The Episcopal Story

The Episcopal Story

by Thomas Ferguson


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The New Church’s Teaching Series has been one of the most recognizable and useful book series in The Episcopal Church. With the launch of the Church’s Teachings for a Changing World series, visionary Episcopal thinkers and leaders have teamed up to revitalize the classic resource with fresh new voices and style, concise and clear enough for newcomers, yet grounded and thoughtful enough for seminarians and leaders.

In this second volume, seminary dean and popular blogger Thomas Ferguson traces the history of Christianity, with a special focus on the rise of the Anglican Communion and the birth and continual rebirth of The Episcopal Church. Explore how we got here and where we might be going.

• The next generation of the classic New Church’s Teaching Series

• Accessible and engaging for newcomers and adult learners; appropriate content for church leaders and seminarians

• Interactive study questions and exercises and accompanied by online materials

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819232212
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/10/2015
Series: Church's Teachings for a Changing World Series , #2
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

THOMAS FERGUSON is Dean of Bexley Hall, within the Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Federation. A scholar and practitioner, he holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and has served congregations in Connecticut and Rhode Island. He has also served as The Episcopal Church’s officer for ecumenical and interreligious relations. Tom and his wife, the Rev. Shannon Kelly, live in Columbus, Ohio, with their son. Follow his blog at

Read an Excerpt

The Episcopal Story

Birth and Rebirth

By Thomas C. Ferguson

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2015 Thomas C. Ferguson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-3221-2


Jesus and the Birth of Christianity

I was once asked to guest lecture on "Judaism in the Time of Jesus," and I had to reply, "Only if I get to rename the lecture 'JudaismS in the time of Jesus.'" The life and teachings of Jesus need to be set against the backdrop of the Judaisms of his time, keeping in mind that Judaism was far from a monolith.

Judaisms in the Time of Jesus

Within the diversity of Judaisms of Jesus's time, all Jews likely would have agreed on three important elements:

The centrality of the Jewish Temple. Most Jews defined themselves either by their adherence to the Temple and its elaborate set of liturgies or by their explicit rejection of the Temple as having been corrupted. It was the home of the Ark of the Covenant containing the Law, and on the holiest of days, Yom Kippur, the High Priest made atonement there for the sins of the people. The current Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem is but a small fragment, a lower structural retaining wall, of the massive, gold-covered, awe-inspiring Temple.

The Law of Moses, or Torah. Alongside the Temple, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible defined life for Jews. Many Jews also held to an oral law or set of traditions handed down with the books of the Law. For the Jewish people, who believed they were in a special covenant relationship with God, the Law was the means by which God's will was recognized and fulfilled.

The growing place of the synagogue. The synagogue was both the local site where the Torah was read and the occasional sermon preached, and a sort of local meeting house/community center for Jewish communities. It was particularly important in Galilee, north of Jerusalem, where Jesus operated and often taught. The synagogue gained increasing importance for Jewish communities scattered throughout the Empire.

Judaism had its fair share of groupings and divisions in Jesus's time. The most well known historian of the period, Josephus (died around 100 ce), famously listed three different groups: Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. The Sadducees focused on Jerusalem, the Temple, and religious observance. The Pharisees were their polar opposite: centered in Galilee, north of Jerusalem, they attended to Torah study and the local synagogue. The biblical Gospels speak often of Jesus's negative interactions with the Pharisees, but let the reader beware. Given that there was quite likely some conflict between Jesus's followers and Pharisees, reconstructing an image of them from the Gospels would be like reconstructing an image of the British from American sources from the Revolutionary War. Josephus also listed the Essenes, a catch-all term for ascetic, almost quasi-monastic expressions of Judaism. Later scholars have argued that the community responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls were related to the Essenes.

Josephus's tidy threefold division doesn't capture the true range of Judaisms in Jesus's day. The foremost example is John the Baptizer, a charismatic teacher who gathered a group of followers and preached a message of repentance. The New Testament also mentions groups like lawyers and scribes, as well as zealots who advocated for liberation from the Roman Empire.

There was also a significant Jewish diaspora, or those Jews who lived in other parts of the world. Estimates are tough to come by, but it seems the Jewish population of the Roman Empire was likely between 5 and 10 percent. The Jewish community in the city of Alexandria in Egypt was large enough to merit their own quarter of the city. Jewish communities spread even further afield, into the cities of the Persian Empire and as far away as what is now Ethiopia.

It's one thing to note that Jesus's ministry of preaching and teaching was grounded in a Jewish context: it's another thing to appreciate the complexity and diversity of that context.

Political Context

Jesus and his followers were surrounded by intense political ferment. The geographic entity we now see on a map as Israel was, in Jesus's time, several different political and cultural entities. The Jewish people sat at the crossroads of the great empires of the ancient world, ruled at various times by Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Medes, just to name a few. They also periodically enjoyed independence and self-rule. Just before the time of Jesus, the Jewish people once again enjoyed a period of independence, following a successful revolt against the Syrian kings. Eventually, though, the Jewish people succumbed to Roman rule like much of what we now call the Middle East.

