Christianity: A New Faith Arises in a Historical Context

Of the early church, Will Durant states in his third volume, Story of Civilization, Chapter 27, “The Apostles,”

Christianity arose out of Jewish apocalyptic – esoteric revelations of the coming Kingdom; it derived its impetus from the personality and vision of Christ; it gained strength from the belief in his resurrection, and the promise of eternal life; it received doctrinal form in the theology of Paul; it grew by the absorption of pagan faith and ritual; it became a triumphant Church by inheriting the organizing patterns and genius of Rome.

The apostles and the first Christians expected Jesus’ imminent return. Matthew 16:27 – 28 (New International Version) quotes Jesus to say,

27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

In 1 Peter 4: 7 Peter admonishes, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.” In 1 John 2:18, the followers of Jesus are warned, “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.”

Alfred North Whitehead, in his book, Adventures in Ideas, tells us that because Jesus followers believed that he would return in all his glory while some of that generation who heard his promise yet lived, they were able to give lavishly, holding back nothing for the morrow since they would have no need of it in the time to come. That expectation waned with the passing years, and Robert Wright, in his book, The Evolution of God, writes, “By the time Luke was written, more than a decade after Paul’s death, that expectation was no longer operative.”

Luke 17:20 – 21 (King James Version) has Jesus telling the religious leaders,

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

The earliest Christians were Jews and that faith first oriented and informed early Christianity. The apostles and the first Christians worshiped in the synagogue. Of that early practice, Will Durant writes at Volume 3, Chapter 27, The Apostles, page 579: “In Christ and Peter Christianity was Jewish; in Paul it became half Greek; in Catholicism it became half Roman. In Protestantism the Judaic element and emphasis were restored.”

With the conversion of Saul (in Greek the equivalent of Paul), Christianity broke out of Judaism and into the Gentile world which was immersed in paganism. There remained some tension for some time between the apostles and Paul, Jewish and Gentile converts. One of the principal questions to arise, particularly as Gentiles became converted by Paul to Christianity, was to what degree Christianity was Judaic, and subject to its laws – particularly, circumcision and dietary restrictions. Paul and his fellow missionary, Barnabas, went to Jerusalem to discuss that matter with the apostles. By that time, Peter had a vision by which he understood that God did not make a distinction between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. In Acts 15 gives account of Peter’s revelation in that matter:

7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Perhaps influenced by Paul’s promise of financial aid from Antioch for the impoverished Jewish community in Jerusalem, the apostles and Paul came to an agreement that pagan converts not be required to observe the Jewish rites, but simply to abstain from eating the meat of animals that had been sacrificed and to live a moral life, evidenced by good fruits.
Will Durant notes at page 579 that, “The mystery religions prepared the Greeks for Paul, and Paul for the Greeks.”

Acts 17 :22-33 describes the manner in which Paul reached out to the Gentiles, including pagans in a world heavily influenced by Greek civilization:

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

The Athenians were little impressed, but the passage demonstrates Paul’s manner of linking this new religion with that Greek inheritance. Paul left for Corinth and there reached out to many Jews through its commerce. He was a tent maker and spoke each Sabbath at the synagogue, giving him significant contacts with his Jewish heritage. His education extended beyond Judaism to Hellenic civilization and Roman governance. While in Corinth, Paul also gained a number of Gentile converts to Christianity. It was while he was in Corinth that the Jewish leaders charged him with the crime of attempting to induce people to worship God contrary to Jewish laws. The civil authorities refused to become involved in the dispute since it was religious, not civil, in nature.

Paul made three missionary trips to the Gentiles who lived about the Eastern Mediterranean rim. There was some risk in converting Gentiles to Christianity, including that the their backgrounds would unduly influence their Christian practice. He addresses that in 1 and 2 Corinthians. The agreement reached in Jerusalem did not last long. In time “the party of the circumcision” demanded of the Galatians that they live by the Jewish law. In response, Paul wrote to the Galatians, making a clean break with Judaism.

In an attempt to resolve some of the conflict that Paul had with the Jerusalem Christians, he returned to Jerusalem. He did so against the advice of fellow evangelists and missionaries. Upon his return, the church leaders boasted many Jewish converts to Christianity, but accused Paul Paul of preaching against the law of Moses. They prescribed Jewish purification rituals as an overt sign that Paul respected his Jewish heritage and its laws. He followed their advice. When he had completed the seven day purification ritual, some Jews saw him in the temple and again accused him of teaching against the Jewish people and their law.  They also complained that he defiled the Temple by bringing Gentiles into it. Word of the charges spread throughout Jerusalem. The offended Jews dragged him out of the Temple and were about to kill him. Paul was saved by the appearance of some Roman soldiers and their commander. He resolve the immediate threat by taking Paul into custody. But, Paul asked to speak to the crowd before he was taken into custody. The commander granted the request. Acts 22 reports Paul’s speech in which he recounted to the angry mob how he had come to be called by Jesus to bring the gospel to the Gentiles:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
8 “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
10 “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.
12 “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.
14 “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
17 “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
19 “‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the blood of your martyr[a] Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”

