Thursday, 11 June 2015

Defining Jesus: the writing of the New Testament

After Jesus died, his followers were in disarray. They believed he was the Messiah, yet he had just been crucified. The Jewish world had no precedent for a suffering, sacrificed messiah, so either his followers had to disperse, or they had to find an explanation of what had happened. Some of them were convinced they saw Jesus alive again, three days after his death. Had God raised him from the dead? And if so, what did it mean? What was the relationship between Jesus and God? Was he human, human become divine, or always divine?

This debate opened straight after he died, but it was many years before the texts we call the ‘New Testament’ began to appear. The New Testament is not a single book. It is a compilation of 27 books, written between the years 50-150 CE, in Koine, a form of ancient Greek used widely after the conquests of Alexander. They are diverse texts, written in different places and styles with different theologies by a range of authors, and they didn’t come together as the ‘New Testament’ until over three hundred years after Jesus died.

The running order opens with the four Gospels. They are followed by a series of letters or ‘epistles’ by various writers, and the volume closes with the weird visions of the book of Revelation. Rather than examine every book, we will focus upon the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Unsurprisingly, we can understand their writing process better by putting the texts into the political and ideological context of ancient Palestine and Rome.

The letters of Paul

Saul's conversion, as imagined by
Gustave Doré
Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee [1] committed to persecuting Christians in the Jerusalem area. According to the story as told by his companion Luke, Saul was travelling to Damascus to capture Christians, some time between 31-36 CE, when “suddenly a light from heaven shone around him”, and the voice of Jesus asked him, “why are you persecuting me?” [2] To everybody’s amazement, he converted and began to preach Christianity. As he was often speaking to Gentiles, he preferred to use his Romanised name, Paul, which would be more familiar to his audience.

Although he never met Jesus, Paul was, as far as we know, the first person to write about Christianity. His self-appointed role was to travel the Mediterranean establishing churches, but he could not be everywhere at once, so he sent letters to particular individuals or communities to address problems and inspire followers. These letters would be written down by scribes (probably slaves), copied, and circulated around the churches. The process is explicit in the texts themselves:

And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16)

Paul’s first letter – and thus the first book of the New Testament to be written – was probably 1 Thessalonians, written in about 50 CE, twenty years after Jesus died. Thirteen epistles or letters are attributed to Paul. Scholars generally agree that at least seven of the letters really were written by his own hand – 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. These were probably written between 50-58 CE, more than ten years before than the first Gospel. The rest of the Pauline letters were probably written not by Paul himself but by followers writing in his name. It is unlikely that they were ever intended to become ‘scripture’. Early Christians believed that Jesus’s second coming was going to happen very soon, probably within their own lifetimes, so the letters were intended only to meet immediate issues. Indeed, one of the limitations of the correspondence is that they are an incomplete account of his theology. Paul’s opinions were only preserved when he had occasion to write about particular questions.

Paul was writing during the early years of the church, when Christianity barely existed independently of Judaism, and had no scripture, no sacerdotal (i.e. priestly) hierarchy and a weak infrastructure. It was a collection of scattered Jewish-Christian communities, held together by travelling preachers. As we shall see, Paul had a profound influence upon its development.

A tension in early Christianity

In this unsettled world we can identify two main camps – the Judaic ideology of Jesus himself and his peasant followers, and the communities set up by Hellenist diaspora Jews. The unquestioned leader of the former was James [3], Jesus’s brother based in Jerusalem supported by the apostles Peter and John. The most prominent leader of the latter was the convert, Paul.

James took over as leader of the early movement after Jesus’s death and supposedly ran it for thirty years. Our main sources for James are books in the New Testament, as well some apocryphal works and references by Church fathers. There is one epistle attributed to James, but he would almost certainly have been illiterate, so it must be pseudepigraphical, i.e. written in his name by someone who considered it faithful to James’s ideas. The epistle, which discusses faith and temptation and scorns the wealthy, exhibits a respect for Mosaic law:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:10)

Whether or not new recruits were obliged to live by the Jewish law was a very important question, and the common view was probably that they should, as this was a Jewish movement. We can be fairly certain from various scraps of evidence that James, like Jesus himself [4], believed the Christian message was a form of Judaism and was an advocate of Mosaic law.

