Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times


The pathway to understanding the New Testament leads through the vibrant landscape of the first-century Greco-Roman world. The New Testament is rooted in the concrete historical events of that world.

In Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity Paul Barnett not only places the New Testament within that world of caesars and Herods, proconsuls and Pharisees, Sadducees and revolutionaries, but argues that the mainspring and driving force of early Christian history is the ...

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The pathway to understanding the New Testament leads through the vibrant landscape of the first-century Greco-Roman world. The New Testament is rooted in the concrete historical events of that world.

In Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity Paul Barnett not only places the New Testament within that world of caesars and Herods, proconsuls and Pharisees, Sadducees and revolutionaries, but argues that the mainspring and driving force of early Christian history is the historical Jesus. We cannot understand the rise of Christianity apart from this Jesus, the messiah of Israel and the spiritual and intellectual impact he had on his immediate followers and those who succeeded them.

From his intimate acquaintance with the sources, the evidence and the problems of New Testament history, Barnett offers fresh insights. His telling of the story skillfully avoids the encumbrance of extraneous details and side journeys. From the brith of Jesus to the founding of the messianic community, from the rise of Paul's mission to the Gentiles to the writing of the Gospels, Barnett offers a comprehensive account of the movement that would change the face of world history.

Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity is a comprehensive survey of New Testament history that will meet the needs of students and teachers of the New Testament. In its engagment with contemporary scholarship and its emphasis on the propelling role of the historical and risen Jesus in the rise of Christianity, it provides a timely rejoinder to current revisionist exploration of Christian origins.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Barnett, Anglican Bishop of North Sydney, Australia, seeks to put Jesus back into the story of the early Church's development, in contrast to recent titles that discuss primitive Christianity with only a sociopolitical approach to its founder. Or, rather, it is Barnett's aim to put Christ back into the story: he maintains that it was the Christ of faith, not the mere historical Jesus, who provided the dynamic impetus for the formation of the Church. This providential approach to the early Church, based on Barnett's conviction that "God lay behind this history," unfortunately does not engage other New Testament scholarship or Jesus Studies materials. Rather, he concentrates his efforts solely on biblical text. If the tome were intended as an overall New Testament commentary, it would succeed in its intimate, detailed study of Scripture (especially regarding the Gospels and Acts), but since Barnett here is trying his hand at meta-history, his neglect of the voluminous secondary literature is a glaring omission. Students, particularly those with a similar faith perspective, will find Barnett's account easy to digest, with a user-friendly organization and straightforward writing style that is all too rare in biblical studies. However, scholars and non-Christians will likely be frustrated by Barnett's refusal to even debate social and political interpretations of the Church's origins. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780830826995
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press
  • Publication date: 4/17/2002
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Barnett (Ph.D., London University), was until his retirement Anglican bishop of North Sydney, Australia. He remains a visiting fellow in ancient history at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia) and research professor at Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia). He has written several books.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The New Testamentas History

1.1. History in the New Testament

The small volume of literature called the New Testament is simultaneouslytheology, religion and history. It is theology because it teaches about God. It isreligion since it inspires the worship of God. But it is also equally history.

    Of its twenty-seven writings, the four Gospels and the book of Acts, which arecast in narrative form, represent more than half the total volume of the NewTestament. Each of the twenty-one letters is also historical in the sense that eacharises out of a concrete or "occasional" situation. This is true even for suchgeneralized letters as James and 1 and 2 Peter. Paul's letters are most obviouslyoccasional, containing many personal allusions and, in the case of Galatians 1—2,extensive autobiographical details. Even the Apocalypse is historical in these senses.Its self-identified author, John, was on Patmos Island when he wrote to sevencongregations in Roman Asia. Furthermore, there is a kind of coded narrativerelating to the birth, rapture and rule of the "man child" in Revelation 12.

    The New Testament is historical in another, more fundamental, sense. Thekerygma embedded as speeches in the book of Acts and echoed throughout theNew Testament letters is a recital of events relating to Jesus the man crucified, risen,ascended and returning.

