Mapping Early Christianity
Acts and the Shape of Early Church History
Loveday Alexander
Professor in Biblical Studies
University of Sheffield

The perception that we need a map to understand Lukes history of the church is hardly new. Every Sunday School Bible has its map of the Missionary Journeys of Saint Paul. But recent developments in the field of cognitive geography have drawn the attention of scholars to the importance of the mental maps that we construct to help us make sense of the complex mass of data that makes up our physical and social environment.

Human beings appear to have a fundamental need to project order onto the space in which they live and move: they process spatial data received through the senses, relating one element to another and abstracting a mental map which functions as a constant frame of reference for all their activities.

I have explored some of the mental maps underlying Lukes work in previous essays . Here I want to return to the concept, because I believe it is a valuable tool for understanding some of the larger patterns and conceptual structures implicit in Lukes work, and the ways they in turn have shaped our own approach to Christian origins. It is no coincidence that the church in Lukes narrative bore the nickname The Way. The Evangelists mental map of the early churchs development is more fluid and open than the hierarchical model of later centuries.

The narrative of Acts ends in a different place from where it begins. Geographically, this is obvious: it begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. But it is also true in other ways. It begins with Peter and ends with Paul. It begins with a wide-angle lens: twelve apostles, seven deacons, thousands of believers. It ends with a narrow focus on one man, under Roman guard and explaining his position rather carefully to the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome. The opening scene is a mountain-top experience, a place of clear vision where apostles and angels speak face to face. By the end of the book, we are in the much more mundane and ambiguous surroundings of a back-street lodging in Rome, listening to an inconclusive debate about the credentials of a sect that is everywhere spoken against (Acts 28:22).

The beginning of Lukes story probably seemed almost as remote and romantic to Lukes first readers as it does to us. Both chronologically and geographically, they live in a world much closer to Rome than to the Mount of Olives:

The final chapters of the book . . . combine a strong outward movement [from Jerusalem] with an odd sense of homecoming: outward, towards the periphery of the narrative map, crossing the uncharted and storm-tossed Ionian Sea to landfall on a barbarian island; and homecoming, back to familiar territory, as the party pick up the regular shipping lanes again and make their way up the Appian Way to be greeted by brothers in Rome.

This sense of homecomingmay hold a vital clue to the actual social and rhetorical location of the author and his first readers. Paul has travelled to Rome under military escort, to stand trial before Caesar. But his final scene (as so often in Acts) is a rhetorical confrontation with the leaders of the local Jewish community. The question they ask Paul is simple: Tell us about this sect (28:22). And this question, I would suggest, is the very question to which Acts provides the answer. The book itself is probably to be dated some years later, after 70 C.E., but the closest we get to its rhetorical situation is that dramatic debate within the Jewish community in Rome, with Paul making the case for this Way that people call a sect (24:14) as the fulfillment of Israels profoundest hopes and dreams (28:20) .

In considering Lukes narrative geography, then, we have to consider not only its twodimensional shapethe cartographic projections that shape his conception of the worldbut also the added dimension of time. In cartography, as in history, the standpoint of the observer has a profound effect on his or her worldview, the way he or she puts together the scattered data at his or her command. And the place where the observer stands is always a place in time as well as in space, not only the center of the world but the end of a journey. In a sense, each of us stands at a point to which the whole of history has been pointing. It is this purposiveness, this sense of a teleological direction in history, that gives shape to our mental maps.We should not be surprised, then, to find that Lukes map of the world is a monocentric and providential map, one in which the historian stands at the apex and looks back at history as somehow culminating in the presentand specifically in the historians present.

