OK, this is our final part on this section of Christianity, “Birth and Expansion.” It’s been a lot, but I feel very important to be reminded of, and vital to know for our deeper understanding of this faith.
The New Testament, or the Christian Writings, are 27 compositions written in Greek before the end of the first century in response to the needs of the early church communities. Now because they were written specifically to the needs and circumstances of these communities, the compositions of the New Testament are as diverse as the experiences and situations of the early Christians.
For the first century Christians, “Scripture” obviously did not mean the New Testament. It hadn’t been written yet. “Scripture” meant the writings they shared with their fellow Jews–the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament” to Christians)–which they now read in light of a crucified and raised messiah.
The distinctive Christian writings consist of 13 letters attributed to the apostle Paul, 2 to Peter, another apostle, 3 to John, another apostle, 1 each to James and Jude, who may have been apostles, an anonymous treatise called To the Hebrews, as well as a historical narrative concerning the first generation of Christians called The Acts of the Apostles, and a visionary composition called The Book of Revelation. These writings just mentioned concentrate on the life and practice of the church, and Acts gives an account of the earliest expansion of the church, and reveals the complexity and energy of this early Christian movement. In them, Jesus appears as a present and powerful Lord, although allusions are made to his human example as an important norm for Christians. For example, Paul tells the Corinthians to live by the mind of the messiah. And he tells the Galatians that they should live by the law of Christ. Clearly, the human Jesus is important, even for those who celebrate him now as the powerful Lord.
Most people are impressed by the other writings in the New Testament, the four narratives called the gospels that are attributed in probable chronological sequence to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. These four narratives provide a rich collection of Jesus’ sayings and deeds as remembered by these communities over a period of decades of oral transmission, who now believed in him as Lord of creation. That is, they remembered him in light of the resurrection experience.
The evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John gather these community traditions, and put them together in the form of a narrative, telling and retelling the story of Jesus in a manner that instructs their readers in the life of discipleship. “Disciple” is the distinctive Christian term for an adherent or follower, and it means, interestingly enough, a learner. A “mathetes” in the Greek is a disciple, someone who learns. One who learns from Jesus.
And so these gospel narratives invite readers to picture themselves as Jesus’ followers during his ministry, who are learning from Jesus’ words, and are learning from his example as he moves toward his death.
Although the gospel accounts use shared traditions, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are called the “synoptic” gospels because of their literary interdependence*, what is remarkable is the diverse portrayals of Jesus in these narratives. He is not a cardboard figure, but a complex and compelling personality.
In Mark, he appears as an attractive yet repelling wonder worker who dies tragically, and his followers don’t understand him at all.
In Matthew, he is the pedagogue, the teacher of the church.
In Luke, he is the prophetic person who calls the outcast to share his life.
And in John’s gospel, the strangest of them all, he is a revealer from the God who brings light to the world, and reveals that the world that resists God is full of darkness.
So there is much in common, while at the same time, a richly diverse portrayal of Jesus. Equally striking is the fact that though the gospel narratives are written from the perspective of faith (they perceive Jesus as the resurrected one), they render Jesus as a first century Palestinian Jew with incredible accuracy.
Our shared last century is one of astounding archaeological discoveries. We have learned more about the world of antiquity than any other humans have ever known. We know more about first century Palestine than anybody has known before us.** What is most incredible is that the more we learn about first century Palestine, the more Jesus’ words and deeds make sense within that context. He is unmistakably a Palestinian Jew of the first century.
So we have learned in this section of “Birth and Expansion” that Jesus is not the founder of Christianity in an obvious way. He did not create the church. But the church is born out of the experiences and convictions of followers after his death that convince them, and have succeeded in convincing others, that Jesus is not simply a dead guy of the past, but a powerful presence now!
*Mark was written around 70 A.D. Matthew & Luke borrowed from Mark, as well as other traditions, and were written around 85 A.D.
**Except maybe first century Palestinians I guess.
From the beginning, Christianity had to accomplish five fundamental transitions. And this was not after a long period of stability and organization. This happened right away.
- A geographical transition from Palestine to the Diaspora–all the lands outside Palestine.
