From Jesus to Christ

The story, it seemed, was over. Convicted of sedition, condemned to death by crucifixion, nailed to a cross on a hill called Golgotha, Jesus of Nazareth had endured all that he could. According to Mark, the earliest Gospel, Jesus, suffering and approaching the end, repeated a verse of the 22nd Psalm, a passage familiar to first-century Jewish ears: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" There was a final, wordless cry. And then silence.

Why have you forsaken me? From the Gospel accounts, it was a question for which Jesus' disciples had no ready answer. In the chaos of the arrest and Crucifixion, the early followers had scattered. They had expected victory, not defeat, in this Jerusalem spring. If Jesus were, as they believed, the Jewish Messiah, then his great achievement would be the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth, an age marked by the elimination of evil, the dispensation of justice, the restoration of Israel and the general resurrection of the dead.

Instead, on the Friday of this Passover, at just the moment they were looking for the arrival of a kind of heaven on earth, Jesus, far from leading the forces of light to triumph, died a criminal's death. Of his followers, only the women stayed as Jesus was taken from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a tomb carved out of the rock of a hillside. A stone sealed the grave and, according to Mark, just after the sun rose two days later, Mary Magdalene and two other women were on their way to anoint the corpse with spices. Their concerns were practical, ordinary: were they strong enough to move the stone aside? As they drew near, however, they saw that the tomb was already open. Puzzled, they went inside, and a young man in a white robe--not Jesus--sitting on the right side of the tomb said: "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here, see the place where they laid him." Absorbing these words, the women, Mark says, "went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid."

And so begins the story of Christianity--with confusion, not with clarity; with mystery, not with certainty. According to Luke's Gospel, the disciples at first treated the women's report of the empty tomb as "an idle tale, and... did not believe them"; the Gospel of John says that Jesus' followers "as yet... did not know... that he must rise from the dead."

For many churchgoers who fill the pews this Holy Week, re-enacting the Passion, contemplating the cross and celebrating the Resurrection, the faith may appear seamless and monumental, comfortably unchanging from age to age. In a new NEWSWEEK Poll, 78 percent of Americans believe Jesus rose from the dead; 75 percent say that he was sent to Earth to absolve mankind of its sins. Eighty-one percent say they are Christians; they are part of what is now the world's largest faith, with 2 billion believers, or roughly 33 percent of the earth's population.

Yet the journey from Golgotha to Constantine, the fourth- century emperor whose conversion secured the supremacy of Christianity in the West, was anything but simple; the rise of the faith was, as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life." From the Passion to the Resurrection to the nature of salvation, the basic tenets of Christianity were in flux from generation to generation as believers struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus' mission.

Jesus is a name, Christ a title (in Hebrew, Messias, in Greek, Christos, meaning "anointed one"). Without the Resurrection, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Jesus movement of the first decades of the first century would have long endured. A small band of devotees might have kept his name alive for a time, even insisting on his messianic identity by calling him Christ, but the group would have been just one of many sects in first-century Judaism, a world roiled and crushed by the cataclysmic war with Rome from 66 to 73, a conflict that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

So how, exactly, did the Jesus of history, whom many in his own time saw as a failed prophet, come to be viewed by billions as the Christ of faith whom the Nicene Creed says is "the only-begotten Son of God... God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God... by whom all things were made"? And why did Christianity succeed where so many other religious and spiritual movements failed?

The questions are nearly 2,000 years old, yet in this culturally divisive American moment, a time when believers feel besieged and skeptics think themselves surrounded, a reconstruction of Jesus' journey from Jewish prophet to Christian savior suggests that faith, like history, is nearly always more complicated than it seems. For the religious, the lesson is that those closest to Jesus accepted little blindly, and, in the words of Origen of Alexandria, an early church father, "It is far better to accept teachings with reason and wisdom than with mere faith." For the secular, the reminder that Christianity is the product of two millennia of creative intellectual thought and innovation, a blend of history and considered theological debate, should slow the occasional rush to dismiss the faithful as superstitious or simple.

