While many are familiar with the ways Christian doctrine has changed over time, few recognize just how novel modern evangelistic practices are. Just as the Christian message developed and evolved, particularly with the blunting of its apocalyptic edge, so too have the ways in which Christians transmit their message to the outside world. This shift can be charted along two axes.
- The first axis measures the degree to which the evangelist engages with his target audience. Does he attempt to persuade through dialogue, debate, and accommodation? Or does he eschew persuasive arts in favor of proclamation? Does he more closely resemble an apologist or a messenger?
- The second axis measures how the evangelist envisions his target audience. Does he engage primarily with individuals in order to save believers from Hell? Or does he engage primarily with members of communities with the intent to alter socio-political structures? Does he more closely resemble a salesman or a community organizer?
The first axis: dialogue vs proclamation
For modern evangelists, the ability to defend and communicate the intellectual legitimacy of the faith is prized above all else. They hone their rhetorical skills in order to convince as many people as possible.
Yet in the accounts of the earliest Christians, such apologetic expertise is more or less absent among the first evangelists.
The gospel as it was delivered to Israel, for instance, was proclaimed rather than argued, announced rather than debated. Jesus equipped his apostles with a very simple and inarguable message. They were to announce “the kingdom of God is near.” It was this message that they heralded as public criers (κηρύσσω, Matthew 10:7) and declared like harbingers of military victory (εὐαγγελίζω, Luke 9:6). One is not persuaded by such news; he either believes it or rejects it, largely on the basis of his political tastes.
Mission in the Greek context was conducted similarly. The apostles announced to God-fearers the message about Jesus’ exaltation and to pagans a message about God’s condemnation of idolatry. While these messages were no doubt transmitted in terms that were intelligible to Greeks, rhetoric was seldom the means by which persuasion was pursued or achieved. Peter and Paul did not engage in public debate or philosophical discourse.
Instead, the first Christians authenticated their rather simple message by performing signs of the coming kingdom. It was these deeds of spiritual power, not their rhetoric, that confirmed their message. If God was toppling Satan’s diseased and demon-possessed dominion over Israel and the nations through the spirit of Jesus for all to see, surely this Jesus also taught God’s word. Surely Jesus’ message, the message of his apostles, was authoritative.
We can take Paul’s example in this regard as typical: “I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom… my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5). Jesus too often coupled his public preaching of the kingdom with public deeds of power. He confirmed his message by healing in synagogues (Mark 1:21-28, 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-13), at banquets (Mark 6:30-44, Luke 14:1-6) and in crowds (Mark 1:32-33, 3:7-10, 6:53-56, 9:25). Similar wonders accompanied the gospel message as it was born by the apostles (Acts 2:14-21, 3:11-26. 5:12-16, 8:4-8, 9:32-34, etc.).
In nearly every case then, the gospel message was believed on account of the divine testimony provided by deeds of power, not on account of wisdom or persuasive rhetoric. The first Christians did not reason their way to the supremacy of Israel’s God; they did not conclude that Jesus was Lord intellectually. They rather experienced these realities through displays of spiritual power done in the name of YHWH and his anointed.
Side-note on signs
Oftentimes these authenticating prophetic signs were positive in nature, foreshadowing the redemption and restoration that would be granted to the righteous and repentant on the day of the Lord’s judgement against the nations. Among these, Jesus’ resurrection was the sign par excellence. Just as God had raised Jesus and made him judge of the nations, so too was God going to soon publicly vindicate and reward his persecuted servants in the sight of their enemies. The faithful churches would somehow share in Jesus’ redemption.
Sometimes, however, these signs were negative in scope, warning the faithless of looming judgement. We could include among this sign-type the cleansing of the temple, the cursing of the fig tree, the apostolic shaking off of the dust, the blinding of Bar-Jesus, the prophetic acts of the Two Witnesses, and perhaps even the sudden death of Herod Agrippa. These signified God’s intention to punish evildoers and their corrupt systems in the foreseeable future.
Whether good or bad then, it was generally these deeds of power performed by God through his servants that compelled outsiders to accept the Christian kerygma and “obey the gospel.” With the apocalyptic narrative about the impending kingdom now disposed of, a deeds-of-power-centric approach today would likely (and perhaps rightly) be considered backwards and self-serving.
The second axis: individual vs community
A second notable difference between Christian mission as it is conceived today and as it was conceived in the 1st century has to do with the perceived target audience.
Modern evangelists, on the one hand, seek confessions of faith from individuals. Since the eternal fate of every person is central to the modern evangelic effort, the evangelist attempts to engender a saving faith in every heart and mind. He persuades individuals as individuals.
