Before the church was a Church

Jesus, Paul and the Earliest Christian Church

According to the Gospels’ earliest and most primitive summary, of Jesus’ message, the Good News (euangelion) as it was called, was: “The opportune moment is now and the Kingdom draws near. Reform yourselves and put your trust in the Good News” (Mk. 1:15). How that message was understood is quite clear from our earliest preserved document on the matter, earlier than the Gospels by at least a decade, probably more, namely, Paul’s letter to the believers at Thessalonica written in the summer of 51 A.D. Paul begins his letter with a quick description of the ekklesia there. They were now servants of “the true and living God,” who were “waiting expectantly for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus, our deliverer from the wrath that is to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

From the Gospel and Acts narratives we can fill in some of the blanks between Jesus’ original announcement and circumstances described by Paul in the early 50s. The Galilean preacher who announced the approaching End was executed by Romans in Jerusalem, probably in 30 A.D., after a very brief career. Very shortly afterwards his tomb was discovered empty, and soon after that his followers began reporting that they had encountered Jesus: He had been raised from the dead! He was not only the Messiah of Israel; he was also the Lord, the Son of God.

On the face of it, then, what Jesus was preaching was, in the first place, an eschatological warning and a promise. There was a new age coming, which he called “the Kingdom of God,” when, on the general Jewish understanding of the Eschaton, God’s rule would prevail. But if the coming of the Kingdom signaled the triumph of God’s sovereignty, the Day of the Lord also brought with it, as every Jew knew, God’s inevitable Judgment, not merely on Israel, which would be triumphantly vindicated, but with a new emphasis on the individual, who would be severely judged: in the language of a fellow preacher, the unworthy would be cut down like a barren tree “and thrown into the fire” (Mt. 3 :10). Hence, Jesus warned, the need for a change of life (metanoia).

The message itself was not new in either Second Temple Judaism or even in that very time and place. Something very similar was being preached by a contemporary called John the Baptist or the Washer. His version of that message had drawn Jesus to his following, and at some point he had submitted to what was for John and his followers the traditional Jewish washing (baptisma), now understood as a symbol of a change of life: repent, reform! (Mk. 1:9). Thus Jesus became one of John’s followers, which apparently meant little more than that he accepted John’s message. There may have been a John movement surrounding the Baptist, but there is no sign of anything more formal about it, neither an imitation of John’s ascetic lifestyle nor any institutional form of membership; there was, certainly, no Johannine “church.”

But if Jesus made John’s message his own and began to preach it publicly, there was a profound difference that separated them. John was merely a “warner” of the End-Time, a Muhammad avant la lettre; Jesus, however, was also an important actor in it: he was, he said openly, the Messiah, God’s agent in and for the End-Time. Some at least of Jesus’ listeners seized his meaning. The Messiah was not, after all, a novel notion to most Jews of that day, and Jesus’ vision of the “Son of Man” coming “on clouds with power and glory” (Mk. 13:26) is an image straight out of the Bible’s Book of Daniel (7:13-14) as well as the work attributed to the Biblical patriarch Enoch that was circulating in Jesus’ day (1 Enoch 37-71; cf. 61:8-9).

If John’s fellowship was, on the evidence, loose and amorphous, Jesus’ was somewhat more defined. We do not know what if anything he called his followers; they later used the term “disciples: (mathetai), which has echoes of the ancient school tradition. They saw themselves as sharing and living Jesus’ philosophy and “way” in a world where “philosophy” was not so much an academic discipline or a professional skill as a way of life, a choice (hairesis) to live in the Stoic or Epicurean “Way.” Jesus was an itinerant preacher and so his movement was necessarily fluid. He gained followers here and there but most of these stayed behind as Jesus moved on. How they lived out The Way without further instruction or guidance, we have no idea, and later there is no trace of those stayedbehind, namely, the Galilean “converts” among those “multitudes” who were the audience and onlookers in the Gospel stories.