As the sun set on the Friday of the execution, Jesus appeared to be a failure, his promises about the Kingdom of God little more than provocative but powerless rhetoric. No matter what Jesus may have said about sacrifice and resurrection during his lifetime, the disciples clearly did not expect Jesus to rise again. The women at the tomb were stunned; confronted with the risen Lord, Thomas initially refused to believe his eyes; and at the end of Matthew's Gospel, some disciples still "doubted."

Their skepticism is hardly surprising. Prevailing Jewish tradition did not suggest that God would restore Israel and inaugurate the Kingdom through a condemned man who went meekly to his death. Quite the opposite: the Messiah was to fight earthly battles to rescue Israel from its foes and, even if this militaristic Messiah were to fall heroically in the climactic war, then documents found at Qumran (popularly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) suggest that another "priestly" Messiah would finish the affair by putting the world to rights. Re-creating the expectations of first-century Jews, Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, notes: "Like the David esteemed by tradition, the Messiah will be someone in whom are combined the traits of courage, piety, military prowess, justice, wisdom and knowledge of the Torah. The Prince of Peace must first be a man of war: his duty is to inflict final defeat on the forces of evil." There was, in short, no Jewish expectation of a messiah whose death and resurrection would bring about the forgiveness of sins and offer believers eternal life.

Yet a sacrificial, atoning role is precisely the one the first followers of Jesus believed he had played in the world. In the earliest known writing in the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes that Jesus "gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of God the Father."

Where did this interpretation of Jesus' mission come from? Like the New Testament authors, conservative believers often argue that Jesus is the Christ "according to the Scriptures" of the Old Testament--that the Hebrew Bible does in fact envision a messianic sacrificial lamb who will redeem the sin of Adam. There is a general argument that all of Biblical history had led to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and then there are what scholars call specific "prooftexts" (including Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, among others) in which the early Christians found foreshadowings of Jesus' life and mission. Yet anyone reading the ancient Israelite texts outside the Christian tradition may not necessarily interpret them as prologue to the New Testament; the Biblical books have their own histories and tell their own stories. To think that Christianity negates God's covenant with Israel, meanwhile, is misguided and contrary to canonical apostolic teaching. God's choice of the Jewish people is eternal, Paul writes, no matter what: "... as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers... the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable."

Christianity does owe the basic elements of its creed to Jewish tradition: atoning sacrifice; a messiah; a general resurrection of the dead. Until Jesus, however, no one had ever, apparently, woven these threads together in the way the apostles did after the Resurrection. ("Messiah" appears fewer than 40 times in the Old Testament, and when it does, it refers to an earthly king, not an incarnate savior from sins.) The heart of the matter was, as Paul wrote in First Corinthians (circa 50): "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day..."

From the beginning, critics of Christianity have dismissed the Resurrection as a theological invention. As a matter of history, however, scholars agree that the two oldest pieces of New Testament tradition speak to Jesus' rising from the dead. First, the tomb in which Jesus' corpse was placed after his execution was empty; if it were not, then Christianity's opponents could have produced his bones. (Matthew also says the temple priests tried to bribe Roman guards at the tomb, saying, "Tell people, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep'"--implying the body was in fact gone.)

The second tradition is that the apostles, including Paul, believed the risen Jesus had appeared to them; writing in the first years after the Passion, Paul lists specific, living witnesses, presumably in order to encourage doubters to seek corroborating testimony. Paul seems quite clear about what the skeptical would find if they checked his story. Less clear is what we should make of the later, differing Gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus. Sometimes he appears as flesh and blood; at others, he can walk through walls. Sometimes he is instantly recognized; at others, even close followers fail to understand whom they are speaking with until Jesus identifies himself. Most likely the post-Resurrection stories represent different traditions within the nascent faith. The contrasting details do not help the Christian case on logical grounds, but the Gospel renderings do affirm that the tomb was empty, and that believers thought the resurrected Jesus had appeared to some of them for a time.

