Kerygmatic Sources of the Jesus Movement
Christianity begins with John the Baptist. The earliest gospel, Mark, begins with the Baptism of Jesus by John (1:1-11), and the other three include a narrative of John’s ministry in their accounts as well (Mt. 3:1-12; Lk. 3:1-20; Jn. 1:1-8, 19-36; 3:23-30). Outside of the gospels we have a good source from Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews who writes that John was extremely popular among the people and eventually put to death by Herod (18.5.2). Some of the pagan elements that will go into the mythologizing of Jesus’s infancy narratives are at work in Luke with respect to John as an infant (1:57-66). We can infer from these internal and external evidences that Jesus was probably a disciple of John the Baptist prior to his own ministry. This is not universally accepted however and others maintain that the Baptist’s movement was a direct competitor to early Christianity. 1 The Baptist’s message was simple: repent for the forgiveness of sins because God’s rule is about to be established. In this sense, John was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed that the return of God’s rule upon the earth was soon coming. "The day of judgment was about to dawn" as F.F. Bruce puts it.2 From what we know of John, "there is no expectation of a messianic figure who will appear on earth."3
John’s apocalypticism is entirely concerned with the manifestation of God’s rule as a physical presence. His baptism of Jesus is not to be understood as a "passing of the torch" whereby the master recognizes the Messianic qualities of the pupil. Were we to understand John in this manner his later question from prison, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" makes no sense (Mt. 11:3; Lk. 7:20). It is true that in the decades following Jesus’ death, some early Christians did perceive the Baptism in a christological fashion, hence, the appearance of an epiphany of God as Jesus rose from the water made its way into the synopticists stories about Jesus. This should be understood as a purely theological interpretation of what Jesus meant to those later Christians as they mythologize elements about Jesus and not as a real historical event.
At some point, after the Baptist’s arrest by Herod, Jesus decided to carry on his master’s eschatological ministry himself. But there was one notable change: Jesus taught that God’s rule was already manifest on earth. No longer should God’s rule be understood as a future development, but its presence can be said to be here right now. Jesus says "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mk. 1:15). The disciple has moved beyond the master; where John taught the future eschatology of God’s rule, Jesus proclaims that God’s rule has broken into the present situation.4 In another curious Q pericope, Jesus says that his own capacity as an exorcist is evidence of God’s rule upon the earth (Mt. 12:28; Lk. 11:20). There are later layers of material that place Jesus and the second coming of a "Son of man" as an eschatological realization, but this is again a later Christian development which should not be confused with Jesus’ own understanding of his mission. For Jesus and the first Jewish-Christians at Jerusalem, "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 10:7) and God’s rule should be understood as a present-tense reality:
The prophetic-eschatological sayings of Jesus primarily proclaim the presence of the beginning of God’s rule. The blessings are pronounced as already present to the poor, to those who weep, and to those who are hungry (the Beatitudes, Mt. 5:3ff). What Isaiah had prophesized (Isa. 35:5-6; 61:1) is already here (Lk. 11:20). It would be utterly futile for the disciples to look for any signs of the rule of God and its coming in the future, or even to calculate the times, because the rule of God is already in their midst (Lk. 17:20-21). 5
In the first-century sayings source The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus reminds his disciples that the kingdom of God is a metaphysical manifestation of God, not a physical happening. He that the kingdom "will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is’. Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it." 6
Since Jesus was convinced that the kingdom, or "God’s Rule," was presently manifest, how should we understand the christological titles such as "Son of man" or "Son of God?" At this point it is crucial toward the understanding of ancient Christianity that Jesus’ person be separated from the later kerygma (or "proclamation" as in preaching after Jesus’ death). It is true that the later kerygma attached christological titles to Jesus’ person, but there is no support for the contention that Jesus himself used these titles.7 Jesus was later proclaimed to be "Lord" by Paul and "Son of man" by the early Jewish-Christians, but these titles were applied to Jesus after his death. Jesus did not understand himself to be a Messiah or Son of God within his own life.8 Koester admits that it is difficult to place Jesus in a single category with respect to his ministry and so decides on a combination of "prophet," "wisdom teacher," and "exorcist" which seems to fit best. 9 He does point out, however, that "the following alternatives can be excluded from the outset: messianic or christological titles cannot be used, because not one of these titles (Messiah/Christ, Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God, Lord) is fixed firmly enough in the older tradition to be a reliable witness for Jesus’ understanding of himself."10 As Christianity develops and flourishes in the Hellenistic world and Antioch these christological titles are applied to Jesus posthumously in order to explain his crucifixion and resurrection.
