Here’s the readings:
New Testament Backgrounds and Early Christian History
Ancient Israel has a four-stage history: 1) legendary time before existence in the land; 2) life in the land; 3) the Exile (587-539); and the 4) 2nd Temple period when Israel was controlled by one power or another. Much of her literature is about the pre-exilic period, but, in its present form, it is all post-exilic. The Hebrew Bible or Torah is divided into three parts: Torah; Prophets (Former and Latter); and Writings.
Israel’s “History” and Literature
Setting of Torah’s Story
Before 1200 BCE
In the Land
Fall of Northern Kingdom
Fall of Southern Kingdom
Setting of the Former Prophets
Setting of the Latter Prophets
Setting of the Latter Prophets
ca. 1200-587 BCE
ca. 1200-1000 BCE
ca. 1000-922 BCE
Setting of the Latter Prophets
Post-Exile or 2nd Temple
Production of Torah as book
Setting of the Latter Prophets
Collection of Prophetic books
539BCE-CE70 or 135
63 BCE-CE 135
Israel came into existence among the Empires. Cities and writing existed in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 3rd millennium. The Great Pyramid at Giza was completed in that millennium. Israel had brief periods of independence only when Mesopotamian (or Asia Minor) or Egyptian societies were in a lull.
Egypt dominated the Palestinian area from 1600-1100 BCE
The Mereneptah Stele mentions “Israel” in Palestine ca. 1200 BCE
The Sea Peoples arrived in Palestine ca. 1200 BCE
Israel’s monarchy (Golden Age) in this brief lull?
Assyria dominates the Near East from the 10th to the 7th century.
Israel falls to Assyria in 722 BCE.
(Neo)Babylonia dominates the Near East from the 7th through the 6th century.
Jerusalem falls to Babylon in 587 BCE. The Exile begins.
Persia dominates the Near East from the 6th through the 4th century.
Exile ends. 2nd Temple Period.
Hellenistic Kingdoms dominate the Near East from the 4th to the 1st century BCE.
Ptolemies (Egypt) and Seleucids (Syria) fight over Palestine.
The Maccabean Revolt (Hanukkah) restored “proper” Temple worship.
The Hasmonean Kingdom was as Greek as it was Jewish.
Rome dominated the Near East after 63 BCE (Pompey).
Herod the Great ended Hasmonean Rule in 37 BCE and ruled until 4BCE.
Herod Antipas ruled Galilee from 4 BCE until 39CE
Roman Procurators ruled Jerusalem from 6CE
Pontius Pilate was Procurator from 26-36CE
Jesus died ca. 30CE
Paul and others expand into Mediterranean in the 50s
Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66-73. Temple destroyed in 70
2nd Revolt against Rome in 132-35. Center of Jewish life outside Palestine.
Early Christianity in all corners of Mediterranean by end of 2nd century
End of Pax Romana in 180 brought imperial persecutions of Christians
Imperial Christianity, arm of Roman Empire, in 4th century: canon, churches, creeds. Neo-Platonic worldview.
While the Exodus is Israel’s most important story, the center of Torah is God’s revelation at Sinai (particularly the Ten Words or Ten Commandments). Israel believed that God created her in the wilderness by speaking these words. That divine speech created the biosphere of Israel in the midst of chaos, death, etc. While some of Israel’s literature extols the king, the land, the temple, and so forth, Israel’s life among the empires, her exile, and the end of her life in the land (under the Romans) means that it is Torah that always creates Israel’s distinctive existence wherever she is in the world. Torah is Israel’s cosmogony or founding story or myth. It calls Israel to a life of holiness or separation. Thus, it emphasizes rituals of separation: circumcision, Sabbath, and dietary regulations.
The interpretation of Torah is incredibly important throughout the 2nd Temple period. Is Torah, the Hebrew version, used in Jerusalem, its Greek translation in Alexandrian (the LXX), or the Samaritan Pentateuch used by the Samaritans. The Torah and other texts used by the community that left the Dead Sea Scrolls behind is yet another “Torah.” In Jerusalem (and Galilee to a lesser extent), the Torah question was whether Torah was for the priests officiating at the temple (the Sadducee position) or for all the people (the Pharisee position). Later, important rabbis offered differing interpretations of Torah (this eventually led to the Mishna and the various Talmuds).
All of Israel’s literature, to one extent or another, reflects exile. It came into being after that traumatic event and responds to it. (Many NT documents, like Matthew and Paul’s letters, are also responding to exile, as we shall see.) The Chronicler’s History, for example, reads all of history as if it leads up to the 2nd Temple as God’s “original plan” (1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah). The Temple is the place where the priests interact with God on behalf of the people.
