2000 Years Of Jesus

Historians did not record his birth. Nor, for 30 years, did anyone pay him much heed. A Jew from the Galilean hill country with a reputation for teaching and healing, he showed up at the age of 33 in Jerusalem during Passover. In three days, he was arrested, tried and convicted of treason, then executed like the commonest of criminals. His followers said that God raised him from the dead. Except among those who believed in him, the event passed without notice.

Two thousand years later, the centuries themselves are measured from the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. At the end of this year, calendars in India and China, like those in Europe, America and the Middle East, will register the dawn of the third millennium. It is a convention, of course: a fiction and function of Western cultural hegemony that allows the birth of Jesus to number the days for Christians and non-Christians alike. For Christians, Jesus is the hinge on which the door of history swings, the point at which eternity intersects with time, the Savior who redeems time by drawing all things to himself. As the second millennium draws to a close, nearly a third of the world's population claims to be his followers.

But by any secular standard, Jesus is also the dominant figure of Western culture. Like the millennium itself, much of what we now think of as Western ideas, inventions and values finds its source or inspiration in the religion that worships God in his name. Art and science, the self and society, politics and economics, marriage and the family, right and wrong, body and soul--all have been touched and often radically transformed by Christian influence. Seldom all at once, of course--and not always for the better. The same Jesus who preached peace was used to justify the Crusades and the Inquisition. The same gospel he proclaimed has underwritten both democracy and the divine right of kings. Often persecuted--even today--Christians have frequently persecuted others, including other Christians. As Pope John Paul II has repeatedly insisted, Christians cannot welcome the third millennium without repenting of their own sins.

This millennial moment invites historical reflection: how has Christianity shaped the way we think about God, about ourselves, about how individuals ought to live and the way that societies are to be organized? As scholars have long realized, there was little in the teachings of Jesus that cannot be found in the Hebrew Scriptures he expounded. From this angle, says theologian Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity School, "Christianity became a Judaism for the Gentiles." But the New Testament is primarily Scripture about Jesus--the Risen Christ as Lord. This message was something altogether new. Like a supernova, the initial impact of Christianity on the ancient Greco-Roman world produced shock waves that continued to register long after the Roman Empire disappeared.

The first Christians were Jews who preached in the name of Jesus. But Jesus wasn't all that they preached. As Jewish monotheists, they believed in one God--the Father to whom Jesus was obedient unto death. But they also worshiped Jesus as his "only begotten Son" conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. This experience of God as three-in-one was implicit in the New Testament, but defied efforts to fit into the traditional monotheistic mold. By "asking Greek questions of Hebrew stories," says theologian David Tracy of the University of Chicago Divinity School, the early church fathers developed a doctrine of God that was--and remains--unique among world religions. "All monotheists tend to make God into a transcendent individual standing outside time and outside all relationships," Tracy observes. "Now, as in modern physics, we are coming to see that all of reality is interrelated. The doctrine of the Trinity says that even the divine reality in all its incomprehensible mystery is intrinsically relational." In short, Christianity bequeathed to Western culture a God who revealed himself definitively in the person of Jesus, and who continues to redeem the world by the work of the Holy Spirit. Time itself was transformed: where the Greeks and Romans thought of the universe as fixed and eternal, Christianity--building on the Hebrew prophets--injected into Western consciousness the notion of the future as the work of God himself.

To a world ruled by fate and the whims of capricious gods, Christianity brought the promise of everlasting life. At the core of the Christian faith was the assertion that the crucified Jesus was resurrected by God and present in the church as "the body of Christ." The message was clear: by submitting to death, Jesus had destroyed its power, thereby making eternal life available to everyone. This Christian affirmation radically changed the relationship between the living and the dead as Greeks and Romans understood it. For them, only the gods were immortal--that's what made them gods. Philosophers might achieve immortality of the soul, as Plato taught, but the view from the street was that human consciousness survived in the dim and affectless underworld of Hades. "The Resurrection is an enormous answer to the problem of death," says Notre Dame theologian John Dunne. "The idea is that the Christian goes with Christ through death to everlasting life. Death becomes an event, like birth, that is lived through."

Once death lost its power over life, life itself took on new meaning for believers. Sociologist Rodney Stark of the University of Washington sees dramatic evidence of this in the high Christian survival rates during the plagues that repeatedly hit the citizens of the ancient Roman Empire. "The Romans threw people out into the street at the first symptoms of disease, because they knew it was contagious and they were afraid of dying," says Stark. "But the Christians stayed and nursed the sick. You could only do that if you thought, 'So what if I die? I have life eternal'."