According to Acts 15 and Galatians 2, the Jerusalem church held a meeting – usually dated to around 50 CE – to decide whether or not Gentiles joining the movement had to be circumcised. James said they didn’t, advising instead:

[We] should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:20)

We should take anything in the book of Acts with a grain of salt, but allusions in other texts suggest the decree, at least, may be historical. James shows a liberal hand in his judgement, but he still expects even Gentile converts to respect some of Mosaic law’s minimum requirements.

Unlike the illiterate James, Paul was educated in Greek and was reportedly a Roman citizen. He was dedicated to converting the Gentiles, and was happy to cast aside Mosaic law to achieve this – to be cynical, it was hard to convert a man to your religion when one of the conditions was the removal of his foreskin. Though Jesus had denied he came “to abolish the Law or the Prophets”, Paul was not greatly interested in what Jesus had to say. He rarely mentions or quotes him, and even directly contradicts him [5]; and when he begins his ministry he chooses not to consult the apostles in Jerusalem who knew Jesus personally, but to tour the Greek diaspora with his own version of the message. He is quite scathing about the Jerusalem church, saying “what they were makes no difference to me” (Galatians 2:6), and dismissing them as “those who seemed influential” (Galatians 2:2) and “seemed to be pillars [of the church]” (Galatians 2:9). He asserted that “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10) and that Mosaic law was “a veil” that Christ removed (2 Corinthians 3:15-16).

Paul does not say Jesus’s Jewish followers must abandon Mosaic law, but he doesn’t think Gentile converts need to keep it, in fact he forbids them to. He considered himself a “minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles” (Romans 15:16), an apostle who would bring all nations to worship the god of Israel. It was not necessary to keep the Jewish law because salvation came not through the law but through Jesus. For Paul, Jesus was the messiah and the son of God, and you did not have to be a Jew to worship him. Familiar though this position seems today, he was probably in a minority in the early years, and had to fight to make his case. Christians – as they later came to be known – began to postulate that Jesus was God soon after his death, but did not yet agree on what that meant, and for contemporary Jews Paul’s position was controversial. He was doing away with the earthy rebel Jesus many of them remembered, and the idea that Jesus was literally the son of God was blasphemous. There was a tension therefore between Paul’s radical position and James’s.

This conflict takes a very physical form in Acts 6, when the Hellenist Stephen is stoned to death for saying Jesus “will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” As reported in Acts 21, Paul is summoned to Jerusalem, where he gets into trouble for teaching against Mosaic law. He is told to go through a purification ritual (known as a Nazirite Vow).

We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that… you yourself also live in observance of the law. (Acts 21:23-24)

There was no choice but to submit, because one cannot win an argument about Jesus with his own brother. Towards the end of the week, a crowd of Jews seizes Paul and shouts for his arrest, saying he is teaching against the law and has brought Greeks into the Temple. Because of the uproar, Roman soldiers arrest Paul and he ends up being sent to Rome, where he is executed in possibly around 67 CE. James dies at about the same time, depending on which chronicler you believe, in Jerusalem.

The Jewish War

In 66 CE Judea and Galilee successfully rebelled against Rome, at last, and won four years of independence while Rome was preoccupied with a civil war. Roman troops reconquered Judea and in 70 CE sacked Jerusalem, destroying the Second Temple and killing countless people. As Josephus recorded it:

[The Romans] ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men’s blood.[6]

This was the third great catastrophe to befall the Jews, after the Assyrian destruction of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and the invasion by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The trauma of this devastating experience is impossible for us to imagine. Rebuilding the Temple was forbidden.[7] All Jews had instead to pay to maintain the centre of Roman religion, the Temple of Jupiter. Judaism was no longer a respected cult. The Jerusalem church, the most authentic heirs to the life and teachings of the real Jesus, led by people who had actually been his disciples, disappears.

Roman troops looting treasures from the Temple. Photo: Steerpike.

Reza Aslan argues that after the war, it was wise to move messianism away from the revolutionary politics that had proved so disastrous. Now that the Jews were pariahs, the Gentiles – above all the Roman world – were the only realistic audience for the message of the nascent Christian church.

With the Temple in ruins and the Jewish religion made pariah, the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah had an easy decision to make: they could either maintain their cultic connections to their parent religion and thus share in Rome’s enmity (Rome’s enmity to Christians would peak much later), or they could divorce themselves from Judaism and transform their messiah from a fierce Jewish nationalist into a pacifistic preacher of good works whose kingdom was not of this world.[8]

Everyone interested in Jesus needed to shift their ground from seeking an earthly kingdom to seeking a spiritual one; Jesus needed to be identified not as a revolutionary nationalist executed for sedition but as a spiritual figure who transcended politics. Of course, Paul had already solved this problem, by redefining what a messiah was and transforming a movement for Jews into one for all nations. Aslan concludes:

The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and required nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generation of Jesus’s followers to make.