It is important to keep in mind that we are not the first readers of Acts, and our own mental maps are shaped by centuries of reading and interpreting Christian origins. One of the earliest and most influential of Lukes interpreters was the patristic church historian Eusebius, whose own ideological map has dominated the study of Christian origins since the fourth century. Eusebiuss mental map, like Lukes, was governed by the end-point of his narrative, the moment when the victorious Constantine and his son restored the Roman Empire to its ancient glory as a single whole, bringing it all under their peaceful sway, in a wide circle embracing north and south alike from the east to the farthest west. Eusebiuss pictorial language reveals an imperial mental map, dating from the days of Augustus, of the empire as a wide circle, embracing the whole world and centered around the imperial city and the person of the emperor himself: Within the Roman imperial space the concepts of center and periphery are extremely clear. There was a caput [head] to the immense body that was the empire: it was both the city of Rome and the emperor.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Eusebius chooses an equally centrist principle of organization for his history of the church: I have purposed to record in writing the successions of the sacred apostles, covering the period stretching from our Saviour to ourselves (Hist.Eccl. 1.1.1,4). Successions (diadochai) is a concept derived ultimately from the philosophical schools, designed to ensure clear lines of transmission from the founding teacher to the variegated sects that promulgate his teaching in the wider world. For Eusebius, the central focus in the history of the church is the twelve apostles, a group whose unity is constantly stressed.When Peter speaks, he speaks as spokesman for all (Hist. Eccl. 2.14.6). The relationship between the apostles and the rest of Christendom is conceived in a strictly hierarchical fashion: Jesus taught the Twelve, and they taught the Seventy, and the Seventy in turn taught the rest of the disciples (Hist. Eccl. 2.1.4). The seven deacons were ordained by the apostlesa fact that is stressed when Philip and Stephen appear to act on their own authority (Hist. Eccl. 2.1.1,9). Paul, who does not quite fit this pattern, is specially ordained by the will of God (Hist. Eccl. 2.1.14). The growing church radiates out from the apostolic circle; all other churches are founded by direct links with the Twelve and Paul .

The net result of all this is a mental map focused on Jerusalem as the geographical center of the Christian world, the hub to which all future Christian expansion must be seen to be linked. This centrist perspective is linked directly to a global horizon in which the apostles are frequently described as preaching to the whole world:

Thus by the power and assistance of Heaven the saving word began to flood the whole world with light like the rays of the sun. At once, in accordance with the divine Scriptures, the voice of its inspired evangelists and Apostles went forth to the whole earth and their word to the end of the world.

This global perspective is mirrored in the workings of the imperial bureaucracy. Eusebius quotes a wonderful (and fictitious) letter from Pilate to the emperor Tiberius, which issues in an imperial rescript ensuring that the word of the Gospel might have an unimpeded beginning, and traverse the earth in all directions (Hist. Eccl. 2.2.16). Implicit is the realization that, in the world of the first Christians, the real center of power was not Jerusalem but Rome (cf. Hist. Eccl. 2.13.1). Hence, Eusebius attaches special importance to the moment that brings the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, the moment when the center of the biblical worldmap is displaced in favor of the center of imperial power :

Like a noble captain of God, clad in divine armour, [Peter] brought the costly merchandise of the spiritual light from the east to the dwellers in the west, preaching the Gospel of the light itself and the word which saves souls, the proclamation of the Kingdom of heaven.

The New Testament data are being organized here in a way that makes it possible to speak of the whole church as a unified organization centered around the apostles; and this process had begun long before Eusebius (cf. 1 Clem. 42).Within the New Testament, Luke in particular combines the global vision of the churchs mission with the much older idea of Jerusalem as the center from which knowledge of Gods Torah will shine out across the whole world . It is Luke who has the risen Jesus issue his mission command in Jerusalem (not in Galilee: cf.Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15), so that the whole mission can be conceived as working outward in concentric circles from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:8). It is Luke who sites the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit in Jerusalem, in the presence of Jewish pilgrims from every quarter of the known world (Acts 2:911) . And it is Luke who stresses the unity of the Apostles and their foundational role in the Jerusalem church (e.g., Acts 1:14; 4:3237).

This particular mental map is so familiar that it is hard to remember that it is (like all mental maps) a construct arising out of a particular social and rhetorical situation. Like all constructs, it must be open to question. Indeed, it is being subjected to some searching examination in contemporary study of Christian origins . And this is not simply a matter of historical skepticism; the centrist-global map of the church is attracting theological critique as well. Voices from all sides are urging us to replace the traditional top-down model of church history with a bottom-up perspective, more inclusive of those banished to the margins by the centrist map . The teleology implicit in this global map ensures that the place where the historian stands in the present always remains the endpoint to which history is pointing. For Western historians, Europe and then North America became the new center, and beyond that center everything else was periphery, valid only to the degree to which it reflected the values and understandings of the center.

