(This is the ninth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)
As we’ve seen in previous postings in this series, there were five basic steps in the development of early Christian belief. First there was the life of the historical Jesus. Second came the “resurrection experience” which fundamentally changed his followers’ perception of his identity. Third was the earliest Christian proclamation of belief – called “kerygma,” the Greek word for proclamation. That third step is the focus of today’s study.
How was Jesus originally presented to unbelievers by his followers? Scholars have isolated specific texts that answer that question. That is, such texts represent the earliest faith-forms of the primitive church. This means that the fragments antedated the letters of St. Paul, whose earliest entries in the Christian Testament date from about the year 50 just fifteen years or so after Jesus’ death. As already indicated, Paul’s letters are themselves the earliest of the New Testament texts – coming well before the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. By way of contrast, the kerygmatic texts date perhaps from the same year as Jesus’ death – or very close to it. They are therefore especially revealing and insightful in terms of what the earliest Christians believed. Let’s consider two of those texts today.
According to scholarly perception, one of the first kerygmatic texts is found in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, verses 22-24, 32-33, and 38. There Peter fresh from an extraordinary Pentecost experience in the Upper Room, addresses Jerusalem pilgrims gathered in the Holy City for the Jewish feast fifty days after Passover. The essence of Peter’s proclamation about Jesus runs as follows:
Men of Israel, hear me: I am speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, singled out by God and made known to you through miracles, portents, and signs, which God worked among you through him, as you well know. By the deliberate will and plan of God he was given into your power, and you killed him using heathen men to crucify him. But God raised him to life again, seeing him free from the pangs of death, because it could not be that death should keep him in its grip . . . Now Jesus has been raised by God, and we are all witnesses. Exalted at God’s right hand he received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, and all that you now see and hear flows from him. . . . Repent . . . and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah; then your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Here we find the proclamation of a human miracle worker who had been given his miraculous powers by God who seems to be Jesus’ superior rather than Jesus being his equal. Jesus was the agent through whom God worked miracles and signs. He carried out God’s plans which included assassination by the Jews in collaboration with the Romans. As God’s anointed, Jesus was raised to life by God. God exalted him, and gave the Holy Spirit to him – after his death and resurrection. Now restored to life Jesus has communicated to his followers the Holy Spirit he himself has just received. Those who believe should change their ways and be baptized, joining the community of believers.
Later on that community is described as faith-filled, highly egalitarian and holding all things in common. Note the specifics in the following two texts also from Acts. They are relevant to the question of the earliest perceptions of Jesus by his followers:
All the believers agreed to hold everything in common: they began to sell their property and possessions and distribute to everyone according to his need. One and all they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and, breaking bread in their homes, they shared their meals with unaffected joy, and they praised God and enjoyed the favor of the whole people. And day by day the Lord added new converts to their number. (Acts 2:44-47)
Now the whole company of believers was united in heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own; everything was held in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and all were held in high esteem. There was never a needy person among them, because those who had property in land or houses would sell it, bring the proceeds of the sale, and lay them at the feet of the apostles to be distributed to any who were in need. (Acts 4: 32-35)
In other words, a type of primitive communism or communalism was the practical response of earliest Christians to their experience of the risen Lord and the gift of his Holy Spirit. Put otherwise, it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that early Christians saw Jesus and his teachings as communistic. Certainly their response is miles from the spirit of capitalism, private ownership, and competition.
Another version of Christian Kerygma is found in the letter of Paul to the Christian community in Philippi. More specifically, in Philippians 2: 6-11 scholars find what they identify as a hymn fragment evidently sung by Christians in that community. It goes like this:
He was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God,
But made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave.
Bearing the human likeness sharing the human lot
He humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross.
Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow – in heaven, on earth, and in the depths –
And every tongue acclaim, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father.
This hymn fragment insists on the humanity of Jesus and on the identification of God in Jesus with the dregs of human nature – with slaves and victims of state execution. Ironically, the hymn says, such identification led to the highest exaltation and to the establishment of Jesus as Lord in a cultural situation where lordship was claimed by the Roman emperor. In that sense, the earliest Christians proclamation was simply “Jesus is Lord.” The implication here is that the emperor is not Lord.
Where does all of this leave us in terms of understanding “the dogma of Christ?” It helps us see that Jesus was understood to be a man who became divine following his death and resurrection, whatever might have been the historical content of “resurrection.” He identified with the least of all humans (slaves) and was obedient to God. Following his resurrection, Jesus was given God’s Holy Spirit and was “exalted” by God. In other words, Jesus was fully human before his death, and was worshipped as divine only afterwards.
This is the way the earliest Christians perceived Jesus.
Next Week: Step four: a long oral tradition.