Calling and Mentoring Disciples
SLIDE 2: GO MAKE DISCIPLES
Jesus was very intentional about creating a community that would continue his ministry, if and when something happened to him. The difference between John the Baptist and Jesus is that Jesus had prepared his followers to continue and extend his ministry in a way John had not. One business consultant explained it this way. John was a sole proprietorship, Jesus was a franchise. We need to also remember that when Jesus gave his final commission to the disciples, in the 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, he did not say, “go build church buildings,” he also did not say, “go create institutions with committees and by-laws,” instead he said, “go make disciples.” A theologically liberal congregation like United Church needs to pay attention to the old fashioned term “discipling.” What does it mean to help others to become followers of the way? It means helping people to transform the way they live their lives in order to follow in the way of Jesus.
SLIDE 3: MENTORING PEOPLE INTO THE WAY OF JESUS
One of the most serious failings of the modern church is we have failed to disciple new people into the way of following Jesus. We have programs to attract new members, to reach the unchurched, to offer radical hospitality. And all of these programs are laudable and necessary. But we often are not mentoring people to transform their lives to become followers of the way of Jesus. One reason we often miss this task of mentoring is because too many Christians have settled for being just members of a kind of religious club, rather than pressing on to become disciples, true followers of the way of Jesus in mission and service to others.
And here I would like to share with you a modern parable as told by Theodore Wedel in an article from 1953 entitled “Evangelism—the Mission of the Church to Those Outside Her Life.”
SLIDE 4: THE LIFESAVING STATION
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort of the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
SLIDE 5: DECORATED IT BEAUTIFULLY
Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club.
SLIDE 6: THE LITURGICAL LIFE BOAT
Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held.
SLIDE 7: BOATLOADS OF COLD, WET, HALF-DROWNED PEOPLE
About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
SLIDE 8: SPLIT IN THE CLUB MEMBERSHIP
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.
SLIDE 9: SHIPWRECKS ARE FREQUENT – MOST OF THE PEOPLE DROWN
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
SLIDE 10: SHIFT TO DISCIPLESHIP REQUIRES GREATER COMMITMENT
At the Seven Secrets Conference in Atlanta sponsored by the Center for Progressive Renewal one of the speakers, Steve Sterner, Acting Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ said: The shift to discipleship requires greater commitment rather just membership. A higher level of commitment is required of disciples – self-transformation is required and then social transformation occurs. The shift from membership to discipleship creates the greatest struggle in congregations. Faith communities have disciples, disciples agree to have expectations placed upon them.
SLIDE 11: ACCOUNTABILITY?
Most “members” in churches resist expectations and accountability. After all their participation, attendance, and giving are all voluntary. How can anyone expect anything of members. The church is there to serve them. But congregations that mentor people into discipleship have a whole different orientation. The people who join the congregation become partners in ministry. As the Rev. Susan Mitchell said, “the most important people in the church are those we are inviting into the congregation, and those outside the walls of the church we are serving not the members.”
SLIDE 12: TAKE OFF BIBS, PUT ON APRONS
Congregations that mentor people into becoming disciples, following Jesus, understand they are inviting people to serve. The church is not a club, where people wait around for their needs to be met. We are the followers of Jesus, who are expected to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted. As Coy James from the Cathedral of Hope said, “when visitors become members they take off their bibs and put on aprons.”
SLIDE 13: FIRST THE BLADE, THEN THE EAR, THEN THE FULL GRAIN WILL APPEAR
So how does a congregation mentor people into discipleship? We begin by understanding the parable of the farmer in Mark 4: 26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a farmer should scatter seed upon the ground, 27 and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
SLIDE 14: GIVE US GRACE TO MENTOR IN FAITH
The first point to understand about the parable is the mystery of the seed. Despite all of our scientific knowledge we still cannot explain why seeds sprout and grow. The seed then is like grace. God’s grace has to be part of the mentoring process. We have to pray and understand that all of our efforts will come to naught, if God is not in it. We have to be willing to mentor from the grace of God and not our own egos. When God is not at the heart of our evangelism efforts, then we are just engaged in marketing. So first, we need to lose our pride, humble ourselves in prayer and ask for God to give us the grace to mentor in faith.
SLIDE 15: BABY STEPS
The second point of our parable is the slow evolutionary progression of growth: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. We mature in faith with baby steps. Saints aren’t made in a day. The development of faith is a life time project as we change and grow in stages. Discipling is the process of mentoring people from one stage of faith to another, and having the discernment to recognize when someone is ready for the next step. Unless grace has done its work, we cannot rush someone in their development – sort of like trying to grow 90 corn in 30 days. It doesn’t work. We can plant, water, fertilize, stand on our heads but 90 corn will take just about 90 days to ripen. We can bring daffodils inside in the early spring and force them to open. But we can’t force 90 day corn. Mentoring others in faith means: having patience and a discerning eye to know when someone is ready for the next faith challenge.
SLIDE 16: TURN THEM LOOSE, GET OUT OF THE WAY
The third point of our parable is to recognize the harvest. When people are ready to be spiritually fruitful, turn them loose to do whatever the spirit leads them to do. Sometimes the church needs to get out of the way so mission and ministry can happen. Again let me share with you some comments about administration by the Rev. Susan Mitchell: What does administration really mean? Administrare the Latin word means literally to serve, not to control, not to rule, not to dictate. Administration is clarity. Administration gets to know people well enough so that we know the gifts and talents of each person, so we can then invite them into the ministry of the church at the place they can be most effective. And then wise administration gets out of the way.
SLIDE 17: MENTOR IN WORD AND DEED
How did Jesus mentor his disciples? Jesus instructed them, both in word and in deed. He told them parables that left it up to his listeners to figure out the meaning for themselves. He helped them find the truth by asking them questions. He had them observe his actions in healing and forgiving. He lived with them, and showed them that the love of God was more important than the rules. He traveled with them and shared the hardships of life on the road. He taught them table fellowship by eating with them. He taught them the scriptures and how to pray.
SLIDE 18: GIVE THEM RESPONSIBILITY
Then he gave them responsibility. He gave them authority over unclean spirits, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. He sent them out two by two and commissioned them to preach and heal. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. He prepared them and then sent them out to minister to the needs of their world, and to invite others to follow the way of Jesus. This is our challenge. This is our mission. Go into the world and help others to become disciples.
SLIDE 5: SHOW ME
Thomas was the kind of guy who wanted proof. Show me. He was from Missouri. While the point here seems to be that Jesus gave Thomas the proof he wanted, the real point of the story is that we have to be willing to live by faith. God cannot be following us around every moment providing us with physical tangible proof of God’s existence, or that love is the secret of the universe. We believe because we want to believe, and if that isn’t enough we are likely to live lives of quiet desperation locked into a material view of the universe.
SLIDE 6: DOUBT IS IMPORTANT TO FAITH
Of course, if we’ve never had any doubts, it’s because we don’t take our faith seriously. Apathy not doubt is the enemy of faith. People in dangerous professions sometimes say that fear — and fear is a form of doubt — is essential to what they do. If they weren’t just a little bit afraid, they wouldn’t be as careful. If we never have any doubts, we would have to question whether or not we’ve really thought through the larger issues of who God is and who we are. Without somehow destroying us in the process, how could God be revealed to us in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for us.
SLIDE 7: REASONABLE DOUBT
In the courts there is the term “reasonable doubt,” and that reminds me of a story. An attorney was defending a man who was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence indicating guilt, but there was no corpse. In the defense’s closing statement the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, resorted to a trick.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all,” the lawyer said as he looked at his watch. “Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom.” He looked toward the courtroom door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened.
Finally the lawyer said, “Actually, I made up the previous statement. But, you all looked on with anticipation. I therefore put to you that you have a reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty.” The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. A few minutes later, the jury returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty.
“But how?” inquired the lawyer. “You must have had some doubt; I saw all of you stare at the door.”
The jury foreman replied, “Oh, we looked, but your client didn’t.”
SLIDE 8: I DOUBT THEREFORE I AM
Doubt is important. St. Augustine used doubt as the starting point to break through the conundrum of the skeptics. Greek philosophy had become hung up on the skeptic’s insistence that everything must be doubted, and therefore it was impossible to know anything for sure. We must even be skeptical of our own existence.
Considering this problem Augustine finally experienced a “eureka” moment, when he said, I can doubt all things, but I cannot doubt that I am doubting. Having established his doubt as the one thought of which he could be certain Augustine then built a philosophy and a theology that broke the skeptic’s hold on philosophy. I doubt therefore I am. Our doubt then establishes our existence and the existence of God. And that reminds me of a story Larry Kushner shares with us in Eyes Remade for Wonder.
SLIDE 9: DO YOU HAVE A SELF
“One of my high school students once asked me if I could prove there was a God. Instead I asked her if she had a self. She thought for a moment and said, ‘Of course.’
‘And is your self important to you?’
‘Very,’ she replied.
‘And where would you be,’ I pushed, ‘without your self?’
‘In big trouble.’
‘Can you prove you have one – a self?’
Think about that. The next time we want proof God exists, think about whether or not we can prove our selves exist?
SLIDE 10: SPIRITUAL BLINDNESS
Sometimes our eyesight blinds us to other ways of knowing. In the last months of her life, Helen Keller expressed a deep and profound pity for the real unseeing of the world, for those who have eyes yet who do not see. Deprived nearly all her life of the gift of sight, nevertheless, her long years of physical blindness had given her a spiritual insight that enabled her to enjoy life to its fullest. Commenting on the nature of spiritual blindness she said this: “When the blind put their hand in God’s, they find their way more surely than those who see but have not faith or purpose.”
SLIDE 11: FAITH AND A PURPOSE
Faith and a purpose that grows out of faith is the foundation for spiritual insight. We cannot prove we have a purpose in life. Our gifts and our talents may give us hints about what we might be good at or enjoy doing. The great Islamic Poet Rumi wrote: “Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.” Talents are important and can lead toward vocation, but purpose is something different.
SLIDE 12: A COMMITMENT TO SOMETHING LARGER THAN OURSELVES
Purpose is a commitment to something larger than ourselves. Part of the estrangement of our modern age is that so many people have no commitment to anything other than themselves. Sort of like Lucy in our Peanuts cartoon. According to Dr. Robert Moore the overwhelming psychological dis-ease of our twenty-first century is narcissism. Sometimes by extension people will include an obligation to family or a circle of friends as part of the focus on themselves, but the lack of dedication to principles, beliefs, or a vision larger than our selves is at the heart of the alienation in our culture.
SLIDE 13: WHAT BELIEFS ARE WORTHY OF OUR COMMITMENT?
So what beliefs are worthy of our commitment? What vision gives a meaning and purpose to life that will sustain us? As I look at the long road of the evolutionary development of the universe despite the insistence of some that everything is random, I see direction in the unfolding of creation. From pure blinding energy to electrons to atoms to galaxies and star clusters and solar systems and planets the cosmos is moving in the direction of novelty and complexity. And as life has evolved from simple cells and bacteria to more complex plants and animals to redwoods and roses to whales and giraffes to humans biological evolution has moved toward ever greater complexity and consciousness.
SLIDE 14: CULTURAL EVOLUTION?
Now I know some people will dispute the idea of cultural evolution, but on the long road from stone tools to fire to language to story to religion, and from settlements, to villages, to towns to great cities our culture is evolving toward greater complexity and a new global consciousness.
SLIDE 15: AUSCHWITZ AND RWANDA ARE NEVER FAR AWAY
Nature is still red in tooth and claw and our animal natures are never far away. We must always beware we are still capable of terrible cruelty and barbarism – Auschwitz and Rwanda are never far away.
SLIDE 16: REACHING FOR COMPASSION AND KINDNESS
But I believe we are coming to a point when evolution is moving in the direction of cooperation and sharing rather than competition and greed we are reaching toward compassion and kindness rather than violence and aggression – we are slowly moving toward the way of Jesus and peace.
Call me a dreamer. Demand proof. And I will answer can we imagine another dream worth pursuing. If we were allowed to choose a purpose in life, what would you choose instead – to eat, drink, be merry and attend as many sporting events as possible, or sit on the couch and watch television until we die? We all want some meaning or purpose worthy of living.
SLIDE 17: MALCOM MUGGERIDGE, ALBERT SCHWEITZER, MOTHER THERESA
Malcolm Muggeridge was an English journalist who for most of his early life was an atheist. But then he made a visit to Lambarene, in Gabon West Africa to meet and interview Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his jungle hospital. Muggeridge recorded two interesting episodes on his trip. When he arrived he was told that Dr. Schweitzer was working at a construction site at the hospital, and sure enough when Muggeridge arrived at the site Dr. Schweitzer was pushing a wheel barrow. Surprised Muggeridge asked, “But doctor, how is it that you are pushing a wheel barrow?”
Schweitzer replied, “Well it is really quite easy. You fill it with dirt and pick up on the handles and push.”
SLIDE 18: THAT WAS MY MOSQUITO THANK YOU.
This convinced Muggeridge that the reports of Albert Schweitzer’s humility were genuine. The second incident open the journalist’s eyes to Schweitzer’s commitment to non-violence and his ethic of reverence for life. While they were standing together a large mosquito landed on Dr. Schweitzer’s arm and Muggeridge reached over and swatted the mosquito. Prompting Schweitzer to scold, “that was my mosquito thank you.”
SLIDE 19: MOTHER THERESA HELPED HIM FIND FAITH
As a result of his visit to Lambarene, Malcolm Muggeridge began to reconsider the Christian faith. And then on a trip to India he met Mother Theresa. His life was changed as he reported on her ministry, and he finally converted to the Catholic faith.
I’ve told some of Malcolm Muggeridge’s journey of faith as an introduction to an observation he made about resurrection in his later years. This is the season of resurrection and I think this eloquently addresses some of our doubts.
SLIDE 20: ARE CATERPILLARS TOLD OF THEIR IMPENDING RESURRECTION?
“For myself, as I approach my end, I find Jesus’ outrageous claim ever more captivating and meaningful. Quite often, waking up in the night as the old do, I feel myself to be half out of my body, hovering between life and death, with eternity rising in the distance. I see my ancient carcass, prone between the sheets, stained and worn like a scrap of paper dropped in the gutter and, hovering over it, myself, like a butterfly released from the chrysalis stage and ready to fly away. Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection? How in dying they will be transformed from poor earth-crawlers into creatures of the air, with exquisitely painted wings? If told, do they believe it? I imagine the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads — no, it can’t be; it’s a fantasy. Yet, in the limbo between living and dying, as the night clocks tick remorselessly on, and the black sky implacably shows not one single streak or scratch of gray, I hear those words: ‘I am the resurrection, and the life,’ and feel myself to be carried along on a great tide of joy and peace.”
From Jesus to Christianity
L. Michael White
Chapter 1: The Story of the Storytellers
Books tell stories. No, that’s not quite true. People tell stories and write them down in books. Books record those stories and make them accessible to readers. In that sense they are a medium of communication to a broader audience. Communication is easier when author and audience come from a shared cultural background and time, then it is much like hearing the story told orally. Here the burden is on the storyteller to communicate in words and ideas that the audience will find meaningful.
But books also preserve stories and thus make it possible for later generations of readers to encounter not only a story of a bygone era but also the people who once told and heard it. Here the medium of communication is more complex. Now, the reader – not the storyteller – bears the burden. In order to understand the story, the reader must negotiate changes in culture, language, and ideas that come with the passage of time. It is a process of translation from one age to another, from one culture to another, in order to hear the story as once told. At this juncture there are two stories at work. The preservation and subsequent history of the book is its own story, apart from the one on its pages, and the reader must encounter this second story – the story of the book – as well. The reading of any story from the past must respect the different layers of history and story, of then and now, that make it up. (page 1)
The author states well the problem of trying to read the Bible. There is more than one story the text, and the multiple layers of story are woven together, so it is sometimes difficult to sort out the different layers. What are some of the issues we face in trying to understand the New Testament?
First, because of its composite nature, it cannot be read like a novel, straight through from beginning to end. The various works represent different genres of literature: biographies, histories, novels, letters, sermons, apocalypses, catechisms, and church-order manuals. They were written at different times by different authors; consequently, there is no cohesive narrative. Even though they were all written in Greek, the language, tone, and style are noticeable different from one author to the next, just as in any library. Hence, the various works within the collection must be read first on their own individual terms. Points of connection, comparison, and contrast come later, once we understand something of the origin of each work: where it was written, when, and why.
Second, discovering something about the original author and audience is central to this process. In some cases, knowing who wrote a work and who read it can help us understand the when and why. Conversely, discerning the occasion of a work on the basis of its internal form and language can sometimes help us discover more about the author and audience, especially when those pieces of information are not given, and usually when they are. The nature of ancient literature requires us to deal with all of these questions in order to make sense out of what is going on in “the story.” In other words, we have to employ the tools of history in order to read the story, even when the story is about history or is part of the history.
Third, because it is a library and not a single book, we must give some thought to how we ought to “catalogue” its contents. On the one hand, we might wish to group the writings by genre – biography on one shelf, letters on another, apocalypses in the back row. Then they can be subgrouped by author. To be sure, this kind of organization would facilitate certain kinds of literary analysis and comparison. In effect, that is the way the New Testament is already laid out. Yet this organization can lead to some problems if we are not also aware of the differences of date and place between the documents. A chronological list yields a different perspective on the writings and how the various parts of the story relate to one another.
In this book, then we shall attempt to examine the various writings of the New Testament and other pieces of the earliest Christian literature in a more or less chronological progression, from earlier to later. Thus, one of the issue to be discussed at every step is why we should place a particular book of the New Testament at a particular point in time and what other events or writings were happening at that time. For example, although the Gospels come first in the order of New Testament books, they were not the first ones written. Their position comes from the fact that they deal with the life of Jesus, but as we shall wee they were written considerably later. The earliest was at least forty years later, while the last, almost a century. Hence, the way each Gospel tells its story of Jesus may reflect influences and concerns that come from the time of the author and audience rather than from the days of Jesus himself.
That is one of the main problems with this story. We have no writings from the days of Jesus himself. Jesus never wrote anything, nor do we have any contemporary accounts of his life or death. There are no court records, official diaries or newspaper accounts that might provide firsthand information. Nor are there any eyewitnesses whose reports were preserved unvarnished. Even though they may contain earlier sources or oral traditions, all the Gospels come from later times. Discerning which material is early and which is late becomes an important task. In fact, the earliest writings that survive are the genuine letters of Paul. They were written some twenty or thirty years after the death of Jesus. Yet Paul was not a follower of Jesus during his lifetime; nor does he ever claim to have seen Jesus during his ministry. Moreover, Paul’s letters were written to new converts who lived in far-off regions of the Roman Empire, western Turkey, Greece, and even Rome itself. Although they are the earliest version of the story, they nonetheless stand at some distance temporally and culturally from the world of Jesus. Even so, they clearly reflect some information about the life of Jesus based on the stories that circulated orally about him. They are only a portion of the larger story, and yet they each tell their own story. (page 2-4)
The author gives a good summary of the problems associated with studying the New Testament. Are any of the “problems” outlined by the author new to you. Would having a better understanding of the literary issues in the New Testament enhance you understanding of the meaning of the text? Which of the methods outlined by the author do you think can help you develop a better grasp of the New Testament text? How does the knowledge that there were no written sources dating back to the time of Jesus affect your appreciation of the gospels?
The medium of story telling was predominantly oral, especially in the earliest days of the Jesus movement. That may be the reason we have no writings from Jesus himself or from any of his followers for at least twenty years. The stories were first passed on by word of mouth. Even when stories were first written down, the mode of expression was essentially oral in character. Ancient letters and books were meant to be read aloud, as if hearing the living voice of the writer. The types of writing reflected these different forms of contexts of expression. Detecting these differences can be very important to our understanding of both what is being said and why. Hence, the social location and cultural horizons of the storyteller and the audience are important clues to meaning, intent, and understanding. (page 7)
How is a written story different from an oral story? Do we still have any forms of communication in our world today that are primarily oral rather than written? How has the story telling art in our world today changed with the advent film and electronic media? In what ways do you think the Jesus story may have changed as it passed from an oral tradition into a written text?
Chapter 2: Entering the World of Jesus
The story of Jesus and his followers cannot be adequately understood apart from the world in which they lived. It was a world ruled by Rome. . . The transition to Roman rule remained a bitter pill, made more bitter still when Roman governors, accompanied inevitably by Roman legions, first set foot on Judean soil. The year was 6 CE, when Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great was deposed. . . .
Our major source for this period is the Jewish historian Josephus, who tells us that Archelaus was ultimately deposed in 6 CE and Judea was annexed to the province of Syria. Syria was at that point being governed by the proconsul P. Sulpicius Quirinius. This Quirinius was ordered by the emperor to assess and liquidate the estates of Archelaus and to census the people of Judea for tax purposes. Then a lower-ranking procurator, Coponius, was sent to manage Judea while answering directly to Quirinius. Direct Roman rule had come to Judea for the first time.
. . . The census was thus a new imposition in 6 CE, a visible sign that Rome was now directly in charge. Josephus tells us that this census was the spark that set off the first wave of anti-Roman rebellion, led by a famous local chieftain named Judas the Galilean. Josephus also identifies this same Judas as the founder of the Zealot movement, which eventually prompted the outbreak of the first revolt against Rome some 60 years later (66-70 CE). The transition to direct Roman rule that occurred during Jesus’ childhood had a far reaching impact on the politics as well as the religious climate of Judea for years to come. Both rabbinic Judaism and the emergent Jesus movement were products of this turbulent period. (pages 11-12)
How do you think the climate of oppression, violence and rebellion influenced the growing up of Jesus? In what ways do you think Jesus’ ministry addressed the problems of oppression, violence and rebellion in First Century Israel? Where do you think Jesus fit into the political spectrum of his day? Do you think Jesus had a vision for changing the world in which he lived?