The Romans often preferred to rule indirectly through locals rather than get overly involved in regional matters. So the Romans set up a local king who managed day-to-day affairs but was responsible for sending taxes to Rome: King Herod, who ruled from 37 bce to 4 bce. At the time of Jesus, the territory of King Herod had been divided up. Herod Antipas, one of Herod's descendants, ruled Jesus's hometown of Galilee. Rome took direct control of the southern region around Jerusalem, called Judaea, appointing a series of governors, the most well known being Pontius Pilate, governor from 26 to 36 ce. So long as the taxes were paid and order kept, tolerance was the norm. Rome could, however, come down swiftly and forcefully if the authorities feared disturbance would result.

Given the diversity and geographic expansion of the empire, Roman culture served as the glue among a disparate people. Many subjects adopted the toga, honored Roman civic offices and organization, and participated in "emperor worship." This may seem blasphemous today, but you could think of emperor worship as an ancient version of pledging allegiance to the flag: the emperor was a symbol of unity, so people paid homage to him by burning a candle in front of his statue or pouring out a glass of wine in libation.

The Ministry and Teaching of Jesus

It was into this diverse, dynamic political and religious background that Jesus of Nazareth emerged. On the one hand, he was one of many teachers and preachers on the scene. On the other hand, he hardly fit into anyone's mold or expectation, certainly not for a Messsiah, Son of Man or savior of the Jewish people. Some significant aspects of Jesus's ministry included:

His radical ethics based on the Law of Moses. As Jesus said, he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). If anything, he extended beyond the Sadducees and Pharisees in his application of the Law. Where the Law forbade adultery, Jesus said avoid even lust. Yet he reversed course to ignore elements of the Law that hindered true faithfulness or had become ends of themselves (such as some rules about washing and fasting). Jesus's shorthand description of this ethical teaching was "the kingdom of God," or "reign of God," a society reshaped in accordance with God's vision of justice and wholeness.

The apocalyptic element in his teaching. Jesus believed God would intervene and restore the proper ordering of the world, but he warned that the period after his death and before the second coming would be a time of urgency for the spread of the message. Early Christianity was immersed in this tension and urgency.

His understanding of community. Jesus often spoke directly to the Jewish people, to call them back to the covenant with God. But his sense of community stretched well beyond those bounds. He traveled outside of the land of Israel to preach; he included those traditionally marginalized by society, such as tax collectors and women, among his disciples; and he charged his disciples with gathering followers from every tribe and land to make one community.

Early Spread of Christianity

The Roman state executed Jesus around the year 29. The method was crucifixion, a penalty reserved for rebels and the lowest of criminals. His crime? He was considered a threat to the civil order. Many were unhappy with Jesus and his teachings, but it's tough to tell who brought and really pushed those charges. There is a trajectory from the earliest Gospel (Mark) to the latest (John) to shift the blame increasingly from the Romans to the Jews. In Mark, it is a small, unnamed group of Jewish leaders; by the Gospel of John, Jesus's enemies are grouped under the inchoate and all-encompassing term "the Jews."

After Jesus's death, his followers came to believe he had been raised from the dead. The earliest Gospel, Mark, ends with an empty tomb, but stories of Jesus's post-resurrection appearances abound. Empowered by the belief that Jesus had been raised, the disciples continued to spread the message not only of Jesus's ethical and spiritual teachings, but of him as the risen Son of God, the vindicated righteous one. Here are just a few highlights about those early communities:

Jerusalem and the Temple. Jesus's followers still went to the Temple and still observed the Jewish Law. Tensions occasionally erupted between disciples and other Jews in Jerusalem. James, who is called the "brother of the Lord," led the Jerusalem community until his martyrdom.

Pauline mission. Saul of Tarsus, later to take the name Paul, was instrumental in helping spread Christianity from its Jewish base into the Gentile (or non-Jewish) milieu of the empire. Paul was steeped in Jewish law, having been a Pharisee. However he added an important element to Jesus's proclamation: The notion of the New Covenant mediated by Jesus that replaced the old Jewish law. In Jesus and in baptism, Paul said, there is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Therefore the old Jewish law no longer applied the same way, and Gentiles could be equal and full members of the community (Ephesians 2:11–22). It's not difficult to imagine the ensuing tension between groups inspired by Paul and those who sought continuity with the practices of Judaism.

Even in this short chapter, you can see the emergence of the organizing themes: the broad diversity of beliefs and expressions, the ways Jews and early Christians adapted to the Roman world, and the influence of global perspectives on Jewish and early Christian life. All these elements continue to shape the story and the faith as they spread further.


Globalization 1.0: Christianity Goes Global

Over a decade ago my wife and I were in the city of Palermo on Sicily. It was a beautiful day, so we decided to walk from one of the local attractions back to our hotel. We got hopelessly lost and found ourselves wandering through twisting and turning streets, walking down dead-end alleyways and eventually losing our sense of direction entirely. Then we turned a corner and saw a four-lane road, running straight as an arrow. I said to my wife, "This must have been built by the Romans."

