From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries and Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith

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The path from Jesus to Christianity is not as straight as we might think -- as Dan Brown's sensational The Da Vinci Code hinted at. In herbest-selling books, scholar Elaine Pagels has explored some of the ancient Christian writings that were excluded from the New Testament. Now, for the first time, L. Michael White, one of the world's foremost scholars on the origins of Christianity, provides the complete, astonishing story of how Christianity grew from the personal vision of a humble Jewish peasant living in a ...

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Overview

The path from Jesus to Christianity is not as straight as we might think -- as Dan Brown's sensational The Da Vinci Code hinted at. In herbest-selling books, scholar Elaine Pagels has explored some of the ancient Christian writings that were excluded from the New Testament. Now, for the first time, L. Michael White, one of the world's foremost scholars on the origins of Christianity, provides the complete, astonishing story of how Christianity grew from the personal vision of a humble Jewish peasant living in a remote province of the Roman Empire into the largest organized religion in the world.

Many take for granted that the New Testament is a single book representing God's coherent, unwavering word on Jesus and his church. A closer reading reveals not one story, but many. The New Testament is a collection of books -- the result of a variety of influences on a number of faithful but very human visionaries, preachers, and storytellers. The texts contain a wealth of biographies, histories, novels, letters, sermons, hymns, church manuals, and apocalypses, providing a spectrum of views of Jesus, his message, and his movement.

Given this diversity of people, stories, and drastically different points of view, how did Christianity ever become what we know it as today? White draws on the most current scholarship to bring alive these ancient people and their debates, showing in depth how their stories were formed into what the world has come to know as the New Testament.

Rather than reading the New Testament straight through in its traditional order -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and so on -- White takes a historical approach, looking at the individual books in the sequence in which they were actually written. He explores what these books divulge about the disagreements, shared values, and unifying mission of the earliest Christian communities. White digs through layers of archaeological excavations, sifts through buried fragments of largely unknown texts, and examines historical sources to discover what we can know of Jesus and his early followers.

It is this early, hidden history that shaped Christianity as it grew from an errant, messianic movement to a state religion and then into a world religion that has lasted for over two thousand years. White shows how the early debates spurred the evolution of Christianity as we know it. He delves into the arguments over how to understand Jesus as both human and divine, the role of women in the church, the diversity of beliefs among Christian communities, the Gnostic influences, and the political disputes that raged over which books would ultimately be included in the New Testament. Complete with illustrations, photos, charts, and maps, From Jesus to Christianity presents the fullest picture yet of the beginnings of what became the most popular religion on earth.

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Editorial Reviews

Wayne A. Meeks
“A splendid feast of a book, rich with insights from archaeology and cultural history.”
Publishers Weekly
Joining an already distinguished lineup of narrators of early Christianity that includes Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan and Gregory Riley, White contributes this rather predictable and pedantic story of the ways in which early Christianity developed its religious identity and its literature (the New Testament). White, who teaches Christian origins at the University of Texas at Austin and who co-wrote the PBS special From Jesus to Christ, chronicles the evolution of early Christianity as a family history. The first "generation" (30-70 C.E.) saw the death of Jesus, the rise of Paul and the end of the Jewish revolt against Rome. In the second (70-110 C.E.), tensions developed between the Jesus sect and Judaism, a separation that became permanent in the third generation (110-150 C.E.), when Jesus' followers broke away from their Jewish roots and began to develop their own institutional identity and intrareligious squabbles. Finally, by the fourth generation (150-190 C.E.), Christianity had assumed an integral role in the social and intellectual context of the Roman Empire. White uses sidebars to provide helpful summaries of the authorship, provenance, date and themes of various writings and to offer useful lists of further readings. However, his bland presentation uncovers nothing especially new in the story of early Christianity. (Dec.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060526559
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/30/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.57 (d)

Meet the Author

L. Michael White is Ronald Nelson Smith Chair in Classics and Christian Origins and the director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of From Jesus to Christianity and has been featured in and co-written two award-winning PBS Frontline documentaries.

