RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF EUROPE TO 1500 - THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY
John the Baptist The founder of Christianity was Jesus of Nazareth who was born, lived and died as a Jew. Before plunging into the details and significance of His life, it is well to examine religious developments immediately concerned with the message and meaning of Jesus. In particular the life of John the Baptist is directly concerned with the origins of Christianity. All four "Gospels" or biographical accounts of the life of Jesus tell something about John the Baptist, and in the Acts of the Apostles, a history of the early followers of Jesus by a doctor named Luke, who also wrote one of the gospel accounts, records comments by both Peter and Paul on the activities of Jesus. Both begin with references to the baptism of John, and when a new apostle had to be chosen, stipulations required it be someone who had accompanied "the Lord Jesus . . . beginning from the baptism of John" (Acts Acts 1:21ff). John's importance, of course, is that he was a "forerunner" of Jesus who made a deep and lasting impression in his own right on Jews in Palestine.
His Ministry According to Luke, John was born to priestly parents as a "wonder-child." John spent a years in isolation ("in the wilderness") in preparation for his ministry, presumably in the Judean hill-country. Actually his retreat was not far from the Qumran community, and speculation has suggested he was raised in this Essene gathering. John may have found a congenial atmosphere there and spent time with the Qumran group. However, it can be neither proved nor disproved, and John's ministry was distinctly prophetic and therefore cannot be fitted into an Essene framework ("the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness" Luke 3:2). John chose a very public place, on the other hand, for the inauguration of his ministry, specifically the crossing of the Jordan north of the Dead Sea where traffic between Judea and Peraea passed. If John had been associated with Qumran, it was now time to strike off on his own. His preaching attracted many listeners because they recognized in his message a note of authority quite unfamiliar in Israel.
Eschatology John's message was strikingly eschatological. He proclaimed a day of judgment to be executed by the "Coming One" whose way John claimed to prepare. This "Coming One" resembled the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah's prophecies (Isa. 4, 11, 42:1-4 in particular). He also sounded like the end-time man expected by the Qumran community, though that community did not endow this man with the Holy Spirit or baptize others with the Holy Spirit as John says the Coming One will do.
At that time God will purify by his truth all the deeds of a man, and will refine him for himself more than the sons of men, in order to destroy every evil spirit from the midst of his flesh and to cleanse him through the Spirit of holiness from all evil practices . . .
Descent from Abraham Furthermore, descent from Abraham would not avail in this coming judgment. Only repentance expressed by baptism would be effective. There were analogies to John's baptism in Judaism. Cleansing lustrations (ceremonial purifications) through water were prescribed in the Law. The Pharisees placed great importance upon frequent absolutions, while some small radical groups employed ritual baths so frequently that they were known as "daily bathers" or "morning bathers." Further, Jewish proselyte baptism was similar to that of John. Converts to Judaism had to be circumcised if male, sacrifice in the temple and undergo a ceremonial bath. Thus, John's point in demanding baptism was that true repentance in preparation for the Coming One meant enrollment in a new Israel, the end-time community where traditional Torah righteousness and descent from Abraham were not assets.
John's Followers Most people who heard John, repented of their spiritual shortcomings, accepted his baptism as a sign of repentance and forgiveness (Mk. 1:4) and went home to await the Coming One. Some, however, remained with John to form a recognizable community comparable to the followers of the great Pharisaical teachers or Jesus. John taught them fasting and prayer, though whether or not they adopted his rigorous asceticism is unknown.
Climax of John's Ministry The climax of John's ministry was the baptism of Jesus who came from his home in Nazareth in Galilee to the Jordan valley for this ritual. This event marked the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Asking John for baptism probably indicated that Jesus recognized that his own public mission must begin and it was now appropriate to identify openly and unmistakably with the end-time/judgment program, perhaps as the anticipated "Coming One." In fact, John probably suspected Jesus was the One he announced, but having seen that Jesus' Galilean ministry did not seem to fit in with themes of judgment and the end of history, John became uncertain and sent inquirers to Jesus asking "Are you the Coming One, or must we look for someone else?" (Matt. 11:3; Luke 7:20).
