from jesus to christ - the first christians

"The Jesus Movement"

How Jesus' followers responded in the traumatic days following his death.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


The movement that originated around Jesus must have suffered a traumatic setback with his death. Not so much that a Messiah couldn't die, but that nothing happened. The kingdom didn't arrive immediately as they might have expected. For a while we don't know what happened to the followers of Jesus. They apparently scattered, but not too long thereafter it seems that they came to the conviction that something had happened. Something that did change their perspective on who Jesus was and what he would mean for the future of the movement, and this is what we know as the resurrection. Now it's not clear what happened in the resurrection. We don't know exactly how it occurred but what we do know that the followers of Jesus were absolutely convinced that he had been raised from the dead and had been taken away into heaven as a vindication of his messianic identity. He was the crucified and risen Lord.... The resurrection story brings a different perspective to the understanding of Jesus. If he thought of himself as a prophet, as a messenger of God, that changes when he himself is raised by God from the dead. He is now someone vindicated, and it's really the belief in the resurrection experience that leads the disciples to come to think of Jesus as somehow more than just a prophet. As the Messiah himself. He is the one who has been vindicated by God by being exalted into heaven as son of God.

It's probably in these early days after the death of Jesus that the movement really starts to reorganize around his memory... it's probably very much dependent upon this growing understanding that he had been raised from the dead. It seems to have circulated very quickly among his followers, but the earliest form of the movement is still thoroughly a sect within Judaism. He is a Jewish Messiah. They are followers of a Jewish apocalyptic tradition. They are expecting the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. It's a Jewish movement.

... The earliest forms of the Jesus movement then are probably small, sectarian groups. At least one of them seems to be based in Jerusalem but there may be others as well spread throughout the countryside. In all probability there's at least one or more in the Galilee as well. So we have to think of the earliest days of the Jesus movement as really small pockets of sectarian activity all focused on this identity of Jesus as the Messiah.

... Now who were the members of these earliest groups? It's hard to know in all the cases. We know a few names largely from the New Testament itself. At Jerusalem it seems to be James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the group for a whole generation thereafter. We hear of other people. There's a woman by the name of Mary... There are others in the Jerusalem congregation as well including Peter and some of the other original disciples of Jesus, but beyond that we know very few names and they have to be very small convacles of people still holding on tightly to their beliefs and expectations while at the same time continuing in their Jewish tradition.


One of the earliest indications that we have of the Jesus movement is what we tend to call "wandering charismatics," traveling preachers and prophets, who go on saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand, continuing the legacy of Jesus' own preaching, apparently. They travel around with no money and no extra clothes. So, they are supposed to perform miracles and heal the sick for free but they apparently begged for food. This is a different picture of the earliest form of the Jesus movement than what we've come to expect from the pages of the New Testament and yet, it's within the tradition, itself. We hear even in Paul's day that he encounters people who come from Judea, with a different kind of gospel message, and it looks like these are the same kind of wandering charismatics that we hear of, in the earlier stages of the movement, after Jesus' death.

The Jesus movement is a sect. How do sects behave? One of the things they have to do is, they have to distance themselves from their dominant cultural environment. A sect always arises within a community with whom it shares a basic set of beliefs and yet, it needs to find some mechanism for differentiating itself. So, sectarian groups are always in tension with their environment. That tension is manifested in a variety of ways - controversies over belief and practice; different ideas of purity and piety. But, another manifestation of that tension is the tendency to want to spread the message out, to hit the road and convince others that the truth is real.

Wayne A. Meeks:

Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University


In what way were the earliest followers of Jesus, the cults, if you will, similar to other cults in the pagan world and in what very distinctive way where they different?

Christianity begins really as a sect among Judaism. One of several sects that we know of from about the same time. Josephus tells us about a number of prophets who appeared and gathered followers and were wiped out by the Roman Governors and their followers were disbursed, and if you read the series of revolts that Josephus talks about, and about the prophets that come and promise to part the waters of the Jordan or whatever, make the walls of Jerusalem fall down, and they gather followers and then their leader is captured and he dies and that's the end of it, of the story that we have about Jesus and the gospel fits rather nicely in that succession.

But the mystery that remains and which intrigues historians is precisely that. None of those groups of followers had any afterlife. They made no history; so why was this one different? The followers of Jesus somehow are different and this question, which ultimately is perhaps unanswerable, is the thing I think which drives people like me to try to dissect these sources that we call the New Testament and the other early Christian literature and investigate the context of this and do archeology and all the other things, to try to guess ultimately, why is this group different, from the others.


Were the followers of Jesus making what is a rather extraordinary claim about him? What were they saying?