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess 4:14)

[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the age.... Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time. (Heb 9:26-28)

You were ransomed ... with the precious blood of Christ.... He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times.... God ... raised him from the dead and gave him glory. (1 Pet 1:18-21)

    Every part of the New Testament, whether a Gospel, the book of Acts, a letteror the Apocalypse, is written by authors who are convinced that they are overarchedby a Jesus who is behind them, above them and ahead of them. Each document isitself rooted in a specific historical situation while at the same time conscious ofthe overarching Jesus.

    But this "Jesus story" is not freestanding. Quite the contrary. The writers ofthe narratives of the New Testament tell their story of Jesus as a continuation ofGod's story of his people Israel recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. The genealogyof Jesus reaches back to Abraham in Matthew's Gospel and to Adam in Luke-Acts.Above all, the same God who is the subject of the Old Testament story is thesubject of the New Testament story. God's mighty acts of creation, redemptionand revelation are continued in his powerful works, wonders and signs in the man,Jesus of Nazareth, and especially in his death and resurrection (Acts 2:22).

    Yet the story of Jesus in the kerygma spoken and written is no mere additionto the story told in the Old Testament. Jesus the Christ is portrayed in the NewTestament as the goal or fulfillment of the hopes and promises of the Law and theProphets (see, e.g., Rom 10:4; 16:25-26; 1 Cor 10:11). "All the promises of Godfind their Yes in him," declared the apostle Paul (2 Cor 1:20). Thus in Jesus thereis a new beginning of the story; three of the four Gospels have the word beginning(arche) in their opening sentences. The seed of promise sown in the Law and theProphets came to birth in Jesus and the rise of Christianity. As the testament ofpromise was history, so too the testament of fulfillment was history, a renewedhistory.

    Is it possible to write a New Testament history? The answer must be yes. Thehistorical content of the kerygma written in the Gospels and Acts and therootedness in history of all the literature of the New Testament make possible anattempt to retell the story of Jesus and the rise of his movement.

1.2. The practice of New Testament history

1.2.1. Change. A primary task of the historian is to notice change and to accountfor it. Thus history writing has a particular interest in "the transformation of things(people, institutions, ideas and so on) from one state into another." History isnot concerned with the things that are so much as with things that happen andwith the new directions that occur as a consequence. Understood in this way,history deals with phenomena and, where possible, seeks an explanation for thosephenomena.

    1.2.2. Incidental information. The historian's craft depends on the quality ofthe available primary sources. Sources that are close to the person or event inquestion and that have the marks of integrity enhance the possibility of excellenthistory writing. Here, however, a subtle distinction needs to be made betweensources that were intentionally written narrative, on one hand, and those fromwhich information is gleaned incidentally, on the other. The Tudor historianG. R. Elton draws attention to the difference between

[evidence] produced specifically for [the historian's] attention, and that produced for another purpose.... the products of the ordinary events of life.

    The Gospels and the book of Acts belong to the first category. The letters ofthe New Testament, which are often concerned with the occasional, that is, withthe ordinary events of life, are of special interest to the historian. Because they areinnocent of any attempt to convey new information about the historical Jesus orthe rise of early Christianity, the information that they do contain is the morevaluable.

    1.2.3. The significance of Galatians. These observations may be illustrated byreference to Paul's letter to the Galatians. Galatians, written c. 48, is Paul's earliestletter and in all probability the earliest written evidence of Christianity. Note toothat this document is a letter, a historical document concerned with the ordinaryevents of life, not an intentionally written narrative like a Gospel or the book ofActs. The details given by Paul are part of his apologetic for his apostleship, whichwas at that time under attack.

    Galatians does not yield information on every topic. For example, the letter tellsus that Jesus Christ was the "Son [of God]" whom "God ... raised ... from thedead" (Gal 2:20; 1:1). He died as a result of having been crucified—a detail thatis dwelt upon in the letter (Gal 2:20; 3:1; cf. 6:12, 14). Yet we learn nothing hereof Jesus' history prior to his crucifixion.