The world into which Jesus was born was complex politically as well as culturally. Jesus was Jewish – as was King Herod – but neither would have been considered in the mainstream of Jewish culture and religion, if it is even possible to speak of a “mainstream.” The Jewish homeland was religiously diverse and socially stratified. By birth Herod was Idumean, a descendant of the ancient Edomites who lived around the southern end of the Dead Sea. His grandfather had converted to Judaism after their territory had been annexed to Judea in the first century BCE. Jesus came from the Galilee, a region on the fringes only recently “converted” to Judaism but still with a large population of non-Jews. From Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture, both would have appeared somewhat marginal, although few would have dared say so to Herod. The dominant political power, however, was Rome, which came with an entirely different set of religious myths and cultural ideals. Rome was entering its heyday of political and cultural domination, under the first emperor, Caesar Augustus. Inscriptions, coins, and popular literature spelled it out: this was the new golden age of Rome, and Augustus was the shining beacon of Rome’s power and prestige. The slogan was “Pax Romana” (Roman Peace) or “Pax Augusta” (Augustan Peace). Page 13
How do you see the diversity of cultures in First Century Israel reflected in the New Testament? Given this diversity of cultures, what do you think Jesus was trying to accomplish in his ministry?
Perhaps the best way to encapsulate the complex history of this period is to think of it in terms of a series of political crises that were met with (and sometimes fueled by) religious responses. The four crises are easily identified by outbreaks of war that centered in an around Jerusalem itself. . .
1. Destruction of the First Temple and Babylonian Exile: 586 BCE
The destruction of the First Temple and the exile to Babylon really spell the end of the ancient nation of Israel. The Kingdom of Judah was dissolved and with it the throne of David and Solomon. The Persians then conquered the Babylonians in 539 BCE, making both the former region of Judah and the captured Israelites vassals. Although not all Israelites were taken captive, a core group that had gone to Babylon would return under Persian rule to reestablish the Temple at Jerusalem. This is the beginning of what is called the Second Temple period in Jewish history. During this period of Persian rule a number of reforms and new social organizations were instituted, including a new priestly organization of the Temple and the beginnings of a rift with other indigenous Israelites of the region, notably those later known as Samaritans.
2. Hellenistic Crisis and Maccabean Revolt: 167-164 BCE
Alexander the Great conquered the last Persian king in 331 BCE, thus bringing the Jewish province of Judah under the control of Greek empires. In 198 BCE, Judea came under control of the Seleucid kingdom, the Hellenistic monarchy of Syria. This shift to Seleucid control produced new social and religious tensions, even though the culture remained Greek. In 167 BCE these tensions erupted in the Maccabean revolt, after the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus IV, desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. What followed were several years of guerilla warfare until the Jewish partisans, led by Judas Maccabee (“the Hammer”), managed to recapture and rededicate the Temple. It was commemorated in the books of the Maccabees and by the introduction of Hanukkah to celebrate the rededication of the Temple.
The triumph of the Maccabean forces resulted in the emergence of a new dynastic kingdhip from the descendants of Judas Maccabeus, called the Hasmonean dynasty from his family name. Hasmonean kings ruled Judea from 143 to 40 BCE, when Herod the Great was named king by Rome.
3. First Jewish Revolt Against Rome and Destruction of the Second Temple: 66 -74 CE
Herod ruled Judea as a client king to Rome from 40 to 4 BCE. The period of Roman rule was prosperous for Judea, but not without internal upheaval. After Herod’s death Judea was partitioned into smaller units and eventually brought under military governorship, beginning in 6 BCE; it resulted in new revolutionary groups, many of them with strong religious claims.
Escalating tensions resulted in an outbreak of rebellion against the Romans in 66 CE. The city of Jerusalem was captured in 70 CE after a devastating siege, and the Temple was once again destroyed. This even marks the end of the Second Temple period.
The ensuing political and social reconstruction of Judea would result, by the end of the century, in a marked demographic shift to the northern regions of the country. Out of this reconstruction a new group, the Pharisees, would emerge as the leadership in religious as well as political matters. This is the beginning of rabbinic Judaism. It is also the period (after the destruction of Jerusalem) during which the Christian Gospels were written.
4. Second Jewish Revolt (Bar Kochba) Against Rome: 132 – 135 CE
Even after the debacle of the first revolt, a resurgence of revolutionary nationalism arose during the reign of Hadrian. A figure by the name of Simeon bar Kosibah, but commonly known as Bar Kochba, announced that he was the new “king messiah” of a free Israel and took control of Jerusalem. Roman armies were sent to quell the disturbance and proved to be particularly devastating in rooting out insurgents in the southern part of Judea.
From the middle to the end of the second century the focus of religious and social reconstruction would shift entirely to the Galilean region and to the leadership of the rabbis. Among the leadership of the rabbis of this period was Judah the Prince. Around 200 CE, Judah oversaw the compilation of a new set of social and religious tractates and codes, the Mishna, for the governance of Jewish faith and life. It was also during this period that the Christian movement would make its final break with Judaism. The two sects would now go their separate and often inimical ways. (pages 17 – 19)
Of these periods of Jewish history which ones do you know the most? Which ones do you know the least? Do you recognize in any of these periods of history important influences on the message of Jesus and the development of the Christian faith?
A second result of the shift to procuratorial rule in Judea provides an even more direct connection to the story of Jesus. . .
. . . It is most likely that a Roman procurator would have viewed any political subversion as an immediate threat. This seems to be the grounds for Jesus’ arrest and execution. . . The Jewish philosopher Philo, a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, specifically says that Pilate frequently executed prisoners without even giving them a trial and was infamous for his general savagery.
What this survey demonstrates is the diverse but radical array of political and religious activity that proliferated in an increasing spiral in the decades leading up to the first revolt . . . Under the later Hasmoneans and even more after Herod, there appears to have been a growing economic rift between the landed aristocracy (including both Jews and non-Jews) and the rural masses (predominantly Jews). There also was a rift between urban centers and rural village life. It was once typical to lump all these rebellious activities together and, based on Josephus, simply to call them all “Zealots.” It is the case rather, that a number of different currents of radical activity are reflected, each with greater or lesser degrees of religious motivation or self-understanding.
Where does Jesus fit in all this? How many messiahs should we expect to find? Some have seen Jesus as a representative of the Zealot movement, while others have seen him as more of a prophet type or a social reformer. Passages in the Gospels themselves can be used to support either view, and it seems that the early Christians often puzzled over the issue of Jesus’ own political aims. Although there are distinct beliefs and expectations for the various reformers and rebels, there does appear to have been an underlying urgency for many Jews of that day based on notions that radical changes were about to break into history for the Jewish nation. (pages 32 – 39)
1. Ezekias (Gk for Hezekiah): a “robber” chief in Galilee (along the Syrian border); captured and executed by Herod the Great while he was governor of Galilee under the reign of Antipater ca 47/46 BCE.
2. Judas of Galilee (aka “Judas the Galilean,” Judas of Gamala): son of Ezekias (no. 1 above); he led revolts in Galilee after the death of Herod and, especially during the unrest arising around the tax census under Quirinius (6 CE), imposed after the ethnarch Archelaus was deposed. He is termed by Josephus the “founder” of the Zealots. Antiquities 20.102, 18.4ff; also referred to in the speech of Gamaliel in Acts 5:37.
3. Zaddok: a Pharisee who joined the cause of Judas the Galilean (no. 2 above) in open rebellion against the “slavery” of Roman taxation; he called for a national uprising to achieve independence. Antiquities 18.3-10, 23-25.
4. Theudas: a self-styled prophet (called an impostor, goes by Josephus) who “persuaded the majority of the masses to take up their possessions and follow him to the Jordan River.” Cuspius Fadus, the governor of Judea (44 –ca. 46 CE), sent mounted troops to disperse the gathering. Many of the followers were killed; Theudas himself was captured and beheaded. Antiquities 20.97f.; also mentioned in speech of Gamaliel in Acts 5:36.
5. James and Simon: sons of Judas the Galilean (no. 2 above) who were tried and executed (by crucifixion, presumably on the charge of insurrection) by the Roman procurator Tiberias Julius Alexander (ca46-68 CE). Tiberius Alexander was himself a Jew by birth (the nephew of Philo of Alexandria) who had renounced his faith in order to enter the Roman bureaucracy. Antiquities 20.102.
6. Eleazar Son of Dinaeus: rebel (or brigand) leader who had been ravaging the Judean countryside for many years; captured by the Roman governor Antonius Felix (ca52-55) and sent to Rome for execution. Antiquities 20.16of.; Jewish War 2.253.
7. The Sicarii (or “Knife-wielders”): a “new” brand of brigand, says Josephus, who became prominent during the administrations of Felix (ca 52-60) and Festus (60-62). Also, sicarii are credited with the first raid on the fortress of Masada to make it a rebel base. Antiquities 20.162ff.; Jewish War 2.254-57; 4.400-405.
8. “The Egyptian:” a self-styled prophet from Egypt (called an imposter, goes by Josephus) who under Felix (in 55 CE) led masses of the common people out to the Mount of Olives, where he promised to show wonders, in particular that he could command the walls of the city to fall down so that they could storm the city (and make him King). Felix dispatched a cavalry unit to attack the mob, and many were killed; however, “the Egyptian” escaped. Antiquities 20.168-72; Jewish War 2.262-65. Apparently, fears of rumors of his continued activity circulated on occasion thereafter, for (according to Acts 21:38) Paul was mistaken for “the Egyptian at the time of his arrest in Jerusalem (ca 58-60) after he stirred up a riot during the reign of Felix.
9. Eleazar: son of the high priest Ananias; during the governorship of Gessius Florus (64-66) he set the stage for the revolt of 66 by persuading the priests to refuse all gifts from non-Jews, which meant that the daily sacrifice on behalf of the Emperor could no longer be offered. Jewish War 2.409ff.
10. Jesus son of Ananias: a peasant who just before the war began to go daily to the Temple and cry out an oracle of doom: “A voice from the East a voice from the West. . . a voice against Jerusalem and the Temple.” He was arrested but released after being severely beaten by the Romans; he was viewed as a maniac, but loner and thus no threat. Jewish War 6.301-9.
11. Menahem: son of Judas the Galilean (no. 2 above) who joined the revolt by leading a band in a raid on Jerusalem after raiding the armory at Masada. Marching on Jerusalem, with Menahem “like a veritable king,” the band stormed the palace. After killing some of the Roman soldiers (following their surrender), Menahem became the leader of the insurrection in the city, but he was soon killed by the group led my Eleazar (no. 9 above). Jewish War 2.443-49, 442 ff.
12. Eleazar Son of Jairus: a cousin of Menahem (no. 11 above) who took over the leadrship of the rebels during the final siege of Jerusalem and led the survivors to Masada for the last stand (70-74). Jewish War 7.253.
13. John of Gischala: Galilean rebel leader who came to Jerusalem during the war, creating a second faction. Followers were called the “Galileans.” He was captured and executed in 70. Jewish War 4.84ff., 538-63.
14. Simon Bar Giora: a guerilla chief who joined the sicarii at Masada and continued to raid in southern Judea and finally marched on Jerusalem. Jewish War 4.503ff.
15. Eleazar: son of Simon, a Zealot leader during the early stages of the war. Eleazar led the Zealots in a revolt against John of Gischala (no. 13 above), thus creating a third rebel faction in the city. Eleazar led the group occupying the Temple at the final siege but at the last Roman assault he was joined by John of Gischala. Jewish War 5.5ff.
Does this list of “messiahs” of the First Century offer you any insight into Jesus as the “messiah?” Do you believe Jesus had any political intentions as a leader of a spiritual movement? Despite Jesus’ teaching about non-violence, why do you think the authorities “feared” him enough to put him to death? What passages in the gospels do you think best illuminate Jesus in the role of the messiah?
Chapter 3: Religion and Society in the Roman World
For a villager from Galilee in the first century CE, Rome’s presence loomed large. . . Roman expansion began in the third century BCE, but the high-water mark of imperialism was the reign of Augustus (29 BCE – 14 CE). . . The result was a “global economy”. . .
Management of so large an empire required an efficient system of travel and communication in order to maintain the flow of goods and services throughout the far-flung provinces.
Two countervailing cultural tendencies accompanied the Pax Romana: as people and ideas spread out from Rome, so also newcomers were drawn to the capitol from conquered territories. We may properly call this the centrifugal force of Roman rule, as it tended to propel people, ideas, and traditions away from the center — from Rome – toward the periphery. We may also properly call this cultural imperialism.
Traveling in the opposite direction were provincials moving across the empire. . . We may properly call this the centripetal force of Roman rule, as “diasporas” from all over the empire were drawn there, often crowding together in their own neighborhood enclaves. With them they brought their own culture, traditions, and religion, but at the same time they had to find ways to fit in.
From its earliest stages, the Christian movement would also have had to face these same forces. The life of Jesus was set entirely in the region of broader Judea under Herodian and Roman rule. His execution occurred under the provincial authority of a Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Jesus was a victim of the centrifugal force of Pax Romana.
Governing both of these currents of interaction was Roman cultural ideology. It is couched in many different terms and symbols of Roman rule, but one stands out above the rest – Pax Romana. . . the Romans coveted peace; however, the word “peace” meant far more than just a condition of relative tranquility or an absence of outright warfare. Instead, it was the code word or symbol for an ideology; it meant bringing Roman culture and administration to all parts of the world. It was a kind of religiously motivated propaganda campaign for Roman life and values. Yet bringing peace might well mean “keeping the peace” or “pacification,” that is, using military force to put down disturbances or resistance. As a slogan “Pax Romana” carried many of the same resonances as the American slogan from the Cold War era: “making the world safe for democracy.” It propelled bureaucrats and traders to extol the virtues of Roman rule in the far-flung provinces. At the same time it compelled the conquered provincials to accommodate to Roman rule and mores as well as drawing many of them toward Rome itself. (pp. 40-43)
How important do you think Roman culture was to the formation of the New Testament? Do you think Jesus was trying to resist the impact of Roman culture on Jewish society? Compare the impact of Roman culture on the ancient world to the impact of American culture on our contemporary world. Do you think the New Testament is at all relevant for understanding our contemporary situation?
More generally, however, the growth of empire and the movement stimulated by its centrifugal and centripetal forces produced some notable effects in the character of Greco-Roman religion. One of these is “syncretism” which means a flowing together of different currents of thought and practice. But syncretism in no way began with Rome’s conquests, at least not where the Middle East was concerned. Syria, Judea, and Egypt had first been dominated by the Babylonians and then by the Persians until Alexander the Great stormed across Turkey and down the Syro-Phoenician coast in 332 BCE. The philosopher Aristotle had already observed the impact on Greek culture, which had previously conceptualized its world on the model of the Greek polis (city-state). The Hellenistic age produced a new worldview, for both the Greeks and the conquered territories. Following the conquests of Alexander, Aristotle coined a new term: cosmopolis (world city).
After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. . . . the Ptolemaic rulers, though ethnically Greek, consciously cultivated elements of Egyptian cultural and religious tradition, which they used to enhance their own prestige. Thus they took on numerous features of the old pharaonic kingship and even coopted a version of the Isis and Osiris mythology into this new royal ideology. In the Ptolemaic adaptation, Osiris was given a new Hellenistic name, Serapis, and identified with the Greek god Zeus through a process called hyphenation. He was now worshiped as Zeus-Amon-Serapis. This is the legacy of Hellenistic syncretism, which had already been at work in the eastern Mediterranean for three centuries by the time Augustus was declared emperor in 29 BCE.
The Romans took very naturally to the process and dopted many of the prevailing Hellenistic elements, at least in the East. It is for this reason that we may speak of a “Greco-Roman”world at all, although what this term really signifies is the Hellenistic culture of the East that Rome inherited and future “Romanized.” (pages 46-47)
As the world under Alexander and then under Roman rule became more “cosmopolitan” there was a mixing of religious and cultural heritages. How do you think this impacted Israel of the First Century? Can we see any elements of this “mixing” in the ministry of Jesus? How do you think this mixing may have influenced the development of Christianity? Do you see any parallels between the development of a cosmopolitan culture in ancient times and “globalization” today? What parallels can you see between the syncretism of the ancient world and the development of new age religion today?
The civic function of religion was extended under the influence of the Pax Romana through what is usually called the imperial cult. It took the form of worship or divine honors paid either to the emperor himself or to Roma, the personification of the city of Rome as a deity. It had already begun during the reign of Augustus, especially in the eastern provinces. Remember that Herod the Great built three temples dedicated to Roma and Augustus in his Judean Kingdom. Even during Augustus’s reign traditional Roman religion would have frowned on declaring a living human to be divine. So at Rome it was more typical to refer to Augustus as divi filius, “son of god,” with “god” referring to Julius Caesar, who had been deified after his death.
In the eastern provinces, however, this distinction was less an issue for several reasons. First, in the ancient Near East, notions of divine kingship were more common place, as reflected in ancient Egyptian culture, in which the pharaohs were considered to be gods. Second, Greek tradition (in both Greece and Anatolia) also had local “hero cults”; these “heroes” were humans who had been accorded divine or semi-divine status for their mighty deeds and great virtue. Third, through syncretism these ideas had already passed into the Hellenistic culture. . . And last this Hellenistic appropriation was facilitated by the divine status accorded to Alexander the Great both in stories of his birth and in his status after death.
One of the ways the imperial cult was reflected in Roman religion was in the notion of a divine apotheosis of the emperor at death (ie., deification or, more literally, a “godding away” to heaven). Julius Caesar had been deified in this manner. . . . Roman emperors, however, would show even less restraint in accepting or adopting divine status for themselves while still alive. During the First Century CE, Caligula (37-41), Nero (54-68), and Domitian (81-96) were criticized for such megalomania, but in later centuries it became more common. In the eastern empire, it was common to incorporate imperial cult processions into local religious festivals and to offer sacrifice and signs of reverence for the emperor and deified Roma were signs of loyalty (pietas) to Rome. Such worship of the emperor, however, would become a scandal to Christians in Ephesus during the reign of Domitian. (pages 49-50)
John Dominic Crossan has suggested that the early church adopted the titles for Caesar from the Imperial cult and applied them to Jesus as a way of placing themselves at odds with the Roman Empire. The Romans said, “Caesar is Lord, the son of God,” the Christians said, “Jesus is Lord, the son of God.” Do you think the church’s appropriation of Imperial cult titles for Jesus at all influenced the development of the church’s theology, especially applied to Jesus? As the church became more Gentile and less Jewish how do you think this affected their use of the Imperial cult titles for Jesus? To what extent do you think Christianity was par to the syncretistic tendencies of Roman culture?
Despite the more rationalistic tendencies that one sees among the philosophers, the personal religion of most people, rich and poor alike, was governed by the cycle of observances at local temple dedicated to a plethora of different gods. It was a numinous world with supernatural forces all around, and one dared not show a lack of proper reverence for fear of retribution . . . The magical arts were a very prominent part of religion for the people of antiquity. Magical ideas and practices were central to their knowledge and assumptions combining both empirical science and religious beliefs – of how the cosmos was held together and how it worked. For this reason we may call their perspective a “magical worldview.”. . .
In the strict sense, magic refers to procedures whereby one is able by means of special rites, formulas, or incantations to prompt supernatural forces into action. Ordinary people just called them “miracles” or “wonders.” The supernatural forces were usually called demons (Greek daimon; Latin genius) and could be good or bad, as with the divine spirit that was said to guide Socrates.
In many respects, demons were to the ancient world what germs are to us today. They were invisible, powerful, necessary, and yet disruptive; when they infected one’s body in the wrong way, it caused sickness. So they had to be controlled or at least managed as much as possible. This is what we call apotropaic magic; it used spells and incantations as well as amulets and other devices to ward off demons or, if one was already infected, to expel them. The numerous exorcism miracles found in the Gospels and Acts reflects this type of magic. (pages 53-54)
Does this explanation of the “magical worldview” help in understanding some of the miracle stories associated with Jesus? What do you think of the analogy between demons and germs? How do you think this world view influenced the development of Christianity?
The “New” Mystery Cults of the Greco-Roman World
The Egyptian Cults of Isis and Osiris (Serapis)
Original context: ancient Egypt (from ca. 3500 BCE)
Osiris (male): god of the Nile river and vegetative cycle, also of underworld/death; killed and
dismembered by an enemy (Seth); typically called Serapis in Greek and Roman usage, and
often identified with Zeus.
Isis (female): sister/consort of Osiris, who restored and revived him miraculously in order to sire
a son, Horus
Founded as both public cult and as private “mystery”
Initially outlawed at Rome, but eventually made “official” in mid-first century CE
One of the most popular in the Roman world
The Great Mother (Magna Mater)
Original context: Anatolia/Phrygia (central Turkey; from ca. 6000 BCE)
Cybele (female): source of fertility in plants and animals
Attis (male): a shepherd and consort; killed and revived (in some versions he is emasculated)
Had associations with Mt. Ida, near Troy
Was accepted at Rome in 203 BCE
Had both public and private versions of cultic activity
Major festival day March 25 (the Spring equinox and, in later Christian tradition the feast of the
Annunciation to Mary regarding the birth of Jesus), on which there was a public procession
A major ritual for priests, called the taurobolium, involved a kind of “baptism”
in the blood of a bull
The Syrian Goddess
Original context: Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine (from ca. 2000 BCE)
Atargattis (female): a combination of Asherah/Astarte and Anat from older Near Eastern myth
Hadad (male): also known as Ba’al, her consort; killed by evil gods; rescued and revived by
Affinities and amalgamation with both Cybele and Isis myths and symbolism
More popular in eastern Mediterranean
Mithras, “the Persian God”
Original context: known from older Hindu (Avesta) and Zoroastrian myth; came into Greek
world through Persian contacts (sixth – fourth century BCE0; however the “mystery cult”
form was a later innovation of Roman period (second century CE)
Mithras (male): slays cosmic bull and brings life/fertility back to world; consequently deified as
“savior” of humanity; later identified with “The Invincible Sun”
Employed numerous astrological elements
Birthday of Mithras December 25 (winter solstice and, of course, Christmas in Christian
tradition, the celebration of the birth of Jesus)
Secretive and known for communal dining; especially popular among Roman soldiers. (pages 64 & 65)
What aspects of these mystery cults were similar to Christian Faith? How many of these mystery cults had female gods? What are the attractions of female gods? What role do you think these mystery cults played in the development of Christian Faith? At the time that Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the Empire, many people believed that Mithras should have become the religion of the Empire. How might history have been different?
