In a review of “Christian Beginnings” by the esteemed Dead Sea Scroll scholar Geza Vermes, Rowan Williams writes in The Guardian: In the beginning, Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic wonder-worker whose profile has some parallels with fairly well-known Jewish saints and sages of his period, proclaims a radically simplified version of the law of Moses and the religion of the Hebrew prophets, with a special stress on the claims of those who think of themselves as having no claims — the destitute, the marginal, the failed. [Source: Rowan Williams, The Guardian, July 11, 2012]

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of all is the way in which Jesus puts at the centre of his world the child, the one who responds without reserve to an unreserved gift of love. "Neither biblical nor post-biblical Judaism," Vermes notes, "make of the young an object of admiration." The early community of Jesus's followers is shaped by charismatic phenomena — healing, prophetic ecstasy — tight corporate discipline, the expectation of the end of the world, and certain social rituals that reinforce the strong family-like bonds of the group. Parts of the family open up to non-Jews, others don't. The language used about Jesus never goes beyond that appropriate to "a man of high spiritual dignity".

What follows is a steady drift away not only from the religion of Jesus and of the first generation but, more seriously, a loss of interest in the essence of "charismatic Judaism" with its suspicion of formalism and its intimacy with God — and an increasingly negative attitude to Judaism as such. The greater the dignity ascribed to Jesus, it seems, the stronger the urge to denigrate and disown his Jewish identity and the Jewish faith itself. With the help of imported mythical, literary and philosophical categories, the Christian community develops a complex system of cosmology in which Jesus has become a co-creator, a pre-existent divine being manifested on earth. It is, in Vermes's words, often a "poetic" achievement, a "majestic synthesis"; but it is undeniably something different from the religion of Jesus and the religion of Jesus's first followers.

At the Council of Nicaea in 325... a "revolutionary new formula" was agreed — thanks largely to pressure from a Roman emperor newly sympathetic to the Christian faith, and as eager as any contemporary politician to make it serve the cause of social cohesion.

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks; Bible History Online bible-history.com

Paul's Message Had Broad Appeal

Paul (A.D. c. 5 – 64/65) — also named Saul of Tarsus and commonly known as Paul the Apostle and Saint Paul — was a Christian apostle who spread the teachings of Jesus in the first-century world and given a lot credit for shaping Christianity into what it became.

Paul wrote in First Corinthians (1 Cor 1.10 -1.17); 10 I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga'ius; 15 lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Steph'anas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. [Source: Revised Standard Version]


Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The traditional view of the composition of the early Christian communities — and the ones we know anything about are the Pauline communities — is that are from the proletariat. Early Marxist interpreters of Christianity make a great todo with this. It's a movement of the proletariat.... [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“But if you actually look at the Book of Acts, and you look at Paul, and you begin to collect the people who are named, or identified in some way, here you have Erastus, the City Treasurer of Corinth; you have Gaius of Corinth, whose home is big enough to let him be not only Paul's host but the host to all of the Churches of Corinth, all of the little household communities can meet in his house at one time. You have Stephanos and his household who have been host to the community. You have Lydia, in Philippi, who is the seller of purple goods, a luxury fabric. You have Prisca and Aquila, and we wonder why the woman is usually mentioned before her husband. She must be a woman of some consequence, who runs a tent making establishment, accordingly to the Book of Acts, in which Paul joins, as a fellow artisan.

“So you begin to get the impression that you have quite a variety of different social levels represented in these early Christian communities. Not people at the absolutely top level; you have, with the exception possibly of Erastus, no one from the aristocratic orders - no one who would be a member of the city council. You have no agricultural slaves, are at the bottom of the hierarchy. But, in the rest of the social pyramid, everything in between, you seem to have representatives in these early Christian groups. The people who are named, whom we can identify, have the further characteristic that they seem to cross various boundaries, they're betwixt and between. In some ways, they are marked by high social status. Take Paul, himself. He clearly uses Greek very fluently. He clearly has rhetorical skills, though probably not of the sort that one would have learned at the university. He knows some of the things that are being discussed in the philosophical schools. On the other hand, he's a hand-worker, a tent maker, which is at the other end of the scale, and this is characteristic of most of those people that we know of, as leaders, who are named in the group. So, we begin to get a picture of upwardly mobile people, to use a modern anachronistic way of describing them."