Some few others believed and followed Jesus in a more literal sense. They accompanied Jesus as he moved from town to town across Galilee, how many we do not know, though we are told, somewhat unexpectedly in that time and place, that there were women who traveled with him and his circle and “took care of their needs from their own resources” (Lk. 8:1-2). Among those who literally followed Jesus back and forth across Galilee was a group of men he had personally summoned to himself (Mk. 1:17-18; 3:13). The Gospels and later Christian writings preferred to call them Apostles, the standard Jewish term for emissaries or agents (Gk. apostoloi; Heb. shelihim). Jesus did in fact send them out to spread his message among his fellow Jews (Mk. 6:7-13), but the fundamental purpose of these chosen men, whose number had to be kept at a statutory twelve (Acts 1:15-26)—our sources were uncertain of who made up the group but knew they were the Twelve—was to serve as Jesus’ subalterns in the Kingdom. In the reborn creation (palingenesia) of the End-Time they would sit as judges and rulers of the restored Twelve Tribes of Israel (Mt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30).

The Twelve represent Jesus’ sole formal appointment, and though they received special private instruction (Mk. 4:10,34), their primary function was eschatological; they were not appointed to any other task save perhaps to continue to spread the Good News after Jesus’ death, though no on could have envisioned the radically altered circumstances that would then prevail. On the evidence of the Gospels, Paul and Acts, Peter was the most important individual among the Twelve (along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee) and was recognized as such by Jesus. But Jesus’ formal appointment of Peter to be the foundation stone of “his church” (Mt. 16:18-19) is almost certainly a later intrusion in the text of Mathew’s Gospel.[1] Jesus, we can be sure, never uttered the word “church” or, to be more accurate, the words “assembly” or “congregation” (ekklesia), the term that would become “church” in the minds of the next generation of Christians.

The Acts of the Apostles is a professed sequel to Luke’s Gospel (Acts 1:1) and takes up the Jesus narrative directly after his reported resurrection from the dead. But both the Gospel and Acts were likely written a half century after Jesus’ death when what was in Jesus’ own day a fluid and inchoate movement had its eyes principally focused on the immediate future; they were, as Paul said, “waiting” (1 Thess.1:10). What they were waiting for, again on the testimony of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, our earliest preserved Christian document, was not, however, the grandiose scenario of the End-Time that the Gospels attributed to Jesus (Mk. 13 and parr.) as it was, very specifically, his awaited “arrival” (parousia).[2] Jesus’ return would signal not so much the traditional Jewish vindication of Israel, which was not a matter of great concern perhaps to Paul’s largely Gentile audiences, but the more pinched expectation of the believers’ own entry, and even the dead believers’ entry, as Paul assured them, into the Kingdom of eternal life (1 Thess. 4:16-17).

We should not extrapolate from the Thessalonians to all believers, but we also cannot allow Paul’s other concerns, the entry of Gentiles into Christian communities (ekklesiai), those anterooms of Kingdom, to push the first believers’ urgent expectation of the End-Time out of focus. That eschatological urgency must be restored to Acts’ account of what happened to the believers after Jesus’ death. It has largely been drained out of the Acts narrative, which was, after all, the work of a man who was aware that the hope of an imminent parousia was rapidly fading from Christian consciousness. Paul urged the Thessalonians to console themselves with the expectation that, as Jesus himself had said, the End was drawing near; Luke’s consolation lay elsewhere, in the ongoing ekklesia, the institution, as a later generation of Christians would come to believe, founded by Jesus himself. 

Acts picks up the Gospels’ narrative thread with Jesus’ followers, now including his family, who were not mentioned among them in the Gospels, gathered around the Twelve in an upper room in Jerusalem. They are empowered, transformed—the Holy Spirit descends upon them, Luke explains, in a scene repeated often in Acts—and they rush forth to preach the Good News. It is not Jesus’ Good News, however; it included neither Jesus’ warnings nor the enlarged ethical teaching that constituted Jesus’ “reformed” Judaism in the Gospels. This was rather the Good News about Jesus, how the man who had been recently crucified, as some of the audience must have witnessed, had been raised from the dead by the power of the Almighty and was so declared not only the Messiah of Israel but also the Lord, that is, divine (Acts 2: 36). “And so?” the audience is made to ask. “Reform yourselves,” Peter replies, “and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Something new was happening. Reform and the forgiveness of sin were a critical part of Jesus’ own message, something a believer must achieve on his or her own. Here, however, those acts are tied to a ritual, that of washing (baptisma) and, it will appear, the laying on of hands, in the first instance by one of the Twelve. Jews used ritual washing in a number of different contexts to denote the cleansing from the almost physical reality of ritual pollution;[3] the miqveh or ritual bath was a Palestinian commonplace in Jesus’ day.[4]  John the Baptist and perhaps the Essenes, seem to have used it more broadly, however, as a symbol of a spiritual cleansing, a transformation, almost a form of conversion, though always, of course within Judaism, and Jesus’ immediate followers may have done the same during his lifetime. But the post-resurrection community had something more in mind, if not here at the opening of Acts, then very soon after. Christian baptism became not only a symbolic purification but also an initiation ritual. It was the act, the essential act, whereby the believer, one who had “trust” (pistis) in this new version of the Good News,[5] is recognized as a member of the ekklesia, which is not merely a local community like a synagogue or a Greco-Roman club or association, but a larger corporate body, a kind of spiritual guild.

