The invention of Christianity 28

A few of our regular readers become impatient with us when we write about religions – other than to dismiss them as nonsense, which we frequently do. We hope they’ll bear with us as we respond to comments and emails from readers who feel differently, by offering, as a follow-up to our post “A man named Jesus or something like that” (September 23, 2011), this first part of what will be a continuing outline of the history of Christianity.

Some two thousand years ago, a man named Saul had an idea that shaped history.

His idea was that a pious Jewish preacher with a small but devoted following, who had recently been executed in Jerusalem by the Roman authority, was God in human form.

The name of the executed man in Greek (which was probably Saul’s mother tongue), was Jesus; presumably a translation of a Hebrew name lost to history.

Saul was intensely excited by his idea, but he did not rush to declare it in Jerusalem. He knew that to Jews – all Jews, including those who had followed the dead preacher – it would have been not merely absurd but blasphemous, and to preach it would have been punishable by law.

The followers of the dead man did believe that he would come back to life and lead them more successfully than he had the first time, all the way to liberation from Roman rule. It was not a strange belief among the Jews in those days that dead people would rise again in the flesh. Most of them believed in bodily resurrection. The dead Jesus’s followers claimed that he rose just three days after being executed for sedition, and that quite soon he would reveal himself to the whole nation as the long awaited “Messiah” (the Annointed One), a king destined to be as glorious as King David and King Solomon had been in their day.

Saul had never seen Jesus or heard him preach. He knew little or nothing of his life, and showed little or no interest in it. He knew of his posthumous following, a sect called the Nazarenes, or the Ebionites (meaning “the poor”); and of their belief that he rose from the dead and was the “Messiah” – “Christos” in Greek. He endowed the title with a new meaning: “Christ Jesus” was no mere earthly king but God incarnate, who had risen from his tomb to the heavens, there to reign over all creation forever. His divine mission on earth had been fully accomplished when he gave himself as a sacrifice; letting himself be killed, slowly and agonizingly by crucifixion, in order to redeem mankind not from political oppression but from sin.

According to the famous story about Saul, he was on his way to Damascus as a sort of policeman or special agent in the service of the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, to arrest some members of this sect for some wrong-doing, when he heard the voice of Jesus asking him why he was persecuting him and adding “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks”. Saul then asked Jesus what he should do, and Jesus told him to go on to Damascus where his question would be answered. The answer, whatever it was, directed him away from Jerusalem for years, and started him on a new life as the missionary of a new religion born in his own imagination.

Some years after he conceived his idea, he changed his name to Paul. “Saint Paul” the Christians call him.

He did not try to convert the Jews to his new religion: he was Christ Jesus’s “apostle to the gentiles”. He posted about the Roman empire tirelessly trying to convince gentiles that Christ Jesus was the divine being who had created the universe. He, God, had not ceased to reign in heaven while he had simultaneously been living on earth as Jesus. How could this be, God in heaven and on earth in human form at the same time? Well, Paul explained, Christ Jesus was the divine Son of God. They were different persons but each was part of the same divine being, the one God that the Jews believed in, but in two persons, God the Father and God the Son; two persons, but only one God.

On this idea Christianity was founded.

[To be continued]

Jillian Becker   October 28, 2011