The first way in which the early Jesus followers sought to rationalize the death of their leader was that he had ascended to Heaven immediately upon his death, like the great prophets Moses and Elijah before him; see Ascension.
The second way was the idea that Jesus had died and been buried, but then had returned to life and appeared in bodily form to Peter and his other followers, before ascending to Heaven. In Acts, this Ascension is expanded into an event of its own. But the first focus was on Jesus's return to life, which his followers saw as a guarantee that they too would be saved (and if they had died, would be returned to life) at the Last Days. This does not necessarily contravene what we have called the Alpha view of Jesus, and probably coexisted with it for some time. It was this Resurrection belief to which Paul was originally converted; it touched a nerve in his Pharisaic view of the world (the Pharisees, but not their contemporary rivals the Sadducees, believed in resurrection after death).
The third way was to attribute to Jesus's death a special efficacy in saving others. Jesus was seen as the ultimate sacrifice, which vicariously paid for the sins of all, both past and present. This is the Vicarious Atonement doctrine. When and where did this idea arise?
Paul is the first person who is known to have preached the Atonement, but his letters date only from the 50's, which is later than the first evidences for the doctrine (Mk 10:45 and 14:24, both very late in that text), and Paul repeatedly claims that the Atonement doctrine is common property. The likelihood is that it arose in Jerusalem, the natural center of Jewish sacrificial thinking, and that Paul got it on one of his visits there.
The appearances of the risen Jesus were originally located in Galilee (so Mark), but later legend relocated them to Jerusalem (so Matthew, eventually followed by Luke and still further elaborated in John; this general development is what we call the Jerusalem Trajectory). The rise of the Atonement doctrine may be one result of this shift to Jerusalem, not only as the center of administration of the Jesus movement, but as the focus of the movement's theological speculations. One of the two Atonement passages in Mark (10:45) refers to the death of James Zebedee in c44, and we may safely assume that the Atonement doctrine had arisen by the time that passage was written (say, c45). This would predate Paul's first mention of it (a mild one, in 1Thess, c50), and give a background and context for Paul's increasingly strident insistence on it (in 1Cor and Romans, mid 50's). The chronology would then look something like this:
- c44. Atonement doctrine arises in Jerusalem
- c45. Mk 10:45, which mentions that doctrine, is added to Mark
- c48. Paul visits Jerusalem
- c50. Paul first mentions the Atonement doctrine in 1Thess 5:0-10
- c53. Paul makes the Atonement central to his theology, in 1 Corinthians and Romans
The emergence of the Atonement doctrine marks a second stage in the development of Beta; we might call it Beta II. The Alphas, or some of them, could and did live with the Resurrection doctrine, but they balked at the Atonement, which makes the death of Jesus not a validation of his life, but a complete substitute for the entire meaning of his life. It was thus around the Atonement doctrine that the lines of the orthodoxy wars were drawn, and these came to be the terms for much later inter-Christian controversy. The Epistle to the Hebrews was the most elaborately worked out version of the Atonement doctrine; that version was a bit much for even some of the Beta Christians, but Hebrews eventually made it into the canon on the strength of some added material which attributed it to Paul; see Hebrews. In Paul's hands, the Atonement doctrine was not simply added to the Christian mix, it became definitive, and intellectual acceptance of that doctrine was held to be not only necessary, but also sufficient, to gain salvation. This is the later sense of the word Faith in early Christianity. After Paul, in the DeuteroPaulines, we notice that "faith" is nothing more than a repository of required beliefs, thought to have been handed down by safe channels (the Apostles) from Jesus himself. The various later Creeds, of which the Nicene one (from the year 325) is the best known, are further developments along the same lines.
The Atonement doctrine did not make its way without opposition. In addition to the strenuous refutation of Paul's faith/works dichotomy in the Epistle of James, Luke in his Gospel, and still more obviously in Acts, refuses to include that doctrine in his picture of Christian history. Luke rather pointedly does not copy the two Markan passages which mention the Atonement, and his picture of Paul in Acts shows Paul preaching Christ on an entirely different basis, without mention of the Atonement doctrine (that doctrine appears only once, in a merely personal comment made while Paul is saying farewell to the Ephesian elders; Ac 20:28). And be it also noted that even in his late and increasingly theological letters, 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul does not abandon the idea that good deeds are better, in terms of the final judgement, than bad ones. This old idea merely persists beside the new one, in an ultimately unresolved contradiction. That contradiction was unresolved by Paul (despite the logical knots in which he ties himself in attempting to do so), and it is still with us at the present time. But whatever its logic, the Atonement idea has its appeal. It construes Jesus's death as a willing and other-centered sacrifice, it puts him in the category of the man who lays down his life for his friend. In all ages, this topos gains an instinctive response in both the military and civilian aspects of the moral consciousness. As applied to Jesus, it links him with some elements in the Old Testament tradition, and it also evokes the ideal of steadfastness in suffering, an ideal which believers of that time were being called upon to demonstrate in parson. It thus looked both backward and forward; it was both timely and timeless. Its success as a doctrine is thus entirely understandable.
Notwithstanding, discomfort over the Atonement doctrine has been widespread among otherwise orthodox Christians in recent times. Many showed themselves receptive, in the 20th century, to a version - any version - of Christianity which did not include this concept, or which decentered the death of Jesus altogether, in order to focus instead on the ethical teachings of Jesus. The lively interest in the Gospel of Thomas, when it was released to the larger public in the middle of the century, is partly to be explained as an outcropping of this theological discomfort. An interesting implication of the Alpha Christianity discovery, if it proves in the end to be philologically sound, is that one need not go as far afield as Thomas to discover, or rather return to, an older, more original, and doctrinally less troublesome species of Christian belief.
The Alpha enterprise was not undertaken in the hope of reaching that result (it was undertaken simply to apply standard historical methods to the early Christian texts, and see what happened), but those who share an interest in that result need not feel too uneasy at the prospect that the Alpha picture of early Christianity may be distressing to the present Christian community.
Au contraire. For a good number, it seems to be a relief, and even a liberation. The conflict between Galilean Christianity, which of necessity was rooted in the teachings of the living Jesus, and Jerusalem Christianity, which instead emphasized a sacrificial theory of the dead Jesus, is still to be fought to a conclusion.