from jesus to christ - the first christians
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New Testament scholars assess the reasons why Rome ultimately embraced Christianity.



The ideas that had started with the carpenter's son were being re-interpreted. 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.

Helmut Koester:

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


To the subjects of the Roman Empire, Christianity offered the individual dignity in this life and hope in the afterlife. But in this world it was also winning converts by offering a helping hand to the needy.

Elaine H. Pagels:

The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion Princeton University

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.

Elizabeth Clark:

John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University

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.

Helmut Koester:

So, Christianity really established a realm of mutual social support for the members that joined the church. And I think that this has... was probably in the long run an enormously important factor for the success of the Christian mission.

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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