God Steps Onto the Planet: A.D. 27 – A.D. 30
Optional Yearly Reading Schedule–January 4
1. Who is This Man Jesus?
The origins of Christianity spring from two rootstalks, one historical, the other personal.
Those who “study” the Christian movement naturally focus on the former. Those who “experience” Christianity must do so as individuals…personally.
We are going to do our best to come to a deeper understanding of Christianity’s origins from both perspectives, setting the personal responses of the world’s first “Christians”—literally, followers of Christ—into the historical context of the first century.
Christianity is a religion, first of all, not about theology or doctrine or ritual or church practice…but about people—men, women, and in some ways perhaps especially children…children of all ages. Christianity is about the response of men, women, and children to a man. That man is Jesus Christ.
Christianity did not actually begin with the well-known story read by Christians and non-Christians alike every December about the birth of Jesus, son of Mary, in a manger of Bethlehem. It began centuries earlier with the prophecies within Judaism foretelling a “deliverer” or Messiah (from “to anoint”), who would emerge one day as a great prophet like Moses of old to deliver them once and for all from a successive string of bondages that had held Israel powerless for half a millennium. The word Christ (“anointed one”) represents the same term in Greek, and the words Christ and Messiah are essentially interchangeable.
The Messiah expected by the Jews of the first century BC, however, was a great military leader who would lead the nation of Israel to throw off the tyranny of its latest oppressor, mighty Rome, and then reign on the throne of David over the nations of the earth. All the Messianic prophecies leading up to the first century were informed by a vision of grandiose earthly power.
This widespread expectation of a worldly leader who would inaugurate a Kingdom of God on earth shows why Jesus was not recognized by the leaders of Judaism as a prophet, much less the Messiah. His teaching was so utterly foreign to the expected Messianic world triumph that official Judaism rejected both Jesus and his teaching and ultimately orchestrated his execution on a Roman cross.
The historic beginnings of Christianity, therefore, were unexpected, rooted in controversy, and caused confusion, hostility, uncertainty, and perplexity among those who were initially part of it—Jesus’ own family at first and then his friends, disciples, listeners, and ultimately the entire nation.
When Jesus began to step into his messianic calling, therefore, no one knew what to make of him.
History’s familiar enigma
No name is so familiar to so many as the name Jesus Christ. Familiar…yes. Understood, no.
Two words…known but unknown, enigmatic, mysterious. Few men and women know very much about the man Jesus who walked this earth almost exactly two thousand years ago.
Most know scattered facts about him overlaid by traditions, images, and religious teaching passed down through time. But the why that brought him among us remains veiled. This uncertainty is perplexing because his brief walk across the pages of time reverberated with such force that it might be likened to the Big Bang of human history. Nothing literally since the foundation of the universe itself set off such titanic explosions of change. Its effects have not stopped in twenty centuries.
Yet when the brief years of his life are examined at a glance, one finds no explanation for such global and permanent repercussions. On the surface of it, the evidence reveals little more than an itinerant carpenter-preacher from an obscure village in a remote and insignificant corner of the world. Nothing about his subsequent impact makes sense from his biography when interpreted through human eyes. He did not travel. He did not write. He was not a political force. Indeed, he conspicuously tried to prevent a mass movement building up around him. His teaching was neither complicated nor inflammatory. The message that drew people could be summed up in the words, “Love God and be nice to those around you.” In the end he was executed as a common criminal. Where in that is the power to shift history on its axis?
These many whys ultimately reduce to the simpler, but perhaps more probing question of who. Who was this remarkable being who influenced an entire planet? For two thousand years most people haven’t quite been able to figure out the answer. But the whole world is intrigued. Everywhere this fascination is evident. Whether believers or not, people are drawn to Jesus by a magnetic pull unlike what they feel from anyone else.
The man on everyone’s mind
There exists a Christ-curiosity in the Western world, though largely invisible, that is almost a passion.
