Tapes, Transcripts & Events
Air date: April 7, 1998
From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians - Part II
Written and Produced by Marilyn Mellowes
William Cran, Senior Producer and Director
NARRATOR: Jewish resistance was not completely snuffed out after the sack of Jerusalem. Rebel fighters held out for four more years. The Jewish historian Josephus, who had taken part in the war, recounted the story.
READER: [Josephus] "There was a fortress of very great strength not far from Jerusalem which had been built by our ancient kings. It is called Masada."
Prof. ERIC M. MEYERS, Duke University: The Rock of Masada, one of the most glorious places in all Israel, became the major refuge point for some of the most extremist elements opposing Rome. The Zealots, and their most ardent supporters, fled right in the middle of the war to Masada.
READER: [Josephus] "Here at been stored a mass of corn amply sufficient to last for years, an abundance of wine and oil. There was also found a mass of arms of every description hoarded up by the king and sufficient for 10,000 men."
NARRATOR: From the heights of Masada the defenders could see the Roman army surrounding them. The outlines of their camps and siege works are still visible from the air.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX, President, Union Theological Seminary: If you were a Roman soldier approaching Masada, I think your heart would sink because you know that you would have to first to spend a lot of time building a lot of ramps, massive ramps, to move the army up the sides in order to breach the walls. But you would know in the process that you were on a suicide mission because all the while the fortifiers and guardians of Masada would have been pelting you with any number of lethal objects, at no doubt great losses to the army.
NARRATOR: Josephus described the siege and its aftermath.
READER: [Josephus] "The Romans expected to make an assault upon the fortress, which they did, but they saw nobody but a terrible solitude on every side, as well as a perfect silence."
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: The irony, of course, is that when the soldiers breached the walls finally it was not they who had been subject to the suicide attack it was those who had been guarding Masada who had committed suicide.
NARRATOR: According to Josephus, the defenders had killed themselves rather than submit to The Romans. But modern archeologists have found little evidence of mass suicide among the ruins. What really happened there remains a mystery. But Josephus's version of the story turned Masada into the powerful symbol of a noble failure.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE, University of Texas, Austin: The failure of the First Revolt really was a traumatic event for everyone living in the Jewish homeland, Jews and Christians alike. As a result, they had to start rethinking some of their own assumptions.
When Jerusalem was destroyed, a whole new series of questions had to be asked. "What do we do without the temple? Where is the source of our faith and our authority? What does God want us to do?"
Prof. SHAYE J.D. COHEN, Brown University: This era was an age of definition not just for Christianity, but also for Judaism. It marks the emergence for the first time into the light of history of a new group and a new culture and a new literature and a new way of thinking and writing.
NARRATOR: Without the temple, the priesthood that had presided over its rituals lost its power. There emerged new leaders: the Pharisees, rabbis who would lead the Jewish people in a new direction.
Prof. SHAYE J.D. COHEN: And the rabbis represent for us a new age of definition. It is the rabbis who now emerge as a new kind of Judaism, and it is this Judaism which will endure from the 2nd century of our era down to our own age.
NARRATOR: The failure of the First Revolt also created a crisis for early Christians who were still a part of Judaism. The Kingdom had not come; the Messiah had not arrived. The followers of Jesus coped by telling stories about the man they had expected would deliver the new Kingdom on Earth.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: We have to remember that Jesus died around 30. For 40 years, there's no written gospel of his life, until after the revolt. During that time, we have very little in the way of written records within Christianity. Our first writer in the New Testament is Paul, and his first letter is dated around 50 to 52, so still a good 20 years after Jesus himself.
But it appears that in between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel, Mark, that they clearly are telling stories. They're passing on the tradition of what happened to Jesus - what he stood for and what he did - orally, by telling it and retelling it.
NARRATOR: Meeting in each others homes, early Christians told stories of Jesus' parables and miracles and of his suffering and death. These were not historical accounts, but shared memories shaped by a common past.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER, Harvard Divinity School: Legend and myth and hymn and prayer are the vehicles in which oral traditions develop. One could, for example, imagine that the oldest way in which the early Christians told about Jesus' suffering and death was the hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2.
READER: [Philippians 2:7-8] "And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: Paul quotes this hymn in the early 50s of the 1st century. He quotes this as a hymn that probably was sung in the Christian communities 10 or 20 years earlier. That is the way in which you first tell the story. And that you tell the story in the form of a hymn also shows that the telling of the story is anchored in the worship life of the community. So here is really the beginning of the oral tradition.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: It seems that over time some of these stories came to be written down and are what came to be thought of as the Gospel, the Good News, the story of Jesus.
READER: [Mark 1:1-3] "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight."
NARRATOR: The Gospel of Mark is the oldest in the New Testament. It was written soon after the failure of the First Revolt for a community that was struggling to reconcile its expectations of Jesus with the loss of the temple.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: We know a little bit about Mark's community from some things in the Gospel itself. Mark's audience reads Greek and not Aramaic. Mark always has to explain the Aramaic phrases that Jesus uses.
READER: [Mark 5:41] "Taking her by the hand he said to her, ´Talitha cum,' which means, ´Little girl, I say to you arise.'"
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Mark is written for a Jewish Christian audience living somewhere outside the homeland, and thus reflecting on the events of the first revolt from that vantage point.
NARRATOR: Mark's audience may have watched Roman soldiers parading through the streets, bearing plunder stolen from the Temple. They would certainly have seen, even been forced to use the coins that depicted the terrible defeat.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Mark is clearly reflecting on the destruction of the temple as part of his understanding of the significance of the life and death of Jesus.
NARRATOR: In Mark's story, Jesus predicts that the temple will be destroyed because it has been desecrated.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Jesus is standing against the temple in Mark's Gospel. And Mark wants us to understand that that's significant to why he must die and why Jerusalem will be destroyed.
READER: [Mark 13:2] "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down."
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS, Princeton University: The gospel of Mark is extraordinary and strange, the story, if you read it apart from the others. It's a story of this country teacher coming from nowhere with incredible power descending upon him, healing people, exorcising people, speaking strange, bold astonishing things, and startling everyone.
READER: [Mark 4:40-41] "He said to them, ´Why are you afraid, have you no faith?' And they were filled with awe and they said to one another, ´Who is this then that the wind and sea obey him?'"
NARRATOR: Mark was the first to write the story of the life of Jesus. He took disparate elements of oral tradition and a few early written sources and wove them together to create a new narrative.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Mark seems to have a knowledge of at least one and maybe two or three different collections of miracle stories. The fact that Mark takes these early sources of Jesus miracle stories suggests that, in fact, one of the earliest ways of understanding Jesus is as a miracle worker. But miracle workers are a dime a dozen in the ancient world. We hear about all sorts of people who can perform miracles, so that doesn't really seem to set him apart.
NARRATOR: In Mark, what does set Jesus apart is that he is a peculiar kind of miracle worker. In one case, he has to attempt the miracle twice to get it right, and at another time he can't perform miracles at all.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: It seems to be one of the points of Mark's Gospel to say "He's not just a miracle worker, he's more."
NARRATOR: Jesus emerges from Mark's gospel as a strange and somewhat enigmatic figure.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Jesus is mysterious. Jesus intentionally keeps people from understanding who he really is, at times.
READER: [Mark 4:11-12] "He said to them, ´For those outside everything comes in parables in order that they may indeed look but not perceive and may indeed listen but not understand.'"
NARRATOR: The Jesus in Mark's gospel both reveals and conceals his true identity, a paradox scholars call "the messianic secret."
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: It seems to me that the messianic secret is indeed that the true messiahship of Jesus cannot be recognized in his miracles, and that the Messianic secret of Jesus is that he is the son of man who has come to suffer and not the messiah who is going to do great miracles, and that that will become clear only at the very end of the story of Jesus. The suffering and the death of Jesus reveals the secret.
