Friday, September 13, 2013

Jesus And History

Just reflecting on how remarkable it is that Christianity didn't begin its rapid growth until after Jesus had died. It is remarkable even if you believe in the resurrection and the apostles as eye witnesses of the resurrection. But what if you don't? What if you believe Christianity is false and started from completely natural phenomenon? How does Jesus end up in the center of it? When He dies the movement is small and localized in Galilee. Some would even suggest He never lived. This is hugely different from founders of other movements. Islam was a major force before Mohammad died. Joseph Smith led a community of Mormons for a long time. Jesus is alone among religious leaders in many ways but this is a big one. He never established a strong following during His life. The book of Acts suggests even after the resurrection all His followers could fit in one room. They had almost no political power or organization.

The other thing that Jesus did not do was write. Again, the classic parallels with Mohammad and Joseph Smith break down. They wrote a lot. Their writings still take a central place in the religions they started. As far as we know Jesus wrote nothing. There is one reference to him writing on the ground in John 8. That is the only evidence we have that He knew how to write. St Paul was the first Christian to really write anything serious and that was not until maybe two decades after Jesus' death.

So how does Jesus end up as the center of this religion? Why are they not called Paulians rather than  Christians? Paul was doing the most serious work. He was writing. He was evangelizing. Planting churches all over the Roman empire. In fact, it is not clear why he needed Peter and John and the rest of the apostles. If you believe his story of his road to Damascus experience then it is clear. But what if you don't? What if you think that story was made up too?

If you believe in a Jesus who made a few nice sermons and died then you have to believe in an early church that really played fast and loose with history and theology. The idea that Jesus did miracles, Jesus claimed to be God, and rose from the dead, those became standard talking points pretty quickly. But changes didn't continue to happen. In fact, Christianity resisted changes proposed by gnosticism. It was criticized and persecuted by Rome for some other things yet they didn't just change. This is the same religious community that accepted these massive changes to their belief system about the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth, the feeding of the 5000, etc. Really not one community because the many churches across the empire were basically independent because of the state of transportation and communication. So we have many churches independently exhibiting this schizophrenic phenomenon of being totally open to some ideas and totally closed to others.

Yet somehow when we get to the 4th century we get a fairly unified church. When they hold a council at Nicea they know who to invite. Those who are legitimate successors of the apostles. They know who they are. How does that happen? We know about schisms in the church. We know how easily they happen and how hard they are to fix. Once you have schism one thing you cannot agree on is who are the legitimate leaders of the church for the purposes of resolving doctrinal disputes. So the church's ability to convene the council of Nicea shows there is no significant schism. Why not? They all share the same faith that came down from Jesus and taught by the apostles and their successors. That makes perfect sense if you believe that story is true. But what if you don't? How does that kind of thing get started? We know it can start with a charismatic man who truly believes it. But if Jesus was not that then how does it start?

You don't see these questions addressed in modern historical scholarship. Whether from a liberal Christian perspective or a secular perspective historians just duck these questions. They look at the source documents and argue that they are not reliable. Then they go into a big hand waving exercise to say the Christian story just grew up over time. When were the 4 gospels written? You get different answers. But the question of how someone writes such a thing and it is just accepted by the church as authentic while other gospels are rejected as forgeries. The church does not divide over which ones to believe. They know. Again, makes sense if it is based on fact. It is hard to envision if it is not.

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