How were the earliest Christian communities
Hartmut Leppin on the beginnings of ChristianityAncient historians: The radicalism of the first Christians puts me off
Andreas Main: It was already published in September 2018, that voluminous book by Hartmut Leppin, but it is one of those books for eternity that have no expiration date, unlike many highly topical, ultra-popular non-fiction books. Hartmut Leppin writes about the beginnings of Christianity. The volume is entitled "The Early Christians: From the Beginning to Constantine". Hartmut Leppin is not a theologian, but an ancient historian. He is a Leibniz Prize winner and professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. Incidentally, he should not be confused with his younger brother, the Protestant church historian Volker Leppin, who can be heard frequently on this program. Its focus is more likely to be in the Middle Ages and the Reformation period; Hartmut Leppin's research focus, on the other hand, is the polyphony of early Christianity. Hartmut Leppin is connected to us in a Hessischer Rundfunk studio in Frankfurt, a conversation that we record or have recorded. Thank you for your time, thank you and good morning Mr. Leppin.
Hartmut Leppin: Good afternoon, Mr. Main.
Main: Hartmut Leppin, so many voices in the first centuries after Christ, you speak of polyphony, of polyphony. When I work my way through your book, I sometimes think, wasn't it more of a cacophony?
Leppin: I've often asked myself the same question. I think it was a polyphony in that most of the Christians we know had common goals, common ideas about the direction in which life should go, namely toward eternal life.
"The first Christians agreed: Jesus was important"
Main: So this is the melody that runs through the first four centuries of Christian history - or are there other melodies? What do they have in common?
Leppin: What they have in common is the idea that something very special has happened to the figure of Jesus in the world. What exactly it was, whether Jesus was an outstanding teacher, whether he was the Messiah, whether he was a miracle worker with special powers, that remained a matter of dispute, but that this figure was so important to Jesus, there was agreement among Christians, different than among the Jews.
Main: This as an overture. Mr. Leppin, let's go into detail now. You write of agility in early Christianity. The reason is the focus on eschatology in the beginning, the so-called near expectation. As a historian, how do you outline this attitude?
Leppin: That was the idea the earliest followers must have had of Jesus that he would return soon, while they were still alive, and that the end of the world would come then. That was a tremendously dynamic, invigorating expectation that was hopeful for these Christians, but also an expectation that could free one from otherwise settling in the world.
Main: In any case, Christians who anticipated the end in the near future did not need to build churches.
Leppin: No, they don't necessarily need a bishop over themselves or a priest over themselves. They often lived in immediate certainty. Nevertheless, the Christians managed to establish themselves in this world.
The faith of the early Christians focused primarily on Jesus (imago stock & people)
Main: Mr. Leppin, when I listen to you and read your book, I get the impression that this Christian world at that time was extremely different from what Christianity is today, that is, extremely far from us. Would you sign it like that?
Leppin: I would also sign that. We wouldn't find our way at all in the early churches. Some of the things that are celebrated today in evangelical congregations in Africa, Latin America, the hearing of voices, the preaching by the individual, is probably closer to what the earliest congregations represented than the strict evangelical worship that we have today.
Main: So when in certain Christian circles of early Christianity is spoken of and this is taken with full reverence as a guideline for today, is that not a possible line of thought for you and is it really unhistorical?
Leppin: I think it's ahistorical. It is even dangerous because it takes certain early Christian fantasies at face value and then derives a norm from them. This is possible in many different contexts. This also happens in other contexts in history. This can lead to certain things becoming detached from the historical context.
We must also realize that these early Christians had ethics that were primarily individual. The earliest Christians did not even think about complex social contexts, about societies. Politics was also far removed from these Christians. It was about how I behave towards my neighbor - and large Christian communities have to think about completely different things.
"Attractive: First Christians had great self-confidence"
Main: Your book deliberately does not want to be a systematic overall presentation, but rather deals with certain aspects of Christian life in the beginning. If you look back one more time: What is it that particularly fascinates you, perhaps even in terms of social relevance for today?
Leppin: What impresses me about the early Christians is that they were people who were not held in high esteem in society, who were neither well educated, nor rich, nor had a high office, and who nevertheless represented something with tremendous self-confidence to most contemporaries it also seemed strange - and that something arose here from the periphery of the Roman Empire, from Galilee and Judea, which was then to fundamentally transform a huge, apparently overpowering empire.
Main: What explanations do you have for this?
Leppin: There are explanations that would have to be given differently depending on the historical phase. In the early phase it seems to me to be important that, as far as we can tell, the earliest followers of Christ were people who had a certain social status, but who had no chance of advancing into the supraregional elite and at best little chance of being in rising up the local elite, for example joining the city council.
By professing Christianity, they could now adorn themselves with the feeling of knowing and having recognized something that all the noble gentlemen did not know and had not recognized. That must have given them a lot of confidence and that was attractive.
If they knew how to teach well, if they knew how to proclaim plausibly, they could gain a high reputation in the congregations, so that there are also social-historical reasons, an increase in status that can explain why Christianity was attractive to many people.
"What scares me: the radicalism of the first Christians"
Main: We talked about what fascinated you about early Christians - now the question is, what put you off?