NARRATOR: Since the destruction of the temple, Mark's community has come to see the death of Jesus in a new light. Mark is challenging the pre-war image of Jesus as an apocalyptic figure. [www.pbs.org: More on Jesus' messianic secret]
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN, DePaul University: Mark, coming out of the experience of the first great war with Rome, after the destruction of the temple- Mark sees Jesus, like many of the Christians that Mark knew all about in his own community, as God's persecuted one, dying, almost feeling abandoned. It's a very unromantic Jesus. It's a terrifying image because that's what their experience was.
READER: [Mark 15:33-34] "When it was noon, darkness came over the
whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o'clock Jesus cried out with
a loud voice, ´My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'"
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: Mark tells us that Jesus died being mocked and in agony. I think Mark is writing for the experience of people in the 70s, who are dying like that and who need the consolation that Jesus had died that way before feeling abandoned by God.
NARRATOR: In Mark's original Gospel, Jesus dies and his body is placed in a tomb. When the tomb is discovered, Jesus is gone.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: Mark ends with an empty tomb and a waiting for the return of Jesus. He ends almost with an absent Jesus because that's what his community has experienced in persecution, an absent Jesus. Now, nobody after Mark is going to accept that. Matthew will change it. Luke will change it. John will change it. The scribes will even change the Gospel of Mark to put other endings there. Mark creates the empty tomb, as far as I can see, as his way of ending the story.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: And the last words of the original gospel are, "And they were terrified." It would be very bad news, if it weren't that underneath this rather dark story is an enormous hope that this very unpromising story and its terrible anguished ending is nevertheless not the ending, that there's a mystery in it, a divine mystery of God's revelation that will happen yet. And I think it's that sense of hope that is deeply appealing.
NARRATOR: Mark began the Gospel tradition with his dramatic story of the life and death of Jesus. The later gospel writers would continue the tradition by drawing on the story told by Mark.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: Matthew and Luke both used Mark as the core, sort of the basic storyline that they tell, because Mark is completely incorporated - 16 chapters - into both Matthew and Luke.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: Matthew and Luke depend on Mark, which is why those three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are called the "synoptic Gospels" because they can be understood together.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: Once scholars had decided that Mark's Gospel was used by Matthew and Luke, it was possible to compare them and to realize that there was also material with a common sequence and a common content that wasn't in Mark.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: Scholars observed that there's a part of the sayings in Matthew that are exactly identical with sayings in Luke. In fact, they're identical in Greek- sayings of Jesus. Now, think. Jesus spoke Aramaic. So if you were translating Aramaic and if I were translating Aramaic, they'd come out different, these translations. So you would only have identical- you would only have Jesus speaking identical sayings in Greek if you had a written translation in Greek of his sayings.
And so scholars suggested that there must have been, besides Mark, something else written down that would have been a list of the sayings of Jesus, translated into Greek. And they called that "Quelle," which means "source" in German. And they call it, for short, "Q." Nobody ever has found this source written. We can reconstruct it because we guess that there was such a written source.
NARRATOR: "Q" was composed before the war. It would have presented Jesus as an apocalyptic figure, the very image of the messiah that Mark felt compelled to change.
READER: ["Q" 13:28] "There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God and you yourself thrown out."
NARRATOR: But this is also a complex Jesus who sometimes speaks words of wisdom.
READER: ["Q" 12:27] "Consider the lilies and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in his in all his glory-
NARRATOR: "Q" does not tell the stories of the life and death of Jesus,
it contains only his sayings, so it reveals a different way of understanding
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: Whoever collected the sayings of "Q" wasn't interested in the death of Jesus, wasn't interested in the resurrection of Jesus, thought the importance of Jesus was what he said, what he preached. Now, other people thought "It's not enough to have the sayings of Jesus. You have to tell about his- about his death and his crucifixion and his resurrection. That's the important thing." Now, somebody put that all together and we call it Matthew and we call it Luke.
READER: ["Q" 6:20-21] "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied."
NARRATOR: "Q" was probably composed in the Jewish homeland of Palestine. Scholars do not agree on the location of Mark, Matthew, Luke or John. They were separated not only by geography, but also by time. Writing decades apart, they composed their Gospels for tiny communities that were developing their own ideas about Jesus, independently of each other.
READER: [Matthew 5:3,5] "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
NARRATOR: About 15 years after Mark, Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community caught up in the transformation of Judaism after the fall of the temple.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE, University of Texas, Austin: Matthew's Gospel is clearly written for a Jewish Christian audience living within the immediate proximity of the homeland itself. Matthew's is the most Jewish of all the Gospels.
NARRATOR: Matthew's community lived in villages in the upper Galilee or lower Syria. After the war, many who had been forced out of Jerusalem moved north and settled in these villages. New leadership was evolving here with the Pharisees, the rabbis who gave fresh interpretation to the ancient Jewish traditions. Matthew's community felt threatened by these changes.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS, Princeton University: The followers of Jesus were certainly very much on the fringe of the Jewish community. Obviously, the early preachers had hoped that they would convert the whole majority of their people, but they were bitterly disappointed to find that only a very few accepted their rather improbable stories. And they remained very much on the fringe of the Jewish communities.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER, Harvard Divinity School: The gospel of Matthew is concerned with the position of these early Christian churches within Israel. And it's very important that Jesus, for Matthew, is fully a man from Israel, therefore Matthew begins his Gospel by taking probably all the genealogy of Jesus, and now traces this back to Abraham. For Matthew, Jesus is the son of Abraham- that is, he is truly a man from Israel.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: The way Matthew then tells the story of Jesus draws on a lot of symbols from Jewish tradition that really convey a picture of Jesus. Jesus goes up onto a mountain to teach and there talks about the law. He looks like Moses.
READER: [Matthew 5:1,2,14] "When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up to the mountain and began to speak and taught them, saying ´You are the light of the world.'"
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Jesus delivers five different sermons of this sort, just like the five books of Torah.
READER: [Matthew 5:17] "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: In Matthew, Jesus is a proponent of Torah piety, just like the Pharisees.
READER: [Matthew 5:19-20] "Whoever breaks one of these commandments will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
NARRATOR: The Jesus of Matthew singles out the Pharisees for a bitter attack.
READER: [Matthew 23:27] "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you are like whitewash tombs which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Now, in Jesus' own times, the Pharisees weren't that prominent a group. Why does Matthew tell the story this way, so that a group that was less consequential during Jesus' own lifetime now becomes the main opponent? It's precisely because that's what's going on in the life of Matthew's community after the war. The Pharisees are becoming their opponents, and we're watching two Jewish groups, Matthew's Christian Jewish group and the local Pharisaic groups, in tension over what would be the future of Judaism.
NARRATOR: In Matthew we see a debate between two Jewish groups. Tensions created by this debate will eventually fracture Judaism and lead to the split with Christianity.
Prof. ERIC M. MEYERS, Duke University: Most of the Gospels reflect a period of disagreement, of theological disagreement. And the new narrative history that evolved in the form of the New Testament tells a story of a broken relationship. And that's part of the sad story that evolves between Jews and Christians because it is a story that has such awful repercussions in later times. [www.pbs.org: More about this broken relationship]
NARRATOR: By the time Matthew was writing, the trauma of the war was receding. Now his followers and the Pharisees were competing for the hearts and minds of the Jewish villagers over the future direction of Judaism. This may be one of the reasons Matthew's account of death of Jesus is so different from Mark's.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: Matthew was saying to himself, "I have to conclude this Gospel. I'm talking about something that happened," say "in the year 30, but I have to bring my Gospel up to the year 85. Now, what's the last climactic statement of Jesus? Where do I locate it and what does he say and to whom?"
Matthew is reading Mark. There's a massive consensus of scholarship on that. He finds that Mark ends with the women fleeing and telling nobody. Is that the way Matthew tells it? No. He has Jesus meet the women. And now the women then go and tell because Jesus sort of corrects Mark's Gospel. And the last scene in Matthew, of course, is Jesus, who meets the disciples on a mountain in Galilee where the story began - that's the sermon on the mount - and they're told to go out and preach to the world.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: The Gospels are very peculiar types of literature. They're not biographies. I mean, there are all sorts of details about Jesus that they simply are not interested in giving us. They're a kind of religious advertisement. What they do is proclaim their individual author's interpretation of the Christian message through the device of using Jesus of Nazareth as a spokesperson for the evangelist's position.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: For somebody who thinks that the four Gospels are like four witnesses in a court trying to tell exactly how the accident happened, as it were, this is extremely troubling. It is not at all troubling to me because they told me, quite honestly, that they were Gospels. And a Gospel is good news - "good" and "news" - updated interpretation, so I did not expect journalism.
