Christianity (Religious Traditions of the World Series)

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9780060630157: Christianity (Religious Traditions of the World Series)

A lucid, compact introduction examining Christianity from the perspective of comparative religious history.

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The Historical Development of Christianity

The religion we know as Christianity originated as a small sect within the religion of Judaism, in the fourth decade of the first century. In the years 30--100 C.E. small groups of interested Jews and Gentiles were beginning to gather themselves as a distinct body within Judaism, both in Palestine and in the larger Roman Empire. At the outset these groups kept many of the Jewish practices of their times: they observed some of the dietary laws and the Sabbath (Saturday), celebrated the major festivals, and honored the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, although they probably paid little attention to the priestly rituals of purity. Yet they had certain peculiarities: the members gathered also on Sunday, the first day of the week, for a common meal culminating in a ritual of bread and wine, and all members would have undergone a special ritual immersion, or baptism, before being admitted to their first ritual meal.

These new additions to Jewish ritual life were connected to a remarkable set of beliefs. The ritual immersion was a baptism of repentance: those who had repented of all their sins and turned to a new life would be cleansed in the natural waters of a river or lake. just as many Jews, then and now, practiced immersion before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, when they believe all people are judged for their sins), so these sectarian Jews immersed themselves in preparation for the final Day of Judgment, the great Yom Kippur that would mark the end of the present world.

For their eschatology held that the world as we know it was about to end. A new world would soon be ushered in with the return of God's Messiah (Greek Christos, source of our word "Christ"), that is, God's chosen king. These new believers came to be called Christians, that is, believers in the Messiah. They claimed that the Christ had in fact appeared on earth already in the form of a man named Jesus, who had been killed by the Romans, crucified as a suspected political rebel. His followers believed he had been resurrected after three days--a development of the belief held by many Jews that the messianic age would include a general resurrection of the dead. Jesus had then returned to be with God in heaven. His suffering or "Passion," death, and resurrection signified a complete victory over sin and evil in the world, ensuring the salvation of all believers; soon he would return to earth, judge the world, and inaugurate God's kingdom. The Christians' ritual of bread and wine harked back to a practice Jesus was said to have instituted among his first followers, to eat the bread as his body and the wine as his blood, reminding themselves of him and his death until he returned. Sunday was the "Lord's day," the day on which the resurrection from the tomb was said to have taken place.

Such a sect was not necessarily a startling new development. Like other religions of the time, Judaism had become preoccupied with the question of salvation: how were people to redeem themselves from this evil world? Different groups offered different answers. A number of sects awaited the coming of a Messiah who would restore independence to the land of Israel, either by force or by a spiritual hand. The Zealots, for example, looked toward political revolution as a means of ushering in the messianic era. Later, around 130-35 C.E. I many Jews, including important rabbis, pinned their hopes on a man named Bar Kochba as the Messiah who would lead the final revolt against Rome. From at least the first century B.C.E. a quiet, ascetic Jewish community called the Essenes, living near the Dead Sea, anticipated a final war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, with leadership by one or more messianic figures. A prophetic man known as John the Baptist preached repentance and the coming kingdom of God during Jesus' lifetime; indeed, Christian tradition holds that Jesus was baptized by John, in effect continuing John's mission. Some baptist groups, perhaps including John's, believed in a supernatural being who occasionally came to earth as a divine incarnation to reveal God's will. Besides this, groups of Jews and non-Jews often gathered for table-fellowship, sharing a common meal in a ritual way. The new Jewish group who believed in a crucified Messiah was therefore unique in some ways, but not so much as to stand out in a society of such diverse religious preferences as first-century Judaism.

What soon began to make the Christians more noticeable was their intense evangelizing activity. Judaism had long made it a practice to accept converts, and in the Hellenistic period some Jews actively sought out Gentiles who would come to learn Jewish wisdom in the synagogues. Synagogue membership usually included a number of converts plus a number of "God-fearers," as they were called, who supported the synagogue and learned there without completing the conversion process (which included circumcision and ritual immersion). Jews and non-Jews, therefore, frequently intermingled.

Christians, however, took on an active missionary effort far beyond what Jews had ever done. The original followers of Jesus, including the apostles and other early adherents, became wandering teachers and healers. Convinced that the world was about to end, with a strong inner sense of living in virtually another world already, they traveled about, preaching the "gospel" or "good news" that the Messiah of God had appeared on earth and all should repent of their sins. Like Jesus, they claimed to be able to heal and to exorcise demons (which were believed to cause some illnesses), and by healing people they demonstrated their power over the present evil world. Throughout the Roman Empire, from Asia Minor to Spain, they taught in or near synagogues and organized new communities of believers.

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