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Read an Excerpt

From Jesus to Christianity

How Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith
By White, L. Michael

HarperSanFrancisco

ISBN: 0060526556

Chapter One

The Story of the Storytellers

Books tell stories. No, that's not quite true. People tell stories and write them down in books. Books record those stories and make them accessible to readers. In that sense they are a medium of communication to a broader audience. Communication is easier when author and audience come from a shared cultural background and time; then it is much like hearing the story told orally. Here the burden is on the storyteller to communicate in words and ideas that the audience will find meaningful.

But books also preserve stories and thus make it possible for later generations of readers to encounter not only a story of a bygone era but also the people who once told and heard it. Here the medium of communication is more complex. Now, the reader -- not the storyteller -- bears the burden. In order to understand the story, the reader must negotiate changes in culture, language, and ideas that come with the passage of time. It is a process of translation from one age to another, from one culture to another, in order to hear the story as once told. At this juncture there are two stories at work. The preservation and subsequent history of the book is its own story, apart from the one on its pages, andthe reader must encounter this second story -- the story of the book -- as well. The reading of any story from the past must respect the different layers of history and story, of then and now, that make it up.

This book is the story of the origins and development of the Christian movement as told by the people who lived it. It took place roughly two thousand years ago and covers a span of several centuries. It comes out of the history of Israel and the Jewish people but intersects with the histories of Greece and Rome. The story, at least the best-known version of it, is preserved for us in the book known by Christians as the Bible, and more specifically in the second part, called the New Testament. There are other sources too, but they are not as well known; we shall bring them into the picture as they too begin to reflect the telling and retelling of the story.

Readers of the New Testament today may have a hard time thinking of it as an ancient work. It can be read in English and other languages, and there are numerous "modern" versions that try to make it more intelligible to a contemporary audience. But all of the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the popular form of Greek often called koine (meaning "common") that was typical of the Hellenistic age. It was assembled over time, copied and recopied, and passed down through the centuries by Christians. In the Greek Orthodox tradition it remained in Byzantine Greek; in the Roman Catholic tradition it was rendered into Latin; and there were other translations -- Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Slavonic. Translating the Bible into English came much later and, like German, only became widely used as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

When we encounter the New Testament in English, moreover, we may first perceive it as a single book that traces the story of Jesus, the founder of Christianity, and the lives of his first followers. It begins appropriately enough with the birth of Jesus and continues with his life and death, as reported in the Gospels. Next comes the story of the early church as recorded in Acts, followed by a number of letters written, it would seem, by the same cast of characters -- Peter, John, Paul -- who show up in the Gospels and Acts as Jesus's followers. On closer reading, however, we quickly realize that this is not just one story; there are in fact four different accounts of Jesus's life -- the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Nor is it just one book; the New Testament is a collection of books, and a collection of stories. It is more like a library, an ancient library that was intentionally assembled to preserve these stories by and for later generations of readers. Given the more complex and ancient character of its contents, how then shall we go about reading the New Testament?

First, because of its composite nature, it cannot be read like a novel, straight through from beginning to end. The various works represent different genres of literature: biographies, histories, novels, letters, sermons, apocalypses, catechisms, and church-order manuals. They were written at different times by different authors; consequently, there is no cohesive narrative. Even though they were all written in Greek, the language, tone, and style are noticeably different from one author to the next, just as in any library. Hence the various works within the collection must be read first on their own individual terms. Points of connection, comparison, and contrast come later, once we understand something of the origin of each work: where it was written, when, and why.

Second, discovering something about the original author and audience is central to this process. In some cases, knowing who wrote a work and who read it can help us understand the when and why. Conversely, discerning the occasion of a work on the basis of its internal form and language can sometimes help us discover more about the author and audience, especially when those pieces of information are not given, and usually even when they are. The nature of ancient literature requires us to deal with all of these questions in order to make sense out of what is going on in "the story." In other words, we have to employ the tools of history in order to read the story, even when the story is about history or is part of the history.

Third, because it is a library and not a single book, we must give some thought to how we ought to "catalog" its contents ... Continues...


