A plausible narrative and a black hole

What Do I Think Happened? A Jesus and After Scenario

Barring some extraordinary find, all the evidence on Jesus of Nazareth is now in. It is almost uniquely literary –archeology does little more than corroborate— and consists in letters written about him a mere twenty years after his death and a number of full scale biographies that begin to be composed a decade or so after that, which is, relative to other figures of the ancient world, remarkably close to the events described. Though transparently biased –the authors were all devoted followers of Jesus– their information is quite detailed and bears many of the earmarks of history. Most of this material on Jesus has been in circulation for a very long time, and countless individuals have attempted to construct from it a coherent and plausible narrative that both describes and explains the man. The Christian tradition produced its own Standard Version that stood essentially unmodified and unchallenged for many centuries, but no longer. The documents have been restudied, emended and reinterpreted; the pieces on the historian’s worktable have been rearranged; new narratives have emerged. What follows is one.

The Jew Jesus was born in a troubled time in the troubled place, in the Galilean village of Nazareth in what the Romans called Palestine The Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 95 A.D.) is the chief though not the only witness to both the time and the place. Josephus’ perspective is sharpened by the fact that he lived through an explosion of the political and religious tension that had been building up in Palestine for well over century. The events of 66-70 CE were apocalyptic: the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, its Temple and the Jewish state in the Middle East. But the Jewish mood was apocalyptic long before the events; there had been political brushfires across Palestine for decades. Josephus chronicles them, but he also describes another feature of that landscape, Jewish sectarianism.

We may now debate whether the groups that Josephus calls “schools” (haireseis) were in fact sects, factions or parties, but what the chief of them, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, represented were different ways of regarding the past and the future of Israel, not as the state but as a people. They all shared common premises – God, the Law, the Temple – that might be regarded as a kind of undefined orthodoxy, but their reading of those premises, some of them textual, some traditional, differed widely. Emphases shifted among them, now to observance, now to ritual, now to the legitimacy of the Jerusalem priesthood.

The Gospels’ Galilean landscape is not quite that of Josephus, though some of the fighting in the war against Rome took place there. The Jewish historian, writing in the tradition of Thucydides, keeps a steady focus on politics; the Gospels are not free of politics but they show a somewhat more tranquil scene, a rustic landscape of farmers and fishermen, countryside, fields, the lakeshore. But there are shadows. Jesus’ little moralistic stories, the parables, reveal a more troubled world of tenants, debtors, unjust rulers and unfair employers. Close-ups of Jesus’ audience reveal them as often poor and troubled in body and mind. And the pastoral calm is rudely shattered by the sudden – for the reader – execution of Jesus’ mentor John the Baptist by the Galilean ruler, Herod Antipas. And, of course, at the end of his own short life, Jesus is caught up in toils that cost him his own life by public execution at the hands of the Romans for what is transparently a political charge – as a would-be “King of the Jews.”

The authors of the Gospels have made up their mind about Jesus of Nazareth – he was Messiah and Lord, the first a quasi-political, quasi-religious savior figure associated with the portentous events of the End Time, the latter a claim –there was no mistaking the connotations of “Lord” ((Kyrios)— to divinity that appears to fly in the face of one of the primary markers of Judaism, its notorious devotion to monotheism.

The evidence for such claims is displayed in the form of biography: the four extant works called “The Good News,” in English, “Gospels,” that are judged to be the chief sources on Jesus Nazareth. They profess to tell us what he said and what he did and what happened to him. It is not, however, what Jesus said and did that prove the claim to be Messiah and Lord; they show him to be a not unfamiliar charismatic Jewish preacher and wonderworker. It is rather what happened to him and, more precisely his resurrection from the dead that establishes his claim. Without that, as his follower Paul freely admits, Jesus’ claims would be unavailing and his followers’ faith for naught.

The historian must try to separate Jesus from his biographers’ convictions, to look past the Gospels, to see them, perhaps, through the eyes of a one of his Jewish contemporaries. The Gospels help on occasion. They all preserve, somewhat counterintuitively, Jesus’ relation with another religious figure on that same landscape, the man called John the Baptizer or the Baptist. “Baptist” and “baptism” now mean something quite different to us, but in Jesus’ day “baptism” still meant washing, a ritual washing that was (and is) commonplace among the Jews to signal in that half-symbolic, half-realistic way that no longer prevails in our own thinking. This Jewish “baptism” was a cleansing from “impurity”; again, a notion in part physical and part spiritual or, perhaps better, in part an existential state. John also “washed” to signal cleansing, not, however, with the ordinary ritual intent with which Jews washed away the impurities of body and soul, but by way of a radical purification, almost a conversion, in the light of an oncoming End Time.

Among those who are washed was Jesus, who appears to been one of John’s followers in what must’ve been a very loosely organized “Baptist movement.” John assigned himself no role in the approaching End Time save as a warner, but Jesus, whose separation from John and his movement appears to have been amical, did. He was, he guardedly told his followers, the King Messiah who would preside over the Final Judgment, he together with a specially chosen inner circle called “The Twelve.”