Chapter 4: Judaism at Home and Abroad
The change in character of Judaism began in the period after the Babylonian exile, even though some of its roots came before. The first group of exiles returned home in 538 BCE. By about 520-515 they had set about restoring Solomon’s Temple, which had been destroyed in 586 BCE. Some references suggest that this first restoration work was piecemeal at best (Zech. 4:10). Consequently, when other returnees arrived decades later, tensions arose over the state of the temple and how it was to be run. Still other exiles stayed in Babylon for several more generations before returning to Judea. It seems that many of them were horrified at the state of affairs: the Temple was virtually deserted and the exilic “colony” in Jerusalem was near collapse. (Nehemiah 13:10-22). The result was a more thoroughgoing reform of the Temple and the priesthood along the lines that had developed during the long period in Babylon. Nehemiah, who led the late-fifth-century rebuilding of Jerusalem, was from the fifth generation of his family to live in Babylon. The religious figure most closely associated with the reform was Ezra, who only returned to Judea sometime in the last part of the fifth century or at the beginning of the fourth century BCE, that is, more than a century after the first returnees and nearly two centuries after the destruction of the Temple. (pages 67 – 68)
Most Christians do not spend much time studying the period of Jewish History after the Babylonian Exile. How important do you think this period was to the development of the Jewish culture at the time of Jesus? The stories of the Old Testament under went their final editing during this Post-Exilic period of Jewish History. How do you think the struggle to re-establish a Jewish community in Israel affected the editing of the sacred texts?
The Growth of Sectarianism
What resulted was the consolidation of a new priestly order in the Temple; beginning in the early fourth century BCE, it lasted until the Temple was once again destroyed in 70 CE. At the same time, this imposition of a new order also reflects other tensions over religious operations and the beginnings of religious sectarianism in Judaism. Many of these tensions are seen in the later literature of the Hebrew scriptures (Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah 6-10, and Isaiah 56-66). This is also the period during which the Samaritans emerged as a separate ethnoreligious group. The Samaritans claimed direct ancestry from the ancient Israelites; however, they were not accepted by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who referred to themselves as “the congregation of the exile.” Each side had a different view of what happened and why, but the religious and ethnic tensions between Jews and Samaritans continued into the Roman period and later history.
At the center of the debates stood the Temple as the symbol of both national and religious identity. At issue was how the Torah (or law of Moses) should be understood in governing the Temple’s operations and the daily life of the people. . . New prophets appeared, and new scriptures were produced to reinforce these religious ideas. These same issues would continue to bubble to the surface in all the sectarian debates of later periods. In the meantime the Judean “colony” continued to grow and expand in the region immediately around Jerusalem.
The Impact of Hellenization
From 538 to 332 BCE, Judea remained a colonial outpost under Persian rule. With the conquest of Alexander the Great, Judea now came under Greek domination. From 323 to 198 BCE it was part of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt. There seem to have been few religious upheavals during this period, since the Ptolemies treated Judea as a Temple state and thus left much of its internal administration to the priestly authorities. Jerusalem continued to grow.
In 198/197 BCE, however, the region of Judea was taken over by the Seleucids, the Greek kingdom of Syria. The Seleucid regime did not give the Temple in Jerusalem as much autonomy; it began to enforce more stringent forms of Hellenistic culture while curtailing certain aspects of Jewish religious practice. . . By 175 BCE, there were serious debates among the Jews over whether to accommodate to Seleucid cultural impositions or to resist. . . Eventually the situation exploded into the Maccabean revolt (167-164 BCE); it resulted in a new era of independent Jewish rule under the Hasmonean monoarchy.
When the Maccabean revolt ended, however, sectarian tensions remained. Some groups notably a conservative faction known as the Hasidim (or “pious ones”), were adamantly opposed to the Seleucid intrusions into Jewish religious practice. . . it appears, the felt the Hasmonean rulers did more to promote Hellenistic culture than to resist it and disagreed over appointment of the high priest (I Macc. 7:12-18). The book of Daniel may well be a product of the Hasidic sect penned during the war. . . The book of Daniel also reflects the growth of a new religious outlook that combines resistance to Hellenism with influences from Hellentistic thought and culture to form a new Jewish worldview we call apocalyptic. (pages 68-69)
The Jewish world of the First Century was divided into many different expressions of Judaism. American Protestantism might be analogous. There were many different religious groups magnifying their differences in order to stand out from the others. Just as in Protestant America today, congregations attempt cultivate a public by emphasizing their unique gifts, so many different religious movements competed for the loyalty of the Jewish people. We might also think of Hellenization as a cultural movement somewhat similar to the modern phenomena of consumerism and globalization. Hellenization was the development of a world culture. Greek was the common language somewhat like English has become the common language of our 21st Century. Some social groups in First Century Israel supported Hellenization others opposed it. Where do you think Jesus and his followers fit into the sectarian picture in Israel? Do you think Jesus would have supported or opposed “Hellenization?” How do you think Paul fit into the movement toward Hellenization?
The Rise of Apocalyptic
The roots of Jewish apocalyptic go back to the Persian period and may be seen in some of the alter writings of the Hebrew scriptures, especially Ezekiel and Isaiah 56-66. Among other things these writings look forward to the return of theocratic rule in Judea as a kind of new “golden age.” Persian influences may also be seen in the sharpening of lines between good and evil forces. Known as “dualism,” this idea has often been traced to Zoroastrianism, the dominant religious tradition of Persia after the sixth century. Even so, none of these elements alone constitutes full-blown apocalyptic. . .
Instead, the rise of apocalyptic thinking in Judaism may be traced to the latter half of the third century BCE, while Judea was still under Persian control. It combined elements of new astronomical investigations from Greek science, the legacy of Persian and Egyptian influences, and basic Jewish theological convictions about the unity and power of the creator God of Israel. Older forms of Near Eastern and Hebrew creation mythology were reinterpreted. One of these was a combat myth in which the slaying of a cosmic serpent or sea monster resulted in the formation of the earth. Its symbols came to be seen as representing God’s eventual deliverance of the chosen people by defeating Israel’s enemies. The result was a new kind of cosmological reflection on the nature of the universe that looked back to biblical traditions to understand both present and future conditions. In turn, these new ideas were expressed in a new genre of literature, which came to be known as the apocalypse. From about 225 BCE to 200 CE, more than twenty new works of this genre were written by Jews and Christians. . .
. . . Of the many Jewish and Christian works from this genre, the best known is the book of Revelation. . . An apocalypse is a type of literature that offers “revelations” about the past and the future. . .
Usually the revelations come in the form of visions or dreams that are delivered to a righteous person, typically by and angel. The recipient. . . seems to be recounting what has been revealed about “future events,” at least what was “future” at that earlier time. In reality, however, the time of composition of most of these works is much later than the fictional setting of the “visionary”; usually, the end point of the “future” predictions is very close to the present time of the audience. This type of writing in the name of another person from a past time is often called “pseudepigraphy.” It was quite common in antiquity, but was not considered a form of forgery or deception. . .
According to most scholars the first example of the genre of apocalypse in its fully developed form is the Jewish text known as I Enoch.
. . . By extension, then, the drama of I Enoch 6-11 focuses on the actions of the “sons of God”; however, now they are identified as the heavenly luminaries or “stars,” also called “angels,” who rebelled against God’s order and raped human women.
The leader of this rebellion is the angel called either Semyaz or Azaz’el – one of the first forms of the Satan figure. As a result of his actions he was cast out of heaven and bound in a pit under the earth.
. . . Although it was never included in any of the official biblical cannon lists, it was clearly one of the most revered and influential texts in all of the early Jewish and Christian traditions. . . It’s story of the “fall of the angels” was the source for many of the later apocalyptic legends about Satan as seen in both the New Testament itself (Luke 10:17-18; 2 Peter2:4; Jude 5-6, 14-15) and other early Christian literature. In other words, by the early Middle Ages it was so deeply ingrained in the fabric of early Christian lore, it held a “quasi-canonical” status by serving as an interpretive filter for Genesis 5-9. What gave the story such currency was the way it explained the origins of evil in the world while simultaneously preserving the absolute unity and power of the One God of Israel. As a result of its wide dissemination, therefore, I Enoch – perhaps as much as any other single piece of literature – helped to inscribe the apocalyptic worldview on Jewish and Christian consciousness.
The Apocalyptic World View
The main message of I Enoch revolves around understanding the order that God created in the universe and living according to that order. It calls for both deeper commitment to the laws of God and deeper trust that God will prevail over the alien forces of evil. What sets apocalyptic thinking apart is how it casts these theological ideas in the form of a new mythological drama stretching from creation and emphasizing the ultimate power of the One God of Israel. Yet in the process it also creates a new cast of heavenly characters for this cosmic drama. These include angels (as the heavenly luminaries), who then divide into good and bad (in later terms becoming angels and demons), the Satan figure as the rebellious angel who wars against God, and the realms of heaven and hell. All these elements that are so central to the Jewish and Christian tradition in the first centuries CE are innovations of apocalyptic thinking. Apocalyptic defined the universe in ways that were consistent with earlier Jewish theology and at the same time coherent in the light of new forms of Greek thought. What was created was a new view of reality, or what we may call the apocalyptic worldview. . .
This sense of history moving according to a divine plan toward its scripted, teleological outcome also produces the Western notion of linear time. It results in another characteristic concept in Jewish and Christian theology, namely, an expectation regarding “end times” called eschatology. . . Harking back to the Near Eastern combat myth, this eschatological break was often conceived as a final battle between the forces of God and Satan. From this notion also came the idea that a warrior figure, like David of old, would come to lead the triumph over the forces of evil. . . the fiture is quite often given the title messiah (or anointed one), which also comes from the kingship ideology of the Davidic dynasty. (pages 72-73)
How do you think this Apocalyptic World View affected Jesus’ ministry? The early church developed its own understanding of “eschatology.” Do you think the church’s eschatology and Jesus’ eschatology for the same? The Book of Revelation represents the most developed apocalyptic book of the New Testament. Do you think the Christ presented in Revelation is consistent with the Jesus in the Gospels? What do you think attracts people to an Apocalyptic World View? What in our culture today has triggered the apocalyptic thinking represented by the “Left Behind” series and many conservative fundamentalist groups?
The High Priests and Temple Officials
Prior to the Maccabean revolt the office of high priest was restricted to a member of the ZAdokite line that had been reestablished after the priestly reform of the Second Temple. . . Under the Hasmonean dynasty the office of high priest was combined with that of the king and held by a member of the Hasmonean family (143-40 BCE). . .
When Herod the Great became king he removed the last Hasmonean high priest (in 34 BCE) and appointed a Zadokite from Babylonian descent instead. . . which held the office successively for nearly thirty years until the removal of Archelaus in 6 CE. Soon thereafter Quirinius, the legate of Syria, appointed Annas son of Seth, and his family members would dominate the office during the first period of procuratorial rule and even down to the outbreak of the first revolt. . . It appears that he and his descendants were kept in office by the procurators because they were willing to collaborate with Roman rule. Hence the office of high priest was important religiously but was often used as a political tool. (pages 75-76)
The High Priestly family was always working its own political thing. What do you think the Temple Leadership’s attitude would have been toward Jesus and then the early church?
Does the collaboration with the Romans suggest why Jesus and even some of the common folks may have been opposed to the Temple leadership?
. . . prior to 70 CE the Sanhedrin was, in effect, the city council of Jerusalem; it had judicial as well as legislative authority but was not a “religious” governing body per se. . . it appears that this body was organized only during the later Hasmonean period on the model of the Greek city administration. Under the early Romans, the entire country was divided into five administrative districts, each of which had its own sunedria; after Herod’s reign only the Jerusalem council continued to function. Even so, it is not clear that its authority extended much if at all, beyond the city of Jerusalem.
. . . The council’s membership was made up of leading citizens, mostly of the aristocratic, landholding class, however, the actual number of members is not known. At times the high priest presided over the council, but that does not seem to be the normal structure. Nor is it the case that particular groups or sects, including priests, were given any representative status in the council. . . (pages 76-77)
Is this description of the Sanhedrin consistent with the New Testament’s presentation of the Sanhedrin?
By all ancient accounts the Sadducees were a dominant group, both politically and religiously, in Jerusalem in the period before 70 CE. . . By the later Hasmoean period, however, the term ceases to be limited to the priesthood. Instead, the picture suggests the well-entrenched, landholding aristocracy of Jerusalem, some of whom might have been from priestly families. . .
The Sadducees seem to be closely linked to the Sanhedrin and to the Hasmonean dynasty. Herod undercut their influence by disrupting the economic position of the old aristocracy of Jerusalem and Judea, and also by appointing high priests who were not from Jerusalem. The Sadducee’s continued domination of the Sanhedrin after Herod’s death may account for the political challenges to Archelaus that come from the Jerusalem leadership. Josephus does indicate that the high priest Ananus (ca. 62 CE, a descendant of Annas) was a Sadducee. Hence, tacit support for Roman administration may account for an increased posture for the Sadducees and closer alignment with the high priest during the period of procuratorial rule.
Both Josephus and the Gospels describe the Sadducees as a conservative group that rejected certain “newer” theological and philosophical ideas. Specifically they are noted for rejecting the role of Fate in human life as well as belief in afterlife and resurrection of the dead. In some ways the ideas they rejected are closely associated with Greek thought and influence, and their opposition would be consistent with some of the conservative reactions that surfaced during the Maccabean revolt. (pages 77-78)
The Sadducees were the landed aristocracy and the Temple authorities. It is probably no accident that debt records were kept in the Temple, and that during this period large landed estates were being consolidated by foreclosing on small farmers who could not pay their debts. Does this help to understand the resentment of the Jesus and the common people toward the Sadducees? Can you see any parallels between Jesus’ opposition to the Sadducees and the sub-prime mortgage mess in America today?
Both Josephus and the Gospels portray the Pharisees as the chief opposition group to the Sadducees; however, their connection to the later development of the rabbinic movement has led to many misconceptions regarding their position in the time of Jesus. . . Most recent scholars think they originated out of the Hasidim, conservatives protesting against the Hasmonean leadership in the period after the Maccabean revolt.
In any event, by the time of Herod the Great, they had largely lost their political edge and turned primarily to matters of religious interpretation and fellowship. Within Pharisaism there emerged different schools of interpretation, such as those associated with the teachers Hillel and Shammai, contemporaries of Herod the Great. The most common self-designation for a Pharisee was “associate” (haber); they regularly gathered in a small group, called a “fellowship” (haburah), where they practiced communal dining and study under the guidance of a teacher.
Three key features of their theology set the Pharisees apart. First, they had a broader view of scripture, as reflected in a characteristic phrase, “the Law and the Prophets” (cf Matt. 5:17). The Jewish canon that comes down to us today consisting of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, comes from this Pharisaic tradition as developed in later rabbinic Judaism. Thus, their belief in the afterlife and resurrection of the dead (cf Matt. 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27) was grounded in the later scriptures, notably Daniel, Ezekiel, and 4 Maccabees.
Second, they accepted a broader mode of interpretation that augmented a limited or literal reading of Torah with oral tradition. . .
Third, they stressed a broader sense of ritual purity that the one that was traditionally restricted to the Temple cult. This idea was thought of as “making the Torah livable” and was concerned with making purity a practical part of daily life. Many Pharisaic purity regulations thus concerned domestic activity. They transformed the notion of the sacred by associating it with the group that keeps itself pure. . . not just in the Temple. . . but daily in the home, in the midst of an unclean world.
For this reason the Pharisees represent a “populist” orientation toward piety, in contrast to the “elitist” orientation associated with the Sadducees and the priests. (pages 79-80)
How do you think Jesus and his disciples fit in with the Pharisees? Most of the criticism of the Pharisees in the Gospels comes from a time in the early church when the church and the synagogue were parting company. How do you think the church might have been different, if the rivalry between Christians and Pharisees had not arisen? Is it at all reasonable to assume that that rivalry would not have arisen?
Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Like the Pharisees, the Essenes originated as a protest against the Hasmonean dynasty, probably in the last part of the second century BCE. The nature of their protest appears to have been a reaction to the Hasmonean monarchs taking over the office of high priest. Indeed, allusions in some of the scrolls indicate that their founder or leader was known as the “righteous teacher”; he was probably a member of the Zadokite priestly line who was disenfranchised by a Hasmonean, who is called “the wicked priest.” Other references suggest that the “righteous teacher” was persecuted or even killed for opposing the Hasmoneans. Sometime thereafter, his followers fled Jerusalem and established a settlement at Qumran. Calling themselves the “covenanters,” they sought to establish a pure priestly community to carry on the Zadokite traditions and to prepare for their return to Jerusalem to repurify the Temple.
On the basis of archaeological evidence, it appears that the Qumran settlement remained active throughout the Hasmonean period but declined under Herod. . . Herod was an ally of sorts, since he removed the last Hasmonean high priests and replaced them with Zadokites from Babylon. An earthquake in 31 BCE severely damaged the Qumran settlement, and it seems to have been abandoned through the remained of Herod’s reign.
With the shift to procuratorial rulein 6 CE, however, it appears that Roman meddling in the appointment of the high priest Annas was viewed as a new crisis. The settlement was rebuilt, and a new phase of life of the Essene community began. Its heated attacks on the Temple and the priesthood during this period were strongly laced with anti-Roman rhetoric. In 68 CE the Essenes were evidently annihilated and their settlement burned, when they marched out to fight the Roman armies during the first Jewish revolt. They clearly believed that the revolt was the eschatological battle in which God would destroy the enemies of Israel and restore the Temple. .
Essene theology was heavily apocalyptical. In particular, it expected the imminent arrival of two Messiahs. One, called the “Messiah of Israel,” was to be from the line of David; he would lead the war against the enemies and restore the kingdom. Having done so, he would then yield to the other, called the “Messiah of Aaron.”. . . There have been numerous attempts to link Jesus and John the Baptist with the Essenes, but there is no evidence of any connection other than a sharing of the broad streams of Jewish apocalyptic thought. (pages 80-83)
In what ways would John the Baptist and Jesus have fit into the Essene Community’s theology? How did they differ?
Zealots and Other Groups
. . . Most Jews did not belong to any particular group or sect, and they went about their daily lives and religious observance with little concern for theological wranglings. . .
. . . (The Zealots) represent a diverse and growing spirit of social banditry and revolutionary sentiment probably coming through very different motivations and types of people. Some of them clearly had genuine religious convictions and apocalyptic expectations about the arrival of a new kingdom; others made explicit messianic claims. Josephus says . . . (the Zealots) were the real force behind the disastrous first revolt. (pages 83-84)
Do you think Jesus could in any way be described as a zealot? There were followers of Jesus who were described as zealots. What do you think attracted them to Jesus?
Judaism in the Diaspora
The Greek term diaspora means “scattering” or “dispersion.” It refers to Jews who lived outside the homeland, effectively beginning with those Judeans who were taken away to exile in Babylon. . . . The real diffusion of Jewish groups began during the Hellenistic period; by the time of the Roman Empire, there were Jewish enclaves in virtually all parts of the Mediterranean world.
Jews living in the Diaspora faced a constant pull between remaining faithful to their ethnic, cultural, and religious identity and acculturating to local society and cultural norms. Jews in the homeland also faced the issue of acculturation, but the experience is quite different for those ;of the majority group than for those living as a minority in a foreign land. . .
One accommodation was the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. This translation came to be called the Septuagint. . . In some cases the translation is more literal; in other cases, the Greek is freer and incorporates Greek ideas. Some books, such as Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah have lengthy additions composed in Greek. Other works of the Apocrypha, such as Tobit, Judith and the Wisdom of Solomon, were Greek compositions from the start.
There were many other Jewish writings in Greek, suggesting that there was a lively engaged Jewish literary and intellectual tradition in the Diaspora. The dominant language of Jews living in the Diaspora, including Rome itself, remained Greek through most of late antiquity.
Translating and writing in Greek required Jews to express themselves in new ways and to accommodate aspect of Greek philosophy and culture. At the same time, it allowed them to express Jewish traditions and ideas to their pagan neighbors in a way that would make their faith and culture more intelligible. In turn, the pagans might have become more sympathetic toward Jewish religion. (pages 86-87)
How do you think the Diaspora affected the spread of Christianity? Do you think translating Hebrew ideas into Greek affected the development of Jewish and then Christian theology?
Chapter Five: The Historical Figure of Jesus
. . . (none of the sources about Jesus) come from the time of Jesus himself. Nor are there any contemporary court records or even casual reports as to what happened. All accounts are from decades and even centuries later. Jesus himself wrote nothing and left no direct archaeological evidence on the landscape of Judea. It is as if no one really cared to keep a record at the time, but later, after the movement had started to take off, people began to reflect on Jesus’ life, what happened to him, and why. But then as time passed and the Christian movement became more organized, the “why” was increasingly the object of apologetic interests and theological interpretation. Later still, as Jews and Christians came into greater conflict over Jesus’ identity, Jewish texts take a polemical stance in order to counter Christian claims. Thus, these later sources – and here we must include the Gospels – reflect ideas and issues that were not at work in Jesus’ own day or at the time of his death. . .
So where do the Christian Gospels fit in all of this? They are without a doubt some of the earliest sources we possess regarding the life and death of Jesus. . . . they still come from a considerably later period that Jesus himself.
Dates Events Christian Writings Non Christian Writings
Before 4 BCE Birth of Jesus
ca. 26-29 CE Death of Jesus
ca. 50-60 Letters of Paul
ca. 60-64 Death of James, Peter, and Paul
64 Great Fire in Rome
66-74 First Jewish Revolt vs. Rome
ca. 69-75 Gospel of Mark
ca 80-90 Gospel of Matthew Josephus, Jewish War
ca 95 Josephus, Antiquities
ca. 90-100 Gospel of Luke, Acts
ca. 96-? Gospel of John
ca. 117 Tacitus, Annals
The gospels are not “histories” as such, at least not in any modern sense. Rather, they fall into the ancient literary category known as “lives,” such as were written of Alexander the Great and other famous people. It was quite common in such literature to embellish the story with fanciful or romantic details, some of which might not be true. Many times the sources were oral traditions, legends, and exaggerations that grew up to fit the fame or persona of the character in later times. So, for example, it became common in the later lives of Alexander the Great to attribute this birth to a miraculous conception, accompanied by a number of signs and omens, all of which were to demonstrate that this was to be a person with divine gifts and powers. A similar story later crept into some versions of Augustus’ life. . .
