I am fascinated by the question: why did a small number of Jewish monotheists worship the man Jesus Christ and how did that worship form the most populous religion in world history?
Outside of select circles, few ask this question Yet without answering it, how can one understand Christianity? By answering this question, Christianity is identified. The answer to this question is just as much historical as it is theological.
Theologically, a Christian can affirm that the answer to this question sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam—it is apologetically necessary to answer. The answer (for Christians) also names the centre, means, and purpose of Christianity since Christ sits at the centre of the cosmos, acts as the means by which humans return to God, and his life—eternal life—names the blessed end to which we strive in the present and will forever enjoy in the future.
Historically, the question of how a small group of Jewish persons began to worship the man Jesus Christ and persuade multitudes to do so includes theological concerns but also requires considerable historical study. This is why works like The First One Hundred years of Christianity need to exist. In this work, Udo Schnelle has written an introduction to Christianity’s history, literature, and development that cites original sources and significant scholarship.
The former quality makes Schnelle’s work helpful to students and pastors because they can read in translation Roman and early Christian sources that actually describe the first hundred or so years of Christianity. The second trait makes this work valuable to scholars or those interested in learning more by tracking down the sources.
As an introduction to the first hundred years of Christianity, Schnelle succeeds. As a work of history, Schnelle will not please his readers in every detail. For example, he tends to follow standard critical scholarship in its approach to authorship, assuming that books like 2 Peter or 2 Timothy are not written by the named authors. Conservative readers will not be persuaded here. On the other hand, he vindicates the argument that Christians were in fact truly persecuted in the early years, a position that seems to be at least doubted by some.
So Schnelle will displease different groups of readers. Yet one reason why he might do so shows the value of his work. He has a consistent approach to the historical data of early Christianity. It is understandable and graspable. So even when we disagree with Schnelle, we can know why. And this disagreement will not mean that that data, whether citations of early writings or estimates of how many people can fit into a house church, will not benefit readers. The data remains valuable.
Schnelle uncovers historical writings and the material culture of early Christianity so that readers can better understand what we can know. Readers can follow Schnelle’s reasoning of the sources; or they may not. That is the genius, as I see it, of Schnelle’s work.
Who should read The First One Hundred Years of Christianity? Anyone teaching the New Testament would benefit because Schnelle contributes to an historical understanding of the New Testament. Scholars will benefit because Schnelle cites sources, original or scholarly, even though the work is an introduction and not a technical work.
I thoroughly enjoyed it and will almost certainly refer to it in academic and non-academic teaching settings. I suspect pastors who want to know how we can know the history of early Christianity—Christianity during and after the New Testament era—will benefit from reading this volume.
Disclaimer: The Publisher provided me with a review copy of the book.
Image link from Baker Academic.
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