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From a historical scholarly perspective, "Why Jesus?"

Biblical History

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Aug 4, 2006, 7:25pm Top

I've been doing a lot of reading on early Christianity, say AD 30-200. I have learned that there were A LOT of itinerant apocalyptic type preachers in that day. Many people were referred to as "Son of Man". People ascribed powers to lots of wandering magicians and mystics, and "raising people from the dead" was not as uncommon as it seems to be today. So the question that I am looking to answer, (extra-biblically, not from a faith perspective) is, "Why Jesus?" Why not Appolonius of Tyana, or any of many other preacher types that proposed and preached in a similar fashion. Was it Paul's zeal? James'? The fact that Christianity demanded monotheism and other gods didn't mind if you held to previous divine allegiances?

Can anyone recommend some books that tackle this question, and compare Jesus' ministry directly with his contemporaries?

Thanks for any books you can point out.....

Aug 4, 2006, 8:26pm Top

Well, there are a few different things here.

One is that, for the followers of Jesus, the message may have been more important than the miracles; this came up especially in polemics with Romans, who basically said, "We have magicians. We have *lots* of magicians. What makes your guy special?" The answer is that the moral content of Jesus's teachings is the real point.

I'm sure he wasn't alone in this, of course, but there I gather there were also a lot of people wandering around how just did the hat tricks.

Paul is big, possibly the biggest single factor -- not just his zeal, but his insistence on the universality of Jesus' teachings. Most of the Jewish potential messiahs were nationalist leaders, because, of course, the messiah was supposed to be the savior of a national religion. Thus, their potential to spread beyond the Jewish community was limited. Of course, this was pretty much true of Jesus as well, until Paul one his fight with Peter.

There were some elements in the pagan community that were also trans-tribal, but a lot of these were mystery cults, and thus not universal in quite the same sense as Christianity.

Even a few hundred years later, Christianity wasn't really locked in as the next big thing. Personally, I think it's ultimate triumph over Rome had a lot to do with the ability of the martyrs to reinterpret martyrdom and usurp the authority derived from the judicial torture and murder process.

Aug 4, 2006, 8:41pm Top

Oy. "Paul one his fight with Peter." Around here we like to call that "Nicklexia."

Aug 4, 2006, 9:38pm Top

As for the reinterpretation of martyrdom, I completely agree. Being eaten for your faith tends to make others take notice. I'm looking a little earlier than that, in terms of how people got that faith in the first place. I keep landing on Paul, but the missing pieces are that there would have to be other followers of other guys who were just as passionate. Or maybe not. Maybe Paul was one of those historical figures who just "was" more charismatic, more present, more determined, and, well, more everything. The other guys just couldn't keep up.

Certainly, Jesus' moral teachings had to have appeal as well, there's no doubt there.

Given the fact that in those times, as I said, people were said to be rising from the dead all over the place, even Jesus ressurection wouldn't be enough to convince your average pagan that he was extra remarkable. Or so my reading tells me.

Book titles? (lol, there are a lot of "book groups" around here that don't seem to be talking about books) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

Aug 4, 2006, 10:48pm Top

I'm personally a little dubious of the people rising from the dead all over the place.

What's your source for people being said to rise from the dead by various other means and people? I'd just like to know what you've been reading.

Aug 4, 2006, 11:45pm Top

ack! Now you're going to have me cite sources and such! Foul! I shouldn't have to back up my ridiculous assertions! Oh. Wait. Yes, I should.

Honestly, I have been reading so much that I can't sort it out, I haven't been taking scholarly notes. But, here's where I've been lately at least, if this helps:

Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus and audio lectures given through The Teaching Company on "The Historical Jesus", and "Early Christianity from Jesus to Constantine"
John Dominic Crossan The Historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant and The Birth of Christianity

Hyam Maccoby The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity

Rodney Stark The Rise of Christianity

And parts of others, (Bits of A. N. Wilson, L. Michael White, Randel Helms, Tim Callahan, John Shelby Spong), and lots of online writing (can't trust the internets, I know, lol).