It was also not a difficult decision for a Jewish ruling class of priests and nobles, shaken by a series of popular uprisings directed not only against the Romans but against their own class hegemony. This is the backdrop to the writing of the four canonical Gospels.

The Gospels

Though the letters of Paul were written first, it is reasonable that the New Testament opens with the four Gospels, as they describe the life and deeds of Jesus. (The English word Gospel derives from euangelion, Greek for ‘good news’.) They are by far our most important source for Jesus.

The Gospels included in the New Testament are the best known, but there were quite a few others too, some of which, such as the Gospel of Thomas, still survive. For this article we shall confine ourselves to the four that ended up in the New Testament.

Papyrus 52, a fragment of John’s Gospel
believed to be the oldest extant
New Testament manuscript.
It dates to roughly the first quarter
of the second century.
The Gospels were originally anonymous. Tradition claims the authors were the apostle Matthew, Mark the Evangelist, Luke the companion of Paul, and John the apostle. In reality the names of these important figures were attached to the texts, partly to lend them greater authority, by later editors – the first reference to them as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John appears a hundred years after they were written.[9] This system of attribution was not unusual. The two epistles of Peter claim to have been written by the apostle Peter, but this isn’t very credible, not least because a peasant fisherman would not have known Greek. The texts were more likely ascribed to him by someone else, possibly their actual author(s), who believed them to be in the ‘school’ of Peter. This doesn’t mean the works are fakes. Pseudepigraphy was a common practice in ancient writing, as in the probably misleading attribution of The Iliad and The Odyssey to a single author known as Homer.

The Gospels represent a continuation of the process whereby Jesus’s followers try to make sense of who he was and what his followers should believe. It is difficult even to talk of ‘Christianity’ at this time, because there is ideological diversity: each writer asserts their own opinion about how Christians should relate to Mosaic law, and their own Christology, i.e. theory of the nature of Jesus.

The first Gospel to be written was Mark in about 70 CE, forty years after Jesus’s death. It is a terse and breathless narrative, whose author believes Jesus will return within the present generation’s lifetime. Probably writing as Roman troops ransacked Palestine and lay seige to Jerusalem, Mark (as we shall call him for convenience) warns his readers to expect suffering before they are saved. Despite some apocalyptic passages he does not explicitly mention the destruction of the Second Temple, perhaps because he finished his book just before it happened. In chapter 13 he does describe a terrible ‘tribulation’ during which Jesus will descend from the clouds to ‘gather his elect’, an apocalypse that will happen very soon: the current generation will not die out before it happens. Mark would have been influenced by Jesus’s own apocalyptic message, but perhaps also by the Roman troops putting his homeland to the sword as he wrote. His Jesus offers hope to a suffering community.

Mark shows Jesus making modifications to Mosaic law, e.g. declaring all foods fit to eat, but sees him as coming in fulfilment of Jewish scripture, not in opposition to it. Mark’s Jesus is continually misunderstood by those around him – even the disciples don’t quite seem to get it. The Jewish scribes and Pharisees consider him a threat and eventually get him executed. Significantly, the only person in the Gospel who realises that Jesus is the son of God is the Roman centurion overseeing the crucifixion (15:39). Jesus was rejected by the Jews, and it is the Gentile world, represented above all by Rome, that will recognise and embrace his movement.

Written a decade or two later, Matthew and Luke both have a strong resemblance to Mark, with similar events, sequence and wording, which suggests they used it as a source. Scholars have labelled the three texts ‘Synoptic’ Gospels because of their close relationship (‘synoptic’ implying ‘seeing together’). Many historians argue that Matthew and Luke also used a now-lost collection of Jesus’s sayings known as Q (from the German Quelle or ‘source’), because of details their books have in common, and the writers then added their own material too, including conflicting accounts of Jesus’s infancy and of the resurrection. However, the two Gospels’ differing theologies suggest they were written independently of each other within different communities, and each may not have known of the other’s work.

