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by Archaeology Newsroom

Times and Dates. The Formation of Historical Consciousness Among the Early Christians

Christians of the first generation were concerned with the future. They were anxious to know the exact time of the end of the world. From the New Testament they knew that such information was not available to them, but in the next generations there appeared prophets who claimed that they could foretell the approaching end.

Without losing interest in the future some Christians gradually started paying greater attention to the past. The first reason for this development was apologetic. Second-century Christians were accused of advancing new views concerning the gods. In replying, they claimed for themselves the long history of the Jews, which went back to Moses as well as to adam and Eve. Furthermore, they argued for the priority of Jewish wisdom over the best aspects of Greek philosophy. According to their reckoning, Moses was older than Homer.

Some Christians started paying attention to the past for political reasons as well. It seemed to them that Jesus was born at the time of Augustus by divine providence. The establishment of the empire and the spread of Christianity, they thought, were two developments destined to work for the benefit of mankind. They started imagining a Christianised and universal empire with one emperor and one God.

Belief in the priority of Moses over Homer and in the simultaneous appearance of Jesus and Augustus created historiographical problems, which led Christians to investigate the myths, chronicles and histories of Jews, Greeks, Romans and some eastern nations. In the process of doing so, they realised that a major obstacle was the lack of a common chronological system. Thus, in place of the numerous existing national or local systems, second-century Christians came up with the idea of making the creation of the world a beginning for all historical events. In the sixth century, this idea was replaced by a new one, which placed Jesus at the centre of history, and established ad and B.C. dates. The historical consciousness of early Christianity was built upon a belief, which bridged their interest in the past and their expectations of the end of the world.