Recovering Jesus, Chapter Five: In Praise of Christendom

I’d like to turn now to what the teachings of Jesus have achieved in our world. Jesus may have been too much for the men and women of his time to take, and they may have missed a great deal, they didn’t miss everything. And the parts they did retain have changed the world impressively. So much so, in fact, that this world has never been the same and probably never will be the same.

What I’m about to give you is a very brief overview of Christianity and its effects, from Jesus to the present. If you’d like more depth on the things I’m writing here, you can refer to my book Production Versus Plunder and my Free-Man’s Perspective newsletter, particularly issues number 52, 53, 70, 90, and 101.

Immediately After Jesus

Jesus was executed by the Roman state, which was a horrible blow to his friends and students, who hoped he’d be their messiah figure; the special man who would create a better world for them to live in.

Christianity was initially what we’d call an underground movement. Not a lot of records were kept, and their stories were not written for quite a long time. Acts chapter 12 captures it nicely: Peter is arrested, jailed and put in chains, everyone is gathered together praying, he is broken out in the middle of the night, knocks on their door and they fear to open it. When they finally do open it, Peter gives them a short message then skulks away to a safer place.

The people continuing Jesus’ mission were careful to hide their actions. Rome wasn’t going away and they had clearly demonstrated their willingness to kill any leader of this cause. The threat was serious.

People in situations like the one Jesus’ friends faced tend to be very private and to save their recollections for their memoirs. And none of the first group wrote anything for decades. Instead, the first person to write anything we know of was Paul (Saul of Tarsus), who had not been among the first ones, who had not gone through what they had, and who was writing from a safe distance.

This first group included people who had been personally taught by Jesus. How many is difficult to tell, but it seems that a significant number who had heard Jesus teach in all of those villages and towns filtered into Jerusalem to join with others.

A second group of early followers were the “god-fearers” or “proselytes” who we see multiple times in the New Testament, and almost immediately following Jesus’ departure. These were non-Jews who were attracted to Judaism. This was a widespread phenomenon at the time and it contributed greatly to the spread of the new belief.

But regardless of the fact that there were a large number of adherents to the new movement, and perhaps because of it, the group made mistakes right away. First of all, even though Jesus was adamant that they should not be hierarchical, they quickly developed a hierarchy. Given that these people had assumed the validity of hierarchy all their lives this could have been expected, but Jesus was right and it was a mistake.

In Acts 6 the apostles maintained that, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” This came on the heels of the nascent hierarchy noted in Acts 5: “None of the rest dared join [the apostles], but the people held them in high honor.” Hierarchy was thus entrenched.

Once that piece was in place, there was a short-lived experiment in collective living. This failed soon enough (nothing more is heard of it), and Peter never seems quite the same after this early season.

Shortly thereafter – and we are given no explanation for it – James, Jesus’ brother (not to be confused with James the brother of John), became the leader of the group. When Peter is broken out of jail, for example, he asks that James be immediately apprised, and no one else. And at the “Jerusalem conference” (49 or 50 AD), James is the man who settles the argument.

At the same time this was happening, some of the earliest followers broke with tradition and taught gentiles about Jesus. The god-fearer/proselytes were gentiles as well, of course, but they had already joined themselves to Judaism. Plain-old Greeks and Romans were something else; to most Jews this would have seemed like merging Judaism with paganism.

And please notice that our gospels have Jesus telling them to go out to “all nations” as he is leaving Earth. You would think that teaching the gentiles would have been justified by these passages, but it wasn’t. This is another evidence that they didn’t have good records of what Jesus had said… at least not the same ones we have.

And so teaching Greco-Romans caused something of a crisis. More than that, Peter (who is famous for having done this) was not the first. In Acts 11 we learn of certain unnamed members of the group who had been teaching Greeks in Antioch. No one knows precisely when, but since it is noted in relation to the stoning of Stephen, it was probably well before 40 AD. In this we see the decentralized nature of the early Jesus movement, despite the efforts of its leaders: The refugees in Antioch didn’t feel they needed to ask for permission; they simply did what they felt was right.

During this period the new group was careful to take care of their poor, elderly and so on. They provided their own “social safety net,” a practice that became an essential element of Christianity for a long, long time. Taking care of one another was a primary feature of their faith, and we see it everywhere through the earlier eras of Christianity.

