Christianity's Historical Context

Understanding the world in which Christianity developed helps understand Christian beliefs.

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The Pharisees promulgated the idea that during the Messianic Age the dead would be raised; hundreds of Jews went into the Judean desert by the caves of Qumran to await the final battle between the "sons of light" and the "sons of darkness" (as we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls); a Jewish prophet named John (the Baptist) began to immerse fellow Jews in the Jordan River as tes­timony to their having repented of their sins and in preparation for the coming Messianic Age. (From the Greek term for immerse comes the term "baptize.")

This period in Judaism not only witnessed speculation about the Mes­sianic Age or the "world to come"--the time when the prophetic vision of universal peace would arrive--it also saw the rise of several claimants to be the inaugurator of that age. One first-century C.E. candidate, named Theudas, announced that a new era had arrived (Rome executed him); another, called "the Egyptian," proclaimed that the walls of Jerusalem would fall (although he escaped, Rome killed many of his followers).

In the early second century C.E., Rabbi Akiba proclaimed the Jewish mili­tary leader, Bar Kokhba, the Messiah. (Rome killed them both). That Jews in Israel might follow a visionary and a healer who spoke of the Kingdom of God should not be unexpected; nor should that visionary's execution by the Roman Empire.

Enter Jesus

It is also not surprising--it is in fact quite "Jewish"--that those who followed Jesus saw him as a wonder worker, recognized that his birth sig­naled something special, and even believed that after his death he was raised from the dead. If he was the Messiah, surely he would be raised. Jewish messianic belief at the time, and even now, incorporated the idea that the Messianic Age is marked by the resurrection of the dead.

Al­though it has been argued that the disciples stole Jesus' body and invented the resurrection (the Gospel of Matthew states that "this story has been spread among the Jews to this day"), the followers of Jesus were neither hypocrites nor charlatans. That someone would experience such a vision in these times is hardly surprising, especially in cases of extreme stress.

These visionaries lived then with a missionary zeal and commitment to their tradition, a tradition that happened to be Judaism. This is why many of Jesus' first followers believed that shortly after the crucifixion and his resurrection, there would be a general resurrection of the dead. When this did not happen, a number of these Jews probably returned to wait for the Messiah.

For the most part, among Jews, the mission in the name of the crucified and resurrected man from Nazareth was a flop. The majority of Jews at that time and subsequently did not find a need for Jesus in their lives: He filled no gap in their souls; he was not needed to take away their sins; he did not bring about the Messianic Age; they believed in resur­rection already.

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Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she also directs the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.