The Universal Savior
How did the faith of the man known as Jesus of Nazareth become a faith in that same person being the Messiah/Christ who is our “Savior” and “Son of God”?
Here we must ponder the problem of how a particular faith, necessarily limited by the bonds of culture and religious tradition, can somehow be transformed so that these bonds can be transcended to become a universal faith. One senses that beneath the remaining limitations of the cultural context of their faith and beliefs, the great mystics and saints harbor within themselves a certain universal wisdom and vision that transcends the all too narrow bonds of even the highest religious expression. The same is probably true of those who have passed through the dark night of martyrdom, but for most of these, we simply have no record of their thoughts on the other side of death. It is no longer simply a matter of new wine stretching the old wineskins beyond their capacity: it is more like an overwhelming fountain inundating all that stands before it or like the stream envisioned by Ezekiel (47:1-12) that grows in volume as it leaves its source.
So it is with the power unleashed by belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
From “Messiah” to Universal Christ
There have been more than enough theories that have attempted to explain this transformation. Here it is not a question of those theories that would try to explain away the resurrection of Jesus as wishful thinking or a hallucination of the apostles. Granted the possibility of such dubious “revelations”, they would still hardly explain the successful transformation of a Jewish messianic sect into a world religion. Those who begin by emphasizing the readiness of many people in those days to believe in the return of all sorts of people from the dead—even Herod thought Jesus might be John the Baptist resurrected—only undercut their own line of argument. For if people really were rising from the dead with such presumed regularity, how is it that Jesus of Nazareth, put to death as a political criminal by the representative of imperial Rome, would become, within three centuries of his execution, not only the central cult figure of that same empire, but even of many other peoples intent on the destruction of that empire?
Even presupposing the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, at least in the sense that we allowed in the previous chapter as a “metahistorical” event, neither disprovable in itself nor provable by ordinary evidence, we still have to explain how belief in a resurrected Jesus became a faith in the universal Christ.
Most theories—some of them admittedly connected with disbelief in the resurrection, as well as those seeking to trace the lines of legitimate theological development—have given St. Paul most of the credit (or blame) for the transformation that took place.
The reason for this is not hard to see. Saul of Tarsus, the name under which he was first known, was not one of the original disciples, being neither among “the twelve” nor even part of the larger body of disciples or close followers that we are told numbered seventy‑two. Yet, as an early convert who saw his appointed task as that of an apostle to the gentiles—although he seems always to have first approached the local Jewish community wherever he went—it is only natural that his version of the teaching of Jesus would soon blossom into a religion centered on a universal Christ. Nonetheless, it still remains to be determined just how, in theological terms, this change came about. Perhaps about a half-a-dozen possible factors were involved.
It should also be made clear at this time that any exploration of these factors does not mean that any of them or even all of them are themselves the reason one might believe that Jesus is, in fact, who one holds him to be. The believer obviously holds what he believes as truth in its own right. This recounting of various explanations, or this particular attempt at an explanation, should only to be taken as contributing factors. Ultimately, a faith of this kind remains a gift or grace.
The first and the most obvious factor centers on the idea of disappointed apocalyptic expectations. According to this opinion, when the second coming of Christ failed to materialize, the early Christians simply shifted their emphasis from the messianic kingdom to the person of Jesus himself. To paraphrase Albert Schweitzer, Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God and (after that) the Apostles, especially Paul, preached Jesus. This is, of course, too simple, but there is still much truth in it. Even if from the beginning of his apostolate Paul presents Jesus as a universal savior, there can be no question that at first Paul also expected Christ’s imminent return. Only gradually do we see Paul shifting his perspective to a situation where the second coming, still delayed, ceases to be a central motif. Indeed some of these later writings, the so‑called “pastoral epistles” to Timothy and Titus, and certain of the “captivity epistles” (those to the Colossians and Ephesians, in particular) differ so markedly in their vocabulary and themes that they are often ascribed by modern scholars to disciples of Paul instead of to Paul himself.
