Early "Jesus Movements": the First 300 Years

by Robert A. Kraft, University of Pennsylvania
for Ann Matter's RelSt 002 class on 16 February 2004

In the 4th century of the common era, under the influence of the Roman ruler, Constantine the Great, and his successors (with the exception of Julian "the Apostate" -- see Oxtoby 224), the movements that traced their own roots to the first century Palestinian figure of Joshua/Jesus (whom they identified as the Jewish "Messiah/Christ") and had come to be viewed collectively as "Christianity" found themselves no longer marginalized in the socio-political and legal world of the Romans, but legitimized and ultimately favored. Looking back, as we must, through this filter of Christian success with its newly established or repurposed institutions, symbols, and ideas, we find a welter of competing forces, of continuities and discontinuities, that characterize the first 300 years no less than the following centuries -- but often in quite different ways and under vastly different conditions.

That the "Jesus movement" began within Judaism is difficult to challenge. But the "Judaism" from which it emerged had many different faces, thus greatly complicating the picture and the process. If the attention-grabbing device of referring to "Jesus movements" in the plural catches your ear/eye, as I hope it has, consider that reference to the "Judaisms" of the period would be equally justified. Judaism might be characterized as monotheistic, even then, but hardly as monolithic. Even within that troubled frontier of the Greco-Roman world, "Palestine," whence the Jesus movements sprang, all Judaisms were not equal. Even without the "Dead Sea Scrolls" discovery in the mid 1900s (Segal in Oxtoby 61) this was obvious to students of the period, and even more so now with the new body of evidence. But there has also been Judaism outside of Palestine, in the Greco-Roman world as well as to the east (Parthia, India), for many generations, providing even greater range to the possible varieties.

For many interpreters of the early Jesus movements and their Judaistic settings, a centrally important perspective is captured by the term "eschatology," which is introduced by Segal in the Oxtoby textbook in the section on Judaism, but plays little role in Oxtoby's own sketch of earliest Christianity. I'd like to try to correct that situation. What is this "eschatology"?

The doctrine of the events at the end of the age is termed 'eschatology,' from the Greek word signifying the study of the end. A genre of Jewish literature that developed in the later prophetic books and flourished in the Hellenistic era is termed 'apocalyptic,' from the greek word for unveiling (the Latin equivalent is 'revelation'). Not only is most apocalyptic literature eschatological, but it is also visionary in its presentation; whereas the prophets had said, 'Thus says Yahweh,' the apocalyptists more often wrote, 'I saw, and behold.' (Segal in Oxtoby 66)

A main characteristic of the Jesus of the "synoptic gospels" in the Christian New Testament is his eschatological orientation. The "kingdom" or "rule" of God is about to be established. Some of his followers will still be alive when it happens. There will be apocalyptic events and signs that accompany this cataclysmic period in which the forces of evil are defeated and righteousness is instituted. Some of this even seems to rub off on the Roman governor who orders Jesus to be executed for the treasonous claim to be "king of the Jews." Reports and experiences that persuade some of his followers to believe he is still alive after his execution turn this catastrophe into victory of a sort, and ultimately call for a revised eschatological schedule -- there will be a "second coming" of the Messiah/Christ at the final ending of it all!

But alongside this graphically presented eschatological-apocalyptic dying-rising Jesus figure we find evidence of a Jesus who is interested more in teaching people how to live correctly in this world, warning of its dangers as did the prophets of old, and setting an example through his own submissiveness leading to what came to be called "martyrdom." These two representations are not incompatible, but we do find early followers of Jesus who emphasize one or the other approach. Once the expectation of a quick eschatological consummation to the evil age has been tempered by the passage of time, the exemplary prophetic teacher tends to become more dominant in the depictions of Jesus. The forces of evil can be defeated on their own turf, in the present time period, by following the right path.

There were also followers of Jesus for whom this quest for "salvation" from the evil world took a different turn. They viewed the situation not as a struggle between good and evil forces on the plane of human history, with God's creations vying to find or earn favor with the deity responsible for setting things up this way. For them, "real" existence was not physical and material, but immaterial and spiritual, like Plato's world of ideas/forms. Humans consist of imprisoned sparks from the ultimate, if temporarily fractured, divine fire. Jesus came from that ultimate real existence and only seemed to be physically human, in order to rescue the fractured sparks and provide the necessary knowledge to restore ultimate unity. Jesus wasn't really human. He didn't really die. He certainly "lives," but in an entirely different sense from those who focus on a material resurrection from the dead.Overcoming ignorance (who am I?, where am I?, what am I to do?) leads to salvation; sin is not the main issue, and for some not an issue at all.

Oversimplification is the mother of basic instruction. There were all sorts of permutations of these perspectives, in Judaism as well as with its emerging rebellious offspring. The best remembered of early advocates of a Jesus movement was named Paul, and he initially was a radical opponent of such Jesus movements. Apparently he found it ludicrous to claim that God's anointed Messiah had been executed in a manner condemned by Jewish law. But Paul was one of those people who hear voices and see visions, and that sort of experience led him to revise his arguments so that the cursed death of God's Messiah and its aftermath demonstrated that the expected new age had in fact begun, and the previous period dominated by law had come to a close. And as an apocalyptic-eschatological missionary living in the transition period between the start of the new age (Jesus lives!) and its consummation (we will live with him!), Paul spread his message throughout the main parts of the Mediterranean world of how to live in these last days. For Paul, the end times take us beyond Judaism, to an offer of salvation by identification with Jesus to everyone who wants to take advantage of it! Jewish eschatological expectations open the door to the development of gentile (non-Jewish) Christianity.

