Over the years, I have studied a good deal concerning the birth of the Christian faith. When I say “birth,” I mean the rise of the Jesus movement pre 70 AD. I am well aware that many people view Christianity through the events of the Council of Nicaea or at a much later date than 70 AD. There is still an ongoing debate as to when we actually have an “official” Christianity. Nevertheless, I have always found the period of 33 to 70 AD to be immensely important for the following reasons:
First, we still have the skeptic community preaching that the Jesus story is the result of some sort of religious syncretism. In other words, there is supposedly nothing original about the Jesus story! Secondly, we have people like Bart Ehrman writing books like Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, which causes great confusion in the minds of many people.
On top of that, we then have the sensationalist works of writers like Dan Brown and others that are leading many astray as well. Furthermore, both Orthodox and many conservative Jews and Muslims assert that the entire divine Messiah/God man story is idolatry! It could not be more apparent that knowing the details of how a Jewish sect emerged into a world religion such as Christianity does matter! Let me mention a couple of issues that are very pertinent to this topic.
#1: The Crucified Messiah
Jesus’ crucifixion is attested by all four Gospels, and it is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). Additionally, it is recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15) and also noted by non-Christian authors such as, Josephus (Ant.18:64) and Tacitus (Ann.15.44.3). Even John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar says the following:
Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if not follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus. (1)
Atheist Gerd Ludemann even says, “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable” (2). For the disciple of Jesus, it is common to view His death as a means of providing “reconciliation” (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Col. 1:22) to God and “redemption” (Rom. 3:24; 8:23; Eph. 1:7, 14; Col. 1:14; Heb. 9:12–15). Jesus is also referred to as the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19).
Therefore, it can’t be stated more strongly that one of the central truths of the Christian faith is that Jesus died for the sins of mankind. But while the Christian community has long taken the death of Jesus to be instrumental to the message of the Gospel, they have not understood the challenge of proclaiming a dead Messiah in the first century. Therefore, it is even more incredible that the New Testament authors would ever invent a crucified Messiah story that is not rooted in historical reality.
Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor.1:21-22)
Donald Juel echoes Paul’s statements:
The idea of a crucified Messiah is not only unprecedented within Jewish tradition; it is so contrary to the whole nation of a deliver from the line of David, so out of harmony with the constellation of biblical texts we can identify from various Jewish sources that catalyzed around the royal figure later known as the “the Christ” that terms like “scandal” and “foolishness” are the only appropriate responses. Irony is the only means of telling such a story, because it is so counterintuitive. (3)
According to Martin Hengel, “The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the Roman world can hardly be overstated.” (4)
In relation to a crucified Messiah, Jewish people in the first century were familiar with Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” The context of this verse is describing the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. The New Testament writers expanded this theme to include persons who had been crucified. We can only appreciate this passage in the context of the covenant of Israel where we see the Near Eastern pattern was of both blessing and curse. The blessing is for those who obey the stipulations of the covenant while the curse is upon those who violate the stipulations. (5)
Two passages stand out:
Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”-Deuteronomy 27:6
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all the commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God” (Deut. 28:1-2)
For a Jewish person to be blessed was to being the presence of God and enjoy his presence and all the benefits that this entailed. The blessing was to experience God’s shalom in one’s life. In contrast to blessing, to be cursed was to be outside the presence of God. To be declared “unclean” was an offense to the Jewish people.(6)
Just look at Paul’s statement in Gal 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.” Therefore, to say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not be the Anointed One of God. So one of the most important questions of the origins of our faith is the death of Jesus. Some of the questions are the following: How was this understood by Jewish people at this time period? Was this part of the messianic expectation at the time of Jesus? Did God shatter the messianic paradigm at this time? How did the early Apostles come to follow a cursed Messiah when it was so abhorred by their countrymen?
#2 The Origins of Christology
Anyone who studies historical method is familiar with what is called historical causation. Historians seek out the causes of certain events. For example, there is no doubt that historians can observe the effect- the birth of Christianity pre-70 AD. What must be asked is what has adequate explanatory power for the birth of early Christianity-pre 70 AD and a very high Christology in a very short time period after Jesus’ resurrection. As historian Paul Barnett says, “The birth of Christianity and the birth of Christology are inseparable both as to time and essence.” (7)
The reason Barnett says this is because the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus are Paul’s Letters. And it is within Paul’s writings that we read about a very early Christology within a Jewish monotheistic context. A glance at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 shows that according to Paul’s inspired understanding, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of the Lord. In giving a reformulation of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6.4), Paul still affirms the existence of the one God, but what is unique is that somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, Paul’s understanding of this passage begets no indication of abandoning Jewish monotheism in place of paganism.
For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity. Furthermore, it would have been no problem to confess Jesus as prophet, priest, or king since these offices already existed in the Hebrew Bible. After all, these titles were used for a human being. There was nothing divine about them.
So now the questions are the following: “What caused this mutation in Paul’s understanding of Jesus?” Would Paul or other Second Temple Jews who would recite three times daily his nation’s creed, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deuteronomy 6.4), be so quick to base the Jesus story after mythological constructs such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, or someone else? Skeptics like to think so. But let’s say Paul and the New Testament authors decided to build the Jesus story off some of these figures. I think it is safe to say they knew that any form of religious syncretism is a form of idolatry. First, the Jewish Scriptures forbids worshiping anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9).
Remember that following the exile and subsequent intertestamental struggles, the Jews no longer fell prey to physical idolatry. So to assert that Israel always had problems with idolatry in their early formation, which would lead further into idolatry in the Second Temple period, leads me to cry “anachronism.” Also, idolatry is rarely mentioned in the Gospels. But there are warnings about idolatry in other portions of the New Testament( 1 Cor. 6:9-10 ; Gal 5:20 ; Eph. 5:5 ; Col 3:5 ; 1 Peter 4:3 ; Rev 21:8). Paul instructs believers not to associate with idolaters ( 1 Cor. 5:11 ; 10:14 ) and even commends the Thessalonians for their turning from the service of idols “to serve the living and true God” ( 1 Thess1:9). Thus, my question is the following: Why would Paul or the early disciples commit an idolatrous act but then later speak against idolatry? It seems rather inconsistent.
I look forward to the debate about the origins of Christianity in the years to come. If you are interested in this topic, there are several resources to help you get started on your study. A few that come to mind are Paul Barnett’s The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2005) and Oskar Skarsaune. In The Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 2002.. One of the best responses to Bart Ehrman’s work is The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Michael Kruger and Andreas J. Köstenberger.
1.J.D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), 45. Flavius Josephus (ca. A.D. 37-ca. 100) was a Jewish historian. He wrote his own biography as well as two historical works, Jewish Wars (77-78) and Antiquities of the Jews (ca 94). It is true that scholars agree that there are some interpolations in Josephus. However, it should be noted that while the manuscript tradition of Testimonium of Josephus has the interpolations, a solid case can be made that the original passage is accurate- especially the part about Jesus being crucified under Pilate. Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. Tacitus confirmed Jesus died by crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE), under Pilate’s governship (26-36 CE).
2. Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Christ (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004), 50.
3. Donald H. Juel,“The Trial and Death of the Historical Jesus” featured in The Quest For Jesus And The Christian Faith: Word &World Supplement Series 3 (St. Paul Minnesota: Word and World Luther Seminary, 1997), 105.
4. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).
5. R.C. Sproul, Renewing Your Mind: Basic Christian Beliefs You Need to Know (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 117-119. 6. Ibid.
7. Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2005), 8.