The crowd was not mollified by the speech, but rather, enraged. The commander took Paul to the barracks and ordered that he be flogged. At that time, Paul declared himself to be a Roman citizen, which, upon declaration, gave him certain legal rights; and the commander withdrew his order to flog Paul. The next day, in order to sort out the reason for the Jewish backlash against Paul, the commander took him to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body. Again, the commander had to reclaim custody of Paul to save him from the anger of the Jewish  mob. The Roman soldiers removed him to the barracks for his own protection. From there, 270 soldiers immediately removed Paul to Caesarea. There, the governor, Felix, agreed to hear the complaint of the Jews against Paul. Shortly, the priest, Ananias, appeared at the trial and accused Paul of being a troublemaker, whereas he praised the governor for keeping the peace for the Jewish people. Paul was called to speak in his own defense, in which he stated in Acts 24:

14. . . I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.
17 “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 18 I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. 20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin— 21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”

We are told that Felix withheld judgment concerning the charges for two years, during which time Paul remained in custody. Felix had hoped that Paul would bribe him. After two years, Felix was replaced by Porcius Festus, who scheduled a new hearing on Jewish charges against Paul. Jewish leaders leveled a number of charges against Paul; and Felix, hoping to rid himself of the matter, asked Paul if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem to be tried by the Jews. At that time, Paul answered that he was before Caesar’s court, that he was innocent, and if the Jews wished to proceed, he appealed to Caesar. Once he made that appeal, Felix lost discretion in the matter, and Paul was taken to Rome for trial before Caesar. There, he was under house arrest, awaiting trial; and there, he was free to receive visitors and to write to various of the churches that he had helped establish.

There were a number of factors making this new Christianity, as presented by Paul, appealing to the Gentiles. For example, there were a number of mystery faiths that had arisen in the Hellenistic world, among which the notion of a resurrected Savior was often an element.

Similarities of Early Christianity to  Hellenistic Mystery Religions

Many of the former pagan practices of Gentile Christian converts crept into and influenced early Christian dogma and practice.  For example, the cult of Dionysus shared in a feast, the meat of which was considered to be the body of Dionysus and the wine his blood. There are also two stories of resurrection, also predating Jesus. The psychologist, Carl Jung noted that the resurrection was a theme common to many world religions and that it was also associated with the god of wine and ecstatic drunkenness. That feature shared by many religions was sufficient that he consider this to be a part of the subconscious of human nature.

Christians also shared a communal meal, which apparently was sufficiently pagan in its observance that the apostle Paul warned against excess and drunkenness. From that time, Christianity has either used a cup of wine or grape juice and some form of a small piece of bread to represent the blood and body of Christ. The congregational participants most commonly either sip a small amount of wine or juice and eat a small portion of bread or wafer, or the bread or wafer is dipped into the wine or grape juice after the minister or priest has recounted the story of the Lord’s supper and ends the account with Jesus’ words the night before he was crucified, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Greek cult of Dionysus, Dionysus died and rose again. The church fathers, Will Durant tells us in Story of Civilization, that church authorities dealt with the similarity between the rites of Dionysus Christian practice by accusing Satan of creating the story of Dionysus to deceive those who would “follow Jesus.”

Titles Attributed to Jesus Which Were Predated by Attribution to Caesar Augustus and Other Caesars

The New Testament scholar and co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, Dominick Crossan, in the video series, Living the Questions, notes that many of the titles that the early Christians attributed to Jesus were first used to describe Caesar Augustus before Jesus’ birth. Those titles included “Divine,” “Son of God,” “God,” “God from God,” “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” and “Savior of the World,” and even the notion of the virgin birth.  Dominick suggests that the early Christians used those terms previously attributed to Augustus Caesar as a means to prop up the authority of Jesus and to deny the authority of Augustus Caesar. Moreover, while adopting the same titles, the Christians attempted to distinguish the authority Christ and the Kingdom of God from Roman political authority: Jesus’ nonviolence against Rome’s violent repression.

In addition to the above – noted pagan and Roman political sources of Christian ideas, Paul became the source of many theological notions that are nowhere to be found in Jesus’ own teaching. For example, the notion of original sin and that every person born inherits the guilt of Adam is  not to be found in any account of Jesus’ teaching, but only in Paul; moreover, the notion of atonement by Jesus’ death is not individual but that of all. It appears to me that, as in the Athenian proclamation concerning the identity of the “unknown God,” Paul was attempting to demonstrate to the Gentiles that Jesus fulfilled their hopes and assuaged their fears. Paul also introduces the notions of divine election, i.e., that before a child is born, God has determined whether that new soul will be saved or not; who will receive his grace and who his damnation.
For a discussion of more similarities of Christianity with prior pagan beliefs and practices, see



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