Some of his contemporaries reportedly thought Jesus might be a “prophet,” not of course on the grand biblical scale of an Isaiah or and Ezekiel but in a more homely, domestic sense, an itinerant charismatic preacher-teacher announcing the imminent approach of “the Kingdom of God.” And a wonderworker. Modern skepticism has persuasively turned the “miracle” into a metaphysical event, a contravention, no less, of the law of nature. For Jesus’ contemporaries such “deeds of power” were, if not commonplace, then at least plausible, an extraordinary act performed with the aid of some higher power, whether divine or diabolic. A cure or an exorcism did not make Jesus, or anyone else, divine; it merely showed that God, or perhaps Satan, was guiding the action of the thaumaturge.

Jesus went about Galilee for perhaps a year, certainly not much longer. He announced what he called the “Good News,” namely, the approach of the End Time, accompanied by the stern admonition to “Reform!” or, more literally “Change!” The change he required was not laid out programmatically but piecemeal, through aphorisms and parables, the vignettes of everyday life with an embedded, and often unexpected, moral. We do not know if Jesus invented the parable form, but he practiced it with ease and skill. His tone appears less threatening than John’s, warmer and at the same time more didactic.

Jesus was both a preacher and teacher. What he was chiefly intent on preaching was the nature and validity of what he called the “Kingdom of God” or “God’s Reign,” which was, he attempted to explain, not a polity but rather a condition. It was transparently an eschatological notion, that God’s sovereignty would be established at the Great Reckoning at the end of the world. Most Jews believed in, and there were some who had attempted to describe, that terrible and glorious Day of the Lord: the biblical prophets to begin with and then, closer to Jesus’ own time, the imaginative authors of literary apocalypses, graphic “unveilings” of the sound and fury of the last days, a scenario that often included a savior figure, usually in the person of a Davidic King, one regally “anointed” (Hebr. mashiach; Gr. christos) who would redeem Israel.

What was Jesus teaching? In its most general terms, it was moral self-consciousness, the shaping, or rather, the re-shaping of the Jewish conscience based on a profound trust in God, whom Jesus typically refers to as his “Father”. He is often shown in conflict with the Pharisees, whose own program of Jewish reform centered on a fastidious observance of the Mosaic Law, which in Jesus’ eyes often led to hypocrisy. Jesus was himself an observant Jew, not so stringent as the Pharisees required, but willing to understand the Law, on divorce and adultery, for example, in more demanding ways than most of his contemporaries. In the face of Pharisaic observance, Jesus pointed inward, to the heart and to intention.

There is in Jesus’ teaching, a notable concern for social justice. Of Jesus’ death He offered the hope of the Kingdom to the poor and the oppressed, and he urged reconciliation with others, even one’s enemies. “Be compassionate,” he says, “the way your Father is compassionate.” But some of those same poor and oppressed for whom Jesus had expressed special concern were also “sinners,” those whose casual regard or non-observance of the Mosaic Law rendered them in a state of ritual impurity. Jesus did not condemn this state, but he provided a means of escaping it: purity of heart and purity of purpose might suffice to remove the defiling stains. When, he witnessed such dispositions, Jesus was quick to say, to the scandal of some, “Your sins are forgiven you.”

There was no overt public reaction to this potentially inflammatory message, no uprisings demonstrations, protests. Jesus for his part had urged no group action, and his public pronouncements, made on occasion to large crowds of people, seem to have fallen mainly on individual ears. His most visible opponents were the Pharisees whose quarrel with him was chiefly over points of legal observance, and the Sadducees whose strictly literal interpretation of Scripture was remote from Jesus’, and his followers’ after him, freer reading of the Holy Book.

Or so the Gospels would have us believe. At his worst, Jesus is portrayed during his ministry as somewhat short tempered. His moral standards were severe, and at times unforgiving, but the Gospels reveal no political agenda and, indeed, the dense political cloud that hovers over Josephus’ Palestine is dissipated in the Gospels’ Galilean sunlight. If we grant the Gospels their own account of Jesus in Galilee, it must then have come as an enormous surprise and shock to his followers when Jesus was arrested during a visit to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

Neither surprise nor shock is registered in the Gospels’ account, however. Rather, it is made clear that Jesus saw the fatal events coming; indeed, God had planned it that way: the account of Jesus’ last days is marbled with biblical prophecy. Jesus’ arrest and execution must nevertheless have been a matter of great importance for his followers since, far from being disassembled or concealed, the passion narratives, which are clearly the most detailed and most important sections in all four of the Gospels, not only describe the circumstances of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution; they also explain them by connecting each event to what was identified as a “messianic” passage in Jewish Scripture, most notably the “Suffering Servant” passages in Isaiah 53. And if their exegesis of such passages strikes a modern reader as rather freewheeling and arbitrary, it was distinctly in the manner of the times. The Sadducees apart,Jews of Jesus’ day did not hesitate to read the Torah and the Prophets in precisely that way.