Written after Paul, the Gospels speak of sacrifice, redemption and resurrection. Yet we cannot responsibly skate around the Gospel reports that the disciples were initially mystified by the Resurrection. What explains the skeptical disciples' transformation from fear and wonder to clarity and conviction about the empty tomb and its significance in the history of salvation--that through his death and resurrection Jesus would redeem humankind?

Perhaps recollections of the words of Jesus himself. Though many scholars rightly raise compelling questions about the historical value of the portraits of Jesus in the Gospels, the apostles had to arrive at their definition of his messianic mission somehow, and it is possible that Jesus may have spoken of these things during his lifetime--words that came flooding back to his followers once the shock of his resurrection had sunk in. On historical grounds, then, Christianity appears less a fable than a faith derived in part from oral or written traditions dating from the time of Jesus' ministry and that of his disciples. "The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that... he shall rise the third day," Jesus says in Mark, who adds that the disciples at the time "understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him."

That the apostles would have created such words and ideas out of thin air seems unlikely, for their story and their message strained credulity even then. Paul admitted the difficulty: "... we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and folly to Gentiles." A king who died a criminal's death? An individual's resurrection from the dead? A human atoning sacrifice? "This is not something that the PR committee of the disciples would have put out," says Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "The very fact of the salvation message's complexity and uniqueness, I think, speaks to the credibility of the Gospels and of the entire New Testament."

Jesus' words at the last supper--that bread and wine represented his body and blood--now made more sense: he was, the early church argued, a sacrificial lamb in the tradition of ancient Israel. Turning to the old Scriptures, the apostles began to find what they decided were prophecies Jesus had fulfilled. Hitting upon the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, they interpreted the Crucifixion as a necessary portal to a yet more glorious day: "... he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities... and with his stripes we are healed." In the Book of Acts, Peter is able to preach a sermon in which Jesus is connected to passages from Isaiah, Joel and the Psalms.

Skepticism about Christianity was widespread and understandable. From a Jewish perspective, the first-century historian Josephus noted: "About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. He worked surprising deeds and was a teacher... He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks... And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has not disappeared to this day." In a separate reference, Josephus writes of "James the brother of the so-called Christ." A good Jew of the priestly caste, Josephus is not willing to grant Jesus the messianic title. In Athens, Stoic and Epicurean philosophers asked Paul to explain his message. "May we know what this new teaching is which you present?" they asked. "For you bring some strange things to our ears..." They heard him out, but the Resurrection was too much of a reach for them. In the second century, the anti-Christian critic Celsus called the Resurrection a "cock-and-bull story," and cast doubt on the eyewitness testimony: "While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who say this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion... or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale..."

But why invent this particular story unless there were some historical basis for it--either in the remembered words of Jesus or in the experience of the followers at the tomb and afterward? "Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood," says Aeschylus' Apollo, "there is no resurrection." Citing the quotation, N. T. Wright, the scholar and Anglican Bishop of Durham, notes that various ancients may have believed in the immortality of the soul and a kind of mythic life in the underworld, but the stories about Jesus had no direct parallel. And while Jews believed in a general resurrection as part of the Kingdom (Lazarus and others raised by Jesus were destined to die again in due course), Wright adds that "nowhere within Judaism, let alone paganism, is a sustained claim advanced that resurrection has actually happened to a particular individual."

The uniqueness--one could say oddity, or implausibility--of the story of Jesus' resurrection argues that the tradition is more likely historical than theological. Either from a "revelation" from the risen Jesus or from the reports of the earliest followers, Paul "received" a tradition that the resurrection was the hinge of history, the moment after which nothing would ever be the same. "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain..." Paul writes. "Lo! I will tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet."

At this distance, such passages are stirring and have the glow of victory about them, but Jesus can be confounding, and he forced the early believers to become masters of theological improvisation. First the Kingdom failed to materialize at the time of the Passion, forcing the disciples--at least the male ones--into hiding. Next came the initially mystifying Resurrection. Then came... nothing. A central prophecy preached in Jesus' name, his Second Coming on "clouds of glory," failed to happen. "Truly, I say to you," Jesus tells his disciples in Mark, "there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."

