from jesus to christ - the first christians
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New Testament scholars discuss how, after the death of Jesus, his followers tried to make sense of what happened, and how they coped by telling stories about him.



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.

L. Michael White:

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

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.


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.

Helmut Koester:

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


And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:7-8

Helmut Koester:

Paul quotes this hymn in the early 50s of the first century. He quotes this as a hymn that probably was sung in the Christian communities, ten or twenty 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.

L. Michael White:

It seems that over time some of these stories came to be written down and what came to be thought of, as the Gospel, the Good News, the story of Jesus.

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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