My name is Tom; this is Simple Church Minute. You know how death metal bands describe things in their music that, if they had really done those things, they would be in jail or a mental institution? Why are some people attracted to that? At the very least, it’s a strange, in comparison to everyday life, and antisocial emotional charge. Back in the time of Christ, in the
Roman Empire, a rough equivalent was some orators. The man would come in and give the crowd an experience through their words. There were various types. Like some musicians, attorneys, politicians, and actors today, the orator may not have believed what he was saying, and there were times that some, of even all, of the crowd knew it. But the good ones could inspire, or excite, or give some other emotional charge through their talent and skill with the use of words, the inflection, the hand gestures, the timing.
was affected by this piece of society. The Bible records that Apollos was an orator before his conversion to faith in Christ, and Paul grew up in church of Jesus , the city of philosophers, as it was known at the time. Within the Jewish people, while it was allowable for any Jewish male to stand up before the congregation and speak, clearly some rabbis spoke regularly, as we know they were behind a speaking method known as pearl stringing, which flopped over into the Christian church. We know, though, that on the Pharisaic side of Judaism, which was the only side that survived after the revolt against Tarsus in 130 A.D., the teaching was that all rabbis were to have a skill, in case the people turning away from God made it difficult to live. There is indication that if an apostle visited a church, the visitor might speak, as Acts 20 describes Paul visiting Rome Troas and describing to the believers there the things he had seen. Still, some of our versions call that speaking, and the Greek word behind speaking or preaching in verses 7 and 9 is the word we get our modern word “dialogue” from. There is no indication that Paul’s speaking had the fine touches of a modern sermon or the rhetoric of his day. Conversely, there is every indication that the early church usually did not have speeches or oration or, as we say today, sermons. Every indication is that Jesus taught the disciples, and the apostles taught the early church, to have informal gatherings, as opposed to ritualistic services, in which people knew each other; everyone could teach or speak as the Spirit guided them.
Where, then, did the sermon come from? Roman/Greek culture. In about the fifth century B.C., history credits a group of teachers called sophists for inventing rhetoric—the art of persuasive speaking. The sophists taught another generation this skill, and delivered speeches for money. Many made a good living, as it became an entertainment form. We might imagine that some of them may have been the equivalent to our novelists today, serving a culture where literacy was much lower. Some became experts at debate, and at using emotional appeals, and by the use of cleaver language. They also added to it by physical appearance. They came to wear special clothes to indicate their position. Over time, style, form, and skill were prized over factual accuracy. Given all that, it should be of little surprise that some did not live their lives according to the ideas they spoke of. In some ways, this sounds like some of today’s entertainers, minus the music, and recording equipment. Some traveled and appeared from place to place, and others appeared at the same time and place, according to schedule. Some would walk in to their appearance wearing a robe called a pulpit gown. Some would quote the writings of Homer, and knew passages by heart. Some would encourage their audience to clap. Some came to live at the public expense, and became the celebrities of their day.
In the church, the apostles taught that all believers were kings and priests of God, as it says in Revelation chapter 1 verse 6, and all were important in the building up of each other. Still, a few persons skilled in oratory came to be believers, and brought their skill into the church to the degree that we can see that it was an influence in some places by the second century. History shows that converted orators spoke in a style similar to before their conversion, substituting scripture for Homer. Orators called their speeches homilies, the term used to this day in the Catholic Church. The legalization of Christianity, with the institution of buildings and organization led to an influx of orators quote unquote converting, and taking the new speaking jobs. By the time of the Reformation, it was taken for granted that the sermon was how “lay people”, another concept foreign to the early believers, learned the Christian faith. Of course, by the early middle ages, non-professionals did not have access to the Bible to know whether what they were being taught was true.
A lot of this information comes from George Barna and Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, chapters 4 and 6, which have plentiful footnotes.