Cometh Paul

No one in the mid 1st century is a more difficult character than Saul of Tarsus, aka Paul or Saint Paul. As is well known, Paul began as a persecutor. In particular, he was at the forefront of violence against the first Christians… people of “the Way.” He was deeply involved with the murder of Stephen, as well as the arrest and imprisonment of many others. This, clearly, was an emotionally troubled man… a fanatic, in modern terms. He was the attack dog of the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem.

Once we get past the fact that Acts was written from a tremendously pro-Paul perspective, and with a view from the Greek world rather than the Jewish world, Paul can be seen a bit more clearly. And again we see an emotionally difficult man.

This is not to say that Paul was a bad man after his conversion. In many ways he clearly was not, and passages like 1 Corinthians 13 demonstrate tremendous spiritual depth. But he remained difficult. John Mark, probably an early associate of Jesus and a central figure in Jerusalem, refused to travel with Paul after a while. Barnabas, widely-respected and a crucial early advocate of Paul’s, separated from him at the same time. Silas separated from him as well.

We see in Acts 9 that after stirring up a great deal of trouble, “the brethren” put Paul on a boat and sent him home to Tarsus. In Acts 21 we see Agabus, a prophet from Judea, telling Paul that he should not go to Jerusalem. The author of Acts implies that Paul was resolute and brave not to listen to Agabus, but the view from Jerusalem was probably otherwise. It may be that they didn’t want him to create mayhem in their city for no good reason. (And indeed the mayhem he made there seems to have had no particular benefit.)

It might be unfair to say that Paul had some type of martyr complex, but it is not unfair to wonder; he lists his sufferings, after all. Nearly everywhere the man went, reports the author of Acts, he created trouble. We can look at that as being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, or we can look at it as a troublemaker half-seeking martyrdom, but which is more true is difficult to say.

What is certain is that Paul was a difficult character. Still, the work he did was prodigious. He founded a large number of “assemblies,” and laid the pattern for what became Christianity.

From Paul onward, primitive Christianity was divided into two spheres: The Jewish and the Greco-Roman. And while there were differences, both groups held firmly to the belief that they should help one another in actual practice. They made themselves brethren in both word and deed.

In general, the Jewish sphere continued more or less as it was until the Romans attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple between 67 and 70 AD. It seems that the Jewish Christians got out of Judea as the hostilities arose. There are no stories of tragedies amongst the Jewish followers and there is a tradition of them fleeing to a city named Pella. There is little archaeological confirmation of the Pella story, but it seems that these people did escape Jerusalem and rode out the war somewhere.

After the hostilities ended, Jerusalem was re-inhabited, and these people were among them. We know that some of them fled again in the lead-up to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 AD) after which the Romans almost fully ended the Jewish occupation of Jerusalem.

These followers of Jesus seem to have had a tradition of getting out of the way of trouble. They seem to have done it repetitively, and we have records of Jesus specifically advising it. This contrasts with Paul’s model of staring trouble in the face, and with the later “Christian Hero” model of welcoming martyrdom.

During this time we see in Paul’s letters a change of designation from “Jesus” to “Christ.” While the Jewish groups did use the term that translates to Christ, they used it more as a description: “This man was the messiah.” Paul, on the other hand, uses it as a divine position.

To Paul, extreme conviction was essential. He was supremely convinced of his rightness, listing his sufferings as a proof. And so suffering became an evidence of rightness to people influenced by Paul. In fact, a striking element of Pauline Christianity, from that point on, involved believers proving they were right with extreme acts. Think of the early monks who impressed with their extreme rigors, or the martyrs who impressed with their willingness to die for their cause, or the many medievals who did similar things; all of these strove to uphold a model that was cast by Paul.

This is not to say that Paul would have approved of what became of this model – I very much doubt that he would have – but he forged it all the same.

Paul’s Greek and Roman groups grew steadily. They offered the people of the Mediterranean basin a far better God than the ones they had, after all. More than that, they formed strong, committed communities who were devoted to righteous living, who warmly supported each other, and who loved others in word and deed. We see this comment, for example, from Galen the Physician at about 200 AD:

For the people called Christians… contempt of death is obvious to us every day, and also their self-control in sexual matters… They also include people who, in self discipline… in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a level not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.

And well over a century later, from the Roman emperor Julian:

Atheism [that is, Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.

