The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries

by Adolph (von) Harnack
translated and edited by James Moffatt
Second, enlarged and revised English edition;
London: Williams and Norgate / New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1908 (from the 2nd German edition)..
Theological Translation Library, volumes 19-20

From the German, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924)

[[being updated (also consulting the 4th German edition) and adapted by RAK for use in 2004 America;
Greek needs to be inserted, using side by side format?]]




It is impossible to answer the question of Jesus' relation to the universal mission, without a critical study of the evangelic records. The gospels were written in an age when the mission was already in full swing, and they consequently refer it to direct injunction of Jesus. But they enable us, for all that, to recognise the actual state of matters.

Jesus addressed his gospel -- his message of God's imminent kingdom and of judgment, of God's fatherly providence, of repentance, holiness, and love -- to his fellow-countrymen. He preached only to Jews. Not a syllable shows that he detached this message from its national soil, or set aside the traditional religion as of no value. Upon the contrary, his preaching could be taken as the most powerful corroboration of that religion. He did not attach himself to any of the numerous "liberal" or syncretistic Jewish conventicles or schools. He did not accept their ideas. Rather he took his stand upon the soil of Jewish rights, i.e., of the piety maintained by Pharisaism. But he showed that while the Pharisees preserved what was good in religion, they were perverting it none the less, and that the perversion amounted to the most heinous of sins. Jesus waged war against the selfish, self-righteous temper in which many of the Pharisees fulfilled and practised their piety -- a temper, at bottom, both loveless and godless. This protest already involved a break with the national religion, for the Pharisaic position passed for that of the nation; indeed, it represented the national religion. But Jesus went further. He traversed the claim that the descendants of Abraham, in virtue of their descent, [[37]] were sure of salvation, and based the idea of divine sonship exclusively upon repentance, humility, faith, and love. In so doing, he disentangled religion from its national setting. Men, not Jews, were to be its adherents. Then, as it became plainer than ever that the Jewish people as a whole, and through their representatives, were spurning his message, he announced with increasing emphasis that a judgment was coming upon "the children of the kingdom" and prophesied, as his forerunner had done already, that the table of his Father would not lack for guests, but that a crowd would pour in, morning, noon, and night, from the highways and the hedges. Finally, he predicted the rejection of the nation and the overthrow of the temple, but these were not to involve the downfall of his work; on the contrary, he saw in them, as in his own passion, the condition of his work's completion.

Such is the "universalism" of the preaching of Jesus. No other kind of universalism can be proved for him, and consequently he cannot have given any command upon the mission to the wide world. The gospels contain such a command, but it is easy to show that it is neither genuine nor a part of the primitive tradition. It would introduce an entirely strange feature into the preaching of Jesus, and at the same time render many of his genuine sayings unintelligible or empty. One might even argue that the universal mission was an inevitable issue of the religion and spirit of Jesus, and that its origin, not 'only apart from any direct word of Jesus, but in verbal contradiction to several of his sayings, is really a stronger testimony to the method, the strength, and the spirit of his preaching than if it were the outcome of a deliberate command. By the fruit we know the tree; but we must not look for the fruit in the root. With regard to the way in which he worked and gathered disciples, the distinctiveness of his person and his preaching comes out very clearly. He sought to found no sector school. He laid down no rules for outward adhesion to himself. His aim was to bring men to God and to prepare them for God's kingdom. He chose disciples, indeed, giving them special instruction and a share in his work; but even here there were no regulations. There were an inner circle of three, [[38]] an outer circle of twelve, and beyond that a few dozen men and women who accompanied him. In addition to that, he had intimate friends who remained in their homes and at their work. Wherever he went, he wakened or found children of God throughout the country. No rule or regulation bound them together. They simply sought and shared the supreme boon which came home to each and all, viz., the kingdom of their Father and of the individual soul. In the practice of this kind of mission Jesus has had but one follower, and he did not arise till a thousand years afterwards. He was St Francis of Assisi.