Impact of the Resurrection on Early Christianity

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “The movement that originated around Jesus must have suffered a traumatic setback with his death. Not so much that a Messiah couldn't die, but that nothing happened. The kingdom didn't arrive immediately as they might have expected. For a while we don't know what happened to the followers of Jesus. They apparently scattered, but not too long thereafter it seems that they came to the conviction that something had happened. Something that did change their perspective on who Jesus was and what he would mean for the future of the movement, and this is what we know as the resurrection. Now it's not clear what happened in the resurrection. We don't know exactly how it occurred but what we do know that the followers of Jesus were absolutely convinced that he had been raised from the dead and had been taken away into heaven as a vindication of his messianic identity. He was the crucified and risen Lord.... The resurrection story brings a different perspective to the understanding of Jesus. If he thought of himself as a prophet, as a messenger of God, that changes when he himself is raised by God from the dead. He is now someone vindicated, and it's really the belief in the resurrection experience that leads the disciples to come to think of Jesus as somehow more than just a prophet. As the Messiah himself. He is the one who has been vindicated by God by being exalted into heaven as son of God. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“It's probably in these early days after the death of Jesus that the movement really starts to reorganize around his memory... it's probably very much dependent upon this growing understanding that he had been raised from the dead. It seems to have circulated very quickly among his followers, but the earliest form of the movement is still thoroughly a sect within Judaism. He is a Jewish Messiah. They are followers of a Jewish apocalyptic tradition. They are expecting the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. It's a Jewish movement.

“The earliest forms of the Jesus movement then are probably small, sectarian groups. At least one of them seems to be based in Jerusalem but there may be others as well spread throughout the countryside. In all probability there's at least one or more in the Galilee as well. So we have to think of the earliest days of the Jesus movement as really small pockets of sectarian activity all focused on this identity of Jesus as the Messiah.

“Now who were the members of these earliest groups? It's hard to know in all the cases. We know a few names largely from the New Testament itself. At Jerusalem it seems to be James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the group for a whole generation thereafter. We hear of other people. There's a woman by the name of Mary... There are others in the Jerusalem congregation as well including Peter and some of the other original disciples of Jesus, but beyond that we know very few names and they have to be very small convacles of people still holding on tightly to their beliefs and expectations while at the same time continuing in their Jewish tradition.

Importance of the Crucifixion to Early Christians

Giotto's Crucifixion

Robin M. Jensen wrote in the Washington Post, “For almost 1,000 years, the Christian church emphasized paradise, not Crucifixion,” two authors wrote in UU World magazine; in Slate, scholar Larry Hurtado claimed that “there was, in short, little to be gained in proclaiming a crucified saviour in that setting in which crucifixion was a grisly reality,” noting that “some early Christians tried to avoid reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.” [Source: Robin M. Jensen, Washington Post, April 14, 2017 ]

“It is true that crosses were extremely rare symbols for Christians to use before the mid-4th century. Moreover, the first images of crosses portray them more as slender, gemmed staffs than as sturdy instruments of execution. Depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion were even more rare, not occurring with any regularity until the 6th century.

“Yet there’s a reason this is surprising: Christian authors, poets and preachers wrote and spoke at great length about the significance and meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. In the 2nd century, Christian thinker Justin Martyr wrote that “when they crucified Him, driving in the nails, they pierced His hands and feet; and those who crucified Him parted His garments among themselves,” emphasizing the humiliation and suffering of Jesus’ execution in a long dialogue with a non-Christian interlocutor. Tertullian, another prolific early Christian writer, also meditated at length on the crucifixion and its theological meaning.

“While explaining the cross or crucifix’s absence from visual art may be difficult, timing its appearance with the rise of pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the sites of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection provides helpful clues. By the end of the 4th century, pilgrims were traveling to Jerusalem, where they could visit Golgotha and venerate a relic of the “true cross,” supposedly discovered by the Roman Empress Helena. Some even were privileged to receive a fragment of the holy wood. The image of the cross and the crucifix may be linked with pilgrims’ desire to re-create the scene in its historical setting, and the proliferation of cross images in the West may have to do with the cross-related souvenirs some pilgrims brought back.”