What Happen to John John continued his prophetic announcements "at Aenon near Salim," probably Wadi Far'ah, east of Shechem, which means he preached in Samaria (John 3:23). Jesus remained in Judea, and some of John's disciples began to follow Jesus creating tension between the two men. When Jesus learned that some Pharisees were apparently planning to use the tension to drive a wedge between him and John, he moved north (John 1:35ff; 3:25ff & 4:1ff). As far as we know, John did not visit Galilee, but he eventually died at the hands of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee whose jurisdiction included not only Galilee but also Peraea. John's pronouncements and baptizing in the Jordan valley went on the Peraean bank of the river as well as on the west side (John 1:28). Herod arrested John, because, according to Josephus ( Antiquities), Herod was afraid John's attractiveness and ability to gather disciples might lead to a revolt. The gospel writers were more explicit. John had denounced Antipas's marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias, in violation, from John's perspective, of Lev. 18:16 and 20:21 which forbade marriage to the wife on one's brother, even when the brother had died.
Implications of the Denunciation The denunciation had political implications. Herodias was Herod Antipas's niece, the daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus. Herodias married her uncle, Herod Philip, but Herod Antipas, while still married to a Nabataean princess and daughter of Aretas IV (9 B.C.-40 A.D.), fell in love with Herodias, dismissed his Nabataean wife and took Herodias as wife. The messy divorce incensed her father, King Aretas, who later in 36 A.D. invaded Peraea and inflicted a crushing defeat on an army of Antipas. Several years before, Herod Antipas had imprisoned John the Baptist at the Peraean fortress of Machaerus and eventually executed him (against his better judgment it seems) at the request of his young wife Herodias. Josephus ( Antiquities) noted that the Jews viewed the defeat at the hands of Aretas punishment from God to avenge the death of God. Apparently, the mills of God grind very slowly but very finely.
Jesus of Nazareth Apart from the NT and later writings dependent upon it, information about the life of Jesus is scanty and problematic. In 30 A.D. when He began his public ministry, the name of Jesus of Nazareth meant nothing to people living in the Roman world. He was a religious leader and teacher who won a devoted but tiny following by claiming among other things to be a King of sorts. He was conveniently executed which was no exceptional event in Palestine at the time. However, when his disciples claimed He had risen from the dead and began to proclaim Him as the Deliverer of the world, their mission met eventually with astonishing success. His name and that of his followers (Christians) became well known in the empire. The first mention of him in Roman literature was what one might now call "police news" or the "Police Gazette." A riot occurred in Rome about 49 A.D. apparently when Christianity was introduced to the Jewish community of that city. Suetonius writing in 120 A.D. ascribed the riot to one "Chrestus," a name he probably found in city police records.
Other Citations Tacitus writing in his Roman Annals between 115-17 A.D. mentioned the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D. and Nero's efforts to blame it on Christians. The name, said Tacitus, came from one "Christus, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor." Further, the younger Pliny supplies a "police record" of his own when as proconsul of Bithynia about 112 A.D. he sent a report to Emperor Trajan on Christian advances in his province. To Pliny those he interrogated were perversely superstitious. They recited a hymn "to Christ as God." These are the earliest references to Christ in pagan literature. References to Jesus in Jewish literature come from the period 70-200 A.D. Very simply they repeat the same themes: Jesus of Nazareth was a criminal who practiced magic, ignored the wise, led people astray, and claimed he came not to take away nor to add to the law of Moses. On Passover Eve authorities hanged him for heresy and misleading people. His disciples healed the sick in his name. Josephus (Antiquities) about 93 A.D. mentioned "James of Jerusalem" who was the bother of "Jesus the so-called Christ." As far as Christian information on Jesus outside the NT there is only a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, the best known of which came from the second century. It is extant as a fourth-century Coptic translation from a Greek manuscript The Gospel of Thomas. It was discovered in 1945 along with other Gnostic materials near the site of ancient Chenoboskion in Upper Egypt. Some of the sayings may be genuine but to determine the authenticity of a particular one is extremely difficult since there is no concrete life-context given for any of them.