Lukes picture of Christian origins proved admirably well adapted to the needs of emergent orthodoxy in the second and third centuries. But this is not the whole story. Function is not the same as origin, and we need to ask how Lukes mental map reflects his own rhetorical and social location. If LukeActs is an apologetic narrative addressed to the Jewish community in Rome, the essential features of Lukes mental map begin to fall into place. For such diaspora communities, the centrality and authority of Jerusalem was a basic theological assumption; and the palpable sense of homecoming in the final chapters has nothing to do with the founding of the Roman church. Lukes hero is Paul, not Peter, and the church is already established when Paul arrives (Acts 28:15). Placing Acts in a Jewish diaspora framework also gives an unexpected significance to the role of the apostles in Lukes narrative. The Hebrew equivalent of apostolos is saliah, a rabbinic term for the envoys used by the central authorities in Palestine to keep in touch with the diaspora . In the power vacuum left within Judaism by the failed rebellion of 6670 C.E., Lukes apostoloibacked by learned and detailed exposition of scripturecould serve a vital rhetorical role in a competitive bid for the heart and soul of the diaspora communities. Bearing letters (Acts 28:21) was part of the role of the saliah, and in the confusing circumstances of the post-war period, that is exactly what Luke sets out to provide in Acts. That, I would suggest, is one reason why the vision of an apostolic mission emanating from Jerusalem is important to Lukes rhetorical purpose.

But the comparison also highlights important differences. The model of the saliah might lead us to expect that Lukes apostoloi would be acting as emissaries or delegates for the Jerusalem church, subordinate to James and the elders. But that is not how Luke presents the relationship. In one instance, the apostles act in concert with the elders, meeting in solemn council to issue a decree and appointing their own selihim to disseminate it to the churches (Acts 15:631). There may be hints elsewhere of a desire by the Jerusalem church to exercise some kind of control over the missionary activities of Peter and Paul (11:13; 21:18). It is abundantly clear, however, that Lukes apostles are in no way subordinate to the elders. Rather, he stresses repeatedly that the Twelve (and Paul) received their commission directly from the Lord (1:28; 9:15).

This fact in itself should alert us to the possibility that Eusebiuss centrist model, though it draws on Acts, fails to do justice to the nuances of Lukes presentation. The details of church administration are not his concern; his heroes distance themselves from serving tables (6:2), and Stephen and Philip are only interesting when they abandon administrative duties to preach the Word. In fact, this lack of interest in internal church affairs frustrates the modern historian; much of the information we would like to find in Acts is simply not there. Mission, too, is a much more anarchic and disorganized business in Acts than Eusebiuss neat presentation suggests. Many of the most significant moves are made not by the apostles, but by unknown disciples acting under force of circumstances (8:13; 11:1920). It is the Antioch church, not Jerusalem, that launches the mission in Asia (chs. 1314), and there is no direct apostolic involvement in the foundation of the churches in Ephesus, Puteoli, and Rome (18:1919:1; 28:1415). Even within Acts, Eusebiuss Jerusalemcentered model is inadequate as a way of mapping the development of the early church.

Curiously enough, once we get beyond the apostolic age, Eusebiuss conception of ecclesial space is more regional than global. His mental map resembles the Roman provincial maps, which divided up the Empire into a patchwork of provinces each grouped around its administrative center at provincial headquarters . There are attempts to impose uniformity of practice and belief on the worldwide church, but these simply reveal the strength of regional diversity. Significantly, in a dispute over the date of Easter, Eusebius quotes approvingly Irenaeuss exhortation not to excommunicate whole churches of God for following a tradition of ancient custom (Hist. Eccl. 5.24.11). For Eusebius, the church is a confederation of autonomous sees and dioceses, each with its own regional traditions. The apostolic link provides a symbolic unity of origin, but (as with the Eastern Orthodox churches today) there is no overarching hierarchy capable of imposing uniformity. Intractable differences of theology and practice have to be resolved by negotiation.

