The Bible and the Early Church
A shrine to Pan at Banias, source of the Jordan
|We have four gospels, the Acts of the
Apostles and a collection of letters, largely written by
Paul, which together form the New Testament cannon. Jesus
was born at a time of religious and political turmoil in
Israel. The land had been occupied by the Romans, the
priesthood was seen to sacrifice to the divine Caesar in
the temple of the one god, defiling it. The king too was
seen as an apostate Roman puppet who set up shrines to
Greek gods outside of Israel, such as Banias to Pan at
the source of the Jordan.
To understand the teachings of Jesus we need to consider the situation is which he was preaching and how, why and when the gospels were recorded.
The Romans had appointed a particularly brutal ruler who was entrenched in the Antonio Fortress over looking the temple mount its self. Josephus describes this man's - Pontius Pilate - brutality to the Jews and how much they hated him.
Jaffa Gate Jerusalem
|Groups arose to violently overthrow
the Roman yolk, Zealots and Sicarii are mentioned by
Josephus, himself a Roman collaborator, as being
violently opposed to the Roman rule. One of Jesus'
followers was openly described as Simon the Zealot and
Judas is traditionally believed to have held
nationalistic views. Strange partners for this man of
The first interesting problem we have is the very name of Jesus. The New Testament comes to us from Greek and Jesus is a Greek, not Hebrew name. The equivalent English biblical name is Joshua. I trust my reader will know that Joshua son of Nun led the People of Israel from the wilderness into their Promised Land. The Old Testament describes how he led a fierce campaign against the Canaanites capturing their cities and driving them from the Land of Israel at God's command. This was the sort of Messiah that the Jews were expecting when Jesus started his ministry. Why was the name chosen for him if he was not envisaged to take on the role ?
The title Christ to describe Jesus is something often misunderstood, it simply means 'anointed'. Kings and priests were anointed with oil and it in no way suggests any divinity, only a priestly or kingly role, either or perhaps both of which roles would have been expected of a Messiah. The Church's theology of a risen Son of God as the Messiah runs contrary to Jewish traditions.
His very birth is an enigma too; two gospels relate Jesus's genealogy through Joseph, back to either Adam (Luke) or Abraham (Mathew), neither agreeing in their details. However, both claim that Jesus was not born by Joseph, but by God and the Virgin Mary: a serious inconsistency. Was the virgin birth added to the Gospels at a later date ?
The Garden Tomb, claimed by some to be the tomb of Jesus
|One of the biggest New Testament
enigmas is why was Jesus crucified. This was a brutal
form of execution used by the Romans to dispose of
non-Roman citizens. It was commonly used by them, all the
slaves from the Spartacus revolt for example were
crucified along the road to Rome.
The New Testament claims that the Romans forbade the Jew to carry out capital punishment, but is this really true ? We know that Jesus saw a woman about to be stoned for adultery by Jews and that Stephen was martyred for his faith by stoning by Jews not long after Jesus' death. So, why was he killed by the Romans ? The fact that the Sadducee high priests wanted Jesus to be executed is not a surprise, they were pro Roman, had Jesus committed sacrilege, by claiming to be the son of God they would have stoned him the same as they would the woman who committed adultery. Nevertheless, he was handed to the Romans.
The next surprise is the compassion that Pilate felt for him, Pilate was feared and despised by the Jews, he held control not by kindness or fairness but by brutality as Josephus describes. Eventually he was recalled to Rome after incessant complaints about his excessive cruelty, yet the New Testament says he washed his hand at the trial of Jesus. This is a very different Pilate to that of other histories.
The Koran maintains that Jesus was never crucified 4:157 they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him. Combine this with the fact that the latter part of Mark's Gospel (16:9-20) describing Jesus' actions after the resurrection does not appear in the two oldest and most reliable manuscripts and some doubt are cast on the resurrection story. Why was this section added later ? Can we take a physical resurrection seriously as evidience to support it appears faked and Islam differs as to whether the crucifixion even occured at all.
The earth ramp at Masada
View from the fortress of Masada
|Another enigma is why aspects of the
New Testament seem frankly anti Semitic. John's Gospel in
particular, traditionally the last to be written puts the
blame for Jesus' death very harshly on the Jews and is
very critical of them, yet John was a Jew himself by
birth. Why not blame the Temple authorities or the puppet
government ? Has his gospel been doctored to suit Roman
sensitivities, shifting the blame from them to the Jews ?
We know that there was an essentially Jewish Church led by James in Jerusalem prior to the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 CE. We also know that one at least of Jesus' disciples was a Zealot. We can be sure that the Zealots continued the war against the Romans even after Jerusalem fell in 70 CE. They held out for another three years near the Dead Sea (John the Baptist preached in the desert near to the Dead Sea too). Eventually in 73 CE the last Zealots chose to commit mass suicide at Masada rather than face defeat, capture and humiliation at the hands of the Romans. Nothing more was heard of Jewish resistance for 60 years when Bar Kokaba led a final revolt against the Romans again this led to disaster, the Romans eventually triumphed and Jewish resistance was finally crushed in 135 CE. However, nothing was heard of the Church of James after the earlier defeat.
Let's consider the origin of the Gospels, most scholars now suggest that Mathew and Luke derive from a source 'Q' which puts us as close to the historical Jesus as we will ever be. It enables us to revise the traditional picture of early Christian history by filling in the time from Jesus until just after the destruction of Jerusalem, when the first narrative gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was written. "Q" is from the German word quelle, meaning source. The text got that name when scholars discovered that Matthew and Luke had used a collection of the sayings of Jesus as one of the sources for their gospels - the other being the Gospel of Mark.
John's Gospel was probably written last and fills out the theology while the others were designed to be narrative histories.
Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospels we use today may have been a collection of sayings, which were later padded out into a semi historic narrative form to give them more credence. Paul rarely refers to the life of Jesus, simply to theology; these original gospels were probably similar to that in their content.
It may be that Jesus did not only offend the high priest and scribes, he could have invoked the wrath of the Roman authorities, and this led to his execution. In reality, he may have opposed Roman rule. The gospels may have been edited to shift the blame from the Romans to the Jews when the new eastern Roman authority in Constantinople was making Christianity its official religion. A religion that blamed the Romans for the brutal death of its founder would have been a non-starter, but a little editing could have permitted its acceptance.
The later addition of details concerning the resurrection is also interesting. Mithras, Osiris and other gods died and rose again. So perhaps Jesus had to be resurrected too. A Jewish rabbi who called himself the 'son of man' appears to have been crucified for offending Roman rule. At some point - voila - this homeless rabbi was transformed into the 'Son of God' and by 325 CE the Council of Nicaea declared that he was a manifestation of God incarnate, something which the Arian Christians denied.
Were these details simply added to produce a god figure similar to Mithras and Osiris with whom Christianity had to compete for domination as the religion of the empire ?
History and the First Church
Constantine and the Church
About the Author
Contact the Author