How did early Christians [not] convince others Jesus was the Messiah?

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by Neil Godfrey

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I’ve been going through Geza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus and here I’ll focus on just one more detail: the way the scholar learns how the early “Jewish church tried to prove that Jesus was the Messiah”.

Vermes points us toward the journey he is to lead for his readers:

The best way to grasp the primitive Christians’ picture of Jesus is by reconstructing the content and style of their preaching. How did they present their gospel, and how did they endeavour to convince their first listeners . . . . The approach they adopted seems to have been substantially the same, whether the message was delivered in Jerusalem or in the very different setting of the Gentile mission of Paul . . . . (p. 121)

The one exception Vermes singles out was Paul’s address to the Athenians from the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-32. I will discuss this in a future post but not from Vermes’ viewpoint. Rather, I will look at the possible inspiration for this scene in a classical Greek tragedy by Aeschylus.

But this post is a case-study in how New Testament scholars mistakenly think they are doing genuine history.

Geza Vermes’ approach in his own mind is genuinely “historical”:

This view . . . . is that of a scholar, of a detached historian, in search of information embedded in the surviving sources. (p. 7)

So, according to the surviving sources, how did the early Jewish Christians try to convince others that Jesus was the Messiah?

In a Jewish setting . . . apostolic teaching about Jesus took the form of an argument based on the Bible, interpreting and seeking to demonstrate that in Jesus the scriptural prophecies found their fulfilment. . . . Most of the doctrinal demonstrations are construed on prophetic passages or on the Psalms. (p. 122)

There may once have been a time when I would have innocently accepted this explanation and even, I expect, his justification for it that he found in the sermons in Acts.

But reading it now two things immediately strike me as odd:

  1. Is not this explanation very similar to the way many modern Christians seek to persuade others that Jesus was the Messiah? We also read of second-century Christians using this technique. But were the conditions we read of in Acts similar enough for the same approach to be workable for the first generation of hearers?
  2. How likely (plausible) is it that those Jews who had been in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus would have been converted in substantial numbers by this approach?

Can one really imagine the average Jew in Jerusalem who had known something of a disturbance some weeks earlier over someone led off to be crucified being told that that crucified person was really the Messiah because out of the blue some strangers were saying that the prophets and psalms said things like

  • his garment would be parted at the foot of the cross
  • he would be silent before his judges
  • he would make the lame leap like a hart
  • he would be resurrected after 3 days (he really was resurrected — just listen to the power of Peter’s voice and remember the psalms!)
  • etc.

And it gets worse the further the preaching went beyond Jerusalem.

In other words, Vermes’ explanation seems to me to hint of anachronistic projection.

And that suspicion is confirmed when I look at his “surviving sources” upon which he draws this conclusion. Vermes takes Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost as typical so I will likewise look at that.

This is Vermes’ take on this sermon:

To start with Peter’s address to the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost, the argument runs as follows. Jesus of Nazareth, whom in conformity with God’s providential plan the Jews had crucified, was raised from the dead as foretold by the prophets, and subsequently was made into Lord and Messiah. The listeners must repent and be baptized in order to receive the gift of the holy Spirit (2:22-38). The message is validated by an “intellectual” biblical argument, followed by an ‘existential and experimental’ confirmation through charismatic manifestations. (p. 123)

None of the above can be validated by the “surviving sources” as a historical reconstruction of how Peter convinced the first Jewish listeners that Jesus was Messiah.

Among the first tasks of any historian is surely to confirm the validity, authenticity and nature of the sources he or she is using. Admittedly if certain sources have been taken for granted as historical sources for generations of scholars then it is understandable that those sources will be taken for granted. But it is also a virtue for each generation of scholars in fields as fluid as the arts and humanities to test and examine anew their foundations. Even more so when one of those areas of study is bound up with a culture’s faith-commitments.

So what is the book of Acts? It is a narrative with many Hellenistic novelistic features that is, according to its anonymous prologue, a continuation of a narrative of what readers should believe to be true. Unlike most other historiographies that make an effort to persuade readers of its truthfulness Acts identifies no sources at any point in either this or the preceding narrative (the Gospel of Luke) and their respective prologues. The apparently inconclusive ending is consistent with many other types of endings in classical literature, whether dramatic, poetic or historiographic. As such it is by no means an indication that the book was written while Paul was awaiting trial in Rome. The earliest evidence we have that Acts was known to anyone does not reach us before the middle (some would say later) second century when it is found to be just the document necessary for that time in “orthodoxy’s” struggle against Marcionism.