Matthew was clearly considered an important and complete account by the early Church, and became the opening text of the New Testament. The author, who may have been based in Antioch, rewrote and expanded upon Mark, adding the Christmas story, the sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. Familiar with Jewish laws and customs, he was primarily writing for Greek-speaking Jews and seeks to place Jesus more strongly within the Jewish tradition. He argues that Jesus came in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and calls for the respecting of Mosaic law, but thinks the law comes second to loving others. The first principle was: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (7:12).

Despite Matthew’s emphasis upon the cult’s Jewish roots, in his Gospel the Jewish leaders reject Jesus, even after witnessing his miracles, and are presented as hypocrites and enemies responsible for his eventual execution. John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees “a brood of vipers” (3:7), and Jesus challenges the priesthood by making a scene in the Temple:

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (21:12)

Then in chapter 23 Jesus makes an entire speech of ‘seven woes’ against the Jewish leaders, where they are again a “brood of vipers”. It is important to note that Matthew is not condemning Jews per se, as anti-Semites have liked to conclude, but the leadership. Perhaps his community was facing hostility from the local Jewish authorities at the time.

The Gospel also supports the very Christian notion of salvation through Jesus, as illustrated by the story in chapter 14, verses 22-33: the disciples are in a boat, beaten by a storm at sea, and they see Jesus walk to them across the water. Peter tries to imitate him, but begins to drown because his own faith is not strong enough, so Jesus intervenes to save him: “And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Whereas Paul thought Gentile converts didn’t need to obey the Mosaic law, Matthew is trying to create a Christianity in which arguably even Gentile converts must observe the law, to the extent that some scholars believe he wishes to promote a sect within Judaism rather than a new religion. Whatever the truth, Matthew puts his version of the cult into a contradiction with Judaism when he recognises Jesus as the Messiah offering salvation through faith, and even he appeals to Gentiles too. After the Resurrection, Jesus gives his disciples an explicit commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).

Luke strongly emphasises the spread of Jesus’s teachings to Gentiles. It was written at about the same time as Matthew (roughly 80-90 CE) and forms a two-part work with the book of Acts. Together these comprise about a quarter of the New Testament, making it the largest contribution by a single author. Jesus himself never preaches to non-Jews, so Luke-Acts seeks to explain how a Jewish Messiah became the focus of a Gentile religion, claiming that Jesus and the apostles approached the Jews first but were rejected. Acts proves Luke’s pre-occupation with converting the non-Jewish world. It describes how the apostles spread the word after Jesus’s ascension into heaven, and above all the career of Paul after his conversion. In Acts, in town after town Paul begins by preaching to Jews, is angrily rejected, and preaches instead to Gentiles who respond by forming a church.

Luke’s view seems to be that the Jews have their laws and customs that they will uphold – just as every people has its laws and customs – but that Gentiles need not uphold Jewish law because they’re not Jews, and can become Christians without being bound by them. Although Jesus was a Jew, his message is for everyone. He says: “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47). Thus Acts ends in Rome itself, symbolising the spread of the message to the whole world.

The fourth Gospel is very different, containing about nine-tenths original material telling different stories. The last to be written, in around 90-100 CE, John has more dialogue, less action, and its own preoccupations such as an interest in signs. There are three letters in the New Testament attributed to John which, if not literally by the same author, seem to be products of the same community. For John, the world is a wicked, hostile place and Jesus represents a light in the darkness. John shows little interest in the matter of whether to follow Mosaic law, and ‘the Jews’ in this Gospel is generally a derogatory term indicating enemies of Jesus. John wanted to emphasise Jesus’s spirituality and divinity. It is clear from the beginning that in this Christology, Jesus is eternal, existing before and after he was incarnated in human form, and equal to Yahweh. We don’t see that in the other Gospels. In fact, this is the most ‘divine’ version of Jesus, and the nearest to later Church orthodoxy.

Each of the four Gospels is interested in creating a particular ideology of who Jesus was and what his message meant. They are attempts to mould the real Jesus into a form agreeable to the writers’ own ideological context and, to varying degrees, one that could be embraced by non-Jews in the Roman empire [10], so that by the time the last of the four, John, was written, Jesus was no longer a radical Jewish nationalist but had become the eternal equal of God.

