Beta is our general term for the forms of Christian theory which were centered on the death, rather than the teachings, of Jesus. The unexpected death of Jesus was of course shocking to his followers. Their responses took several forms, the earliest of which is almost lost in the Christian literature. The first two responses are within the limits of what we call Alpha; the last two define Beta.
The Alpha Position
- 1. Jesus was taken directly up to Heaven at the moment of his death, and never saw the corruption of burial, as were his two chief predecessors, the lawgiver Moses (as in the noncanonical but contemporary document Testament of Moses) and the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). This belief has left several traces in the canonical literature. It lies behind what is now the Transfiguration scene in Mark (Mk 9:2-8), where Jesus appears transfigured with Moses and Elijah, thus vindicating his association with them (it might be called the first Trinity). There is also what appears to be an inadvertent inclusion of earlier belief, when Jesus says to the Penitent Thief, "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Lk 22:43). Immediate ascent to Heaven is within Jewish tradition, both ancient and current, and did not require new theory. It was merely an appropriation of existing theory.
- 2. Jesus appeared after his death to his disciples, or at any rate to their leading figure Peter, in a vision, assuring Peter that Jesus was in some sense still there, and that death had not ended his movement. This assured the followers of the ongoing validity of their belief, and of future guidance from Heaven. The idea of the Holy Spirit probably arose at this time. Uncertainty over whether the Spirit was that of Jesus leading from Beyond, or that of God leading Jesus also during his lifetime, led eventually to the Father/Son/Spirit triad, the doctrine of the Trinity which becomes prominent in later Christian thought..
The Beta Transition
- 3. Jesus was resurrected bodily from the grave, and appeared to the disciples in the flesh, complete with the wounds of the Crucifixion which they could touch, thus convincing them that it was he and not another. This was, in origin, probably an answer to those who discounted reported visions, as merely imaginary. It was a natural enough development of the preceding stage, by someone with a vivid imagination and a strong sense of life; Peter comes immediately to mind. That Peter and Paul at one point agreed about this doctrine is implicit in Paul's first visit to Jerusalem, sometime in the 30's, to confer with Peter. The point for Paul about this originally defensive claim had been that it corresponds with another but limited Jewish belief, held by the Pharisees among other Jewish sects. It spoke to Paul as a Pharisee, and it was probably this factor which led to his acceptance of the Christianity which he had earlier persecuted. Textually, the bodily resurrection is late in the literature; it appears in a late stratum of Mark, and is further developed in the Second Tier Gospels, Matthew and Luke.
- 4. Jesus was a sacrifice for the sins of all, and it is through his death that others gain eternal life. Though perhaps reinforced and enabled by the Greek cults of dying and reviving gods, this is essentially a Jewish theoretical development, and probably represents the influence of the Temple sacrificial cult on the Jerusalem Christians, who were tolerated by those authorities until the year 44. It first appears in a late stratum of Mark, and thus is earlier than the year 44. Paul encountered this belief sometime after he wrote 1 Thessalonians (which does not contain it), but before he wrote Galatians (which does); that is, sometime in the early 50's, or almost a decade later. It transformed his view of the Jewish Law, and completed his transition from Judaism (ironically, by moving in another sense back toward Judaism). It is not inconceivable that Paul learned it from Mark, who (according to Acts, if carefully read) left Jerusalem in c45 to work with Paul in Antioch. The Abrahamic motif in later Christianity, not only in Paul but also in Matthew, has its origins here. It pushed Paul in a more Jewish direction, and deepened his hostility to the Alpha Christians among the churches. His violent advocacy of this theory led to the bitter dispute, in real time, between the Epistle of James and Paul's statements in Romans.
Like the Gospel of Matthew in several senses, the doctrine of the Atonement represents a further drift back toward Judaism. It is so thoroughly incorporated into the Gospel of John that the death of Jesus in that text takes place for symbolic reasons on the same day as the sacrifice of the lambs for the Passover feast, and not (as in earlier tradition) after Jesus had eaten the Passover with his disciples. All this pushed the Alpha Christians even further toward the edge of new theoretical developments. The early Christians did not need this additional complication, to add to their other woes, but they got it anyway. One strong feature of the post-Pauline writings is a manifest wish to damp down this particular difference, which was proving damaging and divisive, by incorporating into the genuine Pauline epistles passages expressing Alpha doctrine. This lead was also followed in some, though not all, of the deutero-Pauline literature. That the breach was not permanently healed can be seen in the later Johannine correspondence, which is all about splits within the Christian community. It was this drift toward Judaism which led Marcion, whose heritage was Alpha, to attempt to purge Christianity of its dependence on the truth and relevance of the Jewish Scriptures.
Though Mark knew, and in a few passages in his Gospel acknowledged, the germ of the Atonement theory, it is possible that, though it produced an electric response in Paul, Mark personally continued not to make very much of it. Some firm upholders of early ideas of Jesus, among them Arius, continued to arise from the north African Christianity on which, according to local tradition, the teaching of Mark had an enduring effect.
The later history of Beta is essentially the history of the later Church, which is sufficiently well known not to require exposition here. The following are essentially footnotes, mostly cross-references to pages elsewhere in this site.
- 1 Thessalonians
- James vs Paul
- Alpha Interpolations in Paul
- The Johannine Division
These notes are provided in part to summarize present opinion, but also to indicate possibilities for future research. Suggestions for, or contributions to, that research will be most welcome. Those interested may contact the Project via the mail link at the bottom of this page.
12 Jan 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page