Whatever our personal denominational preference is, we tend to think of those worship traditions as the norm. While many of us realize that these worship traditions had some starting point in the past and haven’t just existed for all time, we tend to go through life as though they did. We may fail to recognize that for the first three or four centuries of Christian history, there was basically no organized and institutionalized form of Christian practice. There were no Protestants at all, and those who would become “Catholics” represented only a small subset of the greater Christian world. Catholicism as we know it today did not come to control Christianity in principle until the mid 300’s C.E. and in practice until the 400’s C.E. That means that for the first 350 years or so of Christian history, Christianity looked remarkably different than any form of Christianity that exists today.
It might be easy to gloss that over, and we frequently do just that. When discussing ancient history, to sum up an entire block of several hundred years with just a word or two is common. Yet 400 years is a very long time. Imagine trying to sum up American history with just a sentence or two - and U.S. history only goes back about 250 years. The period of early Christianity at issue here is nearly twice that long. To those countless generations of Christians who lived during that very long period of time, their lives, beliefs, and practices certainly were not reducible to a footnote of history.
So let’s take a look at what those early forms of Christianity looked like.
Most of our texts in the New Testament come from the 1st century. Assuming Jesus died in roughly 30 C.E., that means the 1st century represents the first 70 years or so of Christian history. How did Christian practice look during that earliest era?
The Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, appears to have been a ritual practiced among Christians from a very early time. It is discussed by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, written in the 50’s C.E. His words on this are familiar to many Christians, as they are routinely spoken liturgically during Lord’s Supper celebrations.
But while the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist today consists of a simple ritualistic ceremony – performed in some churches each week, in other churches only once per month – for early Christians, it was an entire ritual meal. Paul says:
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.
While this passage gives an interesting glimpse into a problem at the Corinthian church, in a more general sense it allows us to see what the Lord’s Supper ritual was like. It was a full meal of food and drink that the Church ate together. It was, essentially, a 1st century potluck, only with much more liturgical, ritualistic, and theological purpose.
How often did they eat this ritualistic complete meal? There is no indisputable answer, but it was almost certainly at least once a week. In the book of Acts, from roughly 90 C.E., the writer mentions that he and his companions “broke bread” on the first day of the week (Sunday). Other 1st century texts, such as the teaching text called the Didache, imply that it was a meal eaten at every gathering. The Didache calls it the “Thanksgiving meal,” and provides instructions on prayers that should accompany it. It says that Christians should gather together “every day” and “eat a meal,” giving thanks and confessing sins in the process. This same text asserts that only those who have been “baptized” can take part in this most holy of meals.
Baptism, of course, seems also to have been one of the earliest Christian rituals. The Didache instructs its congregation to baptize in cold, “living” water. “Living” water was a euphemism for running water (such as a stream or river). It conceded, however, that the still waters of a pond or lake would suffice if no living water was available. It even went so far as to permit pouring three jugs of water on a person’s head, if neither living nor still water could be found. It also asserted that both the “overseer” performing the ritual, and the new convert receiving it, should fast for “one or two days” prior to the baptism.
For the community that produced the Gospel of John, baptism was so important that Jesus is found to say: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” For those 1st century Christians, baptism was an integral part of receiving the Holy Spirit. Luke makes this explicit when he has Jesus say, in Acts, that John the Baptist baptized with water, but Christians will be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The writer of 1 Peter promises that baptism is a pledge to God and part of the path of salvation.
Another aspect of 1st century Christian practice was communal living. The writer of Acts says explicitly that the earliest communities of Christians “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The Didache agrees: “Share all things with your brother, and never say that your possessions are exclusively your own, because if you share in eternal things, how much more in things that are temporary?”
For that same Didache community, fasting was an integral part of Christian life. The Didache instructs its listeners to fast on Wednesday and Friday of each week (explicitly saying not to fast on Monday and Thursday, since this is when “hypocrites” fast).
Prophecy and speaking in tongues is yet another early aspect of Christian practice. Paul and other New Testament writers talk about this phenomenon as part of regular worship services, as does the Didache. The Didache even gives explicit instructions about how to know true prophecy from false prophecy.