One can imagine, then, a scenario something like this. Jesus, the rabbinic teacher-preacher is reflected in Q, an early collection of his sayings that remained in circulation after his death. Then came the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, which his followers later undertook to explain to themselves and their fellow Jews in the light of the profound conviction that the dead Jesus had been resurrected through the power of God. That explanation of Jesus’ death, which surfaces often but sporadically occasionally and often in Paul’s correspondence, is in full view in the Gospel of Mark with its careful and detailed unpacking of the how and why of Jesus’ final days. Mark passed into wide circulation among the communities of believers and provided both the template and content for the even more carefully argued passion narratives in Matthew and Luke.

The Jesus that was being preached a few weeks after those last fatal days in Jerusalem was, however, very different from the remembered Jesus of Q and of the Gospels. The new preached Jesus appears in both Paul’s letters written in the 50s and in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles which ends its narrative sometime in the early 60s of the first century. Luke was well aware of Jesus’ teachings and the events of his life and had featured both in his own Gospel. But when he attempted to unfold in Acts what happened afterwards, his emphasis was not on what might be called the Jesus events, what the man taught and did during his brief career, but rather on the Jesus Event: the fact of Jesus’ execution and of his resurrection and, more importantly, their significance for the believers.

Luke, the author of a Gospel, could count on the readers of Act’s familiarity with the Jesus events. We must assume the same for Paul, though we do not have his original preaching of the Good News. Paul’s correspondence is consumed with his struggle to explain the profound and radical meaning of the Jesus Event to his new believers, many of them now Gentiles with no familiarity with the Bible and no background or understanding of Messianic promises or a Day of the Lord. Finally, John’s Gospel shows how, at a later date, Christological theology leeched back into the earlier Markan biographical narrative.

If we look behind the evangelists’ “biblical” explanation of the events of Jesus’ last days, motivation of the Jerusalem priests who first framed the charges against him seems to have been fear, a fear ignited, it seems likely, by Jesus’ dark prophecies about the end of the Temple and then finally by the incident in the Temple itself when Jesus suddenly and violently interrupted not the Temple services, which would have been almost unthinkable, but various commercial activities –all of them apparently legitimate– in the outer porticos.

If we do not fully comprehend the priests’ fear of Jesus or what he represented, it is makes sense in that violent and unsettled time that witnessed the state execution of John the Baptist shortly before Jesus’ own as well as the juridical murder of Jesus’ follower Stephen not long after and the execution of James, son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve. The Gospels make Jesus’ apprehension and death the outcome of a plot on the part of Israel’s ruling elite, the Temple priesthood, which is plausible, if not intelligible in all its details, and his actual execution the work of the Roman procurator of Judea, which is both plausible and intelligible. The Romans were both nervous over their troublesome Judean province and willing to placate the Jerusalem Temple authorities at so small a price as is human, and Jewish, life.

Among Jesus’ followers the mood immediately after his shameful public crucifixion was one of hopeless despair. Jesus had been hastily buried the Friday afternoon of his execution, with further traditional obsequies to follow immediately after the Sabbath had passed. But the first reports were startling: the women who had gone out early Sunday morning to the burial site near the place of execution reported that the tomb was empty! Soon there was even more startling news: there are set down in the Gospels –though not in Mark who apparently ended his account with the discovery of the empty tomb– somewhat disjointed and not entirely coherent reports from his followers of encounters with Jesus, a flesh and blood living Jesus with his wounds still upon his body. He had risen from the dead!

There is little arguing the crucial centrality of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul himself had told the congregation at Corinth, “If Christ had not been raised from the dead, then our preaching would be in vain and your faith would be in vain.” How so? Without the resurrection, with Jesus of Nazareth moldering in his tomb, he would have ended his life and his career as a publicly executed criminal, and all his followers’ hopes, genuine and misplaced, would have been disappointed, as the Gospel strongly suggests and explicitly states. The dead Jesus would have been described in the pages of Josephus as one more failed Jewish Palestinian prophet fatally caught in the tangle of Jewish and Roman suspicions and fears. And his followers, rather than gathered in a house in Jerusalem in expectation of the Spirit, would more likely have been scattered fearfully across the Judean landscape and beyond.

What was that resurrection? We do not know since no one claims to have witnessed it. That Jesus’ tomb was empty shortly after his death has the earmarks of a historical fact, but the second element in thinking about Jesus’ resurrection is of a different order. An empty tomb might be explained in a number of ways, including the theft of the corpse, but the explanation that Jesus’ tomb was empty because he was raised from the dead rests uniquely on the witness of those of his followers who, individually or in groups, claimed to have encountered him after his death.

The earliest expression of that latter testimony occurs in a letter of Paul written about twenty years after Jesus’ death. It occurs in the form of information he had earlier received –he doesn’t say from whom; presumably from the Twelve– and that he accepted as true, to wit, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was  buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the  Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brethren at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  After that he appeared to James, then to all the missionaries.” Finally, Paul adds himself to the list, though his experience of Jesus was not so much an encounter as a personal revelation.

