Three hundred years before Christianity was a religion, Jesus taught his disciples to walk in “the Way.” Alongside the simple term “students,” his earliest followers most common self-description was "the Way.” But what's that?
Categories can help us narrow in on the target. When asked by their Greco-Roman contemporaries to plug themselves into an existing category, early Christians had only one answer.
“Although we gather to worship, we are not a religion – much less a mere superstition.” (Superstition was the derisive term the Romans’ used to designate various religions of foreign extraction.)
“Although we provide, from our own pocket, decent burials for our members and others, we are not a burial society.”
“Though we are called Christians, and this follows the linguistic form for naming a political party (like Caesarians for those of Caesar’s party), we are not a political group.”
“Nor are we a guild – indeed we welcome people from every trade and every stratum of society.”
If you were to press this person, the Jesus follower would eventually offer a category. According to the early Christians, only one category comes near to working. “We are a philosophy. We follow the Way – the philosophy of Jesus.”
This self-categorization is full of significance. “If you want to understand our life and teachings,” the early Christians said, “you must compare us to your schools of philosophy.” Thus, they asked their neighbors and critics to form a judgment with one eye fixed on Christian behavior and the other eye fixed on the life and teachings of the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics and the Academy, new and old.
May I ask you to take this testimony seriously?
What is “the Way”?: Unpacking Paul’s Description
Jesus followers simply referred to themselves as adherents of “the Way.” To highlight this life, we will travel into two unfamiliar worlds – the world of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy and the world of Hebrew experience lived out before the LORD’s face. These two worlds come to us already intertwined in the most expansive early summary of “the Way.”
The Acts of the Apostles is speckled with references to the early church as the Way. But the most expansive and helpful account comes in Acts 24:14-16.
But this I do confess to you. In keeping with the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the Ancestral God believing everything written in the Law and the Prophets and having a hope in God (a hope that these men also expect) that a resurrection of the righteous and of the unrighteous is coming. Because of this conviction, I myself train to maintain a blameless conscience before God and before men at all times.
In context, Paul’s opening words bring people to the edge of their seats. Paul is standing before Felix, the Roman governor, and defending himself against wrongful allegations. A series of denials fill his opening statement. Suddenly Paul offers a confession. He’s about to cop to something.
As his hearers lean forward, Paul confesses and describes the life pattern shared by Jesus’ earliest followers. But he does so using the language of Greco-Roman philosophy. We easily miss it. But Paul’s vocabulary and emphases would be unmistakable in his world.
Descriptions of "the Way" as a Philosophy
Paul’s adversaries have already started the process of translation. They refer to him as a ringleader of the “sect of the Nazarenes.” Paul repeats the term “sect” (αἵρεσις) and simply connects it to Jesus’ followers’ own self-description as “the Way.”
The term translated “sect” is the standard way of referring to any specific philosophic school in distinction from the others. The Stoics could be referred to as a αἵρεσις and so could the Epicureans, Academics and others. (In the same period, we find Josephus representing differing Jewish religious groups to outsiders as so many philosophic schools. Unsurprisingly, Josephus has a project of depicting Judaism as a philosophy and thus downplaying revolutionary associations after the Jewish War of 66-70 A.D.)We get our word “heresy” from the term, but the basic meaning is simply “choice.” Philosophic schools were designated by this term because they demanded a choice of a way of life.
But how could one possibly imagine Jesus-devotees as philosophers? It is not only our contemporary understanding of Christianity that hampers our comprehension here. We also have some grave misconceptions about philosophy. We are used to thinking of philosophy in terms of an academic subject within a university curriculum. Of course, the formal institutions that developed into our present-day universities did not come along for another thousand years.
So, what made one a philosopher in the ancient world? Philosophy was a way of life to which one converted. In other words, philosophy required fundamentally re-describing one’s life in terms of before and after – the life lived prior to embarking on the philosophic journey and everything else that followed from that choice. The philosopher was the one who had converted – taken on a new form of life.