We tend to categorize the obsessions of modern Western culture under such headings as money, sex, power, entertainment, and so on. But in actual fact an unseen, silent fascination with Jesus Christ also ranks up near the top, in the secular world as well as the spiritual. It lurks below the surface, influencing people in ways they never dream of. Jesus is on everyone’s mind.
When an shout of shock or surprise suddenly bursts from the lips…when careless tongues bandy about a name to punctuate speech for emphasis or deprecation…to whom does the world turn with its cries, curses, loose talk, expletives, and oaths? Such invectives are not usually shouted out with the words, “Adolf Hitler!” or, “Julius Caesar!” One never hears the names Napoleon, Buddha, or Ghengis Khan used for no reason in the midst of low and debasing speech.
As a boy I recall hearing an irritable bus driver swear at my mother for being slow getting three tired children onto his bus when we were trying to find our way through San Francisco late one night. But his words were not, “Alexander the Great, lady…hurry up!”
When at the end of life’s rope, with no place to turn, when despair consumes a weary soul and everything seems hopeless, do people sink to their knees in the despondency of aloneness, and whisper, “Martin Luther…please help me!”
We observe such exclamations, prayers, outbursts, and unthinking talk about us every day. It is Jesus who is on the tongues and in the hearts of the world’s men and women. It is Jesus to whom the lonely and disconsolate cry. It is Jesus whose name one hears everywhere, from locker rooms to boardrooms. Why? One might say that such responses are mere habit, that they reveal nothing of significance. But there is more to it than that. Why is Jesus the focal point of such habits rather than Muhammad, Ghandi, or George Washington?
Something deeper is going on. Why is Jesus, even if subconsciously, on the minds of bus drivers, high school students, priests, senior citizens, pastors, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, bartenders? Even those who might not believe he ever lived at all…Jesus is on their minds too. He is the man on everyone’s mind.
As a result, more has been written about him than any other human being who has ever lived. But as curious as we are, the multitude of books and articles—thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands—has in fact accomplished little to reveal him. The meaning of his life remains a mystery.
What, then, can unlock the mystery of that solitary life lived so long ago in ancient Palestine? One of the most important factors enabling us to do so is simply this: We must try to read the gospel account as eyewitnesses…as if we are part of the drama ourselves.
Everyone first encounters Jesus more or less as a stranger. Even the disciples, when he first called them, didn’t know who he was. Their responses were born more in trust than in knowledge. Their understanding and their knowledge would grow. But trust formed the initial foundation.
Because the name Jesus is so familiar to the ears of our culture and our spiritual training, we forget that we each come to him as a stranger at first too. That moment of eye contact—which in truth is not really eye contact at all, but heart contact—when he turns and isolates us from the rest of humanity around us and speaks to our heart and says, “Come…I want you to follow me,” happens before we really know who he is.
It is a crossroads moment of life. That crossroads came at an instant of time for John, for Andrew, for Peter, for Philip…for all those whose names we know. But it comes to us in much the same way.
Though Jesus phrases it as a request and a command, he is really asking a question. “Are you willing to come along…to take a chance…to follow a man you don’t know very much about?” It is a question because his, “Come,” demands a response. Every man, every woman must answer. There are only two options—Yes or No.
Two responses to Jesus’, “Come…follow me.”
We witness each of the two responses to Jesus’, “Come”—Yes and No—throughout the gospels. As Jesus encounters the men and women within its pages, he quickly moves them toward this important crossroads. Early in the story we see the drama of the two responses repeated over and over. He doesn’t explain. Jesus does not spend much time trying to convince them of the benefits of following. He simply brings men and women to the crossroads and says, “Come.”
Then we observe people pausing when he asks the question, look in both directions down the two diverging roads of Yes and No, and then make their choice. We see those who drop their papers and pens and fishing nets and whatever else might be occupying their time and attention, and go:
“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew…. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said….At once they left their nets and followed him.”