    Nor does Paul tell us how many months or years elapsed between the crucifixionand resurrection of Jesus Christ and his own conversion. During that period Paul,who had by then "advanced in Judaism beyond many of [his] own age," was apersecutor of "the church of God" and a would-be "destroyer" of "the faith" (Gal1:13-14, 23). But we are not able to establish from Galatians the extent of the timeframe of this persecution. (The tenor of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians implies thisto have been a brief period. Paul's persecution of the church of God occurredduring the sequence of the appearances of the risen Christ, the last of which wasto Paul [1 Cor 15:3-9; Gal 1:23].)

    Apart from these limitations, however, Paul's letter to the Galatians conveysconsiderable information about early Christianity. In describing the period betweenthe historical Christ and the conversion of Paul, this letter points to suchphenomena as the faith, the church of God (that is, the church in Jerusalem), thechurches of Christ in Judea and those who were apostles, Cephas (Peter) and Jamesthe brother of the Lord (Gal 1:13, 16, 18-19, 22-23). Clearly each of these wasin place prior to Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus (Gal 1:17). Paul, aleading younger scholar within Judaism, had attempted to destroy the faith thathad been so offensive to him (Gal 1:13, 23).

    The time between Paul's conversion and the writing of Galatians can be dividedinto two parts. The first, which was of fourteen years duration (Gal 2:1), began athis conversion and included his visit to Arabia, his return to Damascus and his firstreturn visit to Jerusalem (where he stayed with Cephas and met James), followedby his withdrawal to Syria-Cilicia (Gal 1:15-18, 21).

    The second part began with his journey to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1), where it wasagreed that he and Barnabas should "go" to the Gentiles and that James, Peterand John should "go" to the circumcised (Gal 2:7-9). Evidently Paul andBarnabas journeyed to Galatia (Gal 3:1), where they established churches (Gal 1:2)based on a circumcision-free message. The letter was written out of concern thatthis message was being overturned in Galatia (Gal 1:6-9; 3:1; 5:2-12) by theteachings of local agitators and in Antioch in Syria by the decision of Jewishbelievers, including Peter and Barnabas, not to eat with Gentile believers, whichwas in effect an attempt to impose the law on Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14).

    This letter not only mentions these historical details but also has as its maintopic a matter of significant change of direction so far as Judaism was concerned,namely, Paul's insistence on the inclusion of believing Gentiles as members of thetrue family of Abraham, apart from circumcision (Gal 3:6-18). Paul is arguing hiscase to readers who have recently encountered an opposing view. The letter to theGalatians bears witness to a raging dispute over this question between Paul andbelievers who were conservatively Jewish.

    The point is that this letter, which does not set out to provide a narrative,nonetheless contributes many historical details that are the more valuable becausethey emerge incidentally rather than intentionally. These details are almost certainlycorrect since Paul's remarks would have been the object of scrutiny by his criticsin Jerusalem. Any error in fact would have been used against him, as Paul knewwell. Thus Galatians serves to provide a sketch of certain aspects of early Christianhistory from the crucifixion of Jesus in 33 until the writing of the letter in c. 48.In turn, these details can be set up as a template against which the accuracy of themore intentionally written book of Acts may be measured.

    1.2.4. Early Christianity and Jesus. The sure facts of "the faith," "the church ofGod" and "apostles before [Paul]" that are on view in Galatians naturally pointback to the historical Jesus as the impetus for things that were so close in time afterhim. The immediate continuity of these phenomena following Jesus can only meanthat he must be seen as the impulse for the speed and direction of such entities asthe church, its faith and the apostles. To be sure, the same conclusions are to bedrawn from the book of Acts. That text, however, is a deliberately written historythat is the object of critical attack. No such problems exist with the gratuitousinformation provided by Paul in Galatians.