Startup As a result, the most comprehensive and reliable sources for the life of Jesus are the primary documents of the NT, which is a well-tested and thoroughly analyzed body of documents. As noted previously, Jesus' first public appearance and the beginning of a public ministry was baptism by John. Following this event, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days of solitude, confrontation with Satan and a firm resolution to obey God rather than satisfy Himself. The main phase of his ministry, however, begins in Galilee after the arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist. This was the region of His childhood, and according to Matt. 4:15 a region prophetically designated in Isa. 9:1 as "Galilee of the Gentiles [nations]" or a place where divine light would shine.
The Message The theme of the early phases of Jesus' ministry was the Kingdom of God. According to Mk. 1:15 He warned listeners to repent because the Kingdom of God was at hand. To listeners familiar with OT prophecy this must have meant that the time foretold by Dan. 2:44; 7:14, 18, 27, when God would set up His kingdom, to never be superseded or destroyed, on the ruins of the successive troubled Gentile world-kingdoms. The nature of this kingdom may best be inferred from Jesus' character and teachings. First, God was "abba" not the liturgical "abinu" (our Father) of the synagogue, a domestic term by which a father was called in the affectionate intimacy of the family circle. Jesus Himself used the term and taught His disciples to use it meaning that Jesus and His followers were living and should live in loving nearness to God and in implicit trust in Him, the same sort of trustful expectation children show when they look to their biological fathers to supply them with food and shelter. This was such a distinctive term, it passed unchanged into Gentile Christianity. Paul of Tarsus used it in Gal. 4:6 and Rom.8:15ff as a token that one had received the Holy Spirit and was consequently a son of God.
Character of Ministry The character of Jesus' ministry is seen when disciples of John came to him and asked if He was the "Coming One," since John had seen that what Jesus seemed to be going did not entirely tally with his own ministry of judgment. Jesus replied that they should return and tell John that men were healed, the dead raised and the poor receive good news (Luke 7:19-23; Matt. 11:2-6). All of which told John that this was a fulfillment of OT prophecies of the coming of the New Age, in the fashion of the anointed preacher of Isa. 61:1ff. There is a hint here of Messianic anointing, but it is a Messianic ministry much different from that to which so many in Israel looked forward. Nonetheless, Jesus persisted with the theme of the kingdom of God. Scribes who questioned the source of His power to relieve demon-possessed people were told, "the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20). Obviously, what Jesus meant was that with His ministry the kingdom of God was already present. Powers of the kingdom were applied in healing people, engaging in holy wars with evil spirits and releasing the prisoners of their dark realm. Jesus declared to a group of Pharisees that "the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Luke 17:20ff).
"But Not Yet" However, Jesus only meant that the kingdom was being inaugurated. One day it would come "in power," and some of His disciples would live to see it (Mk. 9:1). Consequently, the disciples should pray "Thy kingdom come" (Luke 11:2), because although nothing compared to the massive armies of the Gentile world, the kingdom had been designated for them by divine decree (Luke 12:32). It was an odd kingdom. The way to honor within it was humility and self-denial. In fact "honor" in the kingdom was equivalent to service, and most clearly illustrated by Jesus in "giving his life a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45).
The Son of Man The "Son of Man" figure in the teachings of Jesus goes back to the book of Daniel. The same terminology is also found in the Similitudes of Enoch. The "Son of man" imagery is also connected to the Isaianic Servant of Yahweh who gives his life as a reparation offering for others (Isa. 53:10; cf. Luke 19:10; John 3:14; Acts 7:56). If you trace the phrase through the Gospels, there is a growing tendency on the part of Jesus to use it in place of the pronoun "I" which probably can be attributed to the Aramaic word of "a man" (bar 'enas) that means literally "son of man." So, on several occasions Jesus used some such periphrasis as this to mean "I." This, however, has little to do with the eschatological use of the phrase "son of man." Accordingly, Jesus observes that those who acknowledge him will be acknowledged by the "Son of Man" before God in heaven (Luke 12:8). In Acts 7:55 Stephen maintains he saw Jesus as the Son of Man "standing at the right hand of God" or as Stephen's advocate in the heavenly court. So also, if Jesus as the Son of Man is the advocate of the faithful and righteous, he also will be the judge of the faithless and unrighteous (Mk. 8:38). The Son of Man would be a "sign" to the current generation (Luke 11:30) whose coming to earth would surprise everyone (Luke 12:40; 17:24-30). With increasing emphasis in the last phases of his ministry Jesus also insisted that the "Son of Man" had to suffer and be rejected (Mk. 8:31; 9:31; 10:33; 14:21). By the end of his ministry Jesus contended that he was fulfilling the role of the suffering Son of Man, although for even those around him this talk remained sometimes enigmatic and confusing (John 12:34).