More anecdotal detail on those encounters is provided in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. The encounter anecdotes for their part vary from Gospel to Gospel. But they are in agreement that this was truly the once dead Jesus and that he was now alive, though in a somewhat different state, at once both corporeal and “spiritual.”

This, then, represents the fiduciary basis of the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, buttressed by the complementary but important conviction that it, like many other crucial (or inexplicable) events in the life of Jesus, it had taken place “according to Scripture,” that is, in accordance with a divine plan that had been revealed by the Biblical prophets and, as Christian hermeneutical sophistication grew, could be further uncovered through an allegorical reading of the so-called Old Testament. Indeed, if these witnesses were not convinced, and if their contemporaries and successors down to the present day did not believe that those Galilean fishermen and others, most of whom were still alive in the 50s, had really encountered a Jesus not resuscitated but risen from the dead, there would be, as Paul already understood, no Christianity.

Risen, then gone, raised up bodily, in their sight, to heaven. In the aftermath of Jesus’ departure from among his followers, there is in both Paul and Luke, our two sources for the immediate post-Jesus era, a prevailing sense of eschatological expectation. In Paul, writing in the 50s, the immediacy of the End Time is still powerfully felt, but with a change in emphasis from what is presented in the Gospels as Jesus’ own eschatological expectations. In the Gospels’ account the entire apocalyptic sequence is unfolded and Jesus’ role is messianic in what was then the traditional Jewish sense, Daniel’s Son of Man descending in glory. In Paul most of the dramatic mise en scène of the climactic arrival of the Messiah has fallen away; for Paul and his audience, the focus is on the return of Jesus to gather the souls of the believers into a heavenly eternity.

The consequences of the growing conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead by the power of Almighty God appear in their fullest form in the opening chapters of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Paul’s letters were written somewhat earlier, but they were written at what was already the high tide of expectation. Luke, the historian, attempts to trace the trajectory from despair to energized hope. During his final stay with them, Jesus’ followers pose him the eschatological question direct: “Is this the moment when you will restore the sovereignty to Israel?”.

The question is a slightly off-kilter paraphrase of Jesus’ earlier promises of the “Kingdom (or Sovereignty) of God,” and its being asked now and in this form suggests that even his closest followers had expected something more radical and political to follow upon the events of the last days. Be patient, Jesus advises them, and then promises not the Kingdom but rather a “power” from the Holy Spirit “to bear witness to me.” The Kingdom, the centerpiece of Jesus’ own teaching, has been moved slightly but unmistakably to the side; the “Good News” now consists in bearing witness to Jesus and, as the sequel makes clear, to the crucified and risen Jesus who is, by that fact, Messiah and Lord.

There follows in the second chapter of Acts an event we cannot quite fathom: the sudden psychological transformation of the Twelve as well as Jesus’ family and others from a rather timid group huddled in prayer in Jerusalem to an aggressive band of proselytizers out in the public places of Jerusalem loudly and insistently preaching this new version of the “Good News.” Luke identifies the transformation that took place on the festival of Shabuoth (Gk., Pentêcostê) as the descent of “flames like tongues of fire” upon the believers and each was “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

This was the transformation, individual and collectively, that the Christian tradition later explained as a spiritual miracle, albeit a very Jewish one, an infusion of the Spirit of God, which here plays its traditional role. Just as it had once inspired the biblical prophets, so here God’s Spirit prompts the Apostles to speak. What came forth from their mouths, however, was not the warning and predictions associated with the Biblical prophets but rather preaching in the form of rhetorically shaped narratives that sought to convince, largely on the basis of the Sacred Books that they, preachers and audience, Jews all, shared, that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.

The Holy Spirit, was a potent force among Jesus’ early followers, just as it had been with Jesus himself. It was closely connected with baptism, first in Jesus’ own case, as well as the baptism that he – or his disciples – administered and is described as a “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” It was thought that whoever accepted baptism would have “received the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Pentecost marks the “prompt” moment in the history of Christianity, the transformation, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit –however the historian is to read that unexplained influence– of Jesus believers into a Jesus movement: a fellowship united by a common set of experiences, a common conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead and so vindicated as Messiah and Lord, and a common impulse to carry that “Good News” to their fellow Jews, gathered, on this occasion, for one of the great pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem.

Luke provides us with a version of the message that was preached by Jesus’ followers in those first exciting days. Whether or not it was what Peter actually said to the Jerusalem crowds in A.D. 30 – Luke was recalling it, or writing it down, at least three decades after the event – is remarkably different from Jesus’ own announcement of the “Good News.” What Jesus preached was an exhortation to moral reform, a metanoia or mind changing in the direction of charity, humility and social justice, presented in the context of the imminent onset of “the Kingdom,” a kind of Jesus shorthand for the eschatological reign of God in which he himself would play a part. He was, he seemed to say or rather, he would be, the Messiah.