Prof. WAYNE A. MEEKS, Yale University: There are several different portraits of Jesus enshrined in the shape of the traditions about him, and these seem to go back to very early times.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: The major issue for me is whether the people who told us the stories in the ancient world took them all literally, and now we're so smart that we know to take them symbolically, or they all intended them symbolically and we're so dumb that we've been taking them literally? And I really am with the second option. I think we have been misinterpreting these stories because the people who write them don't seem the least bit worried about their diversity. We see the problem and then we want to insist that they're literal. I think we have misread the Scriptures, not that they have miswritten them.
READER: [Luke 1:30-31] "Since many have undertaken to set down the events that have been fulfilled among us, I too decided after investigating everything carefully, to write an orderly account."
NARRATOR: Luke's Gospel takes the separation from Judaism one step further because Luke was almost certainly a gentile, writing for a mainly gentile audience. And the story he has to tell is how word of Jesus reached the rest of the world.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX, President, Union Theological Seminary: The Jesus of Luke is an enormously powerful figure. I mean he comes on the scene as a prophet straight out of the Hebrew Bible. At his first appearance in his hometown synagogue, he quotes the prophet Isaiah.
READER: [Luke 4:18] "The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN, DePaul University: Jesus goes into the synagogue. He takes the scroll of Isaiah. He is literate, of course. He can read. And he is a scholar. He can find his way around a unpointed Hebrew scroll and find exactly the place he wants and reads it and comments on it. Jesus is a scholar. Jesus is rather like Luke, actually.
Luke was a traveling companion of the apostle Paul and probably lived in one of the cities where Paul founded a Christian community. Luke wrote a story about Jesus, but he also wrote the Book of Acts, the story of the growth of the early church and its spread throughout the empire.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: It's very important to remember that the Gospel of Luke is only one half of a major work and we make a mistake by reading the gospel of Luke just as the story of Jesus. What Luke wrote was a story that began with John the Baptist and ends with the arrival of Paul in Rome.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: So the author of Luke Acts - and that's what we call them now, that's a two-volume work - is telling us a bigger story, a grander story.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: In fact, it's such a good story that many scholars have compared it to the novelistic literature of the time and have interpreted Luke Acts as really a Christian- an early Christian romance, with all the ingredients of romance down to shipwrecks and exotic animals and exotic vegetation, cannibalistic natives, all kinds of embellishments that one finds in the romance literature of the time.
READER: [Acts 27:18-20] "We were being pounded by the storm so violently that on the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard, and on the third day with their own hands they threw the ship's tackle overboard. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: The style of Luke's Gospel is probably the highest literary quality of anything in the New Testament, so it's very different than Mark on that score, which has a much cruder quality to the grammar. So anyone from the literary culture of the Greco-Roman world who might have picked up Luke's Gospel would have felt much more comfortable with it, much more like reading a Greek novel.
NARRATOR: Tradition holds that Luke was a physician. He clearly possessed a fine command of Greek. And his composition addresses a dilemma faced by Christian communities across the empire.
Prof. HAROLD W. ATTRIDGE, Yale Divinity School: One of the major concerns that the composite work of Luke and Acts addresses is whether Christians can be good citizens of the Roman Empire. After all, their founder was executed as a political criminal, and some people would have thought of them as incendiaries, as revolutionaries. Luke in his portrait wants to show that Jesus himself taught an ethic that was entirely compatible with good citizenship of the empire and that despite the fact that Paul was himself executed, all of that was a serious mistake and had nothing to do with the political program. It wasn't in any way dangerous.
NARRATOR: In fact, in Luke's version of history - the book of Acts - Paul is treated kindly by his Roman guards.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: The death of Paul is not taught. It ends on a triumphant note, in a way, that Paul is speaking, preaching freely the Gospel unhindered.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: The counterpart to the realization that Luke is telling the story for a Greco-Roman audience with a kind of political agenda is what happens to Luke's treatment of the Jewish tradition. Luke is much more antagonistic towards Judaism.
NARRATOR: When Luke describes Paul's visit to a synagogue, he shows the Jews in a hostile light.
READER: [Acts 14:1-2] "Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish Synagogue, but the unbelieving Jews stirred up the gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers."
NARRATOR: Luke Acts is also the first time we see the followers of Jesus explicitly called Christians.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: This ethnic self-consciousness that's being reflected by Luke Acts is beginning to say that "We, the Christians, the ones who are telling this story, are no longer in quite the same way just Jews." Luke is reflecting the development of the Christian movement more away from the Jewish roots and, in fact, developing more toward the Roman political and social arena.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: As you read the story in the Acts of the Apostles, you get the impression that everything moves westward from Jerusalem to Rome. That's where the story ends, when Paul gets to Rome. You wouldn't know, for example, really, that there was an Egyptian church. You wouldn't know there was a Syrian church. Everything would be a Roman church. And that's the story that Luke wants to tell. When the Gospel gets to Rome, the capital of the empire, that's the end of the story.
READER: [John 1:1-3,14] "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God. And the word was God and the word became flesh and dwelt among us."
NARRATOR: The fourth and last Gospel now contained in the New Testament is the Gospel of John, written about 70 years after the death of Jesus. It is the story of a community where the relationship between Christians and Jews has become more virulent, almost to the point of breakdown.
READER: [John 8:12] "I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
Prof. HAROLD W. ATTRIDGE: In the fourth Gospel, Jesus is a very serene figure who can speak at length about matters divine, a very different kind of speech than the speech which we hear in the synoptic Gospels, which is usually much more pithy, much more directed, much more witty. In John, it's reflective and revelatory.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: John's Gospel is different from the other three in the New Testament. That fact has been recognized since the early church itself. Already by the year 200, John's Gospel was called the "spiritual Gospel" precisely because it told the story of Jesus in symbolic ways that differ sharply at times from the other three.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: Let me compare Mark with John to explain how two Gospels do it differently. In - we call it "the agony in the garden." Now, there is no agony in John and there is no garden in Mark, but we call it "the agony in the garden" because we put them together. Mark tells the story in which Jesus, the night before he dies, is prostrate on the ground, begging God, "If this all could pass, but I will do what you want." And the disciples all flee.
Now that's an awful picture. That makes sense to me because Mark is writing to a persecuted community who know what it's like to die. That's how you die, feeling abandoned by God.
the ground in John. The whole cohort of the Jerusalem forces come out, 600 troops come out to capture Jesus, and they end up with their faces on the ground in John. And Jesus says, "Of course I will do what the Father wants." And Jesus tells them to, "Let my disciples go." He's in command of the whole operation.
You have a Jesus out of control, almost, in Mark, a Jesus totally in control in John- both Gospel. Neither of them are historical. I don't think either of them know exactly what happened.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Jesus dies on a different day in John's Gospel than in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus actually eats a Passover meal before he dies. In John's Gospel he doesn't. The Last Supper is actually eaten before the beginning of Passover.
So here's the scene in John's Gospel. The day leading up to Passover is the day when all the lambs are slaughtered and everyone goes to the temple to get their lamb for the Passover meal. In Jerusalem this would have meant thousands of lambs being slaughtered all at one time. And in John's Gospel, that's the day on which Jesus is crucified, so that, quite literally, the dramatic scene in John's Gospel has Jesus hanging on the cross while the lambs are being slaughtered for Passover.
READER: [John 1:29] "Here is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Jesus doesn't eat a Passover meal; Jesus is the Passover meal.
