When asked recently to speak about early Christian history, I wondered how to make the topic relevant in today’s virus-decimated society. I realized eventually that the two historical time periods have a lot in common.
Indeed, early Christian history can serve as a model for the modern world.
To understand that, we have to understand the actual history. Of course, Christianity begins with Jesus. Unfortunately, very little is known about him. The biblical accounts are laced with mythology. The first Gospel, Mark, didn’t appear until about 40 years after the date of Jesus’ accepted death. We all know how much information can get lost or altered in that time.
Some of our knowledge comes from the Nazarenes, a pious Jewish sect that followed James and a prophet named Jesus who predicted the world was coming to an end. That Jesus was not alone; lots of people, fed up with more than 60 years of Roman rule, were forecasting that God would destroy the Romans and recreate a Jewish theocracy.
|Model of the Second Temple|
Beyond that, Jesus doesn’t appear in any historical account of the day. The only authentic data comes from Josephus, the historian of the late first century, who wrote about a Jesus who stood in front of the Temple in the early 60s and repeatedly crying that a “great wind was coming.” Presumably, the reference was to the eventual destruction of the Temple. Officials thought he was crazy. No one believed in him.
The only other person who wrote about Jesus was Paul, a resident of Tarsus who wanted to be included among the Jews. Despite his claims, he was not Jewish. The Nazarenes said Paul was not circumcised. He didn’t know Jewish law or Hebrew. However, he did want to be included among the Jews when the world ended.
As such, he tried to join the Nazarenes and was rebuffed. He eventually came up with a solution: Just believe in Jesus, who was the brother of James and crucified. Paul left us letters in which he said Jesus was born in the usual way and did nothing in his life but was so pure that God selected him to be “king of the Jews” while on the cross. To fulfill that role, Jesus would have to return.
This way, Paul bypassed James and the Nazarenes and eliminated the Jewish laws that restricted him. Paul then went around the Mediterranean, setting up tiny colonies of believers waiting for Jesus to come back.
Meanwhile, Jewish zealots, tired of waiting for God to act, attacked the Romans in 66, starting a devastating war that continued until 73 and final Roman victory. In the process, the Temple was burned down.
The Temple revived the moribund Christian sect. Leaders were able to argue that God had fled His house and had come to the survivors, the members of the small colonies Paul developed.
The first Gospel was then written, around 71. Mark has no birth or crucifixion stories. Instead, he follows Paul in that Jesus was the real king but didn’t tell anyone. He also predicted the destruction of the Temple. In that, he combined the Jesus mentioned by Josephus with the Jesus who was the prophet of the apocalypse.
Mark didn’t do mislead deliberately. Writing in Rome, he knew the name Jesus who was preaching an apocalypse and naturally assumed the Jesus who predicted the destruction of the Temple was the same one. Since the Temple was destroyed, fulfilling the prediction, Jesus must be special.
A successful prediction galvanized the early Christians. A second book, known as Matthew, then appeared around 85. It was written to the exiles of the Jewish war, then largely collected in Alexandria, Egypt, and assured them if they followed Jesus, the new Moses, He would lead them home. Matthew’s Jesus quotes from existing literature and is made to be more of a leader, one who could ride into Jerusalem with acclaim. Mathew also ascribed multiple miracles to Jesus, drawing on stories about prophets in the Jewish religious texts.
Elsewhere, around the same time, a third gospel showed up. Luke went further than Matthew by making Jesus the subject of adoration by visiting kings and a recognized figure in the country. John, the last gospel, finished off the elevation of Jesus by having Him exist before all time.
Since the authors of Luke and Matthew did not read each other’s books, they have diverse birth stories, genealogies and other details. However, because they both use Mark as a source, they agree in many areas. John may have been written to counter them because the author gives Jesus a different age, an alternative timeline for ministry and death as well as other changes.
Debates over the role of Jesus continued into the 4th century when Emperor Constantine hosted a gathering of church leaders in 325 to set the theology. At Nicaea, Jesus became God. Constantine was not Christian, but his mother was. He legalized the religion. About 60 years later, another emperor made it the sole legal religion, launching the Christian era.
How does any of that connect to Covid19?
Consider the parallels. Like Christianity, Covid19 arrived unexpectedly and in a small way. It then spread through human contact, just as Christianity did. It rapidly upset the previous way of life. Christianity did the same thing, albeit at a slower pace.
Mythology has collected around the virus: it was invented in a lab; the Chinese sprung it on the world; Bill Gates is behind it; and so on. The mass of disinformation is easily overwhelming the facts. Christian history paved that path two millennia ago. As one religious historian noted: “The real Jesus was sacrificed for the divine Jesus.”
|Covid19 affecting children|
Covid19 is already evolving into new forms, one of which apparently threatens children. In the same way, early Christianity shattered into multiple sects. One predominated, but others still exist.
Covid19 has also created a new norm. Christianity did exactly the same thing. Everything changed. Just as conservative pagans objected then, so do conservatives today. Then and now, people want to go back to the life they knew, to the norm they enjoyed.
That didn’t happen 1700 or so years ago. It won’t happen now.
This is the new norm: social distancing, different forms of communication, changes in the economic model and so on.
It took a long time before Christianity became the accepted norm. No doubt, the new norm will be imposed at a faster pace, given the power of today’s communication and the ability to reach huge masses of people.
There are differences of course. I doubt anyone will worship Covid19, and I don’t want to imply that Christianity is any kind of disease. Nevertheless, what happened in the past can clearly illuminate the present.
Christian history and Covid19 are proof of that.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture. He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of the recently published novels Revelation! (Southern Owl Press) and The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All (Bold Venture Press) as well as a variety of nonfiction books, including The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information and Comparative Religion for Dummies. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.