from jesus to christ - the first christians

Synopsis of the Program

"From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians" tells the epic story of the rise of Christianity. The four hours explore the life and death of Jesus, and the men and women whose belief, conviction, and martyrdom created the religion we now know as Christianity.

Drawing upon historical evidence, the series challenges familiar assumptions and conventional notions about Christian origins. Archaeological finds have yielded new understandings of Jesus' class and social status; fresh interpretations have transformed earlier ideas about the identity of the early Christians and their communities.

Through engaging on-camera interviews with twelve scholars--New Testament theologians, archaeologists, and historians--the series presents their contributions to this intellectual revolution. For example they talk about the quest for the historical Jesus - what can we really know? And how do we know it?

The scholars together represent a range of viewpoints and diversity of faiths and a shared commitment to bring new ways of thinking about Christianity to a public audience. They discuss the value in a historical approach to Jesus and the Bible and whether Christian faith can be reconciled with such an approach.



HOUR ONE examines how Judaism and the Roman empire shaped Jesus' life. Jesus was an ordinary Jewish resident of his time, but new archaeological findings show that Jesus was probably not the humble class="black">(audio excerpt). Nazareth, where he grew up, was about four miles from the cosmopolitan urban center of Sepphoris, one of the Roman provincial cities (see map).

While Rome defined one dimension of Jesus' world, the other was symbolized by the great Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew, and he was influenced by the diversity and tensions of Judaism at that time.

Jesus was most likely arrested and executedby Roman authorities whose principal concern was to keep peace in the empire Rome had little tolerance for those it judged disruptive of the Pax Romana, (Roman peace) punishing them in many ways, including crucifixion.

The death of Jesus was a Roman act; there was little if any notice taken by Jewish people. Jesus was another victim of the Pax Romana.



HOUR TWO explores the period after the crucifixion of Jesus and traces the beginnings of the Jesus Movement, in those early years before it was called Christianity:

The Jesus Movement began as a sect within Judaism. Along the way, the early Christians branched out and spread their message to non-Jews or gentiles (meaning "nations"). The Apostle Paul had a profound impact on this spread; around 50 C.E., Paul travelled away from the traditional centers of the Jesus Movement and began to found new churches in Greco-Roman cities. Paul's letters to these fledgling congregations mark the first writings of the New Testament.

Meanwhile, expectations about the coming of the Kingdom of God and spiraling tensions between Jews and Rome would culminate in a catastrophic Jewish revolt against Rome from 66-70 C.E., ending in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple--the center of Jewish spiritual life. The traumatic failure of this revolt would dramatically affect the future for Jews and Christians.



HOUR THREE follows the story of the first attempts to write the life of Jesus--the Gospels: The Gospels were products of social and religious reconstruction in the period after the war, ranging from roughly 70 to after 100 C.E. The program looks at how these stories were passed down before they were written. And how the writing of each Gospel reflects the experiences and circumstances of early Christians. They do not all tell the same story of Jesus because each one is responding to a different audience and circumstances. For example, Matthew's gospel is clearly written for a Jewish Christian audience; it is the most Jewish of all the gospels.

During this time, a growing tension appeared between the emergent Christian groups and their Jewish neighbors. The result was a process of debate, identity, and separation that shaped both religious traditions forever. And there were still other external forces, including a second, devastating Jewish war, the Bar Kochbah revolt, which erupted in 132 C.E.



HOUR FOUR chronicles how the Christian movement - as it became separate from Judaism-would face new challenges--both internal and external.

In the period between 100 and 300 C.E., the Christian movement grew throughout the Roman empire. At times there were heated debates about beliefs, worship, and even about Jesus himself. The Christian movement also faced external threats; it became suspicious in the eyes of the Roman authorities and Christians were persecuted.

But the Christian movement pulled together and in the end, what started as a small sect of Judaism became a significant part of the population, enough so that the new Roman emperor Constantine decided that they should be part of the official religion of Rome. This was a momentous change for Christianity.

As the fourth century dawned, the cross was transformed into a symbol of triumph and Jesus of Nazareth became Jesus Christ. In only three hundred years, the empire that had sent Jesus to his death embraced Christianity (audio excerpt) as an official religion and worshipped him as divine.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS