Christianity is a faith that grew on the fertile, aged soil of Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth was born a Jew; he was circumcised and two doves were sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem to mark his birth as laid down in the law of Moses. In the six centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Jewish nation had suffered domination by the Babylonians, Persians, and Hellenistic Greeks, and were currently subservient to the Romans. They had learned how to survive under these conditions and maintain their ancient traditions, including the elaborate system of temple sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and maintenance of the covenant with God as set forth in the book of Leviticus.
According to Scripture, Jesus was born to Mary from conception of the Holy Spirit before her marriage to Joseph. Jesus had four brothers and also a number of sisters. What we know of his life comes to us primarily through the Gospels that were written some two generations after his death (Frend 55). Little is know of his early life other than a few incidents noted primarily in the Gospel of Luke. Most accounts begin with his travel to his cousin, John the Baptist, who had established a following as an ascetic, recluse prophet. Jesus went to him for baptism and at that time had a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit entering him. The Holy Spirit then led him into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the Devil to prove his worthiness. Instead of following John’s example of ascetic ministry, Jesus chose a different mission. He recruited disciples from the fishermen and working class of Nazareth and took his message to the common people. One of his earliest and most profound teachings was the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit;
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Blessed are the sorrowful;
they shall find consolation.
Blessed are the gentle;
they shall have the earth for their
Blessed are those who hunger and
thirst to see right prevail;
they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are those who show
mercy shall be shown to them.
Blessed are those whose hearts are
they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers;
they shall be called God’s
Blessed are those who are
persecuted for the cause of right;
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
With this remarkable statement of humility and compassion, the basis of Christianity was set. Jesus was adamant that he had not come to abolish the law of Moses but to complete it; he went so far as to say, “not a letter, not a dot will disappear from the law….” (Matthew 5:18). But in completing this law he made some dramatic changes and additions. He said not only must you not murder, but you must not even feel anger against another. He said that the prohibition against adultery extended so far as to not even looking lustfully at anyone other than your spouse. He said that you must not only love your neighbor but you must also love your enemy. He said you must forgive others for whatever wrongs they have done to you. He said you cannot serve both God and money. He said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. He said we were not to judge others. Many of these new commandments are stated in another of his sermons, the Sermon to the Disciples:
But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who treat you spitefully. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also; if anyone takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well. Give to everyone that asks you; if anyone takes what is yours, do not demand it back.
Treat others as you would like them to treat you. If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. Again, if you do good only to those who do good to you, what credit is there in that? Even sinners do as much. And if you lend only what you expect to be repaid, what credit is there in that? Even sinners lend to each other to be repaid in full. But you must love your enemies and do good, and lend without expecting any return; and you will have a rich reward: you will be sons of the Most High, because he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned; give, and gifts will be presented you. Good measure, pressed and shaken down and running over, will be poured into your lap; for whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you in turn. (Luke 7:27-37)
Jesus’ teachings often took the form of parables to stress the point of his new or revised commandments. When challenged by a scribe of the Temple as to which of the commandments was greatest, Jesus stated that to love God is the greatest followed by loving your neighbor. Jesus said that all the law and teachings of the prophets were based on these two commandments. The scribe then asked how he was to know who was his neighbor, and Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan: how a man badly beaten by robbers lay by the side of the road and was ignored by a Jewish priest and a Levite, but was not only cared for, but taken to an inn and his recovery financed by a Samaritan, a Gentile (non-Jewish). Jesus asked the lawyer which of the men had acted like a good neighbor, and the scribe responded the Samaritan had. Jesus told him to go and act like that. In another case he illustrated his teaching of being non-judgmental. Jewish leaders brought a woman accused of adultery and asked what should be done with her, knowing well that the law of Moses required stoning her to death. After doodling on the ground with his finger, Jesus told them that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. After they had all left, he told her to go and sin no more. Jesus’ sense of forgiveness was also given life in his parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of a son who convinced his father to give him his share of the estate early and immediately went off and squandered it on wild living. He became so destitute he was reduced to tending a man’s pigs and not eating as well as they did. He came crawling back to his father and asked him to take him back as a slave. Instead the father ordered the fatted-calf killed and a feast laid out to celebrate his son’s return. The father’s other son was disturbed to see such a welcome, as he had remained faithful, but the father told him to celebrate, as he would always be dear to him, but now his lost son was found and it was a time for rejoicing.