The story of the followers of Jesus, in one sense begins with something that, ironically, Pilate said about him. One of the facts that seems to emerge from the stories about Jesus, the earliest ones which we incorporate into the gospels, is that he is crucified with a placket on the cross which says, "the King of the Jews." What could this possibly mean? From Pilate's point of view..., here is someone who was a potential leader of an insurrection against Rome. And he wants to send a sarcastic message. He has chosen the most humiliating form of death which is available..., which is reserved for slaves. It's a shaming, and that wants to put a certain spin on what's happening to the public who see it. So, he's saying, "This is what happens to a King of the Jews."

The followers of Jesus, who don't go away as they're supposed to ... have to deal with that fundamental question, - what does this mean that the one that we had all of these expectations about has been crucified? How do we deal with this, not merely the end of this life, but the shameful end of this life? And, the amazing thing is, they said, "Hey, Pilate's right - he was the King of the Jews, and moreover, God has vindicated this claim, that he is the King of the Jews, by raising him from the dead." Now, this is where the Jesus movement properly understood, which is to become Christianity, begins, with trying to explain that hard fact....

The first interpretation is okay, "Pilate killed him but God raised him from the dead". That's the very beginning of it all. That is an act of interpretation, that is to say, "this wasn't final." A second bit of interpretation is to say, yes, "King of the Jews," what could this mean? It obviously does not mean, "King of the Jews," in the way that a generation later, Bar Kochba would try to be King of Israel and restore the political kingdom of Israel, liberated from the Romans. It couldn't mean that, so what does it mean? And so the early Christians, as proper Jews, they begin to search the scriptures, [looking for] what clues are hidden here which no one has noticed before.... They begin to find promises in scripture of an anointed king who will come at the end of days, a notion which they share with many other Jews, at the same time. So, this is where it all begins, with this kind of interpretive process, which of course goes in many different directions.

Helmut Koester:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


What is the Gospel of Peter and what is significant about it?

We have in the four gospels of the New Testament, passion narratives, narratives of Jesus' suffering and death. Outside of the New Testament canon, we have only one more extensive narrative of Jesus' suffering and death, and that has appeared in the Gospel of Peter. Now it was known in ancient times that there was such a thing as the Gospel of Peter. Eusebius of Caesarea, the earliest church historian at the beginning of the 4th century, tells about the fact that there was a Gospel of Peter which was used by some communities in Syria.But no one really knew what was in this gospel until at the end of the last century papyrus was discovered, which was a small amulet that a soldier had been wearing around his neck and which was given into the tomb of this soldier, and when it was opened up it turned out to be a text that told the story of the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus. But it is told in such a way that one can assume that it was not dependent upon the canonical gospels that we have. But that at least part of this gospel goes back to the same story, but draws from the oral tradition of the telling of that story, or from some older gospel as somescholars believe that is preserved here. What is interesting in this Gospel of Peter is that it shows in some instances more clearly the direct dependence of the passion narrative upon the prophecy and psalms and suffering servant stories of the Hebrew Bible, and therefore gives us an insight in the development of the passion narrative....

I don't think that [in the period following Jesus' death] the disciples now were trying to look for the right stories in the Hebrew Scriptures [to explain his suffering and death.] But rather that these texts from the Hebrew Bible were already a part of their regular reading of texts, were already a part of their worship service. We know that in the Jewish synagogue scriptural text would be read and would be interpreted. So the disciples of Jesus must have lived in those texts and must have brought an understanding of the explanation of suffering on earth with them that was already part of their worship life, of their discussions of their meditations at the time. So it's not like someone who tries to go back now and says, "let's find the right text or scripture that would fit." But it's rather that out of the deep involvement in a religious tradition that was anchored in the worship life of Jewish communities, these stories about Jesus arise that now use the same words, the same language, the same images, in order to describe Jesus' suffering.

[For example], the question of the suffering servant is very closely connected with Isaiah 53. And Isaiah 53, in most Christian churches, is usually the text from the Old Testament that is read at Good Friday as a prefiguration of the death of Jesus. Who the suffering servant was has been the subject of debate among Old Testament scholars. Is it the prophet himself who depicts himself as the suffering servant? Or, which is perhaps the most likely solution, that ultimately the suffering servant is Moses. And it tells a different aspect of the story of Moses, not Moses as the leader who leads the people out of exodus, but Moses as the one who dies eventually and who is not able to see the Holy Land, and Moses about whom the book of Deuteronomy says, his tomb could not even be found....

This story has very deeply influenced the Jewish tradition before the early Christian period with respect to the understanding of the suffering of the righteous person. How can it be understood that the righteous in this world have to suffer? And the answer to this was found in the story of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And that is the story to which the Christians apparently went very early at this stage, to find an understanding of what the suffering and death of Jesus meant and signified.

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

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