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The Resurrection and the Beginning of the Church

In my book on the Christianization of the Empire, I probably will not be talking about *how*, exactly, Christianity started.   That’s a very thorny issue and not directly germane to what I want to do in the book.   And I’ve talked about it a bit in a couple of my other books, especially How Jesus Became God and Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.

In the former book my main interest was precisely what the title indicates.   There I argued that the key event that made the followers of Jesus come to think that he was a divine being was their experience of the resurrection.   Looked at from another angle, though, that moment can be considered the key not only to later Christian views of Jesus, but also to the question of when Christianity started as a distinct set of beliefs and practices.  Before the resurrection-belief, there was nothing about Jesus followers that would differentiate them in any truly significant way from other Jews.  After the belief there was.

That may, of course, be granting too much power and authority to “hindsight.”  In hindsight we can see that beginning with the belief in the resurrection the followers of Jesus started developing a distinctive set of views that would set them over against other Jews; and it may be that this hindsight is driving us to see the resurrection more as a “start” of something new rather than as a strict “continuity” with what was there before.  But if you had to pick a moment when the new thing began, I would say that is it.

One implication of this, which seems common sense to a lot of people but is something that a lot of other people have never thought about, is that Jesus himself never

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Jesus’ Death; Good Scholars; and Writing the First Book: Readers’ Mailbag May 28, 2016
How Did Christianity Start?



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  May 27, 2016

    “yet others see him as an apocalyptic prophet who anticipated the imminent arrival of a cosmic savior from heaven who would overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom.” That’s me. I’m one of those people.

    When I think about Jesus I can’t help thinking about Shabbtai Tzvi. Tzvi also claimed to be the Meshiakh — or, more accurately, Tzvi’s followers proclaimed him to be the Meshiakh, so he went with it. I think the same was the case with Jesus. Tzvi would pronounce prophecies to adoring crowds and then proceed to interpret his prophecies, just as Jesus supposedly did. Tzvi gained “disciples” who would hang on his every word, including a baptist-esque head disciple named Nathan of Gaza, who claimed to be the risen Elijah there to proclaim that Tzvi was the Meshiakh. In 1665, Tzvi and Nathan announced that the Messianic Age would begin in the coming year. And, significantly, many of Tzvi’s followers began to stop following the Torah precepts, believing, as many Jews do, that upon the arrival of the Meshiakh that the Law was abrogated. (Does this sound familiar?) And then, in the very year that Tzvi claimed that the messianic age would begin he was instead arrested by the Ottoman Sultan and imprisoned. The Sultan gave Tvzi two options: death or conversion to Islam. Tvzi, unlike Jesus, wisely chose the latter.

    I think Jesus was merely a Shabbtai Tzvi-like figure. Living in highly religious ages (1st century Palestine for Jesus; 17th century for Tzvi) each man was swept up into a movement that stroked their egos. And like many self-obsessed men these two men came to believe the ridiculous claims made about them. They each came to believe their own nonsense (as the saying goes a great salesman’s first customer is himself) and that they felt themselves invincible. But in each case, their over-confidence (i.e. their delusions of grandeur) was their undoing, as each one met with tragic consequences — forced conversion in the case of Tzvi, and execution in the case of Jesus.

    I think this is the Jesus of history.

  2. epicurus
    epicurus  May 27, 2016

    In my Christian days, I often heard how the OT points to Jesus, and how it does so in a very obvious fashion. That makes it odd that Paul, who says he knew the scriptures so well, couldn’t see this. I suppose that had I asked the question at the time, the people in my church probably would have said pride or rebellion was the reason.
    It sure would be great if we had a letter of Paul’s that laid out his initial reasoning for rejecting Jesus. Because if it took a damascus road experience for an Old Testament expert like Paul to believe, then we all should get a damascus road experience, since we are much further removed and cannot just walk up to Peter or John or Thomas and ask them what they saw (or didn’t see).

    • Avatar
      teresa  May 29, 2016

      Hi Epicurus,
      I think Paul would have included himself in this before his revelation “For I would not, brethren, have you ignorant of this mystery, lest ye be wise in your own conceits, that a hardening in part hath befallen Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in” Rom 11 v 25. Because he was Jewish he needed a revelation in order that he could see, just like us.
      Love Teresa x

      • epicurus
        epicurus  May 30, 2016

        Thank you

        • Avatar
          bbcamerican  June 3, 2016


          I think you’re starting from a false assumption that you, yourself, admit at the very beginning of your original comment. You say that in your Christian days, you often heard how the Old Testament pointed “quite obviously” to Jesus, so why wouldn’t someone familiar with the Old Testament immediately realize this? The fact is that no one would read the Old Testament, specifically these passages that have later come to be associated with Jesus, and think that it had anything to do with Jesus at all, unless you already believed something about Jesus and were going back to try and find “evidence” to support your belief. It wasn’t until later Christians “read” Jesus back into the Old Testament “Messiah” that any connection was created.

