To our rather jaded eyes, the first Christians seem impossibly good. They really did sell or give away all their possessions. They really did dedicate their money to the common fund. They really did live in some sort of commonality. We may be pardoned, I think, for holding that such acts simply do not accord with our experience of human nature.
Many explanations have been given for this special behavior. The most popular over the ages has been that today (whenever ‘today’ happens to fall) we live in a more corrupt and selfish time than those first Christians and shouldn’t compare ‘now’ with ‘then.’ There are many variations on this theme, all based on the “history goes downhill” perception of life.
The simplest (as well as the most religious) explanation is probably that there was a special sanctity to those Christians who joined while Christ was still a living memory.
I see problems with all such notions. First, they assume that human nature is somehow alterable, despite all of the evidence we have that human nature is a singularly immutable quantity. Second, they are based on the historical fallacy that the choice looked the same to those alive then as it would to us today.
There is one bit of information that (in my opinion, anyway) makes all the difference in how we should look at their choices: All of the first Christians expected the Second Coming to fall within their own lifetimes. Their understanding of Christ’s promise to return was that he was going to come back soon, any day now, judging the living and the dead, ushering in the heavenly kingdom, and rewarding the virtuous.
It seems to me this belief would change everything. Of what use were worldly goods in the Last Days? Greed is based on having more tomorrow than today. It is based on the future. What place has greed when there is no future? Surely the sane, sensible, and selfish thing to do is to unburden yourself of all the useless freight and lighten up your baggage for the trip that is about to start.
As the years passed and He failed to come, many people left the Church. The ones who remained were forced to reshape their expectations. Surely, they thought, Christ would return before the last of His Apostles had left the earth.
After the last, John, died (in the year 98, or 100, or possibly 101) that expectation, too, had to change and the Church along with it. In fact the Church had to split. The first Christians had tried to withdraw from a doomed world. If the second coming was to be delayed, then the world would persist and the faithful had to live and work there. But the new invention of the Clergy was to remain dedicated apart from the world and separate from it.
There is no particular recorded sign that the Christians were very concerned with dates as such. Until, that is, the Dark Ages (Sorry, but I still like the term and consider it useful) when the year 1000 approached.
There was something mystical about that lovely, round number. After all, Christ (whenever he finally got around to returning) was supposed to set up a heavenly kingdom and rule the earth for a thousand years. The term Millennium was synonymous with that earthly Paradise. In an age that simply did not believe in coincidence (everything was part of God’s plan), they could not believe it was an accident that the calendar was approaching the millennium and that Christ was going to bring the Millennium.
The lords, scholars and bishops, perhaps sharing a close relation to and affection for the real world, believed life would go on pretty much as it had. They began putting out speeches, letters and sermons warning against these dangerous ideas about the millennium. God, they said, was not a slave to mere numbers, but the Master of them. Besides, there were clear signs listed in the Apocalypse that would portend the Last Days. They were not to be seen.
The common folk, used to taking orders from their betters, for the most part accepted these reassurances. But, in another proof of the persistence of human nature, there were many whose looked around and believed they could see the portents. (Given that the most important sign of the Last Days was the triumph of the devil as seen in the increasing corruption of man, and given that those same lords, scholars and bishops had been tirelessly pointing out the abysmal corruption they saw all around, there is a certain irony here.)
As in the first days of Christianity, when the millennium approached there were many who sold or gave away all of their worldly goods. Tens of thousands of shops and farms were abandoned. Even some castles and whole villages were left derelict. In the years just before the millennium the pilgrimage roads swelled and overflowed with the newly inspired. Despite the aristocracy’s general disbelief, many new chapels and monasteries were endowed and settled (this is called hedging one’s bets). And as many believed that Jesus would return by way of Jerusalem, the religious overflowed that city to the point where they were forced to camp out in fields nearby.
Now we are approaching the second millennium of our calendar and a fair number of people are already searching the skies and the headlines for portents. Predictably, they are finding them all over the place. I know some good and worthy people who have warned me that the time is coming and I’d better look to my soul.
Aside from a certain skepticism at the notion of God being so enraptured with the Gregorian calendar as opposed to all of the others, and aside from my suspicion that no God worthy of worship would resort to numerology, their theory seems flawed from the start.
In this case, literally from the start.
Christianity was bred in the Roman empire and, from the beginning it used the Roman (Julian) calendar. Aside from some problems about accumulating errors, from the Church’s point of view it had a more fundamental problem. People in Rome expressed the year as either some number from the founding of Rome (753 BCE, according to our reckoning) or some number into the reign of the emperor.
By 1278 AUC (ab urba condita, from the founding of the city), well after Rome’s fall, both were pretty useless. Pope John I asked the distinguished scholar and monk, Dionysius Exiguus to propose a new system.
After careful astronomical and theological research, Exiguus proposed that since Christ’s birth was obviously, now and forever, the most important date, that should be the basis of the new calendar. Jesus’s birth obviously took place on the first day of the new calendar, so one year after his birth would become year 1 (“year of our Lord,” anno domine, or AD). There was the minor problem that, as the concept of zero did not yet exist, this put Christ’s birth on 1 BC, but who cared about anything before Christ, anyway? (Yes, the logic is flawed. And your point would be…?)
So far , so good. Question was, how long after the founding of Rome was Jesus born? After careful calculations, Exiguus decided that Christ had his first birthday 753 years after the city of Rome was founded. This is the figure we use today.
[Let me stick in a major digression here. Contemporary scholars smugly say the peasants (that’s us) have it all wrong. That the real millennium starts not on January 1, 2000, but on January 1, 2001. This is based on Exiguus starting his calendar on the year 1. I think this is wrong. As we do with any child, Exiguus intended the ‘1′ to mark Christ’s first birthday. According to that logic, Exiguus would say that 2000 years from Christ’s birth will have elapsed on January 1, 2000.
The peasants have it right.]
Unfortunately, that number 753 is demonstrably wrong.
There are a lot of textual fine points here, but let’s keep it simple. The synoptic gospels state clearly that Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great. No debate. Unfortunately, it is also clearly recorded in Roman writings that Herod died in the 750th year of the Roman calendar. Again, no debate. According to those numbers, Exiguus’s 753 has Christ being born four years after Herod died.
Balancing those dates and other signposts in the surviving literature, virtually every serious Biblical scholar now puts Jesus birth somewhere between 4 and 6 BCE, with the odds strongly favoring the latter.
Aside from this meaning that Christ was born about six years before the birth of Christ (an idea that really tickled me in high school), it implies bad things for the Millennium folks. If God is really so locked into destroying the world 2000 years after Christ’s birth, then he must have done it about six years ago.
Do you suppose nobody noticed?