There is little of that in what the crowds heard at Pentecost in 30 A.D. The message of the Twelve, who did not, like Jesus, exhort but rather attempted to persuade, was not so much from Jesus as it was about Jesus. We have no way of knowing what was said in more private circumstances, but the public pronouncement of Jesus’ followers, as recorded by Luke in Acts, was about the reality of Jesus’ Messiahship or, as recalled even earlier by Paul in his letters, the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those events of the last days of Jesus had changed his followers’ perspective on the man they had revered as a teacher, a wonderworker and, yes, the Messiah (Mark 8:29 and parallels) and on the significance of what he had said and suffered.

What that meant is expressed somewhat differently in Acts and in Paul, and if we are inclined to think that Luke represents the more general understanding of the post-resurrection Good News while Paul is expressing a more personal and idiosyncratic point of view regarding Jesus, the difference was later erased by the inclusion of both the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline letters in the Jesus movement’s definitive statement of its views, that is, the New Testament.

Both Luke and Paul nonetheless shared the common understanding that what was now required in the wake of the “Jesus Event” was complete “trust” (pistis). and that trust was, apparently from the outset, that he was the Messiah and Lord whose coming (again) would be the salvation of all who “trusted.” So, generally, Luke; for Paul the consequence was at once more specific and more individual: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead not only verified him as Messiah and Lord; it was a guarantee of eternal life for everyone who “trusted.”

It is difficult to measure precisely the distance between Luke and Paul since we are not sure of the date of the Acts of the Apostles. Paul’s letters were certainly written in the 50s, but Acts may date from anywhere in the early 60s to the 80s or 90s. Nor can we say that Paul represents an earlier and Luke a later reflection on the Good News. As a historian, Luke in fact gives us both versions, the “Jesus version” represented by Jesus’ teaching as reported in his Gospel, and the “Apostolic version” that we find in Acts. As already noted, Paul must have known some form of the “Jesus version” of the Good News along with the biographical details later embedded in our Gospels. How else would his preaching at his initial encounter with communities make any sense without a presentation of the facts? The “Jesus events” had necessarily to precede an unpacking of the “Jesus Event” in Paul’s own midrash, first on his original catechesis of the Jesus assemblies (ekklêsiai) and then the corrected, expanded and slightly distempered let-me-go-through-this-for-you explanations that we have in the preserved letters.

What is most obviously reflected by the early date of Paul’s letters is his intense expectation of the End Time, that climactic series of events when Paul and his audience would witness, among other things, the eternal resurrection of those who have “fallen asleep in Christ.” In Luke’s Acts the imminence, the fervent expectation is gone; time has righted itself and moves forward once again, still toward the End, but now at a steady pace and on an even keel.

What is notable here is the glaring absence of any mention of what was a central element in Jesus’ preaching, that state or condition he called the Kingdom of God. It must have been a difficult concept since he attempted to describe it in a number of different ways, often by similes, and he explored its workings in parables. More enigmatic still is the time of its presence/arrival. The first and paradigmatic statement regarding the advent of the Kingdom appears at the very opening of Mark’s Gospel: “The opportune time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” And “at hand” is as ambiguous in the original Greek as it is in English. Was the Kingdom “now” or “soon,” or perhaps “very soon”?

At first glance, Jesus’ more extended teaching on that question leads one to think that the Kingdom refers to God’s triumphant rule that will prevail in the terrible and triumphant Day of the Lord predicted by the Biblical prophets for some unspecified time in the future. This was to be the final judgment when Israel would be vindicated and its enemies punished. That much was traditional. In Jesus’ version, notably in Mark 13, the emphasis is not, however, on corporate Israel but on the individual believer in himself, The End will be marked, moreover, by his own triumphant return to God’s creation. And it will occur soon, even in life time of his own followers. That clearly is the version of the End Time understood by Paul and the earliest believers, though with a new, post-resurrection emphasis on the raising up to immortality of the Christian living and the dead “to meet the Lord in the air,” as Paul puts it.

But the first glance can be misleading. These same Gospels record other sayings of Jesus that suggest that the new age of the Kingdom of God had in fact already begun with his own coming. It was signaled by his wonder-working, or, alternatively, was effected by his death on the cross or by his resurrection. There is, then, an anomaly in the Gospel evidence: Jesus appears to have preached both the truly revolutionary notion of a present Kingdom of God realized in his own life and work and a traditionally Jewish vision of an End Time when God’s rule will prevail and his people vindicated and exalted at some time in the future.

Jesus’ prediction of an imminent End Time was not fulfilled, however, as Paul was already beginning to understand twenty years after Jesus’ death. But there was no cause for despair. In Paul’s view, the believers now constituted a kind of corporate body of Christ, and they enjoyed, in consequence of Jesus’ sacrificial death, a saving life in and with Christ. The authors of the Gospels too were certainly aware, a half century after the crucifixion, that the End was not yet and that the return of Jesus as the Son of Man had receded into the more distant future, of which “No man knows the day or the hour.” Their emphasis on Jesus’ broader ethical teachings, which are not much in evidence in Paul, points toward an understanding that his followers had longer to stay in this world and would require moral guidance.

