Churches in Context
The Jesus Movement in the Roman World
Daniel N. Schowalter
The Jesus movement consisted at first of a small group of Jews who held the unorthodox view that their teacher was the expected Messiah of Jewish tradition. Few non-Jews would have understood the importance of this peculiar point of view or why it was contested so intensely. Certainly, most Romans would not have been able to distinguish between followers of Jesus and the other unusual groups within Judaism. Officials of the vast empire had little interest in making this distinction, caring only about collecting taxes and maintaining order. If social unrest arose out of this internal Jewish conflict, both sides were liable to punishment regardless of their perspective on Jesus.
In its earliest stages, few Romans would even have been aware of the Jesus movement. Had events veered only slightly, the movement might have remained a mere blip on history's radar screen. Instead, it evolved into a system of belief and an ecclesiastical structure that would profoundly affect the Western world. This chapter covers the beginning of that evolution up until the middle of the second century CE. By then, many changes had occurred in the movement, and several characteristics of later Christianity had begun to develop.
By the middle of the second century, the majority of Jesus followers were non-Jews who were widely known as Christians. Although the title Christ (from the Greek for “anointed one,” translating the Hebrew mashiah, or “messiah”) had been incorporated into the group's name, the original issue—whether Jesus was the Messiah/Christ—had become peripheral. Jesus was still referred to as Christ, but the term now served more as a surname than as a title. By the middle of the second century, the Christians stood apart from other sects within Judaism. They were increasingly recognized and distrusted by Roman officials, who were prepared to suppress individuals and groups of believers, and to execute them when necessary.
How did the Jesus movement develop from an obscure Jewish sectarian group into an independent religion with a wide spectrum of followers and adversaries? The answers must rest on careful consideration of the religious, political, and social realities of the Roman world of the first century CE, along with the standard means of communication and expression in that world. Within the context of first-century society, one can examine the evidence for the evolution of the Jesus movement in the New Testament, as well as in early Christian writings outside the canon. These works provide information on how a variety of early believers in Jesus viewed the world around them and tried to respond to it.
The dominance of Christianity in later centuries makes it hard to comprehend how vulnerable these early groups of believers were. A tiny minority, they were surrounded by people who recognized a very different political, social, and religious reality—a reality based on the overwhelming power of imperial Rome.