The Fate of the Son of Man However, in his final days Jesus told a court of inquiry that He was the Son of Man and that his listeners would see him sitting at the right hand of God (Mk. 14:62; Luke 22:69). The impending suffering of the Son of Man would set in a new order in which God would vindicate Him, and he in turn would visit his people as Savior and Judge. By the same token, the suffering of the Son of Man would bring the Kingdom of God in its full power and unveil its mystery. Despite their failure of nerve and their inability to participate in His sufferings, those who followed Jesus would share in His ministry, propagate the message of the Kingdom and become its heirs (Luke 22:28-30). Evidently, Jesus anticipated a period between His sufferings and the full inauguration of the Kingdom of God, perhaps suggesting the intervening church age or a community of disciples to be the "new Israel." He did tell his apostles that when the new order dawned, they would be judges, assuming they adopted the posture of servants, of the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30; cf. Matt. 19:28). It seems to be no coincidence then that He picked twelve apostles to match the tribes of Israel, implying there would be an "Israel" for them to lead.
Jesus and the Kingdoms of the World
Kingdom Enthusiasm In the context of contemporary events and expectations, Jesus' proclamation of a new kingdom justifiably aroused suspicion in some quarters and expectant enthusiasm in others. From the evidence found at Qumran it is now obvious that Jesus lived in a time of great apocalyptical enthusiasm. The Qumran community, for example, around 63 B.C. was convinced that the "unprecedented time of trouble" foretold in Daniel 12:1 was now at hand. The Rule of War shows that some of the community had taken steps in preparation for the eschatological denouement that would swiftly follow. Of all the parties in Israel at this time none were more dedicated to the idea of the coming Kingdom of God than the Zealots. Sadducees might cooperate with occupying powers, and the Pharisees might submit under protest. But what was needed, the Zealots maintained, was violent action. However, for Jesus this was not the way the kingdom of God would begin. The kingdom in Jesus' teaching had no place for violence. Its participants were to turn the other cheek to violence and to not revolt against Rome.
The Kingdom news in Galilee Jesus had not been in Galilee long before local authorities became increasingly disinclined to let him use synagogues as a platform for his message. As a result, He preached frequently on the lakeside or out in the country. He invited criticism by challenging accepted Pharisaical doctrines, interpreting Sabbath law in a unique fashion and consorting with disreputable characters from whom most people wanted to keep their distance. Instead of following Sabbath law as expounded by Hillel or Shammai, Jesus insisted that since the Sabbath was for the relief and well being of men, any action that promoted that end was appropriate. It was all right, for example, to perform works of mercy on the Sabbath, and whatever made Sabbath law burdensome was probably invalid.
Jesus probably offended many religious people by associating with undesirables. In particular tax collectors were outcasts, owing to frequent extortion. Jesus even accepted one as a companion, even though in a Jewish court their testimony was unacceptable. The rabbinical schools debated the question: Could such depraved people truly repent? Those who said yes admitted it would be very difficult, since it normally would not be possible for a penitent tax-collector to give back all the money he had unjustly extorted. Similarly, the twelve disciples who followed Jesus seemed to have been an unruly lot, far from the plaster saints to which they were eventually turned. James and John were an impetuous pair. Simon was called "Barjona," a term very similar to one used in rabbinical literature for a class of rebel. Judas "Iscariot" probably denotes "is Qeriyyot" or "man of Kerioth." From his betrayal of Jesus he very likely was a "zealot of the right" or a fanatical supporter of the Temple who truly thought Jesus was going to destroy it.