Ekklesia is a commonplace Greek word, but only in the secular literature of the Hellenistic era, where it means “assembly” and, in a narrower semantic field, a “political assembly.” But in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible current among Diaspora Jews like Paul, ekklesia normally translates qahal, the Hebrew term, which, together with the more descriptive qahal Yahweh, denotes the Israelites as a collective, the “Assembly of God.” This is a more technical and theologically resonant use of ekklesia, and when Paul invokes it to describe the collectivity of the Christ-trusters, he is making, and quite consciously one thinks, a theological point, that the Christian ekklesia constitutes the replacement of Israel as the new People of God.  

It is not certain that Paul was the first to make the identification or the first to use ekklesia in this sense, but his is the earliest testimony to the corporate identification of the body of Christians as the new Israel. The ekklesia as an individual congregation of believers, as a slightly different version of Jewish synagoge community, does not disappear; indeed, it is used mostly in this sense in Acts. But a new concept had been introduced, one that gave a group identity to Christ believers everywhere. It was a capacious notion, that the ekklesia was one, holy and catholic,[6] and Paul continued to flesh it out in his letters.

There is little sense of that understanding in the opening chapter of the primary Christian chronicle, the Acts of the Apostles. There the dead Jesus’ remaining followers, 120 in number according to Acts (1:15), are depicted as a group filled with fear and expectation. It is now without its former teacher and guide, but there is already an acknowledged and functioning leadership cadre, the Twelve, with Peter still at its head. It was the Twelve who conducted the election by lot of a new member to replace the dead traitor Judas. Then, newly empowered by the Holy Spirit, a frequent authorizing and validating presence in Acts, they take to the streets of Jerusalem to spread their enlightened understanding of the Good News among the Jewish pilgrims who had come up to Jerusalem for Shabuot.

Their preaching met with some success. According to Acts, 3000 accepted what he [Peter] said and were baptized (Acts 2:41). If the number is at all accurate, it must have changed the group dynamic. The original group seems to have lived together; now the believers were necessarily displaced into private dwellings, but they maintained the community ties, what Acts calls the common life (koinonia). It consisted in community meals and prayer and in instruction by the Twelve, who were now functioning more as apostles than as eschatological princes in waiting and whose preaching (kerygma) and teaching (didaskalia) took place in the Temple precincts and private homes (Acts 5:42).

The particular Messianist adaption of Jewish ritual washing as an initiation act effectively created a formal community, a kind of Kingdom-on-earth that was the nucleus of the social formation that was to follow. This expectant and necessarily temporary community had not only an initiation ritual of washing, the laying on of hands by an authorized person (Acts 6:6) and validation by the “descent of the Holy Spirit” upon the initiate and, more palpably, by certain charismatic gifts like glossolalia, the “speaking in tongues” (Acts 19:6); its members were also united by a doctrine that was embodied in the authoritative teaching of the Apostles. There were also rituals—canonical Jewish prayers in the Temple and, we assume, prayer to Lord Jesus in private house meetings; brotherhood meals, likewise in the believers homes and, very likely, some form of the Eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.”[7] There was, in addition, the custom of the communal sharing of personal resources, though this does not seem to have lasted very long.

Though he was at the ideological center of it, Jesus had very little to do with that community’s formation. He had neither counseled nor mandated any element of it save the calling of the Twelve. But the Jesus-appointed role of his inner circle was no longer as the future rulers of the restored Tribes of Israel but the very present one of Apostles fulfilling Jesus’ earlier mandate to the Twelve to spread the Good News in Israel (Mk. 6:16; Mt. 10:5-42).[8] They were doing that, but they were also assuming Jesus’ own role of instruction and, more obviously and openly than Jesus, acting as community executives, prescribing and guiding the actions of the community. And where Jesus spoke only for himself, the Twelve now represented the community of believers to both the Jewish and Roman authorities.