As we move into the second century, we have more history to work from in terms of understanding what early Christian communities looked like. It was during the second century that Gnostic forms of Christianity began to flourish, and thanks to a number of archaeological discoveries of the last 100 years or so, much of their literature is known to modern scholarship.
First, it is apparent that 2nd century Christian groups propagated a lot of “secret knowledge.” To use a modern euphemism, they were big on divine secrets. These secrets, of course, were frequently attributed to teachings Jesus had given one-on-one to various apostles. In a letter that Clement, bishop of Alexandria, wrote to a man named Theodore in the mid-2nd century, there is a discussion of what has come to be known as the “Secret Gospel of Mark.” Clement says that Mark wrote down his Gospel – presumably an early form of the one we know today – but that after Peter died, Mark came to the church in Alexandria and expanded on his book, adding in secret stories and accounts. This “secret” version of Mark was fiercely protected by the Alexandrian church, its content given only to initiates deemed spiritually worthy of receiving it.
According to Clement’s letter, however, their secret text got stolen by an opposing group of Christians called the Carpocratians. This group, in turn, corrupted the teachings of the secret text and began using it to assert ideas that Clement found highly offensive. One of these ideas was, apparently, that Jesus initiated secret teachings to his male followers in rituals that included homosexual sex.
This same group of Christians, according to a later Christian writer, had a painting of Jesus that they claimed had been made by Pontius Pilate, and which they used as part of their religious rites and celebrations.
Not all Gnostic groups were quite as bizarre as that. In the 2nd century, in fact, many scholars assert that most forms of Christian practice were essentially Gnostic. Catholic or “orthodox” Christianity certainly existed in the 2nd century, but it was not yet institutionalized and it was not the “mainstream” form of Christian practice.
Gnostics believed that the Hebrew god of the Old Testament was actually a lesser, evil god. He had created this world of sin and depravity, and now the one true God of the universe – a being completely unknowable – had sent his light into the world through Jesus so that Christians could figure out the secret, mysterious way of escaping this world of sin and returning to the ground of their perfect being. Gnosticism was an inherently “internal” religion of self-discovery leading to salvation. God is within you. It contrasted the “orthodox” view that salvation was attained through faith. God is outside of you.
Fasting continued to be a common practice among Christians of the 2nd century. The Christian leader Ptolemy, writing in the mid-2nd century, says: “Among us, external fasting is also observed, since it can be advantageous to the soul if it is done reasonably, not for imitating others or from habit or because of a special day appointed for this purpose.” This indicates that while fasting was still a common ritual, the group represented by Ptolemy did not care much for strict rules regulating days of fasting, as we saw in the Didache.
Other Christian groups of the 2nd century followed extreme forms of hedonism. Iranaeus, bishop of Lyons in the late 2nd century, writes of Christian groups that took the issue of faith and works to the extreme. These groups agreed so strongly with the notion that salvation comes solely from faith, apart from works, that they felt no compunction to follow moralistic codes. Of course, these forms of “hedonism” would seem mild to us today: eating food sacrificed to idols (a big no-no for folks like Iranaeus), sex outside of marriage, and groups of women and men living together in the same home (which Iranaeus took to mean they were obviously engaging in orgies).
Other groups took it further, however. The Cainites, who were especially enamored with Adam’s son Cain, believed so strongly that the body was a shell of evil that they pursued worldly pleasures to the full, in order to defile the sinful body and essentially destroy it.
From the Gospel of Phillip in the middle of the 2nd century, we find that the group who produced this text used three “temples” in its ritual practice. The first was called the “baptism,” the second “redemption,” and the third the “bridal chamber.” It is not clear whether the ritual in the bridal chamber included ritual sex, although this was certainly suspected by other Christians of the era. Iranaeus gives us a description of what took place there:
A few of them prepare a bridal chamber and in it go through a form of consecration, employing certain fixed formulae, which are repeated over the person to be initiated, and stating that a spiritual marriage is to be performed after the pattern of the higher [celestial beings].
These higher celestial beings were called “aeons,” and were believed to be emanations of God into the world. The bridal chamber, then, re-enacted the sexual union of these Godly emanations. The community that produced the Gospel of Phillip was probably the Valentinian community. The Valentinians were “mainstream” Gnostics who followed the hierarchies of priest and bishop, and who practiced the doctrines and dogmas of the emerging Church, but who taught a path of spiritual enlightenment beyond those organized structures. Just as Buddhist teachings are frequently likened to a raft that gets the practitioner to the other side and is then abandoned, so the doctrines and dogmas and structures of Christianity were there only for the novice. Once spiritual enlightenment had been attained, those rules and regulations could be left behind because they were no longer valuable or necessary.