If this shift in emphasis is true for Paul or for those who wrote in his name, and who represent the earliest Christian writers, the same transformation might be expected in much of the rest of the New Testament, including the gospels themselves. In these latter, as documents claiming to picture Jesus as he was, this same shift in emphasis away from expectation of the imminent return of Christ is evident as well. According to Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four, Jesus is an apocalyptic preacher of the end time—although never simply that. The same is largely true in Matthew, although a new emphasis on the “gathering” (the qahal or ekklesia) modifies this emphasis somewhat.
When we come to Luke, we find an approach, despite Luke’s repetition of the “last days” theme, which is more concentrated on the person of Jesus in contrast to the earlier emphasis on his message. Even as far as Luke’s message goes, it already shows a strong tendency toward bringing about the realization of God’s kingdom in this world in the present time rather than simply preparing ourselves for a kingdom yet to come. This is even more true when it comes to John’s gospel, where the warning of the “Last Days” all but entirely disappears.
In sum, there is, even within the collection of writings that form the New Testament, ample evidence of a development of doctrine concerning the identity of Jesus Christ. The Hebrew term meshiach was not simply translated into the Greek Christos. Instead, the long-awaited, and still largely unfulfilled expectations of a Jewish messiah are for the most part sidestepped and superseded by the proclamation of universal salvation through the mediation of and even through the person of “the Lord Jesus Christ”. There can be no doubt the failure of history itself to come to a sudden end, which Jesus’ first followers seemed to have assumed that he had predicted, had a lot to do with this change.
Yet there is another factor much more at work here than simply failed apocalyptic expectations, and it has even greater implications than the gradual abandonment of a frustrated Jewish messianism. Again, it still has a lot to do with the transformation of the expectations of a second return of Christ into the acceptance of the present state of affairs as being already the realization, at least in part, of God’s kingdom and the beginning of a new age. Nowhere is this more evident than in Paul’s use of the term “Lord” in the way he applies it to Jesus.
That this word (Kyrios in Greek) is ambiguous in itself—indeed many earthly figures have been, and still are in some cultures, addressed as “Lord”, even as Jesus sometimes is addressed in the gospels—does not solve the matter. Yet when Paul used this term he did so deliberately with more than just the ordinary reverential overtones. In fact, Kyrios was the term selected by the Greek‑speaking Jewish Septuagint translators to replace the Hebrew word Adonai which in turn was used in those times to substitute for the sacred name Yahweh. So in his use of the title Kyrios, Paul is in effect designating Christ as being (at least in some way) equal to God.
True, Paul never uses the generic term theos especially with the article (ho Theos—literally “the God” in Greek, but generally translated without the article) directly of Jesus, but in the Epistle to Titus (2:13) the same term is so closely associated with Christ that there can be little doubt that for Paul (or whoever wrote this letter) the Lord Jesus Christ is truly divine. The same goes for the authors of the Epistle to the Hebrews and 2 Peter, and of course, for John’s gospel.
Some would caution that Paul in his earliest writings retains something of the primitive Christian predilection far describing Jesus’ exaltation as “Lord” as a result of his resurrection, hence that Paul still thought Christ’s divinity as somewhat qualified in some way. On the other hand, at least when we survey the Pauline writings as a whole, they show a marked tendency toward thinking of Jesus’ lordship as the recognition of his return to his former state as God’s son. The clearest evidence for this is not any Pauline use of the term Theos as applied to Christ, but more in his statement in the Epistle to the Philippians (2:6) that although Christ’s state was divine, he “…did not count equality with God as something to be exploited.”
In all this there can be no doubt that Paul and his co‑workers introduced a major alteration in, or even what seems to be a serious deviation from, Jewish monotheism into the Christian concept of God, one that holds that Jesus is not only “Son of God” in the Hebrew sense of the term—one chosen by God and designated to a special task—but instead as the very incarnation of God. Once that bold step has been taken, then, as we shall soon see, there is no limit to the claims that might be made in his name.