That this sort of eschatological end never came was perhaps inconvenient for some branches of the Jesus movements, but they were able to adjust, just as Paul had done earlier. Even Paul taught that a follower of Jesus could already begin to share in the promised resurrection before physical death occurred, and Paul taught how to avoid evil and pursue righteousness in living, so the eschatological precision was expendable and the quest for a righteous life could take precedence. Live in the world, but don't be of the world! Of course, those Jewish followers of Jesus who pictured him as teaching and exhibiting a righteous life in accord with Jewish law were uncomfortable with Paul's boldness -- perhaps Jesus as Messiah did open a door of access to non-Jews in these last days, but only if they affiliated with Judaism as part of the package. Even the arrival of the end times did not cancel out God's just requirements as presented through Jewish law! On the other hand, the more Platonic adherents of Judaism had little trouble adapting to Paul's distinction between this evil world and the previewed spiritual resurrection available now, with or without any expectation of any future resurrection experience.

By the end of the first century of the existence of Jesus movements, around 135 CE, positions on these various issues had pretty much congealed into three main options, with all sorts of variation inbetween:

(1) followers of Jesus who tried to maintain their self-identification and activities within "Judaism";
(2) followers of Jesus who made a radical distinction between the unknowable God of Jesus -- who enabled the release of the captured sparks of deity from the imprisonment of the material, created world and its inferior god -- and the dictatorial "god of the Jews"; and
(3) those followers who attempted to maintain a certain distance from Judaism, now embarrased by two futile wars with Rome over Jerusalem, but who also affirmed that their God had created the physical world and would somehow provide salvation to those who lived in that world and who followed a right path. The third position in various forms came to dominate (see Diognetus 5-6), and thus we look back on the other two as "deviant" -- with labels of "Jewish Christian" and "Gnostic," respectively. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Jewish Christianity sputtered along mainly in the semitic speaking eastern areas (Palestine, Syria), and we see traces of it here or there in various manifestations. We wish we knew more, so that we would be forced to imagine less. Meanwhile, we have much more information about the battles between "gnostic" Christian ideas and groups, on the one hand, and the post-Jewish followers of Jesus, on the other, who retained connections with Jewish scriptures (now called the "Old Testament") and their God, but not with Jewish "ancestral law" -- except for its "ethical" aspects (as opposed to "ritual" or "ceremonial"). Oxtoby recites for you the "apostles' creed" (227), but does not contextualize it in the debates that first inspired some of its wording:

"I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth" -- Duh! Who doesn't? Those pesky gnostics don't -- for them, the true God is NOT the creator!

"and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried ..." -- why such an emphasis on these events occurring on the plane of human history? to underline the paradox of a divine figure (gnostics have little problem with that, but som Jewish Christians might) who really lived, suffered and died (he didn't only seem to do so, as gnostics claim).

Similarly with subsequent references in the creed to the resurrection of Jesus and his followers, the future judgment by Jesus, and indeed, the emphasis on the unity of believers. These are vestiges of battles fought especially at the start of the second century of "Christian" existence and on into subsequent generations. We still find variations on gnostic themes well beyond the time of Constantine, and indeed, in the mid-1900s a collection of mostly previously unknown gnostical materials was discovered buried in the sands of Egypt, near the ruins of Nag Hammadi (and Chenoboskion).

But what happened to the eschatological, sometimes apocalyptic, impetus of some of the earlier Jesus movements? Was it completely ignored, left to rest in the emerging collection of "scriptures" while being projected into the future unaffected by disappointments of the past? Or had it become domesticated by identification of the expected "kingdom of God" with the increasingly powerful institutional church, with or without any future expectations? Or, as with some gnostics, had it been mostly internalized (if it had been there at all, with their Jesus and/or Paul, in any recognizable form), so that the special knowledge that enabled one to realize that this world is not one's real home provided the eschatological insight leading to salvation through gnosis?

All of these things seem to have happened, but also we see an occasional outburst of "primitive eschatological fervor," as with the Montanist movement about a century after Paul, especially in Asia Minor (modern western Turkey). Montanus and his followers revived the expectation that the end was close, even expecting the descent of the perfect city Jerusalem from the sky to a location in Asia Minor. They received visions and heard voices. They were critical of the ways other Christians were adapting to comfortable existence in the world. But it was too late. The new Jerusalem never came, and the Montanists were ostracized as "heretical" by some of their contemporary religionists. What sold well a century earlier, with Paul, was now obsolete.

More abiding was the "monastic impulse," which led individuals to sever connections with the world and seek salvation in solitude, performing eschatological warfare with the demonic world to purge themselves of any vestige of evil. Presumably, and hopefully, they found their rewards. The call to leave the old world age behind and enter into the new has had many forms. The "eschatological impetus" appears in different ways in different periods and places. It is basic, in one way or another, to the earliest Jesus movements, and if you hope to understand them adequately in their own historical contexts, it is a major ingredient not to be ignored.