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    Wilusa  May 27, 2016

    About the Resurrection: This probably isn’t important, but I’ve found it puzzling. You and, I’ve been assuming, most people from Protestant backgrounds, tend to refer to Jesus having been “raised” from the dead. But when I was growing up Catholic, the wording I always heard was that he *rose* from the dead. That is, he didn’t have to be “raised” by God the Father; he did it all himself.

    (And of course, we were taught to capitalize the word “He” in referring to him – and to bow our heads whenever we spoke or *heard* the name “Jesus.” *And* to bow our heads whenever we *passed* a Catholic church. There was a lot of head-bowing going on!)

    Since Protestant denominations broke off from Roman Catholicism, do you think the idea that he “rose” from the dead, under his own power, is the older one?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2016

      It’s because the NT typically talks about God raising Jesus, not Jesus raising himself.

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        RWood  May 28, 2016

        Wasn’t “God raised Jesus” one of the arguments used by the Subordinationists? By the Adoptionists?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 29, 2016

          I don’t think it was an argument so much as a point that all sides agreed on.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  May 27, 2016

    This is something that really sets Jesus apart from most other cult originators. Joseph Smith, who we’ve talked about recently, most definitely wanted to start his own religion distinct and separate from any other, though certainly Christian-inflected (and he knowingly lied to people about those disks, and can hardly be said to have lived in humble poverty). L. Ron Hubbard reportedly told someone he was going to start a religion because writing science fiction didn’t pay well enough.

    Cult leaders can be sincere (often frighteningly so) or cynical, but they aren’t usually out to just make reforms to an existing structure. That just doesn’t seem important enough, and cult leaders tend to have pretty big egos.

    Reform probably isn’t quite the right word for Jesus either–he wanted to prepare Jews and perhaps gentiles of good will for the coming of the Kingdom, which would make all religious institutions obsolete. So why would he need to start a new one?

    Jesus was different most of all in that he seems to have consciously chosen to die in the place of his followers, to make a sacrificial offering of his own life. Yes, they drew many erroneous conclusions from this, but they were not wrong to think he died for them. I firmly believe, based on the evidence, that this was precisely what he intended to do. So of course that filled them with a deep sense of sorrow and guilt, and that influenced their interpretation of both the meaning of his death and of the resurrection they came to believe had occurred.

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      llamensdor  May 28, 2016

      You’re very close to the likely reality. Jesus didn’t die for his followers, or for the sins of the world; he died for the Jews of his era in an attempt to prevent a zealot uprising and the slaughter of the Jews. I go into detail about this in my historical novel (see http://www.murderedmessiah.com). Jesus’ sacrifice did indeed delay Pilate’s planned massacre, but by 66 CE, although Pilate was long gone (36 CE, Caiaphas, too), the Zealots unleashed the rebellion which ended in disaster and dispersion.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 31, 2016

        Meaning no offense, I just don’t see any way you or anyone else could plausibly draw that conclusion from the available evidence. I’m by no means sure I’m right, but it’s not that much of a stretch. Your theory–pretty huge stretch. Jesus believed God would deal with the Romans when the time was right. He would come to rule the world, and all people had to do was be ready.

    • Avatar
      prairieian  May 29, 2016

      I think Jesus’s prosecution and subsequent execution was a surprise to the man. I don’t think he deliberately set out to die at all. In fact, when you think about it, why would God require the sacrifice of someone one to make everyone else right with him? Just write it out. It is absurd.

      • Avatar
        godspell  May 31, 2016

        I think you only have to read the Old Testament to know where Jesus would get the idea that God demands sacrifices from his chosen ones. I’m certainly not asking anyone to believe his motives were fully rational–he was a religious leader, not a logician. You don’t have to agree with his reasoning. But you do have to understand where it comes from.

        What did he think would happen? Impossible to say for sure. Maybe he believed God would intervene to stop his crucifixion–or that his death would itself be the trigger to bring about the Kingdom. But look at the facts we have preserved for us.

