The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins

The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins

by Gregory J. Riley

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Where did Christianity come from?

Acclaimed author Gregory Riley embarks on a remarkable journey in this readable and persuasive account of the origins of Christianity. Riley demonstrates that early Christians held widely differing beliefs about God, Jesus, the Devil, and the human soul, and follows these beliefs back to their sources in

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Where did Christianity come from?

Acclaimed author Gregory Riley embarks on a remarkable journey in this readable and persuasive account of the origins of Christianity. Riley demonstrates that early Christians held widely differing beliefs about God, Jesus, the Devil, and the human soul, and follows these beliefs back to their sources in Greek science and philosophy and the religions of the ancient Middle East. An expert on the context in which Christianity arose, Riley maps out a new understanding of the forging of Christianity, and conveys a vital message for today about the true nature of Christian faith as inherently diverse.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In what is now a rather commonplace argument, Riley (One Jesus, Many Christs) contends that Christianity originated from the tremendous theological diversity of Near Eastern religions and that its origins cannot be explained or understood adequately by simply emphasizing its roots in Judaism, as he claims conventional scholarship has done. He proposes instead a threefold model of genealogy, punctuated equilibrium and the "river of God" to investigate Christian origins. First, he examines Christianity's genealogy, examining all the branches of its family tree to locate the sources of ideas such as the Devil, body and soul, and monotheism. Second, he argues that Christianity evolved by embracing certain ideas that would ensure its survival and rejecting others that did not contribute to its longevity. Finally, in an unoriginal manner, Riley uses the image of a river to demonstrate the diversity of religious traditions that have flowed into Christianity as well as the variety of traditions that have developed within Christianity itself. But Riley's book is plagued with problems. His subtitle is misleading, for he doesn't offer a new history of Christian origins; acknowledging and emphasizing the religious diversity upon which Christianity depended has been a standard approach for more than a decade. Riley also passes along some inaccuracies. Plato never equated the Good with God, and Aristotle probably would be horrified to learn that his Unmoved Mover is God. Riley's pedestrian prose and lack of originality combine to steal the zest from what otherwise could have been an exciting book. (Aug.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Several recent books have sought to demonstrate the influence of Greek and Roman thought on the origins of Christianity, but Riley (New Testament and Early Christianity, Claremont Sch. of Theology) gives us one of the best. His arguments are far more balanced and substantiated than those in Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries (LJ 7/00), for example. Riley states that Christianity was not produced by preceding and/or contemporaneous religious ideas, which he calls "the river of God." However, he points out that for Jesus and his disciples there was "a vast store of ideas and traditions that they used to form their unique expressions of religious truth." Beginning with a discussion of why the "Israel only" model (i.e., the idea that Christianity drew only from Judaism) is incorrect and insufficient, he moves in subsequent chapters to discuss the sources for and ideas about such core concepts as one God, the Devil, the soul as separate from the body, and the need for a Savior. His last chapter contains his summary of how Greek and Roman religious ideas affected Christianity and how recognizing this can lead to a more complete understanding of Jesus and his message. This volume will become one of the most important books on the subject. Recommended for any public or academic library. David Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One

The River of God

An Introduction

Where did Christianity come from? It went from no adherents in the year zero to become the world's largest religious tradition today. What were its origins? This is a different question from "Why was it so successful once it began?" It is a question about the historical process that led to its invention. "Invention" is a word rarely used in this connection, but it is an apt word. Early Christians themselves were quite conscious that what they were about was something new. The Synoptic Gospels have Jesus declaring that what he was doing was "new wine" requiring "new wineskins" (Mark 2:22). The cup of the last supper and the eucharist is called the cup of "the new covenant," from which language we get the name for the New Testament in contrast to the Old Testament. The book of Colossians describes the message of the Christians as "the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations, but has now been revealed" (1:26, NRSV). From the viewpoint of the first-century followers of Jesus, they were onto something fresh, something hidden from the past.

