by Bill Creasy
This article is written with reference to "Frontline: From Jesus to the Christ, the First Christians", written and produced by Marilyn Mellowes, PBS, 2003, in 4 parts. Most of the references to archaeology come from this documentary. I haven't included specific references, but if you'd like more details, ask a question in the comments.
The documentary describes the early years of Christianity, from the life of Jesus to the establishment of Christianity as the Roman government religion. This development can be interpreted as being a result of a group evolution process. (See previous posts here and here.) The process shows how the doctrine and beliefs of Christianity were modified to be more widely acceptable and to make the religion more successful. But the evolution process was probably not consciously designed or intended by Jesus or anyone else in the church organization.
Part I: Might vs. Right
Jesus probably grew up with a mixture of Jewish and Roman culture. He probably grew up in Nazareth, a suburb of a Roman city. Details of his early life are not recorded in the Bible or any other document. But if he was from Nazareth, archaeological studies indicate that he was near a Roman city. As a carpenter, he likely helped build the Roman buildings. Romans were the political rulers of the Mediterranean area.
The Essenes, an apocalyptic sect of Jews, and John the Baptist seemed to ask the obvious question: If Jews were the children of God, why weren't they in charge instead of the Romans? They expected a dramatic event led by a Messiah to make that happen and restore the Jewish political power.
So Christianity began in the situation of the Roman rule and their military and economic power, in contrast to Jewish ideology that said the Jews should have power instead of being a subject people. This subject status included the Romans being in control of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus was a working-class protester against Roman authority who was likely baptized by John. He may well have thought God was on his side and God's power would defeat the Romans. Many of his followers could have thought the same thing. The crucifiction of Jesus would have been a bitter disappointment that God wasn't helping them in the political struggle.
So, in this first conflict between Roman power and Jewish expectations in the Christian history, the Romans won decisively by brute force. They controlled the government, the military, and the justice system. The punishment and death of Jesus may have been an automatic response of the government to a protester.
But it wasn't a battle on equal terms. The Romans had material and social power. But the Jews had a separate ideology that wasn't directly refuted head on. The ideas that Jews were special and should be in power were passed on even if Jesus and other believers were killed.
Part II: Reinterpreting defeat as victory
Paul and the other early Jesus followers kept their Jewish ideas and reinterpreted them, even in spite of the prevailing paganism of the Roman culture. From their scriptures, they decided Jesus could have been the Messiah even though he was tortured and killed, because that is consistent with the Jewish history. Jews had historically been punished by God for becoming corrupt or straying from true beliefs and practices.
But they came up with a brilliant alternative idea. The idea was that Jesus didn't deserve punishment because he was perfectly good. The painful death that he received wasn't what it appeared to be; it wasn't punishment. He was a demonstration that God cared about imperfect people enough to send a perfect example.
The idea was that Jesus was resurrected. He became a message about a victory over death in spite of sin and punishment. Jesus, the logic went, in effect had to die to give his lesson. Death from the Romans wasn't really death, so defeat was not really a defeat at all, and the followers of Jesus weren't really losers. They still expected Jesus to return to change the world and restore political power, perhaps with a supernatural demonstration of Jewish favor by God.
This turned the defeat from the Roman government into at least a victory of sorts, although not the one they were expecting. It showed their ideological superiority even in the face of political inferiority. It turned a profoundly pessimistic story into an optimistic one.
This idea was processed through social evolution of the groups of followers. It survived not because it was shown to be factually accurate. It survived because as it was passed from the originators to group to group, people liked it. The idea was appealing and optimistic, while also being consistent with older Jewish, Greek, and Egyptian stories. These stories involved sons of gods and resurrections.
Paul traveled to different parts of the Roman empire to visit synagogues of diaspora Jews. He found interest among Jews and gentiles who also visited the synagogues or Jewish homes. There were so many competing religious ideas in the "marketplace" that the new interpretations by the Jesus followers weren't immediately suppressed as sacrilege. The ideas gained a foothold of new believers.
The various congregations provided a new source of competition. They survive in descriptions in the book of Acts and Paul's Letters. Some tried to be more Jewish, and some more Greek, some urban and some rural. Paul tried to keep them united and in agreement with his interpretation.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem itself was attacked by the Romans, and the Temple was destroyed, as described by Josephus, the Jewish historian. This may not have created any new ideology. But the aspects of Christianity that survived were from the outer congregations, not from the ones that was destroyed in Jerusalem, which may have been a center of Jewish Jesus followers.
It may be difficult to ever prove, but the destruction of the Temple may have directly caused a more gentile-oriented Christianity from the mixed outer groups. The groups that included gentiles or non-Jews may not have had a evolutionary advantage or a greater appeal than the ideology of the Jewish followers of Jesus as the Messiah. They simply got an advantage from the coincidental elimination of the Jerusalem competition. By opening the new religion to non-Jews, a large population of new converts was available for growth. The gentiles were less interested in restoring political power for Jews over Romans and more interested in the victory over death as the key, fundamental idea.
Part III: Gospels
The Gospels are interpreted as having been written after the Temple was destroyed (because they "predicted" it). They were done after Paul's letters, and thus after the distant, diaspora congregations were established. They reflected the doctrine and interests of those congregations, which included non-Jews and were in some cases openly hostile to Jews.
