Were early Christians across the AD 30-70 Mediterranean well-networked to each other?

  • Our question

    Instead of being highly-fragmented and disconnected, were early Christians well-connected to each other? Did they have a network system in place that allowed for easy and regular correspondence? If one party had a question for another, was it quite easy to get that question answered in a relatively short amount of time?

  • What historians are saying

    • Larry Hurtado: “A well-attested ‘networking’ was another feature of early Christianity. This involved various activities, among them the sending and exchange of texts, believers travelling for trans-local promotion of their views (as e.g. the ‘men from James’ in Gal. 2:11, or Apollo’s’ travels to Corinth in 1 Cor. 1:12; 3:5–9; 16:12), representatives sent for conferral with believers elsewhere (as depicted, e.g. Acts 15:1–35), or sent to express solidarity with other circles of believers (as e.g. those accompanying the Jerusalem offering in 1 Cor. 16:3–4). After all, travel and communication were comparatively well developed in the Roman world generally, among wealthy and a good many ordinary people, for business, pilgrimage to religious sites/occasions, for health, to consult oracles, for athletic events, sightseeing, and other purposes. … Indeed, in that world of frequent travel and communication, the early Christians particularly seem to have been given to networking, devoting impressive resources of time, money, and personnel to this, and on a wide trans-local scale.” [“Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins.” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 454.]
    • Craig Keener: “Thus many stories that Luke includes in his Gospel were probably widely disseminated among many churches. Such dissemination is all the likelier on the recognition that early churches throughout the empire were already informally networked long before Luke wrote. In Mediterranean antiquity in general, travelers regularly carried news from one location to another;whenever one learned of someone traveling near a place where one had friends, one might prepare and send a letter. [Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2019), 167.]
    • Richard Bauckham: “[t]he context in which the early Christian movement developed was not conducive to parochialism; quite the opposite.” [“For whom were Gospels written?” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 55(4) (1999): 32.]
“Yes, after all…
  • Churches heard all the latest news on each other

    • Romans 1:8 -- First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the world.
    • 1 Corinthians 11:16 -- But if anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor have the churches of God.
    • 1 Corinthians 14:33 -- for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.
    • 1 Thessalonians 1:7–9 -- so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place the news of your faith toward God has gone out, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us as to the kind of reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God,
  • They exchanged NT documents (shared letters)

    We see this explicitly reported in Paul's letter:

    Colossians 4:16 -- When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part, read my letter that is coming from Laodicea.1

    It is also true of documents post-dating the New Testament:

    • I Clement was a letter from Rome to Corinth in AD 95.

    This helps show that the early churches were well-networked because of the amount of intimacy it conveys between the churches; Paul's request was not awkward but likely commonplace and natural.

    Richard Bauckham: “Since we have noticed that the letter of James seems to be addressed to the eastern as well as the western Diaspora, it is important also to notice evidence of Jerusalem’s connection with the Christian movement there.” [James: New Testament Readings (Routledge, 1999), 18.]

    Kurt & Barbara Aland: “The earliest writings to be collected were probably the letters of Paul. Each of the churches having one or more letters from the apostle would not only preserve them carefully, reading them when they assembled for worship, but would also exchange copies of their letters with neighboring churches. This is the only possible explanation for the preservation of the Galatian letter, since the church(es) addressed in it did not survive for long. … Whether written by Paul or written shortly after his death, this [asking churches to share letters] reflects in all probability the practice of the Pauline (or post-Pauline) period.” [The Text of the New Testament (1995), 48.]

    1. Kurt & Barbara Aland: “When the church in Rome sent a formal letter to the church in Corinth about A.D. 95 (known as 1 Clement, the earliest Christian document outside the New Testament); not only did it include references to Paul's letter to the Romans (as might be expected), but also clear citations from 1 Corinthians and Hebrews. This must reflect the existence in Rome at this time of a collection of Paul's letters, although its extent cannot be determined precisely because the quotations and allusions to other letters of Paul cannot be identified conclusively.” [The Text of the New Testament (1995), 49.]
  • They shared praxis

    The early Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean mirrored each other in terms of how they worshipped and practiced the Christian life. For example, Christians universally worshipped on Sunday, which even replaced Saturday as the holy day for Jewish-Christians. This is no small feat, and suggests intimate coordination between the brotherhood.