If Paul and the Gospel writers are so keen to spread Christianity beyond the Jewish world, why do they so often emphasise Jesus’s roots inside Judaism? Especially when it is becoming a new religion? Partly of course, they are themselves Jews (though not necessarily all of them) and interpret Jesus in the light of what they already understand. Bart Ehrman offers a further explanation, arguing that antiquity was very important in the ancient world: a Christianity going back a millenium was much more venerable and respectable than one created very recently, in the reign of Emperor Tiberius. “Even by the second century,” he writes, “Jesus was considered ‘recent’. If something recent is automatically suspect, then a religion based on Christ is in peril.” However, “if Jesus is predicted by the Jewish prophets and Moses, then the religion he established is very old indeed.”[11]

The Gospels as historical sources

The Gospels are not eye-witness accounts. Illiterate and without any education in Greek, Jesus’s original disciples were in no position to write down their experiences. None of the Gospel writers knew Jesus, nor do they claim to: the texts are testimonies of faith, written decades after he died.

There is little or no archaeological evidence to confirm any of the events of the Gospels – we must take the texts on trust. They share many similarities, probably because their writers relied on common oral traditions and even written sources such as the postulated Q. However, they cannot be considered reliable historical documents, because they also have many discrepancies. There are far too many to explore here, but a good example is how they report the story of Jesus’s birth, known as the Nativity. In Mark and John there is no birth story at all. In Matthew, after Jesus is born in Bethlehem he is visited by wise men [12] bearing three gifts; Herod comes to kill the child but the family is warned in a dream and flees to Egypt, only returning to Judea after the massacre of children is over and Herod has died. In Luke, Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem because of a Roman census; there is ‘no place for them at the inn’ so Mary places her baby in a manger (feeding trough) after he is born; some nearby shepherds are told of the Messiah’s birth by angels and visit the family; about a month later Jesus is taken to the Temple at Jerusalem where he is praised by Simeon and Anna, then the family goes back to Nazareth.

Matthew and Luke, knowing of the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that the Messiah is supposed to be born in David’s hometown of Bethlehem, have both contrived stories to explain how Jesus, widely known to be a Nazarene, could have been born there. But these are completely different stories, with very little in common save the birth in Bethlehem and the family’s ultimate residence in Nazareth.

All four Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death, in another country, in another language (Greek rather than Aramaic). Without the benefit of first-hand observation, their writers would have taken their information from stories that had been in oral circulation for decades. In 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul is commenting on the Last Supper and uses the phrase “for I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you”. He never met Jesus, so this probably refers to him passing on a tradition he has heard from other followers. There are also passages in Paul that sound like Jesus but aren’t reported in the Gospels, such as 1 Corinthians 9:14 (“those who proclaim the Gospel should get their living by the Gospel”), which again is probably evidence of an oral tradition.

Forty or more years after the event is plenty of time for oral communications to become unreliable. The stories the Gospels were based on may have changed over time, and then the writers themselves changed the stories too. Then, in turn, later traditions embellished the stories further. Some rehashed versions of the Nativity mention an unsympathetic inn-keeper who turns the Holy Family away, forcing them to take refuge in a barn surrounded by animals. Neither the inn-keeper nor the barn and animals appear in scripture. What we are told is:

And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

That’s all. The Nativity is a wonderful story that enjoys the contrast between Jesus’ royal, Davidic lineage and the impoverished conditions of his birth. But the popular, mass-consumed version of the story has come a long way from a difficult and dangerous first-century childbirth in a rude, mudbrick home in Nazareth. The story illustrates how deeply the real Jesus has become obscured by both the New Testament texts and the fond legends of later generations.

It is often assumed, even by lifelong Christians, that the New Testament offers a coherent and consistent ideology. It does not. The Gospel writers disagree on many points and even hold contradictory views. That is to be expected, because the various books were written by different people or communities in different geographical regions who may not even have been familiar with each other’s texts, and were trying to make sense of a very challenging series of ideas and events. There was no central authority dispensing orthodoxy; the nearest thing to such a body, James’s circle in Jerusalem, had been obliterated by the rampaging Romans. We have to approach each book as we would a work of literature, with an eye to who wrote it and for what purpose, and be prepared to notice when the purposes don’t match up.

Jesus as Messiah and God

If Jesus’s crucifixion had been like any other, he would have been just another failed rebel, noted in the history books alongside the likes of Judas the Galilean. However, his followers believed he was resurrected. That was the birth moment of Christianity, prompting a process by which the historical Jesus became the divine saviour of humanity with a special relationship with God.