Acts begins with Jesus rising to heaven in clouds and angels appearing to address onlookers. This is not the work of a historian who is seeking to identify with sceptics as we often find with Greek and Roman historians who acknowledge that readers might have some difficulty in believing what is narrated and accordingly offer reassurance by explaining the basis of their knowledge of the events (what others said, etc). The narrative is written in the narrative voice of a believer who seeks to persuade in the same way a novelist seeks to wrap readers into his or her narrative world. One miracle follows another and numbers and names are symbolic: 12, 120, tables of nations.

Peter’s multinational audience is brought running to him as surely as the right numbers and types of animals bee-lined their way to Noah’s ark. The miraculous is central to the story. The miraculous makes the story. With no miracles Peter would have no audience.

And Peter is said to have waited for the sound of the violent wind to abate and for that distracting flame above his head to extinguish itself before engaging the crowd’s attention with his pronouncement that all of these miracles were clearly from God because there was a passage in Joel to say they were.

Once his audience was piously hooked on thinking of the words of prophets as being of more import than the miracles themselves that they had heard and seen they were ready for more preaching.

They were reminded of Jesus who performed miracles among them. But in Jerusalem Jesus is not reported as having done many miracles among them at all — especially not in Luke’s gospel. He did a lot of preaching in Jerusalem but his miracles were the feature of his Galilean ministry. Only a handful in that audience may have heard of these — if they came from some of the smaller villages. Had they come from major centres that Jesus is said to have avoided — like Sepphoris and Tiberias — they would have heard nothing most likely.

No, the author is writing for his readers. He is addressing what his readers know from their reading of the Gospel. He is NOT attempting to reconstruct what he thinks even a historical Peter would have said on this occasion. He is addressing his readers with his own sermon.

The only way the author can introduce his sermon with narrative plausibility is to create a miraculous opening to establish the narrative setting and narrative audience.

Without the miraculous the sermon simply would not work. Jesus’ miracles are not in the past tense so the author must regularly set up scenarios with apostolic miracles in their place. These are reminders of the works of Jesus. And the message delivered is that we should believe because — not because of the miracles — but because the psalms and prophets spoke of this Jesus doing all these things, and especially being resurrected.

Now no-one saw that resurrection happen. But the narrative audiences are persuaded by their thousands because of the prophecy about it!

This just does not make any plausible sense at all.

“Luke” is not recreating a past history. He is creating a narrative context for sermons he is delivering to his readers.

He uses the modern trick of adding formulaic applause to persuade readers that what he says is plausible. Comedy shows have long used ‘canned laughter’ to tell listeners/viewers what the funny bits are so they know when to laugh. “Luke” tells people what bits are so astonishing that they inspire faith by narrating miraculous conversions in response to his sermons. A fantasy of the preacher-author wishing “if only!”

Vermes interestingly says that the “intellectual” component of the sermon was “confirmed” by following signs. But no. That’s not how it is narrated. At least it’s not the whole story. Signs as like as not precede sermons, too. That’s how they really are made to work in the narrative.

The method of preaching Vermes describes sounds to me much more likely to work in small groups, symposia, “bible-study” or philosophical-discourse environments.

There is much more that could be said, and that has been said, that undermines any plausibility in the scenarios the author of Acts sets up as “the way the first preaching about Jesus was”.

But I’m working like hell lately in my day job and no longer have the stamina to write as much or consistently as I used to. This will have to do for now.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “How did early Christians [not] convince others Jesus was the Messiah?”

  1. I’ve been reading Miracle in the Early Christian World, by Howard Clark Kee. In his discussion of Luke/Acts he points out that one of the apologetic tendencies of the narrative is the emphasis on the public nature of both Jesus’ ministry and final days and the sermons and wonders performed by the apostles. One example I had not noted before was that Luke moves the feeding of the 5,000 from its non-descript desert location in Mark to the town of Bethsaida. Kee doesn’t mention it, but it’s quite a development in the Synoptics, from the messianic secret to an emphasis on publicity.

    1. When I retire I’m going to sit down and do a literary-narrative analysis of all of those variations like this — I’ll no doubt include the one you have noticed here, too. The explanation demolishes any notion of each evangelist relying on variant “oral traditions”.