We also see those who make the opposite choice. “He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But the man replied, ‘Lord, let me first go bury my father.’”
He presented the scribes and Pharisees with the same opportunity. Among the religious leaders we also see the same two responses:
“Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
“Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
This is the persistent message of the gospel story, “Follow me.” It continues all the way to the end—two thieves crucified on either side of him. Two responses: One yes, the other no.
Just like those men and women of old, neither can we see very far down the two roads in either direction. We are told to count the cost. Yet the crossroads of Follow me comes before we possess much information about just what that cost is.
Jesus constantly probes the faces around him looking for those willing and ready to answer, “Yes, I am willing…yes, I want to follow…yes, I will leave my past life and go with you.” His Follow me is timeless. It is where individual and personal Christianity begins.
2. The World’s Most Practical Faith
For all the complexities of its theology and the controversies of its history, the “religion” (leaving aside for a moment the question whether religion is an appropriate word) inaugurated in what most scholars agree was the year 27 a.d. by Jesus of Nazareth is remarkably straightforward and simple. Though it contains subtleties innumerable, the words of Jesus’ actual teaching are not complicated at all. They are practical and down-to-earth. They concern daily attitudes, methods, responses, choices.
In one way they are not even very spiritual. Turn the other cheek…give more than you are asked for…don’t talk too much…give to the poor. It’s more practical than “spiritual.” Most of the things Jesus taught can’t be done in a pew.
Certainly Jesus speaks often and profoundly about God and what love for God and obedience to God entails. But by far the majority of his teaching concerns attitudes and behavior to other people—Treat people with kindness, unselfishness, and love.
A simple teaching
It is a pretty simple prescription for life. Most of the theological complexities of Christianity were added onto Jesus’ teaching by his later followers to interpret and explain that teaching, they do not actually originate with Jesus’ words themselves.
If we were to ask ourselves which portion of Jesus’ teaching forms the bedrock for all the rest, no doubt most would turn to Matthew 5, 6, 7—what we call the “Sermon on the Mount.”
Now whether this entire portion of Jesus’ teaching was actually delivered together as a single address on one certain day is probably doubtful. Most New Testament scholars believe it to represent a composite of his essential core teaching compiled by Matthew to form the beginning of the teaching portion of his gospel as a foundation for what will follow. Though its position in his gospel is different, Luke reproduces much of the same material in what is called the Sermon on the Plain.
We will later look these two gospel writers, as well as the authors of all the books of the New Testament, and the detailed backgrounds behind their writings. But at this point in our chronological study of the origins of Christianity, before there were any writings, there was only the teaching, the actual words of Jesus himself. It was this teaching, and the example of Jesus’ life that went with them, that formed the basis for everything upon which “Christianity” was later built. When you boil it down to its essentials, it is an astounding and remarkably straightforward teaching.
One of the first things we notice is that a large part of Jesus’ time was spent on what we might term “unspiritual” things. Jesus spent more time doing than philosophizing. We find him walking along the beach, attending parties or weddings or feasts, in a boisterous crowd for lunch, fishing with friends in the middle of the night, involved in a heated small-group discussion, eating fish around a campfire, and visiting old friends. We find Jesus wherever there are people. He was always involved. Everything he taught about spiritual principles was bound up together with some everyday activity.
Jesus never taught spiritual principles in a vacuum. His words were always linked with life. Without earth, physical, gut-level, daily reality to gauge spiritual principles by and through which to practice them, we have no way to test their validity and make them real. The daily events in our lives are vitally important as the proving ground for truth.
Jesus’ priorities always center around a certain quality of life and behavior. To our conditioned minds those things Jesus stressed have little to do with what we normally judge to be the weighty matters of the Christian walk. Throughout his life Jesus made it clear that serving others, laying down one’s life in practical ways, was the measure of greatness in God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ instructions were very down-to-earth. He said very basic things about how we were to live. The very familiarity of his words tends to obscure how astounding they really are.
