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Early Christian Traditions: Creating a Place in the World

Over the next six weeks a series of lunchtime talks, a collaboration between Sheffield Cathedral and the University of Sheffield, is taking place at the Cathedral. The talks discuss the co-existence of religion and law, offering historical and contemporary perspectives on their relationship and its development.

The Cathedral considers itself as ‘A Place for all People’, where members of all denominations and faiths can come together. It aims to create a communal space of worship, breaking down the boundaries between religious groups. Those boundaries and tensions between religious groups often originate from the laws they create. Religious law has been, and is, a way of creating a community based on a regulated set of beliefs.

Last Wednesday,  Dr Mark Finney began this series of talks by discussing the complex development of Christian law up to the first and second centuries, and highlighting how Christian law has its roots in early Jewish and Mesopotamian traditions.

Beginning with the story of Abraham, and tracing the creation of the 613 laws contained in the Old Testament, Dr Finney sought to illustrate how laws, such as the requirement of circumcision, were a way for the Israelites to define themselves against those who believed in a plurality of gods. Law helped to define their new community and create a barrier between them and polytheism, which reigned supreme during the Old Testament period.

The laws they created guided the Jews through key aspects of their lives, but with exile from their land (the ‘Babylonian Captivity’) came questions as to whether these laws had helped or hindered their relationship with God. One response was a revitalised prophetic tradition. Jeremiah and Micah in particular called into question the value of the Jewish religious code as it then was.

This was an important context for the later teaching of Jesus, who viewed the old laws with ambivalence. He advocated instead just one law: love. The Apostle Paul took this to its most abstract form, arguing that no other law was needed except that of Jesus, and with him the Holy Spirit. This abstract concept of law however proved to be hard to follow, and thus the early Christian Church fathers gradually created their own laws to guide believers through life.

The early Church fathers continued to debate Christian law throughout the second and into the third century. They were constantly trying to understand the teachings of Jesus and incorporate them into a workable law that could help to define what was a minority community within the Roman Empire. Early Christian law, like the early Jewish law before it, was thus an attempt to find a place in a world that was at the time defined by polytheism.

Christianity is still trying to work out its place in the world today through such issues as female ministry and same sex marriage. Laws today define the Christian community and continue to exist and change in an attempt to place the Christian community in an increasingly diverse and multicultural world, where boundaries are more porous and tensions between groups often high.

The next talk in the series is on Wednesday 12th October at 1:15pm, where Dr Julia Hillner will discuss ‘Religion and Exile in the Roman Empire.’ For the full programme of talks see here.

Emily Bowes, an MA student at the Department of History, is co-ordinating the cathedral talks along with Charles West. 

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