By Meredith McGroarty
In today’s religious and political debates, defenders of “time-honored” Christian traditions often cite biblical passages and references to support their positions on topics such as marriage or evolution. However, the idea that early Christians were a cohesive group—or that any given version of the Bible outlines the definitive official religious doctrine—is a fallacy, according to Christine Shepardson, associate professor of religious studies at UT.
“One thing I love about the period I study is the chance to luxuriate in the diversity of early Christian practices and beliefs, and to demonstrate that there was a wide variety of ‘acceptable’ orthodox beliefs and practices, many of which don’t match up at all with the ways people today want to use Christianity to support one idea or another,” she says.
Shepardson is a scholar of Christianity in the Mediterranean region of late antiquity, roughly the third through sixth centuries, when the Western Roman Empire was changing into early medieval Europe, and the Byzantine Empire was emerging as a powerful entity in the East. The time was a tumultuous one for Christians, with theological schisms dividing people of the faith.
Two subjects of Shepardson’s research exemplify the nature of Christianity during this period: the city of Antioch and the personage of Ephrem the Syrian, a Christian theologian from Edessa. (Antioch and Edessa are both located in modern-day Turkey.) Her upcoming book, Controlling Contested Places: Fourth-Century Antioch and the Spatial Politics of Religious Controversy, will explore how the politics of controlling contested places in and around the city of Antioch helped shape the theological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries.
As one of the five chief seats of Christian leadership, Antioch figured prominently in the evolution of Christian doctrine and practice from the beginning of the religion itself and, according to the Book of Acts, the city’s converts were the first to be called “Christians.”
Shepardson found the early Christian period was filled with considerable religious controversy within the city, not only between Christians and the city’s large Jewish and pagan populations, but also among various Christian factions. By the fourth century, several men representing different sects were ordained as bishops of Antioch.
Her previous book, Anti-Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy: Ephrem’s Hymns in Fourth-Century Syria, examined how many of these “heretical” Christian sects were the target of derision by Christian leaders like Ephrem the Syrian, who was a high-profile writer and hymnographer. Ephrem’s writing often contained “vitriolic” anti-Jewish language, but Shepardson notes that a closer reading of his hymns shows that Ephrem was actually directing his criticism at other types of Christians, particularly a group sometimes called “Arians.”
“I was interested in showing how Ephrem uses anti-Jewish rhetoric to address the intra-Christian conflicts over doctrine and orthodoxy that led to the Council of Nicaea,” she says. “He uses Jews (whom early Christians sharply criticized) as a straw person to say, ‘You Christian heretics are (theologically) just like the Jews—that’s how awful you are.’”
The Council of Nicaea, convened in 325 by Emperor Constantine I, aimed to resolve many of these intra-Christian feuds by formalizing positions on both spiritual issues, such as the nature of the Son, and more mundane matters, including the date for the celebration of Easter. Yet, Christians remained divided on many fundamental matters; struggles for religious and political power continued in Antioch and elsewhere. To gain an advantage, various religious factions began jockeying for favor with emperors, who were becoming increasingly involved in church matters.
“In the fourth century, emperors would come to power and ally themselves with a certain faction of the church, and they’d give important new or existing buildings to that group, and ownership would flip-flop between different sects depending on who was on the throne,” she says. “Groups not in favor could recover martyrs’ relics and build places for them in different parts of the city as a way of saying that, even without a big new basilica, they could still attract people.”
Ephrem and Antioch are only two examples of strife within the early Christian church, but they illustrate how difficult it is to claim a definitive religious precedent for any one issue.
“A lot of my students come into class thinking Christianity began as a coherent form and only later started to diversify into different groups,” Shepardson says. “But from the very beginning, there were differences of opinion, a variety of practices, and different texts being used. And there’s not even one definitive Bible; we have centuries of different translations, editions, and perspectives shaping the biblical texts.”
Shepardson adds that applying biblical passages or interpretations to modern concepts such as marriage—which was construed in a variety of ways by different figures in the early church—can lead to risky assumptions. In the first century, the apostle Paul viewed marriage as a less preferable alternative to celibacy, a viewpoint illustrated through several popular virgin martyr legends in which a young woman, facing the prospect of marriage, chooses to die rather than lose her virginity in wedlock. And the early church had not developed uniform rites for marriage, baptism, or the Eucharist.
“When people today argue about something like Christian views on marriage, they often use phrases like, ‘that’s how it’s always been,’ or ‘Christians have never done this,’” she says. “And this type of argument has all sorts of contemporary political implications for things like gender equality, LGBT issues, and reproductive rights.”
It is unlikely all Christians will ever agree to one definitive set of orthodox beliefs. But, as Shepardson demonstrates, disagreement within Christianity is not new; rather, divergence in thought is what has shaped and enriched the religion from the very beginning.