This regional model was used to great effect for the patristic period by Adolf von Harnack in his Mission and Expansion of Christianity, and it has many potential advantages. In theory, a regional map makes it possible to highlight local diversity. Systematic inclusion of archaeological evidence forces us to take account of the varieties of syncretistic and popular religions because it brings us into direct contact with concrete problems of definition on the ground. But Eusebiuss regional map is still very much a topdown model, built around the monarchical episcopate, with the bishop as the spiritual and administrative head of his diocese. Like its Roman counterpart, it is a territorial model in which geographical space . . . is also and perhaps above all an administrative space. This territorial model of church organization has exerted a strong influence on our understanding of New Testament history. The anachronistic process of reading the New Testament in the light of second-century conceptions of ecclesial space can be seen already in Hist. Eccl. 3.23.1, where the Apostle John is treated as exercising a kind of episcopate over the whole province of Asia from his seat in Ephesus. Irenaeus makes a similar move in his analysis of Pauls Miletus speech . Even the Epistle of Clement, written at the end of the first century, gives the apostles an administrative role in the appointment and regulation of local episkopoi (overseers) and deacons (1 Clem. 42, 44).

A closer look at Acts, however, presents a rather more complicated and much less centralized picture. Lukes narrative implies a vigorous network of autonomous local churches, managing their own affairs and initiating and maintaining their own links with other churches. The clearest and best-documented example is the church in Antioch, founded by refugees from persecution (11:19). It was the first church to include Gentiles and attract the nickname Christians (11:2026). And it was this church that commissioned Paul and Barnabas for their first missionary journey (chs. 1314). Paul appointed local elders in the churches he founded on this trip (14:23), and Luke may have expected his readers to assume that this pattern of local governance was the norm elsewhere, as it was in the diaspora synagogue . Acts 20:17 assumes the existence of a body of elders in the church in Ephesus.What is striking here is the sublime confidence with which Paul gives these local church leaders pastoral responsibility for their own flock (20:28). There is no sense of overarching ecclesiastical supervision beyond the memory of the apostolic presence, which the Miletus speech is designed to formalize and enhance (20:18, 2527, 29).

It is harder to get a sense from Lukes narrative of the regional links and responsibilities of local churches. Luke cheerfully stresses regional diversity in language (14:11), religion (19:2341), and culture (17:1634), and seems happy to show Paul extemporizing a variety of preaching styles for different locations (14:1518; 17:2231). Like Paul himself (though to a lesser degree), Luke tends to think of mission in provincial terms, with certain key cities as strategic centers from which a whole province can be evangelized (19:10, 26). But we should not necessarily equate this strategic view of mission with a territorial view of ecclesiastical administration.We take for granted the link between geographical space and administrative authority, but this was a relatively recent development in Lukes world, marking an important change, a notable modification in the perception of space and, undoubtedly, in Roman administrative procedures. There is no hint in Acts that the churches of Lycaonia or Macedonia are linked in any kind of provincial administrative system, or that there is any regional body capable of imposing ecclesiastical discipline on individual congregations. If there are links between them, these are mediated through Paul himself or his associates .

I would like to suggest a third way of mapping early Christianity that conforms to our literary sources and has the potential to provide some kind of narrative framework that will enable us to do justice to the global and the local spects of the early church, both to center and periphery. I would argue that the concept of the church as a social networkor rather, an interlocking web of social networksprovides a more fluid and dynamic model for plotting the relation of center and periphery than either the global-centrist model or the local-regional model. Networks can be elatively distinct, yet interactive. Certain people and places act as nodes of interchange, allowing the model to sustain both unity and diversity in the structure overall. In todays world, there is an obvious analogy in the communication superhighways of the Interneta polycentric and infinitely expandable network with no clear authority structurethat has been used as a model for the growth of primitive Christianity . To find a comparable model in Lukes world, we have only to look at the long and venerable tradition of mapping geographical space in linear form. In the form of the Periplus, or coastal voyage, this is one of the most ancient forms of geographical description in GrecoRoman antiquity. Territory is not important to this coastal perspective. The Periplus records the invisible hinterland only where the coastal voyage intersects with the journeys of other travelers at supply stations or trading posts. The Roman period produced itineraries of road journeys in a variety of forms, from travelers account-books to tourist souvenirs. The fullest and most extensive of these plot a network of roads radiating out from the milestone that marked the center of Rome.