The Apostles The Twelve (probably an equivalent of Hebrew "selihim," those sent out by a teacher who derived their authority from him and can be exercised only within terms of their commission) became known as "apostles" when Jesus sent them out two by two through the towns and villages of Galilee to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick in Jesus' name. Evidently, Jesus expected they would find sympathetic listeners because He told the "apostles" not to take provisions. They were to preach only to fellow Jews and avoid Gentile and Samaritan communities. News of the enthusiastic reception of their message reached Herod Antipas who formed an unnatural alliance with the Pharisees to obstruct Jesus. In anticipation of this trouble Jesus took his associates across the lake into the territory of Philip where the atmosphere was quieter. Many Galileans followed. Probably, they were leaderless men anxious for someone to inaugurate the promised kingdom at once. In fact Jesus had pity on them as "sheep without a shepherd" (Mk. 6:34), or an army without a captain. John 6:15 indicates that after Jesus fed them in the wilderness, the men tried to compel him to be their king. Since He wouldn't be the type of king they wanted, John (6:66) reports that many Galileans quit Jesus and stopped following Him around.
End of Public Life in Galilee This crisis seems to have ended Jesus' public ministry in Galilee. He took his twelve companions farther into Philip's territory, near his capital at Caesarea Philippi. Of course, they probably thought Jesus to be strange. Hadn't he passed up a golden chance to head up his own army against the Romans? Some disciples were so disillusioned that they gave up and left. Jesus queried Peter, and he indicated that despite the things that violated their presuppositions the core group believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Plainly though, if they were sincere, the word "messiah" had to mean for them something other than the popular conception of it as a leader liberating the nation from Rome. Jesus refused to accept that role. Jesus clearly knew this, for he warned the disciples not to repeat the Messiah talk in public, and that far from being a Davidic warrior to liberate Israel from the Gentiles He would be repudiated and put to death. Squelching Peter's resistance to such talk, Jesus insisted this was God's will for Him, and the disciples had to realize clearly what was in store for them and the cost of following Him.
The Kingdom News in Jerusalem Not long after Jesus and his disciples left Galilee and arrived in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles, probably in the autumn of A.D. 29. They stayed for six months in Judea and visited the capital during the various feasts to talk and teach in the temple precincts. Probably, the presence of crowds made it possible for Jesus to spread his by-now hated teachings without immediate fear of secret arrest. The last feast He attended was the Passover in early April A.D. 30. Jesus rode into town on an ass and was cheered by pilgrims in the fashion described in Zach. 9:9, indicating He was presenting Himself as the Messiah. The response only heightened the apprehensions of local religious rulers who were afraid of Roman reprisals should Jesus prove to be the leader for which the enthusiastic masses longed.
Arrest and Trial In fact in reviewing the situation the religious rulers in Jerusalem decided to employ Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus' disciples, to betray Him to soldiers who would arrest Jesus and thus avoid the possibility of his fomenting a revolt. Judas slipped away from a meal called to celebrate Passover and shortly after took part in the arrest of Jesus who was first taken to the house of Annas, a former high priest and an influential leader of the Sanhedrin. After an unofficial interrogation Jesus was then taken to Caiaphas, the president of the Sanhedrin. Jesus sealed his fate by openly affirming that He was the Messiah, which could be presented to Pilate as an effort to be King of the Jews and therefore a political threat to Rome. At daylight on Passover Eve Jesus appeared before Pilate under Jewish charges that He had sown dissatisfaction in the province, forbidden Judeans to pay tribute to the emperor and had claimed to be the King of the Jews. After questioning Jesus Pilate realized He was not a resistance leader, but to placate the local leaders, who insisted Jesus was a blasphemer, Pilate mounted the tribunal or platform and sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion, the typical punishment for seditious provincials.
Jesus was executed along with two common criminals. However, the historical texts written by His followers insist that He rose from the dead several days after burial and appeared with His followers as a sign of His divinity and a certification of God's approval of His death as a sacrifice for human sin and a means of reconciling mankind to God. It was an intense and absolute conviction in the historicity of Jesus' life, death and resurrection which fueled the faith of the early church and spurred it to spread an account and an interpretation of Jesus' life and teachings throughout the Roman world.
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