Leppin: What scares me is the absolute radicalism with which the belief was represented. A particularly impressive example is St. Perpetua, who is supposed to become a martyr at the beginning of the 3rd century, who has an infant, who has a father who begs her to go on living and who pushes her father back and gives up the infant to die for Christ to be able to.
But this is a typical modern position, a staid, bourgeois, family-oriented position, which can of course seem weak compared to this radicality of hope in the hereafter and the trust that God will judge everything, but I stand by it.
"Women in offices are marginal phenomena"
Main: Mr. Leppin, let's go through a few points that are central to understanding the beginnings and that are still hot topics to this day. What can be safely said about the role of women in the early Christian communities?
Leppin: We have testimonies in the earliest churches of women who had teaching authority who could speak with authority, as is then sometimes expressed.
We also have testimonies from women who have become distinguished for their behavior, such as widows. It was customary in Roman society to expect widows to remarry, especially if they were of childbearing age. Many Christian women did not do this, and they then had a special reputation in the congregations, and also had special scope for action. Some even performed baptisms and thus had a prominent role, but we must not confuse that with a modern idea of emancipation. So it could also be one of the greatest praises, one of the greatest praises for women that they would behave like a man.
Women were not equal in early Christianity either (imago / Danita Delimont)
Main: So that means something like the priesthood or other offices in that sense have women not held?
Leppin: There is evidence that women have performed diaconal functions. There are isolated testimonies from women who also distributed the sacrament. However, as far as we can see, these are marginal phenomena, but the texts that we know have gone through the history of a church that has very much privileged men, so that certain texts can also be eliminated.
"There were also churches that got by without a hierarchy"
Main: So, if we now took the so-called "primitive Christianity" one-to-one as a model, what would be the result today?
Leppin: Yes, I find it difficult to answer the question because what is understood by early Christianity depends on the people who construct early Christianity. Since I don't design one, it's hard for me to say anything.
Main: So, it would be better to find your own ways today than to orientate yourself at the point at the beginnings of Christianity, that much can one say then?
Leppin: Yes, it can perhaps be said that the earliest Christians emphasized very strongly that suitability for any function did not depend on any external characteristics such as wealth or gender, but on whether one was inspired by God.
Main: Mr. Leppin, when does something like this come into play in order to come to a second aspect, when does something like a hierarchy set in?
Leppin: We have evidence as early as the end of the 1st century, then much more so in the 2nd century. We also hear about the triad "bishop, priest, deacon" that is emerging. What we don't know: how typical these churches were. They existed in the 2nd century, in the 3rd century. There were great numbers. But there were also other churches that got by without a hierarchy, that were very strongly charismatic.
The role of the bishop has always been controversial
Main: What Authorized a Bishop?
Leppin: Authorized a bishop that he was recognized in the congregation, that is, that he was elected in some way, which could also be done by acclamation, and that others recognized him, which could then be reflected, among other things, in ordination by other bishops.
But the one word bishop could have different meanings among early Christians. It could have more to do with an administration. There is an early testimony that speaks of an election of the bishop alone. That is, we have the difficulty that we have a word that we believe we know well - like Bishop - but that can have very different meanings in the sources.
Main: So that possibly also in the point of how the episcopate developed in a very contradictory and ambivalent manner at the beginning, that it reflects what we have in terms of debates today.
Leppin: Or vice versa, the diversity of debates is possible because this diversity of ideas about offices and bishops has always existed.
Elite education in Christianity
Main: Hartmut Leppin, we try to explain the diversity of early Christianity through examples. There is one subject we cannot ignore, that of gnosis. Almost 2,000 years ago everything revolved around the question: How do you feel about Gnosis? This, in turn, is so far removed from us that I am sure that even theologians often do not know what is behind it. Try to explain to us what Gnostic thinking is all about.
Leppin: I am not talking about gnosis, but about a gnostic spectrum and by that I mean groups that assume that there is a certain knowledge as the basis of true faith - namely a knowledge that is exclusive. Most Christians assumed that the truth was available to everyone. The Gnostics had a more exclusive understanding and this was often combined with long accounts of how the world came into being, how it was going to develop. Names then also appear that are known elsewhere from mythological contexts. Wisdom as a person, presented in some texts, plays a major role, but even within what we call Gnosis, there was a very large variety of different understandings. For me the crucial point is this kind of elitarization within Christianity. In this respect, I see it very strongly in terms of social history.
Main: You speak of elite, of exclusivity. Could one also say that these were sectarian groups?
Leppin: That would be too normative for me. A theologian is welcome to say that. As a historian, I would first of all say that you are part of the world that has understood itself to be Christian.
"You experience a completely different world of imagination there"
Main: What does the Gnostic spectrum want to recognize in order to take up your formulation?
Leppin: First of all, it wants to recognize how people come to God and this is derived by many from stories about the world, that the souls may have been with God once, took a path down into the world and had to free themselves again from everything Earthly or other stories of this kind that made it possible for one to believe that one had a safe path to God.
Main: So, even if you don't want to be normative, Mr. Leppin, are Gnostic texts legible for us today? Is that a pleasure?
