The Christian religion is built around an itinerant Jewish preacher, Yeshua Ben
Joseph or Yeshua of Nazareth. Later,
Pauline Christians gave him the title Jesus Christ (Jesus was
derived from Iesous, the Greek version of Yeshua;
Christ means Messiah, the anointed one - a title often given to King of Israel). Roman
Catholics, Evangelical Christians, many other Christians, and Muslims believe that his mother, Mary, was a virgin when he was
conceived; her pregnancy was caused by the Holy Spirit, and did not result from
human sexual intercourse. He was born
in Bethlehem Judea or Nazareth in the Gallilee (interpreters differ). His birth probably
happened circa 4 to 7 BCE, possibly in the fall. (Some believe that his birth
occurred in the springtime, during the time that the lambs were giving birth, when the
shepherds were watching their flocks by night.) He was raised by his Jewish family of
origin in the city of Nazareth in the Galilee. Yeshua was the eldest child in the family.
The Bible refers to his four brothers by name and at least two sisters who were
not considered important enough to name. (Some Christians believe that Mary had
no further children, and regard these "brothers" as either
step-siblings, cousins, or close friends). At the time, the Galilee was very unstable politically. It had
been under severe Roman oppression for decades. Many Jews expected the imminent arrival in
Galilee of a military/political/religious leader, the Messiah, (Anointed One) who would lead them to a military victory
over the occupation forces and later reign as king. This would be followed by the Reign of God
on earth. The Zealots were actively promoting the overthrow of the Romans.
At the age of about 30, circa 26 CE, he was baptized by John the Baptist, who
was perhaps his cousin. John was a Jewish prophet, and probably a member of the Essenes. The Essenes were the
smallest of the four largest Jewish religious/political groups active in Jerusalem at the
time; the others being the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots. Yeshua became an itinerant
preacher whose message found an enthusiastic audience. He collected a group of followers
during his ministry of which about 10 are fully described in the Christian Scriptures (New
Testament); about half were male, and half female. (The Bible says that there
were 12 disciples at one time and 70 at another. It has multiple lists of the
twelve, but the names differ. Many Christians believe that he had exactly 12
disciples, all male, that women held a lower status among his followers., and
that they were not eligible for consideration as disciples)
The prime elements of
his message were:
a call for personal repentance and realignment of behavior which would lead to the
creation of the Kingdom of God, a new social and religious order on earth.
a call to fully love God with all your resources.
a call to love your neighbors, including your enemies, and to take no aggressive acts against those that oppress
a new interpretation of Jewish law which gave priority to one's responsibility to God
and to one's fellow man, while downgrading the relative importance of ritual and ceremony.
The Gospels record a violent event in the Jewish Temple at
Jerusalem, where Yeshua committed aggravated assault with a whip against
shopkeepers. Some theologians believe that this was the incident that triggered
his arrest and sentencing. He is recorded in the Christian Scriptures
(New Testament) as being betrayed by Judas, one of his followers. He was executed in
Jerusalem about Passover circa 30 CE by the Roman authorities. The Christian Scriptures
describe that, after his death, Jesus was resurrected by God
(or resurrected himself). He visited with his followers for 40 days (or for
a single day, according to Luke) and then ascended
to Heaven. Many of his followers expected that he will return shortly and
initiate the Kingdom of God on earth.
The book of Acts in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) relates that Jesus' disciples elected Matthias to replace
Judas who had died. Various Biblical passages said that Judas had committed suicide
or had died from an accident. Jesus' brother James was the group's leader. Simon Peter was an
important contributor to the movement. They continued spreading Jesus' teachings to
fellow Jews from their center in Jerusalem. They were called Nazoreans (Nostrim in Greek)
by the Jews, and Christians (Christianoi in Greek) by the Gentiles (non-Jews). They were
organized in communities which shared wealth and possessions in common in an elementary
form of volunteer communism. They regarded themselves as a reform movement within Judaism;
they still required their male members to be circumcised and for all to follow the Jewish
laws regarding ritual and diet. Some went on missionary journeys to Jewish settlements in
cities throughout the Roman Empire. There were many points of conflict between the Jewish
Christians and Pauline Christianity (described below).
In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the temple and
the rest of Jerusalem. Many Jews were killed; others fled Judea. After an
unsuccessful Jewish uprising in the 130's, the Roman Army drove the Jews from
Judea. The Nazoreans were thus dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. This severely weakened the movement. They
had a brief resurgence during the 2nd century CE, but then
disappeared. Many were probably
absorbed by the mainline Pauline Christian movement which grew out of the churches established by
Paul and his coworkers.
The role of Saul/Paul:
Saul of Tarsus, a Greek Jew, had dedicated his life to persecuting the Nazoreans. On the road to Damascus, he had a personal vision, and believed that he had
received instructions directly from Jesus to devote the rest of his life to spreading the gospel
(good news) to the Gentiles. To recognize this event, he changed his name to Paul.
He disappeared for three years and then returned to Judea. There
were many points of disagreement between Paul and the Jewish Christians. Paul believed
that male converts should not have to be circumcised, or required to follow Jewish law.
The Jewish Christians felt otherwise. They questioned Paul's claim to the be an
apostle, since he had never met Jesus in real life.
Compromises were reached: Paul concentrated on converting the Gentiles; the Nazoreans
sought converts from within the Jewish communities. Due to Paul's message, his amazing
oratory skills and organizing ability, he was able to build a network of Christian
churches throughout the eastern Mediterranean. These eventually grew to cover almost all
of the Western world. By the time that Jesus' original followers (now called Apostles) died, most
of the Christians in the world were Gentiles. Until that time, the Apostles had been the ultimate
authority in matters of belief. Individual congregations were headed by persons called
variously episkopos (bishop or overseer), presbuteros (elder) or poimen
(pastor or shepherd). Paul, Peter, and a number of other Apostles were executed by the
Roman state on charges of stirring up civil revolt.
The role of the Gnostic Christians:
The Gnostics had roots which dated to pre-Christian times.
They followed a syncretistic religious faith which merged beliefs from Judaism, other
Christian movements, and from Pagan religions from the Middle East and Asia. Some worked
within existing congregations of the Jewish Christians and within the churches established
by Paul and his followers. They had many novel concepts about the nature of Jesus and
God. Gnostic Christianity reached a peak in the 2nd and early 3rd century CE and were eventually
eliminated as a significant movement by anti-heresy forces from the mainline Christian
movement by the end of the 5th century CE.
Christian Gnosticism is currently experiencing a rapid growth, driven in
part by the discovery of part of a
Gnostic Christian library which had apparently been buried during a time of
persecution of the
Gnostics by Pauline Christians and the Roman Empire. It was found in
1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. A second document fueling the growth in
Gnosticims is the partial copy of the Gospel of Judas, found in El Minya,
Egypt, in the 1970s.
The patristic era:
This interval extended from about 100 to 170 CE, when the Apostolic Fathers had
replaced the apostles. They included a number of male teachers and bishops: e.g. Clement of
Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, Polycarp, Tertullian. Early in this era, the church evolved
into a more formal organization, the monarchial episcopate, in which bishops were
recognized as having authority over the leaders of the individual congregations. The
bishops decided matters of belief and practice within their jurisdiction.