Early Christians Use Hebrew Scriptures

Early Christianity adapted many of the forms of worship of the older Judaism, even incorporating its holy book, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), into its teachings. Christians refer to the Tanakh as the Old Testament. At the same time Christianity was developing its own texts. The four Gospels, written in the first and second centuries, detail the life of Jesus. [Source: Encyclopedia.com]

Hebrew writing on a 5th century column in Capernaum, a town visited by Jesus

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “We have in the four gospels of the New Testament, passion narratives, narratives of Jesus' suffering and death. Outside of the New Testament canon, we have only one more extensive narrative of Jesus' suffering and death, and that has appeared in the Gospel of Peter. Now it was known in ancient times that there was such a thing as the Gospel of Peter. Eusebius of Caesarea, the earliest church historian at the beginning of the 4th century, tells about the fact that there was a Gospel of Peter which was used by some communities in Syria.But no one really knew what was in this gospel until at the end of the last century papyrus was discovered, which was a small amulet that a soldier had been wearing around his neck and which was given into the tomb of this soldier, and when it was opened up it turned out to be a text that told the story of the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus. But it is told in such a way that one can assume that it was not dependent upon the canonical gospels that we have. But that at least part of this gospel goes back to the same story, but draws from the oral tradition of the telling of that story, or from some older gospel as somescholars believe that is preserved here. What is interesting in this Gospel of Peter is that it shows in some instances more clearly the direct dependence of the passion narrative upon the prophecy and psalms and suffering servant stories of the Hebrew Bible, and therefore gives us an insight in the development of the passion narrative.... [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“I don't think that [in the period following Jesus' death] the disciples now were trying to look for the right stories in the Hebrew Scriptures [to explain his suffering and death.] But rather that these texts from the Hebrew Bible were already a part of their regular reading of texts, were already a part of their worship service. We know that in the Jewish synagogue scriptural text would be read and would be interpreted. So the disciples of Jesus must have lived in those texts and must have brought an understanding of the explanation of suffering on earth with them that was already part of their worship life, of their discussions of their meditations at the time. So it's not like someone who tries to go back now and says, "let's find the right text or scripture that would fit." But it's rather that out of the deep involvement in a religious tradition that was anchored in the worship life of Jewish communities, these stories about Jesus arise that now use the same words, the same language, the same images, in order to describe Jesus' suffering.

“[For example], the question of the suffering servant is very closely connected with Isaiah 53. And Isaiah 53, in most Christian churches, is usually the text from the Old Testament that is read at Good Friday as a prefiguration of the death of Jesus. Who the suffering servant was has been the subject of debate among Old Testament scholars. Is it the prophet himself who depicts himself as the suffering servant? Or, which is perhaps the most likely solution, that ultimately the suffering servant is Moses. And it tells a different aspect of the story of Moses, not Moses as the leader who leads the people out of exodus, but Moses as the one who dies eventually and who is not able to see the Holy Land, and Moses about whom the book of Deuteronomy says, his tomb could not even be found....

“This story has very deeply influenced the Jewish tradition before the early Christian period with respect to the understanding of the suffering of the righteous person. How can it be understood that the righteous in this world have to suffer? And the answer to this was found in the story of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And that is the story to which the Christians apparently went very early at this stage, to find an understanding of what the suffering and death of Jesus meant and signified.

Early Christian Scholarship

Philo of Alexandria
In the early years of Christianity, the basic tenets of the religion were often in a state of flux, and positions on key issues such as the nature of salvation and the resurrection often changed from generation to generation. Without the novelty of the resurrection and it bearing on human kind it has been argued that Christianity could not have endured for very long.

Alexandria is where many of the doctrines of Christianity were defined. School for priests were established in the city in A.D. 2nd century. In A.D. 313, Alexandria became the seat of Christian theological studies and it was there that the doctrines of Christianity — when the religion was unified — were shaped into a systematic theology.

Much of the early scholarly Christian work was defining Christian doctrine in Old Testament terms and concepts with new terminology and ideas and writing these doctrines in such a way that were understandable to those educated in the Greco-Roman traditional. Many early Christian scholarly works resembled Greek-style philosophical works and many of the early debates were shaped by Greek-style reasoning and rationality applied to Christian concepts. The scholar Origen of Alexandria said, “It is far better to accept teachings with reason and wisdom than with mere faith.”

By A.D. 180 the power of the Catholic bishop's was established and the New Testament was canonized.Saint John Chrysostom, who lived in the early 4th century, is the father of the liturgy that is still used in both the Catholic and the Orthodox church.

Early Christian Theology

Theology according to historian Daniel Boorstein was "a Western creation nurtured in Hellenist Alexandria" and was "both a producer and a by-product of Christianity." Whereas the myth of the Gods and philosophy were separated under the Greeks. They were united in theology as Moses was made into a philosopher as well religious leader.

Philo of Alexandria (late first century B.C. to first century A.D.) is considered the father of theology. A rich Jewish nobleman, who was regarded a quite a fun-loving guy, he was one of the first to scrutinize Jewish-Christian doctrine using Platonic philosophical reasoning.

