In this first Episode of Version 2 of CS we consider . . .
How the first Jewish Christians viewed the Faith as well as some general comments about the podcast.
This week’s episode, our first, is titled “Really?”
The best place to start is at the beginning. but where is that exactly? In a history of the Church and Christianity where do we begin?
Most contemporary Christians would probably start with Jesus. That’s reasonable. But where would the first Christians have begun? They were Jews, and thought what they believed as a purified form of Judaism; a faith Moses would have been proud of. They believed Jesus was the Messiah, the long hoped for & oft prophesied Savior who came to restore the faith Abraham had begun 2000 years before.
So where would Peter, Andrew, John, James, or Thomas have begun telling the story. The Apostle John begins his story of Jesus at creation with the words “In the beginning …” We’ll come up in time considerably and start with the man known as Jesus of Nazareth fully engaged in his public ministry; traveling through Northern Israel with a dozen disciples.
At that time, the 1st Century of the Common Era, Israel was an uneasy part of the Roman Empire. Unlike some provinces that counted being part of Rome a privilege, Israel loathed their Roman occupiers. They resisted more than just the political domination by a foreign power; they also despise the Greek culture the Romans had brought.
All this helped stir the pot of popular expectation among the Jews for the arrival of the Messiah who they anticipated would be primarily a political figure. The scriptures prophesied He would replace corruption with paradise; the wicked would be punished, the righteous rewarded, and Israel exalted among the nations. Messiah would restore David’s throne and rule over all the Earth.
Some of the prophets spoke of a war between good and evil that would resolve in the Messiah’s victory. This flavored the anticipation of many. They cast Rome as the main adversary Messiah would overcome.
By the 1st Century, different groups had developed around their belief in what was the right way to prepare for this political Messiah.
The Pharisees devoted themselves to the Law of Moses and religious tradition.
The Essenes took a segregationist approach, pursuing holiness by moving to isolated communes to await Messiah’s arrival.
Zealots advocated armed resistance against Rome as well as those Jews who collaborated with the hated enemy. Zealots drew their inspiration from the successful Maccabean Revolt against the Syrian Greeks a couple hundred years before.
A fourth group were the Sadducees who took a more pragmatic approach to the Roman presence & adopted a measure of the Greco-Roman culture. Sadducees were a minority but held most of the positions of political and religious leadership in Jerusalem.
The last and by far largest group among the Jews of 1st Century is rarely mentioned. This was the common people. They were neither Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene nor Zealot. They were just Jews; everyday people in covenant with God but preoccupied with fields, flocks, trades, market stalls, family, & life. They had opinions regarding politics and religion but were too busy surviving to join one of the groups who claimed superiority to the others. It was these commoners who were most attracted to Jesus. They were drawn to Him because He did a masterful job of refusing to be co-opted by the elitists.
Jesus came in the traditional mode of a Rabbi, but was anything but a traditional. Like other rabbis, He had disciples who followed Him, but His teaching stood in contrast to theirs. His words carried authority that challenged the thick & hard shell of tradition that had become encrusted around their religion. Listening to Jesus wasn’t like listening to a commentary on the words of Moses-it was like listening to Moses himself, explaining what the law was meant to be and do. Then Jesus validated His teaching by performing numerous miracles.
It was a tough assignment to carve a path through Jewish society that didn’t intersect with the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots of Sadducees but Jesus negotiated it perfectly. Both His life and teaching powerfully demonstrated genuine Judaism and revealed the shabby counterfeit of the religious pretenders. At first they tried to co-opt him and turn his rising popularity to their cause. When He refused to make common cause with them, they turned on Him.
Jesus furthermore resisted the efforts of the common people to make him king. Their hope that He was the Messiah swelled to the call that He claim the throne. They wanted a political leader. But that was not Jesus’ mission & He resisted their attempts to install Him as ruler of Israel.
Jesus’ consistent message was the true nature of the Kingdom of God. Contemporary Judaism saw that Kingdom as primarily political, military, & economic.
- Israel would rule instead of Rome.
- Messiah would reign in place of Caesar.
- Judaism would replace paganism.
The sandal finally would be on the other foot.
Jesus’ message was a much different take on the kingdom of God. It wasn’t about politics or economics. It was about the heart, the inner life. Jesus repeatedly emphasized that to be in covenant with God meant to be in an intimate relationship with Him, not as some distant, disinterested deity, but as a loving Father.
