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Parade of FaithA Biographical History of the Christian Church
By Ruth A. Tucker
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Ruth A. Tucker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Resurrection People
The New Testament Era
I first learned about New Testament characters from a flannelgraph propped on an easel. The colorful paper characters and props set against a nondescript green and blue landscape made the stories come alive. I later taught a beginner Sunday school class in the same way.
Life was simple back then, and so were the stories. No longer. As I've studied the Bible over the years, I have come to realize how complex it really is. I welcome controversial interpretations and unconventional insights. And I am not alone. The field of biblical studies is a dynamic and growing enterprise, capturing the attention of scholars from wide-ranging disciplines and from vastly different cultural backgrounds and theological perspectives.
This chapter on the New Testament era is foundational—the raison d'etre for the entire book. Without the first witnesses of Jesus, there would be no church history. But the chapter is also unique because of its source limitation: it is based solely on the biblical account without challenge to its historical accuracy.
I have often told my students that the freewheeling profession of historian is more suited to my temperament than that of biblical scholar. If newly discovered documents, for example, revealed that Martin Luther late in life had recanted his "Protestant" faith, I could accept the verdict and add the documentation to this text. But there is no such latitude with closed canon of Scripture. As a historical source book—and sacred text—the Bible stands alone. I do not challenge its accuracy, nor do I seek to resolve apparent contradictions or engage in higher criticism as I might with other sources. So it is with this disclaimer that I offer the first chapter—a chapter rooted in my faith commitment more than in my profession as a church historian.
The past remains integral to us all, individually and collectively. We must concede the ancients their place.... But their place is not simply back there.... [I]t is assimilated in ourselves, and resurrected into an ever-changing present. David Lowenthal
No history is more assimilated into ourselves and resurrected into an ever-changing present than biblical history. Christians have never granted the ancient biblical characters a place simply back there. We assume we know them and that they are us—the virtuous ones pleasantly participating in our potlucks and Bible studies, and the wicked ones in cults or terrorist camps. We cannot help but make them our contemporaries. But we must also let them be themselves in their own times as much as the fragmented documents of their lives allow them to be.
As the era of the Old Testament flowed into that of the New, there was far more blending of belief and practice than clear lines of demarcation. There was no sharp Judeo-Christian divide. Jesus' followers were Jews who were utterly unaware they were on the ground floor of the Christian faith. Ever conscious of their religious heritage, they were faithful to their traditions—as one can observe in the lives of Mary, the mother of Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul.
The earliest record of the Christian church—the documents contained in the New Testament—makes frequent reference to the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). Dozens of names are mentioned without elaboration as though the reader knows them well. The gospels of Matthew and Luke both include foundational genealogies from the Jewish past. Noah and Abraham and Moses are referenced without introduction. Paul compares Jesus with Adam and brings Eve into the discussion. The writer of the book of Hebrews lists a Who's Who of biblical greats as a "cloud of witnesses" to inspire Christians for all times. The infant church was standing on the shoulders of giants as it found its way into the first century.
Following the destruction of the temple and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, only two Jewish-based groups would survive in significant numbers: the Pharisees portrayed in the Gospels (a movement later known as Rabbinic Judaism) and Christians. Their fraternal differences in Jesus' day would escalate into competing religions. Gnostic sects and separatists such as the Ebionites were fading away, though only to be resurrected in other manifestations in the following centuries. Only Christians, united by apostolic teachings and the bonding of persecution, would see significant growth in succeeding generations.
But the evolution of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism was not an obvious development in the first century. Even Jesus was not the Christian he is easily thought to be. To all appearances, he was just another Jewish rabbi whose God-ordained message and mission might have been lost in the annals of history had it not been for one factor: Jesus commissioned his disciples to take the message far beyond the borders of Palestine. This missionary feature of the faith more than anything else, from a practical standpoint, separated the old from the new. When the doors flew open to all the world of Gentiles, differences arose, tempers flared, and lines were drawn. It was a painful process. Indeed, as doors flew open, others were slammed shut. The very heritage out of which Christianity was born would later become abhorrent. Discrimination would lead to persecution, and the Jewish culture passed down since the time of the patriarchs would be spurned.