During the early part of the 2nd century, we also begin to see descriptions of Christians from outside Christianity. In a series of letters sent between Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia and the emperor Trajan, we get our first “Roman” discussion of Christianity. Pliny has had some run-ins with Christians in his region, and has put them on trial. He gives us a nice glimpse at what Christian practice looked like in his region in the first decade of the 2nd century:
[Christians] were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath…When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food.
Pliny goes on to mention “two female slaves” who he refers to as “deaconesses” among the Christians.
Later in the 2nd century, we have another Roman perspective, this time from the philosopher Fronto: “They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another…They call one another…brothers and sisters.” He goes on to accuse these Christians of “loving the head of a donkey” and of being obsessed with the genitalia of their priests and bishops. These are no doubt vicious rumors he has heard, and he concedes this by saying: “I know not whether these things are false.” Whether true or not, he says, suspicion of such things is fairly aroused because of Christianity’s tendency to engage in “secret and nocturnal rites.”
Fronto doesn’t stop there, however. He recounts an initiation rite of novice Christians that he says is “well known.”
An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! – they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together…
Might Christian groups of the 2nd century actually have practiced such things? It is difficult to say with any certainty, but the later Christian writer who quotes these passages from Fronto certainly didn’t think so.
Fronto also speaks of the meal tradition of Christianity. Like the initiation rite of child murder that he says is well known, he says their tradition of meal sharing is spoken of by people “everywhere.”
On a solemn day they assemble at the feast, with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and of every age. There, after much feasting, when the fellowship has grown warm, and the fervor of incestuous lust has grown hot with drunkenness, a dog that has been tied to the chandelier is provoked to rush and spring, by throwing a small piece of offal beyond the length of a line by which he is bound; and thus the conscious light being overturned and extinguished in the shameless darkness, the connections of abominable lust involve them in the uncertainty of fate.
Again, is it possible that some Christian groups topped off the Lord’s Supper celebration with a good old fashioned orgy? It’s possible, I suppose, but Fronto’s words sound more polemical than historical. In either case, it is clear that Christian rituals, carried on in secret and with esoteric liturgies and mysterious language, aroused suspicion in mainstream culture, and gave rise to all manner of rumor and speculation.
If we can separate polemics from history, these comments from Fronto may allow us to speculate about how some Christian groups practiced their faith in the 2nd century. Take, for instance, Fronto’s comment that Christians “loved the head of a donkey.” One might imagine Christian groups of the 2nd century re-enacting Palm Sunday as part of the Easter celebrations. That re-enactment would no doubt have included ritually riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, as Jesus is said to have done in the Gospels. Perhaps this led Christians to be associated with donkeys – that most Jewish of animals.
As for obsessions with the genitals of priests, it is not out of the question to assume that some Christian groups may have fused ancient fertility cults with Christian practice. As outlined above, this was a charge made against some Christian groups by other Christian groups. Fertility cults, of course, typically engaged in various forms of ritual sex. The erect penis is known as a symbol of fertility cults from across antiquity. Fronto, with his “modern” Roman values, was righteously indignant over such superstition and ancient tribalism, much like we would be today if faced with a similar situation. In that sense, he shared the feelings of Christians like Iranaeus and other “heresy hunters” of the early Christian era.
As for the charge of cannibalism, this was, no doubt, related to the ritual of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. Perhaps Fronto’s account of cannibalism, mixed with infanticide, is a polemical fusion of the Eucharist, the virgin birth of Jesus, and the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac in the Old Testament. It’s difficult to imagine a Christian group (or any group, for that matter) enacting such a ritual, but Fronto is not the only one who suggests it. Church fathers writing as late as the 4th century made similar charges against some Christian groups, as we will see below.