Indeed, those who were martyred for the faith were revered as saints and heavenly "friends of God" who could intercede for the faithful below. Their bones became sacred relics, their tombs the sites of pilgrimage. Thus was the Christian cult of the saints born, a reverencing of the dead and their bodies that confounded Rome's elites. "You keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse [Christ] of long ago," complained Emperor Julian, a fourth-century persecutor of Christians. "You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchers." Eventually, churches were built over the tombs of saints (the Vatican's Basilica of St. Peter is the most famous example) and cemeteries were turned into cities.

As the sign of the new religion, the cross signified much more than Christ's victory over death. It also symbolized an inversion of accepted norms. Suffering was noble rather than merely pathetic when accepted in imitation of the crucified Christ. Forgiveness--even of one's enemies--became the sign of the true Christian. More radically, Jesus taught that in the kingdom of God the last would be first, the first last. "In the New Testament, you find Jesus more among the beggars than the rulers, the sick than the healthy, the women and children than the conquerors, the prostitutes and lepers than the holy people," says Martin Marty, director of the Public Religion Project at the University of Chicago.

Christianity also challenged prevailing notions of the virtuous life. Where Aristotle had touted prudence, justice, courage and temperance as the virtues proper to the good life, Jesus emphasized the blessedness of humility, patience and peacemaking in his crowning Sermon on the Mount. Where the Buddha taught compassion as an attitude of the Enlightened, Jesus demanded deeds: "In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me." In Roman times, Christian compassion was manifest in special concern for widows, orphans, the aged and infirm. When Saint Lawrence, an early Christian martyr and deacon of the nascent church, was ordered by Roman authorities to reveal the church's treasures, he showed them the hungry and the sick. Twenty centuries later, the same attitude can be seen in the work of exceptional contemporary figures (usually women) like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. "The idea," says Marty, is "the poor are my masters."

If, as Harold Bloom has lately argued, Shakespeare "invented the human," it can be said--with equal hyperbole--that Christianity "discovered" the individual. In the ancient world, individuals were recognized as members of tribes or nations or families, and conducted themselves accordingly. For Jews, this meant--as now--that one's relationship with God depends upon the prior covenant he has made with Israel as his chosen people. But the Gospels are replete with scenes in which Jesus works one on one, healing this woman's sickness, forgiving that man's sins and calling each to personal conversion. He invites Jews and Gentiles alike to enter God's kingdom. "Christianity discovers individuality in the sense that it stresses personal conversion," says Bernard McGinn, professor of historical theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "This is a crucial contribution to Western civilization because it releases the individual from the absolute constraints of family and society."

The sense of self deepened. Prayer became more personal. As Jesus himself taught, God could be addressed as "Abba"--the equivalent of "Dad." But as the possibility of intimacy with God increased, so did the interior sense of personal unworthiness. As a moralist, Jesus had set the bar high: those who even looked on another's wife with sexual desire, he declared, committed "adultery in the heart." With the evolution of the Roman Catholic Church came the practice of personal confession and repentance. And in the Confessions of Saint Augustine (354-430), we have the first great document in the history of what Stendahl has called "the introspective conscience of the West." A towering figure whose shadow stretched across the Middle Ages and touched a tormented Martin Luther, Augustine remains to this day the father of autobiography, the first great psychologist and the author who anticipated--by a millennium and a half--the modern novel's explorations of individual self-consciousness.

In roman as in Jewish society, women were regarded as inherently inferior to men. Husbands could divorce their wives but wives could not divorce their husbands. In rabbinic circles, only males were allowed to study the Torah. Jesus challenged these arrangements. Although he called only men to be his apostles, Jesus readily accepted women into his circle of friends and disciples. He also banned divorce, except in cases of adultery.

The early Christians heeded his example. In its initial stages, at least, the church strove to become an egalitarian society: in Christ, wrote Paul, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male or female." Although Paul's household code for Christians (Ephesians 5:22-23) called for wives to be subordinate to their husbands, both were equally subject to God.

Christianity's appeal for women was a major reason that it grew so rapidly in competition with other religions of the Roman Empire. Then, as now, most Christians were women. The new religion offered women not only greater status and influence within the church but also more protection as wives and mothers. For one thing, the church did away with the common practice of marrying girls of 11 or 12 to much older men. The result was a stronger, "more symmetrical marriage," says sociologist Stark. For another, Christianity carried over from Jewish tradition a profound respect for marriage. Eventually, the Catholic Church made marriage a sacrament, declaring the bond between Christian husband and wife insoluble.