Romans were great road-builders, mostly because they had to move legions about the Empire and carry communication and trade by land. While not as networked as our current world, Christianity had the good fortune to be birthed when the ancient world was about as connected as it could be. These roads, postal networks, and trade contacts helped Christianity to take hold in the great urban centers of the ancient world — so much so that for several hundred years Christianity was seen as an urban faith, like we might consider good zydeco music a New Orleans phenomenon.

As it spread from its predominantly Jewish context, Christianity had to adapt profoundly to that globalized, networked ancient Roman world.

Relationship with Judaism: Some Explaining to Do

Before beginning its spread through the ancient world, Christianity had to figure out whether it was a form of Judaism or not. Did someone have to become a Jew in order to become a follower of Jesus? In the ancient world, this meant adopting the requirements of the Law of Moses, including circumcision, limiting one's contact with non-Jews in certain cases, and following dietary restrictions. The issue came to a head in the first generation of Jesus's followers, with the apostles Peter and Paul leading separate camps. As described in the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul asked for a summit in Jerusalem to hash the issue out. They agreed converts need not be circumcised, though they upheld some aspects of Jewish law, like avoiding meat sacrificed during the worship of Greek gods in temples. This decision released Christianity to make inroads among non-Jews for whom things like circumcision or limiting contact with non-Jews would have been a bar too high.

Political developments also shaped the new movement's relationship to its Jewish forebears. In the years 66–70, Jews in what we now call Israel rebelled against Roman rule. After initial victories, they lost the war and suffered a devastating defeat, culminating in the year 70 with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Christians fled Jerusalem during the war and began to interpret the destruction of the Temple as a sign of God's punishment. They claimed Jesus's followers were now the true chosen people and heirs of God's covenant. That said, well into the 400s, Christian preachers were still exhorting believers not to go to the synagogue or observe Jewish customs, the best proof that significant interaction between Jews and Christians continued for quite some time in some areas.

Judaism certainly didn't sit still during this period. Without the Temple as a central focus, Jews began to reshape the faith around the rabbis and the synagogue. Instead of the elaborate set of Temple rituals, the emphasis shifted to interpretation of the Law of Moses and living it out in daily life — a movement that became rabbinic Judaism as we now know it.

A Peculiar People

Christianity traveled throughout the empire, facilitated by the relative ease of travel and networks of personal connection. Those networks also tended to encompass a broad social strata. While some religions appealed to narrow segments of society, Christians preached that baptism made everyone more or less equal, and in the highly social- and class-stratified Roman world, slaves and the wealthy worshipped alongside one another (though there was plenty of tension between rich and poor).

People recognized Christians as a close-knit community that cared for one another. They took in widows and orphans. They collected money to distribute to the poor. Christians came to be seen as unusual and distinctive, and for everyone who thought Christians strange, others were curious and drawn.

Learning to Speak Greek

As Christianity spread throughout the empire, it attracted more and more non-Jewish converts. As it did so, Christianity needed to figure out how to express itself in a culturally different milieu than its original Jewish context. The predominant culture of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, where Christianity first began to spread, was Greek. A simple form of Greek, called koine or "common" Greek, was the language of commerce and culture, just as you're likely to see menu items in English when you go to a restaurant in Prague or Beijing. Christianity needed to learn how to speak Greek.

How would Christians take a message formed in an originally Jewish context and make it sensible to a predominantly Greek culture? Some words had to be swapped out altogether: Christos might have meant someone anointed and set apart by God to Hebrew speakers, but Greeks might have asked, "Is your God an athlete?" (since athletes were covered with oil before a competition).

Other translation depended on linking Christian thought with philosophy on the ground. Prominent convert and former philosopher Justin Martyr (d. 165) taught in Rome and made the link between Jesus — the "Logos" — and Greek philosophy. He leaned on Plato, who spoke of a distant, hopelessly removed creator God, a "first principle," and a sort of lesser divine being who formed the world out of preexisting matter left lying around by the creator, the "second principle." It wasn't such a stretch: the Book of Proverbs (8:22) notes that "God created wisdom [or "logos" in Greek] as the beginning of all his works." The Gospel of John starts with "in the beginning was The Word." Adapting elements of Greek philosophy like this helped non-Jewish converts to come on board, and became central to the development of the Christian story.


Excerpted from The Episcopal Story by Thomas C. Ferguson. Copyright © 2015 Thomas C. Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part I,
Chapter 1: Jesus and the Birth of Christianity,
Chapter 2: Globalization 1.0: Christianity Goes Global,
Chapter 3: Christianity in a Time of Transition,
Chapter 4: Christianity and Christendom,
Chapter 5: The End of the Beginning: Early Medieval Christianity,
Chapter 6: Christianity Goes Medieval,
Chapter 7: Reformations without End,
Part II,
Chapter 8: This Thing Called Anglicanism,
Chapter 9: Anglicanism Comes to America,
Chapter 10: Modernity's Challenge: The Early Episcopal Church,
Chapter 11: A Church with a Mission: The Nineteenth-Century Episcopal ChurchOther,
Chapter 12: History in the Making: The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion in the Twentieth Century,
Suggestions for Further Reading,
Image Attributions,

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