The most obvious example of this awareness of this delay of the Return lies in the work of Luke who not only wrote a Gospel account of Jesus that is filled with all the traditional Kingdom ambiguities; he then followed it with the Acts of the Apostles, a narrative of what happened afterwards. Acts reaches into the 60s with no end, or End, in sight. It is the story of an ongoing enterprise that is not the Kingdom –the term itself is largely discarded— but is rather, to give it its later name, the Church. The eschatological Kingdom has become flesh and now dwelled in the world.

Predicted apocalyptic moments have come and gone throughout human history, and what has passed with them has been the community of believers who had placed their hopes or their fears in the fixed arrival of the End. Stubborn converts, adepts at revising dates, may cling along the margins of their parent bodies for a spell but eventually all disappear. All save Christianity which not only survived the failure of the End to materialize and, more consequentially, the failure of the risen Jesus to return in glory, but has waxed into what is arguably the single largest religious community in history.

What explains this survival of a failed messianic movement whose founder died the ignominious death of a criminal and whose predictions of the Day of the Lord and his own reappearance remain unfulfilled to this day? The apparently unshakable conviction of his followers that he had been raised from the dead –not all of them surely; those followers who doubted Jesus’ resurrection presumably departed the fellowship without literary trace— was a potent element, no doubt, but other, failed movements enjoyed the same initial certainty and yet it could not be sustained. The principal causes for the survival of Christianity must lie elsewhere.

The Christian explanation is not unexpectedly theological. As the Gospels say with great clarity, Jesus, his message and his deeds, his execution and his resurrection were all the result of a divine plan, a plan that extended into the post-Jesus era by the continued presence among his followers of both Jesus himself in some undefined sense and the Holy Spirit. This latter is, as we have seen, the Jewish personification of God’s power not merely to inspire, as in the case of prophets and other charismatics, but also, notably in Acts and Paul, by its indwelling in the believer to empower and to guide.

If we turn to possible historical explanations for the early and ongoing survival of Christianity as a sect in a world littered with sectarian failures, some answers suggest themselves from inside the immediate environment. The Jewish religious society of Jesus’ day was itself marbled with sectarian dissent from groups like the Essenes of Qumran; John’s “Baptists” and the Jesus movement were two others. The Baptists were, after some initial hesitation, absorbed into the Jesus movement, while the Jesus movement itself was seen to be rejecting its Jewish matrix and the two eventually came to a complex and painful parting of the ways.

The Romans regarded the Jews as both a nation and a religion. It was an accurate characterization “Nation” acknowledged their ethnic identity based on their claimed descent from Abraham, their common ancestor, while “religion” recognized Jewish cult practices, most notably their worship of a single god and their Sabbath observances. Jesus and his Jewish followers shared the same ethnic and religious identity, of course, but those followers’ post-resurrection understanding of the Jesus Event added a new identity marker, that of their worship of the Christ Jesus as Lord and God. The Romans soon enough discovered that one as well and began to re-categorize the new believers from “Judeans/Jews” to “Christers.”

Within the broad categories of Israelite or Judean, the Jews recognized secondary identities among themselves, whether legal-ideological (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes), local (“Cyrenians,” “Alexandrians”) or status (“Freedmen”), and they organized themselves into congregations (synagôgai) that reflected such (cf. Acts 6:9). These synagogue communities were commonplace in both Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora in Jesus’ day, and most seem to have had dedicated buildings that served as both prayer halls and community centers, like the one Jesus preached in Nazareth and where he customarily proclaimed his message.

The new believers appear to have done the same, though they seem deliberately to have avoided the traditional name synagôgê and chosen the more neutral synonym of ekklêsia to describe their congregation. Nor was it a special building –both their current finances and eschatological expectations would have made such most unlikely– but rented rooms and members’ homes long served as the site where they gathered to hear the testimony of the Twelve and where the bonds of fellowship were strengthened in the breaking of bread. The brethren may have prayed there as well and sung hymns like the one remembered by Paulin his letter to the Philippians, but their primary place of worship remained the Jerusalem Temple with its Torah-prescribed rituals.

The Jewish tradition of that era was already ancient, detailed and deeply embedded in Jewish consciousness, and since the behavioral code of the Torah stood at its heart, Jewish identity was shaped and supported by a “Jewish way of life.” The Christian, on the other hand, was still in the formative stage. Over the decades of the 40s and 50s it would be shaped, implicitly, we assume, by the public preaching and private instruction of the Twelve and explicitly by similar activity on the part of Paul and other missionaries.

We cannot always trace the outlines of the growth of a Christian tradition, but at its heart stood the basic and powerfully held conviction expressed in the oldest of the Jesus movement’s statements of belief, “that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.’

That particular statement of belief had been “handed down” to Paul from the Twelve, and though those latter played a principal role in laying down the basics of the Jesus tradition, there was another equally powerful force at work. It was a widely held notion in antiquity that religious truths might be accessed through revelation, that is, through human communication with a higher power, with the god himself, with his spirit or presence, or even with a supernatural messenger (angelos) dispatched from one or the other. The phenomenon is generally called prophecy and the human medium referred to as a prophet. 