So that's where I've been. For the record, I think I made a glib assertion there, I certainly don't "know my stuff" as an academic, but I'm curious.
My apologies for being a little light on a heavy topic. "All over the place" is a bit of colloquial Atomicmutant-ese, if you'll forgive my levity.

My reading, and journey, continues. Again, any book recommendations, I'm happy to hear about.

Aug 4, 2006, 11:52pm Top

Atomicmutant, If I can rephrase your question in as: Why did Christianity ultimately successfully spread and grow?, I'd suggest checking out The rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. He considers the question from a sociological viewpoint. Basically, and I'm simplifying a great deal, Christianity spreads originally among the Jewish diaspora. Pagans who intermarry with Jews tended towards conversion. But Christianity offers newer avenues both to converts (or just God-fearers) and to the more Hellenized Jews. For pagans, the "costs" of this form of Judaism are less (no circumcision). For the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora, this new form of Judaism allowed them to reduce their marginality and interact with the larger society with greater freedom. The important point is there is continuity, not conversion. They would still consider themselves Jews. This mechanism gets Christianity through the first century or so until growth attracts greater numbers of pagans than Jews and Christianity finally begins to distinguish itself from Judaism. The process begins with relatively small numbers, perhaps only about 7,500 Christians in 100 AD and about 40,000 in 150 AD. In the end though, he argues that Constantine' s conversion was recognition that perhaps a majority of the Empire were now Christian. By the way, Stark does not neglect martyrdom in Christianity's growth. From a sociological view. The price paid by the martyrs voluntarily for their faith places the highest value on the faith for others. And the willingness of the earliest martyrs to die for the faith came at a time when confidence may have begun to slip for the Second Coming. It's an interesting book to consider.

Aug 4, 2006, 11:55pm Top

That's what I get for writing a long message and checking out the book. Didn't see your last message until I posted.

Aug 5, 2006, 12:01am Top

Hey alibrarian! As you can see above, I'm reading that book now! That's fantastic, I'm glad that you recommend it. Thank you for your thoughts!

The thing we'll never probably get at, is how, exactly, they got to those first 7,500. That's such a small number. Now I am eager to get back into that book, which I just picked up this week. *puts down mythology book to get back into the Stark book*. (I also have coming the Stark book One True God: The Historical Consequences of Monotheism which I hear is good. I should have that in a couple of days.

All of what you've outlined sounds fascinating and more than a little probable. "You mean I can get on board, and NO circumcision? I am SO there.":)

There I go again.......

Thank you!

Aug 5, 2006, 12:36am Top

As I look at it again (I read the book a couple of years back), he assumes for purposes of analysis that there were about 1,000 Christians in 40 AD (and cites historians estimates of higher numbers to justify his smaller number). He takes an end date of about 300 AD and estimates there may have been between 5 and 7.5 million Christians (about 10% of the Empire). To reach that number, the number of Christians must grow 40% per decade. On the curve generated, there would have been 7,530 in the year 100. BTW, he cites the growth of the Mormon Chuch (at 43% per decade) to show a religion can grow at such a sustained rate for long periods). He then cites historians and archaelogists to show that figures that can be deduced fall close to the projected curve.

He admits these figures are estimates and seem plausible. He is glad independent estimates tend to support it. But he also cautions that reality would have been 'lumpier" Growth rates would vary at times. But he feels the general sense is correct.

I am attracted to his idea because it does seem rooted in human behavior.

And I don't have time now (I'm getting sleepy), but a couple books by Mark Nanos that examine Paul's epistles (specifically Romans and Galatians) offer support in their own way by concluding the congregations addressed by Paul are dealing with intra-Jewish squabbles, not Jewish-Gentile squabbles. This fits with Stark's view of the earliest "churches" as being mainly Jewish with this new form of Judaism just beginning take root.

Good night. Been fun talking.

