In the Jewish interpretation, Jesus as sacrifice is compared with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb: in John’s Gospel
Jesus dies at the time the Passover lambs are sacrificed, as a Passover lamb: cf. Paul in 1 Cor. 5:7.
In another Jewish interpretation, that of the Synoptics, Jesus set up the Last Supper as a memorial meal for his death, in the form of the Passover meal.
Here too, parallels are drawn between Jesus’ death and that of the Passover lamb: the meal itself appears to be taken as a memorial meal, although the words of interpretation refer back to the self-sacrifice of the God of which Jesus is a part according to John 1:1ff.
Anyone in classical times who took part in a violent rebellion aiming to kill the representatives of public order
forfeited his life if the rebellion failed. To that extent, all those who took part in Jesus’ rebellion were guilty and faced death when Pilate conquered them.
However, Pilate only crucified Jesus and a few other leaders; most of the simple participants were able to go home. In that sense Jesus (and the other leaders) did indeed die on behalf of his many followers.
The statement of faith died for us is based on this historical experience of people who took part in Jesus’ movement.
This experience of the actual representative death of the noble, therefore godlike, Jesus was interpreted in different ways in the early Christian groups. One version was the Persian interpretation of God’s self-sacrifice as known to the groups in the Mithras cult.
This interpretation is expressed in the words explaining the Last Supper in Matt 26:26-28par; This is my body, this is my blood.
Paul and his tradition put it in a similar way: Christ died for us, for our sins: Romans 5:6-8; 1 Cor. 15:3.
The dominant narrative about the origin of the Christian myth of Christ’s self-sacrifice can be summarised as follows: religious geniuses
have emerged at various times in history, who announce God’s will to people: for example lawgiver Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament.
Jesus of Nazareth appeared at the dawn of the new age and proclaimed God’s kingdom. People felt his religious power and the divine wisdom in his pronouncements and formulated the idea that Jesus was the son of God, in line with the mythical ideas of their time.
When Jesus died on the cross they believed that God had sacrificed his son Jesus for their sins, as the Jews sacrificed Passover lambs for their sins.
I advocate the following thesis on the origin of the Christian myth: Jesus was Prince Antipas’ deputy, which made him equal to a god in the eyes of the people. Compare the statement of Phil. 2:6; Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God (KJV).
Jesus’ divine figure and his equality with God are not presumption; they do not simply express the community’s faith; they are primarily the description of a social reality, a social class, that of the nobility. Jesus belonged to this social class by birth and through his position as governor.
Joseph is not the name of Jesus’ father. Mark 6:1ff does not mention the name of Jesus’ father, only that
of his mother Mary. The father’s name only appears in the later birth legends in Matt. 1f and Luke 1f.
Where does the name Joseph for Jesus’ father come from? Father figures are often called Joseph in the New Testament: in addition to Jesus’ father, we can mention Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:57) and Joseph of Cyprus, called Barnabas, an early Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 4:36).
Joseph Barsabbas, the Apostles’ chosen candidate as the 12th Apostle to take Judas’ place, may also belong to this group (Acts 1:22).
Josephus, who describes Jesus as a Samaritan pseudo-Messiah, mocks the name of Jesus’ father when he claims: if things are going well for the Jews, the Samaritans call themselves sons of Joseph; if not, they say they are descended from foreigners: Ant. 9.14.3.
Beyond the Jewish world, the political message did not fall on fertile ground. The Christian message became
a purely private, religious affair, a matter of how to lead your personal life. The Apostles outside the Jewish world did not develop ambitions to follow Jesus as Messiah.
The various lists of disciples are later concepts that were backdated to an earlier period. This includes Jesus’ twelve disciples (Mark 3:13ff) with varying names, but always headed by Peter, James and John – as a list of Peter’s church and later the whole church – corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel or the ecliptical twelve signs of the Zodiac.
Other lists of disciples include Stephen’s circle (Acts 6:5) as the disciple list of John’s church with seven members, corresponding to the seven planets, and Jesus’ brothers in Mark 6:3 representing an early list of James’ church. In Acts 13:1 Luke seems to be quoting a sound source: the elders of Antioch. However it is doubtful whether Saul/Paul really belonged to this group at an early stage.
The dominant master narrative about the disciples states that the disciples were Jesus’ personal followers,
whom he had sought out and appointed. Many of them were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee; after their encounters with Jesus they left their work and families to join Jesus, the itinerant preacher. Peter was the leader of the disciples; he and the brothers James and John were the most important disciples.
And these are my theses about the disciples: Jesus’ disciples were not fishermen. They were preachers of the astrological Age of Pisces (the star sign), the new spring constellation that they interpreted as a heavenly sign of God’s kingdom that they were expecting.
Jesus’ disciples were not his personal followers.
The disciples were independent political and religious leaders in early Christianity; the great disciples James, John and Peter aspired to succeed Jesus as Messiah after his death.
Unification of the Palestinian Jesus Groups: in the years after 70 AD the Jesus Groups separated from their original movements
and the confessional churches merged with the Gentile Christian church. The rebels were branded traitors (Judas’ betrayal in the Gospels, not yet mentioned by Paul) and were excluded from the united church. Judaism, the Baptist movement and the Gnostics went their separate ways.