First, before we go on to that, we should look at two more factors that are often advanced as explanations as to how the failed “Messiah” became the triumphant “Lord Jesus Christ”. One of these additional factors is the claim that Paul, still desiring to spread the essence of Jewish monotheism to the rest of the world, promoted the idea of replacing the legalistic piety of his early pharisaism with theological elaborations based on ideas derived from various Greek “mystery cults”, as well as mixing certain Gnostic rites and speculations with biblical themes. Hence, the simple Jewish rites of repentance and purification became the symbolic death and rebirth of baptism and the Passover Seder with its barakah or blessing of the bread and cup became the mystical sharing of the body and the blood of Christ in the Eucharistic meal. In these sacramental rituals, the simple memory of Jesus’ life was transformed into a means of corporate identification with the exalted Lord who in turn shares his glorified life with his followers here on earth.
That such an adaptation to the ritualized religious mentality of late antiquity would find ready acceptance, when various mystery cults were sweeping the Roman Empire, seems likely enough. And certainly, for one who really believes that Jesus was raised from the dead and lives eternally in a state of restored divinity, such a ritualization is altogether logical, even if not without its dangers—as Jesus himself had pointed out in his own critique of both the temple cult and of pharisaism. Still, neither does this adaptation to the popular religious mentality explain why it is that Christianity should emerge victorious over the other cults, some of which, for example Mithraism, may have been originally more widespread.
Of course, there is always the moral factor to be considered. Christianity, and the rigorous ethical code it represented, in contrast to the moral decay of the late empire, proved, it may be said, a real attraction to good people of high principle who were looking for a sounder foundation for the natural virtues than paganism, at its best, once fostered. That Jewish proselytism had been able to make significant inroads among such people, despite its ritual exclusivity, shows that the world was becoming ripe for such a challenge as Christian morality. However, this was only another factor, and in itself probably not the decisive one. In fact, the ethical reform espoused by emperor Marcus Aurelius included the persecution of Christians because in that philosopher‑emperor’s eyes, Christian morals were not rigorous enough! Neither would a turn to moral rigorism, any more than a turn to ritualism, in itself really explain why Jesus of Nazareth would himself become worshipped as God.
Perhaps this is the place to mention one other aspect that might be seen as related to this longing for a higher moral tone. It has often been alleged that early Christianity found its strongest backing among the slaves and lower classes of society, in a word, among people yearning for a better lot in life. No doubt, this impression is reinforced by the lingering of paganism among many prominent Roman citizens—naturally conservative due to their privileged positions in society—for some time after Christianity was legalized and had begun to make even more serious inroads into the old ways. Yet, at least one recent historical-sociological study has indicated that, contrary to this impression, Christianity had made some of its most significant gains among the upper classes, particularly due to the influence of women. Perhaps too they saw much to be gained to their advantage.
It should also be noted that on a whole, the rural populations were among the last to be converted. Although the term pagani originally had nothing directly to do with religion—it simply meant the “country-folk”— we also know that in such a setting, the idea of a universal Christ or savior, along with monotheism in general, tended to encounter greatest resistance from the rural populations with their many gods.
Here, no doubt, a final factor, a more directly political one, comes into play. Thus the decisive effect of imperial power exercised by Constantine the Great, his legalization of and later official establishment of Christianity, and most of all, his and his successors’ interventions in the formulation of Christian doctrines. That Christianity should become so widespread throughout the empire, despite repeated persecutions, is a remarkable enough fact. That an emperor, who was in fact not a practicing Christian (at least not fully so until his death‑bed baptism) should be the decisive factor leading to the formation of an official “orthodoxy” is even more significant. If Constantine’s ascendancy to the throne in 312 needed the legitimization from Christians, the precarious unity of this vast empire demanded the unity of Christianity itself.
That the divine status as applied to Jesus Christ happened at such an early time as the preaching of Paul does not mean, however, that it was accepted completely at face value right away. There were, in fact, many competing interpretations as to how Jesus was considered to be divine, and up to the time of Constantine’s ascendancy, no single explanation had prevailed. In fact, shortly before his coming to power, the doctrine of Arius, a priest‑theologian in Alexandria, had gained major popularity in almost all areas of the Christian world, even to the extent that it has been estimated that if all the bishops at that time had been asked and felt free to declare their opinions, “Arianism”, which accorded Jesus a quasi but not fully divine status, would have prevailed. But thanks to the emperor, this was not to be.