Aug 5, 2006, 1:04am Top

This may cover a slightly later time period, again, but I *think* (it's been a while) The Christians as the Romans Saw Them deals with some things that may be pertinent to this discussion, including stuff like, "Oh, we have magic."

Aug 5, 2006, 9:19am Top

1. I just hit "flag abuse" on your post. Sorry! One flag isn't going to kill it.
2. The lumpiness is certainly true. In Asia Minor at least, some cities went Christian very strongly and early, others much later. This was probably mostly luck and the dynamics of social networks, but civic pride and rivalry were also in the mix. It was also lumpy in time, with flare-ups and die-outs.

This isn't the place for real argument, but see the story about Gregory Thaumaturgus finding 17 Christians when he arrived in Neocaesaria (c. 240), and leaving only 17 pagans when he died (c. 270). This was hardly typical. Even if that particular incident is inflated, Pliny's letter (c. 112?) portrays a similar, if possibly short-lived flare up in another city of Pontus. I'd have to dig to find some of the evidence for "rival" cities going dramatically in different directions.

Oct 11, 2006, 4:33pm Top

I recommend the "Incredible Shrinking Son of Man" by Robert M. Price ...


...or anything by Price for that matter. It's a good read.

Oct 11, 2006, 8:07pm Top

Ah, Amazon. It's on the way.....thanks for the recommendation, stoic.
I've been reading about the politics of Tibet and buddhism lately, it's time to dive back to AD 30 or so, I think.......

Based on an Amazon recommendation, I also ordered The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty. Don't know what I'm in for with that one, but there are lots of glowing reviews there.

Does anyone here know if there are any writings preserved about OTHER (non-biblical) prophets of the time? Or are the only writings we have preserved of this type explicitly Christian? Any Gospels of Ernie floating about out there, or Mystical Revelations by Steve? (you get my meaning, anyway.)

Edited: Oct 16, 2006, 12:34pm Top

Atomicmutant: It answers your earliest question - but I would recommend God Against The Gods byJonathan Kirsch. Its not "why Jesus" so much as it explains why monotheism. As to non-biblical prophets...you might want to look into the Neoplatonists...off hand, I don't know what core materials may have been preserved, but they were active around the same period.

Oct 16, 2006, 5:37pm Top

Thanks, radiantarchangelus! I do have God Against the Gods, and need to get to that soon!

17DancingFool First Message
Oct 25, 2006, 7:18pm Top

God Against the Gods is on my top 10 list. The most startling revelation for me was that Judaism originated as a fundamentalistic religion, which Christianity carried forward.

Oct 26, 2006, 2:17pm Top

What I thought was really interesting - and a revelation to me simply because I had never given it any thought really - was the idea that monotheism almost naturally leads not just to fundamentalism, but to fanatacism as well. I liked how he discussed the lack of tolerance that the belief in the one true god and the one true form of worship can engender.

Oct 26, 2006, 3:36pm Top

Absolutely agree. Monotheism invariably leads to intolerance, fanaticism, and fundamentalism. Actually it leads to believing in right vs wrong, and we're right, so we can kill you.

The funny thing for me is that Judaism probably did not become monotheistic until after King David. There are too many hints in the OT that the Israelites still held on to "pagan" or polytheistic practices until after David. So the intolerance started with a Cult of Yahweh that instituted reforms to gain control.

Oct 26, 2006, 8:45pm Top

In God Against the Gods, Kirsch points to Josiah as being quite the culprit. Apparently, he "found" the scrolls that became Deuteronomy and explicitly engaged in state enforcement of those laws in an attempt to crack down on polytheism. That's an eye opener for me. He refers to the book Who Wrote the Bible? for that info. I have that book, but have only read the first quarter of it. I'm going to dive right in after this one, though.