From a historical perspective, therefore, we must constantly be aware of several important methodological considerations when looking at the Gospels.
1. We must always be aware of when the account was written relative to the actual events that it purports to describe.
2. What is the stance or perspective from which the author is recounting the events, and is there some indication of later perspectives or new information?
3. What was the situation or purpose of the writing, and what was the account doing in its own time and later?
4. What were the sources of the author, and how were they used?
5. From there we can begin to ask whether the account is and accurate rendering of the earlier event in all respects. Or is there some sort of “spin” being put on the account that becomes more intelligible in view of the author’s situation or agenda?
In the final analysis, then, we are always asking two equally important historical questions simultaneously: What really happened? And why did a later writer tell the story of what happened in a particular way? We cannot hope to answer either question without addressing them both. In both cases. . . the most important issue will be context – the original context of an event as well as the context of those who told the story of that event in later generations. Nor is this an effort to deny the faith stance of the Gospels or to discount it in favor of some arbitrary notion of history. Quite the contrary. Only by recognizing the beliefs and goals of both the authors and their audiences can we hope to understand their writings. (pages 98 – 100)
Which of the preceding observations do you find most helpful in trying to understand the life of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels? Which of the preceding observations do you find most disturbing? What do you think of the historical accuracy of texts that were written 70 or 80 years after an event? Is there a perspective of faith that transcends the historical realities? What do you think is the difference between the history of an event and the faith stance of the Gospels?
The ancient cultures of the Middle East. . . have been called “oral cultures.”
Story telling was an oral performance medium, and story tellers were important to cultural transmission. . .
Neither Jesus nor his first disciples wrote anything. Even those Gospel materials that clearly profess to come from original disciples, such as John’s Gospel claims (John 21:24), were nonetheless written down much, much later. . . Hence, prior to the first efforts to write down any aspects of the life, teachings, miracles, and death of Jesus, there were numerous stories that must have circulated orally. The first generation of the Jesus movement seems to have relied predominantly on oral traditions about Jesus. (page 111)
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of an oral tradition? Do we have any evidence that the oral tradition at the time of Paul was different from the oral tradition, when the Gospels were finally written down?
By far the most widely accepted theory of synoptic relationships is called the Two-Source Hypothesis. It assumes that Mark was the first of the New Testament Gospels to be written down. . . Mark’s Gospel was composed from a variety of oral traditions that had been transmitted separately. By the time of Mark’s composition, they had been rendered in to Greek. Sometime later, Matthew and Luke each used Mark as a source, but did so independently of one another. This helps to account for how Matthew and Luke can move materials around in such different ways while still retaining the same basic episodes. It also explains how Matthew and Luke can add some items of unique material by suggesting that each one had its own separate line of oral tradition. These are sometimes called the M source and L source, respectively, and include some materials in their respective birth narratives as well as other unique teachings.
Matthew and Luke also use a second common source apart from Mark. This is reflected in the roughly 250 verses of similar material found in Matthew and Luke but not found anywhere in Mark. . . Since this material is often verbatim in Greek in the two Gospels, it suggests that the oral tradition surrounding these teachings had at some earlier stage been translated from Aramaic into Greek. . .Scholars usually call it Q. . . or the Synoptic Sayings source. Scholars date this Q material between 50 and 70 CE. It is not clear, however, whether it was already written down in some fixed order, since Matthew and Luke arrange the sayings quite differently. The only form in which it is preserved is that found in Matthew and Luke, and perhaps the Gospel of Thomas. . .
In other words, the Gospels as we now have them are not direct or first hand biographies of Jesus. . . To be sure, the historical figure of Jesus stands behind the stories, but the stories are nonetheless removed from the historical figure in important ways.
Each of the Gospels thus tell the story in a different way. . . Ultimately, the Gospels are stories about the growth of belief in Jesus. As a result, their differences are historically important, but in a different way, since they may tell us more about the development of the early Jesus movement than about Jesus himself. (pages 115 – 116)
How do we tell the story of Jesus in our own place and time, if our sources tell us more about the Jesus movement than about Jesus? What portions of the New Testament can be most reliably traced to the historical Jesus? If Jesus was part of an oral culture, and the Protestant Reformation was based on a print culture, what kind of culture are we trying to proclaim the gospel in today? Does the medium change the message? If each of the Gospels is retelling the story in its own way, which of the stories do you like the best? Do you think any of the stories is closer to the original than any of the others?
Chapter Six: They Were Christians
The problem is that oral traditions are often difficult to recognize or isolate when they have been rather thoroughly woven into the fabric of a later narrative. . . Take for example the tradition of Jesus’ “last supper.” All three of the synoptic Gospels report this episode as a celebration of Passover at which Jesus instituted a commemorative Lord’s Supper, but there are some differences in the three accounts. John’s Gospel, however, clearly states that the last supper was not a Passover meal and makes no mention whatsoever of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. So it is difficult on the basis of the Gospel accounts alone to discern the earliest tradition. Yet the Lord’s Supper was clearly an early practice of Jesus’ followers, and this fact is given a clear and very early witness in oral tradition. . .
The earliest writings in the New Testament are the genuine letters of Paul, written between 50 and 60 CE. They are, therefore, some twenty to forty years earlier than the Gospels and Acts. . . One of these (letters) has Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper found in I Corinthians 11:23-26. . . Clearly this account is very similar to that in the synoptic Gospels, but written down much, much earlier. As we shall see, I Corinthians was probably written in about 53-54 CE and was one of Paul’s earlier letters.
The way Paul appeals to the earlier oral tradition assumes that the audience was already familiar with it. . . The use of these units of oral tradition pushes Paul’s account to yet an earlier stage – at least into the 40’s. Thus, we are much closer to the time of Jesus and within the first decade or so of the movement. . . . (pages 118 – 119)
Can you identify any oral traditions you think may go back to the very early church or to Jesus himself? Can you identify any oral traditions that may not have made it in to the Gospels? How does an oral tradition change, when it is written down? Do you see any advantages to having an oral rather than a written tradition? If we are changing from a print culture into a media culture, how might that change our understanding of faith?
. . . By Jesus’ day very few Jews could speak, read, or write Hebrew. . .For this reason, it is usually thought that he might also have known a little Greek. Writing in about 130 CE, Papias, the Christian bishop of Hierapolis (in Turkey), seems to affirm this basic idea when he says that Matthew’s Gospel preserved “the sayings [of the Lord] in Hebraic dialect.
The Gospel of Mark, although written in Greek, depicts Jesus himself as speaking Aramaic. . .
Even so, there are no written collections of Jesus’ teachings in Aramaic. The Gospels of the New Testament were all written in Greek and preserve Jesus’ words almost entirely in Greek forms that are difficult to retrace to Aramaic roots. . .
. . . it does appear that there was what we may call an “Aramaic substratum” to the Jesus movement. For example, there are hints of some early tensions between those followers who spoke Greek and those who did not. . .
We may get a more direct clue to the existence of an Aramaic substratum, not so much from the words of Jesus, but from the Aramaic terms in later Christian usage. One of the best examples is the term abba. . . used by Jesus in addressing God. . .
A more telling clue to the significance of the phrase “abba, Father” can be seen in the fact that it was preserved and used even by Greek-speaking gentile converts in the churches of Paul. . . (pages 123 – 124)
How do you think the sayings and teachings of Jesus may have changed when they were translated into Greek? Paul was a Jew, but he had also studied Greek philosophy. How do you think the meaning of Jesus may have changed when viewed through the lens of Greek Philosophy?
A sect is a separatist (or schismatic) revitalization movement that arises out of an established, religiously defined cultural system, with which it shares its symbolic worldview.
A cult is an integrative, often syncretistic, movement that is effectively imported (by mobilization or mutation) into another religiously defined cultural system, to which it must seek to synthesize its novel symbolic worldview.
By these definitions, the same religious movement might be a sect and a cult simultaneously if it moves from its original parent culture into a new host culture. It might even reiterate the same basic language and beliefs in both situations, but the religious value of that language will necessarily be transformed to fit each cultural context. Finally, if these different cultural experiences then produce changes from cell to cell within a movement, then these differences will result in the individual cells treating one another as dissident sects. (page 131)
An example in the early church of cells within the same movement treating one another as dissident sects might be the congregations founded by Paul as opposed to the Jewish Christian congregations in Jerusalem and the Jewish homeland. We might even find another example in the United Church of Christ, between older more established white congregations and Trinity UCC in Chicago that espouses a gospel that is unapologetically African. Can you think of other examples of sects and cults in our modern situation.
The earliest form of the Jesus movement is best understood as an apocalyptic Jewish sect. . . A key then is what we may call the social location of each group, and this may help to understand why there are subtle differences within the early Christian sources. As long as the emergent Jesus sect remained exclusively within the realm of Jewish culture in the homeland, then its message and appeal were shaped by this cultural horizon, even though it might have been at odds with the religious establishment or with other sectarian groups. Like the Essenes or Pharisees, its members might have debated the proper forms of Jewish piety and goals of social reform, but this would hardly have constituted a denunciation of Judaism.
. . . The early diffusion of the movement was a by-product of new impulses and experiences arising out of diverse social circumstances. Eventually, we know that some movement members began to work increasingly among Greek speaking diaspora Jews in cities like Antioch. In the long run, this primarily gentile movement became what we know as Christianity. . .
In keeping with this approach, the early Jesus movement is properly understood as a Jewish sect when it began as a separatist revitalization movement with the established culture of homeland Judaism. As such, its followers shared a basic set of values, beliefs, and worldview with other Jews, even though they might have argued over key issues. On the other hand, when it moved into predominantly non-Jewish or “pagan” culture, then the Jesus movement appeared to be more of an alien phenomenon, or a cult. In this sense, the new cult will tend to synthesize itself to the basically foreign worldview of its host culture, while at the same time attempting to convince its new neighbors that the new message it brings is ultimately meaningful and beneficial.
Matthew’s Gospel may best be seen as reflecting the ethos of a Palestinian Jesus sect several decades after the first revolt; this group is now beginning to face new tensions with its dominantly Jewish culture. . . Paul on the other hand, reflects an experience of taking an essentially Jewish message to a non-Jewish culture and at a slightly earlier period before a serious rift with Judaism had begun. Paul can thus be seen as a Jewish sectarian relative to other Jews (and even other followers of Jesus), while simultaneously appearing as the purveyor of a foreign cult to a non-Jewish audiences in large cities like Ephesus and Corinth. There is considerable evidence, then for different experiences of the emerging movement, a gradual shift in ethos, social location, and cultural horizons, and different forms of social and organizational development. (page 128-132)
How many different kinds of cells can we identify in the early church? What might have been some of the different theological perspectives in these early congregations? Which of these theological perspectives ultimately became Christian orthodoxy? Which of these theologies do you think is most like your own?
Like Paul, the Q tradition may well reflect elements of the Aramaic substratum. Apart from Paul, it is the earliest discoverable layer of the Jesus tradition. Nonetheless, it reflects a secondary stage of transmission, since its preserved form comes from a stage of composition in Greek. . .
What can the form and content of Q tell us about the early Jesus movement that preserved and used this material?
Also, indications within the Q material suggest a layer of material has been overlaid or elaborated with additional comments that come from a later context, but one still before the first revolt. A number of these seem to deal with rejection of the teaching of Jesus but in fact hint at rejection of the preaching about Jesus. In other words, the community’s own experience is being projected onto Jesus himself. (page 134-135)
Several stories in the gospels indicate Jesus had a friendly relationship with some Pharisees. For instance, it was Pharisees who warned Jesus that Herod was looking for him to arrest him. Jesus might have been classified as a Pharisee of the school of Hillel. The material in the Gospels that attacks the Pharisees may have come from the early church, rather than Jesus, as the early church and the synagogue were separating out from one another. Do you think appreciating this piece of history can help in building bridges between Jews and Christians?
These secondary features in Q seem to cluster around two key issues arising from the experience of those in the movement – sectarian identity and apocalyptic expectations. Many of the sayings in Q are defensive or apologetic; that is, they reflect an experience of resistance or antipathy on the part of others. . .
. . . The key here is the sense of discord, even within families. Perhaps more than any other element this speaks to the experience of those who have joined a sect, but whose family and friends remain unsympathetic to its beliefs and teachings.
In each case these subtle changes in the use of these Q materials by the later Gospels reflects the changing social location and cultural horizons of the movement, or at least particular communities within the movement. A good example is the parable of the Great Dinner. Careful analysis of this parable shows that there is a common outoine and Greek vocabulary to the story underlying the three versions, but that each of the three writers has modified it for a particular audience or situation.
The base parable stresses the unreceptiveness of the originally invited guests and a resultant invitation to new guests. The Gospel of Thomas seems to turn this theme in an anti-materialist direction. Matthew has juxtaposed it to the parable of the wicked tenants and even worked features of the story into the dinner parable, most notably when the angry king kills the offending guests and ”burns their City.” These elements create an intertextual allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE; therefore, by implication Matthew turns the originally invited guests into the people who rejected and killed Jesus. Then he adds another parable to the end, regarding a man who shows up without the proper wedding garment; it continues the theme of eschatological judgment with a strong sectarian tone: not even all the ones who make ot the dinner will be saved. This addition may well suggest a tension between Matthew’s later Jewish Christian Community and othe forms of the Jesus movement, including those with ties to Jerusalem.
Luke is in may ways very close to the original, however, there is an added invitation for new guests inserted into the middle. Because these new invitees (“the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame”) replicate the came terms in the added saying that precedes it, this too is an intentional intertext on the part of the Lukan author and not part of the original Q parable. This shows that Luke’s own interest is in social welfare, and it turns the second invitation == the original in the Q parable – in the direction of the Gentiles.
The secondary features found in Matthew, Luke, and Thomas do not seem to be part of the Q original. So what is the original parable saying? It would seem to be a reflections of the Q community’s experience of resistance to the rejection of its basic message about Jesus and its resultant willingness to turn to new “invitees.” The context of dining seems to connect the parable to the passage seen earlier ostensibly criticizing Jesus for “eating with tax collectors and sinners.” The parable serves as a warrant for this change of audience and its social implications regarding group fellowship. It thus reflects a new or changing social location for the group. On the other hand, this does not mean that the Q tradition is abandoning its Jewish roots or that it has become a separate gentile movement; rather, it is beginning to turn outward with an eye toward converting some Gentiles to Judaism and Jesus. This may well be an early form of the gentile mission both before and apart from Paul; and yet it remains very much within a Jewish sectarian matrix.
Finally, the group’s sectarian experience is interpreted apocalyptically. The theme of a great dinner has social implications for the sect’s sense of fellowship and solidarity; yet, it also carries the sense of the “eschatological banquet,” when the elect will be brought into the kingdom. This kingdom expectation retains much of the traditional Jewish apocalyptic tone. . . (pages 135 – 142)
What might the early church have been like without Paul? If Pauline theology had not captured the Jesus movement, and if the movement had remained “Jewish Christian,” how do you think Christian theology and practice might have developed? Inevitably some Jews were gong to reject the claims of the Jesus movement, can you envision that there might have been a more friendly or at least tolerant relationship between the Jesus movement and what became Rabbinic Judaism? Do you think having a coy of the Gospel of Thomas would be helpful in going Bible Study in the gospels? What did you think of the parallels between Matthew, Luke and the Gospel of Thomas on the Parable of the Great Dinner? Which version did you like the best?
Chapter 7: Paul: His Life and Significance
1. Paul was not the “hellenizer” of the Jesus movement. There was already vibrant interaction with both Greek-speaking Jews and non-Jews before and apart from Paul.
2. Paul was not the “second founder” of the movement. This is based on the false assumption that, prior to Paul, the Jesus movement was still very monolithic and stuck, as it were, in a kind of theological rut resulting from the Jewish social location of the original teachings of Jesus. Paul is thus viewed as the one who broke out of this rut. As we have already seen, however, there was considerable diversity in the movement from the beginning, and there were already explorations of its ideas in new social and cultural contexts. . .
3. Paul was not the “first Christian.” In fact, Paul never uses the term “Christian.” Instead, he clearly saw himself as a pious Jew who had been called on by God, through Jesus, to take this new message to non-Jews. Thus, Paul’s self-understanding remained thoroughly Jewish, even when he argued with Peter, James, or other, more stridently Jewish followers of the Jesus movement. . . (pages 144-145)
Do these observations about Paul change your view of him? Do you think Paul’s mission to the gentiles was “inevitable?” If the Jesus movement was going to spread to the gentiles, what needed to change in the Jewish background of the movement in order to accommodate gentiles? Do you think there were any distortions of the message of Jesus, when the message was refashioned for gentiles?
How Paul came to be a follower of the Jesus movement is a matter of legend that has inspired countless works of art and imitative notions of what a true conversion ought to be like. Acts gives three distinct accounts. . . Acts 9:1-31, Acts 22:6-21, Acts 26:12-20. . .
It is on the basis of this later version of Acts that Paul’s experience has been termed a “conversion.” He went from being a persecutor of the faith to its most ardent and successful advocate because of his visionary experience of the risen Jesus. . .
Paul’s own account of his experience is far less dramatic and, alas, more sketchy on details. . . . Some features of his description bear strong resemblances to the story in Acts; others do not.
For many of these same reasons the account in Acts of a blinding light on the road to Damascus must be viewed as elaboration or legend. Nonetheless Paul had some sort of visionary experience of the resurrected Jesus, and it was without doubt the event that caused him to become a follower of the movement. . .
Paul clearly had a profound experience. He also gives some insights into the way he understood it, when he says, “when God, who set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace.”. . . Both of these passages use the language of being “set apart,” “consecrated,” or “called” from before birth to refer to a prophetic calling by God. In other words, Paul’s language still places his outlook on his experience entirely within a Jewish self-understanding. . .
. . . So Paul seems to have understood his mission as being the divinely appointed messenger to the Gentiles in fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah. This places Paul very much within his Jewish heritage, even when he was preaching to the Gentiles. It means also that there was no sense that he had left Judaism behind either by becoming a follower of the Jesus movement or in his reaching out to non-Jews. (pages 153 – 157)
Does this explanation of Paul seeing himself within a Jewish context, rather than breaking from Judaism change your view of Paul? Does this explanation change your view of Judaism? At what point do you think the church crossed a line from which it lost touch with Judaism?
Paul the Letter Writer
Paul’s indisputable impact in both early and later phases of Christian history derives in large measure from the fact that he wrote letters to his churches. His letters are the earliest Christian writings that have been preserved for us, and the later effort to collect them into a single volume was the beginning of the New Testament canon. Before there were Gospels, there were letters, and letter writing continued to be one of the principal genres of literary activity among Christians throughout the ancient period. . .
Letters were a common form of literary expression in the Greco-Roman world. The Roman statesman M. Tullius Cicero (106-43) BCE was widely known in his own day as a “man of letters”; by Paul’s day, volumes of his letters were being published alongside Homer and Virgil as prized literary possessions. . .
We know that Paul employed scribes for his letter writing. The most obvious occurs in Romans 16:22, when his scribe Tertius offers his own greetings. . .
. . . Paul wrote ordinary letters concerning concrete situations, although he often packed them with religious reflections and ideas. Both the formal features and social situation should not be overlooked in favor of the religious content. Instead, these three aspects are almost always intertwined in the way Paul writes. The particular circumstances must be grasped in order to understand how he replies in religious terms. He regularly adopts such common epistolary conventions in his letters to this churches because they are expected in letter writing. . .
Paul’s letters are relatively long by comparison to typical papyrus letters. Only the little letter to Philemon, a mere twenty-five verses, is more in keeping with the ordinary one-page letter so commonly seen in papyri form that period. What is perhaps more important is the way that Paul intentionally modifies his own basic outline in order to suit his purpose in writing any particular letter. These modifications can also help us to understand both the situation of the letter and Paul’s intentions and ideas in writing. . . (pages 158-168)
How is your view of Paul’s letters affected by the observation that these are the earliest Christian writings? Publishing letters is rarely considered a literary genre. Somebody’s e-mails may be revealed as part of a scandal but we don’t publish, much less write letters any more. Some people would say that the writing of letters is a lost art. How might our approach to Paul’s letters be changed, if we considered them as having been written with the intention of publication? Why do you think early Christians collected and copied Paul’s letters?
Chapter 8: Paul: The Aegean Mission
About the year 48 CE Paul returned from Jerusalem to Antioch with his traveling companions Barnabas and Titus. Barnabas was Jewish; Titus, gentile. It is Paul himself who gives us the report of what happened at Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-10: his meetings with the pillars of the church – James, Cephas (Peter), and John – had resulted in Paul and Barnabas receiving “the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9). Perhaps more important for Paul was the fact that, despite vocal opposition, Titus was not required to undergo circumcision (Gal. 2:3). Now they had returned to Antioch to report to Paul’s fledgling congregations there. They too were a mixture of Jews (and perhaps some proselytes) and Gentiles, who, like Titus, had not been circumcised when they joined the Jesus movement. Other Jewish congregations at Antioch, including some that followed Jesus, must have looked at Paul’s cell groups with misgivings. After all having fellowship with Gentiles – and especially eating with them on religious occasions – was viewed by many as a breach of Jewish purity laws. This was the issue that had taken Paul to Jerusalem; Paul returned convinced that he had carried the day.
Shortly thereafter Peter came to Antioch, probably to check out the situation there and perhaps to do some follow-up work among the exclusively Jewish congregations of the Jesus movement. That too seems to have been one of the agreements struck in the meeting at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:7-8). Perhaps this was meant to assuage the stricter among them while allowing Paul’s mixed dell groups to continue operating within their social orbit. But the results were disastrous. . .