The Chronicler, the Former Prophets (the story of Israel’s life in the land before exile) and the Latter Prophets (collections of oracles) described the exile (and other catastrophes) as the result of Israel’s sin—particularly (but not always) in the worship of other gods or the violation of what Protestants refer to as the 1st commandment—Thou Shalt Have no other gods before me. Some scholars trace this viewpoint (which one might reduce to obey and prosper, disobey and perish) to Deuteronomy and imagine a Deuteronomic School playing an important role in Israel’s self-interpretation (in the Former Prophets and some of the Latter Prophets).
While the first commandment is a call to henotheism, not monotheism, the “sin” interpretation (a theodicy) of exile led Israel to monotheism. One God, Israel’s God, controls all peoples and empires. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Rome all do God’s bidding. Speaking after the loss of (self-government in the) land, the king, and the temple. The Prophets imagine God will act anew and restore Israel’s covenant, kingdom (self-government), king (messianic ideas), and/or temple. Most historians claim that Jesus’ fundamental message was about the kingdom of God. The Prophets articulate the idea (picked up by Paul particularly) of Israel’s salvation through judgment.
Apocalyptic, represented by some sections of the Prophets and by the last 6 chapters of Daniel in particular changed the sin-theodicy and expanded the notion of salvation through judgment to a story about Israel’s oppression at the hands of evil empires and Satan and God’s coming judgment of the nations (and Satan), not of Israel, whose judgment was past. In apocalypse, God would soon act to save his oppressed (righteous) people. The sin-theodicy thus becomes a future-recompense theodicy. Apocalyptic motifs are very important in the New Testament, most obviously in Revelation (whose Greek title is the Apocalypse), perhaps in Jesus’ notion of the kingdom, and possibly in Mark’s understanding of the passion of Jesus.
The Wisdom traditions (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and so forth) (and the Psalms to a certain extent) also offer assistance for life in exile or under the empires. This advice is more personal and less definitive. In essence, it says the fear of the Lord (and wisdom) is the best “plan” for life but there are no guarantees. Job in particular speaks to the suffering of the righteous, but offers no rational theodicy. It simply calls one to maintain the faith at all costs.
These various traditions offer a multiplicity of notions of who Israel is, what the reason for failure is, and what ethic should be:
1) Exile or life under empires as result of sin, oppression, or just a mystery?
2) Israel as Jews, Samaritans, Galileans, God-fearers, proselytes, or some combination of all of these?
3) To whom does Torah apply: priests; people; Gentiles?
4) How should one relate to the empires (or outsiders?)
a) Appease them and maintain religious traditions (temple state; elite; Sadducees
b) Seek independence militarily (Maccabees; Zealots)
c) Live among but be separate, practicing rituals of separation (Pharisees)
d) Withdraw and wait for God to establish the kingdom (Dead Sea Scroll community; apocalyptic)
After Alexander the Great, the cities of the Ancient Near East adopted Greek culture: language, civic arrangement (the polis with its agoras, theaters, gymnasiums, and so forth). Local literatures adopted Greek language and genres. The large empires of Alexander, his successors, and Rome destroyed most local civic religions. The rural areas remained more conservative. The Maccabean revolt started in villages, not Jerusalem.
The destruction of old religions left people with experiences of frustration, alienation, and an increasing sense of individualism. Belief in fate and magic increased. The Greek and Roman world adopted some older religions in a transformed fashion. The elite were particularly interested in mystery religions, which offered some kind of union with a deity that provided life beyond death. They paid to belong to these cults in addition to supporting the civic religion that hallowed the empire in place. For some, various philosophies also provided insight for life. Platonism (this world is a bad copy of a mental, ideal world of the forms from which one’s soul has come and will return; see the allegory of the cave) and Stoicism (the divine reason permeates and directs the world; therefore, one should do one’s duty without concern for the consequences [apathy]) were particularly appealing. Stoicism dominated the Roman world during the Pax Romana period. Neo-Platonism dominated the later empire, the period in which Christianity became the imperial religion, the creeds were created, and people like Augustine articulated Christian visions of the world in his City of God and Confessions.
Rome’s military and administrative genius dominated the classical era. While brutal in war and in taxation of the conquered to fund imperial excess, Rome provided roads, security, aqueducts, and so forth. They extended religious tolerance to conquered peoples but were intolerant of new religions.