This kind of mental map is embedded in Lukes narrative at a very deep structural level. From the puzzling travel narrative of the Gospel (Luke 9:5119:28) to Pauls arrival in Rome via the final staging-posts of the Via Appia, Lukes characters seem to be constantly on the road. Indeed, the Christian sect itself acquired the nickname The Way (hodos, the road) in Acts 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. As in the Greek novels, journeying is fundamental to the plot of Acts; and the sense of journeying is imprinted on the readers mind by the exuberant listing of redundant place-names . And we may equally say that the traveling apostle is fundamental to Lukes view of the church. For Luke, the apostles are neither proto-bishops nor local administrators but travelers, called not only to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth but also to exercise a continuing ministry of pastoral visits. The pattern is manifestly clear in Pauls travels in the latter parts of Acts, which come more and more to assume their own logic and momentum, increasingly detached from his home base in Antioch. But even in the first part of the book, travel takes up a disproportionate amount of narrative time. Think of Philip in Samaria and on the road to Gaza; Peter and John in Samaria; Peter going here and there among the saints in Lydda, and Joppa and Caesarea (9:32). It is precisely this itinerant role that defines the apostles (and Paul) in Acts, and I would suggest that this provides a vital key to understanding Lukes cartography of early Christianity. The static, centralized authority of the elders in Jerusalem is effectively marginalized in Acts. The autonomous local churches have their own elders, but these are not a central part of Lukes concern.What interests him, and forms the focus of his narrative, is the group that links the two, making the church a loose-knit dynamic network rather than either a centralized hierarchy or a congeries of disconnected congregations. It is the itinerant apostles and their associates, answerable only to the risen Christ and responsive to his Spirit, whose criss-crossing journeys link the local congregations with each other and (to a lesser extent) with their symbolic center in Jerusalem.

The pattern I have tried to sketch here is merely a preliminary orientation. I have deliberately not looked at the evidence of Paul and other New Testament writers in detail. But if this reading is correct, then Lukes mental map of early Christianity may be more relevant to the historian than is often supposed. Lukes picture of the church has often been identified as early catholic because second-century advocates of monarchical episcopacy found it useful to transfer the charismatic authority of the itinerant apostles to the presbyterbishops who were beginning to emerge from among the ranks of the local elders and claim a wider, regional authority. But we can still glimpse traces in second-century texts like the Didache or Lucians Peregrinus of the more anarchic (and by now problematic) authority of the itinerant charismatics . And wherever we can get behind these later models, we see the first-century church as much more fluid, more open to local variation, and harder to configure in terms of an overarching global or regional structure . For the diaspora community we have posited as Lukes own social location, this network model would make excellent sense. In fact, it is arguable that the strong pre-existent social networks provided by the diaspora were fundamental to the spread of Christianity . It has obvious advantages for understanding the Pauline correspondence, not least for understanding the role of letters as surrogates for apostolic presence . (And we should not forget that letter-carrying was one of the prime tasks of the Jewish selihim). The very concept of a catholic epistle presupposes some kind of communications network (cf. James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1).Within this model, we do not have to assume that, for example, the Johannine and Pauline congregations in Ephesus were part of the same organizational structure. A network model would allow us to see a major metropolitan center like Ephesus (itself a focal point for a number of important trade routes) as a node, a point of intersection between several distinct ecclesial networks creating openings for interaction, cross-fertilization, or even conflict. Moreover, the model represents a pattern familiar to many of us from recent religious history; a number of classic movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fall into this category (e.g., Dispensationalism, Pentecostalism). By observing growth patterns for New Religious Movements in the twentieth century, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that the basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments. It is not hard to find analogies in the ancient world to this pattern . The mapping of early Christianity is still in its infancy, but at the very least I would suggest that this model has something to contribute to the task. This approach also has implications for our view of the church. If the globalcentrist perspective is the most obviously catholic, the regional or local model (with its many variations in terms of presbyterial or congregational church governance) is the one adopted by a range of churches in the Reformed tradition. From a theological and practical standpoint, both are currently coming under fire in today's polycentric, pluralistic world . I would suggest that Luke's network model offers an alternative way of being church in the twenty-first century, a vision of community more flexible, more open, and less tied to institutional structures than many of our churches have become; it is more risky, perhaps, but also more adventurous. Yet the key to such a model has to be that it remains (in Lukes sense) apostolic, that is, open to the Spirit and answerable to the Risen Lord.

2004 .