  2. It’s odd. The Historical Jesus is put forward as an obscure peasant, a “Marginal Jew”. We have no historical source for this creature. The sources we have describe the occult but miraculous messianic figure who was acclaimed by multitudes so large he couldn’t move and greeted by Jersualem as its savior, whose death was accompanied by earthquakes, eclipses and the rending of the sacred curtain of the temple and then ascended into heaven after magically arising from death on the cross. While this may make sense in apologetic sources, our secular sources tell us the same story, yet we are told to be quiet, remove the miraculous bits and believe what is left over.

    This is what Reimarus did.

    The Historical Jesus enterprise has become an ouroboros.

  3. The premise is wrong. The early Christians did not convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.

    Simon Peter’s home town was Bethsaida, which was not in Galilee, but rather in Gauanitis, which was ruled from Caesarea Philippi. This province and its capital were dominated by the Greek language and culture. The early Christians spoke and wrote to each other in the Greek language. They tried to convert mostly other Greek-speakers into joining their religion. Their gospel stories are full of criticism of the Jewish religious establishment.

    There never was any Jesus Christ who walked around in Galilee or Jerusalem or any other places with predominately Jewish populations. Absolutely no Jews ever saw or heard any Jesus Christ, and practically no Jews ever even heard any talk about any Jesus Christ.

    The early Christians were a small cult of Greek-speakers who rejected the Jewish religious establishment, from beginning to end.

    More than a hundred years after the religion originated, a small faction within the cult decided to prove that there really had been a historical Jesus Christ who had been born into a Jewish family and who had walked around and performed miracles and preached sermons among the Jewish population. That is when — more than a hundred years after the religion originated — when this small faction began to assemble written evidence about Jesus Christ fulfilling ancient Jewish prophecies and about Jesus Christ being the Messiah.

    During those first hundred years, the religion’s main idea was that Jesus Christ was like the elevanted statue of a bronze snake in the Sinai Desert. If you could see the mystical vision of Jesus Christ hanging from an elevated pole on the Firmament, then you would be purified. Or if you just believed that Jesus Christ had hung from a pole on the Firmament, then you could be purified. That was the essential Christian belief — not that Jesus was a Messiah for the Jews.

    1. Just a point to keep in mind when mentioning Bethsaida, in particular that it was ruled from Casearea Philippi, by Philip the Tetrarch.

      ” About this time it was that Philip, Herod’s ‘ brother, departed this life, in the twentieth year of the reign of Tiberius, after he had been tetrarch of Trachonitis and Gaulanitis, and of the nation of the Bataneans also, thirty- seven years. He had showed himself a person of moderation and quietness in the conduct of his life and government; he constantly lived in that country which was subject to him; he used to make his progress with a few chosen friends; his tribunal also, on which he sat in judgment, followed him in his progress; and when any one met him who wanted his assistance, he made no delay, but had his tribunal set down immediately, wheresoever he happened to be, and sat down upon it, and heard his complaint: he there ordered the guilty that were convicted to be punished, and absolved those that had been accused unjustly. He died at Julias; and when he was carried to that monument which he had already erected for himself beforehand, he was buried with great pomp. His principality Tiberius took, (for he left no sons behind him,) and added it to the province of Syria, but gave order that the tributes which arose from it should be collected, and laid up in his tetrachy.” (Ant .Book 18.ch.4)

      According to Josephus, Philip died around 33/34 ce. During his reign he renamed Bethsaida to Bethsaida Julius, ie he had some particular interest in that village/town – and it was the place where he died. The gospel JC was asked if he was the messiah when travelling around the villages of Casearea Philippi. The question presents itself – did the two ever meet up? Or was JC a Johnny come-lately doing the rounds in Philip’s territory? Or was Philip used, by the gospel writers, as a model for their JC – their man of peace version, the cynic sage type JC.

      (Philip was not crucified. An interesting point raised by Wells is his idea that the Galilean preacher – of Q or early traditions – was not crucified. The gospel crucifixion story, viewed by Wells, is a fusing of Paul’s cosmic JC figure with his Galilean preacher figure. Additionally, Wells proposes the crucifixion element could have been taken from much early historical crucifixion stories.)

  4. Based on Paul’s letters, we have evidence that Peter established a residency in Jerusalem for at least a while. Therefore, we might suppose that Acts does provide some information about Peter’s activities in Jerusalem.

