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The Fog of History and the Birth of Christianity – Part 1

April 28, 2017

We have a lot of dramatic and culture-creating stories from the life of Jesus and early Christianity. But we have very little established history.

Of course a great many people, both Christians and others, believe that the New Testament contains historical accounts of the founding of Christianity.  We do have a few snippets that can be regarded, in the view of most historians, as having almost certainly happened: Jesus living (even this is disputed by a few historians), gaining a following and being crucified. James, probably a blood brother of Jesus, but not the Apostle James, becoming the main early leader.  (This was perhaps after a brief period in which Peter or someone else may have led.)

This group was a Jesus-as-Messiah Jewish sect in Jerusalem initially.  We also know that “Saint” Paul, soon after Jesus’ death, first opposed and then aligned (at least partially) with this sect and became our earliest written source.  His accounts deal mainly with the Jewish-Gentile form of Jesus-following given his operating almost exclusively outside of Jerusalem and Israel.

But… how and why did this off-shoot of Judaism take hold relatively quickly and grow rapidly, gradually breaking off as a separate religion? (It’s a misconception that it right away was a separate religion apart from other varieties of Judaism.)

Many entire books have been written on how it all happened.  Just one example of such informative work is From Jesus to Christ by Paula Fredriksen, pictured.

Now, some calendar stuff we do know. If you are a church-goer, you may recall that 50 days after Jewish Passover (between what is now Good Friday and Easter) is Pentecost.  Even if not, you’ve probably heard of “The Day of Pentecost”. Certainly of Pentecostals, who take their name from the Jewish celebration and the famous first Pentecost after the crucifixion of Jesus, according to Acts of the Apostles.

Without going into the specific theology involved, the events of that Pentecost as reported by Luke in Acts represent the miraculous “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit. This is essentially what launched the Christian Church in Luke’s telling.  It also serves to let him, and Christians since, tie the story of victory through Jesus back to Hebrew Scripture and Judaism and validate the new direction with a powerful blessing and action of God, so claimed. But is it historical? If something powerful happened that day, was it as described?

In the Empire setting, the sect-becoming-a-religion needed ancient roots which Luke knew both Jews and pagans would expect.

Luke also knew the power and importance of a supernatural story.  And this is a dramatic one for sure! You should read the brief story in the first part of chapter 2 unless the specifics are fresh in your mind.  Read the lead-up in chapter one while you’re at it.

Luke has carefully thought through how he would present the birth of Christianity.  As mentioned,  some of what he had to show was its connection to Judaism — essentially the extension of it — plus the boost of miracles.  This was to prove something he could pull off well enough to give the new faith a founding story that has worked for “faith” and church-building purposes…. However, that began to change about 2 1/2 centuries ago.

Scholars began to look more analytically and historically at Luke’s work in both his books, at the other Gospels, and at the rest of the Bible. More on one of the holes in the embellished part of Luke’s “history” that is not commonly noticed in part 2 coming soon.  And, with that, why so many modern believers struggle with the historical reliability of the Bible still claimed in a majority of Christian churches.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. hoju1959 permalink
    April 29, 2017 7:17 am

    The New Testament’s authors, in recounting the life of Jesus, created the illusion that post-Crucifixion belief was basically the same as pre-crucifixion belief. The Christianity that evolved in the decades and centuries after Jesus’s death—the Christianity that had Crucifixion as its natural core—was made to look like a straightforward extension of what Jesus himself had said and done.

    For example, Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. There’s no way the “gospel” was that well formed at that point.

    And, yes, in some cases that meant twisting what Jesus had actually said and done.

    • April 29, 2017 7:55 am

      Excellent points! You’re right about Peter’s speech, just as with the several others in Acts. And the time needed to develop a gospel that was mainly abstract theology versus the daily-life and economic-oppression-oriented teachings of Jesus. Luke was a big, big part of this, elevating Paul’s teaching and authority after the devastion of Jewish life and control from the war of 66 to 70.

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