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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Rise of Christianity

2.1 The Experience of the Resurrection

The Christian faith originated as a direct result of the Easter event. The death of Jesus in all probability ended his movement, at least for a short time. It is hard to see how it would not have ended it. All other Jewish movements of restoration, in late antiquity, known to us, ended with the deaths of their respective leaders. Had there been no Easter, there would have been no movement to arise that would eventually emerge as Christianity.

The evidence for this view is seen in the earliest Christian preaching. According to the Petrine tradition, as preserved in Acts, it is by the resurrection that ‘God has made [Jesus] both Lord and Messiah’ (Acts 2: 36)—‘this Jesus God raised up…this Jesus whom you crucified’ (Acts 2: 32, 36). Paul states essentially the same thing: Jesus was ‘designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead’ (Rom. 1: 4). Indeed, the essence of the gospel is the resurrection: ‘Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve’ (1 Cor. 15: 1–5). The gospel is no longer the kingdom, or rule, of God; it is the resurrection of Jesus Messiah and the hope of forgiveness and life that individuals now have.

2.2 The Transformation of Jesus' Proclamation

The redefinition of the gospel—from the good news of God's rule, to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, God's Son—played an important role in the rise of Christianity. With this shift, the focus on the restoration of Israel began to fade. The kingdom of God came to be understood as God's universal rule, in which his church would be vindicated, and her enemies—the Roman Empire and the Jewish temple and, later, the synagogue—would face judgement. What role Israel would play in this eschatological scenario became more open to interpretation. In some theological circles the church was understood to have replaced Israel, or become the new Israel.

Of course, the apostle Paul does not completely lose sight of the hope of Israel's restoration. He gives forceful expression to this hope in Rom. 9–11. Israel's rejection of the gospel of Jesus Messiah is temporary, brought on by spiritual obduracy that has had a long, checkered history among God's people. Paul likens his disappointing experience to that of the prophet Elijah, who though discouraged, was told that a remnant of faithful Israelites still remained (Rom. 11: 1–4; cf. 1 Kgs. 19). So it is in Paul's day: ‘there is a remnant, chosen by grace’ (Rom. 11: 5; cf. 9: 27–9). During the present time of Israel's obduracy (Rom. 11: 7–10; cf. Isa. 29: 10; Ps. 69: 22–3), God is mercifully drawing a host of Gentiles into his community. He is doing now what he did for apostate Israel long ago: making a people for his possession out of a people that had become a ‘non-people’ and a ‘not-loved-people’ (Rom. 9: 22–6; 10: 16–20; cf. Hos. 1: 10; 2: 23). The Gentiles are being grafted on to the saved community, as one might graft the branches of a wild olive tree on to a cultivated tree (Rom. 11: 11–24). Nevertheless, the day will come when ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Rom. 11: 26). This is so because of the prophecy of Israel (Isa. 59: 20–1) and because ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’ (Rom. 11: 29).

2.3 The Development of the Gentile Mission

Along with the redefinition of the gospel, another major development in the rise of Christianity was the Gentile mission. The seeds for this mission are found in the Scriptures of Israel themselves. According to Isa. 56, the foreigner may join himself to the Lord and will be welcomed to his holy mountain and may enter God's house of prayer (vv. 1–8). This visionary oracle may well be related to Solomon's legendary prayer of dedication for the newly built temple (1 Kgs. 8: 22–53). As in Isaiah's oracle, so also in Solomon's prayer, the foreigner will be welcome in God's house.

It was to this tradition that Jesus alluded when he cited a portion of Isa. 56: 7: ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?’ (Mark 11: 17). How much of the prophet's oracle Jesus had in mind is not clear. But his concession to the Gentile woman of Syrophoenicia (Mark 7: 24–30) is suggestive. Perhaps in his vision of the coming rule of God, Jesus foresaw the fulfilment of Isaiah's oracle and rightly saw it as consistent with the proper function of Jerusalem's famous temple. In editing the dominical tradition the way that they did, the evangelists may have got it right when at Nazareth Jesus appeals to the benefits extended to Gentiles (cf. Luke 4: 25–7) or, after Easter, on the mountain, Jesus commands his disciples to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matt. 28: 19).

2.4 The Abandonment of Jewish Law

A natural, if not inevitable, development of the Gentile mission was the weakening, redefinition, and, for the most part, abandonment of Jewish law. Paul's earlier arguments against making Jewish law a requirement for Gentile converts (esp. in Galatians) provided apostolic authority for this development. Eventually, Jewish Christians, called Ebionites, came to be regarded as heretics.

The Gentilization of the Christian church and the concomitant abandonment of Jewish law guaranteed the collapse of the mission to the Jewish people. The movement that Jesus had launched, with its focus on the rule of God, in fulfilment of the Scriptures of Israel, and the restoration of Israel, had been dramatically transformed. The result of this transformation was a theology and a communion that had great appeal to the peoples of the Roman Empire and beyond.

Of course, the Jewish heritage as a whole was not abandoned. The Christian church retained the Scriptures of Israel that the synagogue would itself retain. For the church these Scriptures became the Old Testament. Apart from these Scriptures, the writings that eventually became the New Testament could hardly be interpreted fully and accurately. The retention of Israel's Scriptures assured retention of much of Jewish morality. The Christian church also retained the basic form of worship and fellowship as practised in the synagogue. Hymns, the reading and interpretation of Scripture, exhortation, fellowship, and socializing all became part of Christian community.

2.5 The Earliest Gentile Converts

Most of the first Gentile converts were from the lower classes. Many of them were slaves. Pliny the Younger's review of the commitments of these Christians is illustrative:

They [Christians] assured me that the sum total of their guilt or their error consisted in the fact that they regularly assembled on a certain day before daybreak. They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christ as (their) God and bound themselves with an oath not to commit any crime, but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and embezzlement of property entrusted to them. After this, it was their custom to separate, and then come together again to partake of a meal…(Epistles 10. 96 (to Trajan); c.110 CE)

The dismissive description by Cornelius Tacitus (cf. Annals 15. 44; c.110–20 CE) is consistent with this conclusion. Assembling ‘before daybreak’ probably implies meeting together before the workday gets under way. Most of the vices from which these Christians promised to abstain were the temptations that slaves in the Roman Empire would have faced, such as ‘theft’, ‘breach of faith’, and ‘embezzlement of property entrusted to them’.

During the passage of time, Christian evangelization worked its way up the social, economic, and political ladder, until many of the most prominent and powerful members of Roman society had been converted to the faith. Eventually converts were numbered even in Caesar's family. With the conversion of much of the Empire and along with it formal recognition and protection, the Christian church was faced with a new set of challenges, and began a new transformation.

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