While the radical teachings of Jesus undoubtedly gathered a following, his reputation as a miracle worker and healer was probably as great, if not greater, an attraction to his growing devotees. He healed the lepers, the blind, the lame, the paralyzed, and the sick. He brought people back from the dead. He walked on water, drove out demons, calmed storms, and fed five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fishes.
The Gospels put forth all these teachings and miracles, but they also present some contrasting images of Jesus; he violently drove merchants from the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13); he killed a fig tree that bore no fruit when he was hungry (Matthew 21:18-19); he said those who were not for him were automatically against him (Matthew 12:30); he refused to see his mother and brothers when in their concern they came to visit him (Matthew 12:46-50); he repudiated the Jewish tradition of divorce (Matthew 19:9); he challenged the ancient dietary regulations of the Jewish faith by teaching, “No one is defiled by what goes into the mouth; only by what comes out of it.” In his teachings in the Temple he not only radically changed the interpretation of the law of Moses, he attacked the Jewish leaders of the day. The following is a small fragment of his onslaught of accusations:
Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like tombs covered with whitewash; they look fine on the outside, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and corruption. So it is with you: outwardly you look like honest men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)
Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah. As reflected in the writings of the prophets, Jesus does not fit the profile of Messiah as the inheritor of the warrior king David who would once again lead the Jewish nation to be a great and powerful kingdom. Jesus does call himself the Son of Man and the Son of God. It is possible to interpret this as an indication that all the Jews are children of God as is stated many times in the scriptures. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus did see his role as that of a sacrificial offering opening to the Jews a new avenue to God and preparing for the coming of the kingdom of God. This was most graphically illustrated in the Jewish Passover meal he shared with his disciples hours before his arrest:
During supper Jesus took bread, and having said the blessing broke it and gave it to the disciples with the words: `Take this and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and having offered thanks to God he gave it to them with the words: `Drink from it all of you. For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ (Matthew 26:26-28)
The arrest of Jesus was precipitated by his attacks on Jewish traditions and leaders and also by the tension that existed between the Romans and Jews due to recent small-scale insurrections. These circumstances left Jewish leaders worried that this radical teacher was going to stir up trouble and bring down the wrath of the Romans on them and the Temple. Jesus was accused of being a false prophet and claiming to be the Son of God and the Messiah. He refused to deny the charges and was quickly crucified (Frend 72-3). Events that had occurred in Jesus’ very short three-year ministry were to change the course of history. The Gospels tell that in three days he rose from the dead and sent a message for his remaining eleven disciples to meet him in Galilee. Judas, who had betrayed Jesus with a kiss, had committed suicide. In Galilee Jesus charged them to carry his teachings to all nations and to baptize in the name of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Peter, James, and John returned to Jerusalem and established the center of the church. They frequently worshiped and taught at the Temple as well. James emerged as the undisputed leader of the church and established good relations with the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem that lasted for twenty years. Christian instruction emphasized the teaching of Jesus as the risen Messiah who would return and restore Israel as predicted by the prophets. Christianity was seen as a branch of Judaism. By 40 C.E. Christianity had gained a foothold throughout Palestine with funds being raised and sent to headquarters in Jerusalem (Frend 86-97).
In 46 C.E. Paul joined the ministry. A Jew who was formerly a strict interpreter of the law and persecutor of Christians, he was also a Roman citizen through his well-to-do family. In a blinding vision Jesus came to him and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. His original attempt to join with the disciples in Jerusalem was rebuffed, but they eventually sent him on mission work. In 48 C.E. he returned with a new vision for Christianity; he demanded of James that circumcision be dropped as a requirement for joining the faith. James finally acquiesced with the stipulation that all other aspects of the law remain in effect, including dietary and sexual customs. Paul spent eight years (49-57 C.E.) in mission work to Greece and Asia Minor with remarkable results. His primary mission was to the Gentiles but he found greatest success in already established Jewish communities and among the “God-Fearers,” those who accepted the monotheism of the Jews but refused circumcision and other Jewish traditions. Paul and his disciples traveled throughout Greece and Asia Minor establishing Christian synagogues throughout the region (Frend 99-100).