From this viewpoint, Jesus’ life is difficult to neatly compartmentalize into our twentieth-century spiritualized mentality. Whenever he could, Jesus turned theoretical discussions into very down-to-earth and practical teaching—what should I do now, in the next five minutes, toward my brother? When his disciples began wondering amongst themselves who would be the greatest, Jesus calmly took a child in his arms and said, “If you want to be great you must become like this little child. You must be the servant of all.” Very practical!
What is the essence of the Christian faith? It is nothing more nor less than this:
Love, love God, love man… Pray… Be careful, watchful, alert, on guard… Do good… Take heart, take courage, don’t be afraid… Be patient, enduring, persevering… Be kind… Listen, listen carefully, be clear-minded, thoughtful, mentally diligent, apply yourself to think, learn, understand.
Commit no sexual sins… Remain pure… Rejoice whatever your circumstances… Do good toward and pray for your adversaries… Speak gracefully, kindly, and positively to others… Deny yourself, lose your life… Be a servant.
Be humble… Give when asked and do more than required… Follow me… Care for the oppressed, give to the poor… Believe… Believe in God, believe in me… Don’t worry… Believe you have received what you ask for in prayer… Do not defraud.
Be righteous… If part of your body sins, get rid of it… Bring children to me… Proclaim the kingdom of God… Be at peace, reconciled, and united with others… Pray, fast, give to the poor, and do good in secret, unseen by others.
Forgive… Forgive 70 x 7 times… Obey my commands… Seek first God’s kingdom, store up treasure in heaven… Give to the government what belongs to it, and to God what belongs to him… Do not exalt yourself… Obey the commandments.
Guard against hypocrisy… Do not test the Lord… If someone takes from you, do not demand back what you have given… Ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers… Rejoice that your names are written in heaven… Do not worry about how to defend yourself… Do not judge by appearances… Judge rightly… Let your light shine before men.
Trust and have faith in God… Do not be called teacher… Don’t separate what God has joined… Abide in me… Worship the Lord and serve him only… Guard against greed… Do not take the place of honor.
Do to others as you would have them do to you… Don’t judge… Deal with your own faults before the faults of others… Ask, seek, knock… Enter through the narrow gate… Make disciples of all nations… Bring me your burdens… Take my yoke upon you… Don’t swear… Say what you mean… Be ready for service… Speak truth.
Be righteous in ways no one sees… Let people strike you without retaliating… Think no impure thought… Call no one foolish… Don’t ridicule, insult, or make fun of anyone… Settle disputes promptly… Smile and look nice when you fast… Don’t worry about life’s provision… Don’t listen to false prophets… Visit those in prison… Feed the hungry… Clothe the needy… Don’t try to be pious… Show mercy… Give abundantly… Don’t envy.
Be glad… Give up everything… Don’t resist evil men… Teach people to obey what I have commanded… Have salt in yourselves… Repent… Do not condemn… Don’t take the place of honor… Sell what you have and give to the poor… Honor your father and mother… Wash each other’s feet… Do not doubt… Be shrewd as snakes, innocent as doves… Obey the word of God.
Abide in my love… He who has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me… If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching… If you love me, you will obey what I command… If you obey my commands, you will abide in my love… My command is this, that you love one another as I have loved you… Practice my words… This is my command: Love one another.
3. The Central Claim
One thing about Christianity everyone agrees on, Christians and non-Christians alike, is that the whole thing rests on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If a man called Jesus actually lived in first century Palestine, teaching the things he is claimed to have taught, proposing to forgive people’s sins, dying before hundreds of witnesses…actually coming back to life after two days in a tomb, and being seen, risen from the dead but still with a fleshly body that could be felt and touched and could eat, by over five hundred eyewitnesses…then all history, all mankind, the whole universe must universally acknowledge that the God and creator of life undeniably exists and has manifested himself on the earth.