Initially it seems, Peter had moved freely between the different factions, even to the point of joining in the dinners of Paul’s mixed groups. Then some other Jewish followers of the movement came from Jerusalem – “from James” – and caused Peter to draw back from fellowship involving uncircumcised Gentiles. It seems that James’ emissaries had aligned with stricter Jewish cells at Antioch and intimidated other Jews, including Peter. Much to Paul’s chagrin, even Barnabas turned on him.
Paul must have realized the implications quickly. His hard-fought efforts to secure a place for Gentiles in the Jesus fellowship were about to face total rejection even by those Jews who had formerly been sympathetic. Paul lashed out. Whether he first implored Barnabas and others to give it another chance is not reported. Whether he once again passionately defended his own understanding of the commission “revealed by God” (Gal. 1:16; 2:2, 7) is not reported. It came down finally to a confrontation with Peter himself. Paul now erupted. Peter “stood condemned” of hypocrisy, and Paul told him so to his face in front of witnesses (Gal. 2:11, 13-14). What follows in Galatians 2:15-21 may well represent what Paul wished he had said to justify his position. But the reality was far different; nor was it a mere difference of opinion. Paul persuaded no one, not even Barnabas, who, according to later legends, became a protégé of Peter.
The blowup with Peter was a total failure of political bravado, and Paul soon left Antioch as persona non grata, never again to return. It has been suggested that Jerusalem was trying to extend its authority over Antioch, but the attitude of local Jewish followers of the movement must also be taken into account. The picture in Acts shows that the church in Antioch later viewed the relationship in these terms, while consciously playing down the rift between Peter and Paul. What happened to Paul’s mixed Jewish and gentile enclaves remains unclear, but one must suspect that the “circumcision party” prevailed. For Paul the immediate result was clear. He had to leave Antioch. He chose to embark on a new mission where there was not such a strong and traditional Jewish community. He would go west, toward Greece and Rome, where he could work independently as “missionary” or “apostle” to the Gentiles. And so begins the most important phase in Paul’s career, the Aegean mission. (pages 169 – 171)
We cannot overestimate the importance of the confrontation between Paul and Peter at Antioch for the career of Paul and the history of the church. The Circumcision Party may have won the battle of Antioch, but they ended up losing the war of determining orthodox belief within the church. Knowing Paul’s personality, losing in Antioch may have pushed him even further in the direction of proclaiming freedom from the law for Gentiles. Had he not been pushed out of Antioch, his theology might have developed differently and the early church have taken on a different shape, ultimately retaining a more Jewish flavor even as they absorbed more and more gentiles.
Does this candid description of the behavior of the “saints” influence your opinion of the “early church fathers?” If the circumcision party had been able to “bend” a little more, how might the development of the early church have been different? Do you think there was any kind of compromise that could have been worked out with the circumcision party? If the church had retained a “more Jewish flavor,” how do you think the church’s view of Jesus might have been different? If the church had not become thoroughly gentile in orientation do you think Constantine would have embraced it was the religion of the Empire? Does the church fight in Antioch remind you of any church fights you have observed?
But where had the members gotten these ideas of “spiritual superiority”. . . Probably from Paul’s own preaching, and that is why he was so concerned to disabuse them of their misunderstanding regarding his message and intent. . .
What seems to stand behind this problem is the idea that some of the Corinthians think they have transcended the ordinary boundaries of human society by entering into a new realm of existence “in Christ,” meaning that because they have become followers of Jesus, they have become spiritually superior. . .
In other words, as the central ritual of initiation for entrance into Paul’s churches, baptism took the place of circumcision – thus bringing the person into the congregation of Israel – by dying and rising with Christ. . .
Baptism was actually performed in the nude: the initiate undressed, went down into the water, came out, and redressed. . . the act of disrobing and redressing in the ritual of baptism was seen as symbolic of putting off the old body and putting on a new one in the “image of the creator” . . .
Now called the baptismal reunification formula, it stresses that in baptism one returns to the state of creation, as in Genesis 1:26, when all humanity was unified. That the Corinthians also knew this formula is confirmed by Paul’s allusion in I Corinthians 12:12-13 in the context of discussing spiritual gifts as signs of superiority. Among other things, this symbolism must have been very appealing to women and slaves. . . (pages 182 – 183)
The baptismal ceremony in the Pauline churches was dramatic, life changing. Does our tradition of sprinkling infants lose something of the dramatic power of baptism as practiced in Paul’s churches? What would be the symbolic feelings of having to completely disrobe in order to be baptized? Especially in the church in Corinth there were some who interpreted the freedom from the law as a sign of superiority. They also equated spiritual gifts with spiritual superiority. Are there problems in the modern church of persons claiming spiritual superiority over others?
The house churches tended to cluster around established households, which included not only the “nuclear family” but also extended family, domestic slaves, and other clients or business associates.
Both men and women are known to have headed individual house churches.
The owner of the house where the church met on a regular basis was considered its host and patron, and he or she also exercised considerable authority within the group. . .
Paul and his traveling co-workers usually stayed with the house-church patron.
Paul typically baptized the house-church patrons, but they in turn baptized most of the rest.
Paul received financial support from his congregations, but this usually came in the form of hospitality or aid from the patron.
When Paul wrote letters to various congregations, they were typically disseminated through the house-church patron; thus, the letter of recommendation form that figures so prominently in Paul’s writing was a formal mechanism for accessing hospitality in the house church.
Hospitality and communal fellowship through dining an worship were important features of congregational solidarity and social life, and thus became important virtues in service to the church community. (pages 184 – 185)
How did the house church model of congregational life affect the development of the church’s belief system, and worship? Why do you think the early church was so open to female leadership? How would a return to a house-church form of congregational organization change the modern church? What were some of the problems associated with the house church model?
Paul’s time in Ephesus proved tumultuous in other ways. In particular he began to encounter other missionaries of the Jesus movement who were moving into his territory. This growing opposition probably led him to decide to leave Asia for good and prepare for a mission in another region. . .
Paul had established churches in the region of Galatia sometime earlier in his Aegean mission. . .
. . . One fact seems clear. The followers to whom Paul was writing were gentile converts who were now told by other missionaries of the Jesus movement that they must be circumcised (Gal. 4:21; 5:2-3; 6:12-15). . .
Galatians is probably Paul’s harshest letter. The sharp tone starts from the opening words, when Paul emphatically stakes out the independence of his apostleship: “not by human commission, nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Gal. 1:1 then read Gal. 1:6-9) . . . We would do well not to underestimate the raw rhetorical force that these words must have carried, especially given the magical powers implied by curses.
The problem is this. Paul views the fact that his gentile converts are now prepared to undergo circumcision as a denial of his gospel and a betrayal of himself. He took it very personally. He was the one who brought them to God as adopted children; for them now to undertake full Torah observance would be like returning to the shackles of idolatry (Gal. 4:8-10) or throwing away the special grant of adoption that they as Gentiles had received by baptism into Christ (Gal. 5:2-11). Yet this is not a denunciation of Torah observance, even for Jewish followers of Jesus. Instead, Paul seems to view baptism and adoption as a special dispensation for Gentiles in view of the impending eschaton.
For the other missionaries who have “unsettled” the Galatians, Paul has nothing but opprobrium: “I wish they would castrate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12) They are sometimes called the “Judaizing teachers,” but in all probability they are gentile converts to the Jesus movement who had been circumcision following Paul’s opponents in the blowup at Antioch. . . In the final analysis, however, it is not clear that Paul convinced them, and the harshness of his rhetoric may signal growing desperation. (pages 197 – 201)
Once again Paul was struggling with the issue of circumcision and the keeping of the law. This suggests that the presentation in the Book of Acts indicating that the question was settled early on is not accurate. Remembering that this controversy predated the writing of any of the gospels, how do you think this controversy in the life of the early church affected the attitude toward the Pharisees and the Jewish law in the Gospels? If the issue of circumcision and the keeping of the Jewish law for gentiles had been resolved with less animosity, how do you think the gospels would have treated the keeping of the Jewish law? Is it possible that a more conciliatory settlement would have resulted in an expression of the Christian faith that would not have completely broken with Judaism?
Paul first visits Corinth (50-52CE).
Paul travels to Ephesus and writes Letter A to Corinth (52-53 CE).
He gets news and a letter from Corinth and writes letter B (1 Corinthians; 53-54 CE).
He makes a second visit to Corinth that turns out to be “painful” (55 CE).
After returning to Ephesus, Paul writes the painful letter of reprimand to the Corinthians (Letter C) and warns them that he will deal with them when he visits again; about the same time he is imprisoned in Ephesus (55-56 CE).
Paul gets out of prison, hears of the Galatian crisis, and decides to leave Ephesus after writing the harsh letter of rebuke to the Galatians (57 CE); he dispatches Timothy and Titus to prepare for his visits with other churches.
He goes to Troas, meets up with Timothy, and then goes to Philippi, where he finally finds Titus, there he writes the letter of reconciliation to the Corinthians (Letter D) in anticipation of going on to Corinth (late 57 or early 58 CE).
From there he plans to go to Jerusalem with a relief fund he has been collecting, and from Corinth he writes the letter to the Romans in Preparation for a visit after he finishes in Jerusalem (58). . .
We do not know exactly what went wrong on Paul’s second visit to the Corinthians, but from his perspective it was a disaster. . . What seems clear now is that the problems encountered by Paul on his second visit have little to do with the issues dividing the community in 1 Corinthians. Paul was facing a new problem created by the arrival of some other missionaries of the Jesus movement, to whom he only refers indirectly and rather disdainfully. Once he calls them “false apostles” (11:13); twice he calls them “super-apostles” (11:5; 12:11). The last term seems to be mocking them in particular for their claims to possess special miraculous powers, and Paul is forced to defend himself not so theological grounds, but rather on the basis of his own charismatic powers (12:12). Apparently, these new missionaries had denigrated Paul’s powers and even his personal appearance and speaking ability (10:10-11; cf. 11:12-15). .
These new missionaries sound very much like the charismatic prophets and miracle workers form the earliest days of the Jesus movement in Judea. If so, they might indeed be able to claim to be closer to Jesus or the first Jewish disciples. . .
The problem, then, is that these charismatic missionaries have snubbed Paul, and at least some of the Corinthian house churches have accepted them and shown them hospitality. The “painful visit” must refer to the fact that Paul came at about the same time and was rebuffed by one or more of the house-church patrons whom he had expected to visit. Paul views this as a betrayal of his friendship, since he is the one who betrothed them to Christ (11:1). He also seems to be on the defensive regarding his financial relationship with the Corinthian house churches. . . In Roman society, the giving and receiving of money or hospitality was an important symbol of loyalty and friendship. It was not to be treated lightly.
As we have already seen, the comments in 2 Corinthians 1:15-2:3 and 7:5-9 show that Paul’s letter of reprimand had done the job, as had Titus in personally mediating the situation. It was probably never the case that all the Corinthian house churches had turned on him, but at least one had – and an important one at that, from Paul’s tone (2 Cor. 2:5-7; 7:12). Most likely this means that the one who “wronged” Paul was the house-church patron who had welcomed the “super-apostles” and rejected Paul. . . .Part of Paul’s (or Titus’s) strategy, however, seems to have been to galvanize support from other house-church patrons to pressure or even ostracize the one who had offended Paul (2 Cor. 2:6-7). Now that he has come around, it is time to mend the fences and rebuild cohesion of the various congregations. . .
Now too it is time to prepare for Paul’s final visit, and the theme of harmony will be important for the next phase of his mission. Paul wants the Corinthians now to serve as his point of departure for his trip to Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8), after which he will go to Rome. He must rely not only on their hospitality and financial support, but also on their influence upon house churches in Rome in order to make it work. (pages 202 – 209)
Once again, Paul was found missionaries from the circumcision party interfering in his churches. In the case of Corinth, as opposed to Antioch and perhaps Galatia, it would appear that Paul carried the day. L. Michael White in this chapter suggests that Paul had a grander strategy than simply securing the loyalty of the churches he had founded. He was receiving an offering from his congregations in Greece to take to Jerusalem for the relief of the Jerusalem Church, because there was a famine in Palestine. We should note once again that Paul’s letters were written before the destruction of Jerusalem and before any of the gospels were written. Authority rested in the oral tradition of the Jesus movement. If the “super-Apostles” claimed a closer relationship with Jesus than Paul could claim, they might in fact win the day in the debate over keeping the law, or allowing gentiles to be free of the law. Taking an offering of charity from his gentile congregations for the relief of the mother church was another way Paul was trying to win the argument with the “Judaizers.” He was also setting his sights on Rome as a place, where he would present his arguments in favor of allowing gentiles to remain free of the Jewish law.
The super-Apostles claimed to be closer to Jesus than Paul and therefore possessed of greater authority than Paul. On what basis do we claim authority at United Church? The super-Apostles also apparently claimed that their “charismatic gifts” were more powerful than Paul’s. Have you ever known a faith community in which authority was based on the exercise of “charismatic gifts?” Do you think Paul’s attempt to win his argument with a gift of charity was a good move on his part? Why do you think Paul was so anxious to present his arguments to the church in Rome? How do you think the destruction of Jerusalem affected the out come of the debate between Paul and the “super-Apostles?” If Jerusalem had not been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, how do you think the development of the early church might have been affected?
Corinth was to be his staging ground of assembling the final collection as well as for his trip to Rome and to Spain. . .
Paul intended to have representatives from the various cities gather in Corinth, and each one would carry that church’s gift to the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem. Paul must have longed to see the look on James’s face when all these gentile congregations presented the money they had collected. Given the symbolic role of money and patronage, as seen elsewhere in Paul’s missionary activity, for James to accept the collection constituted a tacit acceptance of Paul’s mission and his gentile churches. (page 210)
The collection promoted by Paul had a political as well as a charitable purpose. Paul hoped to win recognition of his ministry, his churches and gain the grudging respect for his gentile Christians from the Jerusalem Church. Have you ever seen mission or charitable monies used in the way Paul did? Is the charitable intent still valid? What role does money and patronage still play in the church today?
Since Paul had never been to Rome and had not founded any of the house churches there, the letter was intended to serve as an introduction. . .
Another component to Paul’s strategy involved friends in Rome. Notably, Prisca and Aquila had now moved back to Rome, where they hosted another house church. Given the number of other people in Rome he calls by name, Paul must have had numerous contacts from Anitoch or the Aegean now living there. . . there were some five to eight house churches about which Paul already knew. Paul thus needed someone to carry the letter around to the different house churches, perhaps accompanied by individuals known among the congregations at Rome, in order to make introductions. Prisca and Aquila or the “famous” apostolic couple Andronicus and Junia might have helped in this way.
The emissary delegated to carry the letter, however, and to present it in each church was one of Paul’s most trusted co-workers from the Aegean mission. Her name was Phoebe, the house-church patron from Cenchreae, the eastern harbor of Corinth. He asks for her to receive hospitality. . . Coming from Corinth, she might well have known Prisca and Aquila personally, and so she was likely supposed to stay with them in Rome. (pages 210 – 211)
Paul’s letter to the Romans was intended as a letter of introduction in a bid to win hospitality and support for a projected mission to Spain. In order to accomplish his goal, he was going to have to overcome prejudices against himself, his mission and his theology especially among Jewish Christians. In his effort, he was sending an emissary, Phoebe, and relying upon acquaintances in the Roman house-churches, Prisca and Aquila, and Andronicus and Junia. We should note the powerful leadership roles of women in these early house-churches. Do you think Paul had a good strategy for trying to win support among the house-churches in Rome? What would be the advantages to Paul, if he could win the support of several house-churches in Rome? If women played such a prominent role in the leadership of the early church, why do you think a few generations later, leadership in the church had become patriarchal?
To understand Paul’s argument in Romans as a theological reflection, one must see it as taking the basic premise of his gentile mission – “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” – and refining it through a series of rhetorical questions and counterstatements. . .
The gospel to which Paul refers is the death of Jesus as the crucified messiah. He views this death as an expiation that fulfills the promise to Abraham for being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. For Paul, the fact that the Jewish messiah ahs come means also that Israel’s eschatological age has been inaugurated. But in his understanding, the verging of the eschatological age is that time when some Gentiles will finally turn to God. As the”light to the Gentiles,” Paul sees his mission as one of announcing this limited opportunity. . . the general condition of Gentiles in Jewish thought and how they might now – after centuries of denying the one true God of Israel – be allowed back into the status of righteousness that is required for being part of the congregations of God’s elect. Paul’s answer: “through faith” – meaning the faithfulness of Jesus in dying on the cross. By this one mechanism, he argues, both the promise for Israel’s salvation is fulfilled and the opening to Gentiles to join in that salvation is revealed.
(pages 213 – 214)
How does Paul propose that gentiles can be admitted to the people of Israel? What are the requirements of Jews for fellowship in the people of Israel? What are the requirements of gentiles for fellowship in the people of Israel? Does Paul believe God has rejected Israel?
Part Three: The Second Generation
Chapter 9: The First Jewish Revolt and Its Aftermath
The Jewish historian Josephus. . . blames the increasing tensions on two factors: first, increasingly inept and oppressive Roman procurators, and second, a rising tide of fanatical Jewish revolutionaries. . .
The period 62 – 66 CE only saw matters go from bad to worse as increasing mob violence disrupted the city. . . Josephus ultimately blames the rise of the Zealot movement, which he calls the “fourth philosophy,” for having sown the political seeds – deeply tinged with apocalyptic sentiments – of rebellion against Rome; it all began, he says, at the time of the census of Quirinius in 6 CE. . .
Jerusalem was already a tinderbox by the year 66, when the actions of the last procurator, Gessius Florus, set it off. Florus was already antagonistic toward the Jews at Passover in the Spring of 66; by May there were outbreaks of hostilities between the Greek and Jewish residents of the provincial capital, Caesarea Maritima. Florus responded by arresting the Jewish leaders of Caesarea blaming them for instigating a riot. Next, he ordered that seventeen talents be confiscated from the Temple in Jerusalem to pay their fines and damages. The result was a riot in Jerusalem. Florus then sent more troops, who then went on a bloody rampage through the streets. Despite calls for restraint, the tide of rebellion grew, and by the end of the summer, Jewish insurgents had taken full control of Jerusalem. . .
The triumphant Jewish rebels returned to Jerusalem confident that this was a sign of their imminent victory, that God was on their side. . . . Meanwhile, the emperor Nero summoned a battle-hardened general named Flavius Vespasian . . . to take charge of the situation.
Vespasian now began to plan for the final campaign in Judea, with Jerusalem as his main target. . . But then Vespsian received word of startling developments in Rome: the emperor Nero had been killed and a bloody coup was developing.
Vespasian delayed embarking on his expedition against Jerusalem. . . In December having restored peace at Rome, Vespasian orderTitus to resume the war in Judea.
With the war in Judea effectively on hold, the Jewish rebels were emboldened. The death of Nero and civil war in Rome could be taken as a sign of God’s intervention on their behalf. . .
Titus now marched on Jerusalem with four legions. . . .
Fighting in the streets and from house to house increased daily until the end of August when the Temple finally was engulfed in flames, on the same month and day that the Babylonians had burned Solomon’s Temple in 596 BCE. . .
In September the Romans began the systematic destruction of the remaining areas of the city and captured the last rebel bands in the Upper City. . . Meanwhile, the Tenth Roman Legion was stationed in Judea to finish mopping up; some bands of rebels had escaped in the final days of the siege. One of these groups would hold out for nearly four years at the fortress of Masada.(pages 219 – 222)
As you see it what were the forces that seemed to make the confrontation between Rome and the Jews inevitable? Do you see any way that this revolt could have been averted? Why do you think the Jewish rebels ultimately failed? What do you think was the key to Roman victory?
It would be hard to overstate the magnitude of the trauma caused by the failure of the first Jewish revolt. . . The event sent shock waves through the Jewish population both in the homeland and in the Diaspora. Josephus reports a total of 1.1 million casualties, mostly Jewish; another 97,000 Jews were taken prisoner. The loss of life was devastating to be sure, but the destruction of Jerusalem and especially the Temple – symbol of the nation and God’s election – was even more devastating politically, economically, and emotionally.
1. Gradually, the Jewish population began to move to the northern regions of the Galilee.. . Over time it became the new center of Jewish culture, and the rise of rabbinic Judaism would take place largely in the new Galilean “homeland.”
2. Now too Jews had to face the constant presence of a Roman occupation force. . .
3. The province of Judea was again reorganized and even renamed Palestina. . .
4. A new tax was imposed on Jews to pay for war damages. . .
5. Roman coinage of the period carried the legend Judea Capta (“Judea Captured”) a clear statement of subjugation.
As with previous political crises – the Babylonian exile and the Maccabean revolt – in order to survive the Jews had to produce a religious response that helped them adjust to this new and difficult reality. The Jewish followers of the Jesus movement had to face it too. . .
The failure of the revolt would gradually result in a shift in apocalyptic thinking for Jews and Christians alike. . .
Although the political situation of Judea was quickly stabilized under the Roman occupation force, apocalyptic expectations did not disappear altogether. Roughly twenty years later a flourish of new Jewish apocalypses began to appear. These include 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch, and the Apocalypse of Abraham. In some ways they reinterpret older apocalyptic expectations. They had to in light of the failure of the first revolt and do so in part for pastoral reasons. On the other hand, they still show a strong expectation that God will finally deliver Judea from the Romans. . . .
These new apocalypses generally take the view that the present suffering of Jerusalem is a purging of its past sins to prepare for an eventual deliverance. The eschaton and a messianic age are still to come. There is also a warning that becoming too much like the Romans is not the proper course of action. . . Some of these ideas are also reflected in the Christian Gospels and in the book of Revelation, which was being written at about the same time.
