Another look at the story surrounding Jesus the Nazarene
This site is for those who see the question marks in the story of Christian origins, and might want to have another look at the line that has been drawn from the original Jesus movement through to the formulation of orthodox Christianity in the third and fourth centuries.
Our understanding of Jesus, the man who walked the pathways of Galilee and Judea in the first century, has primarily been delivered to us by the Church. The ‘Christ of faith’ has obviously developed within Christendom, but the ‘Jesus of history’ is also dependent on information passed down by that ‘orthodox’ Church.
The early Church tells us what to think about Jesus. But how well did the early Church know Jesus in the first place? How far removed were the earliest Church Fathers from the people who knew Jesus?
There’s a story that’s been handed down to us, a story which has gained wide acceptance. It gives the perspective of a prominent early church movement, and follows the development of this movement as if it represented all people who genuinely believed in Jesus. An alliance of churches claimed the title ‘orthodox’ over and against anyone who disagreed with them. In the fourth century this church movement gained a position of great political power, which gave them control of the media. At a number of councils they decided on the documents to be included in the New Testament, and the vast majority of other written records available for students of Church history have also come from them.
Among these other written records are the writings of the Church Fathers, which provide some of the best historical grounding for the early Church. Some of the Church Fathers were around early enough to have known the disciples of Jesus, or their contemporaries. How many Christians have read their letters looking for words that show familiarity with the disciples; looking for the odd anecdote from their later years, only to be presented with a few vague allusions to Peter, John, Andrew, Thomas… mysterious figures that seem to disappear when you look at them?
The disciples of Jesus were Jews. They were the leaders of a Jewish movement. The spotlight of Church history starts with their community, which we call the Jerusalem Church, and then moves directly onto churches which were established elsewhere by Paul and his Gentile mission. It moves onto churches which were distinctly non Jewish, and follows their progression from there on. And the disciples of Jesus go out of the picture. There is no substantial record of their involvement in the early churches which were the forerunners to Christian orthodoxy.
The documents in the New Testament represent two movements, not one. When this is recognised, and the drama and rivalry of the first four centuries is brought to light, a different picture emerges. Those original followers of Jesus may have been quite unorthodox, because the orthodox movement, which became the early Catholic or ‘Universal’ Church, was exclusive on racial grounds. They condemned many groups as heretics, including Jews who believed in Jesus. And, although it appears as no more than a footnote in Church history, a Jewish movement, with a Jewish understanding of Jesus as Messiah, carried through from the first century, very much a part of the Judeo-Christian environment of the second to fourth centuries. The story of Christian origins merges two movements into one, as if it was only natural that the Jewish movement of the first century would transform into the entirely Gentile religion of the following centuries. This huge assumption is rarely questioned.
In seeking to understand Jesus, we can be inclined to view him through the religion -by projecting back through accepted doctrine and theology. This website represents an attempt to go back to a first century starting point and work forwards, looking for the perspective of those who were close to Jesus, and identifying their successors by their inclination to ‘hear his words and put them into practice’ (Luke 6:47) -not by the way they would come out on top in a struggle for religious supremacy.
‘Was Jesus a Christian?’
It’s not such a silly question. What happens when you take away from Christianity the things that Jesus didn’t teach?
Down through the centuries this religion has been through various phases of evolution to produce the faith that we are now familiar with. Big decisions were made by people centuries removed from Jesus, and we presume that they were inspired by God. The people with religious authority were on the right track because they’re the ones who formulated what we now believe.
If we were to judge the political Christian Church down through the ages by its fruit, we would have to say that, generally, we’re looking at the wrong tree. And this is mostly recognised: the Church has a dark history. But it’s still seen to have been instituted by God. When we presume that God was guiding the orthodox churches into truth, we also assume that all those referred to as heretics were naturally in the wrong.
During the second to fourth centuries AD, a movement of Jews who believed in Jesus (Yeshua*) was written off as heretical by Gentile Church leaders who were prejudiced against them. And they’re all too easily written off by us in modern times as well, as if there is no possibility that these communities could have been carrying the true heritage of the original Jesus movement -a Jewish movement.
Although little information about them has survived, we do know some things about what those Jewish communities believed, and it’s very interesting. It seems clear that they were putting Jesus’ words into practice, just like the early Jerusalem community in Acts. There were various groups which the Church Fathers were happy to brand as heretics, and they wrote quite extensively on the subject. In looking at their treatment of these others, it’s important to keep their bias in mind. They are the ‘orthodox’, claiming apostolic succession from the disciples. It’s clearly their intention to denigrate those whom they see as opponents, and there’s likely to have been positive information left out, either intentionally or due to the writer’s lack of knowledge about his subjects. Here are two excerpts from the writings of Church Fathers about these Jewish communities:
Epiphanius; Panarion 29: (AD380)
“But these sectarians… did not call themselves Christians, but “Nazarenes” …however they are simply complete Jews. They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do… They have no different ideas, but confess everything exactly as the law proclaims it and in the Jewish fashion -except for their belief in Messiah, if you please! For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things, and declare that God is one and that His Son is Jesus the Messiah. They are trained to a nicety in Hebrew. For among them the entire law, the Prophets and the… writings… are read in Hebrew, as they surely are by the Jews. They are different from the Jews, and different from the Christians, only in the following. They disagree with the Jews because they have come to faith in Messiah; but since they are still fettered by the law -circumcision, the Sabbath and the rest- they are not in accord with Christians. They are nothing but Jews… they have the Good news according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this, in the Hebrew alphabet, as it was originally written.”
