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The Fog of History and the Birth of Christianity – Part 2

May 7, 2017

What do we know about how Christianity got started? Not much, actually.

We really only have Luke to go on, in his second book.  St. Paul makes a few statements about early beliefs but gives very little history. Luke is a major New Testament author. He wrote, as stated in the text, what almost all scholars see as a two-volume work: his Gospel followed by The Acts of the Apostles (placed right after the Gospels in the New Testament).  There are many interesting and important questions about the birth of Christianity either not covered there or actually raised by what Luke does say.

For now, I’ll focus on just one: Does Luke’s own writing really support the common idea of supernatural acts by God being what enabled the birth and survival of Christian faith? That’s how he presents things: Miracles galore and the special work of God… all the way from Jesus’ resurrection to the outpouring of Pentecost, with its signs and “tongues-speaking”, to divine prison-breaks, to a married couple being “spoken to death” by Peter.  Wow! Exciting (and scary) stuff!

If you haven’t yet, I recommend you read my lead-up to this post in Part 1 of the 2-part series. There I mention how the Jerusalem form (vs. the Diaspora or mainly Pauline form) of Jesus-following was a largely-tolerated sect of Judaism with its particular Messiah figure. (This was not uncommon around then).

I note that Pentecost was 50 days after Passover.  So this period includes the 40 days in which Luke claims that Jesus appeared to and taught his disciples and the Apostles, ate with them (establishing his bodily rather than ghostly presence), etc.

But why should anyone now-a-days care?

The “practical” issue for modern Christians I would put this way: If Christianity is founded upon supernatural actions of God it is one thing.  If it has a human, non-miraculous foundation, based on this-world teachings of Jesus (along with Paul), including a fresh approach to God, it is something quite different.

In an oversimplified nutshell, this represents the difference between historic orthodoxy (Roman, Eastern or Protestant) and various versions of “liberal” or “progressive” theology and church practice.  There is a whole lot of tension and various levels of fighting between the constituents of these broad concepts…. Energy that could be devoted to at least those aspects of Christian mission which both groupings agree on, such as love and care for others in an active way.  

Without going into the reasons for now, I’ll say that it is worthwhile to encourage the growth process of Christianity itself.  People who think it, or religion more broadly, may soon disappear are dreaming.  So are people who think it has not essentially changed over the centuries. Christianity is never totally “stuck in the past”, but it changes generally at a glacial pace.  The push for growth should be specifically in the direction of understanding its foundation as being astounding but not miraculous; not due to forceful interventions by God or one-time epoch-changing events like the Day of Pentecost, as we’ll mention here.  This understanding is not undercut by the Bible itself, if carefully read, including Luke’s account – his origins story.  That conviction of mine, with the important implications, is why I write articles like this.

So let me now cover one interesting plot hole in Luke’s account which adds to many other indicators that he is making up much of the story to fit his agenda, and that his work is not actually historical recounting of miraculous events.  So, his Acts is useful and has some historical basis, but is not to be taken as reliable history in the way it was by almost every type of Christian for 1700 years or so, and still is by far too many yet today.

This plot slip involves the figure famous in both Judaism and Christianity, Gamaliel, the highly respected rabbi of Jesus’ time and following.  Gamaliel serves as a good character to use in connecting Judaism and Christianity beyond obvious shared beliefs. Gamaliel, as used by Luke, can help explain what does not fit well with the Pauline vision of Jesus’ purpose and mission.  That poor fit is the ongoing existence of Jesus-followers in some fair number right within Jerusalem as observant Jews, not as believers that the Temple and “the Law” had become irrelevant, no longer to be followed.

Luke has previously, in both his Gospel and the opening of Acts, made a significant point of not only the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but of the miraculous events surrounding the crucifixion and the days after the resurrection until Jesus’ bodily ascent into heaven before the eyes of some disciples.  This is why the introduction of Gamaliel in Acts 5 is so fascinating.  I’ve written about the same issue here in a bit more expanded way than I will right now.

Added to that earlier post is this: You remember “the Road to Emmaus” story? In it Luke (Ch. 24) has made a point of having Jesus’ disciples explain, to the incognito Jesus, that the dramatic events surrounding the crucifixion were well known throughout Jerusalem! And the city was packed with up to a million visitors (as estimated by historians) coming and going over Passover season. Together, the Gospels claim miracles that indeed would have been impossible to miss.  Three hours of mid-day darkness.  A massive earthquake capable of cracking open rock tombs and releasing resurrected “saints” who then made a point of showing themselves around the city (per Matthew 27).

If you’re in Jerusalem, you can’t miss this stuff!

Also a huge deal for all the priesthood and religious observers (nearly everyone) around the Temple, a major economic as well as religious center, was the reported tearing of the “veil of the Temple” from top to bottom.

This was a massive, many-feet-high and inches-thick curtain between the Temple’s “Holy Place” and the inner, highly restricted “Holy of Holies”.  There is obvious and powerful religious symbolism in this occurrence, if it happened, and in the mere claim if it did not.