READER: [John 6:55-56] "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my mortal flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: But the idea of drinking blood is absolutely abhorrent to Jewish dietary regulations. So the very language and the symbolism that is so rich within John's Gospel also has a decidedly political tone to it, in terms of the evolving relationship between Jews and Christians.
NARRATOR: Throughout the Roman Empire, Judaism itself was evolving. The role of the synagogue was changing from a meeting place to a place of worship. Worship in the synagogue increasingly centered on Torah as the word of God. But John's community saw Jesus as the word of God, and for this conviction they would be forced out of the synagogue.
READER: [John 9:22] "The Jews had agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue."
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: As I read John, I come to two conclusions. One is that this is a Jewish group. If you want to call them Christians, they're Jewish Christians. They're one group within Judaism. The second conclusion is that they are being more and more marginalized. That is, their appeal to lead all of Judaism is becoming less and less likely. They're becoming smaller and smaller and smaller. And they can refer to their other- their fellow Jews as "the Jews." They are feeling profoundly alienated from their own Judaism. In plain language, they're losing. And that means the language of invective gets nastier and nastier.READER: [John 8:39,42,44] "The Jews answered him, ´Abraham is our father.' Jesus said to them, ´If God were your father, you would love me. You are from your father, the devil.'"
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: So Mark talks about the crowd being against Jesus. But by Matthew, 15 years later, say in the year 85, it's all the people. And by the time you get to John in the 90s, it is the Jews who are against Jesus.
NARRATOR: The conflict between Jews and Christians that John described in his story of Jesus was still a local experience. But it soon would be swept up in the rising political conflict between Jews and Romans over Roman rule in Jerusalem.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: The relationship between Judaism and Christianity after the turn of the 2nd century would become more and more hostile as time went on partly because of other political forces that continued to develop.
NARRATOR: In the year 132 of the Common Era, Jerusalem bristled with rumors that the Emperor Hadrian planned to rebuild the city - and the temple -- dedicating it to Jupiter, the patron god of the city of Rome. For many Jews this was an abomination worthy of divine vengeance.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: The political expectations of apocalyptic did not simply die out after the First Revolt. Some people, both within Christian tradition and within Jewish tradition, still expected a cataclysmic event to bring a new Kingdom on Earth soon.
READER: [2nd Baruch] "Behold the days are coming and it will happen when the time of the world has ripened and the harvest of the seed of the evil ones and the good ones has come."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Within 60 years after the First Revolt, there would arise a new rebellion. We typically call this the second Jewish revolt against Rome or the Bar Kokbha [sp?] revolt. And it's named after a famous rebel leader who really becomes the central figure of this new political period. He's called Bar Kokbha.
Prof. ERIC M. MEYERS, Duke University: Bar Kokbha was a pseudo-messiah, supported by large segments of the population. He claimed to be a descendent of King David. He claimed to be the Messiah himself and was supported by none other than one of the major figures of the day, Rabbi Aqiba. So this war was very different. It was a millennial revolt. It was a messianic revolt. And it touched chords that were not touched in the First Revolt.
READER: [2nd Baruch] "The Earth's inhabitants and its rulers will hate one another and provoke one another to war."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Apparently, he did take Jerusalem for some time. And coins are found now that say "The Year One of the Redemption of Israel." They really think they have established the new Kingdom.
Prof. ERIC M. MEYERS: You might think that there would never be another war like the first war. But the second war with Rome, the Bar Kokbha war, was probably even worse than the first war. Even though Jerusalem wasn't destroyed, the devastation might have even been greater.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Some people in the second revolt tried to press other Jews, including Christians, into the revolt, saying, "Come join us to fight against the Romans. You believe God is going to restore the Kingdom to Israel, don't you? Join us." But the Christians by this time are starting to say, "No, he can't be the Messiah. We already have one."
NARRATOR: Not long ago, in these inaccessible cliffs only a few miles from the fortress of Masada, archeologists hit on a discovery that has finally revealed the ultimate fate of Bar Kokbha and his followers.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Apparently, the rebels that followed Bar Kokbha hid in these caves during the last stages of the war. But we know that the Romans knew where they were and simply camped up on top of the hill waiting for them to starve to death or come out and give up.
NARRATOR: Rubble from the Roman lookout post is still there, blocking the only escape route.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: One of the caves is called the Cave of Horrors, and it contains over 40 skeletons of men, women and children who preferred to die rather than give in to the Romans. Another cave is called the Cave of Letters, and in it were found caches of pottery and coins and other things of daily life. Now, among the letters found in the Cave of Letters is at least one from Bar Kokbha himself, and it's a very interesting letter because it asks his friends and followers to bring certain things to the caves. So they're expecting to hold out for quite some time.
NARRATOR: Sixty years after Masada became a symbol of failed expectations, the Cave of Horrors now stood for the final failure of Jewish resistance to Rome. With the death of Bar Kokbha, Jewish expectations of a coming Messiah receded. And Christians now looked to the distant future for the return of their Messiah. The Kingdom of God was becoming less an apocalyptic vision than a spiritual abstraction.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: The self-consciously apocalyptic and messianic identity of Bar Kokbha forces the issue for the Christian tradition. And at that point, we really see the full-fledged separation of Jewish tradition and Christian tradition becoming clear.
NARRATOR: It is a defining moment in history. The two heirs of an ancient faith, rabbinic Judaism and upstart Christianity, would now follow separate paths.
ANNOUNCER: "From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians" will return in a
ANNOUNCER: We now return to "From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians."
NARRATOR: In the Roman Coliseum, death became mass entertainment. Amphitheaters demonstrated the power of the emperor. Convicted criminals were sent here to be devoured by wild beasts. In time, those "criminals" would include Christians.
Ever since the time of Caesar Augustus, all religions were tolerated by Rome, provided that their worshipers performed their civic duty and sacrificed to the cult of the emperor. It was this that eventually brought Christians into conflict with Roman authority.
But at the end of the 1st century, Christianity was still the religion of a few. The Roman empire was overwhelmingly pagan, and it seemed impossible to imagine that the teachings of an obscure sect could challenge its influence.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE, University of Texas, Austin: Religion in the ancient world is very much a part of public life. They had no idea of a separation between religion and state.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: Paganism is the rich native religious stew of traditional society in the Mediterranean. It's a spiritual universe that's thickly populated with gods and spirits. When you look up into the stars at night, you see the soul of heroes.
NARRATOR: Paganism was very tolerant of other religions. The Olympian gods were revered, but this did not prevent their devotees worshipping other gods.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: You have low-tech religions like magic. People routinely go to magicians. If you have a sinus infection, if you need somebody to fall in love with you, if you're betting on a horse and you've lost the past three races, you go to a professional.
NARRATOR: At the same time, more and more people were seeking solace in more spiritual and personal forms of religion. A fresco in Pompeii shows worshipers celebrating the solemn rites of the ancient Dionysian mystery cult. And newer cults, often from foreign parts, were taking hold around the empire.
READER: [Hymn to Isis] "Greatest of the gods, first of names, thou rulest over the mid-air and the immeasurable space. Thou art the lady of light and flame." [www.pbs.org: Gods, cults and magic]
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX, President, Union Theological Seminary: One would have found in the major cities of the Mediterranean basin a cult of the Egyptian gods. Egyptian cults would have included probably Isis as the ascendant deity. Isis was perceived by her devotees as being remarkably attentive. Isis would respond to you when you were in trouble. She would answer your prayers. She had that reputation. One of the most important representations of Isis is what we call the "Isis lactans." That's Isis suckling her offspring at her breast. This is the kind of iconography that appears to have been terribly determinative in the early iconography of Mary and Jesus.
NARRATOR: Worshipers of the age old Persian god, Mithras, gathered in secret chapels throughout the empire. They would eat sacred meals together and celebrate their god's birthday on December 25th.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: The Egyptian cult and Mithraism were two of the great religious movements of the time and certainly would have been posed some of the most difficult competition for Christianity.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS, Princeton University: Most people who study the origins of Christianity are curious about how this unlikely movement would have succeeded in such a powerful and dramatic way and it's not an easy question to answer why this movement succeeded when others did not.
