I’ve been reading Acts of the Apostles. I read somewhere that this is the only source on the first 50 or so years of the Jesus Movement. I use that term because the book itself marks the time and spot where the term “Christian” was coined. Antioch or Corinth, I forget.
One thing I notice is that they take a lot of boats. Every episode begins with someone making landfall, doing stuff, then taking passage someplace else, sometimes one step ahead of an angry mob. These were merchant vessels, of course. I wonder what they were like and what the travel times were. I always wondered where these guys got enough money to support all this travel. I think I figured that out.
The book begins pretty much the day after the Resurrection. In this telling, the Jews killed Jesus. Pilate found no fault in him, after all. Jesus does not do much. he hangs out being Risen and therefore the Messiah, but there are no memorable parables or confrontations. Throughout the book the main point the Jesus people make is “He rose from the dead so he is the Messiah”. That’s the pitch. And they say over and over that he revealed himself to Mankind; Mankind being, well, his followers. They make no claim that anyone outside the movement ever witnessed the risen Jesus.
Now, I have always wondered about the healing ministry of Jesus. That term healing ministry is one I got from a documentary about evangelical faith healers in the US in the 20th century, “Marjoe”. And, like Oral Roberts and the early Billy Graham and legions of “put you hand on the radio” tinhorn preachers, Jesus was a faith healer. Assuming Jesus existed, its seems the most likely explanation for his after-crucifixion popularity was that he was a really good preacher. These days, by which I mean the last 500 years or so, not a lot is made of Jesus’ career as a faith healer, beyond a couple of the more impressive miracles, which are treated as anecdotes.
In the first sections of Acts, we follow Jesus’ protegee, Peter, for a while, and it is plain that Peter has taken over the ministry. He goes around healing people, including raising one person from the dead. Always, just as the faith healers in the modern era, saying he has no special power, it is in Jesus name that people are healed. The healings got Peter big crowds to whom he could deliver the Big Message: Jesus rose, so he is the Messiah and by believing in Jesus your sins can be forgiven, all of this was foretold in scripture, there is an afterlife, and these are the end times. Better get right with God, time is running out.
Entirely absent from the book is any component of Jesus’ message: nothing about not casting the first stone, loving enemies, accepting sinners, turning the other cheek, visiting the imprisoned, the meek/mourning/poor in spirit/peacemakers
inheriting anything, or any of the stuff that by my lights make the New Testament worth reading. No virgin birth, no voices from the sky proclaiming fatherhood. No glowing doves. Nothing against money changers, for sure.
I think a likely explanation for this is that Acts is the last book of the Bible, but was the first New Testament book to be actually written down. The propagandists had not yet made up all those stories about Jesus. Or maybe more precisely, had not yet re-purposed Greek, Roman and Egyptian legends that were already floating around to the Jesus movement. Also there are a lot of explicit references to prophecy in the New Testament. For example, Jesus riding an ass into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, refers back to Zechariah 9:9, saith the internet. Much of the action between the Apostles and the various Jewish communities in Acts involves the Apostles wanting to sit down with the scholars and prove their case for Jesus by reference to prophetic scripture. Again, just like evangelists to the present day. Jesus was of the house of David, as foretold, and so on. For the most part they failed to convince the rabbis, and the book is pretty harsh to the Jews as a result. Acts is not all that specific about the references, and the NT fixes this in a way that remained, it seems, unconvincing to the rabbis.
The financing of the Jesus movement is well explained, as it was not in the New Testament. The arrangement was: you get converted, you sell everything you have and lay it at the feet of the apostles (they use that phrase repeatedly) and you join the commune. Not that different from the Rajneeshees. And it makes sense, because Jesus, the Messiah, will be right back, he is just giving the Jews time to get their shit together. The end is near so we do not need land and possessions or money. There is one incident where a particular couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold everything, but held some back for themselves when they went to lay it at Peter’s feet. Peter gave them a hard stare and they dropped dead on the spot, first one and then later the other.
No indication that he asked himself, “What would Jesus do?” Except, probably he did think about that. Given that this is how the ministry was conducted right off the bat, it seems likely that this was the blueprint created by Jesus before his death. If Jesus was Billy Graham, Peter was Jim Jones.
The worship services were very tent revival type affairs. The samples of Peter and Paul’s oratory are pretty well crafted, and one can just about hear the evangelical cadences (“Ju-ee-zus sa-yez..ah!”). The Holy Spirit would come upon the people, they would be swept up in ecstatic prayer, they would roll about speaking in tongues. Lots of complaints from the neighbors, especially among the Jews. The Gentiles ate it up. Women were plainly full participants in the services, not very Jewish, but very Roman.
So, whether the apostles were honest believers or not, they conducted themselves pretty much exactly like the shitheels of today who bilk vulnerable people out of their life savings with nutty, emotional religious appeals. As proof here is an incontrovertible fact: the world did not end.
Absent also from Acts is the suggestion that Jesus was God. Makes sense, the traditional notion of the Messiah was never that he would be God incarnate, I don’t think. The Holy Spirit makes many appearances, but is never referred to as a deity, or even necessarily as a specific actor like, say, a particular archangel. As I read it the term is more like the Irish
“craic”, the good energy generated by the people in the room. The early Christians had very good craic.
Jesus was, according to Acts the Son of God, but he was not God, the Son. The dominant religion of the day, paganism, had lots and lots of sons of gods, so that was anything but a tough sell. Here’s a list.