The Gospels show evolution from earlier works, but there aren't copies of all those early works. Matthew combines the Gospel of Mark with the sayings of Jesus (known as "Q" among scholars even though they don't actually have a copy of it), into a work directed to include Jews. But it isn't the extreme Jewish apocalyptic thinking of the Essenes that call for political conquest. It was written decades after Jesus was killed by the Romans and political power hadn't come. So the work is more theological and spiritual rather than worldly. In the end, Jesus dies, but that is good news because he is resurrected, even though he mostly appears in private meetings. Then he goes to heaven without overthrowing the Romans.
The Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts are less Jewish and more gentile, and even hostile toward Jews in some ways. The story of these two books ends with Paul arriving in Rome. Perhaps this was meant to indicate that the early Christians expected to influence, control, or at least confront the Roman Empire in its capitol, rather than overthrow it.
Finally, the last Gospel that was included in the canonical New Testament was the Gospel of John, the non-synoptic Gospel that is different from the other three. This gospel has the most spiritual interpretation of Jesus as the "Lamb of God," the sacrifice to redeem the sins of the entire world, not just the Jewish people. He lived to demonstrate resurrection after death.
These Gospels are effectively the product of cultural evolution for those first several decades. The competition was done through fairly normal criteria, namely the ideas that attracted followers and financial support were the ones that were kept. It isn't possible to go through the Gospels line by line in this article, but some general points should be mentioned.
The four Gospels have slightly different stories that in some cases are difficult to reconcile. But all of them maintain a sense of history and indicate that the story of Jesus happened in the real world in a recent time. This is done by referring to historical people like Herod and Pilate, and real places like Nazareth and Jerusalem. This practice follows the Jewish books, which are also historical accounts. But it is different from Greek or Egyptian myths, which are mostly set in an indefinite place or time. These myths already had resurrection stories but that weren't clear about who benefited.
On the other hand, the Gospels adopt some themes that are common in myths. For example, Jesus was born from a virgin who was impregnated by a god, a common Greek and Egyptian mythical theme. Jesus does miracles and amazes people, again common in Greek myths but rarer for Jewish texts. The mixture of the Jewish and Greek tropes may have made the text look exotic but also more real to those people who were only familiar with one or the other.
Other gospels have been found that weren't included in the canonical Bible. These indicate that there may have been other congregations that gave different interpretations to the Jesus story. They indicate that writing gospels was not an uncommon effort, and they included different perspectives.
Part IV: Christians vs. Romans, part 2
Out of the regional diversity of Christianity came a selection process among themselves for popularity and numbers of believers. The most-loved Gospels were circulated. But by becoming more popular, the sects were gaining attention by the Roman rulers.
Many Christians refused to worship the Roman emperors as pagan gods. This kind of worship was considered an obligation of citizenship to show loyalty to the Empire. Citizens could worship whatever gods they wanted as long as they also did their duty to the emperors. Early Christians were considered as Jews, which had an exemption from sacrificing to the Roman emperor because they had an old religious book. Once Christians were recognized to have a separate and recent religion, they were considered as a superstition. Christians began to get death sentences for avoiding pagan rituals. Their alternatives were to disavow their belief in monotheism and make a sacrifice, or be executed. Some chose to become martyrs to show their faith. It wasn't a large number, but their stories were preserved and admired. They helped make Christianity recognized in the Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, Christian sects continued to proliferate and generate new Gospels. Some were heretical, for example the Gnostics who didn't think Christ was a human being, only divine. The Christian leadership selected four Gospels as the orthodox, or "straight thinking", ones. This policy created an intolerance for heretics, the groups who got the story wrong.
It was a problem for Roman policy, which was tolerant of diverse religions of all kinds as long as the believers also performed their civic duty by worshiping the emperor. The Romans were threatened on the borders and worried that the gods were not favoring them. In the year 250 CE, the Roman government began more systematic attacks on Christians. But by that time, Christians were numerous enough that they couldn't be eradicated. Eventually, Constantine, the Roman general and later emperor, had a vision that he should honor Christianity, which he thought helped him win battles.
The patronage of the Roman government made Christianity an established religion. The Christian leaders became powerful and influential with the government. By supporting particular Christian leaders, Constantine also permitted them to purge the heretical churches that had improper doctrines and supported them by force. The leaders selected the final, approved version of the religion.
Further evolution was seriously suppressed by this political support for a particular version of Christianity. Anyone who tried to make changes was threatened by political force. Although Christianity continued evolving into the Middle Ages, the main formative period finished as new creativity and new directions were suppressed by the end of toleration of variation.
In conclusion, Christianity was developed through a series of competitions. The first encounter between Jesus himself and his personal followers with the Roman Empire was a dismal defeat, by any earthly standard. But the ideas about the Messiah produced a variety of congregations which competed with each other and the nearby pagan groups for support, exchanging ideas and members freely. The groups with the best ideas grew, prospered, and controlled leadership positions. When the Christians again came into major conflict with the Romans, the Christians were able to become the official Roman religion, with some assistance from Constantine.
The established version of Christianity is an end result of the evolution process. The original plan of Jesus may be lost to the revisions that were made by the various congregations which had their own interests.