If you think about the gods of the ancient world and you think about what they looked like, they looked like the emperor and his court. But this religion is saying that every person - man, woman, child, slave, barbarian, no matter who - is made in the image of God and is therefore of enormous value in the eyes of God. Now, in a society that's three quarters slave, that's an extraordinary message.
NARRATOR: But the message of Christianity was by no means uniform. In Egypt, an astonishing discovery made in 1945 shed light on the enormous diversity of early Christian thought.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Other than the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the most important archeological find for much of the early Christian period is the manuscript discovery at Nag Hammadi on the Nile River in Egypt. There, in 1945, was discovered a cache of manuscripts in clay jars buried in the hillside beside the river.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: The discovery at Nag Hammadi began with an Arab villager whose name was Mohammed Ali going with his brothers on an ordinary errand. They took their camels and rode up to a cliff which is honeycombed with thousands of caves. They were digging under the cliffs for fertilizer- that is for bird droppings, which fertilized the crops.
And Mohammed Ali said he struck something when he was digging underground. And curious, he kept digging, and he was startled to find a six-foot jar, sealed. And next to it was buried a corpse. Mohammed Ali said he hesitated to break the jar because he thought there might be a jinn in it, but hope overcame fear. He took- he said he picked up his mattock and smashed the jar and saw particles of gold fly out of it, much to his delight. But a moment later, he realized it was only pieces of- fragments of papyrus. Inside the jar were 13 volumes bound in tooled gazelle leather.
NARRATOR: What Mohammed Ali had discovered were books written in the ancient Egyptian language known as Coptic. Unable to read them, Ali took them home.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: Later his mother said that she took some of them and threw them into the fire for kindling when she was baking bread. What he didn't know until- what we didn't know until much later is that these contained some of the most precious texts of the 20th century, that they have uncovered for us a whole new way of seeing the early Christian world.
NARRATOR: What the books showed was that early Christianity was even more diverse than scholars had suspected, with many different ways of interpreting Jesus.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: There were 52 texts altogether, apparently- unless some of them were burned that we don't know about. And they contain secret Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip. They also contain conversations between Jesus and his disciples, that claim to go back to Jesus and his disciples- all kinds of literature from the early Christian era, a whole discovery of text rather like the New Testament, but also very different.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: Christianity- or one would rather say "Christianities" of the second and 3rd centuries were, again, a highly variegated phenomenon. We really can't imagine Christianity as a unified, coherent religious movement.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: We probably ought to think of it as a kind of regional diversity. That is, the Christianity of Rome was different than Christianity in North Africa in certain ways, and that was different from what we find in Egypt, and that different from what we find in Syria or back in Palestine.
NARRATOR: Some of the oldest Christian communities were in western Turkey, where Paul and his followers had established many of the earliest congregations. At the end of the 1st century, Christians here found themselves in a confrontation with Roman power and authority.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: About the year 112, an important event takes place that bring us on the stage in a new way in the history of earliest Christianity. The scene is in the Roman province of Bithynia, in modern-day Turkey. At that time, there is a relatively new governor sent to take over. His name is Pliny the Younger.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: Pliny was a friend of the emperor Trajan, and was an extremely respected Roman official.
NARRATOR: One of Pliny's duties was to maintain order. In this capacity, he was presented with a legal and ethical problem, which he described in a letter to the emperor Trajan.
READER: [Pliny the Younger] "Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the methods or limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: So we have to imagine Pliny seated in the form of a Roman administrator, a Roman magistrate, all decked out in his finery, enthroned in the tribunal, with his guards and his bailiffs and his courtiers around him. And before him stand these Christians, and Pliny can't figure out who they are or why they're there. Apparently, they've done something that get their neighbors mad at them. The neighbors have complained that the temples are empty and no one's buying certain things for the Gods, and they're Christians. And so some how or another, Pliny is forced to deal with this as a criminal matter.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: Pliny genuinely was perplexed because he sees what appear to be good, law-abiding citizens being hauled up on trumped-up charges of being a Christian, and simply on that basis, by convention being subject to capital punishment. So I think Pliny allows us a rare glimpse into the moral and legal conundrum that Christianity posed for scrupulous, morally scrupulous Roman officials.
READER: [Pliny the Younger] "The method I have observed is this: I interrogated whether they were Christians. If they confessed it, I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment. If they still persevered I ordered them to be executed."
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: Pliny allows in his correspondence how this really is one of the most stubborn groups of people he's ever encountered. And that, in itself, seems to warrant a rather strident attack on the Christians.
READER: [Pliny the Younger] "I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth with the assistance of torture from two female slaves who were styled deaconesses, but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition."
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: He says they don't really do all that much. They meet before daybreak. They sing hymns antiphonally and they worship Christ as if he were a God. And then, he says, they take an oath, but not an oath to do anything bad, rather an oath only to be good, not to defraud people, not to do anything evil and so on.
READER: [Pliny the Younger] "Those who denied they ever were or ever had been Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods and offered adoration to your image, these I thought it proper to discharge."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: And he says to the emperor, "Do you think I handled it correctly?" The emperor then writes back and says, "Sounds okay to me, but don't go out looking for these Christians. And if you get some anonymous charges against people, don't take that too seriously. We don't want to set any bad precedents here."
NARRATOR: Before Pliny, legal precedent still held that Christians were a sect of Judaism.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Because it was considered a part of Judaism, Christianity was considered to be protected by the legal status of Jewish tradition within the Roman empire. So when we see Pliny taking note of Christians as a separate group, it really marks a departure, a change in the status of Christianity both in its relationship to Judaism and in its relationship to the Roman empire.
READER: [A Letter to Diognetus] "Christians are warred upon by the Jews and are persecuted by the Greeks, and those that hate them cannot state the cause of their enmity."
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: Pliny's program evolved into a very explicit policy of execution that probably was the model throughout a good deal of Asia Minor - what's now modern Turkey. And that policy was to ask the question. If the answer is no, fine, "Go sacrifice." If they couldn't sacrifice, then that was proof that they were Christian and they could be executed. So Pliny thought, ultimately, that once the matter was settled that he was doing the right thing, that he was saving the empire from the spread of a dangerous and seditious movement.
NARRATOR: It was precisely their unwillingness to make public sacrifice to the emperor and the gods that made Christians seem anti-social and seditious.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Religion was one of the most important features of the maintenance of the state. One offered sacrifices on certain days as a part of the celebration of the founding of the state. One offered sacrifices on the birthday of the emperor. Cities very often mounted these enormous celebrations to celebrate the emperors, and all the populace would have been expected to come and join in.
NARRATOR: At these great public ceremonials, Christians were becoming all too often conspicuous by their absence.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: When the Christians really do become much more prominent in the social arena of Greek and Roman cities, the pagans start to take note of their absence from important festival days and their unwillingness to participate in certain aspects of social life.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: Judaism had long ago come to a legal agreement with the Emperor that they would- Jews would not be forced to participate in pagan rituals. And pagan rituals are part of the normal fabric of life in a Roman city. Jews were exempted from this because Romans knew that Jews were odd about this kind of thing.
Prof. WAYNE A. MEEKS, Yale University: Now, along come this new group, the Christians, and they're behaving the same way, but they obviously aren't ancient. They started under Pontius Pilate. They say so themselves. So it's novel, but if it's novel, from the Roman point of view, it cannot be a religion. Religion is, by definition, ancient, from Roman perspective. So if it's new and novel, it's a superstition, it's not a religion. And superstition is, by definition, not a good thing.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: We have a good example of the pagan perspective on Christians from a little graffiti found in Rome from the Palentine Hill. An inscription scratched very crudely into the wall says, "Alexamenos worships his God." In the picture, we see Alexamenos bowing down before the man on the cross, but the man on the cross has the head of a donkey.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: Christians have made themselves outlanders in their own town, and therefore they are used as an explanatory device whenever there are the usual natural insults of human existence- plague, earthquake, flood. It's because the Christians, as gentiles who are not doing their duty to heaven are- why should the gods do anything for the city then?