Jesus himself, as reported in Mark, doesn’t like to describe himself as the messiah, and he discourages his followers from saying it too – this odd situation is known as the ‘messianic secret’. The Romans must have thought he was claiming to be King of the Jews, because they killed him for it, but Jesus prefers to call himself the ‘Son of Man’, a phrase from the book of Daniel which implies kingly ambition but is too ambiguous to be as explosive as ‘messiah’. The likely explanation of the messianic secret is that the historical Jesus did not think he was the messiah. His followers, convinced of the opposite, explained his silence by pretending that he was keeping it a secret.

At his death Jesus had failed to achieve the things the messiah is meant to achieve. There were differing conceptions of the messiah in Judaism, but none of a messiah who was crucified as a criminal and raised from the dead. Either Jesus was a fake, or the messiah had to be redefined. His followers opted for the latter. They had assumed he was the messiah during his lifetime – his death seemed to contradict that, but then God had vindicated him by resurrecting him from the dead, so the problem was to work out what sort of messiah he was. This approach ensured that his cult, unlike the movements of other failed rebels, stayed alive.

All four Gospel writers and Paul believe that Jesus is the messiah, though they don’t have identical views of what that means. For Mark and Matthew, the messiah must suffer in order to redeem the sins of humanity, so his execution was a necessity willed as part of God’s plan. For Luke, the messiah was a prophet and martyr, with no theme of redeeming sins: his death prompts people’s repentance for rejecting him, and they are forgiven that way. For John, Jesus is eternal and fully equal to God, and removes humanity’s sins through his sacrifice. There is no ‘messianic secret’: Jesus performs public miracles “that you may believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God.” For Paul, the resurrection heralded a period when the dead would begin to rise up at the end of time: the messiah would shortly return to Jerusalem, and all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, would be embraced into Israel.

In all these conceptions, Jesus was a suffering messiah who died for the sins of the world and was resurrected by God, thereby conquering sin, to return in judgement in the future. This was a messiah spliced away, though not entirely or immediately, from Judaism, and shorn of dangerous, nationalist politics.

All four Gospel writers and Paul believe Jesus was, in some sense, the son of God. In Jewish tradition, the term ‘son of God’ refers to people who have a special, intimate relationship with Yahweh, mediating the divine will in some way. It is very unlikely that Jesus himself thought he was the literal ‘son’ of God. He only claims it in the Gospel of John. In 8:58 he says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Not only does this mean Jesus was alive many centuries earlier, making him supernatural, he is repeating Yahweh’s answer to Moses when asked who he was (Exodus 3:14). Plainly he is claiming to be God. He also says things like “I and the father are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

But John’s Gospel was written about sixty years after Jesus’s death by someone who had never met him. If Jesus had made such an audacious claim, it would be astonishing if it failed to become part of the oral tradition around him. We may reasonably conclude that the real Jesus did not think he was God, and that his followers in his lifetime didn’t think he was either.[13] Only after some of his followers believed they saw Jesus resurrected did speculation of his divinity start, as Bert Ehrman explains:

Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinised – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him – that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no – he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.[14]

Paul seems to think differently. For him, God and Jesus aren’t the same thing, and Jesus isn’t quite as important as God. In 1 Corinthians 11 he asserts a hierarchy: “Man is the head of woman, Christ is the head of man, and God is the head of Christ.” Despite this unorthodox position, which eventually became heretical, Paul’s works were included in the New Testament. In fact, many scholars consider him the true founder of Christianity. In his lifetime his ideas were controversial and had been rejected by the apostles in Jerusalem, but in the post-Jewish Revolt world they were much more attractive. He already had a long record of teaching Christianity to the Gentiles, and his theology was perfectly placed to benefit from a shift from a Jewish to a Gentile audience. The early followers who thought Jesus was preaching only within Judaism, and that his followers would have to convert to Judaism if necessary, were partly defeated by the limitations of their own impoverished origins, because they were illiterate and therefore, like everyone who actually met Jesus, did not write their doctrines down.[15] Paul did, which made his ideas more durable and easier to spread. His posthumous ideological victory is illustrated by a simple statistic: out of the 27 books of the New Testament, only one is attributed to James, but fourteen, more than half, are attributed to Paul.

It is hard to say how far the Gospels are directly influenced by Paul. But the shift of emphasis is clear. Jesus the radical Jewish revolutionary became Jesus the universal spiritual leader, Jesus the son of God. Later Church leaders turned instructions like ‘love your enemy’ or ‘turn the other cheek’, which Jesus had intended as good advice for inter-Jewish relations, into universal instructions of peace and non-violence (ignored by nominally Christian governments ever since). As an orthodox, hierarchical Church gradually extended ideological hegemony, the differences between the various conceptions of Jesus that had existed in different communities and within the New Testament were glossed over: a “homogenisation, rather than illumination, of their distinctive emphases”, as Ehrman puts it.