But if Jesus did not live and die as the accounts say, or if perhaps a teacher named Jesus lived in first century Palestine but if his reported resurrection was a hoax perpetrated by his disciples, then the entire Christian movement which followed is nothing more nor less than a fraud. There is no middle ground. The central story of Christianity is either true…or it is false.
Walked or carried?
After having a sword plunged through his side and being declared dead by all witnesses…Jesus either walked out of the grave, or his corpse was carried out of the grave by his disciples who then became the most effective liars in history. Men and women have been debating between the two, and making their own personal decisions about Christianity and the man who is its Founder, for nearly two thousand years.
Many want proof whether the resurrection is true or not—something akin to a photograph or a videotape of events inside the tomb in those pre-dawn hours, by the estimates of most scholars, of April 7 of the year that would later be known as 30 a.d.
But proof is a slippery commodity. Whether the various “proofs” that are brought (for and against the veracity of Christianity) actually prove their case depends entirely on whether or not those listening choose to believe the evidence that is cited. Proof, it turns out, is a matter of choice and belief, not statistical data. Most of the historic evidences about Jesus are much like the worldwide evidences of a catastrophic flood that confirm the truth of the Old Testament flood. When people want to doubt the veracity of the Bible, they will always be able to find ample justification for doing so.
At root, therefore, Christianity, like atheism, will always be a religion of faith.
Does proof exist?
Among the evidences that are chronicled in confirmation of the biblical account of the events of the end of Jesus’ life, probably the most convincing comes from Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (a.d. 37-100). Though he gives Jesus but a single brief paragraph, on the surface of it, his words seem remarkably favorable for a Jewish historian, referring to him as “the Christ” and even hinting at his divinity. More than any other extant first century source outside the New Testament documents themselves, which are the subject of this book, Josephus’ words provide the historical “proof,” as it were, that a man named Jesus indeed lived in Palestine, taught truth, worked miracles, was crucified on a cross by Pontius Pilate, appeared afterward alive to his followers, and was thus believed by many to be the Messiah.
In his Book XVIII of the Antiquities of the Jews, 93-94 a.d., Josephus writes: Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works,—a teacher of such as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew many over to him, both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Chapter III)
If anything is needed to confirm the basic gist of the gospel accounts, Josephus certainly provides it. Yet the passage is controversial. Skeptics say that it was added later by Christians. Proof is usually in the eye of the beholder.
Taylor Caldwell notes confirmation of the biblical account in the astronomical impact of the crucifixion: An enormous earthquake occurred at this hour in Nicaea. In the fourth year of the two hundred and second Olympiad, Phlegon wrote that “a great darkness” occurred all over Europe which was inexplicable to the astronomers. The records of Rome, according to Tertullian, made note of a complete and universal darkness, which frightened the Senate, then meeting, and threw the city into an anxious turmoil, for there was no storm and no clouds. The records of Grecian and Egyptian astronomers show that this darkness was so intense for a while that even they, the skeptical men of science, were alarmed. People streamed in panic through the streets of every city, and birds went to rest and cattle returned to their paddocks. But there is no note of an eclipse; no eclipse was expected. It was as if the sun had retreated through space and had been lost. Mayan and Inca records also show this phenomenon, allowing for the difference in time. (Taylor Caldwell, Dear and Glorious Physician, p. 420)
Proof vs. faith
Christians call that field of study and writing which attempts to demonstrate (ie, “prove”) the truth of Christianity apologetics. It is a rich and diverse field which has produced a vast array of “arguments” and “evidences,” ranging from the philosophical (Jesus said such-and-such; it follows that…and therefore…which leads to the inescapable conclusion that…) to the personal (changes have come to individuals lives, even miraculous changes, that can be accounted for only by the supernatural power of Christ) to the physical (the analysis, for example, carried out on the shroud of Turin, or attempts to locate the Holy Grail or the robe of Jesus, etc.) Books such as Evidence That Demands A Verdict by Josh McDowell categorize and focus various apologetic proofs and can be helpful for one seeking a logical and historical rationale for belief.