We cannot be certain what those early believers, their eyes upon the future, were thinking about the present. They were, however, shaping their association, whether consciously or unconsciously, along the lines of contemporary partisan institutions. Their strongly held views of Jesus, which was now the content of the Good News, put them, in that very divided society, in the ranks of an ideological faction, party or sect, what Josephus calls a “school” (hairesis), like the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes.[9] The Pharisees seem to have been very loosely organized;[10] their coherence was in their shared ideology, reinforced by brotherhood meals. The Essenes, on the other hand, who had, like the Christers, a departed charismatic leader, the Teacher of Righteousness, appear to have lived, at least the “conventuals” among them, in a highly organized and disciplined community, with elaborate doctrine and rituals and a defined leadership. If Josephus had included Jesus’ followers in his roll-call of first century sectarians, he probably would have called them, like everyone else, “Christers” (Christianoi) (Acts 11:26).

The other contemporary model of Jewish association was that of the synagogue. We do not know a great deal about Jewish synagogues before the great disaster of 70 A.D.,[11] but Acts somewhat unexpectedly reveals that various ethnic groups of Jews from the Diaspora, Jews from Alexandria and Cilicia, for example, had their own synagogues in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9), while the discovery of a Jerusalem synagogue inscription from that era confirms our surmise that the contemporary synagogue was not a ritual replacement for the still standing Jerusalem Temple. It was rather a community center, with an administration, an education program and facilities, an institution that would have been as much at home in Forest Hills as it was in first century Jerusalem.

Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem did not have the benefit of a single rich donor like the “Synagogue of Theodotos” of our Jerusalem inscription, but they could probably count on the support of certain well to do believers like Joseph of Arimathea, who supplied a tomb for Jesus (Mk. 15:43 and parr.) and, more particularly here, Mary, “the mother of John Mark” who owned a large house in Jerusalem where the believers met for prayer (Acts 12:12). But otherwise the Christ sectaries seem to have operated like a contemporary synagogue. The “upper room” was their center, with Peter serving as the archisynagogos with a board composed of the Twelve and other “elders” and, somewhat surprisingly, members of Jesus’ family.


[1] The reasons for thinking so are rehearsed at length in Meier, A Marginal Jew 3 (2001), pp. 228-235, an author who is a Roman Catholic cleric and so has very good reason to think otherwise.

[2] The Jewish End-Time scenario, which Jesus is said to have sketched somewhat in brief in Mk. 13 never left Christian consciousness, however. It was still spectacularly present at the end of the century in the Book of Revelation with which the New Testament closes.   

[3] The complexities of Jewish practice had to be explained to the (Gentile?) readers of Mark’s Gospel: Mk. 7:3-4.

[4] See McCane, art. “Miqva’ot” in Dictionary of Early Judaism (2010), pp. 954-956 and Reich , “The Synagogue and the miqweh in Eretz-Israel in the Second Temple, Mishnaic and Talmudic Periods” in Urman and Flesher, Ancient Synagogues (1995), pp. 289-300.

[5] Pistis is usually translated as faith,” an English which, like “church” and “Gospel,” has been stretched out of its original meaning by its imbrication in later understandings and controversies. Trust,the subjective state and the quality that engenders it, catches the original more closely.   

[6] “Catholic” as that term is used in early Church creeds: katholike = universal.

[7] The earliest attestation is in a letter Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 11: 23-26) in 51 A.D. where the “Lord’s Supper” is described as a received tradition.

[8] Matthew’s post-resurrection version of Jesus’ mandate (Mt. 28:16-20), now enlarged to include the world’s Gentiles, is almost certainly a later addition to the story and reflects full-bore commitment to the “Hellenist” initiative of Paul and others. Jesus showed no particular interest in Gentiles.  

[9] Cohen, From Maccabees to Mishnah (2006), pp. 119-166, esp. pp. 159-161 on the Christians as a sect.

[10] There may have been a type of leadership cadre in the “scribes of the Pharisees” (Mk. 2:16)—though more usually in the Gospels it is “scribes and Pharisees”—who were, at any rate, legal experts in a community built on such expertise; cf Pickup, “Matthew’s and Luke’s Pharisees” (2004), pp. 72-74.   

[11] Flesher, ”Palestinian Synagogues Before 70 C.E. A Review of the Evidence” in Urman & Flesher, Ancient Synagogue (1995), pp. 27-39.

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