    Therefore, any New Testament history that is true to the "practice of history"must account for the early church of God, its faith and its apostles. In our view,Jesus himself provides the only satisfying explanation for these phenomena. Theproper practice of history is to account for such change and the new directions thatfollowed.

1.3. The driving force within the New Testament

A New Testament history, to be true to a proper practice of history, must look forthe engine that drives the narrative. To be sure, the times had to be right for therise of Christianity. Dynamic leaders also were critical, Paul in particular. Thereadiness of Gentile God-fearers to hear the message of the grace of God was alsosignificant. But a retold narrative would be seriously undiscerning if it explaineditself primarily in terms of these factors.

    In our view that driving force is Jesus the Christ of God and the intellectual andspiritual impact he had on his immediate followers and through them to others. ANew Testament history must somehow appreciate Jesus and grasp the effect hehad on others, including those like Paul who, to our knowledge, had not personallyknown Jesus. Such a history must be the story of Jesus and the unfolding storyof his followers in the next generation after him. Like every history of a person andhis movement, some attention must be given to the context and circumstances ofthe movement. But the focus must not be taken from that driving force at thecenter of the story to its periphery.

    A review of New Testament histories suggests that such distractions have notalways been avoided. It has proved to be easy enough to devote rather too muchspace to the Herods, the Pharisees and the Roman provincial system and otherdetails of historical context and not enough to the dynamism of Christology, Jesusbodily resurrection and the coming of the Spirit.

     It is curious how few New Testament histories have appeared in recent years.Several explanations may be offered. One is that intensive specialization associatedwith doctoral research has narrowed the angle of interest away from the breadthof the New Testament as a whole to often very small constituent parts. Another isthe recent focus on the so-called historical Jesus in his context, divorced from hisimpact on his immediate followers and the subsequent rise of Christianity. Relatedto this is the reservation of some about even the theoretical possibility of a NewTestament "canon," which inevitably calls into question any attempt to sketch anarrative of events within the period represented by that canon. As well, theimpact of social studies on New Testament scholarship has tended to diminishenquiry into key people and their impact upon the flow of events that is the stuffof history. Whatever the reason, the lack of publications in this field is to beregretted. The historical span is brief, a mere six decades. Moreover, the few yearsinvolved find numerous tangential links into Jewish and Greco-Roman history, asreference to the indexes of people and places of F. F. Bruce's great New TestamentHistory reveals.

1.4. Jesus and the "holy and sure blessings of David"

A New Testament history must do justice to the deep sense of fulfillment by whichJesus and the rise of Christianity are tied to the promises of the Old Testament.Such a narrative cannot be a mere retelling of a sequence of miscellaneous eventsabout John the baptizer, Jesus and the apostles. The story of the New Testamentmust be understood as but a chapter—the final chapter—of the yet unfinishedbook of the acts of Yahweh that we refer to as the Old Testament.

    The key connecting link between Jesus and the promises of the Old Testamentis his identity as the Israelite descended from David upon whom the Spirit of theLord came. He is "great David's greater son," the Messiah, the anointed ofYahweh, his Christ. To be sure, his messiahship incorporated elements like divinesonship, self-sacrifice for his people and the rule of the Son of Man that, thoughanticipated in the Old Testament, were not always closely connected with thepromises of the son of David. Yet it is his messiahship that dominates the Gospels(see, e.g., Mt 1:17; 11:2; Mk 1:1; 8:29; Lk 1:31-33; Jn 1:41) and that is repeatedlyemphasized in the apostolic speeches recorded in the book of Acts (see, e.g., Acts2:29-36; 3:18-21; 13:32-36; cf. Rom 1:3-5).

1.5. Christ, Christians and Christianity

His name Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus or merely Christ is the constant reminder ofthe centrality in the New Testament of Christology. This is to state the obvious.Yet many New Testament histories strangely miss this core reality in their retellingof the story of the New Testament.

