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.