        1)He chooses to come to Jerusalem, where his enemies in the Jewish community are strongest, and the Romans obviously will crack down hardest on any show of civil disobedience.

        2)He overturns tables in the Temple courtyard, openly scorning the authority of the chosen representatives of the Romans among the Jewish people. Basically rejecting the right of the Temple Leadership to represent the Jewish people, and that being the case, also defying Roman authority, without actually threatening armed rebellion. You didn’t need to rise up in arms to merit death from the Roman State. The bar for sedition was much lower than that, and the penalty was often (not always) death.

        3)He tells his followers to obtain swords–but when they show him two, he says that will be sufficient. Why? Because he wants it to be known they had weapons, and could have used them–but it’s purely symbolic. He knows the authorities will come for him, and he wants people to see that he offered no resistance, even though the means for resisting was there. He who lives by the sword, perishes by the sword. He had already told his followers that he was going to die soon–more than once. He does so again at the Last Supper. Yes, this could have been exaggerated. Made up out of whole cloth? It’s really hard to explain why people who want to believe he’s God would make up this story. And how gifted at storytelling are we supposed to believe they were, to have come up with the story of the Last Supper and the Passion? One of the most powerful stories ever told in human history.

        4)When given a chance to exonerate himself, get a lighter penalty, perhaps even be released–he refuses. He not only expects a trial, a guilty verdict, and the death penalty–he wants it. He’s orchestrating all this on purpose–he can’t anticipate every wrinkle of the story, and he may be surprised by some things that happen, but the outcome is no more a surprise to him than the outcome of the 1916 Easter Rising was to Patrick Pearse. Google it.

        5)”My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Why does he show no sign of despair until after he’s been hanging on the cross for some time, in agony? We can’t rationally say that these words were put in his mouth. They are his words. Some of the other things attributed to him are probably fiction. But not that. And yet he’s shown to be calm and in possession of himself up until then. Why? Because he’s waiting for God to speak for him, tell him he was right to do what he did. And God is silent.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  June 1, 2016

          ”My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” are the words we find in Mark, the earliest Gospel, an author who did not believe Jesus was God. As time goes on and later Gospels are written, Jesus’ feeling of being forsaken becomes less and his sublimity and acceptance increase. Similarly, the authors found Jesus getting baptized by another unacceptable (although it is most likely true) and changed it so that John tells Jesus that it is he who should be baptized by Jesus.

          As for ” Last Supper and the Passion? One of the most powerful stories ever told in human history,” 1. why is it so difficult to believe they were gifted story-tellers? 2. It is one of the most powerful stories to part of the world, mostly the West, certainly not to everyone. And, like comedian Julia Sweeny points out, her brother suffered with lung cancer for months so let’s just say Jesus had a bad weekend.

          “….you only have to read the Old Testament to know where Jesus would get the idea that God demands sacrifices from his chosen ones” but, by the turn of the era, human sacrifice was unacceptable in Judaism.

          You read Jesus’ words and events in the New Testament as though the collection of books are histories. You’d first have to show that they are to take “what Jesus said” as what he actually said. Besides, even if he did suffer and died–indeed even if he was resurrected, that wouldn’t mean that the Christian story of salvation through belief in J.C. is true.

          • Avatar
            godspell  June 2, 2016

            Those words are also found in Matthew. I agree that in the other two gospels, he seems more in control of the situation, less of a man, more of a god. The John gospel really forms its own separate tradition, in spite of much overlap. It’s not one of the synoptic gospels. I honestly wish that had been left out of the New Testament, even though there are many beautiful passages in it.

            People tend to miss the point of the Passion–Mel Gibson most of all–Jesus certainly did not suffer more physical pain than anyone before or since. But physical pain isn’t the issue. The issue is that he chose to die, believing his death would somehow bring about the transformation of the world–that at least God would speak to him in his final moments, tell him he’d been right, that he’d interpreted things correctly. And he hung there, in what I think we can agree was horrible pain, and there’s no reason to think he wasn’t being mocked and abused by some standing nearby, and he must have felt like he’d failed, somehow. He didn’t doubt God–he doubted himself. Maybe he’d been mistaken, somehow. Maybe he’d sacrificed his life for nothing.

            If you study the lives of saints (many of whom have left writings behind), you find they are full of doubts, misgivings, questions. Faith doesn’t mean ridding yourself of doubt, anymore than courage means ridding yourself of fear. Just as no one can be brave without being afraid first, no one can believe without doubting.

