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The Earthly and Cosmic Jesus — Luke and Paul

May 18, 2012

Jesus as Founder of Christianity?

This post is a continuation of the last one on the Holy Spirit launching the Church, according to Luke in the book of Acts (New Testament).  Acts is a crucial book in how Christianity developed for a number of reasons.  Among them is how it was able to successfully tie together Jesus’ teachings with Paul’s, leading to the kinds of beliefs that competed well and eventually prevailed among many widely varied ones in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  (This was a long gestation period we often jump right over from our distant vantage point). 

Paul actually says very little about his view or understanding of Jesus’ earthly life and teachings, occasionally appealing to what he’d “received” and more often, assertively, to what was “revealed” (by God) to him–this revelation, with Jesus’ appearance to him, was the authority he cited for his commission as an Apostle.  This is a lot of weight to put on a subjective experience, not validated by any outside source.  Luke seems to recognize this, with other problems, and writes so as to enhance Paul’s authority beyond the base of Paul’s direct followers.  In the process, he harmonizes or glosses over serious conflicts and differences (of real substance) between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders of Jesus-followers (not properly “Christians” at this point). 

There are several themes important in Acts, and this harmonization of Jesus and Paul is perhaps the most important, at least historically.  However, it is fraught with problems both historically and theologically.  We cannot develop them fully right now (or most eyes would probably glaze over). 

Did Paul Observe or Invent his Christ?

What is fascinating to those of us who, either by upbringing, by later choice or by the combination, study the New Testament (NT) probingly is that much of Christianity has come to follow a theology laid out almost solely by Paul, initially.  That is, more so than a focus on the teachings of Jesus.  Some have called this a “theology about Jesus” more than the “theology of Jesus.”

Now, let’s be clear: there are large and important aspects of overlap–things that Jesus apparently taught that Paul did also.  But one of them, difficult for believers even by the end of the NT era, was an expectation of a very soon arrival of the Kingdom of God (or a dramatic earthly expansion from a point of already “among” or “within you,” for Jesus).  For Paul, having to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion, it was a matter of the return of Christ–definitely expected within his lifetime (or such a timeframe of the 50s to 60s), and a culmination of the victory already won my his “cosmic” Christ (not the same as the modern “New Age” cosmic Christ) over cosmic evil and the “rulers of this age.”

In brief summary, there was a lot of this and other detail of Pauline thinking that had not gone down well with the more Jewishly-loyal leaders in Jerusalem.  (Note: Paul’s lifetime and the period covered by Acts ended just prior to the devastating Jewish war with Rome, ending in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70.)   For the young Church of the end of the first century (post-70) to be more unified and appear to have grown from a Holy-Spirit led beginning, Luke realized a major work (a “history” of sorts, though a polemical and theological one) needed to be written… and so he did it!

What sense do you have about the Book of Acts? Do you even pay it much attention? Do you agree that it may make Luke, along with his Gospel, the most influential writer of all time, or since the time of Christ?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2012 12:05 am

    I’m currently teaching Acts in Sunday School because the majority of my class said that they had never read through it.

    • May 19, 2012 3:24 pm

      Wow… thanks for the feedback. I’ve not done any surveying but from broader surveys I’ve read I’m not too surprised. Can you elaborate a bit on who these folks tend to be?

      • May 19, 2012 4:54 pm

        Episcopal Church. Mostly middle age and senior citizens. Most of what I have been doing in this class is teach the history portions of the Bible to put everything in context as you mention here. Most mainline folks I know have only known the Gospels and the “big” stories from the Old Testament.

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