March 21, 2013
This is Part 5 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here.
Sometime around the beginning of the fifth century, a nun named Egeria from the Latin Christian world took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She re-traced the route of the Exodus, visited Mount Sinai, spent three years in Jerusalem, journeyed east to Edessa to see Thomas’s tomb, and then worked her way through Asia Minor to Constantinople. The story of her travels, written in Latin and called Diary of a Pilgrimage in English, contains a wealth of cultural and geographic information and a number of stories interesting to a general reader, stories that vary from the impressive to the extraordinary to the bizarre. I’ll mention one example of each, all taking place in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
It is impressive that the clergy of the church took such great pains to make sure everyone (including pilgrims from all over the Christian world) could understand the services. The Scripture readings and the liturgy were conducted in Greek, but there was a continuous line-by-line translation of everything into Syriac as the services were conducted. There were also various people present who could explain what was happening to Western visitors in Latin, although they did not translate the whole service. Not only is this a great example of cultural and linguistic sensitivity on the part of the clergy, but it is also a reminder to us that early Christianity was not exclusively Greek and Latin. Indeed, in predominantly Greek-speaking Jerusalem, Syriac speakers far outnumbered Latin speakers.
Egeria’s recounting of the instruction given to those preparing for baptism in Jerusalem is extraordinary. In those days, new Christians were baptized on Easter, and they received instruction in the Christian faith during a period of preparation prior to Easter. (Several examples of such “catechetical lectures” given to instruct the candidates for baptism survive.) Egeria tells us that in Jerusalem this instruction included three hours a day of Scripture reading and sermons, for seven weeks leading up to Holy Week just prior to Easter. During those seven weeks, the candidates would hear the entire Bible read to them and explained. All of us who organize new members’ classes in churches today should be ashamed!
The most bizarre thing Egeria describes is a service on Good Friday. A gold-plated casket was brought out containing wood that was allegedly from Christ’s cross and from the inscription above the cross, and people came forward to touch the wood with their foreheads and to kiss it. But this is not the bizarre part—some readers will know that such practices are routine among many groups of Christians, even today. The bizarre part is that Egeria describes deacons as standing near the holy wood, guarding it. She writes, “It is said that someone (I do not know when) took a bite and stole a piece of the wood of the holy cross. Therefore, it is now guarded by the deacons standing around, lest there be anyone who would dare come and do that again.”
To us, it may seem impossible to reconcile the idea of pilgrim-sensitive, trilingual worship services and extensive instruction of new believers with the idea that someone might think he/she had something to gain by running off with a bite of the cross. Christianity in fifth-century Jerusalem must have been quite a contradictory mix of the profound and the superstitious, we think. But how much different is our version of Christianity? Do not the deep and the superficial, the amazing and the kitschy, sit uneasily side-by-side in most expressions of our faith? Maybe seeing the bizarre in an earlier expression of Christianity will give us incentive to look more carefully at our own, asking whether some of our practices are equally bizarre, but our familiarity with them has hidden that fact from us.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
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