In 325, at Nicea, Constantine convened and personally presided over the first of what became known as a series of “ecumenical councils” that formulated, in rapid succession, a body of dogmas defining the divinity of Jesus, the nature of God as a trinity, and the dual divine and human natures of Christ. However, to all these factors, we should add one more.
What we see here, it seems, is a final “universalization” of the faith of Jesus. Not a universalization in the sense that some of the above theories would envision—a deliberate manipulation of the memory of Jesus by his disappointed messianic followers, or a calculated effort by Paul to create a “Judaism for Gentiles”, or even an opportunistic move by the imperial powers to capitalize on what they could no longer resist. Instead, what is being discussed here is the universalization of Jesus’ own religious consciousness, his own beliefs, and his own faithful trust in God.
This may sound strange at first, but ideas have their own momentum —often well beyond the initial awareness of their own originators. The story is told of Albert Einstein, that well after his proposal of the theories of both special and general relativity, that a society was formed by his admirers to propagate and advance the applications of his thought, partly by awarding prizes to the most outstanding disciples. Einstein himself was persuaded to act as a judge. However, after examining one particularly brilliant competitor, the great man of science sent a note to the officers of the society, complaining that he had no idea of what this young man was talking about!
Some, of course, would say that this would have been Jesus’ own comment about the ideas that Paul would advance in Jesus’ name. Perhaps so, yet is that to say that Paul was wrong? Consider this: just as Einstein himself can be said to have started a revolution, not only Jesus but even more Paul can be said to have started a “school” of theological interpretation that outstripped its founder. Thus, the ascended “Lord Jesus” of the early Paul becomes even more expansively the universal “Christ”.
Paul advanced, at a very early date, beyond the primitive formulations of Jesus’ exaltation to Lordship, to a recognition of his pre‑existent divinity. But was even this all Paul’s own doing? This is not only clear in the letter to the Philippians, but also in the Epistle to the Colossians (1:15‑17), where we find what appears to be a quotation from a hymn‑like canticle that extols Christ as
…the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things…were created, through him and for him…
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
In this, we can find a strong parallel to the prologue of John’s gospel. Yet there is something more. Both this hymn and the Johannine tradition draw from the late Old Testament image of divine wisdom (see especially Ws 7:22‑8:11), but recasts this tradition in terms of the Greek concept of the Logos (divine “reason” or “The Word”) as the prototype of all creation, much as did John (note especially the parallel between John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1). The difference is mostly that the Pauline mode of thought leaps ahead with its focus not on the beginning so much as on the end. In this way, Christ becomes what we might describe as being “coextensive” with the universe. Thus, glorified by the Father, Jesus is now revealed (through his church) as the “fullness [plêrôma] of him who fills all in all” (Ep 1:23) or in the latest revision of The New American Bible translation, “the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way”. Yet even these later Pauline expressions seem to echo, in much the same kind of language, what we already find as early as in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, where Paul tells us that the redeemed cosmos will be handed over by Christ to his Father so that “…God may be all in all” (1 Co 15:28).
Clearly, the vision of the glorified Christ presented by Paul and his disciples far outstrips in its universality anything imagined in the synoptic gospels, and even, to some extent, that presented somewhat later by John. Still, in all this, could not we, or Paul—or even Jesus himself—have been wrong?
The Aims of Jesus
What really were the aims or intentions of Jesus of Nazareth? In terms of what we can find in the synoptics, or even from a more careful reading of John, Jesus’ own ambitions seem to have been considerably less than those of his followers. What appears to have begun as a mission to ready his own people for the coming of God’s kingdom, or at most, less apocalyptically, to actuate the reign of God here and now in the hearts and in the lives of his followers, has become a movement far more universal and ambitious in its scope than anything Jesus may have, humanly speaking, possibly imagined.
Then, as we have already seen, the transformation that took place may have been due, to begin with, to the fact that if Jesus was expecting the imminent coming of God’s kingdom, that in this he was completely mistaken.
This paradox invites further reflection and, again, a further comparison with Albert Einstein. This great and much honored genius of modern thought is considered by many scientists today to have been completely wrong, not about relativity as such, but about the role of chance in the universe and the truth of Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle”. “I refuse”, Einstein was to say, “to believe that God plays dice!” Consequently, he was unable, in his later years, to follow the development of much of the cosmological thought that owed so much to his early insights and inspiration. As a result, those who limit themselves to following Einstein’s insights, as great as they are, prove themselves almost as hampered to cope with modern discoveries as those who would limit their understanding to the clockwork model of the universe proposed by Newton.
