Patristics and the Jewish Roots of Christianity

Musings from the Fifteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies

Last week (August 6-11) Oxford University hosted its Fifteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies, an event conducted by the University every four years.  This event brings together over 500 academics from the four corners of the globe and from all denominations. “Patristics” is a name given to the study of the Church Fathers from the post apostolic time of Clement I of Rome into the fifth century of this era. 

Delegates attended lectures and workshop sessions covering subjects often defined by century, geographical location and language: either Greek, Latin, Syriac, and or Coptic. Of particular interest to me were the sessions covering the Jewish and Christian interaction in the third century. 

Several papers were presented on various writings of Origen who wrote in some detail of the interactions he had with either Jewish Christians and/or Jews in both Alexandria and inCaesarea. The strength of his polemic against such people is indicative of the sense of challenge that existed even in the early third century to define Christianity as it appears today.

Clearly in Origen's time, people were very much more aware of the Jewish roots of Christianity, in a way that would surprise most present day people who claim to be Christian. The subject of identity formation of the emerging Christian community is currently well considered in academic circles, but conferences such as this highlight how antithetical so many of the leaders and opinion formers of this earlier period were to the foundation that Jesus Christ had laid. The result is a movement that would not even recognize its founder if he appeared today. 

One area of this period that highlights that difference and has shaped today’s Christianity more than the teachings of Jesus Christ himself is that of Christology, in which philosophical reasoning was brought to bear in the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. The historical period of the patristic studies covers the time in which the development of Christology led to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the attendant nature of God; doctrines which are used today to define whether or not a person is a Christian.

This period is a very crucial era to appreciate and understand. It has had a far greater impact on the development of what is today considered Christianity than did the era of Jesus and the Apostles.


Tags: Jesus, first christians, Origen, Apostles, Church Fathers, Jewish Christians, Patristics

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