- A sociological transition–Jesus was a rural itinerant preacher. The first Christians we meet are urban, living in the big cities of the Roman empire.
- A linguistic transition from Aramaic to Greek.
- A cultural transition from a predominantly Jewish culture to a predominantly Greco-Roman culture.
- And finally, a demographic transition from being a movement among Jews to a movement among non-Jews, or “Gentiles.”
So we see it was a very powerful movement. And because of the lack of controls, and due to all of these necessary transitions, Christianity was quite diverse from the very beginning. It looked a little different wherever it spread to. Therefore, what’s amazing is not so much that it was diverse, but that it had any unity at all! This seems true still today.
By far, the most important transition in that first expansion was the inclusion of Gentiles (non-Jews) into the community without the obligation of being circumcised or the observation of Jewish law. We see that the very first generation of Christians came into the fold without being or becoming Jewish, but rather, on their own terms. Hence, we see that Christianity saw itself from its very beginning as a potentially worldwide religion. No restrictions here.
Since you had such diversity from day one, there were different ways (and difficulties) in translating this resurrection experience. Our earliest Christian writings, Paul’s letters, show us this. There was some conflict at the start. It seems there was no “golden age” of Christianity, even early on. Though there was much unity, as Dr. Luke reports in his Acts of the Apostles in chapters two and four.
Tomorrow we shall look at the early Christian writings a bit.
Jesus’s sleep [on the boat in the storm] is like the sleep of the sower (Mk.4:27). He has done the work that is expected of him. The rest is left in God’s hands. The attitude of peaceful trust is the result of an unambiguous commitment to the Father’s will. On the one hand, there is a fervent and proactive sense of mission, to complete the work given me to do. This is complemented, on the other hand, by a placid expectation that the rest of the pieces will fit in place without my being unduly concerned about them.
Keep this in mind: to be full of things is to be empty of God, while to be empty of things is to be full of God.
The remarkable claim by Christians of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the birthing of Christianity as well as the basis for fundamental convictions concerning Jesus.
- The resurrection, for Christians, revealed what Jesus already was implicitly in his mortal life, namely, God’s unique son. Already by the year 55 or 56, Paul in his letter to the Philippians, writes, Although he was in the form of God, he emptied himself out, and took the form of humans. So when Jesus was among other humans in mortal form, it was a kind of emptying out of the obvious divinity, but it was nevertheless really God among humans. Hence, in light of the resurrection, Christians read back from this experience, the Jesus ministry and, ultimately, all the way back to his birth. And they so hold that he is God incarnate–God in flesh among us.
- The resurrection is the premise for the expectation that Jesus will come again as judge of the living and the dead. God’s triumph has begun with Jesus, but it’s not complete. Jesus will be the future judge of humans because, in fact, he shares God’s life and power now as Lord.
- The resurrection makes Jesus not just a Jewish messiah, indeed, he is a failed Jewish messiah! Clearly, things did not get better for Jews because of Jesus. And in Jewish eyes, Jesus is not only a failed messiah, but he is also possibly a false messiah. For Christians, he is not adequately described as “Christ” or “messiah.” He is, rather, a new Adam, the start of a new humanity. So in some sense, as Paul says in Romans 5:12-21, he is God’s beginning of a new way of being human, not simply for Jews, but for all people.
- Finally, the resurrection is what makes Christianity potentially a worldwide religion, rather than a sect within Judaism. If Jesus had been a successful messiah within Judaism, Christianity would remain a sect within it. But Christianity’s claims are potentially worldwide. Jesus is the start of a new creation, and this is based on the resurrection. It is not a matter, then, of a political or temporary rule over a certain population, but rather the possibility of the transformation of all humans throughout all time. Quite a powerful experience and claim!
And upon this claim, the Christian movement established communities across the Roman empire with unparalleled rapidity. And the conditions of its expansion meant that it was diverse from the get go.
Within a span of just 25 years, Christians established communities from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. The rapidity of this expansion, which was unsupported by any political or economic means of significance, testifies to the power of religious experience. It also testifies possibly to the unpopularity of Christianity among Jews, as it was moved from place to place not because everybody liked it, but because many people disliked it.