If we leave out of account the words put by our first evangelist into the lips of the risen Jesus (Matt. xxviii. 19 f.), with the similar expressions which occur in the unauthentic appendix to the second gospel (Mark xvi. 15, 20), and if we further set aside the story of the wise men from the East, as well as one or two Old Testament quotations which our first evangelist has woven into his tale (cp. Matt. iv. 13 f., xii. 18), we must admit that Mark and Matthew have almost consistently withstood the temptation to introduce the Gentile mission into the words and deeds of Jesus. Jesus called sinners to himself, ate with tax-gatherers, attacked the Pharisees and their legal observance, made everything turn upon mercy and justice, and predicted the downfall of the temple -- such is the universalism of Mark and Matthew. The very choice and commission of the twelve is described without any mention of a mission to the world (Mark iii. 13 f., vi. 7 f., and Matt. x. 1 f.). In fact, Matthew expressly limits their mission to Palestine. "Go not on the road of the Gentiles, and enter no city of the Samaritans ; rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel " (Matt. x. 5, 6). And so in x. 23 : " Ye shall not have covered the cities of Israel, before the Son of man comes."\1/ The story of the Syro-Phoenician [[39]] woman is almost of greater significance. Neither evangelist leaves it open to question that this incident represented an exceptional case for Jesus;\2/and the exception proves the rule.

\1/ This verse precludes the hypothesis that the speech of Jesus referred merely to a provisional mission. If the saying is genuine, the Gentile mission cannot have lain within the horizon of Jesus. -- There is no need to take the <g> fj-ye/iiSves </g> and <g>fSaa-i\e1s </g> of Matt. x. 18, Mark xiii. 9 as pagans, and Matthew's addition (omitted by Mark) of <g> ical rots S9vfa'iv </g> to the words <g> ei$ fiaprvptov avrols </g> can hardly be understood except as a supplement in the sense of xxviii. 19 f. Though Mark (vi. 7 f. ; cp. Luke ix. I f.) omits the limitation of the mission to Palestine and the Jewish people, he does not venture to assign the mission any universal scope. " Mark never says it in so many words, nor does he lay any stress upon it; but it is self-evident that he regards the mission of Jesus as confined to the Jews " (Wellhausen on Mark vii 29).

\2/ According to Matthew (xv. 24), Jesus distinctly says, " I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." The <g> vpSrov </g> of Mark vii. 27 is not to be pressed, as it is by many editors.

In Mark this section on the Syro-Phoenician woman is the only passage where the missionary efforts of Jesus appear positively restricted to the Jewish people in Palestine. Matthew, however, contains not merely the address on the disciples' mission, but a further saying (xix. 28), to the effect that the twelve are one day to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. No word here of the Gentile mission.\3/

Only twice does Mark make Jesus allude to the gospel being preached in future throughout the world: in the eschatological address (xiii. 10, " The gospel must first be preached to all the nations," i.e., before the end arrives), and in the story of the anointing at Bethany (xiv. 9), where we read: " Wherever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, what this woman hath done shall be also told, in memory of her." The former passage puts into the life of Jesus an historical theologoumenon, which is hardly original. The latter excites strong suspicion, not with regard to what precedes it, but in connection with the saying of Jesus in verses 8-9. It is a hysteron proteron, and moreover the solemn assurance is striking. Some obscure controversy must underlie the words -- a controversy which turned upon the preceding scene not only when it happened, but at a still later date. Was it ever suspected ? \4/ [[40]]

\3/ Here we may also include the saying; " Pray that your flight occur not on the Sabbath " (Matt. xxiv. 20). Note further that the parable of the two sons (Malt. xxi. 28 f.) does not refer to Jews and Gentiles. The labourers in the vineyard (Matt. xx. I f.) are not to be taken as Gentiles -- not, at any rate, as the evangelist tells the story. Nor are Gentiles to be thought of even in xxii. 9.

\4/ I leave out of account the section on the wicked husbandmen, as it says nothing about the Gentile mission either in Mark's version (xii. I f.), or in Matthew's (xxi. 33 f.). The words of Matt. xxi. 43 ("God's kingdom shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof") do not refer to the Gentiles; it is the "nation" as opposed to the official Israel, Mark on purpose speaks merely of "others," to whom the vineyard is to be given. "On purpose," I say, for we may see from this very allegory, which can hardly have been spoken by Jesus himself (see Julicher's Gleicknissreden ii. pp. 405 f., though I would not commit myself on the point), how determined Mark was to keep the Gentile mission apart from the gospel, and how consistently Matthew retains the setting of the latter within the Jewish nation. The parable invited the evangelists to represent Jesus making some allusion to the Gentile mission, but both of them resisted the invitation (see further, Luke xx. 9 f.). Wellhausen (on Matt. xxi. 43) also observes :"By the phrase "another nation' we may understand that Jewish, not simply Gentile, Christians were so meant; for <g> S9vos </g> is characterised ethically, not nationally."

