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The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity

(1986; this electronic edition 2000)

The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (Original Paperback Cover)
The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (Original Paperback Cover)


Thomas Sheehan analyses the historical background of Jesus and his teachings, and finds, amidst variously-conceived messianic expectations among Jews of the time, the probable content of what Jesus taught: a message of God’s definitive presence among humankind, with radical implications for social justice and personal ethics. Sheehan argues that Jesus thought of himself not as God or Christ but as God’s eschatological prophet proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom, that the resurrection had nothing to do with Jesus coming back to life, and that the affirmation that Jesus was divine first arose among his followers long after his death.

This bold and well-argued theory rescues the message and person of Jesus from the literalist absurdities of contemporary fundamentalism and recovers the social and ethical significance of what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” In making its case, the book leads the reader through the basics of modern Scripture scholarship, as well as the the development of christology within first-century Christianity. An excellent bibliography and an abundance of end-notes provide resources for further research on these and related topics.


This is an electronic reproduction of the first hard copy edition (now out of print) of Thomas Sheehan’s The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, published originally by Random House, New York, in 1986. The present text was scanned and edited by Richard Carrier. The original pagination has been preserved, using visible line breaks to indicate page breaks. The original page number appears above the corresponding material, just beneath the previous page break. In every case where a word was broken between pages, the entire word now appears on the “page” in which it began in the original text. Spelling and punctuation errors found in the original printing have been corrected here. However, new errors may have crept in during the reproduction process. If you notice any mistakes, please notify Richard Carrier so he can correct them at once.


The First Coming is here published by the Secular Web with the permission of the author. All text and tables remain under full copyright by Thomas Sheehan. All rights are reserved. No part may be copied or distributed without permission from the author.


Introduction: How Christianity Came into Crisis (p. 3)

1. Liberal Protestantism and the Jesus of History (1800-1900) (p. 10)

2. Rudolf Bultmann and the Christ of Faith (1920-1950) (p. 18)

3. The New Quest for the Historical Jesus (1950 to Today) (p. 23)

I. How Jesus Lived and Died (p. 29)

1. The End of the World (p. 33)

2. The Making of a Prophet (p. 49)

3. The Kingdom of God (p. 57)

4. God’s Word at Work (p. 70)

5. Rejection and Death (p. 77)

II. How Jesus was Raised from the Dead (p. 89)

Simon’s Experience

1. The Myth of Easter (p. 95)

2. The Birth of Christianity (p. 101)

3. An Early Formula of Faith (p. 110)

4. The Denial of Jesus (p. 119)

The Empty Tomb (p. 127)

1. Easter According to Mark (p. 131)

2. An Earlier Legend (p. 135)

3. What Really Happened (p. 147)

4. An Apocalyptic Messenger (p. 156)

5. The Meaning of Easter (p. 163)

III. How Jesus Became God (p. 175)

1. The Apocalyptic Judge (p. 183)

2. The Reigning Lord and Christ (p. 192)

3. The Divine Son of God (p. 206)

Conclusion: Recovering the Kingdom (p. 219)

Appendix: Notes on Rabbinical Literature (p. 229)

Selected Bibliography (p. 275)