Conversion was the paradigm because any philosophy worth the name offered a total life orientation. As a lived pursuit of wisdom, the philosophic school claimed to offer an integrated, consistent way of life shaped according to “nature” as distinct from mere “custom” or “convention.” In other words, the philosopher sought to bring every detail of his or her life into conformity with the way things really are (“nature”) instead of simply keeping step with what had come to be affirmed and expected within human society (“convention”). As such, philosophy was an all or nothing life option. One converted and became, say, a Stoic, or one did not. Dabbling with the ideas of a school and being able to speak lucidly about them did not make one a philosopher.
It is easy to see why the early Christian’s self-description as adherents of “the Way,” would have held philosophic overtones in Paul’s world. Felix and his Roman friends would certainly also have caught the emphasis upon a total way of life. Only philosophers aspired to such in their world.
Paul quite intentionally evoked this categorization in the minds of his Roman listeners. Grammatically, Paul links his adherence to “the Way” with two principal actions in this passage – worship (with a set of very Hebraic sub-activities) and “spiritual exercise” or “training.” This second principal focus names the acknowledged core of any philosophic regime in the ancient world.
The term Paul uses (ἀσκέω) simply means to train or work to re-shape something, and it was often used both of athletic training and of the philosopher’s strategic efforts to re-shape the character of his soul. By means of a Latin gloss (exercitatio animi), we get our own term “spiritual exercise.”
As an adherent of the Way, Paul says, he engages in spiritual exercise or character training to a specific end. His training consists of maintaining a blameless conscience in the presence of God and men. Conscience seems to be Paul’s standard way of translating the Old Testament notion of the heart for Gentile audiences. He routinely glosses the more Hebraic language of a pure heart with the more philosophically tinged “good conscience” or “clean conscience.” “Conscience,” both in Greek and in the Latin from which our word is derived, literally means something tucked away within or accompanying any act of knowing. It is what youalso know, whether you want to or not. We will have a fair bit to say about the heart in pages to come. But here simply note that Paul describes his fundamental spiritual exercise – the training designed to reshape his character – as consisting in consciously living, even in secret, as if his every action were performed before the face of God and other persons. Though certainly distinguishable from any of the specific character exercises described by Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, this activity holds all the distinctive marks of a philosopher’s exercise.
A few verses later, we are told that the conceptual content of Paul’s ongoing conversation with Felix was “about faith in Jesus… discussing justice, self-mastery and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:24-25). The primary aim of the philosophic exercises was to produce human beings that were just (the same word can be translated as “righteous”) and capable of prodigious feats of self-control. Paul sandwiches these between two distinctives of Christian thought – faith in Jesus and the coming judgment. Clearly Paul is self-consciously presenting the Way in terms indigenous to the philosophic enterprise among the Greeks and Romans. The early Christians, almost unanimously, followed suit for the next three centuries.
Jesus-Followers as Philosophers
Jesus’ earliest followers were right to self-identify as philosophers, I would argue, because Jesus too offered a total package for life. He brought a form of life, distinct from social convention, rooted in an experience of co-working with God. And in so doing, Jesus’ teachings responded to all the categories of ancient philosophy.
Jesus offered a description of reality – a “physics,” if you will. By describing the “Kingdom of God” Jesus provided a new vision of reality. Jesus told of a God-saturated, love-fashioned world. Of course, he knew about evil and offered the most compelling explanation yet of how it arises. But deeper than evil is the Father’s ever-present care. Stronger than human rebellion is the activity of God that comes in little, oft overlooked ways.
Jesus also offered, within his teachings, a theory of knowledge or a “logic.” Of course, his theory is very unlike Aristotelean and Stoic logics. In many ways, he provides more an ethics of knowing. But he does explain why certain things can only be known by one who becomes a different sort of person. Knowledge of God and God’s ways are that sort of thing. One only gets to really know God by becoming progressively more like God – and that happens by obedience. (See my earlier post on Jesus’ account of obediential knowledge.)
Most importantly, Jesus offered a life – a way in partnership with God to finally become fully functional in love. This “Way,” lived out within God’s kingdom, was so distinctive that it became the primary self-description of Jesus’ followers. It made them philosophers. But it also connected them to what was oldest and most dear in Israel. To these Hebraic resonances we will turn in my next post.