Excerpted from From Jesus to Christianity by White, L. Michael Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The story of the storytellers 1
Ch. 2 Entering the world of Jesus 11
Ch. 3 Religion and society in the Roman world 40
Ch. 4 Judaism at home and abroad 67
Ch. 5 The historical figure of Jesus 95
Ch. 6 Before they were Christians : the beginnings of the Jesus movement 117
Ch. 7 Paul : his life and significance 143
Ch. 8 Paul : the Aegean mission 169
Ch. 9 The first Jewish revolt and its aftermath 217
Ch. 10 Sectarian tensions and self-definition : gospel trajectories 239
Ch. 11 Accommodation and resistance : a footing in the Roman world 259
Ch. 12 Christology and conflict : the beginnings of normative self-definition 293
Ch. 13 With the voice of an apostle : a new generation of leaders 324
Ch. 14 Legitimacy and order : a new scrutiny 355
Ch. 15 Networks of faith : literary trajectories and regional trends 383
Ch. 16 The dilemma of diversity : delineating heresy and orthodoxy 407
Ch. 17 Closing ranks : the New Testament takes shape 439
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First Chapter

From Jesus to Christianity
How Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith

Chapter One

The Story of the Storytellers

Books tell stories. No, that's not quite true. People tell stories and write them down in books. Books record those stories and make them accessible to readers. In that sense they are a medium of communication to a broader audience. Communication is easier when author and audience come from a shared cultural background and time; then it is much like hearing the story told orally. Here the burden is on the storyteller to communicate in words and ideas that the audience will find meaningful.

But books also preserve stories and thus make it possible for later generations of readers to encounter not only a story of a bygone era but also the people who once told and heard it. Here the medium of communication is more complex. Now, the reader -- not the storyteller -- bears the burden. In order to understand the story, the reader must negotiate changes in culture, language, and ideas that come with the passage of time. It is a process of translation from one age to another, from one culture to another, in order to hear the story as once told. At this juncture there are two stories at work. The preservation and subsequent history of the book is its own story, apart from the one on its pages, and the reader must encounter this second story -- the story of the book -- as well. The reading of any story from the past must respect the different layers of history and story, of then and now, that make it up.

This book is the story of the origins and development of the Christian movement as told by the people who lived it. It took place roughly two thousand years ago and covers a span of several centuries. It comes out of the history of Israel and the Jewish people but intersects with the histories of Greece and Rome. The story, at least the best-known version of it, is preserved for us in the book known by Christians as the Bible, and more specifically in the second part, called the New Testament. There are other sources too, but they are not as well known; we shall bring them into the picture as they too begin to reflect the telling and retelling of the story.

Readers of the New Testament today may have a hard time thinking of it as an ancient work. It can be read in English and other languages, and there are numerous "modern" versions that try to make it more intelligible to a contemporary audience. But all of the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the popular form of Greek often called koine (meaning "common") that was typical of the Hellenistic age. It was assembled over time, copied and recopied, and passed down through the centuries by Christians. In the Greek Orthodox tradition it remained in Byzantine Greek; in the Roman Catholic tradition it was rendered into Latin; and there were other translations -- Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Slavonic. Translating the Bible into English came much later and, like German, only became widely used as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

When we encounter the New Testament in English, moreover, we may first perceive it as a single book that traces the story of Jesus, the founder of Christianity, and the lives of his first followers. It begins appropriately enough with the birth of Jesus and continues with his life and death, as reported in the Gospels. Next comes the story of the early church as recorded in Acts, followed by a number of letters written, it would seem, by the same cast of characters -- Peter, John, Paul -- who show up in the Gospels and Acts as Jesus's followers. On closer reading, however, we quickly realize that this is not just one story; there are in fact four different accounts of Jesus's life -- the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Nor is it just one book; the New Testament is a collection of books, and a collection of stories. It is more like a library, an ancient library that was intentionally assembled to preserve these stories by and for later generations of readers. Given the more complex and ancient character of its contents, how then shall we go about reading the New Testament?