Prophecy was a notable and important Biblical phenomenon, but by Jesus’ day, when a ritual- and legal-minded Temple priesthood had assumed charge of the community, prophets were regarded with well-grounded suspicion since their programs were often political. Not so in the Jesus movement where prophecy was ubiquitous and cautiously respected. Their presence in Christian assemblies, often in the form of itinerant bands, is noted throughout the New Testament and other Christian works like the early second century Didache. The activities of these prophets, their Spirit-inspired speech on behalf of God, posed problems for those communities: apparently inspired people often said some very unlikely things. Those problems came to a head in the mid-second century Anatolian movement called Montanism which opened wide the portals of ongoing revelation not only to Montanus and his inner circle of prophetesses, but to Christians at large.

Jesus was himself thought to be a prophet, which is one reason why his pronouncements were, like the utterances of the older prophets, first memorized and then committed to writing. But among his last warnings was that against false prophets who would appear in his wake and attempt to seduce the believers. Prophets and prophecy are both featured in the New Testament book called “Revelation” from the last decade of the first century, and in the slightly later Church manual called Didache or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” prophets are the subject of detailed instructions to the Christian community.

Functionally speaking, early Christianity was a religion of the spirit, in this instance, of the Holy Spirit whose inspired operation in the minds and hearts of the believers fill the pages of Paul’s correspondence and the narrative of Acts. The recipients of the Spirit were, in the first instance, every new believer at baptism, Paul and his fellow missionaries, and finally that body of charismatics whose prophetic utterances caused Paul such anxiety. The evidence is scant, but prophecy appears to have been a free gift of the Spirit, though in one instance it is conferred or induced by Paul’s laying on of hands. Prophetic revelation was private and personal, self-authenticated, unpredictable –“The spirit bloweth where it listeth” (Jn. 3:8)– and irrefutable. And so, inevitably, quot prophetae, tot opiniones, and not all of them appeared in agreement with what was thought to be the true teaching of Jesus.

The diversity of “apostolic,” that is, missionary preaching, and of prophetic utterances were not the only source of the divisions that began to appear in the assemblies of the believers. Jewish “Christers” and Gentile converts were at odds over Torah practice, for example. The intellectual and spiritual climate in which the faithful lived provided detailed and attractive new and manifestly un-Scriptural frameworks for thinking about God. Greek philosophy in particular, from its scholastic right, where Philo dwelled, to its esoteric left, where Gnosticism was born (and where Paul seems himself to have visited on occasion), were rich quarries from which to extract constructive memes.

Paul attempted to control the extravagances of the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues, which clearly made him nervous, and to regularize the higher gift of prophecy, since, as he said, “God is not a God of confusion.” Paul offers no clear criterion for the discernment of deviant pronouncements or opinions, however, save perhaps the unspoken judgment that the believers will recognize heresy when they hear it. What he does offer is his own authority: if you hear preaching other than what you heard from me, let that person be anathema, that is, condemned to suffer nothing less than an amputation from the body of Christ.

Paul’s personal teaching as a criterion of orthodoxy might have served for the congregations that he himself had proselytized, but it was little help across the growing Mediterranean communities of believers. By the second century the real but random divisions within some of the earliest individual communities had begun to metathesize: divergencies within communities began to yield in places to divergent communities. Gnosticism bade fair to become not an alternative Christianity but another Christianity.

Nothing in early Christianity appears to have been engineered, not at least until the congregational leaders, the emergent “overseers” (episkopoi), had sufficient standing to mandate belief and behavior. What authority existed early on re-rested in Jerusalem in the person of the Twelve who were Jesus’ personal appointees. Or so it might appear. It is chiefly Peter and then, to a lesser extent, first John and then James, the sons of Zebedee, who have actual roles in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts –the Fourth Gospel, attributed to John, naturally gives him a larger role.

In Acts the nuance is slightly different. Though Peter still has a high profile, the Twelve clearly constitute an authoritative, if anonymous, body. Not only do they bear powerful witness to the resurrection; money collections are handed over to them; reports are made to them; they authorize and dispatch missionaries by the laying on of hands; important issues are referred to them and adjudicated by them; and, most germane to the point here, in a text already noted, the believers in Jerusalem “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching.” The “teaching” (didachê) referred to here is neither the Apostles’ public preaching nor the catechetical instruction given to new converts, but the Apostles’ witness to Jesus, the kind of material that would provide the content of the Gospel. More generally, it was the foundation of what came to be known as the “Christian tradition.”

Paul was familiar with Peter and knew of the Twelve, but by the time of his career in the early 50s, the institution of the Twelve is little in evidence, though one of them, Peter, still looms large in Christian affairs. Paul was far more interested in the missionary-apostles. There were, then, Apostles and apostles and Paul appears far more interested in the latter. In Paul’s eyes, the apostle, who was primary among the agents of the Spirit, was a free-standing and autonomous authority, first commissioned by Jesus during his lifetime and now through the Holy Spirit –though in his own case, directly, on the road to Damascus— to proclaim the Good News. Indeed, the authority of the missionary-apostle, the primary bearer of the Gospel and the foundation of all that follows, appears unlimited in Paul, while the others gifts of the Spirit are hedged round with conditions and warnings.