The rapidity of its expansion is also impressive due to its accompanying persecution. And because it did not have real controls in place, either textual or organizational. It really seemed to simply move almost spontaneously.
More on the expansion Monday. Enjoy your weekend!
Yesterday we saw that Christianity was birthed out of the resurrection experience of Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, understanding it, and what Christians mean by it, is critical to understanding Christianity’s claim, to understanding Christianity. Now we will look at what it is Christians are claiming by the resurrection.
- The claim is not that Jesus didn’t really die, but went to be with God. That, in fact, is the Quran’s explanation of Jesus’ sharing in heaven with Allah.
- Nor do Christians claim that Jesus was resuscitated and continued his mortal existence. There’s many stories, ancient and modern, about resuscitations–people who experienced clinical death and then recover and go back to their ordinary existence. But resuscitation merely means that mortality has not been transcended, but simply deferred. People who are resuscitated eventually do die (again). They continue to be mortal.
- What Christians claim of Jesus is that he transcended mortality by entering into a share of God’s life and power. So it’s not that he simply went back to work on Easter Sunday, but rather that he entered into a full participation of God’s life. So this is exaltation, or enthronement. Psalm 110:1, The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit in the place of honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet”, became the way Christians understood the resurrection. (Remember this verse as quoted in Hebrews that we looked at a couple months back?) It is not resuscitation, it is exaltation. It is an enthronement to share God’s life.
- So the essential and earliest designation of Christians, Jesus is Lord (as in 1 Cor.12:3), is not saying that Jesus is a powerful human person. It is saying that Jesus shares the life of God. We know this because the word “Lord”– in Greek “Kyrios”–is the word that is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Septuagint) for the distinctive name of Israel’s God, YHWH, or if you’d like to buy a couple of vowels, Yahweh. This personal name of God, Kyrios, is now applied to Jesus. So when the earliest Christians said, “Jesus is Lord,” they were in effect saying, “Jesus is God.” He has been exalted to the status of God and has become, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:45, life-giving spirit. Only God can give life. So what Paul is saying is that Jesus did not only regain his life, he became the source of life for others through this energy–the radiation of this energy field which Christians call the Holy Spirit.
Do you see how huge this is?
In this sense, it is not just a mere historical event. Christians would refer to the resurrection as an eschatological* event, that is, an ending of one kind of history, and the beginning of another. The closest comparison Paul can find to this event is creation itself. So he refers to the fact that if anybody is in Christ, he is a new creation.
And so Jesus’ resurrection is seen as the possibility of transforming all humans through a new power of life. It’s a remarkable claim, a powerful claim, and a paradoxical claim. But it is the claim that is the basis for other fundamental convictions concerning Jesus.
It is to those we shall look tomorrow.
*The Oxford English Dictionary defines eschatology as “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell’.” In the context of mysticism, the phrase refers metaphorically to the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the Divine.
Now in the context of a deeply divided first century Judaism, Jews in Palestine were quite segregated on how to respond to Greco-Roman culture and Roman rule. And you had many different divisions–Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots–all of whom wanted the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, but had very different notions of how it should come about.
Jesus’ own distinctive proclamation of the rule of God, connected to his own wonder working and to his own inclusion of outcasts, inevitably ran into conflict with the other Jewish leaders. And he finally met his death and was executed by crucifixion, the most painful and shameful form of execution, fit only for slaves, under the Roman authority of Pontius Pilate, around the year 30.
So Jesus’ historical ministry, though provocative and highly fascinating, came to a screeching halt. His followers disbanded. The early Roman observer, Tacitus, remarked that this movement began in Judea, stopped, and then started up again. And it’s that gap–between the failure of Jesus to convert all his fellow Jews and really begin something, and the rise of Christianity–which is the most puzzling feature of this religion.
Christianity is born as a religion because of the resurrection experience.
It is not born because of what Jesus said and did during his lifetime, but because of the experiences and convictions of his followers after his death.