NARRATOR: Though persecution was still mainly local and sporadic, it was becoming a crime to be a Christian. Christians who were charged faced a terrible choice: to recant and make a sacrifice to the emperor, or sacrifice their own lives for the faith.
READER: [Turtellian Apology] "In the blood of the martyrs lie the seeds of the church."
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: One of the most amazing documents historians of early Christianity are privileged to have is the prison diary of a young woman who was martyred, I think in the year 202 or 203, on Carthage as part of a civic celebration. Her name is Perpetua. And she insisted on being killed.
READER: [The Diary of Perpetua] "We were lodged in the prison and I was terrified, as I had never been in such a dark hole."
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: Perpetua has brought herself to the attention of the governor and she is really insisting on being put into the arena. There's an incredibly powerful trial scene where Perpetua's father is pleading with her and, finally, actually trying to beat her. And the governor has him subdued by his soldiers. And the governor says, "Please, won't you cooperate?" And Perpetua says, "No, I'm a Christian."
Now, there's no dragnet out for Christians. Perpetua is visited by other Christians in prison. If the governor were trying to get all the Christians in Carthage, he just could have arrested whoever is going to visit Perpetua. But he doesn't.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: She's pregnant during part of this story and only gives birth just before she herself goes to her death. She has to give her own child away at the moment that she is about to give her life away.
READER: [The Diary of Perpetua] "In my dream I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze reaching all the way to the heavens. At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size, and it would attack those who would try to climb up. ´He will not harm me,' I said, ´in the name of Jesus Christ.'"
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: The authentic diary ends before Perpetua is led into the arena. What we have concluding the diary is a description done by somebody who is presenting a hero tale.
READER: [The Diary of Perpetua] "The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully, as if they were going to Heaven."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: She's led out into the amphitheater before the crowds, and about to be set upon by beasts. She really goes with a great deal of authority and stature and serenity. [www.pbs.org: Read Perpetua's diary]
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: She faces down the animals. And finally, after being tormented by several animals, a young gladiator is sent into the arena to dispatch her. And his- it's just an incredibly moving scene. His hand is trembling so much he can't- he can't cut her. And she grabs his hand and guides his sword to her own throat.
Prof. WAYNE A. MEEKS, Yale University: The stories of the martyrs that have come down to us are all hero stories, and they're all intended, obviously, as ah ways of strengthening the faith of those who remain. If we read only those martyr stories, we would suppose that all Christians were heroes and that the church flourishes because of that heroism. Obviously, this is an idolization. If we actually tote up the number of martyrs that we can identify, it's a really quite small number over the three centuries during which Christianity was in the position of being the outsiders.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: We don't have tens of thousands of people being martyred. What we do have is tens of thousands of people admiring the few who are martyred.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE, University of Texas, Austin: The story of the martyrdom of Perpetua is a very important milestone in the development of early Christianity because of what the story tells us about the perception of Christians at that time. We can see the contrast rather sharply. At the time of Pliny at the beginning of the 2nd century, Christians are an unknown commodity. And so even when he executes them, he really doesn't know quite what to make of them.
Within 100 years, by the year 203, when Perpetua meets her death as a martyr, Christianity has become a recognizable commodity. The death of Perpetua is a story of a very significant change in the status of Christianity. It had begun to be a part of the Roman world.
Prof. SHAYE J.D. COHEN, Brown University: Now that Christianity has emerged as a group, as a church, as something not Judaism, the question that Christians now confronted is "What is Christianity?" The 2nd century is an age of Christian self-definition, in which the Christian church itself was trying to figure out exactly what is the new message, what exactly is the new church.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX, Pres. Union Theological Seminary: Certainly, there were some religious organizations, such as the ecclesiae, the church, the leadership, the bishop, the deacons, the presbyters. There were institutions developing in some Christian churches, but only in some, and this was not universal by any means.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: We have, in effect, different brands of Christianity living often side by side, even in the same city. At one point in Rome, Justin Martyr has his Christian school in one part of the city, and the Gnostic teacher, Valentinus, in another school in Rome, and another so-called heretic by the name of Marcion is also in Rome just down the street somewhere- all of these along side of the official papal tradition that developed as part of St. Peter's See in Rome.
NARRATOR: There were still debates about how Christians should relate to Judaism. One group following the Jewish calendar felt that Easter should fall on the same day as Passover. Others thought they should follow the Roman calendar and celebrate during the solar festival of the spring equinox, on a Sunday. And Marcion wanted to strip away everything that smacked of Jewish traditions.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER, Harvard Divinity School: Marcion was a wealthy ship owner. He came to Rome and he gave the Roman church a lot of money and they welcomed him with open arms. But he felt that the original Christian Gospel was no longer preserved, and he thought that only the apostle Paul had the true Gospel.
And he set out to find this true Gospel, and he took the Gospel of Luke and purified it from whatever he thought was Jewish and said, "This should be the scripture for the church, and this should be the only scripture for the church." And the Roman church became very suspicious of his manipulations with the Gospel of Luke. It is reported that they gave the money back to him and said, "Thank you very much, but we don't want you and your Gospel."
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: This is where we start to see a kind of proliferation of Gospel's tradition all over the empire, and by the third and early fourth century, there are more Gospels than you can actually count, and certainly more than you can easily read within a Bible.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS, Princeton University: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example, shows us a Christian community in which Mary Magdalene is regarded as a disciple, as a leader, as one of the major teachers in the group, and one who claims that women should be able to teach.
Prof. HAROLD W. ATTRIDGE, Yale Divinity School: Another text called the "Gospel of Truth" is not a narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus at all. It's a symbolic reflection on certain themes that come from Scripture and are associated with the life and teachings of Jesus.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: We also hear of other kinds of Gospels that develop, stories of the birth that tell you in lurid detail, really, how true it really was or how marvelous and miraculous it was; stories of traveling apostles to all kinds of strange lands- Thomas, who goes to India; Andrew, who goes out to some strange world, and so on. These kinds of stories proliferate through the second and 3rd century.
NARRATOR: One of the important discoveries at Nag Hammadi was a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas. Written in Syria in the 2nd century, this collection of sayings proved very influential- and startling.
Prof. WAYNE A. MEEKS: The Gospel of Thomas is nothing but sayings of Jesus. It simply goes along and says, "Jesus said this. Jesus said that." Well, some of these things that Jesus said according to the Gospel of Thomas are quite familiar. They're very similar to things in the canonical Gospels, but not identical.
READER: [The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 100] "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God; and give to me what is mine."
NARRATOR: These sayings of Jesus are filled with familiar, rustic images, like the parable of the mustard seed. But others are strange and unsettling.
READER: [The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 59] "Look to the living one as long as you live, for you might die. And then try to see the living one and you will be unable to see."
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: My favorite of these is saying number 70, which says, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: Now, what is typical about these sayings is that in each instance, these sayings want to say that if you want to understand what Jesus said, you have to recognize yourself. You have to know yourself.
NARRATOR: With its emphasis on self-knowledge and Jesus as the revealer of secret wisdom, some scholars think that the Gospel of Thomas became a source for a competing stream of Christian tradition known as Gnosticism.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: Paul, and Pauline Christianity, would have placed all of the emphasis on Jesus' death and resurrection, and the saving power of that death and resurrection. Gnostic Christianity, on the other hand, would have placed its principle emphasis - in fact its prime emphasis - on the message, the wisdom, the knowledge that Jesus transmits.
NARRATOR: Most Gnostics believed that Jesus was so divine that he had never entered into human form and so could not have been crucified. This brought Gnostics into conflict with other Christians.
Prof. HAROLD W. ATTRIDGE: It was very important to insist on Jesus as really suffering and dying on the cross because Christians were being called upon at that time to suffer and die as witnesses, as martyrs to their faith. And if, with some Gnostics, you could denigrate the physical suffering of Jesus, you might call into question that obligation to stand and to bear witness for the faith.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: Bishop Irenaeus who wrote in the 2nd century in what is now France was about 18 to 20 years old when his little community was absolutely decimated by a devastating persecution. They say that 50 to 70 people in two small towns were tortured and executed. Fifty to seventy people executed in public is a devastating destruction of that beleaguered community, and Irenaeus was trying to unify those who were left. What frustrated him is that they didn't all believe the same thing. They didn't all gather under one kind of leadership. And he, like others, was deeply aware of the dangers of fragmentation.