For my upcoming plot-hole-revelation, add this context.  Less than two months after Jesus’ death, Luke claims the miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit in such dramatic fashion as to draw big crowds and add 3,000 new Jesus-followers in one day.  So Luke has presented the launch of “the Church” as filled with miraculous “signs and wonders”… done either for everyone’s notice (darkness, massive earthquake) or for a great many nearby observers.  A partial summary: risen dead people [per Matthew only], Temple curtain torn apart, appearances by Jesus himself, in bodily form, miraculous language-speaking in unlearned languages, astounding healings, prison-breaks.

Now Gamaliel, of Jerusalem himself and a respected leader there, decides to intervene among the religious leaders on behalf of the Jesus-followers when they were being opposed and persecuted, apparently in the early days (no timeline by Luke).

And what is his primary appeal? To give some time to see whether their activity is of human origin or “from God”.  He cites two failed rebel leaders of recent years, and how their movements came to nothing.  His conclusion is that if this new movement is from God it will be unstoppable, so not to be opposed.

What? How does this “if from God” get said?

And with no comment on all the recent astounding miracles (per Luke, other Gospel writers)?

Hasn’t Luke been making the point, over and over, that many very public things from the killing of Jesus to the time of Gamaliel’s speech have been clearly miraculous?… No real possibility they were of human origin, in his telling! If Gamaliel had somehow missed it all firsthand, he could not have missed all the buzz about it in the populace and certainly among his fellow religious leaders.  It was all about their business! That astonishing curtain-rending at the core of the Temple particularly!

Now, I actually think that something like Gamaliel’s speech (not the actual time/place/wording of it) probably is one of the historical aspects that Luke clearly is careful to include here and there in his Christian origins story.  He lines things up with known political figures and such (and may well have used historian Josephus as one source). And it is helpful in his pushing the continuity of Judaism and Christianity.

It is a potential plot hole in this way: If all the miraculous stuff really happened, as Luke certainly seems to be claiming (though not necessarily believing himself), Gamaliel’s speech, to make much sense, would have to be much different.  It would have to go something like this:

“Men of Israel” (5:35)… we all are witnesses of the many signs and wonders surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth and attending these people since, who believe he is our long-awaited Messiah. But, astonishing as this all has been, and certainly meaning something, we haven’t yet figured out quite what it means. Only his followers say they’ve seen and been taught by Jesus as raised from the dead. Why not some of us leaders? I’m certainly a seeker of God, as are many of you, eager to follow the truth.

We certainly can’t explain all the miracles, but many have been fooled several times before about messianic figures.  So, despite all these evidences which have been plenty to satisfy several thousand from among our annual visitors and our [approximately 50,000] residents, we just need more time.  It sure seems God must be behind all this, though maybe it was Beelzebub.  After all, Jesus did not deliver our nation, and if he lives, he’s nowhere around now.  So we have to figure out what is the significance of all the miracles surrounding him and now his followers. But meanwhile, it’s not fair to persecute these people because they do still observe the Law and worship among us.  We need to further discuss the meaning of all these incredible miracles and signs.

Luke may have put the speech into Gamaliel’s mouth as he did, which avoids all this, in an attempt to “have it both ways”…. For certain readers, the miraculous events could impress and instill faith.  For others, the reasoned “wait and see” of Gamaliel may have been more believable.  Plus, it served well for all, including Roman officials, to tie the new faith to Judaism via a key figure who would have been well-remembered in the time of Luke’s writing (around 90 to 110 CE).  That it would be more than puzzling how Gamaliel could make such a speech if Luke’s other “facts” are valid may not have entered Luke’s mind. When one is creating mythology (such as an origins story), it is tough to make everything fit just right.  Especially when connecting to known history.

The take-away I suggest is this: Luke may have inadvertently given us a peek into the real attitude of Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders toward the Jesus-followers. Gamaliel indicates concern but ambivalence.  Maybe God is behind their movement.  But if not, it’s dangerous indeed! This is a good distance from how the Gospel writers, including Luke, generally present the posture of Pharisees (as was Gamaliel) and priestly leaders, and how they “predict” the treatment of Jesus-followers, as being persecuted and thrown out of synagogues.  In the process of relating this episode, Luke may have given us more of the real history of early Jewish-Christian relations than in the miracle and persecution stories.  Perhaps the relationship was relatively open and respectful, rather than the idea that the Jews stubbornly resisted a string of convincing miracles.

What do you see here?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. hoju1959 permalink
    May 7, 2017 9:36 am

    If the post-resurrection miracles recounted in the gospels really occurred there would be other non-biblical mentions of them. How could historians of the day ignore three hours of darkness in the middle of the day — or dead people walking around?

    More broadly, if the miracles recounted in Acts occurred, then why don’t they occur now? The common explanation is that the gospel need a jump start to get going. But certainly now, with church attendance dropping, with more and more people becoming “spiritual but not religious,” the gospel could use another shot in the arm.

  2. May 7, 2017 2:05 pm

    Thanks for the comment, John. I’m not a deep enough historian of ancient historiography (writing of history) to say for sure, but I imagine you’re right. I know some have tried to line up the mid-day darkness with a possible full eclipse of the sun…. I’ve seen one of these and it IS eerie light but far from real darkness and the 3 hours is too long. Clearly, this is a symbolic number. Scripture is loaded with such numbers! Also, if I recall, astronomers have been able to extrapolate backwards and determine that the likely years of Jesus’ crucifixion included no eclipses in that region at all.

    Your second point is a good one with no good answer from orthodoxy either.

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