After Jesus is crucified, there occurs a most unexpected eschatological experience in which certain men and women close to Jesus see evidence of him raised from the dead. It is beyond biblical scholarship to discuss the subjectivity or objectivity of the resurrection of Christ. Despite what some apologists claim, the resurrection narrative of Christ cannot be looked at historically; the Risen Christ is a theological question and a serious student of the Bible realizes that it cannot be seen as an event of history. When we speak of the resurrection, we are not speaking of history, rather, we are speaking of kerygma. This is important to keep in mind. What we can do is to look at how early Christians reacted to the kerygma of the first Easter in order to infer something about the belief in the resurrection of Christ. Our earliest written source is Paul who himself received the resurrection account from James and Peter in Jerusalem shortly after his own conversion. Paul taught the new Christains at Corinth (on the Peloponnese of the Greek mainland) for about a year and a half between 50-52 CE. After his stay at Corinth, Paul moved on to Ephesus for three years to preach there. While he was gone at Ephesus, the community at Corinth began interpreting Christian doctrine differently from Paul and these conflicts of doctrine were reported to him by concerned members of the Corinthian community (1 Cor. 1:11; 7:1; 16:15-18).
In chapter 15, Paul seeks to correct one of their misinterpretations regarding the resurrection in that the Corinthians denied the tenet of bodily resurrection (15:12). He tells them that they must believe in Jesus’ resurrection, for, without it their faith is in vain (15:13-14). At this point we must distinguish a fundamental different between Hellenistic Greek thought, represented by those at Corinth, and Jewish apocalyptic thought, represented by Paul. For Paul (as for any Jew) the body is made in the image of God and ought to be held in the highest regard. The spirit or "soul" of every human (nephesh) was thought of as an essential component of the body in order to be a whole, living being. 11 This is why Paul’s kerygma places an emphasis on the bodily resurrection of Christ; for Paul, Jesus’ resurrection is evidence of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s rule on earth. To the Greeks at Corinth, however, the body (soma) was regarded as a "tomb" (sema) that imprisoned the soul (the rational mind or psyche). Since Pythagoras, the Greeks had developed a philosophy whereby the soul was thought to be immortal and existed after the death of the corporeal body. Much of the Orphic and Dionysian mysteries entailed purifying the soul in order to escape the prison of the body and ascend to the higher spheres (or heavens).
Thus, unlike Paul, the Greeks saw "flesh" and "spirit" as dichotomous existences where the body is clearly inferior to the spirit. Naturally, certain Christians at Corinth had interpreted Paul’s preaching of the resurrection of Jesus as a spiritual resurrection of the soul, and not a bodily resurrection of the flesh. For them, Jesus’ resurrection fit perfectly into their world-view which was informed by the centuries-old Orphic doctrines whereby the soul finds final release from the body at death. But Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth corrects them on this misinterpretation. Paul reminds them that Christ "was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the Scriptures" (15:2-5). The first gospel account reaffirms this Jewish understanding of bodily resurrection by ending with the empty tomb as a powerful testimony of Christ’s resurrection (Mk. 16:1-8). 12 Paul writes to the Romans that "the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead . . . will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rom. 8:10-12). The Greeks were horrified of such notions as a literal resurrection of the corpse as Paul taught in the Acts of the Apostles, so that when Paul teaches that those who repent will be bodily raised from the dead, some mock him (17:32). For Greeks and Christians then
This Greek hope [immortality after death] and Christian hope are diametrically opposed, for the former is based on the liberation of the body, while the latter has the resurrection as its foundation. . . . On this account the teaching of St. Paul was received coldly." 13
The debate between Jewish-Christians and Greek-Christians will resolve itself with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The community at Jerusalem that Jesus left to his brother James was largely destroyed silencing that trajectory which was closest to Jesus. After Jerusalem’s destruction, the trajectories in the Diaspora (Greece and Egypt) will come to dominate mainstream Christianity. After Paul’s death (perhaps during Nero’s purges in 60 CE) and with the Jerusalem trajectory gone, Christianity will come to be dominated by the Greek philosophy and see the body as a tomb which imprisons the soul. Death is a release which frees the soul from the body so that the pure may rise to heaven to be with God.