Leppin: So, as a historian, I enjoy every testimony of past thought, first of all. What is interesting about the Gnostic texts is the prodigious imagination with which one imagines the history of the world, the struggles that are spoken of, the strange names that come up. There you experience a completely different world of ideas that is otherwise hardly known from Christian or other texts - and that makes it exciting. But when I deal with them in seminar, I have great difficulty conveying them.
Main: Because nobody understands.
Main: Then why were they so much the stumbling block back then?
Leppin: Because these Christians who chose the Gnostic spectrum - there were also Jews, there were also other groups who had similar ideas - because these Christians claimed something that must have impressed many, including a certain certainty of what they could say, also a certain pride about what they knew in comparison to other Christians, who struggled much more strongly with everyday life and with knowledge, in which self-doubt was also considered much more strongly in the practice of faith.
Main: Gnostic thinking then flourished again among the Cathars in the High Middle Ages. But overall, the opposing side or the many opposing sides prevailed against this Gnostic spectrum, which was again very diverse. Why?
Leppin: On the one hand, I think that this clear separation between good and bad, this dualism, was not so convincing in the long run. In addition, the Gnostic congregations were essentially smaller and that they were less powerful than congregations that were led by a bishop, for example, who ensured a tight organization, who had a cash desk and was able to stabilize the congregations in a completely different way .
"More like an accident in history"
Main: Now to the point of the relationship between the state and early Christians. In your view, the fact that this, to put it bluntly, Jewish sect a few centuries later became the state religion of the Roman Empire is part of Christian DNA - or is it more of a historical accident?
Leppin: I would rather see it as an accident. I already mentioned that the early Christians gave little thought to what a political order should look like. Relatively early on, those we know, decided to pay taxes to the state in order to serve it loyally.Most have refused to do military service on the other hand. Most of them refused to hold offices because they involved sacrifices for pagan gods. They refused to worship the emperor as a god because they knew only one god and endured persecution for doing so. That is, they were loyal to the Roman state, but it was completely alien to them. Since the Roman emperor was also a priest, it was actually inconceivable that a Roman emperor could also become a Christian. Some Christians have also formulated it that way.
Then the strange thing happens. Constantine, who must have already had a certain knowledge of Christianity, declares a victory in a battle, in 312 AD, with which he was able to conquer Rome, the famous battle of the Milvian Bridge, with the fact that God had helped him to victory. He had a dream, had a vision, there are various narrations, that God helped him to victory.
A fresco by Raphael shows the battle at the Milvian Bridge (imago stock & people)
That means, this Christian god is seen like a completely normal ancient god, like Jupiter or Mars, who help a person to a military victory. Such ideas were found in the Old Testament that Christians had appropriated. But they were initially completely alien to the New Testament Christians.
This event, in my opinion more of an accident, leads to Constantine supporting the Christians and then, and this is extremely exciting, exposing himself to the Christian's own logic that Christians emphasize so strongly that they have an exclusive belief that Christians are themselves Arguing about matters of faith, therefore expecting the emperor to have completely new tasks.
In this way one cannot simply describe the rise of Christianity after Constantine as an imperial act - but one trigger was this imperial act, which then gave Christianity opportunities that certain Christians knew how to use.
"The polyphony was retained"
Main: This development, away from a polyphonic group towards a state religion, who has benefited most from it?
Leppin: If you relate that to the role in the world, the bishops that have evolved. We hear of a senator, a pagan senator, who - about 60 years after Constantine - says that he would prefer to be bishop of Rome because he would then have so much wealth and opportunities for action. In other words, these positions had become attractive.
If you apply the criteria of strict Christians, and they still existed at that time, then they would say that overall it was more harmful. There were many people who also resisted this development. There were many Christian minorities. That means: The polyphony or cacophony was retained - despite the strong support of Christianity by the state.
This also means that Christianity was repeatedly criticized with Christian arguments, which certainly contributed to the dynamization of Christianity and to the fact that Christianity did not perish when the Roman Empire perished in the West.
The Christians could declare that they did not need the Roman Empire. For example, with the idea that there is a church of people that does not function as an institution, but that is based solely on faith, they could also have the hope that even if they were a minority, Christianity, the real thing, was nonetheless Christianity could live on. It is one of Augustine's great intellectual achievements that he thought it through. He wasn't the first, but he developed it in a particularly consistent way.
"A living religion can make different offers"
Main: In conclusion and at the meta level, Mr. Leppin, what is the instructive thing when we deal with polyphony in early Christianity in this phase of the history of religion?
Leppin: What is instructive for me is that a good religion does not depend on claiming that it knows exactly how everything relates to God, but that a living religion can make very different offers without harming it.
Main: Hartmut Leppin, historian and professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. His book is titled: "The Early Christians - From the Beginnings to Constantine". It was published by C. H. Beck, 512 pages cost around 30 euros. Mr. Leppin, thank you for taking the time, thank you for the interview.
Leppin: Thank you, Mr. Main.
Hartmut Leppin: "The early Christians - From the beginnings to Constantine"
C.H.Beck, 2nd ed. 2019, 512 pages, 30 euros
Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.
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