Another influential thinker was Origen (185?-254), an Alexandrian Greek who castrated himself to ensure his purity and became head of the leading Christ theological academy at the age of 18. He is credited with giving Christianity some analytical credibility by incorporating elements of Greek philosophy but was unsuccessful making it hold up to the scrutiny of history.

Alexandria was a center of Christian and Jewish learning as well Greek learning. One of the greatest achievements of the Alexandria Library and learning center was The creation of the Old Testament by seventy-two Jewish scholars, brought together by Ptolemy, to translate the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), "which from its beginning was enshrouded in legend and folklore," into Greek. According to a Jewish legend, Ptolemy asked each of the Jewish scholars to individually to translate the whole Hebrew bible, and miraculously, the result, was 72 identical versions. Modern copies of the Bible are all based on the Greek translation.

Theological debate on Determinism Versus Free Will

Christianity, Greek Philosophy and Justin Martyr

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: ““Early Christianity engaged Hellenistic culture generally, and more specifically Greek philosophy, from the end of the first century on. We see bits and pieces of this in passages such as the prologue of the 4th Gospel where this concept of the logos comes to play. During the second century and beyond there's a continuing engagement over a variety of issues. Some of them having to do with fundamental philosophical issues such as the nature of reality and the nature of God. Some of them having to do with issues of ethics and morality. These are two poles around which the dialogue develops during the course of the subsequent centuries. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“By the middle of the century we see someone like Justin Martyr, for instance, one of the early Christian apologists, that is, one of the people who was trying to explain Christianity to the Greco-Roman world and doing so in the context of and using the categories of Greco-Roman thought. We see this fellow Justin Martyr active in Rome around the middle of the century trying to explain the nature of Christ and the nature of his relationship to God in terms of certain philosophical theories, the philosophical theory that comes ultimately from stoicism that postulates a dichotomy between speech that is external and thought that's internal....

“Justin has a theology of the word of God that wrestles with the issue of what kind of status Jesus has as an intermediary between God and humankind. And increasingly in the philosophical environment of the second and third centuries belief was becoming widespread that God was a very transcendent kind of being, that is, a being who is very distant from human kind. And therefore to say that Jesus was in some way God incarnate presents a philosophical conundrum, because it's impossible to conceive of the transcendent as immanent, as embodied in human flesh, the way that Christians were coming to proclaim.

“Justin and other Christian apologists certainly argued that the tradition of polytheistic belief and practice that was current in the Greco-Roman world was wrong, was immoral, and was philosophically deficient. Insofar as they were making that last point — that polytheism was philosophically insufficient — they were saying something similar to what Greek philosophers were saying. Because among Greek philosophers there was a growing appreciation for the unity of the divine and for the notion that there may be a single simple divine principle underlying all things. But no Greek philosopher of the second or third century would have thought that that divine principle could somehow have been enfleshed.”

Early Church in the Book of Acts Too Simplistic

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “The Book of Acts records or reports that there was a special event that took place at Pentecost, which would have been the next pilgrimage festival after the Passover at which Jesus died. And at that time the disciples of Jesus were gathered together in Jerusalem unsure of what their future would be, when all of a sudden the spirit took hold of them and enabled them to speak in tongues, and that speaking of tongues is understood by the author of the Book of Acts to mean speaking in all of the languages of the world. So with the power of the spirit behind them, the disciples of Jesus immediately began a missionary campaign and started bringing people into the fold, converting them to belief in Christ. And from that time forward the mission moved ahead in the rather smooth way, directed by the spirit and by all of the apostles who acted in concert with one another and agreement with one another. That's the picture that we get in Acts. [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The historical reality is probably much more complex. The Christian movement probably began not from a single center but from many different centers where different groups of disciples of Jesus gathered and tried to make sense of what they had experienced with him and what had happened to him at the end of his public ministry. Each of those groups probably had a very different take on what the significance of Jesus was. Some of them understanding his death and the resurrection experience, if they focused on it, in terms of exaltation. Others understanding it in terms of a resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus, others not worrying very much at all about the resurrection of Jesus, but concentrating on his teaching and trying to propagate that. We can see, even in the canonical text, in the Book of Acts, that there were different groups that were in competition with one another. Those who insisted more strongly on observance of Jewish laws in the Torah competed with those who were more open to admission of gentiles without imposing the burden of the Torah on them. There were others who we meet again in the Book of Acts, who apparently stood in continuity with the activity of John the Baptist and did not know the baptism that the Pauline Christians, at least, knew. So there was much more diversity in the early stages of the Christian movement than the Book of Acts suggest....

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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