Conceptions of the Ultimate in Early Christianity

This post is part of our ongoing series concerning “Conceptions of the Ultimate”, the manner in which various world religions understand the Divine. Today’s reflection engages Paula Fredriksen’s discussion of ultimate reality in early Christianity, found in Robert Cummings Neville’s Ultimate Realities.

Catacombs Image of ChristIn this reflection, I want to touch on two facets of her essay: the limited scope of sacrifice within early Christology and the function of holiness as soteriology and eschatology in understanding early Christian conceptions of the ultimate. Fredriksen rightly notes two major influences upon early Christian conceptions of the ultimate: Second Temple Jewish conceptions of the Ultimate and the blood sacrifice themes within the writings of the Apostle Paul. These she helpfully expounds upon, drawing out both the centrality of Christ in Christian attempts to understand the ultimate and also the central role of sacrifice as catalyst for early Christian thought concerning God and community. However, as insightful as her treatment of this theme is, I wonder if it does adequate justice to the full range of ideas within early Christianity concerning the ultimate. That is, how useful is Fredriksen’s (admittedly) narrow foray into conceptions of ultimate reality in early Christianity? Purposefully ignoring New Testament passages that were later favored by the early Church in Christological explanations seems an odd way to go about understanding the early church; and were Fredriksen specifically writing on the development of the ultimate in ancient Christianity, her argument concerning the centrality of blood sacrifice may stand (though this too would likely be problematized by the source materials she ignores). Most vexing, and most problematic for her overarching argument, is Fredriksen’s rejection of Philippians 2:5-11 as a suitable source. Most scholars affirm that this passage reveals a pre-Pauline Christological formula, making it one of the earliest possible Christian statements concerning both Christology and Christological conceptions of the ultimate. It is thus highly surprising that she crafts the scope and contents of her essay without this highly important passage. This leads back to our earlier question: how useful (and accurate) is the portrait of the ultimate in early Christianity when the scope of Fredriksen’s sources has been so narrowly drawn? Continue reading

ECA: Epistle of Polycarp

This post is part of our ongoing series on Early Christian Authority.
St. Polycarp

St. Polycarp

Polycarp of Smyrna remains one of the best attested figures of the early Christian Church. As bishop of Smyrna (cx. Rev. 2.8), recipient of a letter from the Ignatius of Antioch, and a martyr of the church, Polycarp stands apart as an exceptional figure in early Christianity, in that there exists a comparatively good deal of extant material concerning his life. In addition to this letter having been written by the bishop, extant copies exist of Ignatius’ letter to him as well as a later account of his martyrdom. While his Letter to the Philippians has often been looked down upon for its lack of original content and heavy reliance upon other written sources, it remains useful for ascertaining relevant issues within the second century Philippian church and for its use of textual authority. Continue reading