260: HEBREW TO HELLENIST: HOW THE CHURCH METAMORPHOSED

The church has always been a political entity. It had barely got off the ground in the first century and it was already split into hostile clashing factions. There are whole libraries of books spelling out the dismal story, but in this brief Post I just want to look at the 2 main groups:
(a) The Hebrews led by the “Three pillars” of the early Christian community: James the Just (the communist brother of Jesus), Peter (later Bishop of Rome – the first pope) and John, who were based in Jerusalem waiting for Jesus’ return.
(b) The Hellenists, led by Paul, but also including Stephen, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or at least the actual authors of the 4 Gospels carrying those names.

As a Jesusite, I think that it is only by looking at what the founders of the Christian religion got up to, that we can assess the real role and relevance of Jesus for today. It is clear that his message was quickly altered by other people, and expressed in forms he would not have recognized. I think, as do many others, that Jesus would have been horrified if he had seen what a pig’s breakfast Paul made of it. And yet our view of Jesus is filtered through a Pauline prism that stands between him and us and distorts everything. Zingcreed would like to get back to a prism-free perspective on this important man, Jesus from Nazareth. Many scholars, whom I shall quote later, disagree with this approach! I shall, of course, also be quoting those scholars with whom I am in agreement. I have my own ‘theologian in residence’ to evaluate the evidence – myself!

The metamorphosis from Hebrew to Hellenist had several aspects:
FROM those who knew Jesus personally – his family and his disciples, who waited patiently in Jerusalem for Jesus to return;
TO those who never met him: Paul, Stephen, and the 4 gospel writers, whose names are not known (the names of Matthew Mark, Luke and John were tacked on centuries later.)

FROM rural, illiterate Galileans who spoke a dialect of Aramaic, and – some say- didn’t understand the lingua franca of the Roman Empire (Greek);
TO urban, sophisticated, educated, Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews (living away from Jerusalem and the influence of its Temple). They were immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic thought and they reinterpreted Jesus’ message to make it more palatable to their fellow Greek-speaking Jews as well as to their Gentile neighbours.

FROM a portrayal of Jesus as a revolutionary Zealot;
TO viewing him as a romanised demi-god.

FROM  seeing Jesus as a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression;
TO seeing him as a celestial being who was wholly uninterested in earthly matters.

FROM seeing Jesus as a Jewish nationalist;
TO seeing him as a universal figure more appealing to those living in a Greek or Roman milieu.

FROM having a limited appeal to a niche market;
TO a more palatable, marketable commodity with wider appeal in the new Greek/Roman target audience.

FROM being pro-circumcision;
TO being against it. (Paul- Phil.3:3)

FROM condemning the priests who defile the Temple with their wealth and their hypocrisy;
TO  condemnation of the temple itself.

FROM saying that Jesus came to fulfill the Law;
TO saying that he came to abolish the Law (Paul – Rom. 10:4).

It didn’t take long for this transition to occur. In a few decades all the tadpoles had gone and only toads remained! Pure chance – events like the destruction of the ‘Mother Assembly’ of the church in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by Titus – lead to an apparently irreversible distortion of the original pure message of Jesus. Go to any church in the world today, and whose words do you hear? Why, Saint Paul’s of course, and Jesus’s if you’re lucky! The preacher’s message, whether Conservative, Liberal or Progressive, will preach Paul’s heretical  views which are a travesty of Jesus’s original message. Jesus would be turning in his grave, if he had one!

What happened to the residual “Hebrew Christians” of Jerusalem, the ones led by members of Jesus’s family, who got the message more or less straight? Read The Ebionites to find out.

It is the job of Jesusites and others who wish Paul had never existed, to ‘un-distort’ the Gospel message. Imagine crawling on your hands and knees through a thicket of brambles looking for a fifty pound note that you have been assured blew in there, and is yours for the taking if only you can get your hands on it! Such is our struggle but the rewards make it worthwhile.

A few other points
Peter and his party declined very rapidly in importance in Jerusalem because they wanted to be freer of Jewish Law than the James faction, whose strictness and faithfulness to the Law was more popular with the earliest Christians. Paul accuses Peter (in his letter to the Galatians) of being halfway between the Jewish and Gentile Christians, neatly reflecting the ambivalence of Jesus’s own teaching.

Christianity’s first general council was in Jerusalem in 48 or 49 C.E. It was called to iron out differences between the ‘Mother’ church led by James and the Antioch (in Syria) church, which ignored the Jewish Law. The leaders of the Antioch church were Paul (no surprise there!) and Barnabas. James agreed that non-Jews who became Christians did not have to convert to Judaism. This was Christianity’s first step towards becoming a separate religion rather than a sect within Judaism.

James was more orthodox than Jesus. Whilst the elder brother was actively opposed to Temple worship, and indeed questioned the temple’s very legitimacy, James not only advocated that Jesus’s followers worship at the Temple, but did so himself daily. The contrast between the two brothers on this fundamental point could hardly have been greater.

Stephen was an educated Greek-speaking Jew who was a leader in the early church. He went too far in his preaching, and a spy reported back to the authorities that he had openly proclaimed that “Jesus was the son of God”. To the Temple Jews this was blasphemy, and the penalty for that was death by stoning. Stephen became one of the church’s first martyrs (on boxing day).
James and the Hebrews seem to have been pretty indifferent to Stephen’s execution, and they remained on good terms with the authorities while all Stephen’s followers – the Jerusalem Hellenists– were expelled from town! Amazing, really.
Incidentally, Jesus’s execution wasn’t by stoning as this was the penalty for blasphemy only. Crucifixion was reserved for political rebels and other disturbers of the peace.
The Hellenists  spread far and wide with their distinctive interpretation of the gospel. The scattering was hugely important, being the true start of the Christian mission.
Cue:  Increased influence of Paul (née Saul of Tarsus, a tent-maker), and of Gentile converts who eventually became a majority in the movement.

Sources:
(i) Aslan, Reza “Zealot. the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” Westbourne Press (2013)
(ii) Picknett, Lynn & Prince, Clive. “The Masks of Christ. Behind the lies and cover-ups about the life of Christ” Simon & Schuster (2001)
(iii) Page, Nick “The Bible Book. A User’s guide” HarperCollins (2008)

Related Zingcreed Posts

Ebionites: the residual Hebrew Christians
Jesus’s communist brother James (1) His life
Jesus’s communist brother James (2) His epistle
Paul vs Jesus
Saint Paul – a few notes
Nuggets gleaned from Jesusite websites
How Paul and Luke rewrote history to marginalize James’ early church

[260, indexed & linked, t&c]

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