In the same way, do we not hamper ourselves by placing all our faith in Jesus, or even more, to being restricted to duplicating Jesus’ own faith?
If Jesus was, for example, wrong about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, do we not end in committing the same error as the early Christians at Thessalonika, who in their anticipation of the sudden end of the world, much to Paul’s dismay, seemed to think that they need not contribute to the world—indeed, that the world (or its impending end) apparently owed them a living? Paul’s answer was that “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Th 3:10). In the same way, should we not wonder if it might not have been possible that early Christianity took a wrong turn, not only about the imminent end of the world and the return of Christ, but also, in reaction to those failed expectations, about the identity of Jesus himself?
To answer this question, look at it this way. Even if Jesus really was wrong in anticipating an early end to history, is this to say that the rest of his ideas were thereby invalid? Instead, even despite this foreshortened perspective, is it not possible to say (as has the eminent Anglican scripture scholar, Bishop N.T. Wright) that such were the power of his ideas that in fact a new era indeed has arrived? Did not the interpretation of traditional biblical religion that Jesus himself embodied prove to be so radical a reinterpretation as to in effect become the beginning of a complete transformation of religious consciousness for the whole human race? (But again, this is only the beginning—for the process is far from complete, even among those of us who claim to be “Christians”.)
Or, again, consider this. The earthly Jesus may have been the embodiment of Jewish piety at its holiest, totally given over to the will of God, totally committed to the honor of God’s name, and totally, even radically, partisan for the holiness of God’s temple—especially if by “holiness” (Hebrew kadosh) is understood especially in the sense of an apartness or separation from the profane. If so, then rather than seeing him as fundamentally opposed to the Pharisees (an impression given by the gospel writers that may reflect the situation between his followers and the Pharisees only later on), might we not see Jesus’ disruptive incursions into the Jerusalem temple, with his angry reactions to the buying and selling activity, as following in the footsteps of the great Hebrew prophets who were sent to primarily to their own nation, even though much of the world now treasures these prophecies as revelations to the whole human race? So too, can we not also say that his predictions of the future, like those of the prophets before him, also turned out to be something less than the literal truth, yet, at the same time, in an uncanny way typical of other events that were yet to come?
In the same way, even if Jesus only reluctantly allowed his mission to reach out, on a few rare occasions, to gentiles, his tolerance for sinners and his preaching to the outcasts among his people were a harbinger of a much broader movement than the reformation of Israel. This may not have been because of any explicit instructions—unless the command to go out and “baptize all nations” is taken literally as a record of the actual words of Jesus (which few scholars would admit today). Rather it is a result of the implicit openness that Jesus showed to those Jews and Samaritans who existed beyond the pale of the law, and on a few occasions, even to pagans of good will, that early on Christianity would explicitly call itself “catholic” (kata plus holos, that is, “regarding the whole” or “all‑embracing”) because, in the description given by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (in his instruction “On Faith and Creed”), it would attempt to reach the whole world, to teach all of Christ’s message to all people, to forgive all sins and promote every kind of virtue.
True, there is no solid exegetical foundation to claiming that in any sense Jesus understood himself to be founding a “church” as we understand the word today. The word ekklesia occurs only twice in the gospels, both times in Matthew. We can guess that behind this Greek word stands the Hebrew (or at least the Aramaic equivalent of) qahal, meaning a group that is “called together”, clearly reflecting the situation of the infant congregation some years later. The first example, of course, is the famous “confession” of Peter (Mt 16:18) related as a response to the crucial question, “Who do people say that I am?” It points to the stability of his following in resisting the encroachment of the outside world with the promise that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The second gospel use of the word is in Matthew 18:17, where in reference to settling disputes within the local congregations, it would seem to have an even more limited and local meaning.