The reinterpretation of Jesus’s relatively obscure original movement was so effective that a couple of centuries later the Roman emperor himself would convert to this new faith and make it the official religion of imperial Rome.


The Christian religion did not fall intact from the sky but developed through a process of ideological struggle. The arguments over how to interpret Jesus and his movement began immediately after his death, and even the sealing of the New Testament canon, or the official doctrine agreed at the Council of Nicaea three hundred years after Jesus’s death, failed to create a Christology acceptable to every Christian. The supposed resurrection of Jesus caused tremendous theoretical problems.

The biggest problem, of course, was the question. If you want to know ‘why was this preacher raised from the dead by God?’ there is no ‘correct’ answer, proved beyond doubt by signed and dated letters and archaeological artifacts, any more than you can uncover the ‘true’ stories of Tiamat or Jupiter. Much like art, religion is partly a figurative world, where the concrete elements must jostle with subjective interpretations.

Jesus never thought he was founding a new religion. He was a Jew preaching a liberal version of Judaism to other Jews, trying to prepare his people for an impending apocalypse. But his followers were chosen from the uneducated peasantry, which left the task of recording his teachings to an urban, Greek-speaking elite. The smashing of Judea helped to break the Church’s link with the ‘authentic’ school of Jesus, leaving his legacy in the hands of those who would formerly have been considered heretics. This Hellenistic faction of early Christianity reinvented him in the tradition of the Greek or Roman demi-god: a spiritual being, unconcerned with such earthly matters as the liberation politics of Palestine. The Gospel writers tried to argue that the movement was not a break from Judaism but a fulfilment of its scriptures. In practice, they launched a new religion addressing Gentiles instead. Jesus’s cult was no longer Jewish, but universal. Jesus of Nazareth had become the Christ.

[1] The Pharisees were a religious society of Judaism. Whereas the Sadducees, the party of the high priesthood, insisted on the Torah as the source of law even centuries after the time of Moses, the Pharisees were a party of laymen and scribes who spoke up for a more democratic Judaism and a more progressive relationship between scripture and contemporary social issues.
[2] The story of Paul’s conversion is told in chapter 9 of Acts, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke.
[3] The existence of Jesus’s brother lays down an obvious challenge to the theory of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
[4] Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18).
[5] E.g. Jesus says one isn’t allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul the opposite; Jesus says the law continues until the end of heaven and earth, Paul thinks it is abolished; and so on. There is a powerful scene in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in which Paul tells Jesus face to face that he will tell people whatever he needs to, regardless of what Jesus thinks.
[6] Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War (ca. 75 CE), as translated by William Whiston.
The Bar Kokhba Revolt, launched in about 132 CE and crushed by Roman troops, had even more devastating consequences, with massive death and depopulation: it was arguably the most decisive cause of the Jewish diaspora. 
[7] The loss of the central Temple explains why Jews no longer sacrifice animals as outlined in the Torah, and now pray instead. This was also the era when authority shifted from the Temple priesthood to the rabbis (the flowering of Rabbinic Judaism).   
[8] Reza Aslan, Zealot (2013).
[9] Even early Christians, who lived much closer to the time of writing, were confused about the Gospels’ provenance: for example, the second century bishop Papias seems to have believed Matthew was originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek later.
[10] This helps explain the peculiar trial scenes in which Pilate is infeasibly sensitive to Jewish customs and lets the Jews decide who is executed: the writers are trying to absolve
their (Roman) target audience from responsibility. Blame for Jesus’s death was instead transferred to the Jews that rejected him, which has provided a scriptural justification for anti-Semitism ever since.
[11] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (1997).
[12] We aren’t told how many ‘wise men’ there were. The assumption that there were three is a later tradition, probably based upon the three gifts. They are not three ‘kings’, either.
[13] Once Christians believed Jesus and God were the same, they had to deal with many difficult questions about the precise relationship between them. The complex doctrine of the Trinity was an attempt to resolve this.
[14] Bart D. Ehrman, ‘How Jesus Became God’, Huffington Post 29 May 2014. 

[15] Or if they did, their writing has vanished without trace, which perhaps tells its own story.

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