At some point during Greek-influenced Christianity under the direction of the Apostle Paul, a theological viewpoint developed in which Jesus’ death was seen as a sacrifice or a covenant (1 Corin. 11:25; Heb. 13:20) and seen in light of a Passover sacrifice (1 Corin. 5:7). In Greek civic cult as understood in Paul’s communities, Jesus was the "first fruits" laid upon the altar (bomos) as a theuin, or ritual slaughter, to God. The Christian Eucharist will be informed by the ancient solemn tradition of the thusia. The thusia was a great public sacrifice practiced in Greek civic cult – notably at the annual Panathenaia in Athens and the Hyakinthia at Sparta – in which a pact between the worshipper and the gods was reaffirmed. After a procession, the sacrificial animal was led to the altar at which time it was expected to voluntarily assent to its own slaughter (called the hupokuptein, literally "nodding the head"). After the hupokuptein, the slaughterer cut the animal’s throat so that the blood poured onto the altar; at the same time it was vital that women witnesses were present so that they could let out the ololuge, the mandatory ritual scream. Following the theuin, the pieces of the animal are divided among the participants who ritualistically eat the meat in order to obtain divine sustenance from the vital essence of the victim. In a public ceremony, the surplus meat might be taken to the market and sold hence the dilemma that the new converts at Corinth raise with Paul in 1 Corin. 10:23-33. It is interesting to note that early converts to Christianity had difficulty differentiating the pagan theuin from the Christian Eucharist. This confusion is understandable since Paul himself refers to the body and blood of Christ in a manner which is indistinguishable from the Greek mystery religions and seems to actually use the status quo as an analogy for Christ’s mystery; see 1 Corin. 8:4-6; 10:14-17. Paul tells us outright that Jesus did not preach the Eucharist, rather, Paul "received from the Lord" the Eucharist ritual, which is to say Paul became informed of such a mystery at his vision in Damascus 11:24-25. Thus, with the loss of Jerusalem–the "headquarters" of primitive Christianity prior to 70 CE–the Greek theuin-cum-Eucharist became a permanent part of orthodox Christianity.
1Morton Scott Enslin, Christian Beginnings (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1938) pp. 150-51, where Enslin remarks that "on the basis, then, of this critical sifting of the gospel account and of the testimony of Josephus there would seem to be little support for the modern conjecture that Jesus was started on his career through contact with the Baptist, and that he repeated the latter’s message even John’s tragic death had sundered the bond of teacher and pupil…. As the years rolled by, John, although originally quite distinct from Jesus, was gradually brought into the Christian picture, if not into the fold" (p. 151).
2F.F. Bruce, New Testament History (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969) p. 147.
3Helmut Koester, History and Literature of Early Christianity, 2 vols, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), Vol. 2, p. 72.
4Harold Roberts, Jesus and the Kingdom of God, (London: The Epworth Press, 1955) pp. 29-30.
5Koester,1983, Vol. 2, p. 80.
6Gospel of Thomas , The Nag Hammadi Library In English, James M. Robinson, ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988) p. 138.
7Gerald O’Collins, Christology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) 136-7; see also James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971) pp. 20-27.
8C.F.D. Moule, The Origin of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) pp. 11-13.
9Koester, 1983, Vol. 2, p. 77.
10Koester, 1983, Vol. 2, p. 77.
11Charles Guignebert, The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus (New Hyde Park: N.Y.: University Books, 1959) p. 107.
12There is a Longer Ending of Mark after 16:8, but it is not within the most reliable ancient manuscripts and so is probably a later addition to harmonize Mark with the other three gospels.
13qtd. in Peter F. Ellis, Seven Pauline Letters (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1984) p. 41.