So then what about the famous command to “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation...” (Mk 16:15ff.)? This ending to Mark’s gospel (the whole block of verses 9‑20 is even missing from some very early manuscripts) is widely recognized as a second, later ending added to Mark’s original. Hence, it is probably second or even third level material according to the Biblical Commission analysis, while the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke are most likely a borrowing from this later addition. In any case, it most likely represents a later stage of apostolic consciousness from what his disciples first understood their task to be—either that or “the whole creation [pasê tê ktisei]” here has to be understood like the French tout le monde—not literally “all the world” but more like “everyone in sight”—thus the change “to all nations [panta ta ethnê]” in Matthew (28:19) which would seem to indicate that this expansion of missionary consciousness was growing at a pace that is truly surprising.
Nevertheless, with that exception, what we see in the New Testament writings taken across the board is a slowly dawning realization that the message of Jesus has to be taken out of its strictly Jewish context and “universalized” for the sake of the whole world. However, note that this is not a conscious program, a plan, or a plot of some sort. Instead, when we look at the real story of this transformation, even given in a somewhat dramatized and idealized form, as in the Acts of the Apostles, we find that instead of an unmitigated outpouring of missionary zeal, there is at first a certain hesitancy and even, in some quarters, a stubborn resistance to any expansion of membership in the group of followers, particularly when it comes to gentile or non‑Jewish people. So while Luke’s parallel passage to Mark’s epilogue, like Matthew’s, suggests an immediate mission “to all nations” or “peoples”, Luke’s second version of the same in Acts (1:8) not only slows the process down somewhat, even if in geographical instead of ethnic terms—beginning first in Jerusalem but then to “Judea and Samaria” next, and only then “to the ends of the earth.”
Although the Samaritans were seen as foreigners in Jewish eyes, to a gentile like Luke, they must have seemed like half‑Jews—which was more or less true. So even here Luke’s new geographical approach appears to reflect an original policy of going out to the “ends of the earth” but probably only with the object of reaching scattered Jews. Thus, we are being set up by Luke in a way that we’ll be in for a big surprise. After his accounts of the first activities and sufferings of the apostles in Jerusalem in their mission to fellow Jews, we are introduced to some upsetting new developments for the conservative followers in Jerusalem.
First, Philip the “deacon”—who was supposed to stay in Jerusalem “to wait on tables” (Ac 6:2), not preaching—baptizes a group of Samaritans, and even worse in conservative eyes, an Ethiopian eunuch who offered him a ride along the Gaza road. So Peter and John have to travel up to Samaria to legitimate Philip’s rash move there, while the Ethiopian is long gone back to Africa. As for the Jerusalem community, perhaps they just pretended that the Gaza road incident didn’t happen or hoped that the eunuch had already been a Jew.
Next, Peter himself becomes carried away while on a mission to the coastal cities and baptizes a Roman centurion and his whole household. This is too much for the people back in Jerusalem when they hear of it, so Peter has to go back and defend himself to the rest with an appeal to the Holy Spirit, including a thrice repeated vision that abolishes all distinctions between acceptable or fit (kashrut or “kosher”) and unacceptable food, and by implication, between Jew and gentile as well.
Nevertheless, even then the issue was not fully resolved, so later, after the firebrand Pharisee Saul is converted and becomes Paul the Apostle, we see the whole issue raised again, this time to be settled, as it were, by the first Christian church council held in Jerusalem about the year 50. There is dissension in the ranks, to be sure, but even here, Luke may have altered the story somewhat. An agreement of sorts is reached: gentiles are to be accorded equal status with Jews in the fledgling church, providing they keep a few major points of Jewish law for harmony’s sake.
Yet the facts of the real story, as are more than hinted by the rest of Acts and by the early Pauline epistles, tell a less idyllic tale than at first meets the eye. The message of Jesus was at first simply called “the Way” (Ac 9:2) and its first followers were called “the fellowship [koinônia]” (Ac 2:42), or “Nazareans”, and eventually became known, possibly by the mid‑century, as “Christians” (Ac 11:26): all this only partially reflects the long process of the movement’s slow separation from its parent religion and its gradual universalization.