That genuine sense of newness, that excitement about being in the leading ranks of God's new spiritual kingdom, should itself come as some surprise, given the efforts of the early church to claim the opposite. Christians were quite sensitive to the often-voiced criticism that they were a novelty, and for ancients, nothing new was good, especially in religion. A "new man" was an upstart politician from outsidethe established families; a "new thing" was a political revolution, an attempt to overthrow the state. The Golden Age, like the Garden of Eden, lay in the past, and the world had long since been devolving into chaos. Any religion that had arisen just a few years earlier was clearly something suspect, defective, revolutionary.

Christianity was in fact something new, but it was drawn from and contained ideas very old. As a result of criticism about their recent rise on the one hand, and their own need for understanding and legitimation on the other, Christians traced their beginnings back to the Old Testament and cast themselves as the continuation of the history of Israel. Jesus and nearly all of his early followers were Jews, so their own traditions as Jews were their natural background. These Christians saw themselves as heirs to the promises made to the patriarchs, Moses, David, and especially the prophets. They were the new Israel, with roots that went back through old Israel to the beginning of creation itself.

But Christianity in reality had a much wider historical base and a far more complex lineage than the small nation of Israel alone. It is how best to understand that complex lineage that is the subject here. We will begin with three helpful models for interpretation: that of a genealogy, that of a great river system, and that of a relatively new and brilliantly logical view of evolution known as "punctuated equilibrium."

The Genealogy of Christianity:
Genealogy vs. History

The "genealogy of Christianity" is a wonderfully productive, and potentially controversial, phrase. For most of our era, Christianity cannot be said to have had a genealogy at all. It has been classed among the "revealed" religions, and revealed religions have no genealogies; they appear for the first time when God grants the revelation to the prophet. Christianity has, however, had a history, often called "salvation history," found in the traditional reading of the biblical account of Israel, the life of Jesus, and the rise of the early church. Such a tradition of interpretation has left its mark even today. Since the church understood itself to have arisen out of the matrix of Judaism, one reads often of the Jewish background of Christianity. And further, because Christianity arose in the Roman world, one finds studies of the Greco-Roman context. Each of these concepts — the history of Christianity, the Jewish background, and the Greco-Roman context — does not necessarily, but can, carry with it considerable, though often unconscious, theological investment. Each can be a subliminal affirmation of an old method of interpreting history in the face of new and contradictory evidence.

The church's traditional interpretation of the history of salvation traces the dealings of God from Adam to Abraham, from Abraham to God's choice of the people of Israel led by Moses in Egypt. The story then moves from Moses to Joshua and the kingdom of David in Palestine, with its fall in the Exile and eventual rebirth, and, with a leap over the intertestamental period, to Jesus and the church spread throughout the Roman world. It is a wonderful story and has been for millennia both a great comfort to individuals and a part of the foundation of Western civilization.

God was there at the beginning, the same God whom we know today, creating, leading, instructing humanity all along. Humans were there pretty much at the beginning also, just as we understand ourselves today. The other religions, that is, human flirtations with polytheism and other foibles, were departures from what was right because of human failings, our sins. We lost our originally wholesome way. Since that time God has been slowly guiding us back to the purity of the Garden from which our original parents departed by disobedience. God has been unfolding little by little a developing revelation. Abraham knew the true God, as did Moses, who actually saw God on Mount Sinai. The revelation to Moses was enhanced by the promises to David, with God providing further guidance through the prophets. And finally came Jesus and the inspired early Christian biblical authors.

So goes, more or less, the history of the church from its Jewish background into its Greco-Roman context. But let us consider some of the major theological implications of this story. God revealed "true" religion to Israel, not to the Gentile nations, through a series of prophets; from Israel arose both...

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Meet the Author

Gregory Riley, Ph.D., educated at Harvard University, is professor of NewTestament and Early Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology in California and the author of the acclaimed One Jesus, Many Christs.

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