  • They depended on letters of commendation

    • 2 Corinthians 3:1 — Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you?
  • There oft was in-between travel

    We see an abundance of evidence that Christians often travelled in-between the various communities without a disruption in shared beliefs.

    • See all of Acts 15
    • Phoebe: Cenchrea to Rome [Romans 16:1]
    • Timothy: Ephesus to Corinth [1 Corinthians 16:5-10]
    • Onesimus: To Colosse [Philemon]
    • Paul's many travels in-between churches
    • See letters from Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp etc.
  • Acts: “Judea/Samaria/Galilee loved each other”

    • Acts 9:31 — So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.
    • Acts 9:32 — Now as Peter was traveling through all those regions [=“Judea and Galilee and Samaria”], he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.
  • They were well-networked in the 2nd century

    Early Christians were thoroughly networked and quite cooperative in the 2nd century.1 This is relevant to whether early Christians (in AD 30-7) were well-networked because the reasons for their unity apply just as well if not more so to them:

    • Harry Gamble: “As I have shown, the circulation of Christian literature was private, being part and parcel of the constant intercourse between individual congregations. Transmission took place by letter and messenger (letters requiring couriers) throughout the first five centuries of the church. It is no less typical of Augustine in the fifth century than it was of Cyprian in the third century, of Polycarp in the second, or of Paul in the first, to mention only a few examples. The travel of individual Christians or small delegations from one church to another, often over large distances, made the variety and breadth of Christian literature known to the congregations, thus increasing interest and demand, and also served as the efficient vehicle for the brisk movement of texts from one place to another.” [Books and Readers in the Early Church (Yale, 1995), 142.]
    1. • Harry Gamble: “…Christian texts had the advantage of circulation over non-Christian literature by virtue of the geographic dispersion of Christian communities and the relations that obtained between them. By the second half of the first century Christian congregations had been planted across Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy and could be found in most of the major urban centers of the Mediterranean world--Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, and Rome. Soon thereafter the Christian mission successfully penetrated the provincial regions of Egypt, Syria, Gaul, and North Africa. These numerous and far-flung Christian congregations, large and small, nevertheless retained a sharp awareness of their collective identity as the ecclesia katholike and affirmed their mutual relations through frequent communication. The result was a highly reticulated system of local communities that spanned the Mediterranean world but preserved a strong sense of translocal unity and cultivated contacts with each other. Though it was not contrived for the purpose, this network was ideally suited to disseminate texts: it made up a large constituency requiring books and furnished efficient channels to distribute them. Thus, both the motive and the means for the circulation of Christian writings far exceeded those affecting the currency of non-Christian literature, and it was inevitable that the dissemination of Christian writings would outstrip in volume and speed the spread of other literature and more nearly approach something like mass circulation in the Christian setting than did non-Christian texts in society at large.” [Books and Readers in the Early Church (Yale, 1995), 142.]
  • They desired to be well-networked

    There are several reasons for why early Christians would want to be well-networked.

    We will get into reasons such as this:

    • Dependence on each other for letters/traditions (see: exchanged NT docs)
    • It’s a small unique group, which almost always fosters an “us vs them” mentality.
    • Scriptures habitually refer to the love between Christians as their defining feature.1
    • See scriptures on the church as the "body of Christ." They prioritized fellowship.
    1. Scriptures such as these abound:

      John 13:35 -- By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another.”
      Philippians 1:27-28 -- Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28 and in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and this too, from God.

  • Early Christians were truly unified

    Christian churches in AD 30-70 basically unified, e.g. in their leaders, doctrine, & history.

    • They were an hierarchically organized.
    • The church fathers said and assumed so.
    • The book of Acts says so.
    • Paul felt so.
    • They all honored the apostles/1st church as authorities.
    • The 1st church governed as headquarters of Christianity.
    • Apologists guarded apostolic teaching.
    • Church fathers together saw Paul and Apostles as authorities.
    • Early Christians were highly organized.
    • There is no trace of large heresies then.