ECON2620 Wk 15 New Testament Backgrounds and Early Christian History Questions
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
Fall of Northern Kingdom
Fall of Southern Kingdom
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.
The Sea Peoples arrived in Palestine ca. 1200 BCE
Israel’s monarchy (Golden Age) in this brief
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
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
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
Roman Procurators ruled Jerusalem from 6CE
Pontius Pilate was Procurator from 26-36CE
Jesus died ca. 30CE
Paul and others expand into Mediterranean in
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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
d) Withdraw and wait for God to establish the kingdom
(Dead Sea Scroll community; apocalyptic)
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
philosophy, by the way, which is the basis for modern individualism (or modern
 For a
classic review, see Norman Perrin, Jesus
and the Language of the Kingdom: Symbol and Metaphor in New Testament Interpretation (Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress
 See the
appendix to this chapter for one example of this viewpoint.
was Jesus?4 views in scholarship
depending on worldview of interpreter, worldview assumed about Jesus, and
sources relied upon:
unanswered (debated) questions about Jesus in NT scholarship:
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
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 comes from these followers of Jesus.
Paul, someone developed a message about Jesus’ death and resurrection, probably
a narrative after the fashion of stories of the suffering righteous (e.g.,
Daniel, Maccabean martyrs).
Paul—and others like him—changed things significantly. Because of an
apocalyptic vision, Paul believed himself called to bring the law-free gospel
of Jesus’ apocalyptic death and resurrection to the Gentiles. He formed “in
Christ” communities across the eastern Greco-Roman world. Other missionaries
with other gospels worked this territory and other parts of the Greco-Roman
world. Paul believed that the conversion of the Gentiles was the last act in
this age and that his success would usher in the new age and the salvation of Israel and the
created order. (NB: With respect to Paul, a major question has to do with
whether one should understand his thought in terms of Judaism or Hellenism and
whether his followers so understood him. In simple terms, Paul’s communities
were poised between Judaism and Greco-Roman mystery cults. Paul’s genuine
letters come from this period.
other NT documents come after 70 CE.
the success of the Gentile mission and horrors like 70 CE, Jewish Jesus
movements continued. In addition to the early Jewish followers of Jesus and the
Judaizers and super-apostles struggling with Paul, we should also remember that
Jesus movements continued in Jerusalem.
Matthew, James, and Hebrews reflect these Jewish Jesus movements as do the
forms of early Christianity became increasingly, if not radically, Gentile.
Ephesians and Luke-Acts both reflect this trend as do the anti-Semitic
tendencies in the gospels. More radical forms of Gentile Christianity included
the Marcionites and the Gnostics (although at least some forms of Gnosticism were
formed in dialectic with Jewish Christianity).
movements led to development of an institutional form of Christianity (USA) that
saw itself as the true successor of all the apostles and as needing to develop
ways of living in an ongoing world (denying the imminent apocalypse). Jude, 2
Peter, Ephesians, the Pastorals, and Luke-Acts are the major documents here. In
terms of the later NT canon, many documents are “bridge” documents connecting
Pauline (the disputed letters, Pastorals, Luke-Acts, 2 Peter), Jewish
(Matthew), Apocalyptic (Matthew, 2 Peter, Jude), and Johannine (1-3 John)
Christianity with this broad “center” of the church.
forms of Christianity stressed the superiority of one apostle: Mark’s rejection
of the 12; Marcion’s rejection of all but Paul; John’s Beloved Disciple; Gospel
of Thomas; Gospel of Judas; Gospel of Mary.
Johannine Christianity, with an emphasis on mysticism rather than apostolic
institution, remained a significant alternative to USA (as did Gnosticism). John was,
after all, the favorite gospel of the Gnostics. Mark (apocalyptic), Matthew
(Torah) and Paul (“mystic” or apocalyptic “in Christ” communities) fit into USA only with
perhaps, we should ask what “religion” best describes early Christianity?
a.Jesus movement:first layer of Q; Thomas
sect: second layer of Q; Revelation; Mark; Paul
c.Mystery cult: Paul’s churches
school: Matthew; James?; Hebrews? Ebionites
e.Gnostic enclave: Thomas; John
f.New religion of a “strange, new” God: Marcion
Institution: Luke-Acts; Ephesians; Pastorals; 1-2 Peter; Jude; 1-3 John
in 4th century with creed and canon
i.Neo-Platonic theology: result of 4th-5th
the end of the second century, USA
was fairly firmly entrenched.
the second century, Christians dealt with various important issues:
a.How relate to Judaism and the Hebrew Bible? Created OT
seen as prophecy
maintain connection with Jesus (i.e., what is true Christianity)? Develop of USA.
c.Positions on a and be define “orthodoxy” versus
Ebionites, Marcionites, and Gnostics
relate to Rome?
Good citizens awaiting postponed apocalypse (cf. Stoicism)
e.How relate to intellectual culture? Neo-Platonism. See
Romana ended near the end of the second century and various 3rd-century
emperors tried to recreate Rome’s
greatness in the third century. The result was various persecutions of
the early 4th century, Constantine
made Christianity a legal religion
the early 4th century, Constantine
convened the Council of Nicea, which began the move toward the trinity. While
disputed by the Arians, the doctrine was established by the end of the century.
This and other theological developments made Christianity firmly Neo-Platonic
and his mother began building Christian churches.
the late 4th century, Theodosius made Christianity the religion of
the Roman Empire. Christianity had become
imperial. Monasticism quickly became an alternative for Christians not
comfortable with a religion of culture.
the late 4th century, 27 books of present NT were listed together
for the first time as appropriate texts for church worship (i.e., scripture) by
Athanasius, a bishop in N. Africa. Oldest
Christian Bible dates from this century as well. Time of Nag Hammadi Library as well.
notion of the incarnation was developed by 5th century councils of
notion of the atonement was still debated in the medieval period.
Read the “History of Early Christianity” in the New Testament Backgrounds Folder on Blackboard. Review “USA and the Apocrypha” work from Wk 14.
1.What is apocalyptic(ism)? Gnosticism?
2.What is the USA worldview?
3.Who is (the historical) Jesus?
4.Compare the gospels’ portraits of Jesus. Why do they differ?
5.How does Paul change apocalyptic?
6.How does the Acts portrayal of Paul differ from that in the Pauline Letters? Why do they differ?
7.Describe 2nd century Christianity. Pay particular attention to the USA, Ebionites, Marcionites, and Gnostics.
8.What features of the NT canon support the USA? What NT documents support other 2nd century kinds of Christianity?
9.Explain “bridge” documents with respect to Jewish Christianity, Paul, Mark, and John.
10.How did Constantine change Christianity? Theodosius? The creeds? Augustine?
Depiction of Jesus
Depiction of disciples
Expectations of followers
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