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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Social Forms of Early Christianity

The followers of Jesus were, in the beginning, a renewal movement within Palestinian Judaism. The Roman governor Pilate perceived it as a threat to the Roman order and undertook to stop it by crucifying its leader, in the same way that he would crush a similar movement among the Samaritans a half dozen years later. When the Christian movement spread to the cities, it began among the Jewish communities. However, it soon attracted Gentiles as well, probably beginning, as the Book of Acts suggests, with those already attracted to Judaism. Its formation into household groups facilitated its separation from the organized Jewish communities, though in some places Christians continued to be found in synagogues as late as the fifth century.

To outsiders, the Christian groups would have looked like the voluntary associations or clubs that were so popular in all parts of the empire. Some of these clubs were neighborhood associations, some based on ethnic likeness, others on common crafts or trades, all with at least superficial religious ceremonies. In some ways the Christian groups resembled religious cults, with their initiatory ritual of baptism and their sacred meals. Yet they performed no sacrifices, staged no processions, and in general had few of the outward rites typical of ancient religion. The Christian practice of moral training and exhortation resembled some of the more tightly organized philosophical schools, especially the Epicureans, and so did their expectation of entry by conversion. Their sense of being a single people, transcending local connections, was quite exceptional compared to these other models. That sense obviously came from the heritage of Israel, with its scriptural notions of covenant and election. The needs of the active missionary enterprise of first-century Christians incidentally gave to the concept of a universal People of God some very practical expressions, through the repeated visits of apostles or their delegates to new communities and through the exchange of letters. The social forms that evolved in the early decades of the Christian movement thus had many partial parallels in ancient society, but there emerged a combination that was in some respects unique.

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