jerusalem. These chapters highlight a particular strength of this volume, which continues to engage textual, historical, and social sources throughout. This consistency helpfully eschews the increasingly common tendency of scholarship to foreground certain contextual data and then summarily ignore it once the project is underway.
Schnelle’s second great watershed moment of the first century was the Jerusalem Council, which he labels as “the most significant historical event in the history of early Christianity.” Closely related to the decisions of that gathering were the exploits and influence of the apostle Paul, to whom a sizable chapter is devoted. The time given to Paul’s message and impact in the latter half of the first century fittingly encapsulates the apostle’s domination of contemporary New Testament studies.
With that, Schnelle brings his readers to the third great watershed moment of early Christianity: the decade of the 60s. These years mark a critical turning point for the church, as the deaths of key apostles and eyewitnesses, the penning of the Synoptic Gospels, the beginnings of eschatological chaos, the rise of pseudonymous literature, and the destruction of Jerusalem quickly and unexpectedly ushered the church into the postapostolic age. One of my New Testament professors was fond of saying that everyone who studies early Christianity is trying to figure out where the church went wrong and where the seeds of corruption were sown. For Schnelle, the tumultuous decade of the 60s, culminating in the apocalyptic destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, represents the key series of events that, if not themselves corrosive, at the very least sent the church down a different path than it was on until that time.
The final section of this volume addresses the fallout of the 60s throughout the terminus of the century. Using a combination of textual, theo-eschatological, and sociopolitical lenses and data, Schnelle sets up the institutional watershed of the early church, though this important transition lacks the clear chronological demarcation of the earlier moments. This section in particular relies heavily on the insights of second- and third-century Christians and begins to truly engage questions of diverse Christianities and heretical sects, particularly Gnosticism. Curiously, relatively little consideration is given to the noncanonical corpus of the apostolic fathers, though this is but a continuation of a now long tradition in scholarship of finding heretics more interesting than the orthodox.
In the end, Schnelle provides a brief synthesis of the foregoing chapters, outlining fifteen reasons for the success of early Christianity. It’s here that the encompassing narrative shape of this work becomes most clear: in spite of numerous challenges and critical watershed moments, the story of Christianity’s first one hundred years is ultimately one not simply of survival but of success. Beginning with Easter Sunday and continuing into the second century and beyond, those following Jesus may not have been unified or unstoppable in the grand, glorious ways described by ecclesiastical historians of the past. But there is a strong element of advancing victory present in the history of this movement that, as we well know, continues to change the
Jacob J. Prahlow holds an MATS from St. Louis University, an MA from Wake Forest University, and a BA from Valparaiso University.