Like all other agrarian empires, their society was a pyramid of class, power, and privilege (mirroring the divine world) with less than 1% of the people at the top of the pyramid. Outside Rome, 90% of the people lived subsistence lives of constant want and necessity. People advanced in such societies by becoming clients of powerful patrons. The Emperor was the most powerful patron and had the most clients. (People probably saw their personal gods as such patrons as well.) Further, much, if not all, depended on one’s honor—one’s public estimation; how one appears in the eyes of other—rather than capital, personal integrity, and so forth. Public life was a constant contest (an agon); one’s honor increased or decreased (one was shamed) in almost every public encounter. By the way “agon” appears in English in protagonist and antagonist and is incredibly influential in our notions of literature (and film). Greek and Roman epics (Iliad, Aeneid) and plays (The Oresteia, Medea) reflect honor contests.
The Historical Jesus: 5 Important Interpretations
(1) The ecclesial Jesus is the Christ of the canon, the creeds, and church worship. He is a living, religious, or mythic figure, not a historical or human person. In particular, Jesus is the incarnate Son of God providing eternal life to his believers. Obviously, this Neo-Platonic portrait is most dependent on the Gospel of John among the canonical gospels.
(2) By contrast, early modern scholars, mostly Enlightenment (and Deist) philosophers, imagined Jesus Christ to be a fully human sage or philosopher. Their Jesus did no miracles (which they saw as a violation of the natural order of cause and effect) and taught a rather simple ethic in accordance with natural law that any rational person could arrive at by their own unaided reason. That ethic was essentially a form of civic duty (although often stated in the form of the Golden Rule) that imagined God as Creator and Eschatological Judge. Ironically, these Enlightenment and Deist scholars also relied primarily on the Gospel of John for their depictions of Jesus, largely because John has fewer miracles to explain (away) than the other gospels.
(3) In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coinciding with the development of modern historiography, scholars began to try to peel away the later veneer of the church’s myth-ritual system, creeds, and canon in order to discover a historical, human Jesus. Rejecting John as a late, theologically developed gospel, these scholars focused on the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Isolating these gospels and, therefore, discovering their similarities and differences, scholars created the Synoptic Problem—that is, the problem of explaining the similarities and differences between the Synoptics. By the last third of the nineteenth century, the dominant solution to this problem was the Two-Source Hypothesis, which claimed that Matthew and Luke both used Mark—the earliest canonical gospel—and another now lost source, which these scholars called Q. Scholars trying to reconstruct the historical Jesus gradually began to rely most heavily upon Mark (the British approach) or Q (the German and, ultimately, the American approach). Most were ultimately more certain about Jesus’ teaching, than his actions, and almost all agreed that Jesus’ teaching was primarily about the kingdom of God. These nineteenth-century scholars understood the kingdom primarily in terms of nineteenth-century liberalism. In Adolf von Harnack’s famous summary, Jesus taught the kingdom (or fatherhood) of God, the brotherhood of man, and the commandment to love one another.
(4) As the optimistic nineteenth century gave way to the more troubled twentieth-century, historians began to think of Jesus in apocalyptic, rather than in liberal and progressive, terms. In this scenario, which still dominates scholarship today, Jesus proclaimed an apocalyptic kingdom of God—a kingdom, that is, which will arrive Tuesday of next week at the very latest. Some scholars believe that Jesus went to Jerusalem and ultimately died in a failed attempt to usher in the kingdom.
Today, almost all historians agree that Jesus’ teaching centered on the kingdom of God and that he taught about this kingdom—without every really defining it—in colorful stories and images (the parables).
(5) While most think that Jesus understood the kingdom in apocalyptic terms, a significant neo-liberal minority argues that Jesus understood the kingdom as the practice of the present rule of God—that is, as an attempt to live in the world as if it belongs to God rather than to Rome or some other Empire. These scholars understand Jesus as a popular (and rather lax) Pharisee, a Cynic, or a reformer trying to restore Jewish village-life despite its oppression by Temple and Empire. In this view, dependent largely on interpretations of Jesus’ teaching in Q (and in the Gospel of Thomas), Jesus is a counter-cultural figure, a “hippie” in a world of “yuppies”; one denying social convention (read Roman Empire and Temple state) in favor of nature (read kingdom of God). Obviously, this viewpoint—as it concentrates on Jesus’ distinctiveness from other Jews—easily becomes anti-Semitic.
In reaction to that potential problem (and in an attempt to disavow involvement with the Holocaust, etc.), all historians assert that Jesus must be understood as a Jew and in terms of 2nd Temple Judaism, not in terms of later Christianity. What kind of Jew he was is still hotly debated (see the next unit). Historians also debate what Jesus’ significance was to his earliest followers. Generally, they agree that in the context of Rome’s occupation of Judea (Temple state)—with increasing taxation from Roman and Jewish elites—a number of famines, and aborted or failed revolutions, Jesus took a message of the kingdom of God in parables to lower classes of Galilee and Judea. His message and his ministry of magic and meal—shared with those considered outcasts—led to his Roman crucifixion.