Within sixty years of the destruction of Jerusalem a new wave of revolutionary sentiment arose, again fueled by apocalyptic expectation. The outbreak of the second Jewish revolt, with its self-proclaimed messianic leader Bar Kochba, shows how these deeply rooted ideas continued in some quarters. (pages 223 – 227)
The destruction of Jerusalem sent both Judaism and the Jesus movement onto entirely new trajectories. Both began to rethink their sense of apocalyptic. Judaism began moving in the direction of rabbinic Judaism and the development of the Talmud. The Pharisees finally replaced the Sadducees at the religious authority in Judaism. In the Jesus movement, the loss of Jerusalem meant the loss of the Jerusalem church, that community that had been the closest to Jesus. Many members of the Jerusalem church survived, but they were scattered, and so was their influence in comparison to the now emerging gentile churches in the rest of the Empire. What do you think the Jesus movement lost with the loss of Jerusalem? Can you see in any passages in the Gospels an attempt to reinterpret apocalyptic expectations in light of the destruction of Jerusalem? Do you think Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem in the Gospels were incredible foresight, or twenty twenty hindsight?
. . . Yohanan Ben Zakkai was reputed to have been a disciple of Hillel, one of the founders of the Pharisaic school. According to legend, Yohanan had opposed the war early on and during the siege of Jerusalem was smuggled out of the city in a coffin by his disciples. Once free of the revolutionaries, he was taken to Vespasian’s tent, where he prophesied that the general would be the next emperor. As a reward he was allowed to move to Yavneh (Jamnia) on the coast and there establish an academy to continue the teachings of the Pharisaic masters.
. . . he represents an important line of development from the early Pharisees in the period before the war to the post war establishment of the rabbinic tradition. His decision is rightly viewed as a turning point in the history of Judaism. It is an important shift that will have a direct bearing on our reading of the Christian gospels, for their portrayal of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus is colored by many of these post-70 developments and the growing tension between emergent Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. (pages 228 – 229)
Can you see in the gospels any places, where the attitude expressed toward the Pharisees may have been affected by Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s new movement? Like Jesus Yohanan Ben Zakkai refused to participate in violent resistance to Rome. In what ways do you think Jesus and Ben Zakkai differed?
Given the overall significance of the first revolt, it seems odd that there is so little direct mention of it in early Christian writings. As we shall see, however, there may be more reflection of the events than has sometimes been recognized. But a factor may well be the decided turn away from apocalyptic thinking that came as a result of the war. Later Christian tradition took the position that the early followers of Jesus had not participated in the war because they had already rejected the kind of Jewish apocalyptic thinking.
In part this notion that the followers of Jesus resisted the war grew out of the legends regarding the death of James, the brother of Jesus. Josephus reports that he was killed during the tumultuous years leading up to the war. A later legend developed that after the death of James, the church in Jerusalem left the city and migrated to Pella, a city of the Decapolis, a region of Hellenic cities on the other side of the Jordan. . .
According to this account, then, the early Christians of Jerusalem were not led astray by the apocalyptic expectations and revolutionary sentiments of other Jews. Instead, they received divine guidance by revelation to flee before the war broke out. Once again we see apocalyptic ideas being used to reinterpret earlier apocalyptic expectations. This legend further serves to claim a high degree of separation between Christians and Jews before the war. It also provides an alternative way of understanding the destruction by arguing it was God’s punishment of the Jews (the wicked generation) for killing Jesus, James and others. This line of reinterpretation would later become very significant in anti-Jewish polemics.
In reality, however, there is no evidence whatsoever that the church in Jerusalem fled the war. In fact, as we shall see, it is likely that many followers of the Jesus movement initially viewed the war as the fulfillment of eschatological promises. The growing rift between Christians and Jews began only after the first revolt and came to a head in the period of the second revolt. (pages 229 – 230)
If the followers of Jesus were committed to non-violence would they have support a war of physical violence against Rome? If in fact the Christians remained loyal to non-violence, what would have been the point of staying in Jerusalem after the Roman siege had begun? If Yohanan Ben Zaki could get out of Jerusalem during the siege what is the possibility that Christians would have been able to leave the City? If Christians refused to support violent rebellion how might this have led to a rift between Christians and Jews?
What all these responses show is the profound impact of the loss of the Temple, and the role of apocalyptic in both giving rise to the war and reinterpreting the outcome. . . So too we see that the disastrous turn of events raised important questions about the previous expectations of the followers of the Jesus movement. One way of addressing these problems was by retelling the story of Jesus in light of the new situation. The first effort to do so was the Gospel of Mark. .
. . . When the revolt failed and Jerusalem was destroyed instead, there were questions – the same sort of questions other Jews were asking. It may well be the case that the failure of their imminent eschatological expectations regarding Jesus’ return had also fueled opposition attacks against both the messiahship of Jesus and the beliefs of the followers.
. . . Mark 13 seems to be an effort to correct a misunderstanding on the part of at least some in the Markan community who had thought that the war really was to be the eschatological return of Jesus. Instead Mark has Jesus “predict” these events as a way of correcting the apocalyptic expectations by using, as we have seen before, an apocalyptic mode of discourse to deliver the reinterpretation. . . . In other words Mark’s readers were being told that the traumatic events that had so recently transpired in Jerusalem were – like the onset of labor – the signal that the eschatological age was now about to dawn, in fact within the lifetime of that very generation. Despite their previous misunderstandings, Jesus would return soon. Thus, by portraying the various misunderstandings of those around Jesus – friend and foe alike – the Markan narrative thereby gives shape to proper understanding of Jesus’s messianic identity and eschatological expectations for its own community of followers. In other words, it too is a mode of reinterpretation in the light of the war. (pages 231 – 238)
The author of Mark seeks to give assurances that the destruction of Jerusalem was not the hoped for second coming of Jesus. Mark re-interprets the community’s expectation by giving Jesus new predictions about the end times. Ultimately the early church was forced to give up any expectation of a second coming any time soon. How does the delay in the “second coming” affect our modern theologies? Do you think Jesus made any apocalyptic predictions or were these predictions the hopes of the early church? Can a community dedicated to non-violence have any serious hopes of restoring justice to the world without a radical intervention from God?
Chapter Ten: Sectarian Tensions and Self-Definition
Gospel Trajectories – the Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew is by far the most Jewish of the Gospels. . .
In light of recent archaeological work, a growing number of New Testament scholars would now locate the Matthean community somewhere in or near the village culture of the Upper Galilee. Even though the author and audience admit gentile converts into their fellowship, their primary social location and self-understanding are Jewish. Even the polemics against the Pharisees , a distinctive feature of Matthew, arise in this Jewish matrix; they are to be understood in view of the gradual demographic shift to the Galilee in the period after the first revolt, where the Pharisaic movement would emerge as the new voice of Judaism. Thus, it is quite feasible to see the author of Matthew as a Jewish follower of the Jesus movement whose community is facing conflict with other Jews, and especially these latter-day Pharisees. (page 240)
The Gospel of Matthew captures the competition and conflict between the newly emerging Rabbinic Judaism and the post-fall of Jerusalem Jesus movement. Many of the people in the Jesus movement still considered themselves Jews, but they were following a radically different interpretation of the law and scriptures than the Pharisees. The followers of Rabbinic Judaism were probably trying to decide whether or not to consider members of the Jesus movement Jews at all, just as today Jews refuse to recognize Jews for Jesus as Jews. Do you think Jews and Christians can pray and worship together? In what other areas of community life do you think Jews and Christians can cooperate?
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles
The traditional author of both the Gospel of Luke and Acts is Luke the physician, a co-worker of Paul’s. That these works come from a follower of the Pauline tradition,, and probably a gentile convert, is not disputed. . . .
. . . A recent trend among scholars has seen the date of authorship edge slightly later, to about 90 – 100 CE or even later. . .
The nature of the prologue also says something about the literary level of the work, since it would typically indicate a work that was formally “published.” Publication in this sense means that the work was intentionally produced for wider distribution and adhered to certain literary conventions. In this regard the address to Theophilus again becomes important, since it was normal to dedicate such works to the patron who paid for the publication, meaning the costs of papyrus, ink, secretaries, and copyists and in many cases support for the author. . .
This literary self-consciousness brings us to the issue of the genre of Luke-Acts. The Gospels are generally considered part of the ancient literary genre known as “lives.” Although not governed by the same concerns as modern biography, these ancient “ lives” were devoted to the words and deeds or important figures, including philosophers, emperors, rhetoricians, and religious leaders. . . .
Emphasis on history is not the same as saying that the work is historically accurate, however. In fact, most historians of the ancient world were rather loose when it came to historical accuracy. . .
To understand the import of the Lukan scheme, we must remember that virtually all the apocalyptic understandings of the first and second generation of the Jesus movement were dominated by imminent eschatological expectations very much in line with traditional Jewish apocalyptic thinking. . . .
But what happens when the time begins to drag on or the apparent signs of Jesus’s return fail to materialize? This crisis of expectation, usually called the “delay of the parousia,” is most pronounced in the period after the first revolt. . .
Luke takes a rather different form of reinterpretation by saying, in effect, that the “kingdom” has already arrived on the Day of Pentecost. . . Thus, the events of Pentecost are explicitly equated with both the arrival of the kingdom and the arrival of the eschaton, or “last days.”
Yet, these events are clearly not to be equated with the return of Jesus. . . As a result, the parousia, or return of Jesus is pushed off to a more distant and unspecified point in the future in a manner very similar to what one sees in some rabbinic reinterpretations. . . Any time lag in the interim now becomes less problematic, and in later appropriations of the Lukan scheme, this interim period becomes theologically institutionalized in a emerging Christian self-understanding as the age of the church. An additional implication of this shift is that the eventual return of Jesus is now decoupled from the arrival of an earthly kingdom; it will become instead the “last judgment” and the arrival of a heavenly kingdom. (pages 248 – 258)
One of Luke’s major contributions was to work out the problem of eschatology. Christians were no longer looking for the return of Jesus tied to the coming of an earthly kingdom, rather the return of Jesus was shoved off into an indefinite future, when the world as we know it will come to an end with the “Last Judgment.” Do you believe in a Last Judgment? Given all of the failures of the church through history, do you believe “the age of the church” is somehow a realization of God’s will for the world?
Chapter 11: Accommodation and Resistance
The Pauline School
The Pauline School refers to the later phases of development in Paul’s churches or among those who continued in his theological tradition. It also refers to those writings produced in the name of Paul but not actually written by Paul himself or during his lifetime. . .
At the same time, the generally positive attitude of the ancient world, Jewish and pagan alike, toward writing pseudepigraphically, that is, in the name of some long-dead person, let to the production of collections of fictitious letters. Much like Plato composing fictional dialogues between Socrates and his disciples, other disciples wrote fictional letters in the name of Socrates, Diogenes, Crates, and other famous philosophers of old. The goal seems to have been to express the ideas of a particular school of philosophy by writing letters in the name of one of its famous teachers. . .
Since Paul was known as a writer of letters and not, on the whole, of systematic treatises, the process of writing in his name seems to have grown up by the latter part of the first century. Some of these letters seem to be much closer to Paul in both spirit and date, while others seems to reflect a greater distance and more manifest differences in situation and tone. (pages 260 – 261)
Do you think it makes a difference whether or not Paul wrote all of the letters attributed to him? How can the reader be helped by deciding which letters are genuinely Paul and which letters were written at other times by other people? Is pseudepigraphical writing ever accepted today?
The outlook on the church is an important development in the theology of Ephesians. No longer thought of as distinct congregations or house churches of the people of God, “the church” is now an abstract entity that was ordained to come into existence as part of God’s plan for the ages. Using language drawn from the hymn of Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians calls the church “the body of Christ” and Christ its head . . . The church now becomes the place of reunion and reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles by breaking down “the dividing wall of hostility, but this means that the church is also coming to be thought of as something new and distinct from Judaism. . .
The understanding of the church explored in Ephesians and Colossians also shows a new self-consciousness. Imminent eschatology is gone. Apocalyptic ideas are reinterpreted through the idea of the church as the army of God on earth waging its war with the devil. Although it is not possible to prove that the author of either of these two works (or both) was the same as the author of Luke-Acts, there is a strong correlation between them in the theological understanding of salvation history and the place of the church in that history. . . (pages 267 – 269)
In the Letter to the Ephesians we can begin to see the “institutionalization” of the church. What are the strengths and the weaknesses of an institutionalized church? Do you identify with the image of the church as the army of God? What are some non-institutionalized expressions of faith?
The Petrine Legacy
As much as any other figure, Peter is associated with the foundations of Christianity. . . . Two letters in the New Testament are attributed to Peter. The style, theology, and situation of the two letters are quite different. . .
. . . Here again we see a distinctive Christian self-definition beginning to emerge; moreover, reflections on this identity are being made in theological terms.
At the same time, Christian’ identity as “aliens and exiles” is now used to exhort them to ethical behaviors in accommodation with their alien environment. Specifically they are told to honor the emperor and accept the authority of local Roman officials “for the Lord’s sake.”. . .
A Radical Response: the Revelation of John
As we have seen, the last decade or two of the first century witnessed a proliferation of new literary works to address the changing social location of the Jesus movement. Most of these reflect an emerging Christian identity, a greater sense of separation from Judaism, and a sense of accommodation to Roman culture. Yet different Christian groups in diverse locations seem to have consolidated their new social position in distinctive ways. . . Coming from the church in Rome, I Peter takes a similar line in ethical exhortation and similarly uses the household duty code as a signal that Christians uphold the social order. Yet it goes even farther by calling for Christians to “honor the emperor.” Some Christians must have found such an injunction shocking, especially coming from Peter. At least one found this move toward accommodation with Rome to be abhorrent and said so in vehement terms by appealing to the older tradition of apocalypse. (pages 272 – 280)
Before plunging into the Revelation of John let’s consider the I Letter of Peter and its insistence that Christians should accommodate themselves to the empire, even to honor the emperor. What did the church gain by accommodating, what do you think the church lost? To what extent does the church still accommodate to the culture around us? Does the general rule against preaching politics amount to accommodation with the society?
In the early centuries the book of Revelation was quite controversial and not uniformly considered scripture. It was not received into the Western canon until 393-94 CE, and then only after a symbolic reading became the authoritative interpretation through Augustine. . . .
. . . Recent work on the imperial cult at Ephesus makes a date under Nero impossible and confirms a date near the end of the reign of Domitian (81-96) as most likely. . .
But there is a second more important purpose to Revelation, as shown in these final verses. By linking the destruction of Jerusalem with the beasts of chapter 13 and the cosmic forces of Satan, it draws a line of demarcation for its readers, the Christians of Asia at the end of the first century. . . . Public banquets were celebrations of the imperial cult in which Christians might participate. Rather than a situation in which persecution of Christians was a rampant problem, the dilemma faced by the author of Revelation was that Christians in Asia Minor were prepared to honor Emperor Domitian and accommodate to Roman imperial rule, just as letters from “Peter” and “Paul” had encouraged them to do. . .
The author shows dramatically through visions and powerful dualistic symbols that to accommodate is the same as worshipping Satan himself and, in the spirit of traditional apocalyptic sectarianism, to put oneself on the losing side when God finally triumphs over Satan. (pages 280 – 290)
Revelation is encouraging Christians to oppose the imperial cult of the emperor, rather than accommodating to it. Are religious groups who center their theology on the Revelation to John often dissenting from the main culture around them? Can you think of any reasons that non-fundamentalist Christians might find themselves dissenting from our culture or government today? What did the church finally decide in relationship to established authority?
Chapter Twelve: Christology and Conflict
The Beginnings of Normative Self-Definition
By the beginning of the second century, the name “Christians” was becoming more recognizable in the large cities of the Roman Empire. To some it must have still suggested a strange and dissident Jewish sect. To others it may have sounded like another foreign cult. . . The rift with Judaism had begun as a fissure in the aftermath of the first revolt, in part as a result of the cognitive shock in seeing Jerusalem destroyed and the subsequent vacuum of religious leadership. . .
The growing separation between the Jesus movement and rabbinic Judaism undoubtedly had numerous causes and facets. It proceeded at a different pace in different localities depending on the local makeup of emerging Christian groups. . . .
At least in the Jewish homeland these tensions became more pronounced in the early part of the second century with the growing consolidation of the rabbinic movement and the events surrounding the second Jewish revolt against Rome (132 – 135 CE). One of the remarkable developments of this period within Judaism was its change of orientation with regard to sectarianism. . .
By the end of the second revolt there was a new sense that sectarianism was also to blame for some of the ills. Now “sects” would come increasingly to be viewed as “heresies.”. . .
A story from the second Jewish revolt (132 – 135 CE) shows the rupture. Justin Martyr says that Christians in Judea were persecuted by the followers of Bar Kochba if they refused to join in the war. Since Bar Kochba, whose name means “Son of the Star,” was a self-proclaimed messiah, this posed a dilemma, especially for Jewish Christians. Jewish Christians were being forced to choose between believing in the messiahship of Jesus and their loyalty both political and religious, to Israel. In some ways, this was the last straw for many of them. . . . (pages 293 -295)
The break with Judaism was a push and pull affair. Jewish Christians were moving in directions that took them farther and farther from their Jewish roots, and Rabbinic Judaism was on a trajectory almost in the opposite direction from Jewish Christians. Both sides began defining themselves over against each other. In some ways the split was inevitable. Do you think relationships between Christians and Jews today might benefit from knowledge about how the two movements parted company? Do you think knowledge about the split might benefit dialogue between Christians and Jews?
As Christianity became more and more separate from Judaism, polemical portrayals were used on both sides as vehicles for denunciation and self-definition. On the Christian side, Christological affirmations became a prominent mechanism of boundary definition for communities in conflict. . .
According to the Christian historian Eusebius an ancient Gospel attributed directly to Peter was known to Serapion, bishop of Antiod, in about 200 CE. . . . Serapion’s discussion supposes that the Gospel of Peter was an earlier document that had been taken over and corrupted by docetic additions. . . it represents an early “apostolic” source with a problematic trajectory of usage.
A Greek fragment of this Gospel of Peter, lost for centuries, was found in 1886. . .
The docetic elements noted in the letter of Serapion are not much in evidence in the preserved portion of the text but may be reflected in the fact that Jesus is said to “feel no pain” while hanging on the cross and that at the moment of death he was “taken up,” rather than just dying. . .
Because this form of resurrection or epiphany scene is out of keeping with docetic assumptions, it has been suggested that it may go back to an earlier form of the text. . . it has been suggested that it may even reflect a form of the Passion narrative older than that in Mark. As a result, some scholars date the earliest layer of this tradition to the mid-first century. From there it may have influenced the synoptic tradition through Mark but then traveled independently and was adapted and elaborated in later versions, probably first in Syria. During the second century, the text was given some colorations from the other canonical narratives (including John). The numerous numerous anti-Jewish and docetic elements were added perhaps in more than one stage. In its final form, the Gospel of Peter has now become a boundary marker not only between Jews and Christians but also between docetists and other Christians. (pages 297 – 299)
New early church texts have been discovered in the last two-hundred years. Some of these texts were hijacked by later groups with particular theological concerns that ultimately lost out in the rush to establish orthodoxy. Is it possible to ferret out any early and genuine traditions from the earliest Jesus Movement? If new resources can be uncovered lying behind these texts, how should they be used alongside the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Are there later writings of saints and theologians we should collect as worthy of consideration along side the New Testament?
The theology of the Gospel of Thomas shows marked development to meet the needs of a new community situation. The eschatology is thoroughly spiritualized or “realized,” and Jesus speaks as a heavenly figure – with the voice of Wisdom (Sophia) – giving instructions to those who are presently in the divine kingdom. These shifts are in some cases created by giving a slightly different emphasis or change of wording to some traditional sayings, often to give an anti-material slant.
. . . Finally, the sayings in their present form are intentionally formulated to be esoteric, enigmatic, or mysterious. They require interpretation or instruction in order to be used as a means of entry into the community. Thus, the text served simultaneously as a community defining book and a reflection on the person of Jesus, and these two senses reinforced one another, at least for insiders. (pages 301 – 303)
The Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1940’s and recently translated and published has become an important tool in Biblical research. Some scholars believe that it may be a reflection of the Q document. Again we ask, how can a newly discovered document that was previously suppressed by the orthodox be used to help us in our understanding of church history and the person of Jesus? How free should we be in re-editing the “sayings of Jesus?”
The Gospel of John
The Gospel of John shares some notable features with these early second century Christian texts. It shows awareness and adaptation of the synoptic tradition, reflects a much greater degree of separation from – and open hostility toward – Judaism, and looks on Jesus as a more heavenly or spiritual being. All these features point to a new social context, one no longer dominated by a Jewish worldview, but by a Hellenistic one instead. At the same time, the Gospel of John stands in some tension with these other, more docetic forms of Christology and thus hints at other lines of conflict at work in the early church of its day. . .
. . . The most widely accepted theory is that what we call the Gospel of John is really the product of several distinct stages of transmission and editing, the earliest core of which was thought to be from John himself. According to this theory, there were as many as five distinct stages of editing and composition, of shich at least the last two or three occurred after the death of John. If John only died in about 95 CE, this might push the date of final composition into the early 120’s. . . .
. . . As early as 200 CE Clement of Alexandria referred to John as “the spiritual Gospel” as a way of accounting for the clear differences while still defending Johannine authorship. . .
. . . Yet it would appear that the author(s) of John have made this change quite intentionally in order to render the symbolism of the Passover lamb narratively as a way of interpreting, both theologically and dramatically, the significance of Jesus’s death. This theme of the “lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” is woven into the narrative from the very beginning of the story when Jesus first comes to John the Baptist. . .
Substitutionary atonement is probably the biggest theological different separating conservative Christianity from liberal Christianity. Conservatives and evangelicals believe that the faith is about believing that Jesus did “it” for us, Jesus saved us from death by dying on a cross, so we can go to heaven, while liberals believe that Jesus showed us the way to the kingdom of God here and now by loving one another, caring for the poor, and living a radical life style of humility and love. Why do you think the Gospel of John went down the road of substitutionary atonement? Were there historical or cultural factors that shaped the church in the direction of substitutionary atonement?
The Gospel of John thus represents a social situation in which there is much greater separation between the Christian community and its Jewish neighbors. The theme of rejection of the message about Jesus has now been magnified into a total rejection of Jesus was the one sent form heaven by God. The community’s own confessional statements about Jesus now function as strict boundary markers against Judaism per se. . .