    Perhaps his organizational leadership included a council of twelve members. Perhaps he and some of his followers hung around the Temple and engaged in discussions with people there. Perhaps he was arrested for disturbing the peace at the Temple. Perhaps he demanded that his followers share all their personal wealth with the organization. Perhaps he established a committee to provide aid to poor, Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem. Perhaps there was a Stephen on that committee who was arrested, tried and stoned to death. Perhaps Saul/Paul was involved in that execution of Stephen. And so forth and so on.

    I think it is likely that Luke did use some prior text about Peter’s activities in Jerusalem as a framework for his narrative in the first part of Acts.

    It seems to me also that he used some prior text about a follower named Phillip, since a story about Phillip seems to be threaded through the first chapters of Acts. There might have been some prior text about Stephen. Perhaps there was some prior text about Saul/Paul and his relationship to the execution of Stephen and about his subsequent conversion.

    The sermons, however, certainly were added much later, by Luke. The sermons were like all the political speeches that Thucydides wrote into his history of the Peloponnesian War. These long and eloquent statements are explanatory narrative devices.

    If both The Gospel According to Luke and also The Acts of the Apostles were written by a single Luke, then we also can ponder the differences of the two books with regard to the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecies. It seems to me that The Gospel According to Luke was written to a great extent as a reaction against The Gospel According to Matthew, which repeatedly emphasized such fulfillments of such prophecies. Luke addressed his own gospel more toward readers who belonged to Greek culture and who were relatively not impressed or influenced by a reasoning base on such fulfillments.

    In the Acts of the Gospels, however, such reasoning about fulfillments of ancient Jewish prophecies become prominent, from the beginning and throughout the entire book. Why did Luke make this change in his second book?

    My explanation is that during the time that passed between his writing of the two books, Luke came to recognize and appreciate the value of the Old Testament as part of the new Christian religion. When a person decided to become a Christian, he acquired a canon that comprised not only the gospels and epistles, but also the entire Old Testament. Furthermore, all these writings composed an enormous, single, mutually-reinforcing, explanatory narrative of the entirety of human history.

    When Matthew added all his business about his gospel fulfilling the Old Testament, he hijacked the Old Testament into Christianity, and this integration was extremely attractive to many intellectuals and would-be intellectuals of that time. People in the Greek culture flocked in great numbers to this new religion, because it was such an enormous intellectual concept and canon — because it did include all the ancient Jewish scriptures.

    By the time Luke wrote Acts, he was focused on the issue of why Christianity had spread so successfully among non-Jewish populations, and now he recognized and appreciated the value of these idea that Jesus Christ had descended to Earth in order to fulfill ancient prophecies and in order to become the Messiah. These ideas were the very reason why the religion had spread so successfully among non-Jewish populations (not among Jewish populations). And so Luke wrote sermons with these ideas abundantly into his second book, The Acts of the Apostles.

  5. The Gospel of Luke from the opening chapters is about prophetic fulfilment, beginning with the roles of both John the Baptist and Jesus as foretold. And in chapter 7 we have another explicit reminder that Jesus’ ministry was all about fulfilment of the scriptures. This is repeated again in the resurrected Jesus’ words: everything that happened was a fulfilment of the LXX.

    As for Peter and Bethsaida, I think it just as likely that Luke was running with allegories or “pious fiction” first manufactured by Mark. Paul’s references to Peter/Cephas (if they were the same) give us no reason to think anything we read about him in the Gospels had anything but theological creativity underpinning it. Mark’s Peter and the pun on Bethsaida — they are parables. Peter is also a dramatic foil for Jesus. Peter in the Gospels is fully explained in terms of the narrative’s theological rationale. There is no reason that I know of to complicate this by assuming some external history of things that preceded it all and was a basis of that narrative.

    We know absolutely nothing about Peter/Cephas apart from what we read in Paul’s letters. Everything outside that as far as we can tell — as far as the only evidence we have (which is literary-theological) informs us — is myth.

    1. A guy named Savior Messiah whose home is in Comfort Village goes to the House of Fish. There, he calls out a guy named Man and another guy named Rocky asks how they’d like to “fish for men.”

      As the scholars say, “We have no reason to doubt our witnesses in this matter.”

      Sure enough, as soon as archaeologists started digging around the place they guessed might be Bethsaida, they found Peter’s house. How could they tell? Because it was a house in Bethsaida (probably). We live in wondrous times.

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