            Everybody dies. Few have an easy time of it. Jesus’ death was, I would say, worse than Julia Sweeney’s brother’s. Because it was lonelier.

            I absolutely do not see the gospel accounts as histories. They were not written as histories. But neither were they written as fables, myths. They contain much actual historical information in them. It is possible to ferret out true from false there. But you have to be willing to think about it.

  5. Avatar
    marcrm68  May 27, 2016

    Another great post! I especially liked the last paragraph!

  6. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  May 27, 2016

    Bart, I have not yet read How Jesus Became God right now see no reason anyone would leap to the conclusion that Jesus was divine simply because he had been resurrected. Some could have believed he was brought back to life and would still complete his messianic mission. If it was only later that the idea of his divinity was introduced, then those who believed the idea certainly would be radically different than other Jews, not just nuts for believing that a man could be crucified and still be considered the messiah. My guess would be that the first group was rejected but that it was the latter group which was “rejected with remarkable vehemence” because, while the first might seem crazy, the latter must have been considered blasphemous.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 28, 2016

      Yup, you clearly need to read the book! I explain it there.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 28, 2016

    Very interesting, especially the idea that Jesus never planned to start a new religion. Keep going!

  8. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  May 29, 2016

    There were plenty of intra-Jewish conflicts in the first century. I tend to see the conflict between early Christians and other Jews within that context. Were the early Christians rejected with any more vehemence, for example, than the Sadducees and Essenes rejected each other?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2016

      Apparently so. Paul, at least, was flogged on five occasions.

  9. Avatar
    Iris Lohrengel  May 29, 2016

    Paul persecuted the early Christians because in Judaism what they claimed was heresy. What Jesus claimed for himself was heresy “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30-39). Jesus not only claimed ‘oneness with the Father’ for himself (Jn 14:19-20, Jn 17:21), but everybody, when they ‘drink from the well of the living water’ (understanding of essential oneness of the creation with its creator) it will ‘become in him a fountain of water springing up for eternal life’ (we understand that our essential nature is spiritual and eternal). The Gospel of John probably was written after Paul wrote his letters. Paul experienced this essential oneness during his ;conversion experience’ on the road to Damascus. This experience changed his perception radically. Jesus, even through he was crucified and physically buried, lived and was alive. No doubt about it. What is not understood is that Paul experienced the resurrected Jesus spiritually, in a vision. That marked his whole future doctrine and understanding. In his letters he never claims that Jesus resurrected *physically*, he never says that. We think he says that because this is how *we*, most Christians, understand the term ‘resurrection’ due to what we read in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (written under influence of what later would become orthodox Christianity), and the Nicene Creed, but this was not Paul’s original experience. Paul’s experience was that God ‘revealed His Son in me’. Do you not know yourselves that your body is the temple of God and that the spirit of God lives within you? Therefore glorified God in you body and in your spirit, both of which are Gods, from God (1 Cor). The mystery, says Paul, ‘is Christ in you’ (Col). This is the essence of Paul’s teaching, a radical and revolutionary teaching indeed at the time of empires, emperors, kings and queens, and the Roman oppression. Paul taught what the Gospel of John claims to be Jesus’ teaching: “I have said ‘ye are Gods’.” (Jn 10:34, this understanding is also expressed in the Gospel of Thomas) If this is so, then and now, this realization would radically alter societies. I live in a country which has one of the worst indicators of income distributions, 10 % of the population accumulate 60 % of income, corruption is rampant and even the president is stealing public funds in order to construct huge mansions. It was like that when Jesus was alive. A teaching that we are all children of God in the same way, a mendicant in the street is AS MUCH creation of God, a child of God, as the king, and God loves this mendicant equal and wants this mendicant to be well and happy, how would that revolutionize the principles under which a society functions? The king would lose his inherent ‘right’ to accumulate riches, power, status. It’s a radical equalism out of the understanding of who we really are. This was expressed in the equalism that the early Christians practiced (selling their possessions and sharing all goods equally (Acts), caring for sick people, etc. It was, 2,000 years ago, a truly subversive doctrine, for the religious Jewish elite as much as for the Jewish kings and Roman rulers. The ‘salvation’ of the world lies in the transformative understanding of who we – all of us – really are, created from God, in God, out of God, a manifestation of the essence and substance of God. If we all knew that we are in essence spiritual beings, that life *is* eternal, that the soul does *never* die, and that creation has a purpose, to become the reflection of God – which is love – in physicality, that would completely change the way we look at life. This is the experience of Christian (and non-Christian) mystics. And I believe that this was Paul’s experience, which he then sought to communicate using the language of his time. New science (quantum science, cosmology, astrophysics), more and more regards consciousness, pure being, pure aliveness, ‘God’, the source from which all that exists emerged, as primary to physical manifestation of matter. There now are many books by scholars (with Ph.D.’s) out there that seriously outline this new paradigm. “More Than Matter: Is there More to Life than Molecules”, by Keith Ward, Eerdmans, “New Proofs for the Existence of God”, by Robert J. Spitzer, Eerdmans, “Quantum Physics and Theology”, by John Polkinghome, Yale University Press, “The Depth of the Human Person”, Michael Welker, Eerdmans, “Information and the Nature of Reality”. Considering this new paradigm, Jesus’ teachings and parables, before the Gospels, and before he became ‘God’, and Paul’s teachings, make sense in a completely new way.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 31, 2016