Anyone desirous of finding evidences and proofs will be able to find them in abundance, just as they will be able to gather and marshal their own seemingly convincing and ironclad arguments for (or against) Christianity. The first book I wrote over forty years ago was an “apologetic” for the Christian faith, written for four friends, called Does Christianity Make Sense?
In the final analysis, however, we are convinced of what we want to be convinced of, and we reject what we don’t want to believe. Even apologetics, however logically and rationally based, is personal and will always remain a matter of faith. This explains why many books of Christian apologetics take the form of the personal search and the eyewitness testimony: This is what I have seen, this is what I have heard, these are the conclusions I have drawn.
One of the most convincing of recent years is Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ. The subtitle of the book reveals this testimonial method: “A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence For Jesus.”
Another of the truly convincing apologetic personal stories was written eighty years ago but remains one of the freshest accounts of courtroom drama ever conceived. The author, London barrister Frank Morison, like Strobel, began his investigation as a skeptic. He approached the alleged resurrection of Christ from the perspective of a lawyer investigating the evidence for a very complex case. The title of his book, Who Moved the Stone?, sharply focuses the direction of Morison’s inquiry. It is riveting reading and explores subtle and usually overlooked aspects of the “case” with marvelous insight and clarity. His shrewd analysis of detail and his reconstruction of events surrounding the resurrection could only be those of a lawyer!
Faith to believe…it is the foundational basis for Christianity. There have been multiple hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of testimonials of faith presented through the years—from single page tracts to thousand page books.
What is faith?
But is anyone convinced? How is belief born in the human heart and brain? Christianity has always been a faith whose truths each must discover anew for himself or herself. That is why this is a self-discovery guide to the New Testament. Christianity is an individual pilgrimage of faith and belief.
Of the four friends I mentioned, only one was persuaded by what I considered the unassailable presentation of my first book and is now a daily practicing believing Christian. I saw another of the four just two weeks ago for the first time in ten years. We embraced affectionately. The love between us is deep and lifelong. But he is still unconvinced.
This is exactly the pattern we observe in the gospel accounts. Jesus works a miracle. One man says, “I believe!” The Pharisees, on the other hand, turn away and begin planning how they can destroy Jesus. Both see the same miracle. Both are eyewitnesses to the identical proof. But they respond in opposite ways.
In the same way that there are two responses to his Follow Me, when Jesus walked out of the grave, there were likewise two opposite responses. We are told that when Thomas at last saw the wounds of Jesus with his own eyes, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” But when the soldiers who had been guarding the grave went into the city to tell the chief priests what had happened, the priests bribed the guards and told them to spread the story that the disciples had come in the night, had somehow managed to roll away the stone and had stolen the body…and that they had slept through the whole thing.
Seeming proofs and eyewitness accounts notwithstanding, there will always be those two responses—of belief and unbelief. It is an intrinsic aspect to Christianity’s story—some will accept it, some will reject it. Those who do believe will always recount the story of their belief personally. After the resurrection, the foundation of the Christian thus message became: This is what we have witnessed. This is therefore what we believe, and this is why we believe it. It is this message that will form the basis of Christianity’s remarkable growth throughout the first century.
Peter was the first “follower of Christ” (ie, Christian) to preach such a testimonial, apologetic, eyewitness message. This brings us to the next pivotal stage in the drama of Christianity’s origins.
4. A Movement Begins
The worldwide movement called “Christianity” began in earnest fifty days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, on the Day of Pentecost. On that day, as recounted in the second chapter of the book of Acts, Peter preached the first spell-binding evangelistic sermon of Christianity, and thousands believed. Shortly thereafter a new round of miracles began. Jesus’ followers began selling their possessions and sharing all things in common…the first century church was born…and the rest, as they say, is history.
