Studies in Early Christianity
The Legacy of the Messiah
E Bruce Brooks
Jesus came and went. What of the crowds he left behind, to whom he had preached on the shores and meadows of Galilee? What was their first response to his death, and how did they keep the faith he had encouraged in them? Above all, what kind of faith was it?
Jesus came out of the movement inspired by John the Baptist. He ended as a criminal, having hoped to bring about the Return of God by a sudden purification of God's proper earthly habitation, the Temple at Jerusalem. As the foundation of that political program, he had told his audiences how they might be saved from the coming End of the World. The Gospel of Mark, our earliest source for these things, gives little space to Jesus' teachings on this important subject; it is concerned instead to explain the death of Jesus, and to make plain that God had forbidden any further attempts of this political kind. The coming Last Days were after all the thing to await.
In time, the death of Jesus came to be seen as itself the means of salvation, but this was not a doctrine likely to have been preached by Jesus himself, and for many years it failed to displace Jesus' own doctrines among those who had heard him preach, or who were converted by his first followers. These people preserved the original teachings of Jesus. Their doctrines, and the liturgical form in which they were embodied (hymns, prayers, and regular observances), are what is here called Alpha Christianity. Hints of its content may be gained from Mark, but also from other early documents, some of them part of the NT canon, and others preserved outside the canon. Among these are the Epistle of James and the Two Ways tract, which emphasize good deeds, and several early hymns, preserved by chance in the Epistles of Paul, which envision Jesus as enshrined in Heaven, and expect him to return at the end of the world, but do not attribute any special importance to his death. The Didache contains detailed descriptions of the earliest forms of Christian Baptism and the observance of the Lord's Supper. Other texts recount the doings of the various Apostles, and though these contain a large dose of later myths and fabulous tales, they largely remain within the doctrinal limits of the Alpha Christian texts.
Other evidence for the existence and importance of Alpha Christianity is the disputes such as that at Corinth, about which Paul tells us, between those who did, and those who did not, attach importance to Jesus's resurrection. Paul, as a Beta Christian, denounced the nonbelievers bitterly, but this merely shows how important they were. It also shows how far Alpha Christianity had penetrated into the wider Mediterranean world before Paul and other apostles of Beta Christianity, and with them the the doctrine of the saving death of Jesus, began to catch up with it.
Extracts from Xristos:
1: Some Minor Prophets
The Principal Texts
2: Two Ways
3: The Didache
4. The Epistle of James
5. 1 John
6. Philippians 2 and Other Hymns
The Alpha Horizon
7: Early Preaching
8. Pliny in Sinope
9. Alpha Christianity
Chapter 5: The Rituals of the Didache
Many Christians at the present time would list themselves as believers in the Resurrection doctrine; some would identify it as the core of their faith. The daily practice of many, however, consists essentially in emphasizing good deeds and avoiding bad deeds, as a way to get into Heaven. That is, conventional Christianity is often made up of a core of Alpha practice and belief, overlaid by a coating of Resurrection or Beta theory. That Beta coating has proved to be difficult for some individuals. What sensitive child, after all, or what reflective mother, can really be content with the logic of "God so loved the world that he killed his only begotten Son?" The thesis of this book is that Jesus did not in fact teach this Beta doctrine, and that his earliest followers based their hope of Heaven on much the same elementary principles of behavior as do many modern people - love thy neighbor as thyself (Mark 12:31). It is at this elementary level that Christianity reaches what is probably its most universally appealing form, which happens also to be its earliest form. As Mark tells us at one point, what Jesus preached was not a religion based on Jesus (though this is the religion which Christianity later became). It was a religion about God. "Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1:14-15). The Gospel of God, the good news about God, is that sin is not final; rather, God will forgive those who repent, and will receive them into his Kingdom at the end.
For a key part of the textual research that lies behind the conclusions of this book, see The Gospels of Mark. For the later history of some of these ideas, see Luke
E BRUCE BROOKS is Research Professor of Chinese at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Xristos: Teachings of the Messiah
Approximately 256 pages.
Tentative $50.95 cloth. ISBN 978-936166-42-8
Tentative $27.95 paper. ISBN 978-036166-82-4
Tentative Release Date: November 2018
When announced, this book may be ordered from the University of Massachusetts Press
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