These two sayings are also given in Matthew \5/ (xxiv. 14, xxvi. 13), who preserves a further saying which has the Gentile world in view, yet whose prophetic manner arouses no suspicion of its authenticity. In viii. 11 we read: "I tell you, many shall come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out." Why should not Jesus have said this? Even among the words of John the Baptist (iii. 9) do we not read: "Think not to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our father; for I tell you, God is able to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones " ?

\5/ ' We may disregard the sayings in v. 13-14 ("Ye are the salt of the earth," "Ye are the light of the world "), as well as the fact that in Mark alone (xi. 17) <g> irao-i rois iffvcviv </g> (a citation from Isa. Ivi. 7) is added to the words: "My house shall be a house of prayer." The addition "emphasizes not the universality of the house of prayer, but simply the idea of the house of prayer " (Wellhausen).

We conclude, then, that both evangelists refrain from inserting any allusion to the Gentile mission into the framework of the public preaching of Jesus, apart from the eschatological address and the somewhat venturesome expression which occurs in the story of the anointing at Bethany. But while Matthew delimits the activity of Jesus positively and precisely, Mark adopts what we may term a neutral position, though for all that he does not suppress the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman.

All this throws into more brilliant relief than ever the words of the risen Jesus in Matt. xxviii. 19 f. Matthew must have been fully conscious of the disparity between these words and the earlier words of Jesus; nay, more, he must have deliberately chosen to give expression to that disparity.\6/ At the time when [[41]] our gospels were written, a Lord and Saviour who had confined his preaching to the Jewish people without even issuing a single command to prosecute the universal mission, was an utter impossibility. If no such command had been issued before his death, it must have been imparted by him as the glorified One.

\6/ Unless xxviii. 19 f. is a later addition to the gospel. It is impossible to be certain on this point. There is a certain subtlety, of which one would fain believe the evangelist was incapable, in keeping his Gentile Christian readers, as it were, upon the rack with sayings which confined the gospel to Israel, just in order to let them off in the closing paragraph. Nor are the former sayings presented in such a way as to suggest that they were afterwards to be taken back. On the other hand, we must observe that the first evangelist opens with the story of the wise men from the East (though even this section admits of a strictly Jewish Christian interpretation), that he includes viii. II, that he shows his interest in the people who sat in darkness (iv. 13 f.), that he describes Jesus (xii. 21) as One in whose name the Gentiles trust, that he contemplates the preaching of the gospel to all the Gentiles in the eschatological speech and in the story of the anointing at Bethany, and that no positive proofs can be adduced for regarding xxviii. 19 f. as an interpolation. It is advisable, then, to credit the writer with a remarkable historical sense, which made him adhere almost invariably to the traditional framework of Christ's preaching, in order to break it open at the very close of his work. Mark's method of procedure was more simple: he excluded the missionary question altogether ; at least that is the only explanation of his attitude.

The conclusion, therefore, must be that Jesus never issued such a command at all, but that this version of his life was due to the historical developments of a later age, the words being appropriately put into the mouth of the risen Lord. Paul, too, knew nothing of such a general command.\7/

\7/ It is impossible and quite useless to argue with those who see nothing but an inadmissible bias in the refusal to accept traditions about Jesus eating and drinking and instructing his disciples after death.

Luke's standpoint, as a reporter of the words of Jesus, does not differ from that of the two previous evangelists, a fact which is perhaps most significant of all. He has delicately coloured the introductory history with universalism, \8/ while at the close, like Matthew, he makes the risen Jesus issue the command to preach the gospel to all nations. \9/ But in his treatment of the intervening material he follows Mark; that is, he preserves no sayings which expressly confine the activity of Jesus to the Jewish nation, \10/ but, on the other hand, he gives neither word nor incident which describes that activity as universal, \11/ [[42]] and at no point does he deliberately correct the existing tradition.\12/

\8/ Cp. i. 32 ("Son of the Highest"), ii. 10, 11 ("joy to all people," "Saviour"), ii. 14 ("gloria in excelsis"), ii. 32 ("a light to lighten the Gentiles "), and also (iii. 23 f.) the genealogy of Jesus traced back to Adam.