At first the movement was called “the Way,” and was merely a sect within Judaism. None of Jesus’ followers dreamed of starting a new and separate religious faith. They were faithful Jews. They believed Jesus to be the prophesied Messiah of the Jews. They intended to remain faithful Jews. The last thing on any of their minds was breaking from Judaism.
A glimpse into the degree of this ongoing devotion to Judaism is seen in Acts 2:46: “And from day to day, continuing steadfastly with one mind in the temple and breaking bread in their homes, they shared together in gladness and simplicity of heart.” Early Christian worship was conducted in the Jewish Temple!
But this would ultimately change. Jewish officialdom considered the followers of Jesus nothing more nor less than dangerous heretics who had to be stopped at any cost.
Christianity spread at first, as we see both in Jesus’ teaching and this first sermon of Peter’s, orally. The most obvious reason for this was that literacy was clearly far lower in the first century. Yet writing was an integral part of Jewish culture as well. Since the days of David and Solomon, Israel had been a literate society that valued its educational system and its written traditions. By Jesus’ day the Hebrew Scriptures were well established. In the third century b.c. they had been translated into Greek (in what is now referred to as the Septuagint) and were widely known within Judaism at all levels of society. Even a man like Peter, whom Acts 4:13 notes was an “untrained layman” (a kind way of calling him an illiterate) was well-enough versed in the Hebrew Bible (and probably not as illiterate as the chief priests of Acts 4 thought!) to freely quote from its prophecies in his first sermon.
It was only natural, therefore, that the new movement within Judaism, “the Way,” would gradually develop and accumulate its own writings to supplement those from Judaism’s storied and treasured past. Again, none of the first Christians intended or would have dreamed of adding a “new testament” to the existing Scriptures of Judaism any more than they thought of themselves as the progenitors of a new religion. The Christian writings of the first century were informal means to supplement and reinforce what was primarily a spoken witness about Jesus Christ and his life and teachings.
A faith spread by people not theologians
It is entirely likely that the first Christian writings did not survive. Indeed, in all likelihood very few people ever knew about these writings at all.
From developments later in the century, we can easily deduce how these first writings came about. Exciting things were happening in the young Christian movement. The most natural thing in the world was to tell people about it. When the Day of Pentecost came, Peter jumped up and said, “Let me tell you what’s going on!”
But when a friend or loved one wasn’t nearby, how could you tell them about this unbelievable new movement that you were part of? In the same way we would tell them today. By letter. Can’t you imagine some of those first letters that flew around the Mediterranean world with friends and relatives and on ships and on the backs of donkeys and camels, for delivery to loved ones not reachable by telephone or email.
Dear Mom, You’ll never guess what an incredible thing I’ve become part of. There was a man called Jesus, and…
Is it too much of a stretch to imagine such letters—hundreds of them, even thousands, now lost to time—circulating around the Roman empire during the 30s and 40s a.d. telling individual sons and daughters and mothers and friends and sisters and fathers about the events rocking Palestine, and the movement called the Way that was exploding outward from Jerusalem?
Such a scenario seems entirely likely. Imagine what insights these letters would give us to the genesis of Christianity, and the practicalities of how it functioned, during the amazing early years! During those years, the leaders of the Christian movement were too busy speaking and traveling and teaching and setting up new home churches to write letters. Who knows whether the idea of transmitting the teachings of Jesus in writing even occurred to them. It was primarily a spoken faith.
Eventually, however, letters began also to be written by some of Christianity’s notable leaders. That’s when the letters of early Christianity began to take on more import. People began gradually thinking, “Maybe we ought to pass this around to be read by others…maybe we ought to make copies of this letter…we need to save this.”
