One of the Core Markers of Early Christian Identity

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

February 19, 2024

One of the most notable features of early Christianity is that it was a religion concerned with books. Particularly, scriptural books.

As Margaret Mitchell observed, “Christianity was a religious movement with texts at its very heart and soul, in its background and foreground. Its communities were characterized by a pervading, even obsessive preoccupation with and habitus for sacred literature.”

Now, to modern ears, this doesn’t seem all that noteworthy. Given our historical situation—a world dominated by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—it seems quite normal for a religion to be bookish.

But it was not always so. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, books were rarely used in religious settings. Other than Judaism, most ancient religions were focused more on ritual and ceremony. Indeed, it was precisely Christianity’s bookishness that made it so peculiar in the eyes of the Greco-Roman elites. The Christian devotion to Scripture made it look more like a philosophy than a religion.

This tight link between Christian books and Christianity identity can be seen in the second-century Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs (c. 180). Although the historical veracity of martyrdom accounts has been debated, most agree that they still reflect trends, values, and patterns that were typical during this time.

This particular account tells the story of seven men and five women on trial before the proconsul Saturninus. They are interrogated and asked to renounce their worship of Christ by paying homage to the emperor. Each one refuses to comply simply by declaring their identity: “I am a Christian.”

Most notably, in the middle of the story the proconsul asks a Christian named Speratus, “What do you have in your satchel?” Speratus replies, “Books and letters of Paul, a righteous man.”

The fact that the proconsul seemed to notice the bag on the spot, and had to ask about its contents, suggests that the books were something he simply had in his possession at the time (implying he typically carried them around).

Particularly noteworthy is the location of the book discussion in the larger structure of the Scillitan martyrdom story. David Eastman has argued the story has a chiastic structure as follows:

A “I am a Christian.” And they all agreed with him.

B “Do you want time to deliberate?” “In a just matter like this, there is no deliberation.”

            C “What are the things in your box?” “Books of the epistles of Paul, a just man.”

B´ “Have a delay of thirty days and think it over.”

A´ “I am a Christian.” And they all agreed with him.

As can be seen by this structure, the center of the story is the presentation of Christian books, and the story is flanked on the outer edges by declarations of Christian identity, forming an inclusio.

Thus, Christians books and Christianity identity—an identity that requires Christians to worship only Jesus and not the emperor—are connected tightly together. When you have one, you have the other.

What are the implications of this story for the modern day? We as Christians need to be identified primarily by our commitment to our books—the Scriptures. When people see a Christian, they ought to find their books right alongside them.

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