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.