In ancient context, however, the individualism and humanism that make this altar call evangelism intelligible are absent. While it is certainly true that the apostles sought out individuals for conversion, they did not envision their mission in terms of winning individual souls. Instead, early Christian evangelism was directed at kinship communities, groups of people bound together by hierarchical social ties.
Take again, for instance, Jesus’s inauguration of the apostolic mission to Israel. When Jesus directs his disciples to preach the message of the kingdom to Israel, he expects them to either be accepted or rejected by the collected people of a Jewish town (Luke 10:8-12). He anticipates here no middle ground: either the people as a town will accept the message and enjoy the kingdom, or the people as a town will suffer like Sodom, devastated by indiscriminate violence. It comes as no surprise then when we read snippets like “Samaria had accepted the word of God” (Acts 8:14, cf. Luke 9:52-53), or “everyone in the synagogue” of Nazareth attempted to drive Jesus off a cliff (Luke 4:28-29), or that Jesus condemned whole towns to destruction for unbelief (Matthew 11:23), or that Jerusalem itself was to be “left desolate” by Roman armies.
This kind of rhetoric makes sense once we abandon for a moment our modern individualistic assumptions. Though most of us today live in loosely-knit modern communities, small Jewish towns in the time of Jesus were far more like ancient patriarchal households than we might realize. As in a patriarchal household, if the leaders of an ancient town or village professed allegiance to a cause, so too did the people under their care. Whether each individual could be convinced was largely irrelevant in a kinship culture. If the master of the house accepted the message, so did his household (cf. Genesis 35:2-4, Joshua 24:15, John 4:53, Acts 11:14, 16:15; 33, 1 Cor 1:16). For Jesus and his disciples then, the goal was not the conversion of individuals as individuals, but rather the socio-theological takeover of communities and households. These communities as communities would inherit the kingdom of God when it came.
Jesus and the disciples accomplished this mission with a two-pronged approach. With one prong they targeted influential officials, those who could leverage extensive social networks for the good of the churches. In the Jewish context this meant engaging with leaders and the elite, people like Nicodemus, Jairus, Zacchaeus, Herodians, and priests. In the Greek context, government officials like Cornelius, Felix, and the Philippian jailer, all members of Caesar’s household, were prime targets (cf. Philippians 4:22). Wealthy and well-connected patrons like Theophilus and Erastus the treasurer (Romans 16:23) were of course useful as well.
With the other prong the first messengers of the gospel engaged with those at the very margins of communities, the poor, the sick, and the demon-possessed. Ironically, by publicly healing and fraternizing with these outcasts, communities and their leaders were forced to reckon with the gospel proclamation (cf. Mark 5:14-20). The restoration of the marginalized to community simply could not be ignored.
15 thoughts on “How did the first Christians spread the gospel?”
Alex, this is such a great article. There’s so much here I’d like to talk about with you, although I’m not sure a comment thread is the right place for that. At this point, I’ll just say I’d be very interested to see you dig more deeply into this topic. I have a keen interest in it.
Thanks, that’s really nice to hear. I’ll try to think more about this. Any point in particular I should start on?
A lot of my curiosity revolves around the continuity and discontinuity with the mindset of those early communities. For example:
1. We already see in the early church a movement away from the political interests of Israel to more Gentile-relevant concerns like the immortality of the soul and the cosmic battle of good and evil. Is the interest we currently have in the individual afterlife simply continuing this adaptation, or have we more or less gone off the rails altogether? What do we need to recover, and what is a good and necessary amount of “moving on” past those original concerns?
2. What elements, if any, define our current crises and what, if any, is our response to those crises and how does it affect what we consider to be gospel proclamation?
3. In light of the fact that many of the historical exigencies have come and gone, do we have a compelling gospel or invitation to offer the world? If someone asks, “Why should I become a Christian,” what would we tell them?
4. It could be backwards and self-serving to have a deeds of power-centric message, but is it necessarily? Are we just leery of deeds of power because we don’t see them as often as the biblical stories indicate? There are Christian communities that report miraculous healings, confrontations with spirits, etc. While we might look with skepticism on these accounts, are they all fraudulent? Or more specifically, what should our expectations be about deeds of power in this day and age and how should it affect our interpretation of these experiences? Should it affect our interpretations of the NT stories?
5. Since we have moved past a concretely political manifestation of the kingdom expectations, but Jesus is still lord, in what sense, if any, can we talk about the kingdom of God and Jesus’ role with respect to it?
I have thoughts on all of those questions (some more tentative than others), and I’d really like to hear your thoughts on them. I wish you lived in Kansas City so we could have a beer or something.
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Sorry for the double post. You should also ask Andrew to make you a cool infographic for this article using your axes.