Paul and Others
Paul and other missionaries spread a message about Christ’s death and resurrection (not Jesus and the kingdom) to Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean World. Paul eventually claimed that the Gentiles did not have to observe Torah in order to belong to the people of God. Not all Jewish missionaries agreed with him.
The New Testament
Except for Paul’s letters, the NT documents (including the gospels) come after 70 CE (the date of Rome’s destruction of the temple and Jerusalem). The NT is in Greek and post-70 Christianity is increasingly Gentile.
The following provides notes detailing the history of early Christianity in more detail and provides a preview of our historical work in the course to come.
 The creeds do state that Jesus Christ is fully human, but this is hardly a frequent emphasis in the history of the church. It is revealing that the “early” church decided that Jesus Christ was fully divine in the councils of the 4th century before they decided that he was fully human in the councils of the fifth century. The fourth century debate between Arius, who claimed that Jesus Christ was similar in nature to God and subordinate to him as a created being, and Athanasius, who claimed that Jesus Christ was of the same nature as God and co-eternal with him, was finally resolved in favor of Athanasius by his claims that only God could accomplish human salvation and only God should be worshiped (Jesus Christ was, of course, worshiped in early churches). (One wonders, as well, if Constantine played a role here. After all, the emperor needs a divine Lord, not a human one.) The debate about Jesus Christ’s humanity arose as a result of this decision. Once again, it is revealing that the “church” never achieved as much unanimity on this point. “Heretics,” like the Monophysites and the Nestorians, continue to claim that Jesus Christ is not fully human.
 Scholars refer to these as the Synoptic Gospels because of their similar structure. They seem to present Jesus with (syn) one eye (optic) or perspective.
 Q is short for Quelle, the German word for “Source.” Scholars hold Mark to be the earliest gospel because Matthew and Luke normally share Mark’s approach or deviate from Mark individually (there are, however, famous Matthean and Lukan agreements against Mark). Their changes in Mark also seem to “improve” Mark stylistically or theologically. Q accounts for material that Matthew and Luke have in common but which does not appear in Mark.
 This conclusion means that the historical Jesus did not teach about himself (as Christ or Son of God) and did not interpret his death (as atoning or salvific). It also means that Jesus did not say (all) the words in red (in the Bible of my youth) and almost nothing that is in the Gospel of John.
 The philosophy, by the way, which is the basis for modern individualism (or modern mythology).
 For a classic review, see Norman Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom: Symbol and Metaphor in New Testament Interpretation (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress Press, 1976).
 See the appendix to this chapter for one example of this viewpoint.
History of Early Christianity
1.Who was Jesus?4 views in scholarship depending on worldview of interpreter, worldview assumed about Jesus, and sources relied upon:
- Son of God who came to give us eternal life. Neo-Platonic interpreters developed in 4th century. They assumed Jesus had same worldview as they did. They depended upon John interpreted in light of creeds.
- Teacher of natural, rational ethic. Early modern Deists developed. They assumed Jesus had same worldview as modern Europeans. They used John to construct Jesus. They rejected creeds and miracles.
- Apocalyptic Jesus. Late 19th century “liberal” scholars developed using modern historiography. They assumed Jesus had different worldview than they did and located Jesus in apocalyptic Judaism. German scholarship gradually relied on Q. British tended to rely on Mark and to see Jesus as non-royal Messiah. The apocalyptic view of Jesus dominated the 20th century.
- Counter-cultural Jesus. Late 20th century “neo-liberal” Americans developed. Say Jesus’ worldview is different but their Jesus looks like a “hippie” in a world of “yuppies.” More historical view calls Jesus a cynic, one denying social convention (read Roman Empire and
) in favor of nature (read
). This view relies on first layer of Q and/or on the Gospel of Thomas.
2.Two unanswered (debated) questions about Jesus in NT scholarship:
- What kind of Jew was Jesus? Pharisee, Essene, and peasant/artisan are among top choices.
- What was Jesus’ significance for his followers?Teaching? Death-Resurrection? Parousia?
3.Historical Jesus: In the context of Rome’s occupation of Judea (temple state)—with increasing taxation from Roman and Jewish elites—a number of famines, and aborted or failed revolutions, Jesus took a message of the kingdom of God, in parables, to lower classes of Galilee and Judea. His message and his ministry of magic and meal—shared with those considered outcasts—led to his Roman crucifixion.
4.Jesus’ earliest followers saw him as the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel or the announcement of the imminent fulfillment of those hopes. Some continued his teaching-magic-meal ministry. Most continued to be practicing Jews. The Q document
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