The Twelve Apostles disappear both collectively and individually from Luke’s narrative after the early chapters in Acts, lost perhaps in the glare of the spotlight that the author has centered on that other “apostle,” Paul, they soon make an important, indeed a crucial, return. The Apostles reenter Christian history first, however, as an idea, “Apostolicity,” before their profiles as both individual personalities and as a group begin to re-emerge in Christian writings of the second century.

“Apostolicity,” the quality of being based on or faithfully reflecting the witness of twelve original Apostles to the events of Jesus’ life and the authenticity of his reported teaching, is a relatively new term for an old, and indeed crucial concept in the making of Christianity. It is never a question of the teachings peculiar to Peter or to Andrew, for example; rather, it is the tradition of the Apostles, what they “handed down” by way of testimony regarding Jesus and his message and of their own Jesus-derived authority. The first is expressed in the Apostolic text tradition of the four canonical Gospels in the New Testament and in the interpretation of those texts that constitutes Christian doctrine; the latter in the ecclesiastical office of bishop. In each instance it is “Apostolicity,” that vital dependence on the Apostles, that guarantees the authenticity and the veracity of the product.

If as individuals the Twelve are all, save Peter, invisible in Paul’s letters, and they soon disappear, even the high-profiled Peter, from the early Christian narrative of Acts, they did not fade from either popular Christian interest or Christian discourse. What restored the Twelve Apostles to center stage –the notion of an eschatological Twelve, seems to have quickly vanished— were the second century doctrinal struggles that were provoked by Christians called Gnostics or “The Wise.”

Gnosis in Greek means knowing, knowledge, but in this instance it signifies a privileged understanding imparted by Jesus privately, indeed secretly, and accessible only to the initiated “spirituals” (pneumatikoi). To counter this, other Christians, their spiritual descendants called then “orthodox,” put forward the claim of authenticity as manifested in Paul and the four Gospels, each of which was furnished with a genuine Apostolic patent: Mark via Peter, Luke via Paul, and Matthew and John as the work of those Apostles themselves.

What Apostolicity implies is a connection in some fundamental way to the collective witness of the Twelve to the life and teachings of Jesus, a witness that is detailed in the Gospels and confirmed in both Paul and Acts. That connection becomes important because it guarantees authenticity and the legitimacy with respect to doctrine, a matter of great contention in the second century, as well as confirming the authority of both the emerging episcopate and of the new Christian Scripture. In the end “Apostolicity” was claimed for the Church as whole, which asserted in its various creeds that it was “one, holy, universal (katholikê) and Apostolic.”

It did not end there, however. The ideological thrust of Apostolicity provoked new interest in the Apostles themselves. As the embodiment of Apostolicity, that brand name of guaranteed authenticity, members of the Twelve were not only regarded as the authors of the four canonical Gospels but became as well the surrogate fathers of a variety of pseudonymous doctrinal works –they tell us little about their authors– some within, some without the New Testament, that bear their names, either individually like the letters of Peter (certainly the second, perhaps the first), those of John, the Book of Revelation and the Gospels of Peter, or Thomas, etc., or collectively, like the Didache, aka, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.

More important than the biographical details on the Apostles is the notion of Apostolicity, whether in in grounding Christian doctrine (the “Apostolic tradition”) or in validating the episcopal office (the “Apostolic succession”). The Christian episcopal succession from the Apostles was early stated in the 180s by the bishop-historian Hegesippus, who made a particular study of the episcopal succession at Rome, but its true monument is the early fourth century Church History of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and Constantine’s court historian. Eusebius was well acquainted with Hegesippus’ work –most of what we know of that latter’s studies, and of much else besides, come from their citation by Eusebius– and used it. One objective of the Church History is to verify from the records and recollections that each bishop of every major Christian community was the duly ordained successor to a bishop who stood in an unbroken episcopal line that stretched back to the Apostles, not Paul’s lower case colleagues and contemporaries but the Twelve and, in the case of Jerusalem, James, the “brother of the Lord.”


Plausible? Yes. Coherent? Possibly, but only if we ignore the great implausible, incoherent and ahistorical black hole that gapes in the midst of the narrative, that asserting the resurrection from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth, an event that is both the anchor and the ignition of Christianity. The single narrative offered here has skirted gingerly around that crevasse but with the full understanding that a truly historical account of the life and career of Jesus of Nazareth would end with his death on a cross outside of Jerusalem sometime around 30 A.D. and that a second volume would be entitled “Christianity or The Jesus of Nazareth Cult” and would begin not where Luke began Acts, with his followers watching Jesus ascend bodily into heaven, but rather with the fantastic stories of the Jesus’ appearances that began to circulate shortly after his death.

No Comments

Leave a Reply