On PBS Frontline, they are airing a two-part series called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” about how Christianity took shape. It is a fascinating history lesson that blends biblical writings with other known historical and archaeological findings. It interviews twelve religious scholars, theologians and historians who offer terrific insight.
I gained a greater appreciation for the role Paul played in spreading the teachings of Jesus following his death around Year 30. His followers were scared after Jesus’ death in Jerusalem as the Romans did not tolerate much dissent. So, Paul spread the word through home gatherings away from Jerusalem and through his many letters which were the first writings about Jesus. These home gatherings were usually over meals and sharing of prayer and stories. It was noted that these followers were a mixture of socio-economic classes, whereas around Jerusalem Jesus’ followers were more agrarian. Hence, Jesus’ parables had to be interpreted for more urban followers of Paul.
I also got a better understanding of the context of when the Gospels were written. Mark was the first Gospel author who wrote around forty years following Jesus’ death, but after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem squelching the first rebellion of the Jews. He also wrote just after the deaths of three key Christians – Peter, James and Paul. Following this massacre, there was a much somber audience, so Mark highlighted the agony of Jesus’ death noting how much he suffered, just like they were now. He also wanted to record the life of Jesus, with the passing of these three principals.
Matthew and Luke years later followed with their Gospels and used some of the same words as Mark did, which gave the scholars the sense there was another document that had recorded some of Jesus’ teachings. The scholars noted they had to be working off a previous text of Jesus’ parables, as they were written in different regions by different men.These three Gospels are more symbiotic than John’s Gospel, as a result.
The scholars also note that Luke’s writings must be viewed in tandem with his second piece called Acts. They said Luke was more educated than Mark, so his writings flow more like the stories of the day. He also was writing to a more urban audience around the Aegean Sea who spoke Greek. John’s Gospel writings took a different tack as his writing was later and at a time when people were looking for something more lasting. He wrote more of a spiritual Jesus that is the basis for much of modern Christianity.
These scholars spoke of the Gospels in terms that makes sense to me. Gospel means “good news,” and that was the purpose of writing them to share the news of Jesus. But, as one scholar pointed out, these were not four reporters summarizing what just happened in a courtroom. They were writing down the stories that had been told and retold following Jesus’ death. He went on to say he would err on the side that these writings were meant symbolically and have been interpreted literally, rather than the other way around. Since four people are telling the same stories from different perspectives and times, there are inconsistencies in the stories.
Two examples would indicate this, as the day of Jesus’ death is different, where in one it is occurring at Passover where others showing it occurred later. Also, the example of Jesus’ overturning the gambling and trading tables in the temple, occurred earlier in one Gospel, while it is the reason for his ultimate arrest and later crucifixion in the others.
The final key takeaway for me is the separation between Judaism and Christianity became more prominent after these writings. Jesus was Jewish and much of the earlier teachings especially near Jerusalem were in keeping with the Jewish faith. The scholars explain that 90% of people in the Roman empire were paganists worshipping multiple gods. So, the only organized religion around one God was the Jewish religion. This is one reason the Romans feared teachings that wrapped religion and politics together, as in the Roman rule, the emperor was the supreme leader. This is also the reason Christians worshipped in secret in their homes.
The Frontline piece is excellent. It helps better understand context and the history of Jesus and those who followed him and created Christianity. Below is a synopsis of the two episodes.