NARRATOR: Irenaeus thundered against those he saw as heretics, including the so-called Gnostics.
READER: [Irenaeus] "Let those persons who blaspheme the creator, as do all the falsely so-called Gnostics, be recognized as agents of Satan by all who worship God."
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: Bishop Irenaeus coined the term we call "orthodox." Now, literally, in Greek "orthodox" means "straight thinking." It's like "orthodontia" means "straight teeth," "orthodox" means "straight ideas." And those who didn't agree with his ideas he called "heterodox," that means simply thinking otherwise, or "heretics," which means people who make choices about what to think. Irenaeus didn't want people making choices. He wanted them thinking what the bishop told him to think.
NARRATOR: Irenaeus had to contend not only with those who believed in vastly different Gospels, but also with the followers of Marcion, who believed that Jesus should be represented by just one Gospel. He looked for a compromise.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: Irenaeus says that the number of the Gospels is properly four. "These are the earliest. These are the best, but four is the right number. After all, there's four corners to the world. There's four winds. There are four areas of heaven. And there are four beasts who reveal God's will in the Apocalypse. Four is the right number. These are the four."
Assoc. Prof. ALLEN CALLAHAN, Harvard Divinity School: The story implied is that there is some smoked-filled room somewhere in the 2nd century and a bunch of these cigar-smoking Christian big shots got together and they decided who was going in and who was going out. It was a wrap. They closed up, and then everything else was on the cutting room floor and the janitors took away what didn't get in the Canon.
I think precisely the contrary is closer to more responsible historical reconstruction, and that is that there is some kind of consensus among the people in the Jesus movement as to what constitutes reliable tradition, reliable literature, literature that they want to read, that they want to hear over and over again, and other kinds of literature that they don't want to hear.
NARRATOR: One criterion for inclusion was whether the Gospel told the story of the suffering and death of Jesus. This was crucial to the emerging sense of orthodoxy because the centerpiece of Christian ritual, the celebration of the Eucharist, cannot live without that story.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: And it is out of that movement that the four Gospel canon arise. And it comes, interestingly enough, as a canon that preserves diversity- within limits, but it preserves diversity. There is no claim that this canon represents four Gospels that are all saying the same thing. It is, rather, an attempt to bring together as many Christian communities into one major church. [www.pbs.org: The beginning of the New Testament]
NARRATOR: By the middle of the 3rd century, Christians were buried alongside Jews and pagans in catacombs, underground tombs beneath the outskirts of Rome. There is evidence here of the growing homogenization of the Christian story. The artwork on the tombs shows little sign of Gnostic imagery. They are largely scenes from the canonical Gospels which are now merging into one single story.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN, DePaul University: What's interesting is what they choose, because what they choose of Jesus is especially the healer. He appears beardless, so he's a young. He's a new, young God, as it were - he's not an old fuddy-duddy like Asclepias - the god of healing. And what's extraordinary is he'd either have his hand or even a wand on the person he's healing.
Now, nothing that I know of in the entire Greco-Roman world ever shows Asclepias with his hand on somebody he's healing. Jesus is an Asclepias who makes house calls. I think this is one of the great things that helps the spread. Jesus is not shown as a transcendental being, he's down there in the mud of human history with his hand on people's heads.
NARRATOR: The art of the catacombs also illustrates the Christians' attempts to integrate into Greco-Roman society.
Prof. JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN: As Christianity moves out of the Jewish sphere into the more Pagan sphere, then all sorts of Pagan ideas and all sorts of Pagan themes and images and pictures start pouring into Christianity.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE: We have this figure of the shepherd with the sheep draped over his shoulders. We now may tend to think of that as reflecting the Gospel stories of Jesus of the lost sheep or Jesus as the good shepherd from the Gospel of John. In point of fact, from Roman perspective this is the virtue of philanthropy, of love of humanity, and it's one of the most important virtues of Roman civic and public life.
NARRATOR: All around the Mediterranean world the ancient pagan gods lingered in their age-old temples and immemorial shrines. But their power was under threat.
Prof. WAYNE A. MEEKS, Yale University: Roman society, Roman law, are both highly tolerant of religious diversity, as long as you do the things which every Roman is expected to do, sort of those religious acts which are your civic duty. Nobody cares what you believe in your heart of hearts. Then appears Christianity, which is exclusive, which is intolerant, which will not allow you to do whatever everybody else does, and it's a profound shock to those who get to know it well. It appears as a dangerous rival to the present society, as it begins to grow strong.
Prof. ELIZABETH A. CLARK, Duke University: Christian writers, throughout the middle and later 2nd century, developed the techniques of trying to argue that Christianity was really a superior religion because it was monotheistic, over against polytheistic, and that it- Christians exemplified higher virtue in their lives than did pagans. They pointed to examples of Christians living in chastity, great virtue, self-sacrifice and so on throughout their lives.
These Christian apologists also made fun of pagan religion in a way that might not have been too prudent. They laughed at the various Greek myths that formed the basis for some of Greco-Roman religion. They laughed at the stories of the gods, their adulteries, their jealousies, their goings on with each other, et cetera, and could really make mincemeat out of these traditions.
NARRATOR: The ideas that had started with the carpenter's son were being reinterpreted. In the uncompromising language of Apocalypse, Jesus had preached the message of the coming Kingdom of God. Now Jesus himself became the message and the source of eternal life.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER, Harvard Divinity School: The message that was preached here promised spiritual gifts to people that went beyond the everyday life experience, and promised also immortality, promised a future life which would be liberation from sickness and from disease and from poverty and individual isolation and whatever. There is a future for the individual. But one should not see the success of Christianity simply on the level of a great religious message.
NARRATOR: To the subjects of the Roman empire, Christianity offered the individual dignity in this life and hope in the afterlife. But it was also winning converts by offering a helping hand to the needy.
Prof. ELAINE PAGELS: For example, like other elements of the Jewish community, the followers of Jesus tended to feed the destitute, take care of people who were widowed so that they wouldn't become prostitutes and orphans and so forth. That was a primary obligation of Jewish piety. And Jesus' followers certainly understood that.
Prof. ELIZABETH A. CLARK: Of course there was no Welfare system, so to speak, in the ancient world. Wealthy Romans had given money for programs such as the feeding of children and so on. But even such programs as we know of didn't compare in size and scope to what the churches were doing.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: So Christianity really established a realm of mutual social support for the members that joined the church. And I think that this was probably, in the long run, an enormously important factor for the success of the Christian mission.
NARRATOR: By the year 250, Christianity had grown so much that a stronger church organization was needed to administer the welfare system. It was becoming a state within a state. Meanwhile, Rome's rulers felt their control of the empire slipping away, and Christian undermining of traditional belief was no longer to be tolerated.
Prof. WAYNE A. MEEKS: The middle of the 3rd century is often identified as a crisis in the Roman empire. This is a time when the emperor's feeling under great pressure. There is a sense that "We are being besieged on the borders," that the barbarians may be coming in at any moment, the Persians are dangerous, the Germans are dangerous and so on. And so there's a great sense that "Anything that upsets this ancient contract between the Romans and the Gods has got to be dangerous to us."
