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The Jesus movements (7 BCE to 170 CE)

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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:

bullet 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.
bullet a call to fully love God with all your resources.
bullet a call to love your neighbors, including your enemies, and to take no aggressive acts against those that oppress you.
bullet 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.

Jewish Christians (a.k.a the Nazoreans):

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.

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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.


bullet W. Barnstone, editor, "The Other Bible," Harper & Row, NY, (1984). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
bullet J.D. Crossan, "The birth of Christianity: Discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus," Harper San Francisco, (1999) Review/order this book 
bullet J.L. Mays, Editor, "Harper's Bible Commentary," Harper & Row, NY, (1988). Review/order this book
bullet H. Maccoby, "The Mythmaker, Paul and the Invention of Christianity," Barnes & Noble/Harper San Francisco, (1986). This title is out of print.
bullet E. Pagels, "The Gnostic Gospels, London, (1980). Review/order this book
bullet J.M. Robinson, editor, "The Nag Hammadi Library in English," Harper & Row, SanFrancisco, (1988). Review/order this book
bullet H. Schonfield, "Those incredible Christians," Element, (1991) Review/order this book
bullet R. Shorto, "Gospel Truth: The new image of Jesus emerging from science and history and why it matters," Berkley/Penguin Putnam, NY, (1997). Review/order this book
bullet J.Z. Smith, et al, "Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion," Harper Collins, NY, (1995). Review/order this book
bullet A. Welburn, "The Beginnings of Christianity," Anthroposophic Press, (1995). Review/order this book

Copyright ' 1995 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-APR-07
Author: B.A. Robinson 

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