The Long, Slow Changes

As we noted earlier, Paul would not have approved of all the things that followed him, even though they were modeled by him. We can recognize this in a passage from 1 Corinthians:

Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world?

Not among believers in Christ,” would have been the answer to this rhetorical question. And indeed Paul specifically warned about the changes he saw coming.

The students of Jesus were fishermen, construction workers and similar types. These people were not idea-sellers. But by the time Paul and the other early leaders were gone, the biggest promoters were fast becoming people who had been intellectuals before they encountered the teachings of Jesus.

The aforementioned Justin Martyr was a man of this type. So were Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, and many others. (Paul rather fit this model too.) And under their influences, Christianity fell into long fights over who, precisely, Jesus was. Was he fully man? Fully God? Both? These doctrinal debates dominated Christianity at the tops of the hierarchies, slowly filtering down.

Doing what Jesus said, as a result, slid backward toward the level of a mere “also.” In other words, Christianity became a religion about Jesus.

At 100 AD the Christian world looked about like this:

  • The Judean group had significantly dispersed, though it would hold on for another 30 years.

  • The expectation of an imminent second coming continued to supercharge the Greco-Roman groups, but not the remaining Judeans. This belief tended to provide focus and strength, but will fade soon enough.

  • The believers formed a strong parallel society. That is, they separated from Rome and made no effort to reform it. They took “not of this world” as truth and acted like it. They majored in loving one another, in hope for the life to come, and in good works. They spread through the cities and towns of Rome, then through the countryside.

At about 110 AD, that we get a glimpse of the believers in a Roman province. And we can see that while the top of the hierarchy was focused on intellectualism and doctrine, the average believers were committed to good actions.

What we have is a letter from a man called Pliny the Younger to the emperor Trajan. Christianity has been outlawed for many years at this point (since 64 AD), but it’s simply not a major issue. That edict of Nero’s was more or less ignored, unless and until there was some need to enforce it.

Pliny, however, ran into a reason. But at the same time he couldn’t find any precedence on how exactly to do so. And so he tries to use his best common sense, then writes to the emperor for clarification. I’ll forgo reproducing the entire letter (you’ll have no trouble finding it if you wish to), but here are the things Pliny reports about these people:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.

What we see here is believers doing very simple things. Forty-some years later we get a glimpse of believers at Rome from Justin Martyr, who reports:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought… They who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want…

And so again, we see groups of people focused on doing rather than doctrine. The intellectuals spent their time fighting over properly describing Christ, but the believers were trying to do good works and to help one another.

Over the course of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, however, an organized, heresy-fighting Christianity formed. And just so you can sense the difference between what Jesus taught and what these intellectual leasers were saying, here’s a passage from Irenaeus of Lyon, a famous churchman then and now:

And for this reason did the Word become the dispenser of the paternal grace for the benefit of men, for whom He made such great dispensations, revealing God indeed to men, but presenting man to God, and preserving at the same time the invisibility of the Father…

That, obviously, sounds nothing like Jesus. And so the leaders impressed each other with their intellectualism and formulated doctrines that built and strengthened their authority.

The arguments over heresies began at this time, being, it seems, partly for the sake of preventing trouble. In particular, they tried to silence people who were likely to stir up trouble with Rome. Persecutions during this time were local, and were usually kicked off by unnecessary events.

Authority and hierarchy, by the end of the 3rd century, became stronger, and connections with the powerful increased. Long screeds against heresies were published, even as all sorts of variant beliefs came and went. The simple believers continued doing what they were doing, frequently with little regard to what the leaders said. We know this because we have voluminous complaints about them… from their leaders.

During these years there were intermittent persecutions, some of them terribly harsh. Afterward stories about the heroic martyrs were distributed and those who had “fallen away” under pressure (having made offerings and cursing Christ to evade death or torture) struggled to be re-accepted.

Finally, in the early 4th century – the empire having almost fallen apart then reorganized along tyrannical lines – the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. At that point the terrifying persecutions ended, but the believers underwent a change.

Before Constantine legalized Christianity, the believers self-selected. That is, they chose, in the face of sometimes frightening opposition, to join Christianity. For this point onward, however (with ebbs and flows), becoming a Christian was not only okay, but might come with significant political and social benefits.

And with martyrdom gone, the heroics of the Syrian and Egyptian monks became a big thing… proving Christianity to be right with incredible commitment.

Continued in Part 2…