    It is of utmost significance to note that the unbelieving outsiders to themovement uniformly referred to him as "Christ." This is as true for the JewJosephus, writing in the late nineties, as it is for the Gentiles Pliny, Tacitus andSuetonius, writing in the early second century. To be sure, Christ was his name.But the person of that name had adherents, Christianoi, "Christians." This was aword very similar in form to Augustiani, who were adherents of Augustus, or theHerodianoi, who where supporters of Herod, or the Neroniani, who belonged toNero's faction. In other words, those who stood outside the movement understoodChrist to be a leader of followers, the founder of a movement.

    These followers of Christ came to be called Christianoi in Antioch-on-the-Orontes.It may be mere coincidence, but it is worth noting, nonetheless, that inthe same city by the end of the century this movement was first called Christianismos,"Christianity."

    Two official actions within the empire need to be noticed. One is the hostilitytoward Christ and the Christians by various emperors from the time of Nero,as reflected in the accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny. The other is thatsuccessive Roman emperors from the time of Vespasian sought to suppress thedescendants of David, king of the Jews, within the empire. Were these actionsunconnected, or did the Romans somehow sense a relationship between Christand his Christianoi and between King David and his descendants? Probablythey did see just that relationship. In short, Gentile rulers in antiquity mayhave seen what many modern observers have often not seen, that this man Jesuswas the Davidic Christ, the heir of his kingdom. The New Testament and itsstory of Jesus and the rise of Christianity begin to make sense when weunderstand this.

    Of course, in time this very Jewish understanding of Jesus' identity andmission as Yahweh's Christ dissipated. Jews rejected a crucified Messiah,notwithstanding his Davidic descent. The future of Christianity proved to benot with the historic people of Yahweh but with the Gentiles. The closingchapter of the book of Acts makes that clear. Yet for Gentiles, with whom thefuture of the movement belonged, the preaching of a crucified Jew with theincomprehensible title Christos, which meant "smeared one," was regarded as"folly" (1 Cor 1:23). The preachers held true to the fact and significance ofthe crucifixion and to the reality of his messianic kingdom, but they began touse the title Jesus the Christ as a surname: Jesus Christ. But it is helpful for usto think about the central figure of Christianity at the time of its beginnings as"Jesus the Christ," the son of David.


Excerpted from Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity by Paul Barnett. Copyright © 1999 by Paul Barnett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Maps and Tables
1. The New Testament as History
Excursus 1A: New Testament Chronology
Excursus 1B: History and Myth
2. The Impact of Christ
3. The Hellenistic Background to Jesus
4. Herod, Idumaean, King of the Jews
5. Jesus' Birth & Boyhood
6. Jesus' Context: Galilee & Peraea
7. Jesus' Context: Judea
Excursus 7A: The Search for the historical Pontius Pilate
8. Jesus of Nazareth (c. 29-33)
Excursus 8A: Working Assumptions
Excursus 8B: The Criterion of Dissimilarity
Excursus 8C: Did Jesus Make Claims to Deity?
9. Resurrection, Exaltation & the Spirit
10. The Community of the Messiah in Jerusalem
Excursus 10A: The Use of Acts 1-5 for Historical Reconstruction
11. The Scattering of the Community & the Conversion of Saul (c. 34/35)
12. Peter in Palestine (33-47)
13. The Apostolate of Saul in the "Unknown Years" (c. 34-47)
Excursus 13A: Paul's Mission Strategy According to Rainer Riesner
Excursus 13B: Jews, Proselytes and God-fearers
14. The Inclusion of the Gentiles (47-49)
Excursus 14A: An Early Dating for Galations
Excursus 14B: The Missionary Agreement and the Jerusalem Council
15. James, Cephas & John
16. Paul's Later Ministry (c. 50-65)
17. Churches & Evangelists (33-100)
18. The Four Gospels
19. The Kindgom of Christ
20. Epilogue
Excursus 20A:The Birth of Christianity According to J. Dominic Crossan
Select Bibliography
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