Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Sermon on the Mount, Public Domain Image
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Philippians 2.5-8
This project continues to evolve, and I have started a new major section with the beginning of the Christian story, so I have changed from a simple number (this would be number 6 I believe) to a combined number with a section and for lack of a better term a chapter. My intent was not to make a book, but we shall see how this continues to evolve.
The English New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright wisely states in his The New Testament and the People of God that, “it is impossible to talk about the origin of Christianity without being confronted with the question of God.” (Wright, 81) In Judaism the question of God was mediated throughout the time period we covered by temple or priest, prophet or king, judge or clan leader and yet in the very beginning of the Christian story we see things concentrated in one person like never before and within that early identity all of the previous sources of authority are at least re-evaluated if not completely redefined.
As movement Christianity has its origins in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and his message about God’s kingdom. In many respects it is a remarkable and unexpected story how a movement could be centered on an individual who was not wealthy, not one of the elites of the time, did not command armies or write any books. Instead Jesus lived a rather short life by our standards. Sometime in his thirties was taken prisoner by the Jewish religious authorities and the Jewish religious authorities in collusion with the Roman political authorities would have him crucified. Crucifixion was a scandalous death reserved for low class citizens and slaves. An upper class citizen might have been beheaded for treason, but crucifixion was meant to be slow, painful and humiliating—the person was made into a dying billboard to be an example of what it means to mess with the powers that are in charge. Yet, there is something in this one Jewish man, among the thousands of Jews that will be crucified over the time of Roman rule that gave birth a movement that for 2,000 years has grown to become at points one of the major authorities of the western world. No person has probably had more written about him, has inspired more debate and devotion than Jesus of Nazareth.
I am not an unbiased in my examinations of this (and no one ever is really unbiased), I am a part of this movement some two millennia later. Even though I will not be spending much time on what happens in the movement from Good Friday where Jesus is crucified to Easter when his disciples come to accept he is alive and continues to be present with them, that doesn’t mean that this is not important. In fact, to me what is amazing is the way even at this time the followers of Jesus are either fit for the insane asylum or they are the bearers of a new message that will turn the world upside down.
Christianity has its beginnings in Galilee and Judea with the community that gathers around Jesus, who is understood by many following him initially as a prophet and at least by some as a potential king (the words Christ or Messiah both mean king). Jesus embodies for this community what his central message, the kingdom of God, is all about. For this community in the ministry and words of Jesus, “the kingdom of God has drawn near.” His message makes an impact, especially with the community that gathers around him that resonates long after his crucifixion. The community that gathered around him should have either died or found a new leader at that point, but somehow (and this is not the time or place to get into the debate of what happened and how it happened) his followers accepted that death for him was not the final answer, that he was alive and that he was somehow more than just another prophet and more than a ‘messianic pretender’ but that indeed titles like Lord, Son of Man, Son of God, Christ/Messiah, Immanuel and many more applied to him. Even more remarkable they began to see in Jesus a hope for what their lives might embody—that if death was not the final answer for him it was not the final answer for them either.
Post-Easter Jesus becomes even more central as a way in which these early followers of the Way (what the book of Acts reports the first Christians being called) centered their lives on Jesus. Their fellow Christians became their new family, displacing in many cases the authority of families they had grown up in (this was a huge scandal). The Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) began to be read through the lens of Jesus and his message and stories of Jesus began to supplement them. They viewed their authority to proclaim and enact this message as granted to them by God.
Then something else amazing happens, something probably present at least in a germinal form in the life and ministry of Jesus, these early followers move beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people. Partially through a sense of mission, partially through oppression and conflict, and somewhere in the midst of this with a sense of God’s design they spread out into the Gentile world. They began to negotiate what it would mean to be Christian and Jewish or Christian and Gentile. This was not an easy transition, there were struggles along the way, but it was a transition the early Christians made. In the initial decades after Jesus’ crucifixion the community had two primary sources of authority, first was the apostles (those who had seen Jesus and had in some way been called and appointed by him) and the second was the scriptures (the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament).
Beginning around the time of the Jewish war for very practical reasons the early Christian community began collecting the memory of what Jesus said and did into accounts to hand on the memory. The conflict between Rome and the heart of Judaism was one factor, Christianity had in that generation found itself on the outside of Judaism where it started and soon the Temple and Jewish homeland would be gone and the connection between the two would grow weaker. Second and probably the critical reason for recording the stories in the time between 70 and 120 CE was that the original witnesses would no longer be present to witness to and retell these stories.
Christianity began its journey into a strange new world, a world of Greeks and Romans and ‘Barbarians’ and within a generation (at least according to tradition) Christians would spread from modern day Spain to China and India, throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East, across the Roman empire and to the areas where Rome had not expanded. It would encounter and both transform but also be transformed by each culture it encountered. It would be a minority movement of predominantly immigrants and slaves. It would not start out as something that would look like a threat to transform the most powerful empire of the day, but the level of authority its adherents would grant to Jesus would plant the seeds of a deep change coming.