Paul’s teaching centered on the personality and love of Jesus above that of the law of Moses. As his teachings evolved, more and more of the Jewish law was dismissed and replaced by the new law of Christ. Paul claimed Christ to be the new Adam, who came to reverse the original sin. Through His ultimate sacrifice of His own body and blood the original sin was annulled; all those that came to Him were saved and free of death through His love and sacrifice. Christianity became a faith of rapid salvation. Christ had performed the labor of salvation; Christians needed only to believe and follow. Paul gave structure to Christ’s magnetic invitation:
Come to me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy; I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble-hearted; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to wear, my load is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Paul made his teaching concrete in his letters to the congregations of his missions. These letters make up a large portion of the New Testament. The following is an example both of the powers of his writing and the guidance he dispensed to his followers:
For just as in a single human body there are many limbs and organs, all with different functions, so we who are united with Christ, though many, form one body, and belong to one another as its limbs and organs.
Let us use the different gifts allotted to each of us by God’s grace: the gift of inspired utterance, for example, let us use in proportion to our faith; the gift of administration to administer, the gift of teaching to teach, the gift of counseling to counsel. If you give to charity, give without grudging; if you are a leader lead with enthusiasm; if you help others in distress, do it cheerfully.
Love in all sincerity, loathing evil and holding fast to good. Let love of the Christian community show itself in mutual affection. Esteem others more highly than yourself.
With unflagging zeal, aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Let hope keep you joyful; in trouble stand firm; persist in prayer; contribute to the needs of God’s people, and practice hospitality. Call down the blessings on your persecutors — blessings, not curses. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in agreement with one another. Do not be proud, but be ready to mix with humble people. Do not keep thinking about how wise you are.
Never pay back evil for evil. Let your aims be such as all count honorable. If possible, so far as it lies with you, live at peace with all. (Romans 12:4-18)
While Paul was eager to dismantle much of the traditional law and regulations of the Jews, there were aspects he was equally eager to maintain. One of these aspects was the position of women in the Christian community. While Jesus had shown a somewhat more open attitude toward women — he had women as followers and traveling companions, he healed women, he spoke of harlots entering heaven before Jewish leaders, and some people view his abolishing divorce as an attempt to protect women from abandonment and poverty (Frend 67) — Paul’s attitude was firmly based in the Old Testament. He gave quite precise orders:
Women must dress in a becoming manner, modestly and soberly, not with elaborate hairstyles, not adorned with gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, as befits women who claim to be religious. Their role is to learn, listening quietly with due submission. I do not permit women to teach or dictate to the men; they should keep quiet. For Adam was created first and then Eve afterwards; moreover it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who yielding to deception, fell into sin. But salvation for the women will be in the bearing of children, provided she continues in faith, love, and holiness, with modesty. (Timothy I, 2:9-15)
While abandoning most rituals of the Jews, Paul structured the rituals of Christianity. Circumcision was now a symbolic rather than physical act. Rather than stripping away the foreskin, Christ would strip away the old nature. Baptism became the symbol of a new covenant, now with Christ. The baptism was, and is, a symbolic death by submerging in water and rebirth in Christ by rising out of it. The Eucharist was a sacramental communion between the participants and Christ. It was, and is, the consumption of the body and blood of Christ, a ritual of becoming one with him: Christ enters the participant and the participant enters Christ. This ritual re- enactment of the ultimate sacrifice replaced the many sacrifices of Temple required by Jewish law; they were no longer necessary.
