Early Christians understood the way to the Kingdom of God to be through faith in Christ. Jesus the Christ was a Jewish man, sent to the Jewish people, from the Jewish God these early Jewish followers of Jesus would advocate in defense of the Jewish Messiah. This proclamation required these followers to reconfigure their sacred texts. The Jewish followers of Jesus found evidence they believed would open the Kingdom of God to all through faith in the offering of Jesus, sent by God Himself.
In the first century, a plurality of voices proclaimed that the God of the Jews delivered what He had promised to their ancestors through faith in Christ. The Kingdom of God had broken into the world. As Amy-Jill Levine notes, that there was no evidence to the Jewish people in that period of history and culture under Roman command that the Kingdom of their God had arrived (Levine 56). The man Jesus was crucified like many other Jews. Caesar was still the king and the Jews were still living in their land dominated by a Roman empire.
However, some Jews believed that Jesus was the Christ through a religious experience. Those voices stepped out into the darkness and ignited a radical movement in the name of Jesus for the Kingdom of their God. Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul, was a Pharisee sent to persecute the followers of Christ, called “the Way” (Moore 22). By his own admission, he was zealous for his Judaic faith, leaning toward the conservative side, when he had such an experience. Being a teacher and scholar of the Torah, he was knowledgeable regarding Jewish sacred texts.
Paul did not convert to Christianity, but would redirect his focus to what he perceived his God, the God of the Jews, was doing in that time in history. He would reconfigure his sacred Jewish texts, to explain what role the man Jesus the Christ played in his God’s plan. Influenced by Hellenistic culture, having knowledge of the Greek language, this young Jewish man, rooted and grounded in his Judaic faith and the law, believed Christ sent him on a course to proclaim the message of his God in a world influenced in Hellenistic philosophy.
Paul gives evidence from his letters that he believes his God has prepared an offering of Himself for the atonement of His people through the sacrifice of the man Jesus the Christ (Levine 66-67). According to Exodus, each family taking an unblemished lamb was to cover the doorpost of their house with the blood of the lamb, and eat the lamb in preparation of their departure from Egypt and the rule of Pharaoh (Moore 18). Blood sacrifice was also a part of Jewish worship as a ritual practice commanded by the God of Israel for the atonement of their sins according to Levitical law (Moore 16). A similarity of religious blood sacrifice among both Jews and pagans was regaining oneness to the deity or deities (Moore 18).
How did Paul view the promise of his God fulfilled through the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ? Apocalyptic Jews had messianic expectations (Levine 57). A cosmic savior in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant promised through the line of David (Moore 18). Even if Caesar was still dominating the political scene, Paul’s mission gives us evidence that he viewed the Christ as the ruler of both heaven and earth, over all aspects of the universe. He viewed Jesus the Christ crucified as inaugurating the messianic age and he was proclaiming the good news to the world, that God’s Christ is King and the Kingdom of God has come.
Amy-Jill Levine argues that most Jews would not have accepted Paul’s views of a crucified messiah and with no apparent evidence of a messianic age. They already had the belief in the resurrection of the dead and a just God (Levine 67). However, with Paul’s knowledge of Jewish texts, both apodictic law and casuistic law one could argue that not only does Paul believe the crucified Jesus removes the barrier and reconnect humanity to God. He also believes that both Jew and Gentile will have to come to God through faith in His Christ, just as Paul thought a Jew that kept Torah did. The actions of Paul give evidence he believed God’s justice became complete through His Christ, fulfilling God’s promise (Levine 79).
Paul’s voice prevailed within the early movement of belief in Jesus the Christ and the early church (Moore 25). His letters reveal an importance of why Christ died and for whom (Moore 30). The synoptic Gospels, written two generations later show the progression of the early church and we can see Pauline theology had taken root with variations of the imminent coming of the Christ along with a view of the human side of Jesus and what the writers would have him saying. There was tension within the early church and with the plurality of voices within Christianity, growing persecution from Rome made it a difficult time for the Jesus movement.
Under the Roman emperor Constantine in the year 313 CE, the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in Rome. This positioned Christianity to reach new levels of power with the conversion of Rome (Moore 67). But, was the message of the Gospel lost as Christianity became organized and flipped back to a top-down power structure?
Amy-Jill Levine. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006).
Rebbeca Moore. Voices of Christianity: A Global Introduction (McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2006).