There is also evidence from early Galilean rabbinic documents that the followers of Jesus, while still attending the synagogues, were already being called “minim” by the orthodox (apparently from the Hebrew word min, denoting a “portion” or “party”). Apparently, a deliberate attempt was being made to exclude them, but that such were the number of his followers, at least in Galilee, that it could no longer be a simple matter of exclusion from the synagogues or excommunication. The followers of Jesus seem to have been forced to form their own congregations as it were, not by choice but by default. There is also an increasing amount of archeological evidence of early Jewish‑Christian enclaves scattered throughout Israel, even as far south as Hebron.
So it seems that the difficulties that the original followers of Jesus, who saw themselves entirely as Jews within Judaism, but who instead soon found themselves considered a schismatic sect, only served at first to strengthen their resolve to redouble their efforts to be considered as orthodox Jews and to see their following of Jesus as a fulfillment of the authentic Jewish tradition. This group identified with James, “the brother of the Lord” (Ga 1:19). For these people, it was not so much the decision made in Jerusalem in the year 50 to admit gentiles into the fellowship, but the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70, that did more to separate the followers of Jesus from the rest of Judaism than did any other event.
In fact, there are those who see this disaster, along with the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135, as the real beginning of modern “Judaism” as well. Be that as it may, it was the better part of four centuries before the distinctively Jewish form of Christianity died out in the Holy Land. Indeed some vestiges of it persist today in the non‑Byzantine churches of the Near East, particularly in the Syrian Rite and in the Maronite Rite in Lebanon, and among Chaldean Christians in Iraq, where a variation of the Aramaic language of Jesus’ own time survives in limited liturgical use.
At the same time, a somewhat different strain of Christianity developed under the impetus of the Apostle Paul. Instead of stressing continuity with Judaism, this ex‑rabbinical student, from the first flush of his sudden conversion, took a predominantly “supplantational” line. According to Paul (see especially Romans chapters 9‑11), his ancestral people, the Jews, still remain special to God, but as far as the old law or the old covenant is concerned, it is dead—“put to death” with the earthly Jesus on the Cross. A new covenant, a new law of love and grace, is born with the resurrection of the “Christ” Jesus, now revealed fully as Lord. In this way, the tentative and halting steps begun by Philip and Peter are vindicated and multiplied by Paul and his missionary band with vigor that the left the mother church in Jerusalem dumbfounded and alarmed. Christianity was rapidly ceasing to be Jewish.
Could Jesus have possibly foreseen this? If one reads history backwards and, against all prevailing scholarship, takes the closing “missionary” passages of the synoptic gospels as actual records of the words of Jesus—and these in turn, as expressions of the divine Christ who knew from the very beginning how it was all to turn out, then, of course, there is no problem with all this. It was only the residual Jewish stubbornness of the other disciples that stood in the way.
Yet there is precious little evidence in the gospels that Jesus really did have any such program in mind. True, he did express some amazement and admiration regarding the “faith” of those pagans who persisted in seeking his healing powers. According to John’s gospel (chapter 5), Jesus actively courted the attention of a Samaritan woman who in turn would draw her fellow townsfolk to hear him. Nevertheless, not long after, to those Greeks who requested the apostle Philip to arrange an interview, Jesus seems to have given short shrift (Jn 12:20ff.).
At most, perhaps, Jesus envisioned a reform of Judaism that in turn would reach out—as it already was in its more liberal forms of proselytism —with a truly universal mission to the rest of the world. Yet as far as we can see, Jesus would have been grateful even if he could have kept his Galilean following intact, much more if he could have moved the Judaean hierarchy and its following. He succeeded in neither.
What Jesus clearly intended, the revitalization of the Jewish faith under the call of the demands of God’s Kingdom, turned out to have been a complete failure. That he might have possibly envisioned a renewed Judaism as a source of moral renewal in the world is not beyond possibility, but again, he would not live to see that result in any substantial form. Instead, after his tragic and untimely death, what resulted, despite Luke’s somewhat revisionist account in Acts, was a break-away sect that has painfully transformed itself into a major contender in the arena of the world’s would‑be universal faiths.
Seeking a Universal Faith
Here we have a paradox. Jesus, who appears to have experienced a truly unitive degree of faith in God, may never have reached, on this side of the grave, a truly “universalized” faith—one, without further development, capable of being the nucleus of a truly “world religion”. Instead, it was precisely in his failure even to convert the bulk of his own people that the seeds of a universal Christianity were born.
