BOSTON — THE BIRTH OF CHRISTIANITY: DISCOVERING WHAT HAPPENED IN THE YEARS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE EXECUTION OF JESUS
By John Dominic Crossan
653 pp., $30
What can we know about the earliest Christians, the men and women who followed Jesus in the 30s and 40s, between his crucifixion and Paul's letters?
John Dominic Crossan tackles this question like a modern Sherlock Holmes, sifting the evidence and expounding his deductions. His method does not include, however, taking the Bible account at face value. Even the Acts of the Apostles, Crossan claims, is part of the Gospel of Luke, and such gospels "are not history."
According to Crossan, the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus had two results. While peasant followers continued to wander Galilee, Jesus' closest associates waited in Jerusalem for his triumphal return. During the 30s and 40s, the preaching of the wanderers evolved into a tradition of sayings, such as "blessed are the poor," which were ultimately written down in some of the earliest Christian documents, and then incorporated into the familiar Gospels.
As the wandering prophets went from village to village, they gathered recruits and promoted solidarity among those most threatened by Roman land acquisition. In response to their preaching, some of the poorest landowners shared community meals with those already dispossessed and together anticipated the day when God would give the land back to Israel. Some early Christian documents record details of this rural community, and its practice of a shared meal was preserved by the churches, in ritualized form, beginning in the 50s.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Jesus' closest associates pored over the Hebrew scriptures, looking for every prophecy of
his life, death, and return while they lamented his absence. By the early 40s, this combination of lament and exegesis had evolved into a passion/resurrection tradition that was also incorporated into the Gospels.
Crossan argues against the assumption that what we read in these stories is remembered history: "If there were, from the beginning, a detailed passion-resurrection story or even just a passion narrative, I would expect more evidence of it than is currently existent."
The story of Stephen stoned by Paul in the late 30s belonged to this developing passion/resurrection tradition, which Paul later adapted to the Greek culture.
Until Paul's letters began in the 50s, however, the Christian traditions had none of the flesh-denying Greek spirituality and little of the anti-Judaism that, Crossan claims, ultimately characterized Christianity. He believes denial of the flesh and anti-Judaism took Christianity in a wrong direction. "We are, for me, self-conscious flesh."
In a typical Sherlock Holmes mystery, the story ends with conclusive proof that Holmes has been right in his deductions. But Crossan has nothing but circumstantial evidence to go on, and the reader must decide whether to accept his conclusions.
For example, Crossan argues that the only healing done by Jesus or his early followers was emotional or psychosomatic. On the contrary, countless Christians find in the Gospels real healing, a real last supper, a real resurrection, and a real faith they can understand and live.
* David K. Nartonis does historical research for The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.