. . . For the Johannine community, at least, the breach with Judaism had become irreparable. The Johannine Christology – Jesus, the man from heaven – is a nascent form of creedal confession that provides a correlative theological warrant for separateness. (page 314)
What are the strengths of a confessional statement that portrays Jesus as the man from heaven? What are the weaknesses of such a confessional statement? Is it possible for a faith community to survive that refuses to recognize any one faith statement about the identity of Jesus?
Although the Gospel of John in its final form seems fully in agreement with this antidocetic emphasis, it is also likely that some of these features were strengthened over time in the editorial process. . .
The post-resurrection scene in which Jesus and Thomas come face to face is the climax of the Gospel. It is all the more telling, then, that Thomas is now made the vehicle for touching the flesh of the crucified and risen Christ. Is this a conscious and overt effort on the part of the Johannine authors to counteract the more extreme forms of docetic theology of the Gospel of Thomas? It may well be. If so, it means that the Johannine community is now facing self-definition questions on two very distinct fronts. The “man from heaven” Christology has been a successful tool in ratifying the separation from Judaism, but now some Christians have taken it too far. The older tradition of the Jesus movement — with its Jewish messiah and emphasis on the death and resurrection – is in jeopardy of marginalization. The innovative solution of the Johannine community is its incaration/Passion Christology. (pages 317 – 318)
Does John’s Gospel seen as a running debate over a developing Christology make sense, when comparing John to the Synoptic Gospels? Do you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with John’s Christology? What stories from the Gospel of John are most attractive to you?
Finally, Hebrews punctuates its Christological midrash with alternating exhortations that stress the ultimacy of this confession. Since Christ is so far superior to all else in God’s scheme of redemption as seen in the Hebrew scriptures, how can one turn away from this faith? The gauntlet is down; a clear line has been drawn. It is no longer only that some Jews might have rejected Jesus; rather, God had all along intended Jesus to replace Judaism, the Christology of Hebrews now becomes an absolute sanction that excludes all other modes of access to that same God of Israel. This is a new and distinctive mode of normative self-definition, at least for those who read and used Hebrews. (page 323)
The Gospel of John’s insistence that salvation is only through Jesus, was the precursor to the supercessionism of the Letter to the Hebrews. Salvation is only through Jesus and the people of Israel is now the church, not the Jews. How has the church’s embrace of a doctrine of supercessionism led to problems in relationship to other faith groups? Are there any portions of the Letter to the Hebrews you find helpful?
Chapter Thirteen: With the Voice of an Apostle
Although new works continued to be penned in the name of apostles into the early years of the second century, there was nonetheless a growing awareness that the old generation had passed on and a new one had dawned.. . The age of the apostles was gone. . .
The term “apostolic fathers” is the name popularly ascribed . . . to that group of authors or writings that seem to continue the apostolic legacy in the generation immediately following the apostles. They typically include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache. Other writers sometimes included in the list are Papias, Quadratus, and the anonymous work known as the Epistle to Diognetus. . .
The apostolic fathers represent a diverse picture of regional developments spanning from the third to the fourth generation of the Christian movement. They are contemporaneous with or, in some cases, even earlier than certain New Testament documents. In general, their dates range from the beginning of the second century down to the mid 150’s CE; therefore, we must deal with issues of dating, identity, and historical situation as we look at the individual writings of this group. One characteristic that does seem to run through all of them is a concern to give instruction, exhortation, or correction to existing Christian groups regarding the proper ordering of church life. Pivotal issues include the conduct of worship, emerging questions over belief or doctrine, and sources of authority or leadership in deciding such matters. (pages 324 –325)
By the mid-150’s the church was beginning to institutionalize. Worship, doctrine, authority are all concerns of an institution rather than a movement. As the Jesus movement became an institution what do you think was gained and what was lost? Think about United Church, how do we resolve issues of worship, authority and doctrine? In what ways is United Church a movement, and in what ways are we an institution?
The Epistle of Barnabas is actually an anonymous treatise that early on was ascribe to Barnabas. . . The work was considered genuine especially among Alexandrian Christians from the time of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE) and was included in the New Testament canon in Codex Sinaiticus (early fifth century). . . It is better understood as a sermon of sorts that is rather clearly divided into two distinct parts: chapters 2 – 16 deal with the” correct” interpretation of the Jewish scriptures as they figure and validate Christian beliefs, and chapters 18 – 20 give ethical instructions in a form known as “The Two Ways.”
. . . The date of the work is uncertain but must come well after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, an event clearly mentioned in Barnabas 16.3 Since this reference is followed by an expectation that the Temple will be rebuilt soon, it has usually been suggested that it must date before the BarKochba revolt (132-35 CE). Barnabas uses apocalyptic images of the beast with 10 horns (from Daniel 7), and these images might suggest that the work derives from the period of resurgence of apocalyptic expectations between about 95 and 120 CE. . .
The Epistle of Barnabas retains a strong eschatological expectation of Christ’s imminent return. . . the Christological affirmations of the first part of the text reflect the hardening lines of separation from Judaism. Jesus is called the preexistent “Lord of the World,” who assisted God in creation and who came in the flesh as “Son of God” to endure suffering “in order to sum up the completeness of sins against those who persecuted his prophets unto death.” In contrast, Jesus’ descent from the lineage of David – a traditionally Jewish feature of his messianic identity, especially in Matthew – is explicitly denied. Instead Jesus now prepares the covenant for a new people. . . to repleace the sinful Israel that was not worthy of the covenant delivered through Moses.
In this way, Barnabas shows some similarities to the kind of “supersessionist” theology also found in Hebrews, and an elaborate patchwork of quotations from the Septuagint is likewise employed to validate the argument. . . (pages 326 –331)
The Epistle of Barnabas gives us an illustration of the slow but steady movement in the direction of “orthodoxy.” Jesus is no longer the Jewish messiah but a pre-existent heavenly being who came down to bring salvation to the gentiles and replace Israel with the church. What did the church gain, and what did it lose from these theological developments? How did these theological developments impact the church’s attitude toward social and political reform?
The work now commonly known as the Didache (“the Teaching”) was mentioned during the second and fourth centuries . . . The Recovery of the text has made it possible to see that the work was extremely influential in later centuries, especially as a source for liturgical and church-order manuals. . . The work as we now know it was probably composed in the early to mid second century (ca 100 – 140 CE) in Syria; however, it may well incorporate an independent trajectory of earlier materials going back to the last part of the first century. Of the Gospels it seems to quote most directly from Matthew . . . If so, the Didache may reflect the development of an early form of Jewish Christianity in lower Syria distinct from the urban Christianity that developed in and around Antioch. . .
Even more than the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache is presented as a series of instructions for ordering church life and practice. . .
The second half of the work contains a series of instuction on the practice of worship, including how to perform baptism . . .
Concerning the Eucharist it provides model prayers and guidelines fro the fellowship meals that formed part of the worship . . .
The Didache also gives instructions on how to treat traveling Christian prophets and teachers and includes warnings if such prophets should stay too long or ask for money. . . there is now a heightened wariness about such people. Similarly, hospitality is to be offered to other traveling Christians; however, there are cautions about false teachers and freeloaders. Finally, the work closes with instructions on the conduct of Sunday worship, the need to appoint church leaders (bishops and deacons), although explicit qualifications are not given, and a concluding exhortaion to be watchful for the imminent eschatological return of Christ. The Didache is thus a reflection of a growing degree of formalization in liturgical matters and church offices. (pages 331 – 335)
The Didache indicates that some formalization of the institution was beginning within a 100 years of the death of Jesus. Note the reference to Sunday worship already an in a work that was used by “Jewish Christians.” What kinds of institutional issues first become regularized in the life of the church? Does the modern church have any problems with “false teachers” and “freeloaders?” What would worship look like in our modern context if the Lord’s Supper was still practiced as part of a communal meal?
Clement of Rome is the traditional name of the author of a letter written from the churches in Rome to the churches in Corinth. Commonly known as I Clement, the document was one of the earliest to be associated with the leadership of the church after the apostles. It was contained in the New Testament in Codex Alexandrinus (ca 400 CE) and in other early Christian Bibles and was retained in the Syriac New Testament through the Middle Ages . . .
The letter makes clear that the problem arose when a group of younger men within the Corinthian congregations had deposed the older leaders, or “elders” , of the church and taken over. Consequently, the Roman church has sent the letter to intervene in the dispute and to restore the elders to their rightful position. It calls on the Corinthians to “bow the neck and become obedient” by restoring the proper “harmony and concord” in the church . . .
The primary theme of I Clement is “harmony and concord” and it uses the Septuagint as well as Paul’s I Corinthians to legitimate its basic argument – namely that discord is against God’s will, not only for the sake of the church but also for the sake of the whole cosmos . . .
Finally, this mode of argumentation is all the more important in light of the fact that I Clement shows no awareness of the New Testament as a collection or source of authority unto itself. The letters of Paul are cited as authority, but this is done because Paul was an “apostle” and his apostolic authority was passed on in the church by the appointment of bishops and deacons. For I Clement “scriptures” still refers to the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint. Yet the author like the apostle Paul, also speaks and writes through the Holy Spirit. It has also been shown that both the decision of the Roman church to dispense such advice and the form in which it was presented are modeled on the prerogatives of the capital, specifically the Senate and the emperor of Rome, to manage the affairs of its provinces and cities. (pages 337 – 340)
The Letter of Clement shows a trajectory toward increasing hierarchy and apostolic authority. Rome is already on its way to becoming the hierarchical authority for the whole church. And the church is no longer dedicated to challenging the power and social organization of the empire. Instead Christians are admonished to bow to established authority not just or the sake of the church but for the whole cosmos. Why do you think the church became such a supporter of the “established order of things?” In what ways is the modern church still expected to support “the established order of things?” Why can the real study of scripture, rather than relying upon hierarchical authority be so subversive?
It appears that Ignatius was bishop of the church in Syrian Antioch during the first decades of the second century. We know nothing else about his life or earlier career before about 113 – 115, when he was arrested in Antioch and then sent under guard to Rome for trial. En route he was allowed to visit with Christians in some cities of Asia Minor and Greece. He then wrote letters to these churches and to the church in Rome. . .
Taken together, the letters of Ignatius provide glimpses into a number of issues emerging in the second and third decades of the second century. Ignatius regularly give advice on church affairs. . .
Two important issues show up in the letters. The first is a concern over false teaching or “heresy” within the churches. On the one hand, Ignatius warns against being deceived by certain Jewish teachings. . . Here he seems to be most concerned with attitudes toward the Jewish scriptures and particularly whether the Jewish laws are still binding. Consequently, he sets “Christianism” in opposition to “Judaism,” just as the observance of the Sabbath is opposed to the “Lord’s Days” . . .
Ignatius is far more concerned with Christians who hold the view that Jesus was divine but never a flesh and blood human. We saw this same problem called docetism, reflected in the Johannine tradition at roughly the same time. . .
A second key issue is the role of the bishop and clergy in a hierarchical structure for maintaining the authority and unity of the churches. . .
. . . In most of the letters he advocates a three-tiered hierarchical structure with the bishop above a group of elders and deacons. . . . it seems that this innovative structure was advocated by Ignatius himself, partly out of his own experience at Antioch and partly to help defend against “false teachers” . . . ( pages 346 – 349)
Ignatius also juxtaposes the Lord’s Day with the Sabbath. Again we can see that the churches were using Sunday for worship rather than Saturday. The most persistent heresy of this period was docetism the desire to see Jesus as a heavenly being with no earthly body. Ignatius also confirms the drift toward hierarchical patriarchal leadership. Why do you think docetism was so popular? Why do you think hierarchical structure triumphed over other forms of church organization? Are there forces at work in our culture today that make it possible for non-hierarchical church structures to thrive?
Chapter 14: Legitimacy and Order
By the early years of the second century CE Christian groups in many parts of the Roman World increasingly viewed themselves as somehow distinct from Judaism; fiery rhetoric on both sides fueled and sharpened the break. At the same time, the fact that the Christian “sect” came out from under the umbrella of Judaism brought important political consequences in the eyes of Roman authorities. . . .
Pliny’s report thus shows that there were no real “crimes” as such with which the Christians could be charged, but their meetings fell under the prohibition against “private clubs” that he had promulgated throughout the province at the emperor’s direction. . . Their groups included people of high social rank as well as slaves, including women, some of whom held a sort of special priestly office. . .
What is most remarkable about Pliny’s report is his sense of novelty in this superstitious private club. Everything he “knows” about them was a product of hearsay from local officials or things that admitted Christians – or former Christians – reported in the course of cross-examination. Although their obstinate behavior before a Roman imperial official was sufficient grounds for summary execution. . . . More significant, ( the emperor) instructed Pliny not to go out hunting for Christians or to accept any anonymous denunciations.
For the next 138 years the principles and procedures outlined in Trajan’s reply to Pliny governed the official Roman treatment of Christians. There was no universal prohibition against Christianity as such . . .
. . . The first empire wide action taken against Christians took place under the emperor Decius (249 – 251 CE). . . Even so, it does not appear that the Christians were Decius’s main concern or that there was an attack on the church as institution. An all-out effort to suppress Christianity by arresting leaders, confiscating church property and books, or destroying church buildings did not occur until the so-called Great Persecution under the emperor Diocletian (303 – 313 CE), at the end of which the new emperor Constantine declared Christianity a legitimate religion of the empire. (pages 355 – 361)
The church did not suffer sustained persecution from the beginning until Constantine. Instead persecution was sporadic and less than organized. What do you think the Romans perceived as the chief threat from the church? Why do you think the church was able to survive persecution?
With the increase in local persecutions in the second century, these various forms of apologetic literature became a prominent and specialized mode of literary expression in defense of the Christian faith on both legal and intellectual grounds.. . .
Even so, it was never the intent or expectation that these treatises would actually be read by the emperor; nor were they intended to be delivered to Roman officials. They were instead written for other Christians as a way of arming them with an outlook and arguments for dealing with criticisms and suspicions they might encounter in day to day life. . . they were written with an eye toward the encounter between Christians and their pagan or Jewish neighbors. . .
Perhaps the best known and most influential of the second-century apologists was the Christian teacher and philosopher called Justin Martyr. . . He tells also of his intellectual pilgrimage from one philosophical school to another that took him to Athens and the great cities of the empire. But he had witnessed Christians facing martyrdom and was taught Christianity as the only true philosophy by a wise old man. He says it kindled his soul. Justin migrated to Rome by about 140 CE, during the reign of Antonius Pius, to whom he would address his Apologies around 150 CE. Once in Rome Justin established his own school of philosophy, like so manyh others of the time, but his was a school of Christian Philosophy. . . (pages 373 – 380)
Apologetics were a natural response to suspicion and persecution. But we also see in Justin Martyr that Christian thought was beginning to take on Greek philosophy — Justin Martyr’s school of Christian philosophy. Does Christianity work as a philosophy? Who have been some of the more prominent modern apologists for Christian faith? Does apologetic literature tend to be a conservative or a liberalizing influence?
Chapter 15: Networks of Faith
For most people today the term “scripture” connotes a set body of literature with a fixed order. . . It has been this way for centuries. . . so long. . . one would think it was always so. Yet it was not, for the actual body of writings that makes up the scriptures differs rather significantly. .
. . . Terms like “Old Testament” and “New Testament” would not arise until the very end of the second century, indeed as an outgrowth of the debate over the scriptures.
I addition to the Septuagint there were other “scriptures.” Fanciful elaborations on the Jewish scriptures, especially Genesis, had begun in earnest in the late third century BCE. . . The result is a thoroughly improbable story of angels, sex, giants, and all manner of evil, but most of all, it is the story of Satan. . . Nowadays I Enoch will be found in no one’s Bible, and yet it is one of the most influential stories in early Judaism and had an even greater impact on Christian tradition.
In the early second century, rabbinic tradition began to close the Jewish canon, resulting in what is now called the Tanak. Among other things, the prevalent Christian use of the Septuagint as a rich source for “prophecies” relating to Jesus, as seen in Hebrews and the Epistle of Barnabas, made it less palatable for Jewish use. One result was to revert only to those texts in Hebrew or Aramaic, rather than Greek, as seen in the Tanak. (pages 384 – 387)
The motivation for closing and tightening up the Jewish canon was in part in response to the perceived hijacking of the Jewish Scriptures by Christians. Indeed, much of the development in Jewish thought in the second and third centuries was to define Judaism over against Christianity. How might Judaism and Christianity been affected, if they had kept a more fluid concept of “scripture?” Are there any modern works you would be tempted to classify as sacred writings? I Enoch has always had a hold on popular imagination. Where are places in our culture that you see the influence of I Enoch?
Later forms of the Thomas tradition in Syria continued to promote ascetic piety by blending together elements of the legend of the apostle Thomas with the ascetic theology of Tatian. This tradition is exemplified in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, which was composed in Edessa, perhaps in Syriac and Greek, near the beginning of the third century CE. . .
In addition to its ascetic teaching, the Acts of Thomas is also noteworthy for its incorporation of early forms of liturgical prayers and hymns that probably come from the late second century. Thye reflect a distinctive orientation to worship and theology that may also be called “proto-Gnostic.”
The Gospel of Thomas, Acts of Thomas, and Book of Thomas thus reflect the growth of an independent “Thomas tradition” beginning in Syria but continuing in Egypt as well. . . (pages 392 – 393)
The Thomas tradition was later suppressed by the orthodox, because of the Gnostic and docetic influences in them. The recent recovery of this literature has contributed to our understanding of church history and textual criticism. For our own Bible study, how do you think we should treat these works from the “Thomas Tradition?” Ascetic Christianity is not currently in vogue. Can you imagine circumstances that might lead to a resurgence in ascetic practices in religious faith?
The distinctive character of early Egyptian Christianity is seen most clearly in what is usually called Gnosticism. . . “Gnosticism” is a modern term coined to describe various types of early Christianity that came to be viewed as heretical by the end of the second century. . .
Of these (writings), the Apocryphon (“Hidden Teaching”) of John presupposes the same basic mythological scheme as that of Valentinus. Its underlying premise is a cosmological explanation for the body-soul relationship in humans and a model for redemption or salvation based on releasing the soul from its physical “prison” (the body) in order to be reunited with the divine spirit. Yet this idea assumes a basic dichotomy drawn in part from Greek philosophy, between a lower Demiurge (or creator God) and the Good God, who is the origin of the soul. Although elements of this basic idea are found in a number of earlier forms of Greek and Jewish thought, it is probably best now to view “Gnosticism” as a Christian philosophical development of these ideas, rather than as a separate or foreign religious movement. In other words, “Gnosticism” operated as a kind of elitist and secretive spirituality movement within Christian circles. Rather than bizarre rituals or libertine sexual mores, as described with prurient interest by Irenaeus and others, it was probably spiritual elitism and overt philosophical speculation about the biblical story of creation that caused “Gnosticism” finally to be labeled as “heretical.” (pages 397 – 387)
The dualistic nature of Gnosticism – flesh is bad, spirit is good – seek the life of the spirit by denying the flesh, historically has been a popular approach to spirituality. What about the early centuries of Christian faith made Gnosticism attractive? Do you think this kind of philosophy can gain traction in the 21st Century? Can a sensual culture give up the comforts and pleasures of the flesh?
One distinctive component of the Acts of Paul in its fullest form concerns the heroic trials and tribulations of a co-worker, an attractive young woman named Thecla. Recent scholarship has shown that the Thecla cycle was part of the original work that was later removed because of its positive portrayal of women and sexual renunciation. Thecla clearly becomes the hero in this portion of the story. . .
Thecla continued to follow Paul even when she was threatened by the governor with being burned at the stake for refusing to marry Thamyris. When they tried, however, the first was extinguished by a torrential rain. . . Again Thecla’s beauty attracted unwanted attention, this time from a Syrian named Alexander. Once again she was threatened with martyrdom for refusing to yield to his advances, but when she was thrown into the arena with a ravenous lioness, the beast only licked her feet. Amazed the other women in the crowd began to call on her to perform miracles, especially for their sick and dying children. Finally at the end of the story Thecla moves on, following in the footsteps of Paul. She preaches as she goes and even cuts her hair short and wears men’s clothing. In short, she has become a missionary apostle like Paul himself.
The story of Thecla thus reflects a rigorously ascetic brand of Pauline Christianity that flourished somewhere in Asia Minor or eastern Anatolia in the later second century. . . (pages 401 – 403)
Why do you think the story of Thecla was ultimately suppressed? Was it possible for a woman in that era to assume major leadership in an itinerant ministry without practicing celibacy? How do you think Thecla’s story might be different in the 21st century?
These traditions come from a group of strict Jewish Christians known as Ebionites. The origin of the name Ebionites is obscure, but the most likely case is that it derives from a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic word meaning “poor.” The term became the honorific self-designation for certain Jewish Christian groups that traced their lineage to the old Jerusalem church of James. . .
Origen adds that they continued to observe the Jewish feasts, such as Passover, and that some Ebionites accepted the virgin birth of Jesus, while others did not, claiming that Jesus was the natural child of Joseph. According to all the early accounts a key point was their view that Paul was a heretic. . .
It is very likely that the name “Ebionites” as used by Irenaeus was but one way of referring to a broad stream of Jewish Christianity that resisted the general abandonment of Jewish observance and tradition by the other, typically gentile, forms of the Christian movement.
. . . Ironically, however, in the long run this type of Jewish Christianity came to be labeled as heretical by the emerging mainstream of the Christian movement because they insisted on Torah observance and claimed that Jesus was human-born and only adopted as God’s son, the messiah, at his baptism, in accordance with the scriptures. ( pages 405 – 406)
In the last 100 years there has been a resurgence of sympathy for Ebionite theology. Why do you think it died out between 400 and 500 CE? What do you think accounts for the resurgence of Ebionite theology? Do think a resurgence of Ebionite theology might lead to closer ties between Christians and Jews?
Five main components of Marsion’s teaching proved troublesome for the church at Rome:
1. Marcion argued that the creator God of Genesis was a different and inferior God to the Father of Jesus Christ. . .
2. He argued that all the Jewish scriptures were therefore meaningless as revelations about Christ and should be entirely discarded . . .
