Born Again

The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul

by Wayne A. Meeks
Yale University Press, 299 pp., $19.95

What was it like to become and be an ordinary Christian in the first century?” The question that opens Professor Wayne Meeks’s impressive new book seems an obvious starting point for understanding the early Christian movement. How did this foreign cult, which Roman leaders prosecuted as an “atheistic” and illegal society, suspected of criminal activities, and regarded as antithetical to the values of Roman civilization, succeed in becoming, to the astonishment of both its enemies and its enthusiasts, the official religion of the Roman empire?

Like many of his contemporaries, Tacitus detested the “pernicious superstition” that claimed as its founder an executed criminal. He regarded its popularity as evidence of the deplorable state of vulgar taste—proof that in Rome, as he says, “everything horrible and shameful in the world gathers and becomes fashionable.” Christian historians, on the contrary, from the time of their earliest exemplar, Eusebius of Caesarea, have tended to attribute its success to the miraculous intervention of divine power.

Wayne Meeks, professor of religious studies at Yale University, has taken a different approach. In The First Urban Christians he intends to show how specific social aspects of the Christian movement especially attracted “people who had experienced the hopes and fears of occupying an ambiguous position in society.” The convert to Christianity, he says, entered “into an association that represented itself as a new family, replacing other relationships and sources of identity.”

Meeks draws, for his purpose, upon much of the best in traditional and contemporary historical research. Gibbon showed that “when Constantine embraced the faith of the Christians, he seemed to contract a perpetual alliance with a distinct and independent society.” Contemporary historians such as Peter Brown, Gerd Theissen, and John Gager are engaged in illuminating specific aspects of that emerging society. Wayne Meeks, who shares their perspective, has concentrated on the earliest sources documenting the emergence of Christian groups—the letters of Paul.

Yet the question of the experience of the “ordinary Christian,” deceptively simple as it sounds, turns out to be extremely difficult to answer. Since such Christians, as Meeks notes, “did not write our texts and rarely appear in them explicitly,” most historians have tended to read letters written by Paul—himself extraordinary in every way—as if they reflected the experiences and convictions of his masses of converts and followers. “The task of a social historian of early Christianity,” Meeks explains, “is to describe the life of the ordinary Christian” within his or her actual environment, “not just the ideas or the self-understanding of the leaders and writers.” Traditional historians usually have asked questions far easier to answer, such as what Christians believed. Meeks and his colleagues are investigating the early Christian movement to see how it worked.

Meeks repudiates the reductionist tendency of Marxist historians who deny “religious phenomena any distinctive character of their own by treating them as the effects of nonreligious causes.” Marxists, for example, claim that religious beliefs are “really” only projections of group consciousness or individual fantasies …

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