Finally, we get an intimate glimpse at the lifestyle of some 2nd century Christians from the Christian writer Justin Martyr. Justin wrote around 150 C.E., and he is the earliest of the “Church fathers” for whom we have a significant amount of existing writings. He said the following:
We, who once took pleasure in fornication, now embrace self-control. We, who valued the acquisition of wealth and possessions above everything else, now put what we have into a common fund, and share with everyone in need. We, who hated and killed one another, and would not share our lives with certain people because of their ethnic differences from us, now live intimately with them.
Clearly as late as the mid-2nd century, many Christian groups were still living in the communal style of the earliest Christians a century earlier.
THIRD CENTURY AND LATER
Christian practice through these centuries seems to have mirrored much of the previous eras, though with an increase in regulation and institutionalism. Fringe groups tended to die out (especially those that condemned procreation) and mainstream groups tended to strengthen in numbers, leading to tighter structure and unity.
Discussion raged during these centuries of the nature of Jesus. While some groups insisted Jesus was equal to God, others claimed Jesus was divine in his own right, but still subject to God. Jesus’ humanity, especially, was at issue during this time. Some said Jesus was both fully human and fully God. Others asserted that Jesus was not human at all, but only appeared to be human, because God can’t suffer and die like Jesus did on the cross. Still others argued that Jesus was only human, with God simply working through him in a unique and mysterious way.
It was during this time in the 3rd and 4th centuries that Christians began using the familiar “sign of the cross” – a hand movement meant to symbolize the cross of Christ. It differed, however, from the familiar four-point movement known to Catholicism today. Tertullian, writing in the early part of the 3rd century, says:
In all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.
This ritual movement crossed only the forehead, not the whole body, and instead of using three fingers, only the thumb was used. Furthermore, the sign consisted of only three points, not four – it mimicked the Greek letter tau, which is known to us as T.
In regards to baptismal rites in the 3rd century, early Christian writers left rather detailed accounts of how this ritual was carried out. Prayer and fasting would precede the day of baptism. The baptism itself would typically take place on Easter, with all new initiates of the previous year being baptized together. The overseer would ask the initiate if he or she renounced the devil and his angels. The initiate would respond three times in the affirmative. After that, the initiates would step naked into the water, up to their necks. The overseer would then ritually call down the spirit of God on those being baptized, and the initiates – having now received the Holy Spirit – would emerge from the water to be clothed in a robe of white linen. They would also be given ritual food – milk and honey – which not only symbolized the food of the Promised Land from Jewish scriptures, but, as scholar Elaine Pagels says, also symbolized “baby food” being given to these newborns in Christ.
During this era, we again see rather outrageous accusations against fringe Christian practice. Epiphanius, writing in the early 300’s, referred to a Christian sect he called the “Borborites” who replaced the bread and wine of the Eucharist with semen and menstrual blood, which they smeared on themselves and then consumed. This practice may have been an extreme form of a God/Wisdom duality, with menstrual blood representing female wisdom, and semen representing male divinity.
Epiphanius also accuses these Christians of infanticide and cannibalism, going so far as to say that they would kill and eat the babies created from their ritual sex acts. This sounds so similar to what we saw above from the pagan Fronto that one wonders if Epiphanius actually got the story from Fronto’s writings. That may be a possibility, but more than likely these sorts of rumors about the more fringe and secretive sects of Christianity were commonplace. It is difficult to know for certain whether they represent true ritual practices or mere rumor and polemics.
When we look at the earliest eras of Christianity – a time period spanning several hundred years – we find that Christian practice was as diverse then as it is now. Furthermore, hardly any of it resembles the rituals and liturgies that we take for granted in the modern church. We still baptize, we still eat the Lord’s Supper, and we still celebrate Easter, but our methods for enacting those ancient rituals share only the barest similarities with the earliest generations of Christians.
When I envision the earliest Christian communities – those communities for whom Jesus was only as “ancient” as Wilbur and Orville Wright are for us – I imagine a group of humble believers, separated from mainstream society, living communally and sharing all their possessions and profits with one another, meeting together at dawn on Sunday – the Lord’s Day – for prayer, prophecy, and teachings from scripture, sharing a ritual Eucharist meal each evening, greeting one another as brother and sister, crossing their foreheads in piety as they go about their daily activities, and viewing their entire existence as part of the in-breaking kingdom of God. For these earliest Christians, Christianity wasn’t just a profession of faith, it was an entire way of life, reconciled not to the world, but to God.