In an even more radical challenge to the social mores of the ancient world, the church made room for virgins--both male and female--who consecrated their lives to Christ. In this way, says McGinn, consecrated Christian virgins "broke the bonds by which families controlled the fate of their members"--especially women. Thus, Christianity made it possible for celibate females or malesto claim a complete life and identity apart from marriage and procreation.

The church also protected children from the whims of tyrannical fathers. Under Roman law, fathers could and often did commit infanticide. Female babies were especially vulnerable because they were nothing but an expense. From a study of gravestones at Delphi, Stark says, we know that of 600 upper-class families, "only half a dozen raised more than one daughter." From the beginning, Christians also opposed abortion, defending both mother and child from barbarous procedures that often left women either dead or sterile.

In a less direct way, Christianity also transformed the way that masculinity was defined throughout the ancient world. In place of the dominant image of the male as warrior, Jesus counseled men to be peacemakers--to "turn the other cheek" rather than strike back. "A woman preaching that people must be patient and meek and mild would have sounded just like a woman," argues Michael Novak, who covers religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute--and, he implies, would have been dismissed by men. But to believe, as Christians did, that this was the Son of God speaking meant that Christians could never make war with a clear conscience.

Nonviolence was easy to espouse as long as Christians had no power. As Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan observes, "They never imagined that Caesar might become a Christian"--which he did when Constantine converted in 312--much less that theirs would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. With establishment came the power to wage war and to stamp out heretics. From his imperial throne in Constantinople, Constantine did both as protector of the church. But in the West, as "eternal" Rome fell to invaders from the North, Augustine laid down severe restrictions if the conduct of war between states is to be considered just. Among other principles outlined in his monumental "The City of God," Augustine said that only defensive wars could be justified. They should be brief, a last resort and never for spoils or gain. The means of war should never be excessive but always proportional to its goals. Noncombatants were to be immune from harm, and once the war was over, the aim of the winners was to be peace, not revenge.

While Augustine's just-war principles have never prevented wars from happening--including those waged in Jesus' name--they have, over the centuries, at least prompted some statesmen to try to make warfare less barbarous. We are still a long way from nonviolence. "But before Christ," notes Stark, "conquerors butchered people for the hell of it."

Ironically, once Christianity was identified with the state, many Christians found it more difficult to follow Christ than when they were a persecuted sect. To escape an increasingly worldly and compromised church, many Christian men and women fled to the desert (as some Jewish sects before them had done), where they could live in complete poverty, chastity and obedience. These became the basis of the Rule of Saint Benedict--"one of the most influential documents of Western civilization," according to Pelikan--which established monastic communities as places set apart for those called to fully "participate in the life of Christ."

The effects of monasticism on Western society can hardly be exaggerated. For more than a millennium, the monasteries produced saints who established the diverse forms of Christian mysticism and spirituality that are so much in revival today. The monks were also the church's reformers, calling popes to task for their worldliness and eventually becoming popes themselves. Through the example of the monks, celibacy became required of bishops in the East and, eventually, of all priests in the West.

It was the monks who became Christianity's greatest missionaries, planting the church in England, Ireland and other outposts of no-longer eternal Rome. As the barbarians dismantled the empire, the monks copied and later disseminated the Latin classics, thus preserving much of the old civilization and laying the foundations of the new. They also created music and chants, magnificent liturgies and marvelous illuminated manuscripts. In the so-called Dark Ages--a fiction created by anti-religious philosophes of the French Enlightenment--it was the monks who founded the first European universities in cities like Paris and Bologna. It was a Dominican friar, Thomas Aquinas, who crowned the Middle Ages with his towering synthesis of philosophy and theology, the "Summa Theologica." And it was another monk, Martin Luther, who fathered the Protestant Reformation.

One measure of Christian influence on Western culture is the extent to which innovations of the church have survived in secular form. The law is a prime example. "Much of medieval canon law has passed over--often unnoticed--into the laws of the state," says Harold Berman, professor of law emeritus at Harvard law school. "And many of the legal reforms the medieval papacy promoted command respect even seven and eight centuries later." Among them: rational trial procedures, which replaced trial by ordeal; the necessity of consent as the foundation of marriage; the need to show wrongful intent for conviction of crime, and legal protection of the poor against the rich.

The legacy of medieval "Christendom" had its darker side as well. From Christmas Day in 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as "Holy Roman Emperor," politics and religion were seldom separate. The results were mixed at best. Had the secular powers not defended Christianity, Europe might well be Muslim today. But the medieval Crusades to rescue the Holy Land from the Turks became excuses for plunder by conscripted thugs. Once church and state were yoked, almost any military action could be justified.