Jesus’ popularity among the commoners created jealousy on the part of the leaders. His unblemished example of a warm & endearing godliness revealed the pathetic shabbiness of the merely religious. When He cleared the Temple of the fraudulent marketplace the leaders used as income, they decided it was time to get rid of Him. They convinced themselves they were only protecting the nation from Rome’s wrath against the insurrection they claimed Jesus was sure to lead. They arrested him, ran him through a sham trial, then turned him over to the Romans for execution saying He encouraged rebellion; a charge Rome took very seriously. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate knew he was being played by the Jewish leaders but when they threatened to complain about him to Rome, he relented & turned Jesus over for Scourging & crucifixion.
As they turned away from Jesus’ cross late Friday afternoon, they thought, “Good riddance! At least we won’t have to worry about him anymore.”
Yeah, good luck with that.
The title of this our first episode is “Really?” That one word questions was inspired by the opening line of Bruce Shelley’s excellent book Church History In Plain Language. Shelley writes, “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.”
An interview with the disciples the day after the crucifixion would in no way give anyone the idea Christianity would one day spread to the ends of the world & number in the billions.
The transformation that took place among Jesus’ followers after His resurrection is certainly convincing proof of His rising from the tomb. The disappointment that marked Jesus’ followers immediately after His execution is understandable. What isn’t, is their amazing resurgence as a group & as individuals to carry on His mission. The only rational explanation for their continuation & the growth of the Jesus movement was the resurrection.
By the 1st Century, Judaism had infiltrated much of the Roman Empire and had a small number of converts from among Gentiles in many cities. But these “God-fearers”, as they were called, were a tiny number considering how long Judaism had existed. The Jews had never really embarked on a campaign to spread their faith. Gentile converts to Judaism were almost accidental and accommodated reluctantly. Yet within a century after the Resurrection, Christianity spread across the Empire. The miraculous growth of the Church stands as eloquent testimony to its equally miraculous origin.
And now for a little background on this podcast.
In looking at what was available on the web for Church history, most audio is long lectures. I didn’t find much in the way of short, easily digested episodes. So our format here on Communio Sanctorum will be shorter episodes of about 20 minutes.
The study of history is by nature filled with dates and names and that’s where many would-be students find their eyes rolling toward the back of their head in sheer boredom.
While dates & names can’t be avoided, this podcast aims at providing a narrative of church history that will help contemporary Christians connect to their roots. To use a well-worn cliché, we really do stand on the shoulders of giants. What we’ll see is that those giants themselves stand on previous generations of folk who loom large because of the lives they lived and work they accomplished. Hopefully, by discerning our place within that massive edifice we call the Church, we can faithfully provide firm shoulders for the next generation to stand on. à That isn’t a unfit analogy when you consider both Paul’s & Peter’s allusion to the church being a building made of living stones.
As we end this first episode, let me give a quick word on HOW I’ll be going about presenting this History of Christianity & the Church.
There are many ways to study history and many theories for interpreting the past.
One way to recount History is to divide it into Pre-Modern, Modern & Post-Modern.
While defining these categories could devolve into a podcast series in itself, let me attempt to summarize these 3 ways of looking at History.
In Pre-modern times, history was primarily propaganda. It was recorded to promote an agenda or aggrandize a person. You may have heard the saying that it’s the winners who get to write history. That’s pretty much the way the recording of Pre-modern history was. Records that painted an alternative view of the officially sanctioned story were often rounded up & destroyed. Divergent monuments were torn down and scrolls were burned to erase the evidence of an alternative view of the way things went down.
In the Modern telling of history, a more scientific approach is applied to recording and interpreting events. The winners still dominate the main story, but the voices of the defeated and despised are also considered. While the Modern scientific approach to history is more accurate than the pre-modern version, it’s not entirely free from bias in that the Modern Historian still has to speak of events from his or her cultural perspective. And the selection of what facts to report or neglect is a form of editorial bias.
The Post-modern approach to history is a largely cynical method based on the idea that truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the mouth of the teller & pen of the writer. The problem in describing Post-modernism is that it’s a philosophy still under construction and defies defining. Some Post-modernists would say Post-modernism is an amorphous paradigm. The moment you define it, you’ve said more what it’s not than what it is. The Post-modern view of history is that nearly all accepted history from both the pre-Modern and Modern eras is suspect precisely because it’s accepted. There’s an almost visceral and knee-jerk rejection of authority in Post-modernism and nothing is deemed as so authoritarian as tradition. As a consequence, post-modern views of history tend to be avant-garde and fringe theories one reads alongside a more traditional view.
Our approach here on Communion Sanctorum will be from a Modern perspective of history. And while it’s impossible to be entirely free of bias, I will try to provide an unfiltered review of the history of Christianity & the Church.