I have been discussing and excerpting the Prospectus I wrote this last summer on my book that I have tentatively titled, The Triumph of Christianity. Here I discuss the beginning of the Christian mission, and how “Christianity” went from being a small Jewish sect to being a large number of gentile communities (with special emphasis on the work of Paul).
- From Jew to Gentile: The Rise of Christianity (two chapters)
This section will discuss the very early years of the Christian movement as it shifted from being a sect within Judaism to being a largely gentile religion, all within the space of about 50 years.
By everyone’s reckoning, Christianity began among a group of Jesus’ Jewish followers who believed that he was the messiah of God. In this section I will need to provide background to what the term “messiah” meant to ancient Jews. I will not give an extensive account of Jesus’ life and teachings, only enough to show what his overarching message was and how he acquired adherents to that message during his public ministry. It was only after Jesus’ death that his followers started to think that he was a divine man, and this belief arose because they came to believe he had been raised from the dead.
That in itself is an interesting story, but as it is the subject of my earlier book, How Jesus Became God; I will not need to cover that same ground at any length at all here. What I will need to emphasize is one important point, that the Jewish followers of Jesus immediately after his death quickly redefined what the term “messiah” meant, away from the traditional Jewish understanding that the messiah would be a powerful leader who established Israel as a sovereign state in its own land. The earliest Christians came up with the idea of a suffering messiah, one who was to die for the sake of others and rise from the dead (an idea not attested in any ancient Jewish writing).
Christianity, then, began with a small group of Jesus’ followers who maintained that he had been sent from God as his messiah who died for the salvation of the world. They naturally tried to convince their fellow Jews this was the case. And in most instances, they failed miserably. The vast majority of Jews (both then and now, of course) thought that the idea of a crucified messiah was a rather abhorrent oxymoron.
When Jesus’ followers continued to insist that Jesus was the divine man who died for others, and most Jews refused to listen, tensions arose. This led to the earliest persecutions of the Christians — unofficial, sporadic, and local opposition, sometimes violent — at the hands of non-Christian Jews. Christians retaliated, but, since they were by far the minority party, they did so not by force but almost entirely with rhetoric, insisting that God had rejected his own people (but only because they rejected him first).
To some extent it was the failed Jewish mission that …
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