\9/ xxiv. 47, also Acts i. 8 : "Ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judsea and in Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth."

\10/ An indirect allusion to the limitation of his mission might be found in xxii. 30 =Matt. xix. 28 (cp. p. 41), but this meaning need not be read into it.

\11/ All sorts of unconvincing attempts have been made to drag this in; e.g., at Peter's take of fish (v. I f.), at the Samaritan stories (x. 33 f., xvii. 16), and at the parable of the prodigal son (xv, II f. ; cp. Julicher's Gleichn., ii. pp. 333 f,). Even the stories of the despatch of the apostles (vi. 13 f.) and the remarkable commission of the seventy (x. I f.) do not by any means represent the Gentile mission. It is by a harmless hysteron proteron that the twelve are now and then described by Luke as "the apostles." The programme of the speech at Nazareth (iv. 26-27) is here of primary importance, but even in it the universalism of Jesus does not seem to rise above that of the prophets. With regard to xxi. 24= Mark xiii. 10= Matt. xxiv. 14, we may say that Luke was quite the most careful of all those who attempted with fine feeling to reproduce the prophet's style. He never mentions the necessity of the gospel being preached throughout all the world before the end arrives, but writes: <g> &w oB v\'i\i>a9wis\.v naipol iSvwv </g> ("till the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled "). As for the Samaritan stories, it does not seem as if Luke here had any ulterior tendency of an historical and religious character in his mind, such as is evident in John iv.

\12/ The story of the Syro-Phosnician woman, which stands between the two stories of miraculous feeding in Mark and Matthew, was probably quite unknown to Luke. Its omission was not deliberate. If he knew it, his omission would have to be regarded as a conscious correction of the earlier tradition.

In this connection the fourth gospel need not be considered at all. After the Gentile mission, which had been undertaken with such ample results during the first two Christian generations, the fourth gospel expands the horizon of Christ's preaching and even of John the Baptist's ; corresponding to this, it makes the Jews a reprobate people from the very outset, despite the historical remark in iv. 22. Even setting aside the prologue, we at once come upon (i. 29) the words put into the mouth of the Baptist, " Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world." And, as a whole, the gospel is saturated with statements of a directly universalistic character. Jesus is the Saviour of the world, and God so loved the world that he sent him. We may add passages like those upon the "other sheep" and the one flock (x. l6). But the most significant thing of all is that this gospel makes Greeks ask after Jesus (xii. 20 f), the latter furnishing a formal explanation of the reasons why he could not satisfy the Greeks as yet. He must first of all die. It is as the exalted One that he will first succeed in drawing all men to himself. We can feel here the pressure of a serious problem.

It would be misleading to introduce here any sketch of the preaching of Jesus, or even of its essential principles,\13/ for it never became the missionary preaching of the later period even to the Jews. It was the basis of that preaching, for the gospels were written down in order to serve as a means of evangelization; but the mission preaching was occupied with the messiahship of Jesus, his speedy return, and his establishment of God's kingdom (if Jews were to be met), or with the unity of God, creation, the Son of God, and judgment (if Gentiles were to be reached). Alongside of this the words of Jesus of course exercised a silent and effective mission of their own, whilst the historical picture furnished by the gospels, [[43]] together with faith in the exalted Christ, exerted a powerful influence over catechumens and believers.

\13/ Cp. my lectures on What is Christianity ?

Rightly and wisely, people no longer noticed the local and temporal traits either in this historical sketch or in these sayings. They found there a vital love of God and men, which may be described as implicit universalism; a discounting of everything external (position, personality, sex, outward worship, etc.), which made irresistibly for inwardness of character; and a protest against the entire doctrines of "the ancients," which gradually rendered antiquity valueless. \14/ One of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion was initiated in this way -- initiated and effected, moreover, without any revolution! All that Jesus Christ promulgated was the overthrow of the temple, and the judgment impending upon the nation and its leaders. He shattered Judaism, and brought out the kernel of the religion of Israel. Thereby -- i.e., by his preaching of God as the Father, and by his own death -- he founded the universal religion, which at the same time was the religion of the Son.

\14/ On "The Attitude of Jesus towards the Old Testament," see the conclusive tractate by E. Klostermann (1904) under this title. No one who grasps this attitude upon the part of Jesus will make unhistorical assertions upon the " world-mission."

//end of bk1ch4//