3. Marcion maintained that Jesus was not born as actual flesh and blood. Like some other docetists, he thought that Christ was an entirely spiritual being who had inhabited a human body temporarily and then departed at the moment of the crucifixion. . .
4. He argued that Paul alone had understood the true message that brought freedom from the laws of the creator God. . .
5. Finally, on this basis Marcion formed his own collection of authoritative scriptures containing only an expurgated form of the Gospel of Luke and ten letters of Paul. . . (page 409)
Do you see any of Marcion’s philosophy in any contemporary forms of spirituality? Did Marcion’s fooling around with scripture prompt the church to begin to pull together its own cannon?
An alternative view holds that the three letters were composed as a kind of “last will and testament” meant both to consolidate Pauline theology and to defend Paul against criticisms arising from the use of his letters by numerous “heretical” groups. In this way they are meant to “domesticate” the more radical implications of Pauline thought and to bring him into the mainstream in the areas of both theology and church order. . .
The ostensible recipients, Timothy and Titus, are now instructed on how to defend against these “false teachings” by installing proper safeguards, including ethical instruction. . .
Finally, the Pastorals present a view of Christian doctrine that is emerging as a more tightly bounded body of beliefs. . . Thus, the Pastorals establish a mechanism for the authoritative succession of leadership in subsequent generations. They are thus part of the evolving church – order literature, but couched in terms of apostolic testaments. (pages 429 – 433)
The “taming of Paul” was the final step in taking very radical theology and making it consistent with supporting the social norms of the day. If Paul’s radical ideas about the place of women and non-hierarchical social relationship had not been suppressed, how might the church have been different? Is the church ready at this point to embrace the “radical” Paul?
Where did heresy come from? Was it an external force that crept in to pollute and pervert the original teaching of Jesus and the apostles? Or was it somehow intrinsic to the development of the early movement due to its changing social horizons and cultural contexts? . .
Despite the traditional way of understanding the development of heresy and orthodoxy, the picture is more complex. . .
. . . Every form of early Christian heresy seems to have begun with the idea that it, and it alone, had preserved a kernel of true teaching inherited from Jesus and the original disciples. The “heretics” could cite the scriptures with equal force, and sometimes with greater insight into their original meaning. Their mutual discovery that other Christians had different beliefs was a surprise to one and all. . . In other words, debates over heresy and orthodoxy were a necessary by-product and the growing consolidation of the movement in both social and theological terms. (pages 433 – 437)
Was there any way for the early church to avoid establishing one line of development as orthodox without suppressing other lines of development labeled heresy? How many lines of theological development are current in the 21st century church? How has the separation of church and state in America contributed to the development of many different lines of theological development in America?
“I Have Seen the Lord”
SLIDE 3: EXPERIENCED THE LIVING CHRIST
In all of his letters Paul never mentioned an empty tomb. Paul was absolutely convinced the resurrected Christ had confronted him on the Road to Damascus, but he never mentioned an empty tomb. And even when we read the traditional Easter stories the empty tomb is relatively unimportant. No one believed that Jesus was alive just because the body had disappeared. No in every case people became convinced of the resurrection, because they experienced the living presence of the Christ.
This morning I want to examine more closely the story of Mary Magdalene, because I believe her experience of the resurrection can help us to understand the good news of Easter for ourselves. Mary was devoted to Jesus. Many of the gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament indicate many of the male disciples were jealous of the special relationship she shared with Jesus.
SLIDE 4: CAME TO THE GARDEN ALONE
According to our scripture this morning, at first light Mary came to the garden alone. Perhaps she was the only one with enough courage to venture out. The men were all huddled in fear hoping they would not be next in line for crucifixion. But maybe Mary was driven by love and devotion. She could not stay away. She needed to perform one last service to clean his body and make it right for burial. A final gesture of love.
SLIDE 5: EMPTY TOMB WHAT DID THAT PROVE?
It was only a short walk outside the City Wall. Then to her shock and amazement she saw the stone sealing the tomb had been removed. Trembling she ran back to the Upper Room, where she roused Peter and John from sleep. “The stone has been rolled away,” she announced. The men ran to the garden followed by Mary. Sure enough the body was gone. So what did that prove? Someone had stolen the body to desecrate it. The men left, but Mary stayed.
SLIDE 6: NO ZOMBIE JESUS
And then Jesus appeared to her, but she did not recognize him. The resurrection body is not a resuscitated corpse. This was not zombie Jesus. She even spoke with the apparition mistaking him for the gardener. Only when Jesus called her by name, did Mary recognize the risen Christ. Only then did she know that she had seen the Lord. The trigger for recognition is love.
SLIDE 7: THE TRIGGER FOR RECOGNITION IS LOVE
Later the risen Christ would appear to many more people – to Peter and the twelve. In Corinthians Paul even reported an appearance to more than 500 followers at one time. In every instance, however, Jesus appeared to people who had known him and loved him. The risen Christ did not appear to the Chief Priest, or to Pilate, or to Caesar – except for Paul, only people who had known him and loved him.
Some people have suggested that in order to see Jesus one has to believe. On the other hand Thomas certainly doubted the reports of his friends that they had seen Jesus. My guess is he doubted his own eyes when Jesus showed up at first. And in the gospel of Matthew, when the resurrected Christ appeared to a group of disciples on Mt. Tabor in Galilee, “they worshipped him, but some doubted.” The ability to perceive the resurrected Christ doesn’t seem to be linked to faith or doubt. It’s about love – the power of love.
SLIDE 8: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE?
What is resurrection? What is it like when we die? We do not know. I’m reminded of an Easter story. A very proper member of the congregation was presenting the children’s sermon on Easter Sunday. During her message, she asked the children if they knew what the resurrection was.
In response a little boy raised his hand, and the lady called on him. The little boy said, “I’m not sure what it is but I know that if you have a resurrection that lasts more than four hours you are supposed to call the doctor.”
SLIDE 9: PRESENCE OF LOVED ONES WHO HAVE DIED
In almost 40 years of ministry a number of people have shared with me they have experienced the presence of loved ones who had died. Often it seems to happen at night appearing at the foot of the bed, but sometimes in broad day light. On a few occasions people have reported experiencing the mysterious presence of a loved one and only minutes or hours later did they learn of their death. In one case a woman’s brother appeared to her at the foot of her bed saying, “I’m O.K. don’t worry about me,” and fifteen minutes later she received the phone call announcing her brother’s death.
SLIDE 10: LOVE IS POWERFUL
Now I know there are all kinds of explanations offered for these phenomenon. And if I had been in the room, when these appearances took place, I doubt I would have seen or heard anything. I didn’t have the connection with the person. But over the years I have learned to trust these accounts people have shared with me. Love is powerful. I think the message of these appearances even the appearances of Jesus to his followers is that love is powerful. Love is stronger than death. Our physical bodies may decay and disappear after our death, but our love still lives.
SLIDE 11: POINTS OF LIGHT
Mark Antony says in his funeral oration in Shakespeare’s, Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” But don’t you believe it. Long after our ashes have been scattered or our bones are moldering in the ground, our love lives on. We are like points of light in a luminescent web of consciousness. And just because our bodies finally fail us does not mean that the light goes out. For as John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
SLIDE 12: PEOPLE YOU LOVE
Now I understand there are many folks who doubt that anything can survive death. When we die that’s it – over, finished, kaput. And I cannot offer any physical proof otherwise. So if you want to think I am an impractical dreamer, you won’t be the first. But allow me to invite you to think about the people whom you love. And I am not inviting you to love the whole world. I want to make this easy. Like Linus I suppose we can love humanity and still have people we can’t stand. So I just want you to think about people whom you really love with whom you share a deep attachment. People to whom you are truly committed. You love them.
SLIDE 13: LOVE DOES NOT END WITH DEATH
Now allow me to ask a question. Do you believe the love you share with those people is so powerless, you can be completely and utterly cut off from them by death? Death certainly changes our relationships, but to be totally and completely cut off from love by death? I don’t think so. As Paul says of resurrection, “we are changed in a moment in a twinkling of an eye like the sound of a trumpet we are transformed,” but not cut off. For as Paul writes “I am sure, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
SLIDE 14: TRANSFORMED BY LOVE
Nothing can separate us from the love of God. So when Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength and your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus is pointing the way to new life. We can be transformed by love, because love survives even death. God is love and as we participate in that love we become bright points of light in the luminescent web of consciousness. We become part of God’s plan for the transformation of creation.
SLIDE 15: AN OMEGA POINT
As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, we are approaching an omega point, when an emerging Christ consciousness will wrap the globe in love. Sometimes that transformation of the world seems very far away. We only seem to glimpse it from afar on some days maybe even not at all. We see it as if in a mirror dimly, but we are promised that one day we will see face to face, and we will know that we have seen the Lord.
SLIDE 16: THE LIGHT SHINES FOREVER
Love is the secret of the Universe, and as with springtime new life comes from love. We do not need to fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and perfect love castes out fear. God is love. And as we contemplate our lives today, consider the power of love. Love changes things. Love transforms us. Love does not end with death. Even when our bodies die the light does not go out. For when the true light of love has been kindled in our spirits, and we are joined with God, we have seen the Lord, the light shines forever.
Who Is He?
SLIDE 3: PALM SUNDAY PARADE
The Palm Sunday Parade begins the drama of Holy Week. We wave palms, sing, “Hosanna,” as a way of remembering that important event at the beginning of Holy Week – the last week of the life of Jesus. Palm Sunday set in motion the confrontation between Jesus and the Temple authorities and the Roman Empire that would inevitably lead to his execution on Good Friday. Jesus guessed as much, and so he carefully orchestrated the events of that Palm Sunday morning.
He had arranged in advance for a colt, the foal of an ass to be available for him to ride into the City in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.”
The close followers of Jesus began a public demonstration as they descended the slope toward the Holy City. Pilgrims from all over Israel were camped out on the Mt. of Olives, and they joined the parade like a swelling river of people pouring down into the Kidron Valley and then flooding up through the Golden Gate. The whole mass demonstration followed Jesus up into the Temple itself, where Jesus, surrounded by the crowd shouting, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” over turned the tables of the money changers and drove out the sellers of sacrificial animals. The money changers and the buyers and sellers in the temple were part of the corruption of the priesthood and the common people cheered Jesus as he proclaimed: “God’s house is supposed to be a sanctuary of prayer, and you have made it a den of robbers.”
With a cheering crowd around him, the Temple authorities didn’t dare lay a hand upon Jesus. Shocked, people in the crowd, the Temple authorities, and later the Romans would ask, “Who is this?” And if we are honest, it is still the question we ask today, “Who is this Jesus?” Was he a mad man, a revolutionary, a teacher, a prophet, the Messiah?”
Every film, every book written about Jesus paints a slightly different portrait. I ran across this picture of Jesus on the internet whose claim to fame is that it is the whitest portrayal of Jesus ever. But then every culture every people want to make Jesus look like themselves.
SLIDE 7: ZEALOT
One of the most recent biographies of Jesus, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, written by a Muslim, Reza Aslan, tries to paint a picture of Jesus as a radical Jew who wanted to violently overthrow the Romans and their Jewish collaborators – the Temple authorities and the Herodians. I think this politicization of Jesus is a particularly Muslim point of view. Islam has not only been a religion, it has also been a form of governing that has not eschewed the use of violence.
SLIDE 8: JESUS DISCIPLES WANTED TOP GOVERNMENT JOBS
Certainly Jesus’ disciples were looking for him to proclaim an earthly kingdom where he would be the monarch and his faithful followers would jockey with one another for key government jobs. Note James and John asking Jesus when he became king, if they could sit at his right hand and his left hand the principle positions of power. Also note how the disciples argued with each other at the Last Supper over who would be the Prime Minister and who would become the Secretary of State, when Jesus became king. But the truth is that before the crucifixion and resurrection the disciples didn’t get it. Jesus wasn’t seeking to replace the Romans with a Jewish administration, Jesus was inviting everyone to the Sharing Table.
In the portrait I like to paint of Jesus he was not plotting a violent overthrow of the Romans. According to the Gospels Jesus was firmly committed to the principle of non-violence – non-violent resistance. Do not resist those who are evil, but if someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also. From the cross Jesus forgave those who had crucified him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These are not the words of a person who was seeking the violent overthrow of a political system.
Instead, Jesus was seeking to set in motion an evolutionary change in human consciousness we are still working on today. Jesus was telling his followers the kingdom of God is here and now, “the Common Wealth of God is within you, for those who come to the Sharing Table in peace, and not just the absence of violence but the true peace, shalom, of the heart.
SLIDE 11: SHARE WHAT YOU HAVE DO NOT UTTER A VIOLENT WORD
Matthew 5:21 – 24 “You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who hates a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.
“This is how I want you to conduct yourselves in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.
Jesus understood that until we are transformed by embracing God consciousness, we will not be able to change the political systems of oppression and violence. In the 1960’s we passed Civil Rights laws intended to end discrimination in America. At the Sharing Table a week ago Thursday Claire Woener in commenting on the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act that passed recently countenancing all forms of discrimination based on religious belief, said, “Hey I thought we decided that fifty years ago?” We may have passed a law fifty years ago, but we still have not changed the consciousness of many of our fellow citizens.
And that is why it is terribly important for churches like the United Church of Huntsville to boldly witness to the way of Jesus that discrimination, especially discrimination in the name of religion in all forms is opposed to the way of love. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome at the Sharing Table of God. We joyfully embrace diversity of age, ethnicity, family structure, gender identity and expression, mental and physical ability, nationality, political ideology, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and spiritual belief.
SLIDE 14: MIRACLE OF COMMUNITY EATING TOGETHER
Jesus pointed the way by eating with tax collectors and sinners, by welcoming and even touching the outcastes. When he performed healings, he even laid his hands on lepers, he healed the poor for free. In the feeding of the multitudes he was demonstrating the miracle of community, when his followers finally acted on his command, “You give the multitude something to eat.” Sometimes our congregations encourage some people to become church members but not others. Like a humorous story I read.
There was a little old cleaning woman who attended a local church. When the invitation was given at the end of the service, she went forward wanting to become a member. The pastor listened as she told him how she had accepted Jesus and wanted to be baptized and become a member of the church.
So he told her she needed to go home and pray about her request and then decide.
The following week, she came forward again. She told the pastor that she had prayed about it, and she still wanted to be baptized. “I have passed this church for so long. It is so beautiful, and I truly want to become a member.”
Again the pastor told her to go home and pray some more. A few weeks later while out eating at the restaurant, the pastor saw the little old lady. He did not want her to think that he was ignoring her so he approached her and said, “I have not seen you for a while. Is everything all right?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I talked with Jesus, and he told me not to worry about becoming a member of your church.”
“He did?” asked the pastor.
“Oh, yes” she replied. “He said even He hasn’t been able to get into your church yet, and He’s been trying for years.”
I know sometimes we may appear to be a motley crew here at United Church, but we are diverse and we are authentic. We seek to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. We seek to embrace the way of Jesus, joining together in the Palm Sunday parade proclaiming Jesus God’s messiah. We follow him to the Sharing Table where we welcome everyone to embrace Christ consciousness in one full circle of love and we become the earthly manifestation of the peaceable Kingdom of God.
I Will Put My Spirit Within You
SLIDE 3: I WILL PUT MY SPIRIT WITHIN THEM
We live in a time, when many churches seem like shells, skeletons, near empty buildings where the few people who huddle together echo with hollow praise. God spoke to the Hebrew people in exile, in Babylon who could not see a way forward. Many of them had given up hope.
God said, “I will gather the dry lifeless, hopeless bones of this people and put my spirit within them.” And God kept the promise bringing the Hebrew people back to Israel, where they rebuilt the temple and produced the Messiah. God’s promise is good news for us as we think about the Easter hope of resurrection for ourselves one day. God is also holding out hope for our churches that one day we might rediscover the spirit of God and return to new life.
SLIDE 4: SPIRITUAL BANKRUPTCY
The Church has gone through phases of ebb and flow since the time of Pentecost. Often when the institutional church seems most powerful and wealthy it is a season of spiritual bankruptcy. One of those periods of great spiritual bankruptcy was at the beginning of the 13thcentury. The Pope had become the most powerful ruler in Europe. Even the Holy Roman Emperor had bowed to the Pope, who ruled much of central Italy directly as an earthly monarch. The church and its monasteries and convents held large landed estates throughout Europe. But the common people were desperately poor superstitious and ignorant of their own faith. The hierarchy of the church was corrupt and many local clergy were illiterate. They repeated the liturgy of the mass, but they could not read the Bible.
SLIDE 5: THE HOLY SPIRIT SHOWED UP IN FRANCIS OF ASSISI
The middle ages was a low ebb of the life of the church in Western Europe. But then God showed up in the form of a local dandy, the son of a wealthy silk merchant, who had failed as a soldier. And God spoke to him, and he took the name of Francis reaching out to the poor, teaching them the story and the way of Jesus, embracing poverty and sharing with the poor. His example and the order he founded was so spiritually powerful, the church was re-energized for mission and ministry to the poor masses of Europe.
SLIDE 6: ST. FRANCIS AND THE SULTAN – PEACE MAKING
The influence of St. Francis became international, when he journeyed to Egypt in an attempt to end the disastrous fifth Crusade. Courageously he crossed enemy lines and sought an audience with the Sultan. He did not convert al Kamil, but the Sultan was so impressed with Francis, he granted custodianship of all the Christian holy sites in the Holy Land to the Franciscan Order. To this day, the Franciscans are still in possession of those Holy sites. Francis came away from his encounter with the Sultan with a new appreciation and understanding of Muslims, and began to preach for the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims. Francis died in 1226 and his example was so popular he was proclaimed a saint less than two years later.
SLIDE 7: PRAYER OF ST. FRANCIS
Francis is credited with being the patron saint of the poor, the animals, the environment, and peace. The prayer of St. Francis is famous:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Slide 8: A New Francis
Now I have used this time reviewing the life of St. Francis, because as I said earlier in the sermon every once in a while in the life of the Church the Holy Spirit shows up. I believe it is not a coincidence the new Pope chose the name of Francis. He is humble. He reaches out to the poor and people of other faiths. He has even advised his fellow bishops to soften their rhetoric in relationship to many of the social issues that have estranged the church from Protestants and the young. Already we see a newly reawakened interest of young people in the church.
SLIDE 9: YOUNG PEOPLE – NOT RELIGIOUS
I believe the Holy Spirit is moving. Seventy-five percent of the Millennial Generation ages 18 to 35, claim they are “not religious.” Chief among their reasons for not affiliating with a religious community is their view that the church is homophobic. They want the church to spend less energy on doctrine and conservative social issues and more energy ministering to the poor. The Millennials connect with one another via social media and friendship circles, but they do not invest in formal organizations or institutions. The Millennials will be a hard generation to lure into the life of the church. Maybe if we start conceiving of ourselves as a community, a community of faith we might become more attractive to younger people. They seek community and authenticity, and that brings me back to St. Francis, because he was representative of both community and authenticity.
SLIDE 10: COMMUNITY AND AUTHENTICITY
Francis was the real thing — not Coca Cola but spirit. His humility, his devotion to the poor, his commitment to the way of Jesus were genuine. He also embodied faith in community. Francis was not some spiritual lone ranger, he lived out his faith in community, and we can lift up the virtue of faith lived in community in our life together as a congregation. After all isn’t one of the greatest spiritual challenges living with all those other people God has given us to work it out with in the life of the church?
SLIDE 11: LESS ANXIOUS ABOUT INSTITUTIONAL SURVIVAL
Pope Francis has a long way to go in trying to turn around the Roman Catholic Church – sort of like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier. But change is hard for all churches even congregations like United Church. One of the attributes that seems to make Pope Francis attractive is he less anxious about the institutional survival of the church and more concerned with following the way of Jesus. I believe that is an important lesson for our re-visioning. If we can let go of our fears and anxieties about the survival of the institution, and embrace the way of Jesus with authenticity, then God’s spirit will help us find a way to new life.
SLIDE 12: INVITING EVERYONE IS A GOOD START
Inviting everyone to the Sharing Table – no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here – has been a good start. Like St. Francis we can also seek to become peace makers – Lord make us instruments of your peace, where there is hatred let us sow love. We can also emulate St. Francis in his ministry to the poor – where there is despair hope.
SLIDE 13: COMMUNITY FOR ALL
“. . . . In this context we can understand Jesus’ command to his disciples: “You yourselves give them something to eat!” (Mark 6:37): it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.”
Like St. Francis we can become protectors of the animals and our environment. Has the world been given to us as a commodity to be exploited for profit, or is the earth a gift and we are God’s stewards to take care of it? Earth Day is a reminder of our profound vocation as stewards of the earth.
SLIDE 15: PREACHER YOU’RE MEDDLIN’
Now some folks might say, “preacher your meddlin’. This stuff is political.” Welcoming everyone to the sharing table, inviting everyone to become a steward of the earth is neither Republican, Democrat or Independent. And sometimes the way of Jesus is uncomfortable for all of us.
There is an old story about a young pastor in a southern protestant church who started out his ministry wanting to make a good first impression with his parishioners. His preaching was carefully crafted to be generally pleasant and low key. Two of the matriarchs of the parish decided to inform him that the little town was just chocked full of sin, ripe for a little hard line judgment, and therefore it was time for him to key it up a bit. So taking the word of these 2 righteous folk he made his foray into the dens of iniquity the next Sunday.
First he took on the gambling over ball games, and heard a whisper of “Yes” from his 2 patrons. Next on the menu came the dress code of all the local teenagers, and again came the refrain, “Preach On.” Finally, the young preacher brought up the topic of people whose tonic contained large amounts of alcohol, but there was only stillness and silence in response. Then one of the ladies leaned over and said to the other, “Now he’s quit preaching and gone to meddling!”
SLIDE 16: IN DYING WE ARE BORN TO ETERNAL LIFE
God says to us, “I will put my spirit within you and bring you to new life.” That is good news not only for the church as we continue our task of re-visioning but for each one of us as we approach the promise of Easter. For we should never ever forget the final words of the Prayer of St. Francis: “And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”