First, because of its composite nature, it cannot be read like a novel, straight through from beginning to end. The various works represent different genres of literature: biographies, histories, novels, letters, sermons, apocalypses, catechisms, and church-order manuals. They were written at different times by different authors; consequently, there is no cohesive narrative. Even though they were all written in Greek, the language, tone, and style are noticeably different from one author to the next, just as in any library. Hence the various works within the collection must be read first on their own individual terms. Points of connection, comparison, and contrast come later, once we understand something of the origin of each work: where it was written, when, and why.

Second, discovering something about the original author and audience is central to this process. In some cases, knowing who wrote a work and who read it can help us understand the when and why. Conversely, discerning the occasion of a work on the basis of its internal form and language can sometimes help us discover more about the author and audience, especially when those pieces of information are not given, and usually even when they are. The nature of ancient literature requires us to deal with all of these questions in order to make sense out of what is going on in "the story." In other words, we have to employ the tools of history in order to read the story, even when the story is about history or is part of the history.

Third, because it is a library and not a single book, we must give some thought to how we ought to "catalog" its contents ...

From Jesus to Christianity
How Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith
. Copyright © by L. White. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2005

    Best NT Introduction

    Professor White has given us an historical, scholarly account of the origins of the New Testament and Christianity. He uses historical methods that all historians of the Bible and the early church use, Catholic and Protestant alike. Unlike other NT introductions, this one explains each text in its most likely historical setting and in the order they were written. This is above all else a book about history. He does not delve into theology. People should recognize that those are two separate and legitimate disciplines. Historians deal with the sources and tell us what is most plausible and likely to have occurred. White has done this and has given students of the NT and early church a valuable and rich resource for years to come.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2005

    With Faith, open heart and eyes

    If you resist opening up yourself to historical exploration of biblical times, then this isn't for you. If you want to understand the people and the reason behind some of the practices of the times, then this is another interesting archeological reference to early Christian times.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2004

    A Spellbinding Weave of History and Religion

    While the handful of religious scholars at Harvard, Oxford and Yale might understand the historical and cultural backdrop for the Jesus Movement, the rest of us do not. This fascinating book is a must-read for anyone interested in history,politics or religion. It gives context and meaning to New Testament scripture and the entire Christian movement. If you're interested in history or classics, or if you are someone who thinks they know a bit about the Bible, you should pick this up. Inquiring minds should want to know how Christianity grew from a Jewish offshoot to one of the world's great religions.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2005

    trying to be honest

    This book is historical fiction, like 'The DaVinci Code' and 'The Last Temptation of Christ' or like the myriads of Civil-War era epics. It is written as if it's history, but the sources backing and the scholarship behind the book are tragically thin. So I have just tried to judge this book on the merits of a book of fiction, and in that it unfortunately falls flat as well. I wanted a well-written work, but it is not gripping, the storytelling lacks cohesiveness, and the characters are 2-dimensional (lacking depth.) I give it 2 stars for cleverness and for the author trying to delve into an area he has interest in and that he is actually trying to flesh out a storyline. But the story feels pushed (either contrived or forced) throughout most pages. If he had intended to write a scholarly and historical view of the era and subject. he probably could have and if he wanted to write a gripping novel of historical fiction, he could have found someone to help him write it. But what he has given us is neither good history nor good fiction. However, I guess you could say it was a valiant effort to try to write on the subject, even if the book itself wasn't that good. You'll like this, though, if your looking for vindication of a specific point of world-view that is prevalent these days, and you don't mind reading bad fiction. My young daughter found the book keenly intesting.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2005

    This book is heresy!

    This is one of the worst books I have EVER read! This book is completely against every teaching in Christianity! It says the New Testament was written by storytellers and this absolutely FALSE! The Holy Spirit is the author of the Gospels and the Disciples simply wrote as they were inspired to write! This book denies that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God! It is a heresy to say that Jesus was simply a peasent and to deny His Divinty and to say He was unaware of what He was doing and that Christianity is just named after Him! This book says there are no eyewitnesses to His life and death when there were MANY thousands who followed Him! His 12 Disciples were with Him daily with many other followers and many later became the 70 Apostles who spread Christianity througout the world as HE ordered them to do! This book is a terrible book and is absolutely ANTI-Christian! It does not deserve any stars!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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