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  • Were the Early Christians Sectarians?
  • Eyal Regev

Two leading figures in the social-scientific study of the NT declared in the 1980s that the view that early Christianity was a sect within Judaism had become "a commonplace."1 Since then, a growing number of scholars have adopted this view. Consequently, different groups and communities reflected (whether directly or implicitly) in the NT Gospels and epistles are usually regarded as having departed from Jewish society (but not necessarily from the Jewish religion, that is, the later "parting of the ways") already in the initial phases of early Christianity .

In the present article, I will question this claim by showing that the sociological concept "sect" is narrower than many NT scholars realize. I will survey the studies expressing the consensus and discuss the models of sectarianism they employ and the ways they apply them to the NT, in whole or in part. Later on, I will demonstrate the absence of three essential sectarian criteria from many NT texts: social separation, social requirements and sanctions, and a fixed organization or institutionalization.

By examining whether the community reflected in a given Gospel or epistle was a sect—or at the very least, displays a sectarian worldview—I aim to question whether the author perceived his group or close associates as a distinct social body apart from the larger Jewish society. The following discussion will not be limited to the Jewish Christians and their relationship with fellow Jews; given the blurred distinctions between the so-called "Jewish" and "Gentile" Christian communities, and since many communities were mixed,2 many of the NT writings will be examined for the insights they offer. [End Page 771]

I. The Sect Model in New Testament Scholarship: A Critical Appraisal

The Absence of a Social-Scientific Model

Several articles take for granted that early Christianity was a sect but do not provide any definition of sectarianism or clarification of the sectarian character.3 Others are familiar with studies on sectarianism but still lack a clear sociological definition of a sect and do not support their arguments with evidence from the NT.4

Troeltsch's Church-Sect Model

According to Ernst Troeltsch's so-called church-sect model, the sect refuses to accept the world as it is, seeking instead to replace the church's sacramental means of salvation with redemption through complete faith.5 Troeltsch listed several general characteristics of a sect: it (1) is a voluntary community; (2) is independent of the world, or even opposed to it; (3) separates religious life from economic struggle by means of the ideal of poverty and frugality; (4) is critical of "official" spiritual guides; (5) conditions entry into the community on conscious conversion; (6) aims at religious equality of the laity; (7) emphasizes personal service and cooperation; and (8) aspires to personal, inward perfection.

Wayne A. Meeks drew on Troeltsch's church-sect model, arguing that early Christians were "sectarians" because they shared "beliefs and patterns of behavior that were not . . . shared by other groups of Jews"; they "drew the boundaries of the sacred community differently and more narrowly than did the established leaders in Jerusalem," for example, in baptism (i.e., ritual initiation), which was "a major step toward sectarianism"; and they had "a very particularistic ethos" of separation from the world, since the world is on the road to damnation.6 [End Page 772]

Philip F. Esler similarly maintained that "Luke's community is sectarian within the terms of Troeltsch's typology" since it was autonomous and had a separate identity vis-à-vis Judaism.7 He concluded that Luke had an exclusive commitment to the ekklesia, as well as a lack of simultaneous allegiance to the synagogue, and he refers to the exclusion of the early Christian communities from the synagogue, which would seem to indicate an irrevocable split between the two.8 Some of these assertions by Meeks and Esler will be disputed below. More important to the present purpose, however, is to question their sociological definition of a sect.

The use of Troeltsch's church-sect model for defining a sect is problematic for several reasons. First, later sociologists of religion have criticized this model as historically confining...


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