Paul’s tremendous energy and conviction was balanced by a sense of insecurity. He was never fully accepted by the disciples in Jerusalem and in turn he reflected a sense of enmity toward them. In a statement of arrogance sandwiched in humility Paul said:
Last of all he [Jesus] appeared to me too; it was like a sudden, abnormal birth. For I am the least of the apostles, indeed not fit to be called an apostle, because I had persecuted the church of God. However, by God’s grace I am what I am, and his grace to me has not proved vain; in my labours I have outdone them all – not I, indeed, but the grace of God working with me. (Corinthians I, 15:8-10)
Paul professed that his was the only true teaching of Christ and that all others should be ignored. He made many enemies and suffered persecution from many directions. James in Jerusalem was still working within the framework of Judaism and Paul’s successes in the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean put strains on the unity of the church. In 58 C.E. Paul returned to Jerusalem and was jailed. Being a Roman citizen he was transported to Rome in 60 C.E. for trial, where he was kept under token arrest and allowed to preach and make converts. In 64 C.E. Rome suffered a massive fire and Nero needed a scapegoat to blame it on. He chose the Christians. Later Christian writings record that nearly a thousand martyrs died, including Paul and Peter who was also preaching in Rome at the time. Nero’s persecution of Christianity as an “evil religion” made it illegal throughout the empire (Frend 109). In 62 C.E. a rival group of Jewish leaders succeeded in arranging the murder of James in Jerusalem. While the Christians in Palestine were still in shock from his death, the great Jewish revolt against the Romans broke out in 66 C.E. and removed the Christians from any contemporary significance; some accounts have some Christians fleeing to Greece, but it is not certain. The Roman emperor Titus crushed the Jewish rebellion in 70 C.E. and destroyed the Temple (Frend 120). The Jews rallied back to their traditional leaders for guidance in the disaster. What developed was Judaism without the Temple but with a new, far more flexible structure established by the writings that were to evolve in the Mishnah and Talmud. Christianity was to survive as well, in spite of its illegality, and to flourish in the communities created by Paul and his disciples. It would be Paul’s vision that would shape this new religion for Jews and Gentiles alike: a religion of love and salvation.
The morality and ethics of Christianity revolve around a central point, the focal point of the teachings of Jesus; love. Love was a major theme of Judaism as well, but Jesus transformed it into the central focus of Christian actions and deeds. By commanding that we are not only to love our neighbors but also our enemies, He changed the intensity level to a very difficult degree. It is a task that calls for selfless commitment, a task that asks us to emulate God in His impartiality of sending the sun to shine on the good and bad alike. Our love is to fall on all equally. It is not to be done with the idea of transforming the enemy into a friend, but with a purity of maintaining a harmony of love for all; it is a law of love (Niebuhr 40). This law of love has been expressed by writers in many ways:
The law of love is not obeyed simply by being known. Whenever it is obeyed at all, it is because life in its beauty and terror has been more fully revealed to man. The love that cannot be willed may nevertheless grow as a natural fruit upon a tree which has roots deep enough to be nurtured by the springs of life beneath the surface and the branches reaching up to heaven. (Niebuhr 220)
Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; love alone lightens every burden, and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing, and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble, and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things, and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it or ill-fortune cast it down. (`a Kempis 97-8)
…we can be happy in this world only in so far as we are free to rejoice in the good of another: specifically, in so far as we are free to rejoice in the good which is God’s.
If the whole world were only capable of grasping this principle that true happiness consists only in the freedom of disinterested love — the ability to get away from ourselves, and our own limited sphere of interests and appetites and needs, and rejoice in that good that is in others, not because it is also ours, but formally in so far as it is theirs! (Merton 316)
Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between love of our neighbor and justice. (Weil 139)
This all-encompassing, universal love is the center around which all other Christian virtues revolve. These virtues are traditionally numbered seven: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Faith, Hope and Charity. Prudence is common sense, thinking about what you are going to do before doing it, and what the probable outcome will be. Temperance is often confused with abstaining from intoxicants, but it is meant to have much broader application to all pleasures — not in the abstention from pleasures, but in the moderation of pleasures. Justice extends beyond the contemporary legal context and relates to fairness in all interactions. Fortitude means facing danger when needed and sticking with your undertaking even if it involves pain or discomfort. Faith is the art of holding on to beliefs through changing moods and conditions; it represents the need for prayer, church, and ritual. Hope is belief; the belief that the kingdom of God is waiting for the faithful. Charity is the giving to the needy as another expression of universal love (Lewis 74-124).