      First, Jesus did not mean–or, rather, we cannot conclude from John 10:30–that he meant he was identical with God. Seven chapters after 10:30 , in 17:11, Jesus prays to his Father, regarding the crowd before him, that “they may be one, even as we are one.” He prays that the people may be identical with one another? No. The oneness must mean something else. It sounds more like something a coach would pray for the team–that they work and act and feel as one. Many verses in John imply that Jesus was not God (5:19,30; 7:16, 28-29; 8:40,42,50; 10:29; 14:10,28; 15:2; 17:11-13; 20:17,23) as do many more verses elsewhere in the New Testament.
      People believe all sorts of things about what God is, what God wants, whether there is a God at all, what souls are, and whether we are immortal. It is completely unrealistic and pointless, it seems to me, to say society would be more egalitarian if everyone realized they are spiritual beings and that God wants this or that. Ain’t gonna happen. And, if anything, I would say the less people spend energy on religious and mystical beliefs and start working toward a more egalitarian society, the better, and that atheists are just as capable of doing that and do do that as religious people and mystics are.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 1, 2016

        Atheists are also just as capable of being elitist and bigoted as religious people and mystics are. The worst persecutions in history were committed under what were basically secular atheist philosophies, in the 20th century. No, not all atheists are Marxist Materialists. And most religious people aren’t fanatical fundamentalists.

        It’s not what you believe. It’s how you choose to practice those beliefs, and whether you can tolerate the fact that others will always believe differently from you. That you will never be proven right. Can you accept that the religious impulse is a natural part of the human psyche, that would keep recurring, even if all religions were stamped out? Can we learn to accept each others’ differences? Or will we go on trying to impose our ‘truths’ on people who are constitutionally incapable of accepting them?

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  June 2, 2016

          Not sure what your disagreement is. Or are you disagreeing? I didn’t say atheists were better; I said they were just as capable. My whole point in saying people believe all sorts of things is just to your point that no one is going to be proven the only correct one. However, I do think it is correct to say people believe all sorts of things. My point is how ridiculous to be dogmatic when there’s a world of people who believe just as passionately and dogmatically as you. When I wrote, “I would say the less people spend energy on religious and mystical beliefs and start working toward a more egalitarian society” I meant in part just what you said–that it’s not what you believe but how you practice your beliefs. By mentioning atheists, I only meant to add that some people have only secular beliefs and help improve things just as much. I agree, the religious impulse will always be among us but it also will never be in all of us.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  June 3, 2016

          Godspell, I’m using the reply link here because there isn’t one (??) under your June 2 response to me. So I’m responding to that post. Neither of us see the Gospels as histories and we both recognize that there is some historical material in them. There is in many works of fiction too. There are holy men in India who seem to not feel pain. Lawrence of Arabia in the film says, “Of course it hurts; the trick is not minding that it hurts.” So, if Jesus was a spiritually advanced man (and I don’t know how true that was), he might not have been in, as you say, “horrible pain.” And, while it’s true that “there’s no reason to think he wasn’t being mocked and abused by some standing nearby,” if we are not assuming it is history, there is no good reason for just taking the text at face value and believing there were people mocking and abusing him.
          Thousands of people died lonely deaths on crosses.
          We can, as you say, “think about it” but although it might make sense given the context that some who never really believed he was the messiah or a king would be there at his crucifixion mocking and abusing him, we can surmise that that happened but we do not really know.
          What do you base your assertion on that to say that Jesus’ physical pain wasn’t the issue but dying alone was? It’s been so long since I read the New Testament that I can’t recall if it itself makes that point. Or is that is an interpretation?

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