Oct 26, 2006, 9:30pm Top

Who Wrote the Bible is also on my top ten list. The thing that Kirsch doesn't get into enough is that the OT was basically written by members of 2 priestly lineages, who fought for control for 1,000 years. Friedman does a better job of illustrating this. The weird thing about Josiah is that he supported the family that had been on the outs for several huindred years, priests from Shiloh who claimed descent from Moses, not Aaron. Jeremiah was a member of this family.

Oct 27, 2006, 6:26am Top

Two quick points - among the early Christians there were a number of groups who approached Christianity in radically different different ways. Christianity often grew, not by superceding the existing religious beliefs but by being a bolt-on to them. The New Testament didn't exist in any meaningful form until 100 A.D., and the debate regarding what should be in it continued for a couple of more centuries, and it is only when this debate is finally laid to rest that we see the 'modern church' establish itself, and all Christians are expected to follow the (more-or-less) same path.

Secondly, there is a second argument linking the spread of Christianity with politics. Christianity became a way of binding the Roman Empire together, now the empire's citizens had something more than just Rome in common. It is also here the Christianity first becomes linked with the idea of being civilised - the Romans who believed in God were civilised, the barbarians who didn't believe were uncivilised.

Oct 27, 2006, 1:08pm Top

Just read an interesting article in a journal from Westar Institute. "The Significance of the Gospel of Judas" by Hal Taussig. He makes the point the neither the Gospel of Judas nor the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (gnostic texts both) were intended to refer to the original people. Instead they were identified that way to indicate opposition to the growing control of Christianity by proponents of Apostolic Succession, who were opposed to people getting inspiration directly from God. The attribution to people who were outside the emerging conformist power structure indicates a protest against "the corruption of apostolic-based movements..."

Edited: Jul 15, 2007, 11:13pm Top

Isn't Paul considered a Gnostic and isn't that why Peter is considered the "founder" of the Catholic Church and not Paul, even though Paul promulgated the earliest expression of "christianity"? That Jesus was divine?

Edited: Oct 29, 2006, 12:11am Top

I'm currently reading Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, although I haven't read the DVC itself (a summary is provided). A Bible book I would recommend is Whose Bible Is It? by Jaroslav Pelikan.

Oct 29, 2006, 6:45am Top

Stoic, the idea that Paul is considered a gnostic is not widely held. In any case, this has nothing to do with why he is not held to be the founder (although he really is the founder of orthodox Christianity!). The leader after Jesus was Jesus' brother James, known as James the Just. James came to believe that Paul was the first heretic. But nothing survuves from the Jerusalem community, except possibly the Letter of James. Everything else that survived was written or inspired by Paul - the only voice we hear is the winner's! But the emerging concept of apostolic succession required that one of the original disciples be credited as founder - hence Peter was selected, since Paul did not qualify. Odd thing about Peter - his nickname Cephas (Rock) is a pun on "blockhead."

Nov 16, 2006, 1:58am Top

Hi, all--I'm a new voice here, and what I have to say is not (unlike previous posts) backed up by reading--well, not by reading that I can cite in a footnote.
But here goes.
It seems to me that the major difference between Judaism and Christianity (at the outset, that is) lies in the notion of the resurrection. Resurrection was an idea widespread in the middle east: the young man sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the fields comes back to life (ok, one young man is given the name of the sacrifice and is killed; another young man is given the same name and "comes to life"). Obviously, the idea that Jesus died and came back to life fit into this way of thinking.
Furthermore, Jesus as the resurrected sacrifice had another virtue for an increasingly patriarchal world: instead of being the lover of the goddess, this sacrifice was the son of God.
From my point of view, the big question becomes: "Who thought up the idea of the resurrection?" Obviously, to the devout Christian, that's irrelevant.
BTW, circumcision wasn't the only thing that Paul took off the table: he broke with "The Law"--that is, "Torah." Yes, he kept the written text, but you may have noticed that Christians eat pork and shrimp, for example. And if one goes through Deuteronomy, he/she will find many another requirement that Christians ignore (well, when was the last time you saw a field that wasn't completely harvested so that the widows and orphans could glean it?).