In this passage it seems clear that in the mind of the writer, to equate these people with ‘the Jews’ is to reveal how wrong they are, even though Jesus and his original followers were Jews, and he gave no indication that he was introducing another religion. He made a distinction between the kingdom of God and the Judaism of his day, but he was teaching the people what the Father intended for them as Jews. The Nazarenes were also rejected by the Jewish establishment, even though there had been a time when they met along with other Jews in Synagogues:
Letter 75 Jerome to Augustine 4.13: (AD404)
…”In our own day there exists a sect among the Jews throughout all the synagogues of the east, which is called the sect of Minei, and is even now condemned by the Pharisees. The adherents to this sect are commonly known as Nazarenes; they believe in Christ the Son of God, ‘born of the virgin Mary; and they say that He who suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again, is the same as the One in whom we believe. But while they desire to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither one nor the other.”
Could these ‘Nazarenes’ be the genuine descendents of the Nazarenes of the first century -the original followers of Jesus? Could this be why the application of Jesus’ teaching has largely been lost to Christianity? It’s worth looking into. In modern times these Jewish followers of Jesus are often referred to as ‘Jewish Christians’, which is quite incorrect. They are not likely to have been known as Christians back then, and nor should they be now. (There is far more attached to the term ‘Christian’ than the simple idea of ‘Jesus follower’.) In the above passage Jerome makes it clear that he would have viewed such a term as offensive, and the Nazarenes probably wouldn’t have shared the same title with the churches that condemned them as heretics.
Another term for an early Jewish (Jesus) movement was ‘Ebionites’, a Hebrew term meaning ‘the poor ones’. Some scholars view this as a derogatory term coined by antagonists.
Negative references can be very effective in dealing with opponents. ‘Judaizers’ and ‘Circumcision group’ are terms which were used to put down early Jewish followers of Jesus. These references are found in the New Testament, providing evidence for the division between first century Jewish and Gentile believers.
The New Testament is a collection of literature that has come from two main sources. It contains a number of Gentile documents, a few Jewish documents, and documents that present as Gentile renditions of Jewish originals. The evidence for this is there in the text. The provenance of material can be identified by positive/negative references to one people group or the other. A writer who puts down ‘the Jews’ is not very likely to be a Jew, or to represent a Jewish movement, and a Jewish writer will naturally refer to Gentiles as foreigners.
The New Testament sometimes has the Jews for villains, and sometimes the Gentiles. In the book of Acts there are many negative references to ‘the Jews’. A few examples:
‘After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him…’ (Acts 9:23)
‘Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.” (12:11) (Peter was a Jew.)
‘While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court.’ (18:12)
‘Because the Jews made a plot against him just as he was about to sail for Syria…’ (20:3)
‘I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews.’ (20:19)
‘This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him…’ (23:27)
‘…it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me.’ (26:7)
‘…the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me.’ (26:21)
It’s not the events that are in question here, but the choice of words. ‘The Jews’ are a whole people group. Why no specification as to which ones? The odd time in Acts it says, ‘certain Jews’, or ‘unbelieving Jews’, but in most cases there is no concern to narrow things down.
As with any nation, there were different religious groups and elements within Jewish society, and plenty of good Jewish people who were not constantly lying in wait to kill people.
It’s not likely that this document, in its final form, would have been a sacred text to the disciples of Jesus, who were Jews. (The book of John is similar, with even harsher treatment of the Jews.)
According to tradition, Acts is supposed to be the continuation of the gospel of Luke, and by the same author. But Acts is full of positive references to the Gentiles, while Luke is not. In fact, in chapter 18 of Luke, Jesus predicts his death at the hands of ‘the Gentiles’ (verse 32). So here Jesus identifies the Gentiles as his adversaries, referring to the Romans who saw him as the leader of a Jewish movement, a potential uprising. “The Son of Man… will be handed over to the Gentiles” –from the Jews (by collaborators) to their adversaries. But in Gentile documents the Jews as a people are not seen to have been with Jesus; they are depicted as his adversaries.
The Jews are the villains in Acts -they’re the bad guys. But in Luke there are no negative references to ‘the Jews’ at all ! The same author? Not likely, unless original material in Acts has been reworked and added to -which is a likely scenario. Although Acts is full of Gentile rhetoric, the first part is a Jewish story.
e-Sword is a good tool to check this out. Free to download, this program enables Bible searches on terms such as “the Jews”. Go to ‘Bible’ at the top, and then down to ‘search’. Compare Luke and Acts -their treatment of ‘the Jews’.
It’s time for another look at the story surrounding the life and teaching of Jesus the Nazarene, a misleading story. It starts with the original followers of Jesus, who passed on what we know of his life and teaching, and formed a community in Jerusalem where they lived by the principles of this teaching. But then the story shifts from there to a movement among another people -a transition that seems to go unnoticed. We’re given the impression that the one Jesus movement is spreading internationally, but this other movement is quite separate from the first, and these are not the people who knew Jesus. But, even so, we’re focussed on them now. This is where the new religion develops, and where Jesus is reinterpreted.
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This site is open. You are invited to contribute further information. Refute. Correct. Share your thoughts or knowledge.
How much of the religion do we need to move aside in order to see the Jesus of history?
To contribute, please go to the forum
The Recognitions of Clement, and the Homilies of Clement (Clementine Homilies), provide the most substantial post first century representation of Jewish faith in Jesus that has survived through to modern times.
See the page ‘Peter’ on this website… Peter
Also, Early Christian Writings -a comprehensive resource for the early documents, their dating, and scholarly views.
* Yeshua. A transliteration of the original Hebrew name. Other forms include Yahshua, Yahushua, Yehoshua, the abbreviation Y’shua.