In the fifteenth century a German monk by the name of Thomas `a Kempis wrote a small book to help instruct those coming into the brotherhood; it is titled The Imitation of Christ. For the past five hundred years it has been one of the most, if not the most, revered Christian books after the New Testament. It is a book of great clarity and devotion that lays out the aspects of the above-mentioned Christian virtues with a lucidity few writers have equaled:
Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. (27)
We could enjoy much peace if we did not busy ourselves with what other people say and do, for this is of no concern of ours. (37)
Judge yourself, and beware of passing judgment on others. In judging others, we expend our energy to no purpose; we are often mistaken, and sin easily. But if we judge ourselves our labor is always to our profit. (42)
Whatever a man is unable to correct in himself or in others, he should bear patiently until God ordains otherwise. Consider, it is perhaps better thus, for the testing of our patience, without which our merits are of little worth…. Strive to be patient; bear with the faults and frailties of others, for you, too, have many faults which others have to bear. (44)
Firstly, be peaceful yourself, and you will be able to bring peace to others. A man of peace does more good than a very learned man. A passionate man turns even good into evil, and readily listens to evil; but a good and peaceable man turns all things to good. He who is truly at peace thinks evil of no one; but he who is discontented and restless is tormented by suspicions beyond number. He has no peace in himself, nor will he allow peace in others. (70)
While the virtues and morals of the teaching of Jesus have been developed over the centuries, likewise have the Christian concepts of sin and hell. Judaism rarely dealt with the concept of hell, and Jesus seems to have followed in that tradition as reflected in the Gospels with a few exceptions. One such exception is the out-of- character passage in Luke where Jesus advises his followers to mutilate themselves rather than end up in hell where “the devouring worm never dies and the fire is never quenched” (9:48). Hell evolved as a balance to heaven, as a consequence of sin and, as irrational as it seems, a consequence to not following Jesus’ path of love. A definition of hell that rings with a poignant contemporary clarity is given by Thomas Merton: “Hell is where no one has anything in common with anyone else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves” (65).
Sin has also evolved in a bewildering complexity of levels and punishments. Again from a contemporary perspective, C. S. Lewis has expressed himself eloquently on what he sees as the ultimate sin:
Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed and selfishness are really far more the result of Pride….[P]ower is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing that makes a man so superior to others as being able to move them about as toy soldiers. …The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together…. But Pride always means enmity — it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God…. Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense. (110-2)
When one contemplates the original teachings of Jesus it is bewildering to look at Christianity’s evolution over time. Paul had planted the seeds of his vision of Christianity in the Mediterranean in a little over a decade. Those seeds continued to grow and develop in spite of the official ban on the religion. Christians suffered some of their most severe persecution during the last half of the third century; then in the beginning of the fourth century the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Edict of Milan in 313. By 314 Constantine was proclaiming himself a convert and Christianity was phased in as the official religion of the Roman Empire (Frend 486-7). This remarkable chain of events began Christianity’s long reign as the religion of political power, rather than the religion to empower the poor and oppressed as Jesus had envisioned it.
Centuries and centuries passed with official Christianity structured and fine-tuned to enable the powerful and wealthy to remain so and oppress and use the poor. The ultimate perversion took place during the centuries of European colonization of the world, when in the name of Christ countless lives were lost and entire cultures destroyed. When the economic thrust changed to the mercantile and then industrial systems, Christianity was deformed to fit and bolster the concept of individual greed and a new form of exploitation. In our own time the contortions continue with new technologies such as television continually utilized to manipulate and dupe people for the techno-powerfuls’ gain and avarice in the name of Jesus.
In spite of the distortions and perversions of the teachings of Jesus, in every place and in every time there have been individuals and groups of people who have been able to live by the true teachings of Jesus — to live lives of universal love to the best of their abilities. They have been beacons of goodness to the Western world and remain so. While the gentleness and humility of Jesus has rarely found its way into the political uses of Christianity, it has created for two thousand years, and will continue to create for thousands more a personal way of love and salvation for millions of people around the world.
The dichotomy between political Christianity and personal Christianity may be best summarized by Reinhold Niebuhr:
Since the anarchy of human life is something more than the anarchy of animal existence, it cannot be checked by the forces inherent in a rational culture. The vitality, and the resulting anarchy of human existence, is the vitality of the children of God. Nothing short of the knowledge of the true God will save them from the impiety of making themselves God and the cruelty of seeing their fellow men as devils because they are involved in the same pretension. (237)
Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of Christianity, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
`a Kempis, Thomas, The Imitation of Christ, translated by Leo Sherley-Price, New York: Dorset Press, 1952.
Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1952.
Merton, Thomas, A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnel, New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Niebuhr, Reinhold, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1935.
Weil, Simone, Waiting For God, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973.
all Biblical quotes not from the above sources came from:
Sacred Writings Volume 2: The Apocrypha and The New Testament, From The Revised English Bible, New York: Quality
1993 copyright Mark. McGinnis
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