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Can One Reconcile History and Faith? From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians.

Dec 22, 2009
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:An interesting documentary that gives new historical perspective to early Christianity.

Cons:Somewhat controversial.

The Bottom Line: Frontline's From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians is a very good, interesting, informative, and somewhat controversial documentary program about early Christianity.


Can One Reconcile History and Faith? From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians.

By

James P. Zaworski

Frontline is one of the best independent journalistic endeavors you can find today. They’ve been around for thirty years, and have made some pretty provocative documentaries and news programs. The four part series “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” was first aired in the late 1990s, and has been aired again on PBS in December, 2009. The series features a fresh look at the historical Jesus, examining the primary sources from the accepted four gospels to Josephus to the Gnostic gospels. The program is not without some degree of controversy.

The documentary series draws upon a plethora of contemporary biblical scholars and their symposium on the subject held in 1998. The series gives a fresh look at who this Jesus guy was, and how the first Christians went from a very diverse group, with many churches in different cities, to the elimination of all who became subject to one authority, the church of Rome.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic in my youth, and so was discouraged from questioning what were essentially considered “matters of faith”. However, I was always an inquisitive chap, and really questioned a lot(this got me into trouble many times). As a historian, anthropologist and archaeologist, it is refreshing to step back from my own culture and take a look at it from a more objective perspective. What follows is an overview of each of the program, followed by my review discussion of the materials presented in “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”.

Episode 1: The Quest for the Historical Jesus.

Drawing upon the New Testament Gospels as well as the contemporary primary sources and archaeological evidence, episode one takes a new look at the historical Jesus. From the gospel traditions, we get the idea that Jesus was from a poor family, the son of a lowly carpenter. The gospels really don’t tell us much about the life of Jesus beyond the miraculous virgin birth and the time he was “about my father’s business” in the temple, until he really begins his public ministry. There is a twenty year gap in the life of Jesus according to the gospels.

He grew up in Nazareth in an Israel that was a province of the Roman Empire. Jesus was a follower of Judaism who lived at a time of diversity within the religion, with various sects of Judaism at odds with one another, some viewing the Roman occupation with revolutionary and ‘messianic’ ideals. The ‘messiah’ would come and overthrow the Romans, and set up a “new kingdom” of Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls were documents of the Essenes sect, a rather esoteric group who retreated from society to the seclusion of the desert, to live the ‘right way’, and prepare for the inevitable confrontation with Rome. There were also Pharisees and Sadducees who followed a higher, priestly tradition based on the literal readings of the Torah. These were kind of a religious and political entity, trying to, on the one hand, preserve Jewish traditions and religion and, on the other hand, deal with the Romans in a way that would make everyone happy, a kind of uneasy homeostasis, as it were.

The Roman Province of Judea was not just made up of followers of Judaism, it was a cosmopolitan province, with Hellenic cities such as Sepphoris, very close to Nazareth as well as the Roman city of Caesaria. The historical Jesus would not be insulated from the diversity in his neighborhood, Greek speakers in Sepphora and Latin speakers in Caesaria, and all of their alien ideas to boot.

Episode one looks at the archaeological and historical evidence from Nazareth and Sepphora, and we get the new interpretation that Jesus was not part of the poorest, low class. He was of the “artisan” class, a kind of upwardly mobile lower middle class, and that he would have been most likely exposed to the melting pot of ideas and traditions and sentiments prevailing at the time, from religious revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the Romans to traditionalists who wanted to maintain the status quo, and everything in between.

We get to his ministry, and look at what Jesus did in the context of the Roman Province of Judea, and the center of the Jewish world, the Temple of Jerusalem at Passover. The historians paint the picture of Jesus, from the Roman perspective, causing trouble by turning over the money lenders tables during Passover, as one of a trouble maker. What did the Romans do with trouble makers? Well, they crucified them as punishment, and as an example to other would be trouble makers.

Episode Two takes a look at the beginnings of the “Jesus movement”, and the historical and political world of the time from Jesus’ crucifixion to the spread of early Christianity, and the role of Paul, as well as the troubles between Jews and Rome, the revolt, Masada and culminating in the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Episode two has an in depth look at who had the “authority” in the early church, was it Paul, Peter, or the “family of Jesus”? There is also a lengthy discussion about the inclusion of gentiles into the Jewish tradition of the “Jesus movement”.