After a long period, in which the persecutions of Christianity were really spasmodic, local, involved very few people, suddenly, in the middle of the 3rd century, the year 250, the Emperor Decius decides that Christians are a real enemy of the Roman order, that they must be dealt with, they must be dealt with empire-wide, with all the police power that the emperor can bring to bear upon them.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: Christians could be arrested simply because they bore the name "Christianos," Christian. That was enough under Roman convention to convict one of a capital crime, and the crime was being a Christian. So put yourself in the position of society. You know, if you were, say, a merchant and wanted to limit your competition, all you had to do was point fingers at your competitors and say, "Well, you know, I think they're Christians." Well, by Roman convention those people then could be hauled down on capital charges.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: What you have to do is get a ticket, a libellus. It's a chit saying that you have sacrificed for the well-being of the empire. And you go and you do your sacrifice, and there's a whole various response on the part of different Christian communities. You can have your servant go and do it for you. He might also be a Christian but, you know, that's his problem. Pay him. He'll get two chits and then you're covered for purposes. Or you can pay for the ticket, but not actually do the sacrifice if you can bribe a friend of yours who's a magistrate. Or you can just go ahead and get- you know, sacrifice, knowing that these gods are nothing. After all, that's right in Paul's letters, that these gods are nothing.
READER: [I Corinthians 8:4] "As to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that no idol in the world really exists and that there is no God but one."
NARRATOR: Decius was determined to be completely ruthless in persecuting those who refused to make public sacrifice. For the first time, ordinary Christians were methodically rounded up.
Prof. WAYNE A. MEEKS: And the odd thing is it fails. The net effect of this is that a new cult of the martyrs appears in Christianity, which strengthens the church.
NARRATOR: But ironically, very few Christians were willing to be martyred.
Prof. ELIZABETH A. CLARK: Many Christians were not made of the kind of moral fiber of the people who went to their death as martyrs, that they had been willing to recant the faith, to offer a pinch of incense to the emperor.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: Christians were sort of taking to the hills. We know this from the so-called Lapsis controversy. What do you do with those Christians who took to the hills and saved their souls, as opposed to standing their ground and dying as martyrs?
Prof. ELIZABETH A. CLARK: All this made a grave problem for the church when the persecutions were over because many of these people then wanted to come back into the church. There were many controversies about this.
NARRATOR: Fifty years later, the emperor Diocletian made one last attempt to wipe out the Christians. He targeted those who held public office, but the persecution failed partly because Christian institutions were now so entrenched in Roman society.
Prof. HELMUT KOESTER: Christians wanted to have their members knowledgeable and capable of reading the Bible. So we find that a large number of the people in imperial administration are Christians because they could read and write, which constituted a big problem with the persecution of the Christians because they were thrown out of their office first when the persecution began, and suddenly the government didn't work anymore.
Prof. MICHAEL WHITE, University of Texas, Austin: By that time, the Christians are so numerous that they can't possibly be eradicated, they've already grown that much. So in a sense, the persecution really doesn't catch up until it's already too late.
NARRATOR: By now the Jesus movement had spread its message to every corner of the Roman Empire.
Prof. ELIZABETH A. CLARK: The last decades of the 3rd century, you get a great in-surge of people into Christianity. There's some scholars who think that in Egypt, for example, by the 320s there would actually be a majority of Christians- maybe a rather slight majority, but nonetheless a sizable number of Christians.
NARRATOR: The turning point in the history of the Christian movement occurred in the first decades of the 4th Century. It was a transformation filled with ironies. It was brought about by a Roman general who worshiped not Jesus, but Apollo, the god of the sun.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN, Boston University: One of the most surprising Christian heroes in the entire tradition, I think, is Constantine. He is, first of all, a successful general. He is also the son of a successful general, and at the head of the army at the west, and he's fighting another successful general, struggling for who is going to be at the top of the heap of the very higher echelons of Roman government. What happens is that Constantine has a vision.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: In the dream, a cross appears on the sun. Well, the sun was very important to Constantine anyway. He had a thing about Helios and very often represented himself with the sun god. But the intrusion of the cross was something new. And below this vision was an inscription with the words, "By this conquer," "In tuto nike."
And he interpreted this dream to mean that by this symbol of the cross he could defeat his archenemy at the battle of the Milvian Bridge and become sole emperor. And so he had his- or so the story goes, he had his soldiers paint the cross on their shields.
Constantine won the battle of the Milvian Bridge, became the sole emperor of the Roman empire. And then, in a dramatic shift of geopolitics, relocates the center of Roman rule from the eternal city, Rome, to a new city, Constantinople.
NARRATOR: To reunite a divided empire, Constantine moved the capital from Rome to a more strategic location, the ancient city of Byzantium, and renamed it Constantinople.
Prof. HAROLD W. ATTRIDGE, Yale Divinity School: An important part of what was going on here was jockeying at the imperial administration. Clearly, by the end of the 3rd century, Christianity was a major force to be reckoned with throughout the empire, and something that had to either be suppressed or had to be integrated. Galerius, Constantine's rival, who was one of the major instigators of the persecution, favored the option of suppression. Constantine and his associates favored the option of integration.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX, Pres. Union Theological Seminary: Constantine was a consummate pragmatist and a consummate politician. And I think he gauged well the upsurge of interest and support Christianity was receiving, and so played up to that very nicely and exported it in his own rule.
Prof. ELIZABETH A. CLARK, Duke University: When Constantine came into power and started to favor Christianity, he did do many things that plainly showed a support for Christianity. He gave money for the building of churches, money for the copying of scriptures. He exempted clergy members from having to perform civic duties on town councils, that kind of thing.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: The bishops are able to take advantage of Constantine's mood and his curious intellectual interest in things like Christology, and the Trinity and Church organization. They're able to have Bibles copied at public expense. They are finally able to have public Christian architecture and big basilicas. So there's a comfortable symbiotic relationship between the empire and the church.
Prof. ELIZABETH A. CLARK: All that certainly stands in favor of his true Christian commitment. On the other hand, he did retain the coinage with the sun god on it. He did say the day of the sun would be made a day of rest, but it's very unclear whether the day of the sun meant the day dedicated to the sun God or the day dedicated to Jesus and his resurrection.
Prof. WAYNE A. MEEKS: Whatever one finally decides about the nature of his conversion, whether it's a real sincere conversion or not, it has profound impact upon the future of Christianity, upon the future of western civilization. Constantine's patronage doesn't just mean that a lot of new churches get built, though it means that. It doesn't just mean that the salaries of bishops go up astronomically, though it means that. It doesn't just mean that Christians have freedom now to worship as they choose. It means that it has become part of the imperial establishment, and obviously that is going to mean profound changes for the society and for Christianity.
NARRATOR: Constantine showed his support by massive building programs, especially in Jerusalem. Ironically, the city that was destroyed by one Roman emperor was being rebuilt by another. But the new the holy places in this traditional center of Judaism were now all Christian. To strengthen his new church, Constantine called for more unity in organization and teaching. But such unity came at a cost.
Prof. PAULA FREDRIKSEN: One of the first things Constantine does as emperor is start persecuting other Christians. The Gnostic Christians are targeted, Marcionite Christians and other dualist Christians. Christians who don't have the Old Testament as part of their canon are targeted. The list of enemies goes on and on. There's a kind of, in a sense, internal purge of the church, as one emperor ruling one empire tries to have this single church.
HOLLAND L. HENDRIX: To appreciate the remarkable dramatic evolution that had occurred in so short a period, one might counterpose the image of Pliny, in his courtroom under the emperor Trajan, sending Christians off to their execution simply for being called Christians, to the majesty of Constantine presiding over the great gathering of bishops that he had called to resolve particular questions- the imperium, on the one hand being used clearly to extinguish a religious movement; the imperium, on the other hand, being used clearly to under gird and support a religious movement, the same religious movement in so short a period of time.
NARRATOR: The cross, the hated symbol of death and defeat, now emerged as the symbol of triumph. In the eyes of some, the apocalyptic prophecy of Revelation had at last been fulfilled.
READER: [The Book of Revelations 11:15] "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ."
NARRATOR: The Kingdom of God and the Roman empire had now become one and the same. Jesus of Nazareth had become Jesus Christ and his church had become a power on Earth. A new chapter in history was about to begin.
ANNOUNCER: There is much more to explore about early Christianity at FRONTLINE's Web site, more of the interviews with scholars on the new and controversial historical evidence. Explore the maps, a special report on early Christian women. View the primary sources and much more, including the online teacher's guide, at FRONTLINE online at www.pbs.org
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