And yet, as the decades of the first century came and went, the world wore on. In writing the Gospels, and then in formulating church doctrine in the second, third and fourth centuries, Jesus' followers reacted to his failure to return by doing what they arguably did best, for by now they had a good bit of practice at it: they reinterpreted their theological views in light of their historical experience. If the kind of kingdom they had so long expected was not at hand, then Jesus' life, death and resurrection must have meant something different. The Christ they had looked for in the beginning was not the Christ they had come to know. His kingdom was not literally arriving, but he had, they came to believe, created something new: the church, the sacraments, the promise of salvation at the last day--whenever that might be. The shift of emphasis from the short to the long term was an essential achievement. Because they believed Jesus' resurrection had given them the keys to heaven, the hour of his coming mattered less, for God was worth the wait. Drawing on imagery in Isaiah, John the Divine evoked the ultimate glory in his Revelation: "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new."

Not everyone saw the same visions. There were many different Christian groups at first, including Gnostic believers, some of whom, contrary to other apostolic traditions, thought Jesus was more divine than human. According to Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, Gnostic doctrine was noted for its "denial that the Savior was possessed of a material, fleshly body." Ignatius of Antioch, a second-century bishop, ferociously argued the opposite, writing that Jesus "was really born, and ate and drank, was really persecuted by Pontius Pilate, was really crucified and died... [and] really rose from the dead." Such a view had to be the case to track with the early understanding that, as Paul wrote, Jesus "was descended from David according to the flesh." Among the faithful, the notion that God would manifest himself in human form and subject himself to pain and death inspired martyrdom and suffering. Writing about Rome under Nero, Tacitus reported that Christians "were crucified or set on fire so that when darkness came they burned like torches in the night."

Still, the faith, intensely focused on Jesus, endured. "In Jesus Christ, Christianity gave men and women a new love, a very compelling story, and it meant becoming part of a rich, dense community," says Robert Louis Wilken, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. In his book "The Rise of Christianity," the sociologist Rodney Stark calculates that the number of Christians rose from roughly 1,000 (or .0017 percent of the Roman Empire) in A.D. 40 to nearly 34 million in 350 (or 56.5 percent of the total population). Stark argues that once the early church "decided not to require converts to observe the [Jewish] Law, they created a religion free of ethnicity," a religion attractive not only to Gentiles but to the Jews of the wider Roman world. Christians also benefited from their own charity work. In an age of plagues, they took care of the sick; the apostate Emperor Julian hated the "Galileans" and their "support not only [for] their poor, but ours as well." Such mission work attracted converts, Stark says, as did the church's decision to value women. And by largely banning abortion and female infanticide, Christians increased the ranks of women who could in turn bear Christian children.

Numbers tell only part of the story. Whatever one thinks of Christianity, the history of Jesus gave birth to a new, lasting vision of the origins and destiny of human life, a vision drawn from the religion's deep roots in Judaism. Everyone is created in God's image; there is, as Paul said, "neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus"; all are equal, special, worthy. In the Christian world view, says the Roman Catholic theologian George Weigel, "we are not congealed stardust, an accidental byproduct of cosmic chemistry. We are not just something, we are someone." The promise at the heart of the faith: that God, as the fourth-century church father Athanasius said, "was made man that we might be made gods."

So many theological questions linger, and always will: Did Jesus understand his relationship to God the Father in the way Christians now do? Luke claims he did: "The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected..." Jesus says, "and be slain, and be raised the third day." Did he grasp his atoning role? John claims he did: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." But how much of this is remembered history, and how much heartfelt but unhistorical theology? It is impossible to say. "How unsearchable are his judgments," Paul writes of the Lord, "and how inscrutable his ways!" And they will remain mysterious until believers, in Paul's words, come "face to face" with God.

In the meantime, we are left with an exhortation from a favorite text of Saint Augustine's, the 105th Psalm: "Seek the Lord, and his strength: seek his face evermore." As the search goes on for so many along so many different paths, Paul offers some reassuring words for the journey: "Be at peace among yourselves... encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks... hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil"--wise words for all of us, whatever our doubts, whatever our faith.

From Jesus to Christ | News