We really have no way of knowing what the first of such letters were or who wrote them or when. How many letters might have been written by Christian apostles and other leaders in the first century? We have no way of knowing whether the New Testament as it has come down to us represents a fairly complete collection, or but a fraction of the total. Might Paul and James and Peter and John and the other apostles actually have written hundreds of letters between them? All we can do is study with interest those letters that history has preserved for us, and use them to try to understand the times and circumstances in which they were written.
Before we turn the page of history to begin our examination of the backgrounds of the known writings of Christianity, there was apparently one additional written document from this period we should mention.
In addition to letters, there was another form of writing taking place in the first years of the Christian movement intended to help solidify the transmission of the teachings of Jesus. The “sayings of Jesus” also began to be written down, and eventually collected. Who might have first been responsible for writing down some of his sayings is unknown, though the name Matthew is occasionally mentioned as a possibility.
I said there was “apparently” a collection of sayings that was compiled during this time. I phrased it this way because such a document is merely a conjecture made by scholars from an examination of the first three gospels. But it is a shrewd and knowledgeable conjecture upon which most New Testament researchers from both the liberal and the conservative wings of biblical scholarship agree.
It was simply a collection of sayings without accompanying narrative. We can think of it along the lines of a first century, The Wit and Wisdom of Jesus. Much of the Sermon on the Mount, for example, would have been included.
The reason these collected sayings are are important and why so much scholarly attention has been devoted to them by biblical researchers is because such sayings probably formed the basic raw material from which Matthew and Luke eventually produced their full gospels.
These two types of writing, then—letters, and collections of sayings which were eventually expanded and to which narrative was later added—form the basic foundation of first century writings which would later become the New Testament.
As we now begin to consider the writings which helped spawn the worldwide movement of Christianity, it is fascinating (though also a little sad) to realize that we do not even have in our possession the very first writings. We have to wait over fifteen years—from the year 30 until sometime after the year 45—before we encounter the first Christian document that survived through history.
That document, fittingly, comes from a member of Jesus’ own family.
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
Distinct Chronologies—Narnia and the Bible
In reading the Bible there are four different ‘chronologies” to consider:
One, the chronology in which books appear in the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy…Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts…
Two, the chronology of events being written about. Obviously, the “In the beginning…” of Genesis, and the “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation are the first and last events to be written about in the Bible. Similarly, the gospels tell of events that took place prior to the letters of Paul. In general the books of the Bible follows this event-chronology, moving from creation to the flood to Abraham to Moses to David to the prophets to the life of Jesus to the first century church to John’s revelation about the end of time.
Three, the chronology of writing. It is well known, for example, that the letters of Paul in the New Testament were written before three of the four gospels. Mark was written before Matthew, even though it comes after it in the New Testament. James was written before Hebrews, though that order, too, is reversed in the New Testament.
Four, the chronology of canonization—when the various books were accepted into the Jewish-sanctioned canon of the Old Testament Scriptures and the official church-sanctioned canon of the New Testament. This may not seem of particular importance to us today. But for a Christian of the second or third or fourth century would have considered it very important because the books of “the Bible” had not yet been firmly established.
Many are familiar with the two “chronologies” in which it is possible to read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia—following an” event” timeline and thus beginning with The Magician’s Nephew, or following the sequence of Lewis’s “writing” and the publication of the books and thus beginning with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
In a few rare instances all four biblical chronologies dovetail. John’s “revelation” may have been the last biblical book to be written. (The actual order of John’s writing is unknown.) Revelation also appears as the Bible’s final book. It deals with the last events that will take place as this world gives way to eternity. And historically it was also one of the very last books, after much debate, to be recognized as a legitimate part of the biblical canon.
So Revelation is unique in occupying its rightful spot in all four categories at once. In most cases, however, the chronologies of the Bible are remarkably Narniaesque, with timings and sequences tending to get pretty mixed up. As we progress in our reading, we will attempt to unravel the chronologies in order to grasp the correct historical context in which each of the Bible’s books was produced.