The traditions of the Jesus Groups are reflected in the Gospels that were written at this time and later gathered in the New Testament. The religious authority shifted from the spiritually gifted Apostles to the local churches and the Christian tradition as it was handed down.
The end of the traditions handed down by individual churches: after 135 AD the writings of the individual churches were gathered together in the New Testament canon, each church being represented in proportion. The texts handed down by the Jesus Groups finally merged in the tradition of the whole church.
In place of the friction between the old Jesus Groups, new conflicts arose.
The Apostle Paul experienced his conversion between 48 and 50 AD and began his apostolic activities in
about 50 – 52 AD. Paul was not really a missionary: wherever he went, he usually found that Christians were already there. Paul’s defining characteristics were his thorough theological education, his organisational talent and his eye for what the new religion needed most in terms of theology, cult and community life.
He took the idea of a unified Christianity directly related to Jesus from the church in Antioch.
Gentile Christians: while the Jesus Groups in Palestine persisted in their original movements and voiced political and social claims
alongside their religious messages, the mission travelled outside the area to Antioch, Cyprus and Asia Minor. This led to changes in Jesus’ message.
The separate Jesus Groups united and called themselves Christians for the first time. In the Gentile world, political and social demands made little sense; here it was the religious power of the united Christian message that interested and convinced people.
The fourth Jesus Group originated among the Gentile Christians in Antioch. This group no longer maintained confessional boundaries; it was open for all confessions and could now call itself Christian: Acts 11:26.
The encounter: the Jesus Groups from the different movements
met each other during their missionary activities. They recognised that they had a lot in common and worked together, but retained their separate structures and links with their original movements.
The most important event of the mission in Palestine was that the Jesus Groups founded communities in Jerusalem, though these remained strictly separate along confessional lines until the end of the Jewish Revolt. The Israelite group of James was transformed during this process from a Samaritan to a Jewish-Christian Jesus Group.
The Jesus Groups did not restrict themselves to peaceful missions; they also played a robust role in social conflicts. One example for this is the execution of James and Peter in 46 AD, probably after food riots in which they took a leading part.
The deaths of the two leading Apostles was a significant turning point in the history of early Christianity.
The mission: the Jesus Groups were dynamic. We have very little information about a mission by James’ group. Acts contains several mentions
of baptismal communities: in Samaria: Acts 8:16 and in Ephesus: Acts 19:1ff. The latter are said to be baptised only in the name of Jesus, in other words, by John’s baptism; they did not yet have the Holy Spirit.
The most impressive mission was that of Peter’s group. Peter himself is depicted as a missionary in Acts 10; baptism is integrated into Peter’s mission, so we can interpret Peter’s mission as the final stage of mission that was then continued in the general Christian mission.
Unity as the aim, not the starting point of early Christianity: when one of the Jesus Groups started missionary activity,
this certainly constituted a differentiation from the original movement. I will leave open the question of whether we should speak of a Jesus group, a Jesus fraction or an individual church at this point.
In any case, I am convinced that Christianity did not begin as a united movement, but as different groups or individual churches.
The most important textual confirmation for individual churches is the transfiguration narrative: during the vision on the mountain, Peter says to Jesus (Mark 9:5) “Let us build three temples (skhnh = tent; see also LXX: tabernacle), one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah”. In other words, Peter points to the three individual churches of Peter, James and John.
However, Mark’s Gospel already stands for the union of the individual churches. That is why he writes: Peter did not know what to say (verse 6). More evidence can be found in Mark 9:38ff, where the account mentions an unknown exorcist. Comparisons may also be drawn with the divisions in the church in Corinth criticised by Paul: 1 Cor. 1:12.
The Jesus Groups finally separated from their original movements only after the end of the Jewish Revolt in 70 AD.
Original movements and Jesus Groups: the Samaritans, the baptism sect and the Gnostics around Simon Magus
had few solid structures and little in the way of binding dogmas. They were groups with many different views, and Messianic ideas were widespread at the time, so Jesus’ followers within these movements could form groups without leaving the movement.
What we seen in the Gospels are a range of interpretations of Jesus that can be attributed to the movements named and to which we can allocate disciples’ names. These names are James (Israelites), John (Baptists) and Simon Peter (Gnostics).
These men clearly led Jesus Groups that remained within their movements. We can see the conflicts among the Christian Jews that they were confronted with. The disputes always focused on the issue of how far a Jesus Group could or should distinguish itself within the parent movement.
The interpretation of Jesus’ death as a betrayal: Judas. Josephus calls the Christians sons of Judas the Galilean,
because he brackets all Christians together as supporters of the insurrection. The opposite is true in the Christian sources: the relationship between Christians and Judas is not denied, but Jesus is the patron and the rebels are only pupils, and unworthy ones at that, since they gave Jesus’ enemies and excuse to kill him.
Nor do the Gospels hide the rebels’ opinion: in the scene of Peter’s denial (Mark 14:66ff par.) Peter is identified as a participant in Judas the Galilean’s rebellion due to his Galilean dialect: he is accused of betraying Jesus’ cause, which is identified with the rebels’ cause.
The crucifixions of James and Peter show that the Palestinian Jesus movements were by no means always non-violent and that they did not refuse all collaboration with the rebels. That only changed after the end of the Jewish Revolt in 70 AD.