This is a shocking assertion, but consider the alternative. Let us suppose, to the contrary, Jesus had been an unqualified success. To take a more recent example, consider the expanding aims of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the organization he called “The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity”, but more often called simply “the Unification Church” after Moon seems to have gradually broadened his goal to uniting all religions, not just Christianity. This seems to be a result of Moon’s claim that Jesus was a failure at becoming the Messiah because he was killed before he could begin the real work of reforming the human race. According to Moon, this reform would have involved Jesus’ eventual marriage and the founding of a perfect family to set a new divine pattern for the restoration of the human race (which rather sounds like the final fantasy in The Last Temptation of Christ). Yet suppose that this happened and that the whole world responded to this revelation of “The Divine Principle” (the title of Moon’s own doctrinal testament). Interestingly, Moon did not claim, as his critics have charged, to be the Messiah himself. Instead, he claimed that he would have been proven to be the Messiah if his doctrine were to succeed in converting the world! But if he had, what then?
Perhaps it is difficult if not foolish to speculate about such things. Yet it raises profound questions. Did God really intend Jesus to die? Or, if he had to die like the rest of us, why not a gentle passing away at a ripe old age—for example, like Gautama the Buddha? Did the will of God the Father, or an angry sense of divine justice, really demand that his Son be cruelly, bloodily sacrificed on a cross to appease God’s wrath, as one line of Christian theology has taken to explain this apparently tragic miscarriage of human justice?
Of course, in terms of human memory, there is nothing like an unjustly afflicted violent death to immortalize a person. Socrates would be little remembered today outside of his role in Plato’s Dialogues, and his memory not nearly as hallowed, were it not for his forced suicide. Lincoln has gone down in history as a martyr for human rights much more than as the tragic, brooding figure that oversaw what was probably, until World War I came along, the bloodiest war in human history. John F. Kennedy—who alive at the time can forget that day? —then his brother, Robert, then Martin Luther King! The list goes on and on.
Here indeed is the true “Divine Principle”—the “paschal mystery”, the fact that it is only in dying that we live, and that “He who would save his life shall lose it, where he who loses it...shall live” (Mt 10:39; 16:25, Mk 8:35, Lk 9:24; 17:33). The grain of wheat must die before it can bear fruit (Jn 12:24). The religions that set out consciously to convert the whole world through messages of peace and prosperity are probably the least likely to succeed and those that would attempt to do it through fire and sword even less likely to do so. Self‑proclaimed messiahs are doomed to fall flat on their face. And so are successful ones!
Luke, in The Acts of the Apostles (5:34ff.) tells us that the more liberal Jewish scholar and member of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel, gave some sage advice about would‑be messiahs—leave them alone or let them be. If spurious, their movements will come to nothing. On the other hand, if sent by God, who are we to resist them—as well as God?
It is a little more than ironic that Gamaliel’s most well‑known disciple did not follow his master’s advice at first. Saul of Tarsus took an active part in the killing of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, and then went on to become one of the chief agents of persecution. Only after his traumatic conversion did he become the apostle, Paul. Almost inevitably, the blood of martyrs becomes the seed of faith. In this we follow in the footsteps of Jesus himself.
When all is said and done, it appears that the lesson of the life and death of Jesus should teach us more than one thing. Foremost, even if the most overlooked, is the eventual collapse of all human plans, agendas, paradigms, beliefs—even, to some extent, of faith itself—in the face of the unfathomable mystery of God. This is the reason for the long passage quoted at the beginning of chapter five. As tentative and as nuanced as it may be, it contains an awful truth. This truth is that not only do we have to die to the sureness that we are somehow called or singled out by God before we can become the instruments that God wishes us to be, but that even our ideas, our comforting beliefs about God, must also die before we can experience the fullness of the truth. Not only that, but only through the radical divestment of the unitive faith state itself, through the sundering of our own unity by death, can a full universalization of our faith take place. For it is no longer our faith that is at stake, but our very selves, and it is only when they both die, together, that resurrection to true life can happen!