Things might have turned out differently had early Christians taken seriously the words of Jesus to love one another—even one's enemies. But as time passed, the chasm between Christian and Jew widened. Early Christians did, however, take seriously Jesus' message to spread the gospel, and that passion propelled the message throughout the Roman world and beyond.
Even before he issued the Great Commission, commanding his disciples to go out into all the world and preach the gospel, Jesus sent disciples out two by two. And during his post-resurrection appearances, he again commanded his followers to be witnesses "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (It is often said that this command of Jesus in Acts 1:8 was put in motion by Acts 8:1 when "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.") Later, Paul took up the missionary mantle, a calling that became almost an obsession. But others joined the cause as well—Barnabas and Silas and John Mark, most notably. What role the original disciples played is less certain. There is no doubt, however, about the central role of mission outreach in the early church. Whether fact or legend, tradition offers an inspiring account of the Twelve fanning out into the Mediterranean world, Thomas traveling as far as India.
Matthew, according to tradition, evangelized in Ethiopia; James the Less in Egypt; Bartholomew in Armenia; and Andrew, Philip, John, and others spread out to the north. They all went their separate ways, faithfully following the command of Jesus. These stories, however, may say more about the mission emphasis of a later day than any urgency the apostles may have felt. In fact, the biblical text suggests that the disciples did not rush out to conduct cross-cultural ministry. Luke reports in Acts 8 that following the stoning of Stephen, "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem" and that the believers were scattered—"all except the apostles." The twelve disciples seem to have had feet of clay and may have remained in Jerusalem for many years. But while there is reason to doubt the veracity of some of these traditional accounts, they do suggest that taking the gospel to far-flung foreign fields was a high priority for the early church.
If some of the disciples failed to fully embrace the Great Commission, they also fell short of Jesus' message to minister to the marginalized. Jesus was radical in his social outlook. His concern was for the poor, the prisoners, the persecuted, the prostitutes, and all others who were on the outside and the underside of society. But Jesus reached out to the rich and powerful as well. As a matter of course, he called out to a despised tax collector to join his band. Nor did he overlook the female half of society, including the socially ostracized Samaritan woman he met at a well. Women also played important roles in his ministry—strong and opinionated women like Mary and Martha. In fact, Jesus gathered around him an odd assortment of individuals—uneducated laborers and others who were less than reliable when they were most needed. Argumentative, competitive, churlish, they followed with mixed motives as much as with devotion.
Jesus' parables were enigmatic, surely not designed as a catechism. Crowds dogged his every move, five thousand to feed, miracle upon miracle. Time was short. Events were unfolding: triumphal entry, Last Supper, Gethsemane, crucifixion, resurrection. And then he was gone, leaving behind a motley crew of resurrection people.
Mary: Mother and Disciple of Jesus
In recent years Mary has undergone a facelift—more than that, a complete physical and personality makeover —especially among Protestants. No longer is she the Renaissance artist's depiction of demure and perfect womanhood, a haloed, fine-featured Italian lady. Gone is her ever-meek-and-mild temperament. She is rather portrayed as a strong-willed, outspoken Jewish matron. Unlike the garden statuary in blue and white garb, she may have been stout, with a full face and dark complexion, a typical first-century peasant woman from Palestine.
The Christian era begins with the story of Mary, a young woman from Nazareth whose heritage lies deep in the Jewish drama of the Old Testament. The angel Gabriel tells her she has found favor with God, that she will conceive and bear a son by the Holy Spirit—and not just a son but the "Son of the Most High." Her fiancé, Joseph, "a righteous man," is not the father. When he becomes aware of the situation, he faces the dilemma of how to deal with very unfortunate circumstances. According to the law, betrothal is legally binding. The only way to sever the relationship is through divorce. Joseph plans to do this with as little public fanfare as possible, but an angel intervenes, telling him that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit and that he should take her as his wife. Mary, informed by the angel that her barren cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, sets off for a three-month visit with the soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist. She returns to Nazareth before Jesus is born.
According to gospel accounts, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, thus sometime before 4 BCE. The birth narrative in Luke's gospel is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. Leaving their hometown of Nazareth, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem to pay taxes. Arriving late, they find no vacancy at the inn. But they are offered a stable, most likely a second room attached to a family dwelling where animals were sheltered—a room that would offer some privacy from the main family room for cooking, eating, and sleeping.