Although the New Testament contains no outline for a Christian society, medieval Christianity was one long effort to establish one. The doctrine the church preached became the doctrine the king enforced. Even Augustine had reluctantly concluded that the secular arm of society could be used to crush heresy. Acting on the premise that error has no rights, the church created the Inquisition, dispatching traveling squads of Franciscans and Dominicans to ferret out heretics. In 1252 Pope Innocent IV allowed suspects to be tortured. The guilty were imprisoned and sometimes put to death. Two centuries later, the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella created a separate Inquisition aimed at discovering and expelling converted Jews and Muslims who secretly practiced their own religion. Even old women and children were tortured, and their descendants barred from universities and public office. In subsequent centuries Inquisitors expanded their list of heretics to include suspected Protestants and practitioners of witchcraft. Altogether, the Inquisition remains a monument to religious intolerance and a reminder of what can happen when church and state share total authority.

The Reformation shattered the old Christendom but also unleashed new energies. Protestants translated the Bible into vernacular languages and encouraged lay learning and initiative. From Europe, Christian missionaries dispersed to Asia, Africa and the Americas. In many cases, it was a matter of the cross following the flag--a shameless blessing of imperialism and colonialism. But there are other ways of measuring the missionaries' impact. From the 16th-century Jesuits to the 19th-century Protestants, missionaries developed written languages for many "indigenous" peoples who had none--not to mention grammars and dictionaries. In this way, Protestant and Catholic missionaries "preserved local cultures that otherwise would have been swept away by global forces," says Mark Noll, professor of history at Wheaton College. The missionaries also established countless schools and hospitals, bringing literacy and modern medicine to those that the indigenous elites ignored. "Nelson Mandela," notes Noll, "is a graduate of two missionary schools."

As the world moves toward the third millennium, Christianity seems far removed from the Jesus movement of its birth. And yet, the same gospel is being preached. Christians are still being persecuted: in the 20th century alone, there were many times more martyrs--especially under Hitler and Stalin--than all the victims of the Caesars combined. But the differences from times past are also striking. Post-Christian Europe seems spiritually exhausted. In the United States, secularism is the reigning ideology. However, there is more unity among Christians now than at any time since the Reformation. Despite the Holocaust--or perhaps because of it--"the people to whom Jesus belonged, and the people who belong to Jesus," as Pelikan puts it, are no longer spiritual enemies. Science and religion, once thought to be implacable adversaries, are beginning to talk to each other: the hubris of the Enlightenment has run its course.

Numerically, it is already clear, the future of Christianity lies with the youthful churches of Africa, the Hispanics of the Americas and--who knows?--the millions of stalwart Christians in China. Christianity already comprises the most diverse society known to humankind. But what new ideas and forms the gospel will inspire await the birth of the third millennium. Of the future, the Book of Revelation has only this to say: "Behold, I make all things new."

Lamb of God

For every time and place, we reimagine and reimage Jesus,'' says Thomas Lucas, professor of fine arts at the University of San Francisco. But some imagery--such as the agony of crucifixion, a symbol of the redemptive power of suffering--has had special resonance over the last two millennia.

Miracle Worker

One of the most important functions of religious art throughout the ages has been to bring Jesus' story alive for the many unlettered believers who would never hold a Bible in their own hands. Depictions of miracles like the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead and the story of the loaves and fishes are a reminder of the transformative power with which God endowed his son--and the compassion that first endeared him to humanity.

Son of Man

While the earliest depictions of Jesus often presented a distant, almost imperial Christ, artists later came to focus on the humanity of God's only son. ""Everyone understands what a baby is about,'' says Professor Lucas. ""There is no more vivid way of showing God's vulnerability in the person of Jesus than a tender scene of the infant in the manger.''

Holy Warrior

In terrifying apocalyptic scenes or political propaganda, Jesus is often identified as an agent for liberation. Armed only with the red-and-white flag of judgment, he is shown exhorting the damned and the oppressed--the notion of deliverance just as resonant among 20th-century Latin American peasants as it was when the Romans were oppressing early Christians.

Light of the World

How do you show the power of God--the divinity of Jesus that set him apart, which made him more than a man? Many painters used an unearthly glow to remind their viewers that Jesus was indeed not of this world; even the crudest early mosaics and the darkest crucifixion scenes are suffused with a glow that shines out of the body of Christ: the light of God shining through our humanity.

The Global Jesus

As believers--and artists--all over the world can attest, the image and ideal of Jesus belongs to everybody. ""The Christ of faith is so much bigger than his three decades in Judea at the beginning of the first millennium,'' says Professor Lucas. ""Look at an African crucifixion scene, or a Chinese nativity. Jesus is constantly being remythologized according to the needs and longings of the times.''