Therefore, understanding the resurrection, and what Christians mean by the resurrection, is critical to grasping Christianity’s claim. This is the part of Christianity that is most offensive to enlightenment reasoning, indeed, to ancient reasoning! That an ordinary human person is not only raised from the dead, but shares God’s life. Yet it is the very thing that makes Christianity a compelling and powerful religious movement.
So we need to understand what it is Christians are claiming by the resurrection.
This is quite enough heaviness to chew on for today–that Christians believe it is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that birthed Christianity, not someone or a group of someones deciding to start a new religion. Tomorrow we will discuss what Christians are claiming by the resurrection.
(Be sure to click on 720p HD if fuzzy)
As promised on Friday, we will now start unpacking the following long sentence:
The historical activity of Jesus of Nazareth is difficult to reconstruct with precision, but it is best understood as a form of prophetic activity within Judaism that is marked by a particular urgency and authority, and whose proclamation of God’s rule issues in a nascent community.
Ok, here we go.
- So there are formidable difficulties of historical reconstruction of Jesus as he existed in first century Palestine. First off, however, he really was a historical figure. He really did exist. He was a Jew living in Palestine under the rule of Tiberius Caesar. The difficulties of historical reconstruction have to do with our sources. We have very few outsider accounts of Jesus or the early Christians. There’s a few passing mentions by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and a possible paragraph in the voluminous works of the Jewish historian, Josephus. But apart from those slender (and largely dismissive!) remarks, we are almost entirely dependent upon the Christian writings themselves. The earliest of these being written by the apostle Paul between the years 50 and 65 A.D., and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which can be dated roughly between the years 70 and 90. And those narratives depend upon an earlier oral tradition over a period of some forty years, in which the memory of Jesus was handed on in Christian communities. And those gospels, furthermore, are told from the perspective of the resurrection. In other words, they are not neutral accounts. They are far from eyewitness accounts. They are rather religious witnesses and interpretations which seek to communicate the convictions of the Christian community, and are written from the perspective of belief that Jesus is now the risen Lord, the resurrected one. Therefore, the earliest Christian writings do not give us very good historical sources in order to present a reconstruction of Jesus as a purely historical figure. This is why the attempts to recover the so-called historical Jesus are so difficult. Because the early Christian writings were simply not written for that reason.
- Nevertheless, with great care, we are able to say some things about Jesus which are historically highly probable. First, his characteristic speech and action identify him as a prophetic figure within the symbolic world of Torah. Jesus is very much a figure within Judaism whose speech and actions are best understood as somebody who thinks as a Jew would think in that era. He appears in the narratives as a sort of prophetic figure that we know of in the Old Testament figure of Elijah. He is a wandering figure. He is a wonder working figure.
- Jesus’ most distinctive proclamation was of the rule of God–the Kingdom of God–and this rule of God was now immanent. So there’s a certain urgency to his proclamation, bearing within it a call to repentance. It is a call to a renewed commitment to God by an internal transformation and a change in behavior. “Repent,” which we translate from the Greek “metanoia,” is to change how you think, to change your outlook. So there’s a particular urgency in his proclamation. “The time is now.” “The time has come to completion.” “Repent and believe in the good news.”
- His proclamation also had a distinctive appeal to the outcast. He did not address himself to the religious elite among the people, but rather to the outcast. “Blessed are the poor” as opposed to “Blessed are you rich.” His ministry was characterized by an open table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors, those who were outcasts among the Jewish people.
- He speaks with a sense of authority. He interprets Torah, not as other Jewish leaders of that time, by referring to other authorities, but simply on his own authority. “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” In fact, one of his most characteristic locutions is the outrageous prefacing of his remarks by the word “amen.” “Amen amen I say to you…” “Amen” is usually something someone says to somebody else in order to assent to what they say. So, in other words, Jesus’ sense of authority is communicated by the fact that he self-validates his speech before he even begins it. (If he was not the Son of God, then we must conclude that he was at the very least, quite the ego maniac! A megalomaniac)
- Jesus’ choice of twelve followers is virtually historically certain, and it indicates that he had some sense of beginning a movement. And this movement was understood as somehow being the restoration of Israel itself, since the twelve members match the symbolic figure of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Wow. That was a lot.