Although some scholars question whether Bethlehem was the location of the nativity, there is no other town so filled with history and prophecy. It is the setting for the story of Ruth and Boaz, but more than that, it is the site of David's birth and where Samuel anointed him king. This "city of David" is the little town of Bethlehem of Christmas-carol fame, a starlit silhouette indelibly etched on Christmas cards. No sooner was the baby born than angels announced the news to shepherds who spread the word. "But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart."
Very little is revealed of Mary following the birth of Jesus apart from a series of isolated events: Magi visit, bringing gifts. Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem to present Jesus at the temple. They return to Nazareth only to be warned by an angel that they must flee to Egypt to protect their boy from the wrath of King Herod. After a sojourn in Egypt, the family returns to Nazareth. There is no further reference to Mary until some years later when she is perhaps thirty. The setting is the Passover in Jerusalem. Jesus, at age twelve, has disappeared to listen to teachers in the temple court. When Mary and Joseph, already a day's journey out of Jerusalem, discover that he is not with the company of travelers, they turn back. When they find him in the temple interacting with elders and rabbis, Mary appears agitated by his willfulness. He responds: "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?"
Following that incident, the story of Mary—and of Jesus—disappears for nearly two decades. Indeed, the whole biblical drama shuts down until John the Baptist appears on the scene. From later references it is assumed that during this interim Mary is busy raising her family.
Throughout the biblical story Joseph plays a secondary role. Mary is always named first when the couple is referenced. Indeed, Joseph disappears from the record after Jesus' twelfth year, and perhaps Mary raised the children as a single parent. That Mary had other children has been rejected by Roman Catholics (who insist she ever remained a virgin), but the biblical account refers to brothers and sisters: "Isn't this the carpenter's son?" asked observers from Nazareth. "Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us?"
In her role as a mother, Mary appears to have been perplexed regarding her relationship with Jesus, in particular when Jesus is left behind at the temple and again years later at the wedding in Cana. When she asks Jesus to get more wine, his response is direct: "Woman, why do you involve me? ... My time has not yet come." This may have been his very straightforward way of letting her know that she, as a disciple, is not relating to him properly, or it may have implied that his time of miraculous wonders has not yet been inaugurated.
Mary's relationship with Jesus is further clarified during his itinerant ministry in Galilee. While crowds throng him to hear his message and benefit by his healing powers, Mary and his brothers come "to take charge of him, for they said, 'He is out of his mind.'" When Jesus is informed that they are there, his response is blunt: "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asks rhetorically. Pointing to his followers, he says: "Here are my mother and my brothers!" Typical of his teaching style, Jesus uses a mundane interruption to illustrate an eternal truth. He gives a similar response on another occasion when a woman in the crowd calls out "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you." He simply responds, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it."
These incidents should not be interpreted as demeaning of Mary. She is more than mother; she becomes a prominent disciple. She grieves in anguish at the crucifixion, but her dedication to Jesus and his teachings goes far beyond the cross. As the book of Acts opens, she and her sons are among those who are gathered in the upper room, praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Jesus' promise. Her presence reinforces the credibility of the new faith.
John the Baptist: Desert Preacher
John the Baptist, when viewed alongside other New Testament characters, seems to be marching to a different drummer. Living apart in the desert near the Dead Sea, he is an ascetic whose lifestyle more closely resembles that of the Essenes, than that of the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Zealots, who were active in their own ways in pubic life. For that reason alone, his life merits study, especially since monastic asceticism would become such a prominent lifestyle for Christian ministry in the centuries following.
An Old Testament character showing up on the scene of first-century Palestine, John was born only months before Jesus. His birth story, like that of Jesus, is included in Scripture— an inclusion that portends his greatness. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a childless elderly couple living in the hill country of Palestine, were devout Jews. A descendent of Aaron, Zechariah was a priest privileged to travel to Jerusalem with other priests from his "division" for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go alone inside the temple and burn incense to the Lord. While conducting this ceremony, an angel startles him with a message that his persistent prayer for a child will be granted: Elizabeth will give birth to a son who "will be great in the sight of the Lord ... in the spirit and power of Elijah." When Zechariah expresses doubts, an angel identifying himself as Gabriel penalizes him by taking away his voice.
Excerpted from Parade of Faith by Ruth A. Tucker Copyright © 2011 by Ruth A. Tucker. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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