Nov 16, 2006, 2:04am Top

Just a followup: the idea underlying my dissertation on the resurrection is that it was easy for non-Jews to accept the idea of Jesus as divine, and thus to accept his moral and spiritual teachings as well.

Nov 16, 2006, 8:55am Top

A truly wonderful question. Who thought up resurrection? In Judaism, this shows up first with the Pharisees, who started up in the Hellenistic period (@ 150BC). I haven't seen anything that actually details how this concept started with them and developed. Maybe someone took one of the sayings of a prophet and ran with it, embellished it. By Jesus' time, the notion of bodily resurrection at the end of days was common, if not universally accepted. If the Pharisees accepted it, why did the Sadducees reject it?

Edited: Nov 16, 2006, 9:18am Top

Resurrection goes much further back than 150BC, it was an integral part of ancient Eyptian religions.

It has been suggested that Jesus shares many of the aspects of his life and character with Horus, as laid out in
Horus and Jesus

Nov 27, 2006, 5:33pm Top

I'd recommend N.T. Wright's series "Christian Origins and the Question of God"

The first volume The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright gives the broad overall picture of the times and the concurrent world views worked out with an historian's methods.

No simply easy answers and lot of pages - with lots of information.

The second volume Jesus and the Victory of God tackles Jesus and his ministry and puts the historical Jesus into the framework of the Judaism of his times - where does he fit in, where does he stick out.

The third volume The Resurrection of the Son of God deals mainly with the resurrection - which sure also is somehow a factor in your question, though I don't know if you want to spend 700 pages on the resurrection idea in the antique world, in second temple Judaism and in early Christianity.

All in all some 2000 pages - for me it was fascinating reading.


32spotterEX1712 First Message
Dec 3, 2006, 7:25pm Top

Just started this first volume and am really enjoying it. From what I see thus far (abotu 100 p in) this is really an introductory volume. I also sense that I will be well served to devote the time to this thorough introduction in order to gain the utmost from subsequent volumes.

Started along this path in response to some repeated questions coming up in a small group in which I participate. Just a bunch of guys trying to 'working out our salvation.'


33casper123 First Message
Mar 3, 2007, 1:52pm Top

Dr. Bart Ehrman's books speak to these issues clearly

May 31, 2007, 5:03pm Top

There is a lot of interesting ideas in this thread. I would just like to offer some more thoughts. I think an interesting examination of reserrection is in Fraziers, The Golden Bough. Of course the mythologist Joseph Cambell is always great at explaining common mythic events between cultures.
As to why Christianity, caught on in an immediate (Jesus's time frame) sense, I think Crossan offers a good explantion worth considering. In Jesus a Revolutionary Biography, he finds that Jesus was a rather Populist egalitarian who tried to level society, which was especially popular among the destitue. His idea of immienent apocalypse appealed to a proud people beaten down by society and a Roman occupation.
In a long term sense, i think Elaine Pagels' , the Gnostic Gospels, helps to explain the development of orthodox theology. How and why the orthodox believe what they believe is explained as a concious design to contol the masses and erase any opposing theology.

Jun 29, 2010, 3:38am Top

Very surprised such an interesting topic has gone dormant? Can we revive it? I certainly would post on it.

Jun 29, 2010, 3:46am Top

>26 DancingFool: (DancingFool)

"the idea that Paul is considered a gnostic is not widely held". True. But it is believed that he had Gnostic influence.

Mar 4, 2011, 10:06am Top

Jesus' mission was not to 'found' a new 'religion' but to reconcile fallen man back to Himself by fulfilling "The Law'. The Greco-Roman worldview clashed with Jesus teaching and was subsequently redefined by Paul because the early European mindset just could not conceive of any reality that the five senses could not validate. The idea that the Creator of the Universe lived and walked among us was anathema to the uncivilized European . Jesus was reduced to a myth because the "superior" alternative (science) was compatible and easier to rationalize than an Omnipotent Sovereign God.

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