Episode three talks about the gospel: when they were written, by whom, for which audience, and for what purpose. We find that the gospels were written some twenty to seventy years after the death of Jesus. None of the authors of the gospels knew Jesus firsthand! And, there were not just four gospels that were written. We know from archaeological evidence from the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in the 1940s that there were many “other gospels” written down, known collectively as the “Gnostic Gospels”. We find that there was a diversity among early Christians, and the “Gnostics” eventually lost out, were suppressed, and their voice extinguished from the New Testament until the chance discovery at Nag Hammadi. Episode three discusses very much the political authority and hierarchy that was to prevail in the Church of Rome, which gained the supremacy.

Episode four presents the place of Christianity within the context of the Roman Empire, its relationship with other religions, as well as the persecution of the Christians by the Romans, and the eventual and final embrace of Christianity by Emperor Constantine. The question that is asked throughout this program is “why did the obscure religion of Christianity not only survive in a hostile climate, but prevail?”

Perhaps the answer is to be found is in the diversity of religions and religious ideas found throughout the Roman Empire, from the cult of Isis to the Olympian gods, to Judaism, ethical monotheism, and also the diversity of Christianity itself, including Gnosticism and Orthodoxy.

It is in episode four that we are presented in detail with the discoveries from Nag Hammadi, in Egypt. The discovery was of bound codices written in Coptic Egyptian writing, 52 texts were discovered, including the ‘lost gospels’, such as Thomas and Philip, other ‘apocalyptic’ writing. These were deliberately, and carefully, buried as they were considered to be ‘unorthodox’ in the eventual struggle for authority and supremacy of the early church.

There were issues between Christianity and Judaism as well. When the two came into conflict, after the Jewish revolt, they separated from one another. Soon after, the Romans began persecuting Christians. It became an outlawed religion in Rome, and if one did not recant, they faced a grim death in the arena, being killed by animals, or gladiatorial events.

Eventually, Christianity spread throughout the empire, and the once unassuming movement became so widespread that the Emperor Constantine.

What I Like About From Jesus to Christ.
1. New Historical Perspectives.
I was raised as a rather devout Roman Catholic Christian, and, as such was well versed in both old and new testament. I was very familiar with the gospels, and the insights into the ‘mysteries’ of trinity, the messianic secret, miracles, the life, teachings, and suffering of Jesus and the model that he was this divine chap, the son of God, born of a virgin, who died for the sins of human beings and that he was crucified, died, was buried, and resurrected. It was a matter of both faith as well as religious dogma, and truth.
This program was a revelation when I first watched it aired ten years ago, in terms of the existence of the Gnostic traditions, essentially a ‘lost sect’ of Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, is a case in point. The sayings of Jesus are the focus in this gospel. Jesus says things in these gospels that are familiar, but he says some other things, which are a bit strange. The Gnostics seem to have focused on self knowledge, and the teachings of Jesus through this divine self knowledge.

Some Gnostics focused on the divinity of Jesus, some on the humanity of Jesus, some focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and some denied this happened.

Regardless of what the Gnostics thought and preached, they were actively suppressed by other Christians, to the point that their aspect of Christianity was completely unknown for almost two thousand years.
2. Attempted objectivity.
I like the approach to this program, an attempt to be unbiased and present what is known factually, as opposed to belief. This approach is sound, scholarly, objective, and gives a new perspective that one does not get as the approach of belief and faith.
3. Controversy.
I like Frontline in general because it always gives you controversial subjects, and is not without its critics. It is quite brave to take on this subject, as Christianity is one of the most popular religions in the world. I like controversy, I like intellectual puzzles and challenges, and I love to ask the question “why”. Some Christians will be challenged by this program, they will feel threatened by some of the things that are presented. However, it is only a television documentary program, and is not intended to sway you from your faith. Quite the contrary, I think that with as much information and knowledge that we have, the better informed we can be, and this can be a very positive reinforcement of individual faith.
I think that the program touches just a little bit on the big controversy, that is, was the resurrection of Jesus a historical event, or was it a story that was invented by the immediate disciples to gain a political advantage? This is suggested, but it is only hinted at. So, I think the program does not go far enough in terms of this provocative notion.
4 Can faith be reconciled with history?
Why not? Perhaps it is a philosophical discussion: is truth the same as fact? Not necessarily. History itself is an attempt to explain things from perspective, that is why when we examine an event in history, it is from the approach of perspective. It is not just the facts of what happened, it is cause and effect, why did it happen, who has the authority to say what happened, and the like. History can be both ‘truth’ and ‘fact’, and both can reinforce ‘faith’.

All in all, From Jesus to Christ is a very good documentary program that is interesting, informative, fascinating, and controversial at times. I suggest you watch it, and take from it what you will. I’m